When I was first planning this series for Lent, I had this big idea–to use familiar hymns and the stories behind them, paired up with traditional lectionary scripture readings for the season, and I just knew that somehow magically–I mean, in a Spirit-led way–the hymns, their histories, and the scriptures would meld together in a perfect theological and reflective fusion that would inspire us through these weeks. Well… you might have noticed, that ideal trinity of song and story and scripture I imagined didn’t quite happen. There have been a couple of weeks where the stories behind the hymns were nothing more than “some person wrote this song.” And we’ve had a couple of weeks where I couldn’t remember why on earth I chose a particular hymn to go with a certain text. But this week–this is the week we’ve, or rather I’ve, been waiting for–this week it all comes together. Let’s start in the year 1936:
In January of 1936, B.B. McKinney–a Southern Baptist songwriter and music professor at Southwestern Seminary–was leading music at the Alabama Sunday School Convention. A good friend of his was a featured speaker; a missionary to Brazil named R.S. Jones, who was about to retire. Reverend Jones was suffering from poor health, and his doctors had refused to allow him to return to the mission field; when he shared this sad news with his friend, McKinney asked about his future plans. Reverend Jones replied, “I don’t know, but wherever He leads, I’ll go.” Before the convention was over, the hymnwriter McKinney had turned this statement of trust into a hymn, and sang it for that gathered congregation and for his friend. In the midst of disappointment, illness, being forced to look for a new path in life, they sang their willingness to serve, and so do we: “I’ll follow my Christ who loves me so; wherever He leads I’ll go.”
I wonder how many missionaries have been commissioned over the years, with that song as part of the worship service? I bet you don’t hear it very often at retirement ceremonies, though. It’s easy to imagine young ministers, just starting out, enthusiastic, hopeful, excited to follow Christ’s call to foreign countries and impoverished cities, with this song echoing in their ears. If I try I can even imagine Jesus’ disciples singing it, back in the very first chapter of John’s gospel, at the beginning of Jesus’ earthly ministry. Andrew and his brother Simon Peter were among the first to follow, to take up the song; soon after Philip joined them. There they were, the young missionaries, disciples, beginning the walk with the One they recognized to be the Messiah.
Eleven chapters and many teachings, healings, and a Lazarus-raising later, they had entered with him into Jerusalem on a pathway paved with palm branches. They were no longer newly commissioned missionaries; their Master was entering into his final days on earth. He was still calling followers though; this time, with a promise that may also have been a warning: “Whoever serves me must follow me, and where I am, there will my servant be also.” (John 12:26)
It’s a commissioning, certainly, but it’s not only for those early first steps of our following him. It’s not only for the young, bright-eyed, optimistic new disciple. It’s for our retirements as well; for all our life-changes, for our twisting paths and unexpected re-routings. If we are his servants, we will be where he is–not just one day in Heaven, but here on earth: where he is with the suffering, with the poor, with the broken. We’ll follow wherever he leads: to wash feet, to stand trial, to the cross. Through the “shadows dim,” over the “stormy sea.” We’ll be asked, in every step of the way, to lose our life; to bring “our hearts, our lives, our all” to him for our entire journey, from the first day we are called to the last. Wherever He leads.
A few weeks ago we heard a hymn by Fanny J. Crosby, that prolific hymnwriter who had been blind from infancy. It is reported that by 1874 she was virtually destitute, living in poverty in New York, living in rented accommodations and moving frequently, holding concerts with her composer husband and giving half the income to help the poor. In 1875 she was 55 years old and in desperate need of money; $5 to be exact, about the equivalent of $100 today. She began to pray about the need, and within minutes a stranger came to her door with just the amount of money she needed. She later wrote, “I have no way of accounting for this, except to believe that God, in answer to my prayer, put it into the heart of this good man to bring the money. My first thought was, it is so wonderful the way the Lord leads me. I immediately wrote the poem…” And out of poverty, darkness, and in great thanksgiving, she wrote, and we sing: “All the way my Savior leads me; what have I to ask beside?”
What have I to ask beside? The disciples had walked away from their livelihoods, their families, their homes, in order to walk with Jesus. I wonder whether they said to themselves “What more do we need than this–that he leads us! That alone is enough!” Were they thinking it on the way into Jerusalem that day, when he was received by the crowds as a king, when he went on to foretell his own death, the falling of the grain that would bear fruit only when it died?
He led them “all the way.” All the way from their fishing boats and family homes, to the foot of the cross. He leads us there too; and not only in Lent, but always. He doesn’t just send us on our journeys, but travels with us; shows us the way; “cheers each winding path,” “gives us grace for every trial,” “feeds us with the living bread,” even on the road to Jerusalem.
Soon I am going to have a Bucket List opportunity, the chance to walk the ancient labyrinth at Chartres Cathedral in France. The labyrinth is a symbol not just for any pilgrimage or a journey, but for our lives: its path twists and winds, doubles-back, sometimes even gets a little boring. You can see where you’re going but not always how to get there; the only way is to trust the path, and the path-maker. It’s just what we do in life: trust the Path, and its Creator as we follow where He leads. One step at a time, one curve in the road to the next, watching for those springs of joy, and singing our thanks along the way.
On June 29, 1901, The New York Times published a little story about two friends. One spent his career as an educator, a pharmacist, a physician, and even did a stint as a newspaperman. The other was a musician; he’d performed as the accompanist for the famous Swedish singer Jenny Lind, and he’d spent the Civil War years writing patriotic songs. One afternoon in 1868 the musician had come to the pharmacist’s shop, in a melancholy mood. Here’s what the doctor said about their meeting that day:
… like many musicians, [he] was of an exceedingly nervous and sensitive nature, and subject to periods of depression, in which he looked at the dark side of life. I had learned his peculiarities so well that on meeting him I could tell at a glance if he was melancholy, and had found that I could rouse him by giving him a new song to work on. He came into my place of business, walked down to the stove, and turned his back on me without speaking. I was at my desk writing. I said to [him] “What is the matter now?” He replied, “It is no matter now; it will be all right by and by.”
Dr. Sanford Fillmore Bennett grabbed pencil and paper and scribbled down the words that came to him, as fast as he could write, and handed the paper to his sorrowful friend, the composer Joseph P. Webster. Bennett told The Times that he saw his depressed friend’s eyes light up as he read the text; Webster asked someone to hand him his violin, and in less than thirty minutes from start to finish, the song was complete. And melancholy turned to hope, to comfort, to vision, as they sang:
Perhaps “the sweet by and by” isn’t just about the future day in heaven when pain and sorrow with cease and tears will be wiped away. It’s a promise for this journey, for every sadness, every melancholy, every Lent of our lives. When we follow Christ, walk on his way, and walk in the way he walked–we receive the gift of his love, the blessings that make every day holy.
He knew, that day in Jerusalem, that his story–his song–his walk along the path was not really coming to an end, but facing a new beginning. Even in those last days, he was calling disciples to join the journey: to serve and to follow him to the cross and beyond, for their whole lives, and with their whole lives. And he is still calling disciples–still calling us. He’s calling us in every stage of our lives, to follow him wherever he leads. He’s calling us onto twisted paths, where all we can do is trust that he will lead and provide. And he’s calling us in times of transition–even as a church–calling us out of our melancholy, summoning us to live and love, to serve and sing and walk together. He is calling us to a dwelling place, together, with him–for “where he is, there we may also be.”
Lead us, O God, and we will follow. We are your servants; where you are at work, where you are loving people, where you are walking–we also want to be. Give us courage to go wherever you lead, even when we are fearful and ill-prepared. Teach us to trust your Path, and remind us to be thankful for every spring of joy along the trail. Guide our church through times of transition, and give us faith to see the land of blessing that awaits.
Keep your hymns, your words, and your ways in our hearts, and gather us to sing your wondrous story. Amen.
HEAR THE SONGS
Wherever He Leads, I’ll Go: There aren’t a ton of versions of this hymn, but if you’re into country, here’s Alan Jackson.