History of Hymns: "Here, O Lord, Your Servants Gather"
"Here, O Lord, Your Servants Gather"
Tokuo Yamaguchi, translated by Everett M. Stowe
UM Hymnal, No. 552
Here, O Lord, your servants gather,
hand we link with hand.
Looking toward our Savior’s cross,
joined in love we stand.
As we seek the realm of God,
We unite to pray:
Jesus, Savior, guide our steps,
for you are the Way.*
Place yourself in Japan in 1958, 13 years after the end of the World War II. Signs of the war are still all around you—not only in the destruction of large sections of major cities, but also in a generation of young men missing from communities and in those who suffer from the lingering emotional and physical effects of radiation.
The 14th World Council of Christian Education Convention was being held in Tokyo, though Christians made up only 1 percent of the population. “Here, O Lord, Your Servants Gather” was written for this convention. It was published in the convention’s program booklet, Christian Shimpo (Christian Faith).
The primary scriptural basis is John 14:6: “Jesus said to him, ‘I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.’” The first three stanzas focus, in turn, on the way, the truth and the life, and the final stanza ties the entire hymn together.
The text was composed by Tokuo Yamaguchi (1900-1995), who was educated at the Aoyama Gakuin Theological Seminary (1924) and became a minister in the Methodist Church. Yamaguchi won an official commendation from the Christian Literature Society of Japan in 1983 for his translation of The Journal of John Wesley (1961).
The music of this hymn, composed by Isao Koizumi (1907-1992), is of particular interest. It is an arrangement of a melody associated with the Gagaku court music tradition of the Japanese emperor. Before the war the emperors had their own musicians who played instruments and music unique to the court.
Koizumi was born in Osaka. According to the Dictionary of Contemporary Japanese Music, he studied composition and organ privately while also working toward a degree in economics from Osaka University of Commerce (1952). He served as minister of music at the United States Far East Air Force Chapel Center in Tokyo. In addition to composing and arranging many hymn tunes, he edited several hymnals.
It is interesting that Koizumi would choose a melody from the emperor’s court as the basis of a composition derived from John 14:6. There could be many reasons for this, but one interpretation could be that Koizumi wanted to indicate Christ had supplanted the emperor as the supreme sovereign of his life.
Stanza one proclaims that Christ is “the Way.” Stanza two acknowledges both the diversity of Asia—“Many are the tongues we speak”—and “our one[ness] in Christ.”
The second stanza follows the pattern of many Asian hymns that refer to age and youth; Asian cultures revere the maturity and wisdom of age. The stanza concludes with a reference to Jesus as teacher who “dwell[s] with us” and imparts the “Truth.” This is close to the idea of Christ as a rabbi offered in the Gospels.
Stanza three opens with what I believe is a thinly veiled reference to the destruction of the atom bomb: “Nature’s secrets open wide. . . .” The stanza continues with references to “weary souls” seeking the “source of peace” amidst “endless strife.” Jesus, the healer, is the one who brings life.
The final stanza offers a series of petitions leading to a final request that “Jesus, Master, be our Way, be our Truth, our Life.” Imagine the power of this hymn among Christians around Asia after a war that had been the source of so much pain and destruction. They linked “hand . . . with hand” and declared that Christ is indeed our unity.
I know of no other hymn in any culture that provides as rich an exposition on John 14:6.