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My Song is Love Unknown

 

“My Song is Love Unknown.”  This famous Lenten text was written by Samuel Crossman (1624-1683), an Anglican priest.  The Anglican Church at this time sang only psalms, so it is most likely that Crossman intended his text to be read as poetry, not to be sung as a hymn.  Crossman ministered successfully in the town of Sudbury, England until 1662.  During this year, the Anglican government had declared that every minister sign a document declaring faith in the infallibility of the Book of Common Prayer (the primary prayer book of the Anglicans and Episcopals to this day.)  Many clergy could not in good conscience sign this document, and they were expelled from the pulpit and from their homes and towns.  It is about this time that such “dissenters” (known as “Puritans”) began to emigrate to America. 

            Crossman later recanted and became one of the King’s chaplains! 

            It would be a hymnological travesty to sing less than all seven stanzas of this hymn (although far worse hymnological travesties have been and are still committed against church music.)  The hymn essentially briefly tells the entire story of the Christian faith.  The first stanza personalizes the hymn and asks, “Who am I that for my sake my Lord should take frail flesh and die?”  We know that Christ was divine before becoming human as the prologue to John’s gospel relates, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.”  The reader is introduced to the concept of incarnation, the idea that Christ became human (ie., the root carn- gives to English such a term as “carnal” and to other languages their word for “meat” or “flesh” [carne.])  The second stanza continues this incarnational idea that Christ came “from His blest throne salvation to bestow,” although “men made strange, and none the longed for Christ would know.”  As our liturgy will soon reveal, the fickle praises of the Palm Sunday crowd would soon become, in the words of the third stanza, “Crucify!”  This same humanity would save a murderer (Barabbas), but “The prince of life they slay.”  Crossman’s sixth stanza asks, “What may I say?  Heaven was His home but mine the tomb wherein He lay,” again personalizing what might have a tendency to become a theological abstraction.

            The writer of music notes is always struck by the framing of Christ’s divinity, His humanity, and our humanity in this hymn.  The above excerpts clearly indicate a humanity which proceeds to reject Christ and the gift of salvation He brings.  Christ is presented as the sacrificial Lamb of God (Agnus Dei) whose gift of Himself is unrecognized.  In fact, this hymn states a profound awareness of humanity’s sinfulness, epitomized in David’s prayer in Psalm 51 which serves as our Lenten offertory, “Surely I was sinful at birth, sinful from the time my mother conceived me. . . . Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me.”  This hymn presents humanity as sinful and needing salvation.  Although this is a scriptural concept, it is understandably uncomfortable to many. 

            This hymn presents law and gospel in a clearer manner than many hymns and songs these days.  We cannot read/sing it and feel good about humanity and ourselves.  It is easy to blame the short-sighted Jews of Jesus’ time for crucifying Him, but we know that our sin is just as bad.  It is us who cry “crucify” each time we sin, whether knowingly and willingly or simply unaware.  Yet, this hymn just as clearly presents the gospel.  We know that it was “mine the tomb wherein He lay,” so that the grave no longer has power over us.  We know that He “to suffering goes that He His foes from death might free.”  This is the true gospel message!  This is the crux of the Easter message which, of course, cannot be separated from our Lenten preparations.

In reality, a well-adjusted human being must have “Christ esteem.”  We feel good knowing we are baptized and have “passed from death to life” and are marked by Christ’s name.  Because of our baptism, God sees Christ instead of our sin.  Yes, we should feel good knowing this.  Our eternal salvation has been secured, and any worries we have are earthly and transient.  We cannot earn our own salvation and we have no need to!   This is not a fragile, earthly security that depends on our own whims and feelings.  The gospel is not something we have done for God, but what He has done for us.  Because of this Easter freedom, we praise God in Crossman’s words in the final stanzas, “This is my friend, in whose sweet praise I all my days could gladly spend.”

 

God Moves in a Mysterious Way

 “God Moves in a Mysterious Way.”  We are all familiar with the Old Testament account in which God reminds Job of the limits of human reason when He asks, “Where were you when I laid the earth’s foundation?  Tell me, if you understand.  Who marked off its dimensions?  Surely you know!”  (Job 38: 4) Not only is God’s knowledge complete, but His omnipotence is demonstrate when the disciples, of “little faith,” call upon Jesus to still the storm which He does in the succinct command, “Quiet.  Be still!” This prompts the disciples to ask the question whose answer Job would have done well to consider before he questioned God, “Who is this?  Even the wind and the waves obey Him!”  (Mark 4: 39) With this thought in mind, today’s sermon hymn comes from William Cowper:  “God moves in a mysterious way His wonders to perform!  He plants His footsteps in the sea and rides upon the storm.” 

                William Cowper (1725-1800) is perhaps one of the more colourful figures in hymnological history, begging for a diagnosis of mental illness.  Early in his life, he fell in love with his cousin.  The marriage being forbidden by her father, Cowper was left distraught and attempted to commit suicide, although he failed at this.  He had studied law and in 1763 was offered a clerkship in the House of Lords, requiring a brief but public examination in Parliament.  This prospect so distressed the fragile and already-depressed Cowper that the night before the examination he attempted to hang himself.  This again ended in failure, merely cementing Cowper’s notion that he could do nothing right.  He eventually took refuge in the household of Morely and Mary Unwin who befriended and looked after him.  They eventually moved to Olney, where Morely died.  Olney, a picturesque medieval market town about 100 miles outside of London, happened to be home to a most famous curate—John Newton.  Newton laboured hard and continuously at the Church of St Peter and Paul striving to help the many poor people of the town.  Newton, of course, was the ex-slave trader turned evangelical clergy whose hymns include “Amazing Grace” and “Glorious Things of Thee are Spoken.”  Newton saw some poetic potential in the young man, and together they explored writing poetry and hymns.  Cowper had published poetry before (one of his first poems was entitled, “Hatred and vengeance, my eternal portions”), but now he began to be infused with Newton’s Christian zeal, and it might be said the moving of the Holy Spirit in Cowper’s life was now evident.  Newton invited Cowper to include his hymns in Olney Hymns (1779), one of the first and most important hymnals in the English language.  It is from this volume that this hymn originates.

                Considering Cowper’s emotional state, one wonders if he wrote the third stanza of this hymn in order to convince himself it was true:  “Ye fearful saints, fresh courage take;  the clouds ye so much dread are big with mercy and shall break in blessings on your head.”  The following stanza illustrates that Cowper himself probably intellectually understood his own limitations as a human being, both emotional and mental, “Judge not the Lord by feeble sense.  But trust Him for His grace;  behind a frowning providence He hides a smiling face.”  We moderns might not like to characterize God as having a “frowning providence,” but Cowper here sums up law and gospel, an oft-misapplied paradigm in modern Christianity.  God is both and the same a stern lawgiver demanding perfection, but also a loving Father who sent His Son that all might be saved.  One concept demands the other.  The final stanza echoes Jesus words in today’s gospel, “Blind unbelief is sure to err and scan His work in vain;  God is His own Interpreter and He will make it plain.”  Jesus asks the disciples, “Do you still have no faith?” (Mark 4: 40b)  Even after they continually witness Jesus’ miracles, they continue to demonstrate a lack of faith, whether in Peter’s denial or in Thomas’ doubting.  Yet, the disciples merely exhibit the human tendency toward doubt which we all harbour.  How many times do we watch tele programs which advocate a secular humanist approach to the world?  Scientists, those who study and know the works of God better than anyone else, are interviewed and put forth their ideas of how “nature” provided this or that creature with the means to survive, or how “nature” designed earth to be a hospitable environment for life, never acknowledging God’s designing and sustaining work.  What better example of “Blind unbelief” “scanning” God’s work for naught, never seeing the Designer in the design.  God is a great mystery to some, even though He is omnipresent.  We have never seen air, but depend on it for our life and we would certainly know if it were absent!  Such is it with God—we do not know and cannot always reason His ways for doing something, but the faith supplied us by the Holy Spirit assures us that what He does is good. 

 

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