Mercy, Never Ceasing
By Rev. Alicia Randolph Rapking
Sunday, July 2, after seven years of no regular Sunday morning responsibilities, I return to preaching most Sundays. As the director of Upshur Parish House and Crosslines, I am appointed to Extension Ministries in the WV Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church, which means that instead of serving congregations as a full time pastor, I serve in another capacity—the director of a mission project. This appointment has given me time for visiting and preaching in many churches across the annual conference for the last seven years. In addition, the appointment has allowed my family to worship together in a church home for most of the Sundays in the year.
This year, because of a shortage of pastors, some pastors appointed to Extension Ministries have been asked to take less than half time appointments , in addition to their regular appointments,so that most of our churches will have pastoral leadership. So, in addition to my Parish House responsibilities I will also be preaching at Israel and Coffman Chapel United Methodist Churches in Randolph County, most Sundays. I will have some help as Gary will cover some of the preaching and other responsibilities as well.
As I have been thinking about the rhythm of my weeks and how this rhythm will require some tweeking over the next few weeks as I add in sermon preparation and other duties to my Parish House responsibilities, a favorite hymn has emerged in my soul, in my heart, and in song from my lips. When this happens and I can’t put the song or hymn out of my mind, I find the best thing to do is to just live with it and try to discover what God is teaching me.
The first verse of Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing is one that I have been singing from memory almost as long as I can remember. One of my first memories of singing hymns in church involves this hymn and my mother frowning at me.
I was nearly seven, I think, and perfecting my reading skills. Finally, I was tall enough to stand on the floor for hymns and place my hymnal on the back of the pew in front. I was singing intently, trying to understand why we were singing about “Ebenezer” (see the second stanza of the hymn) and trying to balance the hymnal. When I paid more attention to the words than to keeping the hymnal balanced on the back of the pew, the hymnal almost fell to the floor, which is when my mother started frowning at me and I took that frown as her saying, “You better not try that again.”
Over the years of my life, this hymn has become one of my favorites. Each time I hear it or sing it there is a deep stillness in my soul and a longing to know again what God longs for me to know. There are the memories of deep connection to others in my life, of people who have become important to me and helped me to learn what it is that God wants me to know.
When I sing this hymn I am reminded of the time that I learned that word “Ebenezer” refers to a story in the Old Testament when Samuel takes a stone and creates a monument of memory, naming it Ebenezer which means Stone of Help because God had helped them. (I Samuel 7:12). Learning that information had come around the dinner table after we had sung the hymn in church and I asked my father why we sang about “Ebenezer.” The only Ebenezer I knew was Ebenezer Scrooge and I couldn’t understand why we would be singing about him. The image of the Old Testament Samuel pushing a large stone became vivid in my mind and to this day I see that image when I sing this hymn and I can almost feel the deep reverence that Samuel instilled in those around him because he wanted them to remember that God had helped them.
I remember getting excited when I would come to church and discover that my father, the pastor, had chosen that hymn for that Sunday morning. The tune always seemed old to me, connecting me to my past, but it was a wonderful tune to learn harmonies with, especially as I learned to sing the tenor line in the upper soprano register.
This hymn was the last hymn I sang together with a dear friend. Each time I sing it I am reminded of a particular moment of conversation with my friend and prayer that followed—prayer for mercy, “streams of mercy, never ceasing,” as I have come to think about that time.
Recently, I have discovered that this hymn is my daughter Grace’s favorite hymn. We have sung it together several times and so another layer of meaning develops for me around this hymn.
So, why has this hymn been in my heart and soul throughout this week? The lectionary psalm for Sunday, July 2, includes several verses from Psalm 89. As I began thinking about what to say to two congregations that will see me for the first time and will accept me as their pastor I found that the words of Psalm 89 led me to think about the steadfast love of God in our lives and how I hope that over the months that we have together that the steadfast love of God will be the recurring theme in my preaching and that it will be seen in our ministry and lives together.
The steadfast love of God is what “Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing” is all about. Written in 1758 by Robert Robinson, this hymn was somewhat autobiographical in nature. Robert Robinson’s father died when Robert was around 8 years old and his mother sent him to London to apprentice with a barber, where he fell in with a crowd of what he called “thugs.” One afternoon, Robert and his friends decided to go into a church to heckle the preacher and the congregation, but the preacher happened to be George Whitefield, a powerful preacher whose passion for preaching about God’s mercy—God’s unceasing mercy—led to the lives of many people being changed. One of those lives was Robert Robinson on that very afternoon.
Robert became a preacher and at the age of 22 wrote the hymn “Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing.” The first verse, in particular, sings of the joy he felt in God’s mercy and his desire to sing God’s praise, but he needs help. He needs God to tune his heart, to teach him melodies that are sung by the saints and angels above. He proclaim that Jesus is the one that found him and rescued him from danger. In the third stanza Robert placed a phrase that reflects the honesty of his life and of all of our lives—that he is prone to wander and leave the God he loves.
And in many ways, Robert Robinson did wander and leave God, but as with us all, God’s streams of mercy—never-ceasing—called him back, brought him back, loved him back, forgave him back into the mercy, grace, and love that never lets us go.
This hymn sums up what I want to feel in my heart and what I desire to be preaching at this point in my life. As I continue to return to the theme of God’s unceasing streams of mercy I am certain that I will learn deeper and deeper meanings of this hymn and feel God deeper and deeper in my soul. There will be new revelations and new understandings of God’s unceasing mercy and about how to receive it in the deepest, darkest parts of our lives where light and joy long to shine forth.
And I am certain that there will be new revelations and new understandings of how we are to offer God’s unceasing mercy through our own lives and actions. There will be new revelations about how God is offering this unceasing mercy to all people—all people—no matter how different they might be from us. There will be new revelations and new understandings about how we do not get to choose who deserves God’s unceasing mercy.
I am excited for more opportunities to preach and new people to get to know and be in ministry with. May God bind our wandering hearts to the God we love. (Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing, verse 3).
To God be the Glory!