Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Still Life with Trumpet / The Question of a Thousand Tongues

Coming home to an empty house at a reasonable hour of the day, I decided to get out the horn and make some music (or something like it. It's been a while.)

I was looking for some good Easter music. I found a lot of it. I had fun with the al - - le - lu - ias! So by the time I got to this one I was having trouble with the high notes. Like I said, it's been a while since I played.

But I realize I also have some trouble with the lyrics. You know, I think I've been getting it wrong all these years. I always thought Wesley was saying, he wished he had a thousand tongues (in his mouth - or, a thousand mouths, each with their own tongue?) with which to sing praises to God, because God is worthy. And he would love to give God that much more praise. But devout as that may sound, it's a bit silly, isn't it? Is that how you read the song? (Could be correct. Some sources suggest it.)

Slightly less ridiculous is the idea that maybe Wesley wishes he could praise God in a thousand languages. Still a bit beside the point, but not as strange.

Finally, I realized the meaning could be something different all together. Maybe Wesley does not want to do all the praising on his own. Maybe he wants to join in with a thousand singers, or the singers of a thousand languages. Maybe he longs for the day when people from thousands of language groups will join to the chorus. There. That's better. Wycliffe says there are 6,912 separate languages spoken in the world today. So, maybe we could even sing, "Oh, for six thousand tongues to sing / to spread through all the earth abroad the honors of thy name."

That's it. You knew it all along. Why did I get it wrong in 25 years of being part of this Christianity thing, and a Presbyterian no less?

It's such a modern/western thing to close our eyes, block out everyone else, and think of worship as "me and my God" instead of "the Creator and the whole community."

But wait, he does say "assist me to proclaim," which suggests my first interpretation - that it's all about wanting to be the one who gives God a bigger, better gift. Wesley is part of that same pietistic tradition that has shaped us and our attitudes toward worship, so maybe he was wishing (in vain) for extra body parts with which to glorify God. He did not get them. Sorry, Charlie.

Of course, his ministry touched thousands of people, and perhaps in time members of a thousand language groups. So in that sense his wish has come true.

And the six thousand tongues to sing our great Redeemer's praise, in the sense of people from six thousand languages? It's going to happen, too. Easter... and Pentecost... were just the beginning.

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