Thursday, July 23, 2009

Hymn of the Week- Leaning On The Everlasting Arms

A couple of years ago we watched the excellent movie "United 93". The movie takes place on September 11, 2001, and it's director tried to stay as completely faithful to the events regarding that flight as possible, down to the exact words of the various passengers, as recorded or recollected by their relatives. As you may remember, United flight 93 was the airliner on which the passengers chose to attack the terrorists who had hijacked the plane, resulting in it crashing in a field in Pennsylvania rather than into Washington, D.C.

One of the most memorable scenes in the movie involved a very young woman calling home on her cell phone. She had just comprehended that the plane was destined to crash, one way or another, and that she was facing certain death. At her parent's home, her stepmother answered the phone. The young woman, in a panicked voice, explained to her stepmother the circumstances she was in. The older woman had already seen news coverage of the other three planes crashing, and quickly understood the situation. She drew a deep breath, and, in the calmest of voices, began to guide the younger woman through her final moments. They expressed their love for each other. Then, the stepmother, seeking to calm the panicked girl, said something like,"I have my arms around you. Do you feel them?" With that, the demeanor of the younger woman changed. She relaxed. "Yes, I feel them," she replied.

Ever since then, that scene has come to mind when we use the hymn "Leaning On The Everlasting Arms" in a worship service. When the refrain lyrics were written by A.J. Showalter in 1887, he was inspired by Deuteronomy 33:26-27: "There is none like the God of Jerusalem- he descends from the heavens in majestic splendor to help you. The eternal God is your Refuge, and underneath are the everlasting arms." Showalter had just received word from two different friends on the same day, that their young wives had died. In writing his condolences, he had added this verse in his notes to them.

Showalter then wrote to another friend, Elisha Hoffman. Hoffman was an Evangelical Presbyterian pastor in the Cincinnati area, and associated with that denomination's publishing house. Showalter suggested that Hoffman compose a hymn based on his suggestions about this verse. Though both of these men would be considered amateur hymn writers, between them they wrote what has become a favorite standard hymn. (Hoffman also wrote another popular hymn, "I Must Tell Jesus".)

Though the tune is rousing and joyous, the reassuring message that was illustrated by the scene in "United 93" is there. Believers can "rest" in the finished work of Jesus Christ on their behalf. In times of struggle, we can relax into the everlasting arms of our Lord.

What a fellowship, what a joy divine,
Leaning on the everlasting arms;
What a blessedness, what a peace is mine,
Leaning on the everlasting arms.


Leaning, leaning,
Safe and secure from all alarms;
Leaning, leaning,
Leaning on the everlasting arms.

O, how sweet to walk in this pilgrim way,
Leaning on the everlasting arms;
O, how bright the path grows from day to day,
Leaning on the everlasting arms.

What have I to dread, what have I to fear,
Leaning on the everlasting arms?
I have blessed peace with my Lord so near,
Leaning on the everlasting arms.

Elisha Albright Hoffman (1839-1929)


Rose said...

I've never seen this movie and don't remember this particular story about one of the passengers. What an excellent way to relate to this hymn! Your hymn reviews are so interesting and inspirational, Joyce; I'm really enjoying reading them.

Joyce said...

I highly recommend the movie. It will really give you faith in the way ordinary people deal with terrible situations.

I'm enjoying the research I'm doing on the hymns. Glad you are, too!

C. Marie Byars said...

This hymn isn't yet in the "official corpus" of our branch of Lutheranism. Yet, we have used it. It's such a neat hymn!

Anonymous said...

Recently I heard this hymn in the movie "True Grit". It was so powerful as Rooster carried the teenager to safety as she leaned on his arms.
I could not help but sing (quietly) along. The person who was with me, a Catholic, said she wished her church had such stirring music.