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Pentecost and Cutting off the Breath of God

Breathe on me, Breath of God,
fill me with life anew,
that I may love the way you love,
and do what you would do.

During quarantine I have been recording multi-track handbell videos of hymn arrangements. Since this coming Sunday is Pentecost (the arrival of the spirit in Acts 2) I posted a recording of the hymn “Breathe On Me, Breathe of God.”

It didn’t occur to me for several hours how my video may have been inappropriate (or at best, awkward) to post just a day after black man George Floyd was pinned by white offers, screamed “I Can’t Breathe” and then died in custody. This story (and the countless others like it) continues to fuel both righteous anger and deep complacency in the United States.

As I began to consider Pentecost in this context, I was filled with anger. While Pentecost is (and has been since Ancient times) one of the most lively days in the life of the Church, I began to lament, knowing that God’s gift of the spirit — God’s breath — has been denied to so many people of color in the United States. At creation God’s spirit actively participates and “hovers over the waters” (Gen 1:2). God’s breathe continues to form and reform us. When we hurt others, we both deface the image of God and deny God’s gift of breath. We deny the gift that God will “pour out my Spirit upon all flesh” (Acts 2:17).

For many of us it’s easy to think that we don’t commit violent crimes and therefore “we’re good”. But Jesus offers a stunning rebuke to our complacency by describing in the Sermon on the Mount what life in God’s kingdom is all about:

“You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not murder’; and ‘whoever murders shall be liable to judgment.’  But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment … So when you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift.” (Matt 5:21-24)

Maybe Jesus knows that anger can lead to hatred and hatred can lead to violence. Maybe Jesus knows if left unchecked anger leads to unhealthy relationships, to mental and physical anguish. Anger has the power to destroy us and to destroy communities, just as police brutality does again and again.  For Jesus, living in the kingdom of God (and in true communion with God) is about reconciliation: “first be reconciled to your brother or sister”. For Jesus, building the blessed community involves acknowledging our pain and our brokenness and working toward restoring our relationships with one another.

Like any emotion, anger is not “good” or “bad,” by itself. It may more useful to acknowledge, as with any emotion, that anger can be helpful and harmful. Righteous anger has the power to move us to action, particularly after an injustice has happened. Jesus, speaking truth to power, became angry with those who upheld unjust systems. Later in the book of Matthew, Jesus says to the pharisees: “woe to you…for you tithe mint, dill, and cumin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faith” (Matt 23:23). While these leaders “followed the rules” for presenting temple offerings and sacrifices, they failed to enact the intent behind the law: justice and mercy and faith.

As a so-called Christian nation, we are so far from pursuing justice for black and brown people. Who is it, really, that can’t breathe? We claim that we live by the Holy Spirit, we ask for it to “break me, melt me, mold me, fill me”. But do we really trust and follow the spirit’s power do so? The book of Acts tracks the movement of the Spirit after Pentecost and describes ways that it led the apostles to pursue justice. Early on Peter bears to the spirit’s power to convict the counsel or Jesus’s unjust killing:

“The high priest questioned them, saying, ‘We gave you strict orders not to teach in this name, yet here you have filled Jerusalem with your teaching and you are determined to bring this man’s blood on us.’ But Peter and the apostles answered, ‘We must obey God  rather than any human authority. The God of our ancestors raised up Jesus, whom you had killed by hanging him on a tree. God exalted him at his right hand as Leader and Savior that he might give repentance to Israel and forgiveness of sins. And we are witnesses to these things, and so is the Holy Spirit whom God has given to those who obey him.'” (Acts 5:27-32)

This language of “whom you had killed by hanging him on a tree” (used several times in Acts) has deeply painful overtones in the United States, where many historians observe that today’s victims of police brutality are much like victims of lynching after the Civil War. In The Cross and the Lynching Tree, James Cone writes:

“The lynching tree—so strikingly similar to the cross on Golgatha – should have a prominent place in American images of Jesus’s death. But it does not. In fact the lynching tree has no place in American theological reflections on Jesus’s cross or in the proclamation of Christian churches about his Passion. The conspicuous absence of the lynching tree in American theological discourse is profoundly revealing, especially since the crucifixion was essentially a first century lynching.” (30)

Jesus Christ already died for our sins. How long do black and brown people have to die in the United States for the sin of racism? Floyd’s is just one of countless black lives lost to police brutality in the United States. With the prophets and the Psalmist we cry “How long, O Lord?” Because when we kill image-bearers, we kill God.

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Reflection: “Great Is Thy Faithfulness”

Kentucky hymnwriter Thomas O. Chisholm (1866-1960), author of “Great Is Thy Faithfulness”

This past January at the Calvin Symposium on Christian Worship we sang the hymn “Great Is Thy Faithfulness”  at multiple services. This unplanned coincidence promoted me to reflect more deeply on the words of this song. I invite you to reflect on the chorus:

Great is Thy faithfulness! Great is Thy faithfulness!
Morning by morning new mercies I see;
All I have needed Thy hand hath provided—
Great is Thy faithfulness, Lord, unto me!

Thomas O. Chisholm (1923)

Even though I really like studying hymns, I never paid close attention to “Great is Thy Faithfulness”  before the conference. It was just another hymn used for the assurance of pardon (meant to comfort the congregation after a prayer confession). But after singing these words dozens of times I was uplifted by an international community of faith finding hope in God’s mercy and faithfulness.

The striking thing about these words is that they come from the Old Testament book of Lamentations, which contains five poems reflecting on the destruction of Jerusalem by the Babylonian empire in 586 BCE and is traditionally attributed to the prophet Jeremiah. In this time of uncertainty and suffering around the world, we might resonate with some of the poet’s words: “though I cry for help, [God] shut out my prayer” (Lam 3:8) or “gone is my glory, and all that I hope for from the Lord.” (Lam 3:18).  

When all is lost, trusting in God is hard. Many of the Biblical authors affirm that part of the human experience is questioning if God is truly present at all (see Psalm 10). But in the midst of suffering and destruction, the lamenting poet proclaims:

 Remember my affliction and my wanderings,
    the wormwood and the gall!
My soul continually remembers it
    and is bowed down within me.
But this I call to mind,
    and therefore I have hope:
The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases
    his mercies never come to an end;
they are new every morning;
    great is your faithfulness.
 “The Lord is my portion,” says my soul,
    “therefore I will hope in him.”

Lamentations 3:19-24

These are some of the only hopeful words in the book of Lamentations. My Lutheran study Bible offers this reflection:

To us, lament often sounds like despair, the opposite of faith. Yet, … it is precisely in these places where we would least expect to find God, in suffering, pain, disaster, catastrophe—and in the cross—that God is clearly present. Lamentations, then does more than simply express despair. It shows is that in the most difficult times and places, God is present and hears our desperate cries for help.

Lutheran Study Bible (Augsburg Fortress)

If you have a challenging time trusting in God’s faithfulness, you are not alone. While we loudly proclaim “great is thy faithfulness!” in our worship, lament and anger also frame the Biblical witness. In this time of uncertainty, please lament, but also rest in the assurance that God’s mercies are new every morning.

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God’s Promise: “You Are Mine”

This is a confusing time. The global health crisis has sparked fear and concern around the world. How can our faith provide comfort?

For me it is meaningful to remember God’s promise to be with us always. God created us, formed us and now sustains us.  Jesus, the savior of the world, assures us “I am with you always, to the very end of the age.”

A song that has brought me comfort in this time is “You Are Mine” by Catholic liturgical composer David Haas. The chorus is based on Isaiah 43:1-7:

Do not be afraid, I am with you
I have called you each by name
Come and follow Me
I will bring you home
I love you and you are mine

David Haas (1996)

What a profound thing it is to be named and called by God. Sometimes I feel insecure and wonder if I am “doing enough” or the “right things,” but when I read these words I am reminded that I am enough. I am a child of God. By embracing God’s love for me I feel less invested in the impossible task of trying to please others. Instead I am free love God, myself and others.  

I encourage you to listen to this song and receive the comfort that God offers.

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Can you identify these 5 emoji hymns?

July 17 is #WorldEmojiDay! As a celebration of these whimsical icons, we’ve translated five well-known hymns into emojis. Can you identify each hymn? Comment below with your own emoji hymns!

1

👁️👁️, 😇❤️
🤷, 💾✝️
💭, 🌅🌃
⏰😴, 😇💡

2

💪 🏰 👑, 🚢 ❌
🆘 🌊, ⚰️🤒
😈 😔, ✂️ 🔌
💪 😡, 🌎 ✝️

3

😇😇😇! 🙏👑🤴
🌅💡, 🎶☝️🤴
😇😇😇! 😩➕💪!
🤴🔀👨‍👩‍👦, 😇☘️!

4

👑🤴👑👑👑, 🐑💺
😇🎶 🌊, 🎼
⏰🎶, 🤴😵
🛐🤴, ⌛

5

🌸 🌎, 🌠
❤️ 👶, 🛏️
✝️ ☝️, 🎶🙌

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New Hymn: “Faith of Our Mothers”

In a previous post I complained about how some traditional hymnody conflates American patriotism with Christian freedom. For example, the militaristic language in “Faith of Our Fathers,” is often interpreted as a defense of American freedom. As a response, I’ve crafted a new text that celebrates women called “Faith of Our Mothers.” Here’s the story of both hymns.

Background

The hymn of “Faith of Our Fathers” was written in 1849 to honor Catholics who were martyred during the formation of the Church of England in 1534. The text tells the story of saints “chained in prisons dark,” urging the faithful to “be true to thee till death.” Consider the third stanza in the original text:

Faith of our Fathers! Mary’s prayers
Shall win our country back to thee:
And through the truth that comes from God
England shall then indeed be free.

The hymn is a distinctly Catholic, but it has gained popularity in American Protestantism by omitting or adapting the verse above. According to hymnary.org, “Faith of Our Fathers” is part of the top 250 hymns most commonly published in modern hymnals. The text is sung to ST. CATHERINE, composed by Henri F. Hemy in 1864.

Interpretation

“Faith of Our Fathers” is about a church schism. The “fathers” in each stanza  specifically refer to Reformation martyrs, but without this context the hymn is open to interpretation.

For example, in the United States, “fathers” are usually interpreted faith leaders, but they could also be political figures, particularly powerful men such as the “founding fathers”. Imagery such as the “dungeon, fire, and sword” plays to militaristic imaginations and strengthens the idea that the hymn tells the story of American independence.  Under this interpretation, the ideals of America are thought of as Christian ethics, made clear by the following Protestant-ized verse:

Faith of or Fathers! We will strive
to win all nations unto thee
through truth that comes from God
the world shall then be truly free.

The concept of “freedom” mentioned here equates a religious struggle with a political one. In other words, Christian belief seen as pillar of American thought.  This is a troubling thought in a country that claims to honor religious freedom and freedom of conscious. Furthermore, vast societal injustices such as racism and poverty make void any claim that the United State (or any government) bears the light of the Gospel.  The call to “to win all nations unto thee” not only militarizes Christianity, but continues a brutal colonial past. Therefore, a song that originally honored lives lost during the Reformation has been transformed into a patriotic hymn about spreading an Americanized Christianity focused on conquest and forming a state religion.

Faith of Our Mothers

While the gospels bear witness to Jesus’s profound commitment to women, the gifts of women still struggle to be celebrated in the Church. Patriotic hymns like “Faith of Our Fathers” tend to reinforce a patriarchal worldview and completely dismiss the real contributions of women of faith.

As an alternative I recently wrote a new text for ST. CATHERINE titled “Faith of Our Mothers,”1 celebrating the role of women in proclaiming the Christian faith.  The hymn is directly inspired by roles women play in the Bible. Reflections on the text follow.

Theological Reflection

Verse 1. Jesus tells a parable about a poor widow who pleads for to a judge for justice from her adversary. The judge was forced to relent because of the widow’s persistence:

Though I have no fear of God and no respect for anyone, yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will grant her justice, so that she may not wear me out by continually coming.

Luke 18:4-5

The cause of justice takes time and effort, but Jesus also provides the hope that unlike the judge, God “will quickly grant justice.”

Women have long persisted in the face of injustice and the arc of history shows that women are often victims of male leaders. Despite this, the Biblical narrative describes powerful female leaders among God’s people. God raised up the prophet Deborah to instruct and guide Barak to an Israelite victory (Judges 4:10), remembered by the Song of Deborah in Judges 5:

To the sound of musicians at the watering places, there they repeat the triumphs of the Lord, the triumphs of his peasantry in Israel.

Judges 5:11

Judges also tells the story of Jael, a woman who heroically attacked the Canaanite leader Sisera (Judges 5:24-26).

Verse 2. Mary, the mother of Jesus is the central character in the opening of Luke. In her stunning song of praise—the Magnificat—she rejoices in God’s promise of mercy, justice and salvation (Luke 1:46–55). Mary follows after Hannah, the mother of Samuel, who gives a similar song of joy (1 Samuel 2:1–10), and Miriam, a female prophet who danced after God part the Red Sea:

Sing to the Lord, for he has triumphed gloriously;
horse and rider he has thrown into the sea.

Exodus 15:20–21

The prophet Micah remembers Miriam as one of the leaders on the journey Egypt (Micah 6:4) and this story of liberation is recounted throughout the Bible as a sign of God’s deliverance (Hebrews 11:27-29, Acts 7:35-38).

Verse 3. After Christ was crucified, only his closest allies stayed with him, including women who had walked over 60 miles from Galilee:

And when all the crowds who had gathered there for this spectacle saw what had taken place, they returned home, beating their breasts. But all his acquaintances, including the women who had followed him from Galilee, stood at a distance, watching these things.

Luke 23:49; cf. Matthew 27:55

In ancient Israel, mourning women were called upon to weep over public tragedies and injustice (Jeremiah 9:17-24). Similarity, the women at the cross wailed over the crucified Jesus (Luke 23:27), who had previously supported and empowered them (Mark 5:25-34; Luke 21:1-4)

A few days later, the crucial message “Christ is risen,” was also entrusted to women:

When they came back from the tomb, they told all these things to the Eleven and to all the others. It was Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James, and the others with them who told this to the apostles. But they did not believe the women, because their words seemed to them like nonsense.

Luke 24:9-11

A profound truth of the gospel story is that women funded Jesus’s ministry (Luke 8:1-3), stood by during his execution and proclaimed his resurrection to disbelieving men.

Verse 4. Women are not always mothers, nor do they need to be (1 Corinthians 7:8-9) and so the opening line of this verse celebrates the “faith of all women”. The New Testament provides examples of several important women in the early church (Acts 9:36–42):

I commend to you our sister Phoebe, a deacon of the church at Cenchreae, so that you may welcome her in the Lord as is fitting for the saints, and help her in whatever she may require from you, for she has been a benefactor of many and of myself as well.

Romans 16:1-2

Despite being witnesses to the resurrection, women are still kept from being church leaders. This hymn is an attempt to encourage and amplify the role of women in the Body of Christ.

1 In fairness, there is a twentieth century text called “Faith of Our Mothers,” but it only affirms women as homemakers, which is a narrow vision of the role of women in the church based on Biblical evidence.

 

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Here are all 14 verses to “When Morning Gilds the Skies”

From “The Parochial Hymn Book” (1881)

The German hymn “Beim frühen Morgenlicht” (Katholisches Gesanglruch, 1828) appears in English translation as early as 1843 in a children’s hymnal published by the still-extant Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge. While the original text contains 14 stanzas, Edward Caswell’s translation contains just six, which form the basis for renderings of “When Morning Gilds the Skies” in the modern hymnals.

However, all 14 verses of the hymn have been translated into English, perhaps by Caswell. Following the ordering of The Crown Hymn Book (1862), the complete text of “When Morning Gilds the Skies” (“May Jesus Christ Be Praised”) is given below. Common textual variants found in recent hymnals are given in brackets.

When morning gilds the skies my heart awaking cries:
      May Jesus Christ be praised!
Alike at work and prayer, to Jesus I repair:
      May Jesus Christ be praised!

The sacred minster bell, it peals o’er hill and dell,
[Whene’er the sweet church bell peals over hill and dell]
      May Jesus Christ be praised!
O hark to what it sings, as joyously it rings,
      May Jesus Christ be praised!
 
To Thee, my God above, I cry with glowing love;
      May Jesus Christ be praised
The fairest [a] graces spring, in hearts that ever sing,
      May Jesus Christ be praised
 
My tongue shall never tire of chanting with the choir,
      May Jesus Christ be praised!
This song of sacred joy, it never seems to cloy,
      May Jesus Christ be praised!
 
When sleep her balm denies, my silent spirit sighs,
      May Jesus Christ be praised!
When evil thoughts molest, with this I shield my breast,
      May Jesus Christ be praised!
 
Does sadness fill my mind? A solace here I find,
      May Jesus Christ be praised!
Or fades my earthly bliss? My comfort still is this,
      May Jesus Christ be praised!
 
Though burst my heart in twain, still this shall be my strain;
      May Jesus Christ be praised!
When you begin the day, O never fail to say,
      May Jesus Christ be praised!
 
And at your work rejoice, to sing with heart and voice,
      May Jesus Christ be praised!
Be this at meals your grace, in every time and place;
      May Jesus Christ be praised!
 
Be this, when day is past, of all your [our] thoughts the last
      May Jesus Christ be praised!
In want and bitter pain, none ever said in vain:
      May Jesus Christ be praised!
 
Should guild your spirit wring, remember Christ, your King
      May Jesus Christ be praised!
The night becomes as day when from the heart we say:
      May Jesus Christ be praised!
 
In heaven’s eternal bliss the loveliest strain is this,
      May Jesus Christ be praised!
The powers of darkness fear when this sweet chant they hear:
      May Jesus Christ be praised!
 
To God, the Word, on high, the host of angels cry,
      May Jesus Christ be praised!
Let mortals [b] too, upraise their voice in hymns of praise,
      May Jesus Christ be praised!
 
Let all the earth around ring joyous with the sound:
      May Jesus Christ be praised!
[Let earth’s wide circle round, in joyful notes resound]
In heaven’s eternal bliss the loveliest strain is this:
     May Jesus Christ be praised! [c]
 
Be this, while life is mine, my canticle divine:
      May Jesus Christ be praised!
Sing this eternal song through all the ages long:
[Be this the eternal song through all the ages long]
      May Jesus Christ be praised!

[a] early sources sometimes use “purest”
[b] early sources use “children”
[c] in many modern hymnals the line “Let air [earth] and sea and sky from depth to height reply” is used somewhere in the second-to-last stanza

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History: “There is a Happy Land”

In hymnody, “There is a Happy Land” might be considered a one-hit wonder. While unknown to most modern church-goers, the hymn one of the most popular nineteenth century hymns in American and British Sunday schools.  

“The Happy Land” in David’s Harp‎ (1842). From hymnary.org

School teacher Andrew Young (1807-1889) wrote “The Happy Land” in 1838. Young was a teacher and then a headmaster in Edinburgh and St. Fife, Scotland. As a poet he wrote hymn texts for Sunday school students, some of which reached wider audiences. Young (1876) recalls spending time with friends when he heard woman playing an “Indian air” at the piano, which he says “charmed me exceedingly” (vi). The tune stuck with him and soon after he the wrote three rhyming stanzas of “The Happy Land” in the middle of the night.

There is still some confusion regarding the origin of the tune that Young heard, now called Happy Land. Young claims that he heard the tune as part of a piano piece called the “Siege of Dehli,” but this music reflects on an event in 1857, almost 20 years after he heard the tine. Griffiths (1904) suggests that there may have been another piece of music written about Dehli in the early nineteenth century, with similar melodic ideas (p. 41). Alternatively, modern hymnology suggests that the tune was written by Robert Archibald Smith with the words “I have come from a happy land”, different than Young’s text (Cokrell, 2011). Early twentieth century American sheet music for this song attributes to a “Hindostan [Indian] air.”

Despite being membered only for “There is a Happy Land”, Young was a prolific poet and frequently contributor to poetry journals. Julian (1892) writes that “his poems entitle him to rank in the first order of Scottish minor poets.”  Young’s book The Scottish Highlands and other Poems (1876) contains many beautiful hymn texts and poems.

Fortunately, Young was able to watch his famous hymn spread around the world through the work of Presbyterian missionaries such as Jon Ingills (Julian 1892). The song was first popularized by Rev. James Fall in his Sacred Song Book (1843) and after a few decades, it appeared in hundreds of hymnals in America and the UK and in translation by members of the London Missionary Society (L. M. S). Griffiths (1904) writes:

Of all the Sunday School hymns which attained world-wide popularity, there is perhaps not one that is more generally liked than that of the commencing ‘There is a happy land.’ From our earliest childhood, and the singing of it brings back vividly all the hallowed associations of that happy time… (41).

Butterworth and Brown (1906) give further praise: “his little carol had become one of the universal hymns”.  In gratitude for the using the hymn Young (1876) writes that “the anecdotes which have reached me of the blessing it has proved to both young and old, in many lands, have been to me a source of the highest gratification and thankfulness” (p. vi).

The hymn has been referenced in many times in popular cultural including the in an issue of the comic strip Krazy Kat, the Mark Twain novel The American Claimant (1892) and the films The King and I (1956) and The Proposition (2005).  Despite its “universal acclaim,” the hymn is not nearly as popular today as it once was. The website hymnary.org lists 539 hymnals containing “There is a Happy Land”, but only three of these were compiled after 1970.

The three-stanza hymn is an invitation to heaven. An irregular ABAACCCA rhyme scheme is punctuated in the middle section of the tune.

There is a happy land, far, far away,
Where saints in glory stand, bright, bright as day;
Oh, how they sweetly sing, worthy is our Savior King,
Loud let His praises ring, praise, praise for aye.

Come to that happy land, come, come away;
Why will you doubting stand, why still delay?
Oh, we shall happy be, when from sin and sorrow free,
Lord, we shall live with Thee, blest, blest for aye.

Bright, in that happy land, beams every eye;
Kept by a Father’s hand, love cannot die;
Oh, then to glory run; be a crown and kingdom won;
And, bright, above the sun, we reign for aye.

The first stanza introduces a distant realm (the “happy land”) where the saints worship the savior on his thrown (see Revelation 4-5, 7). The text urges the listener to join the throng (“Why will you doubting stand, why still delay?” and “Oh, then to glory run”) and shares a feeling of happiness brought by redemption (“sin and sorrow free”; Rev 7:14). The third stanza share some of the aspects of this other realm: perpetual love (“love cannot die”), saints with crowns (Rev. 4:4) and light brighter than the sun (Rev. 21:23). Similar texts with “heavenly” themes including the last verse of “Amazing Grace,” starting “when we’ve been there ten thousand years”, the saints “casting down their golden crowns” in “Holy, Holy, Holy” (Rev. 4:9).

Reflection Questions:

  1. What do you remember from your Sunday school experience? Were there any themes or lessons that stuck with you?
  2. Are there any hymns that you consider “universal hymns”, which are familiar and well-liked by many Christian audiences?
  3. The tune for “There is a Happy Land” may have been known to common people as a “song of the day”. Many of Luther’s hymns were also based on popular songs. What role does popular music play in worship in modern churches? What role should it play?
  4. How do you think Young felt knowing his song had such an impact?  The Apostle Paul lists several “spiritual gifts”. Do you recognize any of these gifts in yourself or others? (See also: Romans 12:6–8, 1 Corinthians 12:8–10 and Ephesians 4:11).

And God has appointed in the church first apostles, second prophets, third teachers; then deeds of power, then gifts of healing, forms of assistance, forms of leadership, various kinds of tongues.

1 Corinthians 12:28