At first I felt some hesitation about the relevance of the words for Sunday’s opening hymn “God, who stretched the spangled heavens” (580 in
The Hymnal 1982
). The hymn text was written in 1967 and struck me as being somewhat dated. Of course, we sing hymns that go back many centuries earlier, but somehow their messages often speak to us in contemporary ways. Can the words of “God, who stretched the spangled heavens” still have meaning for us in our rapidly changing 2020 world? You most likely have guessed correctly that I say “Yes.”
Now to explain (defend?) my answer. The third stanza of the hymn is where I will begin. The so-called “undreamed of” world of space travel was a hot topic at the time of this hymn’s first appearance in 1969, the year of the moon walk. But a half century later most people don’t have that same sense of achievement, adventure, wonder, or urgency about space exploration.
Stanza three also tells of both the potential positive and destructive properties of the atom. When congregations were first introduced to “God, who stretched the spangled heavens,” many remembered the 1945 bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and the horrific results brought about by atomic power. Those memories have largely been replaced by far more current examples of tragedy, devastation, and injustice.
Then I began to see stanza three as somewhat of a history lesson, and that can be a good thing. In recent months who hasn’t felt that “we have ventured worlds undreamed of?” And maybe as we come up to the 75th anniversary of the attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, we can benefit from singing a reminder of the evils of war.
The first and last stanzas of “God, who stretched the spangled heavens” make me think of all the technological changes we are experiencing, again, some good and some bad. The obvious change that is proving so valuable to us at St. Paul’s is how today’s technology is helping to keep us united as a worshiping and ministering community, and even bringing in many more who never before have joined us for services.
Then we come to that troubling second stanza. In his analysis of this stanza, Carl Daw points out “that our pride in scientific achievements must be tempered by an acknowledgement of the deficiencies in our ways of caring for one another and the risks involved in our exploration of forces we do not fully comprehend.”
Catherine Arnott Cameron (1927-2019) wrote the words for “God, who stretched the spangled heavens.” She was born in St. John, New Brunswick, and eventually became a U.S. citizen. A poet and hymn writer, she also taught sociology at the University of La Verne in California. Her purpose for writing “God, who stretched the spangled heavens” was to point out our obligation that our creative acts must complement God’s work in creation and must serve the good of others.
The vigorous melody which we sing with “God, who stretched the spangled heavens” first appeared in the shape-note tunebook
, compiled by William Moore in 1825 and paired with the text “Brethren, we have met to worship.” The tune name HOLY MANNA comes from a phrase in that hymn, “holy manna will be showered all around.” Shape-note tunebooks used various shapes for different notes, making it easier for singers to learn melodies.
When we chose “God, who stretched the spangled heavens” for our July 26 service, I hadn’t researched the hymn’s background. Maybe this is an example of how “God works in mysterious ways.” It turns out that July 26 is the one-year anniversary of the death of its author Dr. Cameron, fourteen years after she was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease. We sing this hymn to the glory of God and with thanks for the gift of her hymn.
God, who stretched the spangled heavens infinite in time and place,
Flung the suns in burning radiance through the silent fields of space:
We, your children in your likeness, share inventive powers with you;
Great Creator, still creating, show us what we yet may do.
Proudly rise our modern cities, stately buildings, row on row;
Yet their windows, blank, unfeeling, stare on canyoned streets below,
Where the lonely drift unnoticed in the city’s ebb and flow,
Lost to purpose and to meaning, scarcely caring where they go.
We have ventured worlds undreamed of since the childhood of our race;
Known the ecstasy of winging through untraveled realms of space;
Probed the secrets of the atom, yielding unimagined power,
Facing us with life’s destruction or our most triumphant hour.
As each far horizon beckons, may it challenge us anew,
Children of creative purpose, serving others, honoring you.
May our dreams prove rich with promise, each endeavor well begun:
Great Creator, give us guidance till our goals and yours are one.