Attending a church of any kind while growing up was a rarity. And the one church we did attend infrequently was not even Christian. It would be classified as a cult, meaning it had many of the trappings of being Christian but its doctrine clearly missed the message of Jesus and his love. And the hymns of the faith were not sung in this place of false worship.
Though I did not understand why, I found myself drawn to the old hymns even as a child. The opportunities to hear these blessed songs were few. But even in that day they were far more often heard on radio and television, and even sung in public school, than is the case for today. They were part of our secular culture because of the strong Christian influence that had built this nation of ours.
There was a wildly popular singer in that day who was, and still is, a favorite of mine. He could sing Gospel songs better than anyone else. I have a couple of his religious albums on 33 LPs and CDs. The singer is none other than Elvis Presley.
So when I walked into a Christian Servicemen’s Center on September 8, 1972 as a sergeant in the Marine Corps, the place where I surrendered my heart and life to Jesus, the hymns became a permanent fixture in my life. Over the next forty years I had the great privilege to sing in gospel groups, choirs, duets, musical productions for churches, and acappella singing.
The church my wife and I attend is the same one I pastored for sixteen years until my retirement last May. There are two services on Sunday morning. The service I prefer is the first one at 8:30. The reason is the singing. It is in that service that we sing the hymns of the faith that have stood the test of time. During the offering our pianist played arguably one of the greatest hymns ever written. It was written by Frederick M. Lehman in 1917. It is entitled, “The Love of God.” Though this minister wrote more than 100 hymns during his life, none ever touched the soul with divine inspiration the way this hymn has done and continues to do.
The song is written with three verses and a refrain. But it is the third verse that is so powerful, speaking of God’s infinite and eternal love for us. Hear these words in your own soul: “Could we with ink the ocean fill, And were the skies of parchment made, Were every stalk on earth a quill, And every man a scribe by trade, To write the love of God above, Would drain the ocean dry, Nor could the scroll contain the whole, Tho stretched from sky to sky.” Then the refrain: “O love of God, how rich and pure! How measureless and strong! It shall forevermore endure – the saints’ and angels’ song.”
The story is told of an anti-Jewish priest in Worms, Germany in the 11th Century who laid out some damning accusations against the Jews of that city. The king of that city challenged the Jewish leadership to publicly defend themselves against this vile accusation. If they were successful, they could continue to live at peace in Worms, otherwise the Jews would be killed. A poem was written by Rabbi Meir Ben Isaac Nehorai which was read aloud in defense of their religious faith, saving the day for the Jews. Part of that poem reads, “Were the sky of parchment made, A quill each reed, each twig and blade, Could we with ink the oceans fill, Were every man a scribe of skill, The marvelous story, Of God’s great glory, Would still remain untold; For He, most high, The earth and sky Created alone of old.” Clearly Fredrick Lehman had read this poem, incorporating some of the same wording into his now famous hymn.
We’ve all been touched by the sinful nature of man, and the evil intent that resides in the heart, and the horrific actions brought against others. Only God can eradicate this from our soul. That’s what Jesus came to do.
Let me conclude with the first verse of this hymn. “The love of God is greater far, Than tongue or pen can ever tell, It goes beyond the highest star, And reaches to the lowest hell; The guilty pair, Bowed down with care, God gave his Son to win: His erring child He reconciled, And pardoned from his sin.”
Yes, I love the old hymns, but I love the message even more. It is said that theologian Karl Barth was asked to summarize his twelve-volume set on church dogmatics which deals with the theoretical truths of faith concerning God and his works. His reply? “Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so.”
Have you been touched by the love of God?