Liturgy Lesson: September 29, 2019
Call to Worship: Is. 55:8-11; Rom. 11:33-36
Prayer of Invocation
Hymn of Praise: Immortal, Invisible, God Only Wise (#38)
Confession: Job 28:12, 23-28 and prayer
Assurance: 1 Cor. 1:30-31, Rom. 6:14, Ps. 34:2-3
Hymn of Assurance: When I Survey (#252)
Reading of the Word: Proverbs 8:22-36
Sermon: Pastor Shiv, “Who is Lady Wisdom?”
Tithes and Offerings
Supper: Across the Lands; O Savior of our Fallen Race
Closing Hymn: God Moves in a Mysterious Way
“A fool sees not the same tree that a wise man sees”
– William Blake, Proverbs of Hell
“For the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.”
– 1 Cor. 1:18
This week we will look at a masterpiece of hymn-writing by William Cowper (pronounced Cooper), “God Moves in a Mysterious Way.” This is a hymn that has created its own euphemism in the English language. Many Christians are perhaps more familiar with the saying (“God moves in mysterious ways”) than they are with the author or the hymn. For those of you who are unfamiliar with William Cowper’s story, it is a life that John Piper called “one long accumulation of pain” (I encourage you to read Piper’s reflections on Cowper from a pastor’s conference in 1992). Cowper’s pain was primarily mental and emotional. His early years saw the death of five of his siblings and his mother. He had a horrible relationship with his father, who pushed him into a career that gave him nothing but dread. He never married, and most of his adult life he suffered from terrible nightmares and debilitating bouts of severe depression. He often felt crippling shame, believing that God had rejected him, and often struggled to enter a church or say a prayer. He spent 18 months in an insane asylum, a place where he encountered the hope of the gospel and the love of Jesus through an attending physician. He lived the latter decades of his life under the watchful eye and caring heart of John Newton, who was a faithful friend to Cowper until the day he died.
Cowper poured his heart into his writing, and often it seems as if the man and the message are indistinguishable. When I read some of his poetry, it is as if the pen is flowing with Cowper’s own blood and tears. Consider the last poem he wrote, entitled “The Castaway,” in which Cowper describes a soul fallen overboard at sea, washed up on shore, and abandoned because of a storm. The ship cannot reach him, and he drowns trying to swim after it. He shouts to his friends but they cannot hear him. The man is “by toil subdued, he drank the stifling wave, and then he sank. No poet wept him.” Here is the final stanza of that poem. This is the last thing that Cowper ever wrote:
No voice divine the storm allayed,
No light propitious shone;
When, snatched from all effectual aid,
We perished, each alone:
But I beneath a rougher sea,
And whelmed in deeper gulfs than he.
This is disturbing and bleak stuff, very different than the Hollywood ending where Tom Hanks makes his way back home with the help of a self-made raft and a volleyball. If Cowper were living in the 21st century he would have a medicine cabinet full of prescriptions and a laundry list of diagnoses. I think he would be so drugged up he would have felt no compulsion or desperate need to wring out his heart on the page. Aldous Huxley once wrote, “Perhaps it’s good for one to suffer. Can an artist do anything if he’s happy? Would he ever want to do anything? What is art, after all, but a protest against the horrible inclemency of life?” This makes me think of Beethoven’s 9th symphony. The composer was totally deaf when he wrote it, and the music is primal stuff, full of ferocity and daring and reckless joy. Not all art is born from pain, but suffering is often the refiner’s fire. Cowper’s brokenness brought forth a burnished beauty in his work. The songwriter Leonard Cohen famously put it this way:
Forget your perfect offering.
There is a crack, a crack, in everything.
That’s how the light gets in.
And, I would argue, that’s how the light gets out. Despite battling such darkness, Cowper displays the light of the hope in Christ through this hymn, which held the apt original title “Light Shining Out of the Darkness.” Over time, though, the hymn became known by its famous first line:
God moves in a mysterious way
His wonders to perform;
He plants His footsteps in the sea
And rides upon the storm.
Cowper purportedly wrote “God Moves in a Mysterious Way” just before one of his mental relapses that led to yet another suicide attempt. His use of foreboding and stormy imagery in the hymn is not just a clever poetic device. He is describing himself as he stands on the precipice watching the skies darken. In 1792 he wrote to his friend John Newton:
“I am scrambling in the dark, among rocks and precipices, without a guide. Thus I have spent 20 years, but thus I shall not spend twenty years more. Long ere that period arrives, the grand question concerning my everlasting weal or woe will be decided.”
This is a voice grasping for hope, bordering on despair, one that is unsure of its eternal fate. And yet Cowper’s own doubts, which plagued him for nearly three decades, were the birth pangs of many of his hymns. Sometimes these were nothing more than sheer defiance in the face of doubt. These are the legacy of a man who was sustained only by the unfailing mercies of God, who preserved Cowper’s life despite three suicide attempts. He finally died at the age of 69 from natural causes. When John Newton gave the sermon at Cowper’s funeral, he began with Exodus chapter 3, the famous passage about the burning bush. Newton said this:
“The Lord has given me many friends but with none have I had so great an intimacy, as with my friend Mr. Cowper. But he is gone. I was glad when I heard it. I know of no text in the whole book of God’s word more suited to the case of my dear friend than that I have read. He was indeed a bush in flames for 27 years but he was not consumed. And why? Because the Lord was there!”
AMEN to that! Reading Newton’s words, one calls to mind the great passage from Lamentations 3:
“Because of the Lord’s great love, we are not consumed. His compassions never fail.”
And then there is this stout-hearted declaration from 2 Corinthians, which reads like it was written for William Cowper:
“We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be manifested in our bodies…So we do not lose heart. Though our outer self is wasting away, our inner self is being renewed day by day. For this light and momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison.”
Here we find the ultimate answer to pain. The cross of Christ fills the void of suffering with purpose, it floods the grave with life, it redeems it all. When we are tempted to shout, “Why, God?” we can look to Jesus “the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God.” (Heb. 12:2) There is the lasting hope. We endure for the joy set before us. That is the message dripping from the tear-soaked page of Cowper’s hymn.
In the 28th chapter of Job, the narrator describes the deep mines of the earth wherein are hidden all sorts of gems and precious treasures. “But where shall wisdom be found?” Job asks. He knows that God’s vault is deeper than any mine, and wisdom a treasure greater than any gemstone or gold trinket. “It is hidden from the eyes of all living and concealed from the birds of the air” (v. 21). The passage concludes by saying that it is God alone who knows where Wisdom is kept. Cowper summarizes this all in verse 2:
Deep in unfathomable mines
Of never failing skill
He treasures up His bright designs
And works His sov’reign will.
And what is the wisdom of the Father? Well, scripture tells us that it is embodied in our savior. Jesus Christ is the wisdom of God (1 Cor. 1:24). In him are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge (Col. 2:3). When reading the first few verses of Cowper’s hymn, I can’t help but think how Christ himself descended into the pit of darkness to unlock all the everlasting treasures of heaven. At Calvary we see the unfolding of the great wonder, mystery, and sovereign will of Father God.
Judge not the Lord by feeble sense,
But trust Him for His grace;
Behind a frowning providence
He hides a smiling face.
His purposes will ripen fast,
Unfolding every hour;
The bud may have a bitter taste,
But sweet will be the flow’r.
That last stanza has overtones of Gethsemane when the Lord accepted the bitter cup of woe on our behalf. Jesus knew that what awaited him on the other side of the grave was the smiling face of the Father who longs to embrace his children; and now Jesus is the “first fruits” of the great ripening to come. Oh, how sweet is the full flowering of the Gospel indeed. This is a real and lasting reason to sing.
At Cowper’s funeral, toward the end the sermon, John Newton had these tender words to say:
“He suffered much here for twenty seven years, but eternity is long enough to make amends for all. For what is all he endured in this life, when compared with that rest which remaineth for the children of God?”
A good question indeed. Can we even fathom the sense of joy and repose that awaits us all? Can our imaginations even grasp the glory on that “blissful shore”? Cowper is resting there now, no longer as the castaway, but having finally cast away all cares. After almost 70 years of painful pilgrimage, William Cowper arrived home. What remains for him now is the joy of seeing it all clearly. The dimness has been taken away and he is face to face with God. He can step back from all the broken pieces and see the entire mosaic the Master has created. And that is how Cowper’s hymn concludes:
Blind unbelief is sure to err
And scan His work in vain;
God is His own interpreter,
And He will make it plain.
Because of his constant wrestling with inner turmoil, Cowper produced some of the most honest, heartbreaking, and resolute devotional poetry in the English language. Many of his great hymns (which were encouraged by Newton himself) are beloved by generations of souls who are weary or tortured and in need of encouragement to press on. Are you weary from struggle? May this hymn be a blessing to you, and may these words, as you sing them, fill you with renewed hope.
You fearful saints, fresh courage take,
the clouds you so much dread,
Are big with mercy, and shall break
with blessings o’er your head.
When we sing this hymn on Sunday, there will be one additional verse. I decided to add one final verse as a prayer of response. Basically, I wanted us to close our service not merely by singing about God, but rather to him. My hope is that my vastly inferior poetry would not be too much of a shift, but instead would help the hymn end on a more devotional note of trust, hope, and triumph. Here’s the verse:
O Sovereign and unchanging Lord,
Your paths we cannot trace.
Reveal to us, in darkest hour,
The brightness of your face.
O God of wisdom, God of power,
The Author of our days;
We trust in your unfailing love,
And triumph by your grace.
Note: I have said before that the words and music in hymns are like a marriage; they should support one another. Form and content should not be in conflict. I am a big fan of music that enhances the meaning in the text. This allows the heart and mind to be more seamlessly combined in the singing. To be frank, I do not like most of the standard settings of this hymn, and the one in the Trinity hymnal (the most common tune pairing with this hymn text) left me cold. So, I wrote new music for Cowper’s poem. I wanted something that sounded mysterious and a bit more profound than just stepwise quarter notes in a major key. It seemed wrong to sing a hymn about the unfathomable mysteries of God to such a predictable and “easy” tune.
The recording link below is a rough demo of the first verse. A bit dusty, unpolished, straight out of the workshop. For the finished version, come on Sunday and lend your voice!