Hymns have been part of my world since childhood. Now, aged 80, my mental hard disk has a huge store of them. I know the words of scores of hymns by heart, and bring them to mind from time to time to express what I’m experiencing of life, and to use as prayers.
The best ones are like a stock cube that we use for flavouring a casserole or making gravy: a meaty concentration of flavour and goodness. Every word counts, often with a hint of further biblical allusions. Here’s one I love, dating from the nineteenth century but as flavoursome as ever:
Father, hear the prayer we offer.
Not for ease that prayer shall be,
But for strength that we may ever
Live our lives courageously.
Not for ever in green pastures
Do we ask our way to be,
But the steep and rugged pathway
May we tread rejoicingly.
Not forever by still waters
Would we idly rest and stay,
But would smite the living fountains
From the rocks along our way.
Be our strength in hours of weakness,
In our wanderings be our guide.
Through endeavour, failure, danger,
Father, be thou at our side.
The author, Love Maria Willis, skilfully weaves together two Old Testament themes and applies them to the daily life of the Christian. The first is the well-known ‘green pastures…still waters’ imagery of Psalm 23, where the psalmist rejoices in the divine shepherd’s care, God graciously enabling him to graze and drink in peace.
The second is a contrasting picture: the saga of Israel’s forty years of wanderings after they escaped slavery in Egypt and headed through the desert to the Promised Land, facing many struggles on the way.
Verse 1 begins the prayer with an admission that this duality is how it is for all of us in life: periods of both calm and stress. It recognises that constant peace and calm is too much to expect. Inevitably we will face challenges. In that case, let’s ask our heavenly Father to give us strength to face those challenges, when they come, with courage.
Verse 2 concedes that life in the ‘green pastures’ is delightful, but we can’t expect to lounge there every day. Like the Israelites in the desert of Sinai, we will be called to tackle many a ‘steep and rugged pathway’. We will be sweating and out of breath. So let’s ask Father to help us tackle those rough stretches with a glad heart and a positive outlook—’rejoicingly’.
Verse 3 takes the same line, but in ‘still waters’ imagery. While it’s pleasant resting by the lakeside, with a drink of water available whenever we feel the need, life’s journey will take us at times through a desert’s drought conditions. We will be desperate for a cooling drink. It was in such conditions that Moses, Israel’s leader, called upon the Lord, who commanded him to strike a rock with his staff, whereupon water flowed from it. We, too, can call on Father for miraculous provision in our own deserts.
Verse 4 pulls it all together and brings the prayer to a close. Yes, in our desert wanderings we will experience weakness, struggles (‘endeavour’), failure and danger. But we can call on the Lord to be ‘our guide’ through them all, and thus be confident of arriving safely in the Promised Land of his eternal kingdom.
It’s wonderful stuff. Simple, yet profound. Not a single wasted word. It has cheered and encouraged Christians for 150 years, and is set to keep going. Is it a new one to you? Perhaps it’s one to learn by heart and keep on your own mental hard disk for future retrieval?