Alive to God in Jesus Christ

*** The background to this hymn is in the story of the rejection by Sarah and Abraham, after the birth of their son, Isaac, of both Hagar, Sarah’s slave and Abraham’s concubine, and Ishmael, Hagar’s son by Abraham.



In the same way as Abraham begot his eldest son, Ishmael, with Hagar, his wife’s slave, so this hymn emerged from its immediate predecessor There’s laughter in the loins of those who make God’s home on earth. That hymn grew from recognising God’s promise that Abraham’s wife would bear a son, Isaac. The relationship between those two hymns turns on the complex of relationships that include Sarah’s jealousy of Ishmael, her persuading Abraham to dismiss Hagar, and, in the face of her own and her son’s death, Hagar’s desperation. As in the earlier hymn, etymology is central to understanding the theological dynamics at work.

yishaq – Isaacmeans ‘God smiles, laughs, plays’: Abraham recognised the sovereignty of God’s erotic will in giving a son to Sarah in her extreme old age. In naming God ‘el ro’i – ‘God sees’ – Hagar acknowledged God’s recognition of her afflicted existence as a slave without rights. And in naming her son yishma’el, Ishmael – ‘God hears’ – Hagar expressed gratitude to God who included her among those who were promised a future on earth. This etymology is referred to in the hymn’s sixth stanza, where it is openly suggested that, even if God did once care about Hagar and Ishmael, Sarah, Abraham, and Isaac, there’s no shortage of reasons to wonder whether, long after their time, God still cares today for those in whom ‘every hope has died’”.

It was hard for me, a white, English hymn-writer to find the ‘feeling-tone’ of this story, for the treatment that Abraham meted out to Hagar vividly recalls the history of white men’s abuse of black women. Hagar, reduced to having to watch her child die of thirst, lifted up her voice and wept; she howled. And God heard[1]Fortified by the understanding brought to this passage by Mukti Barton, an Indian Christian woman[2], I came to share a sense of rage at the way Hagar and Ishmael were treated. At that point it became possible to admit that those of us accustomed to controlling others, or accustomed to submitting to being controlled, are deeply afraid of rage – the rage of others, and our own. But could it be that the God who sees and hears, who laughs and plays[3] in sovereign freedom, actually wants, cries out for all our rage at the woes of ‘the world (that) is sick with lust’? Might not rage unleashed power up energy for life-enhancing change?

So, reflecting on the story of Sarah’s jealousy and Abraham’s rejection of Hagar, and on the destructive hatreds that scar the descendants of Ishmael and Isaac, successive verses in this hymn express pent-up rage ‘in grief for laughter’s ghost when children cease to play’[4], ‘for love deranged when each the other slays’, and ‘for friends betrayed to jealousy and fear’. Lest this raging degenerate into projection of unacceptable feelings onto others, in verse five worshippers acknowledge our own participation in the abuses we deplore. ‘Guilt for our abuse of people … expose(s) in us our screams of hidden pain.’

This hymn may not appear to be a hymn at all. Its mood seems to be almost entirely angry. It seems to be scarcely at all about God, and only in the last couplet is ‘Christ’ addressed, in the same tone of desperation as all sorts of people call on “Christ!” without apparently meaning or intending to pray.

But the first and last stanzas redeem what might otherwise be a rant to a piece that is offered seriously for singing at the Eucharist. In raging ‘against every woe’ the hymn claims to exercise the passionate freedom of the risen Christ. Referring at the last to God’s hearing the weeping of Hagar and the wailing of Ishmael, and to God opened her eyes, and she saw a well of water. She went … and gave the boy a drink[5], the hymn acknowledges that people all through history have been similarly saved from death. Yet, so far as we can see, not all. This hymn is a prayer for God’s intervention to ‘let sibling-peace begin’.

[1] Genesis 21.16b-17a

[2] In Scripture as Empowerment for Liberation and Justice (1999) pp 100-107

[3] These verbs express the names given to God by Hagar and Sarah.

[4] See Genesis 21.9-10

[5] Genesis 21.19

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