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.
The hymn I chose for 20 October (but didn’t have time to comment on yesterday) was ‘Come sing the praise of Jesus’ by Jack Winslow, who was an English priest (and looking him up he was at one time chaplain at Lee Abbey in Devon). But he set it to the well-known American tune ‘Battle hymn of the Republic’. John found a version in another book with five verses but I’m commenting on the Sing Praise version which only has three.
This is a joyful hymn as befits the stirring tune. We are invited to praise Jesus, in verse 1, for his wondrous birth and life lived for others. In verse 2 we rejoice in serving him ourselves, experiencing pardon for sin and healing for sorrow along the way; and in verse 3 we once again praise him, this time giving him glory as Lord of creation who guides all our ways and looking to the future when ‘the world shall be his empire’. Each verse ends with ‘for Jesus Christ is King’, followed by the chorus ‘Praise and glory be to Jesus… for Jesus Christ is King’.
Today’s song, in total contrast, was ‘Come to me’ by John Bell. It’s a short song to be sung repeatedly and reflectively. The words are simple and quoting Jesus: ‘Come to me, come to me, weak and heavy laden, trust in me, lean on me, I will give you rest’. They are among the Bible verses called the ‘comfortable words’ in the Book of Common Prayer at the invitation to communion, as we remember that Jesus welcomes anyone to his table who comes in faith, whatever their condition.
The ordained staff member who led our office prayers this week commented that we are in a period in the church year between the ‘creation season’ in September and ‘remembrance season’ in November, with nothing particular to focus on, and that the Covid restrictions of the last 18 months have left many people feeling somewhat despondent and some quite isolated. The colder, wetter, darker days of autumn also encourage a retreat from summer activity into a more restful and reflective pattern of life. We might not feel like singing joyfully, and if all we can manage is to sing or say quietly the ‘comfortable words’, that is absolutely fine. But Winslow’s hymn reminds us that even if there is no particular celebration in the church calendar, we are always part of the worldwide Church, and the time is always right to praise Jesus, who is at the heart of our faith, if we can bring ourselves to do so.
Today’s hymn from Sing Praise is “I’ll praise the Lord for ever and ever” by Paul Wigmore. It’s based on parts of Psalm 34 (specifically, verses 1, 4, 8 and 22 of the psalm for the four verses of the hymn, and v.3 for the chorus). The psalm as a whole is one of the more positive ones (in the New Revised Standard Version it’s captioned ‘Praise for deliverance from trouble’), and these selected verses are the most affirming of all. “I will praise the Lord for ever and ever, my soul shall boast of his wonderful name”, and the other verses say how he answers prayer, delivers us from fear, offers secure refuge and redeems but never condemns those who trust in him.
All this makes it a good sing (whether using the tune provided, or the one that John wrote). But the Psalms are still much-used precisely because they contain such a wide range of emotions, representing the reality of life that even those who do have faith in God can still suffer some awful experiences that test that very faith. Perhaps the composer of this hymn should have included some of the verses of PS.34 that acknowledge this (“this poor soul cried, and was heard by the Lord … keep your tongue from evil and your lips from speaking deceit … many are the afflictions of the righteous”).
Today’s hymn from Sing Praise is ‘God beyond earth’s finest treasures’ by Martin Leckebusch. It’s a paraphrase of Psalm 16, and a good one at that.
The words are addressed in the first person (I/me) to God, so this is a devotional hymn – in verse 1, ‘you alone shall have my praise’, and in verse 2 ‘countless gifts your love has planned’, ‘safe within your care I stand’. But it’s also a declaration of commitment: ‘I will love your cherished people, I will serve you all my days’. The final verse looks forward to the promise of eternal life: ‘When my earthly days are over, fresh delights remain in store’.
The words fit the suggested tune ‘St Helen’ well, but it was a bit of a surprise, as this tune is usually associated with the Catholic eucharistic hymn ‘Lord enthroned in heavenly splendour’. The present words are very different in tone, but it works.
Today’s hymn from Sing Praise is “O God of blessings, all praise to you” by Marty Haugen. It could also be titled “Soli deo gloria” which is the brief refrain at the end of each of the six verses, as well as the name of the tune specially composed for it.
Marty Haugen is perhaps best known for hymns around the theme of social justice and inclusivity, but here we have one in which God is praised for all his gifts to us. It’s also perhaps unusual, though welcome, for a Catholic hymnwriter to use as a refrain a phrase more associated with the Protestant Reformation.
The first verse praises God for his love, shown in freeing the oppressed and comforting the distressed; the second, for wisdom shown in both ancient scriptures and contemporary “coaches, mentors and counsellors”; the third, for prophets and preachers to guide us; the fourth, for music; the fifth, for Jesus himself, “best gift divine”. The last verse takes a different tack as it imagines the whole worldwide Church, “A billion voices in one great song”, praising God through every culture and locality.
So this is indeed a very inclusive hymn in its own way, but reminding us also, through both verses and refrain, that the purpose of our life on earth is to glorify God in the way that we live.
Today’s hymn from Sing Praise is “O Praise the Lord of Heaven” by Timothy Dudley-Smith. The set tune (Vicar’s Close) was unfamiliar, but John sang it to the better known tune (or one of them) to “At the Name of Jesus”, which fits the mood of the hymn well.
The words are based on Psalm 148, one of the most positive psalms, in that unlike many of them there is no lamenting one’s problems or condemnation of enemies, just praise of God. The hymn follows the psalm in calling on all levels of creation to praise their maker, from angels to stars and moon, oceans, fields, all manner of animals (but not plants: did the Hebrews not consider plants to be living beings?) as well as people at all levels of society from princes to maidens, old and young. Even the smallest creatures and the people at the bottom of society’s pyramid are invited “High above all heavens [to] magnify his name!”
Later this week I intend to visit Wakefield Cathedral to visit their temporary art installation ‘Gaia’, a 7-metre diameter globe covered with satellite imagery of the entire earth’s surface. Part of Wakefield Council’s wider ‘Festival of the Earth’, it’s intended to stimulate reflection and prayer on “awe for the planet, a profound understanding of the interconnection of all life, and a renewed sense of responsibility for taking care of the environment.” I think that’s what the Psalmist was getting at. Although humanity’s understanding of the nature of the created world and its relationship to its maker has developed a long way since then, the basic idea still holds true, that if we understand ourselves to be part of a much wider created universe, in such a way that our actions affect the well-being of other creatures and even the weather, we will consider those actions more carefully. And at the present time that is more vital than ever.
Today’s hymn from Sing Praise is “O God beyond all praising” by Michael Perry. Its two long (12-line) verses are set to a tune from Holst’s Planets Suite, better known to the words “I vow to thee my country”. The first verse gives the reasons why God is worthy of praising – his many gifts, blessings and mercies – and something of how we go about praising him – “we lift our hearts before you, and wait upon your word, we honour and adore you”.
The second verse starts by asking Jesus (presumably, as he’s addressed as Saviour) to accept our love and service, which are also forms of praise, for it’s not all about words and loving actions towards others in God’s name are part of our praise. Importantly, we praise God “whether our tomorrows be filled with good or ill”, because with God we, like God himself, should make covenants (unconditional promises) rather than bargains of the “If I… then you must…” sort that feature in the ‘prosperity gospel’ of some sects.
The last pair of lines is also important, to “make a joyful duty our sacrifice of praise”. A duty and sacrifice in the sense of keeping that promise to make the time and effort to praise God, but a joyful one in that we should feel better for doing so.
Today’s hymn from Sing Praise is “Beyond all mortal praise” by Timothy Dudley- Smith. In the book it’s set to a tune by Wayne Marshall, but John used the better known ‘Darwall’s 148th’ usually used for “Ye holy angels bright”. This hymn shares the general theme of that one, namely the praise of God the creator.
The first verse presents God in the way many people still think of him – remote, unsearchable and all-powerful. The second, “our times are in his hand” also give the impression that everything, whether the seasons of the year or the fates of empires, are the result of God’s will. These ideas, unless you take a rather extreme view of predestination, are not really compatible with the intimately present God we see in Jesus, but then the hymn is said to be based on an Old Testament passage (Daniel chapter 2).
The third verse, “He gives to humankind, dividing as he will, all powers of heart and mind, of spirit, strength and skill”, also keeps God firmly in control, although it is compatible with the idea in the New Testament that the Holy Spirit gives different gifts to different people as he wishes. The last verse is again a praise of God the Father, rather than the usual Christian doxology of Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
This is therefore a hymn that might be suitable for an ecumenical occasion as the words would seem to be acceptable to Jews and Muslims, but seems rather odd in a Christian hymn book where Jesus usually get a mention by one of his names or titles.
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.
Today’s hymn from Sing Praise is in a different mood from the last three: Glory, honour, endless praises’ by Edwin le Grice. 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.