In the night, the sound of crying

Thanks to John for spotting that hymn 23 in Sing Praise, ‘In the night, the sound of crying ‘ by Martin Leckebusch, is the most appropriate for 28th December, Holy Innocents day.

This is the bit of the Christmas story that rarely features in nativity plays or carol services: when Herod, maybe a year or more after Jesus was born, receives the magi and reacts to the news of an infant king by slaughtering all the young boys in Bethlehem in the hope that Jesus was among them.

He wasn’t, of course, as God had given Joseph warning in a dream and they escaped in time. But as Martin recognises, this cannot have been easy for Mary, forced to get on the donkey and relocate for the second time, now with fears for the safety of her child: ‘Mary journeys on with tears, further from the home she treasures, onward to uncertain years’.

In this fragile family of refugees from Judah to Egypt we can see the situation of millions of others around the world today. The sound of their crying should reach our ears and through our prayers the ears of God.

The third and fourth verses of the hymn refer to the cries of the murdered boys and grieving parents. This is what makes the story so disturbing: why did God not save them by deposing Herod before he could do this? It’s the old question of theodicy, which I won’t venture into now. But the last verse does remind us that through his own innocent death and resurrection, Christ has conquered and will come to reign with the justice for which we cry.

Two tunes are offered, the well known ‘Sussex’ and one called ‘Amplitudo’ which may have been composed for this hymn. Certainly it’s minor key seems more appropriate to the plaintive words, and a resolution to the major for the last phrase ‘comes to reign’.

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.

By gracious powers so wonderfully sheltered

Dietrich Bonhoeffer Kirche, Sydenham
Photo © Malc McDonald (cc-by-sa/2.0)

Today’s hymn from Sing Praise is ‘By gracious powers so wonderfully sheltered’ by Fred Pratt Green.  In the book it’s set to the tune Finlandia, but John wrote his own, perhaps more appropriate with its melancholic melody for the darkness that is in the lyrics.

The words are based on the writings of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who notably wrote his late theology from a prison camp.   That is important background as we read or sing some of the words of the hymn: ‘hearts by their old foe tormented’, ‘evil days bring burdens hard to bear’, ‘bitter suffering, hard to understand’.   

Fortunately we who sing this hymn now are not persecuted by fascists or tortured for our faith. But such things are still going on in the world, and increasingly so.  As the crises now facing the world come together – climate change, overpopulation, increasing division between rich and poor, and increasing hatred between different racial or religious groups – who is to say that we might not end up there within the lifetime of those now living?  In the meantime, we each have or own foes, burdens and  suffering, however small in comparison, and we can have them in mind as we sing.

What makes Bonhoeffer’s words remarkable is the hope and faith that shine through the darkness.  ‘Confidently waiting, come what may’ from the pen of a man knowing he would face execution is remarkable. ‘God … never fails to meet us each new day’ is a statement of faith in a life that survives death. If that seems unachievable, ‘trusting though with trembling’ is perhaps a more realistic aim. And the last verse asks ‘If once again, in this mixed world, you give us the joy we had … we shall … dedicate our lives to you alone’.  We ask here not for a life free of suffering, but one in which Christian joy can be found amid its troubles.

Before the War, Bonheoffer had been the pastor of a German-speaking congregation in South London. The church illustrated above is the building that replaced his church that was destroyed in wartime bombing in 1944, even as he himself was imprisoned back home in Germany for his part in plotting the overthrow of the Nazi regime.

The touching place

A bronze war memorial showing a woman supporting an injured soldier.
‘Compassion in Conflict’, a war memorial by Andrew Edwards in Maghull, Lancs.
Photo (c) Rodhullandemu, Creative Commons-SA-4.0

Today’s hymn is “The touching place” by John Bell and Graham Maule, also known by its first line “Christ’s is the world in which we move”. It’s a sort of lament for the many ways in which people suffer, and the Christian response to their need.

The first verse sets the tone for the rest: the world and its people belong to Christ, so it is his voice calling us to care, and (if we feel the task is too great) he is the one who “meets us here”.  The remaining verses list the many forms of suffering that, with Christ, we may feel called to address. As with many of John Bell’s lyrics, he uses some unconventional and memorable phrases: “strange or bereaved or never employed”, “the women whom men have defiled”, “the baby for whom there’s no breast”, “the lonely heart, conscious of sin, which longs to be pure but fears to begin”.  What all these people have in common – and between them probably cover nearly everyone at some time in their life – is that we are called to “feel for them”, to have empathy.

The chorus is equally memorable in its wording, and using only a slight variant of the tune of the verses: “To the lost Christ shows his face, to the unloved he gives his embrace, to those who cry in pain or disgrace, Christ makes with his friends a touching place”.  “With his friends” is important: we should both pray for Christ’s compassionate help for those in distress, and do what we can for them in our circumstances.

Writing this later in the day after seeing John’s use of the hymn in morning prayer, may I express a bit of surprise at the brisk pace at which he took it.  When we’ve sung this hymn in my own church, the music director always directs a slow pace to match the emotional burden of the words.

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.

From the beginning, God’s most holy Word

Today’s hymn from Sing Praise is “From the beginning, God’s most holy Word” by Brigid Pailthorpe. It is set as six verses of four lines but John composed his own tune to turn it into three verses each of eight lines, naming the tune ‘Octuple Tens’ (eight lines of ten syllables). This structure makes more sense as the hymn neatly divides into three different understandings of ‘God’s Word’.  Unlike many hymns about the Word of God, this one is utterly realistic about the world to which Jesus came, as we shall see.

First, “From the beginning, God’s most holy Word uttered the summons all creation heard”. The Word in this sense is the creative act of God, doing rather than speaking. Christ is also referred to here as “the Word spoken”, as we understand the second person of the Trinity to be the creative power of God at work in the world, as well as incarnate in Jesus.  There’s an odd reference in the second verse (as set out in the hymn book) to God’s love that “remoulds structures that fail, the institution’s blight”.  We see that in the stories now emerging of abuse within the Church, but was the author thinking of that specifically or something wider?

Second (verses 3 & 4 in the book), “Jesus, the Word once spoken by the well” reminds us that Jesus in his incarnation revealed himself to be divine, not just by his miracles but by his spoken words, whether to the crowd of five thousand or the solitary Samaritan. The Word here “heals as in response we tell all our deep longings, all our hidden fears”. That’s another reference to the brokenness and imperfection of the world.

The last pair of verses begins with a call to “Jesus, the Word once spoken by the tomb” – by Mary Magdalene, that is – to “speak to our hearts in times of doubt and gloom”.  But it goes on to refer to our own resurrection.  Mary Magdalene, whose feast day was celebrated last week, is the archetype of the broken person who was healed and turned to follow Jesus.  We will never know what her ‘demons’ were, but Jesus got rid of them.

In his radio ‘Thought for the Day’ this morning, our own Bishop Nick Baines referred to the quotation popularly attributed to St Francis “Preach the gospel at all times. And if necessary, use words”.  He suggested that this, which may not actually have been said by Francis anyway, is misleading, because we need both demonstrations of God’s love, and words to explain it, in our witness.  The Word was made flesh to act out his Father’s love, but also to speak directly to the people of his day, broken by their own sin, the hypocrisy of their religious leaders, and the corruption and violence of the Roman empire around them. So we come to the last lines of this hymn as we offer to speak and serve in his name in our own broken world: “Here we renew our dedication vow: Word of the Father, speak your summons now”.

We do not hope to ease our minds

Image credit: Christ on Gethsemane, from Art in the Christian Tradition,
a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN.

If, like John, you wondered why I haven’t blogged for the last eleven days, it’s because I was on holiday. I continued singing the daily hymn from Sing Praise, but just haven’t been at a computer to write about them. I may find time to go back to them later.

Today’s choice is “We do not hope to ease our minds” by Marnie Barrell.  It’s in the general ‘God and the World’ section of the book, but as two of the verses refer to Holy Week, it would actually have been better sung then. The theme of the three verses is that the needs of the world are so insistent and demanding of a compassionate response, that we (members of the Church) cannot comfort ourselves with an easy-living faith.

The ‘simple answers, shifted blame’ of verse 1 will not cut it with Christ who, as he put in the parable of sheep and goats, is present in everyone in physical or emotional need. We ask in this verse to be ‘disturb[ed] till every need is satisfied’, which of course is never in this life.

Verse 2 refers to Christ’s unjust trial and torture at the hands of the Romans, standing as a symbol for all the injustice and violence in the world, the pain of which he bore on the cross. As with verse 1, we ask to be ‘given no peace till his peace reigns in triumph here’, and again that will not happen until Jesus returns. We are asking here for a permanent sense of being troubled by the way the world is, and what we might be able to do about it.

The last verse begins ‘We will not pray to be preserved from any depths of agony’, although in fact that’s just what Jesus did in Gethsemane, before accepting his Father’s will.  I therefore don’t think there’s anything wrong with praying to be spared agony. A true faith lived out will include moments of discomfort and inconvenience at the very least, but there’s a very wide spectrum between ‘comfortable Christianity’ and martyrdom.  As Paul wrote to the Corinthians, God knows each of us individually and will not let us be tested beyond what we can endure.

The hymn is set to a metrical version of ‘St Patrick’s breastplate’, maybe with deliberate reference to the ascetic saint’s own renouncing of comfortable worldliness in the service of Christ.

When you prayed beneath the trees

Jesus in Gethsemane. Source unknown.

Today’s hymn from Sing Praise is “When you prayed beneath the trees” by Christopher Idle.  This 20th century hymn comes with its own tune, but John played it to an older hymn tune by Orlando Gibbons that better fits the sombre mood. 

The feel of the words is much like the better known American spiritual “Where you there when they crucified by Lord?”. They expand on the idea that Jesus suffered, not only in his own body, but for our sake and in our place. The repeated refrain of “it was for me, O Lord” emphasises this.  The four verses refer to the agony in the garden of Gethsemane; his trial; the ascent of the hill under the cross (‘via dolorosa’); and finally the crucifixion itself. 

This last, though, sees Jesus not as victim but as victor, another common understanding of what happened of Good Friday: “When you spoke with kingly power it was for me, O Lord, in that dread and destined hour you made me free, O Lord; earth and heaven heard you shout, death and hell were put to rout, for the grave could not hold out; you are for me, O Lord”.

The Bible in a Year – 11 December

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

11 December. 1 Peter chapters 1-5

The theme of this letter to several local churches is suffering.  The suffering of Christ, the suffering of the Body of Christ (the Church) and the sufferings of individuals for whatever reason.  We are not talking here about medical conditions but about punishment, deserved or undeserved: slander, discrimination, persecution, imprisonment or even murder.

Peter (if we assume the letter to have been written by him, which is contested) had seen first John the Baptist and then Jesus suffer all these things.  He had also witnessed the resurrection of Jesus and the gift of the Holy Spirit.   So it is no surprise that these themes all appear in the letter, some of them several times.

Peter emphasises the distinction between just and unjust suffering. He has no praise for those who choose the path of civil disobedience, for we must “accept the authority of every human institution, whether of the emperor as supreme, or of governors, as sent by him to punish those who do wrong” (2:13-14), and there is no merit in suffering as a criminal (2:20) – which presumes that the law of the land is necessarily morally good. That is a whole different discussion!

The focus, then, is on suffering for doing good.  Why? Because that is how Jesus Christ achieved salvation for the rest of us. “If you endure when you do right and suffer for it, you have God’s approval.  For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you should follow in his steps” (2:20-21). Or again, “It is better to suffer for doing good, if suffering should be God’s will, than to suffer for doing evil.  For Christ also suffered for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, in order to bring you to God” (3:17-18).  And again, “rejoice in so far as you are sharing Christ’s sufferings, so that you may also be glad and shout for joy when his glory is revealed. If you are reviled for the name of Christ, you are blessed” (4:13-14). The fact that Peter says the same sort of thing three or more times in the same letter shows how important this was to him.

Persecution has never disappeared from the worldwide Church, though the location and nature of it have changed over the centuries.  In our own day, there is state persecution in Communist or post-Communist countries such as China and Russia where only the “official” state church is tolerated, persecution by terrorists in places such as Egypt and Syria (where minority forms of Islam are equally targeted), and persecution in the form of discrimination in secular states where any form of religion is viewed with suspicion, and believers may find it impossible to get paid work, or schooling for their children.

In this season of Advent, we are reminded that one of the reasons we look forward to the “last days” when Christ will come again is that he will honour those who have suffered for his sake, and bring a final justice that will vindicate them (5:10).

I will conclude with a verse from the service of Compline in traditional language, derived from the end of this letter, and which also reminds of the discipline of Advent: “Be sober, be vigilant; because your adversary the devil, as a roaring lion, walketh about, seeking whom he may devour: whom resist, steadfast in faith” (5:8-9).

The Bible in a Year – 21 August

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

21 August. Lamentations chapters 4-5

In chapter 4 the focus turns from the loss of community identity and shared experience that defined the people of Jerusalem, to the present suffering of its inhabitants. The symptoms of malnutrition are, sadly, familiar to us today as we regularly see pictures of drought in parts of Africa – shrivelled skin, protruding bones, children begging in vain for food.  But again, it is not mere physical pain that afflicts them.  From living in a thriving economy city in a rich nation, they are now living from hand to mouth and experiencing the humiliation of being insignificant in the world.  Poetically, “the precious children of Zion, worth their weight in fine gold, are reckoned as earthen pots, the work of a potter’s hands!” (4:2)

The writer poses a dilemma (4:6-9) – which would be worse, to die suddenly in an “act of God” such as the sulphurous destruction of Sodom or by an enemy’s sword – or to cling on to life in the misery of hunger and disease? Both forms of suffering still afflict the world. Some religious traditions would say it is better to cling on to life whatever happens. Others would support the natural human reaction that says that those who die suddenly have suffered for only a short time and therefore less, adding that they will experience God’s presence all the sooner.  But can we really compare the duration of earthly suffering with the timeless existence of the soul like that? There is no easy answer.


In chapter 5 the voice changes from that of the city itself to that of the people within it.  They cry out to God with a catalogue of their sufferings, which once again are not all physical, but communal: “The old men have left the city gate, the young men their music. The joy of our hearts has ceased; our dancing has been turned to mourning” (5:14-15). The cry at the end of the book (5:19-22) is not for wealth but for God to restore them to a relationship with him. But this is not a happy ending like that of the story of Job: the book of Lamentations, like Tchaikovsky’s sixth symphony, ends with a whimper rather than a bang, and with their prayers of Jerusalem unanswered.