“I love you. I’ll be leaving soon. I’ll be good.” Those were Emma’s last words to me. She told me those things Tuesday as I was sitting beside her bed, holding her hand. On Wednesday afternoon Emma passed into her next life.
[Note: I’ve changed the name of our assisted living resident to “Emma” to protect her privacy.]
Emma’s last few weeks had been hard. She was 91 years old. She suffered from severe arthritis that was very painful, especially in her knees. She had somewhat advanced dementia which made it difficult for her to say what was on her mind. But Emma still enjoyed life. She didn’t want to die yet. She had a loving family – daughters, grandchildren, and great grandchildren – and friends who visited or called her often. She fought death as hard as she could. But by Wednesday she was ready to be born into her next life. She was ready to be held “Safe in the arms of Jesus” as the old Fanny Crosby gospel song describes.
As Emma’s life transition occurred, and as we’re moving into Holy Week, I’ve been thinking about how much God loves us and cares for us. Not only did Jesus suffer and die on the cross for us a couple thousand years ago as we remember particularly during Holy Week, God is still with us today – helping Emma through her life transition, helping us through our grief, and blessing us with many gifts including the gift of love.
One song that my mind has been singing a lot this past week is “The Love of God” by Frederick Lehman. This song tries to answer the question “How much does God really love us?” In the third verse, Lehman paints a word picture that I really like.
Could we with ink the ocean fill
And were the skies of parchment made,
Were every stalk on earth a quill
And every man a scribe by trade.
To write the love of God above
Would drain the ocean dry;
Nor could the scroll contain the whole
Tho’ stretched from sky to sky.
Forty-two years ago when I graduated from college, I moved to Connecticut and was a high school English teacher for a couple years. My favorite thing to do in my spare time was to drive an hour to East Matunuck State Beach in Rhode Island and walk to the tip of the breakwater. That took 45 minutes of scrambling over huge rocks, occasionally getting sprayed by an extra big wave crashing into the breakwater. By the time I reached the tip, I felt that I was completely surrounded by the vast ocean. On one of these mini-pilgrimages to the furthest boulder of the breakwater, the ocean looked different. It was the beginning of the hurricane season, with some activity along the Mid-Atlantic coast. As far north as I was, the ocean was churning more than usual, but not threatening any hurricanes locally. The water wasn’t blue or green; it looked black – like an ocean filled with ink.
That’s the image that comes to mind for me when I sing this song. Could we with ink the ocean fill … To write the love of God above would drain the ocean dry…
How did Lehman think up that image? He acknowledges that it wasn’t original to him – he just wrote down some of the lines he recalled hearing in a sermon, and made it the third verse of a song he had already written. He tried to find the source of the lines. What he learned was that it was written on the wall of an insane asylum by an unknown inmate. However, more recently, the lines have been traced back further to an eleventh-century Jewish poet in Germany named Meir Ben Isaac Nehorai.
Obviously, we aren’t the only ones pondering the vastness of God’s love for us. This image alone has been helpful to our catching a glimpse of God’s love for a thousand years. From a medieval poet, to an inmate of an insane asylum, to a 19th century writer of gospel songs, to becoming a theme song of a 20th century evangelistic crusade ultimately reaching hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions of people – all wanting to understand and express their appreciation of God’s love. Last week I was able to understand a little more about God’s love as I saw Emma comforted and at peace as she passed from this life to the next.
There are several different versions of “The Love of God” on YouTube. This song was one of the signature songs of The Billy Graham Crusades. Below are two links to the song, both performances from Billy Graham Crusades.
This video begins with about half a minute of Billy Graham preaching about God’s love. His words are immediately followed by a group of Christian musicians singing “The Love of God.”
The second video is from an earlier crusade (1983) and features George Beverly Shea singing the song.
The love of God is greater far
Than tongue or pen can ever tell;
It goes beyond the highest star,
And reaches to the lowest hell;
The guilty pair, bowed down with care,
God gave His Son to win;
His erring child He reconciled,
And pardoned from his sin.
O love of God, how rich and pure!
How measureless and strong!
It shall forevermore endure –
The saints’ and angels’ song!