My husband, who grew up Southern Baptist, often chides me for not recognizing the hymns he heard over and over as a boy. It’s been neat for him as we’ve traveled into minority churches in Yunnan with Presbyterian Frontier Fellowship, to hear these hymns sung in fresh harmonies in the Lahu, Lisu, and Jingpo languages.
It’s not that I didn’t grow up in the church, it’s just that my church took a liking to contemporary music when I was in high school, and a lot of the old hymns just don’t have the familiarity and the meaning to me that they have to those in the Bible Belt or those from my parents’ and grandparents’ generation. At seminary, I’d habitually skip the “hymn sings” at chapel, preferring a good scripture reading and a sermon (what a Presbyterian dork) to a service entirely built around requests from the congregation for the good ol’ songs they loved to sing.
But recently while in Nanjing for this summer’s Outreach Foundation English Exchange Camp, we taught our Chinese brothers and sisters two simple hymns, with which we Americans were all familiar. One of them was How Deep the Father’s Love for Us, and we sang it practically everyday, slowly, and with intention, in order that our Chinese brothers and sisters, who are learning English, would have an opportunity to not only learn the words but also soak in their meaning. In my husband’s small group, the Americans and the Chinese poured over the hymn, line by line, dissecting the old English and the theological meaning laden in the three verses.
As a fan of meditation in my prayer life, I shouldn’t have been surprised to find (but I was) that the hymn seemed to move me more each time it was sung. There’s something so humble and real about the words “it was my sin that held him there,” and something equally powerful about the image of “the Father turns His face away” from the suffering Jesus on the cross.
In a world where anxiety over sin and urgency to preach the truth often leaves a trail of destruction, there’s something so earnest and personal about this hymn that cuts through the mess our best-intentioned theologies often make. And despite its personal quality, singing it alongside my Chinese brothers and sisters is where it made the most sense. Perhaps that’s what’s so powerful about hymns, is that while written by one person, they’re meant to be sung in community.
We can’t bear our souls to one another, without another to behold them. And while we can worship God in solitude, worshipping God with others, and lifting our collective, imperfect voices in the presence of the Spirit–well, that’s where I want to be.
Maybe I’ll be at that next hymn-sing after all.
How deep the Father’s love for us
How vast beyond all measure
That He would give His only Son
To make a wretch His treasure
How great the pain of searing loss
The Father turns His face away
As wounds which mar the chosen One
Bring many sons to glory
Behold the Man upon a cross
My guilt upon His shoulders
Ashamed, I hear my mocking voice
Call out among the scoffers
It was my sin that held Him there
Until it was accomplished
His dying breath has brought me life
I know that it is finished
I will not boast in anything
No gifts, no powr’s, no wisdom
But I will boast in Jesus Christ
His death and resurrection
Why should I gain from His reward?
I cannot give an answer
But this I know with all my heart
His wounds have paid my ransom