The hymn ‘dear Lord and Father of Mankind’ (Common Praise Number 411) is a favourite of many people. I heard that it came in second on the ‘Songs of Praise’ all time favourite hymn list. It is the kind of hymn about which people say ‘I want this at my funeral’. But for me this hymn has some problems. That is why I am writing this reflection about it. I certainly don’t want to offend those who like this hymn, and there are many good things about it, but I do think that it needs a careful examination.
The first thing to say is that the tune is lovely. The tunes our hymns are set to can heavily influence whether we like a hymn or not. Some hymns take on a whole new aspect and are great with a new tune. Some dreary tunes ruin lots of good hymns. Often, during hymn picking times, I will find a hymn and say ‘That is a good set of words! Can we have them?’ Then we go to look at the tune and it is dismal! We then have to go to look for another tune, or let that hymn go. So one of the first things that ‘Dear Lord and Father of Mankind’ has going for it is a good tune. This was also Charles Wesley’s genius. He set his theological words to modern tunes from the pubs and from folk tunes. We sing them now in a more ‘Victorian’ manner, but I have heard folk singer Maddy Prior do great things with her ‘Carnival Band’ and Wesley’s hymn tunes.
But tune is not everything. I recall the horror I felt watching ‘Cabaret’ when the boy soprano gets up to sing ‘O Father-land Father-land show Us the way…tomorrow belongs to me.’ It is a beautiful tune, but to then see all those people standing up in brown shirts and giving the ‘Heil Hitler’ salute, reminded me that a brilliant tune can also be used for dire purposes.
But the other thing that I like about ‘Dear Lord and Father of Mankind’ is some of its imagery. The first verse recalls the ‘Wild Madman’ of the Gerasenes. Remember? He was so wild he was chained up, and forced to live among the tombs. When Jesus heals him, and all his craziness goes into the pigs, he is ‘clothed, and in his right mind.’ John Greenleaf Whittier, the author of this hymn draws on this imagery and asks God to ‘reclothe us in our rightful mind.’ This is a lovely turn of phrase, reference to the Gospel, and twist on the actual passage. And what does it mean to be clothed in our ‘rightful minds?’ That we live purer lives, and praise God with deeper reverence. Amen! I remember singing a Russian song about ‘Men of the Spirit’ with the line ‘Theirs is the will to will one thing and only theirs is the joy and Godly sorrow.’ To live a pure life is a great goal, because it asks for the clarity of soul that is so often not a part of our ambivalent lives.
The second verse follows this with a call to obedience. Referring to the disciples, it says ‘ let us like them without a word rise up and follow thee.’ It asks us for ‘simple trust’. Well the way to simple trust is by way of ‘complicated doubt!’ That’s the first thing. If there are questions to be asked and addressed, a call for simple trust will not cut it. It is in the doubts about faith that our ability to give an account of it is born. Further, what does it mean to follow Jesus? This is where the tune gets in the way for me. Following Jesus means a life of contest, not of rest (yet). But the tune of ‘without a word, rise up and follow thee’ does not indicate that to me. None the less, The sentiments of these words I claim for myself. A pure heart, and faithful following of Jesus, whatever that may means for me, be it rest or conflict.
The next verse talks about Jesus in the hills above Galilee, in prayer. Jesus meets to have communion with his Father in ‘the silence of eternity interpreted by love’. Eternity, since Jesus, certainly is interpreted by love. But then it can’t be ‘silent’. In the face of all the injustice of the world, and the inhuman treatment that is so much ‘in our faces’ today, to see the world in the light of love is not to be silent, but to prophetically speak out about it.
There is another part of this hymn that speaks to me as a challenge. I used to hate it, because I did not have it; that is, an ‘ordered life’. The line goes ‘and let our ordered lives confess the beauty of thy peace.’ The two sections of the hymn go together. Being ‘pure of heart’ means it is possible to make promises and keep them. It is possible to do what I say I want to do. I used to want to pray, but the ambivalence of my heart meant that instead of living a disciplined and ‘ordered’ life, it was rather more ‘disordered’. That being the case, I did not like this line. It stood there as a judgement on my ‘disorder’. After my soul was ‘cleared up’ a bit by the fires of the pain of divorce, I began to be able to live a more disciplined and ordered life. These days I like the order that regular prayer and exercise bring.
But the hymn begins to lose its power for me in the last two verses. I looked up something about the origins of this hymn and it helped me to make sense of the last part of the hymn when I found out that John Greenleaf Whittier was a Quaker. The last verse goes
Breathe through the heats of our desire
thy coolness and thy balm;
let sense be dumb, let flesh retire;
speak through the earthquake, wind, and fire,
O still, small voice of calm;
O still, small voice of calm.
As a Quaker Whittier’s worship was not sacramental and often silent. This last verse reflects both of these aspects of Quaker worship. They were opposed to empty ritual and too much formality of words. They wanted a real connection with God, beyond this, but they went too far. They emphasised the ‘inwardness’ of God’s presence in opposition to the emptiness of some ritual. This goes to the heart of the incarnation, and why we have sacraments. In Christ, God has brought together body and spirit in the one person, Jesus Christ. God has joined in full integrity the ‘inner’ and the ‘outer’ life. What God has joined together, it is not our job to separate of make false divisions between. The sacraments reflect the incarnation in that God is present to us in our flesh and in our spirits. No orthodox Christian can wish ‘that senses be dumb’ and that ‘flesh retire’ because it is in our senses and in our flesh that our lives as sacraments are lived out. If sense should be dumb, and flesh should retire then there is no need of the incarnation, and no need of sacraments as its necessary consequence. We could perhaps all do with some more ‘calm’ in life but it is not possible to build a whole anti-sacramental theology out of it. This is the problem with the Quakers. They had a good idea, but turned one good idea into a whole movement, and in the process left the Church behind.
So this is my problem with this hymn that makes it one that I cannot put myself fully behind, for all its other strengths. The incarnation and the sacraments are too important not to let this go by un commented upon.