When I first encountered the doctrines of grace as a coherent and internally consistent theological system, I had never heard the hymn “Be Thou My Vision.” I grew up in church, but we just never sang that one. Oh, we had lots of “Trust and Obey,” plenty of “Mansions Over the Hilltop,” and “Onward, Christian Soldiers” galore – anything that fortified our bootstraps. For that matter, in a lifetime of church-going, I do not recall ever hearing the difference between imperative and indicative, law and gospel… or really even a cogent explanation of what the gospel is.
In fact, I grew up in the same denomination as author and ELCA pastor Nadia Bolz-Weber. In her book “Pastrix,” she talks openly about the fundamentalism of her childhood. More than once her descriptions of the damage done to thoughtful, curious children (particularly girls) left me in tears. I spent the first thirty-one years of my life convinced I was probably going to lose my salvation (if I hadn’t already) because 1.) I had royally screwed up in more ways than I could count and 2.) it was up to me to choose God and be good enough. Number one was crystal clear fact and number two was a nebulous but grace-less set of requirements.
As with many people, I suppose, my life has a soundtrack. Specific songs draw me inexorably to times and places, good and bad, in my own past. Pearl Jam’s “Yellow Ledbetter” immediately sends me to my first year of college… “Come On, Eileen” by Dexys Midnight Runners and I’m dancing with my little sister in an apartment high on the Chicago skyline. Anything from the Chieftain’s album “The Long Black Veil” and I’m in Ireland, falling in love with my best friend.
“Be Thou My Vision,” that classic, staid hymn, makes me want to cry and laugh and dance and pray all at the same time: there I am in our first house in the Village, one baby with another on the way, realizing for the first time in my life that Jesus is all-sufficient. God has had me firmly in His grasp all along. He never turned away or wavered in His love for me. He was not, after all, spiteful and angry, waiting for any tiny excuse to damn me eternally. He is, rather, in loving, fanatical pursuit of me. He always has been.
The words of “Be Thou My Vision” do not say all that I have just said – but that is how subjective associations work, I suppose. “Be thou my vision, O Lord of my heart… naught be all else to me, save that thou art…” It’s a prayer with Christ at the center of it. He is my vision, my best thought, my light, my wisdom, my Father, my shield, my dignity, my delight, my shelter, my power, my inheritance, my treasure, my victory. He. Him. Not me. Thank God, not me. And that, after all, is grace.