In the night, the sound of crying

Thanks to John for spotting that hymn 23 in Sing Praise, ‘In the night, the sound of crying ‘ by Martin Leckebusch, is the most appropriate for 28th December, Holy Innocents day.

This is the bit of the Christmas story that rarely features in nativity plays or carol services: when Herod, maybe a year or more after Jesus was born, receives the magi and reacts to the news of an infant king by slaughtering all the young boys in Bethlehem in the hope that Jesus was among them.

He wasn’t, of course, as God had given Joseph warning in a dream and they escaped in time. But as Martin recognises, this cannot have been easy for Mary, forced to get on the donkey and relocate for the second time, now with fears for the safety of her child: ‘Mary journeys on with tears, further from the home she treasures, onward to uncertain years’.

In this fragile family of refugees from Judah to Egypt we can see the situation of millions of others around the world today. The sound of their crying should reach our ears and through our prayers the ears of God.

The third and fourth verses of the hymn refer to the cries of the murdered boys and grieving parents. This is what makes the story so disturbing: why did God not save them by deposing Herod before he could do this? It’s the old question of theodicy, which I won’t venture into now. But the last verse does remind us that through his own innocent death and resurrection, Christ has conquered and will come to reign with the justice for which we cry.

Two tunes are offered, the well known ‘Sussex’ and one called ‘Amplitudo’ which may have been composed for this hymn. Certainly it’s minor key seems more appropriate to the plaintive words, and a resolution to the major for the last phrase ‘comes to reign’.

Who would think?

My hymn choice for 27 December was ‘Who would think that what was needed’ by John Bell and Graham Maule. The theme of the hymn is in the repeated last line of each verse: ‘God surprises earth with heaven, coming here on Christmas Day’.

Those who visited the Holy Family in Bethlehem, whether local shepherds or distant magi, were surprised by what they found there: ‘such a place as none would reckon holds a holy, helpless thing’.

The last verse asks whether our ‘centuries of skill and science’ put us in a better position to anticipate or appreciate the Incarnation. The implied answer is ‘no’, for God still surprises people by coming into their lives unexpectedly.

Praise the One

Today’s hymn from Sing Praise is ‘Praise the One who breaks the darkness’ by Rusty Edwards.

The hymn is all about Jesus, and is from the ‘General’ section of the book rather than ‘Advent’. I put it into this season because the opening lines, at least, seem appropriate: ‘Praise the One who breaks the darkness with a liberating light. Praise the One who frees the prisoners, turning blindness into sight’.  The rest of the first verse recounts some of Jesus’ other miracles, all of which John the Baptist took as a sign that Jesus was indeed ‘the One who is to come’. 

The word ‘One’, always capitalised, is what binds this hymn together.  The second verse celebrates his powerful words (whether blessing children or driving out demons) and the well of living water that he promised in our hearts.  The third verse is more theological (or even soteriological, if I have the right word) as it praises the One who is love incarnate, died and rose to save us by grace, and redeems us in glory.  The final line is perhaps the only weakness in the words with a repetition: ‘Praise the One who makes us one’.  The last word is to rhyme with ‘done’, so perhaps ‘Praise the Lord who makes us one’ would be better, or ‘Praise the One who is God’s Son’ which would keep the rhyme.

The hymn is copyrighted by an American publisher, and the name Rusty suggests an American writer.  The tune ‘Nettleton’, also of American origin, is dated 1813, but the tune is much less staid than English hymn tunes of that era and together with the words makes a great song of praise.  The tune was familiar as it is also used for the Iona song ‘We rejoice to be God’s chosen’.

Sing the Lord’s praise, every nation

Today’s song from Sing Praise is ‘Sing the Lord’s praise, every nation’ by Paul Inwood. It is in the form of two verses with a refrain with two vocal parts in a call-and-echo format.  The first verse is a setting of Psalm 117, the shortest of the Psalms, urging people of all nations to praise God for his faithfulness. The second is a Christian doxology (praise to the Trinity), and the chorus is a version of the Orthodox Trisagion (thrice holy).  As such I don’t think there’s much more that can be said, other than that the practice of sung praise to God binds the Jewish and Christian faith in all times and (nearly) all traditions.

I do not know tomorrow’s way

Path junction on Slate Delfs Hill, Calderdale (own photo)

Today’s hymn from Sing Praise is ‘I do not know tomorrow’s way’ by an American writer, Margaret Clarkson, to a tune by the Northumbria Community, though the suggested alternative of the older and well-known tune ‘O waly waly’ seems to work equally well.

Its theme is that we trust in Christ whatever happens in life, for we do not know the future.  The uncertainty applies from day to day (the title line) as unexpected problems arise, through life’s ups and downs (‘grief or gladness, peace or pain’), and as we approach death not knowing how much longer we will live (euphemistically here, ‘when evening falls, if soon or late earth’s day grows dim’).

The repeated motif is in the third line of each verse: ‘But I know Christ…’ and the various assurances he brings (‘he abides with me … his presence will sustain … he’ll call me home to him’). It’s this assurance, difficult to explain but found inside the believer, that keeps us both hopeful and joyful (in the spiritual sense, as distinct from necessarily ‘happy’).

My life flows on in endless song

Today’s hymn from Sing Praise is ‘My life flows on in endless song’ by Robert Lowry and Doris Plenn, also known from the chorus line as ‘How can I keep from singing?’  It’s one of the few old (pre-20th century) hymns in the book, and of American origin.

The four verses alternate the troubles of life (not listed in any detail but described as lamentation, tumult, strife, darkness etc.) with the peace that comes from knowing Jesus, whose song (‘the sweet though far-off hymn that sings a new creation’) enables the singer to cope with them. The chorus likewise asks ‘Since love is Lord of heaven and earth, how can I keep from singing?’

I can certainly testify in my own experience that singing hymns and spiritual songs is a good way to avoid losing faith in the face of difficulty, though I don’t often achieve the level of serenity implied by these words. And I wouldn’t try and comfort someone in distress by saying “never mind, your troubles will be as nothing if you just sing hymns”.

John referred this morning to alternative lyrics found on WIkipedia and there’s a reference there to the version by Irish singer Enya. That was the first version of the hymn that I knew, having bought her album ‘Shepherd Moons’.  The last verse in that setting is ‘In prison cell and dungeon vile, our thoughts to them are winging. When friends by shame are undefiled, how can I keep from singing?’ Around that time it was widely suggested that this reference to those in prison was a subtle indication of support for IRA prisoners.  Whatever the rights and wrongs of Northern Ireland’s civil war, where atrocities were committed on both sides, Jesus did include visiting those in prison as a sign of living out his compassionate love, and for those in prison, a visit may be as uplifting as a song.

Bread of life, hope of the world

original copyright unknown.

Today’s hymn from Sing Praise is another communion song, “Bread of life, hope for the world” with words and music by Bernadette Farrell. There are eight verses in the book, but three of those are each for specific seasons of the year, and two others offers as ‘additional or alternate’ options, so the intention is not to sing all of them, although if sung by a music soloist or group while the people take communion, it could need more than three if the congregation is of even moderate size.

The title is that of the first line of the refrain, which is followed by “Jesus Christ our brother, feed us now, give us life, lead us to one another”. In those few phrases is a summary of the various ways that the mass/communion is understood: as both physical and spiritual food, as a means to eternal life through his death, and as a means to unity within the Church as we share the one bread.

The first few verses expand on those themes: the death and resurrection of Jesus, the making of bread from individual grains compared with the making of the body of Christ from individual people; its breaking as a sign of Jesus’ body broken for us and as a sign of hope.

The additional verses cover the unity of the Church, the sharing of peace, the promise of Christ’s coming (in Advent), the Nativity, and in Lent “our hunger for your word, our thirsting for your truth”.

Send me, Jesus

Today’s song from Sing Praise is “Send me, Lord”, a translation of a South African chant with additional English verses.  The structure is simple, with a series of calls on the Lord Jesus to act with us in different ways: Send, Lead, Fill (and John added ‘Use’).  Each then takes the same format: “Send me Jesus, Send me Jesus, Send me Jesus, Send me Lord” etc.

As I commented on another hymn on 3 June  the key is that each verse starts with a verb, making this very much a call to action, or rather asking Jesus to rouse us to action. Being sent out, we need him to lead us; to serve him in this sometimes hostile world we need the filling of the Spirit, and at the same time the humility to let him use us for his purposes, rather than just assuming we are being useful in whatever we do.

At the risk of over-generalising, as with any song coming from Africa, it is best sung unaccompanied, if possible in harmony, and with enthusiasm.

When you prayed beneath the trees

Jesus in Gethsemane. Source unknown.

Today’s hymn from Sing Praise is “When you prayed beneath the trees” by Christopher Idle.  This 20th century hymn comes with its own tune, but John played it to an older hymn tune by Orlando Gibbons that better fits the sombre mood. 

The feel of the words is much like the better known American spiritual “Where you there when they crucified by Lord?”. They expand on the idea that Jesus suffered, not only in his own body, but for our sake and in our place. The repeated refrain of “it was for me, O Lord” emphasises this.  The four verses refer to the agony in the garden of Gethsemane; his trial; the ascent of the hill under the cross (‘via dolorosa’); and finally the crucifixion itself. 

This last, though, sees Jesus not as victim but as victor, another common understanding of what happened of Good Friday: “When you spoke with kingly power it was for me, O Lord, in that dread and destined hour you made me free, O Lord; earth and heaven heard you shout, death and hell were put to rout, for the grave could not hold out; you are for me, O Lord”.

Advent Faith

Advent faith Reading: Isaiah 40:27-31

Today is the third Sunday of Advent.  In the parish of Bramley we have a one-word theme each week during Advent. So far we have had HOPE and PEACE. This week’s word is FAITH.

What does that mean to you? People can sometimes be put off  getting involved with Christianity because we talk of faith, thinking that faith means already understanding the Bible, or believing certain things about God.  But all that can come later.  Faith, to begin with, simply means trusting God – just trusting that he exists, and that he cares.

Isaiah spoke to people who thought God was ignoring them in their problems.  No, he said, God understands everything. You just need to trust him, then you can be as strong and free as the eagle, in other words you will find the strength to cope with your problems and feel in control of your life, rather than being earthbound by your problems and other people’s expectations.


Let’s look at a couple of pictures.  The first is a photograph of a bird – actually it’s a chough, a sort of large crow, not an eagle – but it is flying high above a lake.  My friends and I had spent hours climbing the mountain by our own effort, fighting against gravity, but here was this bird just soaring easily on the thermal currents.   I took this at a time when I had been a Christian for over ten years but was exploring options for ministry. This view from a mountain top spoke to me, of the way God might be freeing me from previous commitments to serve him.



The second image is of a place some of you may know, the chapel at Scargill House. About five years after I had taken the first photo, praying in the silence of the chapel in the Yorkshire Dales, God gave me a picture in my mind, in which I was a baby bird, and God my mother. She was telling me it was time to fly the nest, not to be afraid but to trust her to know that now was the time to start flying. Within months of that I had given up my previous job, taken a big cut in income and started serving God in a new way in a new place. Since then I have worked for four different Christian organisations and trained as a Reader.

The point is that you don’t need the gifts of a prophet, the intellect of a bishop, or the wingspan of an eagle to start flying with God.  An amount of faith and trust as small as the tiny wings of a baby sparrow will do.  The question is, do you trust God when she says that she knows better than you do what you are capable of, and that you are now ready to fly with her?  It’s only the start of a lifetime’s journey, but it has to start with that simple act of faith.