Wholeness through worship

This is one of my extra posts, in between the daily Bible commentary. It is the text of the homily I gave at Evensong yesterday at the church of St Margaret, Bramley (Leeds). The theme of the service was “wholeness” and the readings, to which I refer, were: Psalm 139:1-11; Proverbs 3:1-18;  1 John 3:1-15.

Thank you for coming to share with us in Evensong tonight.  This is an ancient form of worship, one which a generation ago people thought was on its way to extinction, as Anglicans gave up the habit of going to church two or three times on a Sunday, and as new and more modern forms of service came along.  Surely no-one wanted all this 16th century stuff any more?

But they were wrong.  In the last few years there has been a boom in attendance at Evensong at many cathedrals and parish churches.  It is not only the elderly, but a younger generation who are finding meaning in it.  Why is that?

Let me suggest that what people are seeking is wholeness.  That is our theme this evening, as it will be at next Sunday’s Eucharist. There are several aspects to this form of worship that might help contribute to wholeness. Let’s briefly look at them.

Firstly there is peace and security. We live in a stressful and ever-changing world. Coming to a mainly quiet and reflective act of worship offers us the chance to lay aside the cares of the day and go with the flow of the music. Added to that is the sense of continuity that we get from using the same music and words that generations have used before us.  The Church of England, for all the benefits of diversity, is still founded on the worship of the Book of Common Prayer. Common, because it is what holds us together. When new people come along to a service of Evensong, even if the actual words are unfamiliar, they know that they are taking part in a tradition by which English Christianity has defined itself for centuries. The Church has survived all manner of wars, political upheavals, natural disasters and financial crises.  So even those who don’t yet hold a personal belief in Christ may find that the tradition acts as a rock in troubled waters.

Secondly there is the music itself.  It is well known now by health professionals that joining in singing, especially choral singing with its harmonies, is good not only for physical health as we exercise our lungs, but for mental health too.  Even if you don’t rate yourself as choir material, simply taking in the harmonies of the traditional chants as you listen can have some of the same mental health benefits.

Thirdly, there is the act of confession. There are also mental health benefits in being honest with yourself, acknowledging past wrongs and seeking support where you know you are weak.  In other forms of service this element of our religious practice can be skipped over rather quickly. The longer form of confession at Evensong, with its references to being like lost sheep and following the desires of our own hearts, reminds us that we really do need to turn to God to find a sense of direction in our lives; and the form of absolution leaves us in no doubt that we are forgiven.

Finally, there is the scripture.  Again, the passages that we read at Evensong tend to rather longer than those in the Eucharist. The lectionary also sometimes explores the more obscure corners of the Bible.  A careful reading of a lengthy passage in the archaic language of the King James version requires the listener to concentrate carefully on what is being said. That is no bad thing, because it allows the Spirit to penetrate our defences and speak to the inner person through the words that we hear.

So where can we find a sense of wholeness in the readings, which are just those set for the day.  The Psalmist reminds us that we are “fearfully and wonderfully made”, that God knows our every word, thought and action, and loves us both because of and despite what we do.   I’m not so sure about the proverb that fearing the Lord being “health to the navel and marrow to the bones” – the modern translation is “a healing for your flesh and a refreshment for your body.”

St John, as always, comes up with the goods. “We know that we have passed from death unto life, because we love the brethren.” This Christian love among brothers and sisters , he says, is evidence that we have passed from death to life, as Jesus takes away the tendency to commit sin and to hate or be jealous of others.  That passing from spiritual death to spiritual life is surely the ultimate expression of wholeness.

Let us now ask the Lord to let us go in peace as we sing “Nunc dimittis”.

© Stephen Craven 2017

 

 

 

The Bible in a Year – 19 September

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

19 September. 1 Chronicles chapters 16-17

Most of this passage is taken up with David’s psalm of praise at the dedication of the tent of the Ark; most of the text of it appears elsewhere as Psalms 96 and 105. See my commentary for 15 & 16 July.

The remainder is about how David first thought, and the prophet Nathan confirmed his thinking, that it would be right to build a “house for God” no less splendid than his own.  That may appear sensible – for to put one’s own needs before the will of God is to break the first commandment (to worship nothing other than God).  But God revealed to Nathan that this was in fact a sinful strategy, for to regard a fixed location for worship as “God’s house” is to start down the road of idolatry, thus breaking the second commandment (not to have any image of God).

A temple or church that is seen as the “exclusive” location of the divine becomes a focus of worship in itself.   But true worship of God is always outward-looking: it has been said (by the theologian David Bosch among others) that mission is not primarily an activity of the church, but an activity of God undertaken through the church.  As soon as we take our thinking away from God and what God’s mission might be, and start focussing on “the church” (building), or the objects in the church that might represent God, we lose sight of the purpose of the Church (body of God’s people).

It was not that there was never to be a “house of God” in Jerusalem. In the following verses God tells David that his son (Solomon, though not named here) would indeed build it.  But it would have been wrong for David to do so, for God’s purpose for David was to strengthen the identity of the nation of Israel and their worship. For that, they needed to have an understanding that God was everywhere among them and not restricted to the Temple or the Holy City (as other near eastern cultures would have believed).

 

The Bible in a Year – 25 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.

25 July. Psalms 146-150

The last five of the 150 psalms are all songs of praise.  Each of them begins and ends with the phrase “praise the Lord!” or as sometimes rendered closer to the original language, “Alleluia!”.

 

Between them they give many reasons why God is to be praised, ranging from his infinite power and wisdom, his creation of all the heavenly bodies (as we would now say, the universe) and all living beings, down to his loving concern for the most basic aspects of everyday life (he sets prisoners free, opens the eyes of the blind, lifts up those who are bowed down and upholds the orphan and the widow, 146:7-9).

 

In response to that, Psalm 148 calls on every aspect of creation to praise its maker.  Not only angels, people and animals, but also sun, moon and stars, mountains, even weather systems.  There is a commendable equality in this: “Kings of the earth and all peoples, princes and all rulers of the earth! Young men and women alike, old and young together!” (v.11-12). All these are to “praise the Lord”.  St Francis, that most loved saint who showed love equally to God, people and all of nature, paraphrased this as his “canticle of the creatures”, an original painting of which by an artist from Assisi hangs on our wall as a reminder of our honeymoon.

 

The psalms finish with a written finale as loud as that of any symphony.  To do justice to God’s immense love and power requires us to praise him, not only with our voice but with instruments of all kinds – wind, string and percussion are all identified.  Most religious traditions find music aids worship, and singing key texts makes them easier to remember.

 

The call to worship also includes dancing, an activity frowned on by more conservative Christians.  But actually, true worship must involve the body as well as the mind.  And when stirring music is played, who can resist at least tapping their feet?  So dance has also been part of many religious cultures, though not commonly so in Christianity today.  At the very end the Psalms are summed up with “Let everything that has breath praise the Lord!”

The Bible in a Year – 24 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.

24 July. Psalms 140-145

Psalms 140-143 are all said to be prayers by King David for deliverance from his enemies.  He lived in troubled times when he constantly faced rebellions and plots, often of a violent nature. Three of them speak of his enemies laying snares, nets or traps for him. Probably not in a literal sense, but perhaps ambushes, or surprise attacks when he least expected them.  It is in the nature of human conflict to plot and entrap other people so as to have an advantage over them – surprise has often been a winning strategy in battle, and an individual caught off-guard has little chance of overcoming his assailant.  But traps and snares are also the work of the Devil, who can catch us off-guard when we think we are doing well.  Prayer for protection against the Devil’s wiles is a traditional part of night prayer (compline), along with those prayers I mentioned from Psalms 121 and 132.

 

Psalm 144 is also a prayer of David for protection, but now that of the nation rather than himself.  It is not so much a desperate cry for help as a hymn of praise, beginning with a reminder of God’s strength and eternal nature. God is pictured as “fortress, stronghold, deliverer, and shield” (v.2). Common trust in this God would give the people confidence.  The psalm ends with a request for divine blessing on people, animals and crops.  There is however a brief call for help in the middle of it (v. 10-11), where the dangers are listed as “the cruel sword, [and] aliens [i.e. foreigners], whose mouths speak lies, and whose right hands are false.”

The Bible in a Year – 23 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.

23 July. Psalms 133-139

Most of the psalms in this batch are communal songs of praise. The first two are the remaining “songs of ascent” – see yesterday’s post.

The next two (135 and 136) are longer, and similar in scope, each being in three parts, praising God first for his acts of creation, then for his acts of redemption (saving Israel from Egypt) and then for his acts of protection (enabling them to defeat their enemies).  The two psalms are very different in style, however, as 136 is written in cantor-and-response format, such as is found today in some of the popular Taize chants, where one singer calls out short phrases of praise and thanksgiving, and the chorus responds with the same line each time, in this instance “for his steadfast love endures for ever”. The point of such repetition, as with any prayer mantra, is to get the concept deep inside one’s thinking.  If you repeat many times that “God’s steadfast love endures forever” it becomes part of your thinking, and this is a good basis for a confident faith.

 

The last of these, psalm 139, is one of the best known, and very different in style.  It is a personal and intimate prayer, a conversation with the God who wants each one of us to know that we are loved by God as by a parent, indeed more so, for God knew us before we were even conceived!

 

 

 

The Bible in a Year – 22 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.

22 July. Psalms 120-132

The fifteen psalms numbers 120 to 134 are known as the “songs of ascent”. They are presumed to have been said or sung by pilgrims travelling up to Jerusalem (famously a city on a large hill).

Even today many popular pilgrimages involve difficult walking, whether to a mountain shrine such as Sinai or Montserrat, or across hills such as St Cuthbert’s Way in northern England.  The physical challenge is intended to aid spiritual reflection, to “lift up” the pilgrim’s mind and heart to God.

These psalms use Jerusalem as a symbol of peace and security, and also of God’s presence. Ps. 121 in particular urges us to pray for the peace of Jerusalem, a prayer that is still much needed for a divided and disputed holy place. Ps. 120 complains of the problems of being a peace-living person among those who prefer conflict.

In order to ascend, you need to start off from a lower place. Physically, anyone starting their pilgrimage to Jerusalem from Jericho would be below sea level – truly “from the depths” (130:1). But the psalm more likely refers to the depths of depression, guilt or pain. Sometimes it is necessary to sink below what one might term psychological sea level in order to recognise that one is in need of help.  The psalmist here calls on God for forgiveness (130:3-4); in other psalms in the set he calls for mercy (123:2-3),or for joy to replace tears (126:5-6).

 

A couple of these psalms are particularly associated in Christian tradition with prayer at night. Psalm 121 tells of God who “never slumbers or sleeps” and who will protect us so that “the sun shall not harm you by day, nor the moon by night”.  Clearly sunburn or sunstroke is a risk in a hot country, but I have yet to work out what danger is posed by the moon – unless it is the association in some cultures between the full moon and madness.  But the point is, that God will protect us even when we are not awake to ask for his protection or sense it.  Ps. 132:3-5 is a vow not to go to sleep “until I find a place for the Lord”. Many people find it helpful to pray before going to bed, to release to God any bad experiences, guilt or frustrations of the day past, and to commit any worries about the following day to his care.

 

The Bible in a Year – 20/21 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.

20/21 July. Psalm 119.

Psalm 119 is, famously, the longest of the 150 psalms, and an acrostic, being set in 22 sections, the verses of each section all starting with the same letter (in the original Hebrew – not obvious in most English translations).

 

In it, the writer or singer lists all kinds of difficulties and temptations that he faces: he feels like an alien (immigrant), people plot against him and slander him, he feels persecuted and hounded almost to death. He sees all kinds of wicked deeds being done by other people, which angers him.   He is also tempted by lust, greed, and “vanities” (trivial things).

 

Many psalms include some or all of those elements. What is distinctive about this one is that there is a repeated refrain (with variations) on the theme of obeying God – that is, keeping what are variously described as his ordinances, statues, decrees, precepts, laws and commandments.  Whatever life throws at him, whatever other people think about him, being obedient to God is the most important aspect of his life.

 

The “statutes” etc. are more than the obvious moral commandments of the bible – “Thou shalt not kill” and so on.  The term refers to the whole body of Jewish teaching, all the ways in which people build a relationship with God, such as praying, fasting and worshipping, as well as being honest and loving in all relationships, just in trade and generous in giving.  These statutes are eternal and divine principles, not man-made laws which vary from one place to another.  We are reminded in verse 89 that “The Lord exists for ever; your word is firmly fixed in heaven”.

 

Verse 18 is also a key one: “Open my eyes, so that I may behold wondrous things out of your law”. Verse 125 adds “give me understanding, so that I may know your decrees”. Just reading the words of the Bible is never enough: we need to have spiritually open eyes, so that we can see beyond the words on the page or screen, to the love of God that lies behind them.

 

The Bible in a Year – 19 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.

19 July.  Psalms 115-118

I will look today just at the last of this set – Psalm 118.

Titled “a song of victory”, it seems to mix elements of the personal – one person thanking God for his support in times of trouble (v. 5-14, 17-21) – and the corporate (v. 1-14,  15-16 and 22-27 read like a choral or congregational response).   That indicates the tension always found in corporate worship between the “I” and the “we”. If I go to a church service is it in order to deepen my own faith, pray for my own family, thank God for what he has done in my life?  Or is it to join a community that has its own journey to travel, its own story to tell, and become part of a group of people expressing a common faith, praying for common concerns, thanking God for his deeds for all people?

The answer, of course, is both, but it is a matter of getting a balance right.  That is the challenge that faces me as I get re-licensed tomorrow as a Reader (lay minister) in my local church, having moved from another part of the country a couple of years ago.  As one of the team leading worship I need to be aware of the congregation’s story, its preferences, its challenges, the gifts that are found within it, and the needs of the local community for us to support them in prayer and action. But at the same time I still need to find spiritual nourishment though the worship, prayers and Bible readings.

The same challenge must have faced Jesus Christ, only in a far bigger way.  Yes, he was the Son of God and could work miracles and give wise teaching to the thousands of needy people he met, but he also needed to sustain himself both in private prayer and the worship of the synagogue.  Perhaps that is why at least two verses of this Psalm are found in the New Testament accounts of Jesus.

According to all the “synoptic” gospels, “The stone that the builders rejected has become the chief cornerstone” (v.22) was quoted by Jesus, referring to himself.  Rejected by the Temple authorities as a misfit, he had become the cornerstone to the ordinary people, the one on whom they could build a new life.  Paul and Peter, in their letters, also refer to Jesus as the “cornerstone”.

“Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord” (v.26) is one of the congregational responses in this psalm, and was chanted by the crowds who welcomed Jesus into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday.  Christians still repeat this phrase week by week as part of the common liturgy.  But for Jesus, hearing it at this point in his journey when he knew he was entering Jerusalem for the last time to face trial and death, it must have been a huge relief to feel the love and encouragement of his crowds of supporters.

As cornerstone, he was bearing the burdens of others.  As the recipient of their praise, they were sustaining him.  So it is for a priest (or Reader) – usually we are there for other people – if not as the cornerstone (which is always Jesus), at least as one of the foundation stones. But sometimes we have to let them be there for us.

Tomorrow I shall have to promise the Bishop, among other things, to “conduct myself as becomes a worker for Christ for the good of his church and for the spiritual welfare of all people”.  In return, the congregation will promise to support me with their “prayers, love and loyalty, with the help of God”. May we get the balance right!

 

The Bible in a Year – 18 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.

18 July. Psalms 108-114

Three of these are classed as Psalms of David (108-110), and show a wide range of attitude, from confident praise and joy to anger, fear and despondency.  Even allowing that they were written at different times in an eventful life, they seem to have been written by someone with wide mood swings (possibly what we would now call bipolar?)

 

The other four in this set (111-114) turn back to exploring God, his character and his dealings with people. I will focus on Ps.112. It deals with “those who fear the Lord, [and] delight in his commandments”.  ‘Fear’ of God in the Bible does not mean trembling and anxiety, like fear of an earthly enemy or bully, but rather a healthy respect for God’s power over all aspects of our lives, including life and death, and an awareness of the consequences of rebelling against him.

 

So what is promised to those who fear God?  There is a promise of material prosperity in verse 3, but the more important reward is righteousness before God and “being remembered for ever”, in contrast to the “wicked” who “gnash their teeth and melt away; their desire comes to nothing.”  This “Being remembered for ever” is possibly by their descendants, but maybe this refers more to God himself “remembering”, i.e. acknowledging them in eternal life.

 

It is not only such people themselves who obtain blessings; their “descendants” and their “generation” will also be blessed. How? Because those who fear the Lord are “gracious, merciful, and righteous” (attributes of God himself), they are generous and honest.  But they are also  characterised by stability: consistent in their faith, not afraid of evil, nor of anyone.

 

So the lesson seems to be that fearing God and being generous to others seems to be a win-win strategy: you will be blessed, and so will they and your descendants.

The Bible in a Year – 17 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.

17 July. Psalms 106-107

Psalm 106 is titled in the NRSV “A confession of Israel’s sins”.  Confession of sin is something strange to many people nowadays, something only done in religious ritual.  But even then, the focus tends to be on our own personal sins.  Even when a church congregation says a prayer of confession together using the word ”we” rather than “I,” most people will be thinking of their own shortcomings rather than daring to do so on behalf of anyone else.

Sometimes there is a call for national leaders to acknowledge the wrongdoings of their predecessors – to “apologise” for treating immigrants as slaves, women as mere property, or indigenous peoples as animals to be culled.  But apology stops short of confession and repentance.  That’s not to say that today’s leaders would endorse those practices, but they merely distance “us” from our ancestors who behaved so badly.

The Biblical form of national confession is different.  Verse 6 puts it clearly: “Both we and our ancestors have sinned; we have committed iniquity, have done wickedly”.  That is, our sins may be different (there is no suggestion of child sacrifice or idolatry in the later centuries of Jewish history) but we are no better than them.

But is that being too harsh on our leaders?  What is needed is a national repentance, a collective turning back to God. We cannot expect politicians or even bishops to achieve that.  What they could do, though, is be bold enough to challenge their fellow citizens to examine their own consciences and seek to “do justly and love mercy” as Micah put it. In a pluralist society “walk humbly with your God” is not a phrase that politicians can use without accusations of bias, but bishops can.

 

The first 32 verses of Psalm 107 consist of the potted stories of unnamed people (although the writer probably had well known folk heroes in mind) who suffered in various ways – exiled, lost, starving, thirsting, imprisoned, enslaved, sick and dying, and in peril on the sea.  In each case they cried to God, he saved them and they gave him thanks.  It is the ever-repeated pattern of encountering God and his saving power in the darkest times of life.

The following six verses go further and tell of how God actively works for the benefit of his people – he provides springs in the desert, so they can build towns to live in, farm the land and become plentiful and numerous.  This is a story of co-operation between the Creator and his people, in which he provides the resources, and the skills with which to use them.