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.

We are Poetry in Motion

For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.
Ephesians 2:10, NIVUK

Introduction
The film Memento came out in the year 2000. It is directed by Christopher Nolan. He is now famous for doing strange things with time in many of his movies. Memento is no exception. It tells a story where some scenes are chronological and others are in reverse order because of a memory issue for the story’s lead character. Only at the end does it finally make sense as the reverse scenes arrive at the start of the story.

This post, whilst not as complicated as a Christopher Nolan time-twist, proceeds backwards through one verse—a single sentence—of Paul’s Letter to the Ephesians.

Why look at this verse backwards? Well, the last part of Paul’s sentence can be easily misread or misheard. And the first part of the sentence is the place where I want this post to end—to marvel that we are God’s handiwork.

At the outset of this look at Ephesians 2:10 we should note that all three elements of this verse are the work of God in Christ our Cornerstone:

• We are God’s handiwork.
• We are created in Christ.
• Our good deeds are prepared in advance by God.

God’ action here is both excellent news, but also potentially confusing. What place is there for us if God does all of this?

Prepared in Advance
Such a short crisp verse. And yet for many it comes with distracting baggage. For seasoned and new Christians alike the final phrase, ‘good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do’ distracts us with its apparent affirmation that our lives are predetermined by God. For some young Christians I know, it can be an immense barrier to faith rather than just the subject of idle musing.

Predestination is hardly a new debate. Some answers to this question have been labelled as heresy, for example Pelagius’ teachings at the turn of the 4th to 5th BCE, and other answers have founded denominations. Both extremes of accounting for predestination are problematic.

I suggest that the Bible does not tell us that all of our good works are already decided by God. For a start this would contradict both the freedom that God gave humankind to choose to love him, or not. Perhaps more problematic still, it would kill dead the freedom of the gospel that Paul speaks of elsewhere:

You, my brothers and sisters, were called to be free. But do not use your freedom to indulge the flesh; rather, serve one another humbly in love. For the entire law is fulfilled in keeping this one command: ‘Love your neighbour as yourself’.
Galatians 5:13-14, NIVUK

If we think Ephesians 2:10 tells us we have no choices, we are not seeing it on its own terms. This is because we wear glasses with a narcissistic prescription. We are so used to being individuals that we read ourselves as an individual into every biblical claim.

Contrary to what we are told from cradle-to-grave in Western culture, we are not even the centre of our own lives—it is Christ the cornerstone who should be central. To Paul we would all look like self-obsessed narcissists. The predestination of Ephesians does not refer to our individual deeds, played out frame-by-frame with the inevitability of a Christopher Nolan film—our lives are not one inevitable cause-and-effect after another. Ephesians refers to God’s beautiful plan for this world. The plan to create a single people, to reverse the expulsion from Eden and the stupidity of Babel. This universal and corporate perspective is seen in Chapter 1 if we suspend our self-obsession for a moment:

In him we were also chosen, having been predestined according to the plan of him who works out everything in conformity with the purpose of his will, in order that we, who were the first to put our hope in Christ, might be for the praise of his glory. And you also were included in Christ when you heard the message of truth, the gospel of your salvation. When you believed, you were marked in him with a seal, the promised Holy Spirit, who is a deposit guaranteeing our inheritance until the redemption of those who are God’s possession – to the praise of his glory.
Ephesians 1:11–14, NIVUK

Paul’s concern in Ephesians is with the building of the people of God, built on Christ as the cornerstone. A few verses after Ephesians 2:10 Paul goes on to talk about the dividing wall that lay between Gentiles and God’s first family the Jews. Jesus Christ has torn down that wall—the first of many. It is a wall demolished, in order to build one people, with him the measure and foundation—our cornerstone.

Our baggage does not end when we put on corporate glasses, rather than our default individualistic ones.

The phrase ‘good works’ also has baggage of its own. Our culture would not only attempt to have us redefine God’s work to create a universal Church, as the creation of a lot of self-obsessed individuals. Our culture also misreads the good news because it has misread ‘good works’.

Our culture has a pervasive myth that Christianity is about earning entry to the afterlife by doing ‘good deeds’. This is not the message of the Bible. This myth goes back to the Middle-Ages when the Church did teach something like this. Although the Reformation produced a new perspective on justification it also created another myth.

The is the idea that the Judaism of the Bible was all about earning salvation by good deeds. We might have learned this in our formative years. Judaism then, and Judaism today, is not about good deeds and earning salvation. Jews believe they are chosen, elected, by God—predestined to know God in the age to come.

When Paul says in the preceding two verses to Ephesians 2:10:

For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith – and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God – not by works, so that no one can boast.
Ephesians 2:8–9, NIVUK

He is not comparing Jew and Gentile; he is pointing out something that all the community of faith can agree on. Both Jew and Gentile are saved by grace not by works.

Created in Christ
The gospel is the news that God, through the work of Christ Jesus, has established a single people. In Paul’s day best expressed by the impossible dream of Jew and Gentile being made one. This is good news, Isaiah’s good news, or evangelion:

How beautiful on the mountains
are the feet of those who bring good news,
who proclaim peace,
who bring good tidings,
who proclaim salvation,
who say to Zion,
‘Your God reigns!’
Isaiah 52:7, NIVUK

The Incarnation, Jesus’ ministry, the cross, the resurrection, his ascension, all testify to this good news. In Jesus’ person and in his deeds, there is new creation. All of humanity can be created in him to join the one people of God. Whatever our views on predestination, good works, philosophy, whether we are catholic or protestant, our one foundation is Christ incarnate, Christ crucified, Christ resurrected, Christ ascended.

We are created not by the actions of a man, but they work of God. Created upon one sure foundation, Christ our cornerstone. In being created in Christ Jesus we are to do good works. They flow from relationship with the one God, through Christ. There is no better work than telling this news.

There can be a temptation to make the gospel a little simpler, to oil the wheels. Have you noticed that there is a difference between sharing ‘Jesus’ and sharing ‘Christ Jesus’?

It is relatively easy, and culturally acceptable, to speak of Jesus the man. The amazing carpenter from Nazareth. The great teacher. This is the Jesus who even the atheist Douglas Adams admired and gave a role to at the start of The Hitch-Hikers Guide to the Galaxy:

“one Thursday, nearly two thousand years after one man had been nailed to a tree for saying how great it would be to be nice to people for a change . . .”

Yet, if we speak of his miracles, we stray from acceptable polite conversation. If we move on to anything, like the resurrection, that claims Jesus was not a good man but the God-Man, then the shutters often come up. But Jesus the man can only inspire. Jesus the God-Man provides a foundation, a cornerstone, for our lives.

Our faith, our foundation as God’s people, the gift of the Holy Spirit, all centre on Jesus being The Christ, being both man and God.

Of course, proclaiming the gospel is not the only good work. All sorts of good wholesome deeds are central to being God’s handiwork.

God’s Handiwork
What does it mean to be God’s handiwork? Firstly, we need to pay attention to this at a corporate level. We are God’s handiwork as the universal Church and as a local church. In Paul’s language we are Christ’s body and Christ is our head. We can go further, both forwards and backwards in time too. The universal Church breaks the boundaries of time in a way that Christopher Nolan can only dream of.

Lying behind the NIVUK’s phrase ‘God’s handiwork’ is the Greek word poiema. Paul says that the local communities he writes to are poems and by extension so are all its members.

The language of being poems fits perfectly with the wider passage. As poems we are both established in Christ, just as a poem has rules, convention, and a framework that make it a poem. At the same time poems have a freedom, a beauty within a framework.

Being founded in Christ means we are poems, with Christ the cornerstone as our framework and foundation. The language of a cornerstone for the messiah comes originally from Psalm 118 and is used by Paul in verse 20 of Ephesians 2.

God has done his part of the poem by establishing us in Christ our cornerstone. Our dependence on him will enable us to rhyme and resonate with our cornerstone. Our lives will sound and look right when this happens.

Mercifully, there is room for redrafts when we do not rhyme with our cornerstone.

The Psalter as Mirror: Reflecting on a Metaphor

The Psalter is not only full of rich imagery and metaphors, but throughout church history interpreters have used metaphors to try and capture what it is. One of the most valuable of these metaphors is that of a mirror. In modern treatments of the Psalms it is often John Calvin (1509–1564) who is cited for this metaphorical insight [1]. We will return to his use of this metaphor below. The application of such a metaphor, however, predates Calvin by more than a millennium.

As far as I am aware, it was Athanasius of Alexandria (c.296–373) who first applied such a metaphor to the Psalms:

And it seems to me that these words become like a mirror to the person singing them, so that he might perceive himself and the emotions of his soul, and thus affected, he might recite them. For in fact he who hears the one reading receives the song that is recited as being about him, and either, when he is convicted by his conscience, being pierced, he will repent, or hearing of the hope that resides in God, and of the succor available to believers—how this kind of grace exists for him—he exults and begins to give thanks to God.
Athanasius, The Letter to Marcellinus [2]

Athanasius’ wonderful work known as The Letter to Marcellinus gives an account of the psalms, their value, and their use. He tells of them as though he learnt everything from an old master of the Psalms which I take to be a modest self-reference. In the quote above, we see Athanasius referring to a mirror in its most basic function, reflecting a person. He claims that in singing a psalm there is an emotional dynamic in which the singer perceives themselves with new insight. This is an active process in which unperceived emotions are made tangible, and positive change is actualised. The focus for Athanasius is specially connected with penitence.

Before we return to Calvin, we note that Martin Luther (1483–1546) also used this metaphor of a mirror for reflecting on the Psalms. There is both continuity with Athanasius, and novelty in his application of the image. Just as Athanasius’ insight was made in his major work on the Psalms, for Luther too the metaphor is employed in a major work—his fresh translation of the whole Psalter into German. Luther produced many works on the Psalms but it his translation of the Psalter into the vernacular that was a central achievement. This book was so popular it went through a huge number of print runs in short space of time. Luther saw fit to revise it twice. This quote comes from the second edition, as well as all subsequent editions to this day:

In a word, if you would see the holy Christian Church painted in living color and shape, comprehended in one little picture, then take up the Psalter. There you have a fine, bright, pure mirror that will show you what Christendom is. Indeed you will find in it also yourself and the true gnothi seauton [Know yourself], as well as God himself and all creatures.
Luther, Preface to the Psalter, second edition (1528) [3]

Here, for Luther, in addition to the Psalms reflecting their reader they reflect Christendom. This additional dimension owes much to Luther’s claim that the Psalms are a Bible in miniature. It is unclear whether Luther is consciously or unconsciously following Athanasius or coming afresh to a similar metaphorical insight.

Turning to Calvin, we find him using essentially the same imagery, also in his major work on the Psalms—the preface to his massive commentary on all 150 biblical psalms. It is worth quoting him at length:

I have been accustomed to call this book, I think not inappropriately, “An Anatomy of all the Parts of the Soul;” for there is not an emotion of which anyone can be conscious that is not here represented as in a mirror. Or rather, the Holy Spirit has here drawn to the life all the griefs, sorrows, fears, doubts, hopes, cares, perplexities, in short, all the distracting emotions with which the minds of men are wont to be agitated. The other parts of Scripture contain the commandment which God enjoined his servants to announce to us. But here the prophets themselves, seeing they are exhibited to us speaking to God, and laying open all their inmost thoughts and affections, call, or rather draw, each of us to the examination of himself in particulars in order that none of the many infirmities to which we are subject, and of the many vices with which we abound, may remain concealed. It is certainly a rare and singular advantage, when all lurking places are discovered, and the heart is brought into the light, purged from that most baneful infection, hypocrisy. In short, as calling upon God is one of the principal means of securing our safety, and as a better and more unerring rule for guiding us in this exercise cannot be found elsewhere than in The Psalms, it follows, that in proportion to the proficiency which a man shall have attained in understanding them, will be his knowledge of the most important part of celestial doctrine.
John Calvin, Preface to Psalms Commentary [4]

Again, his dependence on Athanasius and/or Luther is unclear. Whatever the inspiration for Calvin, I judge that his claim is the richest. It has the pithy precise hermeneutical claim that we, as readers and singers of the Psalms, are reflected with an actualising clarity in this remarkable book. It also points to not only penitence, but salvation and virtue too.

This metaphor, whether in the hands of Athanasius, Luther, or Calvin, is hermeneutically rich. It makes a claim about the nature of the text, about us, and about how God works salvation and sanctification. Such a claim is vital in complementing modern critical insights. For all their rich detail we cannot get from their literary, religious, and cultic insights to substantiate the life-changing dogmatic claims implicit in the pre-critical work of the three interpreters above.

Taken together with modern criticism, the mirror metaphor brings us close to the insight of Brueggemann that in these ancient texts we find ourselves. Whether we read whilst in a state of orientation or disorientation they reflect our experience. Perhaps, unlike Brueggemann, we can look directly to God’s providence and grace through his Holy spirit for the actualisation of a new reflection or revelation—the reorientation that we so frequently need, and we are so often promised in this small Bible. These songs need to be sung regularly, for in Christ we need to be reoriented continually, even from the status quo of orientation that all too quickly loses its brightness as we look elsewhere than to the one on whom we should fix our eyes. On other occasions we need to own these words to perceive the crucified one amidst the brokenness that is our primary disorientation.

Whatever state we are in, we look at the Mirror to perceive ourselves so as to be changed. To look at this reflection is no narcissistic preoccupation, this is the beginning of our receding from the spotlight, our growing strangely dim, that we can see Christ who is in this book and who also lies behind both it and us.

 

References

  1. See for example, The Psalms: Language for All Seasons of the Soul, Andrew J. Schutzer and David M. Howard Jr. (editors), Chicago: Moody Publishers, 2013, pp.52–54 which plays on Calvin’s associated insight into the Psalms as a language of all seasons of the soul which is a corollary of the mirror metaphor. See also Walter Brueggeman, The Message of the Psalms: A Theological Commentary, Minneapolis: Augsburg, 1984, p.17.
  2. Athanasius, Athanasius: The Life of Antony and the Latter to Marcellinus, Robert C. Gregg (translator), Mahwah, New Jersey: Paulist Press, 1980, p.111.
  3. Luther, ‘Preface to the Psalter’ (1528), in Luther’s Works Volume 35, Saint Louis: Concordia Publishing House, pp.256–257.
  4. Calvin, Psalms Commentary Volume 1, James N. Anderson (translator), 1845, p.19.

Praying the Psalms by Thomas Merton

Having actively prayed and studied the Psalms regularly for more than fifteen year, I have been meaning to read Merton’s small book for much of that time. For some reason, his work has taken a long time to work its way to the top of my reading list. This is odd because this book has been mentioned to me positively on a number of occasions.

Thomas Merton (1915–1968) was an American Cistercian. Unusually for a twentieth century monk he become a household name in the late 1940 to late 1960s. This fame was in part because he was a prolific writer—author of more than fifty books. His autobiography, Seven Story Mountain (1948), is said to have motivated many young Americans to turn to the monastic life. He was also a poet and social activist—his writings often reflected the latter. He was very active in dialogue with followers of Eastern religions with a strong meditative and mystical dynamic. In this respect he was a pioneer, as few Catholic monks had ever attempted such wide-ranging and open-ended interfaith discussions.

It will be clear as you pick this book up, from its diminutive size and mere 45 pages, that it is not going to be a thoroughgoing introduction to the Psalter. So, what do we find in these pages?

The book opens with the question, ‘Why has the Church always considered the Psalms her most perfect book of prayer?’ (p.7). His answer is a one of ressourcement. He argues that rather than being old they are young: ‘we drink divine praise at its pure and stainless source, in all its primitive sincerity and perfection’ (p.7). Because of this the psalms are the means to full participation in the liturgy and the deepening of the interior life (p.9).

The next section considers what it means that the Psalms teach us how to praise (p.10). He concludes that this requires us to be simple, that is to set aside our modern tastes and prejudices and to ‘be, to some extent, “Orientals”’ (p.12). He goes on to explain, following Augustine, that we are united with Christ as we pray the psalms contemplatively (p.14). He then develops this further, calling all Christians, clergy and lay, to use the Psalms daily (pp.15–19).

Merton claims that few really appreciate the psalms. This

small minority, consists of those who know by experience that the Psalms are a perfect prayer, a prayer in which Christ prays in the Christian soul uniting that soul to the Father in Himself. They have entered into the Psalms with faith. They have in a sense “lived” out the meaning of some of the Psalms in their own lives. They have tasted and seen that the Lord is sweet. Or, indeed, they have been privileged to share with Him the chalice of His Passion (p.21).

The latter half of the book briefly examines some key psalms. Merton gives priority to Psalm 1 because he sees the call to delight in the law (Psalm 1:2) as a call to pray the Psalter. Other psalms are mentioned in groups which accord to their mood and approximate to form-critical groups.

Finally, we must ask, what value is there in reading this short book? For anyone already convinced of the spiritual value of the Psalms this book does little more than rehearse in eloquent outline what they already know. It will be valuable to those who have an interest in Merton or still need convincing of the spiritual value of the Psalms today.

The Voice of the Good Shepherd is Blowin’ in the Wind

‘I am the good shepherd; I know my sheep and my sheep know me – just as the Father knows me and I know the Father – and I lay down my life for the sheep. I have other sheep that are not of this sheepfold. I must bring them also. They too will listen to my voice, and there shall be one flock and one shepherd.
John 10:14–16, NIVUK

I have been working at home for around nine weeks now. I am missing all the chance conversations I used to have with my work colleagues. I miss the ongoing joke with the painter and decorator about my twin brother that no one else understands. I miss the encouragement of a friend very much on my wavelength. I miss the exchange of little snippets of life that connects my story to that of others.

There are a handful of colleagues whose conversation I do not miss so much—the handful of cynics who turn everything sour. These are the small number of people who turn anything good to dust. Being cynical is easy—I know I have tried it. Of course, sometimes being cynical is wise when we have seen how certain things operate, especially when they involve people and power. But being cynical is an unhappy state. It is a surrender to fate. It is a denial of new possibilities. It is contrary to the vitality and new life afforded by the gospel.

Our brokenness and frailty can give us a default setting to cynicism. We see this in casual ways. We make children embrace drawing, painting, stories, drama, and poetry, but often deny these things any role or influence over us as adults. These creative, imaginative, and reflective things all take time. And we have bought into the lie that we are time poor when we have more time at our disposal than at any previous time in history.

Being a Christian does not immunise us from the malaise. Often we have little time for stories about sheep, bad shepherds, the Good Shepherd, gates, and green pastures. We have been there and done that. The poetic seems too vague and idealistic—we do not have time in our schedule for these things.

But if we do not embrace story and imagery, we have little left of what God has given us in the Bible. The Bible is not a list of propositions for adults who have graduated from stories and poems. It tells us about God, about ourselves, and about how Jesus Christ makes a relationship with God possible. It does this in imagery, in stories, and in poetry. We live in the Information Age. We must not mistake information, for understanding, or wisdom, or the possibility of spiritual growth. We must not embrace the information deception, in which facts eclipse imagery and story. I was found by God when I heard the story of the crucifixion. I was saved when I understood a poetic parable about a vineyard.

The ‘facts’ of our faith are of course important, but rather short and to the point. You can catch them in a good creed. But these propositions are just the dry roots of our relationship with God, not its end. They require feeding if they are to enable our growth. We are changed and transformed on our pilgrimage to God by the richness of the biblical story and its intersection with our own. The Bible is full of stories, imagery, metaphor, and poetry.

Or, to switch images, we are sheep following a shepherd. We are journeying through mixed pasture with a shepherd to a final green pasture. The picture of God as the Good Shepherd is just one of a huge variety of images. But it is a biggie. We find it in Psalm 23, the book of Jeremiah, the book of Ezekiel, in Zechariah, in different ways in all four gospels, and in Peter’s First Letter. And as someone who I admire, called Jason Byassee, once said “We do well to listen when the Bible talks to itself.”

In Ezekiel we read a prophecy about Jesus:

I will place over them one shepherd, my servant David, and he will tend them; he will tend them and be their shepherd. I the Lord will be their God, and my servant David will be prince among them. I the Lord have spoken.
Ezekiel 34:23–24, NIVUK

This is God promising to send the messiah, the New David, to be the shepherd of his people. Just a few verses before this we hear God promising that he himself will be the shepherd:

I will tend them in a good pasture, and the mountain heights of Israel will be their grazing land. There they will lie down in good grazing land, and there they will feed in a rich pasture on the mountains of Israel. I myself will tend my sheep and make them lie down, declares the Sovereign Lord. I will search for the lost and bring back the strays.
Ezekiel 34:14–16a, NIVUK

These words from Ezekiel are the foundation of the familiar story of the feeding of the 5,000. Where we read:

So they went away by themselves in a boat to a solitary place. But many who saw them leaving recognised them and ran on foot from all the towns and got there ahead of them. When Jesus landed and saw a large crowd, he had compassion on them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd. So he began teaching them many things.
Mark 6:32–34, NIVUK

A few verses later, Jesus does what Ezekiel promised:

Then Jesus told them to make all the people sit down in groups on the green grass. So they sat down in groups of hundreds and fifties. Taking the five loaves and the two fish and looking up to heaven, he gave thanks and broke the loaves. Then he gave them to his disciples to distribute to the people. He also divided the two fish among them all. They all ate and were satisfied, and the disciples picked up twelve basketfuls of broken pieces of bread and fish. The number of the men who had eaten was five thousand.
Mark 6:39–44, NIVUK

This is all ‘very nice’, but in all this talk of sheep, shepherds, and green grass, we are in danger of missing something. Because of our wet climate and experience of the English countryside and fluffy well-kempt sheep, all these stories and images becomes sickly sweet and as pointless as a poster of sheep in a field in Somerset with the words ‘The Lord is my Shepherd’ stuck on it.

Even in this serene story it is not all pastoral idyll and tenderness. The people with Jesus have walked many miles—there is nothing to eat. This is no miracle done only so Jesus can be the David Blaine of the first century. This is provision of their greatest need—a meal so they have the energy, having not eaten all day, to make their way back home across many miles.

In the wider accounts of the Good Shepherd we need to appreciate that a Good Shepherd is the difference between life and death. A Good Shepherd is the only chance the sheep have of surviving the night! In the first century there were no walls or fences keeping predators out – the shepherd is the only hope for being alive in the morning. This is why the Good Shepherd will go out looking for the one missing sheep.

Psalm 23 can also be misheard as a rural niceness:

The Lord is my shepherd, I lack nothing.
He makes me lie down in green pastures,
he leads me beside quiet waters,
he refreshes my soul.
He guides me along the right paths
for his name’s sake.

But the same first century Palestine realities lie on the background. As a sheep you would very quickly lack everything. You need a shepherd to protect you from predators to guide you to safe water and good pasture. You wouldn’t know the right path without this sure guide.

Martin Luther expressed it like this in 1536:

A sheep must live entirely by its shepherds help, protection and care. As soon as it loses him, it is surrounded by all kinds of dangers and must perish, for it is quite unable to help itself. The reason? It is a poor, weak, simple little beast that can neither feed nor rule itself, nor find the right way, nor protect itself against any kind of danger or misfortune. Moreover, it is by nature timid, shy and likely to go astray. When it does go a bit astray and leaves its shepherd, it is unable to find its way back to him; indeed, it merely runs farther away from him. Though it may find other shepherds and sheep, that does not help it, for it does not know the voices of strange shepherds. Therefore it flees them and strays about until the wolf seizes or it perishes some other way.

Of course, we know the Psalm is not an idyll:

Even though I walk
through the darkest valley,
I will fear no evil,
for you are with me;
your rod and your staff,
they comfort me.

The Good Shepherd is not good because he hides us from trouble, hardship, and death. He is the Good Shepherd because he is our guide and our comfort in the midst of all life’s challenges. He is there leading on the path even when it goes places, we’d rather it didn’t. I sometimes feel that the cynical are those who have unknowingly chosen to make their home in the valley of the shadow of death.

Returning to the opening words from John:

I have other sheep that are not of this sheepfold. I must bring them also. They too will listen to my voice, and there shall be one flock and one shepherd.

As Gentiles we have been let into the sheepfold that is home to all God’s people. We are called to listen to his voice. The voice of Jesus is not a one-off reality in our lives, though of course there is that first day when metaphorically we hear him.

How do you listen to his voice? What space and time do we make for this? There are so many competing voices. The needs of family and friends. Our own internal voice. The news that seems like Groundhog Day at the moment. The froth of Facebook. The insanity of Twitter. How many voices do we have to choose from?

For some of us the current situation means a possibility of more time to hear our Lord. It is a test in some ways. When asked what we did in an Age of Covid-19 what will our answer be. Will it be binge-watching TV? Or might it be the time we came before God to hear his voice—a time of quietness by still waters before our Shepherd? Might it be the time we ensured we were on the path looking ahead to follow our guide to put ourselves close enough to him to hear his voice?

Amidst so many voices clamouring for our waning attention it can be like being in a Bob Dylan song.

Yes, and how many times can a man turn his head
And pretend that he just doesn’t see?

Yes, and how many times must a man look up
Before he can see the sky?

Yes, and how many ears must one man have
Before he can hear people cry?

The true voice of the shepherd is blowin’ in the wind. The still small voice of the Spirit is there to be heard if we just turn off the other voices for a time.

 

Reference

The quote from Luther comes from his Exegesis of Psalm 23 at Table, Luther’s Works Volume 12, Muhlenberg Press, 1955.

Life Understood Backwards

Looking Back
The philosopher Soren Kierkegaard claimed that “Life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards.”

The experience of the two disciples on the Road to Emmaus was something like this. How could they understand Jesus’ life at its end? Even at the end did it make sense? Cleopas and the other, unnamed disciple have not understood Jesus’ ministry, death, and resurrection. We do not know how much time they spent with Jesus—it is clear they are not among the eleven disciples. But they certainly knew enough to be disappointed. He was not the deliverer they had hoped for. They, like many, wanted a Messiah who was a military redeemer. A messiah like David in every sense. An anointed leader who would defeat the occupying Romans just as David had tackled Goliath and the Philistines.

The one they had begun to think might be God’s anointed ruler had died shamefully on a cross. A remarkable man in many ways, but in the end as frail as any other. And now the women claimed his body was gone. More than that, they also said they had seen angels announcing that he was alive.

These events lived forwards made no sense to these two followers. Jesus was a man who taught with authority, healed the sick, and cast out demons. Jesus was welcomed into Jerusalem like a king. And then it all turned sour. These two disciples had apparently given up on the one they had been following. They had left Jerusalem for Emmaus and presumably were returning to their old lives.

But they encounter the risen Jesus, although they do not know this at first. This meeting is a revelation—a revealing in two stages. They experience a progressive understanding of who Jesus is. They will come to understand Jesus’ life.

First Jesus makes them look back as they journey together. They simultaneously look back on the life of Jesus and the work of God in the Old Testament. The Risen Jesus does the most remarkable thing. He combines his story with the story of the Hebrew Scriptures. Read through Jesus, the Hebrew Scriptures become the First Testament to his life, his death, and his resurrection. Jesus is the fulfilment of the Hebrew scriptures.

The second stage of unveiling is a more personal encounter that goes beyond explanation. It is an opening of their eyes. They literally see the risen Christ. They had started out lost on the road, but now were found. They had been blind but now they could see.

Our Conversion
We are unlikely to have had the same type of encounter with the risen Christ as the two disciples on the road to Emmaus. But there is likely to be some similarity. I remember at the age of seventeen finding out more about Jesus and the Bible. I had seen lots of the bits and pieces of the gospel but struggled to put it all together. I still needed my eyes to be opened. I can remember two distinct moments when Jesus suddenly made more sense. The first was a bit like the two disciples on the road having things explained to them. My Emmaus road was a tent, in Margate, where the crucifixion was explained in rather graphic detail to me, and several hundred others. This converted my brain and my conscience. I went forward knowing that my life was never going to be the same again.

Just a few days later I had the second step of eye opening—only possible because of the first. I was reading the Parable of the Tenants in Mark 12 and my heart was converted. My heart burned at that moment like the experience of those two disciples. I understood at a heart level just what it meant that God had sent prophets to speak of him. Prophets who were beaten and killed. I understood at the heart level that he sent his own Son that we might know him. Only for him to suffer the same fate. It was as though Jesus was there with me, unpacking the Law and the Prophets—refreshing me as the bread of life with a meal.

Knowing Jesus in this way does not mean that the rest of our lives suddenly make complete sense. But it is a start. Much still happens in my life that I do not understand. Things have happened to me and my family which I wish had not. But in Christ I trust that in the end it will make sense. The times of pain and trial will be found to have some benefit or important consequence. If we have met Jesus on our Road to Emmaus we can find him too in our Valley of the Shadow of Death. The poet B M Franklin puts is this way:

My life is but a weaving
Between my Lord and me;
I cannot choose the colors
He worketh steadily.

Oft times He weaveth sorrow
And I, in foolish pride,
Forget He sees the upper,
And I the under side.

Not til the loom is silent
And the shuttles cease to fly,
Shall God unroll the canvas
And explain the reason why.

The dark threads are as needful
In the Weaver’s skillful hand,
As the threads of gold and silver
In the pattern He has planned.

Our Ongoing Experience of Christ
In the Emmaus story the two disciples do something simple. They have a meal with Jesus—they break bread with him. It is no surprise that it was at the breaking of bread that their eyes were opened, and they recognised that the man before them is the risen Lord Jesus. Less than a week earlier Jesus has broken bread and explained that his body must be broken. These two disciples would surely have heard about this odd teaching.

Almighty God does not fix his broken creation and broken relationships with a display of power and might. He does the unthinkable—Jesus lays down his life for his friends. One of the most frustrating things about our distance from one another because of Covid-19 is the fact that we cannot gather, and worse still that we cannot eat bread and drink wine, and remember Christ together. As the body of Christ, we are meant to meet together.

In our distance from each other let’s be reminded of the privilege of meeting together so that we can make the best of that day when we join one another again. Let’s remember that puzzle that we are in a mysterious sense the body of Christ.

Scattered we might be, but we are still united in Christ.

A Call to Passion for Christ
The two disciples have their hearts kindled by Jesus. A mixture of joy that he was not dead and a revelation of what he had accomplished in the twin events of cross and resurrection.

How can we kindle that flame afresh—that same passion and conviction in Christ that we have tasted before? There are obvious answers of course, such as prayer and Bible reading. But in the spirit of the gospel, and to keep the light alive in us, reaching out to our fellow disciples is vital. As members of his body our concern should be with the health of all.

Jesus came that we might have life and have it to the full. Circumstances prevent us meeting to celebrate together. This does not mean we retreat and just wait for a better time. A crisis like this, it tests our depth in Christ. Being united and encouraged in Christ can be as simple as a phone call, a text message, a card, or a good old-fashioned letter. Some of us might be called to heroics if we are on the front-line but for most of us we need to do the small things that show love and concern. George Eliot expresses it will in her novel Middlemarch:

“..for the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.”

Many of the blessings we can bring to one another, even at this time, are unremarkable. But these things not only achieve good now they echo in eternity as the lives of disciples of Jesus lived well. A crisis is just the time when we need some gospel purpose, when we need to show love, kindness, and generosity. Encouraging one another, listening to one another, taking time to do something for one another is part of living the gospel—it is the ongoing re-creation of proper relationships in Christ Jesus.

It is not just our fellow Christians that need encouragement. In these odd times all sorts of questions are in people’s minds. Many people are asking questions about life and death, not so different to those asked by Cleopas and his friend.

Our lives do not make much sense lived forward. How much more is this the case for those who do not know Christ? There are likely to be people you know who are lonely. If nothing else, you can remedy this for a few minutes. There are almost certainly people you know who are fearful. Well, you can listen. There are very likely people you know who are asking questions. Your effort to reach out to them might be the only answer they get.

We believe in the priesthood of all believers we can all use this time to connect with others.

Loving One Another Makes Sense
The act of reaching out to someone is a small step in making sense of life. The strengthening of relationships is a natural consequence of the gospel. Simple acts of love will strengthen both parties and strengthen the body, the fellowship of believers.

The one certainty of understanding our lives is that where there is love this is where they most readily make sense.

The ‘Corona test’ asks of us all how much we love. If we have not love we are, as the Apostle Paul says, a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. Love sings a better song. Don’t wait for someone else to connect.

Jesus tells a parable in Matthew’s gospel which tells us how our lives will make sense in the end when we meet him face-to-face:

“Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’
“Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’
“The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’

Matthew 25:34–40, NIV

Book Review: David Taylor’s ‘Open and Unafraid’

W. David O. Taylor, Open and Unafraid: The Psalms as a Guide to Life, Nashville: Nelson Books, 2020

In light of how positive my review is, I feel I should say at the outset that David Taylor is not related to me, he is not my friend, and I paid for my copy of this book!

It is apparent on every page of this book that David Taylor himself, experiences the same delight for the subject matter that the psalmist extols (Psalm 1:2). As I read it, I continually thought that this is just the book for those new to the psalms who need a competent, engaging, and clear guide. It is also apparent, throughout, that Taylor is humble before these ancient texts. There is a constant awareness that he both knows the psalms and yet he still journeys with them, in trusting expectation that they ‘are not done with him yet’. In short, he knows he is a disciple of Jesus; a pilgrim who needs these prayers on the way with Christ.

This book opens with a Foreword by Eugene Peterson, which must be one the last things that he wrote. You will then discover, or be reminded, of the remarkable encounter between Eugene Peterson and Bono which was facilitated by David Taylor. You can watch it here.

Each chapter has some real-life contextual settings. These are on some occasions personal to David Taylor. These work well as an anchor for the rich content of the psalms, and this way the reader is invited into something encountered in the psalms rather than a type of psalm. This is helpful as although psalms are obviously helpfully categorised, such genre work is more digestible when approached from a less abstract direction. The first three chapters concern the context that we need to bring to the psalms; our need for honesty and their use within the worshipping community. These opening chapters explain the title—the Psalter continually invites us in to be open with God and to trust in him. The nature of the psalms is explored under the themes of prayer and poetry. Other chapters pick up on their role in mirroring our emotions, such as fear, anger, and joy. The later chapters focus on themes and ‘things’ encountered throughout the Psalter such as the nations, enemies, and creation. Taylor, as he explains, has not attempted any exhaustive curriculum here, but he does teach us the major themes, ideas, and challenges posed by the psalms.

This is a book that should be read and then acted upon—although one suspects that Peterson might think Taylor overly suggestive on this front! To this end every one of the fourteen chapters has Questions for Reflection, Exercises, and a Closing Prayer. Each of these elements is a valuable addition and the questions and reflections are plentiful and highly creative. The closing prayers are insightful and profound, and each chapter puts you in the place to pray with integrity; to ask God for fresh grace in prayer and handling of the Bible. The reflective questions and exercises provide ample possibilities for the psalm theme to be followed up by individuals. It is here that Taylor appeals beyond the Evangelical tradition in which he has his home. The questions and exercises provide everything necessary to facilitate a small group that wants to work through this book and discover the psalms more fully together. I will be recommending it for precisely this within my church.

The focus throughout is very much on the psalms but it becomes clear that Taylor has a rich theology of Scripture and Christ’s work among his people. It is encouraging to discover that underpinning the engaging text is genuine theological depth. Taylor writes with an expectation of Scripture’s transformative potential. The reader of this book will not just see how the psalms mirror their soul; they can expect to be changed along the way. They will see how to praise, thank, and petition better—and with these ancient prayers grow in desire to do so, as the psalms do their work. They will deepen their self-awareness, their love of God, and their grace towards their enemies.

I have waxed somewhat lyrical and I would recommend this book to anyone who wants to become better acquainted with the psalms for enriched prayer and discipleship. Is this book perfect? Not quite, I have one quibble (and found one typographical error). My small niggle concerns the final section on Further Resources. This provides an extensive range of possible ‘next stop’ books. This is a really helpful end point, but it would have been even better for there to have been more guidance as to the nature and value of these resources. For example, for many people, reading Wenham’s The Psalter Reclaimed would be a firm next step in understanding the Psalter theologically—it is more demanding than Taylor’s book but a sensible ascent. But Mowinckel’s The Psalms in Israel’s Worship, recommended in the same subsection, would be like ascending the hill of the Lord in a hailstorm by comparison. I have picked out the most extreme example and this small point is totally eclipsed by a work which is beautifully written, engaging, and illuminating in equal measure.

So, what are you waiting for? Read Open and Unafraid. It might well be the most helpful step on your spiritual journey in these unusual times. Of course, it is more important you pray the psalms, but I am in no doubt you will want to at the end of every chapter of this book.

Discipleship in an Age of Corona

One Situation
Many of us will have more time available to read the Bible and to pray in our present situation. I appreciate that this is not true of everyone, of course. We are also likely to need to make more effort to nurture our own souls due to the difficulty in having face-to-face fellowship at the current time. Even more soberingly, we all face an increased probability of someone we know falling seriously ill or dying. There is, in the midst of, a pandemic a mixture of need and opportunity. Seizing on the truth of Paul’s words to the Romans seems sensible: And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose (Rom. 8:28). So, let’s put ourselves in God’s hands by doing something.

Where can we go for solid food? What parts of Scripture are well placed to sustain us? Where can we find comfort? Of course, all Scripture can do these things, but two parts in particular are the basic milk of our faith. Over two thousand years the testimony of Christians from many traditions has been that in times of challenge and when personal spiritual growth is a necessity then the Gospels and the Psalms are of special value.

Two Answers
The gospels bring us close to Jesus in that they tell us of his incarnation, birth, ministry, miracles, death, resurrection, and ascension. How can you get closer to Jesus than this? So why the psalms too? The Psalms have been understood by some as the inner life of Jesus. Jesus would have prayed all of the Psalms countless times in his life. His teaching reflects time-and-again on the Psalms, directly and indirectly. It’s quite likely that he knew them all by heart—not because he was God but because he was a faithful man.

Three Psalms
Psalm 22 above all the psalms connects us with Jesus because of his articulation of the first part of the its first verse from the cross (Matt. 27:46; Mark 15:34). Here’s the whole of the first verse:

My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?
Why are you so far from saving me,
so far from my cries of anguish?

The New Testament picks up on other verses that seem to prophecy the crucifixion of the Son of God. For example, all four Gospels refer to verse 18:

They divide my clothes among them
and cast lots for my garment.

As Christians we can testify to living out the final verse of this psalm in the light of Jesus’ death on the cross and vindication in his resurrection:

They will proclaim his righteousness,
declaring to a people yet unborn:
He has done it!

We not only have this, and other psalms of lament, to point to Jesus who took our sin, guilt, and pain to the cross. They also exist to provide words to express our own anguish so that we too can bring pain to God in difficult moments on our pilgrimage with him.

Most days, in God’s mercy, we don’t need such extreme words. Psalm 23 is ideal when things are relatively normal to express our abiding trust in God no matter what there is in store for us. I have found its calm attitude of trust a perfect prayer in all sorts of situations. Why not memorise this psalm in your favourite translation? You really can’t go wrong with this psalm, even in the Valley of the Shadow of Death.

The next psalm, Psalm 24, is one of those psalms that captures the buzz and excitement of gathering together to be God’s people and worship him. Read it, and cherish the day when we gather once again. Not, of course, in the splendour of Jerusalem’s Temple but as the Body of Christ his church. On that day we will let the King of Glory in, just as we let him into our lives daily at this time of scattering.

Milk and Exotic Vegetable Curry
These three psalms are milk. Sometimes we look to the Bible and we look to God and we only want milk. We hope for the quick fix. And then we notice that 90% of the Bible is not milk, its an exotic vegetable curry, with fruit and spices we’ve never tasted before, and if we are honest, we don’t immediately like the taste or the texture.

Sometimes people have distilled the Bible into a shorter story or a list of ideas. Then it’s no longer God-breathed. If we don’t take it as it is, we are slighting the surest most dependable testimony that there is to Jesus. And let’s be clear it’s Jesus that’s the key, not the Bible. But nevertheless, the Bible is the way to know him better. The Bible helps us grown in him. The same Spirit that gave us life, the same Spirit that departed Jesus’ lips on the cross, the same Spirit that raised him to resurrection life, breathed the Scriptures.

The Old Testament strains forward testifying to him in the future. The New Testament looks back on him in the past. We read both to know him, and be nourished by him, in the fullness of his Incarnation, his Life, his death, his resurrection, and his second coming.

The Old Testament isn’t what it used to be. As Christians we can, and in fact, must read it through Christ. This helps us with the difficult psalms. The ones that require chewing and sometimes leaving until tomorrow for a second meal. Let’s turn to a more difficult psalm. This one seems made for the moment in some ways, but it also raises some serious questions.

Psalm 91 reads:

1 You who live in the shelter of the Most High,
who abide in the shadow of the Almighty,

2 will say to the Lord, “My refuge and my fortress;
my God, in whom I trust.”
3 For he will deliver you from the snare of the fowler
and from the deadly pestilence;
4 he will cover you with his pinions,
and under his wings you will find refuge;
his faithfulness is a shield and buckler.
5 You will not fear the terror of the night,
or the arrow that flies by day,
6 or the pestilence that stalks in darkness,
or the destruction that wastes at noonday.

7 A thousand may fall at your side,
ten thousand at your right hand,
but it will not come near you.
8 You will only look with your eyes
and see the punishment of the wicked.

9 Because you have made the Lord your refuge,
the Most High your dwelling place,
10 no evil shall befall you,
no scourge come near your tent.

11 For he will command his angels concerning you
to guard you in all your ways.
12 On their hands they will bear you up,
so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.
13 You will tread on the lion and the adder,
the young lion and the serpent you will trample under foot.

14 Those who love me, I will deliver;
I will protect those who know my name.
15 When they call to me, I will answer them;
I will be with them in trouble,
I will rescue them and honour them.

16 With long life I will satisfy them,
and show them my salvation.

Taken at face value verses 3 to 7 in particular might seem to promise that in God we are immune to plague and pestilence. Unfortunately, we already know this is not true from bitter and tragic experience. So, is this psalm wrong? No, because it is not meant as a blanket promise for protection here and now. This is a Wisdom Psalm not so much promising the humanly best outcome but that we are wise to trust in God. It is also a Royal Psalm; its words once meant something closer to ‘God Save the King’ than being a get out of peril free card. It also speaks of Jesus. Most importantly of all, of course, in Christ we are safe eternally, for as Paul knew from the theology of the Psalms: in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.

Between Cross and Resurrection: A Holy Saturday Reflection on Psalm 130

At the end of Chapter 23 of Luke’s gospel, we read of these events that followed Jesus’ death on the cross:

There was a man by the name of Joseph, a member of the Jewish High Council, a man of good heart and good character. He had not gone along with the plans and actions of the council. His hometown was the Jewish village of Arimathea. He lived in alert expectation of the kingdom of God. He went to Pilate and asked for the body of Jesus. Taking him down, he wrapped him in a linen shroud and placed him in a tomb chiselled into the rock, a tomb never yet used. It was the day before Sabbath, the Sabbath just about to begin.

The women who had been companions of Jesus from Galilee followed along. They saw the tomb where Jesus’ body was placed. Then they went back to prepare burial spices and perfumes. They rested quietly on the Sabbath, as commanded.

Message Translation

At one level, Holy Saturday is simply the day between Good Friday and Easter Sunday. Theologically, to put it another way, it’s the day between Cross and Resurrection. It should be worth reflecting on, if for no other reason than that we live this life between cross and resurrection. If we know Jesus Christ, we have had our sin crucified with him—it no longer holds us back from an eternity with our Father. And yet we are still sinners. We are yet to know the bodily resurrection for which we hope. We are between cross and resurrection—we live in the ‘now’ and the ‘not yet’, of blessing from God.

On the first Holy Saturday Jesus lay, quite literally in death, between cross and resurrection. His body lay cold in the freshly quarried tomb made available by Joseph of Arimathea. On the Earth his physical human body was broken and lay in silence on Holy Saturday, awaiting God, waiting for a miraculous reanimation by God’s Spirit. Can a dead body be said to wait? Certainly, in a cosmic sense all of creation was waiting.

Living and waiting can be difficult. Where is the good in waiting? It bores, it frustrates, it’s distracting. Who ever enjoyed waiting for a taxi, for example? In my paranoia of being late, I not only wait for the taxi which I order early, but I then end up waiting longer for the train as I get to the station too early. And then sometimes this is compounded by the train being late. Waiting for taxis and trains bears no fruit.

What value is there in waiting for the PC or laptop to boot up? The ‘updating windows’ notice is not a moment of joy in which we celebrate the future improvements to our software’s security or the improved functionality of our computer’s virtual memory. Instead we are just held back from being the efficient moderns we feel we are called to be.

Waiting isn’t always trivial of course. We’ve all known anxiety in waiting for a loved one who is late, or news after hospital tests for ourselves or someone close to us. The worst 24 hours of my life were waiting to hear news of my Father who dramatically left our home when I was 15. Some of us have not only known the pain and anxiety of waiting, but we have had the announcement of the news that we dreaded most.

And yet we are made for waiting. There are some things that are good about waiting. We can learn perspective for a start. It’s no bad thing to remember that the universe does not revolve around us. We can learn other things too. As disciples we can learn what it means to be the person we are called to be. We can learn to serve others. We can be transformed, in time, as our communion with Christ shapes our character. God can be known more deeply in waiting. Waiting for some things can sharpen our dependence on him.

Psalm 130 is all about waiting and its words seem strangely appropriate for Jesus’ cold body awaiting new Spirit empowered life. These words could have been prayed by a faithful disciple on Holy Saturday:

Out of the depths I have cried to You, O Lord;
Lord, hear my voice!
Let Your ears be attentive
To the voice of my supplications.

If You, Lord, should mark iniquities,
O Lord, who could stand?
But there is forgiveness with You,
That You may be feared.

I wait for the Lord, my soul waits,
And in His word I do hope.
My soul waits for the Lord
More than those who watch for the morning—
Yes, more than those who watch for the morning.

O Israel, hope in the Lord;
For with the Lord there is mercy,
And with Him is abundant redemption.
And He shall redeem Israel
From all his iniquities.

Psalm 130, NIV

Do you remember being a small child and waiting for Christmas? Waiting through every day in December as the advent calendar doors were opened. In that time before cynicism, when we were naïve, the waiting was somewhere between pleasure and pain. The arrival of Christmas Day, all the sweeter for having waited what seemed half a lifetime.

What was it like for those first disciples after death took their beloved rabbi—the one they thought was more than this? Was there even one left who cried out to God that Jesus’ life could not surely be ended with crucifixion? Were there any watchers waiting on that Saturday Sabbath for the resurrection on Sunday?

Where are his disciples this Holy Saturday? Where are his disciples today? Where?—in their lives caught between cross and resurrection? As they wait, how much of the energising foretaste of resurrection are they turning back to God?

Are our souls waiting for the Lord? Are our souls watching for God more than those who watch for the morning? Yes, more than those who watch for the morning.

And beyond this one singular day. How do we wait? Waiting is different for each of us. Though we are all waiting for life to get back to normal some of us have more time than ever before, others are harder pressed than we can remember. As we wait in newfound busyness, or in a slower mode, we would so well to cry to God. What can we learn in this time of waiting? No doubt its different for each of us.

What if early 2020 could be a time we look back on. What if 2020 gave us fresh vision—the opportunity in desperation, or leisure, to make time for God afresh, to wait upon him as a regular discipline.

I pray that we might wait for the Lord, that our souls will wait.
I pray that we will find hope in his word, the Bible, and his Word, Jesus Christ.
May your soul wait for the Risen Lord,
More than those who watch for the morning—
Yes, more than those who watch for the morning.

Palm Sunday 2020: Gathered though Scattered

Given the challenging events of the past days and weeks perhaps some of us have forgotten which day of the week it is. Palm Sunday is the day we remember Jesus arriving in Jerusalem at Passover, less than a week before he would be executed by the Romans. The name Palm Sunday arises from the gospel accounts in which Jesus arrives on a Donkey. The crowds acknowledge his arrival, celebrating in various ways including waving palm leaves in a party atmosphere. In doing this they practice the words of verse 27 of the Passover festival’s Psalm 118.

Today we are looking at the testimony of Luke of events just ahead of that triumphal entry. Events in which Jesus is feeling anything but triumphant. We read from Luke Chapter 13 verse 31:

31 At that time some Pharisees came to Jesus and said to him, ‘Leave this place and go somewhere else. Herod wants to kill you.’

32 He replied, ‘Go and tell that fox, “I will keep on driving out demons and healing people today and tomorrow, and on the third day I will reach my goal.” 33 In any case, I must press on today and tomorrow and the next day – for surely no prophet can die outside Jerusalem!

34 ‘Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you, how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, and you were not willing. 35 Look, your house is left to you desolate. I tell you, you will not see me again until you say, “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.”’

Luke 13: 31–35, UKNIV

In the context of the Covid pandemic many of us have a wish to hunker down. We want to gather those we love and protect them from harm. We might want to gather our children and protect them. What could be more natural than this? We might want to gather our elderly parents and try and look after them? Some of us might wish we could gather the homeless and the vulnerable to help them weather the storm.

To want to gather and protect is a basic human instinct. Jesus wants to gather the children of Israel and protect them. In spite of their fickleness in waving palm leaves one day and approving of his death almost the next. His natural human inclination is to protect and gather those who are his people.

Of course, he is not only a man. He is God incarnate. Lest we imagine that there is a tension between his humanity and his deity we should note that Jesus is identifying with God. Six times in the psalms the Psalmist sees God as a hen protecting her brood with her wings.

What an image—a hen gathering her chicks. This is God and his people. Jesus wanting to gather even those who will abandon him—his desire is to protect them. The imagery is not only powerful it is remarkable. Remarkable not only in its tenderness but in its motherliness. For it is mothers who best exemplify the level of care offered by the God-Man Jesus. Jesus the Mother hen!

In our best moments we share the wish to protect. But we don’t have the ability to succeed as Jesus did. Sometimes the more we close our loving wings the more we struggle to hold everything together. In the cosy West we tell ourselves the lie that all is under our control. And often it looks like this is the case. Deep down, of course, we know this is not true. We know that day-to-day, apparent blind chance rolls the dice in accidents, in disease, in mental illness, in fire and in flood. If nothing else, we must learn to put our hope in the one who is one hundred percent faithful.

Jesus wished to shield his people. He wanted to spread wide his arms to embrace them and ward off evil. He couldn’t do it in those days before Easter Week, but later that week he did. He let others spread his wings and fix them to a beam. Lashed and nailed to a tree, those wings gave the best protection ever devised by man or by God.

Those spread-wide arms can ward off any ill, even a newly minted virus. And whilst there is no guarantee of this anti-viral effect there is a guarantee that those outstretched arms can cure sin and death.

This world is desperate for a vaccine to the pestilence name Covid-19 but we have something better. Jesus spread his wings for us—having learnt from the Father who sent him. In doing this he has cured us all. Sin and death will be no more.

And we recognise the profound truth of Jesus’ words: “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord”.