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’?

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.

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.

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’.

Bring healing, bring peace

Christ healing the woman with a flow of blood.
Detail of stained glass window, St John the Baptist , Peterborough
Copyright Julian P Guffogg and licensed for reuse under Creative Commons Licence

Another short chant from Sing Praise today, this time not from Taizé but from John Bell and Graham Maule. ‘Lord Jesus Christ, lover of all, trail wide the hem of your garment, bring healing, bring peace.’

The suggested use of the chant is as a response to intercessions in a church service. Intercessions usually include prayers for healing, often of named individuals. We believe that Jesus, though no longer present in the flesh, is present in spirit and knows the people whom we pray for by name. The reference to ‘the hem of your garment’ in the chant is presumably to the woman whose long-standing problem with a flow of blood (maybe period problems, as some commentators suggest) was healed by merely touching the hem of Jesus’ cloak, and he knew it.  He may not have known her personally, but the mere fact that she had faith enough to reach out to him was enough for her to be aware of her need, and to meet it instantly.  That is the level of faith that we are supposed to develop in praying for others.

‘Bring healing, bring peace’. Healing and peace belong together, both being elements of the concept of ‘shalom’.  Where physical pain or mental distress are healed, there is a sense of peace.  And when we pray for peace in the world, perhaps for a particular area of conflict, we are also praying for the healing of prejudice, hatred and resentment.   So whether our prayers and for a close friend or a faraway country, we can use this chant to bring them to Jesus.

Nothing can ever come between us

Today’s song from Sing Praise is ‘Nothing can ever come between us and the love of God’, another chant from the Taizé community.

The title is the first line of the chorus, the second line being ‘… revealed to us in Jesus Christ’.  I’ve discovered this week that there is now a tradition of a ‘gender reveal party’ where a baby’s gender is disclosed, not only to friends but to the parents themselves who have not previously been given the information (you may well call me slow on the uptake here, as apparently the idea started in America ten years ago, but I don’t have children myself!)  The point is that to reveal something is not only to share factual knowledge, but to make an event of it, to add drama to that passing on of information.  So when the Bible says that God reveals himself to us (and a concordance tells me the word is used 81 times in the Bible) it is more than simply telling us that he exists, it is intended to make a sudden and dramatic change in our understanding, one that will change our lives radically in the same way that people’s lives are changed by having a baby.

The verses, or rather chants to be sung by a solo cantor, are verses from Psalm 56 and Romans chapter 8. They are all about trust in God, and God as the Father who have us his son who died, rose again and prays for us. As a result, to quote the last one, “neither death, nor life, nor things present or to come, nothing can ever keep us from God’s love”.  That love once revealed never leaves us, like the love of a mother for her child.

In manus tuas Pater

Image from Pinterest.com , artist unknown.

The song for today is ‘In manus tuas pater, commendo spiritum meum’, a chant from the Taizé community. Like many of theirs, it’s short and simple. The Latin text translates as ‘Into your hands father, I commend my spirit’. 

The saying is one traditionally used in the service of Compline at the end of the day, as we ‘let ourselves go’ into the hands of God. It’s a concept that I, and many others find helpful, whether it’s pictured as God holding our hands, or embracing us, or (as some images interpret it) as being a tiny baby in the large hands of father that are big enough to cradle us. It’s about letting go worries, letting God handle them. 

John used the song for Saturday morning prayer as usual, and perhaps this chant can be seen as relating to the Gospel reading where Jesus tells his disciples not to worry about tomorrow (for tomorrow has worries of its own) and trust God to provide their basic needs.