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Sing Praise 2021 – introduction

Four years ago, in 2017, I set myself the task, which I completed, of reading through the Bible in a year.  You can read my thoughts on each day’s section in the archives of my blog.

For 2021 I have set myself a different challenge, to sing my way through a hymn book.  Why?  Several people recently, in the media and in church sermons, have commented that the Covid-19 pandemic, depriving us of most opportunities to hear live music or participate in singing, has also deprived us of something essential to our humanity.   Song, in its many forms, is at the heart of every culture.

It is particularly important in the Jewish-Christian religious tradition (with a few exceptions such as the Quakers who worship in silence).   St Paul tells his readers to “sing psalms, hymns and spiritual songs”. This covers very succinctly the use of musical versions of the Psalms to express the full range of human emotions, settings of the creeds and liturgies of the church (hymns), and celebrating the love of God (spiritual songs).  This was expressed more fully and very eloquently by the Revd Keith Fraser-Smith, in his sermon for the first Sunday of Christmas at Christ Church, Upper Armley in Leeds.  You can watch it on the church’s Facebook page at https://tinyurl.com/y7op7wpw – start 13 minutes into the service for the sermon. Without these opportunities for collective worship in song, I have felt dissatisfied with my spiritual life in 2020. 

So, for 2021, starting as it does with a continued and indefinite ban on congregational singing, I will at least sing one hymn or song per day at home, and I will share some brief thoughts on these in subsequent blog posts.  Of the several hymn books on my shelf, I have chosen “Sing Praise” (published by Hymns Ancient & Modern Ltd in 2010 – available from their website singpraise.hymnsam.co.uk ).  It has a good range of new songs and hymns, many of which I haven’t tried yet, along with some old favourites, and about half of them are themed to the seasons of the church year as observed by Catholic and Anglican churches. The number in the book (329) is close enough to 365 to allow for a different hymn nearly every day.

The principles I have observed in fitting these 329 songs to the calendar for 2021 are as follows:

  • A choice for every day from Sunday to Friday, plus Saturdays in Lent, Easter and Advent seasons (the remaining Saturdays will serve as catch-ups for the odd day that I may miss).
  • Seasonally themed where possible
  • Songs related directly to the Communion service are allocated to Sundays.
  • Outside the named church seasons (in “ordinary time”) the remaining hymns are randomly allocated.

If you’ve read so far, I hope you can join me for the rest of the year as we sing our way through 2021.

Who can measure heaven and earth?

The image above may be a riddle to you. Goat and Compasses? This is in fact the name of a pub in Hull, believed to have been altered from the older name ‘God encompasseth’, and it is a clue to today’s hymn from Sing Praise…

‘Who can measure heaven and earth?’ by Christopher Idle.  The words celebrate the Wisdom of God as personified in the first chapter of the book of Ecclesiasticus / Koheleth. There are six lines to each verse, for which a tune is provided in the book, but it’s not well known, and John used the better known ‘England’s Lane’.

‘Wisdom’ is portrayed in Ecclesiasticus and some other places in the Bible as a female character very close to the creator God.  A such, she is sometimes identified with the Word of God (Christ) and sometimes with the Holy Spirit.   In this hymn, what is celebrated are the wisdom of God shown in the complexity of creation, the secret knowledge of God that we can never know, his gift of wisdom to people in general and to those who love him in particular, and wisdom’s eternal nature outlasting earthly things.

The only quibble I would have is with the first couplet of verse 4, which surely needs some qualification. “Wisdom gives the surest wealth, brings her children life and health”. Neither wealth in the usually understood sense of money and possessions, nor health in the sense of physical and mental well-being, necessarily go with wisdom, although the wise person makes careful use of what wealth they have, and faith does help with mental health.  So the verse should perhaps be understood in the light of Jesus’ teaching about not worrying for tomorrow and making friends with the wealth that we have.

There is a Redeemer

Today’s song from Sing Praise is ‘There is a redeemer’ by Keith and Melody Green. Dated 1982 on the copyright, I’ve known this song since probably not long after that. 

The song praises Jesus by several of his Biblical titles: Son of God, Lamb of God, Messiah (Christ), Holy One, Redeemer, Name above all names, King for ever.  The chorus invokes all three persons of the Trinity: ‘Thank you O my Father for giving us your Son, and leaving your Spirit till the work on earth is done’.

My only criticism would be that there is an inconsistency whether we are singing to God (‘Jesus my Redeemer’, ‘Thank you O my Father’) or about him (‘There is a Redeemer’, ‘I will see his face’).  It’s an inconsistency that we have found in other songs, but I prefer it if a song or hymn is clearly one or the other: are we encouraging our fellow singers in the faith or expressing a personal faith directly to God? The style of the music suggests the latter. So why not reword it ‘You are the Redeemer’, ‘I will see your face’?

Sing the Lord’s praise, every nation

Today’s song from Sing Praise is ‘Sing the Lord’s praise, every nation’ by Paul Inwood. It is in the form of two verses with a refrain with two vocal parts in a call-and-echo format.  The first verse is a setting of Psalm 117, the shortest of the Psalms, urging people of all nations to praise God for his faithfulness. The second is a Christian doxology (praise to the Trinity), and the chorus is a version of the Orthodox Trisagion (thrice holy).  As such I don’t think there’s much more that can be said, other than that the practice of sung praise to God binds the Jewish and Christian faith in all times and (nearly) all traditions.

O Changeless Christ

Today’s hymn from Sing Praise is ‘O Changeless Christ, forever new’ by Timothy Dudley-Smith. Unusually for one of his hymns it is set to an old (early 19th century) tune.

The changelessness of Christ is invoked in the first verse to ‘draw our hearts as once you drew the hearts of other days’ and in the last to ‘bring us home, to taste at last the timeless joys of heaven’. Other verses ask him to teach us as he taught the people of his own day, still troubled hearts as he stilled the storm, heal today as he did then, and to make himself known in the bread and wine of Communion.  

While there is truth in saying that Christ is changeless, that can all too often be used as an excuse to resist change in the Church.  The ways that the ‘Early Church’ (or for that matter the Church of 17th century England) taught and worshipped don’t have to remain unchanged. The often-asked question ‘What would Jesus do?’ appeals to the changeless elements of his teaching (love God, love your neighbour, bring hope and healing in his name) but should not be used to oppose those who seek change in patterns of worship or more acceptance of people whose lifestyles diverge from what is seen as the Christian ideal.  We have to work out the application of Scripture in our own generation while not losing sight of the core of the Gospel message. 

All heaven declares

Today’s song from Sing Praise is ‘All heaven declares the glory of the risen Lord’ by Noel and Tricia Richards. It’s a simple devotional song in two verses that hails Jesus as the sacrificial lamb of God, as well as the glorious risen King (the reason why I chose this for Christ the King week).

The second half of the two verses looks identical at first but there’s a subtle difference: in the first, ‘Forever he will be … I worship him alone’, and in the second, ‘Forever you will be … I worship you alone’.  In worship we sometimes start by affirming our faith together and then move on to more devotional songs where it is the individual praising the Lord for what he has done.

The seed of faith

Text of my sermon for Bramley St Peter, 21 November 2021

Jesus said,
‘With what can we compare the kingdom of God, or what parable will we use for it? It is like a mustard seed, which, when sown upon the ground, is the smallest of all the seeds on earth; yet when it is sown it grows up and becomes the greatest of all shrubs, and puts forth large branches, so that the birds of the air can make nests in its shade.’
Mark 4:30-32 (New Revised Standard Version)

Pilate … summoned Jesus, and asked him, ‘Are you the King of the Jews?’ Jesus answered, ‘Do you ask this on your own, or did others tell you about me?’ Pilate replied, ‘I am not a Jew, am I? Your own nation and the chief priests have handed you over to me. What have you done?’ Jesus answered, ‘My kingdom is not from this world. If my kingdom were from this world, my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over to the Jews. But as it is, my kingdom is not from here.’ Pilate asked him, ‘So you are a king?’ Jesus answered, ‘You say that I am a king. For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.’John 18:33-37 (New Revised Standard Version)

We started this morning’s service with one of the shortest of the stories that Jesus told. No people feature in it, just – a mustard seed, something very small indeed.   I don’t have mustard seeds here, but I do have apple seeds…  Each one of these seeds, if you plant it and look after it properly, can become a tree itself.  An apple tree can live for fifty years and produce over a hundred apples each year, each with about eight seeds in it. Just imagine how many trees you would end up with if they all got planted and grew into trees themselves!

Today, as you might have realised, is Christ the King Sunday, and so we have the gospel reading in which Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor, asks Jesus if he is a king. Jesus responds ‘you say that I am’ and explains that his kingdom is not from this world. What he meant was, that what people can expect from him is not what people expect from a king. But what do you expect a King to do?  [ideas…?]

We expect a king to be in charge of his country, don’t we?  But there are different ways of doing that, different ways of leading.  The idea of Christ the King Sunday originated with the Pope in the 1930s.  He wanted the Church to show a deliberate reaction against the Italian government of the time.  Where the earthly power was concentrated in the hands of a dictator who could command a top-down approach to society and impose restrictions on groups out of favour with the regime, he wanted Christians to understand Christ as the sort of king who uses his power to enable others to flourish, not to control them. 

Before he met Pilate, Jesus had already explained to his followers the sort of King that he was, or rather what sort of kingdom he wanted to be in charge of.  He often used short stories like the short one about the mustard seed, or the longer one about the farmer sowing seeds in different places.  In just a few words, these stories gave a memorable picture of tiny seeds growing into a tree or a useful crop. 

Through these parables, we understand that the task of the Church is to plant seeds of hope in people’s lives, which God can then grow into fruitful activity.  It’s a bottom-up, ‘grass roots’ approach to transforming society, totally at odds with the controlling tendency of many worldly governments.  In the words of a hymn that we will sing during communion, The world belongs to Jesus, but he turns the word upside-down.  Not a top-down ruler, but a bottom-up enabler.

Example 1 – A place to sit

What might that look like in practice?  Here are two local stories.  The first is very local.  You will all know about the benches in Bramley shopping centre.  Everyone who used them was angry when the management used their control to take them away.  What did they do?  It started with a few people bringing their own seats to sit on.  The idea spread, a Facebook page was set up. and now dozens of people gather every Saturday. Local councillors are involved, and St Peter’s school.  Over a thousand of us signed a petition, and our own Jo Herbert spoke to the Council.  The Council have now told the managers of the centre that they shouldn’t have taken the benches away, and it’s even been on BBC news.   The seed of an idea of a sit-in has grown into a tree-sized, peaceful protest.  Let’s carry on praying that the benches will be put back. But in addition, it has grown links in the community that will strengthen us to do other things.

Example 12– The Eden Team

Here’s another story that appeared on the diocesan website this week, from a parish in Bradford, only six miles from Bramley.  West Bowling is one of the most deprived estates in England, with 25% of children living in poverty. St Stephen’s Church have had an Eden Team working alongside them since 2019.  The Eden Team is a few people living among those people in poverty, seeking to bring hope, through youth work, community projects, evangelism and discipleship. 

Their leader Luke Owen said, “There is a lot of need in the area and we want to come alongside people and meet those needs but most of all we want to see people know the love of Jesus and have a personal relationship with God.  There are areas of real darkness that we want shine a light on; drugs trafficking and gangs, low educational engagement, people of all ages feeling isolated and not part of a community. We know God can bring transformation in these areas”. 

Again, a few people with an idea of what to do in the name of Jesus have drawn many others to work with them to bring real change.  Might this be the sort of thing we could see happening when the church plant comes to Bramley? 

As well as being Christ the King Sunday, today has another name in the church’s calendar.   Does anyone know what that is?  … [Spoiler alert – there’s a clue on page 12 of the service booklet!]   Stir-up Sunday!  It was traditionally when mums would stir up the Christmas pudding to give it time to mature.  But the name really comes from this prayer where we ask God to ‘Stir up our wills’.

When Pilate heard that Jesus was being called a king, he was worried because he thought Jesus was a revolutionary, “stirring up trouble”. In fact, Jesus was a revolutionary in the sense that he came to “stir up” people: to make them think afresh what it means to live for him.  And just as the mustard tree (or apple tree!) will bring forth fruit, so we ask God to “bring forth the fruit of good works” in us. So as a parting thought, has God stirred up in you the seed of an idea, and the faith to plant it with prayer, so that it might grow into a tree bearing good fruit?

Christ Triumphant, ever reigning

Statue of Christ the King, Brookville, Tipperary, Ireland
Image Copyright Matthew Chadwick and licensed for reuse under Creative Commons Licence

This weekend’s hymn from Sing Praise is ‘Christ Triumphant, ever reigning’ by Michael Saward. I chose it to reflect the theme of Christ the King that the Church observes on this Sunday before Advent. 

As I’m also preaching today, I read up on the origins of this festival. I knew it had originated in the Roman Catholic church, but it seems it was instituted by the then Pope in the 1930s as a deliberate reaction against the fascism of the Italian government of the time.  Where the earthly power was concentrated in the hands of a dictator who could command a top-down approach to society and impose restrictions on groups out of favour with the regime, when we think of Christ as King it is as one who uses his power to enable others to flourish, not to control them.  In the parables of Jesus, especially the ones about the sower and the mustard seed, the task of the Church is to plant seeds of hope in people’s lives, which God can then grow into fruitful activity.  It’s a bottom-up, ‘grass roots’ approach to transforming society, totally at odds with the controlling tendency of many worldly governments.

But back to the words of the hymn. Although there is mention here of Christ’s humility, his willingness to act as the ‘suffering servant, scorned, ill treated, victim crucified’, the emphasis here is not on the growth of the Church but on the Christ who after his resurrection ascended into heaven to be King of the world (or indeed universe). This ‘Lord of heaven’, this ‘Priestly king enthroned for ever’, is worthy of the praise of those he has redeemed. That is why the hymn is also threaded through with the language of worship: ‘hear us as we sing’, ‘sin and death and hell shall never stifle hymns of love’, ‘ceaselessly upon you gazing, this shall be our song’.  And the song itself? ‘Yours the glory and the crown, the high renown, the eternal name’.

Both these outlooks are needed to understand what we mean by the Kingdom of Christ: his victory over death and reign in heaven, but also his coming on earth (in flesh then and in spirit now) to enable the outworking of his kingdom in myriad small ways, as seeds of faith are sown and individuals and communities enabled to flourish.

I do not know tomorrow’s way

Path junction on Slate Delfs Hill, Calderdale (own photo)

Today’s hymn from Sing Praise is ‘I do not know tomorrow’s way’ by an American writer, Margaret Clarkson, to a tune by the Northumbria Community, though the suggested alternative of the older and well-known tune ‘O waly waly’ seems to work equally well.

Its theme is that we trust in Christ whatever happens in life, for we do not know the future.  The uncertainty applies from day to day (the title line) as unexpected problems arise, through life’s ups and downs (‘grief or gladness, peace or pain’), and as we approach death not knowing how much longer we will live (euphemistically here, ‘when evening falls, if soon or late earth’s day grows dim’).

The repeated motif is in the third line of each verse: ‘But I know Christ…’ and the various assurances he brings (‘he abides with me … his presence will sustain … he’ll call me home to him’). It’s this assurance, difficult to explain but found inside the believer, that keeps us both hopeful and joyful (in the spiritual sense, as distinct from necessarily ‘happy’).

Sing, my soul, when hope is sleeping

Today’s hymn from Sing Praise is ‘Sing, my soul when hope is sleeping’ by John Bell and Graham Maule.  Unusually for their hymns, instead of a Scottish tune the compilers of the book suggest the high Victorian ‘Cross of Jesus’ with its associations with the Crucifixion. I think John did the right thing writing his own gentler tune with minor modulating to major to reflect the theme of the hymn, which is that singing can lift us out of sadness.

The four verses each offer one of more reasons to sing, not as a response to feeling happy but to generate a mood of at least contentment, when circumstances would tempt us to despair.  ‘When hope is sleeping, when faith gives way to fears, to melt the ice of sadness’; ‘when sickness lingers, to dull the sharpest pain’, when I have wandered far away from God, and ‘when light seems darkest, when night refuses rest, though death should mock the future’.

As it happens, the day before this came up in our schedule I was unexpectedly taken to hospital – nothing serious, but I was lying on a trolley for several hours waiting for a doctor to discuss the result of tests.  Even though I was not in physical pain, I found that in the confusion, the not-knowing, the sounds of the pain of other patients, singing hymns and the evening prayer canticles from memory (under my breath, not aloud) was a way of coping.

Safe in the shadow of the Lord

The hymn I selected from Sing Praise for 17 November was ‘Safe in the shadow of the Lord’ by Timothy Dudley-Smith. It’s based on Psalm 91, which is traditionally used at Compline (night prayer) as it speaks of trust in God at the end of the day.  The gentle tune by Norman Warren is also well suited to the end-of-the-day feel of the hymn.

The third verse is most specific about this: ‘From fears and phantoms of the night, from foes about my way, I trust in him, I trust in him, by darkness as by day’. This refrain ‘I trust in him, I trust in him’ comes not at the end of each verse but before the final line, which is then a reason (different each time) for such trust. God is ‘my fortress and my tower’, the one who ‘keeps me in his care’ and ‘hears and answers prayer’.  The last verse concludes this trust with ‘Safe in the shadow of the Lord, possessed by love divine, I trust in him, I trust in him, and meet his love with mine’.