Open to me the gates of righteousness,
that I may enter through them and give thanks to the LORD.
This is the Lord’s doing;
it is marvelous in our eyes.
The LORD is God, and he has given us light.
Bind the festal procession with branches, up to the horns of the altar.
You are my God, and I will give thanks to you;
you are my God, I will extol you.
O give thanks to the LORD, for he is good,
for his steadfast love endures forever.Psalm 118:19, 23, 26-28
On 11th March it was the 10th anniversary of the Japanese Earthquake and Tsunami which caused much devastation in small fishing communities up and down Japan’s Pacific coast. By the time I visited some of these communities in November 2011, quite a bit of progress had been made in rebuilding facilities and infrastructure, though there was still much to do in restoring people’s homes and livelihoods.
Given the scale of the damage and disruption to people’s lives, I wondered how hope had emerged from all the chaos and despair. In discussion with several Japanese people, what emerged was that a crucial factor was the timing. The Tsunami hit just before the arrival of the ‘sakura-zensen” the ‘cherry blossom front’.
In Japan the arrival of the cherry blossom (sakura) is greeted with great reverence, with people camping out for several days so as to be in the best place when it happens. There are parties (hanami parties) with groups of family or friends picnicking under trees laden with blossom. There’s a virtual wave as the sakura-zensen which sweeps north from the southern island of Kyushu in early March up through the main archipelago to Hokkaido in the north by some time in May. Daily reports of the location of the sakura-zensen are broadcast on the news, so that people can track it’s progress and be ready for it when it arrives.
The meaning and significance of cherry blossom in Japan runs deep, making the country’s national flower a cultural icon revered not just for its beauty, but for its enduring symbolism. Cherry blossom symbolises for them, life, death and renewal, and the delicate balance between the fragility and impermanence of our existence and new life and hope. Sakura are have been revered for many centuries in Japanese folk religions, as a symbol of rebirth, believed to represent the mountain deities that transformed into the gods of rice paddies and guaranteed the year’s harvest.
Sakura have therefore always signalled the beginning of spring, a time of renewal and optimism. So with the blooming in 2011 coming shortly after the tsunami, it engendered this spirit of optimism and renewal bringing with it new hope and new dreams. When cherry blossoms are in full bloom, the future is bursting with possibilities. When the Japanese gather under the cherry blossom trees each year, they’re also commemorating the loss of loved ones and reflecting on their own lives with a sense of wonder whilst also laying aside the disappointments of the past to focus on a promising new start.
Given all that has happened over the last year, as we celebrate the Resurrection of Christ, let us likewise look forward with hope and optimism, laying aside our own disappointments and looking forward to all the new possibilities together in Christ.
In the NIV translation of the Bible, Psalm 68:5 is rendered
“A father to the fatherless, a defender of widows, is God in his holy dwelling.”Psalm 68:5
And it is these words that inspired Graham Kendrick to write his worship song “Father Me (O father of the fatherless)”.
Well if God may be described as “Father to the Fatherless”, then why not also “Mother to the Motherless”?
In this time when women are very much in our minds: International Women’s Day last week, the murder of Sarah Everard and the vigils and calls for action that have followed, a study of Scripture reveals the many ways in which God is described as like a Woman or a Mother.
Here are a selection of examples to reflect on as we all consider the implications of the events of the last week or two:
Women and men are both created in the image of God
“Humankind was created as God’s reflection: in the divine image God created them; female and male, God made them.”Genesis 1:27
God is described as a Mother eagle
“Like the eagle that stirs up its nest, and hovers over its young, God spreads wings to catch you, and carries you on pinions.”Deuteronomy 32:11-12
It’s God who gives birth
“You were unmindful of the Rock that bore you; you forgot the God who gave you birth.”Deuteronomy 32:18
God is described as a Mother
“Yet it was I who taught Ephraim to walk, I who took them up in my arms; but they did not know that I healed them. I led them with cords of human kindness, with bands of love. I was to them like those who lift infants to their cheeks. I bent down to them and fed them.”Hosea 11:3-4
God is described as a Mother bear
“Like a bear robbed of her cubs, I will attack them and tear them asunder…”Hosea 13:8
God is as a Woman in labour
“For a long time I have held my peace, I have kept myself still and restrained myself; now I will cry out like a woman in labour, I will gasp and pant.”Isaiah 42:14
God is compared to a nursing Mother
“Can a woman forget her nursing child, or show no compassion for the child of her womb? Even these may forget, yet I will not forget you.”Isaiah 49:15
God’s described as a comforting Mother
“As a mother comforts her child, so I will comfort you; you shall be comforted in Jerusalem.”Isaiah 66:13
God likened to a Woman
“As the eyes of a servant looks to the hand of their master, as the eyes of a maid to the hand of her mistress, so our eyes look to you, YHWH, until you show us your mercy!”Psalm 123:2-3
God is described as a Mother
“But I’ve calmed and quieted my soul, like a weaned child with its mother; my soul is like the weaned child that is with me.”Psalm 131:2
Jesus likens God to a Mother hen
“Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!”Matthew 23:37 & Luke 13:34
Jesus likens God to a Woman who’s lost a coin
“Or what woman having ten silver coins, is she loses one of them, does not light a lamp, sweep the house, and search carefully until she finds it? When she has found it, she calls together her friends and neighbours saying, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found the coin that I had lost.’ ”Luke 15:8-10
A huge thank you to all those who lovingly prepared the Mothering Sunday posies (pictured above), those who kindly supplied the flowers and greenery and those who have given their time to distribute and are continuing to distribute them far and wide – it is much appreciated by everyone.
What happens when appreciation of the lament as a form of speech and faith is lost, as I think it is largely lost in contemporary usage? What happens when the speech forms that redress power distribution have been silenced and eliminated?
One loss that results from the absence of lament is the loss of genuine covenant interaction, since the second party to the covenant (the petitioner) has become voiceless or has a voice that is permitted to speak only praise and doxology.
Where lament is absent, covenant comes into being only as a celebration of joy and well-being. Or in political categories, the greater party is surrounded by subjects who are always “yes-men and women” from whom “never is heard a discouraging word.”
Since such a celebrative, consenting silence does not square with reality, covenant minus lament is finally a practice of denial, cover-up, and pretense, which sanctions social control.
Where the cry is not voiced, heaven is not moved and history is not initiated. The end is hopelessness.
Where the cry is seriously voiced, heaven may answer and earth may have a new chance. The new resolve in heaven and the new possibility on earth depend on the initiation of protest.“The Costly Loss of Lament” Walter Brueggemann
I expect that many of you, like me, have been feeling a profound sense of loss in relation to the many people, activities and freedoms that you have lost over the past year.
One day, when I was working at the University of Glasgow, I emerged from the building where I worked into the sunshine and encountered a colleague taking a break. As I greeted him there was something in the way he responded that indicated that a simple exchange of ‘good morning’ wasn’t enough. He then poured out a list of dreadful things that had happened in his family, ending by saying “I just want to yell at God”. “Well why don’t you?” I replied, to which he said “Is that allowed?”.
The answer is: “Of course its allowed, the people of the Hebrew Bible were doing it all the time”. You should have seen the look of relief on his face.
It’s now Lent and our Lent Study this year is ‘Lament and the Psalms’. Lament is a process for addressing what my colleague was feeling and also how I’ve been feeling, however it’s not just another way of being miserable. Lament has a discernable form and purpose, seen very clearly in the 40 or so Psalms of lament.
Firstly, the psalmist cries out to God in anguish, pain or despair, often unable to articulate exactly what’s wrong. A good example is verse 1 of Psalm 22, which Jesus quoted on the Cross – “My God my God why have you forsaken me?”. The psalmist just wants to be heard and helped.
Secondly, he lists one or more complaints, often pulling no punches and accompanied by a list of reasons why the complaints should be heard and responded to.
There follows a recollection of past times when God has come to the rescue and perhaps the realisation and trust that He might again this time. Finally the psalmist remembers the good times when they felt better about the world and this usually blossoms into thanksgiving and praise.
So lament is a process, which may take place over a period of hours, days, weeks or months, by which overwhelming sadness, grief and pain gradually transform into memory of and thanksgiving for the many good things experienced and received. Lament in the lands of the Bible isn’t primarily an individual process and is often communal. Some people may be sharing in the loss or anguish or grief directly, but there will be others lamenting with them to support them in the process. Of course we see this at work in many communities in the mourning that takes place when one of our own has been taken from us.
Lament can be a powerful process to help with any sense of loss, so give it a go, you’ll probably feel better for it. As Psalm 30 says: “Weeping may linger for the night, but joy comes with the morning.”
Whilst I’ve been writing this, the sun has come out, it’s started to feel quite warm and I’m beginning to remember the good times and trust God that they’ll return in some form.
I have been reading an important and fascinating book about the effects of human activity on the planet that we share. This book isn’t a long list of statistics and dire warnings; it contains no graphs or tables or maps. This is a book of stories, from individuals across the word; thirty-five stories in fact. They are stories told by Christians who have experienced some of the direct and indirect effects of man’s activities on their neighbourhoods, their environment and their way of life.
“Words for a Dying World” is, as it’s byline says, a collection of “Stories of Grief and Courage from the Global Church”. You can probably see why I find this book fascinating, but why do I think it’s important? The reason is, because these stories are told not as complaint, not to attribute blame and not as answers to specific problems, but as lament. In his story about his Grandma’s oil well, Kyle Lambelet writes:
“Lament is one of Scripture’s primary modes of prayer. The psalms are full of them. God laments over creation before the flood; Rachel weeps over her children; Jeremiah cries out in exile; Job denounces God’s abusive sovereignty. Laments are prayers at the end of human agency. They confront the reality of our situation in recognition that things are not as they should be.”“My Grandma’s Oil Well” Kyle Lambelet (in “Words for a Dying World“ ed Hannah Malcolm)
Lament is an important part of grieving and something which our current Western culture struggles with. Lament is a way of dealing with grief and, as Kyle says, was an important part of the culture of the peoples of the Old Testament. Lament names the grief, shares the grief in community, talks about that which is lost and acknowledges the loss. But as Hannah Malcolm the editor of this book says:
“We grieve the death of particular things, whether creatures or places, and, until we understand this, our relationship between others and ourselves, we will continue to flounder in slogans and simplifications. If grief is an expression of love, our grief takes on the shape of the places and creatures to whom we intimately belong.”“Introduction: The End of the World?” (in “Words for a Dying World“ ed Hannah Malcolm)
In the last year we have all experienced the loss of people, things, activities and important aspects of our lives, as a result of the global pandemic that is Covid-19. It is important for all of us to find the time and the place to name those losses in the company of others, and since each of us experiences an individual set of losses, and the same loss affects each of us in different ways, it’s important that we have the opportunity to share our stories and our sadness. But lament isn’t simply a maudlin introspection on what is no more, but it also allows us to work through our grief at the loss and see hope beyond it.
Our new Eucharistic Prayer for Lament affirms this in the following petition:
Glory and thanksgiving be to you,
most loving Father,
for you have redeemed us through your Son.
By his life and sacrificial death,SEC Eucharistic Prayer for Lament
he conquered the powers of darkness,
transforming our lament
and freeing us to praise you.
We learn from the psalms, that biblical lament comes in many forms. Some is directed toward an enemy; some toward God; some is individual and isolated; some is communal and comprehensive. Lament is a response to the full range of problems in the human condition. The psalms specifically name: isolation, shame, despair, danger, physical impairment, and death as cause for lament.
Lament may be a helpful way to reflected on any loss, and there are both personal and community aspects to that. With this in mind, our Lent Study this year will explore Lament, both in general and in particular and use the Psalms as an import source of helpful material.
I leave the final word to Hannah, as she writes in the conclusion:
“If we cannot bring ourselves to be truthful about our broken histories, or the current trauma we face and perpetuate, we cannot begin to heal. Survival, compassion, honesty. These are all good reasons to grieve. But the conviction that Christ’s resurrection marked the death of death also contains the hope that our works of love in the present are not consigned to destruction. They participate in a transformed future.”“Conclusion: World without End?” (in “Words for a Dying World“ ed Hannah Malcolm)
There is a phrase in common use just now that troubles me; “My life is on hold just now”. Now I’m no philosopher, but that doesn’t make sense to me. It sounds as though the life in question was on Netflix and you could just press the pause button and start life up again some time later. Our days are ticking away whether we are locked down, locked up or having a ball. The reality is ‘this is your life‘ even though Eamonn Andrews isn’t around with his big red book and things may not be exactly the way that you would wish them to be (twas ever thus).
This week there was “Good News” preached by politicians and screaming out in the headlines of newspapers. A vaccine for COVID has been approved for use in the UK by the regulator MHRA and the narrative has switched to “we can now starting living our lives again”. So what have such people been doing for the last nine months – hibernating?
Sadly I think there is going to be a lot of disappointment around for anyone who thinks that everything will revert to its pre-COVID state any time soon and that Pfizer/BioNTech or Oxford/AstroZenica have some magic potion to bring things back to normal, like an episode out of the tales of Hans Christian Anderson.
The Advent theme is that the time of promise is drawing to an end and the time of fulfilment is drawing near. For Isaiah, it’s the end of exile for Israelites in Babylon. For John the Baptist it’s the coming of Israel’s long-awaited Messiah. So what is it for us at the end of 2020, when people who want to ‘take their lives off hold’, see that long-awaited fulfilment as being delivery of a pharmaceutical?
Advent is Good News in the midst of the struggle. With the Good News of the Incarnation, God has already entered our struggles. He is himself Good News from the battle front, as it were. We hear the voice that commands us to prepare a way in the wilderness. But the way that we are urged to prepare is not our way. The way we are to prepare is the way of the Lord and that isn’t the same thing at all.
“For my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways, says the Lord. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.”Isaiah 55:8-9
Our lives are not on hold, we are not missing out, we are being given a unique opportunity to be in at the start of something far more wonderful than the arrival of a pharmaceutical that must be stored at minus 78 degrees and administered in batches of 975 doses!!
A week or so ago, I was chatting with someone with whom I reflect on ministry from time to time. We were discussing the challenges that we’re likely to face this Christmas. After a pause he asked me “OK so if you strip everything back, what really needs to be done at Christmas?”
I thought about it for a moment or two and said “Announce the Incarnation!” “Well”, he said, “What you need to do is to think about how you and your congregations can do that to the best of your abilities.”
So I thought, how do we usually do that? We prepare to do it throughout Advent as we remember successively week by week The Patriarchs (and Matriarchs), The Prophets, John the Baptist and The Virgin Mary as we light our Advent Candles. We hold Advent study groups so that we can think more deeply about some particular aspect of our faith. We have a collection for the Food Bank.
As we get to the end of Advent, we decorate our Church buildings with flowers, greenery, Christmas tree etc. and then set up our cribs. We sing advent hymns and Christmas Carols and we have Carol Services and join in services held jointly with the other denominations. Then on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day we have joyous celebrations of the Incarnation itself and usually welcome a fair number of visitors to our services.
We do all these things and we celebrate in our homes with food and other good things.
The question is, “how many of those things can we do this year?” The answer my sisters and brothers is “most of them”. The principle exception is the singing, but as those of you have been able to celebrate the Eucharist with us over the past four months know, we’ve replaced hymns by humns and our organists have been wonderful in keeping the familiar tunes flowing whilst we humn along. We’ll of course also not be able to meet up with so many people but we can phone them.
This year as any other year, we can share the Good News of Christ coming into our world as a tiny defenceless baby to be Emmanuel – God with us.
This year we face many challenges but it is worth reflecting, as the Christmas story unfolds, on the enormous challenges that Mary and Joseph and their baby faced that first Christmas. And as we do so, let us offer up our prayers for all new parents and their babies, may God be with them all, every step of the way.
They shall grow not old,
as we that are left grow old;
age shall not weary them,
nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning, we will remember them.
We will remember them.
Not to the work of sordid selfish saving
Of our own souls to dwell with Him on high,
But to the soldier’s splendid selfless braving,
Eager to fight for Righteousness and die.
Peace does not mean the end of all our striving,
Joy does not mean the drying of our tears;
Peace is the power that comes to souls arriving
Up to the light where God Himself appears.
Joy is the wine that God is ever pouring
Into the hearts of those who strive with Him,
Light’ning their eyes to vision and adoring,
Strength’ning their arms to warfare glad and grim.
So would I live and not in idle resting,
Stupid as swine that wallow in the mire;
Fain would I fight, and be for ever breasting
Danger and death for ever under fire.
Bread of Thy Body give me for my fighting,
Give me to drink Thy Sacred Blood for wine,
While there are wrongs that need me for the righting,
While there is warfare splendid and divine.
Give me, for light, the sunshine of Thy sorrow,
Give me, for shelter, shadow of Thy Cross;
Give me to share the glory of Thy morrow,
Gone from my heart the bitterness of Loss.
Part of “The Suffering God” by Geoffrey Anketell Studdert Kennedy (otherwise known as Woodbine Willie)