We sing your praise, Eternal God

Elijah in the cave,
William Brassey Hole (1846-1917) 

Today’s song from Sing Praise is, perhaps we should say, the title track: “We sing your praise, eternal God” by Alan Gaunt.  Verse 3 gives a clue to its origins: references to wind, earthquake and fire (representing the turmoils of life that “kill love and stifle prayer”) suggest it’s based on Elijah’s experience in the desert cave in 1 Kings 19, where he pours out his troubles in prayer before experiencing these natural forces in which he failed to find God.

A parallel theme, also found in that desert experience, works its way through the hymn, at least in verses 1,2 and 4: that of sound and silence. “We can never match your love, however loud our songs” … “Your love which comes so silently through all the noise we hear” … “No sound on earth can drown the silence we have heard”.  God revealed his love for Elijah, and comforted him, through silence, not speech or natural forces. The right balance between work, worship and contemplation in the Christian life is difficult to achieve, especially for those of us who prefer action to stillness, but sometimes stillness is what we need.

Although Elijah went away from Horeb refreshed by the revelation of God in the silence, it was not to a monastery for more of the same, but back into action, and indeed into danger.  The last verse puts this quite clearly: “It [God’s Word in silence] comes to guilty, broken hearts, with challenge and release; prepares us for self-sacrifice and speaks eternal peace”.  As I wrote yesterday about the hymn “We do not hope to ease our minds”, the Christian life is never meant to be only about forgiveness, silence and inner peace, although they are part of it.  They are the basis of an active faith that has to take risks and face difficulty.

Be present, Spirit of the Lord

Today’s hymn from Sing Praise is “Be present, Spirit of the Lord” by Timothy Dudley-Smith. It’s sung to the tune of “Dear Lord and Father of Mankind”, and the words have a similar gentleness to them, the first verse including the line “let sounds of earth be dumb” and “the dew of blessing”, perhaps a deliberate reference to the earlier hymn’s “drop thy still dews of quietness”. 

The Spirit here is not the rushing wind and tongues of fire of Pentecost, but a quieter presence – verse one ends with “O silent Spirit, come!” The second verse tells of what happens when an unseen power rests upon us: “a mind renewed, a spirit blessed, a life where Christ is manifest”. The third verse is a bit more active as it asks the Spirit to incline our souls to Christ and help us to do God’s will.  The last verse askes the Spirit to stay with us, make his home in our hearts and work in us so that “we who pray may walk with Christ in wisdom’s way”.

It can be scary when we hear of the dramatic work of the Holy Spirit, even though we know it is the force of goodness rather than evil at work – evil spirits cast out, people freed from addiction, broken bones suddenly healed, prophecies uttered in spiritual languages that no-one but the interpreter can understand.  This hymn is a reminder that the Spirit can also act as a gentle persuader, a friendly comforter, a silent strength within. Both are equally true, equally the work of the same Spirit (1 Corinthians 12:4-11).

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).

Slower than Butterflies

This post is based on a prayer session that I led today.  The title comes from a book of meditations by Eddie Askew, and the idea is that to appreciate God’s presence we need to be moving at a pace ‘slower than butterflies’.

During the Covid-19 lockdown I have been doing more walking, and more photography than usual.  I do love photographing butterflies, but it requires patience.  Although they don’t fly fast, they rarely stay in one place for more than a few seconds.  You have to stay around, observing them carefully and moving in slowly and quietly with the camera to get a good photo.

So here are some of my butterfly photographs, with some Biblical reflections about living slowly.

Small tortoiseshell

This is a small tortoiseshell, photographed on a riverbank – a very quiet place away from the noise of traffic.  We often need to find somewhere quiet to slow down and experience God in the silence.   The Prophet Elijah found this when he fled to a cave in the desert to escape persecution, in words that you may recognise from a well known hymn..

Now there was a great wind, so strong that it was splitting mountains and breaking rocks in pieces before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind; and after the wind an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake; and after the earthquake a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire; and after the fire a sound of sheer silence. When Elijah heard it, he wrapped his face in his mantle and went out and stood at the entrance of the cave. Then there came a voice to him that said, ‘What are you doing here, Elijah?’ (1 Kings 19:11-15)


This is a ringlet, photographed alongside a footpath across farmland.  Sometimes you have to look long and carefully to spot the butterfly, especially a dull coloured one like this, and only see it clearly for a moment before it flutters away.  That’s a bit like the Holy Spirit of God – often we only have a brief experience of the Spirit before she seems to flutter away again. But even that brief experience may send us away rejoicing.  Perhaps that’s what St John had in mind when he wrote the following letter.  The word for “looked at” implies a lingering gaze rather than  a brief glimpse, reminding us that the wait may be long before the experience arrives.

We declare to you what was from the beginning, what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we have looked at and touched with our hands, concerning the word of life— this life was revealed, and we have seen it and testify to it, and declare to you the eternal life that was with the Father and was revealed to us— we declare to you what we have seen and heard so that you also may have fellowship with us; and truly our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ. We are writing these things so that our joy may be complete. (1 John 1:1-4)


This is a skipper, feeding on knapweed.  Butterflies and other insects have a symbiotic relationship with flowers – the insects feed on nectar, while they in turn pollinate other flowers, and so both species can continue to flourish.  Jesus spoke of how birds and flowers depend on God for their existence without worrying –

Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? And can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life?  And why do you worry about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these. But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which is alive today and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you—you of little faith? (Matthew 6:26-30)

Cabbage White

This cabbage white butterfly was basking on ballast on a railway line – a hot, dry and potentially dangerous environment with no source of food.  But  we can still find God even in places that seem a long way from a comfortable life, in the “valley of darkness” as well as the “green pastures”, as Psalm 23 reminds us –

The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.
He makes me lie down in green pastures;
he leads me beside still waters;
he restores my soul.
He leads me in right paths
for his name’s sake.
Even though I walk through the darkest valley,
I fear no evil;
for you are with me;
your rod and your staff—
they comfort me.
(Psalm 23:1-4)

Speckled Wood

I found this speckled wood butterfly in a country churchyard.  The mound of earth may well have come from a recently dug grave.  As an old Christian proverb says, “In the midst of life we are in death”.  But butterflies are often held up as a parable of the resurrection: the earthbound caterpillar effectively dies as it turns into a chrysalis, which after a while yields the gloriously coloured, flighty creature that in its previous existence could not have imagined the glory that was to come. As Jesus explained –

Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. (John 12:24)

So take some time today to slow down to butterfly pace, appreciate the silence, look for the signs of God in the natural world, trust Him for your material needs, and remember that beyond suffering and death will be the unimagined wonder of the world to come.


A grayling butterfly, seen on the Cornish coast path.

May the wings of the butterfly kiss the sun.
And find your shoulder to light on.
To bring you luck, happiness, and riches.
Today, tomorrow, and beyond.
            (an anonymous Irish blessing)

Copyright  (c) Stephen Craven 2020.  Quotations from New Revised Standard Version Bible: Anglicized Edition, copyright © 1989, 1995 National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America.

The Bible in a Year – 7 June

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

7 June. Ezekiel chapters 24-25

It is easy to forget, reading through this book of prophecies, that since the end of chapter 3 Ezekiel had been silenced by God.  That was in the fifth year of his exile, and it is now the ninth. For four years he has been hearing the voice of God but has had to act out his prophecies like a mime artist.  Only on the day that a messenger would come from Jerusalem bearing news of its final destruction, as his unspoken allegories had predicted, would his mouth be opened so that he could speak again.

There is a parallel in the Bible in the story of Zechariah, a priest who received an angelic message that he would be the father of a prophet called Jehohanan (known to us as John the Baptist).   He too was stricken dumb until the day of the boy’s naming and circumcision ceremony, after his wife had announced that their son would bear that name.   It seems that sometimes, those who are given a revelation from God (whether the good news of the birth of a prophet, or the bad news of the destruction of a city) have to remain silent until the appropriate time.  It is enough to be aware that God is planning something, and best to leave him to it rather than tell everyone.


There are times in our own lives when we have to keep secrets, too.  A confidence shared, a commercial secret accidentally seen at work, something overheard on a bus.  There may be a temptation to seek a financial reward or manipulate a relationship with this information, or just to gossip. But St James had strong words to say about our speech: “no one can tame the tongue—a restless evil, full of deadly poison. With it we bless the Lord and Father, and with it we curse those who are made in the likeness of God. From the same mouth come blessing and cursing. My brothers and sisters, this ought not to be so” (James 3:8-10).