Pilgrim’s Hymn – Stephen Paulus
Even before we call on thy name
To ask thee, O Lord
When we seek for the words to glorify thee
Thou hearest our prayer;
Unceasing love, O unceasing love
Surpassing all we know
Glory to the father
And to the Son
And to the Holy Spirit
Even with darkness sealing us in
We breathe thy name
And through all the days that follow so fast
We trust in thee;
Endless thy grace, O endless thy grace
Beyond all mortal dream
Both now and forever
And unto ages and ages
The composer of this piece, Stephen Paulus, is one of the most significant voices in 20th Century music. His catalogue includes over 600 works for chorus, opera, orchestra, concert band, piano, organ, and just about every other ensemble you could imagine. In the choral world, his most significant contributions are heavily influenced by his Lutheran faith. He, along with Dale Warland (whose choir performed in the recording of “Not One Sparrow” a few weeks back), played a huge part in developing the American Choral Sound, which tends to have a bent towards American Folk Music and Hymnody. Stephen’s untimely death in 2014 was a tremendous loss for the music community.
If I had to sum up my faith journey in a sentence, I think the simplest way to tell it would be, “I had God in a box, and then He got too big for it.” In my formative years, my faith was about right-doing, or, more to the point, not wrong-doing. Surely, I understood that God was a generous judge, but in practice I think I treated Him more like a unevenly-weighted scale. Grace put a few more weights on the “Good” side for you.
These ideas calcified in my mind through high school, and I made the incredible mistake of going to a Christian University after graduating. Before attending, I thought this would take my beliefs and cement them. Confirm all the thoughts I had about God and leave me stronger. Then I took the Bible Classes. Christian History classes. We walked through every conception and misconception about God possible, and it turns out that just about every possible perspective was at one point law, and a century later heresy.
It was overwhelming, and I was left with very little that I could assert about the nature of God.
I love the way this text captures the insufficiency of the human mind: We have not yet spoken, but we have already been heard. We are given unceasing love, but it is beyond what we can even experience. We seek perfect words to glorify God, but can’t find them so we borrow from the Gloria Patri. And of His abounding grace, we can say it is endless, but so doing, we must realize that this grace is beyond even our wildest imagination.
Infinity can be so frustrating.
The frustration comes from the human desire to measure and control. A God truly beyond our fathoming is also a God truly beyond our control or measure. I don’t just mean to imply that we want a lasso around God to guide Him where we want, because I am confident no one reading this wants that. I mean that the complexity of God can make it difficult for us to measure certain decisions ourselves. That complexity is how it’s possible to have Conservative and Progressive Christians both sincerely trying to make the world a better place, but living out that effort in such seemingly opposite ways.
The Lord is a generous God, and His grace outpours over us continually. I have no authority to tell you what the “right” perspective on God is, but I will offer this:
A river is only fresh water when it is flowing. The more we claim to understand, the more we dam up the river and risk the water becoming stagnant. Be open to the new parts of Himself that Christ may be revealing to you, and cling only to that grace outpoured.
But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved— and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, so that in the coming ages he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus.
Director of Music
First Presbyterian Church