Our borders, our walls – a hymn reflection on refugees, migrants drowning

Our borders, our walls mock the faith that we own, 
denying the Christ that we claim to enthrone, 
for Christ is our neigbour to love or reject, 
for us to disdain, or to treat with respect.

The justice of God is as real as our flesh, as real as each life that we drown or refresh; as active as righteousness seen in the cross, where love met with hatred while bearing the loss.
And now, in this moment, we need to decide, our crisis of conscience to love or deride: to claim that some small print lets us off the hook, or answer, with courage, Christ's challenging look?
Andrew Pratt 14/7/2019 Words © 2019 Stainer & Bell Ltd, London, England, http://www.stainer.co.uk. Please include any reproduction for local church use on your CCL Licence returns. All wider and any commercial use requires prior application to Stainer & Bell Ltd.

Full Service Resources for the Three Year Lectionary

If you need worship resources for services, complete service outlines with hymns, prayers and sermon ideas are available by going to https://www.theworshipcloud.com/search?search=Full+service&type_id=2 This link and then enter ‘Full Service Pratt’ into the search. This will bring up resources by myself and Majorie Dobson

Prophetic Hymnody: How can we sing Magnificat today with the prophetic shock of scripture

This paper was originally used as part of a Webinar by the Hymn Society of Great Britain and Ireland.
A recording of this and other presentations is available at Short Metre HSGBI

I ought to begin by clarifying something. When someone begins with the words ‘we all know’, someone usually doesn’t. So, for the sake of clarity, though not everyone would agree, I am taking Biblical prophecy as pointing people back to God. It offers hope; but also, judgment. And it can be found in both Hebrew scripture and the New Testament.

It's not primarily about predicting the future, though sometimes prophets say, ‘if you do this, that will happen to you’! 

I don’t believe that prophecy is just something past. Hence the opening words of one of my hymns:

	God still needs prophets who will rage,
	against discrimination,
	who speak God's words amid despair,
	to this and every nation;

It goes on:
	God still needs prophets who will hold
	a mirror to our blindness,

And then
	May we be prophets through our words
	and in our hands of healing,
	that others might see Christ in us
	while Christ to us revealing. 

But where does The Magnificat fit in with this? Don Saliers said that hymns, enable us ‘to say some things that we do not truly think we believe until we sing them’.  Singing scripture does not just make a pretty noise, it can embed belief in us, change us and transform belief into action. It can motivate us for good. 

So let us look at some hymns that have started with the Magnificat. My area of study is hymnody so I won’t address Chants.

‘Tell out my soul the greatness of the Lord’ is not the most political, nor the most prophetic hymn I’ve ever sung. Like most of Timothy Dudley-Smith’s hymns it is as near perfect as a hymn can be. So why does it need to be prophetic?

The title of the Magnificat is taken from the opening to the Song of Mary in a Latin translation – ‘My soul doth magnify the Lord’. Commentators suggest that the song is out of place in terms of the context of a young girl finding that she is pregnant and in the general flow of the gospel narrative. It is, however, very much in the Lukan voice which is later going to record Jesus announcing that he comes  

to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to let the oppressed go free, 

And here in Mary’s song we have:

He has shown strength with his arm;
he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.
He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
and lifted up the lowly;
he has filled the hungry with good things, 
and sent the rich away empty. 

The tense is Past, but this is what Jesus is going to do. It is timeless, an out of time context. Where God is, where love is active, this is as it is. So we are seeking to describe something transcending chronological time. These Love has done, is doing, will be doing…

The words are very much in the tradition of prophecy and, perhaps, apposite to the world in which we live today. The problem is that, within the church prophecy, as with much other scripture that is visceral, has been eviscerated. We sing the words in a way which does little to underline the prophetic nature of the original words. The person about whom we are singing will upset the religious and political equilibrium of the day and perhaps that of the whole world. My question is what do hymns do to address this?

To return to ‘Tell out my soul’ - 

	Tell out, my soul, the greatness of his might!
		Powers and dominions lay their glory by.
	Proud hearts and stubborn wills are put to flight,
		the hungry fed, the humble lifted high. 

‘Powers and dominions lay their glory by’, hardly. It sounds as though the powers and dominions do this voluntarily. Patently they do not and neither does the scripture suggest that they do. Think COP26. So what of Fred Kaan’s, ‘Sing we a song of high revolt’. This is, perhaps, more promising, where ‘God [is] at war with human wrong’. This deity ‘the proud disowns, / brings down the mighty from their thrones’.

	By him the poor are lifted up; 
	he satisfies with bread and cup the hungry ones of many lands; 
	the rich must go with empty hands.

The hymn becomes more difficult to sing as it progresses for we are bid ourselves to fight…
	with him for what is just and right, 
	to sing and live Magnificat 
	in crowded street and council flat. 

I expect there are laws against fighting for what is ‘just and right’ though perhaps they are being prepared in draft…but to sing this in church? 

And one possible tune: TANNENBAUM. We know it better as The Red Flag (socialist in the UK; or O Christmas Tree); a not unintentional choice I would guess. But so many congregations are inherently conservative – small or large ‘C’ and, by implication may find this interpretation difficult, if not offensive. The text is well known but has gained little traction. Sometimes side-lined as the last verse referring to a ‘council-flat’ feels either anachronistic or offensive.

Brian Wren is more subtle in ‘Daughter Mary, saying yes to the angel's visitation’. The hymn continues:

	As in heaven, so on earth,
	God will work salvation,
	as the child you bring to birth,
	checks the wealthy, feeds the poor,
	ending domination.

And verse 2 closes with the assertion that

	God's new invitation
	brings the outcasts to rebirth,
	lifts the humble, shifts the proud,
	ending domination. 

The problem with this text is the unusual metre with only one tune, ROSEWOOD being offered in HymnQuest.

In John Bell’s ‘Sing out, my soul, sing with joy to the Lord’ verses 5 & 6 imply that the miracle of reparation is complete:

5	God forces rulers to forfeit the throne;
	lifting the unloved, the lost and alone,
	God shows that favour reserved for his own.
6	Those who are hungry, God fills with good things,
	those who are rich into poverty brings;
	pregnant with justice, my heart gladly sings.

What is being sung is of God who will fulfil Hebrew expectations of a Messiah who will bring justice and just desserts for all, good and bad. This is less prophecy, more anticipation of faithful hope for ‘God, who is faithful, has come to our aid’. Translated into a hymn it coalesces a future hope with our necessary incarnational partnership with Christ – for ‘my heart gladly sings!’ 

As a writer myself I am motivated to write when I don’t find hymns which I feel express scripture with the force invested in it.

The challenge is to write a text that does justice to the scripture, that does not see actions complete with no future hope, which enables us to enter into the process of salvation and which is still singable. Here are snippets from work in progress.

A topsy-turvy, upturned world

1	A topsy-turvy, upturned world, 
	where values are distorted, 
	the first is last and last is first 
	with everything contorted.
	The rich are begging at the door 
	while ones they were despising
	are given charge of Godly wealth, 
	in stature they are rising.
2	Magnificat has come to stay,
	the proud have been extinguished; 
	the humble poor are lifted high, 
	their poverty relinquished. 
	The reign of God has come to pass 
	rebutting our world's choices, 
	each one that we would count as last 
	within this time rejoices.
3	And will we ever find a place 
	with pride and wealth rejected, 
	or will hypocrisy deny 
	our need to be accepted? 
	The choice is ours, the crisis dawns, 
	the time to make decisions, 
	to stand with God or walk alone 
	within this world's divisions. 

Might we sing this on State occasions, or at the opening of Parliament? 

At the heart of Jesus life and action are some very hard questions. In the Old Testament prophets underlined the sharpness of the distinction between justice and injustice. Prophets in the Hebrew scriptures called people to account and pointed them back to God. They were never afraid to criticise injustice, even if that put them in danger, or open to threat or ridicule. 

In the wake of COP26 this next hymn, from a time of financial crisis in 2015, feels redolent of the world in which we live, or for which we hope and echoes Magnificat.

Upturned world, the bankers humbled

1	Upturned world, the bankers humbled, 
	politicians brought to book, 
	children show new ways of living, 
	heads will spin and turn to look.
	Mary sang, exultant virgin, 
	birth would change her life and ours, 
	generations watch with wonder, 
	shaken like wealth's shining towers.
2	Love incarnate's gentle thunder 
	wakes the earth to truth and light, 
	hypocrites meet naked justice, 
	find no place in fear for flight.
	Mary sings, when will we hear her:
	revolution born of love, 
	heralding new dispensation, 
	cage the hawk and free the dove?
3	When the prison gates are broken, 
	when the poor can feast and dine, 
	then Magnificat is bringing 
	age of justice and new wine.
	Wine of joy and celebration, 
	end of hunger, God is near, 
	time of endless new beginnings, 
	birth of Jesus, end of fear.  

Finally to return more nearly to the original scripture:

Almighty God has done great things

1	Almighty God has done great things,
	an angel proffers stunning news,
	the news of human hope he brings,
	her baby heaven and earth shall fuse;
	and she will give her life for that,
	O, Mary, sing magnificat.

2	A mother and her unborn child,
	a man who ought to let her go
	to save his face, stay undefiled,
	as love and duty taunt and flow;
	and Joseph will consider that
	as Mary sings magnificat.

3	And all the greatness of a God,
	distilled to love, sets captives free,
	a single liberating Word:
	those born in darkness now can see;
	as human power considers that
	let Mary sing Magnificat…  

The world is burning – Advent after COVID & COP 26 – hymn

The world is burning, twinkling lights betray 
a damaged conscience, we have lost our way.
Our neighbours drown, we build on solid ground, 
as Jesus weeps while songs of praise resound.

Within this season darkness clouds each mind, 
consumption numbs the pain we ought to find 
when hearing news of hunger and of drought, 
a stable’s birth should soon erase all doubt:

the Christ we claim to know, born in the dirt, 
while at our doors our neighbours starve and hurt.
So put aside this carolling and praise
until compassion drives our words and ways.

Andrew Pratt 19/11/2021
Words © 2021 Stainer & Bell Ltd, London, England, http://www.stainer.co.uk.
Please include any reproduction for local church use on your CCL Licence returns. All wider 
and any commercial use requires prior application to Stainer & Bell Ltd.

Hymn responding to Greta Thunberg ahead of and following COP 26 – Blue planet, rising, soaring through the cosmos – Now with a new tune by Frances S. Drake

Blue planet, rising, soaring through the cosmos,
was lent in trust for us to tend and care
while children, young in wisdom, call in anguish, 
for all they see now fills them with despair.
The wonder of the sky has drawn us upwards, 
our eyes diverted by the moon and stars, 
and as we dream we lose our moral compass, 
and in our greed we grasp creation, call it ours.

Time runs away, our life on earth is finite, 
young prophets calling, needing us to act 
are crying out, lamenting for our planet, 
while ‘adults’ sleep, denying fear and fact.
Still others stand, immune, ignore the future, 
absolved from fault for all that comes to pass.
When will we grasp the need for urgent action, 
see clearly, not net curtained, or through frosted glass?

While sands of time run down, are gone and finished, 
in fear of change we hanker for the past, 
but life on earth is threatened by inaction, 
as lethargy and greed resist and last. 
Good God forgive us for each fault and faction, 
unwillingness to change to save this earth. 
God give us ears to hear the words of wisdom 
that we might save this planet, cradle of our birth.

Andrew Pratt 29/10/2021 – Responding to Greta Thunberg 
ahead of and following COP 26.

Words © 2021 Stainer & Bell Ltd, London, England, http://www.stainer.co.uk.
Please include any reproduction for local church use on your CCL Licence returns. All wider and any commercial use requires prior application to Stainer & Bell Ltd.
BLUE PLANET RISING – AUDIO – Copyright Frances S. Drake