In a recent sermon I shared a story John Bell relates in his new book, “Living with the Psalms.” Rev. Bell is a Scottish Presbyterian minister and composer of many hymns, including “The Summons.” He tells about meeting a young man named William Ramirez at a church music conference in Minneapolis some thirty years ago. William was a refugee from El Salvador, riven by civil war at the time (this was when Archbishop Oscar Romero was assassinated). Military police routinely abducted young men and youth to serve in the army against their will. William was part of a subversive organization funded by churches in Canada, the US and Sweden, that would help dissenters out of the country.
I said to William, “this must have been quite dangerous.” “Yes,” he replied. “It was. We knew that if we were found out, we would probably be killed for anti-government activity.” When I asked him how they managed to go undetected, he indicated the kind of measures that would be common in similar organizations all over the world, including no minute taking, no phone calls and frequent changes of meeting place. And then he added, “but always at the end of our meetings, we would read the Bible and pray and sing.” “What did you sing?” I asked. He mentioned two songs, one of which, “When we are living, we are in the Lord,” was familiar to me. But the other I did not know. So I asked William to sing it to me, and he did so in a beautiful and confident voice.
By the third verse, Bell had transcribed it in musical notation. William spoke broken English but was able to write out the complete text in Spanish. “This is the song I carry in my heart when I am away from my country,” he said. Bell took the tune and the Spanish lyrics back to Glasgow, and managed to get a Spanish speaker to translate it. Then he and a colleague put the literal translation into metrical verse to accompany the tune. “After several amendments, we had a reasonable text which we tried out with our worship group. It seemed to sing well,” Bell writes. “Two days later, I picked up the song from my desk and read through the text. It was more overtly political than I thought. It seemed to owe more to Marx than to Jesus. I thought that perhaps the Church of Scotland was not ready for this, so I put it on a shelf and left it there.” Bell continues, “Three years later, at my morning prayer, as I was reading Psalm 94, I discovered that what I thought the church would not sing had been sung by Jesus a long time ago. For this was the very text that William had sung to me.”
After my sermon, some of you asked about the song. It’s entitled “O Great God and Lord of the Earth”:
O great God and Lord of the earth,
Rouse yourself and demonstrate justice;
Give the arrogant what they deserve,
Silence all malevolent boasting.
See how some you love are broken,
For they know the weight of oppression;
Even widows and orphans are murdered,
And poor strangers are innocent victims.
Those who crush your people delight,
Claiming God above takes no notice;
They proclaim that heaven is blind,
That the God of Jacob is silent.
Stupid fools, when will you listen?
Now take heed you ignorant people:
God who gave us sight and hearing
Has observed and noted what happened.
God the Lord will not stay away
Nor forsake his well-beloved people;
Heaven’s justice soon will appear
And the pure in heart will embrace it.
Yes, the ones whom God instructed,
Who revere and study God’s Word
Will be saved from all that harms them
While a pit is dug for the wicked.
Should the wrong change place with right
And the courts play host to corruption;
Should the innocent fear for their lives
While the guilty smile at their scheming;
Still the Lord will be your refuge,
Be your strength and courage and tower,
Though your foot should verge on slipping,
God will cherish, keep and protect you.
While Scripture – and the Psalms in particular – may be used for personal devotion and as a source of comfort in challenging times, let us ever be mindful that the Bible addresses the wrongs and inequities in society even as it proclaims God’s justice for the world!
Grace and peace,