We sang this in sacrament meeting a few weeks ago (listen here):
1. I’m a pilgrim, I’m a stranger
Cast upon the rocky shore
Of a land where deathly danger
Surges with a sullen roar,
Oft despairing, oft despairing,
Lest I reach my home no more.
2. Misty vapors rise before me.
Scarcely can I see the way.
Clouds of darkest hue hang o’er me,
And I’m apt to go astray
With the many, with the many
That are now the vulture’s prey.
3. O my Father, I entreat thee,
Let me see thy beck’ning hand;
And when straying, may I meet thee
Ere I join the silent band.
Guide me, Father, guide me, Father,
Safely to the promised land.
It’s not the most cheerful hymn in the book, but I suppose that’s why I like it. Many of our hymns express an optimistic certainty — ‘I Know That My Redeemer Lives,’ ‘I’ll Go Where You Want Me to Go,’ ‘We Are Marching On to Glory,’ etc. Those are appropriate and wonderful, and they express the faith and desires of many members. But sometimes, some members (namely me) feel they ‘scarcely can … see the way’ and are ‘apt to go astray.’ True, at times I feel like I am ‘enlisted ’til the conflict is o’er’ (although ‘happy are we’ is pushing it even at the best of times) — but just as often I feel like a pilgrim and stranger with those damned vultures looking over my shoulder. Rather than church being just a mutual righteousness appreciation program, it might also be a place where we bring our doubts and fears before God and each other and ask for help. As Elder Wirthlin said,
The Church is not a place where perfect people gather to say perfect things, or have perfect thoughts, or have perfect feelings. The Church is a place where imperfect people gather to provide encouragement, support, and service to each other as we press on in our journey to return to our Heavenly Father.
If we are all convinced of our own solid righteousness, can we offer that ‘encouragement, support, and service?’ I’m not sure we can, and I’m not sure we’re always well equipped to deal with admissions of uncertainty and moral struggle. The hymn indicates that we ought to be.
Garrison Keillor said,
‘I used to think that faith…was sort of like a building block, and you put all these blocks together, and you build a house, sort of like the little pig built that the wolf could not blow down. And now I get older and I feel that faith is a matter of surrender. It’s a matter of just giving up, and leaving that house and just walking out and experiencing the cold and the rain and doubt and confusion and trying to keep up your hope and some sense of gratitude. If you just keep up hope and gratitude, maybe that’s…all you need.’
At times, I can identify with this sense that faith is less an impervious shelter and more something I take with me as I go along, vulnerable but filled with hope and gratitude — hope in God’s promise to help me along, gratitude for the help I’ve received so far. I don’t argue that this is the ideal model of faith for everyone, but there are good, faithful people in the church who don’t have that solid confidence emanating from their faith and possibly never will.
I’m glad we have this hymn in our book. Some of us need the chance to lament our own doubts and fears and the intense need for divine help to keep it all together.