Thursday, January 1, 2009
A Beautiful Life
Praise for the Lord #1
Lyrics & Music: William Matthew Golden, 1918
Golden also wrote "To Canaan's land I'm on my way" (PFTL #649). You can read a little about William Golden at http://www.cyberhymnal.org/bio/g/o/golden_wm.htm. Cyberhymnal is a great site, but in this case they don't provide a source for their information, which is unfortunate since it is so interesting. According to Cyberhymnal, Golden wrote gospel songs while serving a prison term. That puts an interesting spin on the lyrics, with their emphasis on the importance of our actions, and our unavoidable appointment "to meet the deeds that [we] have done".
Each day I’ll do a golden deed,
By helping those who are in need,
My life on earth is but a span,
And so I’ll do the best I can,
The best I can.
The message of the hymn is obviously the need to live a life of works that shows our faith (James 2:18). But a note of urgency is added immediately by the (possible) reference to Psalm 90:10, "The years of our life are seventy, or even by reason of strength eighty; yet their span is but toil and trouble; they are soon gone, and we fly away." The uncertainty of this life is seen even in Golden's own story; he was killed in a traffic accident in 1934, at the age of 56.
Life’s evening sun is sinking low,
A few more days and I must go
To meet the deeds that I have done,
Where there will be no setting sun.
The Bible clearly teaches a judgment to come, and though we know our hope lies only in the saving grace of Christ and not in our own works (Ephesians 2:8-9), it is clear that our actions will be called into account: "And if you call on him as Father who judges impartially according to each one's deeds, conduct yourselves with fear [reverent respect for God and His will, DH] throughout the time of your exile." (1 Peter 1:17) Yet for the faithful Christian, trusting in the grace of God and living a life of service to Him, this need not be a cause of anxiety, but rather of anticipation: "Blessed are the dead who die in the Lord... that they may rest from their labors, for their deeds follow them!" (Revelation 14:13)
To be a child of God each day,
My light must shine along the way;
I’ll sing His praise while ages roll
And strive to help some troubled soul,
Some troubled soul.
The inspiration for this verse is most likely the words of Jesus: "You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden. Nor do people light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on a stand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven."(Matthew 5:14-16) Jesus was a doer, not just a talker, and made it clear that Christianity is not a religion just of the heart and of the head, but of the hands as well--it must, of necessity, express itself in actions toward others.
The only life that will endure,
Is one that’s kind and good and pure;
And so for God I’ll take my stand,
Each day I’ll lend a helping hand,
A helping hand.
What will you leave as your legacy? This calls to mind Matthew 6:20, "but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys and where thieves do not break in and steal." Fire, flood, and storm (not to mention the stock market) can wipe out earthly riches in an instant; but the good deeds give us a joy and satisfaction that money cannot buy, and treasures in heaven.
I’ll help someone in time of need,
And journey on with rapid speed;
I’ll help the sick and poor and weak,
And words of kindness to them speak,
Kind words I’ll speak.
Okay, here comes trouble, but I can't avoid it: this verse is omitted in many hymnals, and I don't think it's much of a loss. "Rapid speed" in the second line is just an awkward expression; it seems to exist only to rhyme with "time of need". It happens. Fortunately, the song isn't hurt by omitting the verse.
While going down life’s weary road,
I’ll try to lift some traveler’s load;
I’ll try to turn the night to day,
Make flowers bloom along the way,
The lonely way.
The repeated phrase "I'll try" might remind us that we cannot, ourselves, solve every problem, wipe every tear, or mend every broken heart. But just because we cannot do everything does not mean that we cannot do something: "And whoever gives one of these little ones even a cup of cold water because he is a disciple, truly, I say to you, he will by no means lose his reward." (Matthew 10:42) Golden, who had apparently hit bottom in life in a way few of us will ever understand, no doubt could believe in his own limitations. In this song, however, we see an admirable determination to use his remaining days wisely, "Redeeming the time, because the days are evil." (Ephesians 5:16)
About the music: I would call this "quartet gospel" or "Stamps-Baxter style" (after the famous gospel quartet), based on the use of a bass lead in the chorus; otherwise it is not much different from the older gospel style of the late 19th century. Golden's music is extremely simple: the melody is nearly pentatonic (using only the five notes DO,RE, MI, SOL, and LA, a characteristic of folk song), the harmony uses almost no accidentals (sharps or flats outside the key), and each phrase follows the same rhythmic pattern. Interestingly, it may be its very simplicity that lends it such charm. It certainly sings easily, which is a value too easily overlooked.
Posted by David Russell Hamrick at Thursday, January 01, 2009