A number of hymns published in Singing the Faith and on this website speak of our experience of pain, loss and fear in a world that doesn’t always behave as we might hope God’s creation would.
Rachel Parkinson’s hymn, “Lord, save us from the desert” (website only), beautifully echoes in a single text the themes of the Jewish festival of Sukkot. (See Sukkot – a festival for all peoples?) Where else in our hymns are the themes of divine love and human fragility drawn together?
From the earliest traditions of hymn singing, we have found evidence of God’s creativity and love in the marvels of the natural world. Rightly, we sing of All things bright and beautiful (StF 100); we give thanks For the beauty of the earth (StF 102); and in the words of St Francis of Assisi we sense the deep and lovely unity of all God’s created things: “Deep mother earth, who day by day / unfolds rich blessings on our way…” (All creatures of our God and King, StF 99). More recently, Andrew Pratt has written of God’s playful creativity:
In the beginning God played with the planets,
set them a-spinning in time and in space,
stars in the night sky, while sun lit the daytime,
blue was the globe that was formed for our race. (StF 108)
In O Lord, our Lord, throughout the earth (StF 112), John Bell extends Andrew Pratt’s theme by looking at nature from the other end of the telescope. He recognises our smallness compared with the hugeness of creation, and marvels at the fact that God nevertheless cares for us and loves humanity.
At the same time, John Bell (with Graham Maule) recognises that there are many times when the destructive impact of nature on human lives seems to speak of God’s absence: “As if you were not there, / famine and flood together / usher death, disease and terror…” These are the occasions that hit the headlines and increase widespread scepticism about the presence of any loving god: “As if you were not there, / we televise the dying, / watch the helpless victims crying…” (As if you were not there, StF 724)
As we praise the God who created us in this world, our place in it may sound secure:
For why, the Lord our God is good;
his mercy is for ever sure;
his truth at all times firmly stood,
and shall from age to age endure.
(All people that on earth do dwell, StF 1)
However – as the Jewish festival of Sukkot reminds us – for many, life may not feel secure at all.
Andrew Pratt trained as a scientist, with a special interest in marine biology. Many of his hymns (often written in response to actual and recent events) highlight the seeming contradiction between the lethal behaviour of the natural world and our faith in a loving God. He helps us ponder the “tectonic plates beneath the ocean’s surface” that destroy landscapes that once were home (website only). Of the tornado that devastated suburbs of Oklahoma in May 2013 he writes, “It seems there is no safety in this carnage” (A twisting wind that wreaks such devastation, website only).
At the same time as we sing powerfully of God as “a safe stronghold” who will “help us clear from all the ill / that hath us now overtaken” (A safe stronghold our God is still by Martin Luther, StF 623), we recognise that “out in the darkness, the voices are crying” (Jan Berry’s Deep in the darkness a starlight is gleaming, StF 625). Like the festival of Sukkot, this pair of hymns yokes together confident faith in God’s involvement in our lives with the reality that the human journey often shows up the fragility of our existence. Together, they explore the truths behind the profoundly misleading cliché: “but for the grace of God…”
When the earth’s wild hidden forces
roar and shake and tilt the ground…
then we know a power beyond us,
part of mystery profound.
(When the earth’s wild hidden forces by Norman Brookes, website only)
To find out more about Sukkot, read Sukkot – a festival for all peoples?