Love is his word

The Last Supper, by Ugolino de Nerio (C14)

This weekend’s hymn from Sing Praise is “Love is his word” by Luke Connaughton. The theme is the love of Jesus Christ, as celebrated in the refrain: “Richer than gold is the love of my Lord, better than splendour and wealth”. This idea that God’s love is the true wealth, not a human invention such as ‘money’, is a common one in religious teachings generally, not least in Christianity.  Paul’s words to Timothy come to mind: “In godliness with contentment there is great gain” (1 Timothy 6:6).

Its verses list the ways that Jesus Christ showed (and shows) his love for people. The words are cleverly structured: there are seven verses, a ‘Biblical’ number like the seven signs in John’s gospel or the seven seals of Revelation.  Each starts with a line in the form Love is his X, Love is his Y”, with a last line “Love, only love, is his Y”, and the Y of one verse becomes the X of the next (so, verse 1 ends “Love, only love, is his way” and verse 2 begins “Love is his way, love is his mark”. The two middle lines of each verse elaborate on the ‘Y’. The hymn ends with a verse on Jesus the Word (taking us back to the opening line).

The seven ways that Jesus shows his love then, are: way, mark, sign, news, name, law and word.  His way of love is “feasting with all, fasting alone”; his mark is “sharing his last Passover feast” (the Last Supper before his crucifixion); his sign, as he commanded us to remember him, is “bread for our strength, wine for our joy”. His news, still on the communion feast, is “Do this, lest you forget all my deep sorrow, all my dear blood”. His name is explained as that “we are his own, chosen and called”. His law is “Love one another [as] I have loved you”. And back to the Word, we are reminded that Jesus’ love is also that of the Father and Spirit.

The metre ( & refrain 10.7) is highly unusual and so I presume the tune (‘Cresswell’ by Anthony Milner) was written for it. It’s an easy one to sing, with a memorable refrain in particular, finishing on a high with “better than splendour and wealth”.

Lord, you have searched me and known me

Today’s song from Sing Praise is “Lord Jesus Christ, your light shines within us” which is a chant from the Taizé community. Like many of their chants it takes the form of a repeated refrain or ostinato to be sung by the congregation, and a series of verses to be sung over them by a soloist (cantor). 

The verses in this instance are selected from Psalm 139, “Lord, you have searched me and known me”.  The selected verses remind us that God is everywhere, and knows all that we do, however we might think we are beyond his reach: whether asleep or awake, at home or far away, by day or by night.  This can of course be either a scary or a comforting thought, depending on whether we are secretly ashamed of our behaviour, or in difficulty and really needing his support.   

The last verse is “Search me, God, and know my heart, and lead me in the everlasting way”. The purpose of God’s all-knowing perception is not to punish us for the things of which we are ashamed, but gently to correct, or to direct us when we are uncertain which way to take in life.

The ostinato or refrain is not taken from the psalm, but is perhaps a Christian response to the third of the verses (Ps. 139:11) about the darkness being as light to God: “Lord Jesus Christ, your light shines within us. Let not my darkness speak to me. Lord Jesus Christ, your light shines within us. Let my heart always welcome your love”. The darkness, here, may (depending on our circumstances) represent depression, doubt or uncertainty, rather than a conviction of sin. Whatever its nature, Jesus can bring light to the situation.

Because the Lord is my shepherd

The Good Shepherd
Mosaic in Christ the King church, Shanghai.
Photo (c) Fayhoo. Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0

Today’s hymn from Sing Praise is “Because the Lord is my shepherd,” by Christopher Walker. It’s a setting of Psalm 23, which has probably had more musical arrangements than any other.  Its promises of God giving us safety, rest, refreshment and joy have brought comfort to countless believers down the centuries. There’s also perhaps a nod to Psalm 139 (which we will look at in tomorrow’s song) in the line “this joy fills me with gladness; it is too much to bear”.

What makes this setting different from many others of Psalm 23 is its refrain, which is not taken directly from the original: “I want to follow you always, just to follow my friend”.  In this nice little twist, the ‘shepherd’ looking after the flock where they are in the green pasture becomes the ‘friend’ who is always on the move, and whom we follow, not because we are obliged to, or selfishly in return for the promise of food and water, but just because he is our friend. The green pastures and quiet streams will be found along the way, but so also will be the enemies from whom he promises to save us.

How long, O Lord, will you forget?

Today’s hymn from Sing Praise is “How long, O Lord, will you forget” by Barbara Woollett, a setting of Psalm 13.  As a psalm of lament it is unsurprisingly set to a tune in a minor key.  After a series of hymns expressing God’s love for us and ours for him, his everlasting Word, his call to follow him, the beauty of this world and the promise of the world to come, this one comes as a shock.  “No tokens of your love I see, your face is turned away from me, I wrestle with despair”. And that’s just the first verse. It goes on to ask “When will you come to my relief? My heart is overwhelmed with grief, by evil night and day”.

The fact is that we all have times when we don’t experience the love of God in every flower and birdsong, as yesterday’s hymn put it. In fact quite the opposite, God can seem deliberately absent just when we need him most.  It’s at those times that real faith draws on our own past experience and that of others to know that God is present, even if we can’t detect him.   The third verse expresses that, as without any suggestion that God has replied to the earlier cries of “How long will you forget and forsake me?” the singer says “I find that all your ways are just, I learn to praise you and to trust in your unfailing love”. That ‘learning to praise and trust’ requires practice, like any skill that we wish to master.

Loved with everlasting love

St Francis and the birds, Holy Cross Monastery, New York
(c) Randy OHC Creative Commons 2.0

Today’s hymn from Sing Praise is “Loved with everlasting love” by George Wade Robinson. Unlike nearly all the other hymns in this book, it was not written in the 20th or 21st centuries but the 19th.  The suggested tune, Calon Lan, is a Welsh one, and has the same rhythm as “Here is love, vast as the ocean” (17 March). Robinson, according to his Wikipedia entry, was an Irish Protestant minister (who later led English congregations).

The theme this time is belonging to Jesus; the last line of each verse is “I am his, and he is mine”.  There are three verses here (a version I found online has a fourth verse, omitted here, perhaps because of the overly sentimental wording such as “Pillowed on the loving breast”). The first of them celebrates the peace of knowing ourselves loved by God, and the last is in similar vein: “with what joy and peace Christ can fill the loving heart!”

The second verse tries to explain in words one of those things that by definition are beyond words: the way the world seems different in God’s presence. I recognise what he is trying to express with lines such as “Heaven above is softer blue, earth around is richer green … songs of birds in sweetness grow, flowers with deeper beauties shine”.  I have experienced that – not all the time, but at times when God’s presence has been real to me.  It’s a reminder that often, the opposite can be true: the cares of the world and business of life cause us to neglect both a relationship with God, and the beauty of his creation.

There is, of course, always a danger in such sentiments of conflating God with nature, which has always been considered a heresy in Christian thought, since God by definition is much greater than anything s/he has created. But to ignore the natural world or to exploit it for our own purposes is perhaps the greater heresy of recent generations, and one of which the environmental movement persuades us, more forcefully than most Christian leaders, to repent.  Where Christian faith and environmental concern meet is indeed where we experience the truth that “I am his, and he is mine”, being part of One who is greater than the created world, and that what God loves, we shall love too.

From the beginning, God’s most holy Word

Today’s hymn from Sing Praise is “From the beginning, God’s most holy Word” by Brigid Pailthorpe. It is set as six verses of four lines but John composed his own tune to turn it into three verses each of eight lines, naming the tune ‘Octuple Tens’ (eight lines of ten syllables). This structure makes more sense as the hymn neatly divides into three different understandings of ‘God’s Word’.  Unlike many hymns about the Word of God, this one is utterly realistic about the world to which Jesus came, as we shall see.

First, “From the beginning, God’s most holy Word uttered the summons all creation heard”. The Word in this sense is the creative act of God, doing rather than speaking. Christ is also referred to here as “the Word spoken”, as we understand the second person of the Trinity to be the creative power of God at work in the world, as well as incarnate in Jesus.  There’s an odd reference in the second verse (as set out in the hymn book) to God’s love that “remoulds structures that fail, the institution’s blight”.  We see that in the stories now emerging of abuse within the Church, but was the author thinking of that specifically or something wider?

Second (verses 3 & 4 in the book), “Jesus, the Word once spoken by the well” reminds us that Jesus in his incarnation revealed himself to be divine, not just by his miracles but by his spoken words, whether to the crowd of five thousand or the solitary Samaritan. The Word here “heals as in response we tell all our deep longings, all our hidden fears”. That’s another reference to the brokenness and imperfection of the world.

The last pair of verses begins with a call to “Jesus, the Word once spoken by the tomb” – by Mary Magdalene, that is – to “speak to our hearts in times of doubt and gloom”.  But it goes on to refer to our own resurrection.  Mary Magdalene, whose feast day was celebrated last week, is the archetype of the broken person who was healed and turned to follow Jesus.  We will never know what her ‘demons’ were, but Jesus got rid of them.

In his radio ‘Thought for the Day’ this morning, our own Bishop Nick Baines referred to the quotation popularly attributed to St Francis “Preach the gospel at all times. And if necessary, use words”.  He suggested that this, which may not actually have been said by Francis anyway, is misleading, because we need both demonstrations of God’s love, and words to explain it, in our witness.  The Word was made flesh to act out his Father’s love, but also to speak directly to the people of his day, broken by their own sin, the hypocrisy of their religious leaders, and the corruption and violence of the Roman empire around them. So we come to the last lines of this hymn as we offer to speak and serve in his name in our own broken world: “Here we renew our dedication vow: Word of the Father, speak your summons now”.

Jesus calls us here to meet him

group of people with diverse ages and ethnicities in church
Source : PNG Of People In Church

This weekend’s hymn from Sing Praise is “Jesus calls us here to meet him” by John Bell. The overall theme seems to be that in all the different aspects of the Christian life it is he who makes the first call, and we respond.  As many preachers and writers have put it, it is not we who search for God but God who searches for us.

The first verse is about affirming God’s presence, particularly when people gather in his name.  I’ve attended services in many churches over the years, and there’s a very different atmosphere between those where people come out of habit, treating church as a social club where they sing familiar songs and meet friends over a cup of coffee  (not that there’s anything wrong with those things), and those churches where you can tell people are responding to Jesus’ call by setting aside time from their daily lives to come to a place where they expect to encounter God, as the hymn puts it, “through word and song and prayer”. A good way of knowing which it is, is whether the minutes before the service starts are filled with nattering, or with the silence of anticipation as God’s people prepare for what could be a life-changing encounter.

The second verse is about confessing Jesus (confessing here meaning not repenting of sin, but telling other people that we are Jesus’ disciples). Again, this is a response to his call as we “tell his holy human story”.  The third is about the call to belong to each other, mixing freely and as equals with those of different “creed and colour, class and gender, age and youth”.  We may not often find those of other creeds in our churches, though there will hopefully be seekers coming in among us on their journey towards faith. But in practice, it’s harder than it looks to overcome differences of culture, whether that’s ethnic culture, social class or generational differences.  We believe we are all brothers and sisters in Christ, but truly accepting each other and mixing as freely as we would in our natural families takes a conscious effort. Jesus is the matchmaker here, the perfect party host who introduces people who would otherwise not have spoken to each other.

The last verse is a communion one, and where the call of Christ is perhaps most obvious. It is he who told his disciples to remember him in the breaking of bread.  This is also, as the hymn reminds us, “where the Church in earth and heaven find a common meeting place”. For we, the church of 2021, are only the most recent of the countless disciples who have responded to Jesus’ call over the last 2000 years.

Great and wonderful your deeds

Today’s hymn from Sing Praise is “Great and Wonderful your deeds” by Christopher Idle, who also wrote yesterday’s hymn. Both are based on passages from the book of Revelation, and this is a setting of a passage used as a canticle (chanted scripture) in some churches.  Now we are far from the problems of earth and focused only on God.

God is praised here as the all-powerful one, the one who is always true and right, the God of justice, the sacrificial Lamb as he was incarnate as Jesus, and as the Holy Spirit. 

The refrain to each verse is a single line ending with the word ‘glory’ and that sets the tone for the hymn. These last lines – “To your name be glory”, “All have seen your glory”, and “Love and praise and glory” are the response of people who recognise God for whom he is.

Glory, honour, endless praises

Today’s hymn from Sing Praise is in a different mood from the last three: Glory, honour, endless praises’ by Edwin le Grice. Leaving behind the troubles of this world, we move (as John noted in his video) to the worship of Heaven as described in the book of Revelation. This was also mentioned in the radio ‘thought for the day’ today with a reminder that the alternative term Apocalypse really just means an uncovering, a revelation of a reality that is normally hidden.

In this existence we are told there will be ‘no more crying or pain’, and God can be praised by those whose sins have been redeemed.  Jesus Christ is acclaimed in the verses of this hymn as the Lord and King of Kings, the Lamb who has been slain, by those who have been ‘called to serve from every nation’.  It’s a necessary reminder that for all our struggles here, there is another, unseen but eternal existence where all that will have been laid aside. 

At the start of the book of Revelation we also read of Jesus revealing himself to St John with messages for several specific Christian congregations undergoing persecution, urging them to remain faithful, to endure, to overcome evil and hardship, so as to reach the everlasting life of Heaven. One way of achieving that is to praise God as often as we can, even when times are hard.  It’s just a practice for the real thing.

Who can sound the depths of sorrow?

copyright unkown

Today’s hymn from Sing Praise is “Who can sound the depths of sorrow” by Graham Kendrick.  It takes us on from the theme of the last two days of the Christian life being about more than our own salvation, and urges us to intercede to God for mercy in the face of  injustice in the world.

The sorrow expressed in verse 1 is that ‘in the Father heart of God’, for God who creates all life is always more deeply concerned for the welfare of people than we are for each other, perhaps with a few honourable exceptions. We are asked to express sorrow for rejected children, scorned lives, extinguished lights.  In verse 2 the guilt is of bowing to other gods (usually in a metaphorical sense) and sacrificing children (hopefully always in a metaphorical sense!) In the third verse, God is portrayed as angry, with piercing eyes, at the cries of the weak and helpless.  Allowing for the almost unavoidable use of metaphor in trying to describe God and his relationship with humanity, I have no problem with these sentiments: the sinfulness that pervades human society does lead us all, at times, to ignore the needs of other people when we could have helped them, and sometimes extends to deliberate harm.

The refrain (slightly different in the last verse) asks God to have mercy upon our nation. I should be open here, and say that there is a strand of theology behind this hymn with which I have never been entirely comfortable, though it is by no means uncommon in evangelical circles. The theology I refer to is that of each ‘nation’ being a spiritual entity that can bear collective guilt, or an entity to which particular spirits (good or evil) attach themselves.  It leads to the sense of national guilt expressed in the words of this hymn. The ‘we’ in these verses is not just ‘we the people of this congregation’ or even ‘we the Church in England’, but ‘we, all the people of England’ (or whichever ‘nation’ you consider yourself to belong to). 

The problems I see are twofold: one being the practical one that many people these days have multiple national identities (perhaps of their country of birth, their current country of residence, and a religious or tribal identity with roots elsewhere in the world). The second is that ‘nationhood’ is usually defined either by the rather arbitrary physical boundaries ruled by different governments, or along ethnic lines.  But the Christian gospel is that Christ has redeemed the whole world, and that ethnic or political identities have to be laid down when we turn to him and join the universal Church.  So I find this theology of nationhood incompatible with the gospel.  But if John or anyone else wishes to persuade me otherwise, I’m open to your arguments.

[Edited in the light of John’s comment, to note the third verse is not the final one!]