B is for Bones

Psalm 51 is one of seven psalms that have been grouped together and known as the penitential psalms since the sixth century. These seven psalms frequently touch on what today is often judged to be an unsavoury and unwelcome idea—the notion that God not only exhibits anger but shows his divine displeasure as wrath. In verse 8 of Psalm 51 we read:

Let me hear joy and gladness;
let the bones that you have crushed rejoice.
Psalm 51:8, NRSV

The psalmist either has experienced, or they think they have experienced, God’s hand against them. The wider context of the psalm, in which they are asking for forgiveness, suggests a causal link between sin and wrath. This post is not going to unravel this knotty theological issue, although other posts in this A-to-Z will return to this subject. For the moment we are going to explore one thread of this matter—a concern crystallised in the very bones of the psalmist.

Three of the other penitential psalms also mention the psalmist’s bones. In the first penitential psalm we read:

Be gracious to me, O Lord, for I am languishing;
O Lord, heal me, for my bones are shaking with terror.
Psalm 6:2, NRSV

In this psalm the shaking bones are part of a wider range of symptoms. It is unclear, however, just what ailment the psalmist is experiencing. There is here, and elsewhere, in the Psalter an ambiguity as to whether the ailments are literal or metaphorical. It is possible that this contributed to the preservation of such psalm as they are so readily appropriated by others. Whether this ambiguity aided its preservation, or not, it is undoubtedly an asset to have a readily re-readable prayer as part of a Prayerbook. The previous verse of Psalm 6 indicates that the cause of bones shaking with terror could be fear of God’s anger. Such a possibility is even more clearly found in Psalm 38, the third of the penitential psalms:

There is no soundness in my flesh because of your indignation;
there is no health in my bones because of my sin.
Psalm 38:3, NRSV

The fifth penitential psalm also makes mention of the psalmist’s bones. Here they are burning like a furnace:

For my days pass away like smoke,
and my bones burn like a furnace.
Psalm 102:3, NRSV

What we make of this depends on a decision as to how we read this psalm. If we see it as a penitential psalm, then like in the other cases we can see this as being the result of sin, or at least understood in this way by the poet. If we read the psalm on its own terms we could come to several alternative conclusions: extreme loneliness, illness, oppression by the community, depression. Each, perhaps all of these, could each account for the psalm’s content. Such categories are arguably anachronistic given the two and half millennia between the psalmist and us.

Such orthopaedic prayer language is far from the beauty of Allegri and yet, make no bones about it, it is likely to have touched even more lives than the Italian priest’s glorious composition. One wonders how many people have found strength in bringing their assorted troubles to God in these prayers.

George Herbert and the Psalms

Regular readers of this blog will probably be aware that the penitential psalms (Psalms 6, 32, 38, 51, 102, 130 and 143) have featured prominently here over the past year, or so. This is because of an ongoing project on these psalms. As I have spent time with these seven psalms I have become increasingly surprised at their generative potential in literature, liturgy, poetry, music, politics, and preaching. George Herbert (1593–1633) was an Anglican poet-priest and contributed, in his short life, to most of the aforementioned arenas. The Psalter appears to have been a major source of inspiration. More specifically, the language of the penitential psalms, and the traditional penitential lens through which they are read, seems lie behind much of his work too.

This short post is an encouragement to reflect on one poem and one poetic verse from Herbert’s pen which both respond to the Psalms. The aim is primarily to celebrate his poetry, albeit in just 83 words, on the day he is remembered in the liturgy. A second aim is a nod to the profoundly generative spirit of the psalms that has provided us with such a cloud of witnesses—an unceasing testimony of praise to celebrate and perpetuate the two testaments to Christ.

At the risk of straying from delight to dissection I will say a little about Hebert’s two pieces of verse. The first, Bitter-sweet, captures the life of faith and its two poles of complaint and praise. Whilst scholars have spilt much ink over such matters none can match this short poem’s sublime portrait of psalmic trust. It is a sublime microcosm of the Psalter in both form and content.

Bitter-sweet.
Ah my deare angrie Lord,
Since thou dost love, yet strike;
Cast down, yet help afford;
Sure I will do the like.

I will complain, yet praise;
I will bewail, approve:
And all my sowre-sweet dayes
I will lament, and love.

The second piece, the first of some thirteen verses, grasps the gasps of the penitential psalmist. Though as short as the above, it redolent with the seven psalms. We find the metaphorical travails of the penitent (Pss. 6:7; 32:3; 38:7; 51:8), their sense of distance from God (38:9; 102:2; 130:5–6; 143:7), and their all-encompassing day and night waiting for the living God of the penitential psalms (Pss. 6:6; 32:4; 130:6).

Home.
Come Lord, my head doth burn, my heart is sick,
While thou dost ever, ever stay:
Thy long deferrings wound me to the quick,
My spirit gaspeth night and day.
O show thy self to me,
Or take me up to thee!

Perhaps the choice of the 27th February to celebrate Herbert and its place in the season of Lent (most years at least) is a fitting one?

Malcolm Guite’s ‘David’s Crown’: A Review

Malcolm Guite, David’s Crown: Sounding the Psalms, Norwich: Canterbury Press, 2021

Malcolm Guite conceived and wrote this book during the earliest months of the pandemic. There is an irony in this origin, for corona, a word that had eluded most of us until a year ago, can refer to a crown or coronet of poems. These 150 poems are a collection—one poem per psalm. They also combine to form a single poem. A 2,250-line epic which is greater than the sum of its parts. It is a majestic response to the biblical Psalter, the original Davidic corona.

 

The Psalter comprises poems of very different lengths. The longest, Psalm 119, is around 200 times longer that the shortest, Psalm 117. Here in David’s Crown Guite adopts a poetic convention such that each poem is the same length and of the same form. In honour of the canonical crown each of his responses has fifteen lines, a nod to the 150 psalms. He also adopts another convention in following John Donne who linked seven poems, each adopting as its first line the last one of the previous poem. This is more than a clever and arbitrary stylistic whim. This convention celebrates another feature of the Psalter, the pairing of each psalm with its neighbours. The resulting concatenation within the Psalter is achieved in more complex ways than in Guite’s response—it includes various devices such as keywords pairs, repeated phrases, alternating patterns of day and night, matching interests and/or theological progression. As Paula Gooder reminds us in the introduction to David’s Crown, the Psalms also have a narrative that ties and binds them together. This can be seen as a journey of petition down to, and through, the low of Psalm 88, followed by a gentling rising path of praise. This culminates with Psalm 150’s unabandoned doxology.

The story within the Psalter is also the narrative of the Davidic kings and God’s kingship. Guite’s response reveals this story with a thoroughgoing Christian reading—this might be David’s Crown but in the 150 episodes we find Christ eclipsing David. This interpretive lens is, of course, that made by the Second Testament and many of the Church Fathers, including most notably Augustine and his interpretive paradigm of the total Christ (totus Christus). As Guite puts it, his work forms ‘a chaplet of praise to garland the head of the one who wore the Corona Spinea, the crown of thorns for us, and who has suffered with us through the corona pandemic [p.xv].’

So far, so good, this collection has a form that both echoes the 150 psalms it celebrates and has a coherent and insightful form. Is the execution as good as the conception? In short, the answer is a resounding yes. Each response is a delight in its own right. Doubtless readers will have different favourites. I particularly enjoyed the reflection on Psalm 39 because of its playful allusion to Leonard Cohen’s famous proverb about light and cracks. The response to Psalm 118, despite its brevity before its subject, works with many of the ideas and words found there in a beautiful fresh way. The 125th meditation is poignant, it is a prayer dedicating the collection as a thanksgiving offering. If each poem is a delight, then the whole can only be described as sublime. The single-minded form does not wear thin but rather provides a sort of theological and Christological perpetual motion—one reaches the end only to find that the last line of Psalm 150 provides the opening to the collection.

Guite explains that this is a response to the Coverdale version of the Psalms from the Book of Common Prayer. This is evident in the Latin headings to each poem and frequently in the language of the compositions. Nevertheless, is very much a contemporary poetry collection, it just knows how to cherish light from the past. There are allusions, both explicit and implicit, to the likes of John Donne, Julian of Norwich, John Bunyan, William Blake, Gregorio Allegri and Robert Alter. This peppering of imbibers and interpreters reminds us that behind these poems lie not just the ancient Psalms themselves but an age of their inspirational legacy—more profoundly still we perceive the Spirit breathing across some three millennia.

If you love the Psalter and enjoy poetry you will cherish David’s Crown:

So come and bring him all your nights and days,
And come into his courts with joyful song,
Come to the place where every breath is praise [p.150].

 

 

 

The Gospel of Eve: A Novel by Rachel Mann

Rachel Mann, The Gospel of Eve, Darton, Longman and Todd, 2020

I was fortunate enough to receive a review copy of The Gospel of Eve. It is set in Littlemore Theological College, a fictional Anglican seminary just outside Oxford. The story takes place in the late 1990s, but it is narrated by Catherine Bolton in the present. Kitty, as she is known by her friends, joined Littlemore after completing a PhD in Medieval History at the University of Lancaster. The story concerns the first few months of Kitty’s time at the college and her relationship with five fellow ordinands, including the almost titular Evie. The apparent suicide of Evie is revealed in the first line of the prologue. Right from the outset the reader knows that her death not only drives the narrative but that this terrible event has ongoing consequences for Kitty.

This review will not give away anything further concerning the plot—this is vital, as one of the delights of this novel is that as it unfolds the reader must continually adjust their assessment of where the narrative will take them. The Gospel of Eve is beautifully written. College life and the broader context of Oxford are both captured with engaging effortlessness. It is a small detail—and difficult to explain—but Mann has a real gift for naming characters, contributing to the ease with which the minor players crystallise in their respective roles. The main characters are thoroughly three-dimensional in their complexity. There is not so much character development, as a chapter-by-chapter revelation of who they are. All of this works to make the central, and it must be said remarkable, plot development credible.

So much for the form, what of the content? Whilst this is certainly a novel that can just be read as an engaging page-turner it offers rather more than this. Barely below the surface lie the serious challenges posed by human frailty, all brought to life in what can only be described as a rich intertextuality. There are literary connections to theology, Church history, famous literary Oxfordians, and Dostoevsky. The religious literature of the Middle Ages occupies pride of place, and it functions on a number of levels. The three parts of the book each open with a short quote from medieval literature, and we soon realise that the frequent mention of the likes of Piers Plowman, Margery Kempe and Chaucer are not just incidental details of Kitty’s life. The love of literature is felt profoundly throughout, only to intensify in the story’s denouement. The most impressive aspect of this prevalent intertextuality is that there is no artifice only effortless flowing prose.

If the intertextual insights cast light it is all too often on the darkness of human aspiration and desire. All the characters in the story have embarked on laudable quests. For Kitty and her friends this is the wish to become closer to God and to minister to others. Indeed, at times, they come across as set apart from the rest of the college in their priestly calling. In the case of Professor Albertus Loewe, a donnish key influence on the six ordinands, his task is the formation of the next generation of clergy which includes the inculcation of a love of religious literature. Yet, we find that these positive pursuits are all, without exception, tainted in very different ways by the hardening of virtue with human obsession. This novel offers no simple answers to the human condition. What good novel does? Instead the reader has to decide for themselves what to make of the rich interplay between the story of the first Eve, the fate of Evie, and the lives of so many other Eves.

 

Children and Heirs of God

A reflection on Psalm 148, Luke 2:36–40 and Galatians 4:4–7.

Anna the daughter of Phanuel makes the briefest of appearances in the Bible, in what we call the Christmas story. Only here in Luke’s gospel do we meet her and get the briefest insight into who she is. One of the remarkable things we find out, in this small window on the life of a widow, is that she lived in lockdown.

For us lockdown has mostly, perhaps entirely, negative connotations. Being stuck largely within the confines of a single building with all the freedoms we normally taken for granted removed is painfully restrictive. Unlike us, Anna chose lockdown. Perhaps her humble circumstances as a widow helped her make the choice. Perhaps she just wanted a life of devotion to the living God of Israel.

Her confines were larger than ours—the parts of the temple complex she was allowed in were a lot bigger than a typical modern house and garden. Nevertheless, choosing such confinement seems odd to us. In church history others have followed Anna’s lead. There have been countless individuals and communities who have renounced normality, if there is such a thing. Many have chosen lockdown, or confinement in one place.

Julian of Norwich is possibly the most famous example. She lived in a single room within a Parish church (now St. Julian’s Church) for more than 20 years, until her death around 1416. She was what is known as an anchorite —someone so anchored to Christ that they choose to anchor themselves to a single place as an act of extreme devotion. So serious was this act of confinement in the Middle Ages that Julian had the last rites read for her before being ‘locked down’—she was literally dead to her old life. Like Anna her experience was not total self-isolation, for both Julian and Anna were judged prophets—they had a ministry to others.

After nine months of the Hokey Cokey (or Hokey Pokey) of lockdowns—national and local—we probably don’t have the metal bandwidth to consider such confinement as a choice. But for Anna, and Julian, this was the exact point of their lockdown. It was not just a life choice but was the way they felt best able to honour the living God. We perhaps dismiss the likes of Anna, before giving serious thought to their singular commitment to recognise the worship of God in Christ as a priority that eclipses all others.

Many Christian confessions describe the purpose of humanity as the unceasing praise of the living God through Christ. For example, the Shorter Catechism of the Westminster Confession of Faith opens with the assertion that:

Man’s chief end is to glorify God, and to enjoy him for ever.

This sits well with the singular abandoned praise of Psalm 148. It chimes with the choice of Anna to live in the Temple grounds. It fits with the brave decision of countless men and women who have renounced everything for Christ.

Putting the words in a more modern vain:

Humankind’s chief end is to glorify God, and to enjoy him for ever.

This is certainly where things started in Eden and where they end in the Book of Revelation. In living in between, most of us don’t adopt the singlemindedness of Anna. She gave up distractions, whereas we have more than ever. And clearly this cannot be the normal call for all of us who know Jesus as saviour and lord. We would, however, do well to be inspired by Anna’s commitment and we should head the remarkable insight she is given about Jesus as the basis for the redemption of Jerusalem. Her insight might at first sound parochial—the redemption of the city, the place of her lockdown—but she perceived the bigger picture. For this child opens the way to the heavenly city, the New Jerusalem, the New Heaven and the New Earth. This will be a place for day and night worship for all. Where there will be no more distraction from our primary calling.

Anna understood that the fullness of time had come. She understood that the child, Jesus, born of a woman and under the law was a gateway to redemption. Paul, writing from the other side of cross and resurrection explains this further: We are, in Christ, made children of God. Of course, we were originally made as God’s children, but we need to be adopted once again because of our waywardness and distraction. In the new relationship found through Jesus Christ we are restored to our original relationship with the Father. Our Father can once again look upon us with delight, as our opposition to him, that comes all too easily, is taken from us in Christ.

Contrary to what you might have heard, Abba is not Aramaic for Daddy. The word is far richer than this. It has all the intimacy of Daddy but at the same time the recognition of absolute Fatherly authority. This richer meaning of the word Abba is the heart of the gospel. It is the four-letter appellation for God that captures the mystery of the creator God in all his majesty and glory who has nevertheless adopted us in a father-child relationship.

We don’t tend to enjoy having authorities over us. We might well feel we are slaves to our government’s laws, restrictions, and guidance, to the point where for the first time we think consciously on a daily basis about such matters.

Such slavery, if that’s what it is, pales into insignificance before the slavery that is the human condition. Without Jesus Christ, and our newfound adoption, we would be slaves to sin and slaves to death. Whilst we still sin, and we will die, we are now slaves to neither. Neither sin nor death bars us from an eternity with Abba Father. We know Christ crucified, who put an end to the slavery of both sin and death. We have seen Christ resurrected as the promise of this reality.

As Galatians 4:7 says:

So you are no longer a slave but a child, and if a child then also an heir, through God. [NRSV]

What did Anna inherit? What did Julian of Norwich inherit? What have we inherited? The same things as one another! Namely the steadfast hope of an eternity with our Father. We should rejoice here and now. We should avoid being distracted from both worshipping him and acknowledging his lordship. And yet our present reality pales before that day of glory when the one born of a woman, and born under the law, returns in splendour. God’s firstborn enables us all to be children and heirs.

Advent: Love

In our modern world there are those that would challenge the very notion of love. Sadly, we see regular evidence of the failure of love. We know of, and perhaps experience first-hand, damaged relationships, broken vows and ended marriages. In the news we see celebrities, and the famous, failing to model true love in this age. Too many people can testify to the darker side of love. For some love is just a synonym for lust or sexual coercion and abuse.

In the 1980s the pop duo Eurythmics captured the darker side of so-called love in a song which claims to define love. In the words of Love is a Stranger (1982):

It’s savage and it’s cruel
And it shines like destruction
Comes in like the flood
And it seems like religion
It’s noble and it’s brutal
It distorts and deranges
And it wrenches you up
And you’re left like a zombie

Such a view of love might match some experiences of modern relationships, but it’s also a parody of the Bible’s most famous passage about love:

Love is patient, love is kind.
It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud.
It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking,
it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs.
Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth.
It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.
1 Corinthians 13: 4–7, NIV

Both Eurythmics and the Apostle Paul describe love. I know which definition I prefer. For Christians, Saint Paul has the final word because his understanding of love is its truest form – for it is a view of love defined in the very nature of who the God of the Bible is. As the New Testament claims elsewhere: God is love (1 John 4:16).

It is perhaps in worldly love that we see most clearly the damage of humankind’s selfishness. As broken human beings when we aim at patient-and-kind love it is only a matter of time before we fall into savage-and-cruel love. Which of us has not said something to our dearest in the heat of the moment? Sometimes such words cannot be forgiven and even if they can, they are seldom forgotten.

Of the estimated 107 billion people who have walked this Earth, it is only Jesus Christ who continually eclipsed selfishness with selflessness. Though we might want to fix our eyes on the baby Jesus as we think on the noble theme of love. To fix our hearts requires a broken Jesus on a cross.

As Jesus knew all too well:

Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.
John 15:13, NIV

Advent: Joy

Why are children so much better at showing joy than adults? We are accustomed to seeing regions of the world marred by war and poverty on our TV screens. Sometimes we see behind the reporter, conveying a story of woe and suffering, children playing with expressions of laughter and joy. I am not pretending that children do not suffer daily in such contexts but rather drawing attention to a child’s ability to make the best of a situation and find joy where we jaded adults would not bother to look.

Children unwittingly know the truth of R. S. Thomas’ poem The Gift:

Some ask the world
and are diminished
in the receiving
of it. You gave me

only this small pool
that the more I drink
from, the more overflows
me with sourceless light.

So why is it we adults find joy so elusive? Do we all ask the world? So much of being an adult brings barriers that prevent us enjoying the simple things of life. Joy requires a sense of abandonment to something – this might be playing a game, enjoying being with friends, holding a tame animal, or making time to notice the beauty of creation.

As adults, worry, responsibility, selfishness, and dissatisfaction can be the things that form an impermeable barrier to joy. Perhaps the ultimate death knell of joy is that all too adult concept of cynicism. As adults our experiences in this life can enable us to become either wiser or just plain cynical.

A few days ago, we saw the first people being vaccinated against Covid-19. The UK Health Secretary, Matt Hancock, was seen to shed a tear of joy on national TV. Some of the press and a well-known satirical TV show have questioned the genuine nature of these tears. We might do well to avoid such cynicism. Perhaps we might heed the biblical proverb:

The heart knows its own bitterness,
and no stranger shares its joy.
Proverbs 14:10, NRSV

This is one to chew over. It seems to allude to the difficulty in sharing another’s joy. And it is a warning that too often there’s a binary choice between a path characterised by bitterness or one on which joy is found. In this way it seems that joy is part of the choices that we make. Such choices are all to seldom made consciously. The Bible does more than just offer wisdom on choosing the path of joy, it promises that joy can come from a relationship with God. Paul puts it like this:

. . . the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control . . .
Galatians 4:4–5, NRSV

As we approach Christmas we remember the one born in the stable who makes such a relationship possible, the one who is truly Joy to the World.

Advent: Peace

In our culture, peace means, above all, a cessation of war and conflict. This prevails over the wider idea of peace that the Bible presents, captured in the Hebrew and Greek words, shalom and eirene. They include wellbeing, friendship, harmony, and vitality.

In terms of the more general meaning of peace, we all share a desire that war would cease. There are by some counts ten wars currently taking place around the world. If we factor in civil unrest and local armed conflict this number is much much larger. The results of war are not just the obvious fatalities and injuries of combatant and civilians. One result of large conflicts are refugees in their millions, and all the pain and suffering that comes with the displacement of entire populations.

The age to come which Jesus will bring with him is a time of peace. The Bible pictures this in its dramatic conclusion—The Book of Revelation, or Apocalypse of John. But what of peace here and now? Well we can pray for peace. We can give support to humanitarian relief organisations. The sceptic might ask what difference does this make? The person of faith wonders just how much worse things would be without our prayers and actions.

Isaiah prophecies of the infant Jesus:

For unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given: and the government shall be upon his shoulder: and his name shall be called Wonderful, Counsellor, The mighty God, The everlasting Father, The Prince of Peace. [Isaiah 9:6].

The end of war, civilian deaths, refugee camps, and atrocities, is only part of the reason that Jesus Christ is known as Prince of Peace.

Advent is a season of waiting for the Prince of Peace who has already enabled countless millions to find shalom over two millennia. Jesus firstly brings peace between God and humanity. He invites us to see that we all share a frustrating habit of building a wall between us and God; sometimes choosing open hostility to our creator. Jesus brings down this wall, not just in the age to come but here and now.

The wall of hostility between nations is also addressed now by Jesus. Jesus showed the way during his short life on Earth, by building a bridge between Jews and Samaritans in their centuries-old sectarian dispute. Whilst few of us can make a contribution to world peace that will be remembered two thousand years later, we can all contribute to the demolition of the walls that divide us, one from another. And if you can’t demolish a wall today can you at least reach or look across one, as a small step here, and now, to a world free of hostility? Such baby steps are a foretaste of the work of the Prince of Peace born two thousand years ago in Bethlehem.

Zechariah 7—A Rebuke in a Time of Uncertainty

Zechariah Season 2
It is the fourth year of King Darius. Two years ago, the prophet Zechariah delivered a series of prophecies of hope and encouragement. These were wonderful messages for a time of great uncertainty for the returning exiles. That First Season of Zechariah’s prophecies was binge-read and binge-heard by the returned exiles as they struggled to return to a new normal. They were working hard to rebuild the temple and restore economic prosperity. So popular was Season One that it was preserved for all generations of God’s people. Season Two, which starts here in Chapter 7, was also preserved for us.

Two years on, the hard slog of temple building, and the difficulties of post-exilic life seem the same. Although the temple is nearing completion, everyday life seems as hard as ever. The first prophecies of Zechariah have been an encouragement. It has become increasingly clear, however, that these words speak of a distant future hope.

So what new words will Zechariah bring now after a two-year hiatus?
Zechariah’s new words are prompted by Sharezer and Regem-Melek, and some others, arriving from Bethel, a 10 mile, or so, walk to the north. They ask a question about whether they need to keep to a regular annual fast that laments the exile and the loss of the temple. They are asking a question raised by Zechariah’s First Season of prophecies: “Is the exile over?”.

Rather than getting a yes or a no from the prophet they get essentially a rebuke. Prophets inspired by God don’t go in for simple yes-and-no answers. They have a tendency to challenge and question. And this is very much the case here. As we hear the answer and rebuke we would do well to receive as a community, not as an individual.

Fasting and Feasting
Rather than address the question, Zechariah questions the spiritual sincerity of these people from Bethel and the wider community—although at the end of chapter 8 he does return to the matter of fasting and indeed unpacks an exciting answer of “yes” to their question.

According to Chapter 7 this is not even Zechariah’s rebuke. Rather, Zechariah is instructed to question them by God. He asks if their 70-year routine of fasting was really an act for God. The fasting in question here would be reflective and would have focused on repentance. There was a need to avoid being like the people of old who gave rise to the judgement of exile.

Zechariah’s challenging rebuke can be generalised to all people of God. When do our spiritual practices become an empty routine? More positively, when are they genuine expressions of devotion or repentance?

Zechariah doesn’t just challenge them with regard to fasting and genuine repentance. He goes on to extend his rebuke to feasting too. There were a number of prescribed festivals in the Law, in addition to the number of annual fasts we learn about here—there are four fasts mentioned later in this prophecy. Zechariah pulls no punches. He is questioning the sincerity of both their fasting and their celebrations. Nearly every month of the calendar there was a feast or a fast. The fundamental underlying question is: “Are you any better than the people who gave God cause to leave the Temple and scatter the people in exile?”.

Are the people of Bethel, and by extension the people of Jerusalem, walking with God? Are they living by faith and not by sight? Or to take this seriously as a divine Word are we, in our time of uncertainty, walking with God? Are we living by faith and not by sight?

Following and Serving
Such questions are sobering. Is our daily practice of praise, thanksgiving, praying, and Bible reading a healthy genuine expression of our love for Jesus Christ? Are we following Jesus daily? Or are we paying lip service to what should be a living relationship?

Do we make every effort to get the best from fellowship with our brothers and sisters in Christ? Are we expectant when we gather virtually. Do we pray for others, including those that lead? Are we just hunkering down and resigned to spiritual mediocrity and passivity? Or are we living as Christ’s body to support and nurture one another? Dare we imagine sharing our faith at this time?

The men sent by the people of Bethel probably did not welcome challenging questions anymore than we do. Did they shrug off the challenge, or see the Word of God behind the prophet’s words? Are we willing to be open to discerning whether Zechariah’s words are a rebuke for us too?

At the end of the day, God was not worried about the events calendar back in Bethel or the religious programme in Jerusalem. He’s not interested in the specifics of our calendars either. How the people of Bethel organise the details of fasting, feasting, and fellowship is no more the point than the details of time, frequency, and name of our church events and groups.

The important matter is whether the life of faith we share with one another brings us closer to God and bears fruit. The measure is not the website or church bulletin. Zechariah, and our God who inspired him, ask other questions of us.

Specifically, these questions include: Are we a people concerned with justice? Are we able and willing to extend the mercy we have known to others? Do we have compassion for those who suffer hardship because of their faith or the cruel events that scar this world? Can we meet the needs of the marginalised?

Word and Spirit
Our current time of uncertainty might seem like a hindrance. But this is the season that God has given us.

We can hunker down. We can complain about zoom. We can lament how much easier it was when masks and social distance didn’t encumber us. But in the time that God gives us now, the gospel of Jesus Christ would have us do better. We still have his Word and his Spirit. And compared to many others we have more material blessings.

We can lean on the one who we praise, thank, pray to and listen to. We can live by faith, not by sight, here and now. We can be a blessing to others now. In all this we are reliant on the living God through Christ. As Zechariah has already explained God works “Not by might nor by power, but by his Spirit.”

Living Life to the Full with Psalm 16:11

You show me the path of life.
In your presence there is fullness of joy;
in your right hand are pleasures forevermore.
Psalm 16:11, NRSV

Introduction
What does it mean to live life to the full? What significance do our lives have? Where do we go for answers to such questions? Perhaps we would rather not face such demanding questions? Sometimes cynicism, disappointment, or lack of faith can make the question of living life to the full irrelevant. Faith of course is key to the radical gospel-focused answers to questions about life, the universe, and everything.

The humanist psychologist Abraham Maslow touched on these sorts of questions, from the perspective of our needs, in the 1940s. At the most basic level we have physiological needs. Forget fullness of life—without air we can’t live more than a few minutes at best. Without water we can’t live more than a few days. Without food we can’t live more than a very small number of weeks. Sleep is another physiological need.

At the next level in what Maslow termed a hierarchy of need, and assuming we have our physiological needs met we look for safety. This includes housing, and civil society and its structures that keep us safe. If those needs are met, we look for love and belonging (Stage 3). We need a family, friends, and/or a partner to meet these needs.

If we are fortunate enough to get all that sorted, according to Maslow we look for esteem (Stage 4). This might be finding, and being recognised for, our role within our neighbourhood or wider society. Finally, in this hierarchy comes Stage 5: self-actualisation—achieving one’s potential through hard work, grit, and determination.

A few weeks ago, I went to my first post lock-down film. It was the film Goodfellas (1990). It is directed by Martin Scorsese and is based on the true story of the mobster Henry Hill. It opens with these words from Henry Hill:

“As far back as I can remember, I always wanted to be a gangster. To me, being a gangster was better than being President of the United States. Even before I first wandered into the cabstand for an after school job I knew I wanted to be a part of them. It was there that I knew that I belonged. To me, it meant being somebody in the neighbourhood that was full of nobodies. They weren’t like anybody else. I mean, they did whatever they wanted. They double parked in front of a hydrant and nobody ever game them a ticket. In the summer when they played cards all night, nobody ever called the cops.”

Right there on the silver screen, mirroring a real life, we have the ‘belonging’ of Stage 3 of the hierarchy of need. The ‘esteem’ of Stage 4, and the ‘self-actualisation’ of Stage 5. All of this in an ugly law-breaking fulfilment of Maslow’s five-stage hierarchy of need—the American Dream at its worst.

The Bible, of course, has something to say about all five stages of Maslow’s hierachy. The Lord’s Prayer reminds us to be thankful to God that our physiological needs are met:

Give us this day our daily bread.
Matthew 6:11, NRSV

The Psalms remind us that ultimately our safety is found in God:

The Lord is my rock, my fortress, and my deliverer,
my God, my rock in whom I take refuge,
my shield, and the horn of my salvation, my stronghold.
Psalm 18:2, NRSV

The Bible celebrates friends, family, and sexual union. Though the gospel puts all of these in second position to loving Christ:

Then Peter said in reply, “Look, we have left everything and followed you. What then will we have?” Jesus said to them, “Truly I tell you, at the renewal of all things, when the Son of Man is seated on the throne of his glory, you who have followed me will also sit on twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel. And everyone who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or children or fields, for my name’s sake, will receive a hundredfold, and will inherit eternal life. But many who are first will be last, and the last will be first.
Matthew 19:27–29, NRSV

What the Bible says about our need for esteem and our desire for self-actualisation is a much more complex and is tempered by our brokenness as sinners. Maslow’s hierarchy of need cannot account for our ultimate needs according to the Bible. This is where Psalm 16:11 comes in.

The Path of Life
Psalm 16 can be read as David’s words. It can be read as Jesus’ words. We are going to read Psalm 16 as our words, or better still our prayer.

You show me the path of life.
In your presence there is fullness of joy;
in your right hand are pleasures forevermore.
Psalm 16:11, NRSV

The Bible is awash with journeys. The first journey was leaving Eden. If it hadn’t been for this there would have been no need for any other journeys. Abraham famously left his home country and journeyed to the Promised Land. Israel left slavery in Egypt and journeyed in the Desert on their journey to the Promised Land. Jesus journeyed from a quiet northern backwater to the Cross outside the City of Peace.

Our lives are also journeys. As Disciples we follow Jesus and we also bear a cross. As Pilgrims we journey to a Promised Land and the new City of Peace. The path of life is a walk with God; it is walking with Jesus; it is keeping in step with the Spirit. This is a path that is important because of both the journey and the destination.

Joy in God’s Presence
The path of life is about the journey and it is about the destination. This is an important balance. Our faith loses its vitality without this balance. If we only remember the journey our priority to welcome people into the Kingdom—to know Christ—will dwindle and wane. This is the mistake of various expressions of Christianity such as the German liberalism of the nineteenth century.

If we only have a future hope, we will not celebrate our gifts here and now. Nor will we be good stewards of all the good things that God has given us. This has been the mistake of Christian fundamentalism and some cult perversions of Christianity.

Putting God at our right-hand means putting him in the place of honour. It means that our discipleship and pilgrimage both come ahead of all wants and even needs. It means seeing not a hierarchy of need in our life, but a hierarchy of blessing. We perceive that all good things come from God.

In your presence there is fullness of joy.
Psalm 16:11b, NRSV

When we have God at our right hand—Jesus in that place of authority in our lives—then we discover true blessing. This is the blessing that the Bible speaks about, a blessing which is also happiness, and joy. This is what God’s presence does in our lives. This fullness of joy, that comes through putting Jesus Christ in the place of Lordship in our lives, replaces esteem on the hierarchy of need and transforms it into the hierarchy of blessing.This also should remind us that bringing a one-dimensional gospel to people who have physiological needs, issues with safety, and a lack of belonging will be fruitless.

Eternal Pleasure
Faith in Christ means we have knowledge of an ultimate destination. We tend to spend too little time and effort on celebrating and reflecting on this hope.

in your right hand are pleasures forevermore.
Psalm 16:11, NRSV

We don’t just have a place in eternity with the living God. It is a place of immense blessing. We need to forget our culture’s misreading of the biblical hope. This is not a disembodied floating, cloud-based, harp-playing eternity of repetitive singing. It is rooted in physical resurrection.

In centuries gone by when life was hard, unpleasant, uncomfortable, and short for just about everyone, this glorious future of a New Heaven and a New Earth was something that was more central to Christian faith.

If the hierarchy of need has as its hard-won pinnacle self-actualisation, our hierarchy of blessing has an eternity with the living God at the summit. This blessing is achieved in Christ, on our behalf, and is not subject to a fiercely competitive race to the top. The apostle Paul of course does portray the journey  as a race, but this is a race that all can win in Christ.

Psalm 16 verse 11 provides beautiful answers to the difficult questions we started with. This is a verse worth taking with us, either literally or by committing it to memory.