Shirley Erena Murray (1931-2020)
© 1999 Hope Publishing Company, used by permission
A church as it seeks to renew its life and respond to new challenges – a continuous task – may appoint commissions, review its structures and its strategies, establish new partnerships in service, devise mission projects, unite in prayer. But all this time, some are writing hymns. That is their contribution. Hymns come out of the heart of the church. You could say, the church ‘grows’ the hymns it needs. However, there is another side to this. As well as growing hymns, the church in turn ‘grows into’ the hymns that result. For a hymn writer does not just reflect what she has heard but illuminates the way ahead. As a person of prayer, compassion and insight, and with an open Bible, the writer accompanies the church as it stumbles into a new landscape.
Shirley Erena Murray, who died in January, is one of the most sung of contemporary writers. As a native of Aotearoa/New Zealand, it was important to her ‘to be able to sing our story from our own soil’. This meant not only rewriting carols without snow but reflecting the efforts of an anti-nuclear nation towards world peace. Much more too. ‘Close to my heart are the hymns which spring out of protest or complaint about an issue which touches me to the quick: the abuse and slavery of children, the degradation of women – subtle or not, violence of every kind, and the desecration of our beautiful environment.’ (Interview in Different Voices, no. 1, Whitsun 2008).
Murray’s hymns are quite uncompromising in their treatment of social issues, as they are insightful about sacraments, ministry, and spirituality (she reported that Come and find the quiet centre is one of the most frequently sung of her texts). She ‘tells it how it is’ and can stray too near the truth for comfort. One of her hymns refers to faithful Christians who ‘heave the stones to free the structures, love the Christ and leave the Church’, capturing the reality of the situation as numbers dwindle while reminding us that those ‘outside’ for their own reasons are not outsiders. She was appalled to find that at a large Assembly gathering the organisers had changed the line to ‘love the Christ and serve the church’!
Today’s hymn is Where are the voices for the earth? Recently, we have come to appreciate that as well as the more popular psalms of praise there are also psalms that are laments, when the writer pours out deep feelings of despair, of loss, of real anger at what God has allowed to happen, psalms that can make us uncomfortable because they speak the thoughts we dare not put into words. This hymn is pure lament.
It opens with two stark questions (what other hymns open with a question?) which don’t allow us to duck out of the matter, to leave it to the experts. Make no mistake, it says: the earth is in danger, real danger, and the ball is in our court. It is remarkable how body-related the language is, and how the writer creates a physical intimacy with the planet. The ‘poisoned rain’ is like the weeping of tears, recalling personal examples of grief. The soil ‘hugs’ the seed, evoking the familiar human action of care and love. Tackling pollution is not for public bodies or agencies but is humanised and made personal in the call for us to ‘clear her breath’. And ‘beauty’ somehow in its context here is more than aesthetic appreciation.
Murray saw hymns as an attempt both to address God and to be addressed by God (a form of text-messaging? she wondered), but for this to happen ‘there needs always to be a component … for the heart as well as the head’. As we sing, the preponderance of feeling words engage us as we address God, but they also open us to be addressed by God because we are present ‘in person’, heart and head. There are other telling conjunctions of language, as we are brought up short, for example, by the juxtapositions of words as in ‘ruined gifts of God’, all three words relating to each other in different ways. The thrice repetition of ‘sacred’ in verse 2, including the perfect line, ‘sacred the silent fall of snow’. There are also language forms that could only come from our time and are subliminally recognised by us as we sing, like ‘breaking the code’, or the slogan-like ‘death for the creatures’.
Yet, just as in many of the psalms of lament, when the psalmist remembers times when God has intervened, brought blessing, there is here a glimpse of the way through. It comes from there being some who ‘care enough to cry’. And as this hymn, and others like it, are sung and repeated and remembered, the number of those who care enough to cry will grow.
God who made the earth
and saw that it was good;
grant us the clarity of vision
which no appetite or ambition can distort,
that we may weep for creation’s pain
and work with others for its peace;
through Jesus Christ who, in soil and seed,
water and wine, wood and nails,
taught the sacredness of all that lives.
God whose voice thunders upon the waters,
shakes the wilderness, snaps the cedars
and strips the forest bare;
inspire us to make songs to disturb and change,
to sweep away complacency and indifference,
that all together may come to the rescue
and bring to health the planet we call our home,
so that in time all earth’s thousand voices
will again give full glory to its Creator;
in the name of Christ. Amen.
Where are the voices of the earth?
Where are the eyes to see her pain,
wasted by our consuming path,
weeping the tears of poisoned rain?
Sacred the soil that hugs the seed,
sacred the silent fall of snow,
sacred the world that God decreed,
water and sun and river flow.
Where shall we run who break this code,
where shall tomorrow’s children be,
left with the ruined gifts of God,
death for the creatures, land, and sea?
We are the voices for the earth,
we who will care enough to cry,
cherish her beauty, clear her breath,
live that our planet may not die.