Academic journal article The Hymn

"When Our Lives Know Sudden Shadow": Sick to Death - What Is Our Song?

Academic journal article The Hymn

"When Our Lives Know Sudden Shadow": Sick to Death - What Is Our Song?

Article excerpt

Let me tell you about a stunningly imaginative liturgy I experienced in 1992. It was designed for an ecumenical occasion called "Healing the Health System" when public health services had been savagely cut. There was a Lazarus-like figure as centrepiece, swathed in white wrapping, and a broad white bandage connected all the pews. At a given time, after intercessory prayer, song and choreographed dance, the liturgist indicated that we should all connect to one another by holding that bandage. We stood in silence and then, by gentle movement, the "Lazarus" wrappings were unwound to reveal a woman holding a small, live baby (miraculously quiet till that moment!)-the ultimate protest about the lack of government funding for the health of the next generation. "Dollars ration out compassion" as the hymn for the occasion said ("Wounded world that cries for healing").1


Few hymns deal with the reality of sickness, not only the worry and pain of it, but the justice issue involved in care and support of the sick. Of course there are traditional hymns on the healing power of Jesus, and they are important to keep when they hold meaning and connection for us.

Maybe Psalm 23 is enough, as we go through the valley of the shadow. But maybe there is a more realistic "this world" element missing here? For my own benefit, I once wrote a first-person text:

O God, to you I cry in pain

when sickness makes me weak,

when mind and body out of tune

bring fears I cannot speak. . . . 2

It does not sit well in an ordinary congregational service of worship, but it does say something about being afraid, and reaching out in trust to One greater than ourselves.

Another and much more sombre liturgy I once shared in was the memorial torchlight procession for the victims of AIDS in Wellington, our capital city. It was a salutary experience to realise not only how many patches were laid on the symbolic quilt, but that a member of our own Presbyterian parish was one of the victims, and had recently been given a farewell from our church. In the event, Neil had chosen his favourite hymn, "As with gladness, men of old"-off-season or not, to the tune Dix. It had a kind of jauntiness which befitted his attitude to life. …

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