What’s my favorite hymn? There are two I simply cannot decide between.
The first is #525 in the blue Presbyterian Hymnal (the one from the ‘90s). It is the only hymn I know by number in the hymnal of my youth. There are certain hymns that many a pastor are tired of or don’t want to sing or hear anymore. #525 is such a hymn for many. When I meet with other pastors and we do all our top-secret pastor business and this hymn comes up, there is a collective groan. Every single time. (Please don’t tell them I told you this. I will get kicked out. After all, I am already skating on thin ice with my hymn choice.) The culprit, “Here I Am Lord,” is controversial or downright disliked by many. I, however, hold a dear place in my heart for this hymn. It is not because I particularly like its melody or lyrics, although they are quite meaningful. It’s because 17 years ago I was completely lost. I was, as they say these days, a hot mess.
This hymn is significant because of a fleeting conversation I had with a pastor who was trying to pick hymns. I mentioned that I really liked that one, the response was, “Hmmm… an ordination hymn.” At that point in time I lived in delightful denial. I had no idea I was being called to ministry. I was an expert at ignoring what God put in front of me. I suspect that pastor already saw that call unfolding and my complete oblivion. That moment still stands out still to me as significant. I couldn’t shake the two-sentence conversation for days. It was a momentary flash of lightening that rattled me, for in that moment I could not deny what I already knew: I was bound for seminary. Those lyrics become frightening when you are faced with leaving the life you know behind.
I have made the stars of night
I will make their darkness bright
Who will bear my light to them?
Whom shall I send?
As I discerned my call, I knew that along with the celebratory aspects and the challenging days, I was answering to something so much bigger than me. My life was going to change. And it did. Several years later on the day of my ordination, we processed in to this hymn and I fought back tears the whole way. “Here I Am Lord” holds a place in my heart because, somewhere along the way, those notes and lyrics have become entwined with my own story.
“Canticle of the Turning” is the other hymn that I adore and would sing every single week if I could. It is fun to sing! It is catchy even when it is unfamiliar. This, of course, always makes a piece of music welcome, but the theology of this song is so spot on it feels like it has it all.
From the halls of power to the fortress tower, not a
stone will be left on stone. Let the king beware for your
justice tears ev’ry tyrant from his throne. The
hungry poor shall weep no more, for the
food they can never earn; There are tables spread, ev’ry
mouth be fed, for the world is about to turn.
It is here, in the third verse of the song, that I get wrapped up every time I listen to it or sing it. Here are the promises of the gospel truth I preach each week laid out plain and simple. As I sing them, they are easy to believe. We live in a hurting and broken world, and sometimes the idea that everyone is fed and power-hungry people are removed from power seems elusive. The promises of the gospel seem ridiculous — mere fantasy when you live in this world and truly encounter the pain in our midst. These promises that the tables, the whole world, will turn and that we will finally learn to really love one another are too big for our human brains to wrap around.
This song is a nod to Mary’s song and all she knew in her heart. It is a nod to the promises of the Hebrew Scripture and the promises of a future where God’s dream for the world comes into reality. Justice reigns in the hands of love. That is the thing that gets me out of bed on Sunday mornings when I would rather sleep in than preach the gospel. The truth is, we need that gospel every day. We need to be reminded of these promises, of the hope we find in them, that it will in fact one day get better. We need regular reminders that we are called to this tireless work.
Recently, I overheard a comment that this song didn’t feel like a church song — it felt more like we should be in a bar singing. Heck yes! When we get to the third and fourth verses, I want to stand on a bar stool and scream them. I want to do it not because I want you to believe those words, but because I need to be reminded that I believe those words, against all odds. It’s a rally cry to love the world into justice. To that I say Amen!
REBECCA GRESHAM-KESNER is pastor at Faith Presbyterian Church in Medford, New Jersey. Outside of church and family life, you can find her in nature, finding fun ways to be creative or asking awkwardly deep questions of people she just met.