Text: Fred Pratt Green (1903-2000). Tune: William Walker/Southern Harmony (1835)
1. O Christ, the healer, we have come To pray for health, to plead for friends. How can we fail to be restored, When reached by love that never ends?
2. From every ailment flesh endures Our bodies clamor to be freed; Yet in our hearts we would confess That wholeness is our deepest need.
3. How strong, O Lord, are our desires, How weak our knowledge of ourselves! Release in us those healing truths Unconscious pride resists or shelves.
4. In conflicts that destroy our health, We diagnose the world's disease; Our common life declares our ills: Is there no cure, O Christ, for these?
5. Grant that we all, made one in faith, In your community may find The wholeness that, enriching us, Shall reach the whole of humankind. Text: Copyright Hope Music Publishing Company, 1969.
MEDITATION I have a bad memory of this hymn. There was conflict in a congregation I knew well and, like many of these conflicts, it became one between the pastors with some in the parish siding with one pastor, and others with the other.
It was ugly as those things go. One Sunday the preacher for that day, and the leader of one side, preached a sermon savagely attacking the other pastor, my father. It was deeply distressing to me. With a flourish the preacher concluded with the words of this hymn, hoping for reconciliation, hardly possible given the sermon, and then we sang it. I could not, since my convictions and affections were naturally with his opponent. Every time this hymn comes up I haven't been able to sing it. Just hearing the tune brings it all back and my stomach churns.
F. Pratt Green, a pastor in the Methodist church of Britain for many years, knew whereof he spoke. The hymn ponders what it means that Jesus both forgave sins and healed people to get at the root of their diseases. Pratt Green knew congregations well. Their fights tend to go deep because their concerns are eternal. They go to the mat on everything. But what often happens is ultimate questions get played out against issues which seem less than ultimate like what color to paint the kitchen.
There usually are two sides to a fight and most observers will split the difference and that is about right even if the color in the kitchen puts the losers' teeth on edge every time they see it. If there has been unfortunate rancor, both sides need to ask forgiveness. Disagreements do not need to be resolved for there to be forgiveness and civility.
Sometimes splitting the difference, however, means giving the evil one equal standing with the Lord. Sometimes the battle really is between good and evil. What if someone had said to Jesus as he was doing battle with Satan in the wilderness, I affirm both sides?
Since we are sinful people and, as the hymn notes, blind to our own sins and need the truth to be released in us, we cannot always know what is at the heart of the conflict we are in or observing. It may be best not to stop the conflict with calls for peace until we know the full story, insofar as it is possible to know it. Sometimes peacemakers, by forcing a peace without dealing with the issues, become trouble makers. Easy talk about forgiveness overlooks how difficult it is. Bringing things out in the open could just make everything worse so we make practical truces with those we love. Not everything can be solved in human relationships. As Stephen Dunn says in his poem "Long Term"
"Each day they stayed together, therefore,
was a day of forgiveness, tacit,
no reason to say the words."
From Local Time by Stephen Dunn
Pratt Green's hymn goes deeper than most superficial cries for peace between Christians. He gets at the real issues, I think, that we see in Mark 2, healing and forgiveness. Jesus knew the two had to be treated for there to be wholeness. One must attend to how these conflicts can corrode one's spirit. Am I suffering from wanting revenge? Maybe, but it is too late now. Vengeance is mine, says the Lord. Living a long time gives one insight into this—I have seen, even in this situation, that we all harvest the seeds we have sown. The wheels of justice grind exceeding slow, but exceeding fine.
I can't quite sort it out. Do I need forgiveness for being angry about the way my father was treated? All kids with parents in public office must have these feelings, I am sure. They boil up in me whenever I hear the hymn. "Is there no cure for these?" Writing this meditation has made me think about this again in a way that puts me under conviction. Or at least causes me some rethinking. Maybe I need to hear the message in the hymn. Christ has forgiven me my anger, but this old and still festering memory, the "conflicts that destroy our health" needs healing. The hymn reminds me Christ came to heal the “world’s disease” and mine.
F. Pratt Green led the Hymn Explosion of the 1960s in England. He and Fred Kaan responded to the call for new hymns, in much the same way that Anders Frostenson did in Sweden. As a long time Methodist pastor Pratt Green knew the issues in congregations and wrote hymns that spoke for the people in them. After his retirement, he devoted himself to writing hymns. He wanted to write hymns that were better poetry than some of the poorly wrought songs of his day, he said. He became extremely popular over his long lifetime as a hymn writer. People loved his message and his concerns. I find his hymns a bit too abstract and theological, but understand their appeal. In 1993 he was awarded an MBE from the Queen for his work in hymnody.
The tune is from the Sacred Harp tradition and a keeper much beloved today. Several tunes work well with the text.
LINKS Robert Powell playing the tune Distress https://youtu.be/QcX00qTmcUE
Nativity Church/another tune https://youtu.be/P6H5haq7k10
First Plymouth Church Lincoln Nebraska/Talllis Canon https://youtu.be/1O5vdLNE-Gw