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I have drawn up a short list of my favourite six or seven hymns and songs. They include both the more traditional older hymns like Amazing Grace and Dear Lord and Father and also some of the more modern contemporary songs like In Christ Alone and The Servant King.
Actually, talking about what is ‘modern’ can be open to question. Back in 2003, I was teaching philosophy of education for a semester in Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Michigan. I was standing in for one of their folk who was on sabbatical. One day in a session with a group of students, we were thinking about the topic of humility and the contrast between the attitude of Aristotle who regarded humility as a vice and the example of Jesus who washed the disciples’ feet. Towards the end of the session, I put up on the screen the words of The Servant King because it was a song that the students didn’t know. We scrolled down through the verses to the end and, at the bottom of the slide, the year in which the song was written was shown. Then one of the students, a young man named Brian from California who was a great person to have in the group because of his wonderful sense of humour and a very gentle manner, said, “Professor Shortt” (everyone is a professor in American colleges – even people like me!) “you said this was a modern song? You do realise that song was written before any of us were born?!” It was a case of how to make a happy man very old! It was an unforgettable experience.
So what is modern or contemporary probably depends on how old or young you are. But my most favourite hymn is actually in between. It is a kind of bridge between the ancient and the modern, the traditional and the contemporary. The original version was written in Swedish back in 1885. In the early 1900s, it was translated first into German and then from German to Russian. In the 1930s and 1940s, an English missionary in western Ukraine discovered it and began to work on translating it into English and adding verses to it. In the 1950s it was discovered by the Billy Graham team and popularised by George Beverly Shea in the Billy Graham evangelistic events in the mid and late 50s.
You have probably guessed what it is. Yes, it is How Great Thou Art.
I’ve been asking myself why does this one stand out from the six or seven on the list or, indeed, all the hymns and songs that I’ve learned through the years, the decades.
Admittedly it has got a great tune but a great tune isn’t enough to make it stand out. What is it about the words that makes it so special to me?
1. Resonates with childhood formative experiences
I’ve come to the conclusion that, for a start, it resonates with many of my childhood experiences, those formative experiences that make the adult I became. The child is father or mother of the adult.
The hymn talks about seeing the stars. As a youngster I would go out and look up at the stars. No light pollution dimming the sight in rural Ireland in those days. Every month, the Irish Times newspaper published a map of the night sky. I remember the excitement of seeing Sputnik crossing the sky.
It also talks about going through the woods and hearing the birds in the trees. On the farm on which I grew up, there were woods and groves of trees. I loved to wander and I loved to listen to the song of the birds, even to the less tuneful ones like the corncrake or the sound of the drumming of the snipe as it swooped down through the air.
It also talks about a brook. We had a brook called the Ballyfinboy River that flowed through the farm. My brothers and I loved to go and play in it. We built a dam of rocks to raise the water level so that we could begin to learn to swim. Mention of a brook is therefore very evocative for me.
The hymn also talks about looking down from lofty mountain grandeur. There weren’t very high mountains near where I lived. There were some but I guess mountaineers would call them hills. One of them was called the Devil’s Bit Mountain because it had two high-up bits with a hollow in between (see picture above). Our father and mother took my brothers and me up there and we looked down from that lofty mountain and tried to work out where our farm was away in the distance.
There are all these things to do with Creation, to do with nature, to do with the wonderful world that God made. They certainly go towards making it a hymn that I love, that I can respond to.
Not only that because it goes on to talk about how Jesus bled and died to take away my sin. That has resonances for me as well from childhood.
I was about seven years old and we had a mission in our little church. The Reverend Kenny came as the visiting speaker. It was at Easter time and I can remember sitting in a service on Good Friday with my family. He was up in the pulpit and he was talking about how Jesus died for our sins. I remember sitting there and feeling that he was talking about me and about my life and things that I have done and said and thought. I was feeling really uncomfortable at the thought that Jesus bled and died to take away my sin.
Reverend Kenny also visited our farm and I showed him the dolmen, a prehistoric site. He was interested in it but he took me to a tree that was lying on the ground nearby. He pointed out the thick tendrils of ivy that had climbed up around the tree and brought it crashing to the ground. He said, “John, sin is like the ivy on that tree. If you don’t do something about it, it can climb up and choke you and kill you.”
There are those Creation resonances for me and also those biblical spiritual resonances in this hymn.
I also used to listen to Radio Luxembourg on 208 metres medium wave because it was the only station that broadcast popular music in those days. Every evening from 7.00 to 7.30, it also had Christian programmes. One of them was called ‘The Hour of Decision’ with a speaker called Billy Graham. (I wondered why it was called that when it only lasted half an hour.) How Great Thou Art was probably played on many occasions on that programme but I have no clear recollection of that.
I think it is one of my favourite hymns because of those resonances with childhood experiences, experiences that have formed me and made me the person that I became in adult life.
2. Connected with early days as a committed Christian
I think it is also my favourite because it is connected with my early days as a committed Christian. I had left home and moved to work in Dublin and I came to trust the Lord and to realise that I was forgiven because he bled and died. That is when I would really have got to know How Great Thou Art and other gospel hymns in services in the YMCA and churches in Dublin.
In fact, George Beverly Shea himself came to Dublin to sing in a concert in the YMCA. The demand for places was so great that it was a tickets-only event and I was given the responsibility of checking that people had their tickets before they went in. That was an amazing evening.
How Great Thou Art would have become so meaningful to me at that time and that meaningfulness has continued through the years, through the decades, right down to the present day.
3. Leads me to look forward to the world to come
Thirdly, I think it is my favourite hymn because it leads me to look forward to the world that is to come. The great last verse goes, “When Christ shall come with shout of acclamation …”.
Here’s the ‘but’ because it goes on, “And take me home, what joy shall fill my heart”. For me, that suggests something that is not quite right. It suggests that Jesus is going to come back and take us away from this world, this earth. However, as I read the Bible, that is not how it is going to be. The Bible talks about new heavens and a new earth. It talks about Creation groaning to be released from its captivity. It talks about Jesus rising from the dead with a physical body and 1 Corinthians 15 says that we will rise and we will have new bodies. We will be physical beings. We won’t be spirits sitting on clouds playing harps!
I’m therefore not altogether happy with those words “And take me home”. In his book Surprised by Hope, Tom Wright suggests that they could be replaced by “And heal this world”. When Christ shall come with shout of acclamation and heal this world, what joy shall fill my heart!
God comes down to live with us!
Revelation 21:1-5 (NIV)
Then I saw “a new heaven and a new earth,” for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and there was no longer any sea.
I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband.
And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Look! God’s dwelling place is now among the people, and he will dwell with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God.
‘He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death’ or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.”
He who was seated on the throne said, “I am making everything new!” Then he said, “Write this down, for these words are trustworthy and true.”
Let us pray.
O Lord our God, how great you are! Thank you for the wonderful world you made. Thank you that you are going to make it all new. Thank you for your Son who bled and died to take away our sin, who rose again and who is coming again. O Lord our God, how great you are!
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