How Measureless (Artful Devotion)

Breadth by Stephen Watson
Stephen Watson (American), Breadth, 2013. Tape-measure shards. From the solo exhibition “Slapdash and Sacred” at the Arnold Art Gallery, Shorter University, Rome, Georgia.

I pray that you may have the power to comprehend, with all the saints, what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, so that you may be filled with all the fullness of God.

—Ephesians 3:18–19

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SONG: “O the Deep, Deep Love of Jesus” | Words by Samuel Trevor Francis, 1875 | Music by Thomas J. Williams, 1890 (Tune: Ebenezer) | Performed by the John Brown University Cathedral Choir, 1997

O the deep, deep love of Jesus,
Vast, unmeasured, boundless, free,
Rolling as a mighty ocean
In its fullness over me!
Underneath me, all around me,
Is the current of Thy love;
Leading onward, leading homeward
To my glorious rest above.

O the deep, deep love of Jesus—
Spread His praise from shore to shore!
How He loveth, ever loveth,
Changeth never, nevermore!
How He watcheth o’er His loved ones,
Died to call them all His own;
How for them He intercedeth,
Watcheth o’er them from the throne.

O the deep, deep love of Jesus,
Love of ev’ry love the best;
’Tis an ocean vast of blessing,
’Tis a haven sweet of rest.
O the deep, deep love of Jesus,
’Tis a heav’n of heav’ns to me;
And it lifts me up to glory
For it lifts me up to Thee.

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SONG: “The Love of God” | Words and music by Frederick M. Lehman, 1917, with third verse by Rabbi Meir ben Isaac Nehorai, ca. 1050 | Performed by Jonathon Strauss Brenner, 2018

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.

When hoary time shall pass away,
And earthly thrones and kingdoms fall,
When men who here refuse to pray,
On rocks and hills and mountains call,
God’s love so sure, shall still endure,
All measureless and strong;
Redeeming grace to Adam’s race—
The saints’ and angels’ song.

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,
Though stretched from sky to sky.

Frederick M. Lehman, the writer of this hymn, says it was inspired by lines scrawled on the walls of a psychiatric hospital cell (the third stanza), which as it turns out are from an eleventh-century Jewish liturgical poem by Rabbi Meir ben Isaac Nehorai, a cantor (Heb. hazzan) in Worms, Germany. Written in Aramaic, the ninety-line Akdamut (Prologue [to the Ten Commandments]) is chanted in Ashkenazic services on the first day of Shavuot (Pentecost) before the reading of Exodus 19–20, the revelation on Mount Sinai.

The reference to all the seas being ink and all the reeds pens is found also in Christian and Muslim traditions, as well as in earlier midrashic writings. It is unknown who originated the expression—for Jews, its ultimate formulation is the opening of Rabbi Meir’s Akdamut; Christians know it best from the hymn “The Love of God” (though it is also present in medieval Christian literature); and Muslims have it enshrined in the Koran (Surah Al-Kahf 18:109 and Surah Luqman 31:27).

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Stephen Watson is a multidisciplinary artist and an assistant professor of art at Samford University in Birmingham, Alabama. Many of his artworks originated as accompaniments to the Sunday services at Trinity Presbyterian Church in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, where they would be temporarily displayed throughout the year in the church foyer. “My art is my contribution to the church body,” says Watson, “and I aim to meaningfully expand the worship experience for the congregation with each artwork I share.” His liturgical installations are fantastic, and I plan to feature more of them in a future post. In the meantime, you can follow Watson on Instagram @stewatson.art.

Inspired by Ephesians 3:18–19, Breadth emphasizes the absurdity of trying to measure God or put limits on his love, a love that, as one of our songwriters puts it, is “vast, unmeasured, boundless, free.” The Breadth installation shown above, consisting of tape-measure shards arranged in a zigzag pattern, is from a gallery setting, but the concept has also been iterated in sacred spaces—for example, as a twisting, tangled mess of tape measures descending from the ceiling like a beam of light, or as a series of looped-tape sunbursts gradually opening from the niches along the north and south walls of a sanctuary.

Breadth by Stephen Watson
Stephen Watson (American), Breadth and Length and Height and Depth, 2012. Temporary installation at Trinity Presbyterian Church, Tuscaloosa, Alabama.
Breadth by Stephen Watson
Stephen Watson (American), Breadth (detail), 2014. Site-specific installation of tape measures, Sojourn Community Church, Louisville, Kentucky.
Breadth by Stephen Watson
Stephen Watson (American), Breadth (detail), 2014. Site-specific installation of tape measures, Sojourn Community Church, Louisville, Kentucky.

When I was little, my mom and I would try to outdo each other in expressing with the extent of our arm span how vast was our love: “I love you THIS much!” “Well, I love you THIS much!” How much more immeasurably does God, whose arms are infinitely wide, love us.


This post belongs to the weekly series Artful Devotion. If you can’t view the music player in your email or RSS reader, try opening the post in your browser.

To view all the Revised Common Lectionary scripture readings for Proper 12, cycle B, click here.

One thought on “How Measureless (Artful Devotion)

  1. Enjoyed your article, and thanks for the tag! I’ll be following your blog in the future. Lot’s of interesting articles here.

    Like

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