O Lord, you are the centre of my life

Today’s song from Sing Praise is “O Lord, you are the centre of my life”, a cantor-and-chorus setting of Psalm 16 by Paul Inwood.  I found the tune rather difficult to sing, but that may just be a matter of unfamiliarity, as the style is very much that of the Catholic rather than Anglican use of the Psalms. Indeed an online biography of Paul Inwood confirms him as a Catholic composer.

There are three verses for cantor, being fairly close paraphrases of verses 1, 2 and 7-11 of the psalm. The psalmist asks God to be his refuge, praises him for his counsel (guidance), and asks to be shown the path of life and to be rescued from death.  The chorus is “O Lord, you are the centre of my life: I will always praise you, I will always serve you, I will always keep you in my sight” which does not appear to be a quotation from the same psalm but complements it. God works with people on a covenant basis: he offers his gifts of grace (such as protection, guidance and eventually eternal life) and in return expects our praise and humble service.

O God, be gracious to me in your love

Today’s hymn from “Sing Praise” is “O God, be gracious to me in your love”, a setting of Psalm 51 by Ian Pitt-Watson using a tune by the 17th century composer Orlando Gibbons.

Psalm 51 as a piece of music is best known in Allegri’s setting of the Latin text known by its first word “Miserere”.  It’s a favourite choice as a “romantic” piece of music, which is rather ironic.  The words are a confession of a serious sin, the nature of which is not specified, and a commentary I consulted suggests that it was probably written after the Exile rather than before (as evidenced by the last two verses about sacrifices in the Temple), but it’s traditionally associated with King David being confronted about his adultery with Bathsheba as recounted in 2 Samuel chapters 11-12.  ‘Adultery’ is itself something of a euphemism here, as she wasn’t in a position to refuse his advances, and that sin was compounded by the arranged killing of her husband when the king found he had got her pregnant.

The words as set here are quite a close rendering of other English translations of the psalm, with a regular metre (I believe iambic pentameter, but I stand to be corrected by literary experts) without attempting to force rhymes.  It could therefore be used quite easily as a said version of the psalm rather than as a song, and the theme of confession does of course fit well with the discipline of Lent.  What can we learn from it? 

The line that stands out for me is “Against you, Lord, you only have I sinned”.  This sounds as if I (or David or whoever wrote the psalm) have not actually sinned against anyone else, which seems to fly in the face of experience: while some ‘sins’ may technically be only against God (such as pride, for example) others such as taking your neighbour’s wife as your own and having her husband murdered are obviously offences against those people and those close to them.   What might this mean? As one commentary puts it, “sin is ultimately a religious concept rather than an ethical one” – breaking human laws relating to marriage and killing (or any other law) can be dealt with by secular courts, but sin at its heart is falling short of what God expects of us as humans “made in his image”, that is to live in harmony with other people and with nature, and for that we are answerable to a higher authority.  And admitting guilt in court is not the same as admitting to God that I am a broken person needing his mercy.  If this is David’s story, as King he was probably above the secular law anyway, and it was only when the prophet Nathan turned the facts into a parable about a pet lamb that David’s defences broke down and he showed contrition.

The other point is that for confession to be meaningful there must be a genuine desire both to be forgiven and to change – “wash me and make me whiter than the snow” … “create a clean and contrite heart in me”, to use the translation given here.  The final verse of the hymn includes lines that are used at Evensong in the church of England: “O God, make clean our hearts within us, and take not thy Holy Spirit from us.”  “Heart” in the Bible tends to refer to the will or desire, rather than emotions, so this is about asking the Spirit to give us right intentions.

Hear me, O Lord, in my distress

Today’s hymn from Sing Praise is “Hear me, O Lord, in my distress”, a setting by David Preston of Psalm 143.  As I noted yesterday, the Psalms, especially those of lament, feature prominently in Lent. 

Unlike many of the psalms that start in complaint and end in praise, this one has a different arc.  Certainly it starts in desperation (“Hear me in my distress, give ear to my despairing plea!”) and also asks God not to judge the one who prays (v.2, “yet judge me not, for in your sight no living soul is counted just”). Verses 3 and 4 are marked as optional, but it’s only in verse 4 that there is a sign of hope as the singer recalls good times past (“Days long vanished I review, I see the orders of your hands”) which would seem to make that a verse not to be omitted, as a pivotal point. After that, in v.5 the singer calls again on God to answer without delay and asks “let this day bring word of your unfailing grace”. 

But that unfailing grace lies in the future, not the present, for in the last two verses it’s back to the cry to be saved from one’s pursuers, for one’s life to be preserved and set free from oppression.  There are other psalms where the singer seems to end by thanking God for deliverance already granted, but not on this occasion. That’s how life is: faith in God may bring relief from a sense of fear and hopelessness, but to be honest there’s no guarantee of that relief coming automatically or immediately.   Faith is about knowing there is a bigger story, a higher reality, an eventual triumph of good over evil, rather than every small battle in life going ‘our way’.

The musical setting is Vaughan-Williams’ “This is the truth sent from above”.  The tune was familiar to me, therefore easy to pick up.  The G minor setting suitably reflects the plaintive words of the hymn, although the final chord of each verse sounds more positive note that doesn’t really find an echo in the words.  No doubt John can comment on that.

O Lord, my heart is not proud

With apologies, I’m running a day late here.  The song I chose for Shrove Tuesday (16 February) was “O Lord, my heart is not proud” by Margaret Rizza.  This is a short setting of verses from Psalm 131, and I chose it because it is a psalm of turning back to God, which is very much the theme of this day in the Christian calendar.  It’s short enough to be quoted in full:

O Lord, my heart is not proud, nor haughty my eyes.
I have not gone after things too great, nor marvels beyond me.
Truly I have set my soul in silence and peace;
at rest, as a child is in its mother’s arms,
so is my soul. 
(translation copyright 1963 The Grail)

There is no attempt here to force the words into a set rhythm or rhyming pattern, this is essentially a prayer to be reflected on, equally well spoken as sung.  It reminds me of Jesus’ words in Matthew 6:6, “Whenever you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.” It’s a reminder that in prayer we do not come to God boasting of our achievements, but rather aware of our limitations. Also that  the ideal attitude for prayer is to seek silence in God’s presence and to relax into conversation with him (hopefully not falling asleep, but I don’t believe God minds if we fall asleep in his presence, any more than a mother minds if her child sleeps in her arms).

Bless the Lord, my soul

The song for today is a chant from the French Taize community, and is (as John points out) a setting of Psalm 103.  The setting in Sing Praise includes nine short chants for solo cantor, each intended to be sung over a choir singing the 4-part refrain.   The refrain is often used on its own: “Bless the Lord, my soul, and bless God’s holy name. Bless the Lord, my soul, who leads me into life”.    

That last phrase intrigues me – “who leads me into life”.  I have also seen a version of the same song giving it as “who rescues me from death”, both of them probably deriving from verse 4 of the original Psalm, “who delivers your life from the Pit” (NRSV).  I happen to have a Taize prayer book so I looked to see how the community translates the psalm for their own worship: the relevant phrase is “qui rachète à la fosse ta vie” – literally, “who buys back from the ditch your life”. The translation in this English version of the song puts that idea into one of the cantor’s verses: “The Lord is forgiveness and redeems our life from the grave”.

All these carry the same idea, not yet the full Christian concept of Jesus dying to redeem us from our sins, but a foretaste of that, a germ of the idea.  Without God’s blessing we would all end up in the ‘pit’ of death or Sheol – the old Hebrew concept of the afterlife as neither heaven nor hell but an undesirable, eternal nothingness or meaninglessness.  A pit is a hole that is too deep to climb out of unaided, as the biblical Joseph found. To believe in God and accept his blessing is to accept a hand up out of the pit, to find meaning where there was none, to find eternal life instead of merely existence, to receive (as Jesus would later put it) “life in all its fulness”.  Which is presumably why the refrain uses the more positive interpretation: if we are bought back from death, then by implication we are indeed led into life.

Imagery like this seems pertinent at this time of Covid lockdown and isolation.  Today is the tenth and last day of our isolation at home, and even though the freezing weather has not been conducive to going out walking much anyway, it will be good to get out tomorrow, if only to the shop with a mask on.  I can get out of this little pit and get on with life in the limited way currently allowed, and look forward to a ‘new normal’ at a later time. For those who live alone all the time and cannot get out on their own, for those in prison or trapped in controlling relationships, or in unrelieved pain, it must be far worse.  For some people, even death may seem like a positive way out, and God is the only one who can lift them up.

The Christian promise is that the reality is much better than we might dare to hope.  If we give ourselves to God, then we can find peace among the troubles of this life, and know that beyond death is not mere existence in a pit but a new creation where fullness of life will be something more than we can now imagine. Bless the Lord, my Soul!

The call of the lamb

A brief diversion today from my 2021 “Sing Praise” project. On most Saturdays I haven’t selected a hymn or song although that will change shortly when we get to Lent. But today I took part in an online ‘quiet day’ with a couple of devotional talks, group discussion and times for personal prayer, all focused around the themes of ‘lament’ and ‘praise’ found in Psalm 57, which is believed to have been written by David in a cave while being pursued by his rival Saul.

The idea of being stuck in a cave fearing what’s outside obviously resonates with the Covid-19 lockdown. After the first session on ‘lament’ we were encouraged to take the words and themes of the psalm and come up with something creative – words, music, art or craft. My meditation resulted in the following poem. It was inspired by the photo shown here on the handout for the day. The viewer is looking out from the narrow cave and there is a sheep looking in. Jesus is referred to as both the Shepherd and the Lamb of God, and that is the poem’s starting point…

Look up, look out from your death-dark cave
And see me standing here.
You are not alone when you mourn and moan,
I have come to allay your fear.

Did you think I would stay in those pastures green
On the other side of the dale?
No, with sure-footed skill I have climbed your hill
To hear your woeful tale.

The enemy shall not find you here,
Nor lions enter your cave.
For I suffice as the sacrifice,
It is I who have come to save.

The Most High God comes down to earth
As a gentle, listening lamb.
I heard you bleat, and have come to meet
You where you are.  I Am.

© Stephen Craven 2021
Written on a Scargill virtual quiet day with Revd Mat Ineson, 6 February 2021

Athirst my soul for you

Today’s song from Sing Praise is a cantor-and-chorus type, called “Athirst, my soul, for you, the God who is my life” (that’s the first line of the first chant). The chorus starts “As the deer longs for running streams”, but there are many hymns with that or similar titles, because Psalm 42/43 on which it’s based is very popular as a basis for sung versions.

Painting "Deer drinking" by Winslow Homer
“Deer drinking” by Winslow Homer

The appeal of this psalm is in the opening lines, with the attractive image of the hunted deer finding a refreshing stream in a hidden dip in the hills, out of sight of its hunters, where it can drink and rest awhile.  The simile is that God will likewise offer us rest and refreshment in prayer and meditation when we are stressed or frightened.  That’s true, but not easy to achieve: I find that the greater the pressures of life, the harder it is to find time for prayer and the longer it takes to relax into it. 

That’s why I try to find opportunities offered for quiet time away from the usual routines of life – a ‘quiet day’, teaching weekend or short retreat offered by one of the many Christian communities, abbeys or retreat centres.  In the present pandemic, I have one booked at the end of next week on Zoom, and that will mean sessions on the screen in my usual study, and finding a quiet space in the house for the personal meditation times in between, where I won’t get distracted.  I am looking forward to it, but the experience will be different.

Back to the song, and the verses remind us why we get so stressed and in need of God’s protection and refreshing. Surprisingly, “All your mighty waters sweeping over me” suggests that the feeling of being overwhelmed might actually be the result of God’s intention, but it’s an accurate rendition of Ps.42:7.  Perhaps it means the sense of being burdened by the requirements of God’s law and commandments or the guilt of not keeping them, which as we saw the other day has been relieved by Jesus taking us back to the law’s true intentions.   

“The foe delights in taunting me”, on the other hand, puts the blame for my troubles firmly on other people. The taunt given as an example is “where is your God”, a phrase that is still used by those who don’t understand the nature of religious faith – “what sort of God is it who allows this to happen?” (whatever “this” is).  The antidote to this is to turn back to God and affirming that we do trust in him, whatever is happening around us.

One verse in the psalm (42:4) is not referred to in the song but is very relevant at this time of church closures – in the Prayer Book psalter used at many an Evensong, “Now when I think thereupon, I pour out my heart by myself : for I went with the multitude, and brought them forth into the house of God; In the voice of praise and thanksgiving : among such as keep holy-day.”  As much as anything, it is the music and ceremonial of church services that I miss – we can keep in touch by phone call or maybe even Zoom meetings, but it’s not possible with those to chant a psalm or sing a hymn together, or physically to process into or around the church building as we might do on special occasions.

The last verse, though, does look forward to a time when all the sadness and frustration will be put behind us. “Then shall I go unto the altar of my God, praising you, O my joy and gladness, I shall praise your name”.  Let’s keep that in mind throughout the lockdown.

Come with newly written anthems

Today’s hymn, “Come with newly written anthems” is by the same composer as yesterday’s and is another psalm setting (this time Ps.98).  Although it has its own tune called “St Paul’s Cathedral” I sing it to a better known one, Abbot’s Leigh (likely to be in any popular hymn book).

The first verse praises God for his qualities – mercy, strength, holy kindness – and the fact that he never forgets or breaks his promises. The last verse speaks of God coming with justice, although more literal translations of Psalm 98 speak of God coming to “judge the world with righteousness and the peoples with equity (or truth)” which is a bit scarier.  Some hymns, as we will no doubt see later in the year, are less about joyful praise and more about engaging with the righteousness and truth (i.e. being faithful to God in our actions and words).

In between these two, the middle verse focuses on our response to God, exhorting each other to be ‘creative’ in our worship as well as skilful. It also speaks of rejoicing, of having a thankful heart and cheerful voice. And most important of all, to “focus on the wonders of God’s greatness as you sing”.  If hymn singing becomes just a routine, part of a sandwich of activities making up a church service in between readings and prayers, it can be easy just to go with the flow and not pay much attention either to the words or the emotions they seek to evoke.  Which is one reason for this year-long challenge, in itself an exercise in being creative: to look at unfamiliar hymns as well as well known ones, ponder the words and sing them outside the context of church services.  That way, I hope I can get ‘under the skin’ of them and a bit closer to ‘worshipping God with righteousness and equity’ as well as joyfully.

Bring to God your new, best songs

Because for most of the year I’m not including Saturdays, today is day two of this project to sing through the hymn book (see the pinned introductory post for details).  It’s the second Sunday of Christmas, the one nearest to the Epiphany when we celebrate God’s presence in Jesus being revealed to the world through the visit of the magi.  The hymn I have selected is a modern one, “Bring to God your new, best songs”. It doesn’t have a tune of its own but of the available tunes that fit it, I sing it to the tune of an older hymn, “King of glory, King of peace”.

The words are an adaptation by an acquaintance of mine, Martin Leckebusch, of Psalm 96.  This psalm has a long history of being adapted to sung worship. In the Book of Common Prayer it is known as the Venite (from the first word of the Latin version – Come!), and is still set as one of the canticles to be read or chanted at Morning Prayer.  God is praised as the creator of all the world and its peoples. Some verses of it also inspired the Epiphany hymn sung in many churches on this day, “O worship the Lord in the beauty of holiness, bow down before him, his glory proclaim!” 

Whichever version of the psalm you prefer, the common themes are that after Epiphany the whole world, not just the people of Bethlehem, get to hear about the birth of Jesus, the presence of God among us.  And that there is no longer any excuse for idolatry – in Martin’s words, “Earth and heaven, revere the Lord your Creator: Why exalt some other god? He is greater!”

At the end of the twelve days of Christmas, the challenge is to do as the magi did, return home with a message of good new to tell the world. We can’t do that much in person at present, but this song calls us to “Bring to God our new songs” – we have other ways of communicating these days. In your phone calls, video conferences, tweets and other online interactions, how can you tell of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ?

Wholeness through worship

This is one of my extra posts, in between the daily Bible commentary. It is the text of the homily I gave at Evensong yesterday at the church of St Margaret, Bramley (Leeds). The theme of the service was “wholeness” and the readings, to which I refer, were: Psalm 139:1-11; Proverbs 3:1-18;  1 John 3:1-15.

Thank you for coming to share with us in Evensong tonight.  This is an ancient form of worship, one which a generation ago people thought was on its way to extinction, as Anglicans gave up the habit of going to church two or three times on a Sunday, and as new and more modern forms of service came along.  Surely no-one wanted all this 16th century stuff any more?

But they were wrong.  In the last few years there has been a boom in attendance at Evensong at many cathedrals and parish churches.  It is not only the elderly, but a younger generation who are finding meaning in it.  Why is that?

Let me suggest that what people are seeking is wholeness.  That is our theme this evening, as it will be at next Sunday’s Eucharist. There are several aspects to this form of worship that might help contribute to wholeness. Let’s briefly look at them.

Firstly there is peace and security. We live in a stressful and ever-changing world. Coming to a mainly quiet and reflective act of worship offers us the chance to lay aside the cares of the day and go with the flow of the music. Added to that is the sense of continuity that we get from using the same music and words that generations have used before us.  The Church of England, for all the benefits of diversity, is still founded on the worship of the Book of Common Prayer. Common, because it is what holds us together. When new people come along to a service of Evensong, even if the actual words are unfamiliar, they know that they are taking part in a tradition by which English Christianity has defined itself for centuries. The Church has survived all manner of wars, political upheavals, natural disasters and financial crises.  So even those who don’t yet hold a personal belief in Christ may find that the tradition acts as a rock in troubled waters.

Secondly there is the music itself.  It is well known now by health professionals that joining in singing, especially choral singing with its harmonies, is good not only for physical health as we exercise our lungs, but for mental health too.  Even if you don’t rate yourself as choir material, simply taking in the harmonies of the traditional chants as you listen can have some of the same mental health benefits.

Thirdly, there is the act of confession. There are also mental health benefits in being honest with yourself, acknowledging past wrongs and seeking support where you know you are weak.  In other forms of service this element of our religious practice can be skipped over rather quickly. The longer form of confession at Evensong, with its references to being like lost sheep and following the desires of our own hearts, reminds us that we really do need to turn to God to find a sense of direction in our lives; and the form of absolution leaves us in no doubt that we are forgiven.

Finally, there is the scripture.  Again, the passages that we read at Evensong tend to rather longer than those in the Eucharist. The lectionary also sometimes explores the more obscure corners of the Bible.  A careful reading of a lengthy passage in the archaic language of the King James version requires the listener to concentrate carefully on what is being said. That is no bad thing, because it allows the Spirit to penetrate our defences and speak to the inner person through the words that we hear.

So where can we find a sense of wholeness in the readings, which are just those set for the day.  The Psalmist reminds us that we are “fearfully and wonderfully made”, that God knows our every word, thought and action, and loves us both because of and despite what we do.   I’m not so sure about the proverb that fearing the Lord being “health to the navel and marrow to the bones” – the modern translation is “a healing for your flesh and a refreshment for your body.”

St John, as always, comes up with the goods. “We know that we have passed from death unto life, because we love the brethren.” This Christian love among brothers and sisters , he says, is evidence that we have passed from death to life, as Jesus takes away the tendency to commit sin and to hate or be jealous of others.  That passing from spiritual death to spiritual life is surely the ultimate expression of wholeness.

Let us now ask the Lord to let us go in peace as we sing “Nunc dimittis”.

© Stephen Craven 2017