Lord, you give the great commission

Today’s hymn from Sing Praise is “Lord, you give the great commission” by Jeffery Rowthorn to a tune by the great Edwardian composer C H H Parry.  Its theme follows on from Sunday’s discussion of ordination and yesterday’s of the “enduing” or bestowing of gifts by the Holy Spirit, as each verse ends with the lines “With the Spirit’s gifts empower us for the work of ministry”.

The rest of the words of the five verses are based on various recorded sayings of Jesus in the gospels, mainly the ‘Great Commission’ to teach and baptise all nations in the final paragraph of Matthew’s gospel (although some commentators think this is Matthew’s understanding of what Jesus might have said, rather than a record of an actual event).  It also references the Last Supper in the third verse, and the exhortations to forgive others and be generous in our giving in the fourth.   

The words that are rhymed with “ministry” in the second half of each verse give a good summary of the Church’s mission: integrity, community, liberty, society, eternity.  Whether consciously or not, they reflect the Anglican ‘five marks of mission’ which in abbreviated form are: to proclaim the Good News (one might say of eternity); to teach, baptise and nurture new believers (into the liberty of the children of God, as Paul puts it); to respond to human need by loving service (forming community); to transform unjust structures of society; and to strive to safeguard the integrity of creation.

The last verse returns to the very end of Matthew: “I am with you always, to the end of the age”.  Jesus – if indeed he did say this – must have been aware that as his physical presence was about to depart for the last time, the growth of the Church and its continuing mission would depend on his disciples and their successors who had not seen him having faith in his continued unseen presence and through the work of the Holy Spirit.

Lord of the Church

Today’s hymn from Sing Praise is “Lord of the Church, we pray for our renewing” by Timothy Dudley-Smith.  As the first line suggests, it’s a corporate hymn that seems more meaningful when sung by a church congregation (perhaps especially at an ecumenical gathering) rather than by an individual.  Some of the hymns we’ve sung in the ‘ministry and mission’ section have been more individual (such as “I the Lord of sea and sky”) and it’s good to balance these with the corporate ones.

In its three verses, each beginning “Lord of the Church”, we ask Christ (for it is He) for our renewing, blessing and uniting. The first two verses also mention the Holy Spirit, who we ask to “burn for our enduing*, fan the living flame” and fill us.  The three requests of uniting, blessing and renewing belong together: where the church is not united in faith and action, it cannot expect to receive the fulness of Christ’s blessing, nor of the Spirit’s renewal.

The words do acknowledge the difficulties we have in this area: “we turn to Christ amid our fears and failings, the will that lacks the courage to be free, the weary labours all but unavailing… from our restless striving”. Instead we ask to be “brought nearer [to] what a church should be” and to be led by Christ until “one Church triumphant one new song shall sing”. That will only be fully accomplished in the life to come, but we must still strive towards it, with his help.

The suggested tune, and I can’t imagine the author had any other in mind, is the one variously known as the [London]Derry Air, or Danny Boy.  Its long lines don’t make for easy singing unless you know it well, and the folk tune covers quite a wide range, but I find it comfortably fits my tenor range, and I enjoyed singing this hymn.

* Just as an aside: John transcribed and sang this as “burn for our enduring”, which may make some sense, but “enduing” is how it is printed in this book and elsewhere.  An archaic verb, but defined as “to invest or endow with some gift, quality, or faculty”.  So we are asking the Spirit here to endow us with his gifts, which makes more sense.  An even older definition of “endue” apparently is “’induct into an ecclesiastical living” but I don’t think the author here expects everyone to pray to become an Anglican vicar!

Meekness and majesty

Today’s hymn from Sing Praise is “Meekness and Majesty” by Graham Kendrick.  It’s one that achieved wide popularity in the 1980s/90s, and is still used in some churches.   There’s something about this hymn that makes it stand out from the many other songs and hymns about the incarnation of Jesus, and I can remember that the first time I came across it, at a Christian young people’s camp in the mid-1980s, it moved me to tears. Maybe it’s the combination of the way the music flows (John will be able to explain that better) and the words that emphasise the human suffering of Christ while at the same time not diminishing his divinity (from verse 1, “in perfect harmony, the Man who is God”).

Kendrick finds several ways to express this harmony: “Lord of eternity dwells in humanity”, “Perfect in innocence, yet learns obedience to death on a cross”, “Suffering to give us life, conquering through sacrifice”, “Love indestructible in frailty appears”, “Lord of infinity stooping so tenderly”.  This sort of pairing of opposite ideas is not unlike the Psalms with their couplets where the second either emphasises or counters the first; I wonder if that was a conscious influence on this hymn?

The words of the chorus are “Oh, what a mystery! Meekness and majesty, bow down and worship, for this is your God”. Christianity is famously unique among world religions for making the claim that our human founder is also divine: other religions have prophets who were clearly only human, or claim a divine revelation not backed up by an appearance in the flesh. But on top of that, our incarnate God didn’t use this privilege to impose his will on others, but demonstrated a new way of living by his humility.  We therefore worship God, not in fear, but in response to his own self-emptying love.

In the name of Christ we gather

Today’s hymn from Sing Praise is ‘In the name of Christ we gather’ by Shirley Murray. It’s a niche hymn intended for an ordination service. In Anglican (and probably Catholic) tradition these usually happen at Petertide, i.e. St Peter’s Day – 29th June, or in practice the nearest weekend.  Many cathedrals will have hosted such services today, when people are ordained as deacons or priests, or their ministry ‘upgraded’ from one to the other.

The first verse acknowledges that the ordination is ‘in the name of Christ’.  The new deacon or priest is expected in many ways to represent Christ to their community, both the regular congregation and wider parish.  That’s what makes it such a high calling, and different from an ordinary form of employment. 

The second verse expands this by referring to some of the particular priestly functions: teaching and caring (though those are increasingly shared with lay people), and to administer the sacraments of communion and baptism (‘in bread and wine and water’), to which we could add weddings and funerals. 

The third verse recognises that the priestly life is not always easy, needing God’s word to make the ‘preaching, praying and caring’ effective, and that there will be ‘doubts and challenge, days of pain and darkness’.  The last verse turns back to God, as ‘Word of joy, enlivening Spirit’, calling him to ‘grow within your chosen servants life of God that has no end’.

Let us pray for all those setting out on this new life today, that they will live up to their calling and stay faithful to it even in the difficult times.

I the Lord of sea and sky

Today’s hymn from Sing Praise is another in the set on the theme of mission, and one that is widely known across the churches: “I the Lord of sea and sky” by Daniel Schutte. Its refrain of “Here I am, Lord, is it I, Lord?  I have heard you calling in the night” is taken from Isaiah chapter 6, and the final verse with the reference to God providing a feast for all peoples is from Isaiah 25.

Essentially the message is that when we see people suffering, whether it’s from their lack of understanding of God’s ways (symbolised as being in darkness and needing light) or from the physical hardships of poverty and injustice, we should be able to hear God calling us to do something about it in his name, to be part of the solution that God himself has planned. 

The middle verse is difficult: it reminds us that Jesus has borne the pain even of those who reject him, and weeps for them. Only he can ‘break hearts of stone’ and he calls us to be part of that task too, but first it may need my own ‘heart of stone’ breaking in order to see and feel compassion for those God would call me to serve.

Hymns of mission

A temporary installation on the altar of the chapel at
Scargill House, June 2021

I’ve been away for a few days without a computer or Internet access, hence the lack of blog posts this week.  I’ve kept up singing a hymn a day (actually rather more, having been on a walking holiday at Scargill House, Christian holiday centre) but rather than write about each of them separately, here’s a sort of summary of this week’s Sing Praise choices. 

The actual hymns are: “Lord as I wake I turn to you” by Brian Foley; “Glory to God, the source of all our mission” by Christopher Idle; “Go into the world” by Sylvia Dunstan; and “At the dawning of creation” by David Fox. 

The first is a morning hymn, reminding us that to keep in a good relationship with God requires us to remember God from our first waking thoughts, to praise him and pray to him regularly, give thanks, and live a life of love.  That sounds like a lot of demands, but perhaps the key is in the last line of the first verse: “yourself the help for which I pray”. God does give us the help we need to do what he requires. His grace comes first; our praise, prayer and thankfulness are a response to it.

The middle two are both on the theme of mission. Sylvia Dunstan’s hymn is based on the Great Commission given by Jesus to his disciples before returning to Heaven, to take his message to all the world.  It’s something we know we have to do but most of us find difficult to engage with, especially in a society that prizes freedom of belief and where evangelism can be criticised for “imposing our beliefs” even where that’s not the intention. Some of the phrases which stood out for me in Christopher Idle’s hymn were “Christ’s fellow workers”, and “linked by the cross… joined by the love… one in the hope…”. From Sylvia Dunstan’s I highlight “Go into every place, go live the word of Christ’s redeeming grace”, and “Go as the ones I send, for I am with you till the age shall end”.  This mission, we have to remember, is not ours but his.

I chose the last of these because its theme is baptism, and today (24th June) is the feast of John the Baptist.  He was perhaps the first Christian missionary, drawing people’s attention to Jesus even before Jesus started his own ministry, so although the hymn is not about mission as such, nor even specifically about John, there is a link with the other two, and the final line “to his life of love he calls us by his total sacrifice” again reminds us that it is Jesus himself who calls us to share in his own mission.

Body broken for our good

Today’s hymn from Sing Praise is, as will be the pattern for the next few months, a communion hymn. “Body broken for our good” by Alan Gaunt is a traditional four-verse hymn that takes as its theme way in which Jesus’ death reconciles us to God. The text is available online here https://hymnary.org/text/body_broken_for_our_good  

This is not a celebration of victory on the cross (though there is a place for that), rather the mood is penitential, as it is only because of our sinfulness that the cross had to happen.  So it is that we ‘receive the body and blood to our shame’. The author didn’t shy away from telling the uncomfortable truth of human life: “Where earth’s children bleed and die, it is Christ we crucify”. So it’s not surprising that the suggested tune is in a minor key – the well-known Welsh tune Aberystwyth.

The failings of humanity are not just general – “every day more blood is shed” – but personal. The second verse acknowledges the singer’s own unworthiness. For that reason there is a long-standing tradition in many churches of receiving communion in a kneeling posture, unless infirmity prevents that. But the later verses offer hope – “in communion with this Lord, faith, hope, love are all restored”. The Christian hope is that however had we are as individuals or as a society, there is both forgiveness and restoration – at a price.

Come all you people

Today’s song from Sing Praise is a simple chant by Alexander Gondo, “Come all you people, come and praise your maker”. Like “We are marching” on 14 June it is a translation of an African (in this instance, Zimbabwean) chant.  The musical style as well as the gist of the works is very similar to that of John Bell’s “Clap your hands all you nations” (14 May).  Apart from the words of the title, the only others are in the last line, “come now and worship the Lord”.   Well done to John for compiling a 3-part unaccompanied rendition by himself.   

Church of God, elect and glorious

Bishops from around the world at the Lambeth Conference in 2008.
Photo Credit: ACNS/Sweeny

Today’s hymn from Sing Praise is ‘Church of God, elect and glorious’ by James Seddon.  Although a relatively modern hymn (undated, but the writer was born in 1915 so it’s from the 20th century) the style is that of older traditions of hymnwriting and the suggested tune, Lux Eoi by Arthur Sullivan, is a late Victorian one.

The text of the four verses seems to be based on 1 Peter chapter 2, describing in the first part of each verse the ideal of the Church of God – elect and glorious, holy nation, chosen race, God’s own special people, called into light, citizens of heaven, royal priests.  It goes on, in the second part of each verse, to expand on what that might mean in practice: telling of and demonstrating God’s infinite love, being light in the world, finding fresh hope and purpose in Christ, prayerful and joyful service of others.

This ideal of the universal Church isn’t as popular in hymns or sermons as it used to be, the emphasis nowadays in most churches being either on our individual conversion and spiritual formation, or the local congregation and its service to the local community, or the Christian role in worldwide causes of justice and peace that bring in those of all faiths and none.  Not that there’s anything wrong with those things, but the idea that God has set apart the Church (in the sense of all Christian believers) as a special body of people with a unique role in the world, seems to get left behind. 

But it needs to be there, in balance with those other levels of understanding of what it is to be a Christian, if we are to retain our hope of making a difference in an increasingly challenging world. You and I may not be able to do anything practical about the problems we hear of faced by people on the other side of the world.  But we can pray for our brothers and sisters in local churches there who are equally part of Christ’s body, and have the humility to recognise that they will be praying for us too.

Noah the novice boat builder

Text of a talk for the Diocese of Leeds ‘Creation Salvation’ course on the subject of adapting our church buildings to a changing climate, 16 June 2020.

Then God said to Noah and to his sons with him, ‘As for me, I am establishing my covenant with you and your descendants after you, and with every living creature that is with you, the birds, the domestic animals, and every animal of the earth with you, as many as came out of the ark. I establish my covenant with you, that never again shall all flesh be cut off by the waters of a flood, and never again shall there be a flood to destroy the earth.’ God said, ‘This is the sign of the covenant that I make between me and you and every living creature that is with you, for all future generations: I have set my bow in the clouds, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between me and the earth. When I bring clouds over the earth and the bow is seen in the clouds, I will remember my covenant that is between me and you and every living creature of all flesh; and the waters shall never again become a flood to destroy all flesh. When the bow is in the clouds, I will see it and remember the everlasting covenant between God and every living creature of all flesh that is on the earth.’ God said to Noah, ‘This is the sign of the covenant that I have established between me and all flesh that is on the earth.’

Genesis 9:8-17

Noah’s ark and the rainbow after the flood is probably one of the best known of all Bible stories, and not just because it lends itself to children’s songs and activities.  This tale of disaster and recovery comes to us from the mists of time, long before Abraham. So it’s not specifically a Christian story, or even a Jewish one, it’s a legend of unknown origin that found a place in the Hebrew scriptures because it speaks to us of eternal truths about God and his creation and our response to it. 

Yet it is a Christian story in that Noah is in some ways a saviour figure, a prefiguring of the Messiah.  What can we learn from this legend of a good man who saved not only his family, but the world, from the wrath of God, and received a new covenant by which we should live?

Firstly, Noah understood nature and read the signs of the times.  The story begins by telling us that “God saw that the earth was corrupt, for all flesh had corrupted its ways upon the earth”. It’s not clear precisely how things were corrupted, but Noah was a righteous man and understood that corrupted they were. The Bible calls him a ‘man of the soil’ – a farmer. He understood ideas of sustainability and biodiversity – even if his language had no words for those concepts.  He understood by a prophecy that God was going to destroy all living things that he had created and he didn’t want that to happen.

Secondly, he responded by taking practical action.  He could have just resigned himself to his fate, but for the sake of his descendants and for all the animals around him, he decided to do something about it. Noah, let it be said, was not a boat builder by trade, he was a farmer as we have already seen.  But he was also a man of faith. When he understood the solution was to build a large ship, he and his sons set about doing just that.  They would have built wooden houses and barns before, so it was a matter of adapting the building skills they already had to new purposes for the benefit of others.   

It cost them, of course – it cost them the price of many trees’ worth of wood and cartloads of pitch, not to mention the value of the food they could have sold. How long was Noah on the ark? The ‘forty days’ is only how long it rained, starting on the 17th of the second month.  But they did not leave the ark until the 27th of the second month of the following year.  Much of the ark’s lower decks must have been taken up with food and fodder!  Peoples around the world whose land gets flooded today as a result of climate change will understand the implications of a year without sowing or reaping. But what is money for anyway, when the very future of life on earth is under threat? This was an investment of time and money in a sustainable future when the climate was at a tipping point – or rather, a tipping-it-down point.

Thirdly, as a farmer he understood the rhythms of life. When Noah’s family emerges from the ark, God promises – to use the words of John Bell’s paraphrase – “while earth remains there’ll be seed-time and harvest, summer sun and winter moon, the dead of night, the bright day”. Part of the rhythm of life for farmers is that of gathering in and sending out.  The harvest is gathered into barns, and the food, hay or silage is then distributed throughout the year to people and animals as they have need.  The ark fulfilled the same function in a unique way, gathering in pairs of animals against the coming deluge and keeping them safe and fed until they could be sent out to repopulate the earth. 

For us in the Church, our buildings have the same function – gathering people in from our community to experience the saving love of God, feeding them on His Word, and sending them out to fulfil God’s mission in the world. As we face a climate and biodiversity crisis no less drastic than that of Noah’s day, may our buildings be made as climate-proof as Noah’s ark, and likewise be the means by which the world can be saved anew through these rhythms of grace.