how can I keep from singing?


    Today was a quintessential slice of New England autumn: crisp, cool air; brilliant sunshine; trees ablaze with color; and a hymn sing in our little white clapboard church next to the cemetery.

    Ginger left a message on my cell phone yesterday suggesting we spend time together after church driving around to see the leaves and to buy some pumpkins to decorate our yard, one of our family traditions. (What follows is a somewhat unintentional tradition: I leave the pumpkin in the yard way too long and it sort of melts into a big pile of orange goop.) We have had an incredibly beautiful fall this year and it has lasted a long time. As we drove along Route 3A, we saw beautiful stands of trees lining the banks of the North River and variegated forests dappled by streams of sunlight breaking through the leaves. Amongst all the color were the bare branches of those trees whose leaves had already fallen, harbingers of the winter that is to come.

    I’m struck every year by the profound irony of the most intense beauty of the foliage coming as the leaves fall and die. They don’t slip away quietly, but blaze to the end, making their last moments their most intense and amazing. For all the lush green of spring and summer, I don’t really notice the leaves until they fire and fall.

    We found our pumpkins and we also bought a small bale of hay for one of them to sit on outside our gate. By the time we got back to the house, we knew quite well that they don’t call it “hay fever” for nothing. Thank God for Benadryl. Between the mums and the pumpkins, our house is officially decorated for Halloween and Thanksgiving.

    Tonight about twenty of us gathered at the church to sing. Growing up Southern Baptist meant I went to church most every Sunday night for evening worship. What I loved best about it was the singing. The service was less formal and had much more music. Those who were there seemed to be the ones who loved to sing and we all joined in on our gospel favorites to close out the day. Here we gather to sing on Sunday evenings once or twice a year, but many of the songs are the ones so ingrained in me from childhood that I still know them by heart. One in particular seemed to catch the spirit of my entire day, “How Can I Keep From Singing” by Robert Lowry. (You can play the melody in the background while you read if you wish.)

    My life flows on in endless song;
    Above earth’s lamentation

    I hear the sweet though far off hymn
    That hails a new creation:

    Through all the tumult and the strife
    I hear the music ringing;

    It finds an echo in my soul—
    How can I keep from singing?

    What though my joys and comforts die?
    The Lord my Savior liveth;
    What though the darkness gather round!
    Songs in the night He giveth:

    No storm can shake my inmost calm
    While to that refuge clinging;

    Since Christ is Lord of Heav’n and earth,
    How can I keep from singing?

    I lift mine eyes; the cloud grows thin;
    I see the blue above it;
    And day by day this pathway smoothes
    Since first I learned to love it:

    The peace of Christ makes fresh my heart,
    A fountain ever springing:

    All things are mine since I am His—
    How can I keep from singing?

    As I sat down to write tonight, I did a little research on Robert Lowry, the hymn writer. He is responsible for several of my favorite hymns: “I Need Thee Every Hour,” “All the Way My Savior Leads Me,” “Savior, Thy Dying Love,” “We’re Marching to Zion,” and “Shall We Gather at the River?” The last hymn was written in 1864 when he was pastoring. As the Civil War was raging, so was an epidemic in New York and Lowry wondered what prospects for Christian community lay on the other side of death. He wrote “How Can I Keep From Singing?” in 1860, before the war began. In Lowry’s mind, what mattered most was his preaching, yet his music is his enduring contribution. As his biographer wrote:

    While Dr. Lowry said, “I would rather preach a gospel sermon to an appreciative, receptive congregation than write a hymn,” yet in spite of his preferences, his hymns have gone on and on, translated into many languages, preaching and comforting thousands upon thousands of souls, furnishing them expression for their deepest feelings of praise and gratitude to God . . .. What he had thought in his inmost soul has become a part of the emotions of the whole Christian world. We are all his debtors.

    The Brazilian woman who is our incredible cake maker at the Red Lion loves to sing while she works. She sang when she was a dishwasher, too, before we discovered she was a wonderful baker. She has not seen her husband and her children for three or four years now. She is still struggling to speak and understand English. She doesn’t have an easy life and, most any day you might choose to eavesdrop on the bakery, she will be in there singing. There is an ongoing lamentation to our humanity: we, like the leaves, will only hang on so long before we fall. Hopefully, we, too, can go out blazing. But there is a melody more enduring than the sounds of grief and pain, a song that permeates life at every level, one that we were given from birth.

    As life and death swirled around me today, one not so easily separated from the other, how could I keep from singing?



    1. What is sad about our world anymore is that the only time we sing anymore is in church. We pay people to sing for us, but most of us do not sing on a reqular basis. In the past, we would sing constantly, but now it seems our song is getting silenced.

      Great pic too!

    2. Fall is my favorite season, and I love that hymn (particularly since I learned a newer adaption of it for my high school choral group a few years ago).

      Thank you for capturing things around you and puree-ing them into essays that move and encourage us.

      (Don’t know if ‘puree-ing’ is a word – just read your Autumn Bisque recipe and thought I’d like to try both – the puree-ing and the word…)

    3. I’ve always loved that hymn as well–even more so because of its history. I’m feeling very autumn deprived during this, my first fall in Southern California. They tell me it will come along presently–around mid November. Sheesh.

    4. A great post, Milton–it reminds me of my sojourn among the Baptists, and those Sunday night hymn sings. I don’t think these are Lowry hymns, but I can’t remember the ones you listed without mentally adding “I Love to Tell the Story” and “I Will Sing of My Redeemer”. I haven’t sung those in years, except maybe by myself.

      What passes for fall in Houston is here today, and it lifts my spirits as much as if it were the “real thing’ in New England. Just the realization that the heat has finally broken cheers us up.

    5. Zorra

      I love those two as well. The first has one of my favorite lines: I love to tell the story for those who know it best seem hungering and thirsting to hear it like the rest. . .


    6. This is one of my favorite songs…I have often told people it is my “theme song.” My favorite version is by a little known Washington, D.C. artist who died too soon. Her name was Eva Cassidy and this hymn is found on her Eva by Heart CD. I would recommend it to anyone who loves this song!

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