Variations on a theme

A Reflection on Psalm 15 by Canon Rob, 17th July, the 5th Sunday after Trinity

You will probably know that there are several translations of the Bible, from the Kings James version with its very beautiful but old English to the New Revised Standard Version published, I think, in 1989 and the one we use mostly in our Services at St Dunstan’s and St Peter’s. There are many versions in between and more recently! The psalms as we have inherited them are in our Old Testament and therefore there are many translations of these: some easier to understand than others. If you have more than one copy of the Bible at home, it is worth spending a little time comparing the translations and the psalm set for today is as good a place as any to start.

According to one of my Bible commentaries, Psalm 15 is considered to be second only in popularity to psalm 23. Whether or not that is true, there is no doubt that for the Jewish community it was – and maybe still is – the psalm which sums up how to live a life devoted to God. The late Anglican Archbishop of Jerusalem, George Appleton, wrote a book called “Understanding the Psalms” in which he said, “The Talmud, the authoritative  collection of Jewish law, thought and tradition says that all the 613 commandments of the Pentateuch [the first five books in the Bible] are summed up in this psalm.” Psalm 15 is a list of moral values, values which God requires of us if we are, as verse 1 says, “to dwell in [his] tabernacle” and “rest upon [his] holy hill.Or, Perhaps more helpfully, is the translation used in the picture here, “Who may worship in your sanctuary Lord; who may enter your presence?” The answer is given in verse 2: “Whoever leads an uncorrupt life and does the thing that is right.” Or, as the Good News Bible puts it, “A person who obeys God in every-thing and always does what is right.” The remaining verses, except for the last, list what this means: summed up, mostly, in having right and good relationships, speaking the truth, not being deceitful, caring for a friend and being kind to neighbours, not mixing with a ‘bad crowd,’ keeping promises, and not being greedy or misusing money. As we reflect upon these, it is helpful to remember Jesus’ summary of the Law, “Love God and love your neighbour as yourself,” noting that, for those of faith at least, the latter is a result, or perhaps better, a consequence of the former.

Throughout the Old Testament there is a huge emphasis on the need to obey God. According to the “Good News Bible Concordance,” there are approximately four hundred references, the first being in Genesis 17.1 when the Lord appeared to Abram, soon to be called Abraham, and said, “I am the Almighty God. Obey me and always do what is right.” (Note the similarity between this and the second part of verse 2 in our psalm for today.) The call for obedience doesn’t happen in a vacuum. If you read the whole of Genesis 17, you will see that obedience is linked with the covenant, or promise, which God makes with Abraham and his descendants. From then on, the Lord will be their God and they will be his people. From then on they will be God’s chosen people. Such an enormous privilege, but what an enormous responsibility!

It is that privilege and responsibility which we share today, through the new covenant which Jesus established.(At this point you may want to read Chapter 15 of St John’s Gospel and reflect upon the beautiful words which Jesus shared with his disciples during the evening before he was arrested.) We, and our Christian sisters and brothers down the years, owe much to the Jewish community. The whole Bible is the story of God’s relationship with humanity and all creation and the Old Testament, including the psalms, helps inform who we are and where we have come from. It is a vital part of our story and without it we would be lost. The covenant between God and Abraham is just as real for us and, as verse 8 of Psalm 15 puts it, if we obey God we “shall never fall.”

“Lord, lead us to our heavenly home by single steps of self restraint and deeds of righteousness.”
[prayer at end of psalm 15 in Common Worship]

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The Feast of St Thomas

A Reflection on Psalm 31.1-6 by Canon Rob, 3rd July

Today’s Gospel reading tells of the incident, a week after Jesus’ resurrection, when Thomas-who had previously doubted that his Master was alive again-had his faith restored. In this picture, by Caravaggio, we see the moment when Jesus invites Thomas to reach out and touch the wound in Jesus’ side. I have always been grateful to St Thomas because his experience allows me to know that it is all right to have doubts and there have been many to wrestle with over the years.

It is fitting then to have part of Psalm 31 to reflect upon today, with its opening words, “In you, O Lord, have I taken refuge.” For it is a prayer of one who has struggled, indeed suffered, in the past and remembering that God has helped him before, he calls for his help again. The authors of the psalms believed that much of their suffering was brought upon themselves because they had sinned: something you will find echoes of if you read verse 9 (beyond the verses set for today.) So these opening verses are a prayer for deliverance. Verse 2 shows how anxious the author is. “Incline your ear to me; make haste to deliver me.” We have no idea what is causing the writer to be so distressed, but clearly he is anxious at the time of writing. Verse 11 gives us a clue as to what he is going through: it seems he has faced a great deal of criticism, even cruelty, for his faith in God. So he turns to the one who he knows has always been there for him, the God (see verse 3) who is his “rock” and “stronghold.” There is a renewed confidence in these words just as Thomas, on seeing (and touching) the risen Jesus, says, “My Lord and my God!” Doubt is overcome. Faith is restored. Trust is expressed in verse 5: words which Jesus said just before he died on the cross. “Into your hands I commend my spirit;” words which will be familiar to those who take part in the late evening Service called Compline.

In the Old Testament the word “rock” is a symbol of stability and determination. It is always there and when applied to God it suggests complete reliability. So, in her prayer (See 1 Samuel 2.1-10) Hannah says of the Lord in verse 2, “There is no Holy One like the Lord, no one besides you; there is no Rock like our God.” [NRSV translation] God has not, does not, and never will let his people down. He is always ‘there,’ just as the sun is even when it is hidden by clouds.

But sometimes it doesn’t feel like that. We continue to see images from Ukraine and I cannot even begin to understand what the people are going through: whether those who remain in their country, or the millions who have fled their homes to seek refuge and safety elsewhere. Their courage remains, a courage founded on their trust in God. Yet…… yet there are surely times of doubt. Where is “the rock” for those who are desperate and have lost everything? The answer is that he is with us as he promised he would be. “..be assured I am with you always, to the end of time.” So said Jesus to his disciples just before he ascended into heaven. (See Matthew 28.20) Yet the author of the psalm lived before Jesus was born and would not have the reassurance which the disciples were given. However, he will have been able to look back at his history and seen there many occasions when God had rescued his people. He is probably referring to his own experience of being rescued before in verses 21 and 22 when he is looking back and finds strength in doing so.

We don’t always get everything right when it comes to faith in God. Thomas didn’t. But that’s O.K! God is very patient. He understands us and loves us more than we can imagine, even if and when we have times of doubt and questioning. Indeed it is often through those doubts and those questions that our faith is deepened and, with the writer of the psalm and Jesus himself, we can proclaim, “Into your hands I commend my spirit, for you have redeemed me, O Lord God of truth.”

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The Power of the Dog!

A Reflection on Psalm 22.19-28 by Canon Rob, 19th June: Trinity 1 

The mood seems to have changed from our celebrations of Easter to tragedy through the verses of this psalm! Psalm 22 (which is just one of those set for today) is perhaps best known for its opening words which Jesus cried from the cross on which he died: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me.” Today we read only ten verses: verse 19 being, “Be not far from me, O Lord…..” Possibly unknown to many will be that a recently released film was named after words from verse 20! “Deliver my soul from the sword, my poor life from the power of the dog.” The film, based on the 1967 novel written by Thomas Savage, stars Benedict Cumberbatch and Jesse Plemons as two brothers [Phil and George] who, together, run a ranch but are like chalk and cheese causing increasing tension as the story unfolds. Shortly after the film was released I managed to borrow the book from our local library and I’m glad I did so even though it wasn’t an easy read.

Psalm 22 is a cry for help but – to begin with at least – one which receives no answer. It is a very personal psalm too: the author feels totally alone in his suffering and cannot see beyond what it is that causes him so much distress. Look at verse 2 for example: “O my God, I cry in the daytime but you do not answer; and by night also, but I find no rest.” It would seem as if there is no hope. There is an urgent appeal for the Lord to come quickly because the writer feels overwhelmed by enemies, depicted as wild animals including “the dog,” surrounding him and waiting for his death.

But there has been something positive going on in the psalm which we could easily miss if we read it quickly, rather than reflecting upon it. In verse 1, as we saw, God seems to be absent and the suffering author feels abandoned. Then, in verse 11, recognising that no-one else is going to help, he prays that God will come closer. So, perhaps he hasn’t been completely abandoned after all! By verse 19, where we begin today, there is hope. “Be not far from me, O Lord; you are my strength; hasten to help me.” The Oxford Bible Commentary suggests that Psalm 22 has two sections: from verses 1 – 21, “prayer and complaint alternate with expressions of confidence;” verses 22 onwards (from which our passage this morning comes) “vows mingle with hymns of thanksgiving and praise.” That being so, all life is contained within this one psalm!

We see a complete change in mood, from hopelessness to joy, in the last four words of verse 21. “You have answered me!” We can sense the sheer relief which is quickly followed by the need to share the good news. “I will tell of your name to my people; in the midst of the congregation will I praise you.” Can you feel the excitement? Imagine if we had simply read the opening verses and given up because they were too painful. Imagine the pain that Jesus experienced when he uttered the words of the opening verse. But then, with the psalmist, reflect on the truth which he found through his suffering, that pain and death do not have the final word, any more than had Jesus’ death. The Easter season may be over for another year, and the long Trinity season is now with us, but the truth of resurrection and life continues.

The writers of the psalms were people of faith, but a faith which didn’t run away from daily life with all its ups and downs. They were realists. Faith is not escapism as some sceptics say. But faith can help us look pain and suffering, and even fear, in the eye and with the psalmist still believe that the God who may have felt absent, has been with us all the time. Not only that but faith can give us the patience to wait on God knowing that, as in verse 21, he will answer our cry for help. Verse 26 sums up the confidence we can have in God: “…..those who seek the Lord shall praise him; their hearts shall live for ever.”

Merciful God, your Son our Saviour, has shown us that suffering and death is not the end,
deepen our faith and trust in you that we may know this to be true in this life and in the life to come.

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God’s Wisdom reflected in creation

A Reflection on Psalm 104.26-36 by Canon Rob, 5th June: Pentecost

Many of the pictures I copy for these Reflections come from clip art, of which there seem to be a countless number. Sometimes there are surprises. So when I Googled “clip art Psalm 104” several pictures were of the Holy Spirit: confirmation, if any were needed, that the verses of the psalm set for today are very appropriate. At first sight, that is a surprise, because the psalm doesn’t speak much of the Spirit of God. However, verse 26 does refer to wisdom and that is a clue to one of the things we can understand about Pentecost. “O Lord, how manifold are your works! In wisdom you have made them all; the earth is full of your creatures.” According to the Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church, in the Old Testament, “divine wisdom is manifested in creation and in God’s guidance of nations and individuals.” We see this in the verses of our psalm, where all creatures are dependent upon God who has made them, something which our Queen clearly believes, and something reinforced if you read the entire psalm. We see a God who creates order out of chaos.

We read the psalms from a Christian perspective and that takes us further in our understanding of God. So John starts his Gospel thus: “In the beginning…” exactly as Genesis starts. But Genesis speaks of the creation whilst John writes about “the Word” who was with God at the beginning and who was God. By the time we get to John 1.18 we find that the author is speaking about the Son of God, Jesus Christ, who makes God known to us. He is “the Word” or, in the original Greek, he is the “Logos”: the divine Wisdom. The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church again says that in the New Testament, “Christ is portrayed as the teacher of wisdom and endowed with the Spirit.” Now we can read the verses of Psalm 104 with new understanding and appreciate why they are set for today.

Psalm 104 is sometimes called “A Hymn of Creation” and possibly written by the same author as Psalm 103 or even Psalm 148, the subject of our last Reflection. Whatever, it is a celebration of all that God has made, and all that God is. Today we sing hymns of praise and celebration too and one in our hymn book, [566 in “Complete Anglican Hymns Old & New”] expresses these well. It begins, “Praise, O Praise our God and King…” and refers to the sun, the silver moon, the rain, crops and harvest. It ends: “Glory to our bounteous King; glory let creation sing: glory to the Father, Son and blest Spirit, Three in One.” As we emerged from ‘lock-down,’ there was an increasing interest in the natural world around us and the number of nature programmes on television increased. At the same time we have become more aware of climate change and the damage we human beings cause to the planet, which has been created by God but which needs us to be careful stewards of it in partnership with God.

This is something those of us who are Christians will want to do as an expression of our faith and Pentecost reminds us that the Holy Spirit is given to help us live out our faith and, even, be an example to those who do not share our concerns for the world around us. Thankfully there are many who do: people of faith or not. All of us can celebrate the wonder of creation and we often find that God is closer to us as we do so. As verse 35 of Psalm 104 puts it, “I will sing to the Lord as long as I live; I will make music to my God while I have my being.” What better way to celebrate Pentecost than to rejoice in all that God has made and to celebrate His Spirit who is given to help each of us follow in the way of our Lord, who is the Word of God, the Wisdom of God, and the one who makes God’s love and creativity known.

O Lord, how manifold are your works and the earth is full of your creatures
Send forth your Spirit again this day to renew the face of the earth,
that the whole creation may reflect the majesty of your glory; through Jesus Christ our Lord.

[Prayer at the end of Psalm 104 in Common Worship Daily Prayer]

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Celebrating Harmony

A Reflection on Psalm 148 verses 1 – 6 by Canon Rob for 15th May

Still in the Christian season of Easter, today’s psalm continues the theme of praise for the love of God made known in and through His Son Jesus, who is alive and present in our daily lives. Of course such an understanding would be unknown to the author of the psalm which is set for today in church services. Indeed Psalm 148 is primarily concerned with praising the Lord as Creator of all that exists and, especially in verses 1 – 6, with the universe and beyond. For most of us reading these words today, we will want to see it as poetry, and very beautiful it is. However the author will have probably believed his words were to be taken literally, as many still do. But in this scientific age in which we live, we can still see the great truth of them if we do not do so. God remains the Creator and the giver of life – even beyond death.

Looking at the picture and words above, we can be reminded that for millions of years the planets have remained in orbits revealing the harmony which exists. This psalm is, above all, a universal hymn of praise and all creation is called upon to join in the singing of it. Verses 1 – 6 concern “the heavens” but the later verses include creatures who live in the sea, all that lives on the land, and even mountains and hills! Everything that exists is called upon to praise the Lord!

It is not just in this psalm that we find the call to praise God. Even a brief look will show that we are coming to the end of the Book of Psalms and, like being at a concert, we are approaching a crescendo when everyone comes onto the stage for one last resounding chorus to lift our spirits and even fill us with joy. So with the psalms, the last few are hymns of praise and everyone involved in the worship is encouraged to sing their hearts out. Even the hills, mountains and seas are called upon to sing praise to God!

Perhaps that sounds as if the writer of such psalms is going over the top! How can the hills and mountains praise God? But they do by their very existence. David Attenborough and others remind us of the wonder of creation: the beauty we see (if we use our eyes) in flowers and plants; the joy we hear (if we use our ears) in the song of the black bird or robin in the trees.

None of this is meant to detract from the suffering we see in the world around us, or that which we undergo sometimes during our lives. The authors of the psalms were realists as is shown in that many of them contain real grief, isolation, pain and loss. But Psalm 148 (and others) serve to remind us that all is not lost. On the contrary, there is so much to celebrate. We can be overwhelmed by the news we hear, read about, or see every day, but the verses of Psalm 148 can restore the balance and remind us of the harmony which is God the Creator’s desire for all that exists. Many blame God, or reject God’s existence, because of the suffering which surrounds us. But so much suffering we bring upon ourselves although we are sometimes too slow to recognise it or too complacent to think we can do anything to lessen it. The poetry of psalm 148 can help us look at the world, at life, with fresh eyes. Here are some lines from another poem which I hope can help you do so too:

It is given to us to see only one aspect in the moment,
One facet of the prism. One colour of the spectrum;
That is enough of joy, but also enough of blindness
To bring humility and kindle in us faith: That one day we may see life in its fullness
In the constant light of eternity; Then may we know the whole of love blended in beauty,
Even as here on earth we see, for a passing moment only,

The rainbow with every colour alight with joy. [Lucy M. Green. “Looking at Things.”]

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Being Alive

A Reflection on Psalm 118 verses 14-24 by Canon Rob, Easter Day

When asked how he felt, having recovered from a heart attack, the patient replied, “I’m glad to be here,” and that would probably be a common response because, unless we are clinically depressed or suicidal, we cling on to life. “I’m glad to be here” is affirmation of the gift of life and that is true whether or not we have a faith in God.

Psalm 118 is an ancient hymn of praise and thanksgiving for the gift of life and is believed to have been written, after a great national event, to be sung in the Temple of Jerusalem by three different groups of people. (See verses 2-4). The verses used in churches today can be seen in the light of a victory. They may have been recited by the king at the time: certainly a leader of the people. Verse 14: “The Lord is my strength and my song and he has become my salvation.” Whichever it is, he is speaking not just for himself but on behalf of the whole people who are celebrating with him. Verse 18 shows that things did not go well. It begins, “The Lord punished me sorely.” We are not told what that punishment was. Perhaps it was a battle which was won after a long and painful struggle. However it ended well: for the Lord “has not given me over to death.”

Jump ahead in time to today, Easter Day, and the verses of Psalm 118 are read in a very different context to that in which they were originally meant. Yet they are entirely appropriate because they are for us a hymn of thanksgiving and praise for the gift of new life in Jesus who, three days after he died on the cross, was raised to life again. The resurrection is the victory of all victories: one which remains true for all time and nothing can take it away. Easter Day is indeed “the day which the Lord has made.” (See verses 24).

Verse 22 can be read in conjunction with Mark’s Gospel, chapter 12 verses 1 – 12, and especially verse 11 where Jesus quotes that verse from the psalm: “The stone which the builders rejected has become the chief cornerstone.” In the passage from the Gospel Jesus is telling the Parable of the Tenants in the Vineyard, at the end of which it is clear that he is the stone. The parable is a real turning point in Jesus’ public ministry and he uses it to tell his disciples that he will soon not only be rejected but killed. However, death will not be the end. It will mark a new beginning and he will rise again and reign over the world in glory. (You might also find it helpful to reflect upon verses 18 – 27 of chapter 12 where Jesus answered a question put to him about life after death.)

The verses of the Psalm 118, which we are reflecting upon, make it very clear that God is the One who always takes the initiative when it comes to the gift of life on both sides of the grave. Verse 14, where we begin today, tells us, “The Lord is my strength and my song, and he has become my salvation.” We cannot save ourselves. Only God can do that. So, in verse 21 we find the words, “I will give thanks to you, [the Lord] for you have answered me and have become my salvation.” The death and resurrection of Jesus are the ultimate proof of this and it was to show the world God loves us all completely that Jesus, the chief cornerstone, died and rose again on the first Easter Day.

On this day of all days, we are encouraged therefore to reflect upon what all this means for us, both collectively as “an Easter people,” and also as individual members of Christ’s Body, the Church. We know that Jesus was rejected and history shows that many who have followed Jesus have also been rejected. Our story is no fairy tale. However today also shows that there is a way of living in which we can be certain that Jesus Christ, our Saviour, is alive and present with us always, whatever life throws at us. This becomes clear the more we make time to be aware of his presence. Above the door of Pomposa Abbey in northern Italy is an inscription in Latin which translated means, “Let us love what is eternal and not what is transient.” Today we celebrate what is eternal. Have a truly Happy and Blessed Easter! Alleluia!!

O give thanks to the Lord, for he is good; his mercy endures for ever.

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Back to Square One?

A Reflection on Psalm 126 by Canon Rob, 3rd April

Think back, if you can, to a time when everything seemed to go wrong and you felt as if this bad time would never end. Then it does. Life gets “back to normal” and you find yourself saying, “Thank the Lord!” and breath a sigh of relief. The first three verses of Psalm 126 put that sense of relief into words. Indeed there is more to it than this, for in those early verses the author is encouraging his readers to remember the good times, and specifically the time when God delivered the people of Israel from captivity in exile in Babylon. Cyrus, the king, allowed them to return to their homeland in about 538 B.C. They probably couldn’t believe it at first for as verse 1 says, “When the Lord restored the fortunes of Zion, then were we like those who dream.” But it was true and they were filled with joy. Or as verse 2 puts it, “Then was our mouth filled with laughter and our tongue with songs of joy.” What beautiful words which sum up so well that sense of relief.

We all know that life is full of “ups and downs” and, as long as the down times are not too bad, we learn to cope. However, sometimes when one thing after another goes wrong and, just as we are getting over it, something else happens and we feel as if we are back to square one again. For those suffering from “Long Covid” this is what life can be like for them. One day they feel really well and then the day after they are completely exhausted and can’t concentrate on anything. When I was a practising counsellor, clients – who were making good progress – could turn up one day feeling very low and being really hard on themselves, convinced they were “back to square one” again. It was difficult to help them to see that they weren’t because that is very seldom, in fact probably never, the case even though it feels like it.

Quite what had happened to the people of God we don’t know, but clearly it was something serious and the people were in trouble again. They were “back to square one!” Here we again see how the author of the psalm has the gift of being able to put pen to paper (as it were) and express so well experiences which we human beings go through. The whole of life is in the psalms which is why I have grown to love them through the years. Recognising their anguish, the author sets about encouraging the people. Verse 5 of today’s psalm puts this so well: “Restore again our fortunes, O Lord, as the river beds of the desert.” The river beds probably refer to the streams in the southern part of their country which become dry in the summer but, during the winter months, overflow with water. So he reminds the people in verses 6 and 7 that whilst they will have exhausted themselves ploughing and sowing, and fearful that the seed will not grow and produce a crop to feed them, there will be rain and all will be well. “Those who sow in tears shall reap with songs of joy.”

Today is known in the Church as Passion Sunday and next Sunday will be Palm Sunday, when we remember Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem, also marking the beginning of Holy Week. But from today we know we are getting closer to Good Friday when we recall that Jesus died on the cross. This is a sad period for Christians, a time to contemplate the last days of Jesus’ life as we have known it until now. This is the time to “sow in tears,” as the writer of Psalm 126 puts it, to pray and try and imagine the turmoil which Jesus must have gone through as he knew it was inevitable that he would die soon. You may find it helpful to reflect on the words of St. John’s Gospel, Chapter 12 verses 1-8, which is read in churches today. This is the beginning of the end and many tears were shed. But, with hindsight and faith, we also know that before too long we shall rejoice “with songs of joy.”

O give us faith to stay here, to wait, to watch and pray here,
and witness to your cry; in scarred and tearful faces,
in countless painful places, you give us hope that will not die.

[Last verse of the hymn “O Lord of our salvation” which is 513 in our hymn book: ‘Complete Anglican, Hymns Old & New’]

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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.

Saying sorry can be really hard! Read More »

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.

A Lament for Ukraine: Read More »

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