Sunday, September 28, 2008


Now rest beneath night's shadow the woodland, field and meadow.
The world in slumber lies.
But you, my heart, awaking, and prayer and music making
Let praise to your Creator rise

The text is from Paul Gerhardt, prolific Lutheran hymn-writer of the 17th century. It is (obviously) a hymn for the evening. You could also call it, perhaps, a hymn for night owls, for people who cannot sleep. Though nature and the world of humans is fading into rest and quiet, the singer stays awake--not to toss and turn, but to pray and sing.

Lord Jesus, since you love me, now spread your wings above me
And shield me from alarm.
Though evil would assail me, your mercy will not fail me;
I rest in your protecting arm.

This hymn has many memories attached to it for me. This second stanza I learned as a bedtime prayer when I was a child. My father taught it to me, as his mother, I believe, taught it to him. Back any further in the generations and my ancestors would have prayed and taught these words in Gerhardt's original German. By the time I sang them to my own children, I was singing them in the slightly altered English translation of the Lutheran Book of Worship, published in 1978. The rhymes are the same, but the antiquated phrase "Lord Jesus, who dost love me" becomes the more direct "since you love me." I like the change.

My loved ones, rest securely, for God this night will surely
From peril guard your heads.
Sweet slumbers may he send you and bid his hosts attend you
And through the night watch o'er your beds

Because this was a song heard often in our house, I asked that it be sung at my husband's funeral two years ago. It had been sung at my dad's funeral twenty-two years earlier. I sang it, by myself, as I had sung it to the kids at night, when my mother-in-law, my younger son, and our pastor went to see Lon's body and to pray there shortly after his death. It's appropriate, I think, to use sleep as a metaphor for death, since we will all wake again in some way unimaginable to us now, when God's kingdom comes at last.

As I sang that stanza at the close of the Bach Cantata vesper service this afternoon, I remembered that morning--the coldness of Lon's body, our wonder at his death. My eyes filled with tears--at the choir's rehearsal before the service and during the actual performance. The tears were a moment of indulgence, of stopping to acknowledge grief that has faded, that rests in shadows of the past. I didn't stay long in that place. There were some unfamiliar fancy notes on the last phrase of the stanza that needed my full musical attention. And the whole hymn was sung in a lovely, lush new setting for orchestra and choir by Paul Bouman, who recently celebrated his ninetieth birthday.

Even as I let go of the sadness, I thought of my children, who I had prayed for and reassured with this hymn. Back in the days when I sang my children to sleep, we all crowded together under the covers for books and songs at bedtime. First there was only my oldest, Kristoffer, and me. Seven or eight years later, Kris went to bed in an upper bunk, still within reach of my voice, and his two preschool-aged siblings, Eliza and Kurt, cuddled up on either side of me on the double-bed-sized mattress below. Soimetimes Lon listened from the the hallway.

This afternoon I thought, who will sing this blessing about me? As a mother, I sang even the second stanza ("Lord Jesus, since you love me") for my children, not really for me. It was their faith, their peaceful sleep that I prayed for. After they had fallen asleep, I crawled out of the bed and went off to fight my own late-night battles with the world, ducking out from under those divine wings spread above me.

This afternoon I realized that it's time to put the memories away and start singing this hymn for me. The music this afternoon helped with that. Paul's setting of this beautiful five-hundred-year-old tune has those heavenly wings beating in eighth notes in the orchestra accompaniment and also in the unaccompanied four-part choral setting of stanza two. Singers can relax and sing easily with the support of that rhythm, carried by the reassurance of God's unfailing mercy.