Sightings in Christian Music

by Glen Wiberg

In the recent book When I Was a Child I Read Books, one of my favorite authors, Marilynne Robinson, writes:

“I have reached the point in my life when I can see what has mattered, what has become a part of its substance — I might say a part of my substance.”

She mentions some obvious things that have been important to her in her career as student and teacher. But there are other things she could never have anticipated, among them old American hymns, such as “I Come to the Garden Alone” and “I Love to Tell the Story.”

I could write an essay called “When I Was a Child I Heard Hymns” on those that have become “a part of my substance.” When I was four years old I sat with my folks on a folding chair at a missionary meeting in the Swedish Free Church in Kansas City, and I heard a hymn I had never heard. It was an adult hymn, and in retrospect I wish it had been “I Love to Tell the Story.” Instead, it was “Throw out the Lifeline/someone is sinking today.” I had no idea what we were to throw out, only that I felt fear because someone was “sinking today.” I never asked my folks about the hymn and it never found its way into any Covenant hymnals. But this strange hymn has played in my head, if not my heart, off and on since becoming “a part of my substance” and my lifelong vocation to “throw out the lifeline” — the Gospel of rescue and redemption. Though I confess my preference for Robinson’s favorite with words more striking:

“I love to tell the story, for those who know it best/Seem hungering and thirsting to hear it like the rest.”

I need to mention another great old American hymn that Robinson finds astonishing. She mentions it because even its title, as she says, “speaks more powerfully of the meaning of our (biblical) narrative than whole shelves of books.”

The hymn is a favorite Lenten hymn among Covenanters: “Wondrous Love.” In quoting the first line she shifts a word that will make me and other followers of P.P. Waldenström happy: “What wondrous love is this that caused the Lord of bliss/to bear the dreadful cross for my soul?” Cross, not curse! God’s love is truly wondrous since on the dreadful cross love prevails. Listen to Robinson:

…the main point of the narrative, which is that God is of a kind to love the world extravagantly, wondrously, and the world is of a kind to be worth, which is not to say worthy of, this pained and rapturous love. This is the essence of the story that forever eludes telling.It lives in the world not as myth or history but as a saturating light, a light so brilliant that it hides its source, to borrow an image from another good old hymn.

Then she asks: If this is true, what is our response? How do we act? How do we live? We can at least begin as the song says to: Throw out the lifeline. Webster’s New Collegiate Dictionary suggests, “A lifeline is something (as a land, sea, or air route) regarded as indispensable for the maintaining or protection of life.”

Little could that four-year-old, sitting among adults on a folding chair, swinging his legs, listening to an old hymn, imagine until years later how a hymn would become “a part of his substance,” if only a single part defining his life as one found, chosen, and gifted by Wondrous Love.