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Friday, October 19, 2012

Abide With Me

Somehow, I made it through 21 years of life and regular church-going with my parents without encountering Abide With Me.  We'll chalk it up to it being a Lutheran hymn and my attending a Presbyterian church. 

The first time I sang this piece was in my college choir during my senior year.  Our director Dr. Armstrong pulled out the absolutely transcendent Greg Jasperse arrangement for...I think it was our domestic tour.  I loved it immediately.  Something about it made me feel as though I was curling up in a warm, comfy blanket.  The melody is not innovative or complex.  The rhythm is straightforward.  But sometimes, simplicity speaks volumes.

As we were preparing for our concert, Dr. Armstrong's mother passed away.  Suddenly, the piece took on a new, very personal meaning.  Dr. A never said so directly, but every time we rehearsed Abide With Me, it was in homage to her.  We could see it written on his face, and we sang to lift him up.  All of this happened without anyone speaking a word to one another.  We just knew.

Singing at Carnegie Hall

A couple of weeks ago, a friend's mom contacted me about singing at her brother's funeral.  I really don't do the soloing "thing" anymore, but when a friend asks I will never say no.  Anyway, she chose one of the pieces (The Lord's Prayer), but left the other one up to me. 

I talked with my friend and he suggested the Pie Jesu from Faure's Requiem, but shockingly the organist did not know it (???seriously.  Dude, you are a church organist and you don't know this in the...ok that's neither here nor there) so we decided to just pick a hymn from the hymnal instead.

The organist suggested On Eagle's Wings which I immediately vetoed because: 1) it was already in the service as the second hymn, and 2) no.  I hadn't sung or even thought about Abide With Me in years, but I knew immediately that it was the right choice.

Singing in a funeral is kind of a surreal experience.  At a wedding, everyone is celebrating and even if you don't know the family personally, you just get dragged into the party.  At a funeral, you're part of the day but you are also necessarily an outsider.  I hoped I could help their family in some small way, but at the same time I felt incredibly pretentious for even thinking I could make a difference.  Who was I to even be there?

I have never felt so simultaneously honored and humbled in my life.  Honored that my friend had asked me to take part in remembering his uncle, humbled by the love I saw in front of me that day.

I'm not sure why that particular piece resonates with me to such a degree.  Part of it, I'm sure, is the emotionally charged circumstances under which I first sang it.  Part of it is also the fact that my time at St. Olaf was so treasured, and the tune takes me back to that time - but then so does every song I ever sang in college.

Honestly, I think it comes down to the last two lines of the second verse:

Change and decay in all around I see
O thou who changest not, abide with me

Whether you are Christian or not (I'll be perfectly honest - I am not.  And yet I sing in a church choir and go to church every Sunday.  That's another topic for another day), there's something to those lines.

"Change and decay" is not, I don't think, a negative thing.  It's the natural state of the world.  Everything changes, everything eventually dies. Desiree Rumbaugh said something really insightful the other week at her workshop (well, she said many insightful things, this is just one of them) - that the world as it is, is the world we were meant to be born into.  Wars, poverty, hunger and all.  This is the world we were meant to live in, and our challenge is learning to be steadfast.

I love and believe in the idea that there is something abiding and constant in the world.  Whether it is God, another higher power, your soul, the nature of the world we live in, or something else entirely is (I think) up for discussion, but it's what Abide With Me is all about.


  1. I think for people who can sing (or play an instrument well, etc), it is an incredible gift to share that with others for any life event, be it celebratory like a wedding or more meditative like a funeral.

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