One of the traditions in church I don’t take easily is that of changing the lyrics of hymns — for whatever reasons. Down the years, however, those who have served on the committees who have collected and compiled the hymns have felt free to alter the texts (as they call them) and move on by simply adding an “alt.” next to the composer’s name. I understand that they may have their reasons, but as one who has written lyrics for songs and hymns, it leaves me a bit unnerved not only for personal reasons, but also because there’s no particular standard by which the changes are made. In our hymnal, for instance, the second verse of “Come,Thou Fount of Every Blessing” has gone from “here I raise mine Ebenezer” to “here I am on my sojourning,” which doesn’t feel like much of an improvement. If Ebenezer needs explaining, then explain it; don’t just dumb down the lyric. That said, as we sang in church Sunday I found myself wanting to change the words.
The song we were singing is embedded deep in my spiritual DNA going back to my days in youth groups: “I’ve got peace like a river, I’ve got peace like a river, I’ve got peace like a river in my soul . . . .” As we sang I could see faces from both past and present and my hands wished for a guitar. We continued through the other verses:
and then we sang, “I’ve got faith like an anchor” and I thought, “These words are wrong.” I don’t mean they were printed wrong. I’ve heard and sang them before. I mean they missed the mark, mixed the metaphor. They needed to be changed — and I knew the change to make:
I’ve got faith like a row boat. The first three verses are all about water — river, fountain, and then ocean — each one building a bit until we are singing of the great expanse of God’s love in much the same way that Paul talked about it in Ephesians 3:15-19:
I pray that, according to the riches of his glory, God may grant that you may be strengthened in your inner being with power through his Spirit, and that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith, as you are being rooted and grounded in love. I pray that you may have the power to comprehend, with all the saints, what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, so that you may be filled with all the fullness of God.
In the middle of the ocean, an anchor won’t do a thing. The point of an anchor is to hold you safe in the harbor, to keep you in place, and there are ways of looking at like where faith is an anchor, in much the same way that we can talk about God’s love as a rock and a refuge, but if love is an ocean, then faith is what keeps us afloat. And by faith I mean trust. The ocean that is God’s love calls us out of the harbor, out into the open sea, out beyond our comfort zones, and we set out in the frailest of vessels — the row boat of faith — trusting we will not ever reach a place where we will run out of love.
As I sat in church writing as fast as I could think (while other stuff was going on), another song came to mind: “Rowing Song,” from Patty Griffin (my favorite hymn writer), which still astounds me with its profound simplicity.
as I row row row
going so slow slow slow
just down below me is the old sea
just down below me is the old sea
nobody knows knows knows
so many things things so
so out of range sometimes so strange
sometimes so sweet sometimes so lonely
the further I go more letters from home never arrive
and I’m alone all of the way all of the way alone and alive
Faith like a row boat. Faith: the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen. Faith: trust that love will not let us go, that there’s a wideness in God’s mercy like the wideness of the sea, that the deep deep love of Jesus is underneath and around us. Whatever these days may hold, whatever might have been, whatever has yet to happen, I’ve got love like an ocean — deeper and wider than any circumstance or loneliness — and that is what will keep me afloat in my little boat of faith.
Since my father’s death, the heaviest hour of the week for me has been Sunday morning worship. The thin place that is grief hits me hardest there, and the music plays a big part in both the weight and the comfort. Perhaps that’s what sent me searching for options when the anchor dropped in the fourth verse last Sunday. I’m not looking to sink anymore; I want to know what will keep us afloat. This is not a period of safe harbor in my life. I am not looking to stay put. I am at sea, far away from much of what I have known for sure, following those who have charted this course ahead of me, wondering what will happen next. In the midst of it all, I was reminded by my singing congregation that we’ve got Love like an ocean.
If that’s true, then I’ve got faith like a row boat.