Extol the God of Justice

The return from exile (artist unknown)

Today’s hymn from Sing Praise is Martin Leckebusch’s “Extol the God of justice”, a traditional three-verse hymn, with a suggested tune by Vaughan Williams, but John played it to the tune of “Stand up, stand up for Jesus”. The theme is similar to that of yesterday’s hymn, but this one is specifically based on Psalm 9.  

The first verse includes the line “remember all his wonders”, a theme that occurs throughout the Hebrew scriptures. Any temptation to doubt God’s ability to intervene in human affairs is countered with remembrance of past events, supremely the Exodus from Egypt and later the captivity in Babylon and subsequent return from exile.  Even those events, involving whole nations or races, are seen as God rewarding one or punishing another according to the level of obedience or disobedience to him at a national level.  That’s hard to understand in a society that is so focussed on the individual. As individuals we may or may not try to “labour for what is true and right” but it’s important to lift our eyes and see what’s happening on a larger scale in the world.

The second verse gives more specific examples of God’s justice: one who “hears the cry of victims and senses their despair”.  The third reminds us that “however dark the day, the hope that calls for mercy will not be turned away”. God is the unchanging one who, while allowing human freedom and independence up to a point, is willing to act in world events when nations allow that freedom to take them too far from his ways, whether to save from oppression or to punish the oppressor.  Noah, Abraham and Lot, Jeremiah and many others in Israel’s history experienced that, and for us Christians, the death and resurrection of Jesus were the ultimate intervention from which everyone can benefit – if we are willing. 

It is, then, appropriate to pray on a macro scale for justice in the world, as well as at the micro level of praying for individuals.  Returning to the second verse, “in faithfulness he honours the faith that sparks our prayer”.

Cry Freedom in the name of God

image from freegiftfromgod.com

Today’s hymn from Sing Praise is Michael Forster’s “Cry Freedom in the name of God”.  The tune written for it, called “Free indeed”, was not easy to sing just from the score, and I’ve not found a version of it online.   I note that John used the better known tune ‘Battle hymn of the Republic’, but that sounded a bit too jolly to me for the words here, and I can’t hear it without thinking of the irreverent words sung at school camps many years ago!)

Interestingly though, a search for “cry freedom” mainly brought up references to a 1987 film set in South Africa’s times of apartheid, and it may have been that which inspired Forster to write this hymn, which is obviously influenced by liberation theology (the idea that God is necessarily with those who struggle against injustice).

The first verse sets the scene by referring to the freedom found in Jesus Christ, and that has to be what distinguishes a Christian response to injustice from the equally strong motivation of humanists to respond to the same issues for the sake of its victims.  For the Christian, we are not only working for justice in human society but seeking to establish God’s will “on earth as in heaven”.

The second verse highlights two specific injustices that are found in the world today, and not only those in ‘underdeveloped’ countries: unfair responses to natural disasters in which the poor always come off worst (think India’s current Covid pandemic compared with the levels of vaccination in Europe); and the tendency to promote defence spending over relief for the poorest (as our own Government has just launched two vast aircraft carriers while cutting aid budgets).

The third verse focuses on the dictators who ‘hid behind their bodyguards and fear the open mind’. Imprisoned in their own mindset, and in constant fear of uprising or assassination, these men (as they nearly always are) may be vastly wealthy but do not have the peace of heart that comes with living openly for God and for the welfare of others.   But it’s not only dictators. We can all be a bit like that, comfortable in our houses (be they palace or bedsit) and saving or spending for our own benefit rather than giving our money away for the aid of others.  It takes a true repentance (metanoia, change of heart) for people to start to use whatever wealth and power we have for the “good of humankind”. Jesus said “the truth shall make you free” but as his biographer John put it, “people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil.”

The fourth verse turns to the Church, where the assertion is that we Christians need to be freed from the way the Church sometimes works: “honest doubts met with fear and vacuum-packed theology”.  In other words, we deserve the freedom to explore faith for ourselves and not be condemned where it takes us down a different route from that laid down by church ‘authorities’.  This is always a difficult balance: in a world of many religions and philosophies, there has always been a natural concern among Christian teachers to stop people in the pews straying so far from received wisdom that what they believe contradicts the basics of Christian orthodoxy. But it’s all too easy for that to lead to laying down strict wording of creeds, prayers and forms of service that are “required”.  What did Jesus actually teach us to do?  To break bread together and remember him, to pray in in private and use the Lord’s prayer as a pattern, to let the (Hebrew) scriptures be our guide to God’s will. Nothing more specific than that.

The final verse is about being freed from focussing on ourselves so that we are free to live for the good of others.  Putting all these together, we have freedom from unjust structures in society, from living in fear of others because of our own acts of injustice, from being too tied to specific ways of practising Christianity, and from being inward looking.  Together they make for the freedom in Christ that allows us to bring God’s freedom to others.  To go back to John’s choice of tune, surely we must end with a chorus of “Glory, glory, hallelujah! Cry freedom in God’s name!”

O Lord my God, when I in awesome wonder

Wooden cross on the Via Beata, Redhill, Warwickshire

Today’s hymn from Sing Praise is a very well known one, “O Lord my God, when I in awesome wonder”. Stuart Hine’s translation of a hymn that was originally either in Swedish or Russian (I’ve seen both quoted as the original) has become a firm favourite, at least partly  because of the memorable tune (although the two slightly different notes on the repetition of ‘art’ in the chorus catch many out).

I do wonder, though, whether its popularity is also because the first two verses appeal to a spirituality of nature that doesn’t demand Christian commitment.  Stars, woods and glades, brooks and birds can be enjoyed by anyone, and only a vague belief in a creator is required to respond to them with “how great thou art!”

The last two verses, on the other hand, if the singer thinks about the words, are much more specifically Christian.  “When I think that God, his son not sparing, sent him to die … on the cross, my burden gladly bearing, he bled and died to take away my sin” is at the core of our belief, and all the more reason to be thankful to our God.  He is not a distant creator far beyond the stars, but among us and involved with us in sharing our suffering.

The last verse looks to the renewed creation promised by Jesus, which shall be our home.  Interpretations of Christ’s return do of course vary between Christians, but we can agree that the greatest gift of God for which we can sing our thankful praise is that of eternal life, whether in the present existence or the one to come (whatever that may be like).  How great thou art, indeed!

Not for tongues of Heaven’s angels

The ‘three graces’ of faith, love and hope
Stained glass window in All Saints, Barwick-in-Elmet (Leeds)
image (c) Stephen Craven 2019

Today’s hymn from Sing Praise is Timothy Dudley-Smith’s “Not for tongues of Heaven’s angels” which is based on St Paul’s famous description of true (Godly) love in 1 Corinthians chapter 13.  The tune, “Bridegroom” is more familiar to me set to the words “Like the murmur of the dove’s song” which we will come to in a month’s time at Pentecost, but these seem to be its original words.

It’s suggested as a hymn for a marriage service, but the love of which Paul writes is not that of romance. It is a love that expresses commitment, but commitment to serving other people at whatever cost.  This love, in one of the most often quoted verses of the Bible, goes along with faith and hope, but is the greatest of the three, and all of those are greater than the “tongues of angels”.   The final line or refrain of each verse is “May love be ours, O Lord”.

Verse 1 takes the idea from the Bible passage of contrasting this love with the more spectacular spiritual gifts of tongues (a special language given by God to some people with which to pray and praise), discernment (a form of prophecy that can see people’s hidden thoughts and feelings) and ‘the faith that masters mountains’.  That last refers to a saying of Jesus that even a tiny amount of faith ‘like a mustard seed’ can move mountains.

The second and third verses list the qualities of this true Godly love: humble, gentle, tender, kind, gracious, patient, generous; never jealous, selfish, boasting or resentful but long-suffering.  These qualities, some of which are sometimes called ‘fruits of the Spirit’, will indeed help make for a happy and stable marriage, but the real challenge is to allow God’s Spirit to make us loving like this to everyone we meet.

The last verse reminds us that the effort we make in this life to be loving will not go unnoticed in the next, and can perhaps be seen as a rehearsal for the real thing. “in the day this world is fading faith and hope will play their part, but when Christ is seen in glory love shall reign in every heart”.  If we are used to loving like Christ now, we will not find his second coming as much of an upheaval as those who have not discovered this true love.

The love of God comes close

Today’s hymn from Sing Praise is John Bell’s “The love of God comes close”, which is set here to its original tune called ‘Melanie’ (I wonder who she was?), but I have heard it previously sung to the Welsh tune Rhosymedre, which in my opinion fits it better.  The full words, and suggestions for alternative tunes, can be found here.

I find the words of this hymn helpful in understanding the Church’s task of witness, evangelism or outreach (choose your preferred term). The central idea is that God is truly closest to us (in a spiritual sense – we can’t meaningfully ascribe a physical distance to or from God) not when we are doing the obviously ‘religious’ things but in some of the ordinary actions of life.  The refrain at the end of each verse is in the form “The [property] of God is here to stay, embracing those who walk his way”, where the property in question echoes the first line of the verse: love, peace, joy, grace, and in the last verse the Son of God.

Some of those ‘ordinary actions’, as verse 1 suggests, are around showing hospitality – “where stands an open door, to let the stranger in, to mingle [or in some hymn books, ‘to welcome’] rich and poor”.  Hospitality, as our PCC agreed at a virtual meeting yesterday, should be what people first experience when they meet us as Christians.  So here’s a shout out to the people of St Philip and St James, Scholes near Bradford who welcomed me in for coffee and a chat today when I was just calling in the course of my work to drop something off at the vicarage.

The middle verses (2-4) are more about God being present when life is difficult.  They offer God’s peace to those who are caught in the storms of life, or who make the effort to help others in those storms; his joy “where faith encounters fears”, for a true faith is not afraid to face fear; and his grace “when hearts are tired or sore and hope is bruised or bent”.  The church’s needs to be not only, and not initially, with the challenge to turn to God from wrong ways (although it includes that), but to find that he is already present where life has forced people into difficult circumstances or wrong choices.

The final verse returns to the heart of our faith in Jesus: “The Son of God comes close where people praise his name, where bread and wine are blessed and shared, as when he came”.  It is right that this should come last, not because it’s least important in our witness, but because we need first to show people they are welcome, and that God accepts and comforts them as they are, before they can feel part of our fellowship.  Then we can move on to explain the significance of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection. 

Blessed, those whose hearts are gentle

Jesus teaches the Beatitudes
from freebibleimages.org

Today’s hymn from Sing Praise, “Blessed, those whose hearts are gentle”, is not dissimilar to the Gospel chants of the last few days, as suggested also by the words in the refrain “Raise the Gospel over the earth!” However, both the verses and the ‘alleluia’ refrain are longer than in the others, and it would work as a congregational hymn.

The six verses come in two pairs, and the thrust of the words is typical of the composer, Bernadette Farrell, most of whose hymns are about issues of social justice and inclusion.  First are two verses with the repeated statement “Blessed are…”, which immediately recalls the Beatitudes of Jesus. But these are not directly quoting the Beatitudes. Here, those who are blessed are ‘those whose hearts are gentle, whose spirits are strong, who choose to bring forth right where there is wrong, who work for justice, who answer the call, who dare to dream of lasting peace for all’.

In the third and fourth verses, “Blessed” is replaced with “Tremble”. This is about the privileged who should be in fear of God for failing to meet his standards of justice. ‘You who build up riches, with opulent lives’ should ‘tremble … when you meet the poor and see Christ in their eyes’. And ‘you who thirst for power, who live for acclaim’ should ‘tremble… when you find no comfort in your wealth and fame’.  This seems highly relevant in the context of current British politics, with the Government and its advisers increasingly criticised not only for becoming wealthy at the expense of the poor, but for lies and corruption.

The final pair of verses turns back to God and ascribes glory to him, as Word of Justice, Spirit of Peace and God of Love. But glory is also said to be “upon all people equal in God’s eyes”. To sing this hymn is to remind ourselves that God’s call is never only to live for him in our own lives but to strive for these divine qualities of justice, equality, peace and so on in the lives of others.

Praise the God of all creation

Church of the Good Shepherd, Mytholmroyd
(C) Stephen Craven 2021

Today’s song from Sing Praise is another in the series of Gospel chants, “Praise the God of all creation” by the American composer Marty Haugen. It shares with the other Gospel chants in the book the format of a congregational ‘alleluia’ (which in this instance is fleshed out – pun intended – with the words “Praise the Word of Truth and Life!”) and a series of chants for the cantor.  There are four such chants here, with the suggestion that just one is used in the context of a gospel acclamation, or all four can be used to form a more conventional, though fairly short, hymn.

God is here addressed in each of the four chants by one of the many titles for him in the Bible: the first, “Praise the God of all creation, mercy and compassion” would be suitable for a service focussing on the Hebrew scriptures (Old Testament) as these are some of the characteristics of God revealed from ancient times.

The second, “Tree of life and endless wisdom, be our root, our growth and glory” compasses, in a sense, the whole of the Bible, since the tree of life features both in the Garden of Eden story in Genesis and in the eternal city of Revelation. But there are many other references in the Bible to trees, often representing ideas such as a close relationship with God (as in Psalm 1, where the person who trusts in God is like a tree beside a stream drawing nourishment from its water) or stability.  The reference to ‘root’ may also hint at Jesus as coming from the ‘root of Jesse’ (Isaiah 11:1).

The third, “Living water, we are thirsting for the life that you have promised” focusses more clearly on Jesus who promised a thirsty and ostracised woman that he could give her living water, that is life with him and filled with his Spirit that is always satisfying inwardly, no matter how difficult our outward circumstances.

Lastly, another title for Jesus, “Gentle shepherd, you who know us, call us all into your presence”. Tomorrow is marked in the Catholic church as “Good Shepherd Sunday” – which is why I have chosen a photo I took today of a church of that name.  The good shepherd, said Jesus, is one who lays down his life for the sheep, as he laid down his life for all who will follow him.

Strong is your love

Today’s song from Sing Praise is another in the series of Gospel chants, James Walsh’s “Strong is your love, mighty your word”. Like the others it takes the form of a congregational ‘alleluia’ before and after a solo chant.  In this instance, rather than a single chant according to the season of the Church year, there are four chants all suitable for any time of year, and making it a bit more like a traditional hymn.

The four verses/chants address God first of all as the source of love and word (wisdom) who can ‘speak to us and open our hearts’ , then as Spirit and Message of Truth, then as ‘All-holy God, Father of light’, and lastly as the mighty one. I don’t find these words particularly inspiring, as they seem to be a series of phrases or names for the various person of God, rather mixed up.

Your words, O Lord, are spirit and life

Today’s song from Sing Praise is a gospel acclamation or antiphon by the Catholic composer Bernadette Farrell: “Your words, O Lord, are Spirit and life”.  Like the ones I described on 14 February and 17 April, it is used in some churches before and/or after the reading of the Gospel.    The congregational response is “Alleluia! your words, O Lord, are spirit and life. Alleluia, open our hearts to your word”. This is sung twice before the chant (if it’s unfamiliar to the congregation this might be once by a soloist, then everyone joining in), and once afterwards as a response.  Depending on local custom it might also be repeated after the reading.

Three chants are given, but they are for different seasons of the year and it’s not intended that all three would be used on any one occasion. The chant for Easter is “Rejoice and sing, all the earth, for the night is gone. Our God has raised us up from death in Christ Jesus the Son”. There are also chants for Advent and Christmas seasons.

The intention behind all acclamations of this kind is, I would suggest, threefold: to make sure the congregation is fully alert to hear what is often considered the most important of the readings from the Bible (standing and singing is a great way to shake off any drowsiness); to remind us that the Gospels are all about Jesus who is still alive (in one way or another, these chants are all addressed to him); and to stir up a sense of excitement (they are all set to a lively tune in a major key).  Hearing the Bible read should always leave us with a sense of having encountered God in some way, however small, but with this preparation it’s easier to approach the Gospel with a sense of expectancy.

Holy for ever and ever is God

Today’s hymn from Sing Praise is “Holy forever and ever is God” by John Bell. It is a setting of (or at least inspired by) verses from the book of Revelation. 

The first two verses praise God as creator and overall sovereign of his creation.  The other three are more specifically addressed to Jesus.   In the book the hymn is suggested as suitable for Ascension Day, when Jesus finally left the earth in bodily form and took up his reign in God’s eternal kingdom.  But it is still suitable for this Easter season, not least because in the fourth verse we declare “Worthy the Lamb who was sentenced and slain! Worthy the Lamb in his rising again!”, the Lamb being Jesus as sacrifice. 

In the last verse the Lamb is sitting on the throne (as king, or judge) having proved himself worthy for the position by living a blameless life on earth and being a willing sacrifice for the rest of sinful humanity. I couldn’t find an appropriate image to depict this, as it is such a contradiction (at the same time suffering lamb and all-powerful king) that all the illustrations I found were contrived or twee. Stained glass artists have usually depicted the sacrificial lamb below the enthroned Christ, and left it to the viewer to try and superimpose these images in some way, for neither image makes sense without the other. That is just one pair of images from Revelation, and not the strangest by a long way. No wonder it’s a notoriously difficult book to understand!

The other reason this is a suitable hymn for the Easter season is that each verse ends with an Alleluia! (very much the Easter acclamation). Tomorrow’s hymn also has alleluias, but in a different setting…