Monday, October 19, 2015

When Fear Swells

By the time he reached his fifties, Henry must have thought that he had seen it all. Having reached his teens during the War Between the States, he no doubt had experienced a lasting impression of the price of conflict. His hometown, Germantown, Pennsylvania, had been the birthplace of the anti-slavery movement in 1688; no wonder that nearly one-third of its citizens left their homes to fight in the Civil War.

Henry was still young then, but he obviously saw both the need to stand up for the rights of the oppressed and the price that must be paid to drive back tyranny.  Henry reached the age of thirteen as the war ended, and he was beginning to look forward to a life that would include ministry, a professorship and some time in government service.  He headed off to Princeton and graduated from there in 1873. Four years later, he received a graduate degree from Princeton Theological Seminary.  Henry took seriously his advantage of  higher education and his devotion to Christ led him to a career as a Presbyterian pastor.

Through his years of local parish work, Henry’s love for English Literature kept him busy, opening the door for him to return to Princeton in 1899 as a professor.  All during this time, he continued his pastoral work. And Henry wrote. Often he wrote poems and short stories, which drew some attention to him, but it was Henry the man who seemed to capture the friendship and loyalty of those who knew him. Helen Keller was Henry’s friend and she wrote, “(Henry)... is the kind of a friend to have when one is up against a difficult problem. He will take trouble, days and nights of trouble, if it is for somebody else or for some cause he is interested in.”  Of himself, Henry wrote, "I'm not an optimist. There’s too much evil in the world and in me. Nor am I a pessimist; there is too much good in the world and in God. So I am just a meliorist, believing that He wills to make the world better, and trying to do my bit to help and wishing that it were more."

As people changed their calendars from the nineteenth to the twentieth centuries, the world was facing cataclysmic change.  Radioactive power was just being discovered and explored.  The exponential possibilities of a force beyond imagination captivated scientists and brought fear to many. Even the discovery of Halley’s Comet was a harbinger of dread to some who thought it could bring about a chemical shift to earth’s atmosphere.  As scientific discoveries were bringing news of massive change to the planet, the political plates were shifting under Europe.  Old alliances were coming apart. Regional conflicts were boiling up with increasing force and the world was beginning to be filled with dread that the whole thing would erupt into a war beyond all wars. It did.  We call it World War I.

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The Berkshires in Winter
As the planet began to shake, even many of the Christians Henry knew were becoming laden with fear and doubt.  It was during this time that he was invited to come and preach at Williams College in Williamstown, Massachusetts. During those days, Henry’s daily view was of the Berkshires.  Those mountains inspired him as he considered the perilous times which were leaving many shrouded in gloom.  In addition, he had in mind a tune, written almost one hundred years earlier by Ludwig van Beethoven...

…and he began to write a poem. Filled with the hope of God, Henry Van Dyke faced the difficulties of his era with these words:
Joyful, joyful, we adore Thee,
God of glory, Lord of love;
Hearts unfold like flow’rs before Thee,
Op’ning to the sun above.
Melt the clouds of sin and sadness;
Drive the dark of doubt away;
Giver of immortal gladness,
Fill us with the light of day!

All Thy works with joy surround Thee,
Earth and heav’n reflect Thy rays,
Stars and angels sing around Thee,
Center of unbroken praise.
Field and forest, vale and mountain,
Flow’ry meadow, flashing sea,
Singing bird and flowing fountain
Call us to rejoice in Thee.

Thou art giving and forgiving,
Ever blessing, ever blest,
Wellspring of the joy of living,
Ocean depth of happy rest!
Thou our Father, Christ our Brother,
All who live in love are Thine;
Teach us how to love each other,
Lift us to the joy divine.

Mortals, join the happy chorus,
Which the morning stars began;
Father love is reigning o’er us,
Brother love binds man to man.
Ever singing, march we onward,
Victors in the midst of strife,
Joyful music leads us Sunward
In the triumph song of life.

Henry Van Dyke was a personal friend of Woodrow Wilson, the twenty-eighth President of the United States.  President Wilson appointed Henry to be the U.S. Ambassador to Netherlands and Luxembourg in 1913.  Months later, full-scale war erupted in Europe.  Americans all over the Continent rushed to Holland to escape the bloody onslaught and Henry Van Dyke, the man who saw both the evil and the good, became God’s instrument to organize a relief effort for them.

It strikes me that our generation has too often made joy a shallow thing. It has become a frill that we hang on to when everything is going our way.  If we are the followers of Jesus, people transformed by God’s Spirit, we were designed for much more than that. “Designed For Joy” is our new series, beginning this weekend at Stone Ridge Church.  I hope you can join us as we discover just what God has done to provide us with joy in every circumstance. Can’t make it this weekend? Catch the podcast!