Sunday, February 08, 2009

God of Earth and Altar

Today in church we sang my favorite hymn, G. K. Chesterton's "God of Earth and Altar."

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.

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 honor, and the sword,
from sleep and from damnation,
deliver us, good Lord!

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.

This has always struck me as a very Neibuhrian hymn, though of course Chesterton was a very convincing Catholic apologist. This is a hymn against worldly pride. It is a hymn for work.

Something I noticed this time: this is a hymn against sleep. I had not really put "sleep" and "damnation" together. I am still in favor of sleep as a good gift of God. But I do agree with Chesterton about work: doing things is what I like to do...


Anonymous said...

I feel certain that your comment about Chesterton's hymn being a hymn "against sleep" was made somewhat tongue-in-cheek. I think "sleep" here, as in several passages throughout Scripture, is a metaphor for "sloth."

Clearly, God is not against "rest" (See Ps. 127:2: " In vain you rise early and stay up late, toiling for food to eat— for he grants sleep to those he loves."(NIV)). God is against sloth . . . not sleep. As the Psalmist points out (and anyone who suffers from insomnia would attest), sleep is a a gift from God. The writer of Proverbs uses the sleep metaphor to refer the ruination of sloth. (See Prov. 6:10-11: "A little sleep, a little slumber, a little folding of the hands to rest- 11 and poverty will come on you like a bandit and scarcity like an armed man.
"Sleep" in this hymn may also serve as a metaphor for "lack of awareness" -- what Matthew Arnold would have referred to as the "unexamined life." The type of sleep of the mind that allows us to ignore the homeless and the lost. Nevertheless, 'twas a good post. Food for thought. Now I think I need a nap.

Anonymous said...

It has been a while since I read it but in Placher's book "Domestication of Transcendence" he has a quote from a New England Puritan pastor in the lamenting the fact that he had to sleep.

Placher then goes on to critique that way of thinking.

Michael D. Bush said...

A bit from "Poor Richard Improved" for 1749. Franklin reflects on the life of John Calvin:

On the 27th anno 1564, died at Geneva that famous reformer, Mr. John Calvin, A man of equal temperance and sobriety with Luther, and perhaps yet greater industry. His lectures were yearly 186, his sermons yearly 286; he published besides every year some great volume in folio; to which add his constant employments, in governing the church, answering letters from all parts of the reformed world, from pastors, concerning doubts, or asking counsel, &c. &c. He ate little meat, and slept but very little; and as his whole time was filled up with useful action, he may be said to have lived long, tho' he died at 55 years of age; since sleep and sloth can hardly be called living.

José Solano said...

Sleep when used metaphorically in the Bible often refers to unconsciousness. It is contrasted with being "awake." The unregenerate walks about unaware of God's presence and unaware of the urgency to conduct oneself in accordance with God's will. Sloth may be a symptom of this unconsciousness but highly industrious, self-centered people, who may sleep very little, may be equally "asleep." The individual in this state is in reality less conscious of both his surroundings and of what is truly meaningful in life. He tends to lack empathy and is not aware of how complex ridden he is. Even those who wish to follow Christ are in varied degrees asleep. To attain greater awareness great effort must be made in observing oneself to see how one easily drifts into a fantasy, dream life, quite divorced from meaningful existence in Christ.

An essential purpose of church is to form a group, a congregation in which we help each other to be vigilant, to wake up to our purpose in life and redeem the time we have. Because the "world" has such a captivating, hypnotic, sleep inducing power over so many, even in churches, it is often best to form small groups in which a few are interested in having greater focus on consciousness, that is, on being awake to God's presence and promptings. Many monastic settings facilitate this work.

"For when they say, 'Peace and safety!' then sudden destruction comes upon them, as labor pains upon a pregnant woman. And they shall not escape. But you brethren, are not in darkness, so that this Day should overtake you as a thief. You are all sons of light and sons of the day. We are not of the night nor of darkness. Therefore let us not sleep, as others do, but let us watch and be sober." 1 Thess. 5:3-6

". . . From sleep and from damnation, deliver us, good Lord!"