shepherd sounds

Hymn of the month: February 2015 · II

Praise our great and gracious Lord [Hymn 393]

Praise our great and gracious Lord,
     call upon his holy Name;
raising hymns in glad accord,
     all his mighty acts proclaim:
how he leads his chosen
unto Canaan’s promised land,
     how the word
     we have heard
firm and changeless still shall stand.

God has given the cloud by day,
     given the moving fire by night;
guides his Israel on their way
     from the darkness into light.
God it is who grants us
sure retreat and refuge nigh;
     light of dawn
     leads us on:

’tis the Dayspring from on high.

The words of ‘Praise our great and gracious Lord’ are a very short version of the Exodus story, which is maybe the most important part of the history of the Jewish people. It’s important for Christians, too, as we’ll read in a minute.

God leads the Israelites with a pillar of cloud
Benjamin West, 1799 

‘Exodus’ [EX-uh-duss], which is the name of the second book of the Bible, means ‘going out’ and refers to the escape of the ancient people of Israel from slavery in Egypt. You may remember that God chose Moses to help lead His people to the Promised Land. God showed the way with a pillar of cloud during the day and a pillar of fire by night. The Israelites didn’t always follow God, however, and so they wandered in the desert for much longer than they should have had to before they got to the Promised Land.

These events, even though they happened so long ago, were remembered and their story told because what happened to Israel is a lot like what happens in each of our lives. When we do things that hurt others or hurt ourselves – which we often do in order to feel good, but in a way that won’t really last – then we are enslaved to our feelings or to what people who don’t want the best for us want us to do. This is like being far away from our home where we really belong, which is close to God.

God showed us the way to come back to Him by sending His Son, Our Lord Jesus Christ. Jesus is like Moses, leading us towards where we belong. We trust in His leadership, trying to live our lives like His and put our whole trust in Him. When we wander from His ways, then it’s like we get lost in the desert.

Lent is sort of like a time in the desert, but one that we undertake on purpose – just as Our Lord did after His Baptism. When we fast (eat less, don’t eat during the day, or don’t eat certain things – we talked more about this last Lent, here), it’s like being in a place where there isn’t much food or water to live on, and we have to learn all over again how to trust in God. When we take on a special habit during Lent, like reading the Bible every day or praying more regularly, then it’s like a road map showing us the way through the desert to the Promised Land, where (like at Easter) there is new life close to God.

Hymn of the month: February 2015 · I

Praise our great and gracious Lord [Hymn 393]

Our hymn for this month, which you will sing next time you sing in church on Sunday (March 1), is a very popular Hanukkah song, ‘Ma’oz Tzur’ (which means ‘Rock of Ages’ in Hebrew).

Here’s the song, just as it is in our Hymnal, played on the organ:

Here’s the song, sung in Hebrew. This version has a slightly different ending than the one in our Hymnal:

There are several other Jewish songs and hymns in our Hymnal:

- Hymns 372 ‘Praise to the living God’ and 401 ‘The God of Abraham praise’, which are different versions of the same words and are sung to the same tune
- Hymn 714 ‘Shalom, chaverim / Shalom, my friends’, a popular Israeli round (some of you may have sung this in choir before)
- Hymn 425 ‘Sing now with joy unto the Lord’, a version of the Song of Miriam (Exodus 15:1–2)

and, in a way, all the many hymns based on Psalms, since the Psalms come from ancient Israel, as we’ve talked about before.

Why do we sing Jewish hymns and songs if we are Christians? Well, first, because Our Lord Jesus and most, if not all, of His friends and followers were Jewish. The very first Christians continued to worship in the Temple in Jerusalem and meet in the synagogues. Our Lord taught, and they believed, that He had come not to replace what God had taught to Israel and done for its people, but to fulfill or finish what God had promised.

Only a little later did non-Jewish people (Gentiles) start to join Jesus’s followers as they learned that God loves everyone, not just one group of people. And a little later Christians started meeting apart from the Temple and synagogue ([SINN-uh-gog], a Jewish place of worship and study), forming the beginnings of the Church. But we Christians have never lost our Jewish roots. The first Christians used the Jewish Bible, which was the only Bible there was (which we now call the Old Testament), and the new Scriptures Christians wrote (the New Testament) are full of teaching, songs, and symbols based on the Old. We still read from the Old Testament in church all the time and sing the Psalms. Christians and Jews still have much in common!

Hymn of the Month: January 2015 · 2

O for a thousand tongues to sing [Hymn 493]

This month’s hymn is a wonderful poem about Jesus’s healing power:

O for a thousand tongues to sing
my dear Redeemer’s praise,
the glories of my God and King,
the triumphs of his grace!

My gracious Master and my God,
assist me to proclaim
and spread through all the earth
abroad the honors of thy Name.

Jesus! the Name that charms our fears
and bids our sorrows cease;
’tis music in the sinner’s ears,
’tis life and health and peace.

He speaks; and, listening to his voice,
new life the dead receive,
the mournful broken hearts rejoice,
the humble poor believe.

Hear him, ye deaf; ye voiceless ones,
your loosened tongues employ;
ye blind, behold, your Savior comes;
and leap, ye lame, for joy!

Glory to God and praise and love
be now and ever given
by saints below and saints above,
the Church in earth and heaven.

The Gospels tell us that healing people was one of the main things that Jesus did during His earthly ministry. In fact, when St John the Baptist sent some of his friends to Jesus to ask, ‘are you the Messiah, the one we have been waiting for?’ (Matthew 11 and Luke 7), we read:

Jesus had just then cured many people of diseases, plagues, and evil spirits, and had given sight to many who were blind. And Jesus answered them, ‘Go and tell John what you have seen and heard: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, the poor have good news brought to them’
– in which Jesus quotes from the prophet Isaiah (35.5–6 and 61.1–2).

These words, in turn, were Charles Wesley’s inspiration for ‘O for a thousand tongues to sing’, which is part of a much longer poem he wrote on the anniversary of his own conversion.

When we pray for people who are sick – as we do every Sunday in church, and I hope you do at home too – we may wonder why some people are healed in the way we ask or expect, and some people aren’t. We can never know the answer to that old, old question.

But we do know that sickness and death were not and are not what God wants for us. We know that just as Jesus wept when he heard that his friend Lazarus had died, God knows and feels our pain and sadness. (Our closing hymn this Sunday, ‘God is love, let heaven adore him’ [379], has something to say about this – look for it when you’re singing on Sunday.)

We can also say that ‘healing’ doesn’t always mean ‘cure of a physical illness’. Sometimes the healing that happens is in someone’s mind or heart (this is probably what the Gospel writers meant by ‘being cured of evil spirits’). Sometimes healing happens between two people, when they forgive each other for hurt they may have caused. Sometimes, if someone dies after being very sick for a long time, we can even see their death as a kind of healing, because they are free from pain and in the nearer presence of God.

Understanding healing in these other ways doesn’t always make being sick, or watching someone else suffer, very much easier, though. And so we pray, and we watch for signs of healing in our lives and their lives, because every time an illness is cured, suffering is relieved, a relationship is mended, or someone learns to see themselves and others as the beloved children of God, then healing has happened.

And healing is one of the great signs that, as St John the Baptist, and Jesus after him, taught, the ‘kingdom of God’ or ‘kingdom of heaven’ has come near. That is, when someone is healed, then we see a little glimpse of what God wants for us and has promised and shown us in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus: abundant and eternal life with Him and in peace and harmony with all that God has created.

Hymn of the Month: January 2015 · I

O for a thousand tongues to sing [Hymn 493]

Last May we talked about Isaac Watts, one of the most important people ever to have written hymns in English. You can go back and read about Watts and his most famous hymn here. Even more important than Isaac Watts, though, was Charles Wesley. In fact, if you only ever know the name of one hymn-writer, it should be Wesley.

Charles Wesley

Charles Wesley was born in England in 1707, the eighteenth (!) child of an Anglican priest and his wife. When Charles was a college student, he gathered a few friends to follow strictly the way of life set forth in the Book of Common Prayer: daily Morning and Evening Prayer, weekly Communion, fasting on Wednesdays and Fridays, studying the Bible, examining their own thoughts and actions to see whether they followed the example of Jesus, and serving the poor, prisoners, and orphans. Charles’s brother John later joined this group and became its leader. Other students made fun of their devoutness and nicknamed them the ‘Holy Club’ or the ‘Methodists’ – a name that was later used to describe the revival movement you’ll read about below.

John Wesley

Both Charles and John became priests like their father. In 1735, just after Charles’s ordination, the brothers came to America. They worked for a short time in Savannah, in what was then the brand-new British colony of Georgia. John was the parish priest (the parish – Christ Church – is still there, although the original building isn’t) and Charles assisted the governor.

Though neither John nor Charles got along in their new surroundings and they both soon returned to England, the trip was very important for their future ministry: on the trip to America, they had met members of another Christian group, the Moravians, who had a very strong faith in God – and who sang hymns as part of their prayer meetings. John was so impressed by their singing that he immediately translated several of their hymns from German into English and published them in the Collection of Psalms and Hymns – the first Anglican hymnal published anywhere! (The name ‘Charles-Town’ on the title page refers to Charleston, South Carolina, where the book was printed; there must not yet have been a print shop in Savannah. You might remember that the very first book of any kind printed in English-speaking America, about a hundred years earlier in Boston, was a book for singing the Psalms. We also mentioned this book in the series on Isaac Watts back in May.)

When they returned to England, both John and Charles began a traveling ministry. They rode many thousands of miles on horseback each year and wrote sermons and letters constantly, often preaching out of doors because parish priests – many of whom at that time were not very spiritual – didn’t like what the Wesleys had to say about having a lively and personal faith, or about helping others. But huge crowds of people – especially the poor, the sick, and others who weren’t considered ‘respectable’ – came to hear the Wesleys and joined their movement (this was rather like what happened with Jesus!).

Although both John and Charles remained Anglican priests and (especially Charles) wanted their revival movement to take place within the Church of England, the Church as a whole wasn’t ready to hear their message, or to support their work against the slave trade and the terrible conditions poor people in England faced at that time, like being thrown in jail (or exiled to a colony like Georgia or Australia) because they couldn’t pay their debts. The Wesleys’ movement later split from the Church of England and became known as the Methodists.

John Wesley preaching out of doors

A huge part of the success of the Wesleys’ work was Charles’s gift for writing hymns. After being inspired by the Moravians, he went on to write a staggering 6,000 hymns during his life – more than anyone else in the English language, by a long shot. And he didn’t just write a lot; he wrote a lot of very great hymns, many of which are still sung and loved today. In fact, in our Hymnal there are more hymns by Charles Wesley than by anyone else. ‘Hark! the herald angels sing’, ‘Love divine, all loves excelling’ – those are just a couple of Charles Wesley’s many great hymns that put the Church’s teaching and his personal experience of God into good poetry that’s easily sung. Look in the Index of Authors, Translators, and Sources in the back of your Hymnal to find more of Wesley’s work!

Next week we’ll look at one of Wesley’s greatest hits, ‘O for a thousand tongues to sing’.

Hymn of the Month: December 2014 · IV

Unto us a boy is born [Hymn 98]

The third stanza of Hymn 98 talks about a part of the Christmas story that we don’t always read in church: the Slaughter of the Innocents. St Matthew tells us in Chapter 2 of his Gospel that, when the Wise Men came from the East to worship the young Lord Jesus, Herod, the king of Judea (the southern part of Israel), was very upset. This was because the Wise Men called Jesus the ‘king of the Jews’ – and if this was true, then Herod was out of a job!

Herod tried to find out where Jesus was and how old He was, saying he too wanted to go and worship – but he really wanted to kill the young Jesus so that he could keep the power and privilege of being king. So, St Matthew tells us, in order to make sure that Jesus was put to death, Herod had all the children living near Bethlehem who were two years old or younger killed. Here you can see an icon of the Holy Innocents waiting to be welcomed into heaven by Jesus, who is pictured as a young man (martyrs are always shown robed in white):

The children who were killed by Herod are called the Holy Innocents because they did nothing to deserve their deaths. They are remembered by the Church every year on December 28 (this feast was moved to yesterday this year because the 28th was a Sunday) and are honored as martyrs (MART-uhrz), which is Greek for ‘witnesses’ and usually means ‘people who are killed for their faith’. In this case, the children didn’t have a choice to give up their lives, but  their deaths witness to the horrible things that happen when someone seeks earthly power and status no matter what. The deaths of these saints point out the difference between a king like Herod (fearful, power-hungry, and violent) and a King like Jesus (who did and gave everything he could – including His own life – to help others).

St Matthew tells us that the Holy Family were warned in a dream and escaped to Egpyt, where they lived until King Herod died and it was safe to return home. There are many, many pictures of this part of the story. Here’s one by Giotto, whose Nativity scene we saw two weeks ago:

Hymn of the Month: December 2014 · III

Unto us a boy is born [Hymn 98]

The fourth stanza of Hymn 98 asks God that Jesus show us the way to heaven, and it reminds us that there is great joy to be found in a life close to God. ‘Hearts aflame’ of course doesn’t mean that we are actually on fire! – it’s a way of trying to describe a great sense of joy. St Luke’s Gospel uses this expression to tell about how some of Jesus’s disciples felt when they were with Him on Easter evening:

‘Were not our hearts burning within us while He was talking to us on the road, while He was opening the Scriptures to us?’ (Luke 24:32)

Originally there was a fifth stanza to the English translation of this hymn, but it didn’t make it into our Hymnal – which is too bad for us church musicians, because it says,

Omega and Alpha he!
Let the organ thunder,
while the choir with peals of glee
doth rend the air asunder.

A replica of an organ from the 1500s in Wales. Note the painting of the Nativity on the right-hand door!

Merry Christmas!

Hymn of the Month: December 2014 · II

Unto us a boy is born [Hymn 98]

The words of Hymn 98 aren’t too hard to understand, but there are some things in it that are worth saying more about.

Right from the beginning, the hymn reminds us that the little baby born at Christmas was also God, the ‘King of all creation’ and ‘Lord of every nation’, and that He came to our ‘forlorn’ (sad and lonely) world that was, and is, very badly in need of love and hope. The hymn goes on to say that, right from the time Jesus was born, He was so special – He had so much love to give to everyone because He was God, and God is love – that even the cows and donkeys in the stable somehow knew it.

Another important Latin Christmas song tells us that the animals’ presence at Our Lord’s birth was a great mystery and even a wonderful sacrament – a way that God shows that He is with us and loves us – because it showed He was willing to leave His rightful place in heaven and become a poor, helpless baby who had no earthly power or status, but only His life to offer.

There are of course thousands of pictures of the birth of Our Lord. Here’s one by Giotto (JOT-toe), an important Italian painter in the 1200s and 1300s: