Sightings in Christian Music

by David Bjorlin

All to Jesus I surrender,
all to him I freely give;
I will ever love and trust him,
in his presence daily live.
I surrender all, I surrender all;
all to thee, my blessed Savior,
I surrender all.

-Judson W. Van DeVenter

Recently on a Facebook group for Covenant worship leaders, someone asked, “Is ‘I Surrender All’ in the Covenant Hymnal? If it is, I can’t seem to find it.”

“There’s a story behind that.” I responded.

This story is one I’ve heard from a few different people, which speaks to its veracity, though none of whom are responsible for any mistakes in my retelling. As with most hymnal committees, one of the most contentious parts is deciding which songs to include and which to exclude. Most recently, the committee that put together the Presbyterian’s (PCUSA) newest hymnal, Glory to God (2013), voted 9-6 not to include Keith Getty and Stuart Townend’s “In Christ Alone” because the authors would not accept a change to a line in the second stanza: “till on the cross as Jesus died, / the wrath of God was satisfied” – a line that most Covenanters would find equally problematic!

Our story begins with the committee that put together the 1973 The Covenant Hymnal (known as the “red hymnal”). In their discussion of hymns to include, the committee began considering the popular Gospel hymn “I Surrender All.” It was well known at the time and seemed like an easy choice for inclusion, until the normally mild-mannered J. Irving Erickson (one of my predecessors in “Sightings in Christian Music”) put his foot down. His argument was simple: can we really sing “I surrender all?” Do we really mean it? Since so few of us actually surrender all of our lives to God, how could we put that in the mouths of Covenant worshippers? Erickson’s adamant resolve carried the day, and the song was not included in that hymnal or the next.

To me, this hymnal committee’s debate over “I Surrender All” opens up an important conversation for worship

leaders and planners on the need for liturgical language that includes both the aspirational and the realistic. Unlike Erickson, I would have voted to include “I Surrender All,” not because I think we who sing it necessarily believe it or are capable of it. Rather, we sing it so that we might become more capable of surrender to God. Sometimes we sing things we do not yet desire or believe as aspirations for what we would like to desire or believe. We want to want to surrender all; we desire to desire God’s complete control of our lives. Part of singing is thus performative; when we sing “I surrender all,” we hope and trust that even in the singing we are learning to surrender more of our lives to God.

Yet, I believe Erickson was on to something. There is an inherent danger of only singing aspirational songs. If our songs are filled with convictions or hopes we have yet to achieve—“I surrender all,” “I give myself away,” or “take my silver and my gold, / not a mite would I withhold”—it can suggest that only our aspirational selves are acceptable in worship. Our real selves—the selves that must confess and lament, the selves that have serious doubts and fears, the selves that aren’t sure if any of this religious language makes sense—those selves must stay home in the shadows (an insight I borrow from Eileen Ramshaw’s Ritual and Pastoral Care). Over time I believe this leads people to dissemble before God, bringing only our best hopes and desires because our language in worship has suggested that our doubts, fears, and anger are not welcome. Thus, we form Christian communities that can face neither their own anger and pain nor the anger and pain of a battered and broken world.

We need songs that express our present reality in all of its messiness and confusion, so we can profess that God meets us where we are, not where we want to be; and we need songs of aspiration that sing what we want to believe, so that by the Spirit’s power we can continue to move toward the way of Christ for God’s glory and neighbor’s good.