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No! We are NOT able!

Lewis and Clark were able to reach the west coast in two years.

The Rev. Dr. Jennifer Browne reflects on the hymn, “Are Ye Able,” and concludes, “I don’t feel able … certainly not by myself.”


Director of Clergy Excellence, Michigan Conference

No one’s asked me, I’ll admit, but should an inquiry be made, I’m ready with my answer: the hymn I vote off the island and out of the hymnal is #530, “Are Ye Able.” With apologies to fans of the lyricist, Earl Marlatt, I have to wonder if the man read all of the Gospel of Mark (on which the hymn is based) or just through chapter 10.

“Are ye able,” said the Master, “to be crucified with me?”

“Yea,” the sturdy dreamers answered, “to the death we follow thee.”

Lord, we are able. Our spirits are thine.

Remold them, make us like thee, divine.

I can’t remember the last time I’ve sung it, certainly not in the last few decades. I can remember a seminary professor railing against it from the lectern: “Are we able? No! The correct answer is ‘No! We are NOT able!’”

The son of a Methodist Episcopal minister and the graduate of three fine Methodist universities, Earl Marlatt was a poet, author, and professor of literature and philosophy. He was also, if this hymn is any measure, a starry-eyed optimist. Because while James and John did answer Jesus’ question, “Can you drink the cup I drink or be baptized with the baptism I am baptized with?” in the affirmative (“We can!” Mark 10:38), in the end … they couldn’t.

Perhaps I should cut Prof. Marlatt some slack. He was writing in the 1920s when World War I was still called the “war to end all wars,” and the Depression hadn’t hit yet. One hundred years later, we know that WWI didn’t end war, the civil rights movement didn’t end injustice, and modern medicine hasn’t eliminated global pandemics. On top of these international and national crises, American Christians are also witnessing the cultural decline of organized religion, and United Methodists are waiting (and waiting) for a General Conference that will decide the future shape of our denomination. In our churches and our conference, money is tight, opinions are sharp, and congregations are divided.

I spend a lot of time these days hearing, reading, thinking, and praying about the state of the church. Because of who I am and the role to which I’m appointed, my focus is usually on the state of church leaders – tired, stressed, burned out. I read a lot about leadership in liminal times, about leading when we don’t know where we’re going. Like Lewis and Clark, we were prepared to do one thing (canoe a river/run a culturally established church) but now must discover how to do something entirely different (climb a mountain/create a new kind of Christian witness).

Let me admit that in contrast to James and John, Marlatt’s “sturdy dreamers,” I don’t feel able … certainly not by myself.

My favorite of those leadership books I’m reading is Quietly Courageous: Leading the Church in a Changing World by Gil Rendle. In it, Rendle quotes “A Prayer for the Church in These Times,” written in 1983 by William Sloane Coffin. In 1983, I spent most of my Sunday mornings listening to Coffin preach at Riverside Church, across the street from my seminary. I don’t remember this prayer, but I can hear Coffin’s voice bringing it to life:

O God, whose mercy is ever faithful and ever sure, who art our refuge and our strength in time of trouble, visit us, we beseech thee – for we are in trouble. 

Indeed, we are. The old and familiar is passing away; what is to come has not yet been revealed. We have our canoes and paddles, our church structures and traditions, our assumptions about how and why to make disciples. Now we need to let go of these things that we know so well and have worked so hard to maintain, these things that support our very identities. 

I don’t believe we are able … certainly not by ourselves. 

In addition to the big changes related to culture, politics, and church life, I have a couple of smaller changes going on in my life: this summer, my husband, Eric, and I will move from Kalamazoo to Lansing, and this week my office is moving from Conference Center North in DeWitt to the Ministry Center in Lansing. Last week, on the road to DeWitt to pack boxes, I tried listening to the morning news report. I wasn’t able. It was just too much bad news, on top of all the change. I turned off the radio and tried a couple of my favorite podcasts. Nope, I wasn’t able to listen to those either. 

Most of all, we need to turn to thee, O God, and our crucified Lord, for only his humility and his strength can heal and free us. O God, be thou our sole strength in time of trouble.

I am not able, not by myself. We are not able, not by ourselves. But God is able! 

I remembered the CDs that I’d found buried in the back of my work desk drawer the last time I’d been to the office. We have no more CD players at home or work. The only place I can listen to a CD is in my car, so that’s where I’d left them. I found just what I needed: track two of Chanticleer’s How Sweet the Sound, performed with gospel singer Bishop Yvette Flunder, “Surely God is Able.” 

I cranked up the volume — 

Surely, surely, surely, surely
He is able to carry, he is able to carry you through
As pilgrims all we sometimes journey,
we often know not which way to turn
But there is one who knows the road
He’ll help us carry our heavy load.

By ourselves, we are not able. But God is. God knows the road, God knows us, God will carry us through. There’s still no one asking, but I vote for this song in place of Marlatt’s! 

And I encourage you, friends – especially if you’ve been feeling unable to meet all the demands of these times – to set aside the voice that says it’s all up to you and listen to the voice of God’s Spirit, the one who is able to carry you through.

Last Updated on April 27, 2021

The Michigan Conference