When, O God, our faith is tested
Source: Singing the Faith: 643
Words: Fred Kaan
Music: “Fortunatus New” by Carl Schalk
Alternative tune – All Saints (StF 725)
Fred Kaan had a facility given to relatively few hymn writers to go deep into the inexpressible areas of human pain and failure and find words that nevertheless allow some communal sharing of that experience without any hint of cliché. He brings imaginative language to the task (“when our love of living shrivels”… “hearts with hurt and havoc frayed”…) and, as we sing his hymns, we sense his belief that the act of singing about a pain or an anxiety or a bewilderment that we all share, even if we cannot fully understand or know, helps bind us as a community and encourages us to move forward together.
“When, O God, our faith is tested”, which Fred headed ‘A hymn out of the depths’, was a highly personal response to pastoral situation:
“This hymn arose out of my strong emotional involvement with a young couple who tragically lost their 15-months old son in a drowning accident… It brought back to me the death of my own first-born son, and yet – having been through that experience – I had no glib words or easy answers for the parents; only my own rebelliousness to put alongside their distress. I did, however, manage to write this text which I was able to share with the mourners at the boy’s funeral.”
As well as in the heading’s allusion to Psalm 130 (“Out of the depths”), there is a strong psalm-like quality to the words – the refusal to back away from hard questions and the demand for answers. At the same time, Fred interweaves the honesty of the psalmists with a meditation on the experience of Jesus on Calvary.
In verse 2, he echoes the opening words of Psalm 22: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? Why are you so far from helping me, from the words of my groaning?” These are also words spoken by Jesus as he is being crucified (Mark 15: 34 and Matthew 27: 46.) While Fred makes these a more obviously corporate cry of pain (“God of bleakness and abyss, why have you forsaken us?”) it is clear that our words and our feelings have also been experienced by Christ. If our faith is tested by experience (as the hymn begins), so Jesus’ faith was tested also.
More than that, in verse 3 Fred asks, “could it be, God! that in weakness you yourself are crucified?” He both touches on the idea of the “crucified God” and also gives to us a prayer to sing – the pleading prayer of a desperate father in Mark 9: 14-27 – “Help us in our unbelief!”
Fred Kaan wrote at least two other hymns that draw upon, or seem to echo the cries of Psalm 130, including a free paraphrase, “Out of our failure to create a world of love and care”, and A Psalm for Today, which beings:
Out of our night of day,
darkness at noon,
we cry: God! Come and make
your presence known…
All three hymns mentioned above can be found in The Only Earth we Know: hymn texts by Fred Kaan (1999: Hope Publishing / Stainer & Bell)