Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Still Held In Thine Own Hand

Today is the twenty-first "official" commemoration of World AIDS Day established by the United Nations in 1988. It is not only a day of remembrance but also of activism, commitment, and still, sometimes, anger. Many government and private agencies (collected here by Google) hold special events today, but they would like us all to remember that they are in business the other 364 days of the year as well.

The Metropolitan Community Church organized their
first World AIDS Day commemoration two years before the UN, in 1986, an international response that was joined by thousands of congregations outside that denomination. Thousands of churches will still mark the occasion today, many in interfaith services.

I have used this hymn here before, but it has come to resonate powerfully for me for this particular occasion of remembrance. It was first published in 1920, and I suspect that the author, George Wallace Briggs, wrote it at least partially in response to World War I. The theme of a generation lost in circumstances not of their making was popular in those years (the poem In Flanders Fields perhaps the most well-known expression) and it was reborn in the last years of the twentieth century in response to the AIDS epidemic.

Creator, by whose people
Our house was built of old,
Whose hand hath crowned thy children
With blessings manifold,
For thine unfailing mercies
Far-strewn along our way,
With all who passed before us,
We praise thy Name today.

The changeful years unresting
Their silent course have sped,
New comrades ever bringing
In comrades' steps to tread;
And some are long forgotten,
Long past their hopes and fears;
Safe rest they in thy keeping,
Who changest not with years.

They reap not where they labored;
We reap what they have sown;
Our harvest may be garnered
By ages yet unknown.
The days of old have dowered us
With gifts beyond all praise;
Creator, make us faithful
To serve the coming days.

Before us and beside us,
Still held in thine own hand
A cloud unseen of witness,
Our elder comrades stand:
One family unbroken,
We join, with one acclaim,
One heart, one voice uplifting
To glorify thy Name.

George Wallace Briggs, 1920; alt.
Joseph Barnby, 1869

I was a member of MCC churches in New York and San Francisco between 1984 and 2000, both cities central to the crisis. A 1988 article published in The Christian Century described the impact of AIDS on our San Francisco congregation in those early years (the hymn from which the article's title is taken can be seen here). Within a year of that article the situation would be even more threatening; imagine a church where the clergy staff performed up to five memorial services every weekend. For those who remember those years, their impact is still felt, almost daily for some, for others sometimes a sudden shock of recollection that can be triggered by an unexpected association.

I remember Tim, Craig, Johnny, Jim, Paul, Bruce, Scott, both Jeffs and the many many others who are no longer here, but not just today. They still come to me often in times of prayer as part of the great communion of saints, the cloud unseen of witness from this final stanza. I also remember the countless more who cared for them and loved them and still miss them today. One family unbroken...


Leland Bryant Ross said...

Good hymn!

Dorothy said...

I like that hymn too and can think of so many heart-breaking situations in which it would be not only appropriate but comforting as well.