Be Thou My Vision

Be Thou My Vision

Liturgy Lesson: May 31, 2020 | Pentecost
Call to Worship: Acts 17:24-28, Jn. 20:19-22
Hymn of Invocation: Come, Holy Ghost
Prayer of Invocation
Hymn of Adoration: Come, Thou Almighty King
Confession: Acts 2:38-39; Psalm 51:1-2, 10-12
Assurance: Ezekiel 36:24-28 & 2 Corinthians 1:20-22
Hymns of Assurance: O For a Thousand Tongues; Born By the Holy Spirit’s Breath
Reading of the Word: Luke 16:1-13
Doxology: #731
Sermon: Rev. Shiv Muthukumar
Account of the Lord’s Supper: Matt. 26:20-29
Prayer for Communion and Reunion
Hymns of Praise: My Worth is Not in What I Own; Be Thou My Vision
Sung Response: This is My Father’s World (vs. 3)
Virtual Narthex

What do the Irish have in common with the crowd at Pentecost?
They all speak in strange tongues and everyone thinks they’re drunk.

This week’s Liturgy Lesson is inspired by the Emerald Isle. We will see a video greeting from two dear brothers in Christ who live in Northern Ireland, and we will also learn about the greatest Irish hymn of all time.

You may attend to these in any order you please, but I recommend reading about the hymn and then watching the video afterwards (video is at the bottom of the lesson). Otherwise, it might feel anti-climactic. My writing is heartfelt, but not nearly as charming or affective as this greeting from our two dear friends across the pond. I assure you that, though their accents are strong, their faith is stronger. And, as you watch the video, you will see in their faces and hear in their voices that they love Jesus even more than they love their cider.

Be Thou My Vision
Text: Ancient Irish Poem (anonymous, ca. 8th cent.)
Tune: SLANE, Traditional Irish Melody (anonymous)

It is interesting to note that this is not the only hymn we will sing on Sunday that dates from the 8th century. Can you guess the other one?

(pause for suspense)

That’s right, it’s “Come, Holy Ghost,” which began as a Latin prayer attributed to Rabanus Maurus (c. 776-856).

Going back 1,200 years can help put this current coronavirus pandemic in proper perspective. Life in the 8th century was hard. Endless labor, the constant threat of famine, the occasional Viking or Saxon raid, and of course, disease, which was ever-prevalent. When we are frustrated that our internet isn’t working, or the hand sanitizer dispenser is empty, or we have to wear a mask at Costco (or church), we should remember that for virtually the entirety of human existence death came much earlier than it does today, and disease was the main culprit. Of course there were famines and wars, but it was tiny germs that struck us down in droves, whether in plagues so virulent even the isolated annalists recorded them, or entire families succumbing to a stray virus. For anyone who got sick there were no antibiotics and no real understanding of anatomy. Instead of Googling their symptoms (a bad idea anyway), these folks had to consult a couple of herbal books from the Greeks or the rare medical encyclopedia, which could possibly help if they knew how to read.

Acknowledging the hardship of 8th-century life helps us understand the hardiness of people who prayed and wrote hymns during that time. But to understand the specific origins of “Be Thou My Vision,” we need to go back another 400 years, to the 5th century.

On Easter Eve In the year 433 A.D., in County Meath, Ireland, St. Patrick defied a royal decree by lighting a fire at the top of Slane Hill. High King Logaire of Tara had decreed that no one could burn a fire before he, himself, had lit the signal flame on Tara Hill to usher in the beginning of the pagan spring festival. King Logaire was so impressed by Patrick’s courage and devotion that, despite his defiance, he was not punished and allowed to continue as Ireland’s first Christian missionary.

There are obvious Pentecostal overtones to this story. A defiant faith, signal fires, mass conversions. Patrick was the spark that unleashed the fire of the Holy Ghost upon the land, and the Irish have been speaking in strange dialects ever since. But their music translates into every culture. I have often said that the melodies that come out of Ireland are some of the most enchanting you will ever hear. The most famous hymn tune that Ireland has exported—the one we all know as “Be Thou My Vision”—is actually titled SLANE, named after the hill where Patrick lit that fire so long ago.

Sometimes, hymn singing connects us to the past in powerful ways. Many of us probably have memories of our parents and grandparents singing some of the hymns that we now teach our children. They can embed themselves in our spiritual and emotional memory. They are tools that the Holy Spirit can use to re-kindle within us the fire of faith that burns no matter how strong the winds of time or the cultural forces may blow against it. Such is the case with “Be Thou My Vision.” It is one my favorites, and a perennial mainstay on anyone’s list of “greatest hymns of all time”.

The original poem, found in two Irish manuscripts in the library of the Royal Irish Academy, may be dated as early as the 8th century. The text of “Rop tú mo Baile” is a type of prayer known as a lorica, a prayer for protection. In medieval Ireland, clan warfare was prevalent, so military symbolism was common in the poetry and hymnology of this era. Christ is portrayed as ultimate clan protector and the hero. This is why it is so crucial to leave in the third stanza that most modern hymnals omit.

Be Thou my battle shield, sword for my fight.
Be Thou my dignity, Thou my delight.
Thou my soul’s shelter, Thou my high tower,
Raise Thou me heavenward, O Power of my power.

The original poem is a poetic litany of these heartfelt prayers, written by a soul who was desperate for glory and consumed with Christ. We don’t really know who wrote it, but St. Patrick’s influence is all over this one. The form and spirit of it read like “St. Patrick’s Breastplate.” Almost every line of text starts with the same two words: “Rop tú” (translated into English as “Be Thou”). Here is a bit of the original poem rendered into English by Mary Byrne in 1909.

Be thou my vision,
O Lord of my heart.
None other is aught
but the King of the seven heavens.

Be thou my meditation
by day and night;
May it be thou that I behold
even in my sleep.

Be thou my speech,
be thou my understanding,
be thou with me,
be I with thee.

Be thou my father,
be I thy son.
Mayst thou be mine,
may I be thine.

Be thou my battle-shield,
be thou my sword.
Be thou my dignity,
be thou my delight.

Be thou my shelter,
be thou my stronghold.
Mayst thou raise me up
to the company of the angels.

Be thou every good
to my body and soul.
Be thou my kingdom
in heaven and on earth.

Be thou solely
chief love of my heart.
Let there be none other,
O high King of Heaven.

Ten years later, in 1919, the tune SLANE was paired with Eleanor Hull’s versification of the original 16-stanza poem, and for the past 100 years it has been one of the most enduring and popular hymns in the world. When we consider that the tune takes its name from a place known for a bold act of faith, and we recognize that this is essentially a prayer for protection, the hymn should take on a new and deeper meaning for us during this global pandemic. God is our ‘chieftain’ and ‘High King’ (Ard Ri) who provides constant protection for his chosen clan. God the Father is our refuge and strength; therefore we will not fear, no matter what the enemy throws at us. Jesus is our champion, and his victory is assured. And the Holy Spirit? Well…he not only brings tongues of fire upon our heads, but puts a sword in our hands, and an unshakeable hope in our hearts.

This Pentecost, let us sing from our homes with renewed vigor, because in the days, ahead just the mere act of singing could be for all of us a bold declaration of faith. High King Corona and all other schemes of the Enemy be damned. We know who rules over all, and his praise shall ever be on our lips.

High King of heaven, my victory won,
May I reach heaven’s joys, O bright heav’n’s Sun!
Heart of my own heart, whatever befall,
Still be my vision, O Ruler of all.

Now for that much-anticipated video greeting. Enjoy!