Enemy of apathy

The hymn that I chose from Sing Praise for Friday was “Enemy of Apathy” by John Bell and Graham Maule.  I’ve been away from the computer for a couple of days which is why I’m only commenting on it now.  But it was one of the hymns sung by our music group in church this morning, for Pentecost Sunday itself.

The hymn covers several aspects of the role of the Holy Spirit as found in the Bible, reimagined in poetic language.  The Spirit is here referred to as female throughout, maybe as a deliberate balance to the tendency to address God in general or the Spirit in particular by male pronouns, though of course God is neither, yet more than both. 

The feminine character of God is perhaps particularly appropriate to emphasise in the Creation story (verse 1) where the imagery used by the composers is that of birthing: the Spirit is “’like a bird, brooding on the waters … mothering creation, waiting to give birth to all the Word will say’. Here we see the partnership between God the Creator (the divine act of will), God the Word (the divine act of communication) and God the Spirit (the divine power of action).  I love the phrase ‘she sighs and she sings’, expressing perhaps the joy of seeing God’s will being done with as well as the  frustration we equally feel when we long for God to act and it seems s/he is delaying action.

The second verse sees this spiritual bird in a more active role, ‘winging over earth, resting where she wishes, lighting close at hand or soaring through the skies.  Sometimes the Spirit’s way of working is personal and intimate as one person is brought closer to God, and sometimes visible and dramatic, as when a nationwide revival happens.   The birthing imagery is repeated but in terms of human reproduction, as she ‘nests in each womb, welcoming each wonder, nourishing potential hidden to our eyes’. Without wishing to get drawing into a pro-life / pro-choice argument, we must recognise that God must know each developing embryo as intimately as any child or adult who is consciously aware of God.

The third verse brings us to the feast of Pentecost itself. The spirit here ‘dances in fire, startling her spectators, waking tongues of ecstasy where dumbness reigned’. How wonderful it must have been to witness that day, when the Spirit appeared in a form that Luke (or those witnesses whose evidence he heard) must have struggled to express in meaningful ways to others.  But her work was not completed then, rather it lives on as ‘she weans and inspires all whose hearts are open’.

Finally we are reminded in verse four that, as we will consider on Trinity Sunday next week,  there are not three gods but ‘one God in essence’. The creator, the saviour, the spirit all express God’s love.  The final line gives the hymn its title: ‘enemy of apathy and heavenly dove’.  Apathy is usually defined in its literal sense of not feeling emotion, or in common usage as ‘not being bothered’ about something.  Here it is probably used to mean a reluctance to join in with God’s work of creation and redemption. Those who are filled with the Spirit want nothing more than to be the channels of God’s ceaseless activity.

Lord of all worlds

Rotting logs © David Pashley licensed for reuse under Creative Commons Licence

Today’s hymn from Sing Praise is “Lord of all Worlds” by Christopher Ellis.  Like yesterday’s (“Let all creation dance”) it’s a celebration of God’s goodness in creation.  Like St Francis of Assisi’s ‘canticle of creation’, it covers the beauties of sun and stars, earth, wind and sea, fish and birds (but no mention here of land animals).

There is a problem with this and many similar hymns, which is that we only praise God for “all things bright and beautiful”. I’ve seen several internet memes that suggest alternative verses to that hymn such as Monty Python’s “All things dull and ugly, all creatures short and squat, all things rude and nasty, the Lord God made the lot”.  We must acknowledge that the created world is “red in tooth and claw”, and by no means all beautiful or useful to humanity.   

We are of course partly responsible for earth’s problems. The “glittering shoals flash[ing] through the rippling water” now have plastic in their stomachs, and the “wind that rushes through the heavens” is getting stronger, more destructive and the air more polluted as a result of our burning fossil fuels.  Humanity has fallen far short of God’s intention for a sustainable world.

But even allowing for a theology of ‘fallen creation’ in which the evil of deliberate or even unintentional destruction and harm had no place in God’s original plan, the problem still remains. Imagine Eden before the fall, full of ripe fruit and seeds for Adam and Eve to eat.  There must have been bees to pollinate the trees, and did they never sting the naked bodies of the blissful couple? Would the trees not still have fallen, rotted and been recycled by bugs (the recent trend for ‘bug hotels’ does at least recognise the importance of insects) ? The serpent in the story perhaps acknowledges that less attractive, and potentially harmful, creatures were there from the start.  And how many people down the millennia have been killed by natural events such as volcanoes, floods and hurricanes? 

Any rendition of “all things bright and beautiful” or the present hymn, therefore, should (at least for an adult congregation) be balanced by recognising the complexity of creation in which the bugs and snakes are as loved by God as the lambs and kittens, and in which mountains cannot appear without earthquakes nor fertile land without flooding.  We praise and adore God for the wonder of this complex creation of which we are part, but confess our humility at being such a small part in it, our gratitude for being entrusted with its stewardship, and our guilt at failing to do so to the best of our ability.

Let all creation dance

The Horsehead Nebula
Image Credit: Canada-France-Hawaii Telescope/Coelum

Today’s hymn from Sing Praise is “Let all creation dance”, by Brian Wren.  Full words and music here. It’s set to the tune better known to the words “Ye holy angels bright”, and has vaguely the same theme of all creation praising God, although the emphasis here is on the non-human aspects of creation. 

The ancient concept of the stars being mere pinpricks of light in the dome separating us from heaven has of course been replaced by an ever-changing understanding of a vast universe of unceasing action and awesome energy. That is reflected in Brian’s words: “let all creation dance in energies sublime, as order turns with chance unfolding space and time” and later “expanding starry swirls, with whirlpools dense and dark”. 

The balance of “order turning with chance” is important: neither a deterministic God who ordained every movement in precise detail, nor one who leaves everything to random forces, is a satisfactory concept of the creator whom we worship. There are indeed ‘rules’ or ‘laws of nature’ (though every time we think we have them wrapped up, some new discovery seems to force scientists to rethink their models) but to deny God the power to direct the course of events as we go along is to belittle him.

Verse three focuses on “our own amazing earth” with “life’s abundant growth in lovely shapes and forms”, but also described as “a fragile whole”, which is another growing understanding we have of how we are disturbing the delicate balance of ecosystems.  Verse four turns back on us, the singers, urging us to “lift heart and soul and voice” in praise of Christ and his re-creation of all things.  The more that we find the universe to be infinite, complex and “queerer than we can suppose” (JBS Haldane), the less outrageous the claim seems to be that Jesus not only rose alive from the dead and then vanished into thin air, but will come back to intervene in a much bigger way when “nature shall rejoice as all is made complete”.

O Lord my God, when I in awesome wonder

Wooden cross on the Via Beata, Redhill, Warwickshire

Today’s hymn from Sing Praise is a very well known one, “O Lord my God, when I in awesome wonder”. Stuart Hine’s translation of a hymn that was originally either in Swedish or Russian (I’ve seen both quoted as the original) has become a firm favourite, at least partly  because of the memorable tune (although the two slightly different notes on the repetition of ‘art’ in the chorus catch many out).

I do wonder, though, whether its popularity is also because the first two verses appeal to a spirituality of nature that doesn’t demand Christian commitment.  Stars, woods and glades, brooks and birds can be enjoyed by anyone, and only a vague belief in a creator is required to respond to them with “how great thou art!”

The last two verses, on the other hand, if the singer thinks about the words, are much more specifically Christian.  “When I think that God, his son not sparing, sent him to die … on the cross, my burden gladly bearing, he bled and died to take away my sin” is at the core of our belief, and all the more reason to be thankful to our God.  He is not a distant creator far beyond the stars, but among us and involved with us in sharing our suffering.

The last verse looks to the renewed creation promised by Jesus, which shall be our home.  Interpretations of Christ’s return do of course vary between Christians, but we can agree that the greatest gift of God for which we can sing our thankful praise is that of eternal life, whether in the present existence or the one to come (whatever that may be like).  How great thou art, indeed!

Earth, earth, awake!


St Francis window in St Leonard’s church, Wollaton, Nottingham.
Artist Christopher Whall. Image copyright Stephen Craven 2020.

Today’s hymn from Sing Praise is “Earth, earth, awake!” by Herman G Stümpfler Jr.  I’m grateful to John for suggesting the tune ‘Lasst uns erfreuen’ (better known set to St Francis’ Canticle of Creation) rather than the one in the book; I enjoyed singing the harmony to the alleluias in the YouTube video.

This is very much an Easter hymn of praise. As I observed yesterday, in the Easter season we are reminded that Christ’s resurrection revealed on Easter day was as like a new morning for the world.

The first verse invites the whole creation – earth, sun and stars – to awake and sing praise to the risen King. The second invites us to join all nature as it “sings of hope reborn [as] Christ lives to comfort those who mourn”.  This weekend of course, our nation mourns its senior Prince, who has passed into Glory honourably and of natural causes at the ripe old age of 99, but there will be many people also who are mourning for those who have died young, in tragic circumstances or of Coronavirus or other diseases.  Their grief may be deeper, and their acceptance of their loved one’s death longer, than when a death was expected and natural.  But whatever the circumstances, may they know God’s comfort.

Verse three makes the common comparison between winter turning into spring, and the new life of the resurrection.  Whilst the first Easter did happen around Passover time in April, there is a very long-standing tradition of making this link with the time of year when flowers and buds appear and animals give birth (at least in the northern hemisphere where Christianity started).  The final verse is a song of praise to the Trinity (see yesterday’s comments).

Bring to God your new, best songs

Because for most of the year I’m not including Saturdays, today is day two of this project to sing through the hymn book (see the pinned introductory post for details).  It’s the second Sunday of Christmas, the one nearest to the Epiphany when we celebrate God’s presence in Jesus being revealed to the world through the visit of the magi.  The hymn I have selected is a modern one, “Bring to God your new, best songs”. It doesn’t have a tune of its own but of the available tunes that fit it, I sing it to the tune of an older hymn, “King of glory, King of peace”.

The words are an adaptation by an acquaintance of mine, Martin Leckebusch, of Psalm 96.  This psalm has a long history of being adapted to sung worship. In the Book of Common Prayer it is known as the Venite (from the first word of the Latin version – Come!), and is still set as one of the canticles to be read or chanted at Morning Prayer.  God is praised as the creator of all the world and its peoples. Some verses of it also inspired the Epiphany hymn sung in many churches on this day, “O worship the Lord in the beauty of holiness, bow down before him, his glory proclaim!” 

Whichever version of the psalm you prefer, the common themes are that after Epiphany the whole world, not just the people of Bethlehem, get to hear about the birth of Jesus, the presence of God among us.  And that there is no longer any excuse for idolatry – in Martin’s words, “Earth and heaven, revere the Lord your Creator: Why exalt some other god? He is greater!”

At the end of the twelve days of Christmas, the challenge is to do as the magi did, return home with a message of good new to tell the world. We can’t do that much in person at present, but this song calls us to “Bring to God our new songs” – we have other ways of communicating these days. In your phone calls, video conferences, tweets and other online interactions, how can you tell of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ?

The Apocrypha in Lent – 20 March

If this is your first visit, please see my introduction to these Lenten readings.

20 March. Ecclesiasticus chapters 42-43

Most of chapter 42 and all of 43 are devoted to praising God for his creation, including specific references to the sun, moon, stars, rainbows, the wide variety of weather patterns, and the sea with its tides and monsters. These are all aspects of nature praised in the Psalms and other parts of the Jewish scriptures.  Perhaps they are picked out from the other aspects of creation because they are least easily understood – before modern astronomy, physics and submarines, who could explain how they work?

It is important to note that there is no hint here of worshipping these phenomena themselves.  Jewish and Christian thought is absolutely clear that there is only one god, the creator, and all these things are from him, having no spiritual life of their own.  The praise is directed to God in thanks for the wonder of the creation.  “To put it concisely, ‘he is all’” (43:27).  We are in fact encouraged to praise God as much as possible, for it can never be enough – “exert all your strength when you exalt him, do not grow tired – you will never come to the end” (43:30).

Such praise of God for the beauty of nature would have come more easily to people in former times than it does to us nowadays.  Shielded by artificial lights from seeing the night sky in its glory, having the mysteries of the climate explained by science, having “no time to stand and stare … beneath the boughs” as William Davies put it, we lose our childlike capacity for wonder.  Perhaps the rainbow is the one exception.  No matter that scientists can explain them in terms of refraction and diffraction,  rainbows lighting up with their glorious colours can still make a dull day fascinating and cheer the soul.  “See the rainbow and praise its maker, so superbly beautiful is its splendour. Across the sky it forms a glorious arc, drawn by the hand of the Most High” (43:11-12).

The Apocrypha in Lent – 13 March

If this is your first visit, please see my introduction to these Lenten readings.

13 March, Ecclesiasticus chapters 15-18

Yesterday I wrote about the instruction to “be good to yourself”, not to let modesty lead to being unnecessarily harsh on oneself.   Today I am picking up on the passage 17:1-14, which follows from an account of the creation of the universe, earth and animals.  In these subsequent verses, the focus  narrows down on humanity in particular.

Verses 1-2 are honest about our limitations: we are made from earth, will go back to it when we die, and have a finite life span.    But this is followed by an appreciation of just how special we area – made in God’s image, master of other animals (though there is much debate these days over how that mastery should properly be employed), able to taste and smell, see and hear, to think and to judge.  Our purpose is to praise God and “tell of his magnificent works”, even to see and hear God himself (13).

Much of this repeats elements of the creation stories in Genesis.  But there is something different here. Verse 7, “he filled them with knowledge and understanding, and revealed to them good and evil”, seems to make this discernment between good and evil part of God’s plan, rather than the root of all sin as the Genesis account puts it. Like the exhortation we looked at yesterday to be good to your own self, it is a much more positive worldview than that of “traditional religion”.  Here is a God whose aim is to “clothe [people] with strength like his own” (3), to “show them the magnificence of his works” (8).  Humanity is something splendid, even when we are aware of right and wrong.  Here there is no banishment from Eden for seeking knowledge that should not be ours, only a desire that we should understand as much of God’s creation as we can.  That fits in with the whole idea of “seeking Wisdom” which is the theme of the book.

That’s not to say mankind is shown as perfect.  Later in the same chapter there is encouragement to repent of sin and leave it behind, turning to God’s mercy (25-29).  But fellowship with God is the default state, and he is never far away.

 

The Bible in a Year – 27 November

If this is your first viewing, please see my Introduction before reading this.

27 November. Colossians and Philemon

The letter to Philemon is a personal one, whereas that to the Colossians is addressed to the whole church in the area, as several congregations (house churches) are mentioned. But these two books belong together, as Paul refers to several people in both of them – principally Onesimus the freed slave and Philemon his former owner, but also mentioned in passing in both letters are Timothy, Mark and Luke (well known New Testament figures) and also the lesser known Aristarchus, Archippus, Epaphras and Demas.  Clearly they all belonged to the same community.

In the first chapter of Colossians, Paul writes excitedly about Jesus, because without him there would be no Church.  He seems to be struggling to find enough words to describe the revelation that he himself had received from Jesus in a way that would draw his readers towards the same understanding.  For Paul, it was not enough to say that Jesus was the Son of God – that suggests merely a very holy man – or even ‘God taking on human flesh’ which sounds quite a temporary arrangement, since even the resurrected Jesus did not remain in visible form for more than a few weeks.  So he tries to describe Jesus from a universal, eternal viewpoint:

“He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation; for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers—all things have been created through him and for him. He himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together. He is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, so that he might come to have first place in everything. For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross.” (Colossians 1:15-20)

Any attempt at re-phrasing or interpreting that passage risks losing its power.  Every time I re-read it I am reminded of how earthbound and immediate my understanding of Jesus tends to be.  Paul’s concept of time and space was, of course, different from ours. We now know the stars to be more than lights fixed in a dome some fixed distance beyond the earth, and have concepts such as relativity, gravitational waves and the Big Bang that he could not have begun to conceive – unless they were part of his revelation when he was “caught up to the seventh heaven”?

But I think Paul would have welcomed having the language of 21st century cosmology at his disposal.  The interplay between science and religion has never been as exciting as it is now.  Physicists acknowledge they have no idea what “dark matter” or “dark energy” might be – they are just ways of saying that the universe is still unknowable.  And while mathematical models may tell us that there are many more dimensions than the three of space and one of time that we are aware of, no-one has a concept of what they might represent in reality. From that point of view, Paul’s “seventh heaven” actually makes more sense than it did when he wrote it.  Even if, another century from now, those “mysteries” are solved, there will be more.  For God, by definition being beyond anything he/she/it created, is ultimately unknowable. The very fact that somehow the creator could briefly be contained in one very specific created being is at the heart of the Christian mystery that we explore each Advent and Christmas season.

The Bible in a Year – 16 July

If this is your first viewing, please see my Introduction before reading this, and the introduction to the Psalms for this book of the Bible in particular.

16 July. Psalms 103-105

Going through the psalms we have seen how they cover a wide range of human experience, sometimes calling on God in desperation for his help, sometimes invoking his vengeance against enemies, and in between thanking him for his goodness.  But these three psalms are pure concentrated praise, a setting aside of all personal concerns to focus on the nature and acts of our Creator.

 

They are best read, I think, I the order 104-103-105, for this then mirrors the pattern of the days of creation in Genesis, and also the modern understanding of evolution and human history.

 

Psalm 104 considers the relationship God has with the creation as a whole: sun and moon, the earth as a whole, its mountains and oceans, its plants and animals, its weather patterns.  The harmony of the whole is portrayed here: each species has its natural habitat, they respond to the times and seasons, even “acts of God” such as earthquakes and lightning have their place in the natural order.  We forget at our peril that all this is God’s creation, and intended to work in harmony. It is not to be exploited by mankind beyond what we need for our food and shelter.

 

Psalm 103 celebrates God’s relationship with men and women as individuals.  We are exhorted not to forget all God’s “benefits”.  What are those?  Healing, forgiveness, redemption, love and mercy for a start (v.2-4).    If that were not enough, added to the list are vindication, justice, grace and compassion (v.6-13).  Why does God shower all these blessings on us?  The answer is in verse 14: “For he knows how we were made; he remembers that we are dust”. The one who made us, and knows how weak we are, how short our life in the context of eternity, how small we are in the context of the universe, will give us every help he possibly can – even when we have messed things up “by our own deliberate fault” as the prayer book puts it.

 

Psalm 105 goes on to describe the way God works with human society.  It focuses, as so many books in the Hebrew bible, on God’s covenant with Abraham and subsequent Exodus from Egypt, that defining moment when God used every power at his disposal, from natural plagues and floods to miraculous provision of light, food and water, to rescue the Israelites (the forerunners of the Jews).   But the Jews were not the “chosen people” only for their own sake. They were the tribes to whom God had given the special responsibility for bearing the good news of his love from one generation to the next until all humankind could hear it.

 

So in these three songs of praise we have the fullness of God’s relationship with creation, with humanity in particular, and most of all with those sent to proclaim his love to his creation.  Bless the Lord, O my soul!