When I Survey

It’s about that time of Lent… when our enthusiasm for our chosen Lenten practices is beginning to wane, and Easter seems still so far away. I’m finding that I need some reminding about why the church observes Lent as we do, creating 40 days of preparation, repentance, and reflection through personal abstention and sacrifice.

Shane Claiborne had a great blog post at the beginning of Lent this year, and it refreshed my Lenten spirit this morning.

“What’s the difference between a flute and a stick in the mud?” our priest asked on Sunday. He then went on, “The stick in the mud is full of itself. The flute has been emptied of itself so it can make music.”

If we expect God to do anything in our lives, we need to be like the flute, empty and ready for God to make music in our lives. If we’re like the stick, full of ourselves, where is the room for God?

I attended a wonderful lecture last week on campus, given by Dr. Melanie Ross of Yale University. She spoke about the many different perspectives of worship in the modern church, and she focused on the ways we cling to our personal preferences of style, worship order, music, even where we sit on Sunday mornings. She provoked us to think about these and the other things in our lives that we cling to, and asked us if, after everything we “can’t live without” is spoken for, there was any room left for God in our worship, or in our lives.

In worship this morning, I was taken by surprise by the opening hymn, one that I’ve sung hundreds of times: When I Survey the Wondrous Cross.

This hymn was written by one of the greatest hymnwriters of all time, Isaac Watts, and is among his most beautiful poems. Watts believed in the evangelical power of hymns, at a time when the church only permitted the singing of the metrical psalms and scriptures, and considered all other singing to be heretical. Through his life and his hymns, he taught the church the power of theological hymns to affirm faith, reinforce sermons, support scripture, and teach the tenets of our faith. His work spawned the Great Awakening and the hymn boom of the eighteenth century, and paved the way for the hymnody of the Wesley brothers in the early- to mid-eighteenth century.

Watts was also the catalyst for a topical shift in hymnody toward the expression of the thoughts and feelings of the singing congregation, rather than some of the more austere and disengaged metrical psalms. He engaged the congregation as a singing people by connecting hearts, passions, joys, and sorrows with the music of the church, which was something completely foreign to the church of his day. Today, worship in many evangelical churches, or at “contemporary praise” services or others like them, focus on nurturing this personal emotional connection above and beyond the cognitive engagement, and the seeds of this perspective of worship began with Isaac Watts.

You’ll find this kind of personal engagement hand in hand with complex theological doctrine featured prominently throughout the hymns of the 18th century’s Great Awakening. In the early- to mid-nineteenth century, the revival movement in the States, known as the Second Great Awakening, spawned a whole new hymn boom which kept the personal engagement in hymn texts, but dropped a lot of the more complex theology to engage with Christians who were newer and younger in their faith journeys.

On the General Board of Discipleship’s website, Rachel Tillay writes about the complex theology of When I Survey:

The theology of this hymn functions powerfully in the context of a worship service. Hymn scholar Lionel Adey writes: “About to receive the Sacrament, the poet meditates upon the love that turned that instrument of judicial torture and death into the channel of divine compassion.”

The part that struck me this morning so deeply, however, was the final line. As Tillay notes:

The three pledges at the climax of the hymn (“my soul, my life, my all”) are a sacrifice that had once been required only of those taking monastic vows.

Those last 6 words hit a chord in me. My soul, my life, my all. And the wonderful thing is that once we forfeit all of these to God’s amazing love, we quickly discover that it’s not a sacrifice at all. It only seems like one when we are deep in the clutches of the world. Once we empty ourselves, what God fills us with is so many times more wonderful than what we had been filling ourselves with before.

What is it in your life that you cling to? What can you not imagine living without? Does God have any place in your life, or are you a stick in the mud, full of yourself and leaving no room for God to work in your life?

The astonishing love of God demands our souls. It demands our lives. It demands our all. That is the call of Lent.

When I survey the wondrous cross
on which the Prince of glory died,
my richest gain I count but loss,
and pour contempt on all my pride.

Forbid it, Lord, that I should boast
save in the death of Christ, my God!
All the vain things that charm me most,
I sacrifice them through his blood.

See, from his head, his hands, his feet,
sorrow and love flow mingled down.
Did e’er such love and sorrow meet,
or thorns compose so rich a crown?

Were the whole realm of nature mine,
that were a present far too small.
Love so amazing, so divine,
demands my soul, my life, my all.


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