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The Spirit of Worship

All the best hymns are firmly grounded in scripture— perhaps! Be that as it may, it is a good study to take a favourite hymn and lay it alongside the word. For example, there is

Dear Lord and Father of mankind
Forgive our foolish ways,
Reclothe us in our rightful mind.....

What are the foolish ways? To talk of the follies of mankind is normal in Christian circles— the follies of war, the folly of resources spent in showing off our riches, even our personal follies and sins. But it is interesting to note that the hymn writer had something more specific in mind.

This hymn was written as part of a longer poem, entitled 'The Brewing of Soma'. Soma is a plant whose intoxicating juice was used in ancient religious ceremonies. The worship of soma involved ecstatic experiences, a feeling of renewed youth, a kind of 'drunken joy'…. In short, the sort of thing people have been seeking from drugs through the centuries. Even Christians have been involved in such excesses, doing things in the name of religion in order to 'get a lift'. Music, for example, or incense, may be used to carry you away into a realm of emotion. It is such foolish ways as this that the hymn originally had in mind, and it calls us not to frenzy in worship but to peace.

John Greenleaf Whittier, the writer, was a Quaker who in his early life became involved in a frenzy of activity seeking freedom for the American slaves. He entered into politics, journalism, public speaking, being attacked and run out of town by slave owners, until a breakdown of his mental and of his physical strength forced him to live a quieter life.

In his poem he turns from describing mind-blowing religion to praying for a rightful mind, pure lives, Christian service and deeper reverence. This is the section of the poem which has been taken up as a hymn, and which uses pictures from scripture.

In simple trust like theirs who heard
Beside the Syrian sea
The gracious calling of the Lord,
Let us, like them, without a word
Rise up and follow Thee

'As he walked by the Sea of Galilee, he saw two brothers, Simon who is called Peter and Andrew his brother, casting a net into the sea; for they were fishermen. And he said to them, "Follow me and I will make you fishers of men." Immediately they left their nets and followed him.' Matthew 4.18,19.

Worship means trust in the Lord shown by practical obedience.

O Sabbath rest by Galilee!
O calm of hills above,
Where Jesus knelt to share with Thee
The silence of eternity
Interpreted by love.

'And in the morning, a great while before day, he rose and went out to a lonely place, and there he prayed.' Mark 1.35

Worship means getting away from the busy-ness of life, and appreciating the greatness of God and his pervading love.

With that deep hush subduing all
Our words and works that drown
The tender whisper of Thy call,
As noiseless let thy blessing fall
As fell Thy manna down.

'And when the dew had gone up, there was on the face of the wilderness a fine flake-like thing, fine as hoarfrost on the ground. When the people of Israel saw it, they said to one another, "What is it?" for they did not know what it was. And Moses said to them, "It is the bread which the Lord has given you to eat."' Exodus 16.14,15

Worship means becoming aware of God's quiet blessings.

Drop Thy still dews of quietness,
Till all our strivings cease;
Take from our souls the strain and stress
And let our ordered lives confess
The beauty of Thy peace.

'Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you.' John 14.27

'The peace of Christ rule in your hearts.' Colossians 3.15

'Have no anxiety about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving, let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which passes all understanding, will keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.' Philippians 4.6,7.

Worship means accepting the peace Christ gives, letting it have control, and consciously deciding to trust God in practical matters.

 Breathe through the heats of our desire
Thy coolness and Thy balm;
Let sense be dumb, let flesh retire;
Speak through the earthquake, wind, and fire,
O still, small voice of calm!

'And there he came to a cave, and lodged there; and behold, the word of the Lord came to him, and he said to him, "What are you doing here, Elijah?" He said, "I have been very jealous for the Lord, the God of hosts; for the people of Israel have forsaken thy covenant, thrown down thy altars, and slain thy prophets with the sword; and I, even I only, am left; and they seek my life, to take it away." And he said, "Go forth, and stand upon the mount before the Lord." And behold, the Lord passed by, and a great and strong wind rent the mountains, and broke in pieces the rocks 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 still small voice…..' 1 Kings 19.9-12

Worship means resting from violent activity, and listening for God to speak when we are quiet.

This hymn has been sung to various tunes. The best known, Repton, was written by an Old Etonian who became a professor of music at Oxford. It was taken from his oratorio Judith -  he did not like writing oratorios Judith -  and along with 'Jerusalem' it is perhaps one of Sir Charles Hubert Hastings Parry's best known tunes.

We sing the hymn as a prayer for forgiveness Judith -  forgiveness for you and I when we forget how to worship, forgiveness for humankind in our collective folly. A spirit of true worship is what characterises God's Kingdom in our own time whenever we obey Him, a spirit which will prevail over all the earth in the day to come. Then, humankind will realise, as Whittier wrote in another of his poems,

To worship rightly is to love each other,
Each smile a hymn, each kindly word a prayer.


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