The old Thanksgiving hymn “We Gather Together” has been stuck in my head the last few days. It was stuck in my head as our Governor gave a press conference on Ohio’s dangerous spike in cases. It was stuck in my head when our elders let us know we would be cutting back on evening services and Sunday school for the time being with the spike. It was stuck in my head as I waved to my neighbor, without being able to hug her because we’re both in quarantine. It was stuck in my head as I got news of someone I know being hospitalized with COVID. It was stuck in my head as I read the heart wrenching blog post of a fellow writer who is in quarantine while grieving the sudden death of his son.
This song, about being with each other, is stuck in my head at a time when we are far apart. The song that set my foot tapping last year, has me weeping this year. Life is strange and twelve months can change a lot. But praise the Lord, still, some truths remain.
A lot of people associate the hymn, “We Gather Together” with the pilgrim’s seeking religious freedom in America, since we tend to sing it around Thanksgiving. But the real story behind it takes place in Holland. The melody is an old folk song (as many melodies used for hymns are) and the lyrics were probably written by Dutch protestants to celebrate the defeat of Spanish forces in 1597.
Under Spanish rule in the Netherlands in the late 1500’s, it was forbidden to gather to worship. It would make sense then, that when the Dutch defeated the Spanish in the Battle of Turnhout in 1597, they rejoiced greatly at their ability to now gather freely with fellow saints, and wrote these lyrics we now sing in November. The song goes like this:
We gather together to ask the Lord’s blessing;
He chastens and hastens His will to make known;
The wicked oppressing now cease from distressing:
Sing praises to His name; He forgets not His own.
Beside us to guide us, our God with us joining,
Ordaining, maintaining His kingdom divine;
So from the beginning the fight we were winning:
Thou Lord, wast at out side: all glory be Thine!
We all do extol Thee, Thou Leader triumphant,
And pray that Thou still our defender wilt be.
Let Thy congregation endure through tribulation:
Thy name be ever praised! O Lord, make us free!
Last November, (probably the last time I sang this song) I’d never known what it was like to not be able to gather with the saints. I’d never known a Sunday where I couldn’t go to the church building, walk in, and see the faces of brothers and sisters in Christ. I’d never known what it was to have a friend lose a baby and not be able to go hug her. I’d never known what it was to hear of families unable to be by the bedside of their loved ones. I’d never known what it was like to try and bear another’s burdens virtually. I’d never known what it really felt like to be apart.
I’d never known what it felt like to truly be grateful that we were there, gathered together.
We all would like to think that the lockdowns and limited gatherings are a thing of the past, but they aren’t. In some places, churches still can’t meet. They can’t be together to sing this song of thanksgiving and joy for being with one another. They are in their homes, longing for the day when they will once more be able to gather.
Many who can gather, still aren’t gathering in the way they are accustomed. Maybe there are masks that prohibit seeing another smile, not enough space to sing, or an environment where our elderly and at risk members cannot come be with us.
There are families who have loved ones in the hospital and cannot be with them. There are people grieving, alone, with no one to come and comfort them. There are holiday plans falling apart because of COVID and the desire to keep at risk family members safe. There are babies growing up who cannot see their grandparents. Students graduating from high school online. Weddings being streamed on Facebook instead of hosted in large churches and outdoor venues.
This November, we’re all far apart, and it aches. Deeply. The novelty of a pandemic and all that it entails has worn off. Now, we are worn down, desperate for hope as the colors of autumn leave us behind to face another bitter winter. We long to simply be together, and we can’t.
It’s ironic, that this hymn of togetherness has comforted my heart as we all drift apart.
Why? Because I think this ache for what is not fans the flame of hope for what is to come.
There is coming a day when we all will gather together once more, and perhaps, we’ll sing a song similar to this one. There will be no need for masks, no need to limit our worship in song, no place for hesitancy to join, no holding our breath as we wait for another potential spike or statewide emergency. We’ll gather, together, for eternity.
I imagine we’ll hug and laugh, we’ll clap our hands and weep with joy. We’ll sing, we’ll shout, we’ll hold the hands of our brothers and sisters and rejoice in the goodness of the God who did not forget His own dear children. We’ll be together. No more weeping. No more sorrow. No more separation.
In the here and now of this Thanksgiving season, perhaps our hearts are more inclined to sing the last verse, asking God for endurance through the tribulation of disease, despair, and loneliness. Sing it. Take comfort because He will carry us all the way to the end. And when our King returns and takes us home to those heavenly shores, I believe with my whole heart that we will sing something very similar to the this stanza of the first verse:
The wicked oppressing, now cease from distressing:
Sing praises to His name, He forgets not His own.
This song coming to mind over and over again, even as opportunities to gather seem to slowly slip away once more, was the Lord’s kindness to me. He’s using the pain we feel now to increase our longing for the better that is to come. And in our longing, in our loneliness, in our aching, He is with us.
Sing with me, dear saints. Weep as you sing if you must, because it does ache right now. It should ache. But it won’t always. Sing, and look towards that coming day when we’ll all gather together.
Sing, because He forgets not His own.