Confessing with a Hymn

I’m taking the diakonia class on Creeds and Confessions, taught by Pastor Marcus Felde. We’ve been asked to pick a favorite hymn and analyze the confession of faith we make with others when we sing it. And, to analyze how that hymn bespeaks my faith in Christ. I chose to reflect on ELW 796 – Will You Come and Follow Me (The Summons), with text written by John Bell and Graham Moule. The tune setting is Kelvingrove, a Scottish tune often used for the song The Shearing’s Nae for You.

The Hymnal Companion to Evangelical Lutheran Worship gives this background story:

Though he is not certain of it, John Bell is “fairly confident” that this text was written: “for the sending out of one of our youth volunteers. This was a scheme sponsored by the Iona Community whereby young people gave a year or two to live in impoverished parts of Scotland, on the dole, and work out their discipleship in hard places. The words of this song therefore reflect the experience of the volunteer concerned. But we only wrote it for one-off use. If I had kept a record of people who have spoken of how a particular line in this affected their life, I could have published a book of very moving testimonies by now, but I’m glad I didn’t.”

I think this text affects me more than any others within Evangelical Lutheran Worship (ELW). Each time I sing it, I hear a deep affirmation of who I am, broken and virtuous, and a clear call from Christ to follow him. Pastor Felde, in his Taking Song Seriously, mentions: “As soon as the familiar sound pattern is established, he is prepared to laugh, to weep, to dance, to fight, to worship. His heart is opened.” (Page 9) Even just the opening strains of this hymn tune draw forth memories and emotions within me, because of how I have associated this text with this tune. Further, Pastor Felde tells us that “Song not only expresses or describes emotion but also has power to affect feelings.” (Page 8) Where does my journey start, hand-in-hand with Christ? The hymn begins:

Will you come and follow me,
If I but call your name?
Will you go where you don’t know
And never be the same?
Will you let my love be shown,
will you let my name be known,
will you let my life be grown
in you and you in me?

Every time I’ve sung this hymn, it’s as the hymn of the day, or as a communion hymn. By this point, we’ve gathered, we’ve experienced forgiveness of sins, and we’ve heard the Word read and proclaimed. When all is well with my mind and heart, I’ve arrived at a fertile place where I can hear the gospel and allow it to make its home within me. Part of our core faith is that Jesus Christ reconciles the Father to us and is a sacrifice not only for original guilt but also for all actual sins of human beings (Augsburg Confession, Article 3). Even as we stand under the damning condemnation of God’s law, we sing here of Christ asking us, in perfect grace, to come with him in journey. Such a proclamation is only found by reading this verse through the lens of our confession. Otherwise, the invitation can be read purely casually, like asking for cream with one’s morning coffee, and we completely miss the weight of this offer and opportunity.

As we continue reading this verse in light of our confession, it’s hard to conceive of Christ extending the graceful invitation that we sing here. In spite of his suffering and death, Christ would be perfectly justified to demand our lives in return, or anything at all. But Christ makes no demand of us. “Will you let?” Will we allow? Will we grant Jesus permission, as if we’re jailers and Christ is our prisoner? This verse does make exquisite the reconciliation proclaimed by our confession.

At the end of this verse we sing of our and Christ’s lives growing in each other. We confess that through our worship, God gives the Holy Spirit who produces faith, where and when he wills, in those who hear the gospel (Augsburg Confession, Article 5). So, as much as does our confession, this verse itself proclaims that the Holy Spirit that healed and reconciled through Christ is the same Spirit that will grow in us, and lead us to continue the same healing and reconciling for the sake of the world. And still, asking us for our permission.

Will you leave your self behind
if I but call your name?
Will you care for cruel and kind
and never be the same?
Will you risk the hostile stare
should your life attract or scare,
will you let me answer prayer
in you and you in me?

I think the second verse begins to help us realize the ramification of following Christ. Our readings in worship tell stories of our ancestors who heard Christ’s call, and who left what they knew to follow him into unknown places. What does it mean to leave my self behind? I can’t conceive that I’m being called to leave my job or family, as did the early disciples. Instead, I think we sing a promise of significant transformation from hearing and responding to the gospel message. But, we wouldn’t go so far as to think of this “self” as our Old Adam that continues to cling to us each day. As Paul lamented, “For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate.” (Romans 7:15) So, we begin this verse with questions, not quite understanding the meaning of what we sing.

But then, this verse goes on to tell us something of the life of Jesus. Christ was the God-man who cared for cruel and kind, who risked hostile stare, who attracted, and who scared. Recall Jesus in the country of the Gerasenes, sending the spirits of Legion into the swine that rushed to drown in the lake (Mark 5). We marvel at Jesus flexing great power to control spirits of evil, while we read of villagers filled with a great fear of this very same power. One can read this story politically (life under an oppressive Roman Empire), or as demonically as your favorite horror film. Either way, we feel a certain sorrow of these people rejecting Christ and all who he is.

Pastor Felde tells us that “The fact that most singing is social should mean that if it is expressive it also expresses something about society. … a means by which the society frames and orders its realities, which include loss and grief.” (Page 7) Of course, we see ourselves as straddling two narratives, with one foot mired in the world’s reality and the other foot dipping a toe into the waters of our baptism. So, this verse is less creedal and more a reflection in coping with our dual-citizenship.

Will you love the ‘you’ you hide
if I but call your name?
Will you quell the fear inside
and never be the same?
Will you use the faith you’ve found
to reshape the world around
through my sight and touch and sound
in you and you in me?

For me, the third verse is my emotional climax, where I acknowledge that I don’t know how to love myself as Christ loves me. Who can understand the depth to which we are loved by God? What does it mean to be fearfully and wonderfully made (Psalm 139), in full intention by a loving God? We rarely vocalize this lack of self-love, and some Christian traditions would go so far as to take the status quo even further. But, we are a living gospel that boldly proclaims that “This faith believes that sins are forgiven on account of Christ, consoles the conscience, and liberates it from terrors. Thereupon good works, which are the fruit of repentance, should follow.” (Augsburg Confession, Article 12) How can we be liberated and oppressed at the same time? Ultimately liberation must prevail for us to make this claim in honesty.

But, can I quell my own fear? Did I find faith, as if it were a lost wallet? Do I reshape the world, or does the Holy Spirit reshape the world through me? This verse reads a bit humanist through the lens of our confession. Certainly, when Article 5 of the Augsburg Confession proclaims faith a gift, it’s hard to skip the implication of faith being intentionally created in us. Gifts are not accidentally given. Whereas, when proclaiming faith as being found, we’re singing of randomness or chance. Finding something non-randomly isn’t finding, it’s fetching.

So, while this may not be such a creedal statement, it does continue to be meaningful to me in my emotional experience of worship and discipleship. Once having a measure of knowledge about our confessed faith, this verse can take that understanding beyond book knowledge. But, it does not seem possible to approach our creed solely with this verse.

Lord, your summons echoes true
when you but call my name.
Let me turn and follow you
and never be the same.
In your company I’ll go
where your love and footsteps show.
Thus I’ll move and live and grow
in you and you in me.

Pastor Felde tells us that “The Word,” of course, is not synonymous with the Scripture, but with its message, the “living Word of the Gospel,” the viva vox evangelii, the Word by which God created and is redeeming his creation, and by which the faith which justifies is created in the believer’s heart.” (Page 12) We may not have proclaimed much with respect to our confession. But, we end this hymn by asking God for mercy and forgiveness, and to be called to his purpose. I can’t conceive asking to join with someone without having some measure of right relationship with them.

Fundamentally, God creates us and the world, God redeems us, and God creates faith in us, and here we accept and recognize that we are at God’s mercy. We ask God to call us, we ask God to allow us to follow, and we proclaim that essentially, only through these gifts will we live and grow and thrive. And this verse has no questions, because without doubt we know that God chooses to do this. Pastor Felde relates to us from Luther “For all those who have the faith that Christ is a priest for them in heaven before God, and who lay on him their prayers and praise, their need and their whole selves, presenting them through him, not doubting that he does this very thing, and offers himself for them — … all such, then, wherever they may be, are true priests.” (Page 15).

In conclusion, what does or should a hymn do for us? Will You Come and Follow Me is not so creedal in nature – it doesn’t purport to teach us our creed, or to overtly claim any fact. But with some fundamental understandings of our confession, this hymn gives an emotional life to our confession that can help us be more receptive to hearing the gospel proclaimed in our worship. Not so much the Word of God as found in Scripture, but moreso the viva vox that we share with the world.


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