“Be Thou My Vision” and the Importance of Hymns

It’s March! And The song of the month is “Be Thou My Vision (All That I Long For)” . This one has a special place in my heart. “Be Thou My Vision” was one of those songs that helped me fall in love with hymns. Now it would be helpful to define what a hymn is. In their most general sense, hymns are songs written to God/a god/gods. There’s nothing inherently Christian about them. Really its the content of a hymn that determines if it is Christian or not. However, when worship leaders talk about hymns and songs we usually mean the hymns that can be found in a hymnal. These are generally older songs while the songs that we call songs are the ones that we listen to on the radio/streaming service. They are generally written within the last 10 to 20 years. Now be warned! It is only a matter of time until our favorite songs are considered old, stuffy, and unrelatable. So when I say “helped me fall in love with hymns” I mean “helped me fall in love with those pieces that have been intentionally gathered together over the generations of Christendom and that remind me that my faith is not an island”. To explain: an island is cut off from the main land and must be self sufficient. An island style faith must be able to provide for and survive by itself since there are no bridges or ships that connect it to the mainland of church history.

Now I could go on and on about the evangelical church’s relationship (or lack of relationship) with church history but each time I’ve tried to explore this topic I find myself ranting. Instead of sitting through a never ending rant, just know that I believe church history is important and that the study of our history leads to a deeper, better rooted, more vibrant, faith.

One repository of our history is our hymnals. In these books we have access to a collection of songs that, at some point in the story of the church, were considered significant enough to be officially endorsed by a pastor, board of elders, hymnal committee, church, or even an entire denomination. Now not all hymnals are created equal. The quality of a hymnal is dependent on those who are curating it. If heretics compile a hymnal you will most likely have a heretical hymnal. On a side note, when worship leaders select songs for their church to sing they are creating a type of hymnal for their church. If they were to actually publish that “hymnal” I am sure that more time, thought, and intentional consideration would go into selecting the songs that the worship leader is publicly asserting as beneficial for the spiritual life of the church.

Even if we don’t like the sound of the songs in our hymnals we should at least be willing to learn from them. What can we learn? Well, a lot. We can learn what Christians sang when they felt lonely, or lost, or jubilant, or motivated. We can see how they confessed through song and how they rejoiced. How did they respond to the trials of their times? Well just look at the songs they sang and collected. Then, if we are willing to learn we may just find some tunes or lyrics that speak to us and help us through what we are facing today. For me, “Be Thou My Vision” is one of those songs.

According to hymnary.org this ancient hymn is published in 139 hymnals (for reference the beloved “How Great Thou Art” only appears in 104 hymnals”. Still nothing compared to “Amazing Grace” or “Holy Holy Holy”). It is thought that the lyrics originated in the 8th century yet it was not until the early 20th century that the lyrics were translated from Irish into English and combined with the Irish folk tune “Slane” to create the hymn we know today. This means that when we sing this hymn we are joining with 1300 years of Christendom in imploring that God would be all that we long for and need. Suddenly, I am reminded that I am not the first Christian who has lost his focus and needs to reset his sights on God. Nor am I the first Christian to be tempted by riches or man’s empty praise and if the pattern continues I won’t be the last. This reminds me that I do not worship a new God, or an Iphone God who will need to be updated or replaced next year. No, I worship the everlasting God and 1300 year old words still accurately reflect how my relationship should be with the almighty, Ancient of Days. What other relationships endure, unchanging, for such a great span of time?

Now at this point you might ask “then why add a chorus to such a fine hymn?”. Quite simply: to give more options to modern bands and because I didn’t like the other options. See, some artists approach adding choruses to hymns a bit like Dr. Frankenstein approaches surgery: it doesn’t really matter if the parts match up, just stitch them together and call it a day. Whenever I add a chorus to a song, whether one of my own or a hymn, I try to make the chorus fit musically and thematically (Just a note: when it comes to adding choruses to “Be Thou My Vision” I think several bands have done a good job considering the lyrical content but the musical content seems out of place. I could add the new chorus to a different song and I would be none the wiser).

For “Be Thou My Vision (All That I Long For)” I sought to summarize the hymn in the cry “all that I long for and all that I need” then reiterate the aspirational nature with the plea “Lord be my vision, my strength, and my peace”. Here I also reuse the melody from the last line of the verse to emphasize the similarity and maintain the original, melodic flow. Yet even in this aspirational plea I’m drawing from material already in the song. The most obvious part is “vision”, that clearly fits into the original hymn. “Strength” reflects the line “heart of my own heart whatever befall” and the often forgotten verse “Lord be my battle-shield, sword for the fight” (perhaps I should add that verse to this rendition…). Finally we have “peace” which is a bit of interpretation. I see the plea for “peace” as reflecting what happens when we keep our vision on God. In Matthew 14 Peter saw Jesus walking across the storm tossed waters. Jesus called Peter who then stepped out of the boat and also walked on water. As long as his eyes were fixed on Christ, Peter was fine but as soon as he started worrying about the waves around him he began sinking, overcome by the storm. When Peter took his eyes off of the creator he became overwhelmed by the creation. For us, when we keep our eyes fixed on our almighty Creator we can have peace even in the most turbulent of life’s waves.

So all of that to say, I love “Be Thou My Vision”. It connects me with my brothers and sisters in the faith and encourages me to keep my eyes fixed on God, no matter what. I pray that this rendition encourages you as much as it has encouraged me and maybe, if you haven’t looked at it in a while, perhaps you’ll give that dusty old hymnal a second chance. Lord willing when I am old and unable to rise from my bed, I know I would appreciate hearing those songs that encouraged me in my youth (and maybe a few written by members of the Worshiping Songwriter. Who knows?).

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