Do We Understand and Mean The Hymn Lyrics We Sing?

Particularly in light of the recent Rev. Amy DeLong church trial in Wisconsin, hymns we sang in church recently caused me to reflect on their lyrics, why they were chosen for worship, and why they are so loved by many Christian congregations.   The hymns were “Where He  Leads Me I Will Follow” and “I Love To Tell the Story.”  Do ministers and congregations understand and intend the lyrics that they sing?  For example, what would it mean to sincerely say, “I’ll go with him through the garden?”  “. . .with him to dark Calvary?”  or “He will give me grace and glory?”  Or, to sing “I love to tell the story of Jesus and his love?” or “. . . it did so much for me?”  Why are these lyrics set to music in the style of late Nineteenth Century or early Twentieth Century love songs familiar to the tent meetings of that time?

I have often admired ministers who incorporate the lyrics of hymns in their messages, actually exploring content of the lyrics and connecting song with revealed truth.  These lyrics and their meanings or inspirations were not discussed in the church service.  I suspect they were selected for their “feel good,” appeal to days of some past time when Christians were perceived to have had no doubts concerning their beliefs and future as good “disciples of Christ.”

I remember particularly the bitter irony of “Are Ye Able.”  During the late 1980’s, I left private practice to accept the appointed and to serve as county judge.  I tend to be an idealist and I approached my judicial duties idealistically, as I understood the law and its express intent; I tried to sentence convicted persons in such a way that would demonstrate my respect for them, judging the act, which was my duty under the law, and not the person, and inviting them to a much more rewarding life.  As Gandhi was developing his principles of the soul force which freed Indians in South Africa and ultimately India, itself, he said “My regard for jurisprudence increased, I discovered in it religion.”  I was greatly inspired by my law school professors’ respect for the life of the law.  Such was my view.  That view was not appreciated by lawyers.  In the spring of 1990, I received pre-release notice of the results of the Nebraska Bar Associations Judicial Survey of my own performance.  I then  braced myself for the release of the news.  But I was not prepared to read that summer the headlines of the Lincoln and Omaha papers that the Bar Association which declared  me and a colleague to be the worst judges in the state.  That fall, I lost voter retention as a judge and found myself without a job to support my family.

The Sunday immediately following that devastating loss of retention, one of the hymns was, “’Are Ye Able,’  said the Master, ‘To be crucified with me?’  Yea, the sturdy dreamers answered, ‘To the death we follow thee.’”  I could see a dreamer, such as “The Rock,” Peter, blithely promising support but then thrice denying Jesus.   Who would claim to be more loyal than Peter?  Then the chorus picks up the same dream, “Lord, we are able.  Our spirits are thine.  Remold them, make us, Like thee, divine.  Thy guiding radiance Above us shall be A beacon to God, To love and loyalty.”  How will the masses distinguish itself from the “sturdy dreamer?”  As a child growing up in my father’s church, I loved the hymn and sang it joyfully.  But this time I actually heard the words and understood the meaning.  I was overcome with grief.  How easy it is to sing the words  when there are no difficult consequences for following Jesus even to crucifixion, or doing what one sincerely feels is right despite popular objection.  I was devastated by the unexpected consequences of doing what I believed to be my duty.  Could I have done the same had I known the consequences?  I don’t know that I could; I certainly would not early in my life have been able to become free of the shakles of inherited faith to make the commitment to so radical a lifestyle.  I couldn’t sing the hymn.

Then I think of Rev. Amy DeLong.  How would she and her supporters sing or feel about these same songs?  She did what she believed was right, knowing the severe consequences.  In reflecting on Rev. Amy DeLong and even my own experience as a county judge, I am reminded of how Dietrich von Bonhoeffer wrestled with the conflict of his sense of duty with his moral conscience and biblical principles he stood upon.  He discussed with others of like mind the evil of Hitler’s genocide wrought upon millions of Jews and other “defective persons” that did not meet his view of the ideal “Arian race.”  It is easy for one to justify killing Hitler as an exception to the Commandment, “Do not kill.”   Bonhoeffer rejected that notion.  Nothing “excuses” violation of the commandments not to kill, but to love your neighbor.  And yet we live in a real world in which  there is no practical solution to the dilemma of living justly and yet following religious commands.  He concluded, “Sin and sin boldly but love Christ more boldly still.”  He joined in the failed  attempt to assassinate Hitler, he was arrested, wrote his Letters From Prison and was executed in the very last days before the collapse of the Third Reich.  How would he approach any of these three hymns?

My father, Rev. Edgar F. Wheeler, once wrote to me, “Many people think that Christianity is about dying and going to Heaven.  I say no.  It is about living a life of eternal significance.”

Rev. Amy DeLong conducted the celebration of the holy union of two  commited womenwith full knowledge of the consequences under an unjust rule of the
Discipline.  That was courageous.  She also was open about her relationship with  another woman; but the jury agreed with her attorney and found that, although she did not deny that she is a lesbian, neither was there evidence that she is a “self-avowed practicing homosexual.”

As to Dietrich von Bonhoeffer, I think that he might have approved of singing, “He will give me grace and glory,” but not to the tune of a nineteenth Century love song.  It would have been to a much more  somber, stately, even transcendent Bach or Buchtehude chorale tune. One observer of his death noted that never had he seen a prisoner face the firing squad with such peaceful calm and apparent assurance.

I leave you with some quotes of Bonhoeffer that summarize my thoughts on this subject better than my feeble attempts:

“Action springs not from thought, but from a readiness for responsibility.”

“To endure the cross is not tragedy; it is the suffering which is the fruit of an exclusive allegiance to Jesus Christ”

As I have quoted Jesus, “By their fruits you will know them.”

Again, God bless you Rev. DeLong.  You have borne good fruits in faithful practice of the Gospel message of love.


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Do We Understand and Mean The Hymn Lyrics We Sing?