Carry the banner

Meditation #1 – Carry the Banner of Faith

  • Scripture #1 – 1 Corinthians 13:1-6
  • Hymn # - In The Bulb, There Is A Flower”

Do you remember the last wedding that you attended? Most often weddings are orchestrated with all the traditional wedding flowers and fanfare and even including the reading from 1 Corinthians 13 (the love chapter) to round out what most believe is the perfect romantic wedding. Rings, flowers, soloists, Bridal march, and 1 Corinthians 13! What more could say “O Perfect Love” than a wedding with all the basics! Unfortunately, it takes only a short while before the couple is swimming through the rocky waters of questioning whether they made a colossal mistake in getting married in the first place. Even though they read from 1Corinthians 13 and everything, they can’t understand when things turn sour? They had pledged to do their best to make their love patient, kind and avoid being envious, boastful, arrogant or rude. They promised to avoid insisting on their own way; being irritable or resentful, never rejoicing in wrongdoing, but instead rejoicing in the truth! What happened? Actually the Love Chapter from 1 Corinthians was never intended to be a script for a wedding, an embroidered verse on a pillow or even a recipe for a marriage. It was actually written to and for a church in a great deal of conflict. The church was caught in a web of self-satisfaction and self-indulgence, fixated on a “look at me” mantra that was only selfish and self-serving. They felt they were superior to anyone in their belief and their own opinions. Theirs was a church that would have taken 1 Corinthians 13, framed it and hung it in the narthex of their church and felt that Paul was describing them to a T, totally unaware he was saying, ”Everything you think that you are, you aren’t in the least; and everything you believe you are not, describes you perfectly. I Corinthians 13 provided them an image that invited them to look and to see how far they were from that image.

The goal was to develop in three areas. Faith, Hope and Love. Faith. This is the season when political leaders are vying to win our faith in them to become our elected leaders. (Fortunately Canada understands that a 30 day election process is far superior than the 2 year slog through mud and blood that the States subjects the citizens to!) But whether 2 years or 30 days, the attempt is the same, “Have faith in me and not in the person on the other side of the aisle that anyone can see is not faith-worthy!”

Faith is described of being sure of what we hope for and the evidence of what we cannot yet see. Natalie Sleeth was a musician who began playing the piano at the age of four. Throughout her life she was an organist, the wife of a seminary preaching professor and a college President and a composer of sacred music. Her first significant composition was written for her husband’s inauguration as College President and became the highest selling anthem in the history of that publisher. 15 years later, in 1985, her husband was diagnosed with a malignant cancer and she was inspired to write the hymn that we are about to sing. Natalie was inspired by the poetry of T. S. Eliot, who wrote a section of poems known as 4 Quarters. East Coker, the 2nd in the series which Eliot started writing in 1939, were over the disillusionment following World War I and bracing for the gathering storm of World War II. East Coker church was where TS Eliot felt the misery for all humankind when he penned, “In my beginning is my end.” What is the meaning of our short lives? What hope are we given in this passing world? These questions are always with us. A wall plaque in the church commemorates him with a quotation from his poem East Coker: "In my beginning is my end. In my end is my beginning." Perhaps Natalie had seen that plaque when she and Ronald received word of his malignancy. She took this poem borrowing heavily from Eliot’s poem and turned it into a resurrection hymn under the title "Hymn of Promise"

In the bulb there is a flower; in the seed, an apple tree; in cocoons, a hidden promise: butterflies will soon be free! In the cold and snow of winter there’s a spring that waits to be, unrevealed until its season, something God alone can see.*

Though "Hymn of Promise" has become a favorite hymn for funerals, it was written at a time when Natalie expressed that she was "pondering the ideas of life, death, spring and winter, Good Friday and Easter, and the whole reawakening of the world that happens every spring." While it carries the promise of spring and the hope of Easter in its beautiful metaphors, unfortunately it like the 23rd Psalm is relegated primarily to funeral and memorial services. Even though Ronald Sleeth requested "Hymn of Promise" be sung at his funeral service but in the same way that I Corinthians 13 is not really about marriage, neither is IN the Bulb there is a flower, about death. Instead it is a hymn of faith that gives hope to our beginnings and our endings.

In the cold and snow of winter there's a spring that waits to be, unrevealed until it's season, something God alone can see.

From the past will come the future; what it holds, a mystery, unrevealed until its season, something God alone can see.

Faith is where we begin knowing that only God can see it all. From the past will come our future, what it holds, a mystery.

Meditation #2 – Carry the Banner of Hope

  • Scripture #2 – 1 Corinthians 13:7-13
  • Hymn # 2- “Live Into Hope”

The composer of our next hymn grew up 30 miles from the church that I served in Indiana for 9 years. Born to missionary parents in China, Jane Parker Huber grew up in a long line of Presbyterian leaders. Her father was President of the Presbyterian College that our daughter attended. After she and her minister husband retired from St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Church in Indianapolis that they founded and served for 33 years, they retired to the small college community where Jane had grown up. Jane was Presbyterian through and through. She was only 2 ½ when her mother was asked to attend the 1929 Presbyterian (USA) General Assembly to join the committee of 100 Women asked to report on the causes of unrest among women in the Presbyterian Church. How might they serve the church more significantly than hosting bake sales and teaching preschoolers. Still it would take an additional 17 years before women could do more in the Presbyterian Church than moderate the sewing guilds. Then in 1946 the call and gifts of women were recognized when an all male General Assembly would endorse women to begin serving as elders. Unfortunately in Canada, it was 20 years after that, in 1966, before the gifts of women were recognized to serve as an elder. Previously they had only been allowed to serve as deaconesses or as missionaries. It was never “if” Jane would serve the church, it was “how” and “where” she would serve the church. She served as program coordinator for Presbyterian Women, the Council on Women and the Church, Joint Committee on Women, Social Justice and Peacemaking Ministry Unit, and the General Assembly Council. She was recognized as a “Valiant Woman” by Church Women United. For many years, she was recognized as a respected sage through her regular column, “Ask Jane,” in the magazine for Presbyterian Women. Given her history, it is not easy to determine why she may have written “Live Into Hope.” In many ways it stands tall in the 200+ hymns that she wrote and published. It is included in the Presbyterian Hymnal in which Jane served on the committee that helped publish it in 1990. Perhaps it has something to do with the final 12 years of the Huber’s service in Indianapolis. It was 1976 when Jane wrote Live Into Hope and when fellow Presbyterian minister and former pastor of the 2nd Presbyterian Church in Indianapolis, not far from St. Andrew’s, Bill Hudnut, was elected mayor of the city. He brought hope to a city that still struggled with race relations and while not confirmed, I have no doubt that Bill and Jane welcomed new hope to their area. Jane lived with and expressed the hope that the church proclaimed yet knew that hope could often be obliterated by doubt. Live into hope espouses hope not always recognized by all. The captives are more than a biblical image of those who were imprisoned. It refers to those blinded by shades of pride and fear and calls for the right to speak and the right to be. We have come a long way but we still aren’t there yet. Jane would encourage, Don’t give up. Live into the hope in until God’s vision is near. The prophet and the apostle said…

“For I know the thoughts that I think toward you, says the LORD, thoughts of peace and not of evil, to give you a future and a hope.” Jeremiah 29:11
“Now may the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, that you may abound in hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.” Romans 15:13

Meditation #3 – Carry the Banner of Love

  • Scripture #3 – Psalm 136:1-9, 23-26
  • Hymn # 3- “O Love that wilt not let me go”

George Matheson was born in Glasgow on 27th March 1842. He was the eldest of eight children in the family and one of the brightest. After excelling at school he entered Glasgow University where he studied Classics, Logic and Philosophy.
He graduated with class honours when he was only 19 years old but tragedy struck as he neared completion of his studies – he was rapidly going blind. An incurable condition would eventually result in total blindness. Consider the devastation but for George there was to be an even heavier blow. He had met and fallen in love with a girl at the University who was a fellow student and they were planning their wedding. As he told her of his impending blindness, her blunt answer added to his devastation, “I do not want to be the wife of a blind man” she said – and she left.
Years later the memory of her betrayal came rushing back on the evening of his sister’s wedding. In describing the pain of that night, he tells what he felt as he penned his most famous hymn but unlikely hymn, “O Love That Wilt Not Let Me Go.”

“My hymn was composed in the manse of Innellan in June, 1882, when I was 40 years of age. I was alone in the manse at that time. It was the night of my sister’s marriage, and the rest of the family were staying overnight in Glasgow. Something happened to me, which was known only to myself, and which caused me the most severe mental suffering. The hymn emerged from that suffering. It was the quickest bit of work I ever did in my life. I had the impression of having it dictated to me by some inner voice rather than of working it out myself. I am quite sure that the whole work was completed in five minutes, and equally sure that it never received any retouching or correction. All the other verses I have ever written are manufactured articles; this came like a dayspring from on high”.

It was through the deep trials of illness and desertion that George Matheson had come to place all his trust and hope in the love of God. From that moment, despite his limitations, he resolved to enter seminary and the Christian ministry.

He began his ministry in 1868 at Innellan, on the Argyll coast near Dunoon and served there for 18 years. Not only did he preach, but he wrote a number of books on spiritual matters. His ministry and writings came to the attention of Queen Victoria and when in Scotland she invited him to preach at Balmoral. She also had one of his sermons, on the Book of Job, published. 18 years later he moved to Edinburgh, where he became minister of St. Bernard’s Parish Church for 13 years.
George remained single his entire life but he continued to prove the truth of his hymn, that there was a love that would never let him go – the love of Christ for all.

George Matheson died suddenly of a stroke at the age of 64 in Edinburgh and is buried in the Glasgow. Matheson once said, “That hymn was the fruit of my suffering.” There is an important lesson in that. All of us suffer some sort of heartbreak or disappointment or disability at some point in our lives. What makes all the difference is our response —whether we let the hardship stop us or inspire us to greater effort.

Matheson suffered two severe blows that could have stopped him—the loss of his eyesight and the loss of his beloved. In both cases, he made the best of a bad situation—and we are all the richer for it. As this hymn reveals, it was his faith in God that kept him going through the adversities that he suffered. He believed that God’s love would not let him go—and that God’s light would follow him all his way—and that God’s joy would seek him through his pain—and that faith made all the difference. George’s faith had been shattered but his testimony is the hymn that we are about to sing. O Love that Wilt Not Let Me Go speaks of a weary soul, and the pain of lying in the dust. Still Matheson alludes to a faith that will endure. The reason for that is described in the 136th Psalm when the Psalminst writes “God did not forget us when we were defeated. God’s love is eternal. God freed us from our enemies. God’s love is eternal. Faith, hope and love do abide but the greatest of these is love…God’s love that wraps us like a blanket, assures and reassures us when we doubt, and sustains us when we want to do nothing but quit. For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, 39 nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

Give thanks to the Lord, for he is good, for his steadfast love endures forever.