This twentieth-century hymn text was written by English bishop Timothy Dudley Smith and is based on John 14: 6, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” In John 15 Jesus says, “I am the vine; you are the branches. If a man remains in me and I in him, he will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing.” Both these passages from John 14 and 15 state clearly Christ’s primacy in the life of the Christian and the world. As politically incorrect as it may be, to deny Christ also deny God the Father, for Jesus states Luke 10: 16, “He who listens to you listens to Me; he who rejects you rejects Me; but he who rejects Me rejects Him who sent me.” Christ is the one way, but He is not merely a passive beacon in the darkness encouraging us to reach Him on our own; rather, He is truly our “leader by day and by night.”
The second stanza speaks to our continual catechesis throughout life: “Christ be my teacher in age as in youth, Drifting or doubting for He is the truth. Grant me to trust Him; though shifting as sand, Doubt cannot daunt me; in Jesus I stand.” Whether young or old, our faith does not come of our own accord; it does not even come through the rite of confirmation. Rather, faith is bestowed by the Holy Spirit through Word and Sacrament.
Of our own accord, apart from Word and Sacrament, we will succumb to “drifting and doubting.” Our own reason and senses can mislead us. One cannot help but think of the numerous prophecy books that are commonly sold at Christian stores. One would think Daniel and Revelation were the only books of the Bible! Prophetic books assure us that all history is in God’s control. We know the past is in God’s hands through His workings with the Hebrews and the early Church as found in Scripture. This is correlated by the experience of the Church since the closing of the scriptural canon. Prophecy tells us that the future is already determined. But pinning our hopes and faith on certain dates, the behavior of certain political leaders, the founding of such-and-such a country or the rebuilding of such-and-such a site to presage the Second Coming is a dubious prospect at best and relies more on our reason than on the faith evident in being assured that history is in God’s hands.
The third stanza emphasizes Christ as savior—the most important of His roles. We know that “Death cannot hold me for He is the life. Nor darkness nor doubting nor sin and its stain can touch my salvation.” Christ is all-sufficent Savior. Christians doubt at one point or another—such is the nature of a thinking human being. But, through Christ, we do not succumb to our sin, to our doubts, or to our own natural lack of faith. It is He who has accomplished our salvation regardless of our continual failures to be “good enough” to earn our salvation. Such is the tension-filled dichotomy of law and gospel. Christ is our leader—through the Holy Spirit He gives us faith, He is our teacher, giving us His and His Father’s word in scripture, and He is our Savior, accomplishing what we could never do ourselves.
Timothy Dudley-Smith (b. 1926) wrote a number of very fine hymns, including “Christ Be My Leader.” Several years ago, when the anonymous writer of music notes was in the UK at the University of Bristol for the launch of the Canterbury Dictionary of Hymnology, Bishop Dudley-Smith was a speaker/preacher. The writer of music notes was just thrilled to be around all these hymnwriters and hymnologists; all his favourite scholars were there, and he regretted that the international flight had precluded his taking representative samples from his library of those authors’ works for autographing. Nonetheless, he harbored the secret thought, “I would really like to meet Timothy Dudley-Smith.” But the writer of music notes doesn’t like to be trouble, or to carry on socially in an undignified manner (particular when in England), so he thought discretion to be the better part of valour. After all, all those in attendance were published writers and scholars much more so than the anonymous writer of music notes. Toward the end of the conference, he was becoming a little sad that he might not be able to meet Bishop Dudley-Smith. Instead of taking matters into his own hands, searching out the good bishop, introducing himself and getting him to autograph his hymnal, the writer of music notes decided to mope around the university’s refectory at lunch, forlornly eating some bland English food before attending an afternoon lecture and meeting his friends. He chose a table in the corner where he could wallow in regret. At this time, whilst this writer was reading the Evening Post, Bishop Dudley-Smith entered the semi-empty room, approached his table, and said, “May I dine with you?” The anonymous writer of music notes was VERY happy about this. So, to make what turned out to be a long and informative lunch into a short story, the writer of music notes learned about Bishop Dudley-Smith’s first forays into hymnwriting, his family, his cathedrals at Norwich (where he had previously been bishop) and Salisbury, where he now lives in retirement. Plus, this writer’s hymnal was autographed. Perhaps more of what he learned from this esteemed, twentieth-century hymn writer will find its way into the pages of future music notes when another of his hymns is sung. Until then, we ponder in the meantime this great hymn taking us into Lent.