STLT#87, Nearer, My God, to Thee

The story goes that this is the last song the orchestra played as the Titanic was going down, that final prayer that we put things right because we’re surely going to die, and soon we’ll be nearer to God so we better pray now out of panic.

But English Unitarian poet Sarah Flower Adams wasn’t writing a last-ditch-effort prayer; she was writing a hymn inspired by Jacob’s dream:

He came to a certain place and stayed there for the night, because the sun had set. Taking one of the stones of the place, he put it under his head and lay down in that place. And he dreamed that there was a ladder* set up on the earth, the top of it reaching to heaven; and the angels of God were ascending and descending on it. (Genesis 28:11-12, NRSV)

Now look at the lyrics:

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!

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.

There let the way appear steps unto heaven;
all that thou sendest me in mercy given;
angels to beckon me nearer, my God, to thee,
nearer, my God, to thee, nearer to thee.

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.

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.

Do you see it? Don’t let the cross get in the way – because otherwise, it’s all there: the stone for a pillow, steps unto heaven, angels, the founding of Bethel, etc.  This is the moment for Jacob: taking off for the hills, questions swirling and seeking answers – and God saying “let me show you this is not in vain – I shall call you ‘he who wrestles with God’: Israel.”

This telling of Jacob’s dream is a prayer for a connection, for fulfillment of a quest, for seeking and seeing. Despite all the hardships and wandering, I’ll go out and sing praises and pray for enlightenment. All of my wrestling and struggling is not for naught; rather, it keeps me engaged. As I release that which has caused me pain, I will be closer to that which I seek.

It’s still not a hymn for every congregation or for every day, and too many will think still of this scene from Titanic, but framed as part of our own call to question our answers and grow always closer into harmony with the Divine and each other, this is a perfect hymn.

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