Not for tongues of Heaven’s angels

The ‘three graces’ of faith, love and hope
Stained glass window in All Saints, Barwick-in-Elmet (Leeds)
image (c) Stephen Craven 2019

Today’s hymn from Sing Praise is Timothy Dudley-Smith’s “Not for tongues of Heaven’s angels” which is based on St Paul’s famous description of true (Godly) love in 1 Corinthians chapter 13.  The tune, “Bridegroom” is more familiar to me set to the words “Like the murmur of the dove’s song” which we will come to in a month’s time at Pentecost, but these seem to be its original words.

It’s suggested as a hymn for a marriage service, but the love of which Paul writes is not that of romance. It is a love that expresses commitment, but commitment to serving other people at whatever cost.  This love, in one of the most often quoted verses of the Bible, goes along with faith and hope, but is the greatest of the three, and all of those are greater than the “tongues of angels”.   The final line or refrain of each verse is “May love be ours, O Lord”.

Verse 1 takes the idea from the Bible passage of contrasting this love with the more spectacular spiritual gifts of tongues (a special language given by God to some people with which to pray and praise), discernment (a form of prophecy that can see people’s hidden thoughts and feelings) and ‘the faith that masters mountains’.  That last refers to a saying of Jesus that even a tiny amount of faith ‘like a mustard seed’ can move mountains.

The second and third verses list the qualities of this true Godly love: humble, gentle, tender, kind, gracious, patient, generous; never jealous, selfish, boasting or resentful but long-suffering.  These qualities, some of which are sometimes called ‘fruits of the Spirit’, will indeed help make for a happy and stable marriage, but the real challenge is to allow God’s Spirit to make us loving like this to everyone we meet.

The last verse reminds us that the effort we make in this life to be loving will not go unnoticed in the next, and can perhaps be seen as a rehearsal for the real thing. “in the day this world is fading faith and hope will play their part, but when Christ is seen in glory love shall reign in every heart”.  If we are used to loving like Christ now, we will not find his second coming as much of an upheaval as those who have not discovered this true love.

Christ has gathered us together

Today’s hymn from Sing Praise is “Christ has gathered us together” by Stephen Dean. Like yesterday’s hymn it’s set for Maundy Thursday but unlike that one, is not specific to the occasion and could be sung at any time.

The reason for putting it in this seasonal section of the hymn book may be that the hymn is actually about Christian love, the words of the chorus being “Faith, hope and love, these three shall remain, but the greatest of all is love” (1 Corinthians 13:11). And Jesus’ ‘discourse’ about love in John’s gospel, with its practical demonstration of washing the disciples’ feet, took place on the occasion of the Last Supper on that day.  This year, Covid hygiene rules mean that no feet can be washed literally, but the challenge still remains to find practical ways of showing love for each other in these strange times.

The first verse of the hymn covers the gathering together of God’s people to show our love for him in worship, with the reminder that we must “love our God sincerely, loving one another likewise. God is truly love”.  A love for Jesus that fails to be matched with love for his other disciples is not sincere.

The second covers being together, and the need when assembled to ‘banish divisions, end bitterness and forget quarrels’. That’s easier said than done, and while we may manage to be all smiles at the sharing of the Peace, what is harder is to go back out into everyday life having left those divisions, bitterness and quarrels behind for good, truly having become the one body of Christ that we profess to be.  The setting of this hymn for the day before Good Friday may, then, be quite appropriate, as it is by the Cross and Resurrection that Jesus demonstrates the extent of his own love and creates the new fellowship in his Church (fully realised at Pentecost, so it would also be a good choice on that occasion).

The final verse looks towards heaven, where we will have “joy with all the saints … peace and happiness unbounded”.  But the Kingdom of Heaven, as Jesus was wont to say, starts here and now.

Brother, Sister, let me serve you

Today’s choice of hymn from Sing Praise is, unlike many of the others, very well known to me.  “Brother, Sister, let me serve you” is sung in many churches, but was also one of the hymns that my wife and I chose for our church wedding at St Luke’s Eccleshill.

The reason it makes a good wedding hymn is that it covers the many ways in which a couple in a long-term relationship serve each other, irrespective of what religious affiliation they may or may not have, but it is also a thoroughly Christian text that begins “Brother, Sister, let me serve you, let me be as Christ to you, pray that I may have the grace to let you be my servant too”.  The inclusion of “grace” reminds us that we need God’s help to make our relationships work well, and that second line points to the truth that being served by others graciously takes effort and grace just as much as being the servant.

These various ways of serving are summarised in the second verse as “we are here to help each other walk the mile and bear the load”, a reference to Jesus’ teaching in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5:41) that “if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile”. This is itself said to be a reference to the Roman law that a soldier could make someone carry their equipment for one mile, a law invoked when Simon of Cyrene was compelled to carry Jesus’ cross on the way to his crucifixion.   But forcing? compulsion? crucifixion? How does that square with love? Perhaps it is intended to mean that when our partner is suffering, is under the pressure of external forces, we are expected to share that burden.  It finds expression also in the traditional English marriage service where each partner is asked to make a vow to love the other “for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health”.  Marriage cannot be expected to be a lifetime of easy happiness, but where there is the commitment to support each other in all circumstances, it can survive and even flourish and grow in difficult times.

The following two verses (3 & 4) list some of the ways this will work in practice: “I will hold the Christ light for you in the night-time of your fear, I will hold my hand out to you, speak the peace you long to hear”; “I will weep when you are weeping, when you laugh I’ll laugh with you, I will share your joy and sorrow till we’ve seen this journey through”. 

The fourth verse is again thoroughly Christian as it looks forward to “singing to God in heaven in perfect harmony”, although “we” here must mean the whole Christian community, past, present and future, since Jesus taught that there will be no marriage in heaven: our individual loving relationships will be blended into the perfect love of God that God intended for all creation.

Linda and I have been married for nearly eighteen years now. We’ve certainly known the ups and downs of “sickness and health”; while not experiencing poverty we’ve known the uncertainties of the private rental market and times when expenditure exceeded income; and certainly our share of weeping and laughter.  We can testify to the truth of the words of this hymn. 

The one line I haven’t quoted yet is the first half of the second verse: “we are pilgrims on a journey, and companions on the road”. Now you know where our domain name (pilgrims.org.uk) comes from – from this hymn and our experience of living it out.

Love is the touch of intangible joy

Today’s hymn, as we move on from the Presentation and towards Lent, is titled “Love is the touch of intangible joy” by the Scottish composer Alison Robertson. 

John Hartley has indicated that he preferred not to include this in a service of worship, and I will be interested to hear his reasons.  I found a recording of it online where it is set to a tune by John Bell.  The notes there say that “one of Mrs Robertson’s aims in this hymn was to write something that people who may not subscribe to the Christian faith could still assent to and be helped by”, which might tally with John’s hesitation – I will be interested to find out. 

Leaving aside the refrain “God is where love is, for love is of God” and the Trinitarian reference in verse 4, which clearly are Christian statements, could a humanist agree with this hymn? The illustrations of love given here are mostly passive, things that make life’s problems more bearable for us, such as “the goodness we gladly applaud”, “the hope that can make us rejoice” or “the light in the tunnel of pain, the will to be whole once again”.   The same notes referred to above interpret “love is the lilt in a lingering voice” in verse 2 as referring to “the voices of those who have gone before and still matter to us”. One would hope this just means the memory of our beloved dead and not that they communicate to us, which is not consistent with Christian theology. 

What seems to be missing here is the outgoing, practical and sometimes risky kind of love that Jesus taught in his parables and demonstrated in his life: the Good Samaritan giving of his time and money to help an enemy in need, his countrywoman at the well giving Jesus a drink, Jesus himself spending time with the outcasts of society, challenging prejudice and healing diseases in the face of vocal opposition and ultimately giving his life that we might live.  That is where Christianity comes in – the challenge that “greater love has no-one than this, to lay down one’s life for a friend”. It is the challenge that we must consider during the approaching season of Lent.

The Apocrypha in Lent – 14 February

Last year I set up this blog to share my thoughts as I read through the Bible in a year.  That is, the regular “Protestant” bible of Old and New Testaments.

But there are other sacred books  from the time of Jesus or a few centuries before, that are regarded by some (but not all) Christians – particularly  Roman Catholics – as part of the Bible.   So for completeness I am covering those in the period of Lent 2018.   The version of the Bible I am using is the Jerusalem Bible “Popular edition”.

Any views expressed here are my own.  If my thoughts are helpful, let me know.  If you disagree, you’re welcome to add polite comments – I’m no fundamentalist. But this isn’t a forum for theological argument, there are plenty of others out there if that’s what you want.

From time to time I may also post other articles not related to the Bible reading, but as the Bible is actually all about real life, that seems appropriate.

I take copyright seriously, so if you want to quote me extensively, please either credit me or link back to the original blog post.

Blessings

Stephen Craven

14 February. Tobit chapters 1-4
The book of Tobit, like some others in the Old Testament that tell of one person’s miraculous life (e.g. Job, Esther and Jonah) is generally regarded as edifying fiction, rather than a historical account. We need not be worried about this – Jesus used stories about fictional people to make important points about God and the relationships between God and people, or between people.

This is an appropriate place to start the Apocrypha, on Wednesday 14 February 2018. Firstly, it is Ash Wednesday – the first day of Lent, when Christians confess their sin, pledge themselves to live simply and focus more on God (at least for the next six weeks until Easter) and practice good works such as giving to charity (or almsgiving, as it used to be called).

The story of Tobit is told in the first person. He presents himself as a faithful Jew living in unfaithful times: his own Jewish tribe had turned to idolatry, yet he still went to Jerusalem to worship; he was exiled among foreigners, yet kept the faith and the rules of kosher; when politics turned against him he became poor, yet still remained faithful to God. Even when, like Job, he suffered physical torment (being blinded by bird droppings) he remained true. At the core of his ethics was the giving of alms.

So on this Ash Wednesday we can take Tobit as an example for a life focussed on our relationship with God, and meeting the needs of other people.

What did eventually break Tobit’s spirit so that he asked God to be allowed to die was when he did not believe his wife, whose story of being given a kid got as a present was actually true. Meanwhile, we are told, it is by the will of God and the ministry of an archangel that at the same time, his relative Sarah in a distant land also finds herself turning to God in despair, as her family has run out of male relatives who can be offered as her fiancé, after seven have died during their engagement (this, remember, is probably fiction, but well plotted fiction).

Sometimes it is the little things that “get us”. An emotionally strong person who can cope with human suffering in their lives may find themselves crying over a character in a well told story; a ruthless person may yet find tenderness in one particular relationship or in the frustrations of unrequited love.

Today is also Valentine’s day, when we remember a saint who was no shrinking violet: soldier and martyr, a tough guy, yet he gave his name to both bold acts of self-sacrifice, and the intimate acts of devoted caring, both of which we call love.

So whether it is a romantic meal with your partner, or giving food to the hungry, or standing up for your faith in the face of persecution, may Valentine bless you today with the love of God.

The Bible in a Year – 26 December

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

26 December. 1 John chapters 1-5

There is so much in this deeply spiritual writing that it is impossible to summarise it neatly, and it reads more like an unscripted but passionate sermon than like one of Paul’s carefully argued theological letters.  The one unifying theme is love: the love of God for those who believe in Jesus, the importance of us loving God more than the “world”, and of loving our “brothers and sisters” (other Christians) even if we disagree with them.

There is also a second strand running through the book, that of sin and grace. John does not actually use the word ‘grace’ but describes it in other ways. He says that if we confess our sins and repent, Jesus will “cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1:9); and describes those who truly believe in Jesus as having “God’s seed abiding in them” and being “born of God” (3:9) to prevent them from sinning.

What John is trying to get at, although it is such a deep mystery that even he struggles to convey it in simple language, is that since Jesus Christ came into the world there is now a clear division between people, greater than any division caused by barriers of race, language and even religious background.  On the one hand are those who have come to him, described as “walking in the light and having fellowship with one another” (1:7), who obey the commandments of Jesus, particularly those regarding loving others (2:3), do the will of God (2:17) and are called his children (3:2), no longer commit sin (3:9) – although the epilogue at the end of chapter 5 admits that this is not quite true – and have the Holy Spirit (4:13).  The opposite is true of those who do not yet walk in the light but remain in darkness: they do not obey God or Jesus, cannot be called his children, live in sin and do not have the Spirit in them. They “love the world and the things in the world” (2:15).  The distinction is summed up starkly at the end of the letter: “Whoever has the Son has life; whoever does not have the Son of God does not have life.” (5:12).

The good news is that the only way to move from darkness to light is to believe in Jesus – not simply in assenting that he lived and died, or that he was a good teacher, but in wanting to become part of him and be open to the Holy Spirit.  Only in that way can we share in the light that comes from God the Father.

There are no doubt many better summaries of John’s teaching than mine.  But the message is clear – anyone can become part of God’s family, but Jesus is the only way in.

The Bible in a Year – 23 October

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

23 October. Romans chapters 11-13

Chapter 11 is a rather convoluted argument (to Western readers) about God’s favour and his anger towards both Jews and Gentiles according to their attitudes, and how one groups seems to be played off against the other.  But the image he uses of a cultivated olive tree – nourished from its ancient roots and able to sustain both natural and grafted branches – is a helpful one.  There is always a danger in religious practice of considering one’s own beliefs (in this metaphor, a single olive) or one’s own church grouping (the branch) as being all that matters.  In fact what matters most is staying connected to the whole tree (all those who believe), and through it to the roots (God’s sustaining love) without which the whole tree would die.

Chapter 12 is written in plainer language. It’s also a favourite of mine as it is the reading that my wife and I chose to have read at our wedding. Paul speaks here of the importance of love – not as a romantic feeling, but as treating everyone as equals, even as betters.  “Let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good; love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honour. … Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep” (12:9, 10, 14) is intended as guidance for church congregations, but applies equally to making a happy marriage.  Likewise the opening verse, “present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God” (12:1) is also a good starting point for sexual intimacy, where our bodies are not for our own pleasure, but for building up the relationship.  This reflection on love is summed up in the next, with “love does no wrong to a neighbour; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law.” (13:10).

The Bible in a Year – 18 August

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

18 August. Song of Songs chapters 1 to 8 (entire book)

 

This book, also known as the Song of Solomon, has always intrigued readers of the Bible.  Is it merely erotic poetry? Or is it intended as an allegory of something else? One interpretation is that the male lover and his female beloved represent respectively the Word of God and the divine Wisdom (or Holy Spirit), in which case this is about the loving nature of God himself as expressed in the relationships within what Christians call the Holy Trinity. Another version of this allegory is that the lover and beloved represent Christ and the Christian Church.  Given that it is not at all certain that Jesus intended to form a new religion, that seems unlikely.  Another view is that that the desire between the lovers represents the passion with which God seeks to bring individuals to himself, and with which the true believer in turn seeks intimacy with God.  That makes more sense to me.

 

The refrain “do not arouse or awaken love until she so desires” can likewise be taken literally, as an understanding that feminine sexuality is more complex than the masculine equivalent, more in need of being wooed and seduced.  Or, taking the allegorical view, it might mean that each of us has a “right time” in our lives at which we will respond to God’s loving call. To try and force religion on someone who is not ready for the divine love is like trying to seduce a girl who is not yet ready for a relationship with a man.

 

Whichever way you like to read it, it remains one of the most beautiful of love poems, a reminder that the human body is something to be celebrated and admired, and not to be ashamed of.

 

 

 

The Bible in a Year – 16 July

If this is your first viewing, please see my Introduction before reading this, and the introduction to the Psalms for this book of the Bible in particular.

16 July. Psalms 103-105

Going through the psalms we have seen how they cover a wide range of human experience, sometimes calling on God in desperation for his help, sometimes invoking his vengeance against enemies, and in between thanking him for his goodness.  But these three psalms are pure concentrated praise, a setting aside of all personal concerns to focus on the nature and acts of our Creator.

 

They are best read, I think, I the order 104-103-105, for this then mirrors the pattern of the days of creation in Genesis, and also the modern understanding of evolution and human history.

 

Psalm 104 considers the relationship God has with the creation as a whole: sun and moon, the earth as a whole, its mountains and oceans, its plants and animals, its weather patterns.  The harmony of the whole is portrayed here: each species has its natural habitat, they respond to the times and seasons, even “acts of God” such as earthquakes and lightning have their place in the natural order.  We forget at our peril that all this is God’s creation, and intended to work in harmony. It is not to be exploited by mankind beyond what we need for our food and shelter.

 

Psalm 103 celebrates God’s relationship with men and women as individuals.  We are exhorted not to forget all God’s “benefits”.  What are those?  Healing, forgiveness, redemption, love and mercy for a start (v.2-4).    If that were not enough, added to the list are vindication, justice, grace and compassion (v.6-13).  Why does God shower all these blessings on us?  The answer is in verse 14: “For he knows how we were made; he remembers that we are dust”. The one who made us, and knows how weak we are, how short our life in the context of eternity, how small we are in the context of the universe, will give us every help he possibly can – even when we have messed things up “by our own deliberate fault” as the prayer book puts it.

 

Psalm 105 goes on to describe the way God works with human society.  It focuses, as so many books in the Hebrew bible, on God’s covenant with Abraham and subsequent Exodus from Egypt, that defining moment when God used every power at his disposal, from natural plagues and floods to miraculous provision of light, food and water, to rescue the Israelites (the forerunners of the Jews).   But the Jews were not the “chosen people” only for their own sake. They were the tribes to whom God had given the special responsibility for bearing the good news of his love from one generation to the next until all humankind could hear it.

 

So in these three songs of praise we have the fullness of God’s relationship with creation, with humanity in particular, and most of all with those sent to proclaim his love to his creation.  Bless the Lord, O my soul!