O God of earth and altar: Martin Leckebusch

Gilbert Keith Chesterton (1874-1936)
Public Domain


Martin Leckebusch
Martin Leckebusch

It’s natural, when something disruptive or threatening happens, to ask why – why this, why now, why me? Whether the tragedy is personal (bereavement, maybe redundancy) or more far-reaching (flooding, or even a pandemic), people look for reasons. And often, whether spoken or not, there is the question: What have I done to deserve this? Asking this may betray deep-seated guilt feelings, or it may expose anger instead; but either way, we Christians may find ourselves trying to work out: Where is God in all this suffering? What is he doing or saying to us through this?

There are actually very few stories in the Gospels in which Jesus responds to what we might call “current affairs.” One of the rare occasions is found in Luke 13:

Now there were some present at that time who told Jesus about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mixed with their sacrifices. Jesus answered, “Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans because they suffered this way? I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will all perish. Or those eighteen who died when the tower in Siloam fell on them—do you think they were more guilty than all the others living in Jerusalem? I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will all perish.”

The details of those incidents are far gone, beyond our reach. But what is Jesus’ point? Certainly not that suffering proves the sufferer’s guilt; he denies this also in John 9, when asked about a man born blind. Rather, suffering should serve as a serious warning: that life is fragile, and that we need to be mindful how we stand before God. Tomorrow isn’t guaranteed. We need a dose of humility.

So here we are, in the throes of our twenty-first century pandemic, and very much floundering over how to cope. It’s a new situation, and our political leaders are, frankly, having to make it up as they go along, using the best available advice – while the scientific experts, also facing unfamiliar circumstances and limited data, find it hard to give definitive answers. Humility would seem very wise indeed!

Here’s a hymn which offers just such an attitude. It was written over a century ago, predating even the Spanish flu pandemic of 1918-19, with which Coronavirus comparisons are sometimes drawn. In some ways it’s old-fashioned to the point of quaintness, but for all that it seems remarkably prescient. Listen to the opening:

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.

Our rulers falter; our people die. Does that sound and feel familiar? But there’s more, and the author could almost be prophesying the misuse of statistics and the rise of “spin” in verse two:

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.

Remember, as you hear those indictments of lies and easy speeches: this author was no cleric, but a literary man: a novelist and poet, a journalist and critic, named Gilbert Keith Chesterton, 1874-1936; better known as G.K. Chesterton. Nor was he a habitual hymn writer: these are almost his only lines to be published as hymnody.

But what a hymn! Let’s hear the final verse, where – amid medieval and almost apocalyptic imagery – the theme of humility continues:

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.

We are, Chesterton asserts, part of the same community; we’re all in this together. Not only that, we all need God’s mercy and help to get us through the crisis; and we need to learn its lessons, and re-consider how we live, individually and collectively.

Let’s pray:

God of earth and altar, at a time when our people are dying and our earthly rulers are faltering, we ask your mercy. Grant us humility in the face of disaster; take away our pride. Deliver us from falsehood and spin, from profiteering and complacency. Keep us aware how all our lives are bound together. And save us all, that we – both as individuals and as a society – may turn afresh to you, seek your kingdom and do your service. We ask in Christ’s name. Amen.

Until next time, take care – and trust God.

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