St Paul's Cathedral: Reflections for the third week of Easter
Be gracious to me, O Lord: Reflections for the third week of Easter
Specially-commissioned reflections on the wisdom of the psalms for a time of pandemic. The reflections this week are from members of the Tragedy and Congregations team www.tragedyandcongregations.org.uk
Be gracious to me, O Lord, for I am in distress.
Please read Psalm 31. 9-16
Although the Psalmist is writing in a very different context, there are extraordinary echoes for us here of our present situation, even being avoided in the street… The parallels are not exact, but verses 12-13 could have chilling resonances for some elderly people in care homes. Not that there is a plot to take their life, but some of the present public discourse implies that such lives have already been written off, are the inevitable and necessary casualties of the crisis.
And there is, buried or not so buried in many of us, terror, bound up in a strange way with grief at so much loss of opportunity, loss of intimacy. All sorts of things I planned for the next few months are gone; I live both with the frustration and sorrow of that, and also the real fear that being in a high-risk group I could be dead in a fortnight.
And yet, and yet, and yet, like so many lament psalms, this makes a turn to trust and to prayer. God is God, beyond knowing, and yet God has made himself known – we can cry out to him ‘You are my God’ – we can accept, and draw deep comfort from, a sense that our times are in his hands, and in all those times, nothing can separate us from his love (Rom. 8).
I am struck too by the way the beginning and end of this passage make links with that most ancient of blessings, the one from Numbers 6. I give it in the version I learned, long ago:
May the Lord bless you and keep you
May the Lord make his face to shine upon you, and be gracious unto you
May the Lord lift up the light of his countenance upon you, and give you his peace.
Come, bless the Lord
Please read Psalm 134
This is the final Song of Ascent, those psalms that pilgrims may have sung as they approached Jerusalem or the Temple districts. It is an invitation to prayer addressed to those who stand by night in the house of the Lord.
We are living in a kind of night now, as the pandemic eclipses life as it was before. What kinds of prayers are uttered in the night? Honest prayers. Vulnerable prayers. Prayers that groan or weep or wrestle. Prayers of gratitude. Prayers of earnest supplication. Real prayers.
The great gift of the psalms is that they invite and enable prayers we would not want heard in the light of day: earnest laments that explode with rage, tremble with fear or curse the source of our pain. We can even shake our fist towards God: Why have You allowed this to happen? God can hold it. It has all been prayed before. The relationship we are offered with the Holy is intimate and truthful; the veil of pretence has long been torn. And once we offer the raw pain of the real to the Source of our being, we may sense the quiet presence of the One whose love will not let us go.
As the days and weeks of this pandemic unfold, our emotions may surprise us and our losses confound us. Our patience is tested; we come to the end of our ropes. We snap. We struggle. We give thanks for small mercies. Through it all, through the destabilising uncertainties and unsettling “new normal”, we can rely on the reality that God is. The earth may rock, the nations may roar, but God remains, steadfast and sure, ready to catch our tears and set us on our feet, steady and strengthened to do what must be done.
Carla A. Grosch-Miller
Then thought I to understand this, but it was too hard for me
Please read Psalm 73
There’s a lot that’s not fair in the impact of this Covid-19 pandemic. It is not a ‘great leveller’ as many have claimed previously. Those who are poor, in crowded homes, in care homes, those from ethnic minority backgrounds and those suffering domestic abuse are disproportionately affected, to name but a few. And there are many, many more who have been personally affected with illness and bereavement, often alone in the cruellest of circumstances through no fault of their own.
One of the aspects of trauma is the shattering of our assumptions that life is basically safe and reliable, and that if we work hard and play fair, things will generally go well for us - our efforts will be rewarded. The psalmist cried out to God – it’s just not fair, where’s the justice in this? I keep faithful to you, I pray, I keep the commandments, and yet others who ignore you and ridicule me for believing in you, seem to be rewarded with good fortune far more than me?
It takes a lifetime to grow into what we were told in childhood – life isn’t fair. We wouldn’t be human if we didn’t rage about it sometimes. Only by doing that, by naming before God our anger about things, can we work through to a place of accepting what is, and find God meeting us in that place. ‘Then thought I to understand this, but it was too hard for me’ says the psalmist, ‘until I entered the sanctuary of God…’ (v16). As Jesus did in Gethsemane, bring your anguish, your confusion into God’s sanctuary, God’s presence, till it is spent, and your soul can begin to quiet in his presence and know;
‘Though my flesh and my heart fail me,
God is the strength of my heart and my portion for ever’ (v26).
Our perspective is shifted, and from that place of stillness and strength in God, we begin to move forwards to be and do what we can.
The heavens are telling the glory of God
Please read Psalm 19
My favourite psalm. But how does it speak to where we are this week? Well, first of all in disconcerting ways. Verses 1-6 speak of the great cosmic song of nature. We know this song can be very violent – as is often said, we ourselves are made from the dusts of stars, and those stars exploded with inconceivable force. And this violence of natural processes has come very close to us this year. We fear it, as many modern First World people have forgotten to fear nature.
The psalm says there is a great unheard song to nature (vv. 3-4), a song in a language we cannot make out, and the psalm says that, paradoxical as this must seem, the song cries out ‘Glory!’ The cosmos in all its violence and threat and harmony and beauty speaks of the unimaginable power and fecundity of God’s creation.
Then the psalm makes a strange turn, and starts talking about God’s law. The English here is misleading: ‘Torah’ here is much closer to ‘Bible’. God has written us a song on a human scale, a song of what right living looks like (and sent Jesus to sing it to us). This is the song of wisdom and the fear of the Lord, ‘sweeter than honey/quintessence of bees’ (in Robert Alter’s translation).
Within the cosmic anthem is our own small song, a song of prayer, for only God can guard our wisdom against our unwitting sins. And the prayer is summed up in the last verse:
Let the words of my mouth (and my emails, my Zooms, my Tik Tok and my texts)
and the meditation of my heart (literally the murmuring of my heart)
be acceptable to you, O Lord, my rock and my redeemer.
Wherever we are, however un-wise we feel, and however strong or weak the murmuring of the hearts of those we love, let that be our prayer today.
The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want
Please read Psalm 23.
You may be able recite this psalm by heart. And, like me, you may have prayed it at the bedside of the dying, chanted it in a quiet sanctuary or entreated it earnestly to yourself in times of trouble. The words flow into and over us as balm to our souls. We breathe deeply the green of the pasture. Our heartbeat slows as we approach the still waters. We drink deeply of the assurance of God who fears neither death nor dark valleys, who leads us on a right path even through disasters. We sit at the table and know that there is enough, there is more than enough. The blessing hand has been laid on our shoulders; our cup overflows. Surely, goodness and mercy.
Psalm 23 is ballast for trying times. These days we need all the ballast we can get. We need the breath of peace, the kind that passes understanding, the kind the Good Shepherd breathed on his disciples in his post-resurrection appearances. We need the clear, cool stream of living water he poured into the thirsty woman’s cup. We need the green, the growing newness of spring - life emerging from the empty tomb, that feeds body and soul.
When the world is topsy-turvy, when our own homes may feel like a prison, when the news is bad and the shadows are long, we are reminded of where our true Home lies. It lies in the hands of God who made heaven and earth, who walked amongst us and bore the worst humanity could dish out, who even now sighs too deep for words. Good Shepherd, Host and Friend, be with us now and forevermore.
Carla A. Grosch-Miller
The reflections this week are from members of the Tragedy and Congregations team. www.tragedyandcongregations.org.uk