Singing the Story: Here I Am, Lord
Dan Schutte is a contemporary American composer. He was born in 1947 in Wisconsin. As a young man, he entered the Society of Jesus, a religious order in the Roman Catholic Church. Members of the Society of Jesus are known as Jesuits. Dan was a founding member of a group called the “St. Louis Jesuits,” comprised of a group of seminarians studying at St. Louis University who were interested in composing music for worship in a “contemporary folk style.” Like Cesáreo Gabaráin, who we learned about last Sunday, Schutte began composing in the time of musical renewal after Vatican II in the Roman Catholic Church, when changes made allowed the Mass to be celebrated in the language of the people, and music to be more reflective of contemporary styles. Schutte is still composing, currently serving as Composer-in-Residence at the University of San Francisco. (1)
He is a prolific hymnist, but his most famous hymn, one that frequently tops lists of favorite hymns both in Catholic and Protestant worship music surveys (a rare feat!) is our focus today, “Here I Am, Lord,” written by Schutte in the 1980s. On his website, Schutte recounts the story of how he wrote the hymn:
When I was a young Jesuit, studying theology in Berkeley, California, a friend came to me one day asked me for a favor. "Dan, I know this is late notice, but I’m planning the diaconate ordination ceremony and need a piece of music set to the text of Isaiah chapter 6." He saw the look of shock on my face knowing I was well aware that the ceremony was only three days away. I told him that I was sick with an awful case of the flu and didn’t know if I could compose anything suitable in that short time. He encouraged me and I told him that at the very least I would try to complete something in time for the ordination.
I had always loved the particular Scripture passage (Isaiah 6) where God calls Isaiah to be his servant and messenger to the people and Isaiah responds with both hesitation and doubt, but also with a humble willingness to surrender to God. If it was going to work, it would have to be God's power and grace making it happen. Much like Isaiah I was not very sure that I could meet the request my friend had made, but I was willing to try.
I remember sitting at my desk with a blank music score in front of me and asking God to be my strength. As I sat there praying for help, I remembered also the call of Samuel, where God came calling in the middle of the night and asked Samuel to do something beyond what he thought he was capable of. I worked for two days on the piece and I remember being exhausted. I was making last minute changes to the score as I walked it over to my friend who lived several blocks away. I remember being very unsure of myself, but hoping that it would be what he had wanted for the ordination.
And it was ok. It was more than ok. From the very beginning, people loved the piece and clearly identified with the dialogue between God and us that is the core of the song. In the years following, so many have spoken to me or written how they had their own experience of God "calling in the night" and being given the courage to respond.
For me, the story of “Here I Am, Lord” tells of the God who overshadows us, giving power to our stumbling words and the simple works of our hands, and making them into something that can be a grace for people. The power God gives is far beyond what we could have planned or created. (2)
Much of renewal music in the Roman Catholic Church was constructed with a strong, singable refrain, and “Here I Am, Lord” is a great example of this practice. Sometimes, a worship leader would sing the verses, and the congregation would join on the refrain. “Here I Am, Lord” is unique in its alternating point of view. (3) We hear from God’s perspective in the verses, wondering, “Whom shall I send?” The refrain is the response from the people: “Here I am Lord, is it I, Lord? I have heard you calling in the night. I will go Lord, if you lead me. I will hold your people in my heart!”
As Schutte shared in his story of writing this hymn, the focus text is the passage we just shared from Isaiah 6. This text, coming early in the long book of Isaiah’s prophetic writings, is Isaiah’s call story. He tells us, in the vivid language of visions, how he got into this prophet role. The year is 742 BC. It is the year of the death of King Uzziah, known elsewhere in the scripture as King Aazriah. And Isaiah has a vision. He sees God sitting on a high and lofty throne. Seraphs are attending to God. Seraphs are these very strange creatures – it’s hard to describe them or imagine them from Isaiah’s description. But they are some kind of creature that has three sets of wings. Isaiah sees that one pair of wings on each seraph covers their eyes – throughout the Hebrew scriptures a repeated theme is that no one can look directly at the face of God – so one set of wings covers their eyes. Another set covers their lower bodies, a sign of their purity. And with the other set of wings, they fly around God’s throne. And they’re saying to one another “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts; the whole earth is full of God’s glory.” We take those words – “Holy, holy, holy” and incorporate them into our communion liturgy still today. The repeated word adds emphasis – God is all holiness, and rules over all people. The temple fills with smoke - another symbol of holiness. (4)
In the face of such an overwhelming vision, in the presence of God, Isaiah is overcome with a sense of his unworthiness. He says, “Woe is me! I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips.” Isaiah can’t believe that he is seeing God. And then one of the seraphs takes a live coal from the altar with a pair of tongs and touches it to Isaiah’s lips. This should burn, but in Isaiah’s vision, the fire isn’t destructive, it’s purifying. The seraph says, “now that this has touched your lips, your guilt has departed and your sin is blotted out.” And Isaiah hears God’s voice asking, “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?” And purified, forgiven, Isaiah answers, “Here am I; send me!”
In the verses after our passage, God accepts Isaiah’s offer of service, and sets Isaiah as a messenger to the people of the kingdom of Judah. Isaiah must warn the people to change their ways. But God tells Isaiah up front: almost everyone is going to reject the message. Isaiah goes in knowing that he will be almost entirely unable to get people to listen to him. Yet, God says, a small number – which God calls the “stump” that is left over when a mighty tree has fallen – a stump, a remnant will remain faithful to God, and endure through the hard times ahead.
When I think about our reading last week, where Jesus calls Simon Peter and some others to become fishers of people, side by side with this text, where Isaiah responds to God’s call, I notice that for both Simon and Isaiah, their first response is to note: “I am not worthy.” Not worthy to be in God’s presence, not worthy to carry out God’s work. You may have found yourself having a similar response, when called on by God, or God’s messengers to serve in some way. Right now, our lay leadership team is in the process of calling on people to serve in various leadership roles in the life of the church. And sometimes, the first reaction we get from folks is something like this: There is no way that I’m the best person for that job. I don’t know enough. I don’t have enough experience. My discipleship is not strong enough. I’m not dedicated enough. Nope, not me.
And you know what? You’re right! We aren’t qualified, not on our own. We aren’t worthy, if worthiness to serve God means that we’ve achieved some state of holiness on our own merits. It is God who qualifies us, God who purifies us, God who prepares us and readies our hearts. Sometimes, I think the first step to serving God, answering God’s call is in fact our honest humility, saying, “I don’t think I can do this – I am a person of unclean lips, living among a people of unclean lips.” When Isaiah says this, God doesn’t argue with him. Instead, God just says, “Don’t worry: I am going to purify you, qualify you.” What Isaiah does is acknowledge his own sinfulness, his own lack of readiness, and then, when he realizes that God has qualified him, he stops hesitating and says “Me!” when God asks “Who will go?” Our honest, hesitating humility is an ok place to start when we answer God’s call, when we allow it to be the starting place of letting God prepare us to be a part of God’s plans. I think again of Schutte’s words about writing this hymn: “If it was going to work, it would have to be God's power and grace making it happen.” Thankfully, God offers power and grace in abundance.
After we answer “Here am I, send me,” the hard work isn’t done. God says to Isaiah: Hardly anyone is going to like what you have to say, and hardly anyone is going to really listen to you. But go anyway! What a pep talk, right? A few years back, I was really wrestling with God’s call and my ministry, trying to figure out where and how God wanted me to be serving. And nothing seemed to be working out. I was pretty miserable. My mom was talking to my Uncle Bill about it, saying something to him like, “Beth is trying so hard to be faithful. Why is it so hard?” And Uncle Bill reminded her, “Who ever said it’s going to be easy when we’re faithful?” She shared his response with me, and believe it or not, that reminder has given me a lot of strength since then. God makes many promises to us, including promises of blessings, faithfulness, love, and grace. But God never promises an easy path for us. In fact, God pretty much promises the opposite. Discipleship is hard. Answering God’s call: hard. Carrying it out day by day: also hard. But God who calls us also qualifies us. God who calls us also purifies our hearts and souls. And God who calls us goes with us, always. Whom shall God send? Who will go for God? “Here I am Lord, is it I, Lord? I have heard you calling in the night. I will go Lord, if you lead me. I will hold your people in my heart!” Amen.
(3) C. Michael Hawn, “History of Hymns: ‘Here I Am, Lord,’”
(4) Haslam, Chris, http://montreal.anglican.org/comments/archive/cpr05m.shtml