Bless the Lord, my soul

The song for today is a chant from the French Taize community, and is (as John points out) a setting of Psalm 103.  The setting in Sing Praise includes nine short chants for solo cantor, each intended to be sung over a choir singing the 4-part refrain.   The refrain is often used on its own: “Bless the Lord, my soul, and bless God’s holy name. Bless the Lord, my soul, who leads me into life”.    

That last phrase intrigues me – “who leads me into life”.  I have also seen a version of the same song giving it as “who rescues me from death”, both of them probably deriving from verse 4 of the original Psalm, “who delivers your life from the Pit” (NRSV).  I happen to have a Taize prayer book so I looked to see how the community translates the psalm for their own worship: the relevant phrase is “qui rachète à la fosse ta vie” – literally, “who buys back from the ditch your life”. The translation in this English version of the song puts that idea into one of the cantor’s verses: “The Lord is forgiveness and redeems our life from the grave”.

All these carry the same idea, not yet the full Christian concept of Jesus dying to redeem us from our sins, but a foretaste of that, a germ of the idea.  Without God’s blessing we would all end up in the ‘pit’ of death or Sheol – the old Hebrew concept of the afterlife as neither heaven nor hell but an undesirable, eternal nothingness or meaninglessness.  A pit is a hole that is too deep to climb out of unaided, as the biblical Joseph found. To believe in God and accept his blessing is to accept a hand up out of the pit, to find meaning where there was none, to find eternal life instead of merely existence, to receive (as Jesus would later put it) “life in all its fulness”.  Which is presumably why the refrain uses the more positive interpretation: if we are bought back from death, then by implication we are indeed led into life.

Imagery like this seems pertinent at this time of Covid lockdown and isolation.  Today is the tenth and last day of our isolation at home, and even though the freezing weather has not been conducive to going out walking much anyway, it will be good to get out tomorrow, if only to the shop with a mask on.  I can get out of this little pit and get on with life in the limited way currently allowed, and look forward to a ‘new normal’ at a later time. For those who live alone all the time and cannot get out on their own, for those in prison or trapped in controlling relationships, or in unrelieved pain, it must be far worse.  For some people, even death may seem like a positive way out, and God is the only one who can lift them up.

The Christian promise is that the reality is much better than we might dare to hope.  If we give ourselves to God, then we can find peace among the troubles of this life, and know that beyond death is not mere existence in a pit but a new creation where fullness of life will be something more than we can now imagine. Bless the Lord, my Soul!

Lord, set your servant free

Today’s hymn is one of many settings of Simeon’s short song (Nunc Dimittis). What perhaps sets this one apart form others is that the author (Mary Holtby) has departed from the original words in several places.

Instead of referring to Simeon’s ‘departure’ (meaning his imminent death) she has him asking to be ‘set free’ – which could be taken to mean ‘set free from this earthly life’, but is capable of wider application. We all have things that we need to be set free from.

She also drops the last line ‘the glory of your people Israel’, instead following ‘the hope of humankind’ with a parallel phrase ‘the glory of our race’. That worldwide message appears also in verse 2 with ‘on the nations lost in light I see his dawn arise’.

The Christ here is therefore understood as having a universal ministry from the start, rather than understanding Jesus having come first to the people of Israel. Simeon had been promised he would see the hope of his own people, and finds that he has been given a whole lot more, a universal vision of hope. Such is God’s way, offering blessings greater than we had hoped for.

Advent hope 

A reflection for the first Sunday in Advent – written for the online service from St Peter’s church, Bramley 

Bible Reading: Romans 15:7-13 (New International Readers Version)

Christ has accepted you. So accept one another in order to bring praise to God.

I tell you that Christ has become a servant of the Jews. He teaches us that God is true. He shows us that God will keep the promises he made to the founders of our nation.  Jesus became a servant of the Jews so that people who are not Jews could give glory to God for his mercy. It is written, “I will praise you among those who aren’t Jews. I will sing praises to you.” Again it says, “You non-Jews, be full of joy. Be joyful together with God’s people.” And again it says, “All you non-Jews, praise the Lord. All you nations, sing praises to him.” And Isaiah says, “The Root of Jesse will grow up quickly. He will rule over the nations. Those who aren’t Jews will put their hope in him.”

May the God who gives hope fill you with great joy. May you have perfect peace as you trust in him. May the power of the Holy Spirit fill you with hope.            ____________________________________________

Today is the first day of Advent, the season when we prepare to welcome Jesus. Our parish has a one-word theme each week, and this week’s word is HOPE. Hope, in the way the way Christians use the word, is more than just wishful thinking, it’s trusting that God has a plan for our lives and that his promises of restoration and rebuilding will come true.

At the start of Advent the Church looks back to a time before Jesus, when God’s people were without hope. They were living in exile, separated from family and unable to communicate with them, grieving for those who had been killed in war, unable to do their usual jobs.   Doesn’t that sound familiar, as we spend this advent still reeling from the effects of the virus?

Like them, we may feel we have nothing to hope for. But God sent prophets with a message of hope, that he would rescue his people and take them back to where they belonged, restoring relationships and building communities.

The words of the prophets did come true – God restored the Jews to their land.  But there was more, a greater hope that God would one day come himself to reconcile his people – not only the Jews, but all people on earth, even those most excluded from society.  That’s why in this reading St Paul tells his readers to “accept one another” or in other translations, “welcome each other”– he was talking to Jewish and non-Jewish Christians, but the same applies wherever there is division in society.

This call to welcome others is especially relevant today, when we see so much division, so much inequality, so much discrimination in our world.  Never forget, Paul says, that God’s promise of hope is to all people, but most of all to the excluded.

Indian-fishermen

What does this look like in practice?  Take these fishermen. They live in a village called MGR Thittu in Tamil Nadu, south India which we visited in 20o6 with Tearfund.  They are Dalits, those below the bottom tier of the caste system.  They were cut off from society, poor, despised, uneducated, unable to work in the towns. Then the 2004 tsunami hit them, destroyed their boats and their homes.  They had no hope.  But Indian Christians from an organisation called EFICOR (with financial support from Tearfund in the UK), and Christian Aid, came to their rescue with a practical message of hope.  They built new homes, gave them new boats, and opened a computer teaching centre so that they could learn to use the Internet, get jobs in the city and become part of mainstream society. Above all, the Christians brought a message of God’s unconditional love.  Several of the Dalits turned to Christ and now there is a local church in their village.

That’s what Advent hope looks like in India.  But who are the excluded people who God is calling you to welcome? Who are the people God is calling you to bring hope to, this Advent?

[Postscript: since I drafted this earlier this week, Tearfund have asked for prayer for the Tamil Nadu region as it has been hit by a severe cyclone, with large numbers of people evacuated from the coastal areas.  Pray that once again, they may be given hope for the future].

The Bible in a Year – 27 October

If this is your first viewing, please see my Introduction before reading this.

27 October. Matthew chapters 8-9

In these two chapters we see Jesus doing what he was, in his lifetime, best known for – healing people.  In the course of what might have been only a few days, he heals eleven specific people from a range of conditions – leprosy, paralysis, fever, haemorrhage, blindness, dumbness, demon possession and even death (or a death-like trance).  It is clear that there were many more such miracles, too many to be recounted individually.  The impact he had on the towns and villages around the lake of Galilee/Capharnaum must have been tremendous.    These stories of healing also provide the setting for other developments in the story of Jesus told in between them – the calling of disciples (including Matthew himself), stilling the storm on the lake with a spoken word, and at the end of chapter 9, the command to “send labourers into the harvest”, that is to share in his work of bringing good news.

What was the good news, and how did it relate to these physical and spiritual healings?  I have just been reading a newsletter from one of the charities we support – CAP, Christians Against Poverty.  Their work is primarily helping people trapped in unsustainable debt to get out of the hole that they have dug themselves into. Or, in many cases, which has been dug for them – domestic abuse, unemployment, mental health problems or physical handicap is frequently the trigger for a downward spiral that leaves people with not only no money and no means of paying off what they borrow, but also no hope.  So CAP see their ministry as also one of bringing hope.  By acting as agents to negotiating settlements with creditors on their behalf, by challenging unfair benefit decisions by government agencies, by helping people to budget what money they do have, and overall by befriending them and introducing them to the fellowship of the local church. In all these ways, they show people who have lost hope that it is possible to regain it.

Jesus also seems to have been a bringer of hope.  That is why he rarely simply healed a physical illness and moved on, but engaged with people’s deeper need.   The leper and the bleeding woman, outcast from Jewish society, were cleansed and reintroduced to their religious community; the centurion (Roman soldier) was told that he was ahead of the Jews in the queue to meet God; a paralysed man was assured of forgiveness for sin, before being made able to walk again.

When Jesus is criticised for eating and drinking while John the Baptist and the Pharisees were telling their followers to fast, his reply is in the form of a short parable about clothing and wineskins.   He explains, “The wedding guests cannot mourn as long as the bridegroom is with them, can they?” (9:15).  His ministry was one characterised by activity, joy and hope, and it rubbed off on most of those whom he met.  To those in the darkness of depression, debt or anything else that robs people of hope, Jesus comes to restore it.  The call to labour in his harvest field is also a call to share in this life-changing gift of hope.

The Bible in a Year – 10 July

If this is your first viewing, please see my Introduction before reading this, and the introduction to the Psalms for this book of the Bible in particular.

10 July. Psalms 74-77

These psalms are part of the block from 73-83 attributed to Asaph (which may have meant the worship leader, or the choral singers). The first three (74-76) are communal songs, whereas the last (77) is a personal one.

 

But 74 and 76 share a common structure.  At first the singer(s) is/are in despair at their situation: in one, the Temple has been severely damaged by an enemy raid, the round of Temple worship has had to cease and nor is there anyone who can prophecy; in the other, the individual is experiencing what has been called “the dark night of the soul” when all attempts at prayer seem only to find a darkness, an absence of God.

 

But in both cases, the remedy is to remember what God has done in the past. In the first, God is remembered by the community for his work of creation: defeating chaos, making the sun and stars, the earth and its animals.  In the last, the individual recalls the Exodus, that defining moment when God achieved the impossible and saved the descendants of Jacob by leading them out of Egypt through the waters.

 

It is all too easy, when depression sets in because of external pressure or internal turmoil, to feel there is no way out.  But for those who trust in God, remembering what he has done in the past either in our own lives or in the lives of other people, now or in the past, can be the beginning of a turning back to the light.