eclectic ecclesiastical extolation*

I’m a bit eclectic when it comes to my preferences for ecclesiastical music. I like a lot of the modern songs and hymns. I like choral music (Handel’s Messiah anyone – in full, not just the Hallelujah Chorus). I like some older hymns. I like simple chants. I like harmonies. I like singing along to a single instrument (or even a capella) and to a multi-instrument group.

There are two criteria against which I tend to evaluate my preferences: the first (and most important) is whether it helps me in my following Jesus – if it doesn’t then it doesn’t tend to last long in my ‘playlist’. It could be inspiring, challenging, thought-provoking, worship-enabling, encouraging, comforting and even prompting me to remember past moments in my faith-journey (‘And can it be’ was sung when I was baptised). However I relate to it a song or hymn will be one to which I will gladly return if it points me to Jesus.

The second criterion is more difficult to nail down, and varies for many of them according to my mood. It’s the ‘ear worm factor’. At different times songs or hymns will get into my head and remain there. No matter what I do the tune and words will be playing gently in the background as the sound track to my day. This is even more subjective than the first criterion so I need to be careful that this is not a major factor when I am choosing songs or hymns for a service. I tend to choose those that resonate with the theme of the service.

worshippersBut there are some (a few) that seem to transcend the second criterion and resonate with me regardless of how I am feeling. One is the hymn we sang at the end of the service in which I was preaching yesterday:

LOVE DIVINE, all loves excelling,
Joy of heaven to earth come down!
Fix in us Thy humble dwelling,
All Thy faithful mercies crown.
Jesus, Thou art all compassion,
Pure unbounded love Thou art;
Visit us with Thy salvation,
Enter every trembling heart.

Breathe, O breathe Thy loving Spirit
Into every troubled breast!
Let us all in Thee inherit,
Let us find Thy promised rest.
Take away the love of sinning;
Alpha and Omega be;
End of faith, as its beginning,
Set our hearts at liberty.

Come, Almighty to deliver,
Let us all Thy grace receive;
Suddenly return, and never,
Never more Thy temples leave.
Thee we would be always blessing,
Serve Thee as Thy hosts above,
Pray, and praise Thee without ceasing,
Glory in Thy perfect love.

Finish then Thy new creation,
Pure and spotless let us be;
Let us see Thy great salvation
Perfectly restored in Thee!
Changed from glory into glory,
Till in heaven we take our place;
Till we cast our crowns before Thee,
Lost in wonder, love and praise.

Charles Wesley

The words of this hymn are so rich, and the tune to which we usually sing it (Blaenwern) is so powerful that I can return to it again and again and find it enriching and blessing my relationship with Jesus. If you have skimmed over reading the words please go back and read it slowly.

Have you done that?

No? Go on.

Please. It’s worth it.

Isn’t it astonishing? There is so much in it. Yesterday I was speaking about how Jesus offers us fresh starts and realised that this is incorporated in this hymn too – we are being changed, restored, improved, enhanced as the Spirit of Jesus fills us. And that’s there in the text of the second and fourth verses.

The heart-felt prayer of the tormented soul that is wrestling with the human tendency to let God down – “Take away the love of sinning” – finds its answer in divine love: the closer we are as followers of Jesus the more we are drawn to him and the less attractive other options seem. There’s no point in God taking away the love of sinning if it is not replaced by something else – the love of goodness, godliness, holiness – because otherwise we will fill the void with something else and find ourselves back in the same place.

It’s a welcome sound track to my day – what’s yours?

Be blessed, be a bles-sing (see what I did there?)

*another new word from the Nick Lear dictionary – meaning worshipping God ‘to the max’

mix tape

What's the link between this and a pencil? There's a generation growing up who have no idea!

To celebrate our Silver Wedding Anniversary Sally made me a mix tape. Do you remember doing that? If so, you are a lot older than you are admitting!

Well because she is a 21st Century woman Sally’s mix tape was not on one of these old fashioned cassette tapes that used to get mangled by the machine that was supposed to be playing the music. It was a Spotify playlist.

It took me a while to negotiate the vagaries of the system but (with my son’s help) in the end I managed to get myself linked into the playlist on my computer so I could listen to the songs that she had chosen for me. It’s a lovely, special, beautiful selection of songs. Some are from our past and some were chosen because of what the lyrics say.

Music and songs are incredibly powerful. Something about the blend of music and lyrics makes them special. Words that we may have overlooked as poetry become memorable and take on a life of their own when set to music. Music that we may have ignored as background noise becomes more evocative when words accompany them.

Have you ever wondered why we sing in church? I think that the explanation above is one reason. The combination of words and music enable us to express emotions in ways that no other medium allows.

On Sunday evening at our church we are holding a Songs of Praise service (everyone is welcome – 6.30pm). In the service different people from our church have chosen a favourite hymn or song and will explain why it is special to them before we sing it together. I am really looking forward to it.

Last night, at our Prayer Meeting (you’re welcome to that too – first Thursday of the month, 8pm) part of our praying was introduced with these words from Psalm 107:

Give thanks to the Lord, for he is good;
    his love endures for ever.

Let the redeemed of the Lord tell their story…

That seems to be a brilliant description of what we will be doing on Sunday evening.

But if you had been asked to choose a favourite Christian hymn or song, what would you have chosen and why? What does that song or hymn say about who God is, who you are, and your relationship with him?

Be blessed, be a blessing.

shiver down the spine songs

I was a student, studying for a Law Degree. I had heard from a friend that U2 had a new album out and he was raving about it so I went to a local record shop (there were a lot more of them around then) and bought ‘The Joshua Tree’. I took it back to my room, took it out of the gatefold sleeve (look it up on t’internet younguns) and put it on my turntable. I plugged in my headphones and turned up the volume, lay back and started to listen.

I was not prepared for what happened next. My ears were treated to an amazing blend of harmonies, guitar sounds, rhythms and vocals that sent shivers down my spine (the album still does that to me). The lyrics were completely absorbing and challenging. I found myself melting into the music and wallowing decadently in what became an immersive experience. I appreciate that it won’t be to everyone’s taste but listening to that album still remains a vivid memory for me (as you may be able to tell from the anecdote above). In fact I may well revisit that experience when I have finished this bloggage as I am spending the morning praying, reflecting and reading.

The moment when I was almost moved to tears was when the guitars started gently, the drums and bass came in smoothly and then Bono started singing:

I have climbed highest mountains
I have run through the fields
Only to be with you
Only to be with you
I have run
I have crawled
I have scaled these city walls
These city walls
Only to be with you

But I still haven’t found what I’m looking for
But I still haven’t found what I’m looking for

I have kissed honey lips
Felt the healing in her fingertips
I burn like fire
This burning desire

I have spoke with the eternal angels
I have held the hand of the devil
It was warm in the night
I was cold as a stone

But I still haven’t found what I’m looking for
But I still haven’t found what I’m looking for

I believe in the Kingdom come
Then all the colours will bleed into one
Bleed into one
But yes I’m still running

You broke the bonds
And you loosed the chains
Carried the cross
Of my shame
Oh my shame
You know I believe it

But I still haven’t found what I’m looking for
But I still haven’t found what I’m looking for
But I still haven’t found what I’m looking for

To me these lyrics represent a journey of faith. I don’t know what the ‘what I’m looking for’ was for Bono, and to be honest I don’t want to know. For me it’s about spiritual dissatisfaction and longing – we haven’t made it yet, we don’t have all the answers, we want more of God. We can look for God in all sorts of places and while we can know the certainty of ‘the Kingdom come’ and of our relationship with him made possible in Jesus: ‘you carried the cross… you know I believe it’, there is always much more for us to discover of God and about ourselves.

The moment we think we have all the answers is the moment when God laughs loudest.

The lyrics could also be reflective of the Lord’s Prayer – praying that God’s Kingdom will come and his will be done on earth now as it is in the heavenly realms. That is not yet a reality: we have not yet seen it completely. There are so many places, people and events in this world that don’t acknowledge God as King (so his Kingdom hasn’t been fulfilled there yet) and we long to see his justice, love, peace and wholeness.

To me this album and that song were eye-openers. God spoke powerfully to me through a song that was unlikely to be sung in church. He spoke gently to me that is all right to be searching – in fact he rather likes it – and that a relationship with him is a lifetime’s work not an exam to be passed. And it is fine to be dissatisfied with the world how it is because he’s not satisfied with it either and he’s inviting us to work with him to help his Kingdom come in the places we live and work and play.

What's the link between this and a pencil? There's a generation growing up who have no idea!

What’s the link between this and a pencil? There’s a generation growing up who have no idea!

Be blessed, be a blessing