In the beauty of the lilies Christ was born across the sea,
With a glory in His bosom that transfigures you and me:
As He died to make men holy, let us live to make men free,
While God is marching on!


Friday, July 23, 2010

Just As I Am

I might be the only Civil War reenactor for whom the highlight of a weekend event is the period church service on Sunday, assuming there is one (service, I mean--there's always a Sunday!). The Union service at this past weekend's reenactment at the Genesee Country Village & Museum in Mumford, NY was extra-special for me, as I hadn't been to this event since 2007, after eight straight years of attendance. Apart from the dynamic presence of our late chaplain Ben Maryniak, who delivered every sermon in his trademark booming voice, what made the church service such a precious experience for me, and kept me coming back year after year, was the "Fear Not Choir." Most years the choir has been composed of 7-10 ladies and usually a few gentlemen, attired appropriately to the 1860s, singing hymns that were commonly sung in American churches around the time of the War Between the States. Especially appealing to me is that their renditions are simple, skillful, and just as you would hear the hymn in a small country church during the 19th century (these services being conducted in what was a small Methodist church built in the 1840s), accompanied only by a small pump organ (that actually dates to that time). Nothing else I've ever heard has so moved me to a spirit of humility, contrition, hope, and appreciation for those who have gone before me.

Having noticed my rapt attention in the congregation every year, and in a spirit of true Christian charity (bordering on insanity), they even invited me to join them! I actually summoned up the nerve to do so in 2007--that's me, second from right in the back row, in the picture below. Unfortunately, I have a terrible voice and don't read music, so I only hope I didn't detract too much from their performance that year! But it was an experience I'll always be thankful for, and will never forget.

One of the hymns sung at this year's service was Just As I Am, written in 1835 by Charlotte Elliott (1789 – 1871), an English poet and hymn writer. Miss Elliott, who was a suffering invalid for much of her adult life, has been described as "one of the sweetest though saddest of Christian singers." (Nutter, Hymns and Hymn Writers of the Church, 1915) The same source notes that "[h]er verse is characterized by tenderness of feeling, plaintive simplicity, deep devotion, and perfect rhythm. For those in sickness and sorrow she has sung as few others have done." Just As I Am became an altar call song in the Billy Graham crusades in the late 20th century, and Graham used the hymn's title as that of his 1997 book, Just As I Am: The Autobiography of Billy Graham.

This is one of the most moving hymns I know. It reminds me not only of how freely the Lord receives us, notwithstanding our weaknesses and sins, but how we must approach Him daily: on our knees and in deepest remorse for our failings, yet in full faith that He will gather us to Him if we confess and sincerely repent of our sins. My eyes moistened as I listened to the angelic voices of the Fear Not Choir, rejoicing that my Great, Merciful God is willing--even eager--to receive me "just as I am."

Here is a traditional rendition by an unidentified choir that sounds rather like the Fear Nots (unfortunately, this version isn't accompanied by a real video presentation):

Below is a sensitive solo rendition of the hymn by Christian songwriter and musician Brian Doerksen.

And here are the lyrics to this exquisite hymn. Let us approach our Lord in this way every day, just as we are:

Just as I am, without one plea,
But that Thy blood was shed for me,
And that Thou bidst me come to Thee,
O Lamb of God, I come, I come.

Just as I am, and waiting not
To rid my soul of one dark blot,
To Thee whose blood can cleanse each spot,
O Lamb of God, I come, I come.

Just as I am, though tossed about
With many a conflict, many a doubt,
Fightings and fears within, without,
O Lamb of God, I come, I come.

Just as I am, poor, wretched, blind;
Sight, riches, healing of the mind,
Yea, all I need in Thee to find,
O Lamb of God, I come, I come.

Just as I am, Thou wilt receive,
Wilt welcome, pardon, cleanse, relieve;
Because Thy promise I believe,
O Lamb of God, I come, I come.

Just as I am, Thy love unknown
Hath broken every barrier down;
Now, to be Thine, yea, Thine alone,
O Lamb of God, I come, I come.

Just as I am, of that free love
The breadth, length, depth, and height to prove,
Here for a season, then above,
O Lamb of God, I come, I come!

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