Saturday, 23 May 2015

Surviving the Pit

Finding Help in the Psalms of Lament

There are times when we are in the pit: it might be clinical depression, but it also might be exhaustion, bereavement, stress, betrayal, abandonment, hatred, humiliation, failure, frustration, sickness, facing old age and having those things that we put our trust in stripped away from us, deep disappointment etc.
How does the pit language of the Psalms help us when we are in the pit?
They are also known as the Psalms of lament or the songs of disarray.
The key Psalms are 88, 56, 69, 102
Psalms 40 and 103 are about how God rescued us from the pit

1. The pit as death:
Pit = Sheol. Place of death, of non-being. It is defined by being the place of the non-praise of God.
Psalm 6.5, ‘For in death there is no remembrance of you; in Sheol who can give you praise?’
Psalm 30.9, ‘What profit is there in my death, if I go down to the Pit? Will the dust praise you? Will it tell of your faithfulness?’
[Is 38.18, For Sheol cannot thank you, death cannot praise you; those who go down to the Pit cannot hope for your faithfulness’.]
Psalm 88.10ff, ‘Do you work wonders for the dead? Do the shades rise up to praise you? Is your steadfast love declared in the grave, or your faithfulness in Abaddon? Are your wonders known in the darkness, or your saving help in the land of forgetfulness?’ 
[Psalm 88 is the pit Psalm]

When the Psalmist speaks of being close to the pit, he is saying that he is close to death (either because of illness, or his enemies threaten him with death). 
But the pit is also seen to be the place of divine judgement, of God forsakenness. It is the place where God is not.

2. The pit as a particular experience:

The historical titles are almost certainly added in later, but they do recognise that many of the Psalms will have been initially grounded in a concrete experience (see chart of David's life experiences - the peaks and pits - with those Psalms which have titles that relate to particular incidents in his life).

Similar to experience of Jeremiah: Jer 38:6, ‘So they took Jeremiah and threw him into the cistern of Malchiah, the kings son, which was in the court of the guard, letting Jeremiah down by ropes. Now there was now water in the cistern, but only mud, and Jeremiah sunk in the mud’ 

Jesus in prison: St Peter Gallicantu, Jerusalem. On site of High Priest’s house, with its cells below. Probably the place where Jesus was imprisoned. The deepest cell, which was accessible only by a hole in the ceiling, has a book in which Psalm 88 is written in 50 different languages. 
3. The pit as a universal experience. 
Piper on Ps 40, being in the pit: ‘So perhaps what we are to imagine is falling into a well and sinking deep in the sludge at the bottom and going deeper every time we try to lift a foot and then all of a sudden there is roaring water coming from somewhere and it rushes around us in the dark. And then comes the sense of helplessness and desperation, and all of a sudden air, just air, is worth a million dollars, worth more than all the cars in Michigan and all the cabins in Minnesota. Helplessness, desperation, apparent hopelessness, the breaking point for the overworked businessman, the outer limits of exasperation for the mother of three constantly crying children, the impossible expectations of too many classes in school, the grinding stress of a lingering illness, the imminent attack of a powerful enemy. It is good that we don't know what the experience was. It makes it easier to see ourselves in the pits with the king. Anything that causes a sense of helplessness and desperation and threatens to ruin life or take it away—that is the king's pit’
As a curate, in my second year I began to get panic attacks. Those dark hours. Not being able to pray. Lessons for me. 
a) learning to breathe properly. 
b) praying: Jesus prayer was all I could manage: 'Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner'.
c) learning that it is not about what I can do. I had turned prayer into a work.
d) reading the Psalms. 

And when you do go through hell, and maybe you can’t pray, try to simply say the Lord’s prayer (as an act of obedience) and to read the Psalms or simply stick with one of the verses from the Psalms. 

Read the Psalms, learn the Psalms: they touch the deepest of our emotions
The story of the sister who lived in a religious community where they read 50 Psalms a day. 'Isn't it boring?' She answered, 'Of course it is boring. But that is not the point. It is not about me, but him'. By repeating the Psalms, the language of the Psalms (of relating everything to God, of hungering for God) becomes our language. The Psalms are both expressive of our experience and transformative. 

How do the Psalms of lament help us when we are in the pit?

1. They are profoundly honest

Psalm 88:4f  ‘I am counted like those who go down to the pit; I am like those who have no help, like those forsaken among the dead, like the slain that lie in the grave’
V6ff: ‘You have put me in the depths of the Pit, in the regions dark and deep. Your wrath lies heavy upon me, and you overwhelm me with all your waves’
Psalm 40:1, ‘He drew me up from the desolate pit, out of the miry bog ..’ [cf story of Jeremiah]
Psalm 6:6-7, ‘I am weary with my moaning; every night I flood my bed with tears; I drench my couch with weeping. My eyes waste away because of grief; they grow weak because of all my foes.’
Psalm 13:1f, ‘How long O Lord? Will you forget me forever? How long will you hide your face from me? How long must I bear pain my soul, and have sorrow in my heart all day long?’  
Psalm 18:4 (a psalm on the day of deliverance), ‘The cords of death encompassed me, the torrents of perdition assailed me; the cords of Sheol entangled me; the snares of death confronted me’.
Psalm 22:1 ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’
Psalm 31:12f, ‘I have passed out of mind like one who is dead; I have become like a broken vessel. For I hear the whispering of many – terror all around! – as they scheme together against me, as they plot to take my life’
Psalm 38.8, ‘I am utterly spent and crushed; I groan because of the tumult of my heart’
Psalm 55:4f, ‘My heart is in anguish within me, the terrors of death have fallen upon me, Fear and trembling come upon me, and horror overwhelms me’. 
Psalm 69:1, ‘Save me O God for the waters have come up to my neck. I sink in deep mire, where there is no foothold; I have come into deep waters, and the flood sweeps over me. I am weary with my crying; my throat is parched.’ 
Psalm 102:4-6, ‘My heart is stricken and withered like grass; I am too wasted to eat my bread. Because of my loud groaning my bones cling to my skin. I am like an owl of the wilderness, like a little owl of the waste places.’ 
Psalm 130.1 ‘Out of the depths I cry to you, O Lord.’ 

2. They relate everything to God
Not afraid to see their OWN suffering as divine discipline: ‘O Lord, do not rebuke me in your anger, or discipline me in your wrath’ (Ps 6.1)
He has broken my strength in midcourse; he has shortened my days’ (Ps 102.23)
How long, O Lord, will you hide yourself forever? How long will your wrath burn like fire?' (Ps 89.46)
You let people ride over our heads; we went through fire and water;  .. (Ps 66.12)
How long – will you forget me for ever (Ps 13)
 ‘Rouse yourself! Why do you sleep, O Lord? Awake, do not cast us off forever! Why do you hide your face? Why do you forget our affliction and oppression?’ (Ps 44.23f)

But this is good news. It means that the answer to our pit situation is God.  Prayer.

3. They are not afraid of expressing anger or demanding justice
It is far better to speak our anger to God and to cry out to him for justice than for us to take matters into our own hands. Look at the so-called imprecatory psalms (eg. Ps 69.22-28; Ps 137)

4. They speak of the presence of God in the pit. 
‘You have kept count of my tossings; put my tears in your battle. Are they not in your record?’ (Ps 56:9) 
The pit as the meeting place with God.
The importance of Holy Saturday - Christ in the grave with us.
cf the icon of the baptism.

5. They wait on the promises of God.
Hope. Trust. Waiting for God’s promises to be fulfilled. 
Psalm 13:5 ‘But I trusted in your steadfast love; my heart shall rejoice in your salvation’
Psalm 56:10 ‘In God, whose word I praise, in the LORD, whose word I praise, in God I trust: I am not afraid. What can a mere mortal do to me?’
Psalm 69:30, ‘I will praise the name of God with a song; I will magnify him with thanksgiving’.
6. They praise God as an act of faith (the denial of Sheol)
Psalm 69:34, ‘Let heaven and earth praise him, the seas and everything that moves in them.’

If God does not save us, then the pit is our destiny. 
But God, through the death and resurrection of Jesus (and the Psalms are the prayer book of Jesus ), rescues us from the Pit (Ps 40, 103)

The testimony of Nini, when he was in solitary confinement in prison after a fight.
From the Lowest Pit: I started reading Lamentations.  Pues on Lam 3:55 it says, “I called on your name from the lowest pit.”  I was just thinking about in Jeremiah 38 when he was in the dungeons he probably felt like how we feel, crying to God, “Why me?” and just beating ourselves up.  Me entiendes?
Dude I am going on in Lamentations and this whole chapter is f….  beautiful bro.  You gotta read it. He like cries how I do, kinda blaming God for algo, like he or I feel left on stuck. And then he gives gracias to him after crying it all out.  Kinda like me.  I’ll blame him for C. bouncing on me, but after all my pain is out, I’ll apologize or thank him for the strength.  I am gonna re-read Jeremiah again. There is more there for me to pick out. 






Saturday, 16 May 2015

Having a hunger for God

The Ethiopian eunuch is travelling from Jerusalem to the ancient kingdom of Ethiopia.

He was a wealthy man. He held a senior post. He was the chancellor of the exchequer of the Queen of Ethiopia. We are told that he is a eunuch, but by this time the word Eunuch could simply mean ‘senior official’. He has his own chariot and he is able to read.

He was also a religious man. He had travelled to Jerusalem to worship. Possibly he was a Gentile convert to Judaism, although he might have been a Jew. I doubt that he would have made the journey many times and this may have been a once in a lifetime opportunity.

And he was now on his journey home.

But he is on another journey. He is on a journey to God.

1. He begins with a hunger for God

We know that this Ethiopian had a hunger for God because was reading Isaiah.

It might have been a passage that they had read in Jerusalem and he wanted to have a look at it again. (It is a great encouragement when people come up after a service and say, ‘that passage really struck me. I’m going to look at it when I get home’.)

It might have been that he had purchased a new scroll of the prophet Isaiah at the Resources Exhibition, possibly for his home synagogue, and he was reading through it.
(Again, it is great to put aside time to read through a whole book of the bible.)

The very fact that he was reading the bible and, more than that, wanting to ask questions shows us that something is going on – he is hungry for God.

[cf Jesus and the reason for telling parables]

So when Philip turns up and asks him if he understands what he is reading, he replies, ‘How can I unless someone guides me?’ And he invites Philip to come up and sit next to him.

Why do we come to church?
Spend a moment thinking that through. Why have you come to church today? Why are you reading this now?
Habit, curiousity, because I think I ought to, because it is the right thing to do, because I really want to (Ascension day – I really wanted to be there), because we are getting married here, because it makes me feel OK, because I’ve allowed myself to be dragged along.
My hope is that, whatever the reason , in each of us there is something which wants to know more of God.

We are curious. There is a little bit of a hunger there.

I pray that we will become more hungry and more curious.
I pray that we will be sufficiently hungry to start to read the bible – and sufficiently hungry to have the humility to ask questions, and to take advice when it suddenly seems to be there.
And I pray that when we do run Alpha courses or getting to know Jesus courses, you will really want to come along - because you have a hunger to find out more.

One of the things that delights me about new converts is that they do have an insatiable hunger for God. They love reading the bible and talking about God. They are sometimes like people who have fallen in love. They want to know more of God, to grow more in God, to receive more from God.

But it is not just new converts. When we are hungry for God we will spend time with the bible, we will ask questions, we will read books or talk to people, or be part of a small group which looks at the bible. We will want to know more.

And that hunger should not stop. One older man had stopped going to church. When they asked him why, he said, ‘I’ve heard it all before’. That is sad. Yes, it is sad that he was getting the same stuff week in and week out, and that is a challenge to those of us who preach. But it was sad for him – because what is here is more than sufficient for millions of lifetimes. There is always something more to get out of a passage or a prayer.

So what do we do if the hunger is not there? What if the hunger has been lost?

Pray. Ask God to give you a hunger. Ask for the Holy Spirit.
It may mean that he will need to take away some of the junk food we are eating, in order for us to find the space for the food that we really need.

But live as if we are still hungry. In other words, even though you don’t necessarily want to do it, still pick up the bible and read. Still say your prayers (as a vicar I am expected to say morning prayer every day, whether I feel like it or not). Still come to church. As a discipline and as a duty today – only do it in the hope that you will do it tomorrow freely and with great joy.

A nun was speaking about their practice of reading 50 psalms a day. She was challenged, ‘Isn’t that boring’. She answered, ‘Of course it is boring. But that is not the point. It is not about me, but about him’. The point is that as the language of the psalms, which is often a real hunger language for God, is read so often, it becomes a part of us, of our way of seeing the world. It shapes us. It’s language becomes our language.

2. He discovers it is all about Jesus

The Ethiopian official is reading Isaiah 53.

Isaiah 53 is an amazing chapter. It was written about 700 years before Jesus lived and yet it speaks in such detail of his death that it could have been an eyewitness account.

Yesterday I was reading a prayer letter from some friends who have helped translate the bible into one of the languages in one of the .. stans that were part of the former Soviet Union. They write, 'We will never forget checking the book of Isaiah: having deeply considered the 53rd chapter we with one accord stood up and the translator read it out and we all prayed. it was a spine tingling moment.'

The particular verses the Ethiopian was reading speak of a person who is silent before his murderers, who is humiliated, denied justice, and whose life is taken away.

He is thinking: Does this talk of Isaiah? Or does it speak of someone else?

And then Philip turns up. He must have been amazed. Someone describes this as God-magic! But these sort of things happen when we hunger for God. And Philip tells him ‘the good news about Jesus’.

What is good news about humiliation or being the victim of injustice?

We need to read on in Isaiah. Because we are told that the one who suffered, suffered in our place.  ‘Surely he has borne our infirmities and carried our diseases; yet we accounted him stricken, struck down by God, and afflicted. But he was wounded for our transgressions, crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the punishment that made us whole, and by his bruises we are healed. All we like sheep have gone astray; we have all turned to our own way, and the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all.’ (Isaiah 53:4-6)

That is why Philip knows that this passage is speaking of Jesus.

The prophet Isaiah was rejected and does experience suffering. But it wasn’t for us.
The people of Israel have experience repeated rejection and deep suffering. But it wasn’t in our place.
Jesus was rejected, humiliated, denied justice and slaughtered – but it was for us and it was in our place.

And we can imagine Philip saying, 'This is good news because it means that:
·         There is a God who loves us. He loves us so much that he is prepared to give his own son, himself, to come to this earth and take onto himself – into himself – like blotting paper (do we still have blotting paper?) – all our muck.
·         Our sins are forgiven. Not because we’ve suddenly become good, but because he has dealt with them. God’s riches are available to us at Christ’s expense.
·         We can become citizens of the Kingdom of God. (v12: Philip proclaims the good news about the kingdom of God and the name of Jesus Christ). We can know a new way of living. A new purpose for life, a new strength for life, a new hope.
·         There is one who we can turn to whenever we choose. He will walk with us through suffering and rejection and humiliation and death. He’s been there. He will one day satisfy our hunger.

When we are on this journey to God, we discover that it is all about Jesus.

3. He  takes a step of faith.

For the Ethiopian, that was baptism.

Probably Philip repeated those words that Peter spoke on the day of Pentecost. ‘Repent and be baptised in the name of Jesus Christ so that your sins may be forgiven; and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.’

And the Ethiopian sees water, and says, ‘What is to prevent me being baptised?’

I love the fact that the only condition Jesus has put on being a member of his church is that you allow someone to throw water on you, in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
He doesn’t say how much water
He doesn’t say that you have to share your testimony (there may have been a few other people there when the Ethiopian was baptised. He probably would not have travelled on his own. But we are not told about them)
It is a symbol that you haven’t washed yourself, but that God has washed you, has made you clean and given you a new life with Jesus.
It is about GRACE. Not what you have done for yourself, but about what he has done for you.

Of course Baptism for the Ethiopian would have been just the beginning. He had to continue that life of faith, of dependence on God and the grace of God. Tradition tells us that he returned home and became the father of the church in Ethiopia, a church which still exists to this day.

And for us?
We can hunger for God; we can realise it is all about Jesus. But there comes a point when we have to make a decision to follow this Jesus, to ask him into our life, to become a believer.

There may be some people here who have never been christened/baptised. It is the same thing. Please don’t be embarrassed if you are an adult and haven’t been christened. Most baptisms take place now when people are adults. But if you want to take that step of following Jesus then you do need to be baptised. That can be done as part of one of our main services or it can be at some other time - very quietly. It doesn’t matter. But for you, if you have made that decision to follow Jesus, you must be baptised. It is a question of obedience, of humility, of letting yourself go into the hands of God.

Maybe you were christened as a child and you think, 'It didn’t mean anything to me or to my family. They were just doing what they thought they should'. In which case, rejoice that finally you are beginning by faith to receive what God gives in baptism, and so it becomes real. I like to think of baptism as a signed cheque which we are given. We can wave the cheque around, we can boast about it, be ashamed of it, but it is only when we cash it in that it starts to have any value for us.

But if you were baptised as a child, and now you realise that you do believe, you too need to take a really practical step of faith.

·         Confirmation or publicly reaffirming your baptism vows:
·         Telling someone that you have become a Christian:
·         Committing yourself to join a small group.

That is true for each of us.

I know I go on about this, but what about following the example of the Ethiopian. Commit yourself to read the bible

John Chrysostom (349-407) wrote: "Consider, I ask you, what a great effort it was not to neglect reading even while on a journey, and especially while seated in a chariot. Let this be heeded by those people who do not even deign to do it at home but rather think reading the Scriptures is a waste of time, claiming as an excuse their living with a wife, conscription in military service, caring for children, attending to domestics and looking after other concerns, they do not think it necessary for them to show any interest in reading the holy Scriptures". Homilies on Genesis 35.3.

So this is nothing new! try to spend a few minutes each day. There are bible reading notes you can buy at the cathedral bookshop, or there is

Or be like the Ethiopian. Do you have spare time when you travel? I would not encourage you to  read your bible while driving along the A14, but what about listening to an MP3 or podcast of the bible being read?

But don't just read. Think and question. Ask people.
There is the story told of one of the desert fathers who sat in his cell and wrestled for 7 weeks with a passage. He did not know it meant. Finally, he got up, put on his coat, and went out to go and ask someone else. And as he went out, God spoke to him and said, 'Now that you have humbled yourself and are going to seek advice, I will reveal to you what that passage means'.

And then do it. Take the step of faith. There is the story of the 3 people discussing which was their favourite bible version. I like the NIV (nearly infallible version), I like the NRSV (now really sound version). I like my mothers version. Has she translated the bible? No. But she lives it.

Friday, 1 May 2015

Letting go of the treasure.

I have here a hoop.
Could you go through it? But can you go through the hoop if you hold onto the suitcase? You can't let it go.
Possible? No impossible.  
You can only get through the hoop if you let go of the suitcase.

What is in this suitcase?
These are our treasures: Money, glamour, house, learning, food, morality, cars, shoes, iPhone.

They are all the sorts of things that we live our life for.
They are what we set our heart on.

Jesus says that if we hold onto our treasures it is impossible to enter into the kingdom of God.

He says it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to go into the Kingdom of God

These are our riches.
If we are going to begin to experience the reality of the Kingdom of God, then we need to let go of these things.

Jesus says to the rich man, "Your money is your treasure. It is what you have put your trust in. It is what defines you. It is what you build your life around. But it is also what keeps you away from God. It traps you. So let it go. Stop being a getter, and start to be a giver. Give it away. And come and be one of my followers."

And what Jesus says to the rich man he says to all of us. "Your treasure is what keeps you away from me. Let it go."
And he does not ask us to leave our case behind and go through the hoop to something completely unknown.
Jesus says, "I've been there. I love you. Come and follow me. You can trust me." 
He holds out his hand to us.

He doesn't offer money - but he does offer real riches, life and security.
Not glamour but inner beauty (we can become more beautiful as we grow older)
Not houses but a home, the home that we have all dreamed of.
Not learning but wisdom
Not masterchef food but fulfilment
Not a moral code but freedom, love poured into our hearts
Not communication gadgets but real relationship
Not stuff (cars, shoes) but daily provision and ultimately the whole world

We need to let go of the stuff that we treasure.
We need to renounce it with our mind. 
We need to let it go in reality.
Then we can go through the hoop and follow Jesus.

But how do we do it?
Our treasures have a grip on us. We think we are holding the suitcase, but in fact the suitcase is gripping us.
We are like people carrying a very heavy load, who can't let it go because we are terrified of what will happen if we do.

Impossible? No Possible.
‘Who can be saved?’ ‘What is impossible for mortals is possible for God’ (18.26f)

The previous story that Jesus tells gives a clue: ‘Whoever does not receive the Kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it’. (18.17)

Look at it this way. If we begin to see what God is offering, I’m not sure it is that difficult.
Here is someone holding the suitcase. I offer them some chocolates. They can have them if they take them from me. So what do they do? They put down the suitcase in order to take hold of the chocolates.
Children do that.

Jesus offers us new life, friendship, peace, strength for trials, purpose and an eternal destiny. But we are holding a  big and heavy load, and we can't receive the gift while we are holding it.

What are you going to do? The choice is yours.

Heroes of the Faith

I’ve listened to many talks on this passage.
Most of them told me why these verses do not apply to me.

But I’ve also heard the stories of people who have taken them seriously, people who did let go of their treasures:

[Anthony the Great – He was the son of wealthy landowner parents. They died when he was 18 and shortly after, in obedience to this command, he gave it all away and became the disciple of a hermit. He is known as the father of the monastic movement

St Augustine – converted while reading the Life of St Anthony. He shaped how we understand the bible

St Francis of Assisi – son of a prosperous silk merchant. Chose to live with the poor. He founded the Franciscans known for their work with some of the most deprived communities on our globe.]

CT Studd:  England cricketer, who was in the team that lost the first ashes! Privileged. Went to Eton. Converted as a teenager.
According to his own account, the preacher asked him if he believed God's promises, and as Charles' answer was not convincing enough, the guest pressed the point. Charles later recalled the moment: "I got down on my knees and I did say 'thank you' to God. And right then and there joy and peace came into my soul. I knew then what it was to be 'born again,' and the Bible which had been so dry to me before, became everything."

After drifting from God for 6 years, he heard the call to become a missionary in China. While in China his father died, and he gave away his inheritance of £29,000, specifying £5,000 to be used for the Moody Bible Institute, £5,000 for George Müller mission work and his orphans, £5,000 for George Holland's work with England's poor in Whitechapel, and £5,000 to Commissioner Booth Tucker for the Salvation Army in India.” (Wikipedia 30.4.15)

Lord Laing:  He built Coventry cathedral and he committed himself to employ the best craftsmen, the most modern technology and to make the building worthy of the worship of God. Any profit made in the construction would be given back to the Cathedral. Throughout his life he gave away his fortune. When he died in 1978 he was worth £371.

Mother Theresa. She died in the same week as Princess Diana. Diana left behind £20m. Mr Theresa did not, like Diana, start with much. But what she left in her will was notable for a woman who had done the sort of work that she had. 2 saris and a bucket.

These people were not perfect. They all, like each of us, had major personality flaws. They were sinners and they messed up. But they were all people who heard Jesus’ words to the rich young man and – with his help - took them seriously.

I pray that God will raise up, from within our churches, men and women who are so grabbed by God, by the life that he offers us here and now, and by the eternal, that we are willing to let go of our treasures here, give to the poor (those who are spiritually poor and physically poor) and follow Jesus.