History of Hymns: “We Cannot Measure How You Heal”
By C. Michael Hawn
"We Cannot Measure How You Heal"
by John L. Bell
Worship & Song, No. 3139
We cannot measure how you heal
or answer every sufferer’s prayer,
yet we believe your grace responds
where faith and doubt unite to care.
Your hands, though bloodied on the cross,
survive to hold and heal and warn,
to carry all through death to life
and cradle children yet unborn.*
Healing is a powerful and mysterious event. All too often we lack the words to express our own hurt and pain. In times of grief, it may be too difficult to hope for reconciliation on our own. John Bell (b. 1949) has a particular talent for addressing these issues directly, and with great sensitivity.
Many of the healing narratives in the Bible may provide inspiration for this hymn. One in particular comes from Luke 7:1-10 (verses 6-10 quoted below) where Jesus heals the Centurion’s servant.
“So Jesus went with them. He was not far from the house when the centurion sent friends to say to him: ‘Lord, don’t trouble yourself, for I do not deserve to have you come under my roof. That is why I did not even consider myself worthy to come to you. But say the word, and my servant will be healed.’ When Jesus heard this he was amazed at him, and turning to the crowd following him, he said ‘I tell you, I have not found such great faith even in Israel.’ Then the man who had been sent returned to the house and found the servant well” (NIV).**
Though Jesus usually responds to the needs of the sick no matter their circumstance, here the Centurion is recognized for his “faith and doubt.” We may not understand how God heals, but with faith and humility we invite healing to take place.
Mr. Bell wastes no time in getting to the point of what he wants us to say. From the very first lines it is obvious that this hymn is about healing. In the last lines of stanza one, the Rev. Bell writes that God’s healing can occur in all times; in the present struggle, in death, and in the lives of those that have not been born.
In stanza two, Bell describes our pain, guilt, fear, agony, hurt, and haunting memories.
The pain that will not go away,
the guilt that clings from things long past,
the fear of what the future holds,
are present as if meant to last. But present too is love, which tends
the hurt we never hoped to find,
the private agonies inside,
the memories that haunt the mind.
Through the use of anaphora, a poetic device where consecutive lines begin with the same word or phrase, he develops a rhythm that throbs, pulsing the very pain we are experiencing. At the center of this stanza there is a turn from distress to healing through love.
Both the first and last stanza embrace the pains of stanza two with healing hands that “hold, heal and warn,” even through “the touch of friends.” This powerful image of the immediate presence of God in humanity is not uncommon in the Rev. Bell’s hymns. Many times his poetry illustrates the incarnation in even the most simple actions or images.
It is common for John Bell to compose new music or arrange an existing melody for his hymns. YE BANK AND BRAES is a good example of how a Scottish folk tune relates the text to the experience of ordinary people. He also constructs the stanzas in such a way that the climax of the melody coincides with the description of how and what God will heal.
This hymn would be most appropriate for healing services, particularly during intercessions, and could also be used as a general response to confession.
John Lambert Bell was born in Kilmarnock, Scotland in 1949. He studied at the University of Glasgow, receiving degrees in music, English, and theology. In 1974 he was ordained by the Church of Scotland and began working as the youth coordinator for the Presbytery of Glasgow. In 1980, the Rev. Bell became a member of the Iona community and worked in several capacities for the years following. He, along with his colleague Graham Maule, formed the Wild Goose Worship Group in 1985 and later the Wild Goose Resource Group that has been an integral part of producing the bulk of their published works, most notably hymns and various worship materials.
The Rev. Bell’s focus has been on encouraging and extending the use of congregational song in Christian worship. Theologically, he identifies with the mission of the Iona Community inspired by the Celtic spiritual traditions of Irish saints Patrick (5th cent.) and Columba (521-597). These views are, in essence, the theology of God’s presence in the world through a combination of work, creation, and worship.
John Bell is internationally called upon to preach and teach in workshops, at conferences, and in local churches. An advocate for global hymnody and especially its application in the English-language church, he continues to travel all over the world gathering music and traditions from other cultures.