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”.

Reflecting on the Christian Hope: War Cemeteries

The Christian Hope, of a future heaven and earth, is often an appendix to traditional theologies. More thorough-going theologies rightly make the ‘life to come’ an integral part of theology. From a biblical perspective it should not be any other way. The Bible tells of the good creation of the past and its frustration in pre-history. It reveals how, in Christ, new creation has come. This new creation is both ‘now’ and ‘not yet’. This bifocal eschatology is well-known from Saint Paul’s pneumatology, in which he argues that the Spirit is a seal and deposit guaranteeing a future inheritance (1 Corinthians 1:21–22 and Ephesians 1:13–14). The past frustration of creation is remedied first by Christ’s past deeds, culminating in his rising from death as a first fruit, evident now in the work of the Spirit but only complete in the age to come.

This post is the first of three that reflect on the Christian Hope in terms of experiences of things and events that are important to me. These reflections arise from a conviction that we can be too slow to recognise the impact of our future with God, here and now. One remedy is to look to diverse experiences and interests to fire our imagination about the full promise of our bodily redemption. Each of these posts concerns a subject matter that is of special interest to me. I hope others too, can find some promise in how these specific topics speak of the greatest of all promises.

It is very much my hope that it will be evident that the chosen topics are not simply helpful illustrations. Rather, in each case, there is something that illuminates our future with God in a profound and organic way. The first of these subject matters is the emotive, even pathos-laden, topic of war cemeteries. For some this might sound unhelpfully morbid even if the obvious explicit presence of death at the heart of the subject connects firmly and bluntly with the question of ‘life after death’.

This reflection began during my family holiday in Normandy in France in June of 2019. Our holiday took place just after the 75th Anniversary celebrations of D-Day. In part, it was the historical legacy that took us to France this past summer—partly my continuing lifelong fascination with the events of 6th June 1944 and their immediate aftermath, and partly a wish to ensure my three children knew more of the second world war and its legacy today.

It was only when we arrived in Normandy that we appreciated that the lovely farm that provided our week’s accommodation was right next to the largest German war cemetery on French soil in La Cambe. Even as we drove past it the first time, looking for the farm, it made for a sobering experience. Our visit later that week proved to be more so as I’ll explain below. Before we made it to La Cambe’s cemetery we went to the famous American war cemetery at Coleville-sur-Mer and the British one at Bayeux.

During our visits to these three war cemeteries it become clear that they unsurprisingly had a common impact—the all too obvious horror of grave-after-grave of both known and unknown combatants evoke the Psalmist’s most frequent question of lament, “why?”. In addition to this common ground, however, each had something different to say when viewed from the stance of resurrection hope.

The British War Cemetery in Bayeux echoes an English garden not least because the gravestones are surrounded by plants typically found in an English country garden.

Whatever the intent of the designers of this cemetery I could not escape seeing it as fusion of English gardens with the age to come. Almost certainly there is an element of reading far more than is intended into the layout and form of the cemetery. But for me it hinted at the unfortunate linking of biblical hope and British nationalism that is evoked by the hymn Jerusalem which uses words from William Blake’s poem: And did those feet in ancient time? This poem and the hymn Jerusalem ask:

And did those feet in ancient time,
Walk upon England’s mountains green:
And was the holy Lamb of God,
On England’s pleasant pastures seen!

And did the Countenance Divine,
Shine forth upon our clouded hills?
And was Jerusalem builded here,
Among these dark Satanic Mills?

These words might only ask questions, but these seem rather rhetorical, and at the same time plainly false and unhelpful. My reflection is of course not a criticism of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission who manage the Bayeux cemetery and so many more sites around Europe—one can only wonder at such a remarkable effort made over so many years.

Elsewhere in the cemetery there is a clear allusion to the Book of Life (Psalm 68:29 Philippians 4:3, and Revelation 21:27) with the bold claim that ‘Their name liveth for ever more’, see photograph below. The availability of written records, made readily available, is almost a sacramental echo of the heavenly book. The principles of the Commonwealth Ward Graves Commission include ensuring the uniformity of the headstones and making no distinction on account of military rank, race or creed. Such principles seem fitting giving the twofold levelling we all experience in first dying and then being redeemed in Christ.

This principle of uniformity of headstone is taken in a different direction in US war cemeteries, including the one at Coleville-sur-Mer, pictured below. The headstones are styled as crosses in most cases on the basis that every soldier was a Christian unless they claimed otherwise. This uniformity of headstone and the precision of their geometry in rows and columns adds more anguish to the vexed question, “why?”.

The dominance of the cross also speaks powerfully of the foundation of our hope. It also echoes the poignant iconographic use of similar crosses in some of the works of the British artist Stanley Spencer (1891–1959) whose life was never the same after his experiences in the First World War. The use of white crosses to denote the idea of resurrection dominates his monumental paintings at Sandham Memorial Chapel.

Spencer was infamous for identifying his beloved home village of Cookham as heaven. But his imagination ventured to the day of resurrection and he perceived the dead rising from their graves, whether on the battlefield as Sandham Memorial Chapel or in the graveyard of Holy Trinity, the parish church in Cookham.

Of course, not everyone buried at Coleville-sur-Mer was a Christian and some headstones reflect this, for example a star of David is evident in the photograph above. If British war cemeteries echo a future idyll of heaven awash with roses and American ones speak of ‘the glorious dead’, what of La Cambe’s war dead?

Putting it in words is difficult. The iconography of gravestone and statue is heavy and chunky as if it would have been inappropriate to aim at beauty. This is especially so in the cross and figures which top the central mound, which is a mass grave for around 300 bodies, both known and unknown. It is also seen in the small crosses, each of which typically marks the grave of four people.

The visitor’s centre is sobering but in a very different sense. It tells the life story of some of those buried in the cemetery. In reading these stories we discover, although we should have known, that many of the dead here are very ordinary men. Men with no strong political view, nor driven by any nationalistic ideals, but men who would rather have stayed at home in a Germany that chose a path of peace. We also find men who only wanted peace after inflicting their worldview on other nations. Some of these men not only killed soldiers on the battlefield but they also killed civilians, men, women, and children.

Just as there are very different approaches to war cemeteries so to each person buried is unique. Only God knows the extent of virtue or vice in each life. He also knows which of these men, struck down before their time, will rise again to resurrection life. This, of course, is not on the basis of the magnitude of our virtues or vices, for all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God—but on the basis of our hope and belief in the sure and certain hope of resurrection life.

On Kindness—Job 6:14

Introduction

Is kindness a high priority in our lives? It is not difficult to know what kindness is, but for many of us it is something we hope to experience, rather than something we prioritise doing. Kindness does not come naturally. It is a virtue. It needs to be taught. It needs to be nurtured. It needs to be given time.

I can remember being encouraged by my mother to be kind. My mother was always keen for me to befriend children who she thought needed my friendship. At Infant School there was Robert (not his real name like the others mentioned in this post), the only black boy in my class, and David who by today’s standards had a number of educational needs. At Junior School there was Graham whose parents were very religious. My kindness in the playground extended to being Robin as he wanted to be Batman. I’m not convinced we were a ‘dynamic duo’—we were both rather skinny—but we had fun.

For my all my efforts to be kind by befriending those my mother pointed out to me. The only times I ever got in trouble at Infant School was because of my association with them. But the lasting point is that I was taught, and hopefully learned, something about kindness. As I discovered there’s little reward in being kind and of course that’s not the point. Or perhaps this is exactly the point?

As Karen Swallow Prior, in her amazing book On Reading Well, points out no one envies the kind. She also notes that it is all too easy to muddle kindness with niceness. Confusing the two is a bad move because the agreeableness that comes with niceness shows no discernment. Niceness is a disposition not a virtue. Kindness, unlike niceness, is underpinned by a concern with the truth. Kindness knows nothing of the ‘white lie’ told so as to not hurt someone’s feelings, or the minor untruth to keep the peace.

Kindness has the same origin as the word kin. To be kind is to treat someone as though they are family. The kindness that treats people as family is more robust than niceness. Sometimes it can mean departing from being nice. According to Karen Swallow Prior:

To see and celebrate the good for others is to treat them as family. This is what it means to be kind.

But what does the Bible have to say about kindness? Both the First Testament and the Second Testament are at one as we shall see. Although we’ll also see that Jesus, as is so often the case, has the last and disturbingly challenging word.

On the Ropes with Job

 Anyone who withholds kindness from a friend forsakes the fear of the Almighty.

Care is needed with any one verse so let’s put it in context. The Book of Job starts with the famous wager between God and Satan over Job’s fear of God. Terrible things happen to Job as a consequence. In Chapter 1 we read:

13 One day when Job’s sons and daughters were feasting and drinking wine at the eldest brother’s house, 14 a messenger came to Job and said, ‘The oxen were ploughing and the donkeys were grazing nearby, 15 and the Sabeans attacked and made off with them. They put the servants to the sword, and I am the only one who has escaped to tell you!’

16 While he was still speaking, another messenger came and said, ‘The fire of God fell from the heavens and burned up the sheep and the servants, and I am the only one who has escaped to tell you!’

17 While he was still speaking, another messenger came and said, ‘The Chaldeans formed three raiding parties and swept down on your camels and made off with them. They put the servants to the sword, and I am the only one who has escaped to tell you!’

18 While he was still speaking, yet another messenger came and said, ‘Your sons and daughters were feasting and drinking wine at the eldest brother’s house, 19 when suddenly a mighty wind swept in from the desert and struck the four corners of the house. It collapsed on them and they are dead, and I am the only one who has escaped to tell you!’

20 At this, Job got up and tore his robe and shaved his head. Then he fell to the ground in worship 21 and said:

‘Naked I came from my mother’s womb,
and naked I shall depart.
The Lord gave and the Lord has taken away;
may the name of the Lord be praised.’

22 In all this, Job did not sin by charging God with wrongdoing.

A little later, of course, Job is additionally afflicted with a horrible disease.

As Job attempts to come to terms with what has happened and why, he debates with three friends. These debates take up around forty chapters of the Bible, with a fourth mysterious dialogue partner joining later in the book. Whatever the historical origin of Job’s story the debate he has with his friends appear to be highly crafted poems.

Our verse today (Job 6:14) mentions Fear of the Lord as does the second verse of the Book of Job where we find out that Job fears God. The Book of Job is a theological argument over what it means to fear God. It reveals that even those that fear God will know trial and hardship in the life of faith.

In Job 6:14, Job is warning his friends—he argues that there is a link between right behaviour and our relationship with God. Putting it more positively for us, as those that fear the Almighty and are in relationship with him through Christ, we should actively demonstrate kindness to our friends. We should treat our friends as well as we treat those who are related to us by blood.

In context Job is going further with a clear rebuke. More than, that there is a degree of menace. Could it be that withholding kindness when a friend is in acute need might really jeopardise our relationship with God? I think we know the truth of this in its broadest sense—continual actions that conflict with a relationship with God mean that someone walks step by step, mile by mile, away from the living God.

For us as faithful disciples of Jesus, walking with him will mean acting appropriately—yes, we make mistakes—but these are stumbles on the path not wholesale choices of a new direction.

Yet there is more to this verse than it first appears. The word translated as kindness in virtually all English translations has a more profound depth. In Hebrew the word has connotations of kindness in the context of a covenant relationship. Job and his friends are bound to each other by a promise or commitment, just as we are bound to each other through our fellowship in Christ Jesus.

This verse is also something of a foretaste of some of Jesus’ most remarkable teaching.

On the Rock Named Jesus

Jesus famously distils the Law of Moses to come to a fresh expression of Job 6:14. Let’s hear Mark’s account of this:

28 One of the teachers of the law came and heard them debating. Noticing that Jesus had given them a good answer, he asked him, ‘Of all the commandments, which is the most important?’

29 ‘The most important one,’ answered Jesus, ‘is this: “Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one. 30 Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.” 31 The second is this: “Love your neighbour as yourself.” There is no commandment greater than these.’

Mark 12:28–31, NIVUK

Here in Mark’s Gospel Jesus quotes from Deuteronomy 6:4–5 and Leviticus 19:18. This twofold summary mirrors Job 6:14, as a generalisation of Job’s specific point about the risk his friends are taking. Jesus, of course, goes further than Job and further than popular interpretations of the Law in his time. Famously in Luke’s gospel when Jesus summarises the law in the same way, on a different occasion, someone asks, “Who is my neighbour?”—surely there must be a legal limit to what can be expected? For Job showing kindness to friends in covenant with him was the necessary way of honouring commitment to God. The Law extended this to the community of faith as a whole nation. Then Jesus extends the call to the people of faith showing kindness to all of humanity through the Parable of the Good Samaritan.

Jesus goes to the extreme of treating as family even those that world would count as enemies.

On the Road with Bananarama

Being kind can be a struggle as it rarely seems a priority. Being kind can be challenging because we muddle it with niceness. Sometimes we struggle with knowing how to be kind. We can probably all remember a time when we tried to be kind, but this was not received well. We have that feeling that if only we knew how.

As Bananarama put it so well: Tain’t what you do it’s the way that you do it. Trying to be kind only works when we do it in the right way. Sometimes we have to be careful to avoid offending. Sometimes we have to avoid being patronising. Sometimes we have to avoid creating dependency. Sometimes in the cause of being really kind we might have to risk offence or even run with it. Because at its best kindness is genuinely life changing and transformative.

Martin Scorsese most famous for some rather gritty films, directed a film that beautifully illustrates the transformative potential of kindness. In this film Hugo, the 12 year old Hugo Cabret, lives in a Paris train station—he has no choice after the death of his loving father. He has an abusive alcoholic uncle who teaches him how to keep the station’s clocks working. After his Uncle disappears Hugo continues to wind the various clocks and survives by stealing food. He is good at fixing things. He also has a hope of fixing people, as he explains:

“Maybe that’s why a broken machine always makes me a little sad, because it isn’t able to do what it was meant to do… Maybe it’s the same with people. If you lose your purpose… it’s like you’re broken”

Hugo observes numerous broken people around the railway station. There is the Station Inspector who is socially awkward thanks to a leg injured in the war. Hugo is afraid of him since he has seen him take other stray boys and send them away to an orphanage.

But the most formidable and broken person in the station is the mysterious Georges Melies who runs an old toy shop. When he catches Hugo and accuses him of stealing mechanical parts from him, the boy is terrified.

Hugo becomes friends with Isabelle, the goddaughter of Melies and his wife, Mama Jeanne. They eventually discover George Melies’ amazing past as a pioneering film maker. Through various means he forces George Melies to face all the pain of what went wrong in his past. He shows kindness at great personal risk and cost. Melies was a bitter and cynical man when Hugo first knew him, but he becomes reconciled with his past as a pioneering filmmaker.

That’s a fable of course. A beautiful one but a fable, nevertheless.

The two most common ways of understanding the life of faith are as pilgrimage and discipleship. Pilgrimage is the journey of life towards the heavenly city where God dwells. It’s not an individual journey. It’s a journey with others. Discipleship is the following of Jesus Christ day-by-day. It’s also not an individual thing. You can’t be a good disciple on your own. It’s a journey, a walk, with others.

Both our pilgrimage and our discipleship benefit from being seen in this corporate sense. Prioritising kindness on our journey challenges the worst excesses of misconstruing pilgrimage and discipleship as self-actualisation. Cultivating kindness enables the gospel-driven transformation of those around us and the by-product is our own sanctification.

Living in Hope: Hebrews 11

1. Losing Virtue
Increasingly in the West virtue is an alien word. Worse than this the pursuit of virtues is something alien. The idea that virtue should be desired and pursued, that it is a high priority in the lives of individuals and communities is simple not a contemporary agenda.

There is a suspicion about the pursuit of goodness and of wanting to be good. Virtue and goodness depend on moral certainty and absolutes which are not popular in our culture. The closest we come to virtue in secular discussion in terms of other categories, such as values and rights. These are not the same as virtues. Values and rights are, however, seen as more neutral, ‘democratic’ and self-evident than the pursuit of goodness.

This has not always been the case as much of Western culture has celebrated virtue. Until a hundred years ago the idea of virtue was a popular concept and the pursuit of goodness was not only acceptable but was seen as desirable.

In the Church, virtue is also an unusual word today. In our Church tradition there can be a number of concerns which have undermined the pursuit of virtue and the goal of being good:

1. The theology of salvation by grace alone can cast a shadow over pursuing virtue.
2. The Church has been caught out too often as its members have claimed virtue whilst practicing vice.
3. Perhaps we think it’s not biblical. But if we translate virtues as another window on the fruit of the Spirit and the pursuit of goodness as sanctification, we can see that virtue is biblical.

In Hebrews 11 we find two of the so-called theological virtues, faith and hope, worked out in the lives of the ancient heroes of First Testament faith. The implication is that the best of the people of God display hope and cultivate right behaviour—and we too are called to do the same.

The basis of Hebrews 11 and its fixation on the future hope is incredibly counter cultural. In our culture we are taught to see an end horizon marked by our physical demise. Hebrews 11—the gospel of Jesus Christ—sees beyond an end horizon beyond this, the heavenly city.

Because of this:

  • Hope in God will mean that we know we are foreigners and behave as strangers in this world.
  • Hope in God will mean we will struggle at times with God.
  • And finally, and perhaps less surprisingly, such a hope means fixing our eyes upon Jesus.

2. Strangers to Vice
Both our hope in God and our faithfulness to him are easy to misunderstand. The promises we have ‘hope in’ and the God to whom we are faithful, are longer term prospects than anything else in our lives. What we put our hope in outlasts us in our mortality. Such hope and faith in God go beyond the more human hope and faith we place in our spouses, partners, or close friends.

All these people were still living by faith when they died. They did not receive the things promised; they only saw them and welcomed them from a distance, admitting that they were foreigners and strangers on earth.
Hebrews 11:13, NIV

In the world’s eyes this sounds like those of faith, hope, and trust have been deceived. What is the point of a life of hope in which what is promised is not to be found? Why would anyone be faithful for a lifetime, only to die without receiving what is hoped for?

But such is the life of faith—at least to some extent. The life of faith in Christ is about something bigger than us—this is the ultimate in counterculture. We are called to a faithfulness in a God who is even more faithful to us. We know the truth of his faithfulness in the beautiful gift of Jesus Christ:

But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.

Romans 5:8

The guarantee, or taste, of the fruit of faithfulness is known here and now but the fullness of that fruit is yet to come in the inheritance of God’s Kingdom in the age to come. We are like the heroes of faith in Hebrews 11:

they only saw them and welcomed them from a distance, admitting that they were foreigners and strangers on earth.

And yet we also have more than ‘the ancients’—we have knowledge of Christ and we are in Christ by the power and grace of the Spirit of God. What we await in patient faithfulness comes after death, or the return of Christ. In this life of faith and hope, we are strangers on earth. What a challenge and what a remarkable call.

How can we be distinctive—salt and light—rather than just peculiar?

We of course share the same promises as the heroes of faith:

People who say such things show that they are looking for a country of their own. If they had been thinking of the country they had left, they would have had opportunity to return. Instead, they were longing for a better country – a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared a city for them.
Hebrews 11:14–16, NIV

God has prepared city for us.

3. Struggling
Verse 21 of Hebrews 11 says this:

By faith Jacob, when he was dying, blessed each of Joseph’s sons, and worshipped as he leaned on the top of his staff.

Perhaps the implication is that Jacob leans upon his staff as he is old and in need of total hip replacement. But it’s quite likely that the author of Hebrews also has something else in mind. For like all people of faith, Jacob had wrestled with God—more so than most in fact. It all came to a head in Genesis 32. In this life, most people of faith will at some points wrestle with God.

We might suppose that struggling with God about anything is a denial of our hope in him. But this is not the case. The wrestling with God that Jacob experienced like that of many people of faith is entirely faithful and hopeful—it is the complex working out of how we achieve what God has called us to do.

What is the right way to go about finding blessing? Jacob had attempted to find blessing by deceiving his brother. It is as he is about to meet his brother, Esau, who he assumes will be very angry, that he wrestles with the angel of the Lord. That wrestling with God is not wrong is evident from the Psalms. One third of the biblical psalms are psalms of complaint or lament—a rich vocabulary given to us to complain to our God. More pragmatically we can note that:

“A faith that never feels challenged is most likely dead.”
Karen Swallow Prior, On Reading Well

To be truly faithful to God means wrestling with him—complaining to him—about how things are in this broken world. Many of those named in Hebrews 11 contended with God. When done for the right reasons and in the right way this is hope in action. Hope in God is not fatalism it’s about a real relationship with the living God. If we don’t in fact question God, and wrestle with him, we risk one of the two alternatives to hope.

On the one hand there is the risk of presumption. We presume all is well with ourselves without checking in with our Creator. We assume that because Jesus died once for all we are the finished article. But no, our hope in our future with God should be transforming us. Day-by-day, month-by-month, year-by-year, we should be better disciples. Bearing the fruit of goodness in both character and deed.

On the other hand, another alternative to hope is despair. Events can take their toll on us and the hope of dwelling with God can become too much to hope for. This is when we need our brothers and sisters in Christ. Who are those you can look to in your hour of need?

We live in a society where those around us do not have gospel hope. They have variously chosen presumption (putting their hope in something other than Jesus Christ) or despair (finding no hope).

4. Fixing (12:2)
We are of course in a different relationship with the living God than the heroes of Hebrews 11. They knew Yahweh the God of Israel and indeed they often experienced him first-hand. And yet despite this blessing we are fortunate to surpass the revelation they had.

These were all commended for their faith, yet none of them received what had been promised, since God had planned something better for us so that only together with us would they be made perfect.
Hebrews 11:39–40

For we know the Father through, and in, Christ. The Incarnation of the Son of God, his ministry, his death, and his resurrection provide the fuller revelation of the very heart of God. This is not just knowledge but is part of the fabric of reality—we are the body of Christ and he is the head.

We are a body in which the very Spirit of Christ is at work. Virtues are the fruit of the Spirit. We are sanctified, made virtuous, through the work of the living God in the Church his body.

The call to fix our eyes upon Jesus is a better one, than to fix our eyes on the heavenly city as those in Hebrews 11 did. As wanderers and pilgrims, they knew of the heavenly city that was the reward of their faith and faithfulness. For us this heavenly city is home to Jesus Christ seated at the right hand of the Father.

In Jesus Christ we have a redeemer who also founds a new creation- a new heaven and a new earth.

Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith. For the joy that was set before him he endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. Consider him who endured such opposition from sinners, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart.

Hebrew 12:1–3