I probably have to issue an apology for the hymn chosen as the office hymn. It has a tricky rhythm change. And I can’t even really blame it on modernity. It is just my observation that modern hymns – and by modern I mean anything written after roughly 1960 – often fail not because they aren’t good in a doctrinal sense, but because you can’t sing them. They are set too high, they have large gaps in the melody or they use complex rhythms; all of which just mean they are meant for soloists or trained singers, not congregational singing which is supposed to include everyone. But “One Thing’s Needful” (LSB 536) is from a text in the 17th century, translated in the 19th century, paired with a tune from the 17th. The Companion to the hymnal observes, “the unusual metrical structure of the text is representative of the more soloistic style of hymns found at the end of the 17th century.” So these things go in and out of style. We are not alone.
So, why am I afflicting you with this hymn? I’d like you to ponder the juxtaposition of the first verse of the two rhythm parts. The flowing 4/4 time is serene and restful and presents a doctrinal truth. “One thing’s needful; Lord this treasure teach me highly to regard/All else though it first give pleasure is a yoke that presses hard.” The truth it communicates is something that most Christians would assent to mentally almost immediately. Christ is our only true need. We don’t acknowledge this enough. Instead our hearts chase other gods. All of them turn out to eat us alive, to place us under heavy yokes. And in our serene space of contemplation this is all very easy to accept.
But then the rhythm changes to 3/4 with its driving “bum-bum-bum, bum-bum-bum.” Gone is the serene time of contemplation. We are in the very midst of life. “Beneath it the heart is still fretting and striving/No true lasting happiness ever deriving/this one thing is needful all others are vain/I count all but loss that I Christ man obtain.” Whatever our head says in contemplation, the heart often desires other things. The heart, part of this flesh which Paul has been pondering in our Epistle lessons, has a problem with sin. It is constantly fretting and striving. Oh, I might lose this, including my life. No, I’m going to claim that and get it, I don’t care who I have to kill to do it. And we are driven along “bum-bum-bum” by things we do not know or even stop to ponder.
Our only help in that midst of life is often the “Jesus Take the Wheel” prayer. Jesus, I know there is no happiness in this way. I know that I need you. Save me. And then the hymn returns us to that moment of contemplation. Our frantic prayers are turned into communion with God or the consolation of the Spirit. And in those moments we start to learn the basics of wisdom. “Wisdom’s highest, noblest treasure, Jesus, is revealed in you/Let me find in you my pleasure, and my wayward will subdue.” I know this, teach me your way so that I might follow it all my days.
All our days we are thrown back and forth. Luther called the Christian life: “Prayer, Meditation and Trial.” (He of course used Latin – oratio, meditation, tentatio – snob.) And like Luther’s last recorded words, “We are all beggars”, we end in the trial of death. Our hope is completely outside of us. “Through all my life’s pilgrimage, guard and uphold me, in loving forgiveness O Jesus enfold me.” And we only find our rest in faith that “this one thing is needful, all others are vain, I count all but loss that I Christ may obtain.”
I’ve included it because I think it is a masterful work in both word and song of this current life and our one hope in the midst of it. (If you do not have a hymnal at home, this particular hymn can be seen online here: https://hymnary.org/hymn/LSB2006/536 )