Nothing separates us from God’s love

God has taken charge; from now on he has the last word.”  Ps. 22:28 (Message)

 

Psalms of lament usually begin with the psalmist’s declaration that he is in a really bad place.

Psalm 10

Why, Lord, do you stand far off?
Why do you pay no attention during times of trouble?
The wicked arrogantly chase the oppressed;
the oppressed are trapped by the schemes the wicked have dreamed up.
Yes, the wicked man boasts because he gets what he wants;
the one who robs others curses and rejects the Lord.
The wicked man is so arrogant he always thinks,
“God won’t hold me accountable; he doesn’t care.

 

Other Psalms such as Psalm 34 and 69 have similar beginnings.  But, when we read a psalm, we have an expectation that things will change; that God has been present throughout the difficulties, that God will provide help. We read the whole Psalm to understand and interpret and understand the beginning of it.

The first words from Psalm 22 are much more familiar in the King James.  “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”  What from this Psalm would Jesus have us understand?  On the cross, nailed in such a way that he could hardly breathe, he spoke no more than that first line.  Surely Jesus, just as the Psalmist, was speaking from his immediate pain and isolation.  Soon he would be thinking about remembered trust and confidence in God.  Had Jesus not been nailed to the cross in such a position, I believe he have quoted the whole psalm with the movement from a sense of distance from God to full confidence that God was with him.  Consider the context of the scripture to see if there is support for this view.

Context is everything:

An insurance company’s lawyer was questioning an old farmer in court.  The company did not want to pay his claims for injuries. These occurred when their client ran a stop sign and hit the farmer’s trailer that contained his favorite mule.

Lawyer: “Didn’t you tell the police officer “I fine” when he arrived?

Farmer:  Well, that morning I loaded Old Bessie into the trailer and started down the road.  Hadn’t gotten far . . .

Lawyer (interrupting): “Just answer the question.  Did you say, “I’m fine”?

Farmer:  I loaded old Bessie into the trailer  … .

Lawyer:  Just answer the question.  Judge, please instruct the witness to answer.”

Judge:  Why don’t we let the witness continue?  I want to hear what he has to say.

Farmer:  I had Old Bessie in the trailer and we were driving down the road to the vet’s when this red car came zipping through the stop sign and hit the truck and trailer.  I was trying to get out of the truck to check on Bessie who I heard moanin’ and groanin’.  I was afraid she was a goner.

About that time a trooper came up and saw Bessie was a goner so he pulled out his gun and shot Bessie.  I was still trying to clear my head and get over to Bessie when the trooper came up to me with his gun still in his hand.  He said, Hey, old guy, how are you doin’?

I said: “I’m fine, I’m fine”!

Context!

Jesus’ Context:

“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”  So, what is the context?

I think there are three parts to the context.  First, is Jesus’ situation.  Nearly all the disciples have deserted him.  Jesus has pressure on his lungs due to the pull of his arms from his nailed hands.  He feels the burden of the sins of people of all ages have put him on the cross.  As a loving son, he asks John to take care of his mother, Mary.  Jesus knows that like in the parable of the tenants (Matthew 21:28-46; Mark 12:1-12; Luke 20:9-19) we have tried to put ourselves in God’s place.  But, as the loving Jesus still speaks words of forgiveness to the criminal crucified with him.  He includes us in the words “Father, forgive them, they don’t know what they are doing.”  We were forgiven, not because Jesus was “forsaken”, but because Jesus interceded with a loving God on our behalf.  A contemporary Christian song include the words “the Father turned his face away”.  Another contains the words “The wrath of God was satisfied when Jesus died”. *  Where do those phrases come from in scripture?  Doesn’t scripture say that God wants to forgive?  How can one say that God deserted Jesus without saying that the Trinity was split apart?  When Jesus prayed, “Father, forgive them; they don’t know what they’re doing” he clearly assumes his role as our intercessor in the model of Moses and Ezekiel.  After the resurrection, Jesus would be seated at God’s right hand to continue that intercessory role.  Finally, Jesus concludes with a commitment to the Father.   “Into your hands I commit my spirit.”

That is the immediate context.

Context of the original words

Psalms of lament like Psalm 22 frequently begin with the psalmist in a bad way.  Awake! Why are you asleep, O Lord? (Psalm 44:24) “You have put me in the lowest pit, in the darkest depths.” (Psalm 88:6)  Do we conclude that is the whole truth about the Psalmist?  What is the usual way of interpreting a Psalm of lament?  “Reproach hath broken my heart; and I am full of heaviness: and I looked for some to take pity, but there was none; and for comforters, but I found none.”  Psalm 69:20.  Would Jesus use the first words of Psalm 22 in a way to contradict the later verses?

Then look at the context of the words Jesus quotes from Psalm 22, especially the latter part of the Psalm.

28 God has taken charge;
from now on he has the last word.

29 All the power-mongers are before him
—worshiping!
All the poor and powerless, too
—worshiping!
Along with those who never got it together
—worshiping!

30-31 Our children and their children
will get in on this
As the word is passed along
from parent to child.
Babies not yet conceived
will hear the good news—
that God does what he says.

Psalm 22, The Message

 

Broader Biblical context

Several passages in John tell us that Jesus and the Father are one.  Especially note John 10:30 and John 16:32. Jesus speaks further of this identity in John 17.    Paul understood what Jesus meant when he wrote: “God was in Christ reconciling the world unto himself.”  God was present with Jesus in his hour of deepest need.  This text, for me, does not say Jesus was forsaken and condemned that I might be forgiven and accepted.2  Therefore we can be confident that God will be with us when we experience great need.  Surely, in this hour, Jesus temptation to despair was greater than any we can experience. The writer of Hebrews assures us, that Jesus was “tempted in every way as we are”.   Did Paul think about Jesus at the cross when he wrote these words?

For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor heavenly rulers, nor things that are present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in creation will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. Romans 8:38-39 NET

How do we embrace the whole of the Psalm in our understanding?  I would like to believe that Jesus, with the Psalmist would affirm:

God has taken charge;
from now on he has the last word. Psalm 22:28

 

 

*Michael Card, “Love crucified alone”;  Stuart Townsend, “How deep the Father’s Love”.  Other similar:  Natalie Grant, In Christ Alone; Chris Tomlin:  “You Are My King” 2I’m forgiven because you were forsaken” These songs do an excellent job with most of the Gospel story.  But they obscure an important part:  God was always reconciled to us, God always wanted to forgive us and God always wanted to restore us.  It is we as humans that need to change and be changed. I am still working out the implications of this.  Our understanding of God and how he forgives and restores leads to important actions.  Believing in a punishing God leads to sentences for persons guilty of crimes that feature jail first, rather than restorative justice; solitary confinement rather than opportunities for education and improvement; and capital punishment rather than compassionate care.  I am still thinking through this aspect of God’s mercy and forgiveness.

My thinking on this topic was shaped by reading Darren Belousek, Atonement, Justice and Peace.  Any confusion is mine.

 

Other scriptures to consider:

“When you all run away from me and leave me alone, I won’t be alone, because My Father is with me.” (John 16:32).

Corporate Lament

  • Examples include: Psalms 12, 44, 60, 74, 79, 80, 83, 85, 90, 94, 123, 126, 129

Personal Lament  (these psalms fit more than one category)

  • Examples include: Psalms 3, 4, 5, 7, 9-10, 13, 14, 17, 22, 25, 26, 27*, 28, 31, 36*, 39, 40:12-17, 41, 42-43, 52*, 53, 54, 55, 56, 57, 59, 61, 64, 69, 70, 71, 77, 86, 89*, 120, 139, 141, 142

  

Singing justice for the poor: Looking for Anabaptist-flavored worship music

I proclaim the power of God: You do marvels for your servants;

Though you scatter the proud-hearted  And destroy the might of princes.

To the hungry you give food,  send the rich away ——empty.

In your mercy you are mindful  Of the people you have chosen.

Refrain: And holy is your name through all generations. (verses 2 & 3 “My Soul is Filled With Joy”. (#13 Sing the Journey). See also, “I’ll praise my maker while I’ve breath” verses 2 and 3 Hymnal, a worship book #166)

Where can we find similar praise to God for caring for the poor and hungry in contemporary and traditional worship music? The results of the search I’ve done show few examples of helping the marginal and bringing down the powerful in praise and worship music.   Early 2015 the Mountain States Mennonite Conference concluded an Anabaptist songwriting contest. They asked for “New songs with lyrics that espouse Anabaptist/Mennonite values: (e.g. Non-violence, love for enemy, reconciliation, communal life, etc.), musically spanning from traditional forms to non-traditional genres, styles and cultural expressions.” Specific mention of the social justice theme is not made, but perhaps it is implied in “Anabaptist/Mennonite values”. The link below identifies winners and includes their lyrics and music. One of the six mentions attention to the poor. * The 2015 Mennonite World Conference Songbook, Walking with God includes at least three of fifty-six selections that specifically praise God for his attention to the oppressed and poor. January 4, 2016, MennoMedia announced Project 606, intended to produce a new hymnal by 2020. Will this project include work on identifying elements of Anabaptist-flavored, Bible-based worship music?

 What Biblical models warrant placing a strong emphasis on praising God for social justice, especially in praise music? “Social justice” here is short hand for God’s act in delivering an immigrant/slave people from the super power of the day. It is a social act because a group of people, the children of Israel, was rescued. A new people with a new plan for living (the Torah) were established. God’s rescue of an oppressed people was “just” because it showed God’s love and mercy, not because Jacob’s descendants deserved it.

The contest (see above) reminded me of my quest of some years to find references to discipleship in worship music, narrowed here to social justice. Some 40 years ago I had a period of illness that resulted in a significant loss of hearing. Gradually I lost additional hearing until today I am nearly deaf. Hearing aids and now a cochlear implant. Cochlear implants are engineered to help with the hertz range of conversation level, but do not cover high and low notes of music. So, I give my attention to the words of the song. This has led me to ask questions about the theology behind the music used in worship. As a non-musician I make no claim to expertise in evaluating musical quality of any of the songs mentioned. I need a welcome help in identifying the quality of lyrics and music featuring attention to God’s interest in the oppressed.

Worship music in the evangelical churches I am familiar with usually includes what can be categorized loosely as contemporary Christian music (CCM), traditional hymns, and gospel songs. These types of music have some overlap. I will not attempt to fully distinguish between them. Each type has its focus. They are not fully listed here. Contemporary and traditional music praises God for many attributes and deeds, gives many invitations for re-dedication to Christian living, and rejoices in the promise of future life with God, but seldom praises God for concern for the poor and oppressed. My focus on the marginalized in this essay is very narrow.

Christian contemporary music

Several writers have noted the lack of attention to social justice issues in CCM. Jay Howard writes: “There are few [contemporary Christian worship] songs concerned with social justice because there are few songwriters from the Anabaptist tradition.” He analyzes 77 Contemporary Worship Songs –those most frequently requested of the licensing service CCL–and finds only one that gives direct attention to social justice issues. John L. Bell, songwriter argues that CCM is mainly about the birth and death of Jesus and ignores his life. Have I missed some CCM titles that give attention to Jesus’ life, especially to his attention to the poor, the widow, and the outsider?

 Traditional ‘gospel songs’ and hymns

Praise and thanksgiving in traditional hymns and gospel songs (I will not define these here, but look at that category the Mennonite Hymnal for examples) give little attention to social justice. “Gospel songs” are strong in their emphasis on grace, God/Jesus’ companionship and love. I have not found any of these that praise God for his love and care of the “widow and fatherless”. There are a number of hymns in Hymnal, a Worship Book (HWB), that include an interest in the poor and oppressed and justice for them. One that praises God for this attention is “I’ll Praise My Maker”, verses three and four (HWB, #166). Some encourage us to follow Jesus’ example in caring for the marginalized. Did I miss hymns that specifically praise God/Jesus as Miriam and Mary did for God’s championing of the oppressed?

Models and sources:

The preliminary Biblical models I would propose for praise songs are Miriam’s song (Exodus 15) and Mary’s song in Luke 1. The book of Psalms was Israel’s “praise and worship” book. That requires some attention to psalms that praise God for his attention to disadvantaged and those who prey on them.

Miriam’s Song

While God the warrior image usually makes Anabaptist uncomfortable, God is first called holy when he rescued the Israelites from the Egyptian cavalry and foot soldiers.

Who is like you, O Lord, among the gods?
Who is like you?—majestic in holiness, fearful in praises, working wonders?
 You stretched out your right hand,
the earth swallowed them. (Ex. 15:11-12 (New English Translation)

God is praised for delivering the immigrant/slaves God chose to become his covenant people.

 

The Psalms

In his work on the Psalms, Walter Brueggemann says that the things we praise God for shows the way we view the world and our place in it.  Many Psalms praise God (see also Miriam’s Song) for delivering a slave/immigrant people from the Egyptian superpower whose religion favored politically powerful and the rich. We are sometimes tempted to assign God’s action here to a special category, rather than see it as a model of what God does.  Psalmists praise God (and kings) for their concern for the poor and marginalized.  God is praised for being a just judge and for making wars cease.  See the following Psalms: 9, 10, 29, 35, 65, 66, 68, 69, 72, 74, 81, 82, 94, 96, 97, 98, 99, 102, 103, 105,106, 107, 109, 123, 124, 135, 136, 139, 140, 146.

Phrases from Psalms 72 and 146 capture a king’s and God’s attitude and action and are characteristic of the other Psalms:

 

Ps. 72: The King:

— takes pity on the weak and the needy
— saves the needy from death.
rescues them from oppression and violence,
— for precious is their blood in his sight.

Ps. 146. The Lord

–upholds the cause of the oppressed
–gives food to the hungry.
–sets prisoners free,
gives sight to the blind,
— lifts up those who are bowed down,
— loves the righteous.
watches over the foreigner
–sustains the fatherless and the widow,
–frustrates the ways of the wicked

Praise the Lord.

Repeatedly God gives attention to the oppressed and provides security and safety to victims of violence. To what extent should words and phrases like these from the Psalms be present in our worship music?

 Prophets

Attention to the needs of the orphan/widow/poor is identified more with prophets than the Psalms and I was pleased to find significant attention to this topic in the Psalms. Prophetic critiques of worship do not contain comments on purity of sacrifices, social justice content of Psalms or the quality or frequency of Psalm recitation. The prophetic critiques point out that Sabbath worship by the people of the covenant should be reflected in covenant behavior during the week.

Mary, Jesus, Paul

Mary’s prophetic vision of her son’s work is captured in the song “My Soul is Filled With Joy”. (#13, Sing the Journey, verses 2 and 3 above). Jesus inaugural sermon repeats these themes.

The prophetic focus is reflected in Paul’s statement in Romans 12:1-2:  “So here’s what I want you to do, God helping you: Take your everyday, ordinary life—your sleeping, eating, going-to-work, and walking-around life—and place it before God as an offering [as your worship]. Embracing what God does for you is the best thing you can do for him.” (The Message-my emphasis). Perhaps an important aim of worship music should be to help us connect thanksgiving and praise with covenant living.

Today our world is one of increasing disparity in wealth. God’s rescue of an immigrant/slave people informs us what kind of God he was/is. Jesus affirmed this nature in his work and teaching by giving significant focus to healing, feeding the hungry and caring for the sick. Can God’s people today teach and act less like the world and more like our lord? Are there songwriters addressing this need?

 

Miriam’s Song, many Psalms, the prophets’ reminders all tell us that connecting worship and living is crucial.   The New Testament contributions of Mary’s song, Jesus life and teaching, and Paul’s take on worship in Romans 12 all point to the worship-discipleship-concern for poor and marginalized as an essential element in our praise and life. I have found very few songs in CCM and “gospel songs” with this focus and only a few in traditional hymns that praise God as a champion of the down and out. (Perhaps additional research and help from knowledgeable persons will locate songs with a social justice focus.) Eugene Peterson’s (The Message) take on Psalms 65:1 provides an appropriate conclusion:

Silence is praise to you,
Zion-dwelling God,
And also obedience.
You hear the prayer [praise] in it all.

 

*Text and music of six winners can be found at:

http://www.anabaptistsongwritingchallenge.org/

 

Thanks to Julia H. Alleman and Ray E. Horst for sharing their music knowledge with me.

 

 

Favorite hymns

 

“I’ll praise my maker while I’ve breath” (HWB#166) and “My soul is filled with joy” include praise for God for his lifting up the poor and pulling down the powerful. So, that’s why I list them first, although the rest of this list is not necessarily in order of my sense of their importance.

 

The chair where I sit for morning devotions faces just north of east so that more than half of the mornings during the year I probably could see the sunrise. That feeds my love of sunrises and a preference for the hymns “I owe the Lord a morning song”( HWB#651) and “When morning gilds the skies 1. The latter sticks in my memory from a theme song of a 1960s radio program, a favorite of my mother’s.

 

Since the question of favorite hymns was raised at Thanksgiving and since I spend a lot of time in the garden (or thinking about it), I must list “We plow the fields and scatter the good seed on the ground” (HWB#96).   I list this one even though I know my favorites will vary by season. The place I find myself in my spiritual pilgrimage influences my preference for songs. Recently at church we sang “I sought the Lord” (HWB#506) and that provided the help I needed at the time which music has frequently done. (Once during a period of distress I was given words and a tune for my encouragement. I wrote down the words, but the tune I heard in my head required more of a musician to put on paper. Julia suggested that maybe if she put her head close enough to mine she could hear the tune, too.)

 

In addition to looking for songs about God’s justice I have been looking for songs that see grace for the journey as important as grace for the destination. The third verse of “Amazing grace” “Through many dangers toils and snares, I have already gone” 2 does that for me. Finally, I enjoy the sustenance of “My shepherd shall supply my need”HWB#589. In addition I recommend that everyone write their autobiography outlined by the last phrase of this hymn, “no more a stranger, nor a guest, but like a child at home.” I may have listed less that ten hymns, but my preferences change with seasons of the year and of my life. As I looked up the numbers for the hymns above I saw many that have been my “favorites” at various times. And, I am still searching for more songs praising God for justice.

 

1 http://library.timelesstruths.org/music/When_Morning_Gilds_the_Skies/

 

David Alleman

Nov. 27, 2016