Come, O Thou Traveler Unknown

Chagall_Jacob-wrestles_Nice-large
Marc Chegall “Jacob Wrestling with the Angel” courtesy of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library and Musée du Message Biblique Marc-Chagall in Nice, France.

Do you remember that time-honored ritual that occurred when you started a new class? That time when everyone goes around the circle and answers an awkward set of introductory questions is as common to a fifth grader as it is to a second-year graduate student. Currently, I am attending a Methodist school for seminary filled with mostly — you guessed it — Methodists. It’s a startling realization to many of them when I tell them that I am a Baptist. A Baptist named Wesley? Absurd! That’s a Methodist name!

Part of appearing so Methodist but not actually being a Methodist comes out in my encounters with worship at the Divinity School. While I’m familiar with the basic set up of worship, most of the songs we sing are unfamiliar to me. Many of them are mainstays in the Methodist tradition and plenty of students have sung them since they learned to speak. However, that is not the case for me.

This past week, I served communion for the first time at school, which was a very moving experience for me. Consequently, I remembered a lot of the details of the service very vividly. One such detail was the music. One of the songs in particular that we sang stuck with me for the rest of the day and into the night. It was a (big surprise!) Wesley hymn that Charles wrote midway trough his life called “Come, O Thou traveler unknown.” 

Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons.
“Charles Wesley- Bristol” by micwize – http://www.flickr.com/photos/micwize/3296128842/.

We sang a four-verse version in worship, but apparently it can have as many as 14. I will spare you the 569 word version, but you can look it up here. This is the hymnal version:

Come, O thou Traveler unknown,

whom still I hold, but cannot see!

My company before is gone,

and I am left alone with thee.

With thee all night I mean to stay,

and wrestle till the break of day.

I need not tell thee who I am,

my misery and sin declare;

thyself has called me by my name,

look on thy hands and read it there.

But who, I ask thee, who art thou?

Tell me thy name, and tell me now.

Yield to me now, for I am weak,

but confident in self-despair!

Speak to my heart, in blessing speak,

be conquered by my instant prayer

Speak or thou never hence shalt move,

and tell me if thy name is Love.

‘Tis Love! ‘Tis Love! Thou diedst for me,

I hear thy whisper in my heart.

The morning breaks, the shadows flee,

pure, Universal Love thou art.

To me, to all, thy mercies move;

thy nature and thy name is Love.

The song finds its biblical inspiration in the story of Jacob wrestling with God (Genesis 32). Many people now hold that story close to the heart when experiencing doubt and confliction, particularly about matters of faith. I think this song, too, is helpful in putting words to what many Christians experience at particular points in our lives. It expresses what faithful doubt looks like. Doubt is not the antithesis of faith, but is in some ways its proof. Faith does not happen without doubt, and doubting at its best is paired with an unwavering commitment and even challenge to God.

Chris Cook is a
Chris Cook is a “Southern Expressionist” from Georgia. You can find more of his work on his website: http://chriscookartist.com

Notice how Wesley’s protagonist clings to God relentlessly: “Speak, or thou never hence shall move!” His/her doubt does not take the form of flight or rejection but challenging commitment. She/he challenges God to reveal Godself, participating in a significant tradition of reminding God to uphold God’s covenant promises. This is not betrayal, it’s faith. The speaker stays all the way until morning until God reveals Godself: “The morning breaks, the shadows flee, pure, Universal Love thou art!”

I think that revelation of who God is also is critical. At the end of all our struggle, grappling, and fighting, the God who reveals Godself is not Judgment, Wrath, or Power — “To me, to all, thy mercies move; thy nature and thy name is Love.” Symeon, a saint in Orthodox Christianity, has an extended discourse of the spiritual body in which he assigns each metaphorical body part with some spiritual function or virtue. He names Love, Christ in us, as the head of the body directing all its constituent parts. In that way, we are divinized. God expresses Godself in us by God’s own nature: Love.

Too often, we forget that our animating force should be that core of God’s own nature. We put something other than love at the head of our spiritual bodies. When experiencing doubt, we put up fear on our necks. When experiencing certainty, we don a helmet of arrogance. When experiencing hardship or success, we can fill our heads with all sorts of things: wrath, greed, despair, etc. But none of those things are what God wants for our lives. What God wants for our lives is God’s nature and name: Love.

From the chapel Dominus Flevit in Jerusalem. Photo by Brian J. McMorrow. You can find more of his work here: http://www.pbase.com/bmcmorrow/profile
God as a Mother Hen (c.f. Mt. 23:37, Lk. 13:34). From the chapel Dominus Flevit in Jerusalem. Photo by Brian J. McMorrow. You can find more of his work here: http://www.pbase.com/bmcmorrow/profile

We forget God’s name and we forget our own. Sometimes we call God Man. Sometimes we call Man God. Sometimes we call God White. Sometimes we call ourselves Superior or Supreme. Sometimes we call God by names so esoteric that no one recognizes them. Sometimes we hide ourselves in titles, degrees, and status obscuring our true name. Sometimes we create and name a God who looks just like us instead of finding and hearing the name of a God who we cannot help but draw into — whose nature and name is Love.

So, my name may be confusing to some people, but I think that’s OK. It reminds me of how we make mistakes with names and they are not always what we expect. It reminds me to always seek what is true, not simply what I assume. It reminds me that our expectations are not necessarily how things truly are.

May the name of Jesus never cease to confuse us, but also draw us in. May the name of God never cease to confound us into the wee hours of the night, but also never let us go. May the name of the Spirit always challenge us, but never escape our minds. May the Triune God instill in us the nature and name divine: Love. Amen. 

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