Wednesday, June 11, 2014

~ Nearer My God to Thee, Nearer to Thee. . . ~

My initial experience of this magical hymn dates back to the release of original soundtrack of the movie Titanic by James Horner which is often considered as the last piece of music played by the musicians on the Titanic. However, did the band actually played this song before the final plunge of Titanic, still remains an uncertain fact, the reality of which (perhaps) lay buried inside the heart of the ocean. At that point of time it was nothing more than a compilation of fewer musical notes rendered just perfectly on a violin making it an apt example of musical brilliance to soothe and relax your mind & soul. In fact, it dint even occurred to me that there can be something more to this magical piece which, just like the above fact (whether the hymn was actually played last on Titanic) remained buried deep inside my heap of ignorance. It was just few days’ back the realization unearthed upon me that this is actually a hymn whose verses turned out to be even more soulful than the music itself.

The opening lines which reads as “Nearer, my God, to Thee, nearer to Thee! E’en though it be a cross that raiseth me” itself reflect such a powerful emotion and desire to be one with the God regardless of the cost attached it (even if it takes our own cross to take us there). The hymn was written by Sarah Flower Adams inspired by Genesis 28. There is an interesting incident which led to the creation of this hymn by Sarah. Sarah & her sister were working on the compilation of the hymns for their church when the pastor asked them as to whether there was any song in the compilation for his upcoming sermon on Genesis 28 relating to Jacob’s story. This prompted Sarah with an idea to create a song & consequently Nearer my God to thee was born.

The soul of the Hymn - Jacob’s story. . .

The background of the Jacob’s story in Genesis 28, around which the whole hymn has been woven, is also very interesting. Before dwelling further into the hymn and its verses, it is of prime importance to know about the story which forms the soul of the hymn as but for this background it would be difficult to understand the soul within the hymn (that’s my personal interpretation only as I couldn't understand the hymn beyond first stanza till I read Jacob’s story post which each verse and word in the hymn became relatable).

It starts with Jacob leaving his home & family first time as his brother, with whom he had grown, now wanted to kill him. His father’s health was ailing but he had to leave his home on his mother’s urge as she didn't wanted to witness him killed by his brother. He left his home with a heavy heart not knowing exactly where to go and what destiny had in store for him. When he reached a certain place, he stopped for the night as the sun had already set. Taking one of the stones lying there, he placed it under his head to rest and laid down to sleep. His entire life was recapitulated before his eyes visualizing time when he was living happily with his folks surrounded by his family, friends, servants and animals; having the best of the food and pick of the things, in nutshell enjoying a life filled with best of everything his heart ever desired. And now, he stood lying in a barren place all alone, away from his family with no friend to console, no food to eat and virtually nothing which life has to offer. There, he laid with a stone behind his head as pillow and hard ground beneath him as mattress. It’s certainly not hard to imagine the plight of this young lad, once surrounded by friends & family and now suddenly all alone at that point of despair; it’s certainly not difficult to feel those tear drops which must have rolled out from his sleeping eyes thinking of all that was happening in his life. Thinking all these, he ultimately retired to sleep.

Then suddenly in his dreams Jacob witnessed a ladder whose one end touched the ground where he laid and the other end reached heaven from which many angels ascended and descended. And that’s when the God gave him His promise. “I am with you and will keep you wherever you go, and will bring you back to this land; for I will not leave you until I have done what I have spoken to you.” This dream woke Jacob up and he felt positive to see God in this time of distress & remarked that this is, indeed, the house of God and the gate of heaven. It is worthwhile to note here that it is this vision of God in tough times makes this whole anecdote unusual & pivotal.

Next morning, he took the stone he was sleeping onto and set up a pillar and consecrated & sanctified it by pouring oil on it. He called that place as Bethel (meaning house of God). Further, he vowed that if the Lord did all He said, then the Lord would be his God, and the stone he had set up would be God’s house (Beth-El), and he would dedicate a tenth of all he was given to the Lord.

The Hymn - Nearer, My God to Thee. . .

Embodying the soul from the above anecdote, the hymn “Nearer my God to thee” was born and each verse of it captured the soul of the above story beautifully and tenderly.

Nearer, my God, to Thee, nearer to Thee!
E’en though it be a cross that raiseth me;
Still all my song shall be nearer, my God, to Thee,
Nearer, my God, to Thee, nearer to Thee!

The first stanza of the hymn succinctly expresses the desire of the worshiper to draw near to God at all cost even if it demands dying to one's self on the cross of self-denial. These lines, perhaps, tests the intensity of one’s desire to be nearer to the God. What can you forgo to be one with the GOD? What cost can you pay to be nearer to HIM? The real question personified here is how important is your relationship with the God & to what extent you can go to be one with HIM?

Though like the wanderer, the sun gone down,
Darkness be over me, my rest a stone;
Yet in my dreams I’d be nearer, my God, to Thee,
Nearer, my God, to Thee, nearer to Thee!

Now, this is where understanding & knowing the background of the hymn helps (remember, I mentioned this somewhere in the start!!). While the first stanza had a more generic meaning attached to it, the second stanza takes us to Jacob’s experience (as mentioned in Genesis 28 outlined above). Jacob is rambling like a wanderer on a long journey not sure of the destination, spending night at barren places under the dark open sky. During one of such halt, with darkness all round he lies on the ground to sleep with his head rested on a stone as a pillow ("my rest a stone"). Then, amidst all the darkness around and all the distress within, the God gives him an assuring vision making special promise to him and his family ("Yet in my dreams I'd be nearer, My God, to Thee").

There let the way appear steps unto heav’n;
All that Thou sendest me in mercy giv’n;
Angels to beckon me nearer, my God, to Thee,
Nearer, my God, to Thee, nearer to Thee!

The third stanza of the hymn makes a reference to the ladder which Jacob saw in his dream which witnessed angels ascending and descending between heaven and earth. This happened exactly at the place where Jacob was sleeping. The vision was very promising for him, assuring that the God was with him even during those grim times. This was akin to the invitation or assurance from the God to trust and believe the promise made by HIM.

Then with my waking thoughts bright with Thy praise,
Out of my stony griefs Bethel I’ll raise;
So by my woes to be nearer, my God, to Thee,
Nearer, my God, to Thee, nearer to Thee!

This stanza reflects the positivity which God’s vision instills in Jacob. The dream awakes him with bright and positive heart filled with assurance & praise about the God. Jacob makes a memorial in that place from the stone he used for resting his head and calls the place as "Bethel" (house of God). Though he was in a seemingly barren place, the vision he received assured him that God was uniquely with him. Symbolically it implies that even during the adversities of our life amidst (stone like) grief, we should raise our own altar (as bethel) from the woes / grief to feel that the God is indeed with us even in those grim circumstances.

Or if on joyful wing, cleaving the sky,
Sun, moon, and stars forgot, upwards I fly,
Still all my song shall be, nearer, my God, to Thee,
Nearer, my God, to Thee, nearer to Thee!

The last stanza alludes the heart’s wish to leave everything behind & assume the wings of desire to fly high, high and higher in the sky leaving aside the sun, the moon, the starts and everything else that comes in between with an ultimate aim to reach HIM.

Introspection. . .

I’m reproducing something I had read somewhere sometimes back which simply conveys that suffering brings you closer to the God. I don’t know much about the references made in the below text basis which inferences have been drawn as these (probably) have their basis in The Holy Bible and I find myself incapable to comprehend on the same. Here’s the excerpt I’m talking about. . .

“We have forgotten that suffering is God’s chosen method to purify His own. James says that trials bring us to perfection (James 1:2-3). Noah learned that by building an ark and surviving a flood that killed every human being alive. Abraham learned that by leaving all that he new to go to a land that God promised, and by offering his own son as a sacrifice to God. Joseph learned that through being enslaved, wrongfully accused, and falsely imprisoned. Moses learned that in his desert experience before God put him to use freeing Israel from Egypt. Joshua learned it through 40 years in the desert and the rest of his life in battle in Canaan. Paul indicates that perseverance in persecution is evidence of our worthiness to be a part of the kingdom of God (2 Thess. 1:4 5). Peter says suffering proves faith (1 Peter 1:6-7).”

Now, when I reflect at the hymn in conjunction with the above excerpt, I can only conclude that even the hymn talks about the same thought. Look at the various circumstances and junctures mentioned in the hymn - it talks about the cross (to be one with HIM) in stanza one; about a wanderer (wandering desolately in barren land) in stanza two; about HIS mercy (saying all that’s given is God’s mercy) in stanza three; about the woes bringing Jacob closer to God (raising bethel from stony grief) in stanza four and finally about the state of being one with HIM above everything else (which probably is a reference to ‘death’) in stanza five.

Whenever we have encountered a tremendous loss or we find ourselves amidst the grim circumstances, we actually are left with two choices – either to bury ourselves in a deep pit repenting about the things we lost or try to stay positive and happy with an assurance that this too will pass. We can continue to wallow in self pity & grief cursing the current times and regretting the things that ‘could have been otherwise’. Sticking to the past pondering and willing to do anything that’s possible to conjure back what has been lost or gone. I understand the temptation and probability to stick to this one is great.

Alternatively, we can wake up, brush away the dust and make a new beginning & more importantly stay cherished. We can always take our ‘stony griefs’ and raise our own ‘bethel’ inside our heart. Ever wondered why it becomes so easy to pray & narrate to God in tough circumstances than in good times. Its, perhaps, coz during grim times we realize that none other than God has the ability to understand us and absolve us from our worries. Simply follow Jacob and take those heavy stones burdening your heart & soul and lay them before God & build your own 'Bethel'.

Above all . . . Stay happy & positive, the dawn is just around!!

Listening the Hymn. . .

There are many vocal versions of the hymn but most of them were in chorus. I found this version in female vocal sung exceptionally well. Click here to listen the hymn. .

(Meanwhile if any one of you has this rendition in downloadable format in female vocals, drop me a comment with the link. . .have been looking for the same)

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