I recently came across a song from Hillsong Kids, which was being sung at a local Christian holiday club for children. I was concerned enough about what it might be doing to the spiritual development of the children (more about this in the next post) to reflect on one of the first hymns I remember from primary school, Percy Dearmer’s Jesus, good above all other. My love for this, which persists to this day, is a product of both the simple yet deep words, and the simple, ancient tune to which it’s sung, Quem Pastores.
Jesus, good above all other,
Gentle child of gentle mother,
In a stable born our brother,
Give us grace to persevere.
Jesus, cradled in a manger,
For us facing every danger,
Living as a homeless stranger,
Make we Thee our King most dear.
Jesus, for Thy people dying,
Risen Master, death defying,
Lord in Heav’n, Thy grace supplying,
Keep us by Thine altar near.
Jesus, who our sorrows bearest,
All our thoughts and hopes Thou sharest,
Thou to man the truth declarest;
Help us all Thy truth to hear.
Lord, in all our doings guide us;
Pride and hate shall ne’er divide us;
We’ll go on with Thee beside us,
And with joy we’ll persevere!
I notice a number of things as I reflect on this. First, in spite of my recent rants about the almost absolute Jesus-centredness of much contemporary Christian worship – amounting almost to a Christo-Unitarianism – Dearmer’s hymn is also addressed to Jesus. But this is a very incarnate Jesus: the emphasis is on his stable birth, his refugee status, his death and resurrection, his human suffering as he bears the sorrows of the world. His human example, and his disciples’ imperative to learn from it. There’s none of the Cosmic Christ who seems almost to make the Father and the Spirit redundant, that we see in some current songs.
Secondly, although the language is simple, it doesn’t offer any hostages to modern usage among primary school children. They tend to be even less familiar with ‘thee’ and ‘thine’ than we were in the 1950s, to their loss. There are quite a few ‘poetic’ changes to normal word order, which would keep a child on their toes. And what about that strange word persevere? Who uses that?
I conducted a little experiment with two of my granddaughters. First I asked Tilly (almost 5 and about to start school), “Do you know what ‘persevere’ means?” She didn’t. Then I asked Libby (aged 7, just finished infants), and she gave me a pretty good definition: “It means trying and trying until you do it.” Apparently Perseverance is one of the school values they’ve learned. So it’s a word that children need to learn (like all the rest) but well within primary school capabilities.
Thirdly, although it’s obviously a hymn written with younger Christians in mind, there’s enough substance, or spiritual meat, there, to nourish a person into late adulthood, as it has me.
All of that seems like a pretty good recommendation for a children’s worship song, I think.