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.

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]

The wonderful works of the Lord!

A Reflection on Psalm 104.28-36 by Canon Rob,
28th May 2023, The Feast of Pentecost

We have journeyed through Easter and Ascensiontide, celebrating the Resurrection of Jesus Christ and his return to his Father, and our Father, in Heaven. Today our celebrations continue as we remember how the first disciples received the Holy Spirit which Jesus had promised them: the Spirit who is God with us always and everywhere. Behind this journey lies the mystery of the Trinity, which we celebrate next Sunday: the Christian belief in the God who is Three in One. As we say in the Creed, our statement of faith: “We believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the giver of life, who proceeds from the Father and the Son, who with the Father and the Son is worshipped and glorified.” It is a mystery, but we know no better way of trying to define God and how we experience Him in our daily lives.

This truth is behind today’s psalm which is the longest in the entire psalter in praise of God and His creation. Only a few verses are set for use today and verse 26 sums up this joyful hymn very well: “O Lord, how manifold are your works! In wisdom you have made them all; the earth is full of your creatures.” The verses before those set for today include a celebration of the greatness of God and of the earth with its springs and rain, mountains and fields, the food which is provided, the sun and moon. From verse 26 we reflect upon how we all depend upon God and, recognising this truth, the author praises God with songs of joy. “I will sing to the Lord as long as I live; I will make music to my God while I have my being.”[verse 35.] As you reflect upon these verses, you may find it helpful to read the second chapter of the Book of Genesis. Like the psalms, it is not to be read as science, but as poetry which beautifully describes what the author perceives and understands as he experiences the world around him. This in the days before cameras! How thankful we can be for the wonderful television programmes which capture nature and challenge us to care for, and cherish, this earth and all life. We do so, not for its own sake, but because we believe in the God who created it and whose presence we celebrate especially today.

Psalm 104 is then, a wonderful hymn of praise but, as always, it is realistic about facing life and death. There is nothing sentimental here. Verses 29 and 30 remind us that God provides all the food we need “in due season.” We celebrate that at Harvest-time. But verse 31 reminds us that we depend upon God for life itself: “…when you take away their breath, they die and return again to the dust.” Here again we find echoes of the story of creation near the beginning of the Bible. In Genesis 2.7 we read, “Then the Lord God formed a man from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life. Thus the man became a living creature.” The Hebrew word used here for breath is “ruach” which also means wind or spirit, the latter significant for us on this Feast of Pentecost when we celebrate the coming and receiving of the Holy Spirit. One of the Gospel readings suggested for today is from John, Chapter 20, where the risen Jesus appears to his disciples and says to them, “Peace be with you…Then he breathed on them and said, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit’.” Also one of the hymns suggested for today is “Breathe on me Breath of God, fill me with life anew, that as you love, so may I love, and do what you would do.” [84, Complete Anglican Hymns Old & New.] Through the Holy Spirit we are given new life in Jesus but we know that one day we will die and God will “take away our breath” as we read in verse 31. However, the resurrection of Jesus, and the promise he made to his disciples and those who would follow them, assures us that death is not the end. So we hope and pray that the God who gave us breath, and who sends His Holy Spirit, will remain with us beyond the grave, as He is with us whilst we live and breath on earth.

For the breath and spirit of life that you give and for
sustaining and preserving my life, I thank you, O Lord

[Marshall D. Johnson]

Who is worthy?

A Reflection on Psalm 15 by Canon Rob,
14th May 2023, Feast of St Matthias

Ruben’s painting of Matthias

In the Church’s Calendar, today is the Feast of St Matthias although falling on a Sunday this year, his Feast is transferred to tomorrow. However, as he was an apostle, let us remember him in this Reflection at least, and consider Psalm 15 which is the one set for ‘his day.’ As with many Saints, legends about about Matthias abound because we know so little about him, but the Acts of the Apostles [see Acts 1.15-26] tells us that following the betrayal by, and death of, Judas Iscariot the remaining apostles wanted to replace him and bring back their number to twelve. Matthias was chosen. He qualified because he had, apparently, been with Jesus during his three year ministry and was also a witness to the resurrection. Psalm 15 begins with the questions: “Lord who may dwell in your tabernacle? Who may rest upon your holy hill?” The apostles may have asked, “Who is worthy to replace Judas?” They understood the qualifications, but how to chose? Is it stretching the imagination too far to say that the answers to the questions raised in verse 1 of the psalm perhaps give an indication of the qualities required?

George Appleton, a former Bishop of Jerusalem, said, “…all the 613 commandments of the Pentateuch (the first five books in the Bible once attributed to Moses) are summed up in this psalm.” Psalm 15 gives a clear understanding of what is needed for someone to have access to God. That includes being “uncorrupt” and doing “right,” (verse 2) “speaking the truth,” and bearing “no deceit,” (verse 3) doing “no evil,” (verse 4) and so on. Elsewhere in the Old Testament, we find references similar to some of these “conditions.” The prophet Isaiah. e.g., refers to “the man who lives an upright life and speaks the truth” [See Isaiah 33.15] and in the Book of Exodus we read, “You shall not accept a bribe, for bribery makes the discerning man blind….” [Exodus 23.8] Verse 7 of our psalm condemns bribery “against the innocent.” The person who was chosen to take the place of Judas Iscariot had a lot to live up to!

Psalm 15 possibly formed part of a liturgy as worshippers entered the Temple in Jerusalem, rather like singing an introit hymn at the beginning of Christian worship, although such hymns could be said to contain more words of hope than the words conveyed by Psalm 15. “Awake, awake: fling off the night” is one introit hymn we sing at St Dunstan’s occasionally with it’s third verse:

Let in the light; all sin expose to Christ, whose life no darkness knows.
Before his cross for guidance kneel; his light will judge and, judging, heal.”

Penitence and judgement are called for in this hymn, just as they are behind the words of the psalm. As we acknowledge in the first prayer we say together at the Eucharist, God knows everything about us for from Him no secrets are hidden. However, we live in hope because we believe that through the birth, life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ we have a new relationship with God which the author of the Psalm could not know. He was waiting for the Messiah, the Saviour.

Yet Psalm 15 still begs the question, “Who is worthy?” Who is worthy to enter the House of God, be that the Temple (as in the psalm) or a Christian church? Who is worthy to live in God’s presence? Who is worthy to be one of Christ’s disciples? The answer is an emphatic “no one!” Yet, through His perfect Love revealed in and through Jesus, we are accepted and forgiven just as we are. That doesn’t mean we can do as we please. However, it does mean that as we try and follow Jesus in our day to day lives, we are encouraged to do so because we are loved.

Lord, lead us to our heavenly home by single steps of self-restraint and deeds of righteousness.
[Prayer at the end of Psalm 15 in Common Worship, Daily Prayer]

A Natural Celebration

An extra Reflection for the Coronation based on Psalm 122

The last coronation of a British monarch took place seventy years ago and most us will not remember that wonderful occasion when Queen Elizabeth II was crowned in Westminster Abbey. Now, we look forward to the coronation of King Charles III and his wife Camilla. Whilst it has undergone several changes through the years, St Dunstan drew up the original liturgy, for the coronation of King Edgar in 973AD. (St Dunstan’s Church contains a stained glass window of Dunstan which includes a picture of that coronation.)

Psalm 122 was first sung at the coronation of Charles I and Sir Hubert Parry’s setting has been used since the coronation of Edward VII in 1902, sung at the entrance of the monarch into Westminster Abbey. The title in one of my commentaries for Psalm 122 is “Joy on Arrival.” Parry’s beautiful setting, reflects the solemnity and grandeur of the occasion, with it’s opening words, “I was glad!” The composer added the words, “Vivat Rex!” and “Vivat Regina!” [Long live the King/Queen] making the psalm even more appropriate for this solemn act of worship which combines the hopes of the nation.

Of course the psalm dates back many years before any coronation of a British monarch. It was written to recall the joy of being invited to join a pilgrimage to the holy city of Jerusalem. As verse 1 says, “I was glad when they said to me, ‘Let us go to the house of the Lord’.” Such pilgrimages were thwart with danger for those who travelled alone. So being invited to share the journey with others was especially important. Imagine the joy, what we might call the ‘wow factor,’ behind verse 2. The pilgrims have arrived at their destination, ready to join the crowd as they worship in the Temple! “And now our feet are standing within your gates, O Jerusalem.” If you watched the recent BBC2 television series, “Pilgrimage,” you will recall the sheer joy and awe on the faces of those who arrive at Fatima, having walked together for 15 days, sharing stories about their faith, or their searching for one. Such a programme gives a clue to the emotions lying behind Psalm 122.

From verse 6, the mood changes: from celebrating the end of the pilgrimage to a call to “pray for the peace of Jerusalem.” This change in mood is reflected in the change of music and tempo. And perhaps it is in this and the following verses which is why Psalm 122 is so fitting for this great occasion. For Jerusalem was, for the author of the psalm, the place where impartial justice was assumed to be given and this justice, along with truth and mercy its companions, were – and still are – essential for the welfare of a nation. They are needed to help its citizens to live together in harmony, though we know from experience that this isn’t always the case even in a country like ours. Justice, truth and mercy are also what God requires of us and for many years the monarch was considered to be the one whose role included the administration of these things. Hence, perhaps, the phrase “thrones of justice” and where that exists there can be peace, the peace which verses 7 and 8 of the psalm speak of: “‘Peace be within your walls and tranquillity within your palaces.’ For my kindred and companions’ sake, I will pray that peace be with you.”

The pilgrim, who began his journey alone until he was joined by others, has arrived and in the last verse he continues his prayer for those who joined him and for all the pilgrims and residents of the city. “For the sake of the house of the Lord our God, I will seek to do your good.” Being with others has helped him to see that he shares responsibility for peace.

An Answer to Prayer

A Reflection on Psalm 116.1-7 by Canon Rob,
23rd April 2023, The Third Sunday of Easter

In his book, “How to Pray,” John Pritchard – who was Bishop of Oxford until 2014 – wrote, “Prayer is the gift of ourselves to God in response to the gifts he has given to us…. Prayer is holding open the door of opportunity in places of despair. Prayer is struggle, joy, laughter and pain.” As you reflect upon the verses of today’s psalm, you may find it helpful to keep these words in mind especially if you haven’t thought of prayer in these ways before. Prayer can take several forms, but one will almost certainly be “asking prayers” and they are legitimate because, during a lesson about prayer, Jesus said, “Ask, and you will receive; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you….” [See also Luke’s Gospel 11.1-13.]

Psalm 116 is a personal prayer of thanksgiving after the writer has recovered from a very serious, possibly terminal, illness. If you read the first verse several times you may sense the sheer relief and joy being expressed. “I love the Lord, for he has heard the voice of my supplication; because he inclined his ear to me on the day I called to him.” Then, in verse two, we can see how ill he had been. “The snares of death encompassed me….” Coping with this illness had been a real struggle: “by grief and sorrow was I held.” Yet, even when he was at his lowest, he knew that God would listen to his prayer. [See verse 3.]

Some scholars suggest that today’s psalm is reminiscent of King Hezekiah’s prayer of thanksgiving after he recovered from a severe illness. [See Isaiah Chapter 38 in the Old Testament, especially verses 9 – 20.] Whether or not that is the case, Hezekiah’s prayer is heartfelt. Just as important, the illness was a turning point in the King’s life just as his illness was for the author of the psalm. Hezekiah says, “Lord, I will live for you, for you alone…” The psalmist says in verse 14 – beyond our reading today – “O Lord, I am your servant….” This is life-changing. For both the author of the psalm and King Hezekiah, their prayers have not only been heard by God, God has answered. They are healed and they offer their lives in His service. Years later, this was to be the same when Jesus healed those who were sick. Their lives would never be the same because they experienced, through Jesus, what the writer of Psalm 116 experienced: a God who “is full of compassion.” [See verse 4.]

Allan Harman, in his commentary on the psalms captures this experience well, when considering verse 6: “Turn again to your rest, O my soul, for the Lord has been gracious to you.” Harman writes, “The needy child has met with gracious, parental care, and there is abundant rest for the soul trusting in Him.” God is experienced as the loving parent, which is certainly not always the case in the Old Testament. No wonder then that the author of the psalm wants to serve God in whose presence he now knows he lives. God can be trusted with his life and he rejoices over this new relationship in verse 8, “I will walk before the Lord in the land of the living.” These words are echoed in Psalm 56 verse 12 where,addressing the Lord, the author says, “…you will deliver my soul from death and my feet from falling, that I may walk before God in the light of the living.” Both are about being constantly in God’s presence: a presence which brings light and life. Presumably this is why these verses from Psalm 116 are chosen for use during Eastertide when we celebrate the enduring presence of the Risen Christ, who is the Light of the world and whose gift is life in all its fullness. [See John 10.10]

Psalm 116 is a prayer of thanksgiving because God has rescued the author from death and that will be true for others who have recovered from a serious illness. The prayer has been answered in the way that was hoped. But that isn’t always the case as we know. Other psalms address this and, no doubt, we will meet them in other Reflections during this year. For today though we celebrate!

“Risen Christ….. strengthen us to proclaim your risen life and fill us with your peace…”

Thine be the Glory

A Reflection on Psalm 118.14-24 by Canon Rob,
9th April 2023, Easter Day

The hymn, “Thine be the Glory” (672 in the hymn book we use at St Dunstan’s) always brought our Easter Morning Eucharist to an end at the Church of the Transfiguration in Kempston, near Bedford, where I was the Vicar for 15 happy years. The worship was very much like ours at St Dunstan’s, but what made singing this hymn memorable was that it was the only occasion when we all let our hair down and vigorously waved the pew sheets each time we reached the chorus!! “Thine be the glory, risen, conqu’ring Son, endless is the vict’ry thou o’er death has won.” It was simple joy after weeks of learning through Lent and entering the pain of Holy Week.

We find the same joy in today’s psalm which was almost certainly written to celebrate a great national event and which is perfect for Easter Day. Verse 14, where our reading begins, clearly recalls the Song of Moses, following the Israelites’ safe crossing of the Red Sea, which you can read about in the Book of Exodus Chapter 15. Verse 2 of that chapter in the NRSV translation of the Bible says, “The Lord is my strength and my might, and he has become my salvation.” The psalm is a hymn of praise to God who, alone, has won a great victory and has saved His people.

Some commentators believe Psalm 118 was written to celebrate victory after a battle in which many suffered. If so, then verses 14 – 18 may be the king, or other leader, retelling the relief when it was over. Verse 15 might possibly be a reference to the soldiers’ celebration: “Joyful shouts of salvation sound from the tents of the righteous.” Certainly verse 16 are words spoken, or sung, praising God: “The right hand of the Lord does mighty deeds; the right hand of the Lord raises up.” Then, like the earlier verses which we don’t use today, the tone becomes personal: “I shall not die, but live and declare the works of the Lord. The Lord has punished me sorely, but he has not given me over to death.” As you reflect upon these words, it’s not difficult to see why these verses are set for today. Again, as you reflect upon verse 19, you can imagine a procession reaching Jerusalem, or perhaps another major city, with the king at the front shouting: “Open to me the gates of righteousness, that I may enter and give thanks to the Lord.” The national celebration, mentioned above, will soon begin!

Verse 22 may sound familiar to you. They are words which were spoken by Jesus, about himself. We find them in Matthew 21.42 when, having told the Parable of the Tenants in the Vineyard (where Jesus is the son of the owner of the vineyard who is killed by the tenants) he says, “Haven’t you ever read what the Scriptures say? ‘The stone which the builders rejected as worthless turned out to be the most important of all.’” [See also Mark 12.10, Luke 20.17, Acts 4.8-12 and 1 Peter 2.1-10. You might also like to look up Isaiah 28.14-17.] Verses 23 and 24 are important for us at Easter for they remind us that all that happens is because God acts. “This is the Lord’s doing…” and “This is the day that the Lord has made….” In her book, “Let Me Go There”, Paula Gooder says that the writers of the Bible “describe God’s character in terms of what he had done.” In the Old Testament, God freed the Israelites from slavery in Egypt. In the New Testament God raised Jesus from the dead. She believes it is possible to read the Bible as if everything happened in the past. But she says, “If God has saved people in the past we can be confident that he will do so again and again.” We find confirmation of this in the first and last verses of Psalm 118: “O give thanks to the Lord, for he is good; his mercy endures for ever.

God bless you this Easter time. 

God of glory, by the raising of your Son you have broken the chains of death and hell:
fill your Church with faith and hope; for a new day has dawned and the way of life stands open in our Saviour Jesus Christ.
[Common Worship Alternative Collect for Easter Day]

A Cry of Anguish

A Reflection on Psalm 130 by Canon Rob,
26th March 2023, the Fifth Sunday of Lent

One of the library books which I have recently read is “The Half Life of Joshua Jones” by Danny Scheinmann. At times strange, at others amusing and disturbing. Joshua’s father had died in an accident whilst caving in Wales when Joshua was a child. His body was never found. When he is grown up, Joshua is given the helmet which his father was wearing and which had been recently found in the cave. Joshua feels compelled to go into the cave himself to the place where his father died. He wears his father’s helmet and clambers down. “A floodgate unlocked inside me and I began to cry…. I cried for the twenty five years of not crying….. I don’t think I have experienced a blackness so black.” How like the experience expressed in the first verse of today’s psalm: “Out of the depths have I cried to you, O Lord; Lord, hear my voice.” It is heartbreaking. It is also an experience which many have gone through, not least in a time of grief. To have one’s heart broken is the cost of love.

The author of Psalm 130 is grief-stricken, not because of the death of a loved-one but because he is overwhelmed by guilt. We are not told what sins he has committed, but they weigh very heavily upon him. In verse 1 he cries to the Lord to hear him, even from the deep and distressed place in which he finds himself: “…let your [the Lord’s] ears consider well the voice of my supplication.” In verse 2 we see that the author knows he deserves to be punished, especially if the Lord is keeping a list of all his sins. The Good News translation of verse 2 shows more clearly what would happen if God “kept a record of our sins.” It continues, “who could escape being condemned?” No wonder the writer of the psalm is in so much anguish!! Yet there is hope for him still. In verse 3 he expresses his belief that there is forgiveness with God. Perhaps this belief has come from the depths of his being too: the faith that God – who is often experienced in the Old Testament as a jealous, angry and judgemental God – is also a forgiving God. And this faith leads him to fear God: to reverence Him. There is light at the end of the tunnel. However, for those who, like the author of the psalm, have been in that deep, dark place, the tunnel may seem very long and when that is so, it is good, if possible, to remember that we are often called to be patient in hope. Verse 4 puts it this way: “I wait for the Lord; my souls waits for him; in his word is my hope.” In the dark place, time seems to stand still. Yet logically we know that it doesn’t do so. The clock continues to tick even when we cannot hear it. Verse 5 repeats the need to wait, using the example of a watchmen on duty. “My soul waits for the Lord, more than the night watch for the morning.”

Lent is our time for watching and waiting. As Paula Gooder says in her book, “Let Me Go There: The Spirit of Lent”:Being a disciple is more about spending time in the presence of Jesus, and learning to see the world as he sees it, than it is about checking off a ‘to-do’ list.”

The Writer of today’s psalm has clearly found the benefits of watching and waiting. For in verses 6 and 7 he encourages others to follow his example. “O Israel wait for the Lord, for with the Lord there is mercy; With him is plenteous redemption and he shall redeem Israel from all their sins.” Until these verses, Psalm 130 is a personal plea for mercy. Now though, it becomes a call to the nation because he realises that all people sin. Perhaps there is another lesson for us here: as well as watching and waiting? Is it that our prayers, hopefully each day, might begin with personal devotion which then overflow into petitions for others? If so might our petitions be more heartfelt because we have learned a little more to see others as Our Lord sees them?

“O God, the healer of body and soul, send us your salvation and make us whole;
…and bring us to your holy throne to live for ever with you in glory.”

[From the prayer at the end of Psalm 38]

Call to Worship

A Reflection on Psalm 95 by Canon Rob,
12th March 2023, the Third Sunday of Lent

If you are familiar with the Book of Common Prayer, you may remember using today’s psalm, headed “the Venite.” and set to be used each day, with one or two exceptions, at Morning Prayer. It was to be said or sung at the beginning of each morning’s worship reminding us that we are to put God, and our worship of Him, first. In the Prayer Book version it can be found on page 65 of Common Worship where you will see that the last four verses are in brackets. In “Common Worship: Daily Prayers,” it is used at Morning Prayer only on Fridays and the last four verses are omitted. These changes were made because the version in the BCP is from the King James Bible and the language was thought to be too stern today. Interestingly in the Psalter, in “Common Worship” and which I use for these Reflections, Psalm 95 is printed in full. I have gone into detail about this because it shows that even in Church worship – which many consider outdated – fashions change. Today we prefer to focus on the Love of God, rather than His Judgement, and the first seven verses of Psalm 95 are clearly words of praise. However, before we dismiss verses 8 to 11 of the psalm, you may like to look up The Letter to the Hebrews, in the New Testament. In Chapter 3, verses 7 – 11, you will find the words of “the Venite” and they are followed by a warning not to rebel against God. Instead the people are told to encourage each other every day in the ways of God. Only then will they find the “rest” which the Lord alone can provide.

Back to the beginning! Verses 1 and 2 are an invitation to share in the worship of the Lord who the author of the psalm knows as “the rock of our salvation.” In verse 22 of the previous psalm we read, “….the Lord has become my stronghold and my God the rock of my trust.” Here is a picture of the rock of Gibraltar!! It is unshakeable, always present, totally dependent. God is like this. More than that verse 3 says, “…the Lord is a great God and a great king above all gods.” The God we find in the Book of Psalms is supreme and unique. Time and again the people of Israel were reminded that there is only One God and as verses 4 and 5 tell us, He is the Supreme Creator: “In his hand are the depths of the earth and the heights of the mountains are his also. The sea is his, for he made it, and his hands have moulded the dry land.” As you reflect upon these words, note that all that is created belongs to God. As an example of this the writer of the psalm says, “the sea is his.” The reason? Because God made it! We are rightly increasingly concerned for the future of the planet and all that lives here. We often see it on our television screens and we know that time is running out. But it isn’t just for our sake, for the sake of the flora and fauna who share the earth with us, or all the plants and creatures who inhabit the oceans, that we must change much of the way we live. It is also for God’s sake.

In this last paragraph, let us return to celebration and joy, the theme of the opening verses of today’s psalm. And we find it in verses 6 and 7. Verse 6 is very much like the opening verse, being an invitation to worship God and “kneel before the Lord our Maker.” The psalms were originally sung by the Jewish people in the Temple and in the local synagogues. However, we too experience the joy of singing hymns in our worship today, or listening to the choir singing an anthem which lifts our spirits. If we needed a reason to do these things, verse 7 provides it: “For he is our God; we are the people of his pasture and the sheep of his hand.” (You may prefer to reflect upon the translation of the words in the picture above.) Whichever, we worship God as our Father and the Father of us all and Psalm 95 is, more than anything else, an invitation to share that worship with all who choose to join us.

Give me a joyful heart, O Lord, remembering that you
are my maker and the shaper of my destiny. Amen.

[Prayer at the end of Psalm 95 in Psalms through the Year by Marshall Johnson.]

The Joy of Forgiveness

A Reflection on Psalm 32 by Canon Rob,
26th February 2023, the First Sunday of Lent

I am pretty sure that all of us who read and reflect upon this psalm will know what it is to feel guilty. Guilt can be a very heavy burden and, sadly, many carry it for years and suffer because of it, both mentally and physically. However, this beautiful psalm offers the assurance that forgiveness awaits us and when received brings joy and a blessed relief. As you reflect upon today’s psalm, you may find it helpful to look at the picture above which shows the Prodigal Son returning to his father and being forgiven by him. The eye contact between them and the hug they share says it all. [See Jesus’ parable of the Prodigal Son in Luke 15.11-32.] Psalm 32 is perfect for the beginning of Lent. There will be other psalms, asking for forgiveness, to be said or sung during this season of repentance, but this one is special not least because the first verse encourages us not to be miserable during these forty days: “Happy the one whose transgressions are forgiven, and whose sin is covered.” As Jane Williams says in the introduction to her book we are invited to consider during Lent, “…we are preparing to meet and to recognise the mercy of God….which means returning home, like the Prodigal Son, to find God waiting, with arms outstretched, to welcome us home to the feast that is laid for us.”  Knowing we are forgiven, Lent helps us prepare for the joy which is to come!

God’s forgiveness is offered freely. However, it is not to be received lightly. It ought to lead to a change in attitude, even behaviour. Psalm 32 reminds us of this. In verse 2 we read, “Happy the one….in whose spirit there is no guile.” Or in the Good News version, “…who is free from all deceit.” Here, deceit means being crafty, or perhaps, “trying to pull the wool over God’s eyes.” Not that we can of course, as God knows us completely. But the author of the psalms knows we might be tempted to try – just as Adam and Eve tried to hide from God in the Garden of Eden after they disobeyed the Lord. [See Genesis 3.]

Verse 3, in the translation in Common Worship, may not be the most helpful: “For I held my tongue; my bones wasted away.” The New Revised Standard Version is better: “While I kept silence, my body wasted away.” The ‘silence’ refers to not confessing, even refusing to admit a sin, and the physical effect is graphically described as you will be able to picture in your mind if you pause to think about the “body wasted away” through guilt. In other words, the life was sucked out of him! However, the remedy quickly follows as the outcome of confession is revealed in verse 6: “you (the Lord) forgave the guilt of my sin.” Making his confession becomes the turning point and most of the rest of the psalm is an encouragement to all who read it and reflect upon it.

Firstly, in verses 7 and 8, the forgiven sinner encourages his readers to follow his example. “Therefore let all the faithful make their prayer to you in time of trouble….” Then, in verses 9 and 10, the Lord is speaking, reassuring those who hear. “I will instruct you and teach you in the way you should go……” Clearly the Lord does not abandon sinners! On the contrary, He guides and cares for them. Finally, the last two verses, begin with a warning to those who do not learn the lesson which the writer has learned: “Great tribulations remain for the wicked…” However, those who follow his example find that, “…mercy embraces those who trust in the Lord. ” Gladness and joy are expressed in the last verse. The lesson the author has learned has been difficult-admitting we have sinned is seldom easy-but it has been a life-changing lesson. The same can be true for us and this season of Lent is a time to experience the gladness and joy too!

Have  mercy on your prodigal children, O God, and teach us to acknowledge our sinfulness,
so that, in repentance, we may come to know your forgiveness,
which is the fulfilment of our life in your Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.
[Prayer at the end of Psalm 32 in ‘Common Worship, Daily Prayer’]

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