Do We Mean Every Word? [Devotional]

A devotional for this week by Martha Whitney, Immanuel member:


“Be Thou My Vision” is my favorite hymn. In hymns as with people, “favorites” are generously rich inspiring and thoughtful words. As with people, there are also parts of which we are not so fond. The second line of this hymn, “Nought be all else to me save that Thou art”, is something I have sung without reflection. Only when singing this hymn quietly, slowly, while walking recently did I catch myself on this line. It is not true for me, I realize; as aspirational as the words are, they are not the reality.

Truth be told, I am not sure I can mean them. My family and friends, my communities? I do not hold them as “nought”. They are powerfully important, sustaining, comforting, challenging, loving. So, I move to the lines which follow, which I can heartily endorse, “Thou my best thought be day or by night/Waking or sleeping Thy presence my light.” Living up to every word of the Gospel is beyond me, beyond most of us, but we can aspire to the Way of God as embodied in Jesus. In the same way, beloved words, sung, can guide without requiring that we meet every expectation found in them. Hymns, which lodge in memory, have been a source of deep inspiration and comfort over the years, even if I don’t mean every word of them. Part of the experience of being church, of being in worship, is the quiet and unnoticed way in which passages of scripture and music become lodged through repetition, available to us at any time.