Wednesday, March 15, 2006


On Sunday morning at my church, we sang "A Lamb Goes Uncomplaining Forth." The hymn was one of many contributing factors that made this particular service a contender for The Longest Sunday Morning Lenten Service Ever.

I have probably sung this hymn at least once every Lenten season since I was old enough to open a hymnbook and find the right page. In grade-school choir (grades 5-8 for me), we always sang a three- or four-part arrangement of this hymn on Ash Wednesday. I've sung othr tortuous arrangements in other years and in other choirs.

Tortuous? I don't mean to cast aspersions on the tune. I'm perfectly happy singing the melody here at my desk--quietly, a whole step lower than in the hymnal, tripping along at a sprightly tempo of my own choosing. The torture is in my personal experience of singing this with choirs and congregations, of fighting hard to keep the major third of the scale on the high side, to not let the pitch or the tempo sag, to make whole steps whole and half steps narrow, and then dig deep to find new energy and resolution for yet another stanza.

Funny how a hymn with "uncomplaining" in the title inspires all this complaining from me.

I complain well. Good verbal skills enable one to gripe and groan at a high level, even to make it entertaining. I suspect that my dislike of this hymn goes way back. The exasperated parent says, "And you'll do it without complaining!" And my childish mind says, "How fair is that? Make me do the dishes but don't deny me an outlet for asserting my own opinion."

Jesus, of course, has to show me up, ever the obedient Son to the Father who has set him on a difficult, even hopeless path. "To slaughter led without complaint" it says in The Lutheran Hymnal translation that I learned in childhood and that will persist in my memory all the way to the grave.

Again the focus of Lent becomes my failings. Which tends to be unproductive. I'm not saying that I don't have any failings, or even that I don't want to think about them. I often think about what's wrong with me. I'm impatient, lazy, fearful. I resist doing things that would be good for me. I get snarky about other people. All these things twist around in my mind and keep me from living a better life.

Boomer that I am--human being that I am--I do have a way of making everything all about me. But--surprise, surprise--the hymn is not about me. It's about God and God's son--at least the first three stanzas, with the Father speaking in stanza two ["Go down, my child" (LBW); "Go forth, My Son" (TLH)], and the son answering in stanza three ["Yes, Father, yea, most willingly" (TLH); "My Father's will is my command" (LBW--isn't this translaton a little trite?)]

We could now take a detour here into a critique of atonement theology, as I did earlier this morning when I googled this hymn and ended up reading Other Stuff. There are some drawbacks to a God whose uncompromising justice compels him to kill his own Son. It's a stumbling block for many in their understanding of Christ. Violence, vengeance,and victimization become prominent Passion themes. I read that one of Gerhardt's verses of this hymn that is left out of modern hymnals describes the torture Jesus underwent at his Father's hand. Gerhardt lived at the time of the Thirty Years' War (not one of Christian civilization's brighter moments). These images may not have been as foreign to his parishioners as they are to suburban PC Christians today, though there are places in the world (some not all that distant from America) where this kind of suffering is known. And now and in the past, there are plenty of examples where human understanding of God's actions has been used to justify violence.

There's a lot more that could be said here, but in the interest of finding a way to close this post, let's skip ahead to the understanding that God's grace transforms human cruelty. (I've got work to do this morning.)

Gerhardt's original hymn had ten stanzas. (Those were the days! Here's the German text for six of them.) TLH has six stanzas and the LBW four. The LBW translation of the hyman collapses Gerhardt's last two stanzas into one where the focus is on heaven. What's lost is most of Gerhardt's stanza nine--about the comfort Christ's Passion brings us while we are here on earth. Here's the TLH version:

Of death I am no more afraid/New life from Thee is flowing;
Thy cross affords me cooling shade/When noonday's sun is glowing.
When by my grief I am opprest/On Thee my weary soul shall rest/Serenely as on pillows.
Thou art my Anchor when by woe/My bark is driven to and fro/On trouble's surging billows.

Of course, the original German is much better, by virtue of being simpler. Here's the end of stanza nine:

Und wenn des Kreuzes Ungestuem/Mein Schifflein treibet um und um,/So bist du dann mein Anker.

My German is elementary, but here goes: Instead of the English translation's obscure word "bark," there is "Schifflein," just a diminutive of the plain word for boat. When that little boat (me) is driven (treibet) this way and that (um und um--I love that) by the Ungestuem (had to look this one up--impetuosity says the dictionary) of trials and suffering (Kreuz), Christ will be my anchor.

"Driven this way and that by the impetuosity (like maybe randomness?) of trials" sounds like my mind at work--worrying about my failings, complaining about my life, "um and um" about the same human condition stuff. But Christ will be my uncomplaining anchor.

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