When I Survey
a reflection by Barry Sherbeck
When I survey the writings, songs, and prayers of people of faith in Jesus throughout the twenty one centuries since his human life on earth, there is so much that I appreciate, and which instructs and teaches my faith.
I think it is essential that we read, hear, and sing these things with our own fresh critical thought, not blind acceptance. And of course, language itself is not static but very dynamic, changing in meaning and usage in just a few years time, and certainly over centuries, and crossing into various languages and cultures of people who are all created in the image of God.
This is why careful new translations of scripture can be very helpful to us, because just like language, the church, which is the "body of Christ," is not static, and our understanding is not now (nor was it ever) perfect or complete; so over time we should hope to see and understand more deeply the character and interactions of God with creation.
One of my favorite old hymns, by Isaac Watts, demonstrates what I mean. It is a hauntingly beautiful and meaningful four verses of poetry, and music. Yet in the very first line is a word with which I struggle:
When I survey the wondrous cross....
I struggle with this, because I do not think the cross is or was wondrous. That is, if we take wondrous to mean "inspiring a feeling of wonder or delight; marvelous." Crucifixion, torture, capital punishment, abuse of power, and injustice are not wonderful nor delightful, ever. So I would not agree that "the cross" so central to the Christian faith is wondrous.
But if we take wondrous to mean something extraordinary, something to be marveled at, I can go there. The incarnation of Jesus, the words and actions of Jesus, the death of Jesus, and the resurrection of Jesus are deep and extraordinary miracles and mysteries, which require a lifetime of examination, and even then are not exhausted or fully comprehended.
Because Isaac Watts wrote these words over 300 years ago, I can understand that the go-to essence of the word "wondrous" might have been different than it feels to me today. And so I can accept and even embrace the word, but each time I sing this song, all this context of meaning and language is part of the experience for me. That is part of what I mean by bringing our fresh critical thought. Not negative or cynical thought; but careful, critical thought.
For me, "Sorrow and love flow mingled down" is one of the most deeply beautiful, mysterious, and poetic phrases of any hymn, ever. And I need the reminder to "pour contempt on all my pride."
Take some time to read carefully each line of this hymn, and bring to it your own fresh critical thought, the assumptions (helpful or not) you might have, the mysteries you do not fully understand, the scripture that comes to mind, all of which might illuminate small new facets of these wondrous mysteries.
When I Survey The Wondrous Cross
Isaac Watts, 1707
When I survey the wondrous cross
On which the Prince of glory died,
My richest gain I count but loss,
And pour contempt on all my pride.
Forbid it, Lord, that I should boast,
Save in the death of Christ my God!
All the vain things that charm me most,
I sacrifice them to His blood.
See from His head, His hands, His feet,
Sorrow and love flow mingled down!
Did e’er such love and sorrow meet,
Or thorns compose so rich a crown?
Were the whole realm of nature mine,
That were a present far too small;
Love so amazing, so divine,
Demands my soul, my life, my all.
"May I never boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, through which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world." - Galatians 6:14 (NIV)
One of the welds on the St. Louis Gateway Arch, photograph by Barry Sherbeck