An Engineer’s Hymn

“Man Singing Hymn”, by Arvid Liljelund, 1884

I admit: I am a nerd. I’ve joked sometimes that I was born an engineer – it just took a few years for my education to catch up with my desire to design. While I may not have been aware, in my youngest days, of what that desire would someday translate to professionally, it was surely set permanently in me with my first exposure to Legos.  Occasionally, that engineering mindset comes through at odd times, like singing hymns at church. But I couldn’t help geeking out a little when singing Hillsong’s “In Christ Alone (Cornerstone)” song recently.

“My hope is built on nothing less
Than Jesus’ blood and righteousness.
I dare not trust the sweetest frame,
But wholly trust in Jesus’ name”

As an engineer, I get to design building frames to resist wind and seismic loads, and I try to design them such that they can be trustworthy. However, while the engineer’s first duty is to protect the public, we still have to recognize that we don’t know everything, that we can’t anticipate every possible future condition, and what’s considered recommended practice now may be seen as inadequate 20 years from now. But my hope as a Christian is not the wishful, unfounded emotion that we commonly mean when using the word “hope”. Rather, it’s founded on the unchanging nature of God and the completed work of Jesus’ sacrifice for me. That is a surer foundation, a stronger frame, and a mightier structure than anything I could ever design out of mere steel and concrete.

“Christ alone; cornerstone,
Weak made strong; in the Savior’s love.
Through the storm, He is Lord,
Lord of all”

The Bible refers to Christ several times as our “cornerstone” [Mt 21:42, Ac 4:11, Ro 9:33, 1Pe 2:7, see also Ps 188:22, Is 28:16].  He is that stone that establishes the overall building location and ties adjacent walls together. Even today, “cornerstones” of sorts are still significant in masonry construction where several courses (levels) of masonry blocks are built up at each corner, with the wall built from the corners inward. Therefore, the first blocks on each corner establish the total length of each wall, and any variance from standard block lengths is taken up with trimmed blocks at midspan so the wall will still look symmetrical.

“When Darkness seems to hide His face,
I rest on His unchanging grace.
In every high and stormy gale,
My anchor holds within the veil.”

Storms can test buildings severely. On the 2nd day of my structural engineering exam, one of the long design problems dealt with proving that a given structure was adequate for the wind loads calculated based on the building being on exposed shoreline in a hurricane zone with wind speeds of 170mph. Needless to say, the building framing had to be rather substantial to resist those levels of wind. But something not addressed in that particular problem is nevertheless a critical issue in any real-world building design: anchorage. Now, this song lyric and Hebrews 6:19 that it is drawn from are both referring to ships’ anchors, but the analogy stills applies to structural anchors. As any good engineer will tell you, a well-framed structure that isn’t also well-anchored is a potential disaster waiting to happen. In fact, this has been observed quite often in surveys of tornado damage: uplift from the wind offset the dead weight of homes anchored to their foundations by a few old, corroded anchors, and houses were simply pushed off the foundation and tumbled to pieces at wind speeds of relatively moderate tornadoes.

But there are 2 aspects of anchorage: the strength of the anchor and the strength of the material anchored into. A corroded anchor into concrete and a strong new anchor into mud are both inadequate for protecting your house from “every high and stormy gale”. But the “anchor of our souls” is sure and steadfast, and “enters within the veil” [Heb 6:19]. What veil is the author of Hebrews talking about there? The veil that separated the outer area of the temple devoted to sacrifices – the holy place – from the inner chamber of the temple – the holy of holies – where God chose to make His presence manifest. This heavy veil of separation was a physical reminder of our separation from the unapproachable splendor and holiness of God. But this is where our certain hope is anchored – not in ever-changing contingencies of this life, but in the unchanging nature of God.

Yes, I tend to bring my engineering perspective to church and notice things others may not (and not notice things everyone else does). But I see a bigger application here: do I also bring my Christian perspective out in the world with me? Do you? It’s hard for me to just “switch off” the engineer side of my brain when I’m out of the office, but it should truly be impossible for the Christian to go anywhere without seeing the world in the light of Christ: a beautiful but broken world in need of redemption by its Creator. Is your Christianity something you switch on and off at the “appropriate” time, or is the Holy Spirit part of you, as the Bible says [1Co 6:18], with you in every place at every time? What would that look like in your life? People sometimes can guess the engineers in a crowd when we’re looking up at the roof trusses of the art museum instead of the art, and from all the other odd things we do, but does your Christianity stand out from the background noise of this world similarly? O that everyone would recognize in us what the Jewish priests and elders recognized in Peter and John: “they were amazed, and began to recognize them as having been with Jesus” [Ac 4:13].

2 thoughts on “An Engineer’s Hymn”

  1. In case you were not aware, the verses of that song are from a much older hymn text, “My Hope Is Built on Nothing Less,” written by Edward Mote in about 1834. Adaptive reuse? 🙂

  2. Yes! Thank you for that reminder! I grew up singing that as “The Solid Rock”, but had forgotten the source as I enjoyed the “remake” of it typically sung at my current (hymnal-less) church. I suppose I should’ve suspected as much since the modern songs I tend to enjoy are the ones that pay homage to, or in some way reflect, the old standards of hymnody. And you are correct; although my old Nazarene and Baptist hymnals didn’t list the date, a Lutheran hymnal I have did indeed note that he wrote it in 1834. Thanks for that great comment!

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