Great and wonderful your deeds

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.

Glory, honour, endless praises

Today’s hymn from Sing Praise is in a different mood from the last three: Glory, honour, endless praises’ by Christopher Idle. 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.

Holy Spirit, hear us

from the website of the Church of Christ in Kenya

Today’s hymn from Sing Praise is “Holy Spirit, hear us” by William Henry Parker. In the five verses we ask the Spirit, in different ways, to help us in our walk with God: singing, praying, Bible reading, living graciously, and making ethical choices.  I’m going to concentrate on the first one. 

First, then, is singing: “breathe into the music of the praise we bring”. Singing in church isn’t a performance or a competition, but a way of applying the natural human instinct for music to our praise of God.  Spoken words, however worthy and appropriate, don’t have anything like the impact on ourselves or other people that song does. That’s why many of us have found worship during Covid restrictions so difficult when we’re not allowed to express our praise in song.

Whether struggling to learn the tune of a new song, or reciting a very familiar one ‘by rote’, it’s all too easy to fail to notice the meaning of the words.  By this invocation of the Spirit, we are asking that the words of familiar songs may strike us afresh, and in new ones reveal the depths of their meaning.

By asking the Spirit into our singing, we are also asking that we may express our true feelings in the way we sing, and be open to being moved into new ways of expression.  If you are open to the Spirit, you might find yourself improvising a harmony or breaking into song during the prayer time.  Depending on your church culture, it might or might not be the ‘done thing’.  I remember on one occasion, at my mother’s fairly traditional church, as I walked in silence back to our pew after taking communion, I felt the urge to sing the chorus “I am a new creation”.  I didn’t, and I don’t know what people’s reaction would have been, but sometimes I wish I had done what the Spirit prompted.

Clap your hands all you nations

Trumpet stop, organ of St Mary’s Catholic Cathedral, Newcastle-upon-Tyne
(one of the last organs built by the late Kenneth Tickell in 2014)

Today’s hymn from Sing Praise (the third in the Ascension Day series) is “Clap your hands all you nations” by John Bell.  The tune is brisk and slightly syncopated, which suits the style of an acclamation of praise.  The format is of three verses, each verse having four lines with a refrain of “Amen, Alleluia!” after each line. This could lend itself to a cantor-and-response setting, or the whole hymn can easily be picked up by the congregation.

The words are based on Psalm 47, and include in verse 3 of the hymn verse 5 of the psalm, “God has gone up with a shout, the Lord with the sound of a trumpet” (NRSV translation). It is this phrase “God has gone up” that links this psalm with the Ascension. Gerald Finzi wrote an Ascensiontide anthem “Sing praises out”, which includes verses from this psalm and Ps.24 along with lines from Gerard Manley Hopkins’ poetry. I have two recordings of this, a grand one by the Halifax Choral Society and a more intimate one by the smaller choir of Lincoln College, Oxford.

The Biblical account of the Ascension in Luke/Acts (with a brief mention by Mark) does not mention trumpets, in fact the disciples are portrayed as confused rather than triumphant at the spectacle.  The trumpets, used in many human societies to herald the arrival of a ruler, are perhaps intended to represent rejoicing in heaven at the successful return of the Son of God from his mission to earth, hence Finzi’s wording that we sing praises to God “seraphicwise” (that is, like the angels).

Meditating on the words of the hymn and the psalm, I was struck by John Bell’s wording of Ps.47:9, “those on earth who are mighty still belong to our maker”.  I can see a double meaning here: that God abandons no-one, be they powerful or powerless in society; or that everyone, even if they see themselves as ‘above the law’ on earth, is still accountable to God for their actions.  The second perhaps fits the theme of the season better: Jesus may have gone out of sight, but he still knows what we are doing and will one day judge us for it.

We’re out of the Easter season now, so according to my plan no more Saturday hymns until Advent (just because there are fewer than 365 hymns in the book).  On Sunday we start looking forward to Pentecost.

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’.