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Singing the Spirit

Christian worship praises the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, but in practice we find it far easier to worship the first two persons of the Trinity than the third. This is reflected in the hymns that we sing. Songs that praise the Father or Jesus Christ far outweigh songs of praise to the Spirit. In fact, most of the time the Spirit is only praised when included as the third stanza of praise to the Trinity (“Father/Jesus/Spirit we love you”).

So how do we grow into more robust worship of the Spirit? And what kind of music will help us in this quest? Below are a few different approaches to “singing the Spirit,” with specific hymns that exemplify each approach. Most are taken from the forthcoming Lift Up Your Hearts hymnal (LUYH; see liftupyourheartshymnal.org for more information).

Spirit of God, Who Dwells within My Heart

If we have trouble finding words to praise the Spirit, we certainly have no lack of songs calling for the Spirit’s sanctifying power. These are songs that ask the Spirit to work within us to purify our hearts. As such, they often work well as songs of confession or as hymns of commitment and dedication. In fact, you will find a good number of Spirit hymns in the confession and dedication sections of the Lift Up Your Hearts hymnal.

The quintessential sanctification hymn is “Spirit of God, Who Dwells within My Heart.” Written by George Croly in 1867, this five-stanza sung prayer expresses the entirety of sanctification: acknowledging our sin, praying for illumination, recognizing Christ’s sacrifice, desiring faith, and dedicating our lives to Christ—all through the working of the Holy Spirit. These themes are laid out, stanza by stanza, in a way that allows the song’s stanzas to be distributed throughout the service: stanza 1 at confession, stanza 2 as a prayer of illumination, stanza 3 as a sermon reflection, stanza 4 with intercessory prayer, and stanza 5 at the sending.

This hymn is beautifully supported by the traditional tune, Frederick Atkinson’s MORECAMBE LUYH. However, the chromatic harmonization may be out of some congregations’ stylistic “sweet spot.” If so, consider using Karl Digerness’ setting “Spirit of God, Descend Upon My Heart.” Digerness is part of the “retuned” hymn movement that began over a dozen years ago in Reformed University Fellowship (RUF) and Presbyterian Church in America (PCA) circles. Digerness was part of the Red Mountain Music collective and is now director of worship arts at City Church in San Francisco. This song appears on his recently released Fragments of Grace CD (cityhymns.com) as well as on the Cardiphonia Music compilation Pentecost Songs (cardiphonia.bandcamp.com/album/pentecost-songs). Digerness’ modern folk setting lends an introspective take to the words that is a welcome addition to the traditional tune.

Spirit, Working in Creation

Another approach to singing the Spirit is to explore the many metaphors and acts of the Spirit throughout biblical history. While we may immediately picture tongues of fire coming upon the disciples at Pentecost, it is important not to overlook the role of the Spirit throughout all of Scripture. The Spirit didn’t simply enter biblical history at Pentecost to replace Jesus’ physical presence on earth, but has been present all along.

“Spirit, Working in Creation” (LUYH) shows the Holy Spirit working throughout the biblical metanarrative. This hymn uses something of a “collect” prayer form in which a past action of the Spirit is recalled and then followed by an invocation for the Spirit to act the same way in our lives today—to work among us, inspire our reading of Scripture, change our hearts, and help us feel the presence of Christ.

“Spirit, Working in Creation” begins by referencing the Spirit’s work in creation hovering over the waters in Genesis, and continuing through the biblical narrative with the Spirit’s equipping and anointing the prophets. In the second stanza the Spirit descends upon Jesus Christ at his baptism as a dove sent from the Father, and remains with Christ as a wise and comforting presence when he is tempted in the desert. The final stanza features the Spirit equipping the disciples of the New Testament, while invoking that same spiritual presence to dwell in us today for acts of service. Interspersed throughout are symbols of the Spirit such as dove and breath, as well as an implicit reference to oil anointing the prophets. The song closes with a doxology to the Spirit, giving praise for the Spirit’s loving and comforting presence, and giving honor and glory to the Father and Son.

Other songs from Lift Up Your Hearts similarly explore the metaphors and metanarrative of the Spirit. For a global variation on this theme, see “Santo Espiritu/Holy Spirit, from Heaven Descended.” For a song focusing on the many attributes of the Spirit, see “Holy Spirit, Truth Divine.”

Come, Holy Ghost, Our Souls Inspire

Not many hymns found in our hymnals date back as far as “Veni Creator Spiritus.” It is attributed to a ninth-century theologian named Rabanus Maurus. Originally a Latin chant, today there are many versions and arrangements of this beautiful text and tune. In fact, there are three versions in Lift Up Your Hearts alone. The most common version is “Come, Holy Spirit, Our Souls Inspire,” translated by John Cosin (originally titled “Come, Holy Ghost, Our Souls Inspire”) and arranged by Healey Willan. Willan complements the plainchant melody with a four-part organ accompaniment. These extra harmonic layers may obscure the austere beauty of the original chant, so be adventurous and try singing it with no accompaniment but a B-flat drone. At first this might be unfamiliar to your congregation, but once sung through a few times it will feel natural, and can powerfully evoke the history and timelessness of this great hymn.

For a more contemporary approach using the same text and tune, consider Greg Scheer’s “O Holy Spirit, Come.” Another selection from the Cardiphonia Pentecost Songs CD, it features a new translation of all seven original Latin stanzas, with an added refrain.

O Holy Spirit, by Whose Breath

Alfred Fedak, in his hymn “Holy Spirit, by Whose Breath,” uses the words of “Veni Creator Spiritus” but pairs them with the tune PUER NOBIS (commonly paired with the text “On Jordan’s Banks, the Baptist’s Cry.”) Watch the rhythm on this one; it isn’t very obvious, so it will need to be emphasized for the congregation to catch on with ease.

Come, Holy Ghost/Be Not Afraid

A recent and much-loved “retuned” version of “Veni Creator Spiritus” is “Come, Holy Ghost/Be Not Afraid” by Bruce Benedict and Ray Mills. With its juxtaposition of historic text and recently-composed tune, it exemplifies the “best of the old and new” approach of the new Lift Up Your Hearts hymnal. It originally appeared on Redeemer Presbyterian Church’s CD ‘Mid All the Traffic (that recording, incidentally, featured a musical saw), and has since been sung and recorded widely. Congregations are immediately drawn to the simple, easily learned melody, but the song continues to sound fresh upon repeated singing.

The added chorus in this adaptation may initially come across as a non sequitur, but it adds a dialogical element to the original text. The stanzas are the voice of the people calling on the Holy Spirit to be present among us and acknowledging the Spirit’s attributes. Benedict and Mills’ chorus adds God’s response, calling his people to take heart because he has sent us his Spirit to comfort and equip us for acts of service. It brings to mind John 14, in which Jesus says, “Do not let your hearts be troubled,” going on to promise the advent of the Holy Spirit. This song is appropriate for ordinations, since it calls church leaders to be strong and courageous because the Spirit will be with them in their new calling.

From sanctification to invocation to the Spirit’s work throughout the biblical history, there are many ways of singing the Spirit. Hopefully this introduction to a handful of Pentecost and Spirit songs will expand not only our repertoire, but also our understanding and love of the Godhead. May the Holy Spirit be praised!

Click here to listen to the composer singing the song.