We had a beautiful time in Mary and Dan’s church, couple of months back, where prayers of thanksgiving and dedication for our lovely granddaughter were being incorporated into the service! In the middle of this service, I was introduced to this particular song, and it had quite an effect on me.
In fact, the ‘worship’ generally, drew me in to an authentic experience of the same. Despite my ruminations in an earlier essay (no.63 ‘When the Music Fades’), I confess I can still be quite dismissive about much modern Christian worship music – and I can sniffily and patronisingly point out limited-range, repetitive melodies, unimaginative language choices, too performance-orientated a stance etc etc. And I can also keep forgetting that to some extent Christian worship music is meant to be utilitarian, in the sense that if we are distracted by a particular intricate melody, by imaginative imagery, by clever construction, then in some ways a song runs the risk of failing to do its job, to be a vehicle in which we can, with freedom and focus, express praise, adoration or even supplication.
As someone pointed out to me recently, for the above reason, it’s OK for hymns/songs to be ephemeral in this respect – eg. probably the bulk of the Wesleys’ prodigious output had its season and served its purpose for its generation. But then I think I’m also right in saying (I kind of hope I am) that a song can manage both to be a praise-vehicle for its time, and yet because of the care and beauty of its composition has perhaps more lasting quality and can –on a more objective level maybe –be admired for its artistry. And perhaps in the very best songs we can hold these two things together, and the intrinsic beauty, the compositional and lyrical movement within the song can even elevate our worship-expression as we sing..?
(Musing aloud, folks. You’d think, after half a century of ‘involvement’ with Christian worship music, that I would have it all sussed out by now. Clearly not.)
I suppose what I’m saying is that for me, this is one of those special songs which manages to do that. There is a definite millennium generation vibe to the melody, I think, keeping the range narrowish and building in plenty of repetitive pattern (useful for learning, obviously). But the construction is anything but bland! Just on an organisation level, the 3 verse & chorus patterns are broken up by a powerful ‘bridge’ and there is a repeated verse three, and a final power-punch of a three-line coda or ‘tag’. And none of that seems ‘forced’ or contrived. Plus, none of the choruses are the same, but instead, while retaining a similar structure, reflect the thematic scope of the preceding verse.
Here’s something of how the song develops .The opening section – well, the whole thing, really – is very much a paean to God the Creator. It’s hard to remember any hymns that have done this with such a sense of sweeping expansiveness – there’s ‘All Creatures of Our God and King’, a fabulous example, and based on something St Francis wrote, but even he was less space-aware, of course. So here we have ‘You spoke to the dark/And fleshed out the wonder of Light’. We have ‘And as you speak a hundred billion galaxies are formed/In the vapour of your breath the planets form’. .. Of course there’s plenty of precedent for this kind of talk in the psalms (see Ps 89, 139..) – what’s startlingly fresh is the modern succinct colloquial response to follow the perceived example of Creation’s testimony to the Creator’s glory – ‘If creation sings your praises So will I’
In the second section the composers shift us on to considering God’s communicated purposes, His ‘word’, his promises – but even this is of course inextricably linked with his creations. It acknowledges that since God is a God of meaningful communication (‘You don’t speak in vain/No syllable empty or void’), then the universe too is consequently of ultimate meaning and value. This is a vision of Nature that somehow reveals God’s ‘heart’ as well as his power, and we are led to a new response , this time to emulate creation in ‘obedience’ not just in praise.
Though the two are linked.. and the wonderful ‘Bridge’ to the song highlights this with a pulsing cumulative force as each condition builds on the last ‘If the stars… so will I’; ‘If the mountains..If the oceans..’ blending these ideas of praise and obedience here – ‘If the wind goes where you send it, so will I’ and culminating in an acknowledgment that no amount of praise can adequately match God’s praiseworthiness – the expression is oddly literary – ‘If the sum of all our praises still falls shy’ – then hyperbolic ..’Then we’ll sing again a hundred billion times’ – but hyperbolic only in the sense that the Book of Revelation is hyperbolic in its descriptions of worship in Heaven.
The final section hones the focus onto God as ‘God of Salvation’, his redemption of fallen mankind in the person of himself as Son, as God-made-man Jesus. The brief verse does two things – it highlights God as initiator – You chased down my heart/Through all of my failure and pride’ and it highlights the supreme heavenly irony (in a similar way to Graham Kendrick’s ‘Hands that flung starts into space/ To cruel nails surrendered’) – ‘On a hill you created, the light of the world/ Abandoned in darkness to die..’
We’re on holy ground here, and I can imagine the composers needing to take specially prayerful steps putting these lines together. For in the uniqueness of Christ’s sacrifice we cannot blithely offer up an intent to follow suit, yet the images are carefully chosen –firstly a great note of victory – ‘If you left the grave behind you so will I’! – but also of the necessity of following Jesus, as he bids, in ‘surrender’, and compassionate sacrificial-living ‘Every precious one a child you died to save/If you gave your life to love them so will I’. Wow – the song has led us, through natural steps, from awed praise to a remembrance of God’s word, his saving grace, the cross, and our own discipleship steps following his lead. And in case we’ve missed the point, the little ‘tag’ reminds us that God – and our calling in him – is all about love for people – ‘What measure could amount to your desire/ You’re the One who never leaves the one behind..’
This is a powerful conclusion – the repeated mega-number the ‘hundred billion’ have helped to create an expansive sense of the unlimited variety of God’s creative energies, and of the need for worship to echo that limitlessness and variety – but then with seemingly improbable miraculousness, the apparent converse is also true – the individual counts, with a value as great as the huge number. As God sees that, so must we.
I was wondering if ‘Hillsong United’ were not keen on acknowledging individual composers, but I think I’ve got them now: Benjamin Hastings, Joel Houston and Michael Fatkin. Thanks guys, for listening hearts, and poets’ tongues to give us a great song to sing. Thanks Freedom Church for introducing me to this (and for Dotty’s dedication) x