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What Language Shall I Borrow?

What language shall I borrow to thank you,
  dearest Friend,
For this, your dying sorrow, your mercy
  without end?
Lord, make me yours forever, a loyal servant true,
And let me never, never outlive my love for you.

—Medieval Latin poem

What language shall I borrow, to thank you dearest Friend?” goes the familiar line from “O Sacred Head, Now Wounded.” The point is that there isn’t any language at all that can adequately express the thanks God’s Son deserves for giving his life in order to save ours. Though our praises are inadequate, we continue because it is a natural response to God’s gracious gift. We hear the gospel message and we respond in praise and in the giving and dedicating of our lives to our Lord Jesus Christ.

I must admit, though, that whenever I’ve sung that text, the only language I’ve thought about was the language of words. What words best give voice to my gratitude and overflowing love? What words can I use to thank God?

But on occasion the question reminds me to think a little more globally—realizing that despite the six thousand or so languages spoken around the world, none of them can give adequate voice to the thanksgiving God deserves. Even if we took the words for thanksgiving available in all the languages of the world and spoke them simultaneously, we would still fall short.

I’ve discovered that the English language is fairly weak in the area of “thanks” language. The thesaurus I consulted lists the following as replacements for thanks: express thanks, show gratitude, express gratitude, show appreciation, be grateful. Not exactly an abundance of choices.

This issue of Reformed Worship is a timely reminder that not everyone communicates in the same way. Not everyone uses the language of words as their first language. Some people are most fluent in numbers, in musical sounds, in movement, or in creating visual expressions. Singing texts like “What language shall I borrow” and “O for a Thousand Tongues to Sing” ought to remind us that we are all enriched by the variety of languages God’s people use—including visual and kinetic as well as English, Urdu, or Afrikaans.

As Eric Nykamp writes in “A Creative Communion” (p. 18), “There are many ways for people to express their intelligence, and yet too often we—including people in the church—reinforce the cultural bias toward verbal and mathematical intelligences over other ways of expressing intelligence.”

I don’t know whether multiple intelligence theory inspired the churches represented in this issue of RW, but throughout this issue you will find examples of people who are creating room for some of these “other” languages as they respond to the gospel message. Hessel Park Church in Champaign, Illinois, encouraged members of the congregation to respond visually to a sermon series on hope. Trinity Church in Livermore, California, and St. Andrew’s United Methodist Church in St. Albans, West Virginia, found ways to integrate the work of local artists in a worship setting. Freelance writer Sonya Vanderveen Feddema used a visual—a pile of rocks—in a dramatic reading to help communicate a message.

In all these situations the communication is in multiple directions. The artist creates in response to Scripture, a song or sermon, an act of God in her life. Her response is an offering to God but also to all those who see the visual.

Just as we spend a great deal of time educating our children about the spoken word, so we need to educate our congregants about the visual languages we use in worship. Again in the words of Eric Nykamp, “Art is most meaningful when it is not left to speak for itself. As artists, we have a responsibility to help our communities and congregations become more visually literate, which means taking time to explain how to look at art” (p. 21). In his article, Nykamp offers artists a clear example of how to do just that.

As for what type of visual art is right for your congregation, take a look at the column “Come and See” featured on the back cover of each issue. To quote Dean Heetderks, “It depends.”