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.

Gardening volunteers

A group of six volunteers gathered this last week for a gardening retreat. Organised by Quaker Voluntary Action (QVA), they came from as far away as Glasgow and stayed from Wednesday to Sunday. Some slept in the Meeting House others stayed with local Friends.

They worked extremely hard each morning and most afternoons. They pruned overgrown shrubs and cleared nettles, ivy and other persistent weeds. A new herb bed was planted, a new wildflower area created, a leaf-storage area constructed and a spiral meditation walk created out of cobbles. Perhaps the most demanding job was lifting the gravestones and re-laying them over fabric to suppress the weeds.

Among the new plants were cotoneaster, which will provide ground cover, and Hebe to replace one that has died in the drought last year. They also put in the herb area some lavender, rosemary, thyme and sage.

The volunteers shared in Sunday morning Meeting for Worship before returning home. Our heartfelt thanks for their hard work, which has transformed the garden.

Week of Prayer for Christian Unity United Service 20.1.2019

The Leighton-Linslade Churches Together Service to mark the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity will be held at the Friends Meeting House on Sunday 20th January 2019 at 3.30pm.

This is an annual opportunity for Christians to meet together and express their commitment to seek unity. This year the material for the service comes from Christians in Indonesia. The theme is ‘Justice and only justice you shall pursue’. Indonesia is a very diverse country and unity is valued, but there are huge gaps between rich and poor, and some antagonism between different groups.

One of the reflections for individual use during the eight days of Prayer is …

If I am to speak truth to power, whose truth do I speak?
Whose justice do I seek in the space between my right-ness and that of the ‘other’?
If I say ‘yes’ to justice, does that make it all mine?
What of the grey between the emphatics?

Let me declare boldly, sure-footedly that my yes is a “yes-yes”, and my no is “no”.’  Says Jesus. ‘Let me draw clarity in the sand that defines and refines knowledge, truth and tales in such a way that all are sure. ‘Let me dwell deep in the place within
where, regardless of the outward form you know beyond doubt’s shadow,
that truth and justice, peace and righteousness lie.
‘And let me, in my boldness turn widdershins the hypocrisy of
those who confuse integrity with fake-ness,
who obscure truth with falsehood and call it news.
‘Let me boldly be good news.’