God be with you

This summer we have had the joy of a family holiday, when all our four children and their families – seventeen of us in total – spent a week together near the Suffolk seaside town of Southwold. Our eldest son came over from Canada with his family – and our youngest son came over from Egypt with his wife – and our two East London families were there too. Inevitably, the time came to say ‘goodbye’ – and as we did so, I was reminded that this English farewell is a corruption of a much earlier expression ‘God be with you’. When we said ‘goodbye’ we were effectively praying God’s blessing on them as they left us.

A popular hymn which previous generations of Christians used to sing, ‘God be with you till we meet again’, developed the theme. Written in 1882 by Jeremiah Rankin, the minister of the First Congregational Church of Washington, D.C., it was deliberately composed as a Christian hymn on the etymology of ‘good-bye’.

God be with you till we meet again
By his counsels guide, uphold you,
With his sheep securely fold you;
God be with you till we meet again

So ran the first verse. All the other seven verses were similar structure – the phrase ‘God be with you till we meet again’, present in the first and last lines of each, and then repeated in the ‘refrain’:

Till we meet, till we meet, till we meet at Jesus’ feet
Till we meet, till we meet, till we meet at Jesus’ feet

When Rankin first wrote the hymn, it was not for any particular occasion. However, for me the hymn is associated with our time when we were serving with the Baptist Missionary Society in Congo/Zaire. We lived in Kisangani, the third main city of Congo through which many departing missionaries had to pass through. At a small English-speaking Sunday evening service we regularly sang this hymn as a benediction for missionaries returning home.

Recently I came across a book entitled Praying our Goodbyes: A Spiritual Companion Through Life’s Losses and Sorrows by Sister Joyce Rupp (Ave Maria Press, Notre Dame, Indiana 1988; revised 2009), in which she relates the saying of ‘goodbye’ to times of loss and grief. The benediction ‘God be with you’ is helpfully developed into a series of prayers for a range of people and situations including those seeking shelter in the storms of life, who feel broken apart, who are lonely or are struggling, who have been betrayed by another or are in constant pain, who are terminating a relationship or are waiting in darkness, and those whose loved one (including a child ) has died. She writes:

The word goodbye…. was a recognition that God was a significant part of the going. When you dreaded or feared the journey there was strength in remembering that the One who gave and cherished life would be there to protect and to console. Goodbye was a blessing of love, proclaiming the belief that if God went with you, you would never be alone, that comfort, strength, and all the other blessings of a loving presence would accompany you.’”

Joyce Rupp then quotes the reassuring words of Moses to Joshua, as Joshua was about to lead the children of Israel into the Promised Land: “It is the Lord who goes before you. He will be with you; he will not fail you or forsake you. Do not fear or be dismayed” (Deut 31.8).  Or Eugene Peterson puts it in his paraphrase: “God is striding ahead of you. He is right there with you. He won’t let you down, he won’t leave you. Don’t be intimidated. Don’t worry” (The Message).

Yes, in saying ‘Goodbye’ we confidently entrust our friends and loved ones into the hands of God. Or as the French say Adieu, or the Spanish say Adios.

One comment

  1. Thank you for your post. I met you at the centennial BWA meetings in Birmingham. I grew up in Rhodesia, studied law, and then went to seminary in the USA with a curiosity that God fleshed out into a call. Returned to Cape Town and taught at a South African Baptist seminary for 14 years before coming to the USA where I have served as a chair at a university and dean at a seminary.

    My father was a Chartered Accountant and the President of the Northern and Southern Rhodesia and Nyasaland Baptist Union in the early 1960’s. He loved the local church and when our pastors were called to another church or members in the Gwelo Baptist church family were immigrating we would always sing at the end of a church social held in their honor the hymn “God Be With You.” I can still hear the words being sung and my father singing. He passed away in January 2014. I miss him terribly but know we will “meet again.” Thank you for the reminder of the precious gift of life, memory, and resurrection hope.

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