Praise and Worship Reflection: Whom Shall I Fear (God of Angel Armies)

Garrett reflects on how Chris Tomlin’s song “Whom Shall I Fear” shows us how God is with us always.

I still remember the first time I listened to “Whom Shall I Fear” by Chris Tomlin. It was my freshman year in NTU and I had, like a typical freshman, bitten off more than I could chew. It was one day in particular that I was buried under CCA commitments, on top of a whole slew of school assignments in a course I was extremely ill-suited for. Deciding to listen to some gospel music to settle myself, it was then that I noticed this song appearing in my YouTube feed. It looked interesting enough, and so I clicked on it hoping God would speak to me somehow through the singing, the lyrics, anything.

Boy, did He deliver.

The song begins by calling God our “morning song”, a reminder that God is with us from the very moment we awake, ready to meet the day with us. The following lines “Though darkness fills the night, it cannot hide the light” also reinforces God’s omnipresence, and the fact that He is with us through thick and thin, morning and night.

The next verse talks of God’s ability to aid us in the struggles of life. Chris Tomlin sings about how God “crush[es] the enemy underneath our feet”, a biblical reference to Genesis where God tells the serpent that Eve and her descendants shall crush him underfoot. God’s faithfulness is contrasted with Eve’s unfaithfulness, as this takes place after Adam and Eve have eaten the fruit and been cast out. Despite the choice of our first parents to rebel against God, He still looks out for them when he can. For Catholics, this line also has special significance as it refers to Our Blessed Mother’s role in conquering sin and death through her obedience to God as well, allowing herself to be an instrument in fulfilling God’s promises as the New Eve.

The next lines describe God as our “sword and shield”. This is reminiscent of many of the psalms which refer to God as someone who comes to our aid in very military terms. This kind of language appeals to me, mainly because I’m a massive dork who thinks such things are cool. But more importantly, it reminds us also of the reality of spiritual warfare, that our lives on earth are literally a battle to save our souls, no matter how we slice it. The next line is “though troubles linger still”. I love this line because it grounds the song back in reality, that it still expects trials despite God’s help. Ancient Greek plays employed a deus ex machina, a god out of the machine, to tie up their plays with a neat bow at the end. Our God, however, does not come from a machine, and He empowers man to face their challenges rather than simply handwave them away.

In between these two verses, the line “Whom shall I fear?” is repeated. This line is a challenge, a sign of confidence in God. It’s funny how in biblical terms, questions are often used as challenges. Think of the Archangel Michael’s very name – ‘Who is like God?’

This brings us to the chorus, which begins with “I know who goes before me, I know who stands behind.” The reason why these lines resonate with me is that it reminds me of the famous lines from the ancient Irish prayer, the Lorica of St. Patrick:

“Christ with me, Christ before me, Christ behind me,
Christ in me, Christ beneath me, Christ above me.”

I once read a blog post that said that this prayer is almost mathematical in its construction. It’s very measured and structured, and it’s a good prayer for meditation. It reminds us that there isn’t any facet of our life where Jesus doesn’t permeate or is absent from. And finally the crux of this song:

“The God of Angel armies,

is always by my side.”

Tomlin’s use of ‘Angel armies’ is a striking one, and one that has deep roots in scripture. In the Old Testament, the God of the Israelites is often called the “Lord of Hosts”, alluding to the angels he has under his command. But what does this mean for us, or what did it mean for Jesus back then?

A reading of the Gospels will show us that while Jesus trusts that his Father and the angels are watching over him, he never expects them to magically show up to pull him out of trouble. When facing the Temptations in the Desert, when Satan tempts him to cast himself down so that the angels will rescue him, Jesus declines, saying that one should not put the Lord to the test. A sterner test is asked of him in Matthew’s Gospel at the time of his arrest, when Jesus chooses to go quietly with his captors, remarking that his Father could send  “twelve legions of angels” to his rescue if he wished it.

I find Our Lord’s reaction fascinating – this sense of trusting so absolutely in God’s providence while at the same time accepting trials and tribulations with a peaceful heart. Jesus truly shows us by his example what it means to believe that God is always by our side, no matter what may happen. In my own situation, this song reminded me that my own trials were transient, and with some perspective, and perhaps time, I’d eventually be able to see the hand of God at work through these trials. Perhaps in the end, one of the only things I can be sure of is that “The God of Angel Armies, is always by my side.”

© 2017 Christ Centered Conversations/Garrett Christopher Ng

Christian Castaways Part 2: Spiritual Survivors

Garrett reflects on a poem by Cardinal Newman, about trusting God in times of trial.

Last time around, we looked at the phenomenon of being ‘spiritually shipwrecked’ – moments where we realize that our pride and worldly desires have cut us off from God and left us spiritually desolate. I ended off that article with a quote by John Henry, Cardinal Newman, reflecting on how our struggles on Earth require us to change often in order to live an authentic Christian life.

As I reflected more on this idea however, I realized that Newman’s life and writings constitute a good reference on how to cling to God throughout the tumultuous twists and turns of life. With that in mind, I hope to provide a very brief introduction to this important Catholic thinker, as well as provide an analysis of his short poem, St. Paul at Melita, which describes the saint’s own shipwrecking and his response to that situation.

John Henry Newman (1801–1890) was an Anglican (and later Catholic) priest who distinguished himself as a thinker and academic at Oxford University. He was one of the leaders of the Oxford Movement, an intellectual movement that sought to re-introduce Catholic elements back into Anglican theology, a movement that resulted in the Anglo-Catholicism branch of the Anglican Communion. In 1845, Newman was received into the Catholic Church, an extremely controversial decision that alienated many, but at the same time, led to him and many of his followers to set up the Birmingham Oratory. Newman wrote multiple influential works defending Catholic thought and tradition, and was eventually made a Cardinal.

St. Paul at Melita was written in 1833, before Newman’s conversion to Catholicism, while he was touring Italy with a friend. This trip seemed to have been a productive time for him – many of his poems were written during this time, and also around this time he wrote his famous hymn, Lead, Kindly Light, about trusting God through darkness and fear. In many ways, it is easy to see this period as a foreshadowing of Newman’s later spiritual journey, one of trusting God through difficult times.

The poem is a reflection on the events of Acts 27:9-28:6, the story of the Apostle’s shipwreck on the island of Malta (Melita). Unlike Robinson Crusoe, Paul knows that the voyage is a bad idea. He attempts to warn the others, but they ‘took more notice of the captain and the ship’s owner than of what Paul was saying’ (Acts 27:12), leading to their shipwreck. Paul comforts the crew, and they eventually end up on the island of Malta. Newman in particular calls attention to Paul’s actions on the island – “Paul had collected a bundle of sticks and was putting them on the fire when a viper brought out by the heat attached itself to his hand” (Acts 28:3).

“SECURE in his prophetic strength,
The water peril o’er,
The many-gifted man at length
Stepp’d on the promised shore.”

Paul here is described as a figure of authority. He has ‘prophetic strength’, and is described as ‘many-gifted’. The impression he gives off is one of supreme confidence and trust in God. Despite the trials that he is undergoing – Paul at this point is heading to Rome as a prisoner to testify before Caesar – Paul surrenders everything to God, trusting in His will and His providence, something that Robinson Crusoe eventually learns to do as well.

“He trod the shore; but not to rest,
Nor wait till Angels came;
Lo! humblest pains the Saint attest,
The firebrands and the flame.”

Newman here draws attention to Paul’s actions on the island, namely his commitment to gathering sticks for the fire. Paul does not give in to despair or remain idle during his shipwreck. He does not even wait for divine help, but rather resolves to do his part. I think that last point is a poignant one, too often, I find the temptation to say that I will ‘leave something to God’ even though I know that there are more, possibly God-given opportunities for me to do something about the situation, and my holy language becomes a mask for my own resignation. No matter how little our actions can be, perhaps even just putting sticks to keep a fire going, if they bring warmth and cheer to those around us, they are surely pleasing to God.

But, when he felt the viper’s smart,
Then instant aid was given;
Christian! hence learn to do thy part,
And leave the rest to Heaven.

These last few lines are ones that I find especially piercing, as it really speaks to me and my experience of service in Christian ministries. People are people, and in ministry and community there will certainly come moments of pain and disappointment. To choose to continue to serve means to sometimes be reminded of such moments of pain, I find the thought of facing such ‘vipers’ unbearable. However, Newman here reminds us that God is still with us in our tribulations, ready to be with us in these moments of pain.

© 2017 Christ Centered Conversations/Garrett Christopher Ng

Review: ‘Oceans’ by Hillsong

Chris reflects on the profound message of Hillsong’s ‘Oceans’

“Spirit lead me where my trust is without borders, let me walk upon the waters wherever you would call me. Take me deeper than my feet could ever wander and my faith will be made stronger in the presence of my saviour.”
– “Oceans” by Hillsongs

Ocean
Burns Beach, Perth

A close friend once whispered to me, before a Praise and Worship session, that he vows never to sing “Oceans” by Hillsong. Perturbed by his strong sentiments, I pressed him to explain further. He explained that he found the song “intimidating” and “off-putting”. According to him, this song (when carefully sung, that is) speaks of an unadulterated commitment to God, a complete surrender of one’s life to our Lord Jesus Christ – something that he was not (yet) capable of doing. Singing this song – to him, at least – was an intentional and unadulterated commitment to relinquish control of the steering wheel of his life and instead, freely allow Jesus to sit in the driver seat and “take the wheel”. Such profound sentiments!

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Christian Castaways Part 1: Spiritual Shipwrecks

Garrett uses tales of shipwrecks as an allegory for the times where we feel spiritually distant from God.

Robinson Crusoe Wyeth 1920Robinson Crusoe, illustration by N.C. Wyeth

As an English Major, one novel that I keep having to read and re-read is Daniel Defoe’s novel Robinson Crusoe. As a boy, I loved the abridged version of the story that I owned, one that simplified the story of this intrepid castaway for children. So it was with some horror that I discovered that the original was a slow, plodding book that seemed to drag on a lot longer than it had to. To be fair to the writer Defoe, he was writing one of the first great English novels, and the art would slowly be improved upon later. So while the novel isn’t without its faults (namely, being pretty boring), I was eventually able to look past them and get a feel of what made this story so well-loved to this day.

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P&W Reflection: “Where the Spirit of the Lord Is”

Some time back, I was at this program teaching us about the Holy Spirit. One of the program sessions was about the ‘Spirit of conviction’, the Spirit that empowers us to be free. As I was watching the video, the song “Where the Spirit of the Lord Is” by Hillsong came into my head and I realized how apt it was for this paeticular session. If you doubt me, just look at the chorus:

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P&W Reflection: ‘Lord, I Need You’

Chris reflects on the important message conveyed by Matt Maher’s song ‘Lord I Need You’.

Sometimes, the most powerful songs are written in the simplest of ways, and Matt Maher’s ‘Lord I Need You’ is one such example. Unpretentious yet strikingly profound, this song encapsulates the essence of God’s unconditional love for all of us. The more I listen to it, the more I am reminded of the Prodigal Son parable in Luke 15. In the following article, allow me to share more about why I am deeply moved by this beautiful song and why it serves as the theme of song for all prodigal children – you and I included – of our most loving and most forgiving Father in Heaven.

Lord I Need You begins with the following lyrics – “Lord I come, I confess / Bowing here I find my rest”. Immediately, it is evident that the song speaks of humility, of contrition, of wanting to return home to “find” “rest” in God. The lines that follow in the same stanza exudes a similar sentiment – “Without You I fall apart / You’re the One that guides my heart”. Here we see a recognition that God is our all in all and we are His beloved. This recognition also reflects the awareness that our relationship with God is a personal and intimate one – one that speaks heart to heart. God is not some distant, authoritarian figure, ever ready to judge and to condemn but a God who provides “rest”, who “guides”, who loves passionately. Indeed, it is almost as if this stanza was crafted specially for the prodigal son in Luke 15. One can almost imagine that upon “[coming] to himself” (Luke 15:17) in hunger, desperation and despondency, the prodigal son “set off and went to his father” (Luke 15:20), singing these exact same lyrics.

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St. Francis De Sales’ Roses Among Thorns

Chris shares his reflection on a book by St Francis de Sales.

Recently as I was tidying up my Evernote database, I chanced upon the following excerpt from St Francis de Sales’ Roses Among Thorns – a very thought-provoking book that I completed numerous months ago:
Do not allow yourself to become angry or let yourself be surprised to see that your soul still has all the imperfections that you habitually confess. Even though you must reject and even detest them in order to amend your life, you must not oppose them with anger, but instead with courage and tranquility, so that you will be able to make a solid and secure resolution to correct them. (…) When we censure our neighbour or complain about him — something we should do rarely — we never bring it to an end, but are always beginning again and endlessly repeating our complaints and grievances, which is a sign of a nettlesome heart that has not yet regained its health. (16)
Embedded within the above excerpt are two striking issues worthy of exploration and further discussion. Firstly, Sales affirms a poignant reality of spiritual maturity i.e. that the further we traverse on this journey towards oneness and unity with Christ, the more aware we become of our soul’s “imperfections”. Indeed, I have been privy to the recurring emotions of anger and frustration whenever my imperfections, weaknesses and failings get surfaced. I often ask myself “Oh gosh, there you go again. Haven’t we been through this before? Why are you imbibing in these habitual, self-gratifying sins again, sins that serve no greater purpose and goodness than selfish pleasure? Don’t you know better? Didn’t you just go for confession and made a commitment to repent?”

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