The deep, dark secret of the church is that the beliefs and convictions of Christians are often shaped far more by the hymns we sing than the theological tomes gathering dust on our bookshelves. Songs are avenues for praising God, but they are also tools for imparting knowledge. Singing is a theological exercise, so the words printed in hymnbooks or flashed on screens deserve attention and reflection.
“How Great Thou Art” has been sung in churches, automobiles, and probably the occasional shower since the late 19th century. Long used in traditional worship services, many contemporary artists are offering their own renditions of this classic and adapting it for more contemporary settings. Even Carrie Underwood (no relation) is getting into the act.
This is an ode to God’s majesty and power. It testifies to the beauty created by God’s hand and witnesses to the connection between the love behind God’s creative acts and the love poured out by Christ on the cross.
The famous opening line, “O Lord my God, When I in awesome wonder, Consider all the worlds Thy Hands have made” sets the stage. They also easily get stuck in your head playing on endless loop.
Creation – stars, thunder, forest, birds, majestic mountains, gentle breezes, and everything else – indicates the greatness of God. It provokes wonder among us humans, forcing us to acknowledge the subordinate relationship between creature and Creator. We cannot do what God has done; our accomplishments will always pale in comparison.
I invite you to stop reading this now, listen to a copy of the hymn “For the Beauty of the Earth,” and go sing it in celebration while walking around your neighborhood.
If you’re still with me, I’ll explain why:
Since learning the hymn several years ago, it has come to mind in many memorable places that now fill my mental landscape whenever I sing the hymn. One of those places is a park overlooking the Anacostia River near my house in Washington, D.C. Kenilworth Park was built on the site of a city dump that was plowed over 40 years ago and is now undergoing a remediation process to control suspected groundwater contamination. But despite its tainted legacy, it’s still one of the most beautiful places in Washington D.C.
The park constantly reminds me of the distance between what is and what could be. It’s full of potential, but sometimes the park’s potential is the only positive thing I see. On a recent walk through it, I came to my favorite overlook across from the National Arboretum and was momentarily struck by the contrast. The overlook is always full of trash from the river and at times overgrown with invasive plants, but this time, as I walked up, I caught a glimpse of a Northern Harrier flying along the river. I had never seen a Northern Harrier, much less so close to my house and in such an unlikely place. It momentarily caught me and my bird-watching friends breathless; we were reminded of the potential always hidden within the park.
Praise God, from whom all blessings flow;
Praise [God], all creatures here below;
Praise [God] above, ye heavenly host;
Praise Father, Son, and Holy Ghost, Amen.
Words by Thomas Ken (1674)
The Doxology was my favorite hymn growing up. We would sing it every Sunday in church at the end of the service, mostly a cappella. I was amazed at the different harmonies and range in which the hymn could be sung. I loved how simple the words were. But I did not understand the words fully until well into my adult life. As a kid, I immediately disregarded things like animals, plants, insects, and fish as creatures that could praise God. Surely the act of praising God is only reserved for the sentient beings, with a conscience and the ability to say in words “praise God.” No way would God receive the praises of a mosquito, or fern or cat or pig.
It took the glory of creation itself for me to fully understand the words of the Doxology. A year out of college, I was sitting on a kayak in the middle of Doubtful Sound, New Zealand surrounded by snowcapped peaks that dropped right into the water. The sun was shining, dolphins were swimming nearby, and the birds were chirping. Then the song hit me “Praise God, all creatures here below.” I could hear the songs of praise from his non-human creatures. It finally dawned on me that my songs of praise paled in comparison to the winds that touch the peaks of mountains, the perfect songs of birds and the language of dolphins. They are all songs of praise!
Many years ago, I sat in a church that resembled nothing like the church that I barely frequented while growing up. As the overhead lights dimmed in preparation for opening song, a blue-ish red hue washed over the stage to what felt like a concert opening and the following lyrics for “Indescribable” emerged on two oversized screens flanking the worship team:
From the highest of heights to the depths of the sea
Creation’s revealing Your majesty
From the colors of fall to the fragrance of spring
Every creature unique in the song that it sings
All exclaiming …
These song lyrics stuck with me because they remind me of how God is manifest in our natural world, where grace and interconnectedness are reflected in species that are intricately dependent on one another, and where the sheer beauty of our earth often becomes more apparent when we are able to step away from our industrialized lives and behold a starry night or a hike in the woods.
These lyrics also remind me of the part in Genesis where Adam is first put in charge of taking care of Eden and then gets to name all the animals, implying that he is responsible for them too:
“The Lord God took the man and put him in the Garden of Eden to work it and take care of it … Now the Lord God had formed out of the ground all the wild animals and all the birds in the sky. He brought them to the man to see what he would name them; and whatever the man called each living creature, that was its name. So the man gave names to all the livestock, the birds in the sky and all the wild animals …” (Gen 2:15; 19-20).
In these days barren fields will sprout trees
The deaf and blind will hear and see
The dead will raise and begin to breathe
The earth will groan in pain to see
The sons of God declare to be
His full and glorious family
The beautiful, perfect bride of Thee (Wash Me Clean, Page CXVI)
I am a city girl through and through — I’ve never lived outside of an urban context. Although my family lived in Queens (represent!), our church and community were in the dense and often treeless “ghetto” of Alphabet City, a neighborhood on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. My experiences of nature have mostly consisted of front and back yards, parks, and occasional trips to the beach or camping. And because I grew up in and spent most of my life in communities of the poor and marginalized, most of my experiences of God have centered around what Divine mercy, justice, healing, liberation, and restoration look like in the human heart.
In other words, it’s very easy for me to grasp the idea of a “New Jerusalem” or “a city whose architect and builder is God.” It’s easy for me to see the human component of God’s kingdom and what it means for people. It’s not so easy for me to imagine trees “clapping their hands” or even fully to appreciate the majesty of God’s handiwork in the stars ... because I’ve rarely seen a night sky free from light pollution. It’s not easy for me to imagine what a renewed creation would look like apart from new hearts and restored people.