And the things of earth will grow strangely clear

And the things of earth will grow strangely clear September 15, 2014

hymns_34

Feel-Good Nostalgia No. 349

And now, let us rise and sing no. 349, “Turn Your Eyes upon Jesus.” All three stanzas 28 words.

Turn your eyes upon Jesus,

Look full in His wonderful face,

And the things of earth will grow strangely dim,

In the light of His glory and grace.

-Helen H. Lemmel, 1922

When I was growing up in what amounted to an early megachurch complete with contemporary music, I used to look forward to the end of the sermon. Partially because the pastor was about as boring as the Weather Channel and about as theological, but even more because afterwards, we actually sang a hymn instead of a mid-90s contemporary song. This was one of the ones we sang regularly. And it sounds really good, doesn’t it? Like we’re all just about to cuddle up with Jesus and watch all our cares go away. Maybe that’s why the folks over at Hillsong have even used it. And, of course, repeated it ad nauseam.

In related news, I think Helen H. Lemmel may have been a Gnostic.

When Our Favorite Words Are Wrong

Okay, so she probably wasn’t a Gnostic, although I think her little ditty creeps dangerously close to it. That’s the thing about heresy. It’s usually an accident. Like this one time I wrote a paper for a historical theology class in which I somehow ended up denying the Trinity. I didn’t do it on purpose, but it was a gruesome scene, nonetheless.

Anyway, this meager chorus made the United Methodist Hymnal, but it wasn’t all good ol’ Helen wrote. Her original poem, which she apparently titled “The Heavenly Vision,” looked like this.

O soul, are you weary and troubled?

No light in the darkness you see?

There’s a light for a look at the Savior,

And life more abundant and free!

Turn your eyes upon Jesus,

Look full in His wonderful face,

And the things of earth will grow strangely dim,

In the light of His glory and grace.

Through death into life everlasting

He passed, and we follow Him there;

Over us sin no more hath dominion—

For more than conquerors we are!

His Word shall not fail you—He promised;

Believe Him, and all will be well:

Then go to a world that is dying,

His perfect salvation to tell!

News flash to everyone who gets goosebumps when they sing it: this song is not about cuddling up with Jesus. It’s about spiritual warfare. It’s about the classic evangelical understanding of Christian responsibility. It’s also rife with poor escapist theology (You know, the whole “this world is not my home” perspective ). And then there’s this bit about the things of earth growing strangely dim. This represents a very negative view of the world around us, almost as if it’s nothing more than a fireball of garbage moving toward complete destruction. I heard this a lot growing up. But that’s just not the case. The truth is, this is a good world designed by a great Creator, and even though it and its inhabitants bear the awful weight of the curse, that’s not always going to be so.

Don’t believe what Kirk Cameron tells you, this world is our home, at least it will be in the day of resurrection when heaven comes down and the cosmos is restored as far as the curse is found.

A Beautiful Benediction

The truth is, turning our eyes upon Jesus doesn’t make the world grow dim. It’s dim enough without Christ. With Christ, it grows brighter, clearer. The things of earth are strangely, curiously brought into sharper focus. The world might be dying, but God is in the process of bringing it back to life.

That’s good news, and it changes everything. It changes how we care for the environment. It changes how we go about evangelism. It changes how we respond to social justice issues. It really changes the tenor of the Gospel reality. It calls us to yearn for peace instead of war, for justice instead of oppression, for more and more of the coming kingdom to be realized through our efforts.

All this is not to say that sin isn’t still all around us, but it’s not the truest part of creation, and there’s coming a time that all will be well in this currently chaotic world. And in that day, the wolf will lie with the lamb, and this world will be brighter than ever before.As so many from my background are, I was born and bred to be the morality police. Seriously. The message I got was, “Who gives a dang about anything goes on in the world, as long as nobody’s drinking, gay, or having lots of sex and abortions.” They wanted to turn their eyes in Jesus’ general direction to dissociate from all the things that offended their fundamentalist sensibilities.

But the clarity that comes from actually looking at him calls us to be more compassionate, to be less judgmental, to be okay with gray areas, to be completely not okay with injustice, and to engage with the world around us with hope and purpose.

N.T. Wright says it this way:

There’s an old chorus which begins, ‘Turn your eyes upon Jesus; look full in his wonderful face’. That’s a great invitation, but sadly it goes on ‘and the things of earth will grow strangely dim in the light of his glory and grace.’ There is a truth in that, but actually in today’s gospel a very different note is sounded: when we look fully at Jesus, risen, ascended and glorified, and when Jesus sends his Spirit on his people, then the things of earth will be seen in a new, sharp and properly disturbing light. And instead of escaping from the world, retreating like an embarrassed chameleon to one colour-field only, we are sent into the world, not to take on its colour but to reveal the new combined reality of heaven and earth, to live in that reality – which we do in sacrament here, and in service outside – and to declare to the awkward and unready world that Jesus is Lord. Pentecost is the end of the great cycle of events that began with Advent; but it is of course the beginning of the new world, the world of God’s kingdom, of his combined heaven-and-earth reality, the world in which, by praise and prayer and prophecy, we are now called to live without embarrassment and to love without measure.

And with all due respect to Ms. Lemmel, maybe we shouldn’t sing this one anymore.

Further reading:

N.T. Wright, Surprised By Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection, and the Mission of the Church, (New York: Harper), 2008.

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  • bob jackson

    You are right–and wrong. Like most things theological, there are facets similar to a cut diamond. When I came to Christ in 1964 this was a hymn I learned early. I was bogged down in a farm, a job, trying to accumulate things, partying with other 20 somethings, etc. When I literally turned my eyes Jesusward I found less and less interest in “things.” The farm ran down more, the job turned lackluster. then boring. I wanted more of Christ and His Word. Within 6 months of my decision we sold everything and went to Bible college. The same hymn you call “escapist” was a clarion call as my wife and I, and 3 kids went to the jungle as tribal evangelists. Rather than “escape” it called us to “attack.” Although you have read into this hymn something entirely different (90 years late!), I think this was the intent of the composer! Man, Revisionists abound! This is not one of the 7-11 choruses of the 60s through present. (You know, 7 words repeated 11 times!) BTW, there is an escapist facet to our Lord which I wouldn’t want to miss, since we all need that sometimes. Lots of passages refer to “wings of an eagle, Is. 26 under his wings (Ps 91) , leaning on everlasting arms. As pointed out so masterfully in J.B. Phillips’ Your God Is Too Small, the problem comes when we dwell too heavily on one facet to the disregard of others that we get twisted.

  • Jenny Knutson

    With respect, Mr. Johnson, it is an amazing story that the Holy Spirit called you and your family to serve the Lord so wholeheartedly! Thank you for answering His Call. But, I think Jonathan is correct about it being (even if it was unintentional) a gnostic interpretation of Christianity. We marvel that over the centuries, God has kept his Scriptures pure, with little variation. He promised the prophets that He wouldn’t let his Word go out and return to him ‘void’. As he has protected his Word, I think there’s evidence that he has protected his Church that sings his praises. The hymns and songs we sing in praise of God and for strengthening our faith are not ‘inspired’ with the same weight of Scripture. But since we sing them for those reasons, those texts must reflect sound theology, as they teach us in a way that goes right to the core of our being. I remember this song well from my Baptist days. Besides the ‘cuddly’ vibe, I think what stayed with me (the good part) was ‘focus on the Savior’. But since I’ve been a Lutheran for about 2/3 of my life, I look at the text now and think it is strangely dim in the light of the hymns I sing now.

    Thank you, Jonathan. It’s good to read what you’re thinking.

    • Jonathan

      One of the best comments ever. From a former Baptist to another. Thank you.

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