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  • Added April 12th, 2010
  • Filed under 'Articles'
  • Viewed 2721 times

And fools who came to scoff, remained to pray.

By Donald Phillipps in Articles

Donald considers the trend of commentators to mock the efforts of others

One of the better-known statistics of Methodism is that Charles Wesley wrote over 6000 hymns. Spread over a ministry of more than fifty years that means he composed, on average, a new hymn about every three days. To put it bluntly, and not surprisingly, the great majority of them aren't memorable.

The old Methodist Hymn Book contained just 238 of them, and With One Voice whittled the number down to 58. We might have mixed views about those that were retained and those that were left out, but on the whole the number seems about right to me. In one fairly definitive anthology of religious verse, only six Wesley hymns were deemed to merit inclusion.

The trouble with some of his hymns is that to ensure good rhyming there was a sacrifice of elegance or even good sense - word order was twisted in order to get a rhyme. One example of this, from the next century, was at the back of my mind over the Easter period - Philipp Bliss's hymn 'Man of Sorrows!' Bliss (1838-1876) was an American preacher who provided four hymns and their tunes in MHB. WOV finds no place for him at all, and I don't mourn the loss. But I do remember the first line of the second verse of 'Man of Sorrows' - because of its strange, artificial, word order: 'Bearing shame and scoffing rude.' As a small boy I thought it odd - and that's probably why it's still there in my mind, stuck fast.

Bliss must have had in mind those moments described by all the evangelists when the guards crowned Jesus with thorns and clothed him in a rich robe - and mocked him. But that ghastly episode deserves to be remembered by something more apt than 'scoffing rude' - Bliss might have put it better.

The Easter weekend is a godsend for those who like their sport. Madcap cricket from India, deadly serious rugby football from New Zealand, bone-crunching rugby league from Australia, and much better-mannered netball. And the shadow of Tiger Woods looming over the whole of the world of golf - where multi-million dollar courses stand out like opulent oases in countries where there is endemic poverty.

And always and ever the endless analysis of failure and success. Why do teams and individuals not perform as the pundits think they should? These side-line experts, no matter what their playing credentials may have been, sometimes seem to me to be miffed simply because they got their predictions wrong.

But what is worse, I think, is that they scoff. I have spent my whole life within sound of a cricket bat. I watched my first test match when I was 13, and New Zealand lost - they weren't just beaten, they were humiliated by Australia. I'm a bit thin-skinned about New Zealand cricket, and I hate it when some announcer or other in the daily news bulletins scoffs at our country's eleven just because they lost to the best team in the world. I call that sheer arrogance.

I have something of the same feelings for those who wish to take an exclusive side in the contemporary debate between science and religion. Who are so certain of the rightness of their position that they will not hear what the others are saying.

Let me start with those who no longer read the Bible with an open mind - maybe they think that a closed book provides safer shelter. Whatever the case, they do not seem to want to learn. There is for them no more light and truth to be brought forth from the living Word. That sort of self-satisfaction is very like scoffing, isn't it?

It's harder, for me, to speak about those who simply refuse to acknowledge that the world, and human life, has a spiritual dimension. Particularly when they set the parameters for such dialogue as they are willing to engage in - seeming to place themselves in a position where they don't have to justify their assumptions. If they think their position is superior, then isn't that scoffing.

In my family history the first Methodist Phillipps was a Cornish schoolmaster, late in the 18th century. He wasn't born a Methodist, and he didn't approve of them. He went to one of their meetings with some like-minded young men to disrupt it. A line from Oliver Goldsmith's 'The Deserted Village' was apparently the one he himself used to describe his conversion.

It comes at the end of the description of the village preacher who 'ran his godly race' in remote Auburn. He was not one 'to fawn or seek for power, by doctrines fashioned to the varying hour.' His house was known to all the vagrants - 'his pity gave ere charity began.' 'But in his duty prompt at every call, he watched, and wept, he prayed and felt for all.'
But these are the lines that mattered to John Phillipps:

At church, with meek and unaffected grace,
His looks adorned the venerable place;
Truth from his lips prevailed with double sway,
And fools, who came to scoff, remained to pray.'

-- Donald Phillipps

First published as a Connections article in the Parish bulletin, April 11, 2010.