By Joe LaGuardia
A Pastor Appreciates the Hymns is a series on hymnody and worship in the church. By incorporating personal testimony and theological reflection, the series draws meaning and strength from sacred songs past and present.
Barbara Brown Taylor once wrote that people who pray to see God and have their prayers answered rarely ask the same thing twice. Like the Israelites who met God face to face on the mountainside of Mt. Sinai, we cower in fear when God singes us with a presence that is overwhelming and, at times, threatening.
We keep God at arm’s length. What if God searches us deeply as the scriptures attest (Ps. 139:1)? What if the unveiling of God unveils all our secrets (Luke 12:2)? What if God snags us in our selfishness and zaps us dead if we venture too close (2 Samuel 6:7)?
We preachers speak every week on the intimacy of God. We encourage people to know God as they are fully known, to grow in a personal relationship with God. Yet, God, ever mysterious, evades us and meets us with silence–God, immortal, invisible, the One only wise.
That is why we need Jesus. In Jesus we hear a familiar, human voice. In Jesus, we sense that God chose the best way to come near us so that we might not be singed, but experience a lightness of yoke and the easiness of God’s burden (Matthew 11:30). We are not off the hook with Jesus; rather, we are hooked by the great Fisherman who calls us to do the same for others.
Thankfully, our liturgical tradition maps out a more personal relationship with God than the fright that God sometimes engenders. One of my favorite hymns, What a Friend We have in Jesus, teaches us that we should never be discouraged, be open and share our sorrows, and realize that Jesus meets us in the midst of our vulnerability and weakness, not in spite of it.
Jesus is not out to get us, but to bridge the gap between us and God, that we might “carry everything to God in prayer.”
The hymn “What a Friend We Have in Jesus” is “not considered to be an example of great literary writing, its simply stated truths have brought solace and comfort to countless numbers of God’s people since it was first written in 1857” –Kenneth Osbeck.
Other hymns on friendship have comforted the church in ages past. Jesus is All the World to Me ends every verse with the simple affirmation that Jesus “is my friend.” I’ve Found a Friend, O Such a Friend speaks of Jesus’ sacrificial act of dying on the cross for us, likening his friendship to that of a tapestry of love: “He drew me with cords of love…And round my heart still closely twine, for I am His.” No, Not One admits that “there’s not a friend like the lowly Jesus.”
A contemporary song by Casting Crowns, Jesus, Friend of Sinners, is a song of confession. It acknowledges our failure to befriend others who need Jesus like we:
Always looking around but never looking up, I’m so double minded
A plank-eyed saint with dirty hands and a heart divided
The church’s hymnody provides God’s people not only with an alternative narrative, but also an alternative vision of who God is for us and how God relates to us. (Casting Crowns’ song is appropriate: “Open our eyes to the world at the end of our pointing fingers“).
God is not the seething, besieging white-haired judge who zaps people, but One who faithfully pursues us in a personal relationship through Christ. It is a model of friendship, not animosity or antagonism.
Of course, this requires work. We no longer have an excuse to run from God. We cannot state that God is too powerful or scary for us. In Jesus, God has removed every hindrance, and we have to take responsibility in cultivating that friendship. Like friendships in the flesh, our friendship with Jesus requires time, patience, communication, honesty, and trust. This is a great task, but it is among the greatest blessings we are entrusted.