Psalms for the Spirit Ep. 17: Delivering us through the Pains of Life and Death, with John Bell


For some, Advent is a time of grief and loss. Today’s guest is John Bell – hymnwriter, author, and broadcaster and a guiding light from the Iona Community as he has for decades created resources for the global church in music, worship and spirituality.

I first became aware of John Bell as I was growing up, when I started to notice his name in the credits for so many of the sacred songs that I loved, and then our paths crossed in Northern Ireland some years ago when I was tasked with picking him up for a conference we were involved in. I have a striking memory of him striding out of the ferry in his bright red Doc Martin shoes, and I was delighted to discover that John Bell is warm and personable, has an easy laugh and a wry sense of humour, and speaks with a refreshing frankness while also displaying a clear empathy and compassion for others.

I recently discovered that he had written a book entitled “Living with the Psalms” – so I got in touch to see if he would be willing to have a chat about his insights, and we were able to do so right when the world had its eye on his city of Glasgow during COP26.

In this conversation we talk about how the Psalms – much like the incarnation we celebrate in this season – speak of God’s solidarity with us in our vulnerability, how the Psalms give us permission to express doubt and anger when we come face to face with suffering and injustice, how sacred songs have the power to heal and tend to the brokenhearted, and how the Psalms offer us the precious image of God as midwife – delivering us through the pains of life and death. 

There is some sensitive content in this episode, particularly about tragic loss of infants or children, so please be aware of that as you listen, and make sure you have the support you need in case any of the subjects are difficult to hear about.  

Most episodes of Psalms for the Spirit feature the music of Celtic Psalms, but it seemed only appropriate today to feature the renowned hymnwriting of John Bell – please see below for information on the songs, and thanks to John, the Iona Community, and GIA for allowing the use of these songs on this podcast. 

So whatever it is that brought you here, I’m glad you’re with us. 

Find the podcast on the Psalms for the Spirit website or subscribe on Apple, Google or wherever you listen to your podcasts.

More about John:

John L. Bell is a Resource Worker with The Iona Community, who lectures, preaches and conducts seminars across the denominations.  He is a hymn writer, author and occasional broadcaster, but retains a primary passion for congregational song.  John is based in Glasgow and works with his colleagues in the areas of music, worship and spirituality. 

Purchase John Bell’s book “Living with the Psalms”


The music in this episode is by John L. Bell (aside from intro/outro). With thanks to John, Wild Good Resources, and GIA for allowing use of these songs on this podcast. If you would like to purchase these songs, follow the links below. Songs are listed in order of appearance.

Come, Spirit, Come (Psalm 144) – intro/outro by Celtic Psalms

Be Still and Know (purchase from GIA)

“Be Still and Know” by John L. Bell, Performed by The Cathedral Singers Copyright © 1989, Arr. © 1995 WGRG c/o Iona Community, GIA Publications, Inc., exclusive North American agent. Recording courtesy of GIA Publications, Inc., from God Never Sleeps, CD-348. It can also be found on the collection Of Womb and Tomb.

The Lord of the Earth (purchase from Wildgoose Resources)

“The Lord of the Earth” from the collection This is God’s World 
Words & Music John L. Bell, copyright © 2011, 2020 ℗ 2020 WGRG, Iona Community, Glasgow, Scotland.

I Love the Lord (purchase from Wildgoose Resources)

“I Love The Lord” from the collection The Truth That Sets Us Free 
Words & Music John L. Bell, copyright © & ℗ 2012 WGRG, Iona Community, Glasgow, Scotland.

We Cannot Measure How You Heal (purchase from GIA)

“We Cannot Measure How You Heal” Words by John L. Bell and Graham Maule, arr. by John L. Bell. Performed by The Cathedral Singers Words © 1989, Arr. © 2011 WGRG c/o Iona Community, GIA Publications, Inc., exclusive North American agent. Recording courtesy of GIA Publications, Inc., from The Splendor of the House of God, CD-874.

I Will Sing a Song of Love (Purchase from Wildgoose Resources)

“I Will Sing a Song of Love” from the collection I Will Not Sing Alone Words & Music John L. Bell, copyright © & ℗ 2004 WGRG, Iona Community, Glasgow, Scotland. 


2nd January 2022 “Sing a New Song” Online Retreat Day with Paul Hutchinson (Therapist, Mediator, Storyteller and Podcast Guest from Episode 11)

Silent Retreat 25-27 February 2022 at Corrymeela

This retreat offers a space to be in silence alongside a gathered community. In silence we take the time to still the swirl of daily life and really listen, deeply, to what is going on below the surface. We listen to ourselves – to our own voices, needs, pains, griefs, longings and hopes for the future. And we listen to what God might saying to us and leading us into.

Silence crosses many barriers. This retreat is open to people from a variety of religious and spiritual backgrounds. It is led by Kiran Young Wimberly, Presbyterian minister and spiritual director.

Contact to book your place. 


I’d love to hear from you. Email or send a message via our Facebook page to share with me how the Psalms have lifted your spirits.

Whatever it is that brought you here, I’m so glad you’re with us. – Kiran

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