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.

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’.

Keep calm and carry on

Jesus calms the storm.
“Codex Egberti” (10th century). Public domain.

The song I picked for yesterday (8 October) was “Calm me, Lord, as you calmed the storm”.  The words are by David Adam, a writer (one might even say poet) in the Northumbrian Christian tradition, and the tune is by Margaret Rizza who has written several devotional songs of this nature herself.

It’s a short reflective song asking Jesus to give us inner peace as he calmed the storm that threatened to sink his disciples’ boat. This incident or ‘sign’ in the Gospels is understood in Christian teaching to reveal that Jesus not only has supernatural powers but also that he is so concerned about our individual troubles that he will do whatever it takes to help us to cope.  But two things in the story stood out for me when I last preached on it: that he only intervenes when the disciples actively call out for help, and that while he stops the boat from sinking he doesn’t immediately take them to land (on this occasion, at least).  They were still far out on the lake with water to be baled out of the boat and a long way to row.  Sometimes Jesus works miracles, other times he just helps us to “keep calm and carry on”.

Let us rejoice

Today’s hymn from Sing Praise is ‘Let us rejoice’ by Martin Leckebusch.  John said that it was set in the book to the tune of ‘For all the saints’ but in my copy of the book sets it to a tune by Stanford – I wonder if we have different editions?

The overall theme of the hymn seems to be patience and endurance in the strength of God.  The first verse speaks of peace and calm found in God’s acceptance, the second of strength to face trials found in his ‘fatherly embrace’, the third of trust in his glory and splendour, the fourth of the faith that ‘God is at work through all the griefs we share’, and finally of the love of God found deep in our hearts that prompts our praise.  It would be a good one to sing on a (non-silent!) retreat.

I rejoiced when I heard them say

Liturgical procession, Kiev, Ukraine.
Creative Commons / Public domain

Today’s hymn from Sing Praise is a setting of Psalm 122 (121 in the Catholic numbering) by Bernadette Farrell, “I rejoiced when I heard them say”.  What did they say? “Let us go to the house of our God”.  This text, an obvious choice for a church dedication, religious procession or other celebration, has been set by various composers as a choir anthem, but Farrell’s version is a metrical setting of the psalm, presumably intended for congregational singing.  The five verses are a close rendering of original (at least, very similar to other prose translations) with (as John will no doubt point out) no attempt at rhyming.

The chorus is not taken from the psalm but takes the phrase “Pray for the peace of Jerusalem” in verse 6 of the psalm (rendered more inclusively in verse 4 of the hymns as “For the peace of all nations, pray”) and uses the Hebrew word ‘shalom’ for ‘peace’, so we get “Shalom, shalom, the peace of God be here. Shalom, shalom, God’s justice be ever near”.  Justice is one of Bernadette Farrell’s recurring themes.

The hymn would therefore be suitable, not only for a festival, but also for any act of worship where God’s peace and justice are a focus.

Lord, make us servants of your peace

Today’s hymn from Sing Praise is “Lord, make us servants of your peace” by James Quinn. It’s a setting of a well known prayer by St Francis of Assisi. As a long metre text it could be set to any of many existing tunes, the suggested one being ‘O Waly Waly’.  Quinn has kept, I think, to as close a translation as possible within the regular 8-syllable metre, rather than attempt to rhyme the words.  So it reads more as blank verse than a song.

The essence of this prayer is, firstly, for the will to set aside our own needs and desires for the sake of other people.  That much is a basic building block of civilisation.  But it goes beyond that in actively seeking to bring love, peace, hope, reconciliation, understanding and other relational virtues, recognising that this will mean giving more than we receive and loving even where love is not returned.  

That is the basis not only of Christianity but of other religions and spiritual movements: Francis of course was the head of a Catholic religious order, but most of these words are ones that people of all faiths can share, apart perhaps from the one specific appeal to Jesus, which could equally be addressed to God by whatever name he is known.   The last verse is more specifically Christian in that it brings the hope of resurrection, and an awakening in heaven’s light where there is eternal peace.  

The alternative sung version of this prayer, Make me a channel of your peace” by Sebastian Temple, has become well known across the Churches, but this one seems an equally singable one that could grow on me.

Like a mighty river flowing

Riding the Severn Bore
cc-by-sa/2.0 – © Ian Capper

Today’s hymn from Sing Praise is “Like a mighty river flowing” by Michael Perry, coincidentally the same composer as yesterday, to a tune by Noel Tredinnick. Its five verses all take the same form: “Like… is the perfect peace of God”.  What that peace is compared to is mostly nature at its most peaceful: flowing rivers, flowers, hills, clouds, summer breezes and trees in the wind, morning sun and evening scent, ocean and jewels. There’s nothing specifically Christian about that, of course: these may all be aids to meditation or mindfulness whether you have religious faith or not. 

Some of the lines are more about our inner life: “like the heart that’s been forgiven”, “like the lips of silent praying”, “like a friendship never ended”. Again, not specifically Christian, although you might say more specifically spiritual.  The peace of God, then, as described here, might equally well be called ‘wholeness’ or ‘inner peace’.   Nothing wrong with that, of course, but I’m surprised it finds a place in a Christian hymn book without something more specific to our faith.

How good it is

Peace mural in Derry/Londonderry
© Joseph Mischyshyn licensed for reuse under Creative Commons Licence

Today’s hymn is “How good it is” by another composer new to me, Ruth Duck.  It continues our series on justice in the world, but is also a setting of a psalm (Ps.133). The words (set to a different tune from the one in Sing Praise) can be found here:

The opening line – “how good it is, what pleasure comes when people live as one” – sets the tone for the first two verses, about a desire for peace, justice and friendship. This is a vision shared by many people, whether religious or not, that there should be peace and harmony between all people. 

The second pair of verses begins “how good it is when walls of fear come tumbling to the ground”. They include the biblical vision of “swords being beaten into ploughshares” (in this version, “arms are changed to farming tools”) with the ultimate aim expressed in the last line, “that hate and war may cease”. 

This seems relevant today when the media’s focus is on the hundredth anniversary of the partition of Ireland into the independent Republic and the northern province that remained part of the United Kingdom.  That division, at the time largely driven by the mutual hostility between ‘protestant’ and ‘catholic’ Christians, has continued to be a cause for division with violence continuing intermittently to the present day, even though the different factions within the Church itself are now willing to co-operate in the search for peace and live with our differences. So today, this hymn can be seen as much a prayer for Ireland as anything else.

Blessed, those whose hearts are gentle

Jesus teaches the Beatitudes

Today’s hymn from Sing Praise, “Blessed, those whose hearts are gentle”, is not dissimilar to the Gospel chants of the last few days, as suggested also by the words in the refrain “Raise the Gospel over the earth!” However, both the verses and the ‘alleluia’ refrain are longer than in the others, and it would work as a congregational hymn.

The six verses come in two pairs, and the thrust of the words is typical of the composer, Bernadette Farrell, most of whose hymns are about issues of social justice and inclusion.  First are two verses with the repeated statement “Blessed are…”, which immediately recalls the Beatitudes of Jesus. But these are not directly quoting the Beatitudes. Here, those who are blessed are ‘those whose hearts are gentle, whose spirits are strong, who choose to bring forth right where there is wrong, who work for justice, who answer the call, who dare to dream of lasting peace for all’.

In the third and fourth verses, “Blessed” is replaced with “Tremble”. This is about the privileged who should be in fear of God for failing to meet his standards of justice. ‘You who build up riches, with opulent lives’ should ‘tremble … when you meet the poor and see Christ in their eyes’. And ‘you who thirst for power, who live for acclaim’ should ‘tremble… when you find no comfort in your wealth and fame’.  This seems highly relevant in the context of current British politics, with the Government and its advisers increasingly criticised not only for becoming wealthy at the expense of the poor, but for lies and corruption.

The final pair of verses turns back to God and ascribes glory to him, as Word of Justice, Spirit of Peace and God of Love. But glory is also said to be “upon all people equal in God’s eyes”. To sing this hymn is to remind ourselves that God’s call is never only to live for him in our own lives but to strive for these divine qualities of justice, equality, peace and so on in the lives of others.

The Apocrypha in Lent – 3 March

If this is your first visit, please see my introduction to these Lenten readings.

3 March. 2 Maccabees  chapters 12-15

These last chapters of the second book of Maccabees summarise the whole of the struggles of Judas and Simon against the Syrian armies, to the point where after the defeat of the Syrian general Nicanor “the city has remained in possession of the Hebrews” (15:37).  The whole period, so reminiscent of the present fighting in Syria with its multiple factions fired by religious and political zeal, does not make pleasant reading, even if tales of the destruction of tens or hundreds of thousands of soldiers and civilians are exaggerating the figures.  Just a couple of points stand out as worth a mention:

One is the frequency with which political agreements and military truces are broken and the lack of trust between opponents.  Many times in the course of these books, enemy leaders hold peace talks – usually because one side or the other has suffered a heavy defeat and realises that they dare not risk another confrontation in the short term – but nearly every time the peace is broken, often very quickly.  We see this in today’s Syria too, where only last week a short truce intended to bring humanitarian aid to Ghouta failed almost before it had begun, and before any aid could be delivered.  The human spirit, especially in times of war, is inclined to mistrust those who have been opposed to us, and only with the aid of the Spirit of God can true peace be established.

It seems a chance had been missed by Nicanor in chapter 14, when he did maintain an agreed truce for long enough for his opponent Judas Maccabeus to lay down his arms, get married and settle down (so presumably years rather than months).  But he made the mistake of listening to one man – Lacimus, a former high priest in Jerusalem who had an axe to grind – and started treating Judas badly, thereby prompting a renewal of hostilities that led to his own defeat and death in battle.  One of the commonest cries of prayer to God recorded in battle is “How long, O Lord?” – usually meaning “how long until war stops and there will be peace in our land?” But the answer to the prayer lies in the hands of men as much as with God.

The other point concerns devotion to the Temple.  We read that in the final battle, “Their concern for their wives and children, their brothers and relatives, had shrunk to minute importance; their chief and greatest fear was for the consecrated Temple.” (15:18).  That, perhaps, was their greatest mistake – by these last centuries before Christ, the Temple which had twice been rebuilt had become not merely the centre of religious worship but a focus of adoration in itself – in a word, Idolatry.  They did not realise that they were breaking not only the commandment to worship nothing other than God himself, but also the ones about loving one’s neighbours and honouring one’s parents.

It is not surprising, then, that in the Gospel reading for today [4 March when I am actually writing this] Jesus condemns those who have turned the Temple into a market place, reminding them that its purpose is a place of prayer.  He then says to the Temple authorities “Destroy this temple” [probably pointing to himself], “and in three days I will raise it up.” Their reply, “This temple has been under construction for forty-six years, and will you raise it up in three days?”, shows that they fail to understand his point, that as God in human flesh he, and not the building, should be the focus of their worship from now on.  If the Maccabees and their zealous followers had paid more attention to their wives and children instead of arming themselves to fight to the death for the sake of the Temple, how would Jewish – or world- history have turned out differently?