from Sing Praise is Martin Leckebusch’s “Extol the God of justice”, a traditional
three-verse hymn, with a suggested tune by Vaughan Williams, but John played it
to the tune of “Stand up, stand up for Jesus”. The theme is similar to that of
yesterday’s hymn, but this one is specifically based on Psalm 9.
verse includes the line “remember all his wonders”, a theme that occurs
throughout the Hebrew scriptures. Any temptation to doubt God’s ability to intervene
in human affairs is countered with remembrance of past events, supremely the
Exodus from Egypt and later the captivity in Babylon and subsequent return from
exile. Even those events, involving
whole nations or races, are seen as God rewarding one or punishing another
according to the level of obedience or disobedience to him at a national
level. That’s hard to understand in a society
that is so focussed on the individual. As individuals we may or may not try to “labour
for what is true and right” but it’s important to lift our eyes and see what’s
happening on a larger scale in the world.
verse gives more specific examples of God’s justice: one who “hears the cry of
victims and senses their despair”. The third
reminds us that “however dark the day, the hope that calls for mercy will not
be turned away”. God is the unchanging one who, while allowing human freedom
and independence up to a point, is willing to act in world events when nations
allow that freedom to take them too far from his ways, whether to save from
oppression or to punish the oppressor.
Noah, Abraham and Lot, Jeremiah and many others in Israel’s history experienced
that, and for us Christians, the death and resurrection of Jesus were the
ultimate intervention from which everyone can benefit – if we are willing.
It is, then,
appropriate to pray on a macro scale for justice in the world, as well as at
the micro level of praying for individuals.
Returning to the second verse, “in faithfulness he honours the faith
that sparks our prayer”.
from Sing Praise is Michael Forster’s “Cry Freedom in the name of God”. The tune written for it, called “Free indeed”,
was not easy to sing just from the score, and I’ve not found a version of it
online. I note that John used the better
known tune ‘Battle hymn of the Republic’, but that sounded a bit too jolly to
me for the words here, and I can’t hear it without thinking of the irreverent words
sung at school camps many years ago!)
though, a search for “cry freedom” mainly brought up references to a 1987 film
set in South Africa’s times of apartheid, and it may have been that which
inspired Forster to write this hymn, which is obviously influenced by
liberation theology (the idea that God is necessarily with those who struggle
verse sets the scene by referring to the freedom found in Jesus Christ, and
that has to be what distinguishes a Christian response to injustice from the equally
strong motivation of humanists to respond to the same issues for the sake of its
victims. For the Christian, we are not
only working for justice in human society but seeking to establish God’s will “on
earth as in heaven”.
The second verse
highlights two specific injustices that are found in the world today, and not
only those in ‘underdeveloped’ countries: unfair responses to natural disasters
in which the poor always come off worst (think India’s current Covid pandemic
compared with the levels of vaccination in Europe); and the tendency to promote
defence spending over relief for the poorest (as our own Government has just
launched two vast aircraft carriers while cutting aid budgets).
verse focuses on the dictators who ‘hid behind their bodyguards and fear the
open mind’. Imprisoned in their own mindset, and in constant fear of uprising
or assassination, these men (as they nearly always are) may be vastly wealthy
but do not have the peace of heart that comes with living openly for God and
for the welfare of others. But it’s not
only dictators. We can all be a bit like that, comfortable in our houses (be
they palace or bedsit) and saving or spending for our own benefit rather than
giving our money away for the aid of others. It takes a true repentance (metanoia, change
of heart) for people to start to use whatever wealth and power we have for the “good
of humankind”. Jesus said “the truth shall make you free” but as his biographer
John put it, “people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were
verse turns to the Church, where the assertion is that we Christians need to be
freed from the way the Church sometimes works: “honest doubts met with fear and
vacuum-packed theology”. In other words,
we deserve the freedom to explore faith for ourselves and not be condemned where
it takes us down a different route from that laid down by church ‘authorities’. This is always a difficult balance: in a
world of many religions and philosophies, there has always been a natural concern
among Christian teachers to stop people in the pews straying so far from received
wisdom that what they believe contradicts the basics of Christian orthodoxy.
But it’s all too easy for that to lead to laying down strict wording of creeds,
prayers and forms of service that are “required”. What did Jesus actually teach us to do? To break bread together and remember him, to pray
in in private and use the Lord’s prayer as a pattern, to let the (Hebrew)
scriptures be our guide to God’s will. Nothing more specific than that.
verse is about being freed from focussing on ourselves so that we are free to
live for the good of others. Putting all
these together, we have freedom from unjust structures in society, from living in
fear of others because of our own acts of injustice, from being too tied to
specific ways of practising Christianity, and from being inward looking. Together they make for the freedom in Christ
that allows us to bring God’s freedom to others. To go back to John’s choice of tune, surely
we must end with a chorus of “Glory, glory, hallelujah! Cry freedom in God’s
from Sing Praise is a very well known one, “O Lord my God, when I in awesome
wonder”. Stuart Hine’s translation of a hymn that was originally either in Swedish
or Russian (I’ve seen both quoted as the original) has become a firm favourite,
at least partly because of the memorable
tune (although the two slightly different notes on the repetition of ‘art’ in the
chorus catch many out).
I do wonder,
though, whether its popularity is also because the first two verses appeal to a
spirituality of nature that doesn’t demand Christian commitment. Stars, woods and glades, brooks and birds can
be enjoyed by anyone, and only a vague belief in a creator is required to
respond to them with “how great thou art!”
The last two
verses, on the other hand, if the singer thinks about the words, are much more
specifically Christian. “When I think
that God, his son not sparing, sent him to die … on the cross, my burden gladly
bearing, he bled and died to take away my sin” is at the core of our belief, and
all the more reason to be thankful to our God.
He is not a distant creator far beyond the stars, but among us and involved
with us in sharing our suffering.
verse looks to the renewed creation promised by Jesus, which shall be our
home. Interpretations of Christ’s return
do of course vary between Christians, but we can agree that the greatest gift
of God for which we can sing our thankful praise is that of eternal life,
whether in the present existence or the one to come (whatever that may be
like). How great thou art, indeed!
from Sing Praise is Timothy Dudley-Smith’s “Not for tongues of Heaven’s angels”
which is based on St Paul’s famous description of true (Godly) love in 1 Corinthians
chapter 13. The tune, “Bridegroom” is
more familiar to me set to the words “Like the murmur of the dove’s song” which
we will come to in a month’s time at Pentecost, but these seem to be its
suggested as a hymn for a marriage service, but the love of which Paul writes is
not that of romance. It is a love that expresses commitment, but commitment to
serving other people at whatever cost.
This love, in one of the most often quoted verses of the Bible, goes
along with faith and hope, but is the greatest of the three, and all of those
are greater than the “tongues of angels”. The final line or refrain of each verse is “May
love be ours, O Lord”.
takes the idea from the Bible passage of contrasting this love with the more spectacular
spiritual gifts of tongues (a special language given by God to some people with
which to pray and praise), discernment (a form of prophecy that can see people’s
hidden thoughts and feelings) and ‘the faith that masters mountains’. That last refers to a saying of Jesus that even
a tiny amount of faith ‘like a mustard seed’ can move mountains.
and third verses list the qualities of this true Godly love: humble, gentle,
tender, kind, gracious, patient, generous; never jealous, selfish, boasting or
resentful but long-suffering. These
qualities, some of which are sometimes called ‘fruits of the Spirit’, will indeed
help make for a happy and stable marriage, but the real challenge is to allow
God’s Spirit to make us loving like this to everyone we meet.
verse reminds us that the effort we make in this life to be loving will not go
unnoticed in the next, and can perhaps be seen as a rehearsal for the real
thing. “in the day this world is fading faith and hope will play their part,
but when Christ is seen in glory love shall reign in every heart”. If we are used to loving like Christ now, we
will not find his second coming as much of an upheaval as those who have not discovered
this true love.
from Sing Praise is John Bell’s “The love of God comes close”, which is set
here to its original tune called ‘Melanie’ (I wonder who she was?), but I have
heard it previously sung to the Welsh tune Rhosymedre, which in my opinion fits
it better. The full words, and
suggestions for alternative tunes, can be found here.
I find the
words of this hymn helpful in understanding the Church’s task of witness,
evangelism or outreach (choose your preferred term). The central idea is that
God is truly closest to us (in a spiritual sense – we can’t meaningfully
ascribe a physical distance to or from God) not when we are doing the obviously
‘religious’ things but in some of the ordinary actions of life. The refrain at the end of each verse is in
the form “The [property] of God is here to stay, embracing those who walk his
way”, where the property in question echoes the first line of the verse: love,
peace, joy, grace, and in the last verse the Son of God.
those ‘ordinary actions’, as verse 1 suggests, are around showing hospitality –
“where stands an open door, to let the stranger in, to mingle [or in some
hymn books, ‘to welcome’] rich and poor”.
Hospitality, as our PCC agreed at a virtual meeting yesterday, should be
what people first experience when they meet us as Christians. So here’s a shout out to the people of St
Philip and St James, Scholes near Bradford who welcomed me in for coffee and a
chat today when I was just calling in the course of my work to drop something off
at the vicarage.
verses (2-4) are more about God being present when life is difficult. They offer God’s peace to those who are
caught in the storms of life, or who make the effort to help others in those
storms; his joy “where faith encounters fears”, for a true faith is not afraid
to face fear; and his grace “when hearts are tired or sore and hope is bruised
or bent”. The church’s needs to be not
only, and not initially, with the challenge to turn to God from wrong ways
(although it includes that), but to find that he is already present where life
has forced people into difficult circumstances or wrong choices.
verse returns to the heart of our faith in Jesus: “The Son of God comes close
where people praise his name, where bread and wine are blessed and shared, as
when he came”. It is right that this
should come last, not because it’s least important in our witness, but because
we need first to show people they are welcome, and that God accepts and
comforts them as they are, before they can feel part of our fellowship. Then we can move on to explain the
significance of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection.
from Sing Praise, “Blessed, those whose hearts are gentle”, is not dissimilar
to the Gospel chants of the last few days, as suggested also by the words in
the refrain “Raise the Gospel over the earth!” However, both the verses and the
‘alleluia’ refrain are longer than in the others, and it would work as a congregational
The six verses
come in two pairs, and the thrust of the words is typical of the composer, Bernadette
Farrell, most of whose hymns are about issues of social justice and inclusion. First are two verses with the repeated
statement “Blessed are…”, which immediately recalls the Beatitudes of Jesus.
But these are not directly quoting the Beatitudes. Here, those who are blessed
are ‘those whose hearts are gentle, whose spirits are strong, who choose to
bring forth right where there is wrong, who work for justice, who answer the
call, who dare to dream of lasting peace for all’.
In the third
and fourth verses, “Blessed” is replaced with “Tremble”. This is about the
privileged who should be in fear of God for failing to meet his standards of
justice. ‘You who build up riches, with opulent lives’ should ‘tremble … when
you meet the poor and see Christ in their eyes’. And ‘you who thirst for power,
who live for acclaim’ should ‘tremble… when you find no comfort in your wealth
and fame’. This seems highly relevant in
the context of current British politics, with the Government and its advisers
increasingly criticised not only for becoming wealthy at the expense of the
poor, but for lies and corruption.
pair of verses turns back to God and ascribes glory to him, as Word of Justice,
Spirit of Peace and God of Love. But glory is also said to be “upon all people
equal in God’s eyes”. To sing this hymn is to remind ourselves that God’s call
is never only to live for him in our own lives but to strive for these divine
qualities of justice, equality, peace and so on in the lives of others.
from Sing Praise is another in the series of Gospel chants, “Praise the God of
all creation” by the American composer Marty Haugen. It shares with the other Gospel
chants in the book the format of a congregational ‘alleluia’ (which in this
instance is fleshed out – pun intended – with the words “Praise the Word of
Truth and Life!”) and a series of chants for the cantor. There are four such chants here, with the
suggestion that just one is used in the context of a gospel acclamation, or all
four can be used to form a more conventional, though fairly short, hymn.
God is here
addressed in each of the four chants by one of the many titles for him in the
Bible: the first, “Praise the God of all creation, mercy and compassion” would be
suitable for a service focussing on the Hebrew scriptures (Old Testament) as
these are some of the characteristics of God revealed from ancient times.
The second, “Tree
of life and endless wisdom, be our root, our growth and glory” compasses, in a
sense, the whole of the Bible, since the tree of life features both in the
Garden of Eden story in Genesis and in the eternal city of Revelation. But
there are many other references in the Bible to trees, often representing ideas
such as a close relationship with God (as in Psalm 1, where the person who
trusts in God is like a tree beside a stream drawing nourishment from its
water) or stability. The reference to ‘root’
may also hint at Jesus as coming from the ‘root of Jesse’ (Isaiah 11:1).
The third, “Living
water, we are thirsting for the life that you have promised” focusses more clearly
on Jesus who promised a thirsty and ostracised woman that he could give her living
water, that is life with him and filled with his Spirit that is always
satisfying inwardly, no matter how difficult our outward circumstances.
title for Jesus, “Gentle shepherd, you who know us, call us all into your
presence”. Tomorrow is marked in the Catholic church as “Good Shepherd Sunday” –
which is why I have chosen a photo I took today of a church of that name. The good shepherd, said Jesus, is one who
lays down his life for the sheep, as he laid down his life for all who will
from Sing Praise is another in the series of Gospel chants, James Walsh’s “Strong
is your love, mighty your word”. Like the others it takes the form of a
congregational ‘alleluia’ before and after a solo chant. In this instance, rather than a single chant
according to the season of the Church year, there are four chants all suitable
for any time of year, and making it a bit more like a traditional hymn.
verses/chants address God first of all as the source of love and word (wisdom)
who can ‘speak to us and open our hearts’ , then as Spirit and Message of Truth,
then as ‘All-holy God, Father of light’, and lastly as the mighty one. I don’t
find these words particularly inspiring, as they seem to be a series of phrases
or names for the various person of God, rather mixed up.
Today’s song from Sing Praise is a gospel acclamation or antiphon by the Catholic composer Bernadette Farrell: “Your words, O Lord, are Spirit and life”. Like the ones I described on 14 February and 17 April, it is used in some churches before and/or after the reading of the Gospel. The congregational response is “Alleluia! your words, O Lord, are spirit and life. Alleluia, open our hearts to your word”. This is sung twice before the chant (if it’s unfamiliar to the congregation this might be once by a soloist, then everyone joining in), and once afterwards as a response. Depending on local custom it might also be repeated after the reading.
are given, but they are for different seasons of the year and it’s not intended
that all three would be used on any one occasion. The chant for Easter is “Rejoice
and sing, all the earth, for the night is gone. Our God has raised us up from
death in Christ Jesus the Son”. There are also chants for Advent and Christmas
behind all acclamations of this kind is, I would suggest, threefold: to make
sure the congregation is fully alert to hear what is often considered the most
important of the readings from the Bible (standing and singing is a great way
to shake off any drowsiness); to remind us that the Gospels are all about Jesus
who is still alive (in one way or another, these chants are all addressed to
him); and to stir up a sense of excitement (they are all set to a lively tune
in a major key). Hearing the Bible read
should always leave us with a sense of having encountered God in some way, however
small, but with this preparation it’s easier to approach the Gospel with a
sense of expectancy.
from Sing Praise is “Holy forever and ever is God” by John Bell. It is a
setting of (or at least inspired by) verses from the book of Revelation.
The first two verses praise God as creator and overall sovereign of his creation. The other three are more specifically addressed to Jesus. In the book the hymn is suggested as suitable for Ascension Day, when Jesus finally left the earth in bodily form and took up his reign in God’s eternal kingdom. But it is still suitable for this Easter season, not least because in the fourth verse we declare “Worthy the Lamb who was sentenced and slain! Worthy the Lamb in his rising again!”, the Lamb being Jesus as sacrifice.
In the last verse the Lamb is sitting on the throne (as king, or judge) having proved himself worthy for the position by living a blameless life on earth and being a willing sacrifice for the rest of sinful humanity. I couldn’t find an appropriate image to depict this, as it is such a contradiction (at the same time suffering lamb and all-powerful king) that all the illustrations I found were contrived or twee. Stained glass artists have usually depicted the sacrificial lamb below the enthroned Christ, and left it to the viewer to try and superimpose these images in some way, for neither image makes sense without the other. That is just one pair of images from Revelation, and not the strangest by a long way. No wonder it’s a notoriously difficult book to understand!
The other reason this is a suitable hymn for the Easter season is that each verse ends with an Alleluia! (very much the Easter acclamation). Tomorrow’s hymn also has alleluias, but in a different setting…