All posts by Terry Oakley

Meetings for Worship

We held our first Meeting for Worship together today since March. There were six of us in the pleasant surroundings of the garden, bathed in sunlight and blessed with birdsong. The flowers in the courtyard are wonderful, thanks to Mary.

Having carried out a risk assessment and put in place posters about safety during COVID-19 and provided for hand-washing or sanitiser, and markings for social distancing etc., we are able to resume weekly Meetings for Worship, outdoor for preference, but indoors if the weather is not kind. We will be limited to eight people if we move indoors, so registration with the Clerk is necessary. The kitchen will not be used nor will there be anything that is normally shared, such as books. The cleaning regime for the Meeting House and particularly the toilets will be considered with our cleaner this week. They’re will be a one way system operating when we meet indoors, so please follow the guidance of the welcomers. We are not planning to re-open for any other groups before September at the earliest.

We continue to care for each other and keep in touch by phone and email. Please contact Adela or Jackie our Overseers with any concerns.

Flower display by the south wall
Flowers in the courtyard trough
Flowers by the front corner

Charitable giving

Charitable giving

Charity at its heart is a gift of love. 

There has been much publicity recently about people raising huge sums for Charity, Captain Tom Moore among them. However, at the same time many established charities are struggling because their usual sources are drying up. Kids Out is a local example. Christian Aid Week in May has been the major way in which that Charity has raised the bulk of its funds for many years until recently. Door to door collections was the normal method, though it has proved more and more challenging recently and during the Coronavirus lockdown is not possible. 

Churches and all faith groups are also feeling the pinch of reduced income because normal activities have been prohibited. Many rely on a weekly collection – the offertory –  during worship. Sometimes this is called ‘free-will’ offering. It is an expression of thankfulness, a ‘love-gift’. Although there can be an element of duty when it is regarded as a necessary part of believing, as when a tithe (tenth) is expected, or when almsgiving is a pillar of faith. 

Many people have their favourite Charity, which they support regularly, which could be anything from a hospice (which is likely to be really struggling at the moment) to a refuge for ill-treated animals. National fund-raising events such as Children in Need raise millions each years by appealing to our sympathy for the plight of the most vulnerable. Sponsored sports events such as the London marathon give benefits to the runners as well as to the charities they support. 

All of this money-raising effort for Charity enables good work to be done. However, there is a question as to whether some needs should be met by Government funding, which is raised though taxation, rather than by charitable giving. Should we need to rely on money raised through charitable giving for the National Health Service or should it be fully funded as part of our national infrastructure? Often the work of charities is to do extra and supplementary work over and beyond the basic care we offer. But it could also be seen as merely papering over the cracks, rather than dealing with the underlying issue. Proper funding requires Government action. 

Another issue about charitable or faith based giving is whether it is spontaneous, ‘from the heart’, or pre-determined. Is one better than the other? Many worshippers now contribute by direct debit or by other regular payments, and this enables greater confidence in making plans for further action and service. But there are some who view this as duty and regard a second gift or a thank-offering as a more genuine expression of faith. 

Charitable giving is not just about giving our ‘tithe’ or our duty, it is about offering our whole selves, everything we have in service. If love is our motive, then it requires our all, not just the little extra we think we can afford. Our whole life is a love gift, received and given!

Wise or Foolish?

What counts as wisdom these days? And what is folly? April 1st is a traditional day to make a fool of someone, though that is not a practice to encourage. Perhaps it is wiser to recognise our own folly and admit it on All Fools Day. 

The Hebrew Scriptures, on which Christianity draws, is composed of three parts: Law, Prophets and Wisdom. Books such as Proverbs and Job are amongst the collection of received wisdom. Folly and Wisdom are often contrasted in the collection of sayings in Proverbs. There are many warnings about thinking that you are wise, for example, “Do you see someone wise in their own eyes? There is more hope for a fool than for them.” (Proverbs 26:12). In the teaching of Jesus there are elements of this wisdom tradition, like the parable of the wise and foolish who build their houses, one on rock and the other on sand (Matthew 7.24-29).

So what is wisdom and what is foolish? One of the key features of the Hebrew Scriptures is the teaching that we should care for those who are vulnerable, such as orphans, widows and strangers. To be merely concerned about yourself and your wealth is not wise. Jesus takes up this idea in the parable of the rich man who thought he could store up his wealth and live an easy life, eating and drinking and being merry, only to die a sudden death (Luke 12.18). Jesus also teaches that it is important to care for the ‘little ones’ by which he meant not just children but those who are vulnerable and at risk.

One of the wonderful aspects of the current pandemic is the way that people are showing a concern for their neighbours who might be at risk. This is true wisdom. Whereas the panic about stocking up on toilet rolls or the worry about the stock markets may well be folly. Discovering that what is really important is our relationships with each other, this I suggest, is wisdom. Thinking that we can exist by our own efforts, I believe, is foolish. 

Often the wisdom of ‘the world’ is set against the wisdom of the Gospel. ‘The World’ in this context means the system of thinking and behaving that puts oneself and money at the heart of things. In the scriptures this is judged to be folly. The Good News is that love and justice will be given to the  poor and oppressed. Sayings such as ‘the last will be first’, and ‘how splendid are the humble’ show what Gospel wisdom is. 

So, on All Fools Day, and everyday, we could show our love and concern for those who are in desperate need, whether they ‘deserve it or not’. Such folly is the mark of the wise.

Psalm 127

A song of ascent of Solomon

I find this a difficult Psalm. 

Within the boundaries of a traditional religious culture it appears to offer assurance and promise. It says, “ God will grant you security and peace. Through the gift of children you will be blessed in your old age.”  

First, some reflections on the different parts of the psalm.

  • Perhaps it is the way the psalm begins with the idea of building a house that makes the connection with Solomon in the Psalm’s title. Solomon who is remembered as the wise king who built the great temple and extended the power of the nation. There is a strong element in the tradition, however, of not relying on your own strength, but trusting instead on the steadfast loving-kindness of God. The history of the Israelites was nearly always precarious, sitting between two great powerful empires. The Egyptians to the southeast and the Babylonian/Assyrian empire to the northwest. Prophets often warned against playing power politics and thinking this would keep the nation safe. They spoke instead of being faithful to God, caring for neighbours and pursuing justice for the poor. This was the only guarantee of God’s favour. 
  • The second part of the psalm expresses the tradition of the value of family and children. There is an inbuilt assumption of the father being the head of the household, and the value of ‘sons’. The reverse, of course, is the prejudice against those women who could not have children, and the lesser regard for daughters. It always seems to be the woman’s fault! The patriarchy of past cultures still lingers in many places. Often the contribution of women is hidden, and the place of women demeaned. And so the scriptures need to be read with eyes that see beyond this particular cultural feature. 
  • It helps to know when there is a reference to the ‘gate’, that this was the traditional place for seeking and finding justice. It was the place to take a dispute and have it judged. Of course the powerful could corrupt even this place of justice,  nor was the King above temptation to use force to gain his own ends. But there were often those who would stand up for the poor and confront even the most powerful, like Nathan speaking to King David. 

In thinking about this psalm, it helps me to remember that we can learn from the Bible without having to assume that it is always right. So the warning that working hard will not lead to contentment or happiness can be accepted without going to the extreme of thinking that there is nothing we can do except rely on divine favour.  

Perhaps the other lesson I take from this psalm, is that it is for pilgrimage, or journeying. It is not the last and final word. As we travel on we find new insights, see deeper into the truth and have to be ready to change our understanding and behaviour. Sometimes we have to wrestle with the scriptures and hope that what we gain is truth.

Terry Oakley 29.3.2020

Psalm 23

The shepherd looking after the sheep is one of the most familiar metaphors in the Bible. 

For most people this is a comforting and reassuring psalm, based on God’s constant and loving care. 

God is the good shepherd. In the prophets Jeremiah and Ezekiel God’s care is contrasted with those who are hired to do the work but whose heart is not in it, and who are likely to abandon their charges if danger threatens. 

Though this is an old poem its imagery is often used in Christian contexts. For example, ‘you spread a table before me’ is frequently used as a reference to Communion. This is a common feature of the Christian use of the Hebrew Scriptures. But it can result in the original context being ignored and other meanings lost. In Psalm 23 where the theme is of care for sheep, the table could represent the pasture that the sheep feed on and to which the shepherd leads them. This same pasture that could be threatened by predators, from whom the shepherd defends the flock. 

On a stylistic note this psalm is one of the clearest examples of parallelism. Each phrase is repeated in a slightly different form to emphasise its meaning. ‘The Lord is my shepherd’ is matched with ‘l shall not want’. 

But what does it mean if we are the sheep? Like all metaphors this idea of sheep and shepherd has its limits. I have always been unable to escape the reality that the sheep are in the end for the benefit of humans. Their wool for clothing and their bodies for food! More worrying for me is the idea that we can leave everything to an all-powerful protector. This does not ring true to my experience. Nor would I want it to. We have capabilities and responsibilities which we should exercise, including looking after each other. Yes, there are things beyond our control, but I hope we have long passed the age when we offer sacrifices to appease the ‘gods’ so that we will be kept safe. 

Singing the 23rd Psalm has been such significant a part of my life and to the spiritual journeys of millions of Jews and Christians that it is hard to get beyond the emotional impact it has had. In times of oppression, extreme hardship and mental anguish it offers hope and comfort. But it is dangerous to make it the sole expression of our faith. It is, for example, a long way from ‘take up your cross and follow me’!  This closer to the image in Isaiah of the sheep that is led to the slaughter for the sake of others. Here the message is a sacrifice that makes whole. (This metaphor too has its limits.) 

What might it mean to be a shepherd? Being a carer for others has a long and strong tradition within religious movements. ‘Shepherding’ in this sense is commendable. But the danger always lies in the (absolute?) power that the shepherd has over the sheep. I much prefer the encouragement to ‘love one another’ and to be a ‘good neighbour’, which are mutual responsibilities. 

Psalm 23 is no longer a song I can sing comfortably. 

Psalm 13. How long?

How long will I not see your face? 
Will I be forgotten for ever?

How long must I live alone with with my thoughts
and day after day have sorrow in my heart? 

How long will my enemy triumph over me? 
Look at me and give me a response.

Let the light of hope be in my eyes; 
or despair will overtake me.

The enemy will claim the victory. 
No one will miss me when I am gone. 

But I trust in unfailing love; 
my heart rejoices within the caring community.

I will sing the praise, 
of all who are  good and faithful.

(A free interpretation)

One of the features of the Psalms is that they can become relevant in many different times and places; in all sorts of circumstances they can speak to our condition. In this psalm as in others the traditional style of parallelism is marked. The pairs of lines repeat one idea in two slightly different ways. This reinforces the message – the question of why we struggle. But by the end, as in so many psalms, there comes a turning point of trust, hope and love.

In the middle of a global pandemic the question, “How long?”  feels terribly pertinent, especially to the over seventies in the world’s population. Knowing that we are at risk of a potentially fatal infection and being encouraged to remain in isolation makes it feel like there is an enemy out there determined to get us. 

We can feel alone and rejected. The prospect of a prolonged incarceration can look like a prison sentence. There may appear to be no end in sight to fear and worry. It can seem like the odds are against us. In fact everything seems to be against us. In these circumstances it is natural to cry out for help, to extend a plea for someone to hear and protect us; for someone to understand and offer a way forward. 

Then there is  a rediscovery of hope. From somewhere comes a determination to go on. Perhaps we remember previous trials that have been overcome; or help that came when we needed it, unlooked for assistance. Just now I have received an email from a young mum offering to run errands for the older members of the meeting, someone to talk to open the telephone, a friend indeed.

Of course there are other global threats which are also urgent and frighteningly challenging. The Climate Crisis is still with us even if other news has pushed it off the front pages. It too appears to be a overwhelmingly powerful enemy. It provokes fear for the future and a sense of loss of many precious things. How long will the effects of global warming last? What will be the social, economic and political effects of the oceans rising and extreme weather events?

Can we find hope here as well? Will the global human response be to work together or make everyone seek their own safety? In fact are the two crises linked by the way we respond to them? Will selfishness win or community care be our salvation?

We can hold on to the love we know exists between people. We can show to others the kindness that we have been shown in the past. We can pass on the favours that we have been given to enable others to find peace. Do we trust in the heart of the universe; do we believe that love is the heart and soul of everything that is? That is the message of this psalm?

Terry Oakley

Psalm 130

This is a poem expressing regret, penitence and a deep desire for forgiveness.

It is often referred to as a penitential psalm. It is also one of the psalms sung in procession; ‘a song of ascent’. For many years it has also been named ‘De profundis’.  It is a cry for mercy both on the part of the individual and also for the nation. It expresses a profound conviction that there can be forgiveness, restoration and a new start.

‘The depths’ can be a metaphor for the  deepest place within oneself, the core of our being, the heart of who we are. And it can also be a way of speaking about the terrible predicament that we can find ourselves in after tragedy, disaster or a  terrible crime. It can be a way of expressing an overwhelming depression. But the psalm moves from this pit of despair towards hope. We do not have to be permanently cut off from all that is good and true, lovely and beautiful. It may take time, waiting for that new day to arrive, the dawn of a new life, but it will come.

Perhaps there is a contrast  and a challenge in this psalm against the listing and maintaining of faults and failings which can often characterise our social and legal systems. Even if society will not forgive, at the most important level there can be a recovery of self worth and a confidence that we are loved and cherished. 

The understanding of the character of ‘God’ has varied over time. Sometimes the idea of a powerful force might be dominant. El shaddai – the god of hosts, or ‘the kind and compassionate’ is an early name found in the scriptures. El elyon ‘most high’ is another. Elohim carries the meaning of a number of ‘gods’. At some point in their history Israelites stopped speaking the name of their God or having any representations of YHWH. Adonai –  אֲדֹנָי֘ – is usually written and spoken instead of LORD – יְהֹוָֽה.

Some gather the idea from the scriptures that god is judgemental and strict, a righteous disciplinarian. Others find faith in a compassionate and loving god. The psalmist believes that god expects truth and integrity, upholding the law and being faithful, but also tempers justice with mercy, and wants the wellbeing of people. 

For those who conceive of the universe without god, this psalm can still speak to a condition of feeling guilty, ashamed, or having broken ones own standards and betrayed ones own  values. Sometimes it feels important to have own sense of worth affirmed by others. But equally, it is important to be able to find forgiveness of oneself. After the long night, the dawn of hope brings fresh promise.