It is a wild and rainy day in Melbourne as I sit down to write this first post, God willing, of a new series – and the rain is fitting, because my poem for today takes inspiration from a hymn by 4th century poet and theologian, St Ephraim the Syrian, a prayer focused on the story of Noah.
O God of mercies Who didst refresh Noah, he too refreshed Thy mercies. He offered sacrifice and stayed the flood; he presented gifts and received the promise. With prayer and incense he propitiated Thee: with an oath and with the bow Thou wast gracious to him; so that if the flood should essay to hurt the earth, the bow should stretch itself over against it, to banish it away and hearten the earth. As Thou hast sworn peace so do Thou maintain it, and let Thy bow strive against Thy wrath!
Wrath is not a concept that our world likes to hear about, but in the context of Syria as it stands today the words seem to have a powerful immediacy. We can easily imagine Syrian believers today joining the congregation of Ephraim’s day responding to the priest with:
Stretch forth Thy bow against the flood, for lo! it has lifted up its waves against our walls!
As communities of Christian believers who have stood strong in Syria for nearly 2000 years leave their homes, possibly never to return, we need to stand with them in this prayer: a prayer for a land sorely besieged by the floods around it, desperately in need of our prayers and our solidarity with them.
In aid of this, and inspired by Johnnie Moore‘s call for the Western church to tell the stories of our Syrian brothers and sisters, I have decided to put together a series of poems structured around the ancient Syriac Orthodox daily prayers and the hymns of St Ephraim: an attempt to unearth some of the rich beauty of Syria’s Christian history, to remind us what is threatened, and what a powerful contribution the Syrian church has made to the Christian world.
So here is my first offering. I hope it might be a blessing to you as you read it today.
Damascus Road Prayers: Prologue
the bow is in the sky, but the floods fall still.
Our walls have stood, but now they totter.
The olive branches are wilting;
no doves fly here any more.
Noah turned away wrath with his prayer, with his sacrifice.
Were you there when they crucified my Lord? None of us today can answer “yes”. Yet the truth and power of that moment is never diminished, how much time stretches between us and it.
Today’s track from Page CXVI’s “Lent to Maundy Thursday” combines two old hymns: “Were You There?” and “O The Deep, Deep Love of Jesus”. May it help us keep preparing our hearts for the truth of Easter.
Friday Before Lent
I was not there;
my heart cannot prepare
for sights like these:
the way Love trembles on its throne,
and mercy sweats blood.
I was not there,
and in my absence there is guilt:
the nonchalance of one who sits
a safer distance from the fright;
yet Love knows I would have been
as blood-thirsty as the rest.
I was not there,
yet Love draws further
than the bounds of space and time,
into my desperate present where
the love of Jesus lives.
I was not there;
my soul cannot prepare
itself for what it finds:
mercy thick with knowledge, rich
in wisdom before time, grounded, deep
into each present cry.
(Detail from "Moses" by Rembrandt van Rijn)
What is the law of God stated in the Ten
Commandments?You shall have no other gods before me. You
shall not make for yourself an idol in the form
of anything in heaven above or on the earth
beneath or in the waters below – you shall not
bow down to them or worship them. You shall not
misuse the name of the Lord your God. Remember
the Sabbath day by keeping it holy. Honor your
father and your mother. You shall not murder.
You shall not commit adultery. You shall not
steal. You shall not give false testimony.
You shall not covet.(New City Catechism)
So we begin
what clutching hands at apple trees do not know:
accepting that there is Someone
much higher than the heights of all
our striving and our pride.
Bow down before
no other god:
not what your hands have wrought or what you
not that which eyes find pleasing nor
what beauty holds out towards you
or serves your present aims.
The depths are yours
to plumb, to swim,
yet all within is His. The water’s mirror
shines back to you your face; do not
mistake creature for Creator
or love sea more than Son.
Heart humble and
contrite, know the
joy of boundaries set out by love. The waters
stay where He commands; so we too
can rest within parameters
carved deep with mercy’s law.
Did she walk away singing, joy in heart?
The knowledge sang within her, of the Rock
From whom all water flowed, and this exchange
In fortunes – rich brought low and poor made high.
Yet richest gifts demand the largest part;
Though free, as she went home, from those who’d mock,
Such height, such grace, could not but rearrange
The substance of her heart, and magnify
That grace which gave, that love which taught to love.
Her heart exulted, yet it must exalt
Another who was higher and whose strength
Gave strength most to those with the least thereof,
Exultant yet without: the swift assault
Of mercy beyond measure, beyond length.
This year I wrote a poem for my birthday called “Thanksgiving“, based around Psalm 116. In response to a request from one of my readers, I ended up setting the poem to music and recently recorded it with my friend Dave doing vocals. On this second last day of the year it seems a fitting way to finish a year that has been full of unexpected blessings from a God who is far, far better than we could ever deserve.
John Newton, the famous hymn writer and pastor, certainly knew how to reflect on his life. Never forgetting his former life as a slave trader, womaniser and general no-good, he always approached life with a grateful heart, forever marvelling at the “amazing grace” he had known in his later life.
One birthday, towards the end of his life, he wrote the following in his diary:
My birthday…What a striking proof is my history of the deceitfulness and desperate wickedness of the heart, and of thy [God’s] wonderful, long-suffering patience and mercy…
The gratitude with which he considered each year of God’s grace in his life is reflected in a hymn he wrote based on the second half of the beautiful Psalm 116. In celebration of my recent birthday, I have recorded my own musical version of the hymn, and am sharing it here in the hope that some of you might appreciate the chance to reflect on God’s grace in your own lives. You can read Newton’s words, along with my chords, here.