We are tossed and driv’n on the restless sea of time;
Somber skies and howling tempests oft succeed a bright sunshine;
In that land of perfect day, when the mists have rolled away,
We will understand it better by and by.
By and by, when the morning comes,
When the saints of God are gathered home,
We’ll tell the story how we’ve overcome,
For we’ll understand it better by and by.
We are often destitute of the things that life demands,
Want of food and want of shelter, thirsty hills and barren lands;
We are trusting in the Lord, and according to God’s Word,
We will understand it better by and by.
Trials dark on every hand, and we cannot understand
All the ways that God could lead us to that bless’d promised land;
But He guides us with His eye, and we’ll follow till we die,
For we’ll understand it better by and by.
Temptations, hidden snares often take us unawares,
And our hearts are made to bleed for a thoughtless word or deed;
And we wonder why the test when we try to do our best,
But we’ll understand it better by and by.
This hymn has been reviewed at the request of one of my friends Clement Chipokolo. Thanks my brother for the suggestion, it has made me appreciate the hymn better. There are many versions of this hymn, but my favourite is the version by Guy Penrod. He did not write the hymn though.
The hymn, We’ll Understand it Better By and By was written by Charles Albert Tindley who died at the age of 82 on July 26, 1933. He wrote the hymn following a personal tragedy of the loss of his wife Daisy. She had born him eight children and his wife Daisy, passed away in 1924, the very day the congregation entered the new sanctuary for the first time. Initially struggling with her death, he would later explain, “one day I will understand it better by and by”. And truly Charles put this into a song that has blessed many of us. We will understand it better by and by.
Charles Tindley was born near Berlin, Maryland, in July of 1851, the son of a slave, Albert Tindley, and a freewoman, Hester Miller Tindley. So he was born just one half-step out of slavery in 1856. Hester his mother passed away when Charles was only four, and a year later he was separated from his father. When he became old enough to work, he was hired out to work with slaves, although his status as “freeborn” was recognized. Little did the people of Berlin realize that a theological and musical giant was springing up in their midst. Tindley is often called a founding father of American gospel music. In 1902, after finishing his educational ventures and pastoring several churches in Philadelphia, he became pastor of the church where he had served as janitor 25 years earlier. After bearing eight children, his wife Daisy, passed away in 1924, the very day the congregation entered the new sanctuary for the first time. Initially struggling with her death, he would later explain, “one day I will understand it better by and by”. That is how the song was born. He could not understand why his wife had to go like that, but he will understand it better by and by.
Tindley has been called “the prince of preachers” (apologies to Charles Spurgeon), but I haven’t been able to get my hands on any of his sermons and don’t know what the style or content of his proclamation were. He is most famous for his gospel songs. He wrote and copyrighted the songs “When the storms of life are raging, stand by me,” and “If in my heart I do not yield, I’ll overcome some day,” which have had long afterlives in soul music and civil rights anthems, and the durable classic “We’ll Understand it Better By And By.”
Tindley’s original songs weren’t hymns (he continued to use Methodist hymns as the mainstay of congregational singing in his church) and they weren’t black spirituals, but they weren’t the “gospel songs” of the white revivalists either.
One historian of black gospel music has said, “The hymns written by Tindley carried a camp-meeting intensity and fervor that would inspire the later development and crystallization of the black gospel style… He had created space in his songs to accommodate the call and response figures and improvisations that, together with flatted thirds and sevenths and other core-culture performance practices, would come to make the style.”
Poetically, Tindley was the kind of writer who incorporated the speech patterns of everyday usage into his work. He wrote the way people talked. As a result, his songs are arrestingly simple.
Here is a good summary of his style, from a 1983 article by Horace Boyer, followed by the lyrics to “We’ll Understand it Better By and By.”
Charles Albert Tindley not only was a good composer; he was unique. He knew his Bible and could translate its archaic language into the soft, picturesque, and sonorous language of his people, and ultimately of all people. He was an extraordinary story teller; he told his stories in simple and direct melodies, using harmonies that did not overpower the simplicity of his messages. Above all, he left the spaces necessary for gospel singers to become engrossed in their singing. He too knew that gospel music was the singer’s art, not that of the composer. The progenitor of black-American gospel music was singer and composer in one.
A few comments regarding the phrase – We will understand it by and by
I once read a story about a judge who looked up from the bench at the next case on his docket, and noticed a most unusual case, an atheist versus the government. The claim: the government allowed holidays for everything: for Christians, for heroes, for presidents, for independence and for all sorts of things. But nowhere did they have a holiday for atheists.
When the man had finished talking, the judge peered over his glasses and asked the atheist, “So all you’re wanting me to do is declare a holiday for atheists?” The atheist said, “Yes, your honour.” The judge slammed his gavel and said “Case closed,” and got up to leave. The stunned atheist, said, “Judge, what do you mean? Are you going to give atheists a holiday?” The judge replied, “Atheists have had a holiday for years. It comes around the first day of April. It’s called April Fool’s Day.” Read Psalms 14:1.
Well, I notice from this that our problem with faith is an unseen God. Psalm 14 begins with what we might see as an attack on atheists of 3,000 years ago. But when you read it a little deeper, it’s not exactly the modern day scoffers that King David is challenging. He says “The fool has said in his heart, ‘There is no God.’ They are corrupt. They have done abominable things.” Could it be that David is not talking about atheists, per se, but about people who live as though God does not exist? In many ways, they are living the atheist lifestyle although they may not say so. I think perhaps David knows this from first-hand experience. He went out and had an extra-marital affair with Bathsheba, knowing full well it was against the Law of God. Could it be when he said “The fool in his heart says ‘There is no God,’” that David was talking about himself and his past behaviour?
The smarter some people get, the more some tend to move away from God. But that’s not always true. Consider Albert Einstein, perhaps one of the smartest men who ever lived. While no one would confuse Einstein with being a born-again evangelical, you need to know that he spent a lot of time thinking about the Creator of the universe. Einstein wrote this:
“I’m not an atheist, and I don’t think I can call myself a pantheist. We are in the position of a little child entering a huge library filled with books in many languages. The child knows someone must have written those books. It does not know how. It does not understand the languages in which they are written. The child dimly suspects a mysterious order in the arrangement of the books but doesn’t know what it is. That, it seems to me, is the attitude of even the most intelligent human being toward God. We see the universe marvellously arranged and obeying certain laws but only dimly understand these laws. Our limited minds grasp the mysterious force that moves the constellations.”
What Albert Einstein was to science in the first half of the 20th century, a German named Karl Barth was to theology. A Presbyterian pastor in Maryland, Dr. David Gray wrote about Barth, saying:
“He was considered one of the great theologians of the Reformed tradition. He wrote many important doctrines and updated Reformed theology. Someone once asked Barth what was the greatest theological discovery that he had made during his lifetime. Barth thought about this teaching and work and answered that his greatest theological discovery was, “Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so.” It was not Barth’s nature to try and be cute. This was a serious answer. Barth distilled the wisdom of his studies to the idea that Jesus loves you and loves me. It is a personal depiction of God’s love.”
Paul in the third chapter of Ephesians is encouraging the new Christians in their faith. He’s reminding them of the mystery of God who came in the flesh. And he’s encouraging them to kneel before God.
I learned something recently about kneeling. It was a sign of respect to kneel before a king with your right knee. When going before God, you would use your left knee. The question for us today is not so much “How are you kneeling?” but “To whom are you kneeling?”
What is taking pre-eminence in your life? Your job? Your house payment? Your time schedule? Who or what are you kneeling before?