Summer sermons: Great is thy faithfulness
Saint Matthias’ Church: Summer sermon series 2007, Sunday 8th July
The Book of Lamentations Chapter 3, verses 21-24, from the King James Version of the Bible
‘This I recall to my mind, therefore have I hope.
It is of the LORD’s mercies that we are not consumed, because his compassions fail not.
They are new every morning: great is thy faithfulness.
The LORD is my portion, saith my soul; therefore will I hope in him.’
I remember when I was 18, I was going to change the world. I was heading off to a university with a very radical tradition and I had no doubt that great things would follow. I hadn’t worked out how these things would all happen, but I had no doubt that they would.
Of course, it never happened. Ten years after heading off to university, I became Rector of a very small, very rural, very traditional Church of Ireland parish, you cannot get much more conservative than being an Anglican country parson. The world wasn’t changed and life was to be lived out in an ordinary and humdrum way.
The greatest stories of faith are stories of incredible people who do unimagined things under extraordinary circumstances, but, if you are an ordinary plodding cleric like me, the heroic stories can be depressing. Stories that are encouraging are stories like the story of the Reverend Thomas Obadiah Chisholm.
The Kentucky Historical Society outlines Chisholm’s life in a few lines. Born in 1866 in a log cabin in Lake Spring community in Simpson County, Kentucky, Chisholm became a teacher at the local school where hae had been educated at the age of 16. From teaching, he moved to journalism and was associate editor of the Franklin Favorite, the weekly newspaper of Simpson County which is still published every Thursday. A devout Christian, Chisholm was later to edit the Pentecostal Herald, in Louisville, Kentucky, a paper that was to have great influence in the Pentecostal movement.
Under influence of evangelist Henry Clay Morrison, Chisholm was ordained to the Methodist ministry and went to be minister in the congregation at Scottsville, Kentucky. However, his unstable health prevented him remaining in the ministry and he became agent for an insurance company. Insurance, by its very nature, is about trying to avoid the dangerous and the unexpected (people who do dangerous and unexpected things are bad risks!). Yet God was as much present in the life of Thomas Chisholm as he was with those engaged in much more exciting lives. Chisholm wrote over 1,200 poems, over 800 of which were published. In 1923, working with the Methodist minister and evangelist, William Runyan, he published “Great is Thy Faithfulness.”
The words from the Book of Lamentations which provided the inspiration for the hymn are words that arise from experiences of loss and bitter pain, the writer of Lamentations is anxious to say that whatever happens, he will remain faithful to God and that God’s faithfulness will bring blessings on all who trust him.
Chisholm said that his hymn didn’t arise from any special experience, just a sense of God’s great faithfulness in each and every day. In 1941, he wrote, ‘My income has not been large at any time due to impaired health, but I must not fail to record here the unfailing faithfulness of a covenant-keeping God, for which I am filled with astonishing gratefulness.”
“Great is thy faithfulness” came to the fore on this side of the Atlantic at the same time as “How great thou art,” they were both sung at Billy Graham’s evangelistic rallies in 1954 by George Beverly Shea. Chisholm must have felt some contentment that his words would touch so many lives. He had gone into a seniors home the previous year, at the age of 87, and lived until 1960, giving thanks each day for God’s faithfulness.
‘Great is thy faithfulness’ is a hymn from the heart of the ordinary person, it is a hymn thanking God for all the ordinary things, it is a hymn that finds God’s hand in the ordinary things.
‘Morning by morning, new mercies I see,’ recalled for me, the story of Brother Lawrence from 17th Century France. Lawrence lived a very ordinary, very humdrum life as a monk, but was aware, even in the most mundane things, of God being present. Lawrence talked to God about everything in everyday life, he says, ‘we ought to act with God in the greatest simplicity, speaking to Him frankly and plainly, and imploring His assistance in our affairs, just as they happen’. Lawrence was blessed in being open to a sense of God even when he was doing the washing up. In the book ‘The Practice of the Presence of God’, we are told, ‘So, likewise, in his business in the kitchen (to which he had naturally a great aversion), having accustomed himself to do everything there for the love of God, and with prayer, upon all occasions, for His grace to do his work well, he had found everything easy, during the fifteen years that he had been employed there’.
Lawrence spent fifteen years working in the monastery kitchen. For a man who was lame in one leg, long days standing up doing manual work would not have been easy, yet he found God with him in that place; what a great sense he must have had of seeing God’s mercies as new each morning.
‘All I have needed, thy hand hath provided’, writes Thomas Obadiah Chisholm and I wonder how conscious we are of the daily provisions we receive. Next time we are sitting at home looking out at the rain, what about giving thanks that we have a home to sit in? Next time we are standing impatiently in the queue at the supermarket, what about giving thanks that there are shops full of things and that we have money with which to go shopping? Next time we are feeling fed up at work, what about giving thanks we have a job? Next time we are stuck in a traffic jam, what about giving thanks we have a car and fuel to put in it and roads to drive on and a police force to keep us safe? Next time there is the temptation to complain, what about sitting down and making a list of all that has been provided for us?
We aren’t people who will change the world, we aren’t people who live earth-shattering, news-making lives, but God is with us, just as he is with those who do all the exciting things. He is a great God. He is a faithful God.
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