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Come, Follow Me

“Come, Follow Me’  This hymn derives inspiration from the several different accounts in Matthew of Christ calling people to follow Him.  In today’s gospel lesson we read the account of Jesus responding to a stranger who proclaims his willingness to follow Jesus. Jesus responds, of course, “Follow me.”  This sentiment is echoed in this hymn written by the seventeenth-century poet Johann Scheffler (1624-77). 

Scheffler was born in Silesia (Poland/Germany/Prussia) to a father whose adherence to Lutheranism resulted in much persecution.  After studying medicine, he accepted a position at a staunchly Lutheran court.  Increasingly Scheffler became unhappy with the seemingly rigid dogmatism of the court’s Lutheranism and he became enthralled with the mystical poets of the Middle Ages.  He eventually found his way to a Jesuit cloister, converted to Catholicism, changed his name to Angelus Silesius and lived the rest of his days studying and writing, although the majority of his hymnody was written whilst still a Lutheran.  According to the hymnal companions, this hymn was originally published in Scheffler’s Heilige Seelenlust oder Geistliche Hirten-Lieder of 1647.  (Although, the writer of music notes has a copy of this volume and cannot find this aforementioned hymn anywhere. . .)

This hymn can be analyzed a number of ways, but today we shall consider it in terms of the dichotmy it presents between the life of the world and the life of a Christian.  In the words of the first stanza, we implore our “selfishness throw overboard, obey My call and guiding.  Oh, bear your crosses and confide in my example as your guide.”  It is implied that selfishness is of the world, as will be crosses for those who “follow Him.”  The fourth stanza likewise echoes this thought, “I teach you how to shun and flee what harms your soul’s salvation;  your heart from ev’ry guile to free, from sin and its temptation.  I am the refuge of the soul and lead you to Your heavenly goal.”  What harms our souls’ salvation?  H Richard Niebuhr, a great 20th-century theologian, writes in his little book Christ and Culture of the relationship different branches of the Church have had to the secular culture throughout history.  According to Niebuhr, Christianity is either against culture, within culture, above culture, in paradox with it, or a transformer of it.  Scheffler’s thoughts (which later turned to individualistic mysticism), definitely mirror the adversarial relationship Christ has with the culture;  ie., Christianity and secular culture are incompatible.  The astute reader of music notes (they are all astute, since they are reading music notes) will rejoinder, “That is too simple!  Christianity and the culture have a much more complicated relationship than that.”  The astute writer of music notes replies, “Certainly, but you also need to read how Niebuhr describes each of these paradigms and analyze your own predilictions and beliefs according to his terms.”  The mystical strand of Christianity, exemplified by Teresa of Avilla, Hildegard von Bingen and Thomas a Kempis of the medieval ages, always viewed Christianity as a personal relationship of the soul to God.  Everything else was merely ephemeral at best and distractful at worst.  When that other great mystical master, Yoda, admonishes Anakin Skywalker to “shun all attachments and relationships” since they merely distract from his quest for wisdom, he is echoing an ancient (earthly) conception of aestheticism which holds that we must “shun and flee what harms your soul’s salvation.” 

The mystic, as Scheffler was, holds that everything outside of one’s self can distract from the path of knowledge/enlightenment/salvation, etc.  Yet, few of us can cloister ourselves in seclusion, avoiding everything that may harm us.  We are called to interact with the culture and, if not exactly to transform it, then to influence it. Our secular culture is rife with sickness.  From crime to secular selfishness to the intolerant tolerance of the politically correct, the Christian can quickly determine that our culture does not often reflect the Kingdom of God.  Yet, just as Jesus ate with sinners and even called a tax collector such as Matthew, we are called to be “salt and light” to the world.  Lutheranism has in various times and places done this well, and Lutheranism likewise has failed miserably at other times and places.

When the early American Lutheran Church steadfastly refused to learn English, instead holding to the “doctrinal purity” of the German language, the Church missed an opportunity to be salt and light.  When some modern Lutheran churches hold “worship services” which are indistinguishable from a rock concert or a coffee bar, one wonders what the Church has “sold out” in order to become attractive to secularists.  When the traditional Lutheran congregation of the 1950s sent missionaries to the East Indies and Borneo but ignored their own community, an opportunity was lost.  When our congregations wish to assimilate the relentless, results-driven culture of the secular business world and apply them to our spiritual lives, the Lutheran church loses a little of what makes it unique to the world. 

Jesus calls us in the gospel—and it is echoed in this hymn—to “follow Him.”  Then, He proceeds to eat with sinners and tax collectors.   Yet, He does not condescend to their level—He does not cheat, steal, or be greedy simply to be accepted by them.  He does not scorn them;  He interacts with them whilst never compromising His sinless and divine identity.  We are not Jesus and our task is much more difficult but, as Jesus states at the beginning of stanza one, we would do well to follow “In my example as your guide.”

 

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Music Notes, 12 June

“Lord, Dismiss Us With Thy Blessing.”  John Fawcett (1740-1817) wrote the text to this hymn which is useful for singing at one time only:  at the end of corporate worship or other Christian gathering.  Fawcett was a Baptist, and had been converted by George Whitefield (who also converted Augustus Toplady, author of “Rock of Ages”) in London at age 16.  He preached in a small village in northern England.  In 1772, he was extended a “call” to be pastor at a large evangelical church in London (the equivalent of Prestonwood Baptist, perhaps) for which he subsequently announced his acceptance.  However, when the carts were loaded with his furniture and when the horses were strapped with his books, the crying and tears of the townspeople imploring him to stay got the better of him, and he remained.  (This technique seldom works for congregations these days. . . )

            Fawcett wrote many books on “Practical Religion.”  He was concerned with living the Christian faith, not just speaking of it or thinking of it.  (Notice the second stanza of this hymn:  Thanks we give and adoration/For your Gospel’s joyful sound./May the fruits of your salvation/In our hearts and lives abound.)  This hymn is not written to “praise,” or to express “confession,” or to manifest any other ambiguous emotion.  There was a need (at the time) for hymns at the closing of the service, and this hymn was written with that practicality in mind.  This hymn should be sung like a prayer.

 

“Drawn to the Cross”  Genevieve Mary Irons (1855-1928), a Roman Catholic, wrote this hymn text in 1880 and included it in the hymnal, Corpus Christi, the same year. A few of her earliest texts were contributed to the Sunday Magazine in 1876. Her hymn, "Drawn to the Cross which Thou hast blessed" (Consecration of Self to Christ) is the only one which has found currency in modern hymnals. Alluding to this hymn Miss Irons has written "I always feel that hymn is part of me ... It contains expressions and allusions which to my mind are only capable of a Catholic meaning: but I am interested and gratified in knowing that the hymn speaks to the hearts of many who would probably differ from me on most points of doctrine." The recurring litany at the end of each line almost resembles a crucifix, “Christ crucified, I come.” The third stanza, whilst innocuous enough, certainly originally referred to the cleansing pain of Purgatory in Roman Catholic doctrine, “Wash me and take away each stain; let nothing of my sin remain. For cleansing though it be through pain, Christ crucified, I come.” According to the catechism of the Catholic Church, those in Purgatory ". . .undergo purification, so as to achieve the holiness necessary to enter the joy of heaven." This is not a biblical concept, of course, but we as Lutherans can sing this stanza knowing that its truth is not dependent upon a fallacious theological concept. Cleansing often comes through pain. The writer of music notes remembers receiving many scrapes and cuts as a child, all of which had to be cleansed with isopropyl alcohol—talk about cleansing through pain! Likewise, in the course of our daily lives, we often make mistakes for which we may be sorry, but we still must live with the pain and enduring the consequences of our sins. This is how we grow and learn, but the consequences are often painful. The forgiveness offered by Christ, though, covers all our sins so that we can “find in Thee my life, my rest, Christ crucified, I come.”

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