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Comfort, Comfort Now My People: A hymn and prayer service on the theme of peace

Many churches held prayer services after the tragic events of September 11, 2001. A year later, or during Advent, or during the cold of winter, your congregation may wish once more to gather to pray for peace in our broken world. This service could be adapted in many ways. For example, a choir is optional and you may want to consider alternative hymns (if so you’ll need to adapt the commentary as well). This service was cosponsored by Mayflower Congregational Church, Grand Rapids, Michigan, and the Grand Rapids chapter of the American Guild of Organists.

Prelude: Canzona on “Blessed Jesus, at Thy Word,” Richard Purvis

Words of Welcome

Welcome to this hymn festival. We invite you to explore with us what it means to seek peace, to practice peace, to find peace. Let’s begin with the glorious message that lit up the sky long ago, when lowly shepherds couldn’t help but hear the angels celebrate the night the Prince of Peace was born. They heard because the doors of heaven were opened that night when Jesus left his home to come to earth, to become one with us. The shepherds got to listen in as the angels echoed their praise throughout the vaults of heaven. Let’s add our echo in this joyful setting of Luke 2:14 by the Argentine composer Pablo Sosa. Be sure to watch for the coda, where the echo on only the word “Gloria” will continue as the angels ascend back to the heavenly places.

Hymn: “Gloria / Glory” SNC 116 (see p. 34)

I. Peace with God

Commentary

On Christmas morning, we heard the angels break through to earth when Christ was born. They sang, and we love to echo their words: “Hark! The herald angels sing, ‘Glory to the newborn King, peace on earth, and mercy mild, God and sinners reconciled.’”

But where is this peace the angels spoke of? All around us we see brokenness and suffering—within nations, within congregations, within families, and too often within ourselves. Refugees flee their homes, churches split, marriages fail, cancer destroys. Our country is currently engaged in what some call a war against terrorism. People everywhere are looking for peace, for comfort. Yet, in the midst of suffering, there has always been the promise of comfort. God spoke through the prophet Isaiah: “Cry out to Jerusalem of the peace that waits for them.” Let us be comforted as we sing a hymn based on that passage from Isaiah 40, “Comfort, Comfort Now My People.”

And in the next hymn by the contemporary composer Marty Haugen, let us remember that after many years of waiting, Christ did come, he did enter into our broken world and brought healing and comfort. In “Healer of Our Every Ill,” we pray as we sing, knowing that Jesus knows our fears and sadness. But Jesus offers peace beyond our fear. True peace with God comes in accepting the gift of grace, which is still unfolding, providing hope beyond our sorrow.

Hymns“Comfort, Comfort Now My People” PsH 194, PH 3, RL 169, SFL 121, TH 197, TWC 132 Introduction for two recorders and organ by Johann Crüger (see PsH 42); we also used the first line as an interlude between the stanzas.

“Healer of Our Every Ill” SNC 205

II. Peace with Creation

Commentary

The psalms are filled with praise to God for the wonders of creation. Psalm 19, for example, begins, “The heavens are telling the glory of God, and the firmament proclaims his handiwork. Day to day pours forth speech, and night to night declares knowledge.” Those lines are picked up at the end of our next hymn, “All Beautiful the March of Days.” Many nature hymns speak of springtime and harvest. Not this one, written by Frances Wile on the suggestion of her pastor to write about “the spiritual values of winter.” And so the lovely wintry references. Note one other scriptural reference: in addition to Psalm 19, Frances Wile quotes part of the angel’s announcement at the end of stanza 2, again reminding us of God’s announcement of peace.

Hymn: “All Beautiful the March of Days” PH 292, RL 9

Commentary

The hymn we just sang is typical of nineteenth-century hymns about creation; they praise God for the beauty and wonder of nature. But in creation itself we see brokenness, and we puzzle over right and just ways to manage the precious gifts of water, soil, and air in the face of global warming and fragile environments. As nations become aware of how they have abused the creation, we lament that we too have contributed to that abuse. David Robb wrote “Children from Your Vast Creation” during the Rio de Janeiro Summit on the Environment in 1992. The hymn is a stark confession of the abuse that sustains our consumerist culture. And so even as we praise God for the beautiful world we live in, we lament and repent of our poor earth-keeping as we pray that God will “recreate us in your image, speed the day your will is done.”

Hymn: “Children from Your Vast Creation” SNC 58 For stanza 4 we used the alternate harmonization and descant from the Leader’s Edition of Sing! A New Creation.

III. Peace with Our Neighbor

Anthem: “Cause Us, O Lord,” Ron Nelson (SATB, Boosey and Hawkes)

Commentary

That beautiful choral prayer for protection, for shelter, for peace, is an admission that we live in a dangerous world, as many people around the world have long known and as we have learned in a new way since the events of 9/11. When we look around the world, we lament how neighbor takes up arms against neighbor with words, with guns, with money. When selfishness, fear, and yes, sin, prevent us from loving our neighbor as ourselves, we do not know peace. Let us now pray together for peace between neighbors. This song was written in the context of North and South Korea, two nations technically still at war, a place where Christians long for peace. We will sing this prayer in English.

Hymn: “Ososo / Come Now, O Prince of Peace” SNC 209

This prayer song could also be sung as a refrain between segments of spoken prayers for different parts of our world, with one stanza after each spoken prayer.

Commentary

In the following hymn we confess the whole creation is laboring, groaning, looking but never finding true peace. Because, as Delores Duffner writes, only in Christ is our peace. And when Christ becomes our peace, we “ain’t gonna study war no more.”

Hymn: “In Labor All Creation Groans” SNC 270 Men and women sing on alternate stanzas, using the arrangement in the Leader’s Edition of Sing! A New Creation.

Spiritual: “Down by the Riverside” (Lift Every Voice and Sing II 210) Led by a gospel pianist.

IV. Go in Peace; Work for Peace

Commentary

After September 11, 2001, many churches held prayer services. You may have heard the story how someone, moved by a particularly powerful reading, came up after the service to ask the pastor where he could get a copy. The source? Psalm 46. That psalm was read and sung again and again last fall. We sing that psalm now in a versification by Fred Anderson, pastor of the Madison Avenue Presbyterian Church in New York City. He chose the tune michael by the English composer Herbert Howells, who composed it in memory of his son. Anderson found it very meaningful to work on this classic text of hope that would be sung to a tune arising out of pain.

Hymn: “God, Our Help and Constant Refuge” SNC 183

Commentary

From that powerful and dramatic psalm setting we turn to the familiar words of Saint Francis of Assisi, as set by James Quinn to an early English tune. Here we commit ourselves to being peacemakers.

Hymn: “Lord, Make Us Servants” SNC 204

Parting Words

May you find peace with God, may you work for peace in creation, may you seek peace with every neighbor, near and far. And know this: that God will one day bring shalom and salaam and deep peace to a new heaven and a new earth.

Doxology: “Praise, My Soul, the King of Heaven” PsH 475, PH 478, RL 144, TH 76, TWC 26

Parting Blessing: “A Gaelic Blessing,” John Rutter (SATB, Hinshaw Music, Inc.)