A response to Coronavirus – quick look at Lament in the Psalms

Faced with the challenge of Covid 19 it is difficult to know how to respond in the context of Christian worship. Our expectation is that Christian worship ought to be praise of God and Christian hymnody is praise of God sung. The furthest many congregations, or individual Christians, will diverge from this is in prayers of intercession. At best these will, at least acknowledge that we might be the answer to the prayers that we utter. At worst we wait for God to put all things right. The thought that we might criticise God would be anathema for many people. Judaeo-Christian religion has long sought to enable people to channel their emotions toward God, but questioning suggests doubt and criticism of God would be shocking.

Quite often these days young people in stores serving me will conclude the deal by saying, ‘see you later’. They’d be surprised if I offered a time and place! I’d be doubly surprised if they turned up, not at all surprised if they didn’t. On the other hand if I said to a close friend or my partner, ‘see you at 715’ and arranged a place I’d be concerned, if not angry, if they broke the agreement. We regularly think of God in human terms and so, if we link this to the two examples I have given, we have a simple but interesting model. If we have a belief in God which has any depth then we might just be distressed if God doesn’t meet our expectations. And this is where the Psalms can begin to offer examples of how we might worship when things don’t go right, when counter to Julian of Norwich all things are not well and all manner of things seem to be not at all good, when, for instance an unexpected virus evolves and begins to randomly infect us. So let us tuen to the Psalms.

The psalms are full of emotive expression…’My God! my God! Why have you forsaken me'(Ps. 22), ‘How can we sing the songs of the Lord in a foreign land'(Ps. 137), ‘I cry aloud to the Lord, I lift up my voice to the Lord for mercy'(Ps. 142); indeed Jean Calvin wrote:

..there is not an emotion of which any one can be conscious that is
not here represented as in a mirror. Or rather, the Holy Spirit has
drawn to life all the griefs, sorrows, fears, doubts, hopes, cares,
perplexities, in short, all the distracting emotions with which the
minds of men are wont to be agitated. (J. Calvin, Calvin’s Commentaries,
Psalms Vol. I pxxxvii).

At the same time religion has presented people with an interpretation of God’s response to their particular situation; ‘Thus says the Lord…’

At least a third of all the psalms are psalms of Lament, of complaint to God. ‘The pain at the center of praise has theological warrant in Israel in the cries of hurt, rage, doubt, vengeance and isolation. Most importantly they are cries, not buried, not stifled, but cries passionately addressed out of the reality of life'(W. Brueggemann, Israel’s Praise, Fortress Press, Philadelphia,1988 p133). It has always been true that ‘access to life is mostly through the resistant door of pain. That door is a world kept closed by idolatry (of a god who does not suffer) and closed by ideology (of a system that never fails). That door of access is so resistant because our idolatry has turned pain to guilt, and our ideology has turned pain to denial'(W. Brueggemann, ibid. p133). Given this is it any wonder that in the church today we shirk from anything that might give voice to deep-seated emotion or feeling, particularly if that expression is perceived as posing a threat to the religious fabric, harming our sensibilities or being critical of God. ‘The lament psalms are obviously a scandal to the church, because they cannot be prayed to a god who does nothing, and because they must not be prayed within a social system that cannot be changed or criticised'(W. Brueggemann, ibid. p140.

It is not that our individual lives are devoid of things about which to lament, particularly at this time. Neither is the life (temporal or spiritual) of our world so fair, righteous and just that we are lacking reason for this expression. Perhaps it is, in part due to the fact that we think that Christians should be gentle, meek and mild and that strong feelings are prohibited. Yet Jesus wept over Jerusalem and was angry at injustice. He gave vent to strong feelings and did not suppress them. Or could it be that we are frightened to admit to ourselves, let alone to our neighbours or to God that life does sometimes get on top of us, that things do make us angry, that we feel lost, alone and upset, if not simply confused. After all God is meant to be good, God is Love.

The psalmists were not so squeamish and whether in the form of an individual lament or one giving expression to the feelings of the community they were quite explicit.

To understand the Psalms we need to have a grasp of the theology of the people of Israel. This people had an overwhelming conviction that they were God’s chosen people. God had brought them out of slavery in Egypt and, through various trials had settled them in the Promised Land. Their experience had formed the belief that

God cared for them and that their relationship with God was one of Covenant, agreement. The depth of gratitude of the people for the providence of God is demonstrated by the words of a Passover Song, ‘It would have been enough’,

How many benefits has God granted us!
Had he brought us out of Egypt and not supported us in the
wilderness –
It would have been enough!…
(The Passover Haggadah of the Union of Liberal and Progressive
Synagogues, England, 1981/5741)

Against this background there was not just a sense of distress when things went wrong but, on occasion, a sense of outrage. Clearly the people were able to let God down and sometimes their misfortune was attributed to God’s just retribution, but some things were inexplicable in this way (as the book of Job goes to great lengths to point out!) and it was inconceivable that God could forsake His people. To give expression to their sense of alienation the Lament was born:

O God, why dost thou cast us off forever?
Why does thy anger smoke against the sheep of thy pasture?
(Psalm 74, 1) (All Biblical quotations are taken from the
Revised Standard Version of the Bible, Collins, 2nd. edit. 1971)

Such a Psalm might well have been composed at a time of natural devastation such as that of the plague of locusts described in Joel 1, 1ff., but such occurrences were given theological significance. There is a sense of the Covenant being broken and the plague is seen as God’s judgement against a rebellious people. The people are given the words with which to plead for restoration:

Remember thy congregation, which thou hast gotten of old,
Which thou hast released to be the tribe of thy heritage.
(Psalm 74, 2)

At a later date the Psalm found its way into the liturgy of the nation being used in the Royal Cult of the Temple in Jerusalem (A. Weiser, The Psalms, SCM, England, 1962 p68.). In this context it could be used at any time of perceived threat, whether the threat was seen as being temporal or spiritual: ‘Thy foes have reared in the midst of the Holy place’ (Psalm 74, 4). In this circumstance God is invoked:

How long, O God, is the foe to scoff?
Is the enemy to revile thy name forever?
(Psalm 74, 10)

All these words might seem to be despairing were it not for the understanding in which they are based and so the Psalm returns to the faith out of which it is grown:

Yet God my King is from of old,
working salvation in the midst of the earth.
Thou didst divide the sea by thy might…
Thou hast fixed the bounds of the earth
(Psalm 74, 12 & 17)

From this sure ground the psalmist can intercede:

…do not forget the life of thy poor forever.
Have regard for thy covenant…
Arise, O God, plead thy cause.
(Psalm 74, 19,20,22)

It is clear how such a Psalm could be used by an oppressed or afflicted congregation. The words are those with which  the people could identify. This is the strength of Psalmody, for while it gives utterance to specific needs generated by particular situations, there is invariably a universal application which will enable the Psalm to be used with equal felicity by succeeding generations. This having been said, the force of the emotion, already alluded to above (Calvin), is sometimes so powerful as to make us hesitate. This is nowhere clearer than in Psalm 137. The Psalm has its origin in the exile of the people of Israel in Babylon. The experience of the conquest and exile can only be responded to in the strongest language:

How shall we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land…
Happy shall he be who requites you with what you have done to us!
Happy shall he be who takes your little ones and dashes them
against the rock!
(Psalm 137, 4,8-9)

Calvin responds to these words by saying that the psalmist, ‘does not speak under the impulse of personal feeling and only employs the words which God himself has authorised’. He intimates that the words mirror those which describe the Last Judgement and that ‘Godly people’ would not be prey to such emotions(J. Calvin, Calvin’s Commentaries, Psalms, Vol. V, p197). However we might respect Calvin’s opinions in other matters it is clear that here his theological sensibilities have over-ridden his understanding of both humanity and the Psalms. Firstly, such feelings can be experienced by most people given appropriate circumstances. Secondly, part of the value of the Psalms is as an indicator that we can pour out our deepest, darkest feelings to God when that is our need.

This leads us to the place of individual laments which are best  represented for the purpose of this study by Psalm 22. It begins with words of invocation but immediately presents us with a conundrum which is best addressed by Calvin:

When the Psalmist speaks of being forsaken and cast off by God, it
seems to be the complaint of a man in despair; for can a man have
single spark of faith remaining in him, when he believes that there
is no longer any succour for him in God? And yet in calling God
twice his own God, and depositing his groanings into his bosom, he
makes a very distinct confession of his faith.

Calvin goes on to point out that people wrestling with God find in themselves the weakness of the flesh but at the same time give evidence of their faith(J. Calvin, Vol. I ibid. p357ff). The challenge is actually to enter into the struggle, to be secure enough in faith to complain to God (H. Beck, ‘The Psalms of Lament’, address to the Conference of the Hymn Society of America, 1982). The words of the psalm derive from utter desolation and give a key to one way in which songs and hymns can help in times such as those in which we are now immersed, that is by simply giving expression to that stress by acting as a safety valve. As the psalmist struggles, and as we identify with that struggle, do we, perhaps, begin to enter into the admission of our situation of despair (whatever it might be) and a recognition that, in reality, God sometimes feels far off, we do feel abandoned? [If we need reminding that this theme is ageless the re-writing of the psalm by the late Ernesto Cardenal (E. Cardenal, Marilyn Monroe and other Poems, Search Press, London, 1975, p79) with its imagery of the asylum and the concentration camp may serve to jog our sensibilities]. Within this situation a tension is generated between reality as we experience it and what we wish it to be. Assurance and doubt are held in tension by hope. The psalmist longs for restoration but can see no way toward it. In a similar situation centuries later Peter Bohler told John Wesley ‘preach faith until you have it’. Only when there is an admission of need can the need be met. It is too easy to skate over this fact with triumphalist statements which ignore the reality of the sufferer and make little sense from within the anguish.

Psalms may be uncomfortable, even scandalous, but they are, at once true to experience, yet grounded in faith. Though Psalm 22 begins in forsakeness it builds to the statement that:

Posterity shall serve him(God); men shall tell of the Lord to the
coming generation, and proclaim his deliverance to a people yet unborn,
that he has wrought it.
(Psalm 22, 30-31)

Thus far we have shown that the Psalms sometimes enable stress to be addressed by way of lament and that such stress has been brought about by way of exile or personal rejection. Similar feelings may be generated by social distancing or voluntary isolation. In each instance despair is apparent. This is not the only response that the psalmist makes. Many psalms, while implying that a cause of stress is close at hand (e.g., ‘Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death…’ Psalm 23, 4), respond by way of a confident statement of faith; ‘The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want’ (Psalm 23, 1) or words of reassurance; ‘My help comes from the Lord…He will not let your foot to be moved, he who keeps you will not slumber'(Psalm 121, 2 – 3).

The psalmist always takes the plight of the sufferer seriously and listens to the plea of the one who laments, but this is invariably set against the backdrop of the covenant relationship of God and God’s people. Words of confidence or reassurance are not then seen as empty, but realistic assertions of God’s providential and merciful nature. The Psalter is unrelentingly practical and thus provides realistic help to those who suffer hardship. It is recognised that anger and grief are legitimate emotions and the purpose of liturgy is to confront them with action, trust and expectation. Harrell Beck observed that the psalms recognise the need for thanksgiving to derive from reality and sometimes hardship. There is no real thanksgiving when people have not had to struggle to achieve it(H. Beck, ‘The Psalms of Lament’, address to the Conference of the Hymn Society of America, 1982). In support of this he quotes Emily Dickinson:

Without darkness there is no light,
Without silence, no word.

Praise and lament, therefore, stand in antiphonal relationship. It is not possible to be free from grief, from the causes of stress until the art of lament is learnt. ‘Pain must be processed and not denied or siphoned off into guilt'(W. Brueggemann, ibid. p142) There is a need to repent, to complain and present one’s feelings bare before God. ‘All true theology begins in pain’. Life is made whole or sole where life is rent(W. Brueggemann, ibid. p129). The healing process begins with lament for as we confront God we admit to ourselves the need of which we speak, a need which it is often more comfortable, but more harmful, to suppress.

I sense that our worship and, as part of it, our hymnody ought, especially at times like these, to be grounded in the universal strength and depth of Psalmody.

© Andrew Pratt 30/3/2020 adapted from an Essay enter in the Pratt Green Trust competition (1994).

Hymns in a time of pandemic

As I write the news is full of coronavirus and in the UK Brexit seems to have disappeared off the agenda, at least temporarily. I wonder what our hymnody has to offer in this context?
I sense a mixed feeling from the low-key ‘this is like flu’ or ‘a bad cold’ to the warning that older people are more vulnerable, that this may be fatal and, aside from avoiding one another and washing our hands, there is little we can do. For which hymns do we reach at such times?
Perhaps this is a moment for that style of effervescent worship that lifts us above physical reality and, for a moment at least, takes us out of the world to which, inevitably, we will return when we leave church? Or is it time for ‘Abide with me’?
Are there texts which recognise the finality of our existence, which sharpen our focus and, maybe, our faith ‘till we cast our crowns before Thee, lost in wonder, love and praise’? Is there a middle way
which acknowledges the finitude of human earthly existence while, at the same time, offering some reassurance of the persistent love of God in spite of all things, that love from which, mythologically or in ultimate reality, we can never be separated?

For God is your celestial shield,
no cosmic power, nor human scheme
will separate you from that love
no matter how your terrors teem.

*From ‘Rejoice for things are as they are’ Andrew E Pratt; Partly inspired by Psalm 121 and Romans 8 v38-39 © 2003, 2006 Stainer & Bell Ltd. Full text: https://hymnsandbooks.blog/2020/03/13/rejoice-for-things-are-as-they-are-a-hymn-in-time-of-trouble/

Unravelling the Mysteries – new book – Marjorie Dobson

You may well know Marjorie Dobson as a hymn writer and contributor of material to https://theworshipcloud.com/ . Stainer & Bell say this about her:

Born and raised in the mining district of County Durham, Marjorie Dobson became a Methodist Local Preacher at the age of twenty, with a particular call to seek out new paths of meaningful worship. Her writings have been fed by her experience of leading worship in a wide variety of churches in Durham, Bristol, Bradford and Scarborough, and reflect her concern for those who feel disconnected from faith by their image of the church as being outdated and irrelevant. Her hymns have been included in several collections, including Singing the Faith, and hymns, prayers, poems and other writings have been published on The Worship Cloud website, in Worship Live and in many anthologies.

You might have a copy of her book of worship resources: Multicoloured Maze (https://stainer.co.uk/shop/b882/). She has just published a completely new resource: Unravelling the Mysteries. You can get this from Stainer & Bell at: https://stainer.co.uk/shop/b959/.



Why do we write hymns? A number of years ago I asked Alan Gaunt this question when I was preparing a local radio programme on hymn writers from Merseyside. His reply: ‘I can’t help it’! I have to admit to something of the same feeling myself to the point that a colleague once said, ‘Oh he suffers from logorrhoea – it’s like diarrhoea but with words!’ Many a true word is said in jest! But does this mean that hymn writing, for some of us, is just an obsessive, compulsive action? Perhaps it can be, but hopefully it is more than that. With that in mind I want to explore hymn writing as a vocation, akin to preaching, priesthood, ministry or any other calling. There is a risk here that what we say about ourselves, what we claim for our craft or art, can appear pretentious. We should guard against this, but exploring why and what we write can help to keep us on track and enable us to root and ground what we do in a wider context than the pure self-satisfaction of having written another hymn or seeing it published.
So I have some questions:
• Is what we do useful?
• Does it have any purpose?
• Why do we do it?
In a 2013 survey of 12,000 professionals by the Harvard Business Review, half said they felt their job had no ‘meaning and significance,’ and an equal number were unable to relate to their company’s mission, […] A recent poll among Brits revealed that as many as 37 per cent think they have a job that doesn’t even need to exist.

People are ‘vastly more satisfied’ when their spiritual needs are met ‘by doing more of what they do best and enjoy most, and by feeling connected to a higher purpose’. So what about hymn writing as a task. For some it has been a job, or at any rate a means of earning living. Fanny Crosby is well known both for the vast number of hymns she wrote but also for the pecuniary need to write because of her disability. Writing to order week by week to tunes sent to her by a publisher provided a focus and a drive for her compositions. The degree to which this affected her writing is difficult to judge. Writing to commission for a single text produces pressure. Doing this sequentially requires not only skill in writing, but also the need for some sense of inspiration to generate the subject matter to address. Thomas Troeger and Carol Doran, some years ago, wrote Hymns for the Lectionary . Having written similarly with Marjorie Dobson for all the readings of the Revised Common Lectionary, I am conscious of the pressure that can result in hymns which might be regarded as ‘competent’, in that they rhyme and scan, but often feel in no way inspired. They serve a purpose. Perhaps these hymns are useful.
Psalm paraphrases and Psalm inspired hymns such as those written by Martin Leckebusch are directly dependent on scripture originally meant to be sung. The inspiration is contained in the original but also imparted via the interpreter of the Psalm who is working in a variety of ways. Translation from language to language is taking place, but the task is also hermeneutical bridging the gap of history, context and culture. It is complex. There is clear purpose here in making religious songs from another era and culture accessible today in the here and now.
In each of these settings, writing hymns for the lectionary, or reinterpreting Psalms, scripture is the starting place. There is here both a guide and a guard. This is not always the case. Fanny Crosby’s hymns often sought to work out what faith means. It might for example, offer ‘Blessed assurance’ or ask us to ‘Give God the glory’ for ‘great things he has done’. These are the outcomes of faith and are usually dependant on a particular theological perspective:

To God be the glory! great things He hath done;
so loved He the world that He gave us His Son,
who yielded His life an atonement for sin,
and opened the life gate that all may go in…

To write in this way, with integrity, demands commitment to a theological position. The author’s main task is then to present this position persuasively. We are working towards a more clearly presented expression of a particular vocation. For Fanny Crosby there was not simply a monetary interest but a compulsion to present faith in a way that someone else would wish to adopt it. This latter was, arguably, the primary motivation of Moody and Sankey. These motivations are in no way crude but for some they lack subtlety. Neither do they move far beyond the initial expression of new-found faith. We are working out what faith means.
For some faith cemented into doctrine is significant enough to need defending, interpreting and reinforcing. To move on from Crosby, Moody and Sankey, the clear statement of faith in Townend’s ‘In Christ Alone’ makes clear claims. This Christ, ‘who took on flesh, / fullness of God in helpless babe!’ The incarnation is asserted. The theology is developed further,

Till on that cross as Jesus died,
the wrath of God was satisfied –
for every sin on Him was laid;
here in the death of Christ I live.

The atonement for sin is achieved through the satisfaction of God’s wrath by the sacrificial death of Christ. The author (and singer) is redeemed, ‘bought with the precious blood of Christ’ from slavery to sin, ‘sin’s curse has lost its grip on me’. The strength of this interpretation of doctrine is such that it demands assent or rejection. For the author assent is a necessity. This is why he acclaims that

In Christ alone my hope is found,
He is my light, my strength, my song;
this Cornerstone, this solid Ground…

This interpretation is absolute in its assertion that salvation comes through the redemptive death of Christ, which eliminates death which is predicated on our sin. It is reasonable to assume that, acknowledged or otherwise, Stuart Townend has a vocation to convince people of the veracity of the faith statements made in this text.
The reinforcement of doctrine can be identified from different perspectives. Charles Wesley, reinforcing the Arminian theology espoused by his brother John wrote:

Thy sovereign grace to all extends,
Immense and unconfined;
From age to age it never ends;
It reaches all mankind.

This sense of grace is ‘Wide as infinity’. The author underlines this as it is ‘So wide it never passed by one, /Or it had passed by me’. Without explaining the mechanism of atonement the hymn continues as Wesley sings, ‘In Christ abundantly forgiven, / I see thy mercies rise.
John Henry Newman moves away from scripture to church tradition with no less strength of commitment in ‘Firmly I believe and truly’. Like Townend he underlines incarnational theology that the Wesley’s would also espouse for he writes, ‘I next acknowledge duly / manhood taken by the Son…’ Hope is placed ‘in the Saviour crucified’ without an explanation as to what such hope might engender. The next step is, from a protestant point of view the radical one:

And I hold in veneration,
for the love of him alone,
holy Church as his creation,
and her teachings as his own.

It is the last line of this stanza which some might wish to accept as incontrovertible or profoundly wrong. Again, we find the hymn writer with a vocation which is almost of necessity divisive as a theological construct is asserted as truth. What is clear is that the writing of an author who has a strong compulsion is bound to have an interface with doctrine, either asserting it or opposing it. At the extreme this may stretch doctrine in new directions.
While I would concede that when Frederick Faber posited that ‘there is grace enough for thousands of new world’ he was thinking more in terms of the abundance of grace than the possibilities of extra-terrestrial life he, nevertheless, touched on an issue of theological importance for those who see Christ as literally unique. A hundred or so years later Sydney Carter was to ask:

Who can tell what other cradle
High above the milky way
Still may rock the King of Heaven
On another Christmas Day?

For some this was going too far. But it was an apologetic question that he felt compelled to address. More recently Brian Wren wrote:

If we could slip the bonds of light
and leap to any distant star,
would we go there to pick a fight
or learn how other life-forms are?
If we and they could truly meet
and share what each has seen and known
would we survey the skies and ask
“Are we unique? Are we alone?’

finally concluding, ‘We are unique, but not alone’.’

When we question the validity of other faith positions, we can be pushed, perhaps, still further. In every age there is likely to be a disparity between those who are willing to see doctrine as evolving and those who, with Michael Saward would contend in relation to theological statements that ‘These are the facts as we have received them, / these are the truths that the Christian believes’. And in each case here, both Carter, Wren and Saward wrote out of vocation, though Carter might not wish to own such a description. For Saward there is a traditional assertion of the tenets of Christian faith emanating from his own committed evangelical faith and priestly vocation. Often Wren’s writing is apologetic. For Carter the driving priority was to find ways in which Christian faith could be consonant with the world as he saw and experienced it, alongside his reading of the nature of the human Jesus.
This leads us to writers whose vocation causes them to ask questions of doctrine or to look at faith with a starting point in human experience rather than in the traditions and creeds of the church. Sometimes such writing will run comfortably in line with received theology sometimes it will challenge its veracity. Albert Bayly wrote:

Your mind conceived the galaxy,
each atom’s secret planned,
and every age of history
your purpose, Lord, has spanned.

while Arthur Wright stating that

He made the dust for Saturn’s rings,
he formed all fragile, lovely things;
the quasars, nebulae and quarks,
primroses, dinosaurs and larks.
goes on to say,

Research discloses to our eyes
a world of wonder and surprise;
our Father’s creativity
is popping now with novelty.

In each instance, while the language is beginning to address scientific advances there is a conscious recognition of a traditional theological understanding which, while not necessarily treating the creation narrative of Genesis literally does not challenge it. ‘In quasars, quarks and pulsars/ we seek the cosmic truth’, the original first verse of ‘The God of cosmic question’, begins from a different premise. It is in these explorations that humanly we seek the ‘The ground of our existence / That set creation loose’. There is an allusion to Tillich’s concept of the ‘Ground of Being’ which allows for a distancing from the more creationist perspective of another of my own texts, ‘In the beginning God played with the planets’. Nevertheless the text is still grounded biblically as it concludes:

Yet history proffers insight:
the Christ of time and space
speaks of a God incarnate
born in a squalid place.

What we are witnessing here is not as contradictory as it may seem. The intention of the writer of ‘In the beginning God played with the planets’ is to make the idea of creation accessible to children using the idea of God’s playfulness evident in the book of Job. The other text, written after reading Stephen Hawking’s Brief History of Time has different purpose, that of working apologetically in relation to new scientific discoveries. It seems that the vocation here is actually one of enabling accessibility in both contexts. The author is trying to make sense of faith. Examination of many other of his texts confirms this as a primary intention. It is, broadly, apologetic.
In the last sixty years this area of hymn writing seems to have been given increasing attention. Currently the Hymn Society in the United States and Canada is preparing a collection of hymns relating to migration. Previously hymns which enable the exploration of theology in the face of natural disasters have been collated. The Hymn has published a paper relating hymnody to theodicy. One author who has responded to natural disasters is Carolyn Winfrey Gillette. Interestingly only two of her texts are listed on HymnQuest and both are published in this country in a Unitarian collection, Sing Your Faith.
When migration is addressed alienation become a subject for exploration. Who can be included? John Bell and Graham Maule ask how far the Christian is willing to go to step across the barriers of difference asking:

Will you care for cruel and kind
and never be the same?
Will you risk the hostile stare
should your life attract or scare?…

Will you set the prisoners free
and never be the same?
Will you kiss the leper clean,
and do such as this unseen…

While Marty Haugen asserts, ‘All are welcome in this place’. That raises the question, who are ‘all’? are there no exclusion clauses? In a text not, as far as I am aware, published in the United Kingdom, Bringle asks ‘Who is the alien?’ This is not a hymn about migration , nor even ‘the alien’ in the national political sense. Unexpectedly it moves from a description from Hebrew scripture of the Hebrew slaves in Egypt to ask who are aliens today? Who is excluded or diminished through difference? And these are not so much those who are foreign, but those ‘differently partnered in ways that are strange’ or ‘people whose bodies bear limits of skill’.
For some there are levels of acceptance. Janet Wootton relates a time when, as a woman called to ministry she was told by men of another denomination that not only would she be damned but so would any children she baptised. This experience, together with her wish to reinterpret scripture in a frame that was not paternalistic has influenced her writing, not only in tone but in choice of subject matter as the following text demonstrates:
When Miriam’s daughters rise and sing
and David lifts his voice to praise,
when sons of Asaph weave new words
and Mary challenges our ways,

creator God, we trace your love
through thirty centuries of song,
and dare to add our witness for
the age to which we now belong.


To summarise, when hymns are written the author has some form of motivation. In many cases it is not pretentious to suggest that there is a sense of vocation, a calling perceived as from God, from something ‘other’, to frame words with religious purpose. This might direct authors

1. to state or re-state doctrine

Hail! Holy, holy, holy Lord!
Whom One in Three we know;
By all thy heavenly host adored,
By all thy church below.
Charles Wesley (1707-1788)

God who is Love, as One-in-Three,
Most Blest and Glorious Trinity,
for what has been, and is to be,
we bring our love and praise.

2. to express old thoughts in new words and phrases

We come with self-inflicted pains
of broken trust and chosen wrong,
half-free, half-bound by inner chains,
by social forces swept along,
by powers and systems close confined,
yet seeking hope for humankind.

3. to call forth praise or lament.

Come, now is the time to worship,
come, now is the time to give your heart;
come, just as you are to worship,
come, just as you are before your God
Brian Doerksen

God weeps
at love withheld,
at strength misused,
at children’s innocence abused,
and till we change the way we love,
God weeps.

4. In other instances hymns may be written which push at the boundaries of hymnody, re-shaping doctrine, entering new areas of expression or concern which to traditional ears may be unacceptable. Convictions may lead to writing which, to some, may seem beyond that which is allowable in a context of worship.

Dear Mother God, your wings are warm around us,
We are enfolded in your love and care;
Safe in the dark, your heartbeat’s pulse surrounds us,
You call to us, for you are always there.
Janet Wootton

Sing we a song of high revolt;
make great the Lord, his name exalt!
Sing we the song that Mary sang
of God at war with human wrong.
Fred Kaan

We hear of people sanctioned,
made poor by bad intent,
for selfishness is ruling
infecting government;
we see the children suffer
while parents are distressed,
what is there we can offer,
our nation seems bereft?
Andrew Pratt

Hymns explain, interpret, offer a hermeneutic tool. They may be instruments of praise or vehicles of lament. So often, at their best, they give voice to the deepest feelings and convictions of the writer, they are sung prayers saying that which, otherwise, would only be felt. And we are invited to share these, Psalms, prayers, invocations in our reflections on the world and our worship of the divine. As Marjorie Dobson has written:

Lord, you call us to your service,
each in our own way.
Some to caring, loving, healing;
some to preach, or pray;
some to work with quiet learning,
truth discerning,
day by day.

And she could well add in our writing, composing, singing as our ‘Christian love adds new dimensions…’

This exploration leads to the question with which I began, but for each of us to answer, ‘why do we write hymns?’ And perhaps it is worth asking ourselves:

• What am I writing now?
• Am I satisfied with what I am writing?
• Where is God in all of this?
• Has my vocation as a writer changed at all?
• And if so what ought I to do in response?
© Andrew Pratt 2017

What does singing do to us?

When we sing we embody (in-body) the theology that we have read. We take it in, translate, interpret and transmit. In the process are we, perhaps, formed or changed by the medium? Not pushing the metaphor too far, is it in any way like eating – what we eat becomes part of us, we excrete some of it, and it can nourish or poison…

So what we sing, and even how we sing, becomes important in a way we may not have envisaged before. It is one thing to read a text which remains remote, like looking at a cake and not eating it; it is something altogether different to take the text in and to re-transmit it. That we might do by reading aloud. The sheer physicality of singing, the presence of music, steps everything up a gear. Wesley knew that. That is why hymns were so important. The hymns provided portmanteau scriptures or interpretations, theology or doctrine. These were memorised and could be shared with others. And you can never lose them – which can become a bit of an irritation!

Why do you like this hymn or that? Why do you find some hymns abhorrent? ‘A good sing’ says as much, if not more, about feeling as it does about understanding or literary or musical quality. But Britta Martini wants to push us further by asking what is there in the expression of the music or the structure of a text, key or melody, image or metaphor, that causes a hymn to affect us in this way?

What hymns or songs affect you? And how? And why?