You shall go out with joy

Image copyright Stephen Craven 2018

Today’s hymn from Sing Praise is “You shall go out with joy”.  When I saw the title I thought I knew it, but this is not the popular 1980s chorus of the same title, rather  a more traditional style hymn based on the same passage in Isaiah 55:10-13.  The author is N.T. Wright, best known as a former Bishop of Durham and writer of Bible commentaries.  This is the first hymn I have come across attributed to him.

The structure is slightly unusual. Each of the four verses consists of six lines, the first four being taken from Isaiah’s prophecy, and the last two being statements of Christian faith related to Easter. 

The first two verses with their anthropomorphic image of the mountains and hills singing and the trees clapping (i.e. the whole creation praising God) are paired with statements that Jesus’ love has conquered death and that he lives to heal and save – a fact certainly worthy of praise.   The third takes the image of God’s word refreshing like rain or snow and (by way of the conventional title of Jesus as Word of God) links with the risen Word giving life to all. The last verse take the image of replacing briars and thorns with myrtle and cypress (attractive and sweet smelling trees) and concludes with Jesus’ titles of himself as the way, the truth and the life – an attractive and pleasing way of life no doubt, but the original context (as Wright must know) was in a call for people to turn to God for their sins to be pardoned.

With respect to the Bishop I am not convinced by these particular pairings, which seem rather contrived in the manner of “the holly and the ivy”. Whilst many passages in Isaiah are generally accepted as prophecies of the Messiah (Christ), the Isaiah passage is titled (in the New Revised Standard Version) as “An invitation to abundant life”, but is not one of the so-called Servant Songs. The couplets expressing Christian faith that conclude each verse are perfectly orthodox, but cannot be deduced directly or (as far as I can see) indirectly from the words that precede them.  It’s good poetry, and sound theology, but the two sets of statements don’t really belong together.

Jesus is risen, Alleluia!

Christians in Ihimbo, Tanzania
From the website of St Stephen’s Lutheran Church, WSP

There are no doubt several hymns or worship songs with this title, but the one I have chosen today from Sing Praise is John Bell’s translation of a Tanzanian song of praise. I love the simple and easily learnt melodies and harmonies of East African songs, coming from a part of the world where communal singing is still an essential part of life in a way that has been lost in most ‘developed’ countries.

African Christians also seem to have a joy in their faith that we have lost in an over-cautious and over-intellectualised Western religion. From the start, this hymn is full of the confidence and joy of the first Christians that Jesus is alive and worthy of praise. Just listen to some of the phrases in this song: “Come let us worship him, endlessly sing!”; “Blest are the hearts which for him rejoice”; “Go and tell others, Christ is alive”; “Let heaven echo, let the earth sing: Jesus is saviour of everything”; and the final line, “Therefore rejoice, obey and believe”. This hymn will truly send me into the day rejoicing.

Earth, earth, awake!

St Francis window in St Leonard’s church, Wollaton, Nottingham.
Artist Christopher Whall. Image copyright Stephen Craven 2020.

Today’s hymn from Sing Praise is “Earth, earth, awake!” by Herman G Stümpfler Jr.  I’m grateful to John for suggesting the tune ‘Lasst uns erfreuen’ (better known set to St Francis’ Canticle of Creation) rather than the one in the book; I enjoyed singing the harmony to the alleluias in the YouTube video.

This is very much an Easter hymn of praise. As I observed yesterday, in the Easter season we are reminded that Christ’s resurrection revealed on Easter day was as like a new morning for the world.

The first verse invites the whole creation – earth, sun and stars – to awake and sing praise to the risen King. The second invites us to join all nature as it “sings of hope reborn [as] Christ lives to comfort those who mourn”.  This weekend of course, our nation mourns its senior Prince, who has passed into Glory honourably and of natural causes at the ripe old age of 99, but there will be many people also who are mourning for those who have died young, in tragic circumstances or of Coronavirus or other diseases.  Their grief may be deeper, and their acceptance of their loved one’s death longer, than when a death was expected and natural.  But whatever the circumstances, may they know God’s comfort.

Verse three makes the common comparison between winter turning into spring, and the new life of the resurrection.  Whilst the first Easter did happen around Passover time in April, there is a very long-standing tradition of making this link with the time of year when flowers and buds appear and animals give birth (at least in the northern hemisphere where Christianity started).  The final verse is a song of praise to the Trinity (see yesterday’s comments).

Today I awake and God is before me

Raindrops and chapel. Copyright Stephen Craven 2005.

Today’s hymn from Sing Praise is “Today I awake and God is before me”. It comes with its own tune written by the composer, John Bell, but I first came across it to the tune better known to the words “Morning has broken”.  Like that one, it is a “morning hymn” rather than specifically an Easter one, but in the Easter season we are reminded that Christ’s resurrection revealed at daybreak on Easter day was as a new morning for the world. In form, the hymn is Trinitarian – one verse each referring to the Creator, Son and Holy Spirit and one to the Trinity (three persons, one God). 

Equally important, I would say, are the verbs used at the start of each verse: I awake, I arise, I affirm, I enjoy.  Everyone goes to bed expecting to awake in the morning, though knowing that one day we will not. Nearly everyone (except for those afflicted by disease or disability) is able to arise.  But to affirm and enjoy the new day is a matter of the will.  in verse 1, we sing “God never sleeps but patterns the morning in slithers of gold or glory in grey”.  I have illustrated this post with a photo taken in 2005 when I was on a photographic holiday retreat at Scargill House, in wet and grey weather unsuitable for outdoor colour photography.  We sang this hymn and were encouraged to take monochrome and indoor photos instead. This one shows the chapel – representing the praise of God – beyond the raindrops in the foreground.

While come people’s circumstances make it easier to do so, it is the ability to thank God even for the “glories of a grey day” that perhaps makes the difference between those who find cause to grumble right from the start of the day even when there is much to give thanks for, and those who manage to find good things in life around them, however challenging their circumstances. The singing of a hymn of praise at the start of the day is a good way to get into the right mood.

In verse 2 we sing of Christ who “walked through the dark to scatter new light”.  He did that on earth, bringing hope to the sick and sinful, but supremely in death and resurrection. “Yes, Christ is alive, and beckons his people to hope and to heal, resist and invite”.  It is that hope in the one who brings new life in the most hopeless circumstances that allows us to enter each new day joyfully.

Verse 3 affirms the work of the Holy Spirit, while in verse 4 we “enjoy” God’s presence in any way, who “called me to life and called me their friend”.  I would just query here the use of the plural “they/their”, which I doubt is intended to reflect current usage by transgender or non-binary people.  It may just be to avoid gendering God as ‘he’ (John Bell has written other hymns that address the Spirit, at least, as ‘she’) but seems to go against the traditional Christian understanding that the three ‘persons’ of the Trinity are one God.

You are the king of glory

The Triumphal Entry. Albert Decaris, 1953

For today’s choice from Sing Praise, I’m going back a bit in terms of the liturgical calendar, from Maundy Thursday to the preceding Palm Sunday (this forthcoming Sunday).  However, the chosen song, “You are the king of Glory” by Mavis Ford, was not necessarily written with Palm Sunday in mind – there are no references to Jerusalem, palms, disciples or donkeys here, and it is probably only because the of the chorus “Hosanna to the Son of David” that the compilers of the hymn book have put it in this section. 

The song is very familiar to me.  It is dated 1978, and as a contemporary worship song was popular with the Christian Union that I attended 1981-1983.  It hasn’t completely disappeared from the repertoire since then, although perhaps not often chosen as there have been countless other worship songs written since.  I suggest that the factors that have allowed this one to remain in later collections where other 1970s songs have been forgotten are its easy singability, and that it consists largely of Biblical titles for Jesus, that mean Christians of whatever age and tradition are comfortable with its words.

The titles, then.  In this song of praise to Jesus, he is referenced as King of Glory, Prince of Peace, Lord of heaven and earth, Son of righteousness, Son of David, King of kings and Messiah.  That’s a Biblically pleasing seven titles for him, and in addition he is credited with being worshipped by angels and his reign resulting in glory in the highest heaven. 

Singing the praises of Jesus is a good warm-up for any act of worship, a reminder that the one in whom we put our trust is no mere prophet or teacher, but very God and the one the Jewish people had long awaited.  Lent is known mainly for more reflective, sombre songs as we look towards the horrors of the Cross, but Palm Sunday is a joyful interlude when it’s appropriate to sing upbeat songs of praise like this one, just as Jesus’ followers did when he entered the gates of the holy city to their chants of Hosanna!

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’.

My soul proclaims your mighty deeds

Jump For Joy by Corby Eisbacher

Today’s hymn, “My soul proclaims your mighty deeds”, is Owen Alstott’s verse-and-chorus setting of the Magnificat (Mary’s song), and the words are familiar to anyone who knows Luke’s gospel, so there’s not much to say about them, except this: Magnificat is traditionally associated with Evening Prayer in the Church of England but I’ve sometimes wondered why it’s not associated with than morning prayer instead, as unlike the Nunc Dimittis (the song of an old man about to die in contentment) it’s such a celebratory, hopeful song, sung by a young woman during her first pregnancy. Surely it goes better in the morning when the promise of the new day lies ahead? So I sang it this morning although I’m only writing these notes in the evening.

The Apocrypha in Lent – 25 March

If this is your first visit, please see my introduction to these Lenten readings.

25 March. Daniel 3:24-90

For the rest of chapters 1-4 see my blog posts for 28 August and 29 August 2017.

These interpolations to the text of Daniel chapter 3 are titled “The song of Azariah” and “The song of the Three Young Men”.  They are put in the mouths of the Jews who, condemned for their refusal to worship the statue of gold set up by Nebuchadnezzar, were thrown into the furnace but protected from harm by an angel.  Whether this is a true miracle, or total fiction, or somewhere between, the value of these passages lies in the way that people in great danger turn to God, not in anger but in praise.  Azariah’s song acknowledges that God has rightly punished the Jewish people for turning away from him, and calls on him to have mercy on those who do still believe and trust in him.

The song of the Three Young Men (Azariah, Hananiah and Mishael, or to give them their Babylonian names Abednego, Shadrach and Meshach) is one of pure praise. It resembles the Psalms, in particular those with a congregational refrain (“Bless the Lord! Give glory and eternal praise to him!”).  Only at the end do the three men thank God for rescuing them from death, as if that is less important than praising him for his whole creation. This idea that God can and should be praised, even in the most testing of times, is another theme found throughout the Bible.


The Apocrypha in Lent – 20 March

If this is your first visit, please see my introduction to these Lenten readings.

20 March. Ecclesiasticus chapters 42-43

Most of chapter 42 and all of 43 are devoted to praising God for his creation, including specific references to the sun, moon, stars, rainbows, the wide variety of weather patterns, and the sea with its tides and monsters. These are all aspects of nature praised in the Psalms and other parts of the Jewish scriptures.  Perhaps they are picked out from the other aspects of creation because they are least easily understood – before modern astronomy, physics and submarines, who could explain how they work?

It is important to note that there is no hint here of worshipping these phenomena themselves.  Jewish and Christian thought is absolutely clear that there is only one god, the creator, and all these things are from him, having no spiritual life of their own.  The praise is directed to God in thanks for the wonder of the creation.  “To put it concisely, ‘he is all’” (43:27).  We are in fact encouraged to praise God as much as possible, for it can never be enough – “exert all your strength when you exalt him, do not grow tired – you will never come to the end” (43:30).

Such praise of God for the beauty of nature would have come more easily to people in former times than it does to us nowadays.  Shielded by artificial lights from seeing the night sky in its glory, having the mysteries of the climate explained by science, having “no time to stand and stare … beneath the boughs” as William Davies put it, we lose our childlike capacity for wonder.  Perhaps the rainbow is the one exception.  No matter that scientists can explain them in terms of refraction and diffraction,  rainbows lighting up with their glorious colours can still make a dull day fascinating and cheer the soul.  “See the rainbow and praise its maker, so superbly beautiful is its splendour. Across the sky it forms a glorious arc, drawn by the hand of the Most High” (43:11-12).

The Bible in a Year – 28 December

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

The last four sections of the Bible in a Year blog, covering the whole of the Book of Revelation, are being uploaded together (just because I was without Internet access this week).

28 December. Revelation chapters 1-5

The book of Revelation or Apocalypse is notoriously difficult to understand, since it contains so much symbolism that people at the time of writing may have understood but which is obscure to us two thousand years later.

What is clear enough from the first three chapters is that the vision of Jesus that was given to John, was intended for the seven local church congregations listed at the start of the book.   And each of them receives a particular message from Jesus, which both (in most cases) praises and (in most cases) criticises them, before offering a promise for those who stay faithful in the face of persecution.   The praises, the criticisms, and the promises are specific to each place, because Jesus always knows that each person and each church community faces particular challenges and has particular strengths.

The praises, if we take them together, includes “deeds, hard work and perseverance” (2:2 and similarly in 2:19), “keeping my word and not denying my name” (3:8), and “remaining true to my name” (2:13 and similarly in 3:4). The emphasis here is on facing persecution, not necessarily by becoming martyrs (though some did) but by being true to the Christian worldview (or as we saw John calling it yesterday, “the truth”) even when to do so requires hard work and perseverance when the world is going in other directions.

The criticisms include “forsaking the love you had at first” (2:4), being “dead though appearing alive” (3:1) and “being lukewarm, neither hot nor cold” (3:16). What those have in common is lacking the outward zeal and inner joy that characterise true Christian faith.  We cannot regain those by our own efforts but have to ask Jesus to send his Spirit on us again. Another criticism is claiming to be spiritually rich when one is spiritually poor (3:17); the opposite of that is holding onto faith in affliction and poverty, which makes one spiritually rich (2:9).   That reminds us of the Beatitudes, where those who are poor in spirit and who suffer for the sake of Jesus are declared blessed.

The promises are expressed symbolically – “eating from the tree of life” (2:7), “not being hurt by the second death” (2:11), “hidden manna and a secret name” (2:17); “authority over the nations” (2:26); “being dressed in white” (3:5), “being a pillar in the temple of God” (3:12), and “the right to sit with Jesus on his throne” (3:21).  None of these relate to our present life but all look forward to eternal life.   One of the threads running through the New Testament is the idea that our rewards for living faithfully in this life will be given us in the next.  The symbolism of chapters 4 and 5 is also about eternal life, in which all creatures in earth and heaven will worship God unceasingly.

Put all these together – the praises, criticisms and promises – and we have an encouragement to seek from Jesus the Spirit who gives us true love, life and warmth to strengthen us with joy in living the Christian life in the face of persecution, in order to attain eternal life which will be filled with praise and worship.  It is of course impossible to really know what such existence will be like, but the Revelation reminds us to look beyond the troubles of this life and stick with Jesus along the way.