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Singing The Faith: A First Look

Singing The Faith is the first new official British Methodist hymn book for nearly thirty years, superseding the (in my opinion) deadly dull Hymns and Psalms. My copy arrived in the post on Friday, and I’ve been skimming through it for some first impressions.

Hymns and Psalms just had to go, and many churches were voting with their wallets. It had the misfortune to come out just before the explosion in contemporary worship music (twelve months too early even for Kendrick‘s ‘The Servant King’,

I seem to recall). But you got the feeling that even if it hadn’t, that stuff would probably not have been included. It was published around the high water tide of liberal antipathy to evangelical and charismatic Christianity in Methodism. Furthermore, the musical arrangements were, as one friend put it kindly, ‘for musicians by musicians, to interest musicians’. I can’t judge the truth of that as a non-musician, but it may explain why they were largely deadly dull to me.

It had its bright spots – and I think particularly of the additional verse it includes in ‘When I Survey The Wondrous Cross‘ (retained here) that I’ve never seen elsewhere, the scholarship applied to restoring original texts and the Scripture Index in the music edition.

Methodist Conference and the panel that put together Singing The Faith faced the implications of several cultural revolutions that have deeply affected how Christians, Methodists included, approach faith and sung worship. Revolutions in communications (especially the Internet), transport (you can more easily get to a church whose style you prefer) and ecumenism (people are exposed to other traditions more easily and frequently) mean that fewer Methodists will be easily satisfied with ‘what we already know’. Some would argue (myself included) that technological changes and the fact that churches had already bought all sorts of supplementary books, such as Songs Of Fellowship, Mission Praise and The Source, meant that a new hymn book probably wasn’t the answer, and another approach was needed. The moment of publication is the beginning of fossilisation today. However, Methodism is almost umbilically attached to hymn books, and so a new book it was.

Given that fact, the new book, then, would need to embrace a diversity of musical and theological styles. Centralised or hierarchical control of doctrine may technically be still present in our system, but for many people it is long gone. There is therefore a huge question here of how Methodism maintains her doctrine in this central aspect of our piety, our singing. It may be that the forthcoming additional resource Singing The Faith Plus will act as some kind of clearing house to reflect on which of the newer material that is published from now on is consonant with Methodist doctrine, but we’ll see.

When it gets to the handling of theological diversity, there certainly is a spread in Singing The Faith. It embraces both the neo-Calvinist emphasis on the wrath of God at the Cross in Stuart Townend‘s ‘In Christ Alone’

and at the other end we have Marty Haugen‘s ‘Let Us Build A House (All Are Welcome)’

which some have criticised for allegedly extended the universal offer of salvation into universalism. So the issue of acceptable diversity is alive and well within the book!

It is also worth noting the considerable reduction in Charles Wesley hymns – very significant for Methodists, this. Hymns And Psalms was originally to be edited by an ecumenical committee, but when Methodist Conference insisted on at least two hundred Wesley hymns, the United Reformed Church pulled out. And for the URC to withdraw takes quite something! In the new book, at a quick count Wesley is down to seventy-nine contributions. Much as I love Wesleyan theology, I think this is the right move. Indeed, if many in our churches who have been most vocal about singing Wesley hymns had been as fervently aligned to his doctrine as to the music, Methodism might be more vibrant! Here is a prime example of the argument that allegiance to hymns, however central they are to Methodist spirituality, has not always maintained and fed our faith in the ways to which we might aspire.

Two more traditional-style contemporary Methodist hymn writers, Andrew Pratt and Marjorie Dobson, both participated in the STF committee, and both are represented in the final collection. Both have nine entries. With those numbers, I don’t think anyone can accuse the compilers of favouritism. I imagine the STF panel did what the HAP committee did, and required authors who were members of the group to vacate when their potential contributions were being discussed.

On, then, to think about those writers who have come more out of the explosion in contemporary worship styles. Matt Redman (also) features nine times, and the observation that interests me here is how it isn’t always his ‘hits’ that have been chosen. It looks to me like the committee has taken a real interest in what he writes about struggle and suffering. So as well as the popular ‘Blessèd Be Your Name’ we get ‘When We Were In The Darkest Night’ (‘God Of Our Yesterdays’)

and ‘We Have Nothing To Give’. No sign of ‘The Father’s Song’: one hopes that isn’t about avoiding male language for God, in the way that Fred Pratt Green‘s ‘For The Fruits Of His Creation’ has been altered to ‘For The Fruits Of All Creation’.

Having said that, the compilers are less confident that middle of the road Methodist congregations are ready for much by the late Delirious? Martin Smith and Stuart Garrard get in a couple each, but that’s it. This might be about some of the slightly unusual ways the band expressed itself lyrically, or it is about the more performance-oriented style, or possibly some other reason.

There is also evidence of taking into account the effect of contemporary worship trends on older hymns. It has become popular, particularly under so-called ‘Celtic’ influences, to sing the afore-mentioned ‘When I Survey The Wondrous Cross’ to the tune ‘O Waly Waly’ as well as ‘Rockingham’. This is recognised in Singing The Faith.

But beyond the contemporary worship movement, one area where I am particularly pleased to see innovation is in children’s worship songs. Mark and Helen Johnson of Out Of The Ark Music have been producing worship songs for primary schools for many years. Indeed, that is how I was introduced to them – by a primary head teacher. It’s a delight to see songs such as ‘Everywhere Around Me’

included, along with songs about the Incarnation and the Crucifixion (which actually doesn’t feature that often in their lyrics). Sadly, the wonderful ‘Harvest Samba’

Vodpod videos no longer available.

isn’t in. Did it lose out because it has a middle eight, and that would confuse some older congregations? I wonder.

However, overall, as you will gather, for someone who stays on the fringes of the Methodist establishment, and who is usually quite uncomfortable about it, I greatly welcome Singing The Faith. I still think a new book wasn’t the right approach in a fast-moving creative and digital world, but given that the decision was made, I think what has been produced is far better than many of us might have hoped.

Sermon: The Fruit Of The Spirit

Galatians 5:16-25
Lately, Mark has become quite interested in the need to consume five portions of fruit and vegetables a day. He and Rebekah ask if various things count towards their ‘five a day’. Although Mark doesn’t have his sister’s obsession with sweets, he is rather more reluctant to eat things such as salad – well, apart from a few slices of cucumber. But even if his practice hasn’t caught up with his learning from school at this stage, he has at least appreciated that ‘five a day’ is important.

And so it is in the Christian life, too. Except you could say it’s nine a day. Three with one syllable – love, joy, peace. Three with two syllables – patience, kindness, goodness. And three with three syllables – faithfulness, gentleness, self-control.

Well, what decent person wouldn’t want to aspire to these qualities? And if you took them as a pen portrait of Jesus’ character, they make complete sense. Love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control – yes, they all sound like Jesus.

Don’t we want to be like this? More like this? Like Jesus? Then Paul’s description of the fruit of the Spirit is for us. It’s certainly challenging, but maybe not in the ways we might immediately assume. As we explore this theme, we shall not only found challenge, we shall also find encouragement.

So come with me as we look at the fruit of the Spirit using the images of soil, fruit and growth.

Firstly, we need to examine the soil. When we moved to Chelmsford, we noticed that a number of people who moved there suffered from an increased amount of coughs or chest infections. A popular explanation for this was that Chelmsford was built on London clay. If the theory were true, then the contents of the soil had an adverse effect on people’s health.

Something like that is going on in Galatia. Paul is addressing a problem of bad soil. There are problems with the Galatian Christians’ spiritual growth, because their soil is bad. Instead of being bedded in with the soil of the Holy Spirit, full of nutrients, they have got bedded in with unhealthy soil, the spiritual equivalent of London clay. Good fruit won’t grow in the soil they are intent on using.

What was this soil? It was a reliance upon keeping religious rules. Specifically, the Jewish Law. Yet they had found Christ not through the Law but through faith. They had seen miracles wrought not by keeping that Law but by the power of the Holy Spirit. Yet they had believed some false teachers who said they needed to keep the rules in order to be right with God, and to be part of the in-crowd. The Cross, God’s grace and the miracle of faith are all in danger of being discarded.

Now you might think that is just an academic lecture from history, but it is very relevant to us. We might not be tempted to follow the ancient Jewish ritual law, but we can slip into a similar attitude. When we say that someone will go to heaven because they are good, then we are saying that it’s rule-keeping that gets you in with God. However, Paul points out in Galatians that no-one can keep all the rules, and that makes all of us rule-breakers. We are all sinners, in other words. The moment we start talking about someone going to heaven because they are good, we are saying to God, we don’t need your grace. We are saying to Jesus, you didn’t need to die on the Cross. We are like the passers-by at Calvary who spat at Jesus and told him to get himself down from the Cross.

Or what about the times when we think that certain people aren’t really acceptable in church? Their etiquette doesn’t fit in. There’s something odd or eccentric about them. They haven’t got it all together. They don’t look right. They don’t know our way of doing things. In other words, the soil we live in is one we’ve created that is made up of our unwritten rules.

But God’s soil, the soil in which the spiritual life grows, is made of his grace and mercy, his unconditional sacrificial love as seen at the Cross. It is made of his Holy Spirit. That is a soil that gives life. When we create a soil of human rules, all we do is choke the life out of people. If we want to grow more Christlike – if we want the fruit of the Spirit – we need to choose the right soil, soil filled with grace and Cross-centred love.

Secondly, let us think about the kind of fruit we want to grow. Let me ask you a question: how many fruit in the fruit of the Spirit? Listen again:

the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control (verses 22-23a)

Nine? Are you sure? Did you count ‘love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control’ and make nine? I’m saying you’re wrong.

But there are nine, you insist. However, if you say that, you missed one important piece of evidence. It comes immediately before the list of nine qualities. Paul says, ‘the fruit of the Spirit is’. One fruit! Fruit, not fruits, is, not are. It’s a myth to talk about ‘the fruits of the Spirit’. If you’ve listened closely, I’ve consistently talked about ‘the fruit of the Spirit’. It’s all one fruit!
If you remember a fruit juice drink called Five Alive you’ll get the idea. It was one drink, made up of five different flavours. So it is with the fruit of the Spirit. There is one fruit, but there are nine flavours.

And that means the Holy Spirit wants to develop all nine qualities in every one of us. It is not that the Spirit wants to give love to one person, joy to a second and peace to a third. There is no picking and choosing. The nine qualities indicate the amount of transformation the Holy Spirit wants to grow in all of us. I can’t choose to say that I’d rather continue to indulge my grumpiness, rather than learning patience. I can’t say I’ll just keep on keeping on with my favourite sins, rather than allowing self-control to grow in my life.

This one fruit with nine flavours shows us that the Holy Spirit has a big agenda for our lives. Salvation goes way beyond a ticket to heaven. It goes miles past the idea of just being ‘nice’. No: when the Holy Spirit’s work of revealing Christ to us gets to the point where we say ‘yes’ to Jesus, put our trust in him and commit to following him, then at that stage the Spirit of God sets up camp in our lives and gets ready for the long haul. The work has only just begun. It will continue on until glory.

When I trained for the ministry in Manchester, the city centre always seemed to be full of roadworks. For all three of my years there, something was going on somewhere in the centre that involved cones, bollards and men wearing hard hats and ear defenders. A friend of mine who was a bit of a wag commented, “Manchester will be a nice place when it’s finished.”
What was it about? Mainly, they were reintroducing trams to the city. The first ones came into service just before I left. But it was a long haul to get to that point.

So it is with the fruit of the Spirit. The Holy Spirit has a big picture of where our lives are heading – it involves love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. It’s a big job. It will take all our lives. We are not to rest on our laurels. Because the Spirit won’t.

Well – we’ve talked about the importance of the right kind of soil: grace, cross-shaped love and faith, and the work of the Holy Spirit, in contrast to the wrong kind of soil, namely living by respectable rules. We’ve talked about how the fruit itself indicates what a big, long-term project the Holy Spirit has for our lives. Thirdly and finally, we need to talk about the growth itself.
In my late teens, a woman in my home circuit who showed a special interest in the young Christians recommended to us a book by an Argentinean pastor called Juan Carlos Ortiz. It was called ‘Disciple’. There are a number of striking stories in it, but to this day there is one I find particularly memorable.

When he was eight years old, Ortiz was impressed by the fact that all the best visiting preachers to his family’s church had beards. If this was what a good Christian had, then he wanted a beard, too. So, at the age of eight, he started praying that God would give him a beard. God didn’t answer his prayer. So not only did he pray for a beard, he fasted for a beard. However, even his earnest fasting did not provide a spiritual breakthrough. Despite great faith at the age of eight, God did not give Juan Carlos a beard.

When he was sixteen, it was all different. Thus he realised that beards do not come instantly and miraculously, they come as a result of human growth and maturing.

I want to say that the fruit of the Spirit is rather like that. We may want those qualities to appear almost instantly, even to the point of being unwittingly comical about it – “Lord, give me patience, and I want it now!” However, it is fruit we are talking about, and fruit takes a long time to grow. Some things may come instantly, even sometimes in the spiritual life, but fruit doesn’t. Seeds have to be planted, shoots have to be tended and eventually the fruit appears and matures.
You get a feel for this in some other translations of the Bible. The New English Bible refers not to the fruit of the Spirit, but to the harvest of the Spirit. We know a harvest doesn’t come overnight. It’s an idea that the hymn writer Fred Pratt Green picked up on when he wrote his harvest festival hymn, ‘For the fruits of his creation’. The final verse gives thanks ‘For the harvests of the Spirit’.

Expect these qualities to take time to grow, then. That isn’t a reason for complacency, because the way the growth happens is by our active co-operation with the Holy Spirit. As we hear the gentle voice of God leading us and do what he says, so in the process he changes us. It’s not a matter of slavishly following rules: there is no joy and life in that. But when we appreciate and wonder at the marvel of God’s loving grace to us sinners, then we are motivated to respond in ways that please him, and the Holy Spirit gives us the strength to walk in ways we previously thought impossible. We shall stumble and fall at times, of course, but we shall be on a journey of growth.

So a good, if daring, thing to do is this. Talk to someone who has known you for a number of years. Ask them whether they have seen changes in your life, and if so, what. Because over a sustained period we should expect to see signs of change. If you’re anything like me, you will be a long way from perfection, but how can we not be optimistic about what the grace of God can accomplish in us by the power of the Holy Spirit?

It’s why we hear slogans bandied about such as, ‘God loves us just as we are, but loves us too much to leave us as we are.’ Or, ‘I am not what I could be or I should be, but I am not what I used to be, and by the grace of God I shall not be what I am now.’

In other words, one slogan it isn’t is ‘Let go and let God.’ God gives us his grace in Christ, and he dwells within us by his Spirit. He continues to take the initiative in our lives, and we gratefully respond in love, because of what he has done and in the power he has given us. Thus he forms us more like Jesus. The Holy Spirit makes us more holy.

And what does that holiness look like? It looks like love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.