I am a member of a Facebook group for church organists, and yesterday one of the members posted the lyrics of this hymn by John Bell and the Iona Community, which had apparently caused some consternation amongst the members of her choir that morning:
Inspired by love and anger, disturbed by need and pain,
Informed of God’s own bias, we ask him once again:
“How long must some folk suffer? How long can few folk mind?
How long dare vain self-interest turn prayer and pity blind?”
From those forever victims of heartless human greed,
Their cruel plight composes a litany of need:
“Where are the fruits of justice? Where are the signs of peace?
When is the day when prisoners and dreams find their release?”
From those forever shackled to what their wealth can buy,
The fear of lost advantage provoke the bitter cry:
“Don’t query our position! Don’t criticise our wealth!
Don’t mention those exploited by politics and stealth!”
To God, who through the prophets proclaimed a different age,
We offer earth’s indifference, its agony and rage:
“When will the wronged by righted? When will the kingdom come?
When will the world be generous to all instead of some?”
God asks, “Who will go for me? Who will extend my reach?
And who, when few will listen, will prophesy and preach?
And who, when few bid welcome, will offer all they know?
And who, when few dare follow, will walk the road I show?”
Amused in someone’s kitchen, asleep in someone’s boat,
Attuned to what the ancients exposed, proclaimed and wrote,
A saviour without safety, a tradesman without tools
Has come to tip the balance with fishermen and fools.
These words were felt to be “hostile” and “offensive”. Interestingly, most of the organists in the group disagreed, and felt that this was a hymn which spoke into the modern world in a way which was direct and necessary. Many commented that church should be a place where we expect to be challenged and disturbed, and that too often it has become somewhere where we just have our previous prejudices reconfirmed.
I would agree. The Old Testament prophets were forever offending their audience, and the church sorely needs more of those prophetic voices into our 21st Century Western comfort – I believe John Bell is one such prophet for our day. Paul even goes so far as to describe the cross of Jesus as offensive (Galatians 5:11). The Christian faith is not a comfortable one, it strikes at the very heart of who we are and calls us to become something very different. That is difficult; we don’t find change easy, we don’t like being told that we are wrong. But if the church is not issuing that challenge then we are watering down the message of Jesus and failing to be a true witness to him. To use the well-known phrase, we are to “comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.”
If I have any criticism of Bell’s hymn it is that is doesn’t go far enough with the first half of that phrase. The idea hinted at in the final two lines, that in issuing this challenge Jesus also walks with us to help us fulfil it, could probably have done with an extra stanza to develop and reinforce. But that is not to take away from the powerful effect of what he has written, which does offend, but in the right way of making us all think again about the society in which we live, and our part within it.
So let us come to church ready to be challenged, even offended, as we encounter the Jesus who works with us to “tip the balance” of our own lives, so that together we may turn the world upside down.
(I do recognise there is a valid question of whether hymns/songs are the best place within our worship to express this challenge, or whether using the same words as a poem or reflection may be more appropriate, but that is a tangential question to the main issue here).