For Wilshire Baptist Church
I’ve always been obsessed with liner notes – printed on the packages of vinyl records and some CDs – that list musicians and sometimes explain the meanings and motivations behind the songs. When I was younger I’d lie back on my bed and read the notes while listening to a new record. Now I search the internet for the backstories on my latest music download. I like to know what was inside the artists’ heads and hearts when they wrote a verse or worked out a tune.
I was in that same “gotta know” mode after church on Sunday when we sang a hymn titled “We All Are One in Mission.” What caught my attention was the title of the hymn tune printed in the worship booklet and at the bottom of the hymn page: Complainer.
Complainer? Really? In a hymnal titled “Celebrating Grace”? There was no complaining in the hymn we sang – and the melody was actually sort of bright – so I had to go get the story because that’s what I do.
It didn’t take too many computer mouse clicks to learn that the hymn tune is named from the original hymn text that it accompanied. Unfortunately, the writer of the text is not known, so there is no getting to the bottom of his or her motivation. One source describes the words as “rather bizarre,” and indeed they are not words you’ll hear us singing anytime soon:
I am a great complainer, that bears the name of Christ;
Come, all ye Zion mourners, and listen to my cries:
I’ve many sore temptations, and sorrows to my soul;
I feel my faith declining, and my affections cold.
And so it goes for five verses, with no sunshine or optimism at all. There is a cry for relief – “And by thy love and power, my sin sick soul be healed” – but there is no hope that healing will come. The text has the writer drifting further away from faith, ending with these words:
I read that peace and happiness meet Christians in their way,
That bear their cross with meekness, and don’t neglect to pray,
But I, a thousand objects beset me in my way,
So I am filled with folly, and so neglect to pray.
Definitely not a text we will sing in church, but perhaps a verse to remember when we are feeling rejected, forgotten, unworthy or fallen. Not because the verse provides any hope, but because it acknowledges that we are human. Like the man or woman who penned the words, we are not yet so holy that we don’t feel among the lowest of the low at times.
And knowing that there are those among us who feel like the complainer – whether from the shame of addiction, the hurt of divorce, the sorrow of violence, the injustice of bias, the despair of poverty, the gloom of disease, or the devastation of floods and hurricanes – we can strive to live into the new text that we sang with the complainer’s melody:
We all are called for service to witness in God’s name, Our ministries are different, our purpose is the same: To touch the lives of others by God’s surprising grace, So every land and nation may feel God’s warm embrace.