*Note: This is adapted from a sermon I preached at Hope Mennonite Church on January 22, 2012. It is based on the hymn text Strong Son of God, immortal Love, which can be found here: http://www.cyberhymnal.org/htm/s/t/strongso.htm
This is the first of two parts.
If there is one thing beyond schmaunfat and church splitting Mennonites are known for it is our singing.
When we lift our voices in harmony, four parts ringing clearly out, there is a beauty to it I hear no where else.
The corporate aspects of our musical worship I find especially moving. As old and young, the talented and the talentless all sing out as one, blending together into a single body of praise. In song we join together as separate people into a congregation, distinct and unified.
But what is happening when we sing? What purpose does music have in a worship service?
One of the reasons I was excited when I was asked to speak on music in worship was that it would give me an excuse to talk about poetry, not something that often comes up in a Mennonite worship service, yet something that can be found in almost every service in the form of song lyrics.
And I have to admit, that the piece of music I decided to base my sermon around I choose because of the words.
The text of Strong Son of God, immortal Love was written by 19th century poet Alfred Lloyd Tennyson. Who was in his time considered one of the greatest living poets and is today understood as a master.
As I read and reflected on the words of Strong Son of God, immortal Love, I found in the text an argument for one of the functions of music as worship. And that is to engage in the mystery of our world. To participate in the holy unknown that is the God we worship. To accept, and even celebrate that there are some things we cannot explain with our words but only through something like music.
The text for this hymn is taken from what may be Tennyson's most famous poem, In Memoriam.
In Memoriam was written following the death of Arthur Hallam, who died at 22 years of age. Hallam was one of Tennyson's greatest friends, and instrumental in encouraging Tennyson to focus his life on poetry. He was a champion of Tennyson's work and was even engaged to his sister.
In Memoriam consists of 131 separate, yet connected individual poems called lyrics. These were composed over the 17 years following Hallam's death before being compiled into a single work.
While there is a narrative of sorts, the majority of the work is a loose meditation on loss, grief and faith. One of the connecting points is that they all adhere to a strict formula of rhyme and meter.
Strong Son of God, immortal Love is taken from the prologue to In Memoriam, composed after the lyrics had been compiled. It is not the entirety of the prologue, but rather 5 of 11 stanzas.
In Memoriam is many things, but mostly it is Tennyson's attempt make sense the death of his friend. It is the cry of a man of faith in despair. Attempting to understand the unexplainable. It is a beautiful example of what faith can be.
Of In Memoriam it has been said, “[it is] Not religious because of the quality of its faith, but because of the quality of its doubt.” The poem is a struggle between faith and doubt, between questioning and following, between knowledge and belief.
These elements can be seen in the words of the hymn . Verse 2 begins with an uncertain phrase, “thou seemest human and divine.” Notice the word “seemest.” This is followed by an phrase of sureness, “the highest holiest one art thou.”
This follows the first verse, which talks of a belief built not on our senses but on faith. It says, “by faith, and faith alone embrace/believing where we cannot prove.” In Tennyson's own notes to his poem he has said this is a reference to when Thomas doubted that Christ had risen.
Tennyson makes it clear, we have only faith. Some things can be known through faith but there are things that will always be unknown, and therefore subject to doubt.
For Tennyson this doubt is not something that must be overcome, but rather understood as an integral part of faith.
Verse 3 begins with, “our little systems.” This is a reference to the systems of religion and philosophy. In Tennyson's time new ideas of geology and evolution were challenging centuries old teachings of the church. For Tennyson Compared to the grandeur of God they are nothing, and fail hopelessly in their aims of describing the world.
In verse 4 Tennyson goes even further. Knowledge itself is inadequate when it comes to God. God is unknowable. Which is to say, that we will never fully understand God. We are left with only faith. Yet Tennyson gives comfort as well at the end of verse 4, “we trust it comes from thee, a beam in darkness – let it grow.” This faith is possible because it comes from God, and we can call for it to grow.
When I read that line, “a beam in the darkness,” I can't help but think that Tennyson is talking about himself, as much as he is commenting on larger ideas. From the death of his friend he has found himself in darkness, this poem is, in part, a crying out for that beam from God.
What Tennyson seems to be saying is that we will never understand God. God is always beyond us, greater than us.
These “little systems” are important, and like everything else, they come from God. But we must understand them for what they are. Hopelessly inadequate at describing that which is indescribable. That which is mysterious.