Love That Holds On Tight (Artful Devotion)

Fakaukau by Filipe Tohi
Filipe Tohi (Tongan, resident in New Zealand, 1959–), Fakaukau, 1996. Stone carving. Photo: Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa, via Christ for All People, p. 87

I give them eternal life, and they will never perish, and no one will snatch them out of my hand. My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all, and no one is able to snatch them out of the Father’s hand.

—John 10:28–29

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SONG: “O Love That Wilt Not Let Me Go” | Words by George Matheson, 1882 | Music by Albert L. Peace, 1884 | Performed by Madison Cunningham, on Monuments by Calvary Creative (2015)

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Fakaukau (“Thought”) is the title ascribed to this Tongan sculpture in the excellent book Christ for All People: Celebrating a World of Christian Art, published in 2001, which also places it in a private collection. However, photographs of a very similar—if not the same—sculpture by the same artist can be found online under the name Anchor Stone (see photos here and here), and it’s publicly accessible. Its shape is based on the anchor stone through which Tongan fishermen tie the rope of their boats. You can see the hand of God holding the fisher tenderly yet securely as the fisher rests in that grasp.

Anchor Stone by Filipe Tohi
Anchor Stone by Filipe Tohi, located along the Coastal Walkway in New Plymouth, Taranaki, North Island, New Zealand. Photo courtesy of New Plymouth District Council.

Anchor Stone is located along the New Plymouth Coastal Walkway, an eight-mile path that forms an expansive sea-edge promenade stretching from Pioneer Park at Port Taranaki all the way to the eastern side of Bell Block Beach in the Taranaki region of North Island, New Zealand. More precisely, the sculpture sits at the eastern end of a bridge that crosses the Huatoki Stream, near the Wind Wand. The walkway features several other sculptures by Filipe Tohi, as well as artworks by other Pacific Islanders.

Filipe Tohi was born in Nuku’alofa, Tonga, in 1959 and moved to Taranaki, New Zealand, in 1979, where he trained as a carver with a Maori cooperative. His early sculptures were mainly in stone and wood, but more recently he has achieved recognition for large contemporary sculptures in aluminum and steel that are inspired by lalava, traditional Tongan coconut sennit lashing (used to build roofs and canoes). Tohi studied and learned this ancient art form during a return visit to his homeland in 1987 and has been responsible for revitalizing and popularizing it. See more of his work at http://www.lalava.net/index.php/ct-menu-item-17#6.

Christianity took root in Tonga in the first half of the nineteenth century when the country’s king, George Tupou I, converted and the people followed suit. It has been Tonga’s main religion ever since.

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I first encountered the hymn “O Love That Wilt Not Let Me Go” a few years ago through a Calvary Collective album—I was extremely moved by Madison Cunningham’s soft arrangement and vocal performance, which captures so well the weary tone of the old text and tune. Cunningham adds a four-line chorus: “You will not let me go, so I will trust in thee. You won’t let go, so I will rest. You won’t let go, so I will trust in thee. O I will rest in thee.” Here is the full original text:

O Love that wilt not let me go,
I rest my weary soul in thee;
I give thee back the life I owe,
that in thine ocean depths its flow
may richer, fuller be.

O Light that follow’st all my way,
I yield my flick’ring torch to thee;
my heart restores its borrowed ray,
that in thy sunshine’s blaze its day
may brighter, fairer be.

O Joy that seekest me through pain,
I cannot close my heart to thee;
I trace the rainbow through the rain,
and feel the promise is not vain
that morn shall tearless be.

O Cross that liftest up my head,
I dare not ask to fly from thee;
I lay in dust life’s glory dead,
and from the ground there blossoms red,
life that shall endless be.

Upon hearing this, I immediately set about looking for a piano score—come to find that the hymn is in the hymnal I grew up with! And yet I don’t recall my congregation ever singing it.

In my estimation, “O Love” is one of the most sublime hymns ever written. It taps deeply into that feeling of “I’m tired, burnt out, spent,” meeting us there with gentle hope and joy. The first verse opens with a reminder of the tenacious hold God has on us and with a soul-invitation into the “ocean depths” of God’s being. What a contrast the hymn builds between our weakness and God’s strength. We flicker; God blazes. We bow our heads in exhaustion and lie down to die; God lifts us up and brings us into his full-flowering life. I know some churches have revived “O Love” using new tunes, but those, I feel, don’t hold a candle to Albert Peace’s original. The hymn also crops up in funeral programs and works beautifully in that context, but its relevance is by no means restricted to those at the end of life or those observing a recent passing.

For a brighter, more vigorous version of the hymn that utilizes the original tune, see Chelsea Moon’s Hymn Project, Volume 2, a collaboration with the Franz Brothers:

And here’s a great a cappella quartet arrangement by the Gaither Vocal Band:


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 the Fourth Sunday of Easter, cycle C, click here.

2 thoughts on “Love That Holds On Tight (Artful Devotion)

  1. Just wanted to share another version of “O Love that will not let me go” sung by Sandra McCracken; the tune is by Indelible Grace: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=I-tXgsBq418

    I grew up with this hymn (I’m 70 now), I love the words by George Matheson and the old tune also, but love this version also by Indelible Grace. The life of George Matheson is also an amazing testimony of God’s grace – read his biography online, if you don’t know it. He became blind at 20 and then his fiance broke up with him. But it only brought him closer to God…

    Thanks for you blog!

    Susan Tschetter

    Like

  2. Really enjoyed the cultural connections you made between Filipe Tohi’s Anchor Stone of Tongan roots and Madison Cunningham’s rendition of “O Love That Wilt Not Let Me Go” of Scottish background—tension in stone and lyric. I found the two different cultures in the same eternal revelation deeply meaningful. Thank you.

    Like

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