Habakkuk’s Prayer – more space for uncomfortable emotions

Cormorants Nr Oaker No 5 IMG_0009.JPG
Two cormorants in winter

Uncomfortable emotions

Regrettably, it is some time since I last posted.

Although this has been in the programme for some time, what has prompted me to get it together and add it to the blog is some recent discussion – yet again – it’s a familiar topic – as to why so much of what we sing has to be so unrealistically upbeat, so frustratingly tiggerish. Can there be no place for lament, for anger, for at least some of the negative emotions we all too often feel?

There is some important theology here. The gospel is good news. However, we are called to worship the Father “in spirit and in truth” Jn 4:23. “In truth” does not just apply to worship the true God rather than a false one, nor to the fact that Jesus himself is all truth and is more authentic than we are ever able to be. It also applies to our needing to be honest with him. Since he can see our innermost hearts, since we can hold no secrets from him, we cannot fool him.  We must not lie to him.  With him, we must not pretend, even if we are not conscious we are doing so or think we are acting from the best of motives.

“My secret thoughts, you know and see ~ known long before conceived by me”. (Ps 139:2 v.A in this collection)

There is already quite a lot of lament in the collection.  Psalm 74 and Psalm 79 will both do as obvious examples, as does Is it nothing to you? In Book 6.  There is anger and there is argument.

In addition to the simple fact that using psalms and canticles enable one to sing actual scripture rather than just other peoples’ thoughts about things in scripture, an additional great benefit of singing them in worship is that they cover a much wider gamut of human experience than the typical hymns and choruses.

The Canticle – Habakkuk’s Prayer

Habakkuk’s Prayer is a selection of verses from Hab 3 (Hab 3:2, 4, 13a, 15-19). These are Canticle 43 in CWDP, where it is called The Prayer of Habakkuk. I have taken some liberties with the ‘official’ Canticle version. That is itself, already a selection.  In my turn I have omitted a verse which is a little too dependent on knowing one’s geography of the Holy Land, and précised another so as not to distract the emphasis too far away from what is almost certainly the reason why it was chosen for inclusion as a Canticle, the well known verse, Hab 3:17, that appears below as vv 4&5.

The passage is usually described as the prayer of Habakkuk, but perhaps it should be described as the Affirmation of Habakkuk. The message is more complex than what those two verses would be expressing if they were just on their own.  Although everything seems hopeless, the crops are destroyed, the animals dead, he is still saying that in spite of all that, “Yet in the LORD I will rejoice”. This is not, though, a bit of tiggerism is sneaking back in.  He is not denying that the situation is frightening. He is saying that however bad things appear, come what may, we can still trust in the LORD.

What the passage as a whole also reveals, is that the desolation is not just caused by famine.  It is as much the consequence of human affairs, warfare, the destruction wrought by hostile armies and the fear they scatter in their progress through the ever turbulent world of the eastern seaboard of the Mediterranean. In a time of Brexit, xenophobia, the election of President Trump, and today (23rd May 2017), the morning after the bombing of the Ariana Grande concert in Manchester, this is potentially as pertinent as ever.

So here is Habakkuk’s Prayer, in Long Metre.

1. LORD I have heard of your renown.
I stand in awe of all you’ve done.
Your brightness outshines the sun’s light.
Rays from your hands proclaim your might.

2. In glory you leapt forth to save
your chosen one, your people brave.
You tread the waters, wild and free;
your horses churn the mighty sea.

3. I hear; my voice and bowels quake;
with fear my bones and legs they shake.
I sigh for trouble’s day to seize
our assailants and enemies.

4. Though fig tree fail, its flowers not shoot,
nor vine bear grapes, nor any fruit,
The olive tree no oil may yield,
nor any crops grow in the field,

5. Though sheepfold, stall may both be void,
the flock and herds in them destroyed,
Yet in the LORD I will rejoice;
the God who saves me’s still my choice.

6. My strength remains in God my LORD;
I trust that he’ll be my reward.
He’ll set my steps as hind’s aright
sure footed on a rocky height.

DCM tunes are somewhat scarce anyway, but as it stands, a DCM tune would not work with this canticle. If one were to use a double metre tune, vv 4 and 5 must come in the same stanza.  It would, though, be possible to achieve this by omitting v2 and adding a doxology.

The tune – Abends

Abends in Hymn Format
Abends by Professor Sir Herbert Oakeley 

For a tune, I have settled on Abends by Prof Sir Herbert Oakeley (1830-1903).  He was Professor of Music at Edinburgh University, was knighted by Queen Victoria and named as her Composer of Music, the then equivalent for Scotland of the Master of the Queen’s Musick. Here, it is transposed into G Major, though he almost certainly originally composed it in what I regard as the inconvenient key of A♭.  I am also adding this to Soundcloud. You may disagree, but I was quite surprised to find that, for me, and for this canticle, minor key tunes do not seem to work.

An alternative tune that is already in the tunebook would be Leighton.  Other possibles could include St Bartholomew and St Olaves.  I have a feeling that somewhere out there is an even more appropriate tune that has not been written yet.


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