When I received Dennis’ request to write about a hymn that shaped my life and ministry, I was surprised that the first one that come to mind was “Give Of Your Best To The Master”. I was surprised because it is not a favorite, I haven’t sung it or directed it in years (it was last seen in the 56 Baptist Hymnal), and when I looked at it this morning I realized the text is somewhat dated (“throw your soul’s fresh, glowing ardor?”) while the music is in that sentimental, chromatic style typical of Victorian era gospel hymns. From a musical or poetic standpoint, I have not mourned the passing of this hymn from our usage. But I know why it came to mind. It’s because of Sam. Sam was the part-time minister of music at a small Baptist church in my neighborhood when I was 17 years old. He was what we would now call a non-traditional student–a man in his 30’s who felt a call to ministry and went back to school while raising a family and continuing to work. I actually first met him at age 14 in my home church where he taught Sunday School, and then reunited with him when I started attending the church to which he had been called on staff. I started attending his church for that most spiritual of reasons–so I could spend time with a girl. (A girl who is now my wife, but that’s another story.)
Since the girl who attracted me to this church was involved in everything, I was too. Sam knew I was in the band and interested in music, so he began to encourage me and give me opportunities to exercise leadership in the music program of the church. And then one day he enlisted me (in other words, twisted my arm) to sing a duet with him in worship. He instructed me to sing the melody (not trusting a percussionist to harmonize) while he sang the tenor. The song was “Give of Your Best To The Master”.
All I remember about the performance was running out of breath way before the ends of most phrases while Sam just cruised along. I wish I could say God took the phrase “Give of the strength of your youth” to convict me and call me to a life of service, but I really don’t remember feeling or thinking anything about the text as such. As a musical or spiritual experience, the song was just a blip on the radar. But I will always treasure that hymn because it reminds me of Sam. Sam’s love for God and his love for people and his love for a confused adolescent more concerned with dating than dedication was a powerful witness. God used him as the first of many nudges in guiding me toward vocational ministry.
So it really wasn’t the hymn that shaped me–it was the person who introduced me to the hymn. And as powerful as tune and text may be in moving us and teaching us, my guess is that ultimately it will always be the people who really impact us. For those of us in ministry, the lesson is clear. We must give more attention to fine-tuning our walk with Jesus than fine-tuning our songs or tweaking our worship set. What ultimately makes a difference in people is not what we sing, but who we are in Christ.
I tried to think of a hymn whose text really did touch me early in life, and all I could remember was being 10 years old and getting tickled with my friends in the far reaches of the balcony as we sang the bass part to the chorus of “I Surrender All.” If we want to move beyond my misspent childhood to the present, I could tell you how “Great is Thy Faithfulness” penetrates my soul every time we sing it–but that will have to be another story as well.