This was not a particularly familiar hymn to me before this week, and I must admit some discomfort with the title. The imagery elicited of God as a master, with all its problematic implications, is one I find distasteful. But one of my personal reasons for delving into these old hymns is to come to terms with the language of context and try to pluck out bits of wisdom and truth despite my discomfort. It is easy to toss out that which can justifiably be viewed as outdated, irrelevant or even offensive. It is difficult to look upon our past and glean the good amongst the unpleasant; the insight amongst the ignorance. So, my understanding of the Divine is not that of a master, but I choose to learn from these words nonetheless. In an era where we spend so much time looking at ourselves, losing sight of our various histories can lead us dangerously towards endless repetition of our many, many mistakes.
This hymn was written in 1879 by Washington Gladden. Gladden was a minister in Columbus, Ohio and was a bit of an anti-establishment rebel, from what I can tell. He fought against corrupt politicians and arbitrated for workers in various strikes, and he even criticized a $100,000 Rockefeller donation (a huge sum in those days!) to his church’s mission fund because he felt the money was “tainted” by misdeeds. Quite a character. The text of this prayerful hymn is a reflection of this man’s desire to do what is right. His actions indicate that doing what is right was more than a bunch of words.
O Master, let me walk with Thee
in lowly paths of service free;
tell me Thy secret; help me bear
the strain of toil, the fret of care.
Help me the slow of heart to move
by some clear, winning word of love;
teach me the wayward feet to stay,
and guide them in the homeward way.
Teach me Thy patience, still with Thee
in closer, dearer company,
in work that keeps faith sweet and strong,
in trust that triumphs over wrong.
In hope that sends a shining ray
far down the future’s broad’ning way;
in peace that only Thou canst give,
with Thee, O Master, let me live.
Our lives are filled with stresses, and based on this prayer, the writer’s life was too – 139 years ago. It is a plea for the strength required to face these stresses, stand up for what is right and find peace. Perhaps not much has changed, but I often wonder if what has changed is our impression that we can somehow eliminate these stresses and find cheerful happiness in some idealized world of our own imagining. We are inundated with suggestions for how to make our lives easier, more efficient and more successful. We are promised happiness, wealth and freedom from stress. Follow these simple steps and you will achieve…. whatever your heart desires. And yet, many are still poor; still sick; still lonely; still heartbroken. Many work hard and never achieve their dreams. Many are excluded from the opportunities that others enjoy. Many achieve much, but appreciate little. Many receive much, but always want more.
In these words, I find a man struggling. Strain of toil, the fret of care. Wayward feet, a slow heart, a sense that the path of service is lowly. This is not a man giving a motivational speech filled with the answers. This is a man trying to triumph over wrong – despite his shortcomings and his obstacles. This is about choosing to look for a ray of light that will guide him on a path towards peace. Choosing this hope as a means of living in an often dark world.
We live in a dark world. One in which we choose to surround ourselves with highly inflamed depictions of all we fear. We pit groups against each other – veterans versus refugees, well-known versus newcomer, old versus young. We create opposition instead of compassion. And it doesn’t surprise me. A culture that expects happiness and wealth to be the crowning achievements of life requires someone to bear the weight of that impossibility. When we don’t get what we’ve been told is possible, is our right, we blame someone. This is such a hard way to live.
As I reflect on this prayer, I can’t help feeling that Gladden was frustrated, maybe even sad. In a state that most of us understand. But what strength he must have had to make that choice to look for ways to achieve peace and hope in the face of challenge. Our birthright isn’t an easy life. Our birthright is a life. One lived honestly and fully. Facing the good and the bad. No one is exempt. But we can look for the things that provide strength to face this dark world, rather than those that simply illuminate the darkness. We can be sad, afraid, discouraged and frustrated and still fight for what is right and live life well. When we do so, our success or failure is much less important than the ray of light we become. For there are always others looking to find that path of hope. Peace is found in our brightness. Whether we see it or not.