Sing, my soul, when hope is sleeping

Today’s hymn from Sing Praise is ‘Sing, my soul when hope is sleeping’ by John Bell and Graham Maule.  Unusually for their hymns, instead of a Scottish tune the compilers of the book suggest the high Victorian ‘Cross of Jesus’ with its associations with the Crucifixion. I think John did the right thing writing his own gentler tune with minor modulating to major to reflect the theme of the hymn, which is that singing can lift us out of sadness.

The four verses each offer one of more reasons to sing, not as a response to feeling happy but to generate a mood of at least contentment, when circumstances would tempt us to despair.  ‘When hope is sleeping, when faith gives way to fears, to melt the ice of sadness’; ‘when sickness lingers, to dull the sharpest pain’, when I have wandered far away from God, and ‘when light seems darkest, when night refuses rest, though death should mock the future’.

As it happens, the day before this came up in our schedule I was unexpectedly taken to hospital – nothing serious, but I was lying on a trolley for several hours waiting for a doctor to discuss the result of tests.  Even though I was not in physical pain, I found that in the confusion, the not-knowing, the sounds of the pain of other patients, singing hymns and the evening prayer canticles from memory (under my breath, not aloud) was a way of coping.

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.

Jesus, in your life we see you

Today’s hymn from Sing Praise is ‘Jesus, in your life we see you’ by Basil Bridge. Each of the three verses addresses Jesus. In the first verse he is addressed as the one who in his earthly life used physical touch to bring hope and healing and his words to set captives free, but who in the end suffered rejection and death.  In the second and third verses he is addressed as ‘Risen Lord’, but the risen lord who retains wounds of the cross in his body as a sign that he continues to share the sufferings of the present time, including (as listed here) greed, exploitation, addiction and heartbreak. The final verse asks him to use us in his service and offer his divine compassion to those in need; although as John pointed out in introducing the hymn, it doesn’t explicitly pray for Jesus to act and heal people.

The hymn is set in the book to the Welsh hymn tune Ebenezer, though John used a Russian tune called Stenka Razin (who apparently was the leader of a unsuccessful 17th century peasant rebellion in Russia).  Personally I preferred the Welsh tune, perhaps because the minor key fits the theme of suffering.

A week of worship

I’ve been on holiday for the last week without access to a computer, which is why there have been no posts this week – it’s too difficult to type much on a mobile phone. So here is a briefer commentary than usual on all this week’s hymns. I have been singing them all, as well as attending three very different worship services – communion in a parish church, Cathedral evensong, and harvest festival in a Baptist chapel. In all of them, music has played a key part, whether provided by a robed choir or a couple of guitarists – you can work out which is which.

Sunday 19 September

“Peace on earth to all your people”, a Scottish version of the canticle Gloria in Excelsis.  See 12th September for my previous comments on this canticle.  The present version departs from the standard text in a few places, such as in verse 2 where it has “receive our song of praise” rather than “receive our prayer”; I’m not sure that’s a sensible change as the original is really a prayer for mercy. And in verse 3, “God in heaven” rather than more specifically “Christ in heaven”.

Monday 20 September

“Creating God, we bring our songs of praise” by Jan Berry and sung to the well known (sometimes over-used) tune ‘Woodlands’.  The first verse addressed to the ‘creating God’ celebrates life, work, skill and joy. The second to the ‘forgiving God’ expresses sorrow for our anger, strife and emptiness. The third to the ‘redeeming God’ refers to the ‘fragile hope’ that he will make all things new, which is an honest acknowledgement that it does take a good deal of faith to hold on to that hope. The last verse addressed to the ‘renewing God’ looks to a future of harmony, peace, justice, dignity and pride – all the things that are often lacking in our earthly societies. Overall this is a good summary of what the Christian life is about.

Tuesday 21 September

“For the music of creation” by Shirley Murray. The first verse suggests that music is a sort of metaphor for creation, as it requires creativity in us. God is described as the ‘world’s composer’ and we as the ‘echoes of his voice’. The second verse lists various types of instrument, and different types of music – ‘simple melodies’, ‘hymns of longing and belonging’, ‘carols from a cheerful throat’, lullabies and love-songs.  The music we make doesn’t have to be ‘religious’ to please God. The last verse refers to movement in worship – ‘hands that move and dancing feet’ – for the idea still sometimes found in Western churches that we have to stand up straight and immobile when singing in church probably seems weird to many Christians around the world for whom the whole body is used in worship.

Wednesday 22 September

“Earth’s fragile beauties we possess” by Robert Willis.  John provided his own alternative tune to this one.  The theme is life as pilgrimage. The first verse looks at the ways we should move through this life leaving as little impact as possible on those ‘fragile beauties’. The second looks at ‘earth’s human longings’ in grief, loss, famine, plaque and sword, referring to Christ’s cross as well as the story of Exodus, the archetypal pilgrimage.  The last verse reminds us that we possess not only the beauties of earth but God’s own image, any deliberate damage to which was borne by Christ on the cross.  This is a hymn for our times as people are realising too late the irreversible damage we have already done to this fragile world.

Thursday 23 September

“We give God thanks for those we knew” by Michael Perry, a hymn about healing and wholeness. It reminds us that Jesus came to bring healing through his love, and still does, but that we too should “dedicate our skills and time” to address the suffering around us.

Friday 24 September

“Maker of all whose word is life” by Elizabeth Cosnett. It’s a wedding hymn, addressing the Trinity: the Father as God of truth and faithfulness, Jesus the Son who knew earthly happiness, and though unmarried himself brought joy to the wedding guests when he turned water into wine, and the Holy Spirit as guide and bringer of steadfastness. The last verse reminds us that we need God’s grace to help us keep our wedding vows.

Sunday 26 September

The final song in this section, for the weekend of 25th/26th September, was a setting of “Holy, holy holy Lord” by Geoff Weaver.  There’s probably not much to say about this short and familiar text,  but John did suggest it was an appropriate response to the Old Testament reading about the dedication of Solomon’s Temple when the shekinah-glory of God filled the place.

Lay your healing hand upon us

Statue showing three children holding doves
‘healing’ – sculpture outside Ayr hospital

Today’s hymn from Sing Praise is “Lay your healing hand upon us” by Alan Gaunt. It is a call to Jesus for healing from both physical and emotional hurts.  The healing that is sought from Jesus here is the gentle, compassionate healing of one who has suffered more than we can imagine – the “wounded healer” as he is often called.  In the first verse we ask “bind our wounds with your compassion, bring us back to health again”

The first line of the second verse “Hold us like a gentle mother” is perhaps intended as a reminder that although Jesus was undoubtedly male, he showed the intuition and empathy that are more often associated with women.  We ask him to “set us on our feet and make us strong to take life in our stride”: this is healing as the wholeness that brings confidence as well as physical ability.

The third and fourth verses move on: as we are healed by the one who was wounded, so we who are healed should seek to bring healing to others. “With the confidence you give us, give us your compassion too, so that we may offer others comfort, healing, strength from you”.

The tune by Stephen Dean is called “Susan” (I wonder who she was). It a syncopated rhythm consistently throughout, except in the penultimate bar it’s a crochet followed by a minim in the melody rather than the other way round, and that doesn’t really fit the words other than in the last verse where the stress then fall on “God’s”.

Lord of life, we come to you

Today’s hymn from Sing Praise is “Lord of life, we come to you” by Catherine Walker. It consists of two short 4-line verses, asking the Lord (Jesus) to be our Saviour, to bless and heal us and to guide us in all life’s difficulties as well as its joys. So it covers the same sort of ground as yesterday’s song, with which it shares a Scottish tradition.

We cannot measure how you heal

Philip Ilott (1936-2010)

Today’s hymn from Sing Praise is “We cannot measure how you heal” by John Bell and Graham Maule.

The whole area of spiritual healing is one in which attitudes vary among Christians, from those who dismiss the idea that God can intervene at all in natural processes to those who believe that any physical or mental illness can be healed with prayer if only we have enough faith. But most of us, I hope, would accept that God can and does heal, and that an apparent lack of healing in response to prayer is not the fault either of the sufferer or the one who prays for them. 

That seems to be the starting point of this hymn: we cannot understand the “how” or “why” of healing, yet “we believe your grace responds where faith and doubt unite to care”.  The second part of this first verse refers to Jesus’ blood on the cross, which is an essential part of a specifically Christian attitude to healing: Jesus, the “wounded healer”, suffered both physical and mental pain, to an extent that few humans are unlucky enough to share, and only the truly evil would wish on anyone else.

The second verse acknowledges what is increasingly understood by medical practitioners as well as faith healers, that good health and effective healing are heavily dependent on psychology and on a person’s past experience. Pain, guilt, fear and bad memories are indeed “present as if meant to last”, preventing us from achieving health in the roundest sense of that term.  The antidote to that is explained here as “love which tends the hurt we never hoped to find”.  The third verse also makes reference in the phrase “some have come to make amends” to the fact that lack of forgiveness, either for our own sins or for the ways that others have hurt us, can also lead to ill health and prevent healing.  

Many people have testified to the healing work of God’s Holy Spirit in uncovering past experiences that are at the root of later suffering.  I recently read “A smile on the face of God”, by Adrian Plass, a biography of the Revd Philip Ilott who experienced this as part of his own healing as well as being given the spiritual gift of bringing God’s healing to others.  The process was not a pleasant experience for him, and his story is certainly not one of ‘happy ever after’ (in fact he died of multiple sclerosis) but it does illustrate many of the points made above, and along the way he discovered the peace of God that can be present even though pain, which sometimes is in fact the healing that is needed.

Jesus Christ is waiting

Today’s hymn from Sing Praise is the second of two on consecutive days by the Scottish hymnwriters John Bell & Graham Maule, both in the series on social justice issues.  Both of them invite us to join our own concerns with those of God. 

This one, “Jesus Christ is waiting”, has a much more active Jesus than yesterday’s.  He is pictured in various actions, beginning with ‘waiting in the streets’.  Is ‘waiting’ an action?  In Christian theology, yes.  Waiting can be about anticipation, praying into a situation knowing that God will move when it’s the right time to do so and not before.   The waiting here, though, is linked with loneliness, and we ask him to make us ‘fit to wait on him’ – a subtle pun on two meanings of ‘waiting’ in English. Are we the sort of waiters who stand around idle and lonely, or the sort of waiters (as in a restaurant) who work tirelessly to satisfy the needs of others who are lonely?

The other actions of Jesus are much more energetic: raging, healing, dancing, calling. Raging at life’s injustices, healing in response to need, dancing in triumph when goodness wins out, and calling for more people to follow his example. All these are seen in his life, indeed all are seen in his actions in the Temple: raging at the money-sellers, healing those excluded from the temple because of their disabilities, calling ‘on the last and greatest day of the feast’ (when surely there was dancing) for disciples to follow him, but also of course waiting on God in prayer.

What unites the words of the verses are that all these actions take place ‘in the streets’ – in the public realm, not in our private prayer rooms and chapels but where the need is and where our actions are visible.  And that in each verse our response is to say “I am … too”: we share Jesus’ concerns and seek to copy his actions.

I think the choice of tune – ‘Noel Nouvelet’ – is just right.  Its minor key suits the theme of dealing with injustice, but at the same time it has a lively dance rhythm (it’s described as a French carol tune) that goes with the image of Jesus dancing and calling in particular.  The verses should be varied in pace and volume when sung – slower and quieter for ‘waiting and healing’, faster for ‘dancing’, louder for ‘raging and calling’.

Redeemer Lord, your praise we sing

The last Chrism mass at Bradford cathedral in 2017 (c) Diocese of Leeds

Today’s hymn from Sing Praise is “Redeemer, Lord, your praise we sing” by Michael Saward.  The opening line is quite generic and suggests a hymn suitable for any occasion, but as John found when preparing today’s morning prayer, this is actually a very niche hymn, intended for the annual service of blessing of oils, which happens on Maundy Thursday (the day before Good Friday), usually in cathedrals. The Bishop blesses oil (traditionally olive oil from Israel/Palestine) and shares it among his or her parish priests to be used in their parishes in the coming year. The priests in return renew their vows of obedience to the Bishop and in the service of their congregation and community. So John is right, that it seems out of place to sing it even ten days early, in the context of private prayer or worship shared online.

Having said that, Covid has changed everything, and this year the Bishop of Leeds will bless the oil in Bradford Cathedral while the priests of the diocese join him on Zoom with their own supplies of oil to be blessed remotely.  For a religion that believes in the power of prayer to heal the sick and otherwise change lives at a distance, that should not stretch our faith uncomfortably.

What is the blessed oil used for? Traditionally for three purposes: at baptism where the sign of the cross is made on the head of the person being baptised (referenced in verse 4, “From those baptised let Satan flee”); with prayer for healing of the sick (referenced in verses 2 and 3, “give oil for our infirmity… bring healing in a needful hour”) and the separately prepared and consecrated “chrism oil”.

The use of oil in healing is not confined to Christianity or even to religious practice, and indeed I understand that the Greek word used in James 5:14 (a key Biblical text here) is ‘aleiphantes’ which means something closer to ‘massaging’ than ‘anointing’. Oils (balm) were widely used in ancient times for medical purposes, and still are. The second verse of the hymn reminds us that olive oil is a natural product from a tree.  The distinctive Christian element is to pray for God’s healing power to accompany medical treatment. 

The other two uses, baptism and chrism, are more specifically religious.  The sign of the cross in oil marks the baptised person as chosen by God to serve him in Christ as part of the fellowship of the Church. As to the Chrism, anointing the head with oil was (at least in Old Testament times) a sign of acknowledging a king or other leader as chosen by God, a tradition that has continued through the European monarchies.  It is used on special occasions such as confirmation and ordination when someone is being specifically commissioned to a role in the Church. 

So, not a hymn for today, but one to remember next week.

The Bible in a Year – 16 November

If this is your first viewing, please see my Introduction before reading this.

16 November. Luke chapters 6-7

This section of the Gospel begins and ends with Jesus challenging the Pharisees, in different ways.  The Pharisees seem to get a bad press in all the versions of the Gospel, because after all they were observant Jews who thought they were doing their best for God by following all the rituals and laws of the religion.  Sometimes Jesus confronts them angrily, but in these exchanges we see him taking a gentler line, just trying to get them to understand faith his way.

In chapter 6, the issue is, not for the first time, what constitutes “Sabbath work”.  To the Pharisees, it seems that any preparation of food, even the simple act of picking grains and removing the husks, and any form of healing, counted as “work” and therefore sinful if undertaken on the “day of rest”.  Jesus contests that preparing a small amount of food because you are hungry is not “work”, and neither is helping someone in need as an act of charity. “The Son of Man is Lord of the Sabbath”, he says, in other words, “I can determine what the Sabbath regulations mean in practice”.  He had a right to say that, if we accept his divinity; but even if not, the point is more generally valid that religious rules are intended to be interpreted according to the situation at hand – that was how the rabbis understood the Law.

In chapter 7, the Pharisee in question is one Simon who thinks Jesus is sinning by letting himself be touched by a “sinner” without looking into the details of her circumstances. Jesus’ understanding is quite different – he looks not at the fact of what she is doing, but why; and not at what she had done in the past but what she is doing now.  Her weeping shows that she has repented of whatever her sin may have been (possibly prostitution, although we don’t know – the woman’s “sin” may have been something else.)   Washing and anointing his feet with ointment is a sign of tribute to him, where the Pharisee refused Jesus even the expected courtesies of a social kiss and a bowl of water to wash his dusty feet.

When Jesus talks about faith, whether it is the faith of the woman who is brave (or desperate) enough to enter a rich man’s house weeping and interrupt the dinner party with her acts of love and kindness, or the centurion in chapter 6 who accepts Jesus’ authority over sickness as equivalent to his own military authority over his cohort, he means the sort of trust in God that breaks down social barriers and expects unusual things to happen for the common good. That is very different from the Pharisaic “faith” that is based on creeds and regulations.   The second type is easier to fall into than the first, but far less effective in encountering the living God.