This is the fifth stanza of the hymn, “We Were Once as You Are”, included in Book III of the Olney Hymns, written by John Newton (1725–1807) and his friend William Cowper (1731–1800). I was introduced to it two weeks ago after receiving a question on the origin and nature of the hymn. It had been quoted in a sermon by Timothy Keller, which piqued the interest of someone and, subsequently, mine.
Not much has been written about the hymn. Hymns in the Olney Hymnal were used for worship or other Sunday or weekday meetings. Newton and Cowper did not write tunes for these hymns but were mindful of the meter they used. The meter determined which tune may be fitting to accompany the text.
As I read the text, I wondered: might this be our response to COVID-19? But what beauty have we seen about God in this time of distress?
N. T. Wright, in his book God and the Pandemic: A Christian Reflection on the Coronavirus and Its Aftermath, points us to Romans 8, which he was of the opinion is full of faith, hope and love. He further states that the chapter captures that the world we live in is full of darkness, but we are secured all because of God’s love outpoured in the death of Jesus (Rom 8:37–39).1 This is the beauty of God we ought to see, be thankful for and take delight in.
The world may be in turmoil, but that does not separate us from the love of God.
We cannot, however, take comfort and enjoy the security that we have been granted, and just go on with life. The hymn reminds us that it is our duty, as people of hope, to go out into the world to love and serve God with every ounce of our energy. As we grapple with the “new normal”, our responsibility of caring for our environment, each other, the less privileged, the poor and the needy is even greater. As Wright puts it, we cannot be spectators nor simply be beneficiaries of the beauty we see in God. We have to be active participants in the work that God has purposed us to do.2
For this text, I suggest we use hymn 502 of the United Methodist Hymnal (tune name: BRED DINA VIDA VINGAR). It is a beautiful Swedish folk tune that is easy to catch. Listen to the tune by scanning the QR code. The tune has an AABA form, where B prepares the singer for the crux of the text.
1 N. T. Wright, God and the Pandemic: A Reflection on the Coronavirus and Its Aftermath (London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 2020), 42-43.
2 Ibid, 51.
Our pleasure and our duty,
Though opposite before;
Since we have seen his beauty,
Are joined to part no more:
It is our highest pleasure,
No less than duty’s call;
To love him beyond measure,
And serve him with our all.
—Stanza 5 of “We Were Once as You Are”
Words: John Newton (1725–1807) and William Cowper (1731-1800)
Judith Laoyan-Mosomos is the Director for Worship and Church Music at the Methodist School of Music, and a member of Kampong Kapor Methodist Church.