Purify my heart

Today’s hymn from Sing Praise is another devotional song, “Purify my heart”.  Although relatively recent (like all the songs in this book – this one was written c.1990) it has become popular in many churches. Unlike yesterday’s song which was corporate (“Father, hear our prayer”) this one is personal (“Purify my heart”) and it fits the theme of Lent, as it asks Jesus (not named but it is obviously He who is being addressed) to “purify my heart” in various ways.

The first verse asks that I become “as gold and precious silver … as gold, pure gold”.  This, and the chorus (addressing Jesus as the Refiner’s Fire) refer to Malachi, the last book of the Old Testament, where the Lord’s messenger is said to be coming like a refiner’s fire to “sit as a refiner and purifier of silver” to refine the descendants of Levi (i.e. the Temple priests) “like gold and silver until they present offerings to the Lord in righteousness” (Malachi 3:2-3).  In other words, it is asking Jesus to strip away all the impurities that are preventing me from serving him as I should.  

The second verse is more direct: “cleanse me from within and make me holy … cleanse me from my sin, deep within”.  It recognises that sin is not just my relationship with the outer world – the things I say and do wrong – but also my inner life, my thoughts, desires and attitudes.  Those are harder to deal with, and that’s why I have to ask Jesus to deal with them.  The other prayer in the chorus is that I should be “set apart for you, ready to do your will”.  So the purification of the inner person is not only for my own sake but so that I can serve Jesus better.

Father, hear our prayer

Today’s ‘hymn’ from Sing Praise is a short devotional song by Andy Piercy, “Father, hear our prayer”.  You can hear it sung here.  As John has already noted in a comment on an earlier post, this is one of the songs in the book headed “Penitence” but which isn’t particularly penitential in its words.  Rather, it’s a song of dedication to God, asking that our lives may be consecrated to him and that we may be filled with his power.  The second part is the traditional ‘Kyrie’ prayer – Lord have mercy on us. I would have expected this to come first, as the typical pattern in prayer is to ask for God’s mercy on our weaknesses and failings before asking for him to change us and empower us.

Brother, Sister, let me serve you

Today’s choice of hymn from Sing Praise is, unlike many of the others, very well known to me.  “Brother, Sister, let me serve you” is sung in many churches, but was also one of the hymns that my wife and I chose for our church wedding at St Luke’s Eccleshill.

The reason it makes a good wedding hymn is that it covers the many ways in which a couple in a long-term relationship serve each other, irrespective of what religious affiliation they may or may not have, but it is also a thoroughly Christian text that begins “Brother, Sister, let me serve you, let me be as Christ to you, pray that I may have the grace to let you be my servant too”.  The inclusion of “grace” reminds us that we need God’s help to make our relationships work well, and that second line points to the truth that being served by others graciously takes effort and grace just as much as being the servant.

These various ways of serving are summarised in the second verse as “we are here to help each other walk the mile and bear the load”, a reference to Jesus’ teaching in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5:41) that “if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile”. This is itself said to be a reference to the Roman law that a soldier could make someone carry their equipment for one mile, a law invoked when Simon of Cyrene was compelled to carry Jesus’ cross on the way to his crucifixion.   But forcing? compulsion? crucifixion? How does that square with love? Perhaps it is intended to mean that when our partner is suffering, is under the pressure of external forces, we are expected to share that burden.  It finds expression also in the traditional English marriage service where each partner is asked to make a vow to love the other “for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health”.  Marriage cannot be expected to be a lifetime of easy happiness, but where there is the commitment to support each other in all circumstances, it can survive and even flourish and grow in difficult times.

The following two verses (3 & 4) list some of the ways this will work in practice: “I will hold the Christ light for you in the night-time of your fear, I will hold my hand out to you, speak the peace you long to hear”; “I will weep when you are weeping, when you laugh I’ll laugh with you, I will share your joy and sorrow till we’ve seen this journey through”. 

The fourth verse is again thoroughly Christian as it looks forward to “singing to God in heaven in perfect harmony”, although “we” here must mean the whole Christian community, past, present and future, since Jesus taught that there will be no marriage in heaven: our individual loving relationships will be blended into the perfect love of God that God intended for all creation.

Linda and I have been married for nearly eighteen years now. We’ve certainly known the ups and downs of “sickness and health”; while not experiencing poverty we’ve known the uncertainties of the private rental market and times when expenditure exceeded income; and certainly our share of weeping and laughter.  We can testify to the truth of the words of this hymn. 

The one line I haven’t quoted yet is the first half of the second verse: “we are pilgrims on a journey, and companions on the road”. Now you know where our domain name (pilgrims.org.uk) comes from – from this hymn and our experience of living it out.

Bright as fire in darkness

Today’s hymn from Sing Praise is “Bright as fire in darkness”, words attributed to Stanbrook Abbey. We have already had one of their other compositions, “When Jesus comes to be baptised”, on 14 January.

This is a very short hymn, comprising just three verses, each four lines of five or six syllables. Yesterday’s theme of the Word of God appears here too, revealed at the end of verse 1: “Bright as fire in darkness, sharper than a sword, lives throughout the ages God’s eternal Word”.  Note that ‘Word’ is capitalised to make it clear it refers to the person of the Trinity revealed in Jesus.  And as with yesterday, the Word is seen to be active – fire and sword are not static images, nor are they signs of safety. There are risks involved when we engage with the Word of God.

The second verse also refers to the ‘word’ – “Christ, your eyes of mercy see our sins revealed; speak the word that saves us, that we may be healed”.   Forgiveness, salvation and healing are not three separate things but three aspects of the work of the Word of God.  Note that this time ‘word’ is not capitalised – is there a meaningful distinction between the person of the Word who lives throughout the ages, and the spoken word that saves us?  Is salvation not through the Word himself, rather than the spoken (or written) word? 

In the last verse the first two lines are a standard doxology (praise to the Trinity) followed by “compassed in your glory, give the world your light”. The reference to light brings us full circle to where we started – ‘bright as fire’. So may we be.

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Praise to you, O Christ, our Saviour

Today’s hymn from Sing Praise is by Bernadette Farrell, one of my favourite modern hymnwriters. She has a gift for writing in plain (American) English but without it sounding trite, and to melodies that are easy to sing. The title (first line of the chorus) is “Praise to you O Christ our Saviour”, but the theme of the four verses is Christ the Word.  For an exploration of the different meanings of that phrase, see my commentary on her similar hymn “Word of God, renew your people” (25 January).

In the first verse here, the Word is the one who “calls us out of darkness and leads us into light, who brings us through the desert”; in the third verse, the one who “calls us to be servants, whose only law is love, who lives among us” and in the final verse the Word “binds us and unites us, calls us to be one, teaches us forgiveness”.  In the second verse, “the Word” doesn’t appear but Jesus is names as “the one whom prophets hoped and longed for, who speaks to us today, who leads us to our future”.   Many of these phrases contain verbs expressing the way Jesus is active in moving us along – leads, brings, calls, and (again) leads. The Christian understanding of God as revealed in Jesus is not like the remote mountaintop guru who must be sought out, but the complete opposite, one who is always on the lookout for people who might respond if he calls them, follow if he leads them.

Not for nothing is Lent often thought of as a period of journeying. We not only hear the story of Jesus’ own journey from fame to infamy and from Galilee to Golgotha, but also (hopefully) find him calling us and leading us on the next stage of our own journeys.

O God, be gracious to me in your love

Today’s hymn from “Sing Praise” is “O God, be gracious to me in your love”, a setting of Psalm 51 by Ian Pitt-Watson using a tune by the 17th century composer Orlando Gibbons.

Psalm 51 as a piece of music is best known in Allegri’s setting of the Latin text known by its first word “Miserere”.  It’s a favourite choice as a “romantic” piece of music, which is rather ironic.  The words are a confession of a serious sin, the nature of which is not specified, and a commentary I consulted suggests that it was probably written after the Exile rather than before (as evidenced by the last two verses about sacrifices in the Temple), but it’s traditionally associated with King David being confronted about his adultery with Bathsheba as recounted in 2 Samuel chapters 11-12.  ‘Adultery’ is itself something of a euphemism here, as she wasn’t in a position to refuse his advances, and that sin was compounded by the arranged killing of her husband when the king found he had got her pregnant.

The words as set here are quite a close rendering of other English translations of the psalm, with a regular metre (I believe iambic pentameter, but I stand to be corrected by literary experts) without attempting to force rhymes.  It could therefore be used quite easily as a said version of the psalm rather than as a song, and the theme of confession does of course fit well with the discipline of Lent.  What can we learn from it? 

The line that stands out for me is “Against you, Lord, you only have I sinned”.  This sounds as if I (or David or whoever wrote the psalm) have not actually sinned against anyone else, which seems to fly in the face of experience: while some ‘sins’ may technically be only against God (such as pride, for example) others such as taking your neighbour’s wife as your own and having her husband murdered are obviously offences against those people and those close to them.   What might this mean? As one commentary puts it, “sin is ultimately a religious concept rather than an ethical one” – breaking human laws relating to marriage and killing (or any other law) can be dealt with by secular courts, but sin at its heart is falling short of what God expects of us as humans “made in his image”, that is to live in harmony with other people and with nature, and for that we are answerable to a higher authority.  And admitting guilt in court is not the same as admitting to God that I am a broken person needing his mercy.  If this is David’s story, as King he was probably above the secular law anyway, and it was only when the prophet Nathan turned the facts into a parable about a pet lamb that David’s defences broke down and he showed contrition.

The other point is that for confession to be meaningful there must be a genuine desire both to be forgiven and to change – “wash me and make me whiter than the snow” … “create a clean and contrite heart in me”, to use the translation given here.  The final verse of the hymn includes lines that are used at Evensong in the church of England: “O God, make clean our hearts within us, and take not thy Holy Spirit from us.”  “Heart” in the Bible tends to refer to the will or desire, rather than emotions, so this is about asking the Spirit to give us right intentions.

Hear me, O Lord, in my distress

Today’s hymn from Sing Praise is “Hear me, O Lord, in my distress”, a setting by David Preston of Psalm 143.  As I noted yesterday, the Psalms, especially those of lament, feature prominently in Lent. 

Unlike many of the psalms that start in complaint and end in praise, this one has a different arc.  Certainly it starts in desperation (“Hear me in my distress, give ear to my despairing plea!”) and also asks God not to judge the one who prays (v.2, “yet judge me not, for in your sight no living soul is counted just”). Verses 3 and 4 are marked as optional, but it’s only in verse 4 that there is a sign of hope as the singer recalls good times past (“Days long vanished I review, I see the orders of your hands”) which would seem to make that a verse not to be omitted, as a pivotal point. After that, in v.5 the singer calls again on God to answer without delay and asks “let this day bring word of your unfailing grace”. 

But that unfailing grace lies in the future, not the present, for in the last two verses it’s back to the cry to be saved from one’s pursuers, for one’s life to be preserved and set free from oppression.  There are other psalms where the singer seems to end by thanking God for deliverance already granted, but not on this occasion. That’s how life is: faith in God may bring relief from a sense of fear and hopelessness, but to be honest there’s no guarantee of that relief coming automatically or immediately.   Faith is about knowing there is a bigger story, a higher reality, an eventual triumph of good over evil, rather than every small battle in life going ‘our way’.

The musical setting is Vaughan-Williams’ “This is the truth sent from above”.  The tune was familiar to me, therefore easy to pick up.  The G minor setting suitably reflects the plaintive words of the hymn, although the final chord of each verse sounds more positive note that doesn’t really find an echo in the words.  No doubt John can comment on that.

From the deep places

Plainchant of Psalm 130

Today’s hymn from Sing Praise is Timothy Dudley-Smith’s “From the deep places, hear my cry”, a setting of Psalm 130.  The full text is available online.

Lent seems to attract psalm settings, perhaps because it’s the part of the Bible where there is the largest amount of honesty with God about our fears and failings, which is where the Lent journey starts.

There are also, it seems, more ‘evening hymns’ here, again perhaps because evening worship tends to be more reflective, including looking back at the day and seeing what we could have done better (the fashionable word for this is ‘examen’).  Psalm 130 is one of the Bible passages traditionally associated with the late evening service of Compline.  In the more literal translation it begins “Out of the depths have I cried to you, Lord”, but TDS’s version is close to that.  The second half of that first verse moves on logically to ask God not to keep account of our failings.

The second verse acknowledges God’s glory that we cannot behold without the grace that also comes from God himself.  The third asks him to draw near to me in love, and the last one reminds us that God’s love acts like a night-watchman through the night to protect us from harm.  As we have heard today that it will be at least another four months before Covid-19 restrictions on movement in England will be fully lifted, the importance of committing ourselves into God’s care is all the more important to our mental and spiritual health. This pattern of reflection, confession, absolution,  receiving God’s love, and  committing ourselves to his care through the night is matched by most forms of night prayer.

Musically, this is another ‘long metre’ hymn with several possible tunes to be found in any hymn book. The suggested one is ‘Breslau’, a 15th century German melody (the first line certainly has resonances of later Lutheran hymns). When John sang this at morning prayer, he sensibly changed the first line to “From deepest places…” to align the linguistic stress with the musical one.

From ashes to the livng font

Today’s hymn from Sing Praise is “From ashes to the living font” by the American writer Alan Hommerding, set in the book to an old 18th century tune although it is “common metre” so there are many possible tunes to choose from.  Hommerding has written his own tune to it, which he discusses along with the words on a podcast. He explains that it was written for a particular occasion to help parishioners make sense of observing Lent, and that his intention is that during Lent we should not forget the end of the journey (Easter and Pentecost) but have them in mind throughout our spiritual journey.

The opening verse is intended to sum up the idea of the season of Lent as a journey, starting with confession and repentance (Ash Wednesday) and ending with the celebrations of Easter, traditionally a time for new believers to be baptised (symbolised by the font). 

The second calls us to use “fasting, prayer and charity” as a way to hear God’s voice in this season.   The third verse refers to the Transfiguration of Jesus, a story that occurs twice every year in the lectionary cycle, in Lent and in August. It was a key event in the spiritual journey of his closest disciples (Peter, James and John) as they realised without doubt that Jesus was the son of God, greater even than Moses and Elijah.  Few of us will have such a dramatic revelation, but hopefully we will understand something new about Jesus each year.

There are five verses in this setting, but the web page linked above gives, as well as four set verses, separate verses for each Sunday of Lent, of which verse 4 here is the one set for the third Sunday (“For thirsting hearts let water flow, our fainting souls revive, and at the well your waters give our everlasting life”) which is probably intended to go with the story of Jesus and the woman of Samaria.

The last verse starts with a reprise of the opening line, but is explicit about the end of the journey: “through cross and tomb to Easter joy, in Spirit-fire fulfilled”.  We look forward in the solemnity of Lent to the resurrection and the giving of the Spirit, without which the fasting and self-denial doesn’t really make sense.

Now as the evening shadows fall

Today’s hymn from Sing Praise is “Now as the evening shadows fall”.  The words are a paraphrase by the 20th century composer Michael Forster of an ancient text, the medieval Compline hymn usually rendered in English as “Before the ending of the day”.  Compline was the last of the monastic prayer times and so the psalms, prayers and hymns that are regularly used in the service are intended to help us put ourselves right with God and relax into his presence as we go to bed.  Forster’s paraphrase is a comforting one, asking God to help us to trust his grace, and to find “in sleep’s release, bodily rest and inner peace”.

What it is missing is the edginess of the older translations where the darkness of night is seen as the domain of the evil one, from whom we need protection: the words of verse two “Help us to find in sleep’s release, bodily rest and inner peace; may the darkness of the night refresh our eyes for morning light” is a far cry from the traditional rendering “From evil dreams defend our sight, from fears and terrors of the night; tread under foot our ghostly foe, that no pollution we may know”.  The Latin originals (there is more than one version) are even starker, one of them referring to ‘phantasms’ and asking ‘ne polluantur corpora’ – let not my body be polluted.

Funfair on Blackheath, 2012

The tune is called Blackheath, which is an area of London close to where I used to live.  I have happy memories of evenings on the heath, whether sitting on the grass in summer with a pint of beer in a plastic tumbler from one of the pubs along the edge of the heath, watching fireworks, or during the 2012 London Olympics, with hundreds of other people sitting on deckchairs watching the action on a big screen.  But I’ve chosen this image of Blackheath in the evening with a funfair.  People go on funfair rides to scare themselves, or at least work up excitement  (these rides of a travelling fair aren’t as scary as those in a permanent attraction such as Alton Towers).  But the fun is perhaps more about coming off the rides at the end of the evening, celebrating having survived the scary experience (maybe with that drink from the bar) and going home happy. 

Perhaps that is what Compline is about: we bring to God our excitement, the emotional rollercoaster of the day and sometimes maybe even fear of what the night or the next day might bring, and ask him to take those from us so that we can relax into him and into sleep.  At the end of this translation are the lines “Grant us the faith that sets us free to praise you for eternity”.  Amen.