The man’s name and history are lost to us. He was, apparently, a patient in what was once called an “insane asylum.” Eventually, he died, and attendants came to take him away and prepare the room for the next patient. To their surprise, they found lines of poetry scribbled on the walls, and had the foresight to write them down.
The patient’s beautiful, soulful words found their way into an evangelist’s message, preached at a camp meeting. Frederick Lehman, a Nazarene pastor and songwriter, was deeply moved; he wanted to preserve the words in song. The inspiration would not come until later, when he was forced to take up a life of manual labor. During a lull in his work, Lehman pushed a wooden crate against a wall, sat down with a pencil and a scrap of paper, and scrawled out the first two stanzas and the chorus of what would become a much beloved hymn, “The Love of God.” The powerful words taken from the asylum walls would themselves be the third and climactic stanza:
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.
As it turns out, those words are adapted from a poem written by an 11th century rabbi, a cantor in the city of Worms, Germany. The poem was about God’s love for his people. Who knows what that rabbi knew or thought about the gospel of Jesus Christ. But if a man could write so passionately and eloquently about the love of God without the cross, how much more should we be captivated by the cross, what the New Testament considers to be the signature demonstration of God’s love?
Imagine standing on the ocean’s shore, gazing out upon the vastness of the water and sky. Imagine every human being taking up a pen and trying to capture the wideness of God’s love and mercy by writing it across the heavenly parchment.
We could never be done.
Now imagine instead a man cooped up in a small and dingy cell, writing not with ink but with a pencil, not on the sky but a wall. We can only imagine what the man suffered during his time in the asylum: the indignity and insult, perhaps even the knowledge that he was losing his mind. And who know how he came to know the rabbi’s poem? But it set his imagination free. Somehow, he knew that the love of God, a love wider than the ocean or sky, had reached him even with the narrow confines of his cell.
It makes me wonder about the nature of our own prison cells — self-made or otherwise — and the poverty or richness of our imaginations.
What would we write on the walls to hold our sanity together?