I’m not sure why I picked this hymn. I’m nearing the end of this year long hymn project (part two…) and am actually struggling to find hymns I’m interested in. Partly that’s weariness, and partly it’s a frustration with texts that do not inspire, some that even offend. But if I return to my original purpose back in 2014 when I started this project, I am reminded that part of what I wanted to do was find meaning in places I thought there was none. There is always something to be learned, something to uncover.
This is a tricky one for me, as it is said to deal with the theme of “Christian perfection.” Well, I’m pretty sure that doesn’t exist, and I’m absolutely sure perfect Christians don’t exist, but I’ll wade in anyway. The words were written by Charles Wesley in 1747, but it didn’t take much to discover that the first stanza is an adaptation of John Dryden’s text used in Henry Purcell’s opera, King Arthur, from 1691 (although then it was a fair isle excelling and Venus choosing her dwelling – ever so slightly different!). The hymn is sometimes sung to Purcell’s music, but the version I am familiar with was written by John Zundell in 1870.
Love divine, all loves excelling,
Joy of heav’n to earth come down:
fix in us thy humble dwelling,
all thy faithful mercies crown:
Jesus, thou art all compassion,
pure, unbounded love thou art;
visit us with thy salvation,
enter ev’ry trembling heart.
Breathe, O breathe thy loving Spirit
into ev’ry troubled breast;
let us all in thee inherit,
let us find the promised rest:
take away the love of sinning;
Alpha and Omega be;
End of faith, as its Beginning,
set our hearts at liberty.
Come, Almighty to deliver,
let us all thy life receive;
suddenly return, and never,
nevermore thy temples leave.
Thee we would be always blessing,
serve thee as thy hosts above,
pray and praise thee without ceasing,
glory in thy perfect love.
Finish, then, thy new creation;
pure and spotless let us be:
let us see thy great salvation
perfectly restored in thee;
changed from glory into glory,
’til in heav’n we take our place,
’til we cast our crowns before thee,
lost in wonder, love, and praise.
What can I find in these words? They are filled with the idea that we, as flawed humans, require cleansing in order to achieve restoration, liberty and salvation. The love beyond all loves that God gives is invited to accomplish this. Maybe this is a good thing. I know many people who rely on this concept of God’s love to achieve who and what they wish to be. Many people hold dearly to the idea that this powerful divine force will save them. Save them. It’s a formidable notion, one I continue to struggle with. It is a focus I have difficulty relating to – and one that sometimes has requirements that seem to be exclusive and damaging to those that don’t agree and comply, or those that simply don’t succeed. The preoccupation with salvation can be quite unloving.
If I look at the words differently, I do find some comfort. A love that is beyond all other loves, is a good thing. The breathing of a loving spirit into our troubled souls, is a good thing. The idea that there is a force that is defined by its lovingness is a marvel. We live in a culture that defines success in terms of our careers and accomplishments, our wealth and possessions. We don’t really consider our ability to express all-encompassing love as something to be held in such high regard that it surpasses all else. When was the last time that special person you know who spends all their time and energy caring for friends and relatives received an award worthy of media coverage? Never. When did the friend who simply held your hand in a moment of pain get a salary raise for their efforts? Never. When was an honorary degree bestowed upon the one that taught a child to ride a bike or drove a carload of kids to camp or fixed your flat tire or helped you move? Never.
When I start to think of the multitude acts of love that we experience each day, and throughout our lives, I am amazed. Amazed at their power and amazed at how much we take them for granted. In a way, these acts are our salvation – those we receive and those we give. Without them, surely we would be lost. In doing them we become fully human by sharing in the good and bad this life has to offer. It may be that God’s example of love is a source of inspiration, but the definition of love can also be found elsewhere. It may be hard to find that inspiration, and it may require choices that involve tremendous strength and openness. But I suspect within the concept of an excellent love lies one of the secrets to a good life. The one we’re living in the here and now.
Love divine, all loves excelling. What a pursuit. Will it be my salvation? I don’t know. But I do know a life lived with this goal will be rich in ways that can’t be predicted. Ways that may not be obvious, easy or of our time. Ways that will result in a view on our final days that will see a life’s beautiful landscape, painted with all the colours available, fully experienced and wonderfully lived.
Carla, your words and music are so lovely. Maybe the word perfect is a verb, a process more than a static state. Like God’s name – “I will be” is the correct translation, God is fluid and moving, not immobile. My father, who studied theology, once said that Paul’s seemingly vain exhortation to be perfect like him meant, in today’s language, become your best self, fully develop your skills and talents. You, Carla, are perfect.
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Thanks, Pat. Much appreciated.