Hump Day Hymns: Sometimes a Light Surprises

Hymnal

Sometimes a light surprises
The Christian while he sings;
It is the Lord, who rises
With healing in his wings;
When comforts are declining,
He grants the soul again
A season of clear shining,
To cheer it after rain.

In holy contemplation
We sweetly then pursue
The theme of God’s salvation,
And find it ever new;
Set free from present sorrow,
We cheerfully can say,
Let he unknown tomorrow
Bring with it what it may.

It can bring with it nothing
But He will bear us through;Who gives the lilies clothing
Will clothe His people too;
Beneath the spreading heavens
No creature but is fed;
And He who feeds the ravens
Will give His children bread.

Though vine nor fig tree neither
Their wonted fruit shall bear,
Through all the field should wither
Nor flocks nor herds be there;
Yet God the same abiding,
His praise shall tune my voice,
For while in him confiding
I cannot but rejoice.
-William Cowper (1731-1800)

I work and minister in a community that is afflicted with a plague: a lack of hope.  As another business closes, another home condemned, another house razed and leaves a vacant lot to speak of what used to be, hope seems to vanish with each closure, with each newly emptied lot.

“It’s all just garbage,” a neighbor told me.
“What do you mean?” I asked.
“Everything’s just going to crap,” he responded.
“I think things are getting better, even since I’ve been here there has been development –”
“Yeah,” he told me, “sure they build things here and there, but nothing ever seems to get any better.”
“I just have to believe that things are going to get better,” I said.
“Well, I hope so, I just don’t know…”

And then he walked away, watching the ground as he returned back into the world that causes him so much grief.

I spend a lot of time looking for signs of urban renewal. I am interested in more than simply the flourishing of my church, I am interested in the flourishing of our community and our city. Milwaukee is a city which is on a comeback path and there are several neighborhoods in various stages of revitalization. I speak of course, from my own view as a resident of one of the up-and-coming neighborhoods. I see new development, I see businesses open to great fanfare. In the past year I have seen two houses on my block completely gutted and rehabilitated from vacant, boarded up blights to thriving and gorgeous homes.

I don’t need to develop an imagination from scratch, I see development, I see progress, I see renewal every day. I have in imagination foundation upon which to build.

When I was talking with this individual, I made a tragic mistake: I neglected to invite him into a space where he could be open to being surprised by God.

I tried to argue from statistics, urban renewal projects, neighborhood initiatives, none of which really carry the weight of hope. The flourishing of a city, of course, does not rely wholly on these.

Unless the Lord builds the house,
   those who build it labor in vain.
Unless the Lord guards the city,
   the guard keeps watch in vain. (Psalm 127:1, NRSV)

I wonder if the reason that I had not brought up being surprised by God is because I have lost a sense of being surprised by God. Perhaps I have too often relied upon myself, or even relied on others, for things to come about. Perhaps I suffer from a mechanistic view of the world in which the world is a machine and is relatively predictable. Perhaps I have lost a sense of the wonder of God and God’s ability to bring about works beyond imagination.

Perhaps I have not experienced the moment that our hymn-writer describes:

Sometimes a light surprises
The Christian while he sings;
It is the Lord, who rises
With healing in his wings;
When comforts are declining,
He grants the soul again
A season of clear shining,
To cheer it after rain.

I wonder if perhaps I have been too closed off to the world that I have not allowed myself to be surprised by God, and in this, I have not encouraged others to enter into a space where they can be surprised by God. This, I think, is the wonder of the faith, that God can surprise us, that God can intervene in ways unexpected and in ways for which we cannot prepare.

This is the core of hope, not solely in human progress, not solely in the ability for urban planners and developers to revitalize a community, but that God has a vested interest, not only in the world, but also in my community, in my neighborhood, and God cares about the people and the conditions in our neighborhood. It is the ability to see and proclaim that,

Though vine nor fig tree neither
Their wonted fruit shall bear,
Through all the field should wither
Nor flocks nor herds be there;
Yet God the same abiding,
His praise shall tune my voice,
For while in him confiding
I cannot but rejoice.

Perhaps I did not share this with him, because I myself have lost the ability to be surprised by God, and perhaps in doing this, I have turned away from the immense and lasting hope of the scriptural message: God is about surprising us.

2 thoughts on “Hump Day Hymns: Sometimes a Light Surprises

  1. Jeannie

    I know quite a few hymns, so it was interesting to see one that I’ve never seen before. Beautiful. I do know Cowper wrote many great poems but I didn’t realize some were made into hymns.

    Please don’t feel too discouraged about the conversation with your friend. God can use these discussions even if they don’t seem to work out as we think they should have.

    This hymn reminded me of another poem, a little bit newer, that also expresses that sense of a hope that is deeper than what we see around us. I don’t know if Hardy went away encouraged by that experience or not — I “hope” so. Blessings.

    The Darkling Thrush
    by Thomas Hardy

    I leant upon a coppice gate
    When Frost was spectre-gray,
    And Winter’s dregs made desolate
    The weakening eye of day.
    The tangled bine-stems scored the sky
    Like strings of broken lyres,
    And all mankind that haunted nigh
    Had sought their household fires.

    The land’s sharp features seemed to be
    The Century’s corpse outleant,
    His crypt the cloudy canopy,
    The wind his death-lament.
    The ancient pulse of germ and birth
    Was shrunken hard and dry,
    And every spirit upon earth
    Seemed fervourless as I.

    At once a voice arose among
    The bleak twigs overhead
    In a full-hearted evensong
    Of joy illimited;
    An aged thrush, frail, gaunt, and small,
    In blast-beruffled plume,
    Had chosen thus to fling his soul
    Upon the growing gloom.

    So little cause for carolings
    Of such ecstatic sound
    Was written on terrestrial things
    Afar or nigh around,
    That I could think there trembled through
    His happy good-night air
    Some blessed Hope, whereof he knew
    And I was unaware.

    Reply

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