Great and wonderful your deeds

Today’s hymn from Sing Praise is “Great and Wonderful your deeds” by Christopher Idle, who also wrote yesterday’s hymn. Both are based on passages from the book of Revelation, and this is a setting of a passage used as a canticle (chanted scripture) in some churches.  Now we are far from the problems of earth and focused only on God.

God is praised here as the all-powerful one, the one who is always true and right, the God of justice, the sacrificial Lamb as he was incarnate as Jesus, and as the Holy Spirit. 

The refrain to each verse is a single line ending with the word ‘glory’ and that sets the tone for the hymn. These last lines – “To your name be glory”, “All have seen your glory”, and “Love and praise and glory” are the response of people who recognise God for whom he is.

Glory, honour, endless praises

Today’s hymn from Sing Praise is in a different mood from the last three: Glory, honour, endless praises’ by Christopher Idle. Leaving behind the troubles of this world, we move (as John noted in his video) to the worship of Heaven as described in the book of Revelation. This was also mentioned in the radio ‘thought for the day’ today with a reminder that the alternative term Apocalypse really just means an uncovering, a revelation of a reality that is normally hidden.

In this existence we are told there will be ‘no more crying or pain’, and God can be praised by those whose sins have been redeemed.  Jesus Christ is acclaimed in the verses of this hymn as the Lord and King of Kings, the Lamb who has been slain, by those who have been ‘called to serve from every nation’.  It’s a necessary reminder that for all our struggles here, there is another, unseen but eternal existence where all that will have been laid aside. 

At the start of the book of Revelation we also read of Jesus revealing himself to St John with messages for several specific Christian congregations undergoing persecution, urging them to remain faithful, to endure, to overcome evil and hardship, so as to reach the everlasting life of Heaven. One way of achieving that is to praise God as often as we can, even when times are hard.  It’s just a practice for the real thing.

Who can sound the depths of sorrow?

copyright unkown

Today’s hymn from Sing Praise is “Who can sound the depths of sorrow” by Graham Kendrick.  It takes us on from the theme of the last two days of the Christian life being about more than our own salvation, and urges us to intercede to God for mercy in the face of  injustice in the world.

The sorrow expressed in verse 1 is that ‘in the Father heart of God’, for God who creates all life is always more deeply concerned for the welfare of people than we are for each other, perhaps with a few honourable exceptions. We are asked to express sorrow for rejected children, scorned lives, extinguished lights.  In verse 2 the guilt is of bowing to other gods (usually in a metaphorical sense) and sacrificing children (hopefully always in a metaphorical sense!) In the third verse, God is portrayed as angry, with piercing eyes, at the cries of the weak and helpless.  Allowing for the almost unavoidable use of metaphor in trying to describe God and his relationship with humanity, I have no problem with these sentiments: the sinfulness that pervades human society does lead us all, at times, to ignore the needs of other people when we could have helped them, and sometimes extends to deliberate harm.

The refrain (slightly different in the last verse) asks God to have mercy upon our nation. I should be open here, and say that there is a strand of theology behind this hymn with which I have never been entirely comfortable, though it is by no means uncommon in evangelical circles. The theology I refer to is that of each ‘nation’ being a spiritual entity that can bear collective guilt, or an entity to which particular spirits (good or evil) attach themselves.  It leads to the sense of national guilt expressed in the words of this hymn. The ‘we’ in these verses is not just ‘we the people of this congregation’ or even ‘we the Church in England’, but ‘we, all the people of England’ (or whichever ‘nation’ you consider yourself to belong to). 

The problems I see are twofold: one being the practical one that many people these days have multiple national identities (perhaps of their country of birth, their current country of residence, and a religious or tribal identity with roots elsewhere in the world). The second is that ‘nationhood’ is usually defined either by the rather arbitrary physical boundaries ruled by different governments, or along ethnic lines.  But the Christian gospel is that Christ has redeemed the whole world, and that ethnic or political identities have to be laid down when we turn to him and join the universal Church.  So I find this theology of nationhood incompatible with the gospel.  But if John or anyone else wishes to persuade me otherwise, I’m open to your arguments.

[Edited in the light of John’s comment, to note the third verse is not the final one!]

We sing your praise, Eternal God

Elijah in the cave,
William Brassey Hole (1846-1917) 

Today’s song from Sing Praise is, perhaps we should say, the title track: “We sing your praise, eternal God” by Alan Gaunt.  Verse 3 gives a clue to its origins: references to wind, earthquake and fire (representing the turmoils of life that “kill love and stifle prayer”) suggest it’s based on Elijah’s experience in the desert cave in 1 Kings 19, where he pours out his troubles in prayer before experiencing these natural forces in which he failed to find God.

A parallel theme, also found in that desert experience, works its way through the hymn, at least in verses 1,2 and 4: that of sound and silence. “We can never match your love, however loud our songs” … “Your love which comes so silently through all the noise we hear” … “No sound on earth can drown the silence we have heard”.  God revealed his love for Elijah, and comforted him, through silence, not speech or natural forces. The right balance between work, worship and contemplation in the Christian life is difficult to achieve, especially for those of us who prefer action to stillness, but sometimes stillness is what we need.

Although Elijah went away from Horeb refreshed by the revelation of God in the silence, it was not to a monastery for more of the same, but back into action, and indeed into danger.  The last verse puts this quite clearly: “It [God’s Word in silence] comes to guilty, broken hearts, with challenge and release; prepares us for self-sacrifice and speaks eternal peace”.  As I wrote yesterday about the hymn “We do not hope to ease our minds”, the Christian life is never meant to be only about forgiveness, silence and inner peace, although they are part of it.  They are the basis of an active faith that has to take risks and face difficulty.

We do not hope to ease our minds

Image credit: Christ on Gethsemane, from Art in the Christian Tradition,
a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN.

If, like John, you wondered why I haven’t blogged for the last eleven days, it’s because I was on holiday. I continued singing the daily hymn from Sing Praise, but just haven’t been at a computer to write about them. I may find time to go back to them later.

Today’s choice is “We do not hope to ease our minds” by Marnie Barrell.  It’s in the general ‘God and the World’ section of the book, but as two of the verses refer to Holy Week, it would actually have been better sung then. The theme of the three verses is that the needs of the world are so insistent and demanding of a compassionate response, that we (members of the Church) cannot comfort ourselves with an easy-living faith.

The ‘simple answers, shifted blame’ of verse 1 will not cut it with Christ who, as he put in the parable of sheep and goats, is present in everyone in physical or emotional need. We ask in this verse to be ‘disturb[ed] till every need is satisfied’, which of course is never in this life.

Verse 2 refers to Christ’s unjust trial and torture at the hands of the Romans, standing as a symbol for all the injustice and violence in the world, the pain of which he bore on the cross. As with verse 1, we ask to be ‘given no peace till his peace reigns in triumph here’, and again that will not happen until Jesus returns. We are asking here for a permanent sense of being troubled by the way the world is, and what we might be able to do about it.

The last verse begins ‘We will not pray to be preserved from any depths of agony’, although in fact that’s just what Jesus did in Gethsemane, before accepting his Father’s will.  I therefore don’t think there’s anything wrong with praying to be spared agony. A true faith lived out will include moments of discomfort and inconvenience at the very least, but there’s a very wide spectrum between ‘comfortable Christianity’ and martyrdom.  As Paul wrote to the Corinthians, God knows each of us individually and will not let us be tested beyond what we can endure.

The hymn is set to a metrical version of ‘St Patrick’s breastplate’, maybe with deliberate reference to the ascetic saint’s own renouncing of comfortable worldliness in the service of Christ.

Living God, your word has called us

the congregation of Walthamstow Central Baptist Church

We are now on to a section of the Sing Praise hymn book titled ‘gathering’: these hymns are intended to be sung at the start of an act of worship to help the congregation feel they belong together. Today’s hymn is ‘Living God, your word has called us’ by Jan Berry.

The first lines of the three verses are almost identical but for one word: “Living God, your word/love/hope has called us”. So being called by God is the theme, and as it’s ‘us’ not ‘me’, this is the prayer of the whole congregation. In the first verse, God’s word, we ask to be made one “in hope and grace” and describes our praise and prayer as “springing from the love we share”. 

The second verse, God’s love, refers to him making us the Body of Christ by the Spirit. How does that happen in practice? “Working, laughing, learning, growing, old and young and black and white, gifts and skills together sharing, in your service all unite”.  The words remind me of one of the few modern hymns I know in German, “Stimmet ein, groß und klein” which has much the same message (I couldn’t find the full words online to link to).

The last verse, God’s hope, turns us outwards to service in the world (not usually a theme of a ‘gathering’ hymn) “teaching us to live for others, humble, joyful, unafraid”. We ask for “eyes to see your presence” (implied: in other people).

The hymn presents a picture of the ideal congregation, coming together in worship, becoming one in fellowship, serving Christ together joyfully. In practice some congregations seem to be closer to that ideal than others, but it remains an ideal rather than a reality for most.

The suggested tune is one called ‘Tor Hill’ (a tautology, but never mind). It was unfamiliar to me and I was pleased that John chose the better known ‘Hyfrydol’. Another Welsh hymn tune ‘Blaenwern’ is also suggested as an alternative.

Tell all the world of Jesus

Today’s hymn from Sing Praise is “Tell all the world of Jesus” by James Seddon. The theme is obvious from the first line – the command to spread the Gospel. The three verses cover, roughly speaking, his mission for the redemption of all creation, his gifts to the individual and his eventual triumph over sin and death. 

We have here Jesus as Redeemer of the World, Jesus as personal Saviour, and Jesus as King of the Universe.  However it passes over his suffering on the cross, which may be intended to make it a ‘nice’ hymn to sing, but of course misses the vital historical and theological point of sacrifice being necessary for redemption.  It also makes him a rather ‘cuddly’ saviour (offering forgiveness, peace, care, love and mercy), without any of the demands of discipleship.  This is salvation-lite.

The suggested tune, Thornbury by Basil Harwood, is better known to the words “Thy hand O God has guided”.  Thornbury is the adjacent parish to Eccleshill: I wonder whether Basil Harwood had any connection with that part of Bradford?

Summoned by the God who made us

Today’s hymn from Sing Praise is “Summoned by the God who made us” by Delores Dufner.  

I feel this hymn lacks coherence. As John remarked at morning prayer, it could be suitable for a baptismal service, but the only direct reference to baptism is in verse 2* (“Radiant risen from the water, robed in holiness and light”). Apart from that, it is a hymn on the general theme of discipleship and Christians in community. As such, it might be suitable for an ecumenical service, a renewal of vows, or possibly with verse 2 omitted for any general occasion when we wish to remind ourselves of our calling as a Church.  But the several verses are all on different themes.

Verse 1 refers to richness in diversity and unity; this is expanded in the chorus (“Let us bring the gifts that differ and, in splendid, varied ways, sing a new Church into being, one in faith and love and praise”). Verse 2, as well as the baptismal reference, speaks of being made in God’s image, verse 3 of trusting the goodness of creation and the Spirit within us, verse 4 of every nation and race, and verse 5 of the whole human family being drawing into an ever-widening circle (paraphrased). Lots of ideas, but with no development of them, and the early focus on commitment to Jesus and baptism seems at odds with the message of ‘every nation and all the human family’ at the end. Is the Church distinctive from the rest of humanity, or isn’t it?

* In ‘Sing Praise’, it is set as five four-line verses with a chorus, but John chose to sing it to an alternative eight-line tune, counting the chorus as verse 2 thus making three longer verses.  I think either works well enough, depending on whether you want a shorter or longer hymn and whether you want to emphasis the message of the chorus about using different gifts.

Send, O God, your Holy Spirit

Today’s hymn from Sing Praise is “Send, O God, your Holy Spirit”.  The title may suggest it for the Pentecost season, but the compilers have chosen to put it in the section headed “The Church’s Ministry and Mission”.  That reminds us that the Spirit is never given for the individual’s benefit (as Paul explains to the Corinthians) but for the building up of the Church as the Body of Christ and for the furthering of God’s mission.

Thus, after the first verse asking for the Spirit to be sent “on your people gathered here”, the second acknowledges that the Spirit’s gifts are given “to equip the saints of Jesus for the saving work we share”. The third verse lists some of those gifts (wisdom, knowledge, faith, healing) and the last reminds us that in claiming the “gift, faith and promise” of the Spirit, we “build the body of the Lord”.

Restore, O Lord

Today’s hymn from Sing Praise is “Restore, O Lord, the honour of your name” by Graham Kendrick and Chris Rolinson.  This is another of Kendrick’s 1980s hymns that has stood the test of time, both for its memorable tune, and because it addresses ideas that don’t lose their relevance.  

When planning the allocation of the hymns across the year I wasn’t paying attention to the daily lectionary, but John in his video noted the link between the theme of this hymn and the book of Ezekiel which is being read at Morning Prayer for the next few weeks.  Both are about restoration from times of trouble.   Ezekiel spoke to the Jewish exiles who had lost their homeland and maybe were in danger of losing their hope in God.  The hymn speaks to Christians today who have, perhaps, lost a sense of God being with us and working through us, and we also may risk losing our hope in God himself.

The first verse calls for God to restore his own honour, by works of power that make everyone realise he is the one in control.  Since the hymn was written, there has of course been a great increase in the number of people concerned for the future of human society, not least because of the climate crisis.  People of faith long for God to step in and put things right, but we are working with others who have no religious conviction, who can only call for everyone to do their bit “for the sake of the planet”. The challenge for us Christian environmentalists is to work with them on the practical actions we can take, without losing faith that God somehow has a bigger plan that indeed “his kingdom shall outlast the years”.

The second verse acknowledges that it is not only God’s apparent lack of action that leads to earthly problems, but the Church’s own failings.  We call on him to “revive in our time the church that bears your name” and to have mercy on our failings.  We have failed to move with the times, lost a whole generation of adults who no longer have any connection with Christianity (though some find spirituality in other forms), and often lost hope that they will ever come back. It needs a movement of God’s Spirit, not just our own good intentions, to reclaim that lost ground for Christ.

The third verse move from the corporate to the individual level. “Bend us, O Lord, when we are hard and cold, in your refiner’s fire come purify the gold” is the cry of anyone who realises they have lost their love for God and enthusiasm for worship and witness.  There is perhaps a mixed metaphor in these lines, both of a hard iron rod needing to be heated in the fire to make it malleable, and of a gold alloy that can be purified by melting out the impurities.  Both are meaningful images, as we  need both to be purified of our sins, and heated with love for God, before we can truly hope in him. It recognises also the reality of suffering and evil, which in their many forms prevent us from fulfilling our potential as people and as God’s servants.

The last line (unless you repeat verse 1 as suggested in the book), is also a message of hope: “still our living God is reigning, he is reigning here”.  Unbelieved by many outside the Church, unacknowledged in practice by many within it, our hearts hardened by sin and worldly worries, yet God is still reigning, and hears us when we call on him for restoration.