Today’s hymn from Sing Praise is one by Martin Leckebusch from the selection for Lent. The full words can be found on the Jubilate Hymns website. Sing Praise offers two choices of tune, neither familiar to me, and John Hartley has composed one for the occasion in a minor key, but in fact as it is in the frequently used “long metre” (eight syllables per line) there are many suitable tunes and the Jubilate website suggests the well-known “Tallis’s Canon”.
The first line is “Forgive us when our deeds ignore your righteous rule”. In fact all the verses begin “Forgive us…”, which is a good clue to the theme, which is that of penitence (saying sorry to God for the things we’ve done wrong and asking his help not to repeat our mistakes).
Traditionally the sort of sins repented of in Lent were greed, pride, lust and envy – sins of thought more than of deed, for the most part. Not that those are suddenly acceptable these days, and indeed in verse two we confess “dreams of pleasure, wealth and pride” and in verse three “our endless greed for what was never truly ours” (more than a nod to the traditional vices there).
But the focus of what we think of as sin has shifted in recent decades. The things that Martin asks us to repent of include what we might call “woke sins”, thoughts and actions that harm the world and its people and our relationship with nature. More specifically, verse one refers to “decisions that harm the poor”, reflecting the theology of “liberation” or “bias to the poor” that has become popular since the 1960s. Verse three expands the concept of greed beyond personal acquisition to encompass the way “we harness this world’s brutal powers” (meaning perhaps its fossil fuel and nuclear energy, although it may also suggest structural and corporate greed riding roughshod over the poor).
Verse four gives an interesting take on what ‘sin’ might mean in its widest sense: “we change the rules by which the game is played”. The Biblical understanding is that God’s commandments – his rules for living – are for everyone’s benefit. But by changing those rules to benefit ourselves more than others, by making greed a strength and living sustainably with a view to the needs of others a weakness, we undermine the way the world was supposed to work.
The last two lines combine a traditional observance of Lent with this more contemporary understanding as we ask God to “help us walk your holy way, to make your world a better place”. Personal holiness and concern for the world around us are not two opposing or different approaches to religion, they are more like the intertwining strands of DNA or the interplay of electricity and magnetism: only together can they bring life and power into being.