From ashes to the livng font

Today’s hymn from Sing Praise is “From ashes to the living font” by the American writer Alan Hommerding, set in the book to an old 18th century tune although it is “common metre” so there are many possible tunes to choose from.  Hommerding has written his own tune to it, which he discusses along with the words on a podcast. He explains that it was written for a particular occasion to help parishioners make sense of observing Lent, and that his intention is that during Lent we should not forget the end of the journey (Easter and Pentecost) but have them in mind throughout our spiritual journey.

The opening verse is intended to sum up the idea of the season of Lent as a journey, starting with confession and repentance (Ash Wednesday) and ending with the celebrations of Easter, traditionally a time for new believers to be baptised (symbolised by the font). 

The second calls us to use “fasting, prayer and charity” as a way to hear God’s voice in this season.   The third verse refers to the Transfiguration of Jesus, a story that occurs twice every year in the lectionary cycle, in Lent and in August. It was a key event in the spiritual journey of his closest disciples (Peter, James and John) as they realised without doubt that Jesus was the son of God, greater even than Moses and Elijah.  Few of us will have such a dramatic revelation, but hopefully we will understand something new about Jesus each year.

There are five verses in this setting, but the web page linked above gives, as well as four set verses, separate verses for each Sunday of Lent, of which verse 4 here is the one set for the third Sunday (“For thirsting hearts let water flow, our fainting souls revive, and at the well your waters give our everlasting life”) which is probably intended to go with the story of Jesus and the woman of Samaria.

The last verse starts with a reprise of the opening line, but is explicit about the end of the journey: “through cross and tomb to Easter joy, in Spirit-fire fulfilled”.  We look forward in the solemnity of Lent to the resurrection and the giving of the Spirit, without which the fasting and self-denial doesn’t really make sense.

Forgive us when…

Today’s hymn from Sing Praise is one by Martin Leckebusch from the selection for Lent.  The full words can be found on the Jubilate Hymns website.  Sing Praise offers two choices of tune, neither familiar to me, and John Hartley has composed one for the occasion in a minor key, but in fact as it is in the frequently used “long metre” (eight syllables per line) there are many suitable tunes and the Jubilate website suggests the well-known “Tallis’s Canon”.

The first line is “Forgive us when our deeds ignore your righteous rule”. In fact all the verses begin “Forgive us…”, which is a good clue to the theme, which is that of penitence (saying sorry to God for the things we’ve done wrong and asking his help not to repeat our mistakes). 

Traditionally the sort of sins repented of in Lent were greed, pride, lust and envy – sins of thought more than of deed, for the most part.  Not that those are suddenly acceptable these days, and indeed in verse two we confess “dreams of pleasure, wealth and pride” and in verse three “our endless greed for what was never truly ours” (more than a nod to the traditional vices there).   

But the focus of what we think of as sin has shifted in recent decades.  The things that Martin asks us to repent of include what we might call “woke sins”, thoughts and actions that harm the world and its people and our relationship with nature. More specifically, verse one refers to “decisions that harm the poor”, reflecting the  theology of “liberation” or “bias to the poor” that has become popular since the 1960s.  Verse three expands the concept of greed beyond personal acquisition to encompass the way “we harness this world’s brutal powers” (meaning perhaps its fossil fuel and nuclear energy, although it may also suggest structural and corporate greed riding roughshod over the poor).   

Verse four gives an interesting take on what ‘sin’ might mean in its widest sense: “we change the rules by which the game is played”. The Biblical understanding is that God’s commandments – his rules for living – are for everyone’s benefit.  But by changing those rules to benefit ourselves more than others, by making greed a strength and living sustainably with a view to the needs of others a weakness, we undermine the way the world was supposed to work.

The last two lines combine a traditional observance of Lent with this more contemporary understanding as we ask God to “help us walk your holy way, to make your world a better place”.  Personal holiness and concern for the world around us are not two opposing or different approaches to religion, they are more like the intertwining strands of DNA or the interplay of electricity and magnetism: only together can they bring life and power into being.

A Lenten retreat

Text of a sermon preached at St Margaret’s church, Bramley, Leeds

Sunday 23 February 2020 (last before Lent)

Bible text: Exodus 24:12-18


Moses was exhausted.  At his wits’ end. Stressed out. Dare I say, knackered?  Let’s just recall what he had achieved in the last year or so, bearing in mind what psychologists tell us are some of the main causes of stress.

First of all, this elderly man had faced up to a near eastern despot; bringing plagues on the country by God’s power using nothing more than a miraculous staff (and constant prayer).  Facing up to bullies causes stress – check!

Then, at the Exodus, he led at least a million refugees out of the country by night, through the sea and into the desert, again with nothing more than the miraculous staff and prayer.  The responsibilities of leadership cause stress – check!

Once safely out of Egypt their problems hadn’t stopped. Surprise, surprise, there  not enough food and water for a million people in the desert. Moses had to face up to a rebellion against his leadership as a result.  Being unable to access life’s basic needs causes stress – check! But once again the miraculous staff – and constant prayer – had come in handy.

If that wasn’t enough, he had directed a battle against a hostile tribe, again using that trusty old staff and constant prayer, though this time he was so weak his assistants had to hold his arms up. Warfare causes long term stress – check!

He had already been up the mountain in Sinai once, to receive the Ten Commandments and lots of other regulations, amounting to four pages of closely printed text in our Bibles.  But it seems he had to memorise them all at first, because only now is he summoned up the mountain a second time to fetch the written tablets of the Law.  While physical and mental exercise are recommended for older people, that was going too far!  Over-exertion causes stress – check!

If all that wasn’t enough, somewhere along the way we are told he had separated from his wife, and a while later his father-in-law comes along to have a word in his ear about it.  Relationship breakdown causes stress – check!

Finally, until recently he had been acting as judge for the whole people of Israel.  Fortunately he had been persuaded by his father-in-law to delegate most of that workload to other people (see, even in-laws can be worth listening to at times!) But that had taken its toll.  Sorting out disputes causes stress – check!  How many stress factors is that so far?  I make it at least seven.  It was most definitely time for a break.

So, God calls Moses up the mountain a second time.  On this occasion Joshua, who would eventually take over from Moses, comes with him.  The instruction from God is clear: “Come up to me on the mountain, and wait there”.  I emphasise that word “wait”.  We are told that the glory of the Lord settled on the mountain: the word is the same that John uses when he writes that the Word of God “came and dwelt among us” in Jesus.  But this was only base camp: the two of them spent seven days there, not yet going into the full presence of God, but waiting.  I believe this was Moses’s retreat, and God wanted him to de-stress before calling him to the next phase of his ministry.

This is a good time to think about retreats, as many people do make a retreat in Lent.  They are not necessarily about abstinence or physical discomfort, although  Moses presumably fasted through this time and slept out in the open.  Most retreat centres these days offer good food and a comfortable bed, and there’s nothing wrong with that – it may be just what you need.  Ideally, though, the retreat is about renewing your relationship with God, so that you can re-enter the world and its problems with renewed energy, understanding and vision. So what might Moses have got out of his seven-day retreat at Mount Sinai Base Camp?

Firstly, he had time to think.  Retreats are not holidays.  They are not about pleasure seeking. They may well be about relaxing, and certainly having time and space away from distractions to think clearly.  We are told that Moses was a very humble man, and reluctant to speak (which is why Aaron had to go with him to meet Pharaoh). He had spent a long time in the desert alone as a shepherd.  In the language of today, he was probably an introvert, someone who finds their strength in solitude. More than most people he needed to get far from the madding crowd.  After all the stresses of leading Israel out of Egypt he needed time alone with God -and with himself.

Next, he had the opportunity to let go.  Retreats are not about “getting things done”, or even “sorting out problems”.  Rather, a retreat should be about leaving the cares of the world behind, to de-stress by handing over all your problems to God.  When Linda and I were on the Scargill community, many guests who came to us from busy lives would say they ‘left their cares at the cattle grid’, starting to relax as they came up the drive and into the calmness of our community.

Then, he had time for more reflective prayer.   All the praying he had done these last months was intercessory – for his people’s freedom, for their physical needs to be met, for victory in battle, for justice in the courtroom.  Now he desperately needed the other sort of prayer – meditation, contemplation, enjoying God’s presence.  A balanced prayer life includes both – meditation to take us out of the world and into God, and intercession to face outward to the world and bring its needs to God.  But on retreat, the emphasis is on the first.

‘Letting go’ is also about letting others take the strain.  “Aaron and Hur are with you; whoever has a dispute may go to them”.  No-one is indispensable. Retreats can be about taking time out of daily life, handing over responsibility, letting other people answer the phone and look after the children while you are away – “me time” as well as “God time”.

Once someone on retreat has let go of their cares, relaxed and started to focus on God, then comes the opportunity to hear God’s word.  For Moses of course, that was quite literal – at the end of the seven day retreat began another, longer, tougher one – forty days on the mountain top alone with God, but the first week of retreat was essential so that he could be ready to hear God speak.

For most of us that will be through worship, the Bible, other reading, or perhaps pastoral conversations with a retreat leader or chaplain. But always be open to hearing God speak in a more audible way, or by dreams or visions. It does happen.

The retreat is also a place of discernment. At the end of a retreat, ideally there should be a call – a renewed sense of vocation, of having a place in God’s kingdom.  Moses went back down the mountain with the tablets of the law, and also with detailed instructions about the building of the tabernacle, the place of worship.  In his forty day solo retreat he had come to understand more deeply the nature of God and the way that he should be worshipped, and had that message to pass on to others.

So as we approach Lent, starting this Wednesday, here are some questions to ponder.

  • Can I make time for a retreat during Lent? Not necessarily a full week in a recognised retreat centre, but perhaps a quiet day away by myself to spend in relaxation and prayer?   Or even just a good long walk, if the weather lets up?
  • What are the things that are causing me stress at present? Can I manage to lay them aside for a while?  Is there someone I could talk to about them who could help me de-stress? Maybe a family member, as with Moses and his father-in-law, or a friend such as Joshua, or a health professional?
  • What are the things that distract me from prayer? Certain people, places, foods, devices?  Can I lay them aside for a while – give them up for Lent?
  • Does my prayer life need a better balance? More intercession, more Bible reading, or more meditation? What would help with that?

Whatever your answers to these questions – and we are all different – be assured that if you turn aside to look for God, you will find him.  Few of us will have as stressful a life as Moses – or Jesus – but just as they found God in the solitude, so can we.

The Bible in a Year – 6 March

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

 

6 March. Deuteronomy chapters 21-23

What an odd collection of laws!  Some of those given here are purely practical, like not weaving wool with linen (22:11) – the warp and weft would shrink differently – or not yoking an ox with a donkey (a comical idea – the ox would carry on ploughing while the donkey sat down on the spot, as they do). Others are just good hygiene practice (digging latrines outside the camp, 23:12). But then we get ‘laws’ concerning marriage and sexual relations that seem shocking to us, such as it being OK to rape an unbetrothed virgin and then marry her in return for paying her father a dowry (22:28) – where is her opinion in that? Where are the human rights?  And don’t ask me to read Deuteronomy 23:1 aloud in church!

 

 

So I won’t attempt to comment on those passages. Instead I will look at a law that has Lenten resonances for Christians: “When someone is convicted of a crime punishable by death and is executed, and you hang him on a tree, his corpse must not remain all night upon the tree; you shall bury him that same day, for anyone hung on a tree is under God’s curse.” (21:22-23). This reminds us that Jesus was executed as a criminal, the cross being treated under Jewish law in the same way as a living tree, and therefore his disciples, with the help of Joseph of Arimathea who provided the grave space, laid him to rest the same day, in haste and without time to prepare the body for burial.  The next day after Jesus’ death was a Sabbath anyway, when all ‘work’ was prohibited.  But if they had waited until the next working day to give him a ‘proper’ burial, would they have returned to the tomb and found it empty? Sometimes, following the rules, even if they seem restrictive, can actually lead to blessings.  Perhaps that’s one reason why many people set themselves a particular discipline in Lent, whether in abstinence or additional good works or times of prayer.

The Bible in a Year – 2 March

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

2 March. Deuteronomy chapters 8-10

Again (see yesterday’s reading ) we see the origins of the discipline of Lent, both in the reminder that “one does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord” (8:3, as quoted by Jesus to the Devil) and also in Moses’ reminder that the twice spent forty days and nights fasting and praying, first to reach a level of enlightenment in which he could know God ‘face to face’ and receive the commandments, and again in prayer for God’s people in their disobedience.  Jesus likewise spent 40 days and nights fasting in the desert as he wrestled with temptation before starting his ministry of teaching and healing.

 

It is a biblical pattern that God calls, people hear, but before they can fully and effectively do God’s work they must receive what the Church calls ‘ministerial and spiritual formation’ – reaching a deeper understanding of God, his teaching through the Bible, and one’s relationships with other people.  Most of us though, take a lifetime of training and experience to achieve this, if at all, rather than the ”crash course” that Moses, Jesus and also St Paul took.

 

 

 

The Bible in a Year – 1 March (Ash Wednesday)

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

1 March. Deuteronomy chapters 5-7

It may be no coincidence that the Bible reading plan I am following includes Deuteronomy 5 today, for it is a reprise (in slightly different words) of the Ten Commandments. Today is Ash Wednesday when Christians particularly focus on confessing sins in order that we may make a new start with God and make new resolutions to be more holy, whether that is by giving up something that takes us away from God, or doing more of something that brings us closer to him such as prayer, volunteering in the community or charitable giving.

 

Note what Moses says to the people – “Not with our ancestors did the Lord make this covenant, but with us, who are all of us here alive today” (5:3). These commandments are for all people at all time, universal rules for living in harmony with our creator and the creation. Whereas the more detailed rules and regulations already given through the books of Leviticus and Numbers were, as Moses says in chapter 6, for this specific nation at the time they were settling that particular country, so not all of them will be applicable to us today.

 

Chapter 7 stresses again the importance of keeping the commandments. Why?  “God maintains covenant loyalty with those who love him and keep his commandments, to a thousand generations, and repays in their own person those who reject him.” (7:9-10)  The results of sin can be seen in someone’s own life very quickly, but the fruits of good works may not be evident until future generations.  That’s a lesson within families as intended – a bad parent creates a dysfunctional family easily, but good parenting only really shows itself as one generation succeeds another.  But it’s also true when it comes to something like tackling climate change (something that many Christian charities now ask us to think about in Lent as well) – cutting my energy use now will not make much difference to me in my lifetime, but it’s a small contribution to preventing changes that will massively impact billions of people in the future.

The Bible in a Year – 28 February (Shrove Tuesday / mardi gras)

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

28 February. Deuteronomy chapter 4

We are about to enter the season of Lent, which traditionally starts with thinking about the temptations faced by those who serve God, as Jesus faced temptation in his 40-day desert retreat.  In this chapter Moses warns his people of the temptations they will face in Canaan.

 

He lays much stress on the fact that unlike the so-called gods of other nations, the one true God is not visible, at least not in human or animal form although they had experienced God’s presence as cloud and fire and a voice.  This true God is also always present, very close when we call on him, and the laws that he gave were not arbitrary but for “wisdom and discernment”, so Moses warns the people not to ignore the teaching or to forget their experience of the divine presence.

 

People still face the same temptations now when thinking about faith, though they may take different forms: idolatry (which nowadays might take the form of astrology, the false belief that the planets represent spirits that influence our lives); discounting the reality of God because we can’t see him (although many people testify to encountering God in one way or another); being led astray from devotion to God by the wealth and fertility of the land around us ( we call this consumerism); and treating religious teaching as irrelevant, when in fact there is much wisdom in it if we take it seriously.

 

May you have a holy Lent.