- Singing the Faith: 610 (CD25 #11&12)
- Andrew Pratt
- “Chapel Brae” by Evelyn Abbott
- 87.87. (Trochaic)
Ideas for use
Inspired by John Wesley's final words, this hymn is suitable for use on Aldersgate Sunday. See Five hymns for Aldersgate. However, its range is far wider.
With its incarnational allusions (“Emmanuel” translates as “God with us”), the hymn speaks to the events of Christmas; and the emphasis on God’s unfailing love (“Love renews, will not forget”) suggests also the experience of Calvary and Easter.
Here, too, are words to reflect upon in relation to the ageing process and the approach (and, indeed, the marking of) death. Note in particular, the quotation from Philippians 1: 21 – “life is Christ, and death is gain”.
For a fuller version of these notes, see the article in our Hymns and Spirituality series.
John Wesley died on Wednesday March 2, 1791, aged 88. As he lay dying, he is said to have raised his arms into the air and, with all his remaining strength, cried out twice, "The best of all is, God is with us”.
Andrew Pratt’s hymn is deceptively simple. Andrew is known to many for his quickly honed hymn responses to immediate and tough news events. He remembers more than many hymn writers the notion that the Gospel should be preached with the Bible in one hand and the newspaper in another. (See Andrew’s other hymns in Singing the Faith and on StF+.)
Here, however, he leads us back to basics. He doesn’t guide us on an obvious journey, systematically unpacking a theological truth or re-telling a biblical narrative; indeed the verses may appear at first glance almost repetitive.
But the trajectory of this hymn is real enough. Where faith is frail (verse 1), it becomes deepened; where God’s love renews and will not forget us (verse 2), God’s surrounding presence is met with our own response of love, growing strong, undiminished. We’re offered not a pat solution to all the hazards of life but an aspiration. Indeed, Andrew’s words here are as clear a riposte as may be required to the troubling news events that inspire many of his other hymns. “Best of all” becomes an anchor to cling to when the going gets tough, as well as an exclamation of delight when the life of faith feels smooth. “Best of all” is both memory and destination.
As memory, at Aldersgate (an event to which Andrew alludes: “hearts are challenged, strangely warmed”) it rebooted Wesley’s ministry. The struggle of faith was transformed into the gift of offering practical love, in the form of social care, arguing against slavery, responding to the inequalities of the day.
As destination, it lent Wesley focus in the face of death. Notwithstanding the grief of those left behind, nor denying the deep sense of unfairness that human tragedy can engender, Wesley’s words (and this hymn) insist on God’s presence beyond, surrounding and sometimes despite our experience. It’s the message of Christmas, of Easter; and as a summation of the Methodist motivation towards active discipleship it can hardly be bettered.