History of Hymns: Hymn challenges singers through images of sorrow
Shirley Erena Murray
The Faith We Sing, No. 2048
God weeps at love withheld,
at strength misused,
at children’s innocence abused,
and till we change the way we love, God weeps. *
Why is it so difficult to sing, “God weeps?” Great hymn writers of the past have certainly communicated God’s power, might and strength, but have left us unprepared for singing of God’s relationship to our pain as God’s own pain.
So many people walk through church doors overcome by agony inflicted by abusive relationships, poverty and injustice, yet are told by the thoughts, words and deeds in worship that their pain does not require corporate acknowledgment and action.
Born in Invercargill, New Zealand in 1931, Shirley Erena Murray is a hymn text writer and hymnal editor working to expand the 21st-century church’s song. Using pithy and economical language, her profound and challenging texts present an unquestionably clear message to the modern hymn singer.
“God Weeps” not only gives the church a way to acknowledge the pain of the most vulnerable in our world, but also reminds us that Christ suffers as we suffer. The hymn addresses a 21st-century world’s pain and injustice in contemporary language. The text alludes to Jesus’ teaching as recorded in Matthew 25, which tells us that when we serve “one of the least,” we serve Christ, and when we fail to confront injustice and protect the weakest of our brothers and sisters, we fail Christ.
The challenge in Ms. Murray’s text is two-fold. Addressing the pain in themselves, or their brother or sister in Christ, singers of the hymn must express the sadness of a broken world full of violence, oppression and abuse. Ms. Murray profoundly communicates that God has given us the responsibility for changing “the way we love . . . win . . . care . . . and understand the Christ.” By repeating the phrase, “till we change,” she gives hope and comfort to agonizing souls, reminding them that until God’s will is on earth as in heaven, God will continue to suffer with them.
In the Rev. Carlton Young’s setting of “God Weeps,” the music empathizes with the text in its heaviness as it is set in G minor. There is a tone of mourning in the descending musical lines.
The first and last two notes of each stanza are set to the subject of the particular stanza. These beginning and ending notes are written as dotted whole notes, sustained longer and in the lower range of the piece, and mirror a human cry of hopelessness. The accompaniment sounds particularly bare and helps to relate the emotions of emptiness associated with human pain, yet still supports the singing of each line. This is truly a relationship of equal parts, music and text, as each strengthens the other.
Dr. Young provides the background for the composition of this music:
“The context for composing the tune was my 1995 visit to the Hiroshima memorial site which commemorates a US B29 plane dropping the first atomic bomb which instantly killed in excess of 100,000 innocent civilians; tens of thousands died in a few years or were maimed for life. While standing in the near quiet memorial grounds I felt the tears I and others shed, and the prayers we made were joined with God’s continuing tears and prayers for the oppressed and the oppressor. Later that day I sketched a tonal remembrance of that experience for voice, cello, and piano. I believe I had brought along Shirley’s text which predates that visit. I completed the hymn setting August 6-9, 1995, the 50th anniversary of the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.”
Commenting on the music, Ms. Murray notes that Dr. Young “caught the utterly plangent nature of this text, not only in his tune line but even in his somber introduction and then, the discordant and unresolved ending, which is the ongoing pain.”
Perhaps I find “God Weeps” a difficult hymn to sing because in it the gospel truth is unmistakable. The language does not allow for excuses or exceptions, but calls us to respond to who God is by changing the way we love and care for “the least of these.”