What do our hymns say about ‘petition’?

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At its simplest, petition is the act of asking. The word is often used in the context of making a formal approach to an authority or higher power, such as a monarch or a court of law, that has within its power the gift of hearing and granting a request or point of view.* Love Maria Willis presents her petition quite simply: Father, hear the prayer we offer (StF 518).

Nowhere in the hymns of Singing the Faith is a petition expressed more memorably than in what is sometimes known as the ‘Seafarer’s hymn’, Eternal Father, strong to save by William Whiting (StF 517), with its deeply-felt refrain:

O hear us when we cry to thee
for those in peril on the sea.

While Love Willis’s request is made on behalf of “us”, the worshipping community, Whiting’s plea is made on behalf of others. So is Fred Pratt Green’s petition in Lord Jesus, once a child (StF 537), intended for the somewhat less traumatic circumstances of infant baptism – and one of many occasions in the life of faith when prayers of petition seem natural: “receive this little child of ours / into your flock and fold”.

Give to me, Lord, a thankful heart and a discerning mind (StF 520) is entirely personal, while adding a further dimension to our understanding of petition. This prayer by the United Reformed minister, Caryl Micklem, is for help in living “a life that trusts in you”. His words suggest that Christian petition is not simply about getting something from God. It isn’t about arranging a transaction or simply requiring a problem to be solved or a situation to be made better, even when we hope for these things. Like a number of other hymn writers, Micklem implies that ‘petition’ is something deeper than that: a sense of wanting – needing – to be closer to God because we ourselves have an inadequately human, partial, view of things:

When, in the rush of days, my will
is habit-bound and slow,
help me to keep in vision still
what love and power and peace can fill
a life that trusts in you.

Our desire to pray for others follows from a realisation that we, too need God’s help: It’s me, it’s me, O Lord, standing in the need of prayer (StF 523). Clare Stainsby expresses this well when she speaks about her own hymn Here as we kneel, here as we pray (StF 521). While petition is the task of asking for God’s help or grace for others it is also the act of accepting our own reliance on God.

Charles Wesley understands this without a doubt (StF 355):

Jesus, lover of my soul,
let me to thy bosom fly…

Other refuge have I none,
hangs my helpless soul on thee;
leave, ah, leave me not alone,
still support and comfort me.

St Martin's Cross, Isle of Iona

In a style that echoes prayers from the Celtic traditions, a contemporary hymn by Tim Hughes (StF 497)also expresses, quite simply, this desire to be guided by God’s presence:

God in my living,
there in my breathing,
God in my waking,
God in my sleeping.

He encapsulates the idea that petition is not so much about asking as about desiring to be at one with God, praying for Christ to be “in me” and building a refrain on the increasingly pared down phrases: “Be my everything. You are everything. Jesus, everything.” Tim Hughes’ words are also mirrored in Scott Wesley Brown’s More like you, Jesus, more like you (StF 505) and My eyes be open to your presence (StF 560) by Nick and Anita Haigh.

See other hymns of Intercession* and Petition.

*Prayers of Intercession are a form of petition, though – as the Revd Prebendary Norman Wallwork points out – “public intercession is traditionally about the needs of Church, nations, those in need, and the departed rather than the specific needs of the individual believer for grace and guidance”.

Categories: Hymns as prayer.

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