The Lord is King, he set the stars in space

“The fourth day of creation”
Icon by Betsy Porter (c)

This coming weekend sees the start of the Kingdom Season (from now until Advent) with choices of hymn to match.  So today’s is “The Lord is King” by Brian Hoare.

The first half of each of the first three verses list the ways in which the Lord is King: that he set the stars in space (i.e. is the creator), sent his Son to earth, and sent his Spirit; thus, a Trinitarian structure, although usually in Christian parlance the terms Lord and King refer specifically to Jesus Christ rather than to the Trinity as a whole.

The second part of each verse is an appropriate response: “Creator God, your kingdom stands”, “O Saviour Christ, your kingdom comes” and “Spirit of truth, whose kingdom grows”.  The final verse proclaims praise to the Lord and King from all created things.

In all, the hymn is nicely crafted as a statement of faith, and might well be used in place of a spoken Creed in the Communion service, but didn’t strike me as conveying any original thought.

Thanks be to God for the saints

St Michael defeating the Devil.
Cast in bronze by Jacob Epstein, 1959 for Coventry Cathedral
Photo (c) Stephen Craven

Today is Michaelmas, the feast of Saint Michael.  Which is why I have chosen a hymn from the ‘Saints’ section of the hymnbook: ‘Thanks be to God for his saints’ by Timothy Dudley-Smith.  Mind you, Michael is no ‘ordinary’ saint, he’s actually an Archangel, a created but eternal being.  Best known for his appearance in the book of Daniel as the protector of God’s people, he also gets a brief mention in the books of Jude and Revelation, though no longer on the labels of a well known clothes brand of Jewish origin.   

The hymn, though, or at least the first couple of lines, is more about the ‘ordinary’ saints, meaning not merely those who were specially canonised by the church as martyrs for their faith or allegedly responding to prayers addressed to them after their death, but the whole company of Christians who have passed over into eternal life.  Whether or not they can actually answer prayers (and that’s a contested bit of Catholic theology) it is mainstream Christian faith that they are “one with us still in one body, one great congregation”.

The other verses aren’t really about the saints.  The second thanks God for his daily blessings including the death and resurrection of Christ; the third, for our as yet unknown future in which Christ will keep us company, and the last for his calling and defence, not just of ‘special’ saints but of all who follow him.

We will have more opportunities to sing of the saints at the beginning of November.

Lord Jesus Christ, invited guest and Saviour

Today’s hymn from Sing Praise is “Lord Jesus Christ, invited guest and Saviour” by Michael Perry. It’s another wedding hymn, which as John has pointed out doesn’t really fit well with online morning prayer or a blog, but it’s in the book so we sing it anyway. 

Like most modern wedding hymns, the emphasis is on praying a blessing on the couple being married. Perhaps because families are often rather complex today, there is less emphasis than there once would have been on marriage as implying the conception and rearing of children, which is good news for those of us who have not been able to have them. Rather, the vision presented here of a Christian marriage is one of “caring and serving” (which may be for one’s own children as well as each other, or for others in a wider family or community), for a life of faithfulness and prayer, a continued commitment to follow Christ, and of knowing his peace.

The last of the three verses acknowledges that no marriage is free of problems. Rather we ask that Christ be “their delight in joy, their hope in sorrow, their true friend in pleasure as in pain”. At the end is the almost obligatory reference in any wedding hymn to the miracle of water becoming wine at the wedding in Cana (is it just a happy coincidence that the composer of the tune had the middle name Bacchus?)

The touching place

A bronze war memorial showing a woman supporting an injured soldier.
‘Compassion in Conflict’, a war memorial by Andrew Edwards in Maghull, Lancs.
Photo (c) Rodhullandemu, Creative Commons-SA-4.0

Today’s hymn is “The touching place” by John Bell and Graham Maule, also known by its first line “Christ’s is the world in which we move”. It’s a sort of lament for the many ways in which people suffer, and the Christian response to their need.

The first verse sets the tone for the rest: the world and its people belong to Christ, so it is his voice calling us to care, and (if we feel the task is too great) he is the one who “meets us here”.  The remaining verses list the many forms of suffering that, with Christ, we may feel called to address. As with many of John Bell’s lyrics, he uses some unconventional and memorable phrases: “strange or bereaved or never employed”, “the women whom men have defiled”, “the baby for whom there’s no breast”, “the lonely heart, conscious of sin, which longs to be pure but fears to begin”.  What all these people have in common – and between them probably cover nearly everyone at some time in their life – is that we are called to “feel for them”, to have empathy.

The chorus is equally memorable in its wording, and using only a slight variant of the tune of the verses: “To the lost Christ shows his face, to the unloved he gives his embrace, to those who cry in pain or disgrace, Christ makes with his friends a touching place”.  “With his friends” is important: we should both pray for Christ’s compassionate help for those in distress, and do what we can for them in our circumstances.

Writing this later in the day after seeing John’s use of the hymn in morning prayer, may I express a bit of surprise at the brisk pace at which he took it.  When we’ve sung this hymn in my own church, the music director always directs a slow pace to match the emotional burden of the words.

A week of worship

I’ve been on holiday for the last week without access to a computer, which is why there have been no posts this week – it’s too difficult to type much on a mobile phone. So here is a briefer commentary than usual on all this week’s hymns. I have been singing them all, as well as attending three very different worship services – communion in a parish church, Cathedral evensong, and harvest festival in a Baptist chapel. In all of them, music has played a key part, whether provided by a robed choir or a couple of guitarists – you can work out which is which.

Sunday 19 September

“Peace on earth to all your people”, a Scottish version of the canticle Gloria in Excelsis.  See 12th September for my previous comments on this canticle.  The present version departs from the standard text in a few places, such as in verse 2 where it has “receive our song of praise” rather than “receive our prayer”; I’m not sure that’s a sensible change as the original is really a prayer for mercy. And in verse 3, “God in heaven” rather than more specifically “Christ in heaven”.

Monday 20 September

“Creating God, we bring our songs of praise” by Jan Berry and sung to the well known (sometimes over-used) tune ‘Woodlands’.  The first verse addressed to the ‘creating God’ celebrates life, work, skill and joy. The second to the ‘forgiving God’ expresses sorrow for our anger, strife and emptiness. The third to the ‘redeeming God’ refers to the ‘fragile hope’ that he will make all things new, which is an honest acknowledgement that it does take a good deal of faith to hold on to that hope. The last verse addressed to the ‘renewing God’ looks to a future of harmony, peace, justice, dignity and pride – all the things that are often lacking in our earthly societies. Overall this is a good summary of what the Christian life is about.

Tuesday 21 September

“For the music of creation” by Shirley Murray. The first verse suggests that music is a sort of metaphor for creation, as it requires creativity in us. God is described as the ‘world’s composer’ and we as the ‘echoes of his voice’. The second verse lists various types of instrument, and different types of music – ‘simple melodies’, ‘hymns of longing and belonging’, ‘carols from a cheerful throat’, lullabies and love-songs.  The music we make doesn’t have to be ‘religious’ to please God. The last verse refers to movement in worship – ‘hands that move and dancing feet’ – for the idea still sometimes found in Western churches that we have to stand up straight and immobile when singing in church probably seems weird to many Christians around the world for whom the whole body is used in worship.

Wednesday 22 September

“Earth’s fragile beauties we possess” by Robert Willis.  John provided his own alternative tune to this one.  The theme is life as pilgrimage. The first verse looks at the ways we should move through this life leaving as little impact as possible on those ‘fragile beauties’. The second looks at ‘earth’s human longings’ in grief, loss, famine, plaque and sword, referring to Christ’s cross as well as the story of Exodus, the archetypal pilgrimage.  The last verse reminds us that we possess not only the beauties of earth but God’s own image, any deliberate damage to which was borne by Christ on the cross.  This is a hymn for our times as people are realising too late the irreversible damage we have already done to this fragile world.

Thursday 23 September

“We give God thanks for those we knew” by Michael Perry, a hymn about healing and wholeness. It reminds us that Jesus came to bring healing through his love, and still does, but that we too should “dedicate our skills and time” to address the suffering around us.

Friday 24 September

“Maker of all whose word is life” by Elizabeth Cosnett. It’s a wedding hymn, addressing the Trinity: the Father as God of truth and faithfulness, Jesus the Son who knew earthly happiness, and though unmarried himself brought joy to the wedding guests when he turned water into wine, and the Holy Spirit as guide and bringer of steadfastness. The last verse reminds us that we need God’s grace to help us keep our wedding vows.

Sunday 26 September

The final song in this section, for the weekend of 25th/26th September, was a setting of “Holy, holy holy Lord” by Geoff Weaver.  There’s probably not much to say about this short and familiar text,  but John did suggest it was an appropriate response to the Old Testament reading about the dedication of Solomon’s Temple when the shekinah-glory of God filled the place.

Beauty for brokenness

Today’s hymn from Sing Praise is “Beauty for Brokenness” by Graham Kendrick.  I’m not sure whether this song was written specifically for the development charity Tearfund, but it was published around the time of their 25th anniversary and they certainly adopted it as being a perfect description of their work and their theological stance.

Let’s look at the chorus first, which to save the song being overly long is usually sung after the second, fourth and fifth verses only. “God of the poor, friend of the weak, give us compassion we pray”. That is Tearfund in a nutshell: supporting churches around the world to respond to the needs of the poor and weak in their communities, with the love of God and the compassion that can only really be shown by those who live alongside them. 

It goes on, “melt our cold hearts, let tears fall like rain, come change our love from a spark to a flame”. I admit to feeling ‘compassion fatigue’, the thought that all the money, time and prayers I have given over the years to the work of Tearfund and similar agencies is in vain, when there is still so much need, so much discrimination and structural injustice in the world.  But the words and works of Jesus suggest that however little we achieve, it is still recognised by God: “whatever you do for the least of these, you do for me”.

The first of the five verses starts with the vision of what development work can achieve: “Beauty for brokenness, hope for despair”. It’s not just about the day-to-day practicalities that follow (“bread for the children”) but about a message of the hope of God’s kingdom that can transform lives. “Sunrise to sunset, your kingdom increase”.

The second verse reflects the reality that war is behind much suffering: “Refuge from cruel wars, havens from fear, cities for sanctuary, freedoms to share, peace to the killing fields, scorched earth to green”, but finishes with a specifically religious vision, “Christ for the bitterness, his cross for their pain”.

The third verse speaks of medical work and provision of training and trade opportunities and land for farming, programmes that help local communities become self-sufficient, and also the advocacy work that forms much of Tearfund’s success (“voices to plead the cause of those who can’t speak”).  

The fourth verse speaks of the ecological emergency that has only become a mainstream concern in the last few years, though the song was written in 1993. “Rest for the ravaged earth, oceans and streams, plundered and poisoned, our future, our dreams”. We pray “Lord, end this madness, carelessness, greed, make us content with the things that we need”.

The final verse turns clearly to Jesus who is the only one who can truly change the world. “Lighten our darkness, breathe on this flame, until your justice burns brightly again, until the nations learn of your ways, seek your salvation and bring you their praise”. If verse 4 could have been written by Greta Thunberg, verse 5 could have come from the mouth of Isaiah.

You might gather from this lengthy commentary that this is one of my favourite hymns, for the music as well as the words. It deserves the classic status it has won in the churches. If you wish to donate to the work of Tearfund, they are currently appealing for support for their work in Afghanistan and you can donate here.

The heavens proclaim God’s glory

the Horsehead nebula
The ‘horsehead’ nebula

Today’s hymn from Sing Praise is ‘The heavens proclaim God’s glory’ by Martin Leckebusch. A setting of Psalm 19, set in the book to a tune called ‘Stand up’, though John used the tune ‘Morning Light’ better known to the words ‘Stand up, Stand up for Jesus’. The three verses reflect the three parts of the psalm.

The first verse covers probably one of the best known of all passages in the psalms, “The heavens proclaim God’s glory, the skies sing out in praise”.  The passage of day and night, the movement of stars and planets, has always fascinated humankind and been seen as evidence of a powerful creator.  Contemporary understanding of the immense (possibly infinite) size of the universe and the features ancient people could not have imagined such as the ongoing formation of stars and galaxies, black holes, and so forth, have not lessened that sense of awe. The intellectual debate about whether the complexity or even existence of a stable universe is random, or a necessary result of the conditions at its beginning, or truly evidence of intelligent design, will probably never be resolved, but for those who have faith, we can still praise God for all this.

The second verse is about God’s laws, and the benefits to the individual of obeying them. This move from the stars and planets to the moral law may seem illogical, but I think it would have seemed logical to the author, for whom the planets were obeying God’s instructions just as much as he exhorted people to do. The message is, that if we go along with what God has determined to be the way for us to live, we will find it the way of happiness.  Just as the planets have to make no effort to continue in the course that God (or gravity) determines for them, so it should be effortless for us to live a good life.

The last part of the psalm then explains why this is not so.  “Forgive my secret failures, the faults I do not know; from wilful sins protect me, the ways I should not go”. The human tendency is to err from God’s ways, even if we don’t always know when we are doing so.  Like an asteroid that breaks free from its orbit and heads towards the sun or another planet, we may up harming ourselves and other heavenly bodies.  We need God’s help to put us back on the correct course.

This reflection is not, of course, meant to be good astronomy, or even good theology.  But perhaps it might get us a bit closer to what the writer of the psalm had in mind.

Lord and lover of creation

Photo from

Today’s hymn from Sing Praise is “Lord and lover of creation” by John Bell and Graham Maule.  As John Hartley pointed out when deciding not to include it in morning prayer, it’s a wedding hymn, and more a prayer for the couple than for the singers.

The first verse asks God to bless the couple as they come together celebrating their common love.  The second verse gives thanks for the people and circumstances that brought them together, for sometimes it takes a dispassionate third person to help a couple realise what they see in each other.  The third verse is, in good Celtic tradition, a blessing on their home, and the last looks to a long future together, concluding with the warning echoing that of the priest’s traditional words that “none dare break or bind those your name has joined together”. 

As often in John Bell’s hymns there are some strikingly original phrases: “friends who touched and summoned talent”, “your children wed and welcome”, “health in home and hearts and humour”, “much to share and more to treasure”.

For once John Bell didn’t write his own tune to this, but picked a much older one ‘Westminster Abbey’, probably on the grounds that a wedding congregation would be much less likely than regular worshippers to be confident picking up a new tune. But with a bit of luck they might know this tune as ‘Christ is made the sure foundation’.

Such love

Two Lovers Beneath an Umbrella in the Snow, Suzuki Harunobu, C18
Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

Today’s hymn from Sing Praise is Graham Kendrick’s “Such love, pure as the whitest snow”.  It’s one I’ve known for a long time, dating from 1988.  This is different from the majority of his songs that tend to be celebratory in style, being a gentle and personal song accepting the love of Jesus.  The first verse is about the love that forgives; the second, the love that gives us peace and holiness; the third, the love that is eternal (“springs from eternity, streaming through history”) and yet can be the “fountain of life to me”. 

It’s easy in the busyness of life to overlook God’s love. Even though I know that I am a sinner and that those sins can be forgiven, I tend to park those thoughts at the back of my mind and it takes a song like this to make me actively confess and seek God’s pardon. Likewise, the “love that stills my restlessness” requires me to make the effort to be still long enough to appreciate it, and the demands of the ‘now’ so easily crowd out thoughts of the eternal.  I think it’s time I arranged a retreat.

Lay your healing hand upon us

Statue showing three children holding doves
‘healing’ – sculpture outside Ayr hospital

Today’s hymn from Sing Praise is “Lay your healing hand upon us” by Alan Gaunt. It is a call to Jesus for healing from both physical and emotional hurts.  The healing that is sought from Jesus here is the gentle, compassionate healing of one who has suffered more than we can imagine – the “wounded healer” as he is often called.  In the first verse we ask “bind our wounds with your compassion, bring us back to health again”

The first line of the second verse “Hold us like a gentle mother” is perhaps intended as a reminder that although Jesus was undoubtedly male, he showed the intuition and empathy that are more often associated with women.  We ask him to “set us on our feet and make us strong to take life in our stride”: this is healing as the wholeness that brings confidence as well as physical ability.

The third and fourth verses move on: as we are healed by the one who was wounded, so we who are healed should seek to bring healing to others. “With the confidence you give us, give us your compassion too, so that we may offer others comfort, healing, strength from you”.

The tune by Stephen Dean is called “Susan” (I wonder who she was). It a syncopated rhythm consistently throughout, except in the penultimate bar it’s a crochet followed by a minim in the melody rather than the other way round, and that doesn’t really fit the words other than in the last verse where the stress then fall on “God’s”.