Can you name the first hymn in our United Methodist hymnal?
It’s not placed there by chance. “O For a Thousand Tongues to Sing” sits right at the front because it’s an important part of our Methodist story. Its lyrics are a beautiful expression of gratitude for all God has done for us through Christ.
But when you look carefully at this hymn… it doesn’t really make sense. And that’s part of what makes it so powerful.
It all started on May 21, 1738. Charles Wesley – brother to John and writer of over 6,000 hymns – was sick and stuck in bed. Such moments of forced rest provide good time for deep reflection, and before long Charles began to feel a “strange palpitation of heart.” It wasn’t a symptom of his physical illness – it was a sign of his spiritual healing! “I believe! I believe!” he declared. Charles had found peace with God!
Just three days later brother John had a similar experience. He was at a meeting on Aldersgate Street and listening to Martin Luther’s “Preface to the Epistle of the Romans” being read aloud (also a period of forced rest? Sorry, Lutheran friends – that’s no page-turner). Lo and behold, John Wesley felt his heart “strangely warmed.” He knew, at last, that he did trust in Christ alone for salvation!
These were big-time powerful moments! They were write-a-song-about it powerful: Charles would craft “O For a Thousand Tongues to Sing” to mark the one-year anniversary of his conversion experience. They were also gotta-tell-my-mom-about-this powerful: the Wesley brothers wrote home to share the great news with their mother. To which Mama Susanna responded,
“I think you have fallen into an odd way of thinking.”
An oddly lukewarm response to her sons’ conversion, right? But see – it didn’t make sense to Susanna for good reason. John and Charles were preacher’s kids; Susanna’s husband was a priest in the church of England. Beyond that, Susanna herself had taken careful (and quite methodical) care to guide her children in the Christian faith. Children don’t necessarily grow up to accept the faith of their parents… but in this case, John and Charles certainly did, as they went on to be ordained as priests in the church of England (John in 1728 and Charles in 1735).
And years after they had already become priests… they write to tell their mom that they’ve experienced a conversion. Two grown men who had long ago come-to-Jesus, having a come-to-Jesus moment. It doesn’t make any sense.
And yet – it does make sense. Or at least it does to me, because my story isn’t so different.
I grew up in the church. I don’t remember a life without faith. I said memorized prayers when I was too little to make up my own. I learned “Jesus Loves Me” alongside my A, B, C’s. There has never been a time in my life when I didn’t have at least a fledgling faith in Christ.
There’s nothing bad about that – except that it can leave me feeling short-changed in the conversion department. My life wasn’t all sex, drugs, and rock and roll, until: BAM – Jesus! No, for me it was going to church and giving my life to Christ… and then keeping on doing more of that.
But when I hear the Wesley brothers’ story… I see my own story better. I can see where my heart had a “strange palpitation” or was “strangely warmed.” I see the moments when I experienced God in a way so powerful, it dramatically deepened my faith – like a conversion.
Like when I was 11 years old and went forward for an altar call. I had believed before that, but I had never claimed my faith on my own, without my parents or anyone else holding my hand.
Or when I was 14 years old and I went to Wilderness Trail for the first time. On that backpacking trip, I began to understand God’s unconditional love for me in a way I never had before.
Or when I was in my mid-twenties and driving down the road. I was listening to a sermon by Tony Campolo, although I don’t remember anything about the content. All of a sudden the world looked brighter, more vivid – like changing from a standard TV to high-def. In that moment the reality of God was undeniable.
Or when I was in my mid-thirties and my mom was diagnosed with terminal cancer. I prayed that God would take care of my mom – and God immediately assured me, “I did.” It took me a while to accept that God’s care for my mom wasn’t in this physical life, but for her eternal life. The closer she drew to death, the more grateful I became for that eternal care – for her, and for all of us.
If I called these my conversion experiences – well, in one way that wouldn’t make much sense. None of this converted me to Christ; I had faith before any of these things happened. But in another way, how can I call them anything but that? Each of these moments dramatically deepened my relationship with God.
Remember Mama Susanna’s lukewarm reaction to her sons’ conversions? In that same letter she goes on to provide some more supportive words:
“You say that till within a few months you had no spiritual life and no justifying faith… I heartily rejoice that you have attained to a strong and lively hope in God’s mercy through Christ. Not that I can think that you were totally without saving faith before, but it is one thing to have faith, and another thing to be sensible we have it.”
It’s one thing to have faith… and another to wake up to that faith. These moments of becoming dramatically more aware are important. I wonder if you have them, too – but maybe you are shy about them because they don’t make much sense. Maybe they seem too ordinary, like experiencing God while driving down the road or lying in bed. Or maybe they happened after you already had faith, and you’re tempted to think for that reason they don’t “count.”
But oh – they count. Can’t you feel it? That strangely-warmed, palpitating feeling in your heart? That eery sense that God is real, so very real? Yes! Celebrate those moments! Write a letter home about them! Write a song to commemorate them!
And what kind of song would you write about a moments like those?
A song that didn’t completely make sense, of course!
You don’t even have to open your hymnal to see how nonsensical Charles Wesley’s conversion hymn is. It’s right there in the title and first line – a thousand tongues. No one has a thousand tongues! But only extreme hyperbole can attempt to verbalize the power of moments like this. The psalms know this, too – many of them praise God with extreme language, talking about blessing God’s name forever and ever or declaring God’s greatness from generation to generation (see Psalm 145). When God shows up, there’s no such thing as words too big or language too flowery to describe God’s goodness.
There’s a good reason “O For a Thousand Tongues to Sing” is the first hymn in our hymnal. It’s a song from the very roots of our Methodist story. And it’s a song from the very roots of our own stories – whether it’s the literal first moment we came to Christ, or a moment so strong it was like being converted all over again. These are moments we don’t want to forget.
So if you have one, bring it to mind right now. And then read (or better yet, sing!) these lyrics. We can’t praise God enough for these moments – but if a thousand of us start singing at once, we’re getting closer…
O for a thousand tongues to sing
my great Redeemer’s praise,
the glories of my God and King,
the triumphs of his grace!
My gracious Master and my God,
assist me to proclaim,
to spread thro’ all the earth abroad
the honors of your name.
Jesus! the name that charms our fears,
that bids our sorrows cease,
’tis music in the sinner’s ears,
’tis life and health and peace.
He breaks the power of cancelled sin,
he sets the prisoner free;
his blood can make the foulest clean;
his blood availed for me.
To God all glory, praise, and love
be now and ever given
by saints below and saints above,
the Church in earth and heaven.