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 – 5 August

If this is your first viewing, please see my Introduction before reading this, and also my introduction to the Proverbs.

5 August. Proverbs chapters 30-31

These last two chapters of the Proverbs are each said to be an ‘oracle’ (something like a prophecy, rather than mere human wisdom).  The second half of chapter 31 is one of my favourites. It is useful as a riposte to anyone who claims that the Bible as a whole is male-centred and undervaluing of women. Yes, there are many more men mentioned in the bible, especially in the parts that deal with battles and priests, for example. But women are rarely far away, and here they come to the fore.

The ‘ideal wife’ of this chapter is no commoner, of course.  The references to her household being clothed in crimson means that she and her husband are both wealthy and influential.  She has access to enough money to buy property, do business deals and employ servants. Not many people are as fortunate as that.  But the point is, that she uses her wealth and influence wisely. She is no ‘WAG’ spending her husband’s income on frivolities. Rather, she works hard herself, and encourages others. She provides for the needs of her own household, but gives money to the poor as well. She is kind in the way she deals with people, and raises her children well.   The summary in verse 30 is worth remembering: “Charm is deceitful, and beauty is vain, but a woman who fears the Lord is to be praised.”  These are the qualities to look for in a partner.


The Bible in a Year – 4 August

Please excuse the delay in posting this and the next few instalments, as I have been without Internet access for a few days.

If this is your first viewing, please see my Introduction before reading this, and also my introduction to the Proverbs.

4 August. Proverbs chapters 27-29

Today I am considering just one verse from these three chapters:

“Do not forsake your friend or the friend of your parent; do not go to the house of your kindred on the day of your calamity. Better is a neighbour who is nearby than kindred who are far away.” (27:10)

Friends and family are both great to have. Even introverts like myself (I use the term in its technical sense, meaning someone who is happy working or relaxing alone) enjoy spending time with friends and relatives.  Like many people in our increasingly mobile society, my family is scattered – my nearest cousin lives twenty miles away, and my mother and sisters much further than that.  So I particularly value friends. Some of those friends live close and I see them every week (or more), others are old friends is different parts of the country whom I meet less often but are still in my thoughts and prayers.

Loneliness on the other hand is a state that many people fear, especially as they get older.  One of the downsides of living a long life is that gradually, and more frequently with the passing years, one’s older relatives and friends, and then those of one’s own generation, die and are taken from us.  It is not always easy to find new friends in later life, and for those of us who do not have children of our own it can be difficult to make friends with younger generations in the family.

The writer of this proverb may be saying something similar.  Kindred (family) may have a moral or even legal obligation – stronger in Biblical times than our own –  to look after their kin.  See the book of Ruth for example, where even a distant relative by marriage from a foreign land was owed a duty to be looked after. But in practice, having a loving sister hundreds of miles away is not of great help if you have some urgent need today.  The woman next door, or the friend a few streets away, is likely to be of more help, so make sure you have such networks in place – and of course, offer your own help to them in return.

The Bible in a Year. 3 August.

If this is your first viewing, please see my Introduction before reading this, and also my introduction to the Proverbs.

3 August. Proverbs chapters 24-26

From today’s reading I will take one saying found in 24:10-12:

“If you faint in the day of adversity, your strength being small; if you hold back from rescuing those taken away to death, those who go staggering to the slaughter; if you say, ‘Look, we did not know this’—does not he who weighs the heart perceive it? Does not he who keeps watch over your soul know it? And will he not repay all according to their deeds?”

In this interconnected world of ours, we have no excuse these days of “we did not know this”.  Every day our screens show us some of the worst things that are happening in the world, whether it is a ‘natural’ famine or flood (which is probably exacerbated by human-induced climate change anyway), or wars or terrorism, or political decisions such as oppression of minorities.  For every one brought to us by the BBC or Facebook, there are many more that we can find out about easily, if we want to, through the humanitarian agencies who do their bit to alleviate human suffering.

But in the words of Harari, “there are no longer any natural famines, only political ones”.  In other words, humanity has the power to feed the world, to virtually eradicate most diseases, to put down weapons and invest in peace.  It is only the sin of human pride that spends money instead on armaments and vanity projects.

It is not only at a national level that this applies.  St Paul was quoting Proverbs 25:21-22 when he wrote to the Romans “If your enemies are hungry, give them bread to eat; and if they are thirsty, give them water to drink; for you will heap coals of fire on their heads.”  If it is no excuse to say “we did not know”, it is also no excuse to say of those suffering close to home “they are not ours”.  For we are all God’s children, and whatever we have is given to us to help others.


The Bible in a Year – 2 August

If this is your first viewing, please see my Introduction before reading this, and also my introduction to the Proverbs.

2 August. Proverbs chapters 22-23.

The first part of chapter 22 finishes the “one-liner” sayings of Solomon that we have looked at over the last few days.  The remainder of today’s reading is headed “Sayings of the wise” and the main thrust of this section of the book is about living in moderation, and avoiding excess. There are particular warnings for those who move in the circles of the rich and powerful (23:1-5/20-21) and of the dangers of drunkenness (23:29-35). The wise person should live a frugal lifestyle, not seek power and wealth, and avoid addictions.

There are also warnings for those who, by contrast, associate with the poor (22:22-23). Poor people are not to be taken advantage of, as they have God’s favour. But they are not idealised here: among the poor are those who are given to anger and fail to repay loans (22:24-27), and those who offer hospitality only out of convention and not genuine friendship (23:6-7).  The wise person has to distance themselves from such “foolish” behaviour (in the Biblical sense of the word).

What can Christians today learn from this? There has been much talk in the Church in recent decades of God’s bias to the poor”, and much condemnation of corporate greed and personal riches. But if we take these proverbs seriously, we need to be aware of the sins that so often go with poverty as well as those which are fuelled by wealth.

Jesus was known for associating with anyone: rulers and rich people, farmers and fishermen, beggars and prostitutes.  He enjoyed the hospitality he was offered, but as far as we know did not get drunk.  He lived as a single man, probably with single women among his disciples, but as far as we know remained celibate. He had no money to lend, but gave sacrificially of his time and healing powers. He sent his disciples out with the good news of the coming Kingdom, reliant on the hospitality of others, but told them to shake the dust off their feet when it was not forthcoming.

So the lesson seems to be, for your own benefit seek out the company of people who live decently.  They might be rich or poor, that does not matter, as long as they are not seeking to take advantage of you and do not threaten your safety or moral welfare.

But when it comes to the mission of that Church, like that of Jesus, then risks do have to be taken in order to take the Gospel to everyone.  No wonder Jesus told his disciples to be “as wise as serpents and as innocent as doves”, In other words, watch out for the dangers posed by people at all levels of society, but give them the benefit of the doubt in the name of Christ.

The Bible in a Year – 1 August

If this is your first viewing, please see my Introduction before reading this, and also my introduction to the Proverbs.

1 August. Proverbs chapters 19-21

Today, I am picking from the large number of short sayings those that relate to families, starting with husbands and wives.


“A wife’s quarrelling is a continual dripping of rain. House and wealth are inherited from parents, but a prudent wife is from the Lord.” (19:13-14); “It is better to live in a corner of the housetop than in a house shared with a contentious wife.” (21:9); and a similar saying “It is better to live in a desert land than with a contentious and fretful wife.” (21:19).  It has been show by recent studies that a good relationship with one’s partner is a bigger factor in happiness than wealth or even health.


The patriarchal culture from which these sayings come assumes, of course, that the husband is head of the household, and there are no equivalent sayings about a good husband.  However there is much for husbands as breadwinners to take note of.  The first of the above sayings is followed by “Laziness brings on deep sleep; an idle person will suffer hunger.” (19:15) and – “Do not love sleep, or else you will come to poverty; open your eyes, and you will have plenty of bread.” (20:13). There are also plenty of verses in here about how to raise children well.


Children (or perhaps rather young men) and their relationship with their parents are also the subject of many of these proverbs. “Those who do violence to their father and chase away their mother are children who cause shame and bring reproach” (19:26). “The righteous walk in integrity— happy are the children who follow them!” (20:7). “If you curse father or mother, your lamp will go out in utter darkness” (20:20).    A happy family is one where the parents live in harmony with each other, and children in peace with their parents.


Of course we know that many relationships are not like that, and there have always been ‘dysfunctional’ families.  It is hard for those brought up in a home where there is disrespect, argument, or even violence to learn a better way.  “Even children make themselves known by their acts, by whether what they do is pure and right” (20:11). No wonder that the Bible elsewhere speaks of the sins of fathers being visited on future generations. But it is possible to break out of the cycle. Maybe Solomon’s purpose in writing these proverbs aimed at young men was to hope that they might learn from his teaching what they failed to hear from their parents.

The Bible in a Year – 31 July

If this is your first viewing, please see my Introduction before reading this, and also my introduction to the Proverbs.

31 July. Proverbs chapters 16-18

We continue with three more chapters of Solomon’s brief sayings.  I am going to focus on a few that tie in with the book I am reading at present.


“Those who are attentive to a matter will prosper, and happy are those who trust in the Lord. “ (16:20); “A cheerful heart is a good medicine, but a downcast spirit dries up the bones. “ (17:22) “The human spirit will endure sickness; but a broken spirit—who can bear?” (18:14). These all address the problem of human happiness.  The book I am reading is “Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind “by Yuval Noah Harari.  Towards the end, he considers whether human progress and civilisation have made people happier.


By looking at happiness as a relative concept (experience relative to expectation) rather than something absolute, he concludes that it is not.  On that view, the people of Solomon’s time, most of whom lived what we would now call a deprived existence (unheated homes, untreated water, no sewerage, high infant mortality, and the ever-present threat of war) would actually be no less ‘happy’ than an ordinary worker living in Britain today. That is because, if his understanding of psychology is correct, each person is genetically predisposed to be either happy (the “cheerful heart”), unhappy (the “broken or downcast spirit”), or somewhere in between.   Temporary circumstances such as a birth or marriage on the one hand, or illness or bereavement on the other, may make a short term difference, but after a while we revert to our default level. Fortunately I am one of the happy ones.


These proverbs seem to be saying something similar, with one difference.  Harari, although of Jewish background, takes an agnostic and utilitarian view of religion, seeing religious beliefs as myths that help people get through life and form communities, rather than representing any real truth. But for those who do believe, happiness is associated not just with a genetic predisposition but with “trust in the Lord”. To believe that there is an ultimate power who created you, loves you and guides you through good and bad times – that is more than even a “cheerful heart” can bring

The Bible in a Year – 30 July

If this is your first viewing, please see my Introduction before reading this, and also my introduction to the Proverbs.

30 July. Proverbs chapters 13-15

Another three chapters of the short sayings of Solomon.  One of the Bible readings in church this morning (from the Revised Common Lectionary which many churches use) was from 1 Kings chapter 3 (see my notes for 13 April).  In that reading, the Lord appears to Solomon at Gibeon, the principal place of worship in Judah in those days, and offers him anything he wants.  Rather than “absolute political power” or great wealth, or the death of his enemies, Solomon requests “an understanding mind to govern your people, able to discern between good and evil”. Although obviously already a respected ruler (he had just married the daughter of the Egyptian Pharaoh) he was aware that many skills are needed to become a great leader, with discernment of people’s motives among the most important. That is one of the aspects of “emotional intelligence” that I suggested in my introduction to the Proverbs are what this book is really about.  God commends him for this wise choice and adds riches and honour as a bonus.

Again, it is difficult to single out particular verses, but let’s look at those that refer to relationships between parents and children. To our culture in which corporal punishment is frowned on or even illegal, “Those who spare the rod hate their children, but those who love them are diligent to discipline them” (13:24) seems shocking, but at the time it would have seemed sensible advice. Even now, the dangers of over-indulging children are evident in rising obesity, children addicted to smartphones and youngsters attacking their teachers. That leaves us with the question of how children should be disciplined if physical chastisement is ruled out.  It only leaves leading by example, which is tough, but ultimately the best way to pass on a pattern of righteous living.

Take another verse: “A fool despises a parent’s instruction, but the one who heeds admonition is prudent” (15:5). No mention there of the rod, but the emphasis here is on the child’s responsibility to accept instruction and correction, rather than on the parent’s responsibility to teach them. It’s not clear in Proverbs what the age of the intended audience is, but there are many references to “young men” so probably teenagers are in mind – in later Judaism, 12 is the age of Bar Mitzvah when a boy becomes an adult and responsible for his own actions under the law of God. I guess these sayings may have been taught in classes for boys approaching or following their initiation as young adults.

Another relevant verse is 15:20, “A wise child makes a glad father, but the foolish despise their mothers”. Why does on half of the saying refer to fathers and the other to mothers, other than to make a literary symmetry?  Maybe the point is that fathers rather than mothers were responsible for discipline, while the mother provided emotional support. Many young men find their relationship with their father difficult in adolescence, but retain an affectionate relationship with their mothers, and who would go so far as to say they despise their mother?


Lessons learnt as adolescents are, of course, still relevant in later life, so whatever age you might be now, these teachings are still worth hearing. A good relationship with your parents is still to be prized, even when they are elderly; and most people as they grow up will sooner or later be parents themselves and will need to put these lessons into practice.

The Bible in a Year. 29 July

If this is your first viewing, please see my Introduction before reading this, and also my introduction to the Proverbs.

29 July. Proverbs chapters 10-12

These chapters are headed “the proverbs of Solomon”.  They consist of a large number of pithy sayings, nearly all of which consist of a single couplet contrasting good and bad behaviour or attitudes.  These are what are more commonly understood as “proverbs” than some of the earlier material.


It’s difficult to pick any one out for examination, as any of them are worth pondering for a minute or two, but one of the more common themes in these sayings in the use of words. Let’s look at a few of them:


“Lying lips conceal hatred, and whoever utters slander is a fool. / When words are many, transgression is not lacking, but the prudent are restrained in speech. / The tongue of the righteous is choice silver; the mind of the wicked is of little worth. / The lips of the righteous feed many, but fools die for lack of sense.” (10:18-21)   “Whoever belittles another lacks sense, but an intelligent person remains silent. A gossip goes about telling secrets, but one who is trustworthy in spirit keeps a confidence.” (11:12-13)  “The words of the wicked are a deadly ambush, but the speech of the upright delivers them.” (12:6)


The good or wise person, then, is urged to keep words to a minimum and keep confidences, unlike the fool (unwise person) who talks more than they should, gives secrets away, criticises other people and tells lies. This, like much in the Proverbs, is timeless good advice that serves us equally well today.



The Bible in a Year – 28 July

If this is your first viewing, please see my Introduction before reading this, and also my introduction to the Proverbs.

28 July. Proverbs chapters 7-9

We first saw mention of the “loose woman” in chapter 2, and she appears also in chapter 5 (part of yesterday’s reading that I did not comment on). In chapter 7 she takes centre stage.  Although most translations use the word “prostitute”, the woman here is not like the modern “sex worker”, rather she is portrayed as a married woman who dares to go out in the streets looking for a lover while her husband is away.


Given the number of references I found in the prophets to prostitution, which were nearly always metaphors for idolatry, it might be the same here – is the word of wisdom really about not being lured away by exotic religions, and attractive-sounding philosophies (which nowadays might include some of the self-help crazes and health fads that actually harm people rather than help them)?   Possibly, but I think it is probably meant literally.  Even in our libertarian society where adultery is not a crime, it is still socially frowned on and an acceptable ground for divorce.  Not only does it lead to jealous partners who might turn to violence in revenge, but affairs rarely last long and only end up damaging everyone involved.


There is also a clear parallel between the adulteress of chapter 7 roaming the streets and charming young men astray, and Wisdom as presented in the first half of chapter 8, likewise as a woman roaming the streets, but this time offering to share her virtues such as prudence and honesty.  Which way will a young man turn?  To the obvious but harmful attractions of a promiscuous lifestyle, or to a more virtuous and ascetic one that leads to wisdom?  Fortunately, many people who try the former when they are young do end up happily and faithfully married, but not everyone.


In chapter 9, Wisdom is contrasted again (v.1-9) with another woman, this time Folly (v.13-18). Both invite people into their houses – to eat either the bread and wine of insight, or the or the “stolen water” and “secret bread” of death.


In the second half of chapter 8, Wisdom is presented, astonishingly, as having existed before Creation itself. It is for that reason that Christians have often understood her to be the personification of the holy Spirit, or of the Word of God who became incarnate in Jesus, who is acknowledged in the Nicene Creed as “begotten, not made … through him all things were made”.