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Sing Praise 2021 – introduction

Four years ago, in 2017, I set myself the task, which I completed, of reading through the Bible in a year.  You can read my thoughts on each day’s section in the archives of my blog.

For 2021 I have set myself a different challenge, to sing my way through a hymn book.  Why?  Several people recently, in the media and in church sermons, have commented that the Covid-19 pandemic, depriving us of most opportunities to hear live music or participate in singing, has also deprived us of something essential to our humanity.   Song, in its many forms, is at the heart of every culture.

It is particularly important in the Jewish-Christian religious tradition (with a few exceptions such as the Quakers who worship in silence).   St Paul tells his readers to “sing psalms, hymns and spiritual songs”. This covers very succinctly the use of musical versions of the Psalms to express the full range of human emotions, settings of the creeds and liturgies of the church (hymns), and celebrating the love of God (spiritual songs).  This was expressed more fully and very eloquently by the Revd Keith Fraser-Smith, in his sermon for the first Sunday of Christmas at Christ Church, Upper Armley in Leeds.  You can watch it on the church’s Facebook page at https://tinyurl.com/y7op7wpw – start 13 minutes into the service for the sermon. Without these opportunities for collective worship in song, I have felt dissatisfied with my spiritual life in 2020. 

So, for 2021, starting as it does with a continued and indefinite ban on congregational singing, I will at least sing one hymn or song per day at home, and I will share some brief thoughts on these in subsequent blog posts.  Of the several hymn books on my shelf, I have chosen “Sing Praise” (published by Hymns Ancient & Modern Ltd in 2010 – available from their website singpraise.hymnsam.co.uk ).  It has a good range of new songs and hymns, many of which I haven’t tried yet, along with some old favourites, and about half of them are themed to the seasons of the church year as observed by Catholic and Anglican churches. The number in the book (329) is close enough to 365 to allow for a different hymn nearly every day.

The principles I have observed in fitting these 329 songs to the calendar for 2021 are as follows:

  • A choice for every day from Sunday to Friday, plus Saturdays in Lent, Easter and Advent seasons (the remaining Saturdays will serve as catch-ups for the odd day that I may miss).
  • Seasonally themed where possible
  • Songs related directly to the Communion service are allocated to Sundays.
  • Outside the named church seasons (in “ordinary time”) the remaining hymns are randomly allocated.

If you’ve read so far, I hope you can join me for the rest of the year as we sing our way through 2021.

Put peace into each other’s hands

sharing the peace, King of Peace church, Kingsland, Georgia, USA

Today’s hymn from Sing Praise is “Put peace into each other’s hands” by Fred Kaan. Although found in the “God and the world” section rather than the “Holy Communion” section, it is presumably inspired by the practice of sharing the peace before the breaking of bread at the Communion / Mass.  

The words of the hymn off several approaches to the Peace. “Protect it like a candle-flame, with tenderness enfold it” reminds us that there are those in the congregation who are hurting physically or emotionally and need to be treated with tenderness. Likewise, “Give thanks for strong, yet tender, hands, held out in trust and blessing” is a signal that those hands held out to meet ours may look strong, yet may actually be a sign of needing affirmation from us.

“Be gentle in your words and ways, in touch with God’s creation” might be understood as seeing God in the other person: that hand you are touching, as Teresa of Avila reminds us, is Christ’s hand on earth.

“Look people warmly in the eye, our life is meant for caring” calls us to more than merely shake hands and mumble “peace be with you”. It has been said that this has become a mere ritual of shaking hands with as many people as possible, ‘quantity not quality’ and that the time would be better spent with just one person, getting to know someone a bit better or talking to someone you have been avoiding because of some disagreement. That takes more effort but it’s worth it, as you can then approach the actual communion feeling that the words “we being many are one body” have a real resonance in what you have just done.

The last verse begins “reach out in friendship, stay with faith in touch with those around you” and reminds us that the peace and fellowship we share should extend beyond Sunday worship and our lives should be shared throughout the week whether in group meetings or individual friendship. It ends by saying that the peace we offer each other is nothing less than “the Peace that sought and found you”. It is not merely contentment that we offer, but the Peace of the Lord, the ‘shalom’ or wholeness and integrity of life in God.

Oh the life of the world

Today’s hymn from Sing Praise is “Oh the life of the world is a joy and a treasure” by Kathryn and Ian Galloway. The theme of the words is, as John has pointed out, one that can be interpreted in different ways. The “life of the world” can be the whole created order, as I have discussed in the last several posts on the general theme of “God and the World”, or God’s life breathed into humanity according to the Genesis story.   But although there is only a brief reference in the last verse to the Son (i.e. Jesus the Son of God), it also calls to mind his own description of himself as “the way, the truth and the life” and St John’s statement that “whoever has the Son has life”.

With that in mind, each of the first three verses starts with “Oh the life of the world”, which in turn is equated to “a joy and a treasure” followed by a list of some of the beauties of the natural world; “a fountain of goodness” in our common life both in the “sound of the city and the silence of wisdom”, and “the source of our healing” where there is “care for the poor and the broken and where justice is strong”.  The last verse gives thanks for this life in God as Maker, Son and Spirit.

The tune was presumably written for this hymn, and has been arranged by fellow Scot, John Bell, but is in the tradition of Scottish folk melodies. Not surprisingly it is easy to pick up and one that stays in one’s head long after singing.

Great is thy faithfulness

Today’s hymn from Sing Praise is a well known one, “Great is thy faithfulness”. As John pointed out in his video, it is not as old as the use of “thy” might suggest – he said 1950s although the copyright in the book says “Words © 1923 renewed 1951”. The author, Thomas Chisholm, was born in 1866 (just after the Civil War) and died in 1960; he therefore composed this not long after the horrors of the Great War, and renewed the copyright after the second War in his 90s.  This suggests an optimistic faith in God that survived a long and eventful life.  His brief biography on Wikipedia tells us he was born in a log cabin in Kentucky, found faith in his twenties, and only worked one year as a Methodist minister before turning his ministry to poetry and songwriting, for which he is presumably far better remembered.  Let that be a lesson to anyone who thinks the ordained ministry is necessarily the best way of serving our Lord (but no criticism of your parish ministry intended, John!)

The theme of the hymn’s words is God’s unchanging nature, and especially his mercy and compassion.   The second verse, “summer and winter, and spring time and harvest, sun, moon and stars in their courses above” poetically encompasses all the times and seasons of life, its joys and sorrows included.  Perhaps he had those various wars in mind when he wrote these words.   The third verse sings of “pardon for sin and a peace that endureth”, the heart of the Gospel preached by Moody whose evangelical movement influenced Chisholm, and Billy Graham who used it in his crusades. 

The final words are “blessings all mine, with ten thousand besides”. That number seems to crop up in various places in hymnody – the “ten thousand years” of Amazing Grace, and “ten thousand reasons” in a more modern worship song.  There is no one obvious source for this in the Bible, where the number usually represents an army of soldiers or a large sum of money; there is however a reference to us having “ten thousand guardians in Christ” (1 Corinthians 4:15) which may lie behind these uses of the number.

Lord of all worlds

Rotting logs © David Pashley licensed for reuse under Creative Commons Licence

Today’s hymn from Sing Praise is “Lord of all Worlds” by Christopher Ellis.  Like yesterday’s (“Let all creation dance”) it’s a celebration of God’s goodness in creation.  Like St Francis of Assisi’s ‘canticle of creation’, it covers the beauties of sun and stars, earth, wind and sea, fish and birds (but no mention here of land animals).

There is a problem with this and many similar hymns, which is that we only praise God for “all things bright and beautiful”. I’ve seen several internet memes that suggest alternative verses to that hymn such as Monty Python’s “All things dull and ugly, all creatures short and squat, all things rude and nasty, the Lord God made the lot”.  We must acknowledge that the created world is “red in tooth and claw”, and by no means all beautiful or useful to humanity.   

We are of course partly responsible for earth’s problems. The “glittering shoals flash[ing] through the rippling water” now have plastic in their stomachs, and the “wind that rushes through the heavens” is getting stronger, more destructive and the air more polluted as a result of our burning fossil fuels.  Humanity has fallen far short of God’s intention for a sustainable world.

But even allowing for a theology of ‘fallen creation’ in which the evil of deliberate or even unintentional destruction and harm had no place in God’s original plan, the problem still remains. Imagine Eden before the fall, full of ripe fruit and seeds for Adam and Eve to eat.  There must have been bees to pollinate the trees, and did they never sting the naked bodies of the blissful couple? Would the trees not still have fallen, rotted and been recycled by bugs (the recent trend for ‘bug hotels’ does at least recognise the importance of insects) ? The serpent in the story perhaps acknowledges that less attractive, and potentially harmful, creatures were there from the start.  And how many people down the millennia have been killed by natural events such as volcanoes, floods and hurricanes? 

Any rendition of “all things bright and beautiful” or the present hymn, therefore, should (at least for an adult congregation) be balanced by recognising the complexity of creation in which the bugs and snakes are as loved by God as the lambs and kittens, and in which mountains cannot appear without earthquakes nor fertile land without flooding.  We praise and adore God for the wonder of this complex creation of which we are part, but confess our humility at being such a small part in it, our gratitude for being entrusted with its stewardship, and our guilt at failing to do so to the best of our ability.

Let all creation dance

The Horsehead Nebula
Image Credit: Canada-France-Hawaii Telescope/Coelum

Today’s hymn from Sing Praise is “Let all creation dance”, by Brian Wren.  Full words and music here. It’s set to the tune better known to the words “Ye holy angels bright”, and has vaguely the same theme of all creation praising God, although the emphasis here is on the non-human aspects of creation. 

The ancient concept of the stars being mere pinpricks of light in the dome separating us from heaven has of course been replaced by an ever-changing understanding of a vast universe of unceasing action and awesome energy. That is reflected in Brian’s words: “let all creation dance in energies sublime, as order turns with chance unfolding space and time” and later “expanding starry swirls, with whirlpools dense and dark”. 

The balance of “order turning with chance” is important: neither a deterministic God who ordained every movement in precise detail, nor one who leaves everything to random forces, is a satisfactory concept of the creator whom we worship. There are indeed ‘rules’ or ‘laws of nature’ (though every time we think we have them wrapped up, some new discovery seems to force scientists to rethink their models) but to deny God the power to direct the course of events as we go along is to belittle him.

Verse three focuses on “our own amazing earth” with “life’s abundant growth in lovely shapes and forms”, but also described as “a fragile whole”, which is another growing understanding we have of how we are disturbing the delicate balance of ecosystems.  Verse four turns back on us, the singers, urging us to “lift heart and soul and voice” in praise of Christ and his re-creation of all things.  The more that we find the universe to be infinite, complex and “queerer than we can suppose” (JBS Haldane), the less outrageous the claim seems to be that Jesus not only rose alive from the dead and then vanished into thin air, but will come back to intervene in a much bigger way when “nature shall rejoice as all is made complete”.

Jesus Christ is waiting

Today’s hymn from Sing Praise is the second of two on consecutive days by the Scottish hymnwriters John Bell & Graham Maule, both in the series on social justice issues.  Both of them invite us to join our own concerns with those of God. 

This one, “Jesus Christ is waiting”, has a much more active Jesus than yesterday’s.  He is pictured in various actions, beginning with ‘waiting in the streets’.  Is ‘waiting’ an action?  In Christian theology, yes.  Waiting can be about anticipation, praying into a situation knowing that God will move when it’s the right time to do so and not before.   The waiting here, though, is linked with loneliness, and we ask him to make us ‘fit to wait on him’ – a subtle pun on two meanings of ‘waiting’ in English. Are we the sort of waiters who stand around idle and lonely, or the sort of waiters (as in a restaurant) who work tirelessly to satisfy the needs of others who are lonely?

The other actions of Jesus are much more energetic: raging, healing, dancing, calling. Raging at life’s injustices, healing in response to need, dancing in triumph when goodness wins out, and calling for more people to follow his example. All these are seen in his life, indeed all are seen in his actions in the Temple: raging at the money-sellers, healing those excluded from the temple because of their disabilities, calling ‘on the last and greatest day of the feast’ (when surely there was dancing) for disciples to follow him, but also of course waiting on God in prayer.

What unites the words of the verses are that all these actions take place ‘in the streets’ – in the public realm, not in our private prayer rooms and chapels but where the need is and where our actions are visible.  And that in each verse our response is to say “I am … too”: we share Jesus’ concerns and seek to copy his actions.

I think the choice of tune – ‘Noel Nouvelet’ – is just right.  Its minor key suits the theme of dealing with injustice, but at the same time it has a lively dance rhythm (it’s described as a French carol tune) that goes with the image of Jesus dancing and calling in particular.  The verses should be varied in pace and volume when sung – slower and quieter for ‘waiting and healing’, faster for ‘dancing’, louder for ‘raging and calling’.

Inspired by love and anger

Jesus asleep in the boat.
Found at https://www.freedomfrommedom.com/ – original artist unknown

Today’s hymn from Sing Praise is the first of two on consecutive days by the Scottish hymnwriters John Bell & Graham Maule, both in the series on social justice issues.  Both of them invite us to join our own concerns with those of God.  This one, “Inspired by love and anger”, puts words into the mouths of various groups before turning to God himself.  The full words can be found here.The tune, Salley Gardens, is a gentle Irish folk melody, easily memorised, but perhaps a little too gentle for the subject matter

Verse 1 invites us to be “inspired by love and anger, disturbed by need and pain”. It’s all too easy to suffer compassion fatigue as we hear of yet more suffering in the world (just this week, uncountable Covid cases in India and two localised disasters in Israel and Mexico, for example).  “How long can few folk mind?” may well be a question aimed at ourselves.

Verses 2 and 3 offer a contrast between the cries of the victims for justice, peace, and release of prisoners; and the rich who ask not to be criticised for their position, wealth and exploitation of others.  To be fair, not all rich people are like that: Bill Gates is said the be the fourth richest person in the world with assets exceeding $100 billion, but he and Melinda are also great philanthropists who do genuinely seem to seek fairness in the world.

In verse 4 we offer up to God the “agony and rage” of Earth and ask when his kingdom of equity will come.  In verse 5, God responds by asking, as he did through Isaiah, “Who will go for me, who will extend my reach, and who when few will listen will prophesy and preach?”  A common response to that question is “Is it I, Lord?”. This is prayer as dialogue leading to action.

The last verse turns to Jesus, using some imaginative wording. He is pictured “amused in someone’s kitchen, asleep in someone’s boat” as examples of being with us in ordinary life. His ministry is summed up as being “a saviour without safety, a tradesman without tools”. It’s not a very satisfactory ending, as it doesn’t really explain how God in Jesus – or in us – does answer the earth’s call for justice.  We need more guidance from this sleeping saviour on how exactly we are to work with him in this way.

How good it is

Peace mural in Derry/Londonderry
© Joseph Mischyshyn licensed for reuse under Creative Commons Licence

Today’s hymn is “How good it is” by another composer new to me, Ruth Duck.  It continues our series on justice in the world, but is also a setting of a psalm (Ps.133). The words (set to a different tune from the one in Sing Praise) can be found here:

The opening line – “how good it is, what pleasure comes when people live as one” – sets the tone for the first two verses, about a desire for peace, justice and friendship. This is a vision shared by many people, whether religious or not, that there should be peace and harmony between all people. 

The second pair of verses begins “how good it is when walls of fear come tumbling to the ground”. They include the biblical vision of “swords being beaten into ploughshares” (in this version, “arms are changed to farming tools”) with the ultimate aim expressed in the last line, “that hate and war may cease”. 

This seems relevant today when the media’s focus is on the hundredth anniversary of the partition of Ireland into the independent Republic and the northern province that remained part of the United Kingdom.  That division, at the time largely driven by the mutual hostility between ‘protestant’ and ‘catholic’ Christians, has continued to be a cause for division with violence continuing intermittently to the present day, even though the different factions within the Church itself are now willing to co-operate in the search for peace and live with our differences. So today, this hymn can be seen as much a prayer for Ireland as anything else.

Gracious God, in adoration

Te Deum window, St Mary, Woodbridge, Suffolk
© Copyright David Dixon and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence.

Today’s hymn from Sing Praise is “Gracious God, in adoration” by another writer new to me, Basil Bridge. It’s in the same 87.87.87 metre as yesterday’s (God of Freedom, God of Justice) but the suggested tune here is ‘Rhuddlan’. 

The first three verses are a call to worship, with the reminder firstly of the saints (those Christians, and especially martyrs, who have gone before us through life and death into the eternal presence of God) who though unseen, call us to join in their worship.  The second verse speaks of the silent praise of earth and sky, and the call of all Earth’s living creatures echoing that of the saints. The third verse is the call of Jesus “whose cross has given every life eternal worth”.

This ‘call’ of saints, creation and Jesus himself constitutes the fifth line of each and every verse in the hymn: “Come with wonder, serve with gladness”. This neatly links the call to worship with the practical task also commanded by Jesus in the Lord’s prayer and repeated at the end of verse 3: “Let God’s will be done on earth”.

The second part of the hymn, then, continues the theme of the last few days of God and people together serving other people in need and dealing with injustice. We are called, as we come with wonder, to ‘serve with gladness’ by sharing our bread (symbolically, anything we have) with those in need, and to seek peace with justice, living in hope, “for the Lord is near!”

God of freedom, God of justice

The hymn I chose for 1 May (but blogging briefly about it a day late) was “God of Freedom, God of Justice”, the next in a short series in this theme of justice.  The words are by a hymn writer whose name is new to me, Shirley Murray.

Looking at the words, the tune that came to mind as fitting them well is ‘Regent Square’. John in his video went with the tune suggested in the book, ‘Picardy’, better known to the words ‘Let all mortal flesh keep silence’.  That hymn’s associations with Advent, and the coming of Christ both as incarnate Jesus and in future as sovereign Lord, necessarily colour the singing of these words, but it’s an appropriate association.  In the first half of this hymn we call on this God who is eternal yet suffered pain in his incarnation as a man, to “touch our world of sad oppression with your Spirit’s healing breath”.  In effect, as we recite a litany of what is wrong with the world (including here prison and torture), we invoke the Advent refrain of “Come, Lord Jesus!” knowing that he is the only one who can truly right these injustices.

But in the second half of the hymn the focus is on ourselves. We call on the “God who shed both tears and blood” to “move in us the power of pity, restless for the common good”, and in the last verse, ask him to “Make us … quick to hear, to act, to plead”.  In Teresa of Avila’s famous words, Christ has no hands or feet on earth but ours, and until Jesus returns in physical form we rely on his Spirit within us to help us get on with the task of righting injustice in his name.