Hump-Day Hymns: Lord, I Want to Be a Christian

Lord, I want to be a Christian
In my heart, in my heart.
Lord, I want to be a Christian
In my heart.
In my heart, in my heart,
Lord, I want to be a Christian
In my heart.

Lord, I want to be more loving
In my heart, in my heart.
Lord, I want to be more loving
In my heart.
In my heart, in my heart,
Lord, I want to be more loving
In my heart.

Lord, I want to be more holy
In my heart, in my heart.
Lord, I want to be more holy
In my heart.
In my heart, in my heart,
Lord, I want to be more holy
In my heart.

Lord, I want to be like Jesus
In my heart, in my heart.
Lord, I want to be like Jesus
In my heart.
In my heart, in my heart,
Lord, I want to be like Jesus
In my heart.
-African-American Spiritual

One of the things which I appreciate so much about this particular spiritual is that it offers the sense of continual “becoming.”  The writer is not taking the label of “Christian” and proclaiming it or wearing it as a badge of honor.  On the contrary, this hymn has a certain humility to it, and it clearly sees (yes I am anthropomorphizing hymns) the Christian life as a process of becoming rather than some end-result that we are able to obtain in this life.

The second, third, and fourth stanzas, in a large way, interpret the first stanza.  The writer, and singer, is asking God that they could be a Christian.  Perhaps this would not be someone who is completely new to Christianity, but on the contrary, perhaps someone who is probably has a faith already in existence in some measure.  But what does it mean when someone says, “Lord, I want to be a Christian in my heart”?

This is where the following stanzas interpret the first. We want to be more loving, we want to be more holy, we in fact want to be more like Jesus, which all add to our desiring to be a Christian. This reminds me of one of my favorite seminary professors who would refer to his own “becoming a Christian” and of being Christlike as a process and not as something we can fully attain in this life.

This spiritual has a glorious simplicity to it.  The words are not many, they are not complex, and they are easily memorized. Perhaps this is the point, so that even without a hymnbook, even without the words, one can sing this, and one can always let this prayer be on one’s lips. The simplicity of this spiritual, however, can be deceptive because as the words are not incredibly complex, they is still a depth and richness to this spiritual which is profound.  In my own experience, I don’t particularly like the process of becoming, I like the ability to do be or do.

I like school, although I was more eager to be a pastor or a social worker than I was preparing to become one. I don’t particularly like learning how to play musical instruments, I like knowing how to play musical instruments. I didn’t particularly like learning how to knit, I like being able to knit. Similarly, I would like to be a Christian, as this process of learning how to be a Christian is difficult. There is wisdom in the adage that “the journey is the reward”, and this is very true when it comes to becoming a Christian.  If I’m honest with myself, I will never get to a point where I can definitively call myself a Christian — as I can always become more loving, always become more holy, always become more like Jesus.  The only thing that I have to look forward to is the process of becoming a Christian and looking forward to that day when God redeems and restores the creation at which point we will fully be Christians and Christlike.

I think that this is a wonderful way to view the life of faith. Rather than claiming to be Christlike (something which we all fail to completely do), I think that the best thing that we can do is to continually pray, “Lord, I want to be a Christian/more loving/more holy/like Jesus in my heart.”

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