In Christ alone

Today’s hymn from Sing Praise is in Christ alone my hope is found’ by Stuart Townend and Keith Getty.  It’s a candidate for ‘most popular hymn of the last decade’ – the copyright is dated 2001, but in the last ten years it has found popularity well beyond its original evangelical roots.

The phrase ‘In Christ alone’ seems to hark back, maybe deliberately, to the Reformation, where it is one of the five balancing principles: ‘By grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone, according to scripture alone, for God’s glory alone’.  Here we focus on one of those, but perhaps the most important, because whatever view you might take on the relative merits of faith and works, or the extent to which scripture is God’s direct revelation, surely all Christians can agree that without Christ, our faith would be in vain.

The first verse of the hymn praises Christ by giving him many honorific titles – ‘my light, my strength, my song, this cornerstone, this solid ground … my comforter, my all in all’.  Many of these have Biblical resonances of course, but put together make a firm basis for a hymn of praise. 

The second verse reminds us why Christ came, ‘gift of love and righteousness’ to take away our sin.   Some people prefer to substitute ‘love of God’ for ‘wrath of God’ when it comes to understanding what was happening on the cross, but both versions make sense: he bore the brunt of God’s anger at human sin, while also expressing the self-sacrificial nature of God’s love for sinners.  The last line is a beautiful paradox – ‘her in the death of Christ I live’.

The third verse celebrates the resurrection, ‘bursting forth in glorious day’, and his victory over sin.  The last reminds us that we have no need to feel guilty or fearful of what lies ahead of us, because of what Jesus has done to secure us eternal life. I would only quibble with the phrase ‘Jesus commands my destiny’ which sounds like the doctrine of predestination (that God has determined in advance our every action). I doubt that it’s intended to mean that, but perhaps something like ‘Spirit of Jesus guiding me’ would be better. But all in all, it’s a cracking hymn that brings together Christians of many persuasions to focus on the wonder at the heart of the Gospel.

Come, sing the praise of Jesus / Come to me

‘The Eagle / Pinterest.com

The hymn I chose for 20 October (but didn’t have time to comment on yesterday) was ‘Come sing the praise of Jesus’ by Jack Winslow, who was an English priest (and looking him up he was at one time chaplain at Lee Abbey in Devon). But he set it to the well-known American tune ‘Battle hymn of the Republic’.  John found a version in another book with five verses but I’m commenting on the Sing Praise version which only has three.

This is a joyful hymn as befits the stirring tune. We are invited to praise Jesus, in verse 1, for his wondrous birth and life lived for others. In verse 2 we rejoice in serving him ourselves, experiencing pardon for sin and healing for sorrow along the way; and in verse 3 we once again praise him, this time giving him glory as Lord of creation who guides all our ways and looking to the future when ‘the world shall be his empire’. Each verse ends with ‘for Jesus Christ is King’, followed by the chorus ‘Praise and glory be to Jesus… for Jesus Christ is King’.  

Today’s song, in total contrast, was ‘Come to me’ by John Bell.  It’s a short song to be sung repeatedly and reflectively. The words are simple and quoting Jesus: ‘Come to me, come to me, weak and heavy laden, trust in me, lean on me, I will give you rest’.   They are among the Bible verses called the ‘comfortable words’ in the Book of Common Prayer at the invitation to communion, as we remember that Jesus welcomes anyone to his table who comes in faith, whatever their condition.

The ordained staff member who led our office prayers this week commented that we are in a period in the church year between the ‘creation season’ in September and ‘remembrance season’ in November, with nothing particular to focus on, and that the Covid restrictions of the last 18 months have left many people feeling somewhat despondent and some quite isolated. The colder, wetter, darker days of autumn also encourage a retreat from summer activity into a more restful and reflective pattern of life. We might not feel like singing joyfully, and if all we can manage is to sing or say quietly the ‘comfortable words’, that is absolutely fine. But Winslow’s hymn reminds us that even if there is no particular celebration in the church calendar, we are always part of the worldwide Church, and the time is always right to praise Jesus, who is at the heart of our faith, if we can bring ourselves to do so.

Dare to forgive

Reconciliation sculpture, Coventry cathedral

Today’s song from Sing Praise is a Taizé chant, ‘God is forgiveness’.  As with all such chants the words are few enough to reproduce in full –

God is forgiveness
Dare to forgive and God will be with you
God is forgiveness
Love, and do not fear

As so often, brevity of an instruction does not imply an easy task. For many of us, there will be events in our lives where forgiveness is the task of a lifetime, hence the challenge ‘dare to forgive’. Daring means going out of our comfort zone and taking risks.  But God knows the heart and is still with us, even where our attempts at forgiveness fall short as memories recur or as others reject attempts at reconciliation. It is those who rule out the possibility of forgiving another, or for that matter the possibility of being forgiven themselves, who are farthest from God.

I was recently at Coventry Cathedral, which since its rebuilding after the destruction of the Second World War has become an international centre of peace and reconciliation. They pray this “litany of peace and reconciliation” each day:

All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.
The hatred which divides nation from nation, race from race, class from class,
FATHER FORGIVE

The covetous desires of people and nations to possess what is not their own,
FATHER FORGIVE

The greed which exploits the work of human hands and lays waste the earth,
FATHER FORGIVE

Our envy of the welfare and happiness of others,
FATHER FORGIVE

Our indifference to the plight of the imprisoned, the homeless, the refugee,
FATHER FORGIVE

The lust which dishonours the bodies of men, women and children,
FATHER FORGIVE

The pride which leads us to trust in ourselves and not in God,
FATHER FORGIVE

Be kind to one another, tender hearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you.

For some reason I found the melody of this chant harder to pick up than most examples from Taizé, although it’s in 4/4 time and without any very high or low notes.  It’s only attributed to ‘the community’ but it would be interesting to know who composed the tune, or rather what cultural background they came from.

Jesus, in your life we see you

Today’s hymn from Sing Praise is ‘Jesus, in your life we see you’ by Basil Bridge. Each of the three verses addresses Jesus. In the first verse he is addressed as the one who in his earthly life used physical touch to bring hope and healing and his words to set captives free, but who in the end suffered rejection and death.  In the second and third verses he is addressed as ‘Risen Lord’, but the risen lord who retains wounds of the cross in his body as a sign that he continues to share the sufferings of the present time, including (as listed here) greed, exploitation, addiction and heartbreak. The final verse asks him to use us in his service and offer his divine compassion to those in need; although as John pointed out in introducing the hymn, it doesn’t explicitly pray for Jesus to act and heal people.

The hymn is set in the book to the Welsh hymn tune Ebenezer, though John used a Russian tune called Stenka Razin (who apparently was the leader of a unsuccessful 17th century peasant rebellion in Russia).  Personally I preferred the Welsh tune, perhaps because the minor key fits the theme of suffering.

Eat this bread, drink this cup

This weekend’s song from Sing Praise is another communion song: “Eat this bread, drink this cup”. It’s a chant from the Taize community.  I was familiar with the chorus (“Eat this bread, drink this cup, come to him and never be hungry. Eat this bread, drink this cup, trust in him and you will not thirst”) but the five verses for cantor are new to me, as is the alternative wording of the chorus presumably intended for an occasion other than a communion service, with “eat this bread / drink this cup” replaced by an invocation of Jesus as “bread of life / risen Lord”.

The text is based on John’s gospel chapter 6, John’s account of Jesus’ teaching about himself as the bread of life which starts with the miracle of feeding five thousand people with five loaves of bread. The verses of the song meditate on what it means to have Jesus as the bread of life within us, and the eternal life that he promises.  It’s easy, in churches such as the one I attend that have a weekly communion service, just to get into a routine of saying the familiar words and eating he bread or wafer without much thought.  But really, we should pause and ponder again each time what this miracle might mean, that by sharing the bread we become part of the body of Christ as he becomes part of us.

Lord, you are the light of life

Today’s hymn from Sing Praise is “Lord you are the light of life to me” by Brian Hoare. After a run of three familiar songs, this one, and its composer, are new to me. Brian also composed the tune, which has the unusual metrical pattern of 9.10.11.10 and so can’t easily be substituted with another.  For once I’m writing this before seeing John’s rendition so maybe he will have written his own?

This is a personal sort of hymn, written in terms of “I and me”. It addresses the Lord Jesus directly as a friend, as well as a King (verse 5).  He is variously addressed as the light of life who guides me, the rock who keeps me safe when I am weak, the truth who brings freedom and liberty, the Lamb who died for love of me (and set an example for the way I should love others), and finally the king who reigns perfectly and unceasingly, in contrast to earth’s rulers.   Although new to me, this is a hymn I would be happy to use in a church service when occasion arises, as well as devotionally.

Holy is the Lord

Image from Chong Soon Kim / Pinterest.com

Today’s song from Sing Praise is ‘Holy, holy, holy is the Lord’. It’s described in the book as anonymous, which is a bit surprising as it’s a modern song, not an ancient hymn.  Like the last two days, it’s one I’m already familiar with.

The words appear to be inspired by the Book of Revelation, in which Jesus is hailed by both humans and angels as the holy one (for having ascended to the right hand of God), the one worthy of praise (for his sacrifice for us) and the one to whom glory is due.  By equating Jesus with the eternal God, this text (the original Revelation as well as the modern song) challenges any notion of all religions being equal. In particular it confronts the insistence of Judaism and, perhaps especially, Islam that God is sublime and cannot be seen or take human form. The early apostles insisted that they had indeed seen, known and touched a true incarnation of God. It is this as well as its social teaching of the equality of all people that made Christianity so subversive, and in many places still does.

The other phrase that recurs in each verse is “who was, and is, and is to come”.  This refers to God being eternal, beyond time and space.  It also reflects the Christian belief that by ‘Christ’ we mean not just Jesus of Nazareth but the eternal reality of the Word of God (the way God communicates with us) and that he has promised to return again in some visible form. As Very Lynn might have put it, “don’t know where, don’t know when, but we know we’ll meet again”.   This is leading us gradually towards the Kingdom Season in November and then into Advent.

Halle, halle, halle, Hallelujah!

Today’s song from Sing Praise has very simple words: Hallelujah. That’s it.  To be more precise it’s Geoff Weaver’s arrangement of a Caribbean chant, best sung in four parts, of which John managed at least two. 

The word Hallelujah (or alleluia, as you prefer) is of Jewish origin, just meaning ‘Praise God’ or ‘Praise the Lord’.  It’s a widely known word outside religious circles, perhaps through the Jewish musician Leonard Cohen’s song of the same name with some religious references in the lyrics, or Handel’s Hallelujah Chorus, or more profane uses such as the popular disco song of the 1990s ‘Hallelujah, it’s raining men’.  Many people use it as an epithet on its own, either to give thanks to God for some small answer to prayer, or in an ironic way (“Hallelujah, he’s understood it at last!”) Perhaps this just reflects the basic human instinct for praise, whether of God or other people. The present song is very joyful in style, as indeed praise should be.  If praise is expressed reluctantly or unenthusiastically, it isn’t really praise.

Let us build a house

Floor to rafter: the nave ceiling of
St Mary Magdalene, Taunton, Somerset

Today’s hymn from Sing Praise is ‘Let us build a house where love can dwell’ by Marty Haugen. It’s a hymn about inclusion in the church, and about the church being more than its buildings.  As a recent report from the Church of England put it, Christians vary from being ‘Temple people’ for whom a beautiful building is of great importance to their worship and witness, to ‘Tent people’ for whom the building is nothing more than a temporary shelter to host the all-important task of proclaiming the Gospel. 

Marty Haugen comes across as more of a Tent person in this hymn.  There is indeed some memorable building imagery: rock and vault, wood and stone, floor to rafter (incidentally, the recently deceased American folk singer Nanci Griffith uses that exact phrase ‘floor to rafter’, also rhymed with laughter, in one of her songs: did one of them pinch it from the other?)  But there is much more imagery of the activities that our buildings should host: love and safety; hopes, dreams, visions and prophecy; a banqueting hall; peace and justice; healing, serving and teaching; songs, laughter and prayers. 

This balance is at the heart of my work for the Church, helping local congregations across Yorkshire care for historic buildings at the same time as encouraging sensitive adaptation of those buildings to the present and future needs of mission. If our buildings become museums of architecture then we’ve swung too far the wrong way, for the house of God should be both a house of prayer (as Jesus called the Temple) and a haven for all those in need of grace.

I will praise the Lord for ever and ever

Today’s hymn from Sing Praise is “I’ll praise the Lord for ever and ever” by Paul Wigmore. It’s based on parts of Psalm 34 (specifically, verses 1, 4, 8 and 22 of the psalm for the four verses of the hymn, and v.3 for the chorus). The psalm as a whole is one of the more positive ones (in the New Revised Standard Version it’s captioned ‘Praise for deliverance from trouble’), and these selected verses are the most affirming of all.  “I will praise the Lord for ever and ever, my soul shall boast of his wonderful name”, and the other verses say how he answers prayer, delivers us from fear, offers secure refuge and redeems but never condemns those who trust in him.

All this makes it a good sing (whether using the tune provided, or the one that John wrote). But the Psalms are still much-used precisely because they contain such a wide range of emotions, representing the reality of life that even those who do have faith in God can still suffer some awful experiences that test that very faith.    Perhaps the composer of this hymn should have included some of the verses of PS.34 that acknowledge this (“this poor soul cried, and was heard by the Lord … keep your tongue from evil and your lips from speaking deceit … many are the afflictions of the righteous”).