We all have favorite hymns to sing. They become our familiar friends as we worship and our companions when we experience joy, sorrow, doubts, or trouble. Their familiar melodies and truths make them treasures on life’s journey. We love to sing them and hear them.
I have found a new hymn that reminds me of truths I treasure on my life’s journey. I’m a musician. I love to sing and hear music that gives expression to my fears or my joyful praise. My love for music has sustained me through long hours of practice and study, including the earning of graduate degrees and hours of worship planning and rehearsals. It has also brought me to Northwestern Publishing House as the worship editor and given me the opportunity to help with the next hymnal for our congregations.
A new hymn that has quickly become a favorite for me—“Jesus, Ever-Abiding Friend”—has found a place in the next hymnal. This modern hymn was written by Keith Getty and Steve Siler. To introduce this and other new hymns to people in our worship services, the Commission on Worship launched a program for college and high school choirs to perform arrangements of these hymns in their concerts, record them, and then make them available through Northwestern Publishing House.
“Jesus, Ever-Abiding Friend” caught the attention of the Wisconsin Lutheran College (WLC) choir director, Dr. James Nowack, and he wanted to use it for his choir. I am a WLC graduate and once sang in the choir, so Dr. Nowack asked if I would arrange the anthem so his choir could perform it on its spring 2020 tour.
I was happy to do it and listened with pleasure to the first few performances before the tour began. Months later, however, the hymn became even more deeply meaningful as I reflected on the circumstances surrounding those early performances of the anthem.
The WLC choir’s first performance on its tour was in Tempe, Arizona, on March 8, 2020 (pictured above). I was there for that concert. When the choir performed the anthem, no one knew what lay ahead, but soon life as we knew it would be upended. We were on the precipice of a world pandemic and its fallout. The members of the choir would find themselves learning remotely. Graduating seniors would miss all the year-end activities that would celebrate their undergraduate careers and achievements. All this and so much more was just over the horizon.
On that day, the choir sang about perpetual truths that would be needed in the months ahead. The choir reminded me and all those who attended that Jesus remains our ever-abiding friend. As Getty and Siler put it, Jesus is the rock of heaven, our strength and shield, by whom our wounds were healed. In the face of all temporal challenges big or small, only these truths truly sustain, comfort, and calm. The hymn brought comfort and strength to my heart as the events that followed at the end of March unfolded.
“Comfort through my deepest pain”
Appreciation for that hymn deepened because of another event. WLC President Dan Johnson was on hand to introduce the choir as it performed its first tour concert. But he wasn’t just on hand to fulfill his duties as a college president; he had come to visit his dying father. Many in the choir and audience were aware of the dual purpose of his visit. And as Jesus would have it, his father went home to heaven the afternoon of that first concert.
The words of the hymn spoke to us all, highlighting that Jesus is “comfort through my deepest pain” and “my soul’s peace forevermore.” Those words were much more meaningful that day, as the pain of death touched the Johnson family. We need to hear again and again why Jesus came for us. The death of a Christian brother or sister wounds our hearts. It is at that moment of deepest pain—death, the ultimate reminder of our natural condition, the only wage we are able to earn or ever deserve—that the words of this hymn are most comforting. The one who has died in Christ and those who remain behind in Christ have eternal peace because Jesus is our “ever-abiding friend, [our] soul’s rest and journey’s end.” He is the “blameless one, who erased my sin for eternity.”
“Constant, caring, redeeming Lord”
Sitting in front of me at that concert were several longtime WLC faculty members. Many of them were retiring at year’s end. They probably didn’t anticipate ending their careers in the midst of a pandemic. But having served at the college for decades, they no doubt could look back on their careers and see many trying challenges. It would be easy for them to count the academic headaches, scheduling difficulties, interpersonal frustrations—their unfortunate sinful words and actions as well as those of others. Perhaps they too could remember the deaths of colleagues, students, and alumni.
At the same time, as servants of the Savior, they could rejoice in what the choir was singing—the constant care of their loving God, the ability to forgive and be forgiven rooted in the redeeming work of Christ. That promised care and gospel truth had changed them, had seen them through their years, and will be their hope in retirement and for eternity.
“Name above all other names”
We all have a unique name and identity. At the same time, our connection to Jesus, our ever-abiding friend, brings us together. This one and only Savior of the world is our closest, ever-abiding friend. The Author of life is our source of abundant and eternal life. The eternal Jesus is our comfort in all pain, our peace at all times, the constant caregiver of our souls now and for eternity.
It’s easy to see how this hymn had special meaning to those who sang it and heard it on March 8, 2020. By God’s grace, this hymn—along with many others old and new—will continue to draw eyes and hearts to Jesus. He is the ever-abiding friend of all who believe in him.
As Getty and Siler put it, may he be your soul’s rest and journey’s end, the comfort through your deepest pain, the sweetest and dearest name your heart has ever known.
Click to hear Wisconsin Lutheran College’s choir sing Bakken’s arrangement of “Jesus, Ever-Abiding Friend.”
Author: Jeremy Bakken
Volume 107, Number 11
Issue: November 2020