Inspired by love and anger

Jesus asleep in the boat.
Found at https://www.freedomfrommedom.com/ – original artist unknown

Today’s hymn from Sing Praise is the first of two on consecutive days by the Scottish hymnwriters John Bell & Graham Maule, both in the series on social justice issues.  Both of them invite us to join our own concerns with those of God.  This one, “Inspired by love and anger”, puts words into the mouths of various groups before turning to God himself.  The full words can be found here.The tune, Salley Gardens, is a gentle Irish folk melody, easily memorised, but perhaps a little too gentle for the subject matter

Verse 1 invites us to be “inspired by love and anger, disturbed by need and pain”. It’s all too easy to suffer compassion fatigue as we hear of yet more suffering in the world (just this week, uncountable Covid cases in India and two localised disasters in Israel and Mexico, for example).  “How long can few folk mind?” may well be a question aimed at ourselves.

Verses 2 and 3 offer a contrast between the cries of the victims for justice, peace, and release of prisoners; and the rich who ask not to be criticised for their position, wealth and exploitation of others.  To be fair, not all rich people are like that: Bill Gates is said the be the fourth richest person in the world with assets exceeding $100 billion, but he and Melinda are also great philanthropists who do genuinely seem to seek fairness in the world.

In verse 4 we offer up to God the “agony and rage” of Earth and ask when his kingdom of equity will come.  In verse 5, God responds by asking, as he did through Isaiah, “Who will go for me, who will extend my reach, and who when few will listen will prophesy and preach?”  A common response to that question is “Is it I, Lord?”. This is prayer as dialogue leading to action.

The last verse turns to Jesus, using some imaginative wording. He is pictured “amused in someone’s kitchen, asleep in someone’s boat” as examples of being with us in ordinary life. His ministry is summed up as being “a saviour without safety, a tradesman without tools”. It’s not a very satisfactory ending, as it doesn’t really explain how God in Jesus – or in us – does answer the earth’s call for justice.  We need more guidance from this sleeping saviour on how exactly we are to work with him in this way.

Hear me, O Lord, in my distress

Today’s hymn from Sing Praise is “Hear me, O Lord, in my distress”, a setting by David Preston of Psalm 143.  As I noted yesterday, the Psalms, especially those of lament, feature prominently in Lent. 

Unlike many of the psalms that start in complaint and end in praise, this one has a different arc.  Certainly it starts in desperation (“Hear me in my distress, give ear to my despairing plea!”) and also asks God not to judge the one who prays (v.2, “yet judge me not, for in your sight no living soul is counted just”). Verses 3 and 4 are marked as optional, but it’s only in verse 4 that there is a sign of hope as the singer recalls good times past (“Days long vanished I review, I see the orders of your hands”) which would seem to make that a verse not to be omitted, as a pivotal point. After that, in v.5 the singer calls again on God to answer without delay and asks “let this day bring word of your unfailing grace”. 

But that unfailing grace lies in the future, not the present, for in the last two verses it’s back to the cry to be saved from one’s pursuers, for one’s life to be preserved and set free from oppression.  There are other psalms where the singer seems to end by thanking God for deliverance already granted, but not on this occasion. That’s how life is: faith in God may bring relief from a sense of fear and hopelessness, but to be honest there’s no guarantee of that relief coming automatically or immediately.   Faith is about knowing there is a bigger story, a higher reality, an eventual triumph of good over evil, rather than every small battle in life going ‘our way’.

The musical setting is Vaughan-Williams’ “This is the truth sent from above”.  The tune was familiar to me, therefore easy to pick up.  The G minor setting suitably reflects the plaintive words of the hymn, although the final chord of each verse sounds more positive note that doesn’t really find an echo in the words.  No doubt John can comment on that.

We turn to Christ anew

Today’s hymn from Sing Praise was “We turn to Christ anew”. Although in the section on Christian Initiation, it doesn’t specifically refer to baptism and would be equally suitable for confirmation, renewal of vows or a Covenant service.

The three verses, set to a tune more familiar as “The God of Abram praise”, are all about obedience and trust.  It’s significant that the hymn is written in the first person plural – “we”, not “I”. The longer I have lived as a Christian, the more I have realised that the ‘Christian life’ is less about following rules (whether God-given or man-made) and more about recognising God’s sovereignty in the world and being part of the whole Christian church, indeed the wider company of all who believe in God and seek to do his will, not only our own lives, but in the lives of all people and indeed the whole creation.  With this attitude, prayer and worship become not a list of requests, but trying to be attuned to the will of God in everything.  The first verse, then, is about turning to Christ, walking his way, obeying and serving him, as well as turning from sin (which is merely a first step towards doing his will, whether at conversion or subsequently). 

The second verse declares “We trust in Christ to save”, with a reminder of his death on the Cross as paying a ransom (one of several understandings of its significance, and perhaps not a commonly heard one these days). It also looks forward to the “final day” when those who trust in him will be saved to eternal life.  It is, of course, much harder to decide whether I myself trust in Christ sufficiently to merit this, let alone to see into anyone else’s mind and make a judgement about their level of trust, than it is to ask a yes-or-no question about whether someone has been baptised or had a particular experience, which is why preachers and evangelists now tend to be less dogmatic about who will be “in” or “out” of God’s favour come that final day.

The last verse starts continuing the theme of looking towards the end of time, or at least of our earthly lives, acclaiming Jesus as “our changeless friend”.   It ends with a challenge to renew our faith and love to follow him.  The very last line – “and find him true” – is important, because it is Christ’s promise to be true (i.e. faithful) to us that is if anything more important than our promises to be true to him, which we know can often falter.

Advent Faith

Advent faith Reading: Isaiah 40:27-31

Today is the third Sunday of Advent.  In the parish of Bramley we have a one-word theme each week during Advent. So far we have had HOPE and PEACE. This week’s word is FAITH.

What does that mean to you? People can sometimes be put off  getting involved with Christianity because we talk of faith, thinking that faith means already understanding the Bible, or believing certain things about God.  But all that can come later.  Faith, to begin with, simply means trusting God – just trusting that he exists, and that he cares.

Isaiah spoke to people who thought God was ignoring them in their problems.  No, he said, God understands everything. You just need to trust him, then you can be as strong and free as the eagle, in other words you will find the strength to cope with your problems and feel in control of your life, rather than being earthbound by your problems and other people’s expectations.

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Let’s look at a couple of pictures.  The first is a photograph of a bird – actually it’s a chough, a sort of large crow, not an eagle – but it is flying high above a lake.  My friends and I had spent hours climbing the mountain by our own effort, fighting against gravity, but here was this bird just soaring easily on the thermal currents.   I took this at a time when I had been a Christian for over ten years but was exploring options for ministry. This view from a mountain top spoke to me, of the way God might be freeing me from previous commitments to serve him.

 

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The second image is of a place some of you may know, the chapel at Scargill House. About five years after I had taken the first photo, praying in the silence of the chapel in the Yorkshire Dales, God gave me a picture in my mind, in which I was a baby bird, and God my mother. She was telling me it was time to fly the nest, not to be afraid but to trust her to know that now was the time to start flying. Within months of that I had given up my previous job, taken a big cut in income and started serving God in a new way in a new place. Since then I have worked for four different Christian organisations and trained as a Reader.

The point is that you don’t need the gifts of a prophet, the intellect of a bishop, or the wingspan of an eagle to start flying with God.  An amount of faith and trust as small as the tiny wings of a baby sparrow will do.  The question is, do you trust God when she says that she knows better than you do what you are capable of, and that you are now ready to fly with her?  It’s only the start of a lifetime’s journey, but it has to start with that simple act of faith.

The Apocrypha in Lent – 25 February

If this is your first visit, please see my introduction to these Lenten readings.

25 February. 1 Maccabees  chapters 8-10

All that I wrote yesterday about warfare in the Bible lands still applies.  Judas and Demetrius senior die in battle in this period, as does the Syrian general Nicanor. But the struggle for religious and political control of Judea continues into the next generation.  With references to Alexander and Cleopatra (though these are neither Alexander the Great nor the Cleopatra of Shakespearean fame) we are reminded of the great influence of Greece and Egypt in this period.  The battles of these centuries before the Christian era were as much about the clash between faith in God and the Greek emphasis on human reason, as they were about political control and military might.

Chapter 8 also brings the Romans into the story, although they don’t seem to appear elsewhere: Rome at this time dominated Western Europe but Greece the East.  The treaty between Rome (a large empire) and Judea (a tiny country) seems very unequal, but might be compared to the NATO pact – dominated by the USA, if they withdrew from NATO it would become far weaker as a defensive alliance, but the principle of each member promising to support the others in time of war was the same.   The treaty also forbade either side from supporting the enemy of the other with money or weapons, again just as NATO does, which is why today’s war in Syria puts a strain on NATO as different members of that alliance seem to be arming different players in that conflict, and as Britain continues to arm Saudi Arabia in its repression of Yemen at the same time that other NATO countries call for an end to that brutal conflict.    History truly does repeat itself.

So where is the spiritual element among all this politics and war?  It is hard to see, but is in the background. Jonathan in particular sees himself as a successor to King David and other Jewish leaders of the past, defending not just a people but a religion against the threat of extermination.   David had been a rebel leader, later becoming king (and therefore a military commander) but also involved in Temple worship, famously composing many  Psalms. That explains what might seem to modern eyes a rather contradictory verse, “Jonathan put on the sacred vestments [i.e. became High Priest] in the seventh month of the year one hundred and sixty, on the feast of Tabernacles; he then set about raising troops and manufacturing arms in quantity” (10:21).  In those turbulent times, prayer and fighting were both necessary to save the life and faith of the Jewish people.  There are places in  the world today where it would be difficult to criticise a similar strategy.

The Apocrypha in Lent – 24 February

If this is your first visit, please see my introduction to these Lenten readings.

24 February. 1 Maccabees  chapters 5-7

Violence follows violence in this story, as the Holy Land is the scene of fighting between several groups: the Greek king’s forces under Lysias, Judas and his resistance army, the Hasmoneans (religious conservatives) , those Jews who had preferred peaceful collaboration with the Greeks to armed resistance, the army of Demetrius of Rome, and Alcimus the  pretender to the high priesthood.  I don’t pretend to understand the complexities of the politics or military engagements of this period, but it does sound horribly like the situation in Syria today, where the tyrannical ruler backed by some foreign powers continues to oppress his own people, resisted by an unholy mixture of home-grown resistance forces, Islamist terrorists, and the influence of outside players such as Russia, Iran and Turkey.

We can see in our news the effects of this bloody and interminable conflict on civilians, millions of whom have either been killed or become internally displaced or refuges in other countries. Although there was perhaps not such a stark military/civilian distinction in Biblical times, I expect that a large proportion of the non-combatant population suffered in a similar way.  Certainly those living in besieged towns, without a say over who actually was in charge of them, faced being murdered (if male) raped (if female) or abducted as slaves (if young). That is, if they did not die of starvation, which seemed to have been a real threat as it was the “seventh year” (6:53 -the fallow year when the Jews were supposed to live off the stores of food from previous years).

One verse stand out for me in all this horror.  In the battle for Hebron we are told that “among the fallen were some priests who sought to prove their courage by joining in the battle, a foolhardy venture” (5:67).  It seems that priests, then as now, were exempt from military service, and even in violent times their role as men of peace was valued and should not be compromised.  The role of a priest, rabbi or similar representative of faith groups in an army is not to fight, but to pray and to meet the physical and spiritual needs of the armed forces.  Warfare tends to strip people of their natural human compassion, as “the other” becomes “the enemy”; it is the chaplain’s difficult role to try and restore their humanity.

Most of us in Britain, fortunately, will never have to engage in battle.  But we can pray for our armed forces on duty overseas, and for their chaplains of all faiths, that humanity may prevail.  We can also pray for places like Syria that when the fighting eventually ceases, humanity and civilisation, in the name of the merciful God of all, may take the place of hatred and violence.  It will take a long time – the Maccabean wars lasted for decades, and the Syrian war and its aftermath may last just as long.  But remember, with God a day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years as a day.

The Apocrypha in Lent – 22 February

If this is your first visit, please see my introduction to these Lenten readings.

22 February. Judith chapters 14-16

These final chapters following the murder of Holofernes recount how the Jews took their revenge on the Assyrians, and then celebrated their victory.  It is notable that Judith, clever strategist that she was, warned her own soldiers against engaging the enemy in combat, as she judged correctly that the panic ensuing from discovering their commander’s headless body would be enough to send them running.  So without any fighting, the Assyrians were defeated.

The victory song attributed to Judith, like several others in the Old Testament, combines celebration of human achievement with praise for God’s power and protection.  If there is a lesson to be learned from this story, it is that both faith in God, and willingness to take risks in his service, are needed to achieve great things.   If the Jews had trusted in conventional military power they would have been overwhelmed by the Assyrians.  If they had merely prayed to God in their distress at being besieged, but done nothing, would he have saved them by a miracle?   But the combination of the people’s faith in God, their willingness to listen to a woman with gifts of prophecy and leadership, and her boldness and cunning, was enough for the victory to be achieved.

As I wrote at the start, Judith is almost certainly a fictional character.   But her story can still inspire us to faith and action.

 

The Apocrypha in Lent – 19 February

If this is your first visit, please see my introduction to these Lenten readings.

19 February. Judith chapters 5-7

In these chapters we see different approaches to warfare.  Holofernes the Assyrian general believes in sheer weight of numbers: he trusts in his 120,000 men to overcome the Israelites in battle as he has the other subject peoples of the empire.  The Moabites however (relatively near neighbours of Israel, and their historic enemies) have a more practical suggestion which involved far fewer troops: lay siege to the hilltop towns by cutting off access to food and water.  It’s a strategy that many military commanders have used in the course of history, and Holofernes takes their advice.  By the end of chapter 7 things are looking desperate for the Israelites in Bethulia as their water has virtually run out.

There is another perspective, though: Achior, “leader of the Ammonites” (another ancient enemy of Israel) knows the history of Israel and how God has repeatedly delivered them.  He bravely tells Holofernes that not all the troops and horses in the world will help, unless God has chosen to let his people be defeated on this occasion.  Not surprisingly the pagan  Holofernes, who is willing to worship his own emperor as a god, rejects such advice.  But he gives Achior a chance by having him handed over to the Israelites, saying that he will meet his fate with them.  When he explains to the men of Bethulia what has happened, he is welcomed as an honoured guest.   Achior, then, represents the “god-fearers” who are found throughout Scripture, those who are not Jews by descent nor converts through circumcision, but who believe and trust in the one God.

These three approaches to human conflict are universal, and pretty much cover every situation: trust in human strength, or in human cunning, or in God’s will.  That’s not to say that strength and cunning never have their place, but unless they are offered as subservient to God’s will, they will not be enough on their own.

The Bible in a Year – 28 December

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

The last four sections of the Bible in a Year blog, covering the whole of the Book of Revelation, are being uploaded together (just because I was without Internet access this week).

28 December. Revelation chapters 1-5

The book of Revelation or Apocalypse is notoriously difficult to understand, since it contains so much symbolism that people at the time of writing may have understood but which is obscure to us two thousand years later.

What is clear enough from the first three chapters is that the vision of Jesus that was given to John, was intended for the seven local church congregations listed at the start of the book.   And each of them receives a particular message from Jesus, which both (in most cases) praises and (in most cases) criticises them, before offering a promise for those who stay faithful in the face of persecution.   The praises, the criticisms, and the promises are specific to each place, because Jesus always knows that each person and each church community faces particular challenges and has particular strengths.

The praises, if we take them together, includes “deeds, hard work and perseverance” (2:2 and similarly in 2:19), “keeping my word and not denying my name” (3:8), and “remaining true to my name” (2:13 and similarly in 3:4). The emphasis here is on facing persecution, not necessarily by becoming martyrs (though some did) but by being true to the Christian worldview (or as we saw John calling it yesterday, “the truth”) even when to do so requires hard work and perseverance when the world is going in other directions.

The criticisms include “forsaking the love you had at first” (2:4), being “dead though appearing alive” (3:1) and “being lukewarm, neither hot nor cold” (3:16). What those have in common is lacking the outward zeal and inner joy that characterise true Christian faith.  We cannot regain those by our own efforts but have to ask Jesus to send his Spirit on us again. Another criticism is claiming to be spiritually rich when one is spiritually poor (3:17); the opposite of that is holding onto faith in affliction and poverty, which makes one spiritually rich (2:9).   That reminds us of the Beatitudes, where those who are poor in spirit and who suffer for the sake of Jesus are declared blessed.

The promises are expressed symbolically – “eating from the tree of life” (2:7), “not being hurt by the second death” (2:11), “hidden manna and a secret name” (2:17); “authority over the nations” (2:26); “being dressed in white” (3:5), “being a pillar in the temple of God” (3:12), and “the right to sit with Jesus on his throne” (3:21).  None of these relate to our present life but all look forward to eternal life.   One of the threads running through the New Testament is the idea that our rewards for living faithfully in this life will be given us in the next.  The symbolism of chapters 4 and 5 is also about eternal life, in which all creatures in earth and heaven will worship God unceasingly.

Put all these together – the praises, criticisms and promises – and we have an encouragement to seek from Jesus the Spirit who gives us true love, life and warmth to strengthen us with joy in living the Christian life in the face of persecution, in order to attain eternal life which will be filled with praise and worship.  It is of course impossible to really know what such existence will be like, but the Revelation reminds us to look beyond the troubles of this life and stick with Jesus along the way.

The Bible in a Year – 16 December

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

16 December. 2 Peter chapters 1-3 and Jude

Peter’s first letter (see 11 December) was about enduring persecution for the sake of Christ; his second letter is about holding on to the vision of faith while all around are focused on earthly pleasures.

Peter was one of the three disciples who witnessed the Transfiguration of Christ, when God spoke to him audibly and Moses and Elijah appeared to them (1:7,8).  He had also seen the risen Jesus for himself.   He held onto those very real experiences through the dark times of persecution that followed, never doubting that Jesus would, as he promised, return to complete his salvation of the world (3:8-10).

Therefore, writes Peter, the Christian should “lead a life of holiness and godliness” (3:11), resisting temptation and being distinct from those in the world around who are caught up in the pleasures of the flesh, which lead to addiction and becoming “slaves” to their own desires.  Peter particularly singles out lust, greed and drunkenness, but in our own day he would surely have included gambling, and what we call consumerism – accumulating goods for their own sake.  The message is similar to that of Jesus who said “it is impossible to serve both God and money”.  It is far better, in Peter’s view, to be ‘slaves’ to the discipline of following Christ, than to be ‘slaves’ to one of these forms of addiction.

At this time of year approaching Christmas, many Christian speakers try and draw people away from the futile ‘pleasures’ of consumerism and drunkenness, to remind us that Jesus came to set us free from such addictions in order to have the freedom to serve him, which in fact is the way to a full and satisfying life.

Jude’s concerns in his brief letter (to an unidentified readership) are similar to those of Peter in his second letter: the purity of the Christian witness, at a time when it was threatened by people who claimed to be part of the Christian church but actually brought the faith into disrepute by sexual immorality, grumbling, accusations against others, and so on.

Both these letters, with their references to the sins of Sodom, are used along with other texts from the Bible by those within the church who consider homosexuality to be a sin against those of us who identify as “liberal Christians” who accept it. The distinction that is often lost in arguments between these two parts of the Church is that what liberal Christians consider to be acceptable is a faithful relationship between two people of the same gender, or a celibate lifestyle irrespective of orientation.  We agree with the “conservatives” in the church, and with Peter and Jude, that “Licentiousness” (defined by Webster’s dictionary as “lacking legal or moral restraints, especially sexual restraints”) as expressed in a promiscuous lifestyle, is and always will be contrary to God’s intentions, because of the damage caused to individuals where sexual behaviour is separated from love.

But to get bogged down in arguments about where the limits of acceptable sexual behaviour lie, is to risk getting caught in the “wrangling over words and stupid and senseless controversies” against which Paul warned Timothy in yesterday’s reading.  At the end of his letter Jude calls us back to the true focus of Christianity: “Jesus Christ our Lord, [to whom] be glory, majesty, power, and authority”.