Whatever I do, wherever I be…

You can find today’s hymn at #128 in our 1989 Methodist hymnal. It’s a crowd-pleaser, and it’s one of my personal favorites (I know, I know, I say that about all the hymns…)

He leadeth me: O blessed thought!
O words with heavenly comfort fraught!
Whate’er I do, where’er I be,
still ’tis God’s hand that leadeth me.

He leadeth me, he leadeth me,
by his own hand he leadeth me;
his faithful follower I would be,
for by his hand he leadeth me.

Dr. Joseph H. Gilmore gave this account of the inspiration for his famous hymn:

“At the mid-week service [at the First Baptist Church in Philadelphia], on the 26th of March 1862, I set out to give the people an exposition of the Twenty-third Psalm, which I had given before on three or four occasions, but this time I did not get further than the words ‘He Leadeth Me.’ Those words took hold of me as they had never done before, and I saw them in a significance… of which I had never dreamed.

“It was the darkest hour of the Civil War. I did not refer to that fact– that is, I don’t think I did– but it may subconsciously have led me to realize that God’s leadership is the one significant fact in human experience, that it makes no difference how we are led, or whither we are led, so long as we are sure God is leading us.”

I have to say, I do love this hymn, but I don’t always stop and really think about what I’m singing, which is why I especially love the story behind this hymn.

When I reflect on the author’s last sentence in his account, it casts the second stanza in a different light for me. I need to be reminded sometimes that whether we’re in deepest gloom, or in the beauty of Eden; in calm or troubled waters, God’s hand leads us still.

Sometimes mid scenes of deepest gloom,
sometimes where Eden’s bowers bloom,
by waters still, o’er troubled sea,
still ’tis his hand that leadeth me.

The third stanza focuses on something else I sometimes need to be reminded of: the joy that can be found in contentment. Over the past few years I’ve seen an increase in papers and studies by psychologists and sociologists about the impact of contentment on perceived standards of living. Some of these have come through discussions of wage disparity and the link between money and contentment; others have been exploring the under-35 generation in the workplace and the differences in their professional values, and what leads to professional contentment for them, as compared to older generations.

Many of these studies are also beginning to explore the ramifications of the social bragging networks, with reports of depression and feelings of inadequacy that result when the pressure of “keeping up with the Jones'” is extrapolated from your neighbors and coworkers to your entire 400+ friend list. These types of pressures are pushing us away from the journey to contentment, as the social media one-upmanship feeds off of envy and covetousness.

There seem to be a lot of people yearning for contentment, but without much of an idea of where to turn, or how to even define contentment.

Are we working towards a certain place and when we get there, we’ll be content then? Do we think, “if only I made this much money, I’d be happy”? Or even, “if only I had this promotion or these friends or this many kids, I’d be happy then”?

I’m not sure there’s one answer. Everyone has different priorities and goals in their lives; different things bring joy to different people, and everyone seeks different kinds of achievement. And some of these things can definitely bring contentment into our lives. For many people, children bring an incredible sense of contentment into their lives, and an awe of the blessings of love and family. On a different level, right now I’m working on making some changes to my house in order to turn it into a place of peace and respite for my introverted self, and I know all of my hard work will bring me a measure of joy and contentment.

But in my experience, there’s a certain profundity in the different kind of contentment that comes from absolutely, completely trusting in God. And I think perhaps that profound feeling comes precisely because complete trust in God is so unbelievably difficult.

I sing this stanza and I remind myself, God knows what he’s doing. God’s put me in this place at this exact time for a specific reason. Though I have no idea of the future– I mean, 5 years ago I had absolutely no clue I would be living in Louisville, in my dream job, working with the phenomenal pastoral staff of MUMC!– yet, I can see so very clearly the evidence of his work in my past, and for that reason I can trust his plan for my future. And I know that, “whatever lot I see,” whether the waters are calm or troubled, I can be content in the knowledge that God’s leading me.

Lord, I would place my hand in thine,
nor ever murmur nor repine;
content, whatever lot I see,
since ’tis my God that leadeth me.

How does this hymn speak to you in your Christian journey? Is it hard for you to allow God to lead you in life, whether through troubled seas or calm waters? How might you discover a different level of contentment through a deeper, more complete trust in God?

And when my task on earth is done,
when by thy grace the victory’s won,
e’en death’s cold wave I will not flee,
since God through Jordan leadeth me.

(background information from Robert J. Morgan’s Then Sings My Soul.)

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