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.

Sing of the Lord’s goodness

Today’s hymn from Sing Praise is “Sing of the Lord’s goodness” by Ernest Sands and dated 1981.  I have come across it before, but thought it was by Geoff Weaver. It’s a traditional style hymn of four verses with chorus, but the music is far from traditional in its use of syncopation and unusual metre.

Although not stated to be a psalm setting, the last verse is clearly taken from Psalm 150 with its call to praise God with singing, trumpet, lute, harp, cymbals and dancing. Nowadays, guitar and drums are far more common than lutes and cymbals, but the principle is unchanged.  The chorus continues the theme of praising God with music. This just makes me realise how much I have missed the congregational singing in church with Covid restrictions.  A few times during the spring and summer we’ve sung a final hymn outdoors after the service, but so far that’s all. 

Some of the other words (verses 1-3) are at least in the style of the Psalms even if not direct quotations. God’s mercy and everlasting love, faithfulness, power, honour and splendour are certainly found there, also his ability to give “courage in our darkness, comfort in our sorrow”.  Verse 2 is clearly referring to Jesus: “Risen from the snares of death, his word he has spoken, one bread he has broken, new life he now gives to all”.

I will sing the wondrous story

Today’s hymn from Sing Praise is an older one than most in this book, “I will sing the wondrous story” by Francis Rowley, set to a traditional Welsh hymn tune, Hyfrydol.

The ‘story’ of the title is the Gospel message, of how Christ left heaven to be incarnate on earth and die for our sins (verse 1), continuing to this day to find and rescue sinners (verse 2), and eventually lead us back to heaven (verse 3). In the outer verses the second half is the same, where the song will be sung ‘with his saints in glory’. ‘Singing the story’ could be interpreted either as a celebration of the tradition of hymn singing in churches, or as the joy that we should find in talking about Jesus’ saving works.

This is one of those hymns which has much Biblical and Christian symbolism. Phrases such as ‘realms of glory’ and ‘crystal sea’ for heaven, lost sheep as a metaphor for sinful humans, a presumed reference to Psalm 23 in both the lost sheep and the days of darkness, and crossing a river as a symbol of death and resurrection, are familiar to lifelong Christians but need explanation for anyone who is new to the faith.  When we tell the ‘wondrous story’ whether in song or by other means, we need to use language that people will understand.

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.

The Bible in a Year – 22 September

If this is your first viewing, please see my Introduction before reading this.

22 September. 1 Chronicles chapters 24-25

This passage consists of the rotas of different extended families in the service of the Temple.  The names mean nothing to us now, but clearly it was important at the time that the whole of the tribe of Levi had been set apart centuries earlier as dedicated to leading public worship and administration, and all that went with it.   Nowadays we would call it nepotism or discrimination, but that was their culture.

Just one verse stands out for me: “David and the officers of the army also set apart for the service the sons of Asaph, and of Heman, and of Jeduthun, who were to prophesy with lyres, harps, and cymbals.” (25:1).  We tend to think of “prophesy” as inevitably a matter of speaking words: words given by God, either in one’s own language or (in “charismatic” churches) sometimes in a spiritual language that has to be interpreted by others equally but differently gifted.  Words of prophesy might be given to encourage people in faith, to warn them that they are going wrong, or occasionally to foretell the future.

But here, prophesy seems to be equated with playing musical instruments.  Music was clearly a very important part of the worship of the Temple, and we still have the words (though not the tunes) passed down to us in the form of Psalms. Many of the psalms themselves exhort people to praise God with music.  It is well known that singing has many benefits, both in terms of personal health (aiding relaxation and coping with stress, for example), and in uniting people in a sense of belonging together by singing together.

Singing hymns and psalms, in particular, helps people to remember and respond to the scriptures and creeds that the church passes down from one generation to the next: call out to me “O Lord open thou our lips” and I will respond with “and our mouth shall show forth thy praise” to the chant used by Anglicans for nearly 500 years.

But even instrumental music can be of spiritual benefit, as this verse reminds us.  It influences moods to a great extent, and through association helps people to remember places and events, and the words, thoughts or feelings that went with them.  So the playing of music in a pace of worship is “prophecy” to the extent that those hearing it will be reminded of previous times of worship, or of words of scripture. Or it may just be gentle music that calms us and makes us open to meditation and prayer.  Play on, Heman and Jeduthun!