A cry in the darkness

A Reflection on Psalm 86.1-10 by Canon Rob,
25th June, The Third Sunday after Trinity

Psalm 86 is a prayer by an individual who is in a bad place. He is in trouble and depressed. Regular readers of these Reflections will know that I am a fan of the local library and, to make a complete change from the books I usually borrow, I have recently read “Lily and the Octopus” by Steven Rowley. It is about the relationship (I think autobiographical) between the author and his dog who, though elderly, he had to decide to have put to sleep because she developed brain cancer. It is a book about love and loss and on the very last page I read, “There isn’t a well-lived life that’s free of loss, and I promise the love will return to you ten-fold.” It must have taken Steven Rowley a long time to reach this conclusion because he was totally devastated: having to make an impossible decision and then to sit and hold Lily whilst she died in the vet’s surgery. The circumstances for the author of today’s psalm will have been very different. However the effect is the same: devastation and darkness, something which most of us will have gone through during a period of grief, whatever the loss may have been.

The first three verses reveal the depth of despair the writer is going through. Verse 1: “Incline your ear, O Lord, and answer me, for I am poor and in misery.” God, please listen! Verse 2: “Preserve my soul, for I am faithful; save your servant, for I put my trust in you.” Yes, God is listening, but will He help me? Verse 3: “Be merciful to me, O Lord, for you are my God; I call upon you all the day long.” I know, God, that you can be merciful. Please show me some of that mercy! None of us can go through life without being hurt. The way we respond varies a great deal though. Some will come through it with their faith in God strengthened. Others are so hurt and disillusioned that they turn their backs on God. Some will become angry and want to know, “Why is this happening to me?” Others will respond to their pain by simply asking, “Why not me?” We don’t know why the writer of the psalm is so depressed, but we do know he clung on to his faith in God, believing that He is “good and forgiving, abounding in steadfast love.” [verse 5] and that God will answer his prayer. [Verse 7] It is this recognition which seems to lift the writer out of his deepest gloom, and begin to see, as we would say today, “the bigger picture.” Like him we should be encouraged to pray at all times even when we don’t feel like praying. We may not get the answer we want. We may have to wait a seemingly long time. But there ought to be nothing that we cannot pray to God about.

The “bigger picture” for the author of today’s psalm is expressed in verses 8 – 10. People around him may have other gods, but he is certain that nothing (and no-one) can ever compare with the God in whom he believes and trusts. [Verse 8] That’s because [verse 10] he knows there is only One, True God who is “great” and does “wonderful things.” And how he wishes that “All nations….shall come and worship….and shall glorify [the Lord’s] name.” [Verse 9] The darkness has lifted somewhat, as in the last two pictures and verses from the psalm.

One more thing to notice about Psalm 86 is that most of it is an echo from elsewhere in the Old Testament. Just a few examples for you to find, as you reflect upon it. Verses 1 – 4 echo phrases in other psalms, including 35.10, 50.5, 79.2 and 109.16. Verses 5 -7 are reminiscent of Exodus 34.6-7 where Moses recognises that God is “compassionate and gracious, long-suffering, ever constant and true….” [New English Bible] Then in the last of our two verses today, we find the belief that there is only One True God. See, e.g., Deuteronomy 3.24. You might also find it helpful to see how such words in verses 8-10 of Psalm 86 are found in Barnabas and Paul in Acts 14.14-15. Such faith and trust in God have developed throughout history and whilst each generation will find ways of expressing them, at the heart they remain the same as found in our psalm for today.

Lord, bring us from death to life that we, and the whole world, may always know your compassionate love.

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Joy through imitating Christ

A Reflection on Psalm 112 by Canon Rob,
June 11th 2023, The Feast of St Barnabas.

Here is one of the many icons of St Barnabas showing him holding a scroll. It will be of St Matthew’s Gospel, as on his missionary journeys, Barnabas is believed to have always carried a copy of the Gospel with him. What we know for sure from the Acts of the Apostles is that Barnabas was a “good man full of the Holy Spirit and of faith.” [Acts 11.24] He was a Cypriot Jew and often accompanied St Paul on his missionary journeys. Tradition has it that he was martyred in Cyprus.

Psalm 112 is therefore fitting for today because it clearly refers to those who are happy, or blessed, because they fear, or have a deep faith in, the Lord. The psalm begins with words of praise for such people! “Alleluia. Blessed are those who fear the Lord and have great delight in his commandments.” They are among the righteous and, as verse 6 says, they “will be held in everlasting remembrance.” Each year, on this day, St Barnabas is remembered and his life and faith celebrated. Psalm 112 continues the theme of the previous psalm, which ends how today’s psalm begins. So, as you reflect on psalm 112, you may find it helpful to look at psalm 111 too. That psalm is in praise of God; Psalm 112 is a hymn of praise about those who are faithful to God.

Verses 2 and 3 of today’s psalm very much reflect the understanding of the people of Israel that blessings poured upon the faithful will continue through the generations, just as the “the sins of the fathers” do. “Their descendants will be mighty in the land, a generation of the faithful that will be blest. Wealth and riches will be in their houses, and their righteousness endures for ever.” Possibly this understanding goes back to Abraham’s relationship with God. Genesis Chapter 12 tells us about God’s call to Abram (as he was originally called) and God says to him, “I will bless you and make your name famous, so that you will be a blessing….And through you I will bless all the nations.” [Genesis 12.1-3] The message of Psalm 112 is that good things can happen to good people. So, in verse 4 those who are righteous are reassured that, “Light shines in the darkness” for them, and in verse 5 they can be encouraged because, “It goes well with those who are generous in lending, and order their affairs with justice.” Those who read this psalm will almost certainly be familiar with the 10 Commandments given to Moses. They are stark and formidably challenging. Today’s psalm is challenging too, but in a way which is perhaps more positive and encouraging.

If you watch “The One Show” on BBC 1 you will have seen “One Big Thank you,” a weekly celebration of someone who does a great deal usually in and for their local communities and often at great cost to themselves. We admire such people. They remind us that human beings can, and often are, generous and caring: something we need to help balance much of what we see or hear in the news. Psalm 112 is about such people and it tells us that they will be rewarded. In verse 9 we read, “They have given freely to the poor, their righteousness stands for ever; their head will be exalted with honour.” Perhaps this seems rather simplistic for us today. How often do we say of someone who we really admire and becomes very ill, “She/he doesn’t deserve that!” But the writer of the psalm will have known that those who have a deep faith in God will be helped to face suffering and believe that it doesn’t have the final word. Verse 7 puts it this way: “They will not be afraid of any evil tidings; their heart is steadfast, trusting in the Lord.” Such faith brings with it courage and a self- confidence which can help us do what we would otherwise be unable to do. St Barnabas will have found this to be true, faithful as he was to Christ and the Gospel. In giving thanks to God for him, pray that you may continue to grow in faith.

God of truth, help us to keep your law of love and to walk in ways of wisdom,
that we may find true life in Jesus Christ your Son.

[Alternative Collect for Trinity 1]

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