Friday, March 11, 2011

Trust and Acceptance

Psalm 131

This little psalm contains some intriguing ideas. In our worship we habitually challenge ourselves to lift our eyes to the hills, from whence our help will come. Or we say that we should lift our eyes to the heavens, contemplating the vastness of the cosmos and wondering at the power of the creative mind which conceived it and brought it into being. Both of these ideas are found elsewhere in the psalms. But here we are enjoined not to lift our eyes too high and not to let our hearts be lifted up.

Are we being encouraged to concentrate on the practical, everyday realities of our lives rather than getting too visionary and other worldly? Is the psalmist warning us that sometimes we can be too heavenly minded to be any earthly use? Or is the psalm a call to be ever so humble? Is the psalmist the Uriah Heep of psalmody?

Is the psalmist in fact a ‘she’, because the preoccupations of the psalm and the imagery the psalmist uses have a definite feminine bias, don’t they? It’s interesting that the writer refuses to be drawn into the big questions - the origins of the universe, what we should do about the upheavals in the Middle East, how to deal with the deficit in the nation’s finances, or what cuts should be made in council services? ‘I don’t occupy myself with things too great and too marvellous for me,’ says the psalmist modestly.

I’m put in mind of those surveys which ask people, ‘Who makes the important decisions in your house?’ Men will say, ‘I do! I decide who we vote for and what we think about the big issues of the day.’ And women will often say, ‘No! I do! I decide where we go on holiday, what we eat, what clothes we wear.’ Both answers are right, of course, depending on your perspective.

To me it’s crucial that I know whereabouts I am in the world at any one time. I couldn’t, for instance, bear to to be in Sheffield and not know where Sheffield is in relation to Leeds, say, or Manchester, or Hull, or Liverpool. I would feel disorientated, lost, if I wasn’t sure exactly where Sheffield was on the map. Yet to my wife it’s a matter of supreme indifference. It’s not that she doesn’t know the answer. It’s just that the question never occurs to her. She’s rooted in the problems of the moment or the things that matter especially to her. She chooses not to worry about the bigger picture.

Instead of getting wound up about issues beyond his or her control, the psalmist prefers to calm and quiet his or her soul, and - for the sake of argument - let’s say we’re talking about calming and quieting her soul. If we assume the writer was a woman it will help us to explain the next fascinating image in the psalm, the weaned child. What is this referring to? Why is a weaned child more calm and quiet than an unweaned one?

I suspect it’s a reference to the disappointment mothers sometimes feel when their newborn baby seems perfectly contented when nursed by other people but becomes fractious and upset if passed back to them. Of course, when you analyse what’s going on in a dispassionate way it becomes obvious that unweaned babies will become more agitated when they’re passed to their mothers because they associate their mothers principally with feeding time! However, once they are weaned, their mother becomes associated principally with comfort, love and affection.

The psalmist seems to be reflecting, therefore, on what it means to be spiritually mature. Is she saying that - once we mature - we’re no longer so dependent on, or at least no longer excessively dependent on, receiving spiritual sustenance from God and are ready, instead, to enter into a more grown-up phase of our relationship, where we can collaborate with God, or work alongside God - always as a junior partner, of course - to accomplish his will? (I’m reminded of my granddaughter, who recently got her first pair of proper shoes. Now, instead of needing to be carried everywhere or wheeled around in her pushchair, she can walk hand in hand with her mother. Is that what our relationship with God should be like?) Or is the psalmist saying that, in order to attain spiritual maturity, we have to move beyond demanding things from God - happiness, well-being, the fulfilment of our desires - and reach a place where we are able just ‘to let go and let God’, to accept what comes and allow God to work through life’s opportunities and challenges as we face them calmly and quietly together?

The second interpretation of spiritual maturity is probably the right one, because the psalmist links it to hoping in the Lord. When we’re ready to take life as it comes, and trust God to help us make the best of it, there’s always room for hope.

Isaiah 49:8-16

In this oracle from the Prophet Isaiah he gives a message to the royal family of Judah, perhaps intended for the coronation of a new king. At the moment they are in exile, but one day, the day of the Lord’s favour, the royal house of David will be restored to power. Isaiah doesn’t put a precise date on their return, so it could be a message for the current king-in-waiting, but it could equally be a message for a future king, not yet born. That’s certainly how Christians have interpreted it.

This is the time of the Lord’s favour because, just as God answered Solomon’s prayer for wisdom, he’s going to answer the prayers of the new king too. He is giving the king back to the people as a living embodiment of his covenant with the whole nation of Judah. Is that what Jesus was alluding to at the Last Supper when he said that his body and blood would establish a new covenant between his own followers and God?

In the original covenant, handed down to Moses, God promised to give the land of Israel to his wandering people. Now the new king will be enabled by God to restore the desolate land that has been laid waste by Judah’s enemies. The prisoners will be set free. Those who have been in hiding will be able to come out and show themselves. Refugees will be able to return home from as far away as the town of Syene in Egypt, where a sizeable number of Judeans had fled after the fall of their country to the Babylonian empire. The new king will have such good fortune that he will even be able to feed his sheep, the people of his pasture, on the bare heights of the mountain tops where grass doesn’t grow.

Of course, for Christians this liberation refers to a spiritual experience, or perhaps to the renewal of the whole earth at the end of time. The Book of Revelation picks up on this passage when it says, about the New Israel, by which the writer probably means The Church, that ‘her citizens will hunger no more and be thirsty no more; the sun will not strike them, nor any scorching heat.’

It has been interesting to see the contortions which Western governments have gone through in responding to Colonel Gaddafi's savage repression of the democracy protests in Libya. Until two weeks ago they were happy to do business with him. Now, of course, everyone is lining up to condemn him and call on him to stand down. And the justification they are using for their sudden change of heart is that legitimate leaders take good care of their people and don’t deliberately try to harm them. Until now, they argue, Colonel Gaddafi more or less passed that test. He might have tortured a few people, and locked some of them up for opposing his policies, but by and large he kept the peace and enabled his people to live unmolested. Now, however, he has lost that legitimacy because his mercenaries have started to attack people indiscriminately in the streets. Good leaders don’t let their soldiers do that, so it’s time for him to quit.

Isaiah goes further. The new king will be a good leader not just because he will refrain from harming his people but because he will take pity on them in their plight and will guide them, like a shepherd, to springs of fresh water. The king’s reign and his enlightened policies will be an incarnation of God’s compassion. He will comfort the people on God’s behalf.

The desperate situation which the people of Jerusalem and Judah had been through bears comparison in other ways too with what has been happening in Libya in recent days. Like the Libyan protesters who have been attached with anti-aircraft guns, helicopters and tanks, they had suffered conquest and brutal oppression. They felt abandoned and forgotten - left to their fate; but nothing could be further from the truth.

In another strikingly feminine image, the Prophet compares God’s love for his people to the attachment which a woman feels to the child growing in her womb, or to the love of a mother for her baby feeding at her breast. ‘Would a mother forget her child and deliberately cause the baby harm?’ Isaiah asks. And then he answers his own question by conceding that, actually, pregnant women do sometimes seek to terminate their pregnancy, or do things which risk harming their unborn child, and mothers do sometimes abandon their helpless babies or fail to look after them properly. But God will never forget his people. They mean more to him even than his own newborn child.

The image of the walls of Jerusalem is constantly in the forefront of God’s mind, as if he were carrying a picture of Jerusalem like a keepsake in his wallet. And the names of her citizens are so indelibly imprinted in God’s mind that it is as if he had written them on his hands. Actually, to say that they are written may not be a strong enough image. For if someone’s name were written on the palms of our hands in ink it could easily be washed away without our noticing. The word used here, which means to inscribe or engrave something, implies a more permanent remembrance than mere ink.

Perhaps the Prophet is thinking of a tattoo - like the tattoos which people have applied of their boyfriend or girlfriend’s name. That’s fine, of course, if the relationship endures for a lifetime, but having someone’s name tattooed on your body can be a bit awkward if the relationship breaks down. Isaiah promises, in effect, that - having inscribed the people’s names on the palms of his hands - God will not go back on his word. It is unthinkable that God should abandon his people and let the relationship break down, even if they are unfaithful to him.

And notice, this is something which God has done to himself. He hasn’t been to a tattoo parlour. He has sat and patiently tattooed the people’s names, one by one, on his hands, a bit like a prisoner pricking out a homemade tattoo on his hand or arm, with a biro or with pen and ink, to pass the time in his cell. It’s a painstaking and painful business, almost akin to self-harm. And that’s a measure of how much God cares. He’s prepared to inflict suffering on himself in order to remember his people by name.

Matthew 6:24-34

Our readings from the Old Testament were about trust and acceptance. The psalmist is ready to accept her lot in life because she believes that God is looking out for her, and Isaiah believes we can trust God because he is sending a wonderful new king to protect and guide us, as living proof of his abiding love for us.

It follows that if God is like this, and Jesus is the new king he has sent to look after us, we should not worry about tomorrow and ought - instead - to take one day at a time. Jesus offers some other reasons for letting go and letting God. The birds of the air don’t worry, and neither do the flowers of the field. Of course, they’re not self-conscious, so perhaps it’s not a fair comparison. But he offers two other justifications. One is that if we strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, God will see us right. However, the history of the Christian faith and our own personal experience doesn’t entirely bear that out. So, finally, there is Jesus’ strongest argument for not worrying: can any of us by worrying add a single hour to the span of our life? By and large the answer is ‘No’, although - of course - if we have a healthy diet and lifestyle, and get a little exercise, we may live longer and we’ll certainly improve our chances of longevity. But worrying about our diet and lifestyle, without doing anything about it, won’t help us in the least.

I do try not to worry, but Helen and I are inveterate worriers. We worry about being able to manage in retirement. We worry about having a job next week. We worry about our children and our granddaughter. We worry about the future for our planet. Thank goodness we don’t live in an earthquake zone or we’d neve rget a moment’s sleep!

The people of Christchurch weren‘t worrying about an earthquake until six months ago, when the first one struck, because they didn’t know - until then - that the city was on a fault-line in the earth’s crust. Perhaps if they had known sooner, and been able to construct safer buildings, that would have helped to save lives. But of course, some of the collapsed buildings - such as churches, and the cathedral spire - were put up long before modern building methods might have helped to protect their users. So worrying about the impact that an earthquake might have on these old buildings would not have added a single hour to anyone’s lifespan.

I don’t see Jesus’ advice as an injunction to give up on sensible planning for the future. I think it’s a gentle admonition, a warning if you like, not to preoccupy ourselves with worries that we can’t do anything about, or which are so uncertain or far off that the situation might change radically long before the evil day arrives when they could become a matter of legitimate concern.

Who knows, for instance, whether I’m going to lose my job working for a charity in Sheffield? With all the cuts going on right now to public services, it might happen and I need to be aware of the possibility and see what I can do - as manager of the charity - to find alternative ways of funding our work and to position ourselves to attract whatever public funding still remains. But the fact is we might survive, just as we have survived before. And worrying unduly certainly won’t help and won’t add a single hour to my lifespan.

On the contrary, I have sometimes said to my colleagues in the past that, if God wants our work to continue, he will guide and inspire us to use our ingenuity to seize the opportunities that come our way. That’s what it means, I believe, to be a good leader. It’s about being open to the many ways in which God could be steering us in his efforts to bring comfort, and show compassion, to his people.

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