There are times when I read through these hymn texts and I find the language we use to describe God very limiting. In fact, I sometimes wonder why we are interested in such a small God, defined as a mere reflection of only some of us, in terms that can feel one dimensional. In this hymn, written by William H. Burleigh in 1859, God is appealed to as a father. For those of us who have enjoyed the presence of good fathers, this is relatable and positive. For those that have not, it is problematic. For those of us that are seeking something beyond an earthly creature, perhaps we need a little more. For those that wish to find themselves in the face of God – but are not fathers – we crave imagery that represents who we are, inspires what we wish to become, and reveals all that we hope to reflect.
As I looked at this hymn, I noticed that, in tiny print at the bottom of the page, alternate words were included. For me, these are welcome and helpful. They begin to expand this Divine being into something far greater than one human role fraught with complexity, as all human roles are. They begin to guide my vision towards the character of God.
Lead us, O Wisdom, in the paths of peace;
Without thy guiding hand we go astray,
And doubts appall, and sorrows still increase.
Lead us, through Christ, the true and living way.
Lead us, O Teacher, in the paths of truth;
Unhelped by thee, in error’s maze we grope,
While passion stains and folly dims our youth,
And age comes on, uncheered by faith and hope.
Lead us, O Guardian, in the paths of right;
Blindly we stumble when we walk alone,
Involved in shadows of a mortal night,
Only with thee we journey safely on.
Lead us, O Shepherd, to thy heav’nly rest,
However rough and steep the pathway be,
Through joy or sorrow, as thou deemest best,
Until our lives are perfected in Thee.
This prayer is full of requests to find paths that most of us are, on some level, interested in pursuing. Peace, truth and all that is right. I have no doubt that we vary in our definitions of what each of these pursuits mean, but maybe the idea that we are all seeking is useful. The line that says, “blindly we stumble when we walk alone,” is particularly meaningful. In this context, alone means without God, but walking alone – whether in our day to day lives, or in the ways we develop and process thoughts and ideas – is a path that is filled with shadows.
What I like about the expanded words in this case, is the understanding that our search for peace and truth requires the contribution of a variety of sources, be they spiritual or earthly. There is no single definition of what we need to achieve our state of rest, or find our place of fulfilment. We need wisdom, we need teaching and we need to be cared for, shepherded and guided through whatever our paths come across.
Leadership can be found in many places. In faith. In knowledge. In those around us, near and far. In those we know, those we don’t. In the thinker’s ideas and the writer’s words. In the artist’s expressions and the gardener’s labour. Leadership can be found amongst the highest echelons of power and the lowest states of poverty. It can be corrupt, and it can be pure. When we pray, hope, desire and beg for peace, let us be careful of whom we ask it. Because the characteristics of wisdom, teacher, guardian and shepherd are not always found in the obvious places, but they are always necessary to build this particular path. These are characteristics of strength, not self. They are characteristics that give, rather than take.
When I go back to the idea that how we speak about the concept of God, I am conscious that to expand our language means to open up space for many more of us to be included. These things that define those that lead us through the joys and sorrows, the rough and steep pathways, are characteristics we can all exemplify. A bigger God requires more from us. Perhaps that is the real challenge. Perhaps that is what we are often resistant too. Creating these paths of peace is hard. It means moving out of the way for gifted leaders to show us new ways. It means relinquishing status that has become meaningless in its self-serving nature. It means understanding that peace for some is superficial if it exempts others.
So, I look for leaders. I consider my role along the path. I seek peace and truth and hope to avoid error’s maze. And I say: Lead us, O Father, Mother, Daughter, Son, Child, Adult, Wisdom, Teacher, Guardian and Shepherd. For we simply do not know where we are going.