Horatius Bonar (1808-1888)
Ira D Sankey lists his first gospel song as ‘Yet there is room! The Lamb's bright hall of song’. The text was by Scottish writer Horatius Bonar, for whom Sankey went on to compose a number of other melodies. He was, he said, ‘my ideal hymn writer’. Bonar, who lived during the middle 80 years of the nineteenth century, was minister at Kelso in the Border region when the Disruption came (1843), and with his congregation became part of the Free Church of Scotland, of whose General Assembly he later was to serve as Moderator. As well as publishing many widely-read books on religious themes, editing a denominational periodical, and engaging in the ongoing controversies over millennialism, Bonar wrote some 600 hymns, one of his best-known being ‘I heard the voice of Jesus say’.
Rather like Cecil Frances Alexander, it was from children that the stimulus to begin hymn writing came, his earliest made for youngsters in his first parish who found it difficult to engage with the psalms – still, with the Paraphrases of 1781, the only option for Sunday worship. Our hymn comes from the third in the series, Hymns of Faith and Hope (1866), where it bears the title, ‘Life’s Praise’. The hymn outlines a style of Christian living where praise and thanksgiving are not a discrete activity but permeate every waking moment.
To find a gospel echo, we might go to the day when Jesus, making his slow way to Jerusalem, was ambushed by a group of lepers somewhere on the border between Samaria and Galilee (Luke 17). Not a particularly contagious disease, but a handy receptacle for a community’s fears and suspicions. On top of their sickness (detailed in Leviticus) lepers were to dress in cast-offs, wear masks over their mouths, remain isolated even from their families, the very people most likely to help them, and always to practise social distancing. The lepers’ cries to Jesus, therefore, expressed a double agony. Jesus’ response was quite unlike his usual declarations to the sick. ‘Go and show yourselves to the priests’ was not a referral but the cure, a command which addressed both the physical condition and the social division. One returned, ‘praising God with a loud voice … and thanked him’.
The focus and meaning of this story is usually seen as the importance of faith, but maybe it’s really about something else. If we are asked what defines the Christian life, the likely answer would probably be weighted towards moral considerations, avoiding sinful actions, loving your neighbour, good stewardship, generosity. But might it be that top of the list should be living in gratitude? If we read the story this way, other parts of Scripture begin to light up.
There is Paul to the Philippians, ‘Rejoice in the Lord always’. There’s the early church who ‘ate their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having the goodwill of all the people’.
And this closing exhortation to the church at Thessalonica: ‘Always be joyful; pray continually; give thanks whatever happens; for this is what God wills for you in Christ Jesus’.
Living thankfully, living out of gratitude for the gifts we have been given, for the love we have been shown, for the experiences into which we have been led, even when challenging. It doesn’t mean being properly thankful when something good happens but living in a spirit, a stance, of gratitude whatever happens, a whole life-approach which is not only transformative for ourselves but for others.
Transformative because it cleanses and clarifies. Presbyterian Bishop Lesslie Newbigin once wrote: ‘Praise is the most antiseptic of human activities. It washes away the scum of resentment, envy and self-pity, and makes us clean as we were meant to be, … clear mirrors for the light of God’. As we ‘give God the glory due’ through ‘a life made up of praise in every part’ (Bonar), we get a glimpse of God’s vision. In Wyclif’s first translation of the Bible the word ‘glory’ was translated ‘clarity’. Our vision is refreshed, and we see more clearly all that is wrong, but also how things could be, and we long for the time still to come when we can redouble our thanks for people reconciled, justice done.
Erik Routley put it:
The desert is refreshed by songs of praise,
relaxed the frown of pride, the stress of grief;
in praise forgotten all our human spite;
in praise the burdened heart finds sure relief.
(From ‘In praise of God meet duty and delight’, Common Praise 479)
It is truly remarkable that in the face of all the setbacks, wrong turnings and misunderstandings on the part of the emerging new church with which he has to deal, Paul invariably begins his letters in gratitude: ‘I thank my God every time I remember you’. But he always goes on to demand something more, according to the particular needs of each church. Gratitude is not only retrospective but creates a new future. That memorable definition of the church from one of the Anglican / Roman Catholic dialogues as ‘sign, instrument, and foretaste’ of the Kingdom is echoed in our closing couplet. The earthly song of gratitude becomes the praise of creation restored, the soundtrack of the ‘new song’ of the redeemed before the throne (Revelation 14).
Christ our joy and our delight,
who found cause for praise in a woman others rejected,
and who told of a father’s joy in a son who had abused his trust;
open our eyes to see the gift among the routine
and find blessing even in time of adversity,
so that, living as those who are grateful to God,
we may enable thankfulness in others
and draw fresh voices into the song for ever new.
Fill now our life, O Lord our God,
in every part with praise,
that our whole being may proclaim
your being and your ways.
Not for the lip of praise alone,
nor even the praising heart
we ask, but for a life made up
of praise in every part.
Praise in the common things of life,
its goings out and in;
praise in each duty and each deed,
though humble and unseen.
So, gracious Lord, you shall receive
from us the glory due;
and so we shall begin on earth
the song for ever new.
This version, Church Hymnary 4, 183.