Today’s song from Sing Praise is ‘Sing the Lord’s praise, every nation’ by Paul Inwood. It is in the form of two verses with a refrain with two vocal parts in a call-and-echo format. The first verse is a setting of Psalm 117, the shortest of the Psalms, urging people of all nations to praise God for his faithfulness. The second is a Christian doxology (praise to the Trinity), and the chorus is a version of the Orthodox Trisagion (thrice holy). As such I don’t think there’s much more that can be said, other than that the practice of sung praise to God binds the Jewish and Christian faith in all times and (nearly) all traditions.
Today’s hymn from Sing Praise is ‘I do not know tomorrow’s way’ by an American writer, Margaret Clarkson, to a tune by the Northumbria Community, though the suggested alternative of the older and well-known tune ‘O waly waly’ seems to work equally well.
Its theme is that we trust in Christ whatever happens in life, for we do not know the future. The uncertainty applies from day to day (the title line) as unexpected problems arise, through life’s ups and downs (‘grief or gladness, peace or pain’), and as we approach death not knowing how much longer we will live (euphemistically here, ‘when evening falls, if soon or late earth’s day grows dim’).
The repeated motif is in the third line of each verse: ‘But I know Christ…’ and the various assurances he brings (‘he abides with me … his presence will sustain … he’ll call me home to him’). It’s this assurance, difficult to explain but found inside the believer, that keeps us both hopeful and joyful (in the spiritual sense, as distinct from necessarily ‘happy’).
Today’s hymn from Sing Praise is ‘My life flows on in endless song’ by Robert Lowry and Doris Plenn, also known from the chorus line as ‘How can I keep from singing?’ It’s one of the few old (pre-20th century) hymns in the book, and of American origin.
The four verses alternate the troubles of life (not listed in any detail but described as lamentation, tumult, strife, darkness etc.) with the peace that comes from knowing Jesus, whose song (‘the sweet though far-off hymn that sings a new creation’) enables the singer to cope with them. The chorus likewise asks ‘Since love is Lord of heaven and earth, how can I keep from singing?’
I can certainly testify in my own experience that singing hymns and spiritual songs is a good way to avoid losing faith in the face of difficulty, though I don’t often achieve the level of serenity implied by these words. And I wouldn’t try and comfort someone in distress by saying “never mind, your troubles will be as nothing if you just sing hymns”.
John referred this morning to alternative lyrics found on WIkipedia and there’s a reference there to the version by Irish singer Enya. That was the first version of the hymn that I knew, having bought her album ‘Shepherd Moons’. The last verse in that setting is ‘In prison cell and dungeon vile, our thoughts to them are winging. When friends by shame are undefiled, how can I keep from singing?’ Around that time it was widely suggested that this reference to those in prison was a subtle indication of support for IRA prisoners. Whatever the rights and wrongs of Northern Ireland’s civil war, where atrocities were committed on both sides, Jesus did include visiting those in prison as a sign of living out his compassionate love, and for those in prison, a visit may be as uplifting as a song.
Today’s hymn from Sing Praise is another communion song, “Bread of life, hope for the world” with words and music by Bernadette Farrell. There are eight verses in the book, but three of those are each for specific seasons of the year, and two others offers as ‘additional or alternate’ options, so the intention is not to sing all of them, although if sung by a music soloist or group while the people take communion, it could need more than three if the congregation is of even moderate size.
The title is that of the first line of the refrain, which is followed by “Jesus Christ our brother, feed us now, give us life, lead us to one another”. In those few phrases is a summary of the various ways that the mass/communion is understood: as both physical and spiritual food, as a means to eternal life through his death, and as a means to unity within the Church as we share the one bread.
The first few verses expand on those themes: the death and resurrection of Jesus, the making of bread from individual grains compared with the making of the body of Christ from individual people; its breaking as a sign of Jesus’ body broken for us and as a sign of hope.
The additional verses cover the unity of the Church, the sharing of peace, the promise of Christ’s coming (in Advent), the Nativity, and in Lent “our hunger for your word, our thirsting for your truth”.
Today’s song from Sing Praise is “Send me, Lord”, a translation of a South African chant with additional English verses. The structure is simple, with a series of calls on the Lord Jesus to act with us in different ways: Send, Lead, Fill (and John added ‘Use’). Each then takes the same format: “Send me Jesus, Send me Jesus, Send me Jesus, Send me Lord” etc.
As I commented on another hymn on 3 June the key is that each verse starts with a verb, making this very much a call to action, or rather asking Jesus to rouse us to action. Being sent out, we need him to lead us; to serve him in this sometimes hostile world we need the filling of the Spirit, and at the same time the humility to let him use us for his purposes, rather than just assuming we are being useful in whatever we do.
At the risk of over-generalising, as with any song coming from Africa, it is best sung unaccompanied, if possible in harmony, and with enthusiasm.
Today’s hymn from Sing Praise is “When you prayed beneath the trees” by Christopher Idle. This 20th century hymn comes with its own tune, but John played it to an older hymn tune by Orlando Gibbons that better fits the sombre mood.
The feel of the words is much like the better known American spiritual “Where you there when they crucified by Lord?”. They expand on the idea that Jesus suffered, not only in his own body, but for our sake and in our place. The repeated refrain of “it was for me, O Lord” emphasises this. The four verses refer to the agony in the garden of Gethsemane; his trial; the ascent of the hill under the cross (‘via dolorosa’); and finally the crucifixion itself.
This last, though, sees Jesus not as victim but as victor, another common understanding of what happened of Good Friday: “When you spoke with kingly power it was for me, O Lord, in that dread and destined hour you made me free, O Lord; earth and heaven heard you shout, death and hell were put to rout, for the grave could not hold out; you are for me, O Lord”.
Advent faith Reading: Isaiah 40:27-31
Today is the third Sunday of Advent. In the parish of Bramley we have a one-word theme each week during Advent. So far we have had HOPE and PEACE. This week’s word is FAITH.
What does that mean to you? People can sometimes be put off getting involved with Christianity because we talk of faith, thinking that faith means already understanding the Bible, or believing certain things about God. But all that can come later. Faith, to begin with, simply means trusting God – just trusting that he exists, and that he cares.
Isaiah spoke to people who thought God was ignoring them in their problems. No, he said, God understands everything. You just need to trust him, then you can be as strong and free as the eagle, in other words you will find the strength to cope with your problems and feel in control of your life, rather than being earthbound by your problems and other people’s expectations.
Let’s look at a couple of pictures. The first is a photograph of a bird – actually it’s a chough, a sort of large crow, not an eagle – but it is flying high above a lake. My friends and I had spent hours climbing the mountain by our own effort, fighting against gravity, but here was this bird just soaring easily on the thermal currents. I took this at a time when I had been a Christian for over ten years but was exploring options for ministry. This view from a mountain top spoke to me, of the way God might be freeing me from previous commitments to serve him.
The second image is of a place some of you may know, the chapel at Scargill House. About five years after I had taken the first photo, praying in the silence of the chapel in the Yorkshire Dales, God gave me a picture in my mind, in which I was a baby bird, and God my mother. She was telling me it was time to fly the nest, not to be afraid but to trust her to know that now was the time to start flying. Within months of that I had given up my previous job, taken a big cut in income and started serving God in a new way in a new place. Since then I have worked for four different Christian organisations and trained as a Reader.
The point is that you don’t need the gifts of a prophet, the intellect of a bishop, or the wingspan of an eagle to start flying with God. An amount of faith and trust as small as the tiny wings of a baby sparrow will do. The question is, do you trust God when she says that she knows better than you do what you are capable of, and that you are now ready to fly with her? It’s only the start of a lifetime’s journey, but it has to start with that simple act of faith.
A reflection for the first Sunday in Advent – written for the online service from St Peter’s church, Bramley
Bible Reading: Romans 15:7-13 (New International Readers Version)
Christ has accepted you. So accept one another in order to bring praise to God.
I tell you that Christ has become a servant of the Jews. He teaches us that God is true. He shows us that God will keep the promises he made to the founders of our nation. Jesus became a servant of the Jews so that people who are not Jews could give glory to God for his mercy. It is written, “I will praise you among those who aren’t Jews. I will sing praises to you.” Again it says, “You non-Jews, be full of joy. Be joyful together with God’s people.” And again it says, “All you non-Jews, praise the Lord. All you nations, sing praises to him.” And Isaiah says, “The Root of Jesse will grow up quickly. He will rule over the nations. Those who aren’t Jews will put their hope in him.”
May the God who gives hope fill you with great joy. May you have perfect peace as you trust in him. May the power of the Holy Spirit fill you with hope. ____________________________________________
Today is the first day of Advent, the season when we prepare to welcome Jesus. Our parish has a one-word theme each week, and this week’s word is HOPE. Hope, in the way the way Christians use the word, is more than just wishful thinking, it’s trusting that God has a plan for our lives and that his promises of restoration and rebuilding will come true.
At the start of Advent the Church looks back to a time before Jesus, when God’s people were without hope. They were living in exile, separated from family and unable to communicate with them, grieving for those who had been killed in war, unable to do their usual jobs. Doesn’t that sound familiar, as we spend this advent still reeling from the effects of the virus?
Like them, we may feel we have nothing to hope for. But God sent prophets with a message of hope, that he would rescue his people and take them back to where they belonged, restoring relationships and building communities.
The words of the prophets did come true – God restored the Jews to their land. But there was more, a greater hope that God would one day come himself to reconcile his people – not only the Jews, but all people on earth, even those most excluded from society. That’s why in this reading St Paul tells his readers to “accept one another” or in other translations, “welcome each other”– he was talking to Jewish and non-Jewish Christians, but the same applies wherever there is division in society.
This call to welcome others is especially relevant today, when we see so much division, so much inequality, so much discrimination in our world. Never forget, Paul says, that God’s promise of hope is to all people, but most of all to the excluded.
What does this look like in practice? Take these fishermen. They live in a village called MGR Thittu in Tamil Nadu, south India which we visited in 20o6 with Tearfund. They are Dalits, those below the bottom tier of the caste system. They were cut off from society, poor, despised, uneducated, unable to work in the towns. Then the 2004 tsunami hit them, destroyed their boats and their homes. They had no hope. But Indian Christians from an organisation called EFICOR (with financial support from Tearfund in the UK), and Christian Aid, came to their rescue with a practical message of hope. They built new homes, gave them new boats, and opened a computer teaching centre so that they could learn to use the Internet, get jobs in the city and become part of mainstream society. Above all, the Christians brought a message of God’s unconditional love. Several of the Dalits turned to Christ and now there is a local church in their village.
That’s what Advent hope looks like in India. But who are the excluded people who God is calling you to welcome? Who are the people God is calling you to bring hope to, this Advent?
[Postscript: since I drafted this earlier this week, Tearfund have asked for prayer for the Tamil Nadu region as it has been hit by a severe cyclone, with large numbers of people evacuated from the coastal areas. Pray that once again, they may be given hope for the future].
This post is based on what I put together for our online workplace prayer meeting at the end of August. It is based around verses from a well known hymn by Jan Struther – if you don’t know the tune you can easily find performances on Youtube.
September is always a time of new beginnings, especially for those in education. This year, adults too are having to make adjustments, whether it’s to the “new normal” at work, or different ways of being church, or having to cope with redundancy. So this is a chance to pray for all those facing new challenges, as well as for ourselves. We start by remembering that whatever a new day (or new term, or new job or lack of) brings, God will be with us.
Lord of all hopefulness, Lord of all joy,
whose trust, ever childlike, no cares could destroy:
Be there at our waking, and give us, we pray,
your bliss in our hearts, Lord, at the break of the day.
Back to work
Few jobs will be unaffected by the requirements of the post-Covid world whether it is working from home, serving customers in a socially distanced way or delivering online courses and meetings instead of being face-to-face. Personally I am just finishing part-time furlough, having previously been on full time furlough for two periods totalling eight weeks earlier in the year. But I’m only back in the office one day a week to begin with, sat too far from any co-workers to have conversations during the working day and unable as yet to have ‘real’ meetings. Others such as schoolteachers will have to return to work full time but with the additional responsibility of ensuring the safety of their students.
Whatever your working arrangements, I hope that this prayer that I found online (credited to “Fowiso”) will help you as much as it has helped me these past weeks as I enter the small space that is my home office.
My Heavenly father, as I enter this workplace I bring your presence with me. I speak your peace, your grace, your mercy, and your perfect order in this office. I acknowledge your power over all that will be spoken, thought, decided, and done within these walls.
Lord, I thank you for the gifts you have blessed me with. I commit to using them responsibly in your honour. Give me a fresh supply of strength to do my job. Anoint my projects, ideas, and energy so that even my smallest accomplishment may bring you glory.
The hymn reminds us that God is with us in action as well as stillness:
Lord of all eagerness, Lord of all faith,
whose strong hands were skilled at the plane and the lathe:
Be there at our labours, and give us, we pray,
your strength in our hearts, Lord, at the noon of the day.
Back to school
Pupils and students are going back to classrooms, but now in smaller bubbles, varied hours, having to keep social distance. Many will have fallen behind in their education, and the lockdown has only increased the gap between those from well-off, well-educated families and those struggling with disadvantages. Here is a prayer from the Church of England for those returning to school:
O God, the strength of our lives,
We pray for those who join a new school this term.
Make known your will for them,
help them to discover friends among strangers,
to meet opportunities and challenges eagerly,
and to do daily tasks in your name.
Give them strength to overcome worries,
and preserve them in your safe keeping,
through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
School has its challenges at the best of times – exams, bullying, subjects and sports that students don’t enjoy or feel they will never understand. Coming back from school to a welcoming home is something that many of us remember enjoying at the end of a tough school day, but not everyone is fortunate enough to live in a supportive family. Our heavenly father/mother, though, is always there to welcome, appreciate and comfort us. Remember these young people as you sing or read the next verse of the hymn:
Lord of all kindliness, Lord of all grace,
your hands swift to welcome, your arms to embrace:
Be there at our homing, and give us, we pray,
your love in our hearts, Lord, at the eve of the day.
Back to church
Church leaders and their congregations have been faced with the challenge of not worshipping together for the last six months. Some have had the resources to respond to this inventively with complex, interactive online worship. Others have made do with a simple recorded service led only by the minister and perhaps their family members from home. And many smaller congregations haven’t even managed that, keeping in touch only with phone calls. Many older people don’t have computers or smartphones and have been left out of online worship.
Here is a prayer from the Methodist church for those returning to church:
We pray for your church in this time of uncertainty.
For those who are worried about attending worship.
For those needing to make decisions in order to care for others.
For those who will feel more isolated by not being able to attend.
Holy God, we remember that you have promised that nothing will
separate us from your love – demonstrated to us in Jesus Christ.
Help us turn our eyes, hearts and minds to you.
Back to justice
At a local level there have been many welcome initiatives during lockdown that bring people together to build community. Around where I live, someone has set up a ‘Bramley Wombles’ group to clear litter , while the ‘Bramley Tate’ group is painting vibrant street art to cheer people on their way. Others have been volunteering with food banks, phoning people in isolation to offer help and emotional support, and so on. But while all this has been going on, many people have been concerned at the way the world is going. This year, whether or not the pandemic has anything to do with it, we have also seen an increase in racism, hatred, violence of all kinds, and lies and scandals in politics.
At the same time climate change isn’t going away, and for all the good signs that more people are taking it seriously at an individual level, there seems to be a continuing lack of action by governments and corporations around the world who have the power and money to make a big difference.
When the world falls apart, people of all faiths call out on God to come to their aid. As Christians, we cannot forget that Jesus warned that things would get worse before he comes again to put everything right. The following Bible reading reminds us that Jesus knew that his ‘good news’ would face resistance, and he encouraged his followers to concentrate on the people who welcomed his message. Although Advent seems some way off yet, its refrain “Come, Lord Jesus” is one we can use at any time of year.
After this the Lord appointed seventy others and sent them on ahead of him in pairs to every town and place where he himself intended to go. He said to them, ‘The harvest is plentiful, but the labourers are few; therefore ask the Lord of the harvest to send out labourers into his harvest. Go on your way. See, I am sending you out like lambs into the midst of wolves. Carry no purse, no bag, no sandals; and greet no one on the road. Whatever house you enter, first say, “Peace to this house!” And if anyone is there who shares in peace, your peace will rest on that person; but if not, it will return to you.
Remain in the same house, eating and drinking whatever they provide, for the labourer deserves to be paid. Do not move about from house to house. Whenever you enter a town and its people welcome you, eat what is set before you; cure the sick who are there, and say to them, “The kingdom of God has come near to you.” But whenever you enter a town and they do not welcome you, go out into its streets and say, “Even the dust of your town that clings to our feet, we wipe off in protest against you. Yet know this: the kingdom of God has come near.” ~(Luke 10:1-11, New Revised Standard Version)
And so we pray for God’s justice to come among us:
deliver us from a world without justice
and a future without mercy;
in your mercy, establish justice,
and in your justice, remember the mercy
revealed to us in Jesus Christ our Lord.
The last verse of the hymn encourages us to hand over all our problems and worries to God, especially at the end of the day. “The Earth is the Lord’s and everything in it”. In the face of injustice, all we can do is our best, even if it seems very little, and trust God for the rest.
Lord of all gentleness, Lord of all calm,
whose voice is contentment, whose presence is balm:
Be there at our sleeping, and give us, we pray,
your peace in our hearts, Lord, at the end of the day.
May God bless your new day, your new term, your ‘new normal’.
This post is based on a prayer session that I led today. The title comes from a book of meditations by Eddie Askew, and the idea is that to appreciate God’s presence we need to be moving at a pace ‘slower than butterflies’.
During the Covid-19 lockdown I have been doing more walking, and more photography than usual. I do love photographing butterflies, but it requires patience. Although they don’t fly fast, they rarely stay in one place for more than a few seconds. You have to stay around, observing them carefully and moving in slowly and quietly with the camera to get a good photo.
So here are some of my butterfly photographs, with some Biblical reflections about living slowly.
This is a small tortoiseshell, photographed on a riverbank – a very quiet place away from the noise of traffic. We often need to find somewhere quiet to slow down and experience God in the silence. The Prophet Elijah found this when he fled to a cave in the desert to escape persecution, in words that you may recognise from a well known hymn..
Now there was a great wind, so strong that it was splitting mountains and breaking rocks in pieces before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind; and after the wind an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake; and after the earthquake a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire; and after the fire a sound of sheer silence. When Elijah heard it, he wrapped his face in his mantle and went out and stood at the entrance of the cave. Then there came a voice to him that said, ‘What are you doing here, Elijah?’ (1 Kings 19:11-15)
This is a ringlet, photographed alongside a footpath across farmland. Sometimes you have to look long and carefully to spot the butterfly, especially a dull coloured one like this, and only see it clearly for a moment before it flutters away. That’s a bit like the Holy Spirit of God – often we only have a brief experience of the Spirit before she seems to flutter away again. But even that brief experience may send us away rejoicing. Perhaps that’s what St John had in mind when he wrote the following letter. The word for “looked at” implies a lingering gaze rather than a brief glimpse, reminding us that the wait may be long before the experience arrives.
We declare to you what was from the beginning, what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we have looked at and touched with our hands, concerning the word of life— this life was revealed, and we have seen it and testify to it, and declare to you the eternal life that was with the Father and was revealed to us— we declare to you what we have seen and heard so that you also may have fellowship with us; and truly our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ. We are writing these things so that our joy may be complete. (1 John 1:1-4)
This is a skipper, feeding on knapweed. Butterflies and other insects have a symbiotic relationship with flowers – the insects feed on nectar, while they in turn pollinate other flowers, and so both species can continue to flourish. Jesus spoke of how birds and flowers depend on God for their existence without worrying –
Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? And can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life? And why do you worry about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these. But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which is alive today and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you—you of little faith? (Matthew 6:26-30)
This cabbage white butterfly was basking on ballast on a railway line – a hot, dry and potentially dangerous environment with no source of food. But we can still find God even in places that seem a long way from a comfortable life, in the “valley of darkness” as well as the “green pastures”, as Psalm 23 reminds us –
The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.
He makes me lie down in green pastures;
he leads me beside still waters;
he restores my soul.
He leads me in right paths
for his name’s sake.
Even though I walk through the darkest valley,
I fear no evil;
for you are with me;
your rod and your staff—
they comfort me.
I found this speckled wood butterfly in a country churchyard. The mound of earth may well have come from a recently dug grave. As an old Christian proverb says, “In the midst of life we are in death”. But butterflies are often held up as a parable of the resurrection: the earthbound caterpillar effectively dies as it turns into a chrysalis, which after a while yields the gloriously coloured, flighty creature that in its previous existence could not have imagined the glory that was to come. As Jesus explained –
Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. (John 12:24)
So take some time today to slow down to butterfly pace, appreciate the silence, look for the signs of God in the natural world, trust Him for your material needs, and remember that beyond suffering and death will be the unimagined wonder of the world to come.
A grayling butterfly, seen on the Cornish coast path.
May the wings of the butterfly kiss the sun.
And find your shoulder to light on.
To bring you luck, happiness, and riches.
Today, tomorrow, and beyond.
(an anonymous Irish blessing)
Copyright (c) Stephen Craven 2020. Quotations from New Revised Standard Version Bible: Anglicized Edition, copyright © 1989, 1995 National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America.