During these summer Sundays I thought I would do a mini series, not directly on the lessons, but on a few of our well-known hymns. Tim has given us a quick poll about Morning Prayer, on Zoom and in church, and we have come up with a number of different opinions. But I think that a good few of us find that something we miss by having Matins on Zoom is the opportunity to sing together. We have tried it, but it doesn’t really work. Now as you know, I am no singer, but I do love hymns. One year I did a whole series of sermons, talks really, about our great hymn writers, but this summer I want instead to concentrate on just a few of our hymns, and think about how we can use them in our prayers.
Jewish worshippers were and still are very fortunate, they have a whole book of 150 psalms, expressing so many different moods and ways of approaching God. There are psalms of praise, thanksgiving, need there are sorrowful or frightened psalms, psalms asking for vengeance against enemies. Some of them we know by heart, but most of us don’t remember very many. Our English hymns have two great advantages for memorising. They are usually written in basic verse, with rhythm and rhyme, and they often have a familiar tune, so even if we can’t really sing we can think the tune inside and enjoy it without making it painful for other people. Matthew’s and Mark’s gospels say that the last thing Jesus and his disciples did, after their final meal together and before they went out to the garden of Gethsemane, was to sing a hymn together. And St Paul in his letter to the Colossians tells us: Let the word of God dwell in you richly..and with gratitude in your hearts sing psalms, hymns and spiritual songs to God (Col 3.16)
Sometimes we can pray without words, often we pray with our own words, but sometimes other people’s words can carry our thoughts and wishes just that bit further than our own. There are times when the going gets tough; we have some difficulty to tackle but we need to ask God our Father for the strength to do so. So what about this hymn? In Common Praise it’s No 416:
Father, hear the prayer we offer
not for ease that prayer shall be,
but for strength that we may ever
live our lives courageously.
The middle verses draw on the imagery of the 23rd Psalm, but in God’s strength we can cope with the times when the pastures aren’t green or the waters aren’t so peaceful:
Not for ever in green pastures
do we ask our way to be;
but the steep and rugged pathway
may we tread rejoicingly.
Not for ever by still waters
would we idly rest and stay;
but would smite the living fountains
from the rocks along our way.
I like that phrase: living fountains. And the last verse is the heart of the hymn as a prayer:
Be our strength in hours of weakness,
in our wanderings be our guide;
through endeavour, failure, danger,
Father, be thou at our side.
Both Moses in the wilderness in our first reading and St Paul setting out on his perilous winter voyage to Rome in our second, they needed that sense of God’s presence to give them strength. So did Jesus himself, who told us to pray to God as Father, and gave us words as a pattern for doing so. Some people, however, find that they pray most naturally to the Lord Jesus himself, and we will look at one of those hymns later on. But for now we will leave hymns and pray to God through other words, in the great tradition of the Book of Common Prayer.
Readings: Deuteronomy 11.1-15, Moses telling of the Promised Land
Acts 27.1-12 The beginning of Paul’s voyage to Rome