Be still my soul: the Lord is on thy side
Bear patiently the cross of grief or pain
Leave to thy God to order and provide
In every change, He faithful will remain
Be still my soul: thy best, thy heavenly friend
Through thorny ways leads to a joyful end
I remember distinctly the first time I heard these words. I was a freshman in college, it was the Sunday evening at the end of October break, and I had just returned from my first epic, independent, adult adventure with three friends. We borrowed my dad’s forest green CRV and drove up into the mountains of Vermont, where the first backpacking trip I ever planned and led went wrong from the start as we obliviously and joyfully hiked off the wrong side of the road and down the trail in the wrong direction. Needless to say, campsites not being in the location they were supposed to be made our mistake quickly evident in the approaching darkness. Unfettered, we made camp on the side of the trail, piled four girls into a two man tent because there was no space for another one, and decided to embrace the moment and keep walking in the wrong direction the next day to see what we found. Two days later we tumbled out of the woods and descended on a hotel in Burlington which we had to talk our way into because I had made the reservation and was only 17. But this is all another story…
The point is that the weekend was a whirlwind of memory and adventure and sweet fellowship that ended with a Sunday morning church service on top of a row of hay bales in a field by the side of the road and a long drive back to campus jamming to “life is a road, and I want to keep going…” And so it was, drunk on the sweetness of friendship and experience that I entered the chapel for koinonia, our Sunday evening student led worship service. And they played Be Still My Soul. And it overwhelmed me.
This song seems to be speaking comfort into a time of grief. And indeed it does, and did in my life only a few months later. But I was not grieving when this song first shook me – I was on a mountaintop. Yet I needed this message just as dearly. See, it is just as easy to miss stillness in times of astounding joy as it is in times of crippling sorrow. And in fact, it is perhaps more dangerous to do so. There is a reason the Lord warns His people to remember Him when times are good, “…lest – when you have eaten and are full, and have built beautiful houses and dwell in them, and when…all that you have is multiplied; when your heart is lifted up, [then] you forget the Lord your God…” (Dueteronomy 8). Anyone who has been on a mountaintop knows that the descent is often the hardest part of the day. There is no more anticipation of the top to spur you on, just an already dimming memory of the view, and tired legs and steep rock make the chance of falling far too real.
It is the twisted nature of sin that the very heights of blessing can produce in us discontentment in realizing that we’re called primarily to a journey of everyday faithfulness, and that often this day-in-and-day-out obedience is, in fact, quite ordinary. Ordinary, with the classes and the meetings and the dishes and the snotty noses and the communication that relationship requires. Ordinary, in the place and work the Lord has called us to. Ordinary, with far too many ends of days spent wondering how they got filled, and far too few adventures for those of us with a healthy dose of wanderlust. Ordinary, with far too frequent separation from those relationships we most long to commune with. We fail to realize that the mountaintops are given to grant time for rest and growth, and to teach us to more thankfully and faithfully pursue the ordinary, which is tremendous blessing enough.
I couldn’t articulate all this on first hearing the words of this hymn, but they have come to mean that and immeasurably more to me. The Lord’s call to stillness has not changed much since that time. He has whispered these words in my pleasures and shouted them in my pain, as C.S. Lewis would say. The hymn has become a favorite, one I turn to again and again, to be reminded.
And so I find myself in need of reminder once again.
I moved to Pittsburgh, appropriately enough, in the newness of spring and all it represents: wonder, excitement, life. Life moved quickly through the simple, if at times exhausting, heat of summer, and then it was fall. Fall is, without a doubt, my favorite season, and this fall has been one of abounding and enduring variety of color and beauty, both in the season and its reflection in my life. The past two months have been filled with abundant experiences and blessings. In the throes of transition and newness, the Lord chose to overwhelm me with reminders of His steadfastness in the sweetness of Christian relationship, and His provision in the gift of a job in which I find great joy. And through and amidst all that, to drive me to deeper fellowship and communion with Him. But just as the glory of a mountaintop lies in the fact that it is extra-ordinary (in the true sense of that word), the antinomy of fall is that it is so beautiful only and precisely because it is on its way to change and to death. It is a worshiping creation’s last yearly response of thankfulness, and in the presence of the color in the leaves dwells already the promise of winter. You cannot have fall without winter, and you cannot have a mountaintop without a valley. Their beauty is defined by their difference, and without that, we would soon cease to see the wonder in constant color, and constant views. We need winter.
Now, I love winter. There is another kind of beauty in its biting wind and hard ground. But winter does bring death, and it does, in a way, force us into stillness. The hours of light are limited, the cold often keeps us inside, and, when we do venture out, even the snow itself provides a dampening level of silence. But this year especially, though I know what it means, I need winter. I need to die to the idol of pursuing continual experience to find my joy. I need the ordinary to become my satisfaction, because He has asked it of me. I need this place to become my home, because He has called me to it. The views of the fall will be wasted if they do not give me new strength and new eyes for the next season. If they lead me to disquiet instead of to stillness.
Just two weeks ago I celebrated one of the most memorable birthdays I have had, surrounded by precious friends, beautiful scenery, the challenge of activity, and the rest of being known. And just this week I find myself in the valley of grief. I desire to ride well the mountaintops and the valleys of life – not to soar to heights and plummet to depths with inconstant variance and unsteadiness. But there are still mountains. And there are still valleys. There are falls and there are winters. And the constancy is in the One who lays my path, not in my skill of traversing. I need stillness in both. And if I am honest, other desires pale in light of this one. I desire not to be great, to be recognized, to be known: just to be faithful. But it is a fight. It is a fight against the stirrings of desire, the whispers of deception, the disruption of pain, the distraction of pleasure. It is a fight on the mountaintops, because I am constantly in danger of exchanging the good gifts with the One who gives them. And it is a fight in the ordinary, because I am constantly in need of being drawn back from dreams to daily obedience regardless of their fulfillment. I am constantly in need of the stillness which only comes through a right knowledge of a Father who loves me and withholds no good thing from me. The One who, through every season, every change, every uphill or downhill or flat, ordinary, step; faithful will remain.
Be still my soul: thy God doth undertake
To guide the future as He has the past
Thy hope, thy confidence let nothing shake
All now mysterious shall be bright at last
Be still my soul: the waves and winds still know
His voice who ruled them while He dwelt below
Be still my soul: when dearest friends depart
And all is darkened in the vale of tears
Then shalt thou better know His love, His heart
Who comes to soothe thy sorrow and thy fears
Be still my soul: Thy Jesus can repay
From His own fullness all He takes away
Be still my soul: the hour is hastening on
When we shall be forever with the Lord
When disappointment, grief, and fear are gone
Sorrow forgot, love’s purest joys restored
Be still my soul: when change and tears are past
All safe and blessed we shall meet at last