The importance of holding a hand

A Reflection on Psalm 63.1-9 by Canon Rob, 20th March

One of the hardest things about being in lock-down was not being able to embrace someone we love unless they were in “our bubble.” Undoubtedly this was most painful for those who were unable to visit a loved-one who was dying in hospital. “I couldn’t even go and hold her hand!” Often it fell to nurses to hold the hand of a patient, to help comfort them and assure them they were not entirely alone.

I have recently read a library book called “Cilka’s Journey” by Heather Morris. Based on actual events, it tells of a young girl from Czechoslovakia who spent years in Auschwitz during the 2nd World War and then 15 years in a Russian Gulag because she was suspected of being an informer. It is a heartbreaking story but during her imprisonment in the Gulag she was given the opportunity to train as a nurse and so helped save the lives of many, especially those who were sent down the local coal mine facing danger every day. On one rescue operation Cilka was badly injured. She was in and out of consciousness, but one day she opened her eyes to see a strange man holding and kissing her hand whilst repeating, “Thank you for saving my life, you are an angel:” words of comfort and praise which gave her the courage to stay alive, hard though that would continue to be.

The words of today’s psalm were written when the author was going through a hard time but praises God as he recalls comfort and help received in the past. So in verse 8 we read, “For you have been my helper and under the shadow of your wings will I rejoice.” [Common Worship.] Then a verse later, “My soul clings to you; your right hand shall hold me fast.” What beautiful words which, if we close our eyes after reading them, we can picture what was in the mind of the psalmist. There are times when even the most faithful of us find it hard to say our prayers. Perhaps we have heard some really bad news which upsets us, or we are feeling unwell and in a lot of pain, or we may be grieving because someone we love has died and life seems empty. Or in the words of the psalm, our souls are thirsty. Verse 2 says, “My flesh also faints for you, as in a dry and thirsty land where there is no water.” We all know what it is to be thirsty and here the author of the psalm realises that this is what life can be like. At such times he knows it is important to draw on the strength which he received from God in the past. His faith is restored and he knows that God is holding his hand and giving him the strength to carry on.

Another way of putting this is that the psalmist finds peace of mind through faith: something which is a gift; a free gift which God gives to us all who seek it and have the patience to wait upon God. Mindfulness is often talked about today and this too can bring peace of mind. Again, it requires of us that we can relax as those of us with faith will do when we meditate. Perhaps the difference is that with mindfulness we draw upon inner resources, whilst with meditating, or waiting upon God, we are also drawing upon the strength that God gives, believing that he is “holding our hand” just as a nurse will do with a patient in hospital or an aid worker will do when helping a victim in Ukraine.

Psalm 62, like 63, is about being strengthened by God although the metaphor is different. Instead of God holding the hand of the author, God is experienced as a rock, a stronghold, but the end result is the same and in verse 5 of this psalm we read, “Wait on God alone in stillness, O my soul; for in him is my hope.” Here again we find peace of mind and this is something we who have faith, can not only experience ourselves, but also help others to find by offering support when it is needed. As we do so, we fulfil our shared vocation to make God’s love and peace known.

Gentle protector, strong deliverer, in the night
you are our confidence: from first light be our joy

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Saying sorry can be really hard!

A Reflection on Psalm 51.1-18 by Canon Rob, 6th March

Tragically Ukraine occupies much of our news and prayers now but do you remember the news that broke at the end of November last year? Some of the staff in 10 Downing Street were having ‘gatherings’ in the run up to Christmas. Then it was as if the flood gates were opened and for weeks afterwards the main item on the news was all about ‘Party-gate’ and whether, and how much, the Prime Minister was involved. Once we learned that Boris Johnson was, he apologised profusely hoping that he would be forgiven and able to “get on with the job.” Reflecting on this sorry saga, we might consider how easy or difficult it is for us to say sorry when we know we should and really mean it. As was said by one commentator about ‘Party-gate,’ “We are all human and we all make mistakes.”

Last Wednesday was Ash Wednesday, the beginning of Lent, and part of Psalm 51 was used during one of the Services in churches. The psalm has been given various names including, “The cry of the penitent” and “A plea for a fresh start”, and you may find it helpful to hold both in your mind as you reflect upon its words because each one of us, when we say sorry for something we have said or done which has caused hurt, hopes that we will be forgiven and can start again. If you saw the “The Responder” on television you may remember that Chris, the main character played by Martin Shaw, often said, “Are we good?” to his colleague after he apologised for upsetting her again.

It is with a similar hope that Psalm 51 was written: a personal psalm and private prayer, by someone who has committed a sin. Many struggle with the word ‘sin’ today. We acknowledge that we make mistakes, but committing a sin feels altogether different even if we find it hard to articulate why. The words and picture here may seem alien to our minds. However, unless we believe we are forgiven for something we know is wrong, we may find that we are carrying a burden around with us, sometimes for years, which becomes increasingly painful. This is something which people of faith have realised for centuries and it holds true for today although tragically throughout its history there have been many church leaders who have put the fear of God into people by focussing primarily on hell and damnation instead of the forgiveness and love which Jesus was born to show every one of us.

The words of Psalm 51, written hundreds of years before Jesus, naturally contain much sorrow but if you reflect upon them you may be surprised to find they are not depressing. Far from it. The penitent expresses sorrow for the sin(s) committed but in doing so really believes that God will forgive. From the start we see this: “Have mercy on me, O God, in your great goodness; according to the abundance of your compassion blot out my offences.” Along with the plea for mercy is the expectation that forgiveness is possible, even certain. Verse 6 can be interpreted as what is known as “original sin” brought about by the sin of Adam and Eve. However, I would rather see it referring to the fact that we human beings are not perfect, something we find out from an early age. Verse 7 acknowledges the long-held belief that God knows us completely: “Behold, you desire truth within me and shall make me understand wisdom in the depths of my heart.” But because Jesus has revealed God as the God of forgiveness and love, this is something to be joyful about and not terrified of. Our human loving relationships reassure us that we are loved and accepted by the other even with our warts and all! So it is in our relationship with God. God loves us, accepts us and forgives us. This is the message of Lent.

Although fewer people go to church regularly now than used to be the case, the Christian faith takes our human failings seriously and requires of us to be honest if we are to be forgiven. However, experience teaches us that God always offers us a fresh start, a new beginning, and with that knowledge comes renewed hope every day: something we all still need.

Lord, give us the sorrow that heals and the joy that praises.

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A Lament for Ukraine:

An extra Reflection based on Psalm 79 by Canon Rob

We watch the news from Ukraine with a sense of horror, deep sadness and disbelief that such a thing can happen in Europe today. You may also be feeling a sense of helplessness. However we can all help by responding to the plea for donations and we can pray and pray again for peace and for a resolution to what are very long, complicated and seemingly unresolved political questions about NATO and Eastern Europe. As I write this we have no idea what the final outcome of this war will be but, with Peter’s support, I wanted to give us all the opportunity to reflect on a psalm because, as I have said before, the psalms contain every experience we go through and Psalm 79 is known as a “psalm of lament” or, as one commentator has called it, “The effects of horror.”

Psalm 79 was almost certainly a response to what has been described as, “the greatest tragedy of Old Testament history.” [Marshall Johnson. “Psalms through the Year: Spiritual Exercises for Every Day.”] This refers to the destruction of Judah by the Babylonians in 587 BC. Verse 1 sets the terrible scene:

“O God, the heathen have come into your heritage; your holy temple have they defiled and made Jerusalem a heap of stones.” As you reflect on this verse alone, it isn’t difficult to recall the images we are seeing of towns and cities in Ukraine. Again, as I write this, the beautiful onion spires of the monastery of St Michael in Kiev still gleam on our television screens, but when Psalm 79 was written the Temple in Jerusalem had been completely destroyed. Verse 2 increases the horror. Buildings can be replaced, and a new Temple was built in Jerusalem, but lives cannot be replaced. Each day we are told of the increase in casualties and deaths. As in any war there can be no winners in this war.

Verse 5 is a turning point in the psalm. Verses 1 – 4 describe the horror, but in verse 5 the author turns his attention to God. “Lord, how long will you be angry, for ever? How long will your jealous fury blaze like fire?” It is common in psalms such as this to believe that suffering is the result of God’s anger; a punishment for the people’s sins. There are many today who believe God punishes in this way, although that is not the God I believe in. Wars are the result our failure to live together in peace and resolve conflicts by honest negotiation. But the psalmist saw only black and white. So he prays in verse 6 that the enemy, will be punished: “Pour out your wrath upon the nations that have not known you, and upon the kingdoms that have not called upon your name.” The psalm continues with repeated pleas for God’s compassion on his people and calls for the enemy to suffer. If these were to happen, verse 14 gives the positive response to God: “…we that are your people and the sheep of your pasture will give you thanks for ever…..”

The circumstances may be different and, along with the sheer bravery of the Ukrainian leaders and people we see the same in those living in Russia who are protesting against the war and face possible imprisonment. The response from other Eastern European countries is also very different from that of the nations surrounding Judah when Psalm 79 was written. Again the author’s ‘black and white’ view will not be the whole truth as many understand it today. Yet Psalm 79 is a psalm for our time and reflecting upon it can help us understand something more of what those in Ukraine are going through and our prayers for them will therefore be more heartfelt. And remember that many, if not most, of those who live in Ukraine and in Russia are Christians. They are our sisters and brothers in Christ and it is largely their faith with gives them the courage we see each day. With Ukraine in mind, the Bishop of St Albans has recently posted, “Our faith is rooted in the certainty that in Christ, God is present with us and shares in our hopes and fears. More than ever, the world needs a Christian presence, a message of hope and our continued intercessions.”

So with Psalm 79 and the images of Ukraine in our minds may I encourage you to use the following prayer each day throughout this conflict:

Loving God, we pray for the people of Ukraine ,
for all those suffering or afraid ,
that you will be close to them and protect them .
We pray for world leaders ,
for compassion, strength and wisdom to guide their choices .
We pray for the world that in this moment of crisis,
we may reach out in solidarity to our brothers and sisters in need.
May we walk in your ways so that peace and justice
become a reality for the people of Ukraine and for all the world.

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