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Also see 30+ Ideas for Promoting Hymn Singing in your church. As others have contributed ideas, this wonderful resource has grown to over 80 items now. And, for more than three dozen reasons why congregations should still use hymn books rather than merely projecting words on the wall, see The Value of Hymn Books.
Words: Alfred, Lord Tennyson (b. Aug. 6, 1809; d. Oct. 6, 1892)
Music: Joseph Barnby (b. Aug. 12, 1838; d. Jan. 28, 1896)
Note: Alfred Tennyson was Poet Laureate of Great Britain through much of Queen Victoria’s reign, and the queen was a great admirer of his work. He was made a peer of the realm in 1833, becoming Alfred, Lord Tennyson. His father was a clergyman, though he admitted that he himself, though religious, and a believer in God, was not an orthodox Christian.
The words Sunset and Evening Star form the first line of the present hymn, and are sometimes used as a title. But the more common title of the poem is Crossing the Bar. Hymnary.org lists “C. Passmore” as the author, along with Tennyson. I’m not sure why. The work is entirely Tennyson’s.
Death is a subject that’s difficult to discuss. There can be several reasons for that.
Perhaps it’s something we fear, and wish to avoid as long as possible. As comedian Woody Allen famously said, “I’m not afraid of dying. I just don’t want to be there when it happens.” This is likely the reason so many euphemisms for it have a sly or humorous tone. We speak of kicking the bucket, or pushing up daisies, or of someone who bought the big one.
Another difficulty we have with the topic is that death is so mysterious. Even the point of death in physical terms can be elusive. Is it when the individual stops breathing and his heart stops beating? We’ve all heard of those who’ve been brought back from such a state on the operating table. And best-selling books to the contrary, we are wise to question the reliability of testimonies about after-death experiences. It remains the final mystery.
When he was eighty years of age, and after a time of serious illness, Tennyson authored one of his best known poems called Crossing the Bar. In elegant lines of verse he describes what it means to die, comparing it to a ship crossing a sand bar at high tide, as it moves, in poetic imagery, from the river of life into the boundless ocean of eternity beyond. The mood is serene and quiet. The long and short lines seem to represent the gentle ebb and flow of the waves. (Note: a “bourne” is a brook.)
Sunset and evening star,
And one clear call for me!
And may there be no moaning of the bar,
When I put out to sea,
But such a tide as moving seems asleep,
Too full for sound and foam,
When that which drew from out the boundless deep
Turns again home.
Twilight and evening bell,
And after that the dark!
And may there be no sadness of farewell,
When I embark;
For though from out our bourne of Time and Place
The flood may bear me far,
I hope to see my Pilot face to face
When I have crost the bar.
Alfred Tennyson later explained, “The Pilot has been on board all the while, but in the dark I have not seen him. [He is] that Divine and Unseen who is always guiding us.” He himself called what he wrote a hymn, and it was first published in a hymnal in 1893. Even so, it is difficult for a congregation to sing, and is usually treated as a choral work.
For atheist Sigmund Freud, God was an illusion, invented by those with infantile emotional needs. Seeing nothing at all beyond, he claimed, “The goal of all life is death.” This sad and cruelly fatalistic view was not Tennyson’s. He said, “Life after death is the cardinal point of Christianity.” Though there is not much in Crossing the Bar that gives a clear and biblical message, it does strongly suggest there is something beyond this mortal existence.
The Word of God presents death as the doorway to our eternal destiny. For the one who has trusted Christ as Saviour, that means the future holds an eternity of blessings in His presence. “Blessed are the dead who die in the Lord,” says Revelation 14:13. The testimony of the Apostle Paul was, “For to me, to live is Christ, and to die is gain” (Phil. 1:21).
Beyond “the valley of the shadow of death” there is the Lord Jesus in His glorious presence. The Lord promised:
“In My Father’s house are many mansions; if it were not so, I would have told you. I go to prepare a place for you. And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and receive you to Myself; that where I am, there you may be also” (Jn. 14:2-3).
His word of promise is enough. We can rest in that.
1) What is your personal view of death?
2) What is your confidence as to what lies beyond death? (Why are you sure about this?)