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. 

Psalm 100

This is a song of joy. A celebration of all that is good and wonderful. It is a hymn of praise to be sung not just by people, but by the whole earth, all that is.  There are times when we are filled with joy and want to celebrate together. This psalm expresses that experience. One version of this psalm begins with the word, Jubilate, which means to show or feel great joy, to exult, to celebrate.

The psalm comes from a people whose history was filled with tragedy. It has stories of slavey and exile, of persecution and occupation by alien forces. Many psalms reflect this hard and painful history. But this poem is one which remembers the good times, the assurance of blessing and grace that comes from a deep sense of identity as a special people. It may have been a song to sing in gratitude.  It reminds me of the phrase from the Desiderata, ‘you are a child of the universe, no less than the trees or the stars’. Everyone, every living thing, the whole cosmos is part of something wonderful and amazing. 

In Jewish, Christian and Islamic faiths this song would be an invitation to sing praise to ‘God’.  But in Jewish tradition the name of the divine would not be spoken, so when reading the scriptures the reader would substitute another word. The letters which represents the divine name are sometimes shown as YHWH. This is often spoken as Adonai, or in English hymns as Jehovah. In many versions of the Bible it is written as LORD, always in capital letters. Perhaps this helps us to avoid thinking that we can know the divine. ‘God’ cannot be captured by a word or a place, but always is more than we can comprehend. 

For British Quakers singing in worship is not very common. Nearly always worship is a silent expectant waiting, and no words are necessary.  But, sometimes someone is moved to speak, and now and again someone will sing. Quakers value each person’s experience, so even if the words or songs do not seems relevant to your own present circumstances the ministry is accepted. And it is likely that not everyone will feel the urge to shout for joy at the same time. We come to worship with our own peculiar needs and hopes. But a song of joy can bring light and love into our hearts. 

There have been many versions of the psalm and many different tunes used to sing it. One old favourite is the Scottish Psalter version, “All people that on earth do dwell”, sung to the tune ’Old Hundredth’.  A more modern version is “Jubilate Deo”

Some Quakers prefer not to use the word ‘God’ at all, because of the different ways it is understood. For them and others I offer this version of the psalm. 

Shout for joy all the earth.
In wonder, be glad.
Gather with songs of joy.
We are children of the universe, one people.
So unite in giving thanks, and join in celebration.
At the heart of the universe there is goodness and love
which will never end. 

The Old Song Book

In the forty days of preparation for Easter, the season of Lent starting on 26th February, Churches Together are going to be looking at the old songs of the Bible, the Psalms. There are 150 Psalms collected in the Book of that name and others scattered through the Bible. They have been inspiring and comforting people for thousands of years. They have often been turned into songs or hymns. Some of them are full  of thanksgiving and praise like Psalm 100. ‘Shout for joy!’, or in a traditional hymn version, ‘All people that on earth do dwell, sing!’or a modern version, ‘Jubilate, everybody!’. 

Some are comforting, expressing trust in God, and often were sung at funerals, such as the 23rd Psalm, ‘The Lord is my shepherd; I’ll not want.’ This particular psalm shows clearly a common style of poetry, that of parallelism. The same idea is expressed in two ways, one after the other. ‘He makes me lie down in green pastures; he leads me beside still waters.’

Some psalms were used on special occasions, for festivals and processions. There is a series of them, 120-134,  called ‘songs of ascent’ which were probably sung as people approached the temple. Typical is, ‘I was glad when they said to me, “Let us go to the house of the Lord!” (Psalm 122). All of these are hopeful, and one of my favourite verses is ‘How very good and pleasant it is when kindred live together in unity!’(133).

Not all are cheerful. Many ask searching questions, and express pain and despair. One feature, not always appreciated, is that there is often a turning point part way through the Psalm, when for example, a complaint becomes an avowal of trust. Psalm 13 is a good example. It begins, 

How long will you hide your face from me? How long, O Lord?
Will you forget me forever? How long must I bear pain in my soul, and have sorrow in my heart all day long?

Then it ends, with,

But I trusted in your steadfast love; my heart shall rejoice in your salvation. I will sing to the Lord, because he has dealt bountifully with me.

Writing psalms did not stop when the contents of Bible as we know it were finally agreed. Songs and hymns continue to be composed, expressing the whole range of human emotions. In fact you could write your own psalm, expressing your own faith whatever it is. Or find a song that expresses your feelings and let it fill you with joy, or longing, or be a way of shouting your frustration. Perhaps each week you could choose a Psalm or song to help you look forward. The Psalms are not just for the past but also for the present. 

An Empty chair

Sometimes it seems we can’t all sit down together in unity around the table. Though the days between the saints days of Peter and Paul, 18th and 25th January, are set aside by the Churches  for prayer for unity, the sadness for me is that we are not united. Christians are divided by beliefs and practices, by historical conflicts and present day differences about sexuality.

Unity, of course, does not mean that we all have to believe the same thing or worship in the same way.  But I think it should mean that we respect and accept each other. Recently the divisions have been revealed in the empty chair when the Presidents of Churches Together in England meet.

There are six presidents representing the different strands of Christianity in this country. They each sign a Covenant which describes their commitment to each other and to the churches in England. They meet regularly and liaise on a wide variety of issues of common interest and concern. Their meetings are facilitated by Paul Goodliff, General Secretary of CTE. If you visit the CTE website you will see that one President is missing.

  (https://www.cte.org.uk/Groups/234710/Home/About/Presidents/Presidents.aspx)

The other five are all men. The missing one is a woman, Hannah Brock Womack, an active Quaker, a young, radical peace activist, who campaigns against the arms trade and works in the voluntary sector, and  who is in a same sex marriage. She was chosen to represent the Fourth Presidency group of churches.  A statement on the website says,

“churches hold different views regarding human sexuality, and that for many this is a very emotive and painful subject… the Enabling Group, have recently requested the Fourth Presidency Group to refrain from enacting its Presidency at this time, leaving the Fourth Presidency as an ‘empty chair’ for the current term of office. This empty chair represents the lack of agreement within the churches in England regarding human sexuality, and the reality that this dimension of the churches’ pilgrimage together is not yet complete.“

Quakers, who regard everyone as equal in the sight of God, have expressed their distress at this lack of inclusivity. Paul Parker, Recording Clerk for Quakers in Britain said, “This is a deeply sad decision….As Quakers, we are called to answer that of God in everyone. We recognise the inherent worth of each person. That leads us to welcome all committed same-sex relationships as equally as committed opposite-sex relationships. We value equally all people, regardless of sexuality or other defining characteristics. These characteristics are not the right way to decide if someone is right to serve as our CTE President.”

The empty chair is there, not because someone does not want to be involved, but because they have been excluded. It is sad that we cannot sit down together round the table.

‘Twas the Night Before…

Not knowing what is going to happen can produce all sorts of feelings, such as worry, hope, desperation, confidence, resignation, determination, excitement and so on. The ‘night before’ can last a long time. Sleeplessness can lead to hours spent thinking about possible outcomes. Anticipation could build up to excited expectation or fear of failure. The suspense can be filled with nightmares of things that could go wrong or dreams of glittering success.

We don’t know what it was like for Mary, the night before Jesus was born. The stories we have are not meant to be biographical accounts but ways of expressing the importance of who Jesus was. If Jesus was Mary’s first child, then there was probably some anxiety as well as hope. Giving birth then  was, and still is in some cases, a significant risk to the life of mother and the unborn child. A safe delivery would be greeted with joy and relief. 

For us the Christmas story does not hold that sense of the unknown. It is not a matter of uncertainty, nor is it unpredictable. It is probably familiar to most of us, even if it is surrounded by so much embellishment and the weight of centuries of interpretation.

Contrast that with the experience we can look forward to of New Year’s Eve.  This is a situation where we do not know what will happen next year. It is unpredictable, uncertain and for many it will be filled with a mixture of anxiety and hope. The approach of a new decade, the ‘twenties’, holds contrasting possibilities. It will be a crucial decade for responses to the climate emergency. Changing weather patterns are likely to be more disruptive than ever. Politically, it is likely to be a period of turmoil with so many places experiencing unrest, confrontation, and violence. But there are also reasons for hope, for example in the attitude of young people to our global circumstances. Goodness and kindness will not disappear, nor will the willingness of many to be good neighbours to those in need. 

In fact, it is the thought that ‘kindness produces wonders’ that gives me hope. If we can be kind not only to those who are kind to us, but also to those with whom we disagree, and those who are different from us, then there is a possibility of wonderful changes happening. Friendships can blossom, hostility can be replaced with trust, and ways of cooperating can lead to peace.

When we find ourselves going through the ‘night before’ and filled with conflicting emotions, perhaps we can resolve to be kind to ourselves and to others, whatever happens. We may be pleasantly surprised with the wonders that unfold.