It’s awkward to do church in a congregation where you don’t speak the language. Years ago we were visiting in China where I was scheduled to speak. I knew my translator was skilled so the congregation would understand what I said. But I didn’t understand a word they said. Except one.
It was in the chorus of the song, Revive Us Again. I knew the tune but didn’t know one word of the Mandarin translation. That is, till they came to the word Hallelujah! It’s repeated three times in the chorus, and it’s the same word in their language as it is in mine. I suddenly felt more at home.
That was an aha moment for me. I thought how distant I felt when everybody but me was singing a song they all knew. That worship service raised my sensitivity. I began to be more conscious of folks who were worshiping with us but didn’t know the language. Not the English language, but the in-house language of the hymn or gospel song.
Let me illustrate: There is a great old hymn (Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing, written in 1757) that has some of the richest gospel language of any we sing. By the way, it was written by a young adult who was 22 at the time. I love the song; I love to sing it. To stand with a full worship center and listen to the full-throated 4-part majesty brings me to tears nearly every time. “O to grace, how great a debtor, daily I’m constrained to me…” I can even get around the 18th century language by contemplating the content.
That is, till I come to the second stanza: “Here I raise my Ebenezer…” Pardon? I didn’t even know I had an Ebenezer. How could I raise it if I didn’t even know I had one? I don’t wish to be sacrilegious here, but just to make a point. I need to have some knowledge of the Bible narrative to understand the significance of the song. Here’s a summary: After an extended period of rebellion (including a battle in which Israel lost 34,000 soldiers), God routed the Philistine army (with thunder) and out of gratitude Samuel erected a monument to God’s deliverance, and named it “Ebenezer,” which in his language means, “stone of help,” with the proclamation, “Thus far the Lord has helped us.”
When I know the story, the song is powerful. But before I have the church sing it I want to make sure they get it. Otherwise I’m violating Paul’s counsel that we should “sing with the spirit and with understanding.” I hear the complaint often that people don’t sing in church anymore even though music is such an essential asset as we leave the distractions behind and step into the presence of God. I think we’re on to something here. I am more apt to sing with enthusiasm when I understand the message. That’s because God is honored when our worship comes, not just from our lips, but from our hearts.
By Don Jacobsen