By Curtis Shelburne: CNJ Religion Columnist
Years ago when my oldest brother and his wife left for 20 years of mission work in Malawi, Africa, I was barely a pup. I was too small to remember much of the early time of their service there, but I well remember that then and always, whenever our family gathered, we sang.
I learned many good songs at church as I was growing up. Lots of them were great songs in every way. Many were beautiful and rich with meaning. Some were pretty but so-so. Some were toe-tappers with great alto and bass leads. Those were fun to sing but even then (once I matured a bit) I thought they were better suited to a Sunday afternoon singing than worship.
But I learned the most beautiful hymns of the Christian faith not at church but at home singing with my family. I thought of that recently as I was watching on TV the funeral service at the National Cathedral for President Gerald Ford. What a beautiful service! What beautiful hymns! I listened to one of the Ford family’s favorite hymns, “O God, Our Help in Ages Past” and the beautiful “God of Our Fathers” and realized that those were among my own family’s favorite hymns.
I also learned early that our family had so many favorite hymns that if we were singing and you wanted some hope of getting your favorite song in the lineup, you’d best not be timid about calling out the song number really quickly.
One of our family’s favorite hymns was “Father and Friend, Thy Light, Thy Love.” Once B & Ruth had gone to Africa, it became especially dear. Short but full of meaning, it particularly captured our hope and our prayer as we were separated from loved ones by an ocean and half a world:
(Vs. 1) Father and Friend, Thy light, Thy love,/Beaming thro’ all Thy works we see;/Thy glory gilds the heav’ns above,/And all the earth is full of Thee.
(Vs. 2) Thy voice we hear, Thy presence feel,/While Thou too pure for mortal sight, /Enwrapped in clouds, invisible,/reignest the Lord of life and light.
(Vs. 3) Thy children shall not faint nor fear,/Sustained by this delightful thought;/Since Thou, their God, art ev’rywhere,/They cannot be where Thou art not.
I love it still and think of it often. It came to mind yet again this Christmas as we received a wonderful blessing. We held hands around the table at our Christmas eve meal. Nearby, the computer was on, its microphone and speakers also on, the “Skype” internet phone software running, and Stephan, our missionary son in Uganda, led our prayer for the meal from Uganda and later laughed with us as we opened presents. An ocean away, he was nevertheless “here” for Christmas.
Wherever God’s children are, around the world or even beyond this world, we praise God: “They cannot be where Thou art not.”