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.
Amen.

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What a Wonderful World!

A Reflection on Psalm 65 by Canon Rob,

20th February, 2nd Sunday before Lent.

Today, the 2nd Sunday before Lent, is also known as Sexagesima or the sixtieth day before Easter, a title which originated in the 6th Century. In the Eastern Church, the Sundays were named after the subjects of the reading from one of the Gospels and during the week following today, meat was not allowed to be eaten, perhaps because the Gospel was Jesus’ parable of the sower! (See Matthew’s Gospel, Chapter 13, verses 1 – 9.) The Church is often accused of being old-fashioned and irrelevant. Being faithful to its origins and keeping up with the times is a difficult tightrope on which to walk but it is useful to remember how our worship has evolved over the years, especially since the long trial period began in the mid 1960’s leading to the Alternative Service Book of 1980 and Common Worship, since 2000, with which church goers are familiar today. The Eucharist, or Holy Communion Service, which we now use is very similar to that used by members of the other main denominations and other Anglican Churches throughout the world: an example of how we are all trying to come closer together which is Christ’s will for us.

The psalm set for today is 65 which is about God’s creation in the world. We no longer have themes in the readings. If we did it would be more appropriate to have kept the Gospel with Jesus telling the parable of the sower, referred to above. Having said that, we can still, and should, celebrate all that God has made, and is making, perhaps more than we do. Psalm 65 helps us to do so and it is sometimes referred to as a harvest hymn. The first verse can be read as a call to prayer: “Praise is due to you, O God, in Zion; to you that answer prayer shall vows be made.”

However, looking at the psalm as a whole, it is clearly not just suitable for harvest. Indeed, only the last five verses are specific to harvest. Verse 11, printed on the picture here, suggests that the year in which the psalm was written was a good year with abundant crops. People at the time believed that God was entirely responsible for the outcome at harvest. So in verse 8 we read, “You visit the earth and water it; you make it very plenteous.” Try reading the last six verses slowly, using your imagination to picture the author of the psalm who is sitting on a hill overlooking the fields. There is a river in the valley with beautifully clear water murmuring as it travels towards the sea, and the corn sways and rustles, touched by the warm, gentle breeze. No wonder the psalmist is full of joy! But it is a joy in all creation and not just harvest.

The middle verses, 4 – 7, show this joy in creation leading us into the remainder of the psalm. It is also down to God and his goodness. The great Creator God answers the prayers of his people by his work of creation which is awesome as shown in verse 4. Then verses 5 and 6 give us an idea of just how powerful God is. “In your strength you set fast the mountains….” and “You still the raging of the seas, the roaring of their waves….” The psalms were written to be the hymn book of the Jewish people, but the writer of Psalm 65 knows that the truth of its words goes way beyond God’s chosen as we see in verse 7: “Those who dwell at the ends of the earth tremble at your marvels.” Is the author hoping, or even expecting, that those who live in the remotest parts of the world will come to believe in God because of what they see in the world around them? Whether or not that happened, today all of us are often rightly reminded of the need to care for this wonderful planet which is the home we all share.

May the richness of your creation, O God,
fill us with the joy which leads us to cherish all that you have made.

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In humble gratitude!

A reflection on Psalm 188 by Canon Rob

(5th Sunday after Epiphany and Accession of Queen Elizabeth II.)

This psalm set for today’s Eucharist is one of celebration and hope, appropriate for the season of Epiphany and, coincidentally, appropriate for this day when we celebrate the Queen’s Accession in 1952 following the death of her father. The picture here is an icon of the visit of the three kings who worship the Christ-child: a reminder of the Epiphany but, as you look at it, give thanks and pray for our Queen whose faith in, and worship of, Christ have helped sustain her in the dedicated service of others for the past seventy years.

Reading through the psalm you will see that it is almost entirely positive. It is also personal, expressing gratitude for all that God has done. Picture in your mind the author facing Jerusalem as he prays (verse 2) just as Muslims face Mecca and, when we worship together, face East where the High Altar stands.

The psalm falls into three sections: verses 1-3 praising God; 4-6 expressing the hope that all kings will do as he is doing; 7-8 ending with a personal expression of trust in the future because God has been with him in the past. We are not told what the writer experienced which made him so sure that God had helped him. Clearly something did though as we can see in verse three: “In the day that I called to you, you answered me you put new strength in my soul.” Some question God’s existence and goodness when something goes wrong. “If there is a God how can he allow a pandemic like Covid to happen?” Others, though, either cling on to their faith or even come to faith through suffering. Yet others will have their faith strengthened and it seems that this is so for the author of Psalm 138. You may find it helpful to read Isaiah 40.21-31 alongside the psalm. These verses from the prophet come at a time when many Jewish people were in exile in Babylon. However Isaiah tells them to hold on to their faith because God will set them free. Verse 31: “…those who look to the Lord will win new strength, they will grow wings like eagles; they will run and not be weary, they will march on and never grow faint.” This is not a false optimism. God is faithful. He can be trusted whatever happens.

Verse 6 is also worth pondering because reading with the gift of hindsight as we do, it is reminiscent of the Magnificat, the Song of Mary. The psalmist writes, “Though the Lord be high, he watches over the lowly; as for the proud, he regards them from afar.” Those familiar with 1662 Evensong will remember Mary’s words, “He hath put down the mighty from their seat: and hath exalted the humble and meek” which themselves have a parallel with Hannah’s prayer in the First Book of Samuel 2.1-11.

So we come to verse 8 which may be thought to end on a rather negative note as you can see in the picture here. It starts as the psalm began with a statement of faith, but appears to end with a sense of doubt creeping in: “do not abandon the works of your hands.” It is probably a question of translation into English from the original Hebrew and the Good News Bible may be more in keeping with the author’s intention: “You will do everything you have promised; Lord, your love is eternal. Complete the work that you have begun.” Or as one commentator puts the last sentence, “You will not forsake those you are creating.” If this is accurate, the picture of the potter is appropriate. For it implies that we invite God to continually mould us during our lives so that we can become what he wants us to become.

Lord our God, supreme over all things,
we ask you to look upon the humble and lowly,
to put new strength into our souls and to complete your purpose for us
in Christ Jesus our Lord.

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Epiphany

A Reflection on Psalm 19. 1-6, by Canon Rob

Today we continue our journey through the Church’s season of Epiphany, which began with the visit to Jesus of the three kings, sometimes referred to as astrologers, who travelled from the East following the star which, St Matthew tells us, led them to the place where the child lay. (See Matthew’s Gospel 2.1-12.) The word “epiphany” means “manifestation” or “revelation” and this season reminds us that Jesus was born to show us what God is like. Each of the Gospels tell us this truth as understood by their authors who believed that Jesus Christ was revealed first to the Jewish people and then to the whole world. The three kings represent all of us who are Gentiles.

As is often the case in the use of language, the word epiphany is now used beyond its religious meaning. It can describe “a moment of sudden and great revelation or realization.” A eureka moment! It has the “wow factor.” It might occur when you are looking up at a clear night sky and your breath is taken away by its sheer wonder and beauty. Even so we live in an age when new galaxies are being discovered as we search ever deeper into space. On Christmas Day the James Webb telescope was launched which, scientists hope, will “give us a glimpse at the first galaxies ever created.” But the three kings will not have had the knowledge we have nor, indeed, would the author of Psalm 19, part of which is set for today in Church Services throughout England.

The psalm begins with a celebration of God’s work in nature:

“The heavens are telling the glory of God and the firmament proclaims his handiwork.
One day pours out its song to another and one night unfolds knowledge to another.”

The writer of Psalm 19 may not have had the knowledge which we have. Instead he will have believed that God created all that exists and it is God who causes the sun to rise at the beginning of each new day and then each night he will have seen the moon move across the sky accompanied by the stars. Such a revelation caused him to sing of God’s glory which he saw everywhere in nature. (See Genesis 1 – 2.4) He knew his place in creation, as one among many creatures, albeit the crown of creation and, being so, had the God-given responsibility to care for all around him.

I wonder if we have lost something of that sense of awe and humility in our scientific age. We can easily take for granted the world around us, which leads to neglect or abuse: hence the need for climate change conferences, like COP 26 in Glasgow late last year. So the psalmist doesn’t stop at simply celebrating God’s work of creation as a look at the verses beyond those set for today show.Verse 7 begins reminding its readers that, “The Law of Lord is perfect,reviving the soul….” We are called upon to follow God’s laws in order to live a life which is more fulfilled than it often seems to be.

The 18th Century philosopher, Immanual Kant, wrote,“There are two things that fill my soul with holy reverence and ever-growing wonder – the spectacle of the starry sky….. and the moral law which raises us to infinite dignity as intelligent agents.” (from his “Critique of Practical Reason.”) Kant would not have described himself as a Christian, as traditionally understood, but he saw the connection between celebrating creation and living as God would have us live and I think he would have agreed with all that the author of Psalm 19 had written as would Hayden whose oratorio, “The Creation”, depicts and celebrates the creation of the world as described in the Book of Genesis. In our modern world, where many believe that science has all the answers, we do well to remember our place in God’s creation and even recapture the sense of wonder we had as children.

Creator and ever loving God, I acknowledge your glory in all that you have made
Help me to be thankful and to cherish your creation always. Amen.

Epiphany Read More »

Hope for the New Year!

A Reflection on Psalm 147.13 – End

Readers may remember that, during the Vacancy, I wrote Reflections based on the Bible Readings for Sunday mornings. Much of the Vacancy coincided with weeks of lock-down or severe restrictions which meant that numbers able to attend Services were very limited. The Reflections were a way of keeping us in touch with each other. Peter and I have talked about these and he is happy for me to write Reflections again and I am very happy to do so, probably twice each month, and hopefully you will find them helpful.

Thank you so much to those who have sent Vicky and I Christmas cards or messages and especially messages of sympathy following my sister’s death.

At first sight the choice of this part of Psalm 147 for the first Sunday of a new year may seem strange . Verse 1, shown in the picture above, would surely be better than starting half way through!

It’s a bit like skipping the first chapters of a book! Perhaps those who compiled the lectionary – the Bible readings set for worship – chose the second half because verses 17 and 18 refer to snow and hailstones, normally associated with winter! Whatever the reason, the entire psalm is one of praise and thanksgiving and verse 13 picks up the theme of verse 1.

“Sing praises to the Lord, O Jerusalem; praise your God, O Zion.”

It is, however, well worth reading the whole of this psalm which, as well as being a song of praise and thanksgiving, also reminds us that, whatever happens to us, God is with us at all times. The God of the Jews, for whom the psalms were originally written, was all powerful, the Creator of all, the world’s Saviour. He could be very angry and jealous when His people turned their backs on Him. But He was also a merciful, compassionate God who, as verse 3 says, “heals the broken-hearted and binds up their wounds.”

Psalm 147 was written after the Jews had returned to their homeland after they had been in exile. Pondering its verses can therefore lead us to pray today for the thousands of refugees and others who are homeless and support them in any way we can. Those originally using this psalm would have much to be grateful for. Verses 13 to 15 celebrate their return to Jerusalem and, in time, the rebuilding of their Temple. From now on, the writer of the psalm says, they can look forward to security and peace.

But they can also enjoy God’s creation! See verses 4, 8, 9, 15 and 16.Reading this psalm we have a picture of the One who is in control – even if and when it doesn’t feel like it! In the run up to Christmas (and we are still in the season of Christmas) Vicky and I received several “newsletters” with cards, all of which referred to the past year as one in which the writers had been challenged by illness, covid restrictions and, in several, concerns about mental health. Many will look back to 2021 as a year when we were ‘disappointed’ that, largely because of the virus, it felt like a continuation of 2020. “We had hoped things would have been better this year!”

We don’t know yet what 2022 has in store for us. However, Psalm 147 can give us hope. For whatever happens, Christmas-tide reminds us that “God is with us!” And as long as we have faith – as the writer of this psalm clearly had – nothing can take this truth away from us.

May God be with you and give you hope throughout this New Year!

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