Father, Lord, we give you adoration

Church of St John the Evangelist, Hurst Green, Lancashire
Image © Philip Platt and licensed under Creative Commons Licence

Today’s hymn from Sing Praise, in this Trinity week, is “Father, Lord, we give you adoration” by Peter Nardone.  The four verses address in turn the persons of the Trinity in their conventional order (Father, Son and Spirit) and the Holy Three. 

God is asked in various ways to help us: the giver of life to “hold us in light, keep clear our sight, give us the vision of your glorious way”; the son by his example to “teach us to pray, help us to stay close to the way”; and the Spirit to “keep us aware, through love and care, [that] you are the way by which we live our lives”.

The common thread here appears to be the reference to “the way”, and indeed the last line of the hymn is “your way will prove to us the life of love”. It was Jesus in fact who called himself “the Way”, but as we believe he is one with the Father and the Spirit, the Way (also an ancient name for the Christian faith) is that of all three, the one God. The use of the term reminds us that the Christian life is supposed to be a journey of exploration and not merely a statement of facts or beliefs.

The tune, composed by the same author as the words, is called “Hurst Green”. A bit of a diversion, but there are two Hurst Greens that I know, one of them in Lancashire and one in Surrey.  By coincidence (probably) each of them has a church of St John the Evangelist.   A gazetteer lists villages of the same name in four other English counties as well. As it happens I was within ten miles of the Lancashire one today. I wonder if it was that, or one of the others, that lent its name to this melody?

Holy, holy, holy one, Love’s eternal Trinity

One of many attempts to explain the Trinity. Image from stainedglass.com

The hymn from Sing Praise for Trinity Sunday is “Holy, holy, holy one, Love’s eternal Trinity”. There are of course many hymns that begin “Holy, holy, holy” as this threefold acknowledgement of God’s holiness is an ancient form of address to God found in the Jewish scriptures, three being seen as a symbol of perfection.  In the Christian church it gets an extra layer of meaning, as we understand God to have three ‘persons’ or ‘manifestations’ as Father/creator, Son/Word/redeemer, and Holy Spirit/advocate/comforter.

This particular hymn is by Alan Gaunt. It has five verses and follows a pattern common in other such hymns of having the first and last verses addressed to the Trinity, and each of the others focussing on one of the persons. So God is described variously as “Holy source of all that lives” (creator), “Holy Lamb, love’s sacrifice” (redeemer) and “Holy Spirit, deathless joy”.

What binds the verses together, apart from the “Holy” titles is the last line of each verse: “here I am, my God, send me”.  Encountering the holiness of God should result in a response of wanting to serve him. The different verses suggest differing responses as we encounter the persons of the Trinity. With the Creator, “through creation’s mystery your love speaks and we reply…”. With the Redeemer who gave his life for us, “mighty in humility, overawed we humbly say…”. With the Spirit, the one who inspires witness, “though we face Love’s agony, touch our lips and we will cry…”. And in the last verse, to the three-in-one we say “call our name and we will be each Love’s living sacrifice: here I am, my God, send me”.

The Trinity cannot be explained, and indeed some churches don’t attempt to, preferring a Unitarian position. But for most of us, it’s worth trying to understand that the unseeable force behind creation, the man Jesus who was raised from the dead and taken into heaven, and the unseen but often experienced spiritual power, are one and the same God who wants to send us to call others into his presence.

Through the first half of the Church’s year from Advent to Trinity we have studied the promises of God from ancient times, the birth, life, death, resurrection and ascension of Jesus and the coming of the Spirit. Now as we put all that together we have the second half of the year, from now until the end of November, to put it into practice.  “Ordinary time” it may be called in the calendar, but if we have encountered God, it should be far from ordinary.  

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 hallelujah.co.ke

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 buildfaith.org

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.

Spirit of the living God, fall afresh on me

Church of St Mary, Hawksworth Wood, Leeds. Built 1935 in a traditional style (see text below)

Today’s song from Sing Praise is “Spirit of the living God, fall afresh on me” by Daniel Iverson.  The words are simple – that phrase is repeated in the second and fourth lines, the third being “break me, melt me, mould me, fill me”.

This song, then, is an invocation of the Spirit to come and change us. Not just slightly but completely, broken and recast in a new shape like recycled pottery or glass. It fitted very well the ecumenical and charismatic atmosphere of the Christian Union when I was at university in the early 1980s so it isn’t surprising that the song was popular then. What is surprising is to see that it was written in 1935, at a dark time in history with depression and the threat of war, a time when the Church was not associated with radical change (you only have to look at the architecture of most 1930s church buildings to see this). When the world emerged from war a decade later, some church congregations settled back into their old ways, but others let the Spirit remould them into a new form.

That process of recycling or remoulding needs to be repeated, whenever we get settled into too easy a path in the Christian life or find ourselves resistant to change. Maybe the present time of emerging from pandemic will be an opportunity for such radical change.  This Pentecost let us sing these hymns with every expectation that our sung prayers will be answered.