The best song you could ever sing
My aunty passed away recently. Aged 90, she was a faithful old Methodist who was overjoyed when I told her a couple of years ago that I was going to start working for her beloved Uniting Church. As her health failed in the last days of her life, I’m told that the staff at Uniting Wontama put her in a room by herself, filled it with flowers and had her favourite hymns playing constantly. She died peacefully with songs of her Saviour surrounding her.
Hymns have a special place in the Christian life. They can bring peace; they can bring rebuke; they can teach us; they can encourage and uplift us. Among the hymns I would want playing as I lay on my death bed would be the Isaac Watts classic, When I Survey the Wondrous Cross and the hymn from my wedding, Be Thou My Vision.
A traditional Irish hymn, Be Thou My Vision’s most common English translation dates to the early 20th Century and includes:
‘Riches I heed not, nor man’s empty praise; Thou mine inheritance, now and always.’
‘Thou and thou only, first in my heart; High king of heaven, my treasure thou art.’
That’s a very challenging verse (and I don’t just mean musically)! It doesn’t just have us singing that we don’t pay much attention to wealth or to what others think of us. No, it has us declaring that we give those things not a second thought because God alone is our inheritance.
Our superannuation or our reputation don’t matter because God is first in our heart; God is our treasure. If that was playing for my aunty in those final hours, she probably would have been at peace about it. For many of us, though, I’m sure there’s at least an element of rebuke about where our priorities are actually placed.
What we can offer is what we have – our soul, our life, our all.
When I Survey the Wondrous Cross is part of a corpus of hymns written about 200 years ago. They kick-started the modern tradition of singing gospel-oriented songs rather than just setting the Psalms to music. Charles Wesley reportedly said that he would give up all the hymns he wrote if only he’d written When I Survey the Wondrous Cross. It’s a masterpiece of poetry and theology that repays close study and thought, as well as heartfelt singing.
But approach it with fear because right from the get-go, it challenges us as well.
In the opening line, what do we say that we do when we survey the cross of Christ? We immediately value our most valuable possessions — or our most amazing achievements — as less than zero. That’s right, ‘My richest gain, I count but loss, and pour contempt on all my pride.’
In this hymn, the cross of Jesus turns everything upside down and makes everything opposite to what it seems to be. Gains become losses, sources of pride become things of contempt. Of course this is hyperbole, intended to convey the supreme value of Jesus and the salvation the cross wins for us. But it remains a challenging idea, doesn’t it?
In what is usually sung as the final verse, the value of the cross is extolled:
‘Were the whole realm of nature mine,
that were an offering far too small;
Love so amazing,
so divine, demands my soul,
my life, my all.’
The question this Insights column asks is, ‘How can we make money matter?’ The answer is quite simple, according to these wonderful hymns. We make money matter by giving it the value it deserves to have in the spiritual realm… which is less than zero. And we’re called to go further, putting it into the perspective that even if we had all the wealth imaginable – and we could offer it to God — it would not be enough.
Yet be not discouraged. What we can offer is what we have – our soul, our life, our all. The point of these hymns is that Jesus deserves no less, but they also point to the reality that Jesus demands no more. His love and His sorrow met on the cross, where He wore a crown of infinite value to show how much God values us.
Knowing this invaluable truth was my aunty’s secret weapon through a difficult life. Hymns like these helped her never to forget the heart of her own heart and to keep the Lord as her vision always. May we, too, keep on surveying that wondrous cross and make our boast only in the cross of Christ our God (Galatians 6:14).
Warren Bird is Executive Director of Uniting Financial Services