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.

Like the murmur of the dove’s song

Today’s hymn in our Pentecost series from Sing Praise is “Like the murmur of the dove’s song” by Carl P Daw Jr.  As with most other hymns about (or in this case, addressed to) the Holy Spirit, it tries to cover many aspects of the nature and gifts of the Spirit.

The words of the hymn are carefully structured: three verses, in each of which the first four lines begin with the same word, and then the fifth line of each verse is the same invocation, “Come, Holy Spirit, come”.

The common word of verse one is “Like”: Like the murmur of the dove’s song, like the challenge of her flight, like the vigour of the wind’s rush, like the new flame’s eager might”. Once again we see the contrast between the gentle murmuring bird, and the power of wind and flame. When we ask the Spirit to come, we don’t know which of these aspects will be present.

Verse two is about movement towards us: “To the members of Christ’s body, to the branches of the vine, to the Church in faith assembled, to her midst as gift and sign”. In other words, we ask the Spirit to come to us individually, to our congregations (branches) and to the whole Church. From the private room to the world stage, the Spirit is called to be present.

Verse three is about the Spirit’s particular gifts and fruits: “with the healing of division, with the ceaseless voice of prayer, with the power to love and witness, with the peace beyond compare”. The Spirit enables what would otherwise not be possible, whether seemingly intractable divisions in society or the peace that always seems beyond reach. Whenever we pray for some situation that seems hopeless, our refrain must be “come, Holy Spirit, come”.

Your will be done on earth, O Lord

Today’s song from Sing Praise is a harmonised chant from southern Africa of one line from the Lord’s Prayer: “Your will be done on earth, O Lord”.

As it’s such a short text, it invites a reflection on the meaning of these familiar words. John used it in morning prayer as a response to the intercessions, which seems fitting: we ask the Lord for what we think seems appropriate (perhaps for the healing of someone in pain, the righting of an injustice somewhere in the world, or for some perceived need in our own lives).  Then we pause and say (or sing) “your will be done, O Lord”.  It’s a reminder that an answer to prayer is never guaranteed to be what we were hoping for, because we cannot fully understand another person, let alone God himself. 

Does that mean we shouldn’t pray for specific things?  The writer C S Lewis expressed many wise things about prayer, but here’s one of them: 

‘Praying for particular things,” said I, “always seems to me like advising God how to run the world. Wouldn’t it be wiser to assume that He knows best?” “On the same principle,” said he, “I suppose you never ask a man next to you to pass the salt, because God knows best whether you ought to have salt or not. And I suppose you never take an umbrella, because God knows best whether you ought to be wet or dry.” “That’s quite different,” I protested. “I don’t see why,” said he. “The odd thing is that He should let us influence the course of events at all. But since He lets us do it in one way I don’t see why He shouldn’t let us do it in the other.’ (C S Lewis, “God in the Dock”).

So do pray as you think right.  But then ask that God’s will, not yours, be done.  Even Jesus himself, on his last night in Gethsemane, prayed that.

Stay with me

The song I have picked for Maundy Thursday from Sing Praise is a chant from the Taizé community, “Stay with me, remain here with me, watch and pray”.  Those are the only words of the refrain sung by the congregation, and they are to be sung reflectively and repeatedly.  This simple chant can be used on its own to lead into intercession or a time of silent prayer.

Alternatively, it can be the base line or ‘ostinato’ while a cantor sings other words above it.  The texts given here are probably intended as examples rather than a fixed set, but what they have in common are that they are all words of Jesus recorded in the Gospels as being spoken on this last full day of his earthly life. The first is nearly the same as the refrain, but looking at the others:

Lines 2 and 3 form a pair: “Watch and pray not to give way to temptation / The spirit is eager, but the flesh is weak”.  Even Jesus struggled with temptation, especially in this last trial when he knew an agonising death faced him.  He warns the disciples that they too would be tempted to abandon him for fear of persecution – and indeed many did.

Line 4, “My heart is nearly broken with sorrow, remain here with me, stay awake and pray” is another reminder that Jesus really was human, in the emotions he experienced.  He actually needed the friendship, support and prayer of his disciples, just as church leaders today need the friendship, support and prayer of their congregations.

Lines 5 and 6 form another pair: “Father, if it is possible let this cup pass me by / Father, if this cannot pass me by without me drinking it, your will be done”.  Jesus in his humanity really didn’t want to through with the crucifixion, and asked God, his own father, to find a way round it.  But it was not to be, and he finally abandoned himself to his fate, forsaking any divine powers and letting humanity do its worst.

Line 7, “Stay awake, be ready, the Lord is coming!” reminds us that the command to stay awake and alert is not only for this night but for the whole of our lives, as there will come a time either through death or the return of Christ when we will be judged by our response and attitude to him.

 “Stay with me, remain here with me, watch and pray”.  This takes us into the night when Jesus was condemned.

O Lord, my heart is not proud

With apologies, I’m running a day late here.  The song I chose for Shrove Tuesday (16 February) was “O Lord, my heart is not proud” by Margaret Rizza.  This is a short setting of verses from Psalm 131, and I chose it because it is a psalm of turning back to God, which is very much the theme of this day in the Christian calendar.  It’s short enough to be quoted in full:

O Lord, my heart is not proud, nor haughty my eyes.
I have not gone after things too great, nor marvels beyond me.
Truly I have set my soul in silence and peace;
at rest, as a child is in its mother’s arms,
so is my soul. 
(translation copyright 1963 The Grail)

There is no attempt here to force the words into a set rhythm or rhyming pattern, this is essentially a prayer to be reflected on, equally well spoken as sung.  It reminds me of Jesus’ words in Matthew 6:6, “Whenever you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.” It’s a reminder that in prayer we do not come to God boasting of our achievements, but rather aware of our limitations. Also that  the ideal attitude for prayer is to seek silence in God’s presence and to relax into conversation with him (hopefully not falling asleep, but I don’t believe God minds if we fall asleep in his presence, any more than a mother minds if her child sleeps in her arms).

The Apocrypha in Lent – 20 February.

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

20 February. Judith chapters 8-10

These chapters introduce the main protagonist in the story, and show us various different aspects of her complex character.  In chapter 8, Judith is shown as a widow who has been mourning her late husband for several years: a pitiable figure, though she had been left riches.  When the siege reaches crisis point, though, she comes out of her shell and takes part in the discussions.

In ‘democratic’ Britain it is only in the last few decades that we have had elected women leaders (though of course we have had a hereditary Queen for more than half of the last two hundred years). Before that, misogyny ruled. But the Bible, written so long ago, shows us that women can be born leaders.  Judith is not the only example – Miriam and Deborah (and as we shall see, also Jael) would have been her inspiration.  In the presence of the male elders, Judith comes across as a good orator and a courageous leader: the Margaret Thatcher or Angela Merkel of her day, if you like (without comment on their policies).  Except that unlike them, she was also beautiful, which was an extra string to her bow in what she was planning.

In chapter 9, Judith is seen as a holy woman, willing to cast aside any privilege and pride and humble herself before God.  Her prayer is in the Hebrew tradition of praising God for his mighty acts of the past, before petitioning him for present needs, although she starts with reference to some recent incident when the enemy’s use of rape as a tactic of war resulted in God (through the men of her tribe, presumably) taking vengeance on them.  At the core of her prayer is a statement of dependence on God which has echoes of Mary’s Magnificat: “Your strength does not lie in numbers, nor your might in violent men: since you are the God of the humble, the help of the oppressed, the support of the  weak, the refuge of the forsaken, the saviour of the despairing” (9:11).

Then in chapter 10, she becomes the Mata Hari figure, the glamorous double-agent who charms her way into the enemy camp as a friend while actually being a spy.  So this complex woman – widow, orator, politician, intercessor, beauty and spy – takes her place ready to let God work through her.

Each of us will have been given a different mix of gifts by God, but not all of them may seem to be used all the time. There might only be one time in our lives when all that we are will come together to achieve something for him that no-one else could.  But as Judith acknowledges in her prayer, all we can do is make ourselves available to be used.

The Bible in a Year – 19 December

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

19 December. John chapters 5-6

Understanding John’s gospel is not easy: he writes in an oriental style in which many themes are woven together in a way that does not work in English.  Resurrection, faith, the Last Day,  Heaven, eternal life – all these appear in this passage, and each deserves a book in itself.  So I have decided to focus on one verse “no-one can come to me unless drawn by the Father who sent me” (6:44).

However brilliant Jesus’ teaching may have been, that alone would not have drawn crowds of followers or made committed disciples.  Indeed at the end of this passage, following his very difficult teaching about eating his flesh and drinking his blood, “many of his disciples turned back and no longer went about with him” (6:66).  Rather, it is a sense of spiritual hunger that draws people to Jesus, then as now.  And hunger is a personal experience. We all know what it is to be hungry in an ordinary sense, but some of us can only guess what it is for others to experience the hunger of strict dieting, lengthy fasting or starvation.

The contemporary Christian writer Tom Wright says that the Father’s drawing of those whom he has given to the Son “takes place in the silent, secret places of the human heart”.  How can one describe a silent experience in words? What does it mean to feel hungry for God, to be aware of being drawn to him?  St Augustine famously wrote of the heart that is restless until it finds its rest in God.  That resonates with my experience.  A continuing sense of “feeling restless for God” sometimes takes the form of being unable to relax, even though there is nothing I could name that is causing me any anxiety or pain.  Once I have spent time in prayer or praising God, then I can relax more easily.

Your own experience of spiritual hunger, of being drawn to God, of having a real need for him, may take a different form.  What matters is that we can feel this spiritual hunger when it comes, recognise it for what it is, and know that God will provide the spiritual food in Jesus to satisfy it.


The Bible in a Year – 26 September

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

26 September. 2 Chronicles chapters 5-7

Solomon has now completed the Temple, and we come to the grand dedication service.  This was far more than the king and high priest blessing the building and declaring it open for worship: anyone of any significance was in Jerusalem for the occasion, and the celebrations went on for a week, with over a hundred thousand animals being sacrificed (and eaten, presumably).

Solomon’s prayer in chapter 6 is worthy of note.  He is kneeling (not standing) on a platform three cubits (about 1.5 metres) high so that everyone could see him. Why kneeling? It is a traditional posture in prayer (although other traditions favour standing, sitting or prostration in prayer). This week there has been a lot in the media about American sportsmen kneeling during the playing of their national anthem – are they to be criticised for “showing disrespect for their country”, or applauded for drawing attention to racial inequality?  In kneeling, they are perhaps trying to show respect for their country by showing respect for its citizens.  Solomon’s kneeling is certainly intended at least partly to indicate humility before God, but perhaps also to show that he intends to be a ‘servant king’ who respects his people.  He would not be entirely successful in that, of course – what national leader ever can? But he seems to have genuinely tried to be the wise and benevolent monarch.

In a series of formulaic prayers, Solomon recounts the various ways in which God punishes his people for their sin – military defeat, invasion, drought, crop disease, plague, sickness. He asks God to forgive those who acknowledge their sin in each of these circumstances and turn to him.

We do not think about sin and punishment in this way any longer, as we understand defeat and invasion to be the work of men, not God, and the other disasters to be ‘natural’ (though capable of mitigation with good planning and education).   But for those who believe in God, the principle remains that if we turn to him when things go wrong, then he will help us.  Belief in self-sufficiency and self-righteousness are the exact opposite of faith; it is when we express our need of divine help that we can be open to receive it.

There is a notable passage in 6:32-33, where Solomon asks God to treat foreigners with faith in the same way as the people of the promise.  Though Judaism is often thought of as a closed or tribal religion, unlike the missionary religions of Christianity and Islam, the idea of the ‘righteous gentile’ or proselyte who asks to join the people of Israel in their faith is a long-standing one.  Their God, and ours, is a god of inclusion, not exclusion.

The Bible in a Year – 8 September

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

8 September. Nehemiah chapters 4-6

The rebuilding of the walls of Jerusalem may have been good news for the Jews, but it aroused strong opposition from the people of many other national groups who had come to live in the area following the removal of the Jewish leaders a century earlier.  The basis of nationalism – that one particular group of humans identified by ties of blood, political or religious allegiance, “owns” part of the planet – has been the cause of most conflicts down the centuries, and persists today in many places, not least in Israel/Palestine.

As I suggested yesterday, a “prayer/work balance” is a good thing.  And so the response of the Jews to the threats for the Arabs and others is “we prayed to our God, and set a guard as a protection against them day and night” (4:9).  The working men were also divided, half as builders and half as guards.

In chapter 5, Nehemiah confronts the leaders in Jerusalem who were taking tithes from, and lending money at interest to, the poor people on the surrounding countryside who had remained during the time of the exile.   He challenges them with their attitude of being superior to these common and hard-working people, and forces them to stop these practices and recognise all the Jewish people inside and outside the city as one community.

After that, Nehemiah calls himself Governor, and emphasises that he did not want to use that position to profit from or dominate the people, but only to lead them. It is not clear whether that was an official appointment by the emperor in distance Persia, but possibly not, as his enemies including Tobiah use it to threaten to report him to the emperor as leading a rebellion. Nehemiah has to emphasise that his intent is not to rebel, simply to restore Jerusalem as a working city and place of worship.

The completion of the rebuilding of the wall (but not its gates) in 52 days, using reclaimed stone and volunteer labour, was quite a triumph, enough to silence their enemies, at least for the time being.

The Bible in a Year – 7 September

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

7 September. Nehemiah chapters 1-3

Whereas the book of Ezra (which I have just read and commented on) focuses on the rebuilding of the Temple, Nehemiah was more concerned with the rebuilding of the walls and gates (i.e. the defences) of the city.  In the Jewish tradition they form a single “writing” so they are certainly not to be regarded as distinct books.

Both approaches (rebuilding of the walls and the Temple) were needed; the work of the two men was complementary.   It’s difficult to say whether they were working at the same time, or if not, which came first: a Wikipedia article suggests that either could have come first, given that there were two kings called Artaxerxes.  From a practical viewpoint, it would have been more logical to repair the walls first as Nehemiah seems to have wanted, while from a religious viewpoint the restoration of sacrifice was what mattered most (to Ezra).

Although Nehemiah seems to have been an effective “project manager” in his organisation of financing, materials and labour, it is interesting to note that it is he, and not Ezra, who is recorded as praying extensively both before and during the work.  This attitude that “work is prayer and prayer is work” informed the later Christian monastic movements, and is a good approach for anyone to take who believes that God is interested in the practicalities of our lives as well as the state of our souls.