BOWEN COLUMN: How big is God? ‘To try to tell our lips can only start’

Published 10:30 am Tuesday, January 10, 2023

Getting your Trinity Audio player ready...

Songwriter Stuart Hamblen wrote a great, classic song in 1959. Ah, just thinking back to that time, I have to shake my head at how young we were back then. As Mr. Twain would say, “younger than I am now, younger than I’ll ever be again.” But it was a good year, I know. For one, it was the year I turned three. (Life is pretty simple, isn’t it, when you’re three!); and it was the year Mr. Hamblen penned the words to “How Big is God!”

In the resounding chorus of the song, he exclaims the sentiment we all want to carry with us through this new year and beyond: “How big is God! How big and wide his vast domain! To try to tell these lips can only start. He’s big enough to rule His mighty universe, yet small enough to live within my heart.”

I have been listening to a number of great artists sing this song for a few years now. There’s Tennessee Ernie Ford, Gene Macdonald, and, probably most popularly, Big John Hall, former bass singer for the Blackwood Brothers. I am sure he was singing with the Blackwoods in 1959 when they first recorded the song. You’ll note that all three of those vocalists are strong bass leads, men equipped with God-given voices that shake the rafters and send the message so far up they almost seem to pierce the very stars of heaven. I think you can sense how big God is about as well when you hear these men sing that great theme as you can at any other time.

With the theme in mind, I was blessed to stand before a large crowd in Oklahoma City just before New Year’s day of 2023 and try to tell the story in just a few words. It is the annual meeting we have written about before where an old eloquent brother known simply as ‘Lynwood’ would emcee the meeting back when the boys of my generation were just starting out in life. That older preaching brother has long been gone, but the meeting is still going strong. 

In that setting, you are allotted about 15 to 20 minutes, because you’ll be sharing the stage with three other good men. In this case, I shared with one of my oldest friends, Doug Edwards, from Little Rock and his two sons. It was an honor to stand alongside the Edwards men.

To stand in front of hundreds of people and to be tasked with – or to ‘task yourself’ with – addressing ‘How big is God’ in under 20 minutes is an unwieldy task. But I thought I would follow the pattern of the “TED Talks,” the well-known public speaking venue where speakers have no more than eighteen minutes. Eighteen minutes is the limit, not a second more. Clearly, whatever your topic, when you give a TED-talk you have to have it concise, tight, and action-packed; yet it cannot be fast, either. The TED-talk format reminds you that listeners can only absorb about 150 words per minute. That means you have about 27 words to lay out your theme and try to bring it to a powerful conclusion.

I could not help but announce in the beginning that I was doomed to failure even before taking one step into the assignment. How can you tell how big God is in less than three-thousand words? As Mr. Hamblen said back in 1959, “to try to tell these lips can only start”!

I appreciate the TED-talk format and the concise time limit. I followed it and, as best I can tell, I spoke for about 18 minutes. But I can say now as I look back that if I could have spoken to noon that morning, I could not have scratched the surface of how big our God is. Or if we had reconvened after lunch and I was given the podium again; and I had spoken until the fading shades of those orange-and-gray colors melted away together from the western Oklahoma horizon, we would only have been able to give an opening statement, at best. 

Even if we had we spoken all night long and all day New Year’s eve, even until the sounding of the midnight trumpet that rings in a new year – even then we would only have just begun to tell the story as it needs to be told.