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A Song for the Year

From the series Church Music of China


Often I find new songs and decide I like them. Sometimes a song finds me and I cannot get it out of my mind. This is the story of one such song that has become popular among Chinese Christians.

This song began in the depths of World War II. German pastor and theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer had been imprisoned in April 1943. In early October 1944 he had been moved to a Gestapo prison and cut off from contact with his family and friends. He was held in an underground 5-foot by 8-foot solitary confinement cell. Near the end of December 1944 he wrote an Advent poem to his parents and fiancé that was allowed out of prison.[1] This poem is his last known theological writing and includes “as a Christmas greeting for you and the parents and siblings.” Bonhoeffer was soon afterwards, in early 1945, transferred to a concentration camp and executed by hanging on April 9, 1945 shortly before the end of the war.[2]

We often misread records of suffering and persecution such as the Biblical account of Joseph's time in an Egyptian prison. We know how the story ends and read it assuming Joseph did as well. But he did not. The Lord was with Joseph in prison but so were the daily travails of prison life. Each day was another day of unjust and probably not very comfortable imprisonment with no end in sight. After his father Jacob died, Joseph explained to his brothers that what they intended for harm God intended for good to save many lives.

In his prison writings Bonhoeffer touched a rich, deep vein of theology, grace, power, and experience of God, the first strata of which was laid down by the Lord Jesus himself. Suffering and persecution are not new occurrences. From the start of the church this vein has been growing with new strata cemented together sometimes with tears, sometimes with blood. In our day this is a thick vein of precious truth that we may be rediscovering with brothers and sisters in China. 

Bonhoeffer’s letters to his fiancé were never intended to be published. However, the first public copies appeared in late 1945. The earliest setting of the Advent poem to music was in 1959 with the most popular version published in 1970.[3] It has become a favorite hymn among German-speaking Christians. English versions of the hymn began to appear after a translation done by Fred Pratt Green in 1972 under the title “By Gracious Powers.”[4] Many other language translations exist including Chinese.

The partial English lyrics (a total of seven verses) to this song include:

Verse

And though you offer us the cup so heavy
So painful, it’s the most that we can stand.
Not faltering, with thanks we will accept it
And take it as a gift from your good hand

Refrain

By gentle powers lovingly surrounded,
With patience we’ll endure, let come what may.
God is with us at night and in the morning
And certainly on every future day.

If you want to listen to the song, you can find it at:

In the past two years harassment and persecution of Christian believers in China has been increasing. One question is, “How are Chinese believers responding to the new environment?”

In September 2018 one of the large house churches in China was closed down after months of increasing tension with the local government. In early 2019 the senior pastor was given a copy of this song by a friend and was greatly moved by its message. Here is how they describe what happened.

He searched and found there were more than 70 different versions of this song. The version by Siegfried Fietz was the most famous. This song had been translated into many languages including Chinese. He found the Chinese translation too tragic but the original lyrics were full of firm and gentle power. He challenged one of their church’s preachers to re-translate the lyrics.

With a master’s degree in German language and literature, this preacher started at 2 am and spent several hours of dedicated work to complete a new translation. Early the next morning, several of the pastors got together to review the translation. They made some final adjustments. On the following day several of the pastoral team went to a recording studio and recorded a choral version.

This poem is the voice and prayer of many brothers and sisters in our church. Therefore, we are going to use this song as our song to start the year 2019. This is our song. This is our prayer for the year.[5]

Once they recorded this song, they uploaded it various social media sites in China to share with other believers. The Chinese title for this song is “天父美善力量.” You can listen to the Chinese version of this song that they recorded at赞美诗 网, zanmeishi.com or watch them sing it on YouTube.

As of mid-December, this song on this one music platform has been accessed over 753,000 times. It is not only one church where this song has become their song for the year.

Why has this one newly recorded song become so popular?

We are taught that we are all part of the body of Christ and when one member suffers we all suffer. The Bible also clearly teaches that opposition and persecution are not abnormal for Christians. Jesus said, “I have told you these things, so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.” (John 16:33) As Chinese brothers and sisters have begun a new normal of increased opposition and oppression, the deep messages of this song about God’s power, love and care have moved many to tears.

As I have interacted with Chinese Christian friends this year, this song has come up in multiple ways—in a Facebook post, in a WeChat message, after they shared a devotional. One friend shared how two Chinese missionaries working outside China heard that one of their supporting churches back in China had been closed down. This song was a big encouragement to them.

When you are moved to tears at seeing the words and hearing the music, you know a song has found you. As we get ready to start a new year, listen to this song in German or English so you can understand its message. Then, even if you do not understand Chinese, listen to the Chinese version. Listen as Chinese Christians sing about their faith and trust in God who will be with them at night, in the morning and on every future day.

Let us pray for and with our Chinese brothers and sisters that we will know God’s gentle power surrounding us and leading us. 

Image credit: Queena Deng from Pixabay

Peter Bryant

Over the last 30 years Peter Bryant (pseudonym) has had the chance to visit, to live for extended periods of time, and to travel to almost all of China’s provinces. As a Christian business person he has met Chinese from all walks of life. He has a particular interest in... View Full Bio


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