Sing a New Song: “Here I Am, Lord”
“When I was a young Jesuit, studying theology in Berkeley, California, a friend came to me one day asked me for a favor. “Dan, I know this is late notice, but I’m planning the diaconate ordination ceremony and need a piece of music set to the text of Isaiah chapter 6.” He saw the look of shock on my face knowing I was well aware that the ceremony was only three days away. I told him that I was sick with an awful case of the flu and didn’t know if I could compose anything suitable in that short time. He encouraged me and I told him that at the very least I would try to complete something in time for the ordination.
I had always loved the particular Scripture passage (Isaiah 6) where God calls Isaiah to be his servant and messenger to the people and Isaiah responds with both hesitation and doubt, but also with a humble willingness to surrender to God. If it was going to work, it would have to be God’s power and grace making it happen. Much like Isaiah I was not very sure that I could meet the request my friend had made, but I was willing to try.
I remember sitting at my desk with a blank music score in front of me and asking God to be my strength. As I sat there praying for help, I remembered also the call of Samuel, where God came calling in the middle of the night and asked Samuel to do something beyond what he thought he was capable of. I worked for two days on the piece and I remember being exhausted. I was making last minute changes to the score as I walked it over to my friend who lived several blocks away. I remember being very unsure of myself, but hoping that it would be what he had wanted for the ordination.
And it was ok. It was more than ok. From the very beginning, people loved the piece and clearly identified with the dialogue between God and us that is the core of the song. In the years following, so many have spoken to me or written how they had their own experience of God “calling in the night” and being given the courage to respond.
For me, the story of “Here I Am, Lord” tells of the God who overshadows us, giving power to our stumbling words and the simple works of our hands, and making them into something that can be a grace for people. The power God gives is far beyond what we could have planned or created.“[i]
This is not my story, but that of another Dan, Dan Schutte in 1981. He wrote this song in 3 days, while sick, which is amazing. I’ll be continuing the Summer Sermon Series on Hymns, focusing on “Here I am, Lord.”
I, the Lord of sea and sky,
I have heard my people cry,
All who dwell in dark and sin
My hand will save
I, who made the stars of night,
I will make their darkness bright.
Who will bear my light to them?
Whom shall I send?
This is a rare hymn in that it is not just singing about God, but singing from God’s perspective. The personality is present, the character, more than just a hallowed name.
When singing this hymn, by some token we feel some of that heavenly power, but like an actor in a role we also know that we are not God, but simply singing the lines. It reminds us of how powerless we are on our own…
It reminds me of Job 38 when God speaks:
Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth?
Who determined its measurements… Or who stretched the line upon it?
Have you entered into the springs of the sea, or walked in the recesses of the deep? Have the gates of death been revealed to you, or have you seen the gates of deep darkness?
Do you know the ordinances of the Heavens? Can you establish their rule on Earth?
I’ve always lived in the suburbs, but I used to live in an area just far enough away from the city lights. There’s no sight like a sky full of stars, the awe, the majesty. The stars are so wondrous, that we feel so small by comparison.
These verses, these lines can make us feel so small. Just like the stars, we feel insignificant. Just in that moment, behind the awe and wonder there is also a sense of peace. If something happens to me, the world will go on. If I make a mistake, the planets will continue to spin.
Yet while we do not control the fate of the galaxies, we are still called by our majestic creator.
Here I am, Lord. Is it I Lord?
I have heard you calling in the night.
I will go, Lord, if you lead me.
I will hold your people in my heart.
The dialogue continues in first person, but this is a role for us which requires a much thinner veil. This paints a picture of human experience. For we know the story of Moses finding the burning bushes: When the Lord saw that [Moses] had turned aside to see, God called to him out of the bush, “Moses, Moses!” And Moses said, “Here I am.”[ii] We know of Gideon’s doubt and uncertainty: Then the Lord turned to [Gideon] and said, “Go in this might of yours and deliver Israel from the hand of Midian; I hereby commission you.” 15He responded, “But sir, how can I deliver Israel? My clan is the weakest in Manasseh, and I am the least in my family.”[iii] Jeremiah felt unworthy after being called, saying: “Ah, Lord God! Truly I do not know how to speak, for I am only a boy.”[iv] From the scripture reading this morning in Isaiah we heard the rejection before he even heard the call: “Woe is me! I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips” – Isaiah did not feel worthy.
They each had a logical reason to feel as if they were not the right person for the job. They didn’t have five to seven years of relevant work experience. They only had three referrals, tops, and some of them were technically relatives. They were not ready…
When Jesus sent out the disciples in Luke, they were not ready! Who goes on an extended trip with no luggage, no money, nothing at all!? When I go somewhere I always pack an extra shirt, an extra pair of shorts, pants incase it gets cold, and two extra pairs of socks. Because I hate wearing dirty socks.
The Luke passage is often used to demonstrate that God will provide, and it does that, but there’s another message there, one that is in line with each of these other call stories. They couldn’t plan for everything they needed, because they didn’t know what they needed! They thought they had to be strong leaders, to be the holiest of people with top notch public speaking skills. Perhaps the disciples thought they would need what one typically needs for a long journey, extra clothes, food, water, maybe a toothbrush.
But God says, “No! You don’t know what you need, but I do. Put down your resume and listen to me, what you don’t already have I will give you.”
It’s new. It’s different. It’s scary. It’s like in the movie ‘Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade’ when Indiana, played by Harrison Ford, is going through a series of obstacles to reach the Holy Grail. He comes upon a long chasm with a opening in the sheer rock opposite him. He then took the ‘leap of faith’ and landed on a bridge leading him to the other side, but one you could only see it after you took that first blind step.
This all leads back to my favorite line in the entire hymn, the one that captures the human experience struggling to do good in this world.
I will go, Lord, if you lead me.
Not only do we think we don’t have what we need to answer the call, we don’t even know what we need. But it’s okay, because our God knows. And our Creator will provide. Many churches today are struggling with finding their call, their service to the community. The best way I’ve heard for churches to find their call is to ask “What makes God cry?” Start with “What Makes God Cry”, not your pre-existing skill set. God will provide.
We have all been called to serve God’s people in a way that we did not feel ready for. Perhaps it was being liturgist, serving strangers in need a warm meal, going to seminary, or perhaps even just joining a church.
Yet don’t be fooled by thinking that you aren’t ready, that you don’t have the relevant experience. For God has given you what you need. You have Christ’s love and compassion. You have the Holy Spirit as a constant guide through thick and thin. You have the Lord of all who cares for each one of you so much.
Christ leads the way, laying the path for us to follow, welcoming and inviting us to join the family. All we have to do is answer the call. Here I am, Lord. I will go, Lord, if you lead me.
[ii] Exodus 3:4
[iii] Judges 6:14-15
[iv] Jeremiah 1:6