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.

The love of God comes close

Today’s hymn from Sing Praise is John Bell’s “The love of God comes close”, which is set here to its original tune called ‘Melanie’ (I wonder who she was?), but I have heard it previously sung to the Welsh tune Rhosymedre, which in my opinion fits it better.  The full words, and suggestions for alternative tunes, can be found here.

I find the words of this hymn helpful in understanding the Church’s task of witness, evangelism or outreach (choose your preferred term). The central idea is that God is truly closest to us (in a spiritual sense – we can’t meaningfully ascribe a physical distance to or from God) not when we are doing the obviously ‘religious’ things but in some of the ordinary actions of life.  The refrain at the end of each verse is in the form “The [property] of God is here to stay, embracing those who walk his way”, where the property in question echoes the first line of the verse: love, peace, joy, grace, and in the last verse the Son of God.

Some of those ‘ordinary actions’, as verse 1 suggests, are around showing hospitality – “where stands an open door, to let the stranger in, to mingle [or in some hymn books, ‘to welcome’] rich and poor”.  Hospitality, as our PCC agreed at a virtual meeting yesterday, should be what people first experience when they meet us as Christians.  So here’s a shout out to the people of St Philip and St James, Scholes near Bradford who welcomed me in for coffee and a chat today when I was just calling in the course of my work to drop something off at the vicarage.

The middle verses (2-4) are more about God being present when life is difficult.  They offer God’s peace to those who are caught in the storms of life, or who make the effort to help others in those storms; his joy “where faith encounters fears”, for a true faith is not afraid to face fear; and his grace “when hearts are tired or sore and hope is bruised or bent”.  The church’s needs to be not only, and not initially, with the challenge to turn to God from wrong ways (although it includes that), but to find that he is already present where life has forced people into difficult circumstances or wrong choices.

The final verse returns to the heart of our faith in Jesus: “The Son of God comes close where people praise his name, where bread and wine are blessed and shared, as when he came”.  It is right that this should come last, not because it’s least important in our witness, but because we need first to show people they are welcome, and that God accepts and comforts them as they are, before they can feel part of our fellowship.  Then we can move on to explain the significance of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection. 

Jesus Christ, I think upon your sacrifice

Today’s offering from Sing Praise is one that I am already familiar with: “Jesus Christ, I think upon your sacrifice” by Matt Redman.  It’s clearly a ‘song’ rather than a ‘hymn’ both in its structure and in being phrased in the first person as a personal act of devotion rather than a statement of faith.

In the first verse I (as singer) contrast Jesus going willingly to his death with the gift of life that he gave to me by doing so.  The response, expressed in the chorus, is to be humbled (because there’s nothing I can do adequately to repay him for such a gift), broken (because I recognise the sin in my own life that caused him such pain), thankful (because that life is a free gift), and in return “pour out my life”, not in the same way but in the sense of offering my time and talents in his service.  Humbled, broken, thankful and committed: the four steps of repentance beautifully expressed in this short chorus. That, I think, is why the song appeals to me.

The second verse looks beyond the cross to the resurrected and ascended Jesus Christ as “King of the heavens”, but quickly returns to the present reality: “But for now I marvel at this saving grace, and I’m full of praise once again”.  There is also a short bridge before a repeat of the chorus, “thank you for the cross, my friend”.  Calling Jesus, King of the heavens, “my friend” seems incredibly arrogant, yet that is what he calls us, and friendship once established is mutual. Its another of the deep mysteries of faith that the one who is beyond time and space is at the same time so close and intimate, that we can call him ‘friend’.

O to see the dawn of the darkest day

Another Good Friday hymn from Sing Praise today, and from completely the “other end of the candle” as we say in the Church of England: after two Catholic hymns on the theme, we have one from the well-known Evangelical hymnwriter Stuart Townend, “O to see the dawn of the darkest day”.  The words contain explicit reminders of the violence of the Crucifixion: torn and beaten, nailed to a cross of wood, the pain on [Jesus’] face, his blood-stained brow, the earthquake as he died.   I haven’t seen the movie “the passion of the Christ”, but it supposedly showed the likely true extent of the violence committed against him, which is minimised in most re-tellings of the story.   

But the way Jesus was treated physically was not unique.  Then and now, thousands of people ore tortured and killed for their religious or political beliefs, race or sexuality. There was something else going on at Calvary. The lyrics also remind us therefore of the purpose of Jesus’ death: “bearing the awesome weight of sin”, “through your suffering I am free, death is crushed to death, life is mine to live”; and in the chorus, “Christ became sin for us, took the blame, bore the wrath, we stand forgiven at the cross”.  The inclusion of reference to the Father’s wrath in several of Townend’s hymns is controversial: some Christians see this as essential to understanding what was happening on that awful day, that without Jesus bearing the judgement of God for our individual sins in a physical way we could never enter into a guilt-free relationship with God. Others see that as a perverted understanding of redemption, with an alternative interpretation that it was Jesus’ love for humanity that held him to the cross, not only demonstrating that peaceful resistance to evil is possible but somehow overcoming in those hours the dark powers outside ourselves that prevent us from a full and free relationship with God in this life and the next.  My own inclination is towards the second of these, but there has to be some element of recognition of our own wilful sins being dealt with as well as the ‘sin of the world’.  God’s love or his wrath – or a bit of both? Just part of the complex and ever-fascinating Easter story.

Holy Spirit, come to us

Today’s hymn from “Sing Praise” is another Taizé chant with verses sung by a cantor over a repeated chorus.  The chorus line is “Holy Spirit, come to us, kindle in us the fire of your love, Holy Spirit come to us, Holy Spirit, come to us”.  There’s also a version in Latin, a language still used in Christian worship and understood across many European cultures.

Holy Spirit and Fire, mixed media, Beverly Guilliams

The six short chants are all Bible verses about love. The first three are sayings of Jesus: “I give you a new commandment. Love one another just as I have loved you”; “It is by your love for one another that everyone will recognise you as my disciples”; and “No-one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for those one loves”.   These represent a progression in depth of love: the love between members of the same church which in practice may be hard to distinguish from the camaraderie and common purpose found in any healthy group; demonstrating that love to people outside the church in a way that they recognise to be distinctive; and finally the challenge to love others more than ourselves even if it should cost us our own life.  

The last three are sayings about God’s love rather than ours: “We know love by this, that Christ laid down his life for us”; “This is love, it is not we who have loved God but God who loved us”; and “God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God and God in them”. The answer to the question “how can I love in a way that might even lead to accepting my own death for someone else’s sake?” is that only the love of God makes this possible. Again it’s a progression, from observing the sacrificial love of Jesus Christ, to accepting God’s love for us personally which then makes it easier to love others, to letting God’s love “abide in us and we in him”.

What’s the connection between the six sayings about love, and the chorus calling on the Holy Spirit, who is not named in the Bible verses? Here’s one way of looking at it (I’m sure there are others equally valid): We can easily believe in a loving God as an intellectual proposition, and in Jesus as a historical figure who demonstrated God’s love in action to the point of death, but still find it difficult to love others in an equally sacrificial way.  The Holy Spirit is sometimes understood as God’s way of putting his love into our hearts, stirring the individual believer to love and action.   When Jesus promised that God would send the Holy Spirit after his death and resurrection, he described the Spirit as a ‘helper’ or advocate’ who would ‘abide in you’ (John 14:16-17).  Without the Spirit, it’s difficult to love people, with all their faults.  With the Spirit in us, God’s love works through us to make us love other people in the way God does – for who they are, not what they do.

That takes us back to the central acclamation of the chorus: “kindle in us the fire of your love” or “tui amoris ignem accende”.  The link between the Spirit and Fire is a Biblical one, from John the Baptist’s prophecy that Jesus would “baptise with the Holy Spirit and fire” and the day of Pentecost when the Spirit appeared as “tongues of fire”. That fire sometimes takes a long time to get going again, especially if the embers have gone cold, but the Spirit’s job is to ignite it. Come, Holy Spirit!

New light has dawned

Today’s song, continuing the Candlemas theme, is “New light has dawned, the son of God is here” by Paul Wigmore. In terms of Biblical stories of Jesus, the first three verses cover the incarnation, the announcement to the shepherds (but surprisingly not the magi), the presentation to Simeon (meriting its inclusion among hymns for this season) and the later episode where the adolescent Jesus debates theology with the Temple priests in Jerusalem. The common thread is that anyone who encounters Jesus encounters light, whether through a prophetic word or an apparition of angels.

The qualities of the Christ-light are listed here: it is “a holy light no earthly light outshines”, “the light that casts out fear”, “the light that evil dreads and love defines”, “the light of glory”, and quoting Simeon “the light to lighten gentile eyes”. The fourth verse is our response to Christ as we acclaim him “the light who came to us on earth”.

But what does the “light of Christ” mean to us ordinary believers who haven’t met an angel or had an extraordinary gift of prophecy?  It’s hard to put into words but here’s the best way I can express  it: when Christ is present in my life, there is an optimism to life, a sense that whatever ups and down I experience in physical health or the stresses of work, something or someone is ‘shining down on me’.  When I experience this, even if I shut my eyes so that I see no natural light, it is as if I’m still in a well lit room, not a dark one.  Does that tally with Wigmore’s description?  Fairly well – it certainly casts out fear, or at least anxiety, it can be glorious, and lightens the eyes of this particular gentile.  But what about “the light that evil dreads and love defines”?

This light is not something I experience all the time. Most Christians will agree that love for God is like love for your partner in that after the first few years of excitement, the relationship can easily be taken for granted and the spark of love goes out – not that you dislike your partner or Lord or want to disown them, just that the light of love has gone dim. That’s why the last lines of the hymn ask Christ to “renew the faith you gave at our new birth, destroy the dark, and let your light come in”.  

I’m attending a ‘quiet day’ tomorrow, usually held in a retreat centre but this time with the devotional talks on Zoom and time away from the computer to reflect at home in between them.  I pray Christ will enlighten me again, and pray that for you too.

Do not be afraid, for I have redeemed you

Today’s choice of hymn, following the themes of calling and baptism (or “Christian initiation” as the Sing Praise hymn book has it), is a song that our own church music group has used several times. The chorus is “do not be afraid, for I have redeemed you, I have called you by your name, you are mine”. That idea – that God calls us individually, in different ways (by our name) and that because of that there’s nothing to be feared in life – occurs throughout the Bible, in fact I’ve heard it said that the phrase “do not be afraid” is one of the most common in the Bible.

The first four short verses each suggest ways in which life might make us afraid, then the way in which God will protect us. All of these are relevant to the current Covid pandemic and lockdown.

Firstly we may feel we are “out of our depth” with what’s happening (perhaps especially appropriate today, as the North of England faces yet another warning of devastating floods), but he won’t let us drown. Or we may feel that we are surrounded by fire (the virus is just as dangerous, though invisible), but he won’t let us get burnt; or lonely (a problem many are facing in this pandemic) but God is always with us so we are never truly alone; or exiled away from home (perhaps in the sense that the culture around us is changing rapidly and makes us uncomfortable) but never far from God’s love.

The final verse reminds us again that we are God’s children and that he loves us. That’s what it all comes down to: whatever the pandemic brings, whether anxiety, fear of physical harm, loneliness or just life moving too fast for us to keep up with, the one constant is God’s love, so we need not fear.

The Bible in a Year -18 December

If this is your first viewing, please see my Introduction before reading this.

18 December. John chapters 3-4

It is often claimed that John 3:16 is the best known verse in the whole Bible – “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.”  I’m not so sure – in a largely secular world where many people only come across the Christian message through Nativity plays and Christmas carols, something like “And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn” (Luke 2:7) is probably better known.

Be that as it may, the message in John 3:16 is an important one.  At the core of the Bible story is God’s love for humanity. Love so strong that it endures any number of rejections.  Love so strong that it is willing to put up with pain, humiliation and rejection.  Love so strong that it could go through the apparent finality of death and come out triumphant the other side.  And where Jesus led, entering eternal life, those who follow him can also expect to go. Hence the bit about not perishing.  Yes, we will die physically, but spiritually we can gain this “eternal life” here and now, and know that it will survive death.

That is what Jesus also managed to convey, in a different way, to the Samaritan woman.  Here was someone probably rejected by her neighbours because of her multiple marriages (to have had five husbands and now be living with another man suggests that she was not the innocent party in the failure of all those marriages).   She knew what it was to be thirsty for a stable relationship, for someone to whom she could finally commit herself.  Jesus offered to satisfy that thirst – not with another sexual relationship but with one based on a deeper kind of love, that heavenly love of unquestioning acceptance, long-suffering and unending commitment. “Those who drink of the water that I will give them will never be thirsty. The water that I will give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life” (4:14).

Jesus also tries to explain it to Nicodemus.  He should have known better – Jesus calls him a “teacher of Israel” who knew the scriptures far better than a Samaritan woman.  But Nicodemus does not understand about being “born again”, taking it too literally.  So Jesus puts it another way – “I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit” (3:5).  Our physical life come from our earthly parents in the form of a baby’s body, as Nicodemus says, and as the Virgin Mary experienced when Jesus himself was born, but our spiritual life comes from our heavenly parent in the form of a spirit.  And the life of the spirit has to be fed to keep growing in us just as our physical bodies require regular food to grow to adulthood.

So we have different ways of looking at the gift of God’s love – in the physical form of his Son, in a lasting relationship with him that feels like an endless supply of fresh water, or in a spiritual rebirth. All of those came together for Mary as she laid her newborn, special bay in the manger.  She gazed on the very form of God, entering into a lifelong an unique relationship with him as mother, that would lead to the cross and empty tomb. Maybe it was only at that moment that she understood fully the angel’s message at the moment of conception: “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called Son of God.”

The Bible in a Year – 20 August

If this is your first viewing, please see my Introduction before reading this.

20 August. Lamentations chapters 1-3

The book of Lamentations is set at the time of the destruction of Jerusalem by the Babylonians, although probably written some time later.  In the first two chapters, the “voice” is that of the city itself, personified as a female character. She is grieving for the Jewish people who used to live in her and have now been taken away, apart from the poor who are reduced to selling their possessions and maybe even eating their own dead children to survive (2:20).

What comes across strongly in this poetry of lament is that what matters to the spirit of the city is not the wealth that built it – there is no mention of that – or even principally the buildings themselves, but the people and their activities.  “The roads to Zion mourn, for no one comes to the festivals; all her gates are desolate” (1:4); “hear, all you peoples, and behold my suffering; my young women and young men have gone into captivity.” (1:18).

Too often these days we hear references, especially to “the City of London” with dire warnings about what will happen if the bankers leave it to go to Germany after Brexit.  Whatever your political views on Brexit, this is the wrong understanding of a city.  London (or any other city) is not its wealth, it is its people, their common memory, the traditions they have established, the relationships that have been formed and lived out there, and the worship of God that has taken place.  It is the loss of those things that is to be mourned, not the diversion of foreign investments. The Babylonians thought they were “investing” in Jerusalem by capturing it” with no thought for its people!

She has suffered terribly from foreign invaders – people without respect for God – entering the Temple: “She has even seen the nations invade her sanctuary, those whom you forbade to enter your congregation” (1:10). But the greatest wound is God’s anger itself – “The Lord has become like an enemy; he has destroyed Israel.” (2:5). If the God who had chosen this people as his special envoys to the rest of humanity and promised never to leave or forsake them, now sends armies against the Temple that Solomon had built as “God’s house” and removes his holy people from their holy place, then what hope is left?  Could anything good ever happen again?

At the very deepest point of Jerusalem’s despair, suddenly the mood changes: “But this I call to mind, and therefore I have hope: the steadfast love of the Lord never ceases, his mercies never come to an end” (3:21-22). This is, not surprisingly, a ‘favourite’ Bible verse for many people. For it reminds us that although God may sometimes seem to have abandoned us, that is never true.  Suffering may not be the result of our own sin (as the book of Job made abundantly clear) but if we end up having to suffer indirectly from the sin of other individuals or humanity as a whole, God is still present if we only listen out for him. Our physical, emotional and financial circumstances may all fall apart, but God still loves us. Always.