‘God be with you till we meet again’

There is a truism that I’ve previously noted about the music we use in worship: we learn more theology from what we sing in church than from the sermons we hear. That is not to denigrate the Spirit-led, spirit-affecting power of Word-based preaching. Instead, it acknowledges the power of music (especially with biblically based texts) to seep into our souls, psyches and memory. That being the case, we need to take care that what we sing in worship proclaims the truth and – taken together – the whole counsel of God.

While many of us know Bible verses and passages by heart (I do, thanks to years of good training at home, Sunday school and Christian schools), I suspect that even more of us can recite the words to dozens of hymns, psalms and/or contemporary Christian songs. The music deeply etches those texts into our minds and hearts, eliciting everything from ecstatic hallelujahs to repentant or grief-tinged tears.

There’s a 19th century hymn that Christian Reformed Church members grew up singing in successive Psalter Hymnals on occasions of parting: “God Be With You Till We Meet Again.” The 1880 text is by Jeremiah Rankin, a New England Congregational minister. (He wrote 225 hymn texts; this is the only one surviving in modern hymnals.) The tune I grew up with (GOD BE WITH YOU, by William Tomer), was paired with Rankin’s text not long after he wrote it. That’s the tune most people will recognize.

When the gray 1987 Psalter Hymnal came along, Rankin’s text was set, instead, to a lovely, far better constructed tune (RANDOLPH) by Britain’s best 20th century composer, Ralph Vaughn Williams (PH # 316). While Vaughn Williams’ simple tune is hauntingly beautiful, many people missed the old tune, and said so: it holds deep memories and significance for them, no doubt because of the parting occasions, including funerals, at which the hymn is sung. Thus, the current CRC/RCA hymnal, Lift Up Your Hearts, contains both tunes (#s 943, 944).

Change, like time, marches on
Hymns may go through textual changes as well. Often the reasons are based on hymnal editors’ worldviews and specific theological traditions. Rankin wrote six stanzas and a refrain. Most modern hymnals (including the Psalter Hymnal and Lift Up Your Hearts) use only four, and the Vaughan Williams tune dispenses with the refrain.  

I’m thinking of this hymn now because this 154th column will be the last I write for Christian Courier. I began my association with the paper in 1984 when Bert Witvoet gave me a part-time job as a film reviewer, then as an editorial assistant. I became the full-time associate editor, then editor for a bit, then (in the Harry der Nederlanden era) came back as a freelance news editor and columnist, and have remained writing columns until now. I feel a widening gap between CC’s approach to many issues and my own; so I think it’s time to move on. I’ve relished writing my columns and have much enjoyed getting email, letters and sometimes even phone calls from readers. I invite you to continue to contact me, if you wish (moc.rennurdaor@litnavnairam). I especially invite you to read my blog, “Reformed Revelry” (reformedrevelry.wordpress.com), which I am resurrecting and will update weekly. I still value you all, and this is my prayer for you:

God be with you till we meet again;
By His counsels guide, uphold you,
With His sheep securely fold you;
God be with you till we meet again.

God be with you till we meet again;
‘Neath His wings protecting hide you;
Daily manna still provide you;
God be with you till we meet again.

God be with you till we meet again;
When life’s perils thick confound you;
Put His arms unfailing round you;
God be with you till we meet again.

God be with you till we meet again;
Keep love’s banner floating o’er you;
Smite death’s threat’ning wave before you.
God be with you till we meet again.  

  • Marian Van Til is a former CC editor who lived in Canada from 1975-2000. She now freelances for journals and writes books. Marian is also a classical musician and the music director at a Lutheran Church. She and her husband, Ed Cassidy, live in Youngstown, NY.

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