Come down, come down from your mountain, Jehovah: A Remembrance Sunday Meditation

READINGS:

Here, Bullet by Brian Turner (b. 1967)

If a body is what you want,
then here is bone and gristle and flesh.
Here is the clavicle-snapped wish,
the aorta’s opened valves, the leap
thought makes at the synaptic gap.
Here is the adrenaline rush you crave,
that inexorable flight, that insane puncture
into heat and blood. And I dare you to finish
what you’ve started. Because here, Bullet,
here is where I complete the word you bring
hissing through the air, here is where I moan
the barrel’s cold esophagus, triggering
my tongue’s explosives for the rifling I have
inside of me, each twist of the round
spun deeper, because here, Bullet,
here is where the world ends, every time.


Isaiah 6:1-5

In the year that king Uzziah died I saw also the Lord sitting upon a throne, high and lifted up, and his train filled the temple. Above it stood the seraphims: each one had six wings; with twain he covered his face, and with twain he covered his feet, and with twain he did fly. And one cried unto another, and said,
   

"Holy, holy, holy, is the Lord of hosts: the whole earth is full of his glory."

And the posts of the door moved at the voice of him that cried, and the house was filled with smoke. Then said I, Woe is me! for I am undone; because I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips: for mine eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts.


High and Lifted Up by G. A. Studdert Kennedy (1883-1929)

Seated on the throne of power with the sceptre in Thine hand,
While a host of eager angels ready for Thy Service stand.
So it was the prophet saw Thee, in his agony of prayer,
While the sound of many waters swelled in music on the air,
Swelled until it burst like thunder in a shout of perfect praise,
“Holy, Holy, Holy Father, Potentate of years and days.
Thine the Kingdom, Thine the glory, Thine the splendour of the sun,
Thine the wisdom, Thine the honour, Thine the crown of victory won.”
So it was the prophet saw Thee, so this artist saw Thee too,
Flung his vision into colour, mystery of gold and blue.
But I stand in woe and wonder; God, my God, I cannot see,
Darkness deep and deeper darkness — all the world is dark to me.
Where is power? Where is glory? Where is any victory won?
Where is wisdom? Where is honour? Where the splendour of the sun?
God, I hate this splendid vision — all its splendour is a lie,
Splendid fools see splendid folly, splendid mirage born to die.
As imaginary waters to an agony of thirst,
As the vision of a banquet to a body hunger-cursed,
As the thought of anaesthetic to a soldier mad with pain,
While his torn and tortured body turns and twists and writhes again,
So this splendid lying vision turns within my doubting heart,
Like a bit of rusty bayonet in a torn and festering part.
Preachers give it me for comfort, and I curse them to their face,
Puny, petty-minded priestlings prate to me of power and grace;
Prate of power and boundless wisdom that takes count of little birds,
Sentimental poisoned sugar in a sickening stream of words.
Platitudinously pious far beyond all doubts and fears,
They will patter of God’s mercy that can wipe away our tears.
All their speech is drowned in sobbing, and I hear the great world groan,
As I see a million mothers sitting weeping all alone,
See a host of English maidens making pictures in the fire,
While a host of broken bodies quiver still on German wire.
And I hate the God of Power on His hellish heavenly throne,
Looking down on rape and murder, hearing little children moan.
Though a million angels hail Thee King of Kings, yet cannot I.
There is nought can break the silence of my sorrow save the cry,
“Thou who rul’st this world of sinners with Thy heavy iron rod,
Was there ever any sinner who has sinned the sin of God?
Was there ever any dastard who would stand and watch a Hun
Ram his bayonet through the bowels of a baby just for fun?
Praise to God in Heaven's highest and in all the depths be praise,
Who in all His works is brutal, like a beast in all His ways.”

God, the God I love and worship, reigns in sorrow on the Tree,
Broken, bleeding, but unconquered, very God of God to me.
All that showy pomp of splendour, all that sheen of angel wings,
Was but borrowed from the baubles that surround our earthly kings.
Thought is weak and speech is weaker, and the vision that He sees
Strikes with dumbness any preacher, brings him humbly to his knees.
But the word that Thou hast spoken borrows nought from kings and thrones,
Vain to rack a royal palace for the echo of Thy tones.
In a manger, in a cottage, in an honest workman’s shed,
In the homes of humble peasants, and the simple lives they led,
In the life of one an outcast and a vagabond on earth,
In the common things He valued, and proclaimed of priceless worth,
And above all in the horror of the cruel death He died,
Thou hast bid us seek Thy glory, in a criminal crucified.
And we find it — for Thy glory is the glory of Love’s loss,
And Thou hast no other splendour but the splendour of the Cross.
For in Christ I see the martyrs and the beauty of their pain,
And in Him I hear the promise that my dead shall rise again.
High and lifted up, I see Him on the eternal Calvary,
And two pierced hands are stretching east and west o’er land and sea.
On my knees I fall and worship that great Cross that shines above,
For the very God of Heaven is not Power, but Power of Love.


—o0o—

ADDRESS
Come down, come down  from your mountain, Jehovah: 
A Remembrance Sunday Meditation 

My Old Testament and Hebrew tutor, Father John Davis, was of that generation who committed to memory reams of poetry. One November morning close to Armistice Day during my first term at Oxford, we ordinands and ministry students had just opened our Bibles to look at the sixth chapter of Isaiah. It begins:

In the year that king Uzziah died I saw also the Lord sitting upon a throne, high and lifted up, and his train filled the temple.

Father John, whom we quickly discovered never missed the opportunity to give us a brief homily on this or that text — to help us, he said, begin to prepare our own little sermonettes for when we got out into the sticks — began to quote at some length “High and Lifted Up” in which Studdert Kennedy, the faithful Church of England priest and padre, admits:

“God, I hate this splendid vision — all its splendour is a lie”

Geoffrey Anketell Studdert Kennedy MC, 1883-1929 (also known as “Woodbine Willie” because, in addition to offering spiritual comfort to injured and dying soldiers, he gave them Woodbine cigarettes) had seen first-hand the full horror of Flanders Fields, a war which, in part, was carried out in the name of this “splendid vision”. He was a man who had repeatedly seen what the poet Brian Turner saw nearly a century later whilst serving in Iraq as a Sgt, namely the completion, again and again, of the bullet’s word as it hit “bone and gristle and flesh”, snapped clavicles and opened up bloody aortas to the air.  

No Man's Land, Flanders Fields (click on the picture or this link to enlarge it)
Seeing all this death, done in the name of God, King and Country, Isaiah’s vision of an all-powerful “Holy Father, Potentate of years and days” increasingly became for Studdert Kennedy itself horrific, as horrific as

“. . . imaginary waters to an agony of thirst,
As the vision of a banquet to a body hunger-cursed,
As the thought of anaesthetic to a soldier mad with pain,
While his torn and tortured body turns and twists and writhes again,
So this splendid lying vision turns within my doubting heart,
Like a bit of rusty bayonet in a torn and festering part.”

He came to wonder how any preacher, or as he bitterly puts it any "petty-minded priestling", could ever have the nerve to offer soldiers this vision of God as being in anyway a comfort. As far as Studdert Kennedy was concerned this was a vision of God “Who in all His works is brutal, like a beast in all His ways.”

Studdert Kennedy may have started the war as a true believer in a powerful God and in the moral rightness of the war — indeed it seems at one point he was even giving morale-boosting speeches about the usefulness of the bayonet — but by its end the sheer horror of it all combined with a vision of a brutal God had served to turn him into a pacifist and Christian socialist. And despite winning a Military Cross in the conflict the establishment never forgave him for this turn and, at his death in 1929, the Dean of Westminster refused him burial at the abbey because, he said, Studdert Kennedy was a “socialist.”

Studdert Kennedy's changed view can be heard clearly in the second part of his poem where he reveals what seems to be a very different vision of God to that offered by Isaiah. To the battle-scarred padre, God now has “no other splendour but the splendour of the Cross” where Jesus, “broken, bleeding, but unconquered”, now hung as “very God of God to me.”

Those sensitive to such things may have notice I just said Studdert Kennedy reveals what “seems” to be a very different vision of God to that offered by Isaiah. When, some twenty years ago, I first heard and then read these words I, too, was tempted to think that Studdert Kennedy really had done with the kind of divine power borrowed from “the baubles that surround our earthly kings” and had turned decisively towards more humble, this-worldy things, things that could be found

“In a manger, in a cottage, in an honest workman's shed,
In the homes of humble peasants, and the simple lives they led,
In the life of one an outcast and a vagabond on earth,
In the common things He valued, and proclaimed of priceless worth”   

Particularly in the lines just quoted, the second half of his poem “High and Lifted Up” does seem at first to be offering us a moving and admirable humanist, albeit Christian Humanist, expression of faith. But closer reading reveals that, ultimately, Studdert Kennedy did not (and probably could not) fully see through to a proper conclusion end the religious humanist vision he grasped for in these four brief lines.

Although he admits he saw the utter weakness of the God of the cross and, at the time, this struck him “with dumbness” and brought “him humbly to his knees”, at the very end of the poem he reveals that, in truth, the cross before which he now falls and worships is still high and lifted up, “that great Cross that shines above, For the very God of Heaven is not Power, but Power of Love.”

Although God may now be for him known as “Power of love” it’s vitally important to realise that this is still coercive divine power and we begin see that Studdert Kennedy was not able, in the end, to let go of belief in a powerful ruling God, one that would still, somehow, come back and finally win the day. His God, it turns out, is not really to be found in “a manger, in a cottage, in an honest workman's shed, In the homes of humble peasants, and the simple lives they led” but still in a God in Heaven, still a God who ruled, still a God who judged and, “in Christ” (for him also God in the form of the second person of the Trinity),  Studdert Kennedy believed he could see “the martyrs and the beauty of their pain” and, in Christ, he still heard, and believed in, “the promise that my dead shall rise again.”

In other words, the vision of profound weakness and earthliness he saw in Flanders Fields turns out, in truth, to be for him simply veiled power, still an iron fist, albeit one now clothed in a velvet glove. To reiterate, Studdert Kennedy’s God remains a divine power whose true home is high and lifted up in heaven.
               
It is not hard to understand why Studdert Kennedy kept such a vision of God alive, high and lifted up. After seeing such senseless carnage, in the aftermath of the war he wanted, needed, to see justice metered out to those who for no good reason had just sent millions to their slaughter. He also wanted, needed, to see salvation and ultimate glory for these same people who had died so needlessly. He also, of course, needed, wanted, this for himself, utterly broken and weak as he was — remember he died, utterly exhausted and worn out aged only 45.

And who amongst us doesn’t sometimes resonate with this need or want? I well remember the experience immediately following a fairly savage beating by the school bully. Lying on the playground hurting and bleeding I didn’t want to do any violence myself to the bully because I simply couldn’t match his his strength and ability to meter out violence on others. All I thought I wanted was simple peace and concord so I could quietly get on with my game of football with my friends. But I did, of course want something else, I wanted my dad or the head-master to appear, or even for God himself to bow hither out of heaven and save me by thrashing the living daylights out of that bully. Even though I dressed-up this imagined revenge as love and justice the truth is that I wanted the bully to see and experience true power and violence just as much as he wanted me to see and experience it. I hope you can see this was to give in to the secret desire that many, perhaps most of us have for the exercise of power and violence. Mea culpa, mea maxima culpa.

But really, is this the best vision of God or the divine we can aspire to as humans? I don’t think it is. As I get older the more and more I feel that this vision of a powerful God — even when imagined as the power of love, the iron fist on the velvet glove — needs to be let go of and allowed, finally, to die. These days as I continue to think daily, even hourly, about the kind of God whose “existence” I would be prepared to accept as meaningful and true (enough) I find I remain haunted by Heidegger’s words in his famous interview of 1966 for Der Spiegel and only published after he died in 1976. There he said,

“If I may answer briefly, and perhaps clumsily, but after long reflection: philosophy will be unable to effect any immediate change in the current state of the world. This is true not only of philosophy but of all purely human reflection and endeavour. Only a god can save us. The only possibility available to us is that by thinking and poetizing we prepare a readiness for the appearance of a god, or for the absence of a god in [our] decline, insofar as in view of the absent god we are in a state of decline.”

More and more these haunting words make me realise that I’m with the radical theologian John D. Caputo who feels that

“What calls, what is calling, what is called for is the God to come, the coming of a God to save us, a God who has no seat of power, no sovereign authority, no ontological prestige, vulnerable and mortal, who has not the wherewithal to lay down his head, whose only power is the power of a powerless, but unconditional, appeal” (Without Sovereignty, Without Being: Unconditionality, the Coming God and Derrida's Democracy to Come).

And what is this appeal? It is to live radical, democratic, non-coercive, fully human, this worldly lives of peace, love, compassion, justice and fairness.

In the end, for me, a hundred years on from the horror that shaped Studdert Kennedy’s poem, the proper end to it, the proper end to this address, and the proper religious way to remember all those who died in Flanders Fields and in countless conflicts before and since, was only written in 2007 when the English folk-singer Chris Wood recorded his song, Come Down Jehovah. In it he offers us a beautiful and deeply poignant vision of a God who, finally and forever, ceases to be high and lifted up, a God who comes down to earth to be truly mortal, powerless and weak with us all. Surely, it is only in the company of this kind of truly powerless, mortal God  that we can be properly empowered to heed and respond to the divine appeal for love, peace and justice which Jesus and Caputo are, and were, so concerned we hear.


Come down, come down from your mountain, Jehovah,
My neck is terribly stiff.
Hitch up your robes and your raiments, Jehovah,
Climb down to the foot of your cliff.
And drink from the stream that was always beneath you,
Drink from our wonderful font.
‘Cause paradise is right here on earth, Jehovah,
What more could we possibly want?

Come down and talk amongst friends, Jehovah,
Come down and sit at your ease.
Walk through the woods and the valleys, Jehovah,
Sail upon glistening seas.
Pass on what you've learnt to the children, Jehovah,
And listen to what they have to say.
They say, “Paradise is right here on earth, Jehovah,
Not tomorrow, but right now, today.”

And Devil come up from your fiery furnace,
Come up and show us your face.
There’s nothing you can teach us of evil or hatred,
We don't have right here in this place.
There is nothing so evil as man in his mischief,
Nothing so lost or insane.
And bring your demons up, too, so we'll know it’s not you,
But it’s us who must carry the blame.
It’s us who must live with the shame.

Come down, come down from your mountain, Jehovah,
Come down and be with us here.
Heaven and hell and the life ever after,
It’s such a beguiling idea.
But our spell on this earth is much richer, Jehovah,
Richer than we'll ever know.
When it comes time to leave it behind,
We just close our eyes and let go.
If we’ve done our best we’ll be ready for a rest,
We just close our eyes and let go. 


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