Athirst my soul for you

Today’s song from Sing Praise is a cantor-and-chorus type, called “Athirst, my soul, for you, the God who is my life” (that’s the first line of the first chant). The chorus starts “As the deer longs for running streams”, but there are many hymns with that or similar titles, because Psalm 42/43 on which it’s based is very popular as a basis for sung versions.

Painting "Deer drinking" by Winslow Homer
“Deer drinking” by Winslow Homer

The appeal of this psalm is in the opening lines, with the attractive image of the hunted deer finding a refreshing stream in a hidden dip in the hills, out of sight of its hunters, where it can drink and rest awhile.  The simile is that God will likewise offer us rest and refreshment in prayer and meditation when we are stressed or frightened.  That’s true, but not easy to achieve: I find that the greater the pressures of life, the harder it is to find time for prayer and the longer it takes to relax into it. 

That’s why I try to find opportunities offered for quiet time away from the usual routines of life – a ‘quiet day’, teaching weekend or short retreat offered by one of the many Christian communities, abbeys or retreat centres.  In the present pandemic, I have one booked at the end of next week on Zoom, and that will mean sessions on the screen in my usual study, and finding a quiet space in the house for the personal meditation times in between, where I won’t get distracted.  I am looking forward to it, but the experience will be different.

Back to the song, and the verses remind us why we get so stressed and in need of God’s protection and refreshing. Surprisingly, “All your mighty waters sweeping over me” suggests that the feeling of being overwhelmed might actually be the result of God’s intention, but it’s an accurate rendition of Ps.42:7.  Perhaps it means the sense of being burdened by the requirements of God’s law and commandments or the guilt of not keeping them, which as we saw the other day has been relieved by Jesus taking us back to the law’s true intentions.   

“The foe delights in taunting me”, on the other hand, puts the blame for my troubles firmly on other people. The taunt given as an example is “where is your God”, a phrase that is still used by those who don’t understand the nature of religious faith – “what sort of God is it who allows this to happen?” (whatever “this” is).  The antidote to this is to turn back to God and affirming that we do trust in him, whatever is happening around us.

One verse in the psalm (42:4) is not referred to in the song but is very relevant at this time of church closures – in the Prayer Book psalter used at many an Evensong, “Now when I think thereupon, I pour out my heart by myself : for I went with the multitude, and brought them forth into the house of God; In the voice of praise and thanksgiving : among such as keep holy-day.”  As much as anything, it is the music and ceremonial of church services that I miss – we can keep in touch by phone call or maybe even Zoom meetings, but it’s not possible with those to chant a psalm or sing a hymn together, or physically to process into or around the church building as we might do on special occasions.

The last verse, though, does look forward to a time when all the sadness and frustration will be put behind us. “Then shall I go unto the altar of my God, praising you, O my joy and gladness, I shall praise your name”.  Let’s keep that in mind throughout the lockdown.

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.

The Bible in a Year – 30 November.

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

30 November. Acts chapters 4-6

Following the day of Pentecost about which I wrote yesterday, the Church – at that time seemingly called “The Way” as a sect of Judaism – grew rapidly, with thousands of ordinary people and even some priests (6:7) following Peter and the apostles.  The picture painted here is of a communitarian ideal, everyone pooling their resources and making the best use of available talents, whether in great matters such as preaching and healing, or in the charitable work of sharing food with widows and other poor people.

The exceptions were Ananias and Sapphira, who let the community down by pretending they were sharing the whole value of their property. offence was not keeping some of it for themselves, but lying about the matter (5:4).  Whether they died of heart attack or stroke with the stress of being found out, or whether their sudden deaths were genuinely an act of God, the result was the same – the Christian church or any other religious community has to act on the basis of trust, and any deception ruins not just individual relationships but the well-being of the whole community.

The success of the new movement among ordinary people attracted opposition from the official religious leaders.  It is always so – those at the top of any organisation (including the Bishops of the churches) have so much of their time, effort and maybe even money tied up in the structures and procedures of the organisation that it is very difficult for them to adjust to new ideas or admit that anything that challenges the status quo might actually be the right way forward.  In religious organisations in particular,  the challenge “this is God’s way” is often used to justify quite opposing actions.  This is clearly seen in our own time in the endless arguments between and within Christian denominations about who may be a leader in the church – women? married people? divorced people? homosexuals?  Each “side” will find ways of justifying their position and may even claim to “know God’s will”.

So it was with the Way, the Jesus Movement.  The Apostles claimed that God was on their side, and the sheer numbers of ordinary people backing them could well have been cited in evidence, but so did the keepers of tradition.   The numbers of people backing a change is not in itself proof of the rightness of the cause (just say “1930s Germany” and you get the idea) but ultimately, if we believe God is in charge of human history, then we have to take the long view and wait for his will to be done, eventually.  In any case, arresting and killing one’s opponents is never God’s way of dealing with opposition.

One of the Jewish leaders, Gamaliel, came up with a test that applies just as well to our own arguments: “I tell you, keep away from these men and let them alone; because if this plan or this undertaking is of human origin, it will fail; but if it is of God, you will not be able to overthrow them—in that case you may even be found fighting against God!” (5:38-39). It is a test well worth keeping up your sleeve.

The story of my namesake, Saint Stephen, starts in chapter 6 but continues in chapter 7 so I will look at him tomorrow

The Bible in a Year – 28 June

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.

28 June. Psalms 9-16

More than any other part of the Bible, the Psalms are an expression of human experience, with its full range of emotions and attitudes.  Take the first two of these: in Psalm 9 the writer (or should we say singer?) is confident of God’s justice, that God is “a stronghold in times of trouble” and will give the wicked what they deserve.  But Psalm 10 immediately following starts with “Why, O Lord, do you stand far off? Why do you hide yourself in times of trouble?”  The singer this time sees evil flourishing without being punished.

 

Why the stark difference?  In the next Psalm (11), the question “how can you say to me … what can the righteous do?” is answered by “The Lord is in his holy temple; the Lord’s throne is in heaven”.  It is the contrast between those who have faith that God is always at work even when we cannot see the end result, and those who only go by what they see around them.   It is not for us, even if we are righteous, to do God’s work of judgement for him, we only need to trust.

 

Even those who do have great faith, like King David, cannot always keep it up in practice.  In the very short Ps.13, he goes from despairing at God’s absence to expressing trust in God’s love and salvation.  But the last of this set (Ps.16) is full of trust and peace in God’s presence.

 

The Bible in a Year – 22 June

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

Two books of the Bible in one post today!

22 June. Nahum.

Nahum’s prophecy is brief (barely two pages in my Bible) and to the point – Nineveh the capital of Assyria would be destroyed, and Judah could rejoice.  This does seem to contrast with the story of Jonah, in which his preaching to the people of Nineveh to repent was so successful that they did just that, and were spared from destruction.  Maybe (assuming Jonah to be based on historical events, which is not certain) they did repent but soon went back to their old ways, and Nahum tells of the city’s eventual destruction. If that is the case then it is a lesson for us all, for while God is indeed known for his compassion, patience and forgiveness, the other lesson that is clear from Nahum is that his anger at wilful sin is in great contrast to his mercy. There comes a point in the life of many individuals and nations when their thoughts and deeds are so hardened against the possibility of repentance that they cut themselves off from God’s mercy for ever.  Either they will reap the consequences of that in this life, or the next.

 

22 June. Habbakuk.

If Nahum (the other prophet covered by today’s reading) saw clearly the clear distinction between those who deserve God’s favour and those who deserve his wrath, Habbakuk sees earthly events from different perspectives.  At first he takes a human perspective, crying out to God at the injustices he sees all around him, as we well may at this time of terrorism, corruption and may other evils.  When would God put things right?  When would justice be done?  We all want a solution as quickly as possible.  That is only human.

 

But in the second part of the book he is privileged to see God’s perspective on the situation.  He understands that for God, the right time for action is not always now, or even soon.  That God will restore what is corrupted and punish evil is beyond doubt: but when, and how, are not for mortals to understand.  “For there is still a vision for the appointed time; it speaks of the end, and does not lie. If it seems to tarry, wait for it; it will surely come, it will not delay” (2:3).

 

Finally, Habbakuk is moved to praise God in a psalm-like prayer which acknowledges God’s presence in the events that shape and shake the world, whether wars or natural disasters.  This attitude of trusting God for the present and the future, and praising him even in the most difficult of times, does not come easily.  But it is a mark of the true believer.