Need a hymn? Lean on me. Just don’t use “Lean on Me.”

This is Bill Withers’ classic song “Lean on Me.”

Great song, right? Do we all agree? Fantastic.

Now imagine hearing that song at Mass. It’s a possibility, because it’s in the Spirit and Song supplemental hymnal.

I know, I know, I know, I know,
I know, I know, I know, I know, I know,
I know, I know, I know, I know, I know,
I know, I know, I know, I know, I know,
I know, I know, I know, I know, I know,
I know, I know…[gasp]…Oh, sorry, wrong song.

There is just one little problem. “Lean on Me” is not, by any stretch of the imagination, a hymn — even by the relaxed standards of trying to make a Christian contemporary music work at Mass, something I don’t recommend. How is it not a hymn? Let’s look at the lyrics:

There is zero mention of God. Not even an oblique reference. Now, some music folk argue that some hymns are too focused on us. But even if they’re right, God is still key to the hymn. And this song, as Bill Withers wrote it, has no religious context. I doubt Withers intended this to be used (ever) at a religious service, though I suppose he’s not complaining if OCP, the publisher of Spirit and Song, is paying him for the rights.

Now, in non-Mass, non-prayer service settings, youth group sort of settings, “Lean on Me” is fine. One time, at a campus ministry meeting when I was in high school, the seniors sang that to the freshmen, and it was kinda cool. (On the other hand, at a retreat, the leaders placed a picture of Jesus in front and played Peter Gabriel’s “In Your Eyes,” which was just weird, no matter what Peter Gabriel says.) But by placing it in a hymnal, the publisher has taken the risk of this song popping up and causing a whole lot of confusion. So take the initiative: Just don’t do it at a religious service, period.

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