As the deer pants for the water

(c) Henry Mulligan
Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0

Today’s song from Sing Praise is quite familiar, as it was a favourite of the Scargill community when I was living there about twenty years ago (and of other churches around that time). It’s “As the deer pants for the water” by Martin Nystrom, and the copyright actually dates back to 1983. 

Most of the words are taken from the Psalms, though it’s not really a setting of any one psalm.  The opening lines of the first verse are from Ps.42:1-2, the reference to wanting God “more than gold or silver” seems to be from Ps.119:72, and “the apple of your eye” in the same verse is from Ps.17:8 as well as being familiar from the service of Compline.  The refrain, “You alone are my strength and shield” again isn’t a direct quotation but may be inspired by the refrain of Ps.115.

The last verse, “You’re my friend and my brother, even though you are a king” doesn’t seem to be from the Psalms at all, but is rather the Church’s understanding of Christ, who is both the reigning power of the universe and at the same time present as a companion and guide, and who calls all who follow him his sisters and brothers.

What made it such a hit, I think, is partly the memorable tune, but also the sense that in singing his praises as one whose friendship and support are desirable, we are drawn closer to Jesus. It’s a sort of love song without being too sentimental.   

Lord, make us servants of your peace

Today’s hymn from Sing Praise is “Lord, make us servants of your peace” by James Quinn. It’s a setting of a well known prayer by St Francis of Assisi. As a long metre text it could be set to any of many existing tunes, the suggested one being ‘O Waly Waly’.  Quinn has kept, I think, to as close a translation as possible within the regular 8-syllable metre, rather than attempt to rhyme the words.  So it reads more as blank verse than a song.

The essence of this prayer is, firstly, for the will to set aside our own needs and desires for the sake of other people.  That much is a basic building block of civilisation.  But it goes beyond that in actively seeking to bring love, peace, hope, reconciliation, understanding and other relational virtues, recognising that this will mean giving more than we receive and loving even where love is not returned.  

That is the basis not only of Christianity but of other religions and spiritual movements: Francis of course was the head of a Catholic religious order, but most of these words are ones that people of all faiths can share, apart perhaps from the one specific appeal to Jesus, which could equally be addressed to God by whatever name he is known.   The last verse is more specifically Christian in that it brings the hope of resurrection, and an awakening in heaven’s light where there is eternal peace.  

The alternative sung version of this prayer, Make me a channel of your peace” by Sebastian Temple, has become well known across the Churches, but this one seems an equally singable one that could grow on me.

The Lord is here

Today’s hymn from Sing Praise is “The Lord is here” by Christopher Ellis. I picked it for a Sunday as it’s in the Holy Communion section of the book, and the title is taken from one of the priest’s acclamations in the service.

There is, however, only one direct reference to communion in the hymn (verse 2, “in offered peace, in shared-out bread and wine”). Other references are more subtle and indirect, such as “he gives himself just as he gives his Word”, “he meets us as we share”, and “the Lord is here inviting us to go”.  But then, although the communion service is special in some ways, whatever the nature of our worship we should be inspired (literally, ‘in-breathed’ or ‘in-spirited’) to “go and share the news with people everywhere … intent to seek and find, living this hope that God is always near”.

So it may be better to think of this as a missionary hymn rather than a eucharistic one. The set tune is called “Beacon Hill” but was unfamiliar.  John chose to play it to ‘Woodlands’ instead, maybe because it’s more familiar, but perhaps because that tune is best known to the words “Go forth and tell” on a similar theme.

O God of blessings

origin unknown

Today’s hymn from Sing Praise is “O God of blessings, all praise to you” by Marty Haugen. It could also be titled “Soli deo gloria” which is the brief refrain at the end of each of the six verses, as well as the name of the tune specially composed for it.

Marty Haugen is perhaps best known for hymns around the theme of social justice and inclusivity, but here we have one in which God is praised for all his gifts to us. It’s also perhaps unusual, though welcome, for a Catholic hymnwriter to use as a refrain a phrase more associated with the Protestant Reformation.

The first verse praises God for his love, shown in freeing the oppressed and comforting the distressed; the second, for wisdom shown in both ancient scriptures and contemporary “coaches, mentors and counsellors”; the third, for prophets and preachers to guide us; the fourth, for music; the fifth, for Jesus himself, “best gift divine”. The last verse takes a different tack as it imagines the whole worldwide Church, “A billion voices in one great song”, praising God through every culture and locality.   

So this is indeed a very inclusive hymn in its own way, but reminding us also, through both verses and refrain, that the purpose of our life on earth is to glorify God in the way that we live.

I will worship with all of my heart

Today’s song from Sing Praise is “I will worship with all of my heart” by Dave Ruis. It dates from 1991, I remember it being briefly popular around that time.  It’s a devotional song rather than a doctrinal hymn, and of course there is a place for both in the Church’s worship. The structure is that of ‘call and echo’ which can either be leader and congregation, or two sides of the congregation, or men and women, as preferred. Without the echo it would sound a bit odd, with pauses between two halves of each line.

The words are those of commitment: “I will worship with all of my heart, I will praise you with all of my strength, I will seek you all of my days, I will follow all of your ways”, and similar in the second verse and chorus. The whole song is available here.

The challenge, of course, is to put these fine words into practice.  Pledging during a worship meeting to devote oneself entirely to God is one thing, doing so in real life is another. But without making the pledge, there’s even less chance of fulfilling it.

O the mercy of God

Today’s hymn from Sing Praise is “O the mercy of God” by Geoff Bullock. Carrying on where I left off yesterday, in a way, with the uniqueness of Christ as the fulness of God appearing in humanity, especially in the last verse “O the glory of God expressed in his Son”.  The other verses celebrate the mercy of God in calling us to forgives and restoration although we didn’t deserve it, and the depths of his love, making us righteous. 

I’m not terribly impressed with this hymn, as it seems to be cobbling together plenty of standard phrases from Christian theology without really developing an overall theme, or If there is one I’ve missed it.

Christ, the way of life

The hymn I picked for 24th August (blogging briefly and a day late) was “Christ, the way of life, possess me” by Timothy Dudley-Smith. The words look at four ways we can understand Christ, with the word ‘life’ as the thread holding them together: He is the ‘Way of life’ to guide me; ‘Well of life’ to keep me afresh with his love; ‘Tree of life’ which in Biblical symbolism is ‘for the healing of the nations’, therefore Christ as healer; and ‘Path of life’ to the eternal life beyond this one.

The common theme of ‘life’ is important, as we remind ourselves in singing this that we believe Jesus Christ still to be alive, though no longer physically present in the body. It is what sets Christianity apart from other religions and philosophies, that the eternal divine and its chief prophet are in fact the same.

Praise the Lord of Heaven

Gaia at Wakefield Cathedral
image from Diocese of Leeds website

Today’s hymn from Sing Praise is “O Praise the Lord of Heaven” by Timothy Dudley-Smith.  The set tune (Vicar’s Close) was unfamiliar, but John sang it to the better known tune (or one of them) to “At the Name of Jesus”, which fits the mood of the hymn well.

The words are based on Psalm 148, one of the most positive psalms, in that unlike many of them there is no lamenting one’s problems or condemnation of enemies, just praise of God.  The hymn follows the psalm in calling on all levels of creation to praise their maker, from angels to stars and moon, oceans, fields, all manner of animals (but not plants: did the Hebrews not consider plants to be living beings?) as well as people at all levels of society from princes to maidens, old and young.  Even the smallest creatures and the people at the bottom of society’s pyramid are invited “High above all heavens [to] magnify his name!”

Later this week I intend to visit Wakefield Cathedral to visit their temporary art installation ‘Gaia’, a 7-metre diameter globe covered with satellite imagery of the entire earth’s surface.  Part of Wakefield Council’s wider ‘Festival of the Earth’, it’s intended to stimulate reflection and prayer on “awe for the planet, a profound understanding of the interconnection of all life, and a renewed sense of responsibility for taking care of the environment.”  I think that’s what the Psalmist was getting at. Although humanity’s understanding of the nature of the created world and its relationship to its maker has developed a long way since then, the basic idea still holds true, that if we understand ourselves to be part of a much wider created universe, in such a way that our actions affect the well-being of other creatures and even the weather, we will consider those actions more carefully.  And at the present time that is more vital than ever.

One bread, one body, one Lord of all

Today’s hymn from Sing Praise is “One bread, one body, one Lord of all” by John Foley. Unsurprisingly it’s about Holy Communion, or should I say the Mass, since the composer is a Jesuit.

The chorus emphasises the unity of all Christians as the body of Christ: “And we, though many, throughout the earth, we re one body in this one Lord”.  The three short verses give some examples of the differences that can divide, but should unite us: Gentile or Jew (religious tradition), servant or free (class/status), woman or man (gender), different gifting. The last verse refers back to the bread itself as a metaphor for gathering: “Grain for the fields, scattered and grown, gathered to one, for all”.

I find this strand of Catholicism, stressing our unity in the Sacrament, to be positive and encouraging, though at odds with the Vatican’s continuing insistence that non-Catholics, even though baptised in the name of the Trinity, should not participate in the sharing of bread.

Take this moment, sign and space

Today’s hymn from Sing Praise is John Bell’s “Take this moment, time and space”. It’s a gentle song addressing Christ in an intimate way, asking him to take me as I am and build my relationship with him in various ways.

The first verse asks that with my friends I may “make this place where your love is found”; the second and third ask for the time needed to accept forgiveness for past failings and regrets, acknowledging also my tiredness (a reality of many busy lives, rarely mentioned in our busy churches!) The fourth verse has some rather odd words about “the child in me scared of growing old”, and finding my true worth; and the last verse looks to the future (“take my talents, take my skills, take what’s yet to be”).

There could scarcely be more contrast in style between this, and yesterday’s bold declaration of faith in Christ’s saving power. But both have their place in a balanced spiritual life. At some points in our lives we will feel like praising God exuberantly, looking up to heaven; at others we will be like the proverbial tax collector beating his breast in shame and approaching God timidly for mercy; at others, just coming to God as we are, “weary, worn and sad” as another hymn puts it, and this song fits that last mood best.