Bring healing, bring peace

Christ healing the woman with a flow of blood.
Detail of stained glass window, St John the Baptist , Peterborough
Copyright Julian P Guffogg and licensed for reuse under Creative Commons Licence

Another short chant from Sing Praise today, this time not from Taizé but from John Bell and Graham Maule. ‘Lord Jesus Christ, lover of all, trail wide the hem of your garment, bring healing, bring peace.’

The suggested use of the chant is as a response to intercessions in a church service. Intercessions usually include prayers for healing, often of named individuals. We believe that Jesus, though no longer present in the flesh, is present in spirit and knows the people whom we pray for by name. The reference to ‘the hem of your garment’ in the chant is presumably to the woman whose long-standing problem with a flow of blood (maybe period problems, as some commentators suggest) was healed by merely touching the hem of Jesus’ cloak, and he knew it.  He may not have known her personally, but the mere fact that she had faith enough to reach out to him was enough for her to be aware of her need, and to meet it instantly.  That is the level of faith that we are supposed to develop in praying for others.

‘Bring healing, bring peace’. Healing and peace belong together, both being elements of the concept of ‘shalom’.  Where physical pain or mental distress are healed, there is a sense of peace.  And when we pray for peace in the world, perhaps for a particular area of conflict, we are also praying for the healing of prejudice, hatred and resentment.   So whether our prayers and for a close friend or a faraway country, we can use this chant to bring them to Jesus.

Nothing can ever come between us

Today’s song from Sing Praise is ‘Nothing can ever come between us and the love of God’, another chant from the Taizé community.

The title is the first line of the chorus, the second line being ‘… revealed to us in Jesus Christ’.  I’ve discovered this week that there is now a tradition of a ‘gender reveal party’ where a baby’s gender is disclosed, not only to friends but to the parents themselves who have not previously been given the information (you may well call me slow on the uptake here, as apparently the idea started in America ten years ago, but I don’t have children myself!)  The point is that to reveal something is not only to share factual knowledge, but to make an event of it, to add drama to that passing on of information.  So when the Bible says that God reveals himself to us (and a concordance tells me the word is used 81 times in the Bible) it is more than simply telling us that he exists, it is intended to make a sudden and dramatic change in our understanding, one that will change our lives radically in the same way that people’s lives are changed by having a baby.

The verses, or rather chants to be sung by a solo cantor, are verses from Psalm 56 and Romans chapter 8. They are all about trust in God, and God as the Father who have us his son who died, rose again and prays for us. As a result, to quote the last one, “neither death, nor life, nor things present or to come, nothing can ever keep us from God’s love”.  That love once revealed never leaves us, like the love of a mother for her child.

In manus tuas Pater

Image from , artist unknown.

The song for today is ‘In manus tuas pater, commendo spiritum meum’, a chant from the Taizé community. Like many of theirs, it’s short and simple. The Latin text translates as ‘Into your hands father, I commend my spirit’. 

The saying is one traditionally used in the service of Compline at the end of the day, as we ‘let ourselves go’ into the hands of God. It’s a concept that I, and many others find helpful, whether it’s pictured as God holding our hands, or embracing us, or (as some images interpret it) as being a tiny baby in the large hands of father that are big enough to cradle us. It’s about letting go worries, letting God handle them. 

John used the song for Saturday morning prayer as usual, and perhaps this chant can be seen as relating to the Gospel reading where Jesus tells his disciples not to worry about tomorrow (for tomorrow has worries of its own) and trust God to provide their basic needs.

Safe in the hands of God

The Oxford University crest, the opening line of Psalm 27

Today’s hymn from Sing Praise is ‘Safe in the hands of God’ by Michael Perry. The suggested tune is a Scottish one, ‘Bunillidh’, but John wrote his own. 

It’s a setting of Psalm 27, one of the more positive psalms, and the first line of which, “The Lord is my light” (in Latin) is well known to any Oxford student as the University motto (see image above). Michael Perry rearranges the lines so that doesn’t appear at the start of this hymn.  The themes of psalm and hymn are that God lights our path and acts as our salvation if we trust him and follow in his way.

‘Salvation’ here doesn’t mean particularly having our sins forgiven and becoming part of the Christian church, which is the more common Christian use of the term. In the sense used here, it refers more to offering protection, saving us from the harm caused by evil in ourselves or from other people, or making whole (the Latin ‘salus’ can also mean ‘health’).

Eternal God, before whose face we stand

“Lest we forget: Poppy wreaths at the Cenotaph, Whitehall”
Copyright Derek Voller and licensed for reuse under Creative Commons Licence

Today’s hymn from Sing Praise is one intended for the Remembrance season, so it is appropriate for today, 11th November when we have been remembering the victims of war. ‘Eternal God, before whose face we stand’ by Timothy Dudley-Smith is a traditional style of hymn by a modern composer, and set to a 19th century tune.

The first verse reminds us that [all] earthly children are made by God, who knows all our hearts and longings. On that basis we have confidence in praying for peace in the world.  Peace can seem a hopeless ideal to those without faith, but faith in a loving God who answers prayer makes such prayers worthwhile.

The second verse acknowledges the mixture of feelings we may have when contemplating the soldiers of past conflicts: grief at their deaths, thankfulness for victory against enemies, pride in our armed forces (occasionally misplaced perhaps when scandals come to light, but often justified), loneliness and loss (felt most keenly by their immediate friends and relatives).  These feelings we bring ‘to him who hung forsaken on the cross’, and indeed the whole tradition of Remembrance since 1919 is based on the Christian faith at the heart of most European cultures, that Christ was sacrificed for the sake of all humanity and not for one nation alone.

The third verse acknowledges the sin of war and makes a commitment to build an enduring peace across the world, and the last verse refers to that peace as a ‘fragile flower’. Indeed it is, as we so often see conflict re-emerging from a shallow peace, like the embers of a fire spontaneously re-igniting in a breeze.   The final lines of the hymn look beyond our present earthly politics to the time when Christ shall renew all things: ‘When night is past and peace shall banish pain, all shall be well in God’s eternal reign’.

My life flows on in endless song

Today’s hymn from Sing Praise is ‘My life flows on in endless song’ by Robert Lowry and Doris Plenn, also known from the chorus line as ‘How can I keep from singing?’  It’s one of the few old (pre-20th century) hymns in the book, and of American origin.

The four verses alternate the troubles of life (not listed in any detail but described as lamentation, tumult, strife, darkness etc.) with the peace that comes from knowing Jesus, whose song (‘the sweet though far-off hymn that sings a new creation’) enables the singer to cope with them. The chorus likewise asks ‘Since love is Lord of heaven and earth, how can I keep from singing?’

I can certainly testify in my own experience that singing hymns and spiritual songs is a good way to avoid losing faith in the face of difficulty, though I don’t often achieve the level of serenity implied by these words. And I wouldn’t try and comfort someone in distress by saying “never mind, your troubles will be as nothing if you just sing hymns”.

John referred this morning to alternative lyrics found on WIkipedia and there’s a reference there to the version by Irish singer Enya. That was the first version of the hymn that I knew, having bought her album ‘Shepherd Moons’.  The last verse in that setting is ‘In prison cell and dungeon vile, our thoughts to them are winging. When friends by shame are undefiled, how can I keep from singing?’ Around that time it was widely suggested that this reference to those in prison was a subtle indication of support for IRA prisoners.  Whatever the rights and wrongs of Northern Ireland’s civil war, where atrocities were committed on both sides, Jesus did include visiting those in prison as a sign of living out his compassionate love, and for those in prison, a visit may be as uplifting as a song.

There’s a wideness in God’s mercy

Mercy Interceding With Justice
A bronze relief by Mario Raggi depicting one of the various charitable acts of Dr. Evan Pierce on the column in the Evan Pierce Memorial Garden in Denbigh, Wales.
Image © Copyright Eirian Evans and licensed for reuse under Creative Commons Licence.

The hymn I picked today from Sing Praise was ‘There’s a wideness in God’s mercy’ by Frederick Faber.  John points out that the hymn is a shortened version of another, older hymn ‘Souls of men, why will ye scatter?’ (or in a modern inclusive version, ‘Righteous souls, why will you scatter?’) with an extra 8-line verse (or two 4-line ones) at the start, setting the scene for the rest of the hymn in humanity’s tendency to wander from God. That’s what he used in morning prayer, to a different tune. But it’s the Sing Praise book that I’m blogging this year, and coincidentally our own church music group sang ‘There’s a wideness in God’s mercy’ to the same tune Coverdale before last Sunday’s service. So that’s my starting point.

The words of the hymn tackle some misconceptions of the Christian understanding of God.  Is the greatest virtue that of liberty (verse 1)? No, greater virtues are mercy and justice, seen in the Bible as two aspects of God’s character as well as the basis of good human law – not opposed, but as the two sides of the balance that make liberty workable. If the rule of law strays too far towards strict justice, people get punished for innocent mistakes, while too far towards mercy and the guilty go unpunished.  God is not a vengeful deity but one who demands and administers justice with mercy: ‘there is no place where earth’s failings have such kindly judgement given’. The opposite is in verse 2: ‘We make his love too narrow by false limits of our own, and we magnify his strictness with a zeal he would not own’.

God is also not remote and unfeeling: ‘there is no place where earth’s sorrows are more felt as up in heaven’. And in verse 2, ‘the heart of the Eternal is most wonderfully kind’. Which is why he became one of us, sharing our emotions as well as our temptations.

The third verse focuses on the sacrifice of Jesus. ‘There is plentiful redemption through the blood that has been shed, there is joy for all the members in the sorrows of the head’. The final half-verse (if an 8-line tune such as Coverdale is used) challenges us to be more simple in our love for Jesus, to take him at his word.   Meaning perhaps sayings such as “Unless you change and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.”

We shall see Him in the morning

Jesus cooks breakfast for his disciples
image- artist unknown

Today’s hymn from Sing Praise is ‘We shall see him in the morning’ by Randle Manwaring. John chose to use an old Welsh hymn tune rather than the one written for these words.

I had originally chosen this for Armistice day, as a cursory reading of the words seemed to suggest it may have been written with that In mind (especially the reference to those who have ‘toiled and struggled till the earthly fight was won’) but John suggested swapping it for one that’s more explicit about that.  The ‘earthly fight’ may in any case be intended as metaphysical, i.e. the struggle against evil, rather than referring to wars between nations.

Either way, whether soldiers of an earthly king or of the heavenly one are intended, the message is that it’s worth a struggle to live a holy life now, for the reward we will get in the next life.  That reward is pictured as the welcoming arms of Jesus and his commendation for our efforts (“his welcoming ‘Well done!’”).

The ‘breakfast celebration’ (referring to the meal he cooked for his disciples when he met them on the shores of Galilee after his Resurrection) as well as the ‘mists of life’ suggests that the ‘toil all night’ may also hark back to their fruitless fishing expedition, in which case the promised welcome is not only for soldiers and spiritual heroes, but for all who have lived an honest and hard-working life.

Eternal God, supreme in tenderness

Today’s hymn from Sing Praise is ‘Eternal God, supreme in tenderness’ by Alan Gaunt.  The words are said to be ‘after Julian of Norwich’ and the last line of each verse repeats perhaps her most famous saying, ‘all things shall be well’ (or in the last verse, ‘all things made well’).

Otherwise, the structure of the hymn is Trinitarian, with one verse each addressed to the Creator, Son, Spirit and Trinity.  The mercy of the Father, the comfort of the Son, the joy of the Spirit and the eternity of the Trinity, are what will make all things well. Interestingly, it is the Son who is also addressed as ‘a mother comforting’.  Jesus did use some mothering imagery such as when he said he wanted to gather the people of Jerusalem ‘under his wing’ (as a mother bird).

Lord, if faith is disenchanted

Today’s hymn from Sing Praise is ‘Lord, is faith is disenchanted’ by Alan Gaunt. Although it’s in the section of the book headed ‘funerals and the departed’ its theme is wider than that, and covers other situations of grief and loss, and that, to use the repeated motif of the last lines of each verse, Christ’s love is deeper than all the things that trouble us and threaten our faith.

In the first verse, ‘if pain persists too long… your love is deeper than all time’s wrong’ the last line repeated at the end of the hymn where it refers to the Resurrection.  In the other verses, Christ’s love is said to be deeper than our unbelief where we find ourselves overwhelmed by sin and grief, deeper than the prayers of those who protest injustice and oppression, deeper than the deepest cry of grief when children are dying.

This deep love of Christ reminds us that the God we believe in is not a remote creator but one so full of compassion that he came in human form, suffering pain, rejection and grief himself, before willingly dying in order that the Holy Spirit might be with us for ever to channel his love.  Lord, re-enchant our faith in you.