by Andrew Gerns
What is your way into God? What opens the door to the divine for you? Is the vastness and wonder of God’s creation? Is it sense of meaning and redemption that you have found in your relationship with God? Maybe you were a person who suffered addictions, or abuse, or stuck in a cycle of really bad choices and found healing and wholeness when you came to faith. Perhaps there was a time when you sought meaning, hope, or direction, and it came to you in an encounter with God. Maybe the door opened for you when you came to sobriety, to health…. or just to your senses!
However it is that you meet God, I’ll bet that there is hymn for you.
The Trinity, the Christian doctrine that says that the oneness of God is expressed in a trinity of persons and a unity of being. The One God is manifested in a Trinity of persons. This is much more than metaphor, and we must avoid the temptation to reducing our language of God to mere “base three” thinking. The Trinity tells us several things about the very nature of God. Not only do we know the One God as a unity of persons, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, but the Trinity also tells us that: 1) God is complex to the point unknowing; 2) God is relational; and because of that, through God’s grace and action, 3) God is knowable.
So, among other things, the Trinity also tells us that God offers us a variety of ways “in” to our relationship with God. We can contemplate the majesty and wonder of the God of All Creation in God the Father. We can enter in to intimate, healing relationship in God the Son. We can enter in to the mystic power and mysterious movement of God in God the Holy Spirit. These “ways in” should not be confused with the “roles” or “functions” of each person of the Trinity and remember each person of the Trinity all contain the fullness of the One God. The Trinity shows us that God is complex, mysterious, and knowable all at the same time.
Of course, God is so big and beyond our knowing that the best we can do is use analogies to describe the fullness of God. This is a start, but it can get us into trouble. What we need is holy imagination, grounded in prayer, scripture, tradition, and in the worship of the church.
Now, I am not a musician, nor do I play one on television, but I do sing and I have found that one way that we can discover how each of us activate holy imagination is to look at our favorite hymn.
So… What is your favorite hymn? What piece of music makes you say, when it pops up in church, “Oh! Good!”
I have a hunch that your favorite hymn is not only your favorite because it makes you tap your toes but that there is something about that hymn that is pointing you to how you enter into your relationship with God. Something about that hymn stirs something in you, pulls you, and takes you beyond yourself.
Let me demonstrate by sharing with you some of my favorite hymns. It is a classic that shows up nearly every time we celebrate the Trinity. Using imagery from the Book of Revelation, it talks about the time we hope and pray for, when Earth and Heaven will be joined and all creation will ring out in praise to God (In the Episcopal hymnal, H-362):
Holy, holy, holy! All the saints adore Thee,
Casting down their golden crowns around the glassy sea;
Cherubim and seraphim falling down before Thee,
Who was, and is, and evermore shall be.
Holy, holy, holy! Though the darkness hide Thee,
Though the eye of sinful man Thy glory may not see;
Only Thou art holy; there is none beside Thee,
Perfect in pow’r, in love, and purity.
Another favorite of mine talks about how all creation points to The Creator. Written by Joseph Addison (H-409), in our hymnal it is set to a marvelous tune by Franz Josef Hayden. It presents a stirring image of God the Father as both creator and one who can be known through creation. Be warned: this is a very seventeenth century hymn because it also makes the case for a unitarian approach to God through the window of reason. I am pretty sure that Addison didn’t mean to do this, but the hymn is also a description of one way that prevenient grace works.
The Spacious Firmament on high,
With all the blue Ethereal Sky,
And spangled Heav’ns, a Shining Frame,
Their great Original proclaim:
Th’ unwearied Sun, from day to day,
Does his Creator’s Pow’r display,
And publishes to every Land
The Work of an Almighty Hand.
If I were to pick a hymn that sums up for me the meaning of Jesus’ redemptive love, it is this American folk hymn (H-439), whose authorship is unknown but whose words speak of an eternal, saving love:
What wondrous love is this, O my soul, O my soul!
What wondrous love is this, O my soul!
What wondrous love is this, that caused the Lord of bliss
to bear the dreadful curse for my soul, for my soul,
to bear the dreadful curse for my soul.
There is a lovely hymn to the Holy Spirit written by an Episcopal priest, Carl P. Daw, in 1981 for our Hymnal 1982 (H-513), and it is also one of my favorites:
Like the murmur of the dove’s song,
like the challenge of her flight,
like the vigor of the wind’s rush,
like the new flame’s eager might:
Come, Holy Spirit, come.
To the members of Christ’s body,
to the branches of the Vine,
to the Church in faith assembled,
to our midst as gift and sign:
Come, Holy Spirit, come.
So what’s your favorite hymn? And what does it tell you about your walk with God?
Maybe it’s something like “Amazing Grace” written by an Anglican priest who came to faith in Jesus and repented from a life as sea-captain of slaving ships.
Or maybe it’s a Christmas carol like “O Little Town of Bethlehem” which talks of God breaking in to our world for our redemption in the new-born Jesus. Written by another Episcopal priest named Philips Brooks, the original poem had five verses.
It is a subversive little hymn, and on some level our inner Scrooges must sense this because the fourth verse of his original poem is almost always dropped out. It is even asterisked in our hymnal (H-79), indicating that it is optional, but to me this verse is the heart of the text. Singing it just might turn your heart at Christmas just as old Scrooge’s heart was turned in A Christmas Carol:
Where children pure and happy
Pray to the holy Child,
Where misery cries out to thee,
Son of the Mother mild,
Where charity stands watching,
And faith holds wide the door,
The dark night wakes, the glory breaks,
And Christmas comes once more.
Part of what I hope you get out of this exercise is not only a sense of the complexity of God in Three Persons, but also God’s marvelous accessibility.
In the beauty of this music, I hope and pray that your imaginations will be activated to see all the ways that God is inviting you—all of us—into a living, holy, and transforming relationship with God.
In activating our holy imagination through prayer, music, art, and liturgy, we begin to discover that, among other things, that the Trinity is not some esoteric, dry as dust dogma, nor a game of theological trivial pursuit. The Trinity shows us that our complex God is at once relational, knowable and intimate.
These hymns, I think, are but one clue as to how you are attracted to God, and how God invites us—all of us—in all our particularity, and with all that we bring, into living relationship with The One God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
One last hymn tells a story that moves us from contemplation to action and reminds us that discipleship is at once freeing and costly. William Alexander Percy wrote this little hymn in 1924 that contemplates the cost of discipleship (H-661), describing those first fisherman who heard Jesus’ call and followed him:
Contented peaceful fishermen
Before they ever knew
The peace of God That fill’d their hearts
Brimful and broke them too.
And verse 4:
The peace of God, it is no peace,
But strife closed in the sod,
Yet, brothers, pray for but one thing–
The marvelous peace of God.
So what’s your favorite hymn? What hymn speaks to you? Look it up. Read the text. Pray the text. And listen to how the Triune God is as close to us as our hearts, and is as near to us as the song on our lips
The Rev Canon Andrew Gerns is Rector of Trinity Church in Easton, PA and Contributing Editor Emeritus here at the Episcopal Cafe