Third Holy Week address at Saint Matthias’ Church, Killiney, Co Dublin
What a friend we have in Jesus,
all our sins and griefs to bear!
What a privilege to carry
everything to God in prayer!
O what peace we often forfeit,
O what needless pain we bear,
all because we do not carry
everything to God in prayer.
Have we trials and temptations?
Is there trouble anywhere?
We should never be discouraged;
take it to the Lord in prayer.
Can we find a friend so faithful
who will all our sorrows share?
Jesus knows our every weakness;
take it to the Lord in prayer.
Are we weak and heavy laden,
cumbered with a load of care?
Precious Savior, still our refuge,
take it to the Lord in prayer.
Do your friends despise, forsake you?
Take it to the Lord in prayer!
In his arms he’ll take and shield you;
you will find a solace there.
“we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses.” Hebrews 4:15
When I was a theological student twenty years ago, we had a Redemptorist priest, Fr Leonard Martin who taught us doctrine for a term.Fr Leonard had worked in the poorest shanty towns in Brazil and was very anxious that we should have a Christian faith that was in touch with the reality of life for a large proportion of the world’s population.
Leonard gave us an exercise one day.We were asked to write down five Bible verses that told people about Jesus.When the verses were gathered together, most of them came from Saint John’s Gospel, the most popular were verses such as ‘I am the way, the truth and the life’, ‘I am the resurrection and the life’, and other of Jesus’ ‘I am . . . ‘ sayings.
‘Imagine’, said Fr Leonard,’ if all the Bibles were lost and all that we had left were the verses you chose, what would we know about Jesus?’The answer was virtually nothing.The picture of Jesus from our verses was of a man who spoke in religious language; there was nothing that touched upon his humanity, nothing that suggested that he understood how it felt to know pain and sadness and grief, nothing that showed his concern for the suffering and the poor.The human Jesus had disappeared.
The New Testament is about Jesus as divine, but also it is about Jesus as human.Our celebration at Christmas is about God coming down to be with us; when we sing ‘Once in royal David’s city’, we sing,
‘And he feeleth for our sadness,
And he shareth in our gladness’.
Being a Christian is about believing in a God who knows how we feel because he has been here and because on a Good Friday in Jerusalem he experienced the utter depths of human weakness.
Saint Paul sums it up in words from the Letter to the Philippians:
‘Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus:
Who, being in very nature God,
did not consider equality with God something to be grasped,
but made himself nothing,
taking the very nature of a servant,
being made in human likeness.
And being found in appearance as a man,
he humbled himself
and became obedient to death—
even death on a cross! ‘
Our hymn this evening is one that points to Jesus who has lived and died as one of us and who is able to take on our weaknesses and our griefs.
‘What a friend we have in Jesus’ was written by a man from Banbridge, Co Down.Born in 1819 and baptised in the local parish church, where his father was churchwarden, Scriven came from a comfortable Protestant background.He graduated from Trinity College in 1842 and became engaged to local girl.On the eve of their wedding in 1844, she was crossing the Bann on horseback when the horse slipped on the bridge and she fell into the river and drowned.
Scriven felt there was nothing to keep him in Ireland and crossed the Atlantic, going first to Rice Lake in Ontario and then to Port Hope.He lived a quiet and private life, working as tutor for a number of families.
The heartbreak of his Banbridge years was repeated.He became engaged a second time, but his fiancée Eliza Roche, died after a three year battle against a lung illness.
Scriven’s life seems to have been very solitary.He was a good and generous neighbour.One of his neighbours recalled Scriven’s simple Christianity, “ I remember the times when one of the families lost their cow. They were dependent on that cow for much of their living. Mr Scriven expressed his sympathy and desire to help out, but regretted that he had no money, so offered his watch for the family to sell.2
Scriven was known as a local Brethren preacher, but seems to have written just the one hymn.When it was first published it was anonymous.When the great evangelist Sankey included the hymn in a collection he was publishing, it was attributed to the Scottish hymn writer Dr Horatius Bonar.It was not until shortly before Joseph Scriven’s death, when the hymn had been around for twenty years that Scriven was discovered to be the writer.By this time the hymn had gained huge popularity, but he had never come forward as its author.
A short time before he died, Scriven lay ill, being cared for by a James Sackville a neighbour, when Sackville found a hand written copy of the hymn in a drawer he was searching for Scriven.He read the words to Scriven and Scriven admitted having written them, “the Lord and I did it between us”, he told his neighbour.
Joseph Scriven wrote the words of “What a friend we have in Jesus” to comfort his mother who was upset at his unhappiness.Scriven believed Jesus shared in our every hurt and grief through the suffering he endured for us.
There is a Greek word used about Jesus in the Gospels which we translate as compassion, but literally means having a feeling in one’s guts.Scriven captures that feeling in his hymn.He is writing against the background of the bereavements and the disappointments of his life; he is not talking about abstract things, he is expressing feelings that he would have known deep inside.
Because of what Jesus has done for us, Joseph Scriven believes we can call on him, ‘Take it to the Lord in prayer’, he says.We are not left alone, God is there, God is with us.
Scriven describes the depths of human experience: a lack of peace, pain trials and temptations; discouragement; sorrow; weariness; desertion and betrayal.Scriven knows about the low points in life, the times when we don’t feel like talking to anyone, the times when life itself can seem pointless and empty: Joseph Scriven says that Jesus is there to help us through these griefs, but he can’t help if we won’t let him.
‘Take it to the Lord in prayer’, Scriven tells us and we find it difficult.When we are hurt and angry, when we can’t make sense of anything, it is very difficult to think about saying prayers.We may even feel that God has turned his back on us, isn’t that the very feeling that Jesus expresses as he hangs dying on the Cross?Matthew and Mark both tell us that at the ninth hour Jesus cried out, “Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachthani?”—which means, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”Jesus in the depths of his despair knows our every feeling.
Joseph Scriven’s hymn is about those moments in life when we can put no more than two or three words together, those times when we feel so numb that we cannot manage anything more—God is there it says, God will help.
Hurt and sorrowful, weary and battered, left alone—we can be at the very lowest point of life and even at that point we can find hope and triumph, “in his arms he’ll take and shield thee, thou wilt find a solace there”.
A life of disappointment, bereavement and obscurity, Scriven may have died without anyone ever knowing who wrote the words of the hymn; the fact that we know about his disappointments and his sorrow brings the hymn to life; his words are written from the heart.
‘Take it to the Lord in prayer’ because he knows our every weakness; on a Friday in Jerusalem he experienced our every pain and came through triumphant.