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Too Deep for Words
Paul Hooker & Eric Wall
September 29, 2019
A Reading from the Letter to the Romans
Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words. And God, who searches the heart, knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God.
[sung scripture with explanation]
Something happens in this music. It is related to words, but it happens in the music. There is a pattern: one-two-three, one-two-three. Note for note with the words. “We do not know how to pray as we ought.” And the faintest of surprises occurs. The initial pattern changes. From three to one-two, one-two, slowing things down just a little bit, like a hand touching a shoulder. Words catch the change, but the change happens first in the music: “Spirit intercedes for us in sighs too deep for words.”
[Eric] How to pray. It is Paul’s question and it is our question. And it the question that is, in some way or another, behind everything we do or say or sing in worship. It is our reason for singing in worship.
There are many reasons for singing in worship. We are sometimes so full of gratitude that we have to sing. We are sometime so full of sorrow that we have to sing. We are sometimes so full of outrage that we need to sing. We are sometimes so pulled into service in the world, that we sing so our voices catch up with our hands and our feet. But all those songs, in this place and in this ritual, are acts of prayer. We sing because we are trying to pray. So when we ask, “How do we sing?” we are in part asking, “How do we pray?” And when we ask, “What do we sing?” we are asking, “What do we pray?”
And when we think we don’t know how to do it, when we can’t find the words, or the tune, or the breath, or the will, or even when we think we have found those things, Paul’s gospel word is this: the Spirit intercedes. It is not all up to us, and it is not all up to our words, because there is a Holy One and they hear our wordless prayer. There is a community and they sing with us, and they sometimes sing for us when we can’t sing for ourselves. It is not all up to us. There is something beneath our words, a subliminal, subterranean surprise, that may move gently and subtly. Or sounds that sometime spark [clap] because sometimes, we are jolted into prayer [clap], kicked into a cosmic conversation, echoing the song of heaven and earth, echoing [rhythmic clapping, drumming].
Voice, rhythm, intercession, Spirit. Shining, uniting, witnessing. And so we sing:
“Heaven Is Singing for Joy”
El cielo canta alegría, ¡aleluya!, porque en tu vida¬ y la mía brilla la gloria de Dios.
Estribillo: ¡Aleluya, aleluya! ¡Aleluya, aleluya!
Heaven is singing for joy, alleluia, for in your life and in mine is shining the glory of God.
Refrain: Alleluia, alleluia! Alleluia, alleluia!
Heaven is singing for joy, alleluia, for your life and mine unite in the love of our God. (Refrain)
Heaven is singing for joy, alleluia, for your life and mine will always bear witness to God. (Refrain)
[Paul] Now, much as I owe to my colleague for his wisdom about prayer set to music, the fact is that when it comes to hymns, music is only half the enterprise. The other half—words. And not just any words—patterned words, patterned speech, which of course, is what I mean by poetry, especially when it comes to hymns. Patterned speech, words set to music, in meter and in rhyme.
Like music, poetry regulates your breathing. You have to breathe where the poet lets you breathe, and not just anywhere in the line. That’s what punctuation is for, and that, of course, is the way a poet’s line moves you along.
But it’s also the case that it’s not just about breathing. It’s also about shaping the way we think. For a poet or a hymnist is using words to give you a thoughtful or intellectual universe within which to think about this particular aspect of faith or life. And, if it’s rhyming poetry, as most hymnody is, the poet is also setting up some expectations about the direction and drive of the thought, particularly in the way the end of the line comes to a vocalic and consonantal sound.
Let me give you an example. If I sing, “Away in a manger, no crib for a bed,” everyone knows that by the time I get to the next line’s end, I will get to some word that sounds like “bed.” It happens to be “head,” of course. In this way, the poet shapes our expectations, but drives us forward, because we want to know, “What is the word that matches “bed”? That’s the way rhyme and meter work in poetry. Now, sometimes they’re sweet like “head” and bed”, but sometimes they’re surprising, sometimes, even harsh.
I want to look with you at the text in your bulletin of G. K. Chesterton’s famous poem, “O God of Earth and Altar.” The poem was written in 1906 by Gilbert Keith Chesterton, an irascible old character who was a famous critic of all things pompous in society in London during the early Edwardian period. There was nothing too pompous for Chesterton not to skewer, and he did so in so very many forms. Maybe some of you are familiar with the PBS series The Father Brown Mysteries. You are looking at a character created by G. K. Chesterton.
And then there is this poem. Chesterton wrote it, as I said, in 1906, at the height of the Edwardian era, when England was at the height of its power internationally. Its navy ruled the seas, its army held colonies all over the world, and the wealth of nations streamed to the throne. No one could imagine a moment on which the sun set on the British flag. But Chesterton knew that beneath the surface, all of that gold and greed and power was beginning to corrupt the vision on which England had been founded. And Chesterton, always one to speak the inconvenient truth, was eager to make a point of it. And so he fired this gunshot into the heart of British pride and arrogance.
“O God of earth and altar, bow down and hear our cry.” A cry, not something often heard on British lips at the end of the century. “Our rulers falter,” Edward? Faltering? Surely not! “Our people drift and die;” “Cry” and “die,” the rhymes are setting up something dire, there’s a crisis brewing. “The walls of gold entomb us,” and suddenly, we are dealing with images of death. We were at the altar, we began to falter, and now, we confront the tomb itself. “The swords of scorn divide, take not thy thunder from us, but take away our pride.”
Now, if you think that’s tough, wait until you hear the next verse. Because Chesterton leaps out of Edwardian England, and straight into twenty-first century America: “From all that terror teaches, from lies of tongue and pen, from all the easy speeches that comfort cruel men, from sale and profanation of honour and the sword, from sleep and from damnation, deliver us, good Lord!”
Ever the ironist, Chesterton uses in his third verse an image, the tether, the thing that you use to bind a dog to a stake, so the dog can have some freedom, but not unlimited amounts. He uses that image as a way of defining the life of the whole of English society, the prince, and priest, and thrall, the slave. The tether, the thing that binds us and ties us becomes in fact the only thing that will free us. That because we are bound in this tether to the living Christ, God will simultaneously smite us, and in smiting us, save us all. Only after that smiting are we alive “with faith, and free,” and lifted up as “a living nation, a single sword to thee.”
Important as it is to sing the music, please don’t miss the word, because they will transport you to places you cannot imagine going. Sing with me.
O God of Earth and Altar
O God of earth and altar, bow down and hear our cry,
our earthly rulers falter, our people drift and die;
the walls of gold entomb us, the swords of scorn divide,
take not thy thunder from us, but take away our pride.
From all that terror teaches, from lies of tongue and pen,
from all the easy speeches that comfort cruel men,
from sale and profanation of honour and the sword,
from sleep and from damnation, deliver us, good Lord!
Tie in a living tether the prince and priest and thrall,
bind all our lives together, smite us and save us all;
in ire and exultation aflame with faith, and free,
lift up a living nation, a single sword to thee.
So, there are prayers full of joy, there are prayers full of anger and fear, and then there are prayers that just celebrate the simple goodness of life, but especially prayers that celebrate that goodness in striking and unusual ways. Carolyn Winfrey Gillette is a Presbyterian minister—in fact, she and her husband Bruce are both Presbyterian pastors and they co-pastor First Presbyterian Church in Oswego, New York. Carolyn and Bruce have been friends of mine for a long time.
Carolyn has written something like 150 hymns, and they appear in hymnals across denominational lines, including several in Glory to God. She’s written this hymn, as she did so many of her hymns, in celebration or observation of a particular moment or a particular set of circumstances in life. Carolyn is really good at drawing out the emotions and power of a single moment and giving them to the church in poetic language we can all sing over and over again. She’s arranged these stanzas, each one except for the last, to begin with a temporal clause. So, “When. . .” she says. “When hands reach out and fingers trace the beauty of a loved one’s face, we thank you, God, that love relies on gifts of grace not seen with eyes.” You can see the subtlety of the line that interweaves those lines, but you also see, “When” and “we thank you.”
Now, look at the next verse: “When fingers spell and signs express. . .” What’s she talking about there? She’s talking about blindness. So, “When fingers spell and signs express our prayer and praise and thankfulness, we thank you, God, that hands can sing;” She has taken the blindness and converted it into an occasion of thanksgiving and celebration. “When broken bodies will not mend, we thank you, God, for Christ our friend. In him, our healing can begin: he welcomes all the wounded in.” Here again, brokenness of the body is made over into the brokenness of Christ and becomes a moment of healing and restoration. “And when the ways we learn and grow are not the ways that others know, we thank you, God, that we have learned your love’s a gift, and never earned.” And again, she’s turned it on its head. What might be an intellectual challenge, a learning disability, a struggling with the ways we learn in school becomes yet another way in which God’s grace is manifest by learning that which is not required of us, but rather, given to us. And it’s only after four stanzas of converting difficulty into thanksgiving, that she comes to that last stanza: “Your Spirit gives us differing ways to serve you well and offer praise”—difference – “When all are joined as one, we’ll be your able, strong community.” Finally, what we all seem to gather is the unity that binds us together, witnessed through the differences that Carolyn in her well crafted stanzas has celebrated.
[Eric] This is a hymn to making room, and so is this ageless tune. Folk music is usually in some mysterious way, the music that we were just about to sing, the tune that was just on the tip of our tongue. Like the expected rhyme of poetry, it’s the sound we expect just before it turns up. And this tune is no exception. We intuit it as though we had created it, beginning simply from the depths [plays a phrase], rising higher, [continues playing] and then to its peak, and the return [completes the phrase]. That peak is wonderful, and not just on the piano. It is the brief pinnacle in the tune where our voices really bloom, where we make room and breath to sing. This is what melody reveals, not on paper, but in sound, where one note becomes an act of creation. This text is an act of making room, and so is this tune.
When Hands Reach Out and Fingers Trace
When hands reach out and fingers trace the beauty of a loved one’s face,
we thank you, God, that love relies on gifts of grace not seen with eyes.
When fingers spell and signs express our prayer and praise and thankfulness,
we thank you, God, that hands can sing; you bless the silent songs we bring.
When broken bodies will not mend, we thank you, God, for Christ our friend.
In him, our healing can begin: he welcomes all the wounded in.
And when the ways we learn and grow are not the ways that others know,
we thank you, God, that we have learned your love’s a gift, and never earned.
Your Spirit gives us differing ways to serve you well and offer praise.
When all are joined as one, we’ll be your able, strong community.
There’s a new documentary out, I haven’t even seen it yet, about Linda Ronstadt, one of those singers who vocally seems to do anything. When our son was born about 22 ½ years ago, somebody gave us a Linda Ronstadt album, a recording of her singing mainly 1950s doo-wop songs, except that she sang them all as lullabies. It’s a fantastic album. I can’t listen to it anymore. I probably haven’t listened to it since about 1999, because it’s too close. Because, if I were to hear it, all I would think about, with probably too much memory power, would be one of us holding our son, humming along, with the plastic night light making a prayer for illumination.
“How do we pray?” Paul is asking. There’s a physical posture of prayer we often put ourselves in, it’s called orans, and while this is what the word means, we don’t need the word to tell us what the gesture means: Inviting. Welcoming. Pleading. Opening. When those little children who are just learning to walk sill sometimes want to be picked up, what do they do? And isn’t that what we are asking from God in prayer, to pick us up. And when God reaches down, when she picks us up, and when she sings the words we are about to sing, I hope she uses Linda Ronstadt’s voice.
Be Still and Know That I Am God
[sung as a canon]
Our shepherd supplies our need, says our final hymn, and as Paul tells us, we don’t always know what the prayers or need may be. The One who says, and sings, “Be still” promises to supply the need. What prayers do we need? What songs and sounds do we need? What people do we need, however unknown or fearful? Whose songs are these? Whose house is this? Journalist and critic Vivienne Chow wrote in the New York Times several weeks ago, about a new song, “Glory to Hong Kong.” She says, “First came the goose bumps, then came the tears running down my face. I soon realized I wasn’t alone. The sales lady who stepped out of one of the designer shops also had tears in her eyes. A young bespectacled man quickly removed his glasses and wiped away tears. Never had I felt so connected with strangers. I had been waiting for a song like ‘Glory to Hong Kong’ my whole life, even if I didn’t always realize it. . . . One of moving things is how the song came together. Its primary composer has opted to remain anonymous. He goes only by the name ‘Thomas.’ The song’s lyrics were crowd sourced and refined by an online forum.” And then she writes, “We know when the right piece of music comes along.”
When we hear tunes like this, aren’t we sure that the right piece of music has come along? What is singing in church if not crowd sourcing?
[Paul] The poet Isaac Watts was born in 1674 in South Hampton, England to a Nonconformist family (That’s Congregationalist in our parlance). His father, Isaac Watts the Elder, was a devout member of his community and was in fact so committed to his faith that he was imprisoned, not once, but twice for refusing to conform to the king’s laws about religious worship. So, he was, not surprisingly, quite strict, and when he caught his young son Isaac the Younger with his eyes open during prayer in worship, he was not happy. And he asked young Isaac about it, and Isaac explained—in verse—
A little mouse, for want of stairs,
Ran up the rope to say his prayers.
Well, his father was even less pleased with him at this point, and punished him, which prompted Watts to add this verse:
O Father, Father! Pity take!
And I will no more verses make!
Fortunately, Isaac Watts the Younger could not keep a promise.
This song is, of course, a paraphrase of Psalm 23, and because we know Psalm 23, we know instinctively the lyric of this song. But pay attention to the way Watts turns and inverts and wraps around the corner when he writes the paraphrase that has become so deeply ingrained in American Protestant circles. “My shepherd will supply my need; Jehovah is his name,” he begins. “He makes me lie down in green pastures, he leads me beside still waters—” the psalmist’s words, become “In pastures fresh he makes me feed, beside the living stream.” And, in fact, there’s room for Watts to expand on the psalmist a bit. “He leads me in right paths for his name’s sake,” becomes the Puritan confessional “He brings my wandering spirit back when I forsake his ways, and leads me, for his mercy’s sake, in paths of truth and grace.”
But Watts reaches the pinnacle of his achievement in the third stanza of his hymn. The last line of Psalm 23. “And I will dwell in your house forever,” is actually parallel to the second line of Watt’s final stanza: “O may your house be my abode, and all my work be praise.” But, there are two more lines left to go. And Watts creates something magical: Welcome. Home. Rest. “There would I find a settled rest, while others go and come; no more a stranger, or a guest, but like a child at home.” I can’t help but wonder if the little boy who saw the mouse run up the rope to say his prayers hasn’t at last found a way to say a prayer his Father can hear.
My Shepherd Will Supply My Need
My shepherd will supply my need; Jehovah is his name.
In pastures fresh he makes me feed, beside the living stream.
He brings my wandering spirit back when I forsake his ways,
and leads me, for his mercy’s sake, in paths of truth and grace.
When I walk through the shades of death your presence is my stay;
one word of your supporting breath drives all my fears away.
Your hand, in sight of all my foes, does still my table spread;
my cup with blessings overflows; your oil anoints my head.
The sure provisions of my God attend me all my days;
O may your house be my abode, and all my work be praise.
There would I find a settled rest, while others go and come;
no more a stranger, or a guest, but like a child at home.