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Source:
Singing the Faith: 615 (CD25 #17)
Words:
Michael Forster
Music:
“Londonderry Air” trad Irish arr Paul Leddington Wright
Metre:
11.10.11.10.11.10. and refrain
Verses:
3

Corrections to music:

2nd stave, 1st complete bar, bass clef – add natural sign before F in last chord
5th stave, 2nd bar, bass clef – add natural sign before F in last chord
2nd page, 2nd bar, treble clef – add natural sign before B in final chord

Ideas for use

This is a hymn whose central theme might be applied in many contexts. To reflect a theme of confession and/or renewal, there is central call to move on with “open hands and space to grow” – a kind of healing that Michael Forster also moves towards in God of forgiveness, your people you freed (StF 425). In particular, with its widely familiar tune (“Londonderry Air”), this is a text that might be found suitable for a wedding or renewal of vows. (cf. June Boyce-Tillman’s fine hymn, ‘We sing a love that set all people free’, available in e.g. Church Hymnary 4, #622). 

Equally, this is a hymn of gospel alternatives to the control and manipulation that characterise abusive relationships (and so may be appropriate for use on e.g. Women Against Violence Sunday).

Also consider this hymn in relation to the scenes in Gethsemane (pictured), usually remembered on Good Friday (see more below).

More information

This may appear, on first singing, to be a rather straightforward hymn advocating Christian love, but Michael Forster’s words raise some thought-provoking questions.

For example, if we are asking for love to be “real”, what does it mean for love to be “un-real”? If real love is seen “where every weakness may be safely known” (v1) or in “that strange embrace that holds yet sets us free” (v2), then what is the opposite form of love – and is it love at all? (cf. St Paul’s marks of the true Christian in his letter to the Romans , chapter 12.) 

In each of the three verses, Michael sets a definition of “real” love against forms of “un-real” love. In verse 1, he suggests love is unreal when it feels the need to “manage and to own”; when it poses and pretends – in other words, puts on an act for the approval of others. In verse 2, the managing and owning is rephrased still more forcibly, as “grasping or confining” – words that unsettlingly suggest coercion and abuse. Likewise, in verse 3, Michael writes of manipulation, harnessing and controlling. (See Ideas for Use above.) 

Countering these forms of unreal love, each verse concludes with an invitation: Give me your hand… your strength/love… your hope/trust… But these closing couplets are ambiguous – are they simply an invitation to our neighbour/partner/community member? Or could they possibly be (also) a prayer to God? e.g. v2 – “Give me your strength when all my words are weakness; give me your love in spite of all you know.” We may be reminded, for example, of Jesus’ disciples – their fallibility (Peter, Thomas…) and their failure to stay awake with Jesus in the garden of Gethsemane. Knowing ourselves to be all too like those disciples, we turn to God to ask for the strength we cannot easily find in ourselves. 

In the refrain, however, we are invited – without ambiguity – to turn to one another. Michael expresses succinctly the love we should foster. He explicitly rephrases the words of Jesus in John 13: 34 (“I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.” Cf. John 15: 12.) That love is defined here as one “with no demands, just open hands and space to grow”.

Michael Forster

Raised in an Anglican family, the Revd Michael Forster joined the Baptist Church. Following some years as a professional musician, and practising as a musician, he trained for the Baptist ministry. However, he later transferred into the United Reformed Church and took on a role as a mental health and learning disability chaplain in Leicester. He was encouraged in his (prolific) hymn writing by Kevin Mayhew, who began publishing Michael's work in 1992 (a collection of thirty hymn texts). This led to commissions for further works in a wide variety of genres, including children’s songs and stories, all-age worship, theology, and scripts for stage and radio that were performed widely, including on BBC Radio 4 and at the Royal Albert Hall. Michael died on 23 April, 2023, aged 77. 

For more about Michael, see Going home, moving on (StF 734).