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HYMN FOR LENT 2 God Moves in a Mysterious Way

Text: William Cowper (1731-1800) Tune: Dundee

Get Thee Behind Me, Satan by Ilya Repin; 1895,

 1 God moves in a mysterious way

His wonders to perform;

He plants His footsteps in the sea

and rides upon the storm. 

2 Deep in unfathomable mines

of never-failing skill;

He treasures up His bright designs,

and works His sov'reign will. 

3 Ye fearful saints, fresh courage take;

the clouds ye so much dread

are big with mercy and shall break

in blessings on your head. 

4 Judge not the Lord by feeble sense,

but trust Him for His grace;

behind a frowning providence

He hides a smiling face.

5 His purposes will ripen fast,

unfolding every hour;

the bud may have a bitter taste,

but sweet will be the flow'r.

6 Blind unbelief is sure to err,

and scan His work in vain;

God is His own interpreter,

and He will make it plain.


(I am sending these out earlier in the week so people studying the text for the Sunday can think about it longer.) I can think of no hymn just now with the scene of Jesus wheeling around to Peter and rebuking him with the memorable line, Get thee behind me, Satan!


It is clear that except for African American spirituals and Lutheran hymns from Luther through the great period of orthodoxy, 1524-1700, most hymns tend to skirt over the darkest, or most difficult, texts and rush to the sunny side, the end of Jesus’ passion, almost as if trying to make it all right. Or the hymn is written after a terrible crisis and things have been resolved.

Cowper in his study by Mary Evans

This hymn, however, does not. William Cowper lived a life of mental terror. He suffered terrible moods of depression and despair. He had to be institutionalized several times for his mental condition. One shudders to think of the horrors of the house of Bedlam, as mental hospitals were called at the time. They were not nice places, often like prisons. Many patients would be chained to keep them from rising up and attacking their caregivers. Fortunately a kindly couple, Morley and Mary Unwin, took Cowper (Cooper) in and gave him a place to live safely. John Newton, the writer of "Amazing Grace", began working with him to produce a remarkable book of hymns known as Olney Hymns 1779.


The story of Jesus both blessing and rebuking Peter contains the highs and lows of our life with Christ. He has just told Peter, that upon the rock of his confession that Jesus is Lord, he will build his church, and then suddenly Peter becomes like Satan. Peter must have been both ashamed and puzzled. How could the one who was the Christ, be the one who would be killed? It made no sense. But Jesus has a good sense for his church.


The congregation, most theologians will agree, is a holy institution, established by God. And yet all who join it are sinners. Most of them forgiven sinners, I rush to add. But they are still sinners, and can do unimaginable harm to one another. Even fights about the color of the kitchen walls can become ultimate rather than penultimate and the fellowship can be torn apart while both sides call upon the Lord for their support. “Blind unbelief is sure to err.” Cowper knows that. Most of the time it is believers, not unbelievers, going to war. It is not pretty and the wounds it leaves can be lethal.


That Peter should be the founder of this church is maybe an emblem for that. Something to remember in our life in a congregation. While he a brilliant leader, Peter is also a fallible and sinful denier of Christ. The same man, sinner and saint. We all are.


When Jesus commands Peter to get behind him, he is really saying, Follow me. We don’t follow Peter, we follow the Lord he denied but loved to the death. When we give up all and lose our lives for the love of Christ, he tells us many many times, we gain a life rich in meaning and blessings, even if we sometimes only see the “frowning providence” as Cowper calls it. Many quibble with that notion and revise it because they don't want people to think God frowns. I don’t. Ultimately that may be true, but our experience may be that we see the dark side first. Many times it is hard to see the good one is being led toward in our daily life of faith. We walk by faith, not by sight. The bud right now may taste bitter, but we believe the flower will be sweet. What Jesus teaches us here is that when we follow him, we follow him into life, eternal life. A richness we cannot even imagine.



William Cowper Painting by Henry Duke

Cowper and Newton were neighbors and friends who worked together for years. They shared their hatred of slavery and wrote against it. In 1779 the two published a collection of hymns known as the Olney Hymns. It contained some of the most beloved English hymns of all time. “Amazing Grace” was part of that collection, as was this one. Cowper named it “Light Shining out of Darkness.” He had written it after his third attempt at suicide. Out of that darkness came a great light that has shone for Christians ever since, and assured them they should not judge by “their feeble sense,” but trust in God’s grace. There are several tunes for this famous hymn. Dundee is the tune I know best; New London, the tune Britten used, sounds a lot like it.


Selwyn College Choir

George Beverly Shea

Benjamin Britten—go to ca. minute 46:00 to hear a thrilling version of the hymn from the Britten opera Saint Nicolas


 NB: Here is the link to my latest book. It would help me a lot if more than 50 were pre-sold by March 15 at a lower price. Thank you!






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