Like a candle flame

Desmond Tutu.
Photographer Lord Ru, image via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 4.0)

Today’s hymn from Sing Praise is ‘Like a candle flame’ by Graham Kendrick.  It’s a simple, gentle song of the Nativity, at least at the start – ‘Flickering small in our darkness, uncreated light shines through infant eyes’.  The second verse gives a hint that there is more to come from this miraculous baby: ‘Can this tiny spark set a world on fire?’

The last verse bursts forth in splendour: ‘Yet his light shall shine from our lives, Spirit blazing, as we touch the flame of his holy fire’.  For through Christ’s resurrection and the sending of the Holy Spirit he not only brings the light of God’s truth and love to the world, but sometimes too the ‘blazing’ of signs of power. 

Those who stay at the manger miss the real implications of the birth. Just this morning we heard of the death on Christmas Day of Archbishop Desmond Tutu, and our vicar referenced this in his sermon on St Stephen, the first Christian martyr whose feast day we celebrate.  Tutu wasn’t a martyr in the sense of being killed for his faith, but he did share the martyrs’ courageous faith that meant preaching the truth (in his case, the truth of the equality of black and homosexual people) at a risk to his own job and possibly life.  Here was a man in whom the Spirit of Jesus blazed. 

Send, O God, your Holy Spirit

Today’s hymn from Sing Praise is “Send, O God, your Holy Spirit”.  The title may suggest it for the Pentecost season, but the compilers have chosen to put it in the section headed “The Church’s Ministry and Mission”.  That reminds us that the Spirit is never given for the individual’s benefit (as Paul explains to the Corinthians) but for the building up of the Church as the Body of Christ and for the furthering of God’s mission.

Thus, after the first verse asking for the Spirit to be sent “on your people gathered here”, the second acknowledges that the Spirit’s gifts are given “to equip the saints of Jesus for the saving work we share”. The third verse lists some of those gifts (wisdom, knowledge, faith, healing) and the last reminds us that in claiming the “gift, faith and promise” of the Spirit, we “build the body of the Lord”.

Veni, venie, Sancte Spiritus

Today’s selection from Sing Praise returns us briefly to the feast of Pentecost, with a cantor-and-refrain chant on the invocation ‘Come, Holy Spirit’, or rather the Latin version ‘Vene, Sancte Spiritus’.  We have sung the refrain by itself, in the 4-part harmony, in our church music group, but here Peter Nardone has added four short verses for a cantor.

The first verse is “Come make our hearts your home, give us grace, Spirit, come”, followed by “Come, come thou well of life, come thou fire of love”. Fire and Well (i.e. water) seem to be opposites, one extinguishing the other, but then the Spirit’s ways are so diverse that sometimes they do seem contradictory.  But he responds to the individual’s need: at one point in my spiritual life I may need the deep refreshing water, ant other times to be fired up. At another I may just need to feel the love or peace of God, as the last two verses put it: “Come, fill our hearts with heavenly love, come, strengthen from above … Come, keep us all from danger free, come, peace that dwells in thee”. 

The two-line verses are seemingly intended to rhyme, except verse 2 doesn’t at all (life/love) and rhyming home/come (verse 1) also misses the mark.

May we, O Holy Spirit, bear your fruit

Today’s Pentecost hymn from Sing Praise is “May we, O Holy Spirit” by Paul Wigmore. Whereas some of the hymns this week have been about the Spirit’s power, or the way s/he communicates God’s peace and presence to us, this one is very much about the way that the Spirit builds our character.  For personal reasons that I can’t go into here, this is particularly relevant to me at present.

In the first verse we ask that we may bear the Spirit’s fruit. In fact the three verses list all the “fruits of the Spirit” from the book of Galatians: “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-restraint” (or similar words, depending on which translation of the Bible you use).  The words of the hymn expand on what these fruits are meant to achieve: joy and peace to accompany our words, love becoming deeper and stronger, patience to prevent us saying or doing harm, kindness to look for the good in other people, goodness to be seen in action, faithfulness as a quality of endurance, gentleness to “lend courage to the weak” (an interesting phrase) and finally self-restraint to “help us know the grace that made the King of Heaven meek”.

That memorable phrase about making the King of Heaven meek comes in the last line of the hymn, but to me it says a lot not only about Jesus but about how He wants us to live by the Spirit.  The Christian life is not only about what we achieve but about the quality of our character (and as I hinted at the start, I write from a position of knowing that I very much need that character-building work of the Spirit). The character God looks for is not that of the high-flyer but of those who, in the words of Romans 12:16, “are not haughty but give themselves to humble tasks” (NRSV footnote).

John chose to sing this hymn to the tune “Ellers” rather than the one provided in Sing Praise. That tune is also used for a setting of the Methodist Covenant prayer, the final verse of which is “Go with us, Lord, from hence; we only ask that thou be sharer in our daily task; So, side by side with thee, shall each one know the blessedness of heaven begun below”.  That is the true work of the Spirit, as much as signs and wonders.

Like the murmur of the dove’s song

Today’s hymn in our Pentecost series from Sing Praise is “Like the murmur of the dove’s song” by Carl P Daw Jr.  As with most other hymns about (or in this case, addressed to) the Holy Spirit, it tries to cover many aspects of the nature and gifts of the Spirit.

The words of the hymn are carefully structured: three verses, in each of which the first four lines begin with the same word, and then the fifth line of each verse is the same invocation, “Come, Holy Spirit, come”.

The common word of verse one is “Like”: Like the murmur of the dove’s song, like the challenge of her flight, like the vigour of the wind’s rush, like the new flame’s eager might”. Once again we see the contrast between the gentle murmuring bird, and the power of wind and flame. When we ask the Spirit to come, we don’t know which of these aspects will be present.

Verse two is about movement towards us: “To the members of Christ’s body, to the branches of the vine, to the Church in faith assembled, to her midst as gift and sign”. In other words, we ask the Spirit to come to us individually, to our congregations (branches) and to the whole Church. From the private room to the world stage, the Spirit is called to be present.

Verse three is about the Spirit’s particular gifts and fruits: “with the healing of division, with the ceaseless voice of prayer, with the power to love and witness, with the peace beyond compare”. The Spirit enables what would otherwise not be possible, whether seemingly intractable divisions in society or the peace that always seems beyond reach. Whenever we pray for some situation that seems hopeless, our refrain must be “come, Holy Spirit, come”.

Holy Spirit, hear us

from the website of the Church of Christ in Kenya

Today’s hymn from Sing Praise is “Holy Spirit, hear us” by William Henry Parker. In the five verses we ask the Spirit, in different ways, to help us in our walk with God: singing, praying, Bible reading, living graciously, and making ethical choices.  I’m going to concentrate on the first one. 

First, then, is singing: “breathe into the music of the praise we bring”. Singing in church isn’t a performance or a competition, but a way of applying the natural human instinct for music to our praise of God.  Spoken words, however worthy and appropriate, don’t have anything like the impact on ourselves or other people that song does. That’s why many of us have found worship during Covid restrictions so difficult when we’re not allowed to express our praise in song.

Whether struggling to learn the tune of a new song, or reciting a very familiar one ‘by rote’, it’s all too easy to fail to notice the meaning of the words.  By this invocation of the Spirit, we are asking that the words of familiar songs may strike us afresh, and in new ones reveal the depths of their meaning.

By asking the Spirit into our singing, we are also asking that we may express our true feelings in the way we sing, and be open to being moved into new ways of expression.  If you are open to the Spirit, you might find yourself improvising a harmony or breaking into song during the prayer time.  Depending on your church culture, it might or might not be the ‘done thing’.  I remember on one occasion, at my mother’s fairly traditional church, as I walked in silence back to our pew after taking communion, I felt the urge to sing the chorus “I am a new creation”.  I didn’t, and I don’t know what people’s reaction would have been, but sometimes I wish I had done what the Spirit prompted.

Holy Spirit, gift bestower

Today’s hymn from Sing Praise is “Holy spirit, gift bestower” which is noted in the book as ‘author unknown’ although a quick search online reveals the composer to be the Revd Catherine Anne Williams (b.1956).

Like yesterday’s, the words (for the most part) celebrate the gentle coming of the Spirit in his/her many facets: gift bestower, flowing water, dove that hovers, love inspirer, joy releaser, reconciler, peace restorer, Christ proclaimer, wisdom bringer, wind that whispers, comfort bearer, faith confirmer.  All very comfortable images, and the gentle Welsh melody lends itself well to these sentiments. The presence of the Spirit is what we often need when life is hitting us hard.

There are, however, some exceptions, some phrases here that remind us of the less comfortable aspects of the Spirit’s ministry: fire that dances, ease disturber, truth revealer.  Jesus said the Spirit would “lead us into all truth” and that includes both making us aware of our own shortcomings, and also making us aware of the needs of others, even the evil in the world, where we have to be stirred from complacency to take action in Jesus’ name.

Be present, Spirit of the Lord

Today’s hymn from Sing Praise is “Be present, Spirit of the Lord” by Timothy Dudley-Smith. It’s sung to the tune of “Dear Lord and Father of Mankind”, and the words have a similar gentleness to them, the first verse including the line “let sounds of earth be dumb” and “the dew of blessing”, perhaps a deliberate reference to the earlier hymn’s “drop thy still dews of quietness”. 

The Spirit here is not the rushing wind and tongues of fire of Pentecost, but a quieter presence – verse one ends with “O silent Spirit, come!” The second verse tells of what happens when an unseen power rests upon us: “a mind renewed, a spirit blessed, a life where Christ is manifest”. The third verse is a bit more active as it asks the Spirit to incline our souls to Christ and help us to do God’s will.  The last verse askes the Spirit to stay with us, make his home in our hearts and work in us so that “we who pray may walk with Christ in wisdom’s way”.

It can be scary when we hear of the dramatic work of the Holy Spirit, even though we know it is the force of goodness rather than evil at work – evil spirits cast out, people freed from addiction, broken bones suddenly healed, prophecies uttered in spiritual languages that no-one but the interpreter can understand.  This hymn is a reminder that the Spirit can also act as a gentle persuader, a friendly comforter, a silent strength within. Both are equally true, equally the work of the same Spirit (1 Corinthians 12:4-11).

All together in one place

The Day of Pentecost. Image from

The hymn I picked from Sing Praise for Pentecost Sunday itself is “All together in one place” by Brian Hoare. The first three verses re-tell the events of that day as recorded in the Bible: the disciples met together for prayer, waiting (as he told them to) for something to happen, then experiencing the power of the Spirit as wind and flame before they were each prompted to pray and praise God in all the languages of the known world (what that actually looked and sounded like, we shall never know!)  

Each verse of the hymn (apart from the last) begins with ‘all together’, and emphasises not only that the disciples had to stick together in order to experience the fullness of Pentecost, but also that they then had to live as community as they carried out Jesus’ work by the power of that same Spirit over subsequent years (verse four) and that the Church today (verse five) also has to act ‘all together’ if we are to experience that same Spirit and be effective witnesses in this generation. 

The last verse brings this together, reminding us that the Church begun in Jerusalem all those years ago is the one we still belong to: ‘One in mission, one in faith, still responding to God’s call, one in telling all the world Jesus Christ is Lord of all”.

Enemy of apathy

The hymn that I chose from Sing Praise for Friday was “Enemy of Apathy” by John Bell and Graham Maule.  I’ve been away from the computer for a couple of days which is why I’m only commenting on it now.  But it was one of the hymns sung by our music group in church this morning, for Pentecost Sunday itself.

The hymn covers several aspects of the role of the Holy Spirit as found in the Bible, reimagined in poetic language.  The Spirit is here referred to as female throughout, maybe as a deliberate balance to the tendency to address God in general or the Spirit in particular by male pronouns, though of course God is neither, yet more than both. 

The feminine character of God is perhaps particularly appropriate to emphasise in the Creation story (verse 1) where the imagery used by the composers is that of birthing: the Spirit is “’like a bird, brooding on the waters … mothering creation, waiting to give birth to all the Word will say’. Here we see the partnership between God the Creator (the divine act of will), God the Word (the divine act of communication) and God the Spirit (the divine power of action).  I love the phrase ‘she sighs and she sings’, expressing perhaps the joy of seeing God’s will being done with as well as the  frustration we equally feel when we long for God to act and it seems s/he is delaying action.

The second verse sees this spiritual bird in a more active role, ‘winging over earth, resting where she wishes, lighting close at hand or soaring through the skies.  Sometimes the Spirit’s way of working is personal and intimate as one person is brought closer to God, and sometimes visible and dramatic, as when a nationwide revival happens.   The birthing imagery is repeated but in terms of human reproduction, as she ‘nests in each womb, welcoming each wonder, nourishing potential hidden to our eyes’. Without wishing to get drawing into a pro-life / pro-choice argument, we must recognise that God must know each developing embryo as intimately as any child or adult who is consciously aware of God.

The third verse brings us to the feast of Pentecost itself. The spirit here ‘dances in fire, startling her spectators, waking tongues of ecstasy where dumbness reigned’. How wonderful it must have been to witness that day, when the Spirit appeared in a form that Luke (or those witnesses whose evidence he heard) must have struggled to express in meaningful ways to others.  But her work was not completed then, rather it lives on as ‘she weans and inspires all whose hearts are open’.

Finally we are reminded in verse four that, as we will consider on Trinity Sunday next week,  there are not three gods but ‘one God in essence’. The creator, the saviour, the spirit all express God’s love.  The final line gives the hymn its title: ‘enemy of apathy and heavenly dove’.  Apathy is usually defined in its literal sense of not feeling emotion, or in common usage as ‘not being bothered’ about something.  Here it is probably used to mean a reluctance to join in with God’s work of creation and redemption. Those who are filled with the Spirit want nothing more than to be the channels of God’s ceaseless activity.