Philippians 1:12–26 — A Philippian Rhapsody

In an age of style over substance you might think that I’m simply jumping on a bandwagon following the release of the film Bohemian Rhapsody late last year. But this reflection’s title is not just a nod to popular culture. It is not just timely given recent awards or the controversy over the film’s sacked director, Brian Singer. It is appropriate for several reasons as we will see later.

At the heart of Philippians 1:12–26 we find the short verse that reads:

For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain.
Philippians 1:21

This verse has always struck me as on the one hand profound and on the other as worryingly challenging. As a soundbite it is an amazing summary of the Apostle Paul. It rings true with what we know of Paul. The Bible tells a clear story. Here is a man who had the most shocking of conversion experiences. He persecutes the Church in his passion for the God of Israel. Then the Risen Christ appears to him. This sets in motion the most complex shift in theology ever undertaken, worked out over three years in Arabia. All of this is followed by his three whirlwind tours of the Mediterranean—his evangelising and church planting record is truly remarkable.

It’s not to say the other Apostles weren’t busy, it’s just that he did so very much that we know about. And he managed to write thirteen of the books out of the twenty-seven in the New Testament. He even stars, along with Peter, in the Acts of the Apostles.

In short he not only said but he lived “For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain”. Even in death, under Nero, this soundbite transfigures into the best of epitaphs. His life was a Rhapsody. One dictionary definition of a rhapsody is “an effusively enthusiastic or ecstatic expression of feeling”. That’s Paul’s life and that’s Philippians 1:21.

Who else do we know who these words could be said of, and everyone would just nod sagely in agreement? Of course, we can’t all be an Apostle Paul or an Apostle Pauline. So, are we off the hook when it comes to ‘living out’ and ‘dying out’ Paul’s soundbite and epitaph?

For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain.
Philippians 1:21

We will answer this question later. But please note, Paul would be the first to say that the fruit of his life was not the result of human effort but is an example of God’s action. We can, and should, see God clearly at work in his life. To follow Paul is not to attempt a remarkable feat of hard work per se. It is to be open to God’s work and seeing God’s grace at work around us. This should be obvious—we will make a real difference, not because of our human effort but because of openness to God’s work.

In the modern world the Philippian Rhapsody has been imitated. Others have tried to crystallise their experience and personal ethos into similar soundbites. In Bohemian Rhapsody, the song by the band Queen with lyrics written by Freddy Mercury, for example, we find a similar statement to Paul’s. Now of course it’s a progressive rock song so it’s words shouldn’t be the subject of too much serious reflection. But the words seem to echo the troubles and challenges that Mercury experienced in his life, just as Paul’s words capture his very different ones:

I don’t wanna die
I sometimes wish I’d never been born at all
Queen, Bohemian Rhapsody

Perhaps we all have moments like that? The form is similar to Paul’s great saying, but the meaning is closer to Job who famously said: “May the day of my birth perish” (Job 3:3). I have no reason to believe that Freddy Mercury was consciously, or even unconsciously, echoing Paul or Job. Another singer-songwriter, however, appears to have deliberately echoed Mercury:

I don’t wanna die
But I ain’t keen on living either
Robbie Williams, Feel

It reads biographically like the others, but feels contrived compared to the Apostle Paul’s and Freddy Mercury’s art—sorry Robbie!

But back to the Bible. Philippians 1:12–26 not only has a remarkable verse at its centre, these verse are in themselves a rhapsody. Paul may be just writing a letter, but what a letter. We have forgotten how to write letters. Paul’s short letter is a lesson in how to do it. It is recognised by experts as a specific style of letter known in antiquity—a Letter of Friendship. It captures the story of the Philippians and it captures Paul’s story—two stories in which God has been at work. It brings the two together to explain how Paul’s current experiences and the Philippians situation both fit together to advance the gospel which is also God’s work.

The Present (1:12–18a)
Some might see being imprisoned as a problem or even a failing. Not the Apostle Paul. Paul knows that that “in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose” (Romans 8:28). His dependence on God is acute enough to see that whatever happens to him it can serve the purposes of the living God. Paul does not hesitate in seeing that he is in chains for Christ. Not just that his imprisonment is a consequence of upsetting the status quo in his preaching of Jesus Christ. Even being in prison can be for Christ. There are people in the palace guard who have now heard the good news of Jesus. Rather than his imprisonment sending a message of fear, Paul says that he brothers and sisters in Christ are more confident in the Lord and will proclaim the gospel without fear.

It appears that some that preach the gospel don’t get on with Paul—those that preach ‘out of envy and rivalry’. The Early Church has its problems, like the Church in every age. Perhaps personalities will always clash this side of the final trumpet? But Paul is bigger than rivalry and envy and sees that the important thing is that Christ is preached. The precise story about Paul’s rivals remains unclear.

There are two things that are clear about the situation. Firstly, whatever the difficulty with rivals, it is a source of serious trial for Paul. He alludes to the Greek translation of Job chapter 13 (later in verse 19)—a passage where Job is in dialogue with rivals who masquerade as friends. Like Job, Paul is suffering but knows he will be vindicated. The second point of clarity is that Paul rejoices—in fact he is full of joy. Joy, that Christ is being preached. He sees God’s very hand at work. What other response is there than joy when God is at work?

Sometimes we try so hard to do things that we forget to slow down and see God at work. Sometimes we are so cynical that we don’t wait for God’s work to be perceived. Surely Paul had reasons to be cynical? But despite seeing the reality of life in prison and the reality of rivals ‘having it in for him’. Despite feeling like Job, he rejoices. He is ‘with Isaiah’ in perceiving that God is doing a new thing and is at work.

The Future (1: 18b–26)
Rejoicing is so important to Paul that he focuses on how he has joy in the present and will continue to have joy on the future. We see this is in verse 18 which marks a transition in this passage:

But what does it matter? The important thing is that in every way, whether from false motives or true, Christ is preached. And because of this I rejoice.
Yes, and I will continue to rejoice.

Paul is confident, not only that God is at work in his current situation. He is able to trust God—that he will continue to be at work. His trust and joy are not rooted in his comfort or well-being. Paul trusts and rejoices because he knows that God will continue to use him for the glory of Christ. Paul’s experience means he is past any naivety about Christian Discipleship being about a simple life of earthly blessing. Paul’s trust in God is not fatalism however. His eyes of faith see the need for the Philippians’ prayers, for God to deliver him, and the need for courage:

I eagerly expect and hope that I will in no way be ashamed, but will have sufficient courage so that now as always Christ will be exalted in my body, whether by life or by death. For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain.
Philippians 1:20–21

Even Paul’s hope for his life is selfless. He sees his life as ‘in the body’, not in his body, but in the body of Christ. His work as an Apostle is for the building up of the Philippians.
His partnership with the Philippians is such that he can perceive the joy they will have when he is released from prison.

Paul also knows that ‘to die is gain’. Not only that he will then be with Christ but also that should his death be that of a martyr it will benefit the body, that is Jesus Christ. He knows first hand from witnessing the death of the first martyr, Stephen, the powerful testimony that is spoken as a servant of Christ dies for him and his gospel. Paul in chains in Rome thinks of his beloved Philippians and his own life.

Is this the real life?
Is this just fantasy?
Caught in a landslide
No escape from reality
Open your eyes
Look up to the skies and see.

His thinking. His theology. His ethos. His love. His plan for life. His hope. His trust. They all find their summary in that one key verse:

For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain.
Philippians 1:21

Are we like the Apostle Paul? No. Not if we mean, we should do what he did. As God’s servants we are each unique in what we do.

Are we like the Apostle Paul? Yes. If we mean, we should be what he was. As God’s servants we are all the same in who we are. We are all loved in Christ. We are all able to perceive God at work. We are all able to rejoice in His work, past, present, and future.

Philippian Rhapsody

Is this the real life?
Is this just fantasy?
Caught in a prison,
No escape to the light of day.

philippian rhapsody 13 jan 2019

Open your eyes,
Look up to the heavens and see,
I’m an Apostle and still Pharisee,
Because to live is Christ, die is gain,
Sing it high, sing it low,
Any way the gospel’s spread—it really does matter
to me, to me.

Mama, they stoned a man,
Put a rock against his head.
I approved by standing by, now he’s dead
Mama, martyrdom had just begun,
But now I’ve gone and joined them all the way.

Mama, ooh,
Didn’t mean to make you cry,
I’ll still be in prison by this time tomorrow,
Gospel told, gospel told, that’s what really matters.

Maybe my time has come
Sends shivers down my spine,
Chained-wrists aching all the time.
Goodbye, I’m ready, if I’ve got to go,
Gonna leave you all behind and face my Lord.

Mama, ooh (let’s see how the wind blows),
I’m ready to die,
But to live is Christ as I’ve been born times two.

I saw a revelation of a Galilean,
Son of Mary, Son of Mary, you are the Theotokos!
Theophany and lightning,
Very, very frightening.
Galilean. Galilean.
Galilean. Galilean.
Galilean Christou
Magnificat-o-o-o-o-o.

I’m an Apostle, and still Pharisee.
He’s an abnormal one from a posh family,
Spare him his life from this incarceration.

Will I stay, will I go, will you let me go?
Gospel! No, we will not let you go. (Let him go!)
Gospel! No, we will not let you go. (Let him go!)
Gospel! No, we will not let you go. (Let him go!)
Will not let you go. (let me go!)
Never let you go (Never, never, never, never let me go)
Oh oh oh oh
No, no, no, no, no, no, no
Oh, mama mia, mama mia (Mama mia, will they let me go).
Emperor Nero has a court case put aside for me, for me.

So you think you can chain me and spit in my eye?
So you think you can hate me and leave me to die?
Oh, baby, can’t do this to me, baby,
Just gotta get out, just gotta get right outta here.

(Ooooh, ooh yeah, ooh yeah)

The Gospel really matters,
Anyone can see,
The Gospel really matters,
The Gospel really matters to me.

Any was this prison goes . . .

X is for Xerxes

Xerxes is the Greek name of a Persian ruler who reigned in the 5th century BCE. In the Hebrew Bible he is named Ahasuerus which is a transliteration of his name from Persian. In English translations this word is usually rendered Xerxes as this is how he has become known in classical history. An exception is the New Revised Standard Version where he is given his Hebrew name. Despite appearing in nearly every chapter of Esther, he is only mentioned once elsewhere in the Hebrew Bible, in Ezra 4:6.

Details of the life of Xerxes and his reign are found in diverse documents from the time he ruled and shortly after. A more complex issue is how factual the story of Esther might be. On this matter scholars differ significantly. The story certainly has some remarkable features to it which make it sound like a fable (see the previous post, ‘N is for Novella’). One of these is the classic line whereby King Xerxes besotted with Esther offers her: “Even up to half the kingdom” (Esther 5:3 and 7:2). The most remarkable aspect of the story, however, is the coincidence that occurs which works against the villain of the story, Haman.

An element of the book of Esther which is frequently noted is that God is absent from the story. Or to put it more precisely, he is not directly referred to. The inference from the story and the coincidences within it, by which the Jewish people escape death at the hands of Haman, is that God is at work providentially behind the scenes.

I am reminded of my all-time favourite film, directed by Paul Thomas Anderson called Magnolia. This film is not for everyone as it contains some unsavoury scenes in the lives of people who are in different ways broken by modern American life. The main characters all live in the San Fernando Valley in Los Angeles County, California. Much of the film documents the lives of these dysfunctional people and the audience puzzles at these only vaguely connected lives. Deep into the film a remarkable event occurs—I won’t spoil it here but will say that is thoroughly biblical. This event finally explains why the film is named Magnolia. The title it turns out is a play on the theological term, magnalia Dei which means the mighty acts of God. Just like in Esther, God is not mentioned and yet the implication is that he, or some powerful force, is there working behind the scenes.

What really matters as we live our lives is the knowledge that God is at work behind the scenes. Whether you see Esther as a historically reliable account or a literary fiction is less critical. In the words of the opening of Magnolia:

It is the humble opinion of this narrator that this is not just something that happened. This cannot be one of those things. This, please, cannot be that. And for what I would like to say, I can’t. This was not just a matter of chance. These strange things happen all the time.

 

 

 

P is for Psalms

The Psalms are 150 compositions that defy monochromatic definitions— they are never solely poems or prayers or songs. In their threefold nature they are words addressed to God and at the same time the editors of the Hebrew Bible saw in them a greater value as Scripture. In some sense they are authoritative and normative.

Leonard Cohen famously speaks of The Psalms in this manner:

There’s a blaze of light

In every word

It doesn’t matter which you heard

The holy or the broken Hallelujah

Part of the third verse of Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah

Perhaps Cohen is deliberately reflecting on The Psalm’s duality as both the words of men and the Word, perhaps not. What is clearer is that he connects King David with this songbook. As we saw earlier in ‘K is for King David’ this song speaks of David’s throne being broken as a consequence of his succumbing to the temptation prompted by seeing Bathsheba bathing. From the outset this song refers to David and connects him as in some sense intimately connected to the psalms:

Now I‘ve heard there was a secret chord

That David played and it pleased the Lord

But you don’t really care for music, do you?

It goes like this: the fourth, the fifth

The minor fall and the major lift

The baffled king composing Hallelujah

The first verse of Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah

David is traditionally considered to be the author of the Psalms. This tradition is natural in that 13 psalms (Psalms 3, 7, 18, 34, 51, 52, 54, 56, 57, 59, 60, 63, 142) have clear biographical episodes linked to them. In addition, some 73 psalms in the Hebrew Bible have a heading which describes them as being ‘of David’. This does not necessarily imply authorship and in any case a very large number of other psalms are linked to others, both individuals and guilds. These guilds were priestly orders, which had worship responsibilities in the Temple. These guilds are presented in 1 Chronicles 25‒26 which introduces temple singers and temple doorkeepers. The names of Asaph, Korah, Jeduthan and Heman appear there and these names are associated with many psalms.

Depending on how we assess this evidence a wide range of possibilities are possible. Some highly conservative Bible readers seem keen to defy logic and see David as author of the whole book. This stands in clear contradiction to the post-exilic nature of many psalms (see Psalm 137 and Psalm 126 as especially clear examples) and the identification of many psalms with other people. For this, and other reasons, scholars tend to be far more cautious about David’s direct role in authorship of the psalms.

I am persuaded by the evidence that the Psalter is the result of a lengthy process of authoring, collecting and editing of psalms to form a structured book. This does not, however, contradict David’s connection with the book. Whilst we will never know how many of the psalms originated with David the final form of the Psalter requires it to be read to some extent with a Davidic emphasis. Any reading requires other lenses too, but we should be clear, David is vital to the Psalter.

The first few psalms illustrate this well. Psalm 1 can be read with an eye on David as an ideal of the devoted Law reader found there. Psalm 2 as we saw in the last post can be read in different ways. One of these is to see the anointed king as David, the first of the line of kings from the tribe of Judah. Psalms 3‒7 can be read as the struggles of David. These same psalms can also be read with a view to the common experience of humanity as our lives echo the struggles and hallelujahs of the very human king portrayed there. We would do well to consider making space for these polychromatic songs, poems and prayers on our journey.

M is for Moses

My first recollection of anything connected to the Hebrew Bible is watching the film The Ten Commandments. This was the 1956 version of the film although I was watching it around twenty years after its release. The director, Cecil B. DeMille, made two films with this name. The first film was a silent one released in 1923. Despite some commonality these two films are actually rather different to each other. The first film presented a relatively short account of the Exodus story in which, as its title suggests, the Ten Commandments are central. The narrative in which Moses is central is a prelude to a longer story concerning two brothers. The two brothers choose different paths in life. One chooses to live a life consistent with the Ten Commandments. The other brother pursues a life in which he breaks every commandment. The outcome comes as little surprise—Danny’s disdain for the commandments means that his sins eventually catch up with him, after a life of decadence.

The 1956 version is often termed a remake but it is a very different film. The newer film is wholly concerned with the life of Moses. This story is covered at length with the film having an epic running of time of 3 hours and 40 minutes, if the original intermission is included. Much of the later parts of the film are a straightforward, even faithful account of the life of Moses. The opening hour of the film fills in a lot of ‘the blanks’. From a cinematic point of view this is quite understandable. Modern sensibilities expect a film to be about the main protagonist, and not the titular Ten Commandments. Readers of the life of Moses in Exodus realise, because of the gaps in the story, that this is more than a story about Moses. Like much of the Hebrew Bible, silence often surrounds the questions we want to ask. This is arguably driven by a deliberate literary device rather than any authorial lack of information. The additions to DeMille’s film, to be fair make for a number of intriguing plot developments. The biggest departure concerns Moses falling for Nefretiri, who as a princess is expected to marry the next Pharaoh. The film also portrays Moses as a General. He defeats the Ethiopian army and the country then agrees an alliance with Egypt.

How would Cecil B. DeMille feel I wonder if he knew that in his effort to bring a key element of the biblical canon to life he had made other elements of the story achieve canonical status? The childhood of Moses is again a key feature of DreamWorks’ 1998 Prince of Egypt. Moses’ military prowess is central to Ridley Scott’s 2014 Exodus: Gods and Kings. By 2014 something has changed with regard to the basic commitment to the story however. Cecil B. DeMille wanted to celebrate the Ten Commandments, not only as a story but as a tenet of faith. Scott and presumably his studio are keen to explain the miraculous in terms of implausible coincidence. All this said, all of these retellings are in a sense legitimated by the original—the narrative terseness of the Hebrew Bible invites retelling—retelling is central to the very purpose of this story:

“Obey these instructions as a lasting ordinance for you and your descendants. When you enter the land that the Lord will give you as he promised, observe this ceremony. And when your children ask you, ‘What does this ceremony mean to you?’ then tell them, ‘It is the Passover sacrifice to the Lord, who passed over the houses of the Israelites in Egypt and spared our homes when he struck down the Egyptians.’” 

Exodus 12:24‒7

 

Book Review: The Spy, the Rat and the Bed of Nails

Mark Roques, The Spy, the Rat and the Bed of Nails: Creative Ways of Talking about Christian Faith, Leeds: Thinking Faith 2017.

ISBN 978-0-9957572-0-2, 182pp., £8.99

Many books are available on Christian apologetics but very few focus on communicating faith. Mark Roques recognises this and encourages us to try something that we might just be able to do. His project is no intellectual programme to out-think militant atheism nor is it an unrealistically intensive evangelistic programme—this is human-centred and culture-centred storytelling. It focuses on the act of storytelling that people do every day, the need for narrative that Jesus shows to be the way that human beings communicate. Few people will ever be persuaded to undergo the paradigm shift to Christian faith on the basis of intellectual apologetics. The drip feed of new ways to look at reality that comes from storytelling, on the other hand, has a hope of penetrating the wall that modern Westerners build around themselves.

Mark Roques Book

This book not only promotes a great way forward in how we can share our faith it does it in a highly engaging fashion. Despite being a short book it has a solid underpinning intellectual depth and rigour. This necessary background is however put over as engagingly as the stories Roques encourages us to share. The core call of this book is to see the culture we live in as a resource, a common language for us to use in creative dialogue with others. In this way James Bond can become an ally as we talk about our faith and show others they too have a faith, albeit in things other than Jesus. Roques knows that Bond won’t work for everyone and to this end the variety of ideas to inform our storytelling is remarkable. Who would have thought that Ivan the Terrible, Glenn Hoddle, Anna Nicole Smith and the Duke of Edinburgh would be such vital assets to our endeavours in personal evangelism?

The Spy, the Rat and the Bed of Nails can be purchased here: http://thinkfaith.net/realitybites/spy-rat-nails

Psalm 149—Singing a New Song in 2017

Purple Rain: 2016

2016 was by any standards a remarkable year. On two days I awoke to the opposite outcome to that which I had expected in a national vote – I was personally disappointed on both counts. This time last year no one would have predicted all of the big events on the world stage of these past 12 months. It will, I am sure, go down as a historic year which set in motion events which will take decades to unfold. But 2016 was remarkable for other reasons. It seemed that everybody experienced a famous person that they liked, or admired, dying. The world of music alone lost Prince, Leonard Cohen, David Bowie and George Michael.

The most talented musicians leave a tangible cultural legacy. I find the role of music in culture fascinating. Have you ever wondered about the ubiquity of music? Why do we have song-after-song-after-song? Are there not enough songs by now? Is it really possible to do anything new with a song?

The cynic might say that the modern song writer is in it for the money. Whilst I cannot deny that there is a commercial dynamic to the music industry, there is something more. It is not cold hard cash that motivates budding musicians to work endlessly at anti-social hours for little or no money and limited recognition. I don’t think it is just a hope of future fame that can drive them. There is simply something creative about the human nature. Just as God created the Universe, as people in his image we are creative too. For some of us this means writing new songs and music and/or playing and performing music.

Psalm 149 makes much of singing a New Song. It is not alone in exulting us to sing a New Song. Psalms 33, 40, 96, 98 and 144 also refer to this idea. Isaiah 42 and Revelation 5 use it as a key motif too.

Hallelujah: Gathering to Sing

Singing together as God’s people is one of the essential activities that we engage in. There is something about singing with others. Of course not all of us enjoy it. Few of us choose to do it outside of Sunday worship and the football stadium. In football, and other team sports, singing together can be the very the worst of the tribalism that afflicts humankind—the singing of insults being a central dynamic. When we sing together in gathered worship this can be the very best of tribalism—the singing of praise being central. A football team are a self-serving and self-promoting tribe. To paraphrase Archbishop William Temple (1881-1944), “The Church is the only tribe that does not exist for itself, but for those who live outside of it”. [tribe is substituted for organisation.]

Singing together creates unity—we share the same beliefs and emotions; the same faith. The opening Hebrew word of Psalm 149 exemplifies this tribalism. Like the neighbouring Psalms it opens with the Hebrew Word hallelujah — or praise Yah—often translated as ‘Praise the Lord’. We belong to the tribe of Yahweh; the tribe of his son Jesus Christ.

Singing is partly about being together, being gathered, being the body of Christ. It is also education. In my church, and many others, there is scant opportunity to learn together in our time-poor lives. We do not have special classes; we do not have a second service. We learn primarily by singing and we learn from sermons. We probably never fully appreciate just how much we benefit from singing choruses and hymns. For most of us if we remember any words by heart that define our faith, it will be the songs we sing.

Education of course is not just about head knowledge—it is doing that teaches. Gathering and being together is itself a vital education. At the end of the day gathering is the gospel. Gathering is a foretaste of the age to come. The New Songs of the psalmist are a foretaste of the New Song spoken of in the Book of Revelation. New Song are songs of thankfulness. New Songs can be ‘old songs’ recovered and reclaimed afresh.

New Songs, in the Bible often seem to be connected with victory. For us the victory can sometimes simply be being a Christian after one more year in a world which throws the unexpected at us. Many of us have suffered closer, personal more tangible afflictions than Brexit, Trump or the death of our favourite celebrity.

Hallelujah.
Sing to the Lord a new song,
his praise in the assembly of his faithful people.
Let Israel rejoice in their Maker;
let the people of Zion be glad in their King.
Let them praise his name with dancing
and make music to him with timbrel and harp.
For the Lord takes delight in his people;
he crowns the humble with victory.

We might use different instruments but this is fine. In fact we have to as the Hebrew words for musical instruments tend to be uncertain. It is not our musical culture, musicianship or instruments that count, it is gathering before the same creator God, Yah.

Under Pressure: Singing 24-7

Our Psalm is not just about singing together on a Sunday or other church gathering. Sometimes we have a view of church as a place of refuge, a place to escape the ‘nasty world’. Perhaps what I have said thus far seems to suggest this. There is a sense in which gathering together is about being refreshed and strengthened, and about learning too.

And yet this idea is potentially problematic if we become consumers or passengers looking passively to be fed during the short time of gathering. In a small church in particular, you are unlikely to find all the food you need to sustain you. In a larger church we might be fooled into thinking we have all the food and nourishment we need.

Despite the apparent passivity of our culture, the talk of tolerance, the solid democratic processes that govern our nation, we live in an environment which is toxic to our faith. As Christians we are under pressure. Pressure to conform, pressure to consume, pressure to go along with everybody else. I cannot even begin to guess the temptations which we might each face to conform to the world’s values. But a key to cultivating faith in the face of the pressure to conform is the practice of an everyday spirituality.

Let his faithful people rejoice in this honor
and sing for joy on their beds.
May the praise of God be in their mouths
and a double-edged sword in their hands,

We can sing to God wherever we may be—not just church—everywhere, even bed. Although we should note that the ‘bed’ mentioned here is probably a reclining couch. The point is that worship is 24-7. It is the day-and-night meditation we read of elsewhere in The Psalms. It is the praying on all occasions we hear about from the Apostle Paul.

This can be a joy rather than a chore—a New Song not a new legalism. It is not as busy as it sounds—at its core it is about being single-minded. Being the same person whether in church, at home, at work or at play. New Songs sung ‘wherever we are’ could be the biggest thing we do in 2017.

Faith: Hopeful Singing

One of the remarkable things about The Psalms is that the psalmist can say anything to God. Yet, however confrontational these words the psalmist cries out from a stance of faith and trust. In any year, using these prayers and making them our own would seem to be a wise move. None of us know what 2017 will bring. What we do know is that The Psalms provide the words for every situation and for every emotion.

One of the challenges of The Psalms, however, is that they rarely do ‘what you want’—this is Scripture at its most surprising and untamed best. God has not given us a collection of nice pithy sayings. This is no catalogue of gift card niceties, nor the musings of a two-a-penny self-help Twitter guru or life coach.

By verse 7 we might think Psalm 149 has gone rather off the wall:

to inflict vengeance on the nations
and punishment on the peoples,
to bind their kings with fetters,
their nobles with shackles of iron,
to carry out the sentence written against them—
this is the glory of all his faithful people.
Hallelujah.

Despite these verses jarring with our nice cuddly conceptions of God they are part of our faith and our trust in Yahweh and his Son Jesus Christ. They tell us that the massive wrongs of this world will be judged. They tell us that our God is Lord of history – whatever news reporters in the world’s war zones unintentionally intimate day-by-day and year-by-year.

These latter verses also make sense of the trajectory initiated in Psalm 2. That God will judge is not actually odd, it is a necessary perspective—how else can we claim that our God is a just God? Like the Psalmist we can look to God to deal with injustice. This is a major part of our hope. For the psalmist it is worth not only believing but making a song and dance about.

Beautiful Lord: An Advent Reflection on Revelation 1:12‒18

What is Beauty?

Beauty tends to be something that is peripheral to Western society and culture today. At least that is my view. When things are marginal there is a danger that they are neglected. Worse still, in an age of soundbites we might define important things by a short saying or an aphorism.

In the past Beauty was a central concept within Christian Theology. It was joined by Goodness and Truth. Some theologians organised their whole theology around these three. Hans Urs von Balthasar famously called urgently for a need to reclaim beauty in our theology and thinking. His stark claim that instigated a multi-decade project is worth a lengthy quotation:

Beauty is the word that shall be our first. Beauty is the last thing which the thinking intellect dares to approach, since only it dances as an uncontained splendor around the double constellation of the true and the good and their inseparable relation to one another. Beauty is the disinterested one, without which the ancient world refused to understand itself, a word which both imperceptibly and yet unmistakably has bid farewell to our new world, a world of interests, leaving it to its own avarice and sadness. No longer loved or fostered by religion, beauty is lifted from its face as a mask, and its absence exposes features on that face which threaten to become incomprehensible to man. We no longer dare to believe in beauty and we make of it a mere appearance in order the more easily to dispose of it. Our situation today shows that beauty demands for itself at least as much courage and decision as do truth and goodness, and she will not allow herself to be separated and banned from her two sisters without taking them along with herself in an act of mysterious vengeance. We can be sure that whoever sneers at her name as if she were the ornament of a bourgeois past—whether he admits it or not—can no longer pray and soon will no longer be able to love.

Hans Urs von Balthasar, The Glory of the Lord: A Theological Aesthetics, Vol. 1 Seeing the Form

I want to speak positively about Beauty. But this positivity is in the context of the danger posed by Western culture. The values of our culture in practice are:

  • Post-goodness—morality based on any absolutes is under attack. Only a shallow concept of rights exists.
  • Post-truth—politics has become so cynical that plain untruths are said and the electorate are, either powerless to change this or collude with it.
  • Post-beauty—advertising tells us what is beautiful.

When it comes to beauty there is no shortage of sayings that spring to mind. Two in particular pervade Western culture:

  1. Beauty is only skin deep. Sir Thomas Overbury is the first person known to have used this in print, in his poem A Wife (1613). She was probably less than impressed.
  2. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder. It has been used in many forms and its origin is obscure. Margaret Wolfe Hungerford first used in this form in her novel Molly Bawn (1878).

Whilst both have some value, the latter’s potential to deny absolute beauty is problematic for a Christian Theology of beauty.

The Bible and Beauty

A typical English translation of the Bible does not have many Hebrew and Greek words translated as beauty. For example, the New International Version has 71 occurrences of Beautiful and 33 of Beauty. Most of these uses of the two words refer to physical human beauty. The first usage in the Bible has this meaning:

the sons of God saw that the daughters of humans were beautiful, and they married any of them they chose.

Genesis 6:2 (NIV)

Around 20% of the uses of beauty and beautiful occur in the erotic love poem Song of Songs and relate to physical beauty. But this in itself tells as something further about God. Song of Songs is an erotic love poem but its place in the Bible has as much to do with how it tells of God’s love for his people and the love of his people for him.

We are meant to find God beautiful just as he recognises the beauty of his people perfected in Christ.

Some uses of the words beauty and beautiful refer to the importance of an inner beauty, picking up on beauty being ‘only skin deep’. In Ezekiel 16 we find almost 10% of all Bible uses of the words beauty and beautiful. It is imagery about the beauty of God’s people and how as God’s beloved they looked for another lover. The inference is that their beauty should have been more than skin deep—the beauty of God’s people lies in who they are in God.

Some of these words from Ezekiel use imagery which is coherent with what God has done for us in Christ:

“‘I bathed you with water and washed the blood from you and put ointments on you. 10 I clothed you with an embroidered dress and put sandals of fine leather on you. I dressed you in fine linen and covered you with costly garments. 11 I adorned you with jewellery: I put bracelets on your arms and a necklace around your neck, 12 and I put a ring on your nose, earrings on your ears and a beautiful crown on your head.13 So you were adorned with gold and silver; your clothes were of fine linen and costly fabric and embroidered cloth. Your food was honey, olive oil and the finest flour. You became very beautiful and rose to be a queen. 14 And your fame spread among the nations on account of your beauty, because the splendour I had given you made your beauty perfect, declares the Sovereign Lord.

Ezekiel 16:914 (NIV)

In the New Testament, Peter, being a fisherman points out the relationship between inner and outer beauty more succinctly:

Your beauty should not come from outward adornment, such as elaborate hairstyles and the wearing of gold jewellery or fine clothes. Rather, it should be that of your inner self, the unfading beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit, which is of great worth in God’s sight.

1 Peter 3:34 (NIV)

I am reminded of the words of the humble hobbit gardener, Sam Gamgee, in The Lord of the Rings:

“Handsome is as handsome does.”

Very few, if any, of the occurrences of beauty and beautiful (in most English Bible translations) refer to creation. In an exception, Ezekiel 31:9 one of the trees of Eden is referred to as beautiful, surpassing all the other trees. So exceptional is this usage that it proves the rule. A few uses of these two words refer to God, for example:

From Zion, perfect in beauty,
God shines forth.
Our God comes
and will not be silent;
a fire devours before him,
and around him a tempest rages.

Psalm 50:2‒3 (NIV)

Glory

So how can beauty be a central biblical concept if when reading Scripture we find the semantic range refers largely to physical appearance with only an occasional acknowledgement that inner beauty is more important?

What of the beauty of God?

What of the beauty of creation?

We have a different word in English that overlaps with beauty. A word that translates the Hebrew word, kavod. This word captures the idea of being heavy—of having serious substance or great importance. It is often translated heart—literally liver in Hebrew, the liver being the heaviest and therefore most important organ—as the most important part of somebody.

Glory, comes into its own as the tangible importance and greatness of God; it goes beyond the visibility of beauty into beautiful presence and beautiful physicality. My favourite example is Psalm 24 where it is intertwined with Yahweh’s kingship, strength and might:

Lift up your heads, you gates;
be lifted up, you ancient doors,
that the King of glory may come in.
Who is this King of glory?
The Lord strong and mighty,
the Lord mighty in battle.
Lift up your heads, you gates;
lift them up, you ancient doors,
that the King of glory may come in.
10 Who is he, this King of glory?
The Lord Almighty—
he is the King of glory.

Psalm 24: 710 (NIV)

The Beauty of God

In the Book of Revelation John the Elder, describes his encounter with Christ. Like all of this remarkable book it is written in the symbolic language of apocalyptic—a rich poetic way to describe things beyond the everyday. His description of Christ can sound reminiscent of the unhelpful ‘old man on a cloud’ view of God, for example, hair like white wool, but when understood as imagery it becomes much richer.

One day we too will each encounter the living Christ as he judges all of creation ahead of the renewal of heaven and earth. Unlike John’s vision ours will be a full encounter with the beautiful resurrected Christ.

Isaiah described the suffering servant in this way:

He grew up before him like a tender shoot,
and like a root out of dry ground.
He had no beauty or majesty to attract us to him,
nothing in his appearance that we should desire him.

Isaiah 53:2 (NIV)

The risen Jesus is not just beautiful he is full of majesty and glory. Perhaps like John our encounter with Jesus will make us fall to the ground as though dead.

The vision of John portrays Jesus Christ among his Church, the seven lamp stands. He is living and active in our midst when we gather.

His clothes are those of a priest. The ultimate priest who enables us to come before the living God. A priest, who as a sacrifice without beauty, makes us beautiful before the Father.

For this beautiful figure is not just the risen Jesus. He is the Christ. Not just Son of Man, but one like a Son of Man. Now shown to be God himself in resurrection glory. Lest we be in any doubt, we see his hair, white like wool, white like snow—this is the ancient of days, the God of Israel.

Through the cross and resurrection his purity and holiness have been found perfect—we can see this as his feet glow like bronze in a furnace.

Like his Father before him his spoken word is like the sound of rushing water—a sound so loud that it silences everything else. His spoken word is inflected by a tongue like a double-edged sword.

In this way he judges all. Those made clean by his priestly sacrifice will withstand this judgement, being found pure like him. His beauty and glory given to them as a free and gracious gift. And because of this his people can stand before him bathed in the light shining from his face; illuminated not blinded, warmed not consumed.

One day we will know the very touch of the living Christ. He will declare to us that we need not fear, he has led the way into God’s beautiful presence. He was First, there with God in the beginning. He is Last, in that he has restored the creation broken by the sin of Adam. In a sense he became Adam but he did not stray. In resurrection he makes an end to Adam’s sin. He is the Living One—not just the resurrected Jesus but the Living God Yahweh. God of Israel and God of all the redeemed of mankind.

He was dead just as we will die, but he is alive, just as we too shall be made alive in him. He holds the keys of both death and Hades. As his followers we have no need to fear death or Hades.

Please see Malcolm Guite’s O Rex Gentium which provides an appropriate reflective prayer.

Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah as Midrash

Midrash is a complex type of Jewish exegesis that blossomed as Judaism become Rabbinic. One, and it is only one, of the tools of midrash is using diverse texts from the Hebrew Bible (the Tanakh) to answer questions asked by hearers of the text. In this way a deep reverence for the text is combined with the poetic imagination—two things which in my view should unite to do justice to Scripture. I am personally convinced that Hallelujah in doing the latter echoes, either consciously or inadvertently, the former. Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah has become something of a key text in Western culture. Through its use in diverse cinematic contexts, covers by other artists and simply because of its innate qualities of profundity and yet ambiguity, it is known to many at some level. My fascination with it centres on my admiration of Cohen as a poet and the central role of the biblical psalms in the song. What follows here is not meant to be an analysis but only a meditation on this remarkable song. The very title of Cohen’s most famous song is a frequent refrain in the Biblical Psalms. The Psalter would be familiar to Cohen given his Jewish heritage. That this is the case is evident from any number of biographies about Cohen. The Psalter has two collections of psalms united by their use of the word Hallelujah, which means literally ‘Praise Jah’, the covenant God of Biblical Israel. One of these series of psalms, Psalms 146–150, have more common features with each other than any other five consecutive psalms in the Psalter. They each have no heading, unlike the eight previous psalms. They all start with the refrain Hallelujah. They all end with the same refrain. In this way, each is encapsulated in an inclusio which defines exactly what they are, songs with a single purpose of praise. There is no trace here of the complex ups-and-downs of individual and corporate experience. There is, in these five psalms, only cause for praise and its execution. In this way they are, therefore, all apiece when it comes to form and content. Indeed they are so similar that if we had read these five compositions in a poet’s notebook we might have thought she was drafting and redrafting, shaping and perfecting, a single song. Yet, despite their similarity, each brings something to this final party and set together they unite synergistically into something bigger than the each of the parts. They are a most fitting end to the Psalter. This is echoed in Cohen’s Hallelujah which exclaims:

And even though it all went wrong

I’ll stand before the Lord of Song

With nothing on my tongue but Hallelujah

Of course, for much of the song the singer has anything but the certainty and stability captured at the end. Psalms 111–118 are sometimes referred to as Hallel Psalms or the Hallelujah Psalms. As with concluding five psalms of the Psalter they make extensive use of the word Hallelujah. They do this in a less systematic way than the closing five psalms. Psalms 111, 112 and 113 all start with the word Hallelujah. Psalms 113, 115, 116 and 117 all close with this word. Thus only Psalm 113 has the inclusio device we saw above where the entire psalm is caught between to exhortations to ‘praise the Lord’. Psalms 114 and 118 do not contain Hallelujah. A subset of this series, Psalms, 113–118, are known as the Egyptian Hallel. They are known by this name partly because of their content and especially because they are used liturgically in the Passover meal which takes place on the eighth day of the Passover celebrations. The six psalms are used progressively through the meal: Psalms 113 and 114 are read before the meal. The other four are said at the end of the meal, during the drinking of the fourth cup of wine. So what question might Hallelujah be a midrash on? Perhaps its concern is how King David with all of his failings could be the author of the Psalter? The narrative of the Tanakh says very little about David’s musical ability. The most important thread being his playing of the lyre before Saul (1 Samuel 16:23ff. and 19:9ff.). David’s musicianship variously quietens a demon and angers Saul. Perhaps the former ability makes use of Cohen’s ‘secret chord’? Referring to David as a ‘baffled king’ seems appropriate because his life was full of the most momentous ups-and-downs just like the life of faith recorded in the Psalter—for every Hallelujah there is an opposing problem. Cohen’s song makes a direct mention of a key episode in referring to David’s voyeurism on seeing the bathing Bathsheba (2 Samuel 11:2). Cohen’s mention of moonlight might refer to the text ascribing the event to the ‘late afternoon’ (NRSV) or it might hint at the madness that was to follow—in biblical times the moon was thought to be a source of mental illness (cf. Psalm 121:6b). The initial result of David’s lust for Bathsheba is that she does indeed draw a Hallelujah from his lips and this results in the conception of a child that dies shortly after his birth. Later they have another son, Solomon. Whether his dalliance with Bathsheba broke his throne, or not, is speculation. The problems David has with his son Absalom might well stem from Absalom’s jealousy over Solomon’s status. Less ambiguous is that the domestic imagery of kitchens and the cutting of hair hints at another leader in Israel brought down by lust for a woman, see Judges 16. Hallelujah  speaks of a Holy Hallelujah and a Broken Hallelujah. These two descriptions are true of the biblical psalms in more than one sense. At one level we have the question of how David, in spite of his immense failings, was chosen by God and indeed favoured by God. How did a broken king write a holy book? Of course David’s identification as the Psalter’s author are idealistic. The psalms are the product of many psalmists. But many of the most poignant are those redolent with the sort of lament that David must have voiced when things went wrong, and in particular his battle, both physical and political, with so many enemies. Such psalms declare the brokenness which is so often the experience of the life of faith. All of the psalms, those from David’s pen and all the others, are of course the work of frail human beings. Yet the mystery is that their collection and canonisation has indeed made them holy to Jew and Christian because their experience is that ‘there’s a blaze of light in every word’. Anyone seeking an explanation or a theology of Scripture would do well to meditate on the midrash that is Hallelujah. Having said this, they might be better off looking to that which is signified rather than only a sign.

How Long?

The Psalmist frequently cries “How long?” or some other similar refrain which implies impatience with the way things are. At the same time they lay the blame with squarely with God. The reason I am reflecting on this terse refrain is that I have been somewhat impatient today, albeit not in an appropriate psalm-like manner. Impatience directed at others is not prayer nor is it rooted in faith. I am in danger, and I imagine I am not alone, of being quicker to buy into the impatience of consumerism rather than the spirit of the psalmist.

In the Western world of the twenty-first century, our individualism, relative wealth and cultural expectations can make us singly impatient. We can at a moment buy more variety of food, gadgets, clothes and luxuries than would have seemed imaginable even a few decades ago. This issue is especially acute at Christmas where we struggle to find gifts for those we love because so often there is very little actual need of anything material. We resort to luxuries quickly consumed, atomised or drunk. Or we resort to browsing a ‘wish list’ to find something we do not even understand as a gift. Perhaps, even more pointlessly, we might exchange gift vouchers with someone, hoping we have guessed the amount we will receive, so as to match what we will be given. I fear I am sounding like I am having a mid-life crisis or becoming an ally of Scrooge. I hope, however, that I am highlighting something that we literally buy into with all too little thought. I confess I partake of these conventions as both giver and receiver. Breaking the cycle can take one beyond echoing Scrooge to being renamed as such. And in a sense I am not even advocating even this, but pointing to the bigger issue of losing sight of the meaning of Christmas.

The abundance we experience can lessen any sense of anticipation of Christmas Day. And surely this was part of the point of Christmas? — Gifts remind us of the greatest of gifts, and anticipation of good things is a reminder of the necessity and value of waiting. The biblical concepts of Faith and Trust only make sense, and can only be honed, by waiting. Our faith is just as much about waiting as fulfillment. Abraham certainly learnt this, as did Israel in her long wait for a Messiah. Even for those of us who know the risen Christ the wait is not over. The Spirit is a down payment for both a salvation and a re-creation; a denouement that all of creation yearns for and groans for in expectation.

All of this makes the idea of Advent far more important than a singular day. In cultivating expectation and patient waiting we are reminded of our pilgrim status. Advent’s waiting also coheres with the unfashionable concept of discipleship. To await the Christ Child requires time and space; in other words discipline. The twin poles of pilgrimage and discipleship sound passé and perhaps Dickensian to a consumerist Christianity which can be as impatient for the latest album, fad or programme as the rest of our culture.

What is perhaps puzzling is that the necessary slowness of waiting is actually desirable and attractive to anyone in our culture, even to those that do not own the gospel. In an age of surplus, a slowing down to wait rather than gain is itself good news. If we can learn to be more visible in our pilgrimage and more transparent in our discipline, then we might find a local incarnation occurs as we celebrate the Incarnation.

Of course waiting does not end on the 25th December. Advent might crystallise and remind us of the patient waiting of the Psalmist and other men and women of faith. But the Psalmist and the Psalter in turn remind us that the Life of Faith is about pilgrimage and the need for discipline along the way. This side of the birth of the Messiah, the key change is that the refrain of “How Long?” has evolved into words of the same meaning but which carry greater weight and longing. Maranatha.