A Holy Week reflection on “Shall We Gather at the River?”

Published 7:44 pm Friday, April 3, 2020

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We are among the fortunate who get to live on the water and enjoy its tranquility while knowing how quickly it can change from placid to turbulent. Life’s like that, and our world has changed drastically since this most recent Ash Wednesday. We’ve all given up more this Lent than planned, including Palm/Passion Sunday and Holy Week services, and it will not end by Easter, unfortunately.

During this necessary staying at home, my thoughts often turn to hymns. One nearly everybody loves is “Shall We Gather at the River?” It’s thoroughly biblical, coming from Revelation 22:1-2 with its emphasis on “the river of the water of life, bright as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb through the middle of the street of the city.” And it was composed quickly by an inspired Baptist pastor/musician, Robert Lowry, in Brooklyn in 1864 in the midst of an epidemic that was sweeping that borough. He wrote it to answer a question his members were asking as loved ones died: Shall we meet again? We are parting at the river of death, shall we meet at the river of life?

My love affair with this hymn began when I heard William Warfield, the famous bass/baritone who sang “Old Man River” in the movie “Showboat,” sing Aaron Copland’s arrangement of it with the North Carolina Symphony at Duke. It was also the final hymn-anthem we sang at a packed farewell service for my close friend and the director of Duke Chapel Music, who we all knew was dying of AIDS. Still, he enthusiastically and radiantly conducted this powerful valedictory hymn with its triumphant affirmation: Yes, we’ll gather at the river, the beautiful, the beautiful river; gather with the saints at the river that flows by the throne of God.

Even more personally, this song became the unofficial anthem for a group of clergy friends who gathered in a cottage on the Neuse River twice yearly for nearly four decades, two of which included me. Initially, we sang this hymn before the first meal in a kind of good-natured, boisterous, male-bonding sort of way. But as the group aged, and one died, and now all but me and one other are still around, the mood changed. Throats tightened, eyes moistened, and the ever-nearer moment of final gathering became more of a reality.

Jurgen Moltmann, a world-class theologian and a former German P.O.W, has also written of the feast of eternal joy God has prepared for those who love him: It is like a great song or a splendid poem or a wonderful dance of God’s fantasy, for the communication of his divine plentitude. The laughter of the universe is God’s delight. It is the universal Easter laughter.

Easter’s coming, and it will be celebrated in homes instead of sanctuaries this year. But that won’t stop us from resoundingly agreeing with Moltmann, hymn-writer Lowry and all who love this hymn that: Yes, we’ll gather at the river! The beautiful, the beautiful river; gather with the saints at the river that flows by the throne of God.

May that hope sustain us through this unusual Holy Week and into Easter.

Charles Michael Smith is a retired United Methodist Minister who grew up near the Pamlico River and Jack’s Creek and lives with his wife, also a Washington native, where Broad Creek meets the Pamlico.