Poetry is a strange thing.
Differing time periods and cultures have their own unique ways of communicating truth. One of the most obvious ways we see this as the church is in the songs we sing. Regardless of whether they are hymns or choruses, the time and the place in which a song is written shapes how the message is communicated.
For example, one hymn that our staff has sometimes joked about is this one:
“There is a fountain filled with blood
drawn from Immanuel’s veins,
And sinners, plunged beneath that flood,
Lose all their guilty stains.”
Whoa! Really? That’s the best metaphor you could come up with: People bathing in a fountain filled with blood? Yikes!
The imagery in this old hymn, while maybe appropriate for its time and culture, does not transfer well into our day and age. So while I can look at the imagery and recognise the Gospel truth that the author was trying to communicate, we won’t be singing that one any time soon!
I was reminded of this during our practice last week as we were singing For the Beauty of the Earth. I thought it was a great hymn of thanksgiving which would work well to start off our Thanksgiving Service. However, as we ran through the song, we sang through this verse:
“For each perfect gift of Thine
to our race so freely given,
graces human and divine:
Flowers of earth and buds of Heaven”
As soon as we finished the song, one of the team members immediately asked, “Flowers of earth and buds of Heaven”? What on earth does that mean?
It was a great question! This is the sort of poetry that I usually try to avoid in congregational singing. If the majority of people can’t grasp the metaphor as they sing the song then it can provide a barrier to actually engaging with the message. In this case, I made an exception and we sang it anyway since I thought that the rest of the song was strong enough that it shouldn’t be disqualified because of this one potentially confusing line.
So, what do you think it means?
Here’s my take:
A flower bud represents something not yet realised. You look at a flower bud and it can represent the hope of what might be (ie. the flower). The flower itself is the realisation, the actualization of that hope.
So, in my opinion, “flowers of earth” is praising God for the real, actual graces that we have already received here on earth, while “buds of heaven” is praising God for the hope of what is to come.
But I’m no English major, so maybe I’m way out to lunch!
Either way, hopefully we can all sing together,
“Father, unto Thee we raise,
this our hymn of grateful praise!”