faith like a row boat


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:

Rowboat2I’ve got joy like a fountain . . .
I’ve got love like an ocean . . .

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.



  1. ” We have an anchor, that keeps the soul,
    Steadfast and sure while the billows roll,
    Fastened to The Rock which cannot move,
    Grounded sure and deep in the Saviour’s love ”

    May you find The Rock, and comfort and shelter and calm water in the storm of grief.

    The peace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you.

  2. I agree that ‘anchor’ is messing up the metaphor, but how about ‘faith like the Pole Star’, or ‘faith like a lighthouse’, implying a guide for safe, or at least, possible, navigation in troubled waters.
    Sunday worship is the tender place for me, as well, since my brother’s death in January. You are not on this voyage alone, or at least, others have passed here safely by guiding on that faith.

  3. Thanks, Milton. I am feeling much the same way and want to be closer to my family. We felt like we were so close to a move and it didn’t come through. I’m learning to stay afloat, sometimes failing, sometimes exhausted but always hoping for serendipity and keeping my faith. Love you.

  4. I recently saw this quote: A smooth sea never made a skillful sailor.
    I have faith that as you row along on these rough seas you will hone the skills that will bring you into smooth waters again. I haven’t paddled the boat you are in, but am keeping you in my thoughts as I stand shoreside and send prayers for “fair winds and following seas.”

  5. I was checking comments on my own blog and wondering how you were doing… I’m glad you’ve been at worship. The lyrics thing is a big, sore place for a lot of faithful musicians. Just this morning, I directed a version of the 23rd Psalm (congregation joined in the refrain), but had to think terribly hard about it all the time because the lyrics (in this case actually text or psalm) had to be changed to be inclusive (and updated)–because, for many churches that’s absolutely necessary. As a church musician, I’m ok working with it most of the time, though I do wonder sometimes if people realize that lyrics are works of art protected by copyright as much as notes. As a working musician and also the wife of one, I today am just thinking about it from a moral, legal, and historical point of view. Perhaps we should choose the songs with lyrics that fit our congregation’s needs to begin with instead of taking old, comfortable things and rewriting them to suit us. This is a tangent, I know–but it’s on my mind. The other point (of many) is that the walk of pilgrims gone before us (critical) is chronicled in the old lyrics. It’s the stories, the stories…. Someone recently told me their digital copy of a Mark Twain novel had been edited (after they purchased it) to take out all the references to words we no longer accept in conversation. I don’t know about it…I think I’m keeping all my old books and hymnals. We can’t know where we want to go if we don’t know where we’ve been. We can’t rewrite history and there are times we can’t rewrite lyrics. I guess this is an old tune, but it’s on my heart as you bring this up. (I like faith that keeps moving–like the rowboat–, by the way!)And–while I’m thinking of it, my mom crossed the river in ’85 and I still can’t sing “Wonderful Words of Life,” because the memories of her funeral are so real. I’m relieved it doesn’t come up too often. Watch how many people cry at Christmas Eve service. It’s the music that does it. Big sigh. Take your time with your memories and sorting it all. I don’t think there’s a rush for grief, my cyber friend. While our world goes on at a faster pace daily, this is one place with which we must take our time. Peaceful breaths.

  6. Hi
    We have not met. I’m and artist and am currently building a body of work using the ocean and a boat as a metaphor for hope, exploring the journey from hopelessness to hope. Scrolling through the net looking at images of boats, I came across the beautiful image that you used here (is that your work?), and I paused to read your blog. Really encouraging, you lifted my spirits a bit today. Thanks.

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