Faith overcomes

The hymn from Sing Praise for 30th December was ‘Faith overcomes’ by Christopher Jones.  To be honest I wasn’t much taken with this hymn, and apart from these two words that start each of the six verses, it doesn’t seem to be about our faith overcoming life’s problems, as the title might suggest. The first four verses, at least, are more a form of credal statement, about the eternal God, Jesus’ teaching and healing ministry, his death and resurrection. A creed is important in its own way, but it complements rather than establishes our faith.

The last two verses are more personal, or rather corporate, as a response to this creed. Faith is present in the statements ‘We have not seen, yet now we dare believe’ and ‘we yield ourselves to follow his commands’.

The suggested tune, Highwood, was also difficult to follow, and as I didn’t watch the online video I don’t know whether John used it.  

When human voices cannot sing

Today is All Souls’ day, the remembrance of the dead, and so I have picked a funeral song from the hymn book. ‘When human voices cannot sing’ by Shirley Murray.   

Verse 1 acknowledges that hearts do break in bereavement, and that singing praise must necessarily cease during that first period of intense grief. God knows that, and we can bring our grief to him, aloud or silently.  The second verse admits there is also often fear: the fear of not knowing what happens in death, or of dying in the same, perhaps unpleasant way. We ask to be set free from that fear of the unknown, and have our path lit by Christ.  The third verse asks for God’s love to be as real as it was at Easter. The fourth releases the beloved to go ahead of us on this unknown journey in peace and that our sorrow may come to an end.

The Church has to tread a wary path between the general assumption among most people in contemporary society that there is an afterlife or paradise to which all souls go without exception, and the apparent teaching of the bible that ‘not everyone will be saved’ (go to heaven, spend eternity with God, however you choose to express it).  Even Jesus who welcomed everyone in life and extended God’s covenant with Israel to the whole world, still taught of the narrow way that not all will find, of those who call him Lord but who will find themselves rejected, and of Gehenna, the unpleasant fate that awaits even those who call someone else a fool, from which the popular idea of hell may derive.  The Church’s teaching has generally been around the idea that entry into heaven is for all who believe in Jesus and repent of their sins, rather than for everyone or for the non-existent person who never sins.  Yet dare to challenge, however gently, someone who is convinced that their deceased relative is now an angel in paradise and we will be charged with insensitivity or prejudice.

What the lyrics of the hymn remind us is that the future is truly unknown. The Bible offers many images: of a stairway to heaven, souls given new bodies, people in white robes worshiping around a throne, a new Jerusalem.  In our own day people make comparisons with a caterpillar that cannot imagine the butterfly it will become.  All these can only be poor metaphors for what eternal life really is.  All we can do with certainty is put our trust in Christ who said he would go ahead of us to prepare a place. ‘Justorum animae in manu dei sunt’ – ‘the souls of the righteous are in the hands of God’.

Let us rejoice

Today’s hymn from Sing Praise is ‘Let us rejoice’ by Martin Leckebusch.  John said that it was set in the book to the tune of ‘For all the saints’ but in my copy of the book sets it to a tune by Stanford – I wonder if we have different editions?

The overall theme of the hymn seems to be patience and endurance in the strength of God.  The first verse speaks of peace and calm found in God’s acceptance, the second of strength to face trials found in his ‘fatherly embrace’, the third of trust in his glory and splendour, the fourth of the faith that ‘God is at work through all the griefs we share’, and finally of the love of God found deep in our hearts that prompts our praise.  It would be a good one to sing on a (non-silent!) retreat.

How long, O Lord, will you forget?

Today’s hymn from Sing Praise is “How long, O Lord, will you forget” by Barbara Woollett, a setting of Psalm 13.  As a psalm of lament it is unsurprisingly set to a tune in a minor key.  After a series of hymns expressing God’s love for us and ours for him, his everlasting Word, his call to follow him, the beauty of this world and the promise of the world to come, this one comes as a shock.  “No tokens of your love I see, your face is turned away from me, I wrestle with despair”. And that’s just the first verse. It goes on to ask “When will you come to my relief? My heart is overwhelmed with grief, by evil night and day”.

The fact is that we all have times when we don’t experience the love of God in every flower and birdsong, as yesterday’s hymn put it. In fact quite the opposite, God can seem deliberately absent just when we need him most.  It’s at those times that real faith draws on our own past experience and that of others to know that God is present, even if we can’t detect him.   The third verse expresses that, as without any suggestion that God has replied to the earlier cries of “How long will you forget and forsake me?” the singer says “I find that all your ways are just, I learn to praise you and to trust in your unfailing love”. That ‘learning to praise and trust’ requires practice, like any skill that we wish to master.

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.