Wide and Deep
Andy Black

Music sinks into us in powerful ways. Some songs take us back to a particular time and place. Other songs are buried so deep in our memory that they just seem to be part of the basic structure of the universe. This is probably because we learn them around the time we first begin to use language.

As someone who grew up in church, “Jesus Loves Me” is one of those songs for me. So is this one:

Deep and wide; deep and wide.

There’s a fountain flowing deep and wide.

We learned to switch around the two key words and to add simple hand motions. We were also taught how to replace words with “hmmm”s each time we sang it through.

I want to say a few things about why “Deep and Wide” has come to mean much more to me recently. As I’ve worked through these reflections, I realize that to a large extent I’m simply trying my best to weave together some threads provided by my friends and fellow staff members in the last month or so.

* * * * * * * * *

About seven years ago, I had one of those encounters with music that launches you on a nostalgia trip. In this case it wasn’t a familiar song, but a voice. I was about to leave for a road trip and, after hearing an intriguing review, I decided to listen to a new album from Amy Grant. Because I grew up alongside the emergence of the Contemporary Christian Music industry during the final decades of the 20th century, and was immersed in the broadly “evangelical” subculture that supported it, Amy’s is more or less the voice of my formative years.

As indicated by the album title—”How Mercy Looks from Here”—these were mostly reflective songs sharing wisdom distilled through sometimes hard experience. Though she’s 15 years older than me, I could relate. Time had marched on since Amy’s days of pop chart-topping success. For my part, I no longer assumed (like a good gen-Xer, adopting a pose of self-protective, post-evangelical cynicism) that I could only listen to Amy Grant if I did so ironically.

One song brought me to tears on the first listen: “Deep as it is Wide,” a trio featuring Amy, Cheryl Crow, and the songwriter, Eric Paslay (you can listen to a recording here). It’s a beautiful little song, I was already in a sentimental mood, and in the midst of a major life transition. But what really moved me was hearing echoes of that foundational childhood song, “Deep and Wide,” in a way that connected with the deepest longings of my soul.

I am fighting off all kinds of self-consciousness as I write this, and I’m wresting with the reality that I am also trying to describe the indescribable (and in a blog post!). But what brought me to tears when hearing that song was the unexpected and undeserved gift (“grace”) of catching a hint, a far-off glimpse, a taste, or a snippet of what in fancy theological language is called the “Beatific Vision”—when we are finally able to see God for all that God truly is, and all of our desires find their ultimate satisfaction. The lyrics point in this direction:

And there’s a path, a glorious light
That guides you up the mountainside
And at the top, if you could you’d cry
‘Cause you see pure love for the very first time, mmm

Deep as it is wide

But why have I returned to this song, and these words for some solace and inspiration lately? Isn’t talk about the Beatific Vision dangerous, especially in a time of social turmoil, tempting us to dwell on a far-off, “sweet by and by” and to turn away from the troubles of the world and our neighbors’ cries for help?

The words and phrases of faith get worn smooth by familiarity. Hearing about a love that is “Deep as it is Wide” invites us to stretch our imaginations. The Sunday before last, to commemorate World Communion Sunday, Brittany shared a beautiful communion blessing by Jan Richardson (“And the Table will be Wide”). We were invited to share nourishment from a love that is wide enough to include the entire world, and to overcome every wall of division and enmity. If God’s love is always wider than we can comprehend, what does it mean to say that this love is also, and to the same mind-blowing extent, “deep”? Here is something of what I heard and continue to hear in that phrase.

First, a love that is deep as it is wide is able to honor the truth in the contemporary slogan “justice takes sides.” In his sermon on World Communion Sunday, Preston confessed that for years he had been passionately committed to the work of reconciliation—racial reconciliation, reconciliation among divided Christian denominations and traditions, and interfaith dialogue—as a fundamental aspect of his calling as a minister of the Gospel. Yet he had come to see that talk of “reconciliation” tends to float above the rough ground of reality, and especially the crucial details that enable us to name injustice and work for greater justice. It’s for this reason that the statement on anti-racism we’ve been discussing as a church calls for specific reforms in the areas of church life, public symbols, the justice and law enforcement systems, and our broader social and economic life.

Back in August, Shantell Hinton-Hill urged us in a sermon to keep “digging” so that we can unearth and remove the deposits of white supremacy that permeate the soil of American culture and society, making it an environment in which only some of us can thrive. To engage in that work is to understand that the love of God is as deep as it is wide. To dig deep in this way—by moving from saying “racism is bad” to examining how things are wrong and asking what can be done about it—is not a detour away from the ministry of reconciliation, even though it stirs up controversy and causes division. This shouldn’t surprise us. For Jesus, the way of reconciliation took him where he did not want to go and involved a cross.

Maybe when Jesus said that the “pure in heart will see God” and also that “those who hunger and thirst for righteousness [justice] will be filled” (Matthew 5:6-8), he was saying the same thing two different ways. That is a Beatific Vision that is deep as it is wide. When we catch just a glimpse by faith of who God is, it strengthens our hope. But it also makes us restless, as the gap between where we are and what God desires for the world becomes all the more painful. May we stay hungry and keep digging.

“Deep as it is Wide” also speaks to a hunger for genuine relationships in a hyper-connected and polarized world in which we are continually lured toward opportunities to sort ourselves into monolithic political mega-identities (as Suzanne reminded us last week, social media technologies reflect and intensify these forces). This is a time when there are real social benefits to be gained by being or sharing the loudest and most strident voice, for reducing people to positions that we must “like” or dismiss quickly and decisively (there’s only so many characters available in a tweet). How can we not sympathize with anyone who concludes that that the only way to be “pure in heart” is to stay removed from “politics”?

I feel the need to make a personal confession: as much as I believe what I just wrote above about about how the path to reconciliation requires telling the truth about injustice and, therefore, “taking sides” (Lord, help my unbelief), I struggle mightily in the current environment. I do not self-consciously claim the labels “progressive” or “liberal,” though I tend to land on “that side” of most contemporary issues. My reasons for this aren’t important right now, and I’m sure that at some point I’ll realize that at least some of those reasons weren’t very good ones.

There is so much more to be said here about how to distinguish between when “taking sides” is the path of faithfulness and when it is not, and I am certainly not the one to say it all. But I do think that we can all stand to be reminded that the awe-inspiring extent (“width”) and the intensity or intimacy (“depth”) of God’s love and righteousness exceeds our capacity to comprehend. “Justice” and “inclusion” are primarily names for ongoing work we do, in the rough ground of particular times and places, among specific people, and not mere ideological slogans. As you seek nourishment in these difficult times to stay hungry and keep digging, I pray that you will be graced by your own glimpse—through music, through a quiet moment outdoors, through hearing the story of Jesus in a fresh, new way— of this love that is deep as it is wide.

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