The Unexpected Voice of God?

Sometimes strange things happen and we are left wondering if God is speaking to us in the most peculiar of ways. Something like this happened to me this morning. I was walking to work, a 35-40 minute stroll through parts of North Guildford. This is something I have taken to doing for just over a year now. I fill the time with a mixture of prayer, thinking through general issues in life and reviewing what the day ahead holds. This morning I was praying about three specific things, these were:

  1. Some challenges in my job. In particular a number of things that are important to me where I keep encountering a roadblock, usually other people slowing down something that I am trying to achieve.
  2. A book I am writing on the Psalms that has come together clearly in my mind, but I am frustrated with the difficulty I am having with my style of writing and the challenge of pitching it consistently for a specific readership.
  3. Thinking about how God speaks through the ordinary in a sacramental fashion – something that I am trying to work through theologically (Yes it is a little odd I know). This connects with 2.

I was praying about all three issues with the same basic question: Should I carry on tackling the roadblocks at work? Should I persist with something I want to do, where I feel inadequate for the task? How do I open my eyes to God speaking through the ordinary?

All three of these things received an answer in the most peculiar of ways. Having prayed and thought about these things for around 20 minutes, I realised I was walking faster than the person on the path ahead. I was unsure whether they had earphones (a common problem these days) and they were squarely in the middle of path such that I could not get past easily. As the path ahead went under a railway bridge, I could see that the wider path was perfect for passing by. As I overtook the woman, without turning her head she uttered the words: “Yeah, you carry right on” in a highly aggressive, almost threatening tone, that implied I had no option but to comply. The command, as I took it to be, was articulated with such menace, angst and anger that I had a sudden insight into the pain and bad experiences that had led to this response to a passing stranger.

Three strides later, I saw that the words uttered by this person, if taken as an answer in a very different tone, had the most peculiar resonance with my 20 minutes of questions. The voice of faith tells me to run with this answer, the muttering of reason tells me I have an overactive imagination. Whichever voice wins the debate, I can testify to the fact that today I have had three dramatic encouragements regarding prayer 1 (above) and an email that has promised direct help from an expert with prayer 2. Perhaps all this together, answer prayer 3?

Musing About ‘The Road Goes Ever On’

In both The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, Tolkien presents a song, The Road Goes Ever On, which is said to have been written by Bilbo Baggins. It occurs once in The Hobbit and three times in The Lord of the Rings. Tolkien was an active churchgoing Roman Catholic and I suspect that there is something of the journey of faith lying behind this song. I have known the song since I was around eleven years old, firstly from reading Tolkien’s work and shortly after from hearing the song in the BBC’s 1981 adaption of The Lord of Rings. From that time onwards, I have found the words to be haunting and almost indefinably poignant; they seem to hint at something transcendent, mysterious and rather important. This is despite the simplicity of their literal claims. There is of course a very serious possibility that I am reading my own perspective into them. I have found this song helpful in reflecting on the Psalms and the Life of Faith.

Here is the first version of the The Road Goes Ever On, from The Lord of the Rings. It is sung by Bilbo as he leaves the Shire, right at the outset of the book. He is in an emotional state of new orientation, motivated by the potential for adventure:

The Road goes ever on and on
Down from the door where it began.
Now far ahead the Road has gone,
And I must follow, if I can,
Pursuing it with eager feet,
Until it joins some larger way
Where many paths and errands meet.
And whither then? I cannot say.

You, as reader, must make an initial judgement about how poignant, sentimental, or otherwise, you find this song. Interestingly the second time this song appears, this time uttered by Frodo who is setting out to dispose of the ring of power, one word is changed. Frodo’s reluctance, and I suspect disorientation, means he substitutes ‘eager feet’ for ‘weary feet’.

The third rendition of the song is spoken once again by Bilbo, as he is about to leave Middle-Earth. This final version has eschatological overtones as Bilbo anticipates the end of his days:

The Road goes ever on and on
Out from the door where it began.
Now far ahead the Road has gone,
Let others follow it who can!
Let them a journey new begin,
But I at last with weary feet
Will turn towards the lighted inn,
My evening-rest and sleep to meet.

The eschatological dynamic is made more concrete by the fact that Bilbo is joining the last of the elves to travel across the sea to Tol Eressëa. For Tolkien the lonely isle was ripe with heavenly blissful overtones. We have already encountered the idea that the Psalms essentially are companions on a journey, what we have termed the life of faith. Those familiar with the Psalms and/or this blog will know that the Psalter is a journey; it has a structure that tells a story. This connection, perhaps somewhat tenuous, is a reminder that the Psalms are themselves poetry and other poetry can help us imbibe them; they are meant to be nourishing.

To conclude here is my adaption of The Road Goes Ever On:

The Psalter cycles on and on
From the Hebrew Scriptures where it began.
The Life of Faith ahead extends,
And I must follow as best I can.
Pursuing it with eager feet,
I journey with my God, Yahweh.
Many challenges and trials I will meet,
But I am accompanied along the Way.

Psalms for People under Pressure

Jonathan Aitken, Psalms for People under Pressure, London: Continuum (2004).

This book is difficult to classify. In part this is because of the fame of the author. It is part commentary, part introduction to praying the psalms and part biographical. Many readers, i.e. those who know something of Jonathan Aitken’s ‘fall from grace’, will read it with biographical interest. Of course this volume is not a biography, but the biographical elements are interesting. No doubt Jonathan Aitken had some difficult choices as to how to handle these aspects of the book. In my view he has made good judgement, in that there is enough biographical reflection to answer the curiosity of some readers. The biographical elements are, however, never distracting, but rather they are helpful in illustrating the relevance of what Aitken refers to as psalms for people under pressure.

It is for this latter reason that the book is I think helpful. Like a number of popular books over the last decade, or so, this book raises the profile of the large number of psalms that are concerned with the difficulties of life. That Aitken has this objective is clear from the book’s title, but unlike many who write about the Psalms, Aitken has clearly had to deal with immense personal challenges. Does the book succeed as a commentary on the selected psalms? Does it function helpfully as a facilitator to prayer?

Each of the twenty seven, or so, psalms covered are presented in the NIV. The text of each psalm is followed by sections titled: reflection, additional notes and personal comment. Each is finally followed by a short prayer. The first of these sections is what we might term a devotional commentary and the second gives concise background commentary. I found the reflections to be helpful in showing how the ancient text can ‘work’ today. In most cases I found that the additional notes to be ill-placed. In my view, the notes might have functioned better as a prelude to the more applied reflections. Of course anyone reading can choose to do this, or perhaps omit the additional notes. The personal comments are interesting; not only in the obvious biographical sense, but also in showing how readily Aitken’s experiences as a new convert resonate with the reader’s experience. This can encourage the reader in seeing the Bible’s potential for transformation. The short prayers, whether prayed or simply read, are a helpful reminder that the Psalms are meant to inspire us to pray rather than to ‘do theology’.

In summary, this book is ideal for someone who has an interest in Jonathan Aitken or wants some encouragement and direction in how to pray the Psalms. The reader who has an interest in both will find that there is a helpful synergy between these two concerns.

 

Psalmtweets: Psalms 51-60

This is a continuation of my latest series of psalmtweets which is an attempt to see how each psalm contributes to the whole. This is part of a broader experiment in using psalmtweets as a daily spiritual discipline.

Psalm 51:
The Psalms speak of the need for a broken spirit and a willing spirit, all enabled by the Holy Spirit.

Psalm 52:
Sticking to the Way ensures we flourish like a healthy sapling.
The detours threaten our very roots.

Psalm 53:
The Psalter presents a sobering picture of humanity’s inability to pursue justice, truth, community and well-being.

Psalm 54:
The Psalms show a single-minded confidence in Yahweh;
a God who has acted, is acting and will act.

Psalm 55:
There is nothing new about discord among God’s people.
Though flight is tempting, we instead need to run to Yahweh.

Psalm 56:
Trust defines the life of faith.
Dependence on Yahweh is key on the path.

Psalm 57:
The eyes of faith perceive a God of loving-kindness amidst the pain of the journey.

Psalm 58:
The Psalms help us pray against false Gods, whether ancient near-eastern deities or the trappings of Western culture.

Psalm 59:
The Psalms have an organic relationship with the Law, the Prophets and the other Writings.

Psalm 60:
The journey of communities of faith is oft times touched by pain and trial.

Psalmtweets 31-40

This is the 4th post of my latest round of Psalmtweets.

Psalm 31:
The Psalms show that suffering and illness are part of the life of faith.
But trust, hope & faith are the greater part.

Psalm 32:
The Psalms teach us about The Way.
Yahweh’s instruction is more than just knowledge.

Psalm 33:
The Psalter teaches us to sing new songs;
this is more about renewal than new words.

Psalm 34:
The Psalms tell us that the life of faith is an experience of God-tasting, God perceiving, feeling and God-talk.

Psalm 35:
The Psalms teach us, perhaps surprisingly, about the armour of God.

Psalm 36:
The Psalms map the loving-kindness of Yahweh.

Psalm 37:
The Psalms help us rest in God.
Resting in Yahweh is key, whatever is happening in our lives.

Psalm 38:
The life of faith is a challenge.
We can call upon the Lord to make haste to help us on the path.

Psalm 39:
The Psalms enable us, as creatures, to understand our frailty before our Creator.

Psalm 40:
The Psalter shows us that the right response to deliverance is the singing of new songs.

Psalmtweets: psalms 1-10

I have been composing a daily tweet on a psalm for over two years now. These tweets are in canonical order and I am now on journey number 6. I have made #psalmtweets a spiritual discipline as part of my daily devotions. In the current journey of tweets I am attempting to let the Psalms speak for themselves about what they are and what they do. Here are the first 10 from voyage 6:

Psalm 1:
The Psalms are a day and night meditative prayer school.

Psalm 2:
The Psalms explore the kingship of Yahweh and his anointed son.

Psalm 3:
The Psalms express absolute trust in Yahweh as a protective shield.

Psalm 4:
The Psalms give us words to call on Yahweh and reassurance that he hears us.

Psalm 5:
The Psalms show us that Yahweh cares about how others treat us. We can, and should, talk to Him.

Psalm 6:
The Psalms reveal that sometimes we must wait for Yahweh’s deliverance.

Psalm 7:
The Psalms help us reflect and confess by enriching our prayer vocabulary.

Psalm 8:
The Psalms celebrate Yahweh as Creator; they help us worship Him and delight in Creation.

Psalm 9:
The Psalms continually reflect on Yahweh who rules from Zion; a God who dwells with His people.

Psalm 10:
The Psalms teach us about both Yahweh’s faithfulness and the fickleness of His creatures.

Review of ‘Reflections on the Psalms’

Reflections on the Psalms, Adams, Cocksworth, Collicutt, et al., London: Church House Publishing, 2015

This small book is a devotional companion to the Psalms. It has a page per psalm, with some of the longer psalms being broken into more convenient ‘chunks’, e.g. psalm 18 has three pages, each of which is an individual page-long entry. The contributions are authored by 18 different people. The number of contributors makes for diversity (although largely within the context of the Anglican Communion) which is a good thing in a devotional resource. Contributors include Steven Croft (Bishop of Sheffield), Paula Gooder (Theologian in Residence for the Bible Society), Barbara Mosse (retired Priest and onetime lecturer in spirituality at Sarum College) and John Sentamu (Archbishop of York).

Despite the diversity of the contributions the work has been carefully edited with a helpfully consistent structure. Each psalm is given a lengthy heading which is a part of the psalm which captures a key aspect of its content. Next a fragment from an important verse is quoted. The reflective contribution develops this verse fragment. Each entry concludes with a refrain and a short prayer. The consistency of style enables the reader who uses this for a daily reading to settle into a devotional pattern that suits them. As a helpful focus for morning and/or evening prayer it works well. The entries can be used quickly or are able to inspire longer contemplation and prayer. Either the title, verse fragment or refrain could be taken and used throughout the rest of the day.

I have found this helpful. Whilst it is quite expensive for a small book, used daily it can last half a year and it will be reusable at a later date. Whether you are new to using the Psalms, or an old-hand, you will find the concise introductory material helpful. Paula Gooder’s The Psalms and the Bible is nothing less than a masterpiece of summarising key features of the Psalms. Steven Croft reflects helpfully on The Psalms in the Life of the Church. There are also some reading plans: all of the psalms in 30 days or psalm 119 and the Ascents in the course of a month.

This book has a lot to commend it and no drawbacks that I can see. The attentive reader might want a commentary too, as the psalms often raise questions as to their content and how we appropriate their claims today. I purchased the work as a book but it is also available as an App for both Apple and Android. Additionally, it is available in the eBook formats: Kindle and epub.

I am using this book in a leisurely way – one psalm per day. After 19 days I am very happy with it and the fresh experience of reflecting on the Psalms which is has enabled.

Praying with Scripture: Some thoughts

The Strange New World of the Bible
Praying with the Bible is about having a confidence in the Bible, a confidence that it is Scripture. It is about owning Paul’s words to Timothy:

All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the servant of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.
I Timothy 3:16-17

Achieving this requires both imagination and discipline. Neither of these are straightforward. Karl Barth has a brilliant way of seeing Scripture which both helps us understand what Scripture is, and can fire our imaginations. He speaks of The Strange New World Within the Bible. The following short extracts capture some sense of his article:

‘We are to attempt to find an answer to the question, What is there within the Bible? What sort of house is it to which the Bible is the door? What sort of country is spread before our eyes when we throw the Bible open? . . .

We can but feel that there is something behind these words and experiences. But what? . . .

We are aware of something like the tremors of an earthquake or like the ceaseless thundering of ocean waves against thin dikes; but what really is it that beats at the barrier and seeks entrance here? . . .

There is a river in the Bible that carries us away, once we have entrusted our destiny to it . . .

And the invitation to dare and to reach toward the highest, even though we do not deserve it, is the expression of grace in the Bible: the Bible unfolds to us as we are met, guided, drawn on, and made to grow by the grace of God.’

Imagination
The suggestion that the Bible might be the world from which we need to see our lives and the more obvious world around us, requires imagination. The demands of the Information Age in which we live, and the instant nature of everything in our consumer culture can damage our imaginations. Finding space, and a suitable way to reflect on Scripture, is vital if we are going to gain a biblical perspective on anything (and everything). How we find time to spend with Scripture and how we can explore our imagination to make Scripture our own, is a very personal thing. Something I like doing is listening to popular songs and attempting to redefine them by association with a biblical story, event or idea. For me Abba’s SOS captures some dialogue during the failing relationship between Yahweh and Israel. When I hear REM’s Everybody Hurts I think of Job’s friends who failed to understand his predicament. When I listen to Tainted Love by Soft Cell I cannot help but think of the story of Cain and Abel. Perhaps more controversially when I hear Kylie Minogue’s Can’t Get You Out of My Head, I think of Jesus hanging on the cross. But that’s just me. We all need to find our own way to inhabit the strange new world within the Bible.

Praying the Bible, and I am thinking essentially of the Psalms, requires imagination. We need to not just read them, but to use our imagination to consider who is saying the words. For example psalm 2 can come to life by spending some time imagining it as words spoken at David’s coronation. Who is speaking? A priest? David? God? There is no simple answer and it varies from verse to verse. The key is that this psalm takes on life for us. Then we can ask the question: What do these words mean in the light of Easter? What do the claims of this psalm mean? What cosmic perspective does it assume; in apparent stark contradiction to so many world events?

Discipline
This is an even more important foundation to praying Scripture. Our everyday experience of having all we want waiting on a shelf, in a supermarket or in an on-line catalogue, places a burden upon the Bible of immediate spiritual refreshment. Sometimes that can be our experience, but not always. The value and transformative work of Scripture is not a quick fix, rather it is an organic gradual process. This often means that we can tire of our regular ‘quiet times’ because we measure them with the wrong criteria. If we measure our feelings, after praying Scripture, against watching an action film, sitting by a swimming pool or going down the pub, we are making a false comparison. Bible reading and especially praying Scripture is not about entertainment, therapy, stress management or even ‘having a friend’. Although, there are passing moments when it can feel like, and be, any of these. Reading Scripture is about being fed and being changed; it is about perceiving who we are, who God is and the nature of reality; all from a strange new-world perspective.

There is no way of escaping the very fundamental need to decide upon a way to encounter Scripture regularly. There are no firm rules about how, when or even how often. The how can include any combination of reading, reciting, purposeful re-reading, listening to a CD, memorisation, taking notes, answering questions from notes or our imagination. The when can be first thing in the morning, last thing at night or lunchtime. The frequency might be once a day, seven times a day or once a week? All the permutations of place, time and frequency have their own advantages and disadvantages. The key is to do something. If it does not work then try something else.

Two exercises
1. Read psalm 13, then listen to Elton John’s Sad Songs. Pray psalm 13 for yourself, or someone you know, as appropriate.
2. Read psalm 149, then listen to Bob Marley’s Jamming. Pray psalm 149 with the intention of owning this attitude through the rest of the day.

The Psalms of Ascents: Latest Psalmtweets

These Psalmtweets try and capture something of the essence of the 15 Psalms of Ascents (120-134). The purpose of these tweets is to draw attention to the actual psalms, not to circumvent them.

Psalm 120:
I sojourn in a strange land.
Living, breathing, but not at home.
I journey to a new place.
Yahweh, you are my peace.

Psalm 121:
I look to the hills.
Where is the help I need?
Yahweh is my shade.
And he is your shield.

Psalm 122:
In his presence;
At Yahweh’s dwelling.
We seek shalom;
I pray for peace.

Psalm 123:
I look upon Yahweh;
In humility I seek his face.
Lord I am in need of grace;
Yah, you are merciful and mighty.

Psalm 124:
Yahweh was on our side during our trial.
The Lord was with us.
Our help is in him.
He made heaven & earth.

Psalm 125:
Those who trust in Yahweh are as firmly rooted as Mount Zion.
As the hills surround Jerusalem, so Yahweh surrounds his people.

Psalm 126:
The return from captivity;
a dream come true.
Sowing for Yahweh in tears;
but the Lord reaps for all-round joy.

Psalm 127:
Lord, build your Church;
Yahweh, watch over us.
Prosper your children;
May you be honoured through your people.

Psalm 128:
Happy all who fear Yahweh.
His blessings are food and family.
These fruit are a foretaste of future shalom.

Psalm 129:
Persecution is the lot of the faithful;
some are ploughed into the ground.
Those who farm in this way will not reap.

Psalm 130:
Out of the depths I cry.
Yahweh does not mark where I am.
My soul awaits the Lord,
as a watchmen anticipates the dawn.

Psalm 131:
Yahweh, I look to you in humility.
I cannot fathom the mysteries of this world.
I am your child.
I depend on you.

Psalm 132:
A prayer for the line of David.
This prayer was answered in the incarnation, life, death, resurrection and ascension of Christ.

Psalm 133:
Unity among brothers and sisters is a blessing.
It is health.
It is vitality.
It is life-giving.

Psalm 134:
Conclusive proof that 24/7 prayer was invented well over two millennia ago.

Elsewhere on these pages other Psalms of Ascents Psalmtweets can be found, as well as a look at the character of these psalms. Please use the categories or tags to access these posts.

A Psalm for the 9th Anniversary of New Life Baptist Church

Today is the 9th anniversary of the constitution of the church where I am a member. The following psalm is a Midrash of parts of the Psalms of Ascent which have had a special significance to us over the past few weeks and months. The psalm was used to close our celebration service this morning. Can you recognise the specific Psalms of Ascent and the slight embellishments?

We lift up our eyes to the hills.
From where does our help come?
Our help comes from the Lord,
who made heaven and earth.
Behold, he who keeps New Life
will neither slumber nor sleep.

We have learnt that, unless the Lord builds the house, those who build it labour in vain.
Unless the Lord watches over the city, the watchman stays awake in vain.

We have learnt that, children are a heritage from the Lord,
the fruit of the womb a reward.
Like arrows in the hand of a warrior
are the children of New Life.

We have learnt, how good and pleasant it is
when brothers and sisters dwell in unity!
It is like a weekend spa treatment.

If it had not been the Lord who was on our side—
let New Life now say—
if it had not been the Lord who was on our side
when people rose up against us.
Then they would have swallowed us up alive,
when their anger was kindled against us.

We have escaped like a bird
from the snare of the fowlers;
the snare is broken,
and we have escaped!
Our help is in the name of the LORD, who made heaven and earth.

​When the Lord restored the fortunes of New Life,
we were like those who dream.
Then our mouths were filled with laughter,
and our tongues with shouts of joy;
Then they said among the nations,
“The Lord has done great things for them.”
The Lord has done great things for us;
we are glad.

Restore our fortunes, O Lord,
like streams in the desert!
Those who sow in tears
shall reap with shouts of joy!
Those who go out weeping,
bearing the seed for sowing,
shall come home with shouts of joy,
bringing their sheaves with them.