Sermon written for the midweek service at Borris-in-Ossory Church, Co Laois on Wednesday, 28th July 2010
“For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are–yet was without sin”. Hebrews 4:15
Everything known about James Edmeston, writer of ‘Lead us, heavenly Father, lead us’ seems to have been condensed into a single paragraph, leaving us to try to make deductions about his thoughts as he wrote the hymn. Perhaps, putting what we know of his life, together with the words he wrote, we can form some impression of what his faith meant to him.
James Edmeston was born in 1791 in Wapping in east London, an area that was to become part of the London docklands as the city grew and trade expanded. From an evangelical family, Edmeston was baptised at Bull Lane Independent Chapel in Stepney where his mother’s father served as pastor for some fifty years. Educated in Hackney, where his family had moved, Edmeston trained as an architect and surveyor, starting out on his professional career in 1816, when he was 25.
In the architectural world, Edmeston became known for having Sir George Gilbert Scott articled to him for training. Scott was to rise to fame for his buildings in central London His attachment to Edmeston’s practice in Bishopsgate, arose because Edmeston was recommended to his father by ‘the travelling agent to the Bible Society.’
Edmeston’s attachment to literature seems as strong as his attachment to his profession, he kept a substantial library and started publishing volumes of poetry while in his mid-20s. Perhaps it was his liking for the literary qualities of the Church of England Prayer Book that prompted Edmeston to leave the evangelical Independent chapel tradition in which he grew up and to become a member of the Established Church. In 1866, a year before his death, Edmeston reflecting on his life, wrote, ‘From early years I had a strong leaning towards the Church of England, the service of which I always found more congenial to my own feelings.’
Edmeston valued his church membership, becoming churchwarden of his local parish of Saint Barnabas at Homerton in London, a prominent position in times when the Established Church dominated the life of the country. Edmeston must also have devoted a great deal of time to his writing, for he wrote the extraordinary total of two thousand hymns; it was said that he wrote a hymn every Sunday. For many years he contributed hymns to the ‘Evangelical Magazine’; a later writer was to comment that they were “of various degrees of merit”.
Edmeston seems to have had a particular commitment to children’s ministry, something not common in an age when children were simply regarded as younger versions of adults. He wrote many hymns marked by their simplicity and the directness of their message in his attempts to communicate the Christian faith to young people. Edmeston was concerned with the practical as well as the spiritual welfare of children and he was a strong supporter of and regular visitor to the London Orphan Asylum.
‘Lead us, heavenly Father, lead us’ first appeared in ‘Sacred Lyrics’, a collection of Edmeston’s writing that was published in 1821; it is the only one of the 2,000 hymns he wrote that is still in regular use, but perhaps it is quality and not quantity that matters, for it has become one of the most popular traditional hymns.
The hymn is titled “A Hymn to the Trinity” in one collection, and we see the verses beginning with Father, Saviour and Spirit. As we read through the lines of the hymn, do we catch glimpses of Edmeston’s feelings in the way he expresses his personal faith in God?
“O’er the world’s tempestuous sea”: anyone living in London, particularly anyone born in Wapping, as Edmeston was, would have been aware of the importance of seafaring life. In the days before heavy road and rail transport, Edmeston as an architect would have depended upon waterborne supplies. He would have been keenly aware of how rough seas could disrupt human plans and applies that insight to his spiritual journey; he was dependent upon God in those moments when there was no other help at hand, but, with such help, there was no need for any other. Edmeston thinks dependence upon God is something to be celebrated, through it we possess “every blessing”.
“Saviour, breathe forgiveness o’er us”, recalls the appearance of the risen Jesus to his disciples in the upper room. The Risen Lord is not some superman but is someone who has been through our human experiences. When Edmeston wrote about Jesus feeling our “keenest woe”, what experiences did he think about? Perhaps the plight of the orphans in the asylum he visited; perhaps the daily grinding poverty he would have encountered as he rode through the streets of London.
The editors of the hymnbook, on the pretence that the word ‘dreary’ had lost the meaning it once possessed as a word for sad, have changed Edmeston’s lines, ‘lone and dreary, faint and weary, through the desert thou didst go” to “self denying, death defying, thou to Calvary didst go”, which is a pity, because Edmeston knew better what he was trying to say (and is a considerably better poet) than the committee who changed the words.
The point of the verse is that Jesus identifies with us in every way and maybe he felt ‘dreary’ at times; maybe there were moments when he felt thoroughly cross and fed up; aren’t those thoughts part of being human? “We do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses”, says the writer of the Letter to the Hebrews. “Death defying” makes Jesus sound like a circus stuntman and is not faithful to the Gospel account. Jesus does not defy death, he succumbs to death in order that he might destroy its power forever. In my book, there is a big difference between defying something and destroying it!
Edmeston concludes the hymn with a poetic prayer to the Holy Spirit. The Spirit brings many gifts, but foremost amongst them are love, joy and peace and these are sought in Edmeston’s lines: heavenly joy, love and peace that cannot be destroyed.
Scott once commented that his former mentor was better known as a poet than as an architect. Perhaps it was a comment that stung Edmeston; perhaps a man who wrote a hymn every Sunday had his mind on higher and greater things than human reputations. James Edmeston was a man of great commitment—even in former times, not many of his hymns found great popularity—yet he persisted because his service was to God and to no-one else.
‘Lead us, heavenly Father, lead us’ , like its writer, is profoundly spiritual and profoundly practical; it acknowledges God as he is and it acknowledges ourselves as we are. Singing it, may we have a sense of God as the one who comes to share our life that we might go to share his life.