Singing the Creation’s Praises

21st March 2010.

The Fifth Sunday in Lent

Our mouths were full of laughter and our tongues sang aloud with joy. Psalm 126 v.2

At a funeral that I conducted last Friday we sang a hymn that has become famous, The Lord of the Dance. The hymn was written by the late folk singer Sydney Carter. In its day its jaunty tones made it quite controversial.

I remember someone once telling me that a minister could read out the instructions for assembling a piece of IKEA furniture as his sermon and most people would hardly bat an eyelid, but muck around with the seating or introduce a riotous hymn and you will make the French Revolution look like a “mere change of cutlery”. A rollicking hymn, perhaps from the canon of “world” hymns that now appears in the fourth edition of the church hymnary, will often get people going and lamenting the loopy notions of the minister. In the 1960s the Lord of the Dance certainly created a stir and some of the more conventional church people were not best pleased. Here is what an Anglican vicar, Andrew Rumsey says about it in a recent book he wrote, “This tune has a lot to answer for. Time’s dubbing may have rendered the hymn harmless and even faintly endearing, but those batty lyrics and jaunty beat were as the hips of Elvis in their impact on the post –War church, heralding a departure from “proper” hymns towards “something a little livelier””. Strangely Warmed. P. 67

Rumsey describes as child watching the organist in his family church charging through Lord of the Dance, “as though his cassock were on fire”. “The Lord, who had hitherto been rehearsing a gentle foxtrot was now engaged in a frenzied tango and the choir looked as though they had swallowed a wasp”. Does any of that sound familiar here in Greyfriars?

It interests me that hymns should play such a crucial role in faith. We ministers frequently and probably quite mistakenly give much more weight in our imagination to the sermon that carries so much of the service (We have to justify our existence somehow). However, other parts of the church experience are crucial too. I often find myself saying to the ushers at a wedding rehearsal that they have an absolutely vital role in setting the tone for the wedding service by the nature of the welcome they give to guests as they arrive. To be completely ignored is only slightly worse than being mawkishly fawned over at the church door. I often tell the ushers (and indeed the welcomers at the door before any service), that the first impression people get in a place is generally the one that they will leave with, regardless of what the minister says in his sermon.

With regard to music, one can say confidently that we sing our faith. Most people, even if they never come near a church service, have the music (and some of the words) of at least a few hymns swimming around their heads, even if it is only “change and decay in all around I see” or a few phrases from the 23rd psalm or Amazing Grace.  (What a guddle of bizarre imagery that sample of popular hymns conjure up!) It is said that we learn a new tune almost every week from listening to the radio or our ipod. I would guess that is probably true. Music is rapidly becoming the indispensible sound track to many of our lives judging by the increasing numbers of people who jog and walk around “plugged in”.

Because music is so important to us, I think that it is important that we sing and learn new hymns. If we stuck with the canon of what we have always known Christian faith would wither on the vine. Christianity is not just a European phenomenon, with its musical boundaries floating between London, Geneva and Berlin. Christianity is, of course, an eastern religion that was largely hijacked by European Civilisation in the Middle Ages and then exported to the rest of the world. Now the rest of the world is teaching us things about the Gospel and its take on life we had never seen before and we ought to be listening and learning.  So many European hymns equate the idea of the building of the Kingdom of God with the broadening of the frontiers of the British Empire. It was Jenny Williams, from the Christian Fellowship of Healing who suggested to us recently that you could translate the word “kingdom” as “space” or “room to grow”. What a refreshing idea that gives permission to us to move on from the language of grovelling subjects bowing a scraping to an angry, petulant Emperor.

Fresh insight and perspective is what the church so desperately needs and a dynamic and evolving musical tradition can help with this in important ways. We should always remember that those who call themselves traditionalist and mean by that that they always want to stay the same and sing the same music over and over again are doing a disservice to the idea of tradition and have misunderstood it. Tradition is something handed on from generation to generation and in the process it is subtly changed and reshaped by context, circumstances and musical innovation.

But more than anything, music and hymns in the church are the means by which the people are enabled most fully to offer praise. As the psalmist puts it, the Lord has filled our mouths with laughter and our tongues with singing. Praise is our natural state of being, it is our purpose and vocation. In the Shorter Catechism,  which I am sure some of you are far more aware of than I am, the first question that the catechism asks is, “what is the chief end of man?” The answer is given that “man’s chief end is to glorify God and enjoy him forever”. The prophet Isaiah declares the word of the Lord thus, “I have formed this people for myself and they shall proclaim my praises”.  (Isaiah 43).

When the people of Israel were exiled in Babylon, they forgot how to praise and started to become very successful street traders. The prophet reminds Israel of its true vocation, to be priests and prophets of the true God, the maker of heaven and earth offering praise and worship to the living God. Isaiah goes on to say that, in its own way, the creation offers praise too. The hills rejoice and the trees clap their hands. It is as though the whole enterprise of creation is one magnificent symphony of celebration. The purpose of the creation is to sing praise to the architect of the Universe who made all things.

In the encounter in the home of Lazarus (John 12), Judas Iscariot tries in a rather mean spirited way to prevent Jesus’ feet being anointed with expensive aromatic perfume. He suggests that the oil of nard should have been sold and the money given to the poor. But, of course, Jesus overrules this in favour of permitting this ritual, priestly act of praise. He is making an important point. It is not of course that social action, such as the relief of poverty, should not happen, but that the action of praise, of sacramental response, must come first. The distinctive thing about Christian social action is that it should emerge not just from a desire to right a wrong, but that it should have its origin out of a deep and intentional spirituality.

I am reading a book about astro –physics just now. Well, I should say that I have been trying to read it for some months. It is one of those books that is way beyond my intellectual capacity to grasp. But every now and then as I plough may way through, I have an “aha!” moment when I think I have got what the writer is trying to say and then just as quickly the moment is gone and I can no longer remember the idea. The book is called The Goldilocks Enigma and it is written by Paul Davies.     

You will remember that Goldilocks tested three different porridges, one was too hot, the other too cold and the third was “just right”. Davies is one of the world’s foremost scientific writers and thinkers. As far as I can discern it, his view is that, against the odds, the Universe is “just right” for life, it shouldn’t be, but it is. It is almost as though there is a kind of accommodation on the part of the Universe to make it possible for intelligent life to emerge. That is quite a thing for a scientist to be saying. Then, in a tantalising notion, he invites us to consider that somehow, the human mind is that part of the Universe that is conscious of itself. We are that rare, if not unique part of the whole enterprise of creation that can sing its praises, if you like. Not only that, we can begin, through the scientific enterprise, to read the code of creation.  There is, says Davies, a wonderful mathematical formula that holds the Universe in its fearful, awe inspiring symmetry. Humanity is in the process of beginning to understand that formula.

Now this idea, it seems to me, is not a million miles from the Biblical idea of praise. Both the Bible and Davies seem to be saying not dissimilar things; that declaring and celebrating the glory, wonder and intricacy of that which has been made seems to me to be the point of intelligence, our vocation, if you like.

Now, you may say that all I am suggesting here is that there is some virtue in cooing over the wonders of the natural order as seen from a particular beauty spot or that it is just fun finding out stuff and satisfying curiosity. You may also say that Judas had a point, that all this lovely singing and praising and anointing does not put food in people’s bellies and won’t deliver justice or create peace. There is nothing more off putting than the remote metaphysical blabbing of a minister waxing lyrical over a gorgeous sunset. It reminds me of the occasion when a minister and a farmer were leaning over a fence looking at a field of ripening barley. “It is wonderful what you and God can do when you work in harmony” says the minster. “Aye”, replied the farmer, “but you should have seen this field last year when God had it all to himself”.

I remember reading somewhere that Ghandi had made a wry response when someone asked him what he thought of western civilisation. “Civilisation in the west?” he is supposed to have replied, “Now, that would be a good idea!”

I have a hunch that we will become more civilised when we rediscover this true vocation that both Davies and the Bible appear to hint at. And that vocation is praise. There is a degree to which we have largely used our intelligence to exploit, plunder and ravage the creation up to now. Praise has a deeply ethical and spiritual content. It is not all about wistful thoughts in the light of the beauty of the creation. If you praise you care, tend, serve and cherish. You seek to see the thing that you praise re-enchanted in some way.

I love the idea that Homo – Sapiens might one day evolve to become Homo – Eucharisticus, the priests of the earth, the purpose of our intelligence being to cherish what is left of the earth and see it flourish, to see the sacred in the every day and re-enchant nature by our care, mercy, justice and humility. One of the great gurus of the environmental movement, John Seymour died a few years ago. But in one of the last speeches he gave he talked of a new age emerging for humanity. The age of plunder, he said, was being slowly replaced by the age of healing. This is not just wishful thinking, in the light of the present challenges we face in terms of environmental degradation, loss of habitat, species and climate change it is an endlessly urgent call to rethink our relationship with the natural order. Like the trees clapping their hands, we are meant, like the creator, to “love the world so much” and sing its praises and dance to the rhythms of creation.  

Sydney Carter was not a conventionally orthodox believer in Christian doctrine or the church, and actually, neither am I. Carter once wrote that faith is more basic than the language of religion and doctrine and it was faith that was of more interest to Jesus than the nature of the institutions of faith or doctrine itself. He said that faith, unlike doctrine, is something that calls us from “the timeless part of our reality” and in a poem he wrote about his pilgrimage of faith he said, “So, what do you believe in? Nothing fixed or final, all the while I travel a miracle. I doubt and yet walk on water”.

This is the dance of faith. This is what the psalmist and the physicist mean when we glimpse the purpose of human consciousness as an invitation to tell the glory of creation. A great thinker Gary Sneider once wrote this and I wholeheartedly commend this view to you today.

“We need a religious view that embraces nature and does not fear science; business leaders who know and accept ecological and spiritual limits; political leaders who have spent time working in schools, factories or farms and who still write poems. We need intellectual and academic leaders who have studied both history and ecology and like to dance and cook. We need poets and novelists who pay no attention to literary critics. But what we ultimately need most is human beings who love the world.

            Gary Sneider Resurgence Nov/ Dec 2006  P16

As we look out on creation and as we discover more of its secrets and laws and patterns, it seems that there is daily more cause and need to cherish, praise, preserve and celebrate the creation rather than simply exploiting it for our own ends. The psalmist is indeed right when he declares, “our mouths you have filled with laughter and our tongues sing aloud with joy”.