Brother, Sister, let me serve you

Today’s choice of hymn from Sing Praise is, unlike many of the others, very well known to me.  “Brother, Sister, let me serve you” is sung in many churches, but was also one of the hymns that my wife and I chose for our church wedding at St Luke’s Eccleshill.

The reason it makes a good wedding hymn is that it covers the many ways in which a couple in a long-term relationship serve each other, irrespective of what religious affiliation they may or may not have, but it is also a thoroughly Christian text that begins “Brother, Sister, let me serve you, let me be as Christ to you, pray that I may have the grace to let you be my servant too”.  The inclusion of “grace” reminds us that we need God’s help to make our relationships work well, and that second line points to the truth that being served by others graciously takes effort and grace just as much as being the servant.

These various ways of serving are summarised in the second verse as “we are here to help each other walk the mile and bear the load”, a reference to Jesus’ teaching in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5:41) that “if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile”. This is itself said to be a reference to the Roman law that a soldier could make someone carry their equipment for one mile, a law invoked when Simon of Cyrene was compelled to carry Jesus’ cross on the way to his crucifixion.   But forcing? compulsion? crucifixion? How does that square with love? Perhaps it is intended to mean that when our partner is suffering, is under the pressure of external forces, we are expected to share that burden.  It finds expression also in the traditional English marriage service where each partner is asked to make a vow to love the other “for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health”.  Marriage cannot be expected to be a lifetime of easy happiness, but where there is the commitment to support each other in all circumstances, it can survive and even flourish and grow in difficult times.

The following two verses (3 & 4) list some of the ways this will work in practice: “I will hold the Christ light for you in the night-time of your fear, I will hold my hand out to you, speak the peace you long to hear”; “I will weep when you are weeping, when you laugh I’ll laugh with you, I will share your joy and sorrow till we’ve seen this journey through”. 

The fourth verse is again thoroughly Christian as it looks forward to “singing to God in heaven in perfect harmony”, although “we” here must mean the whole Christian community, past, present and future, since Jesus taught that there will be no marriage in heaven: our individual loving relationships will be blended into the perfect love of God that God intended for all creation.

Linda and I have been married for nearly eighteen years now. We’ve certainly known the ups and downs of “sickness and health”; while not experiencing poverty we’ve known the uncertainties of the private rental market and times when expenditure exceeded income; and certainly our share of weeping and laughter.  We can testify to the truth of the words of this hymn. 

The one line I haven’t quoted yet is the first half of the second verse: “we are pilgrims on a journey, and companions on the road”. Now you know where our domain name (pilgrims.org.uk) comes from – from this hymn and our experience of living it out.

The Bible in a Year – 22 July

If this is your first viewing, please see my Introduction before reading this, and the introduction to the Psalms for this book of the Bible in particular.

22 July. Psalms 120-132

The fifteen psalms numbers 120 to 134 are known as the “songs of ascent”. They are presumed to have been said or sung by pilgrims travelling up to Jerusalem (famously a city on a large hill).

Even today many popular pilgrimages involve difficult walking, whether to a mountain shrine such as Sinai or Montserrat, or across hills such as St Cuthbert’s Way in northern England.  The physical challenge is intended to aid spiritual reflection, to “lift up” the pilgrim’s mind and heart to God.

These psalms use Jerusalem as a symbol of peace and security, and also of God’s presence. Ps. 121 in particular urges us to pray for the peace of Jerusalem, a prayer that is still much needed for a divided and disputed holy place. Ps. 120 complains of the problems of being a peace-living person among those who prefer conflict.

In order to ascend, you need to start off from a lower place. Physically, anyone starting their pilgrimage to Jerusalem from Jericho would be below sea level – truly “from the depths” (130:1). But the psalm more likely refers to the depths of depression, guilt or pain. Sometimes it is necessary to sink below what one might term psychological sea level in order to recognise that one is in need of help.  The psalmist here calls on God for forgiveness (130:3-4); in other psalms in the set he calls for mercy (123:2-3),or for joy to replace tears (126:5-6).

 

A couple of these psalms are particularly associated in Christian tradition with prayer at night. Psalm 121 tells of God who “never slumbers or sleeps” and who will protect us so that “the sun shall not harm you by day, nor the moon by night”.  Clearly sunburn or sunstroke is a risk in a hot country, but I have yet to work out what danger is posed by the moon – unless it is the association in some cultures between the full moon and madness.  But the point is, that God will protect us even when we are not awake to ask for his protection or sense it.  Ps. 132:3-5 is a vow not to go to sleep “until I find a place for the Lord”. Many people find it helpful to pray before going to bed, to release to God any bad experiences, guilt or frustrations of the day past, and to commit any worries about the following day to his care.