Friday, May 31, 2019

Hymn of the Week: O Spirit, Come Like Gentle Rain

With the season of Pentecost approaching, I decided to write a hymn focusing on the Holy Spirit. It uses the old hymn tune from "Awake, My Soul, and with the Sun" (you can find sheet music here). The focus of the lyrics is on the Holy Spirit's ministry in growing the "fruits of the Spirit" in us. The first and last verses stand as a general introduction and conclusion to the theme, while the middle three verses each speak to the nine fruits (love, joy, and peace in verse 2; patience, kindness, and goodness in v.3; and faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control in v.4).

O Spirit, Come Like Gentle Rain

O Spirit, come like gentle rain
Upon the garden of our hearts,
That we may bear the fruit that shows
The freedom that your grace imparts.

Grant us to be sons of your love
And daughters of your mighty joy;
Let the whole family of your church
Possess the peace none can destroy.

Bestow on us your patient grace
That holds fast in longsuffering;
The kindness of your mercy's depth,
The goodness of Creation's King.

Yes, let us be your faithful ones,
All gentle as a resting dove,
And fearless, wise, and self-controlled,
Like you in righteousness and love.

O Spirit, magnify yourself,
And may our lives your mirror be:
That we may shine in glory's bliss
With you throughout eternity!


Thursday, May 30, 2019

Pilgrimage Memoir: Bridges of Faith and Love

Jesus shall reign where'er the sun
Does its successive journeys run;
His Kingdom stretch from shore to shore,
Till moons shall wax and wane no more.

- Isaac Watts

~ ~ ~

         We drove on into the West Bank, following the downward path of the Jordan River as it plunged ever further below sea level, down into the depths of the desert’s crucible. Whereas the land around the Sea of Galilee had been lovely and lush with flowers, we began to see now the vast and pitiless expanse of the Judean wilderness. The hills were barren and dry, bearing somber echoes of a thousand ancient battles now forgotten.
          When one travels in the West Bank—a territory officially held by Israel but much of it governed on the ground by the Palestinians—one is confronted with the stark reality of the divided life of the Holy Land. The Palestinians—largely Muslim, but with an ancient and enduring Christian minority—live every day with the hardness of boundaries and walls and armed soldiers as part of their reality, as too do the Israelis on the other side. Sometimes boundaries like that represent oppression; sometimes they represent prudence; and sometimes the balance between the two is tremendously hard to determine. But whatever one’s opinion might be of the division of the Holy Land, one cannot but be struck by the bare and simple fact that it is divided.
          Our first stop in the West Bank was the traditional site of Jesus’ baptism in the Jordan River. We had already visited the more beautiful northerly site of Yardenit, but this one, deeper in the desert, had a much longer tradition of historical claims on its side. Here, amid the broiling heat and the brown hills and the water sluicing through the rushes, Christ had stepped into the water to follow his Father’s call. I found it easier to imagine the haggard and wild figure of John the Baptist inhabiting these wastelands than I did picturing him enjoying the verdant splendor at Yardenit.
          I was instantly struck by a few things as soon as I laid eyes on the Jordan. First, it was shockingly small. I knew this would be the case, but I hadn’t realized just how starkly the water had diminished. It used to be a proper river—indeed, a river too wide to cross without finding a bridge or a ford of some sort. But the water-usage demands of modern nation-states have sucked the Jordan’s watershed nearly dry, and all that remains at the base of the river now is something we could barely call a stream. Joshua and the children of Israel wouldn’t have needed a miracle of God to cross this water: all they would have to do is throw down a couple wooden planks and they could make it across without wetting their feet. The Jordan was little more than a lazy, muddy trickle, winding its way through a bed of rushes as it approached the languid stillness of the Dead Sea.
          The other thing that struck me, though, was the border. I live in a border town in the US, and we have to go through the rigmarole of passports and customs checks as a simple part of daily life; but on the whole it feels like we’re pretty much the same community as our Canadian neighbors across the river, with just a bit of bureaucratic annoyance in the middle. Here, though, it wasn’t just a matter of a bridge with some customs-booths: the river itself was divided in two. On the far bank lay Jordan, one of the Muslim-majority kingdoms crafted out of the wreckage of the old Ottoman Empire. And here was Israel, home of the Jewish nation and of the borderland realities of the West Bank. And in the middle was a rope that marked the sides off, so that no one could cross.
          There was a strange sort of irony there. The Gospels tell us that John was baptizing on the far bank of the river (that is, the Kingdom of Jordan side--Jn. 1:28; 3:26; 10:40), and Jesus, coming as he did from Galilee, would have approached from the West Bank side and either crossed over or met him in the middle. The New Testament describes the atoning work of Christ as that which “brings together” all things (Eph. 1:10). And here, in the very place that Jesus waded through the waters to begin his ministry, coming together with his kinsman-forerunner, and in the very place where the divine dove of peace alighted upon him, now there stood an open symbol of division, not of unity.
          But that wasn’t the whole story. You see, on the other side of that rope-border in the river sat a row of Jordanian Christians, smiling across the way at us as their feet dangled in the muddy water. They, like us, were there at that spot out of love for Christ. And we, though separated by an imaginary line that someone had drawn on a map long ago, were united to them in heart and in spirit. Here were our brothers and sisters. Above them, farther up the bank, stood a magnificent church, and behind that, a Christian monastery. Immediately, a snippet of Scripture flashed through my mind: “For he himself is our peace, who has made the two groups one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility… Consequently, you are no longer foreigners and strangers, but fellow citizens with God’s people and members of his household” (Eph. 2:14, 19). 
          Despite the outward appearance of the place his ministry began, torn asunder by boundaries that keep men apart, Christ had indeed “destroyed the barrier.” To me, a Christian, that far bank was as much my home as the near bank was, because my family lived on both. Rather than feeling separated from those Jordanian Christians, I felt an instant flash of kinship’s fondness toward them. The border became little more than a mirage; for I had bridges of faith and love that could reach far beyond it. I was a citizen of the Kingdom of God, a kingdom without borders or walls or armies. Jesus had done something there, in that small corner of the world that we call Israel, which had let every race become brothers and every land become home.

Tuesday, May 28, 2019

Photo of the Week

My song is love unknown, my Savior's love to me;
Love to the loveless shown, that they might lovely be.

- from v.1 of the hymn "My Song Is Love Unknown," by Samuel Crossman

Monday, May 27, 2019

Quote of the Week

"Troubles are usually brooms and shovels that smooth the road to the good man's fortune; and many a man curses the rain that falls upon his head, and knows not that it brings abundance to drive away hunger."

- Basil the Great, early church father 

Saturday, May 25, 2019

Saturday Synaxis

O Jesus, fill me with thy love now, and I beseech thee, accept me, and use me a little for thy glory. O do, do, I beseech thee, accept me and my service, and take thou all the glory.

- David Livingstone, famous 19th-century missionary to Africa; picture shows his body being taken back to the coast after his death in the interior.

Friday, May 24, 2019

Hymn of the Week: Have Mercy on Us

Among the many kinds of hymns and songs, there's one kind that I use in my daily life more than any other: a small set of songs that I call "prayer anthems." They're usually very short, fairly simple, and meant to be repeated over and over again. It's a long tradition that goes all the way back to the earliest chanted liturgies of the Christian faith. I find that when I'm in prayer--particularly if I'm prayerwalking, doing a longer session, or simply wanting to keep a prayerful attitude in the midst of a busy place--I can use these songs to keep my mind fixed on God and to allow the Spirit to pray through me "with groans that words cannot express" (Rom. 8:26). This week I've written a new prayer anthem and composed my own tune for it. The text is a combination of the classic "Jesus Prayer" of the Eastern Orthodox tradition (based on Matt. 20:30 and Luke 18:13), the Kyrie prayers of the medieval church, and a line from Psalm 100:3. The tune is fairly simple; I haven't even bothered to plot it out in musical notation--but if you'd like to use it yourself, here's the note sequence: CGGAGFG / EDCDE / CGGAGFG / EDCDC / CGAGFGC / CGAGFGC / EDCDE / EDCBC. (And if you're interested in hearing some of the other prayer anthems I regularly use, see the links below my song.)

Have Mercy on Us

Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God,
Have mercy on us.
Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God,
Have mercy on us.              (Repeat stanza if desired)

For we are your people,
The sheep of your pasture,
Have mercy on us,
Have mercy on us.

Prayer Anthems I commonly use:
The Jesus Prayer, Angola Prayer, I'm Putting On the Love of the Lord, Prayers of the Saints, and the chorus sections of the following songs: Lord Have MercyVeni Sancte Spiritus, Christ Be All Around Me, Shema, Chaplet of Divine Mercy.

Thursday, May 23, 2019

Pilgrimage Memoir: Sunday Morning Joy

Oh, the sheer joy of it!
Living with Thee,
God of the universe,
Lord of a tree,
Maker of mountains,
Lover of me!

- Ralph Spaulding Cushman, "Sheer Joy"

~ ~ ~

          As dawn broke on our last day in Galilee, I was out again amid the birds and the shoreline, listening to the soft splendor of the morning air caressing the rushes of the marsh. It was Sunday. We were soon headed south: after breakfast, we were going down from Galilee, down the old Jordan Valley road toward the Dead Sea, and then finally up the hills to Jerusalem. In that one day, we would be undertaking the very pilgrimage that Christ himself went on: Galilee, Jericho, and then coming over the Mount of Olives to behold the beauty of Zion itself.
          But there was an ache in my heart. One of my deepest desires had been to attend an actual worship service there in the Holy Land: to join together in a church with my sisters and brothers from many nations, celebrating a set time of worship together, as Christians had always done for two thousand years. My pilgrimage group’s little mini-services were nice, but there remained a painful longing in my heart to be part of the ongoing worship of the churches of the Holy Land themselves. But here it was—Sunday—and it looked fairly unlikely that I would get my wish. We had no such stops on our itinerary, and no one else in the group seemed to share my desire. I asked our guide Norah if it might be possible for me to slip out by myself in Jerusalem some early morning or evening to find my way to a service, but she (probably wisely) advised against it. So, with the heaviness of unrealized hopes, but still looking forward to the day’s pilgrimage, I took breakfast with my fellows and boarded the bus. We drove south through Tiberias and then down toward the Jordan road, and I caught my final glimpses of the Sea of Galilee. I had fallen in love with that place, though I would not come to realize just how deeply it had affected me until after I returned home.
          Our first stop of the day was an ancient city that stood just southwest of the Sea of Galilee, known to the Old Testament Israelites as Beth Shan and to early Christians as Scythopolis. It appears several times in the Bible, in its various incarnations as a Caananite, Philistine, and Israelite stronghold. In Jesus’ day it had been re-founded as a Greco-Roman polis and a member of the Decapolis. (In fact, I had once planned out a historical fiction novel around a Roman character living in Scythopolis in the first century AD, but that story never developed beyond the first chapter). Later, Scythopolis would go through several centuries as a Christian city before the Muslim conquest of Palestine and a devastating earthquake brought its period of settlement to a close. Because it contains well-preserved ruins from all of these periods, it is considered a “Disneyland for archaeologists.” It was compelling to see the multi-layered historical panorama laid out before us: Greek brothels and Roman bathhouses abutting directly with Christian baptismal fonts and chapels; pillars of old pagan temples later etched with cruciform insignia; and on the ancient tell that rises above the city, the overlapping remains of Egyptian, Canaanite, Philistine, Israelite, Roman, and Byzantine fortifications.
          We walked through the old forum of the town, past a pillared colonnade and then up toward the rising hill of the tell. It wasn’t hard to see why this place had been so regularly chosen as a site of fortification: the hill commanded a wide view of its surroundings, standing as it did between the central hill country on one side and the lowlands of the river and the lake on the other, and it was steep enough to give it a formidable advantage in any battle. But there was something even more exciting (at least to me) about the tell: even from a quarter-mile away, I could see the sandy banks of its slope and the many holes and burrows there: a perfect spot, I thought, to find one of Israel’s most beautiful bird species—the bee-eaters.
          About half of our group made the ascent up the tell, and there, amid the ruins of six civilizations, was a flock of gorgeous European Bee-eaters. Now, I’m a history guy—both in my personal interests and in my formal education (one of my graduate degrees is in history)—and it should tell you something about just how wonderful these birds are that a history guy like me could stand in one of the most historically fascinating places he’s ever been and could only spare a glance or two at the ruins. Most of the time my eyes and my camera were pointing at the sky, where I noticed not only the splendors of the bee-eaters in flight, but, circling higher above, a swirling column of migrants. At first I thought it was another group of white storks on its way up to Europe, but as I looked closer, I saw to my great delight that it was actually a group of Great White Pelicans, making their own pilgrimage over the dry deserts of the West Bank. As I had felt so many times since coming to Israel, I had the sense that God was sharing a special delight in sending me something that he knew would thrill me through and through. Even if I couldn't join a worship service of the church in the Holy Land, I could take part in the everlasting round of creation's praise for its Maker.
         Beth Shan was, indeed, a Disneyland for me—I didn’t have any mystical experiences there, nor felt any deep connection to a biblical story or character, but I experienced the wonder of sheer joy. There was joy in the tumbled splendors of two thousand years of ancient buildings, joy in walking where great saints had walked before me (like the important but little-known Procopius the Decapolite), and joy in seeing the beauty of God’s creation on every side. Amid the reminders of the deaths of civilizations, there were also signs of new life on every side: Eurasian jays calling from the treetops, pomegranate buds blooming from branches, and the rainbow-flash of bee-eaters on the hilltop. As the old Teacher once said, “Generations come and generations go, but the earth remains forever” (Eccl. 1:4).