Thoughts and Prayers for our time
While All Saints is closed for worship for the foreseeable future, our vicar will provide thoughts and prayers on this page which you may find helpful.
THOUGHTS FOR THE START OF HOLY WEEK
Here we are at the start of what I think is the most dramatic week of the Christian year. We have already reflected a little on Palm Sunday and the soon to happen change of the crowd’s mood. After the acclamation Jesus receives as he rides into Jerusalem, things darken as he walks along the inexorable road to the Cross.
During this week Christians would normally be observing all sorts of extra acts of worship, some would walk the Via Dolorosa in some form of Stations of the Cross, many would attend Maundy Thursday Eucharists moving into the stark and dramatic “stripping of the altars”, to remain in the darkness of a bare church in vigil, which symbolically moves us from the Upper Room to Gethsemane, and Jesus’ Agony in the Garden, culminating in betrayal by one of his followers and his arrest.
Then, of course Good Friday with its focus on the trial, and terrible progress to the cross, and Jesus’ death, finishing with his battered body being laid in the tomb.
But this year it all feels different, we won’t be able to meet together to mark these stages, nor meditate together on the events together either. Nor will we be able to enter together into the “emptiness” of Holy Saturday, before the eruption of celebration for the Risen Lord.
One of the texts often used or referred to during this week is the Old Testament Lamentations of Jeremiah, a short book of 5 chapters following straight on from the book of the prophet by the same name. I’ve just read it through and yes, it is heartbreaking, and yes, it is gloomy. It laments the destruction of Jerusalem by the Babylonians. The writer clearly thinks God has deserted Judah, because of its collective sin. The destruction is seen as a punishment. While we may not accept the idea that evil is visited on people because of their deeds, some of the words here have a particular resonance for us in our situation at the moment:-
How lonely sits the city that was once full of people!
How like a widow she has become,
she that was great among the nations!
She that was a princess among the provinces has become a vassal.
She weeps bitterly in the night with tears on her cheeks;
among all her lovers she has no one to comfort her;
all her friends have dealt treacherously with her,
they have become her enemies. ……
The roads to Zion mourn, for no one comes to the festivals;
all her gates are desolate, her priests groan; young girls grieve, and her lot is bitter.
Ch 1: 1-2,4
As I read I could not fail to see some similarities with our present times. Look at the lonely streets, the grief for loved ones, and the inability of family or friends to draw close to loved ones in need of the comforting presence of another. Then there’s the invisible fear that stalks, making us all keep our distance, or to back away from others…even one’s friends or family may be carrying the virus so the reference to their (unintentional) treachery even rings true. The overwhelming sense of isolation and sadness prevails. And while I may not actually be groaning I am sad that I cannot share this important time with you all.
Lamentations maybe isn’t the go to Bible book for the moment, to be perfectly honest…it is not a cheerful read, even at the best of times, yet even in the existential despair there is some hope as the writer has to acknowledge. Later in the book he cries out in hope:-
The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases,
his mercies never come to an end;
they are new every morning; great is your faithfulness.
“The Lord is my portion” says my soul, “therefore I will hope in him”.
The Lord is good to those who wait for him, to the soul that seeks him.
Ch3: 22- 25
I wonder whether Jesus took time to ponder some of the words from this book. He would have been familiar with them just as he was with the Psalms and the Prophets. Perhaps he too drew comfort from the almost defiant affirmation of hope, despite what he was to endure over the following days.
May the steadfast love of the Lord sustain and strengthen you as we journey together, but separately towards Good Friday.
A copy of the above for you to download here Prayer for Holy Week 1
PALM SUNDAY THOUGHTS
Somehow, despite life being so different for us all, we are nearing the end of Lent, and very soon Holy Week starts, with Palm Sunday. I don’t know about you, but Ash Wednesday, the start of Lent feels as if it took place years ago, but according to my calendar it was only in late February, the 26th to be precise. On that day we were reminded of our own frailty and mortality in the words “Dust you are, and to dust you shall return, turn away from sin and be faithful to Christ” as the ashes from last years Palm Sunday crosses were marked on our foreheads. As always, a call for self examination, discipline, and repentance, by way of preparation for the observance of the momentous events of Holy Week – and then Easter itself.
In the meantime we seem to all have a lot of space, as options for going out, meeting people have radically diminished. We have crossed meetings, events, celebrations as well as farewells out of our diaries, and in keeping with everything else in the country, we can no longer meet for public worship. And this is remarkably difficult especially in the denial of Holy Communion, which I wrote about the other day. In many ways this Lent has been truly a wilderness experience with all the fears and uncertainties that could involve.
This coming Sunday is Palm Sunday and traditionally the service we hold would start with the Gospel reading from Matthew this year, of Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem (Matthew 21: 1- 11) in which Jesus was acclaimed by the crowd who tore branches off the trees and spread them in the roadway. The shouts of “Hosanna to the Son of David” caused a certain amount of consternation among the authorities, who were always on the lookout for trouble, especially as the Jewish Passover approached.
During this first part of the service palm crosses are blessed and distributed and we take them home to put up somewhere, or perhaps to use as a bookmarker in our Bible or prayerbook. Of course we can’t do this, but why not either find an old cross you may still have from last year, or make your own out of paper or card and display it in a window, or at your door, as a visible sign that you are entering into Holy Week and our Salvation story?
But during this service the mood changes as we listen to the solemn reading of the Passion Gospel, this year again from Matthew 26: 14- 27:11- 54. This time we are reminded that the clouds are gathering round Jesus, he resolutely turned towards Jerusalem, knowing what was in store for him, and the story darkens as the crowds turn away from him, yes, almost certainly even those who had a few days earlier acclaimed him, but now call for his death by crucifixion, and for the release of Barabbas, a bandit. Along the way we hear of betrayal, dodgy deals, unspeakable cruelty, fear and desertion by his followers.
In a very real way Palm Sunday becomes a turning point, now Jesus is inexorably on the hard road to the cross, and for him there is no turning back. How does this feel in our strange times? Perhaps here it may be helpful to consider his disciples and where they were in this week. For starters they were all frightened, if not terrified. Thomas the Twin had not long before commented when Jesus announced he was heading towards Jerusalem “then let us also go, that we may die with him” (John 11: 16). But that only marked the draining away of support from them. Only later after the Resurrection do the disciples actually become courageous and ready to affirm the new reality of the Risen Jesus. They were not at all impressive around the betrayal, trial and crucifixion, they all fled, apart from the disciple Jesus loved, probably John who remained there at the foot of the cross, with Jesus’ mother.
But, and this is a hard question for us to consider…would we have done any better? Perhaps not. In the middle of the story, so to speak, they had no idea of the outcome, any more than we have any true idea of the outcome of our present woes.
The Easter experience transformed things, the world was refreshed, Jesus’ followers emboldened and hope was reborn. Now as we consider our shared situation against the backdrop of Easter, dare we look for signs of hope? Because it’s there, among the kindness of strangers and neighbours, the skill of the medics and carers, the dedication of many, to say nothing of our stoicism and patience at this time.
A copy of the above for you to download here Palm Sunday Thoughts 5 April 2020
A HYMN TO THE CREATOR BY WILLIAM H. VANSTONE 1923- 1999
This is the poem I mentioned in my last post. Vanstone was a theologian who faithfully served as a Parish priest for many years, and is mainly remembered for his much loved book “Love’s Endeavour, Love’s Expense”, published way back in 1977. It speaks of the costly nature of God’s love for the world, and reminds us that God is not “up there, and out of it”, but deeply involved in all our pain and grief. As I wrote yesterday’s post I wanted to quote from the poem, but in the end decided to print it all, as it speaks to us very eloquently, both as Passiontide approaches and in these exceptional times:-
Morning glory, starlit sky,
Leaves in springtime, swallow’s flight,
Autumn gales, tremendous seas,
Sounds and scents of summer night;
Soaring music, tow’ring words,
Art’s perfection, scholar’s truth.
Joy supreme of human love,
Memory’s treasure, grace of youth;
Open, Lord, are these, Thy gifts,
Gifts of love to mind and sense;
Hidden is love’s agony,
Love’s endeavour, love’s expense.
Love that gives gives ever more,
Gives with zeal, with eager hands,
Spares not, keeps not, all outpours,
Ventures all, its all expends.
Drained is love in making full;
Bound in setting others free;
Poor in making many rich;
Weak in giving power to be.
Therefore He Who Thee reveals
Hangs, O Father, on that Tree Helpless;
and the nails and thorns
Tell of what thy love must be.
Thou art God; no monarch
Thou Throned in easy state to reign;
Thou art God, Whose arms of love
Aching, spent, the world sustain.
Some of you may have spotted this in our Common Praise hymnbook as hymn no 259 set to a lovely tune by Orlando Gibbons known as song 13.
A copy of the above for you to download here Hymn to The Creator
Our Suffering God
During “normal times” (remember those?) at this stage in Lent we begin to focus on Passiontide, with Palm Sunday, now only a few days away, starting off Holy Week, culminating in the Last Supper, Jesus’ agony in the Garden, his arrest, crooked trial and crucifixion. Only after what we’ve walked the way of the Cross to Good Friday and a quiet reflective day on Holy Saturday, do we dare to hope. The readings at the Easter Vigil act like a prolonged introduction to Easter Day, reflecting on God’s great acts of salvation in the Old Testament. Only then do we rejoice with our celebration of THE most important day in the Churches year.
So how will it feel this year when it will not be possible to meet on Easter Day? Very odd, I argue, but I think it is important that we all bear in mind that EVERY Sunday is a celebration of Jesus’ Resurrection, so that, as soon as we are permitted we will start celebrating this world changing event, every Sunday?
At the moment I’m not thinking much about Easter, as we seem to be in a different place at the moment. Thinking about Jesus’ Passion feels more appropriate to me right now and I will be posting material to help us all with that.
But Christians are supposed to be people of hope, even when circumstances don’t look that great. We have hope in the Risen Christ whose touch brings life and healing to us all. Doubtless there are many who may be saying something like “if God is so great, why is this happening to us?”, as people have always said during hard and painful times…the same sort of questions were asked about the Holocaust, the deaths of a whole school full of children in Aberfan, 9/11, wars, famines, human cruelty, various tsunamis and earthquakes – the list is pretty endless.
This Pandemic, along with all the other terrible events, are not the action of a capricious or vengeful God. We are not being punished for anything. God is not like that. If he were, I for one would want nothing to do with him! I certainly wouldn’t be doing this job! But another question creeps in here and that is “where is God in all this?”
Where is God in all this?…I would argue, right in the middle of it all, suffering with and alongside the sick, the dying and their grieving families. He is sharing our pain. But He is also elsewhere….among people who are stepping up to help their neighbours, in the courage and compassion of our health workers, among numerous acts of kindness and love, drivers, corner shop staff, giving wisdom to those who are making hard decisions at this time and in the skill and determination of those seeking a vaccine. And those who can do nothing but pray.
A young man many years ago said this to me “When terrible things happen to people, I don’t believe God is angry with them. I believe he cries with them”. This is certainly one way of putting it, and one which reminds us of the depth of pain and suffering at the very heart of God, because of his great love for the whole world, not just humanity.
I have found a wonderful poem, which sums this up beautifully, rather than quote just part of it, I will print it all, in its entirety in my next post.
A copy of the above for you to download here Our Suffering God
Communion and a Bit more on Embedded Prayer
Some of us might be finding it very hard during this time being unable to receive Holy Communion, especially if we are normally in the habit of weekly or fortnightly reception. I know I find this aspect of there being no church rather difficult. Though of course, I CAN do a service of Holy Communion, I am not permitted to by Church rules which decree that priests can only celebrate if there are one or more others present, making it a communal service. So I am in a similar boat to you, and even if I could I don’t think I would, as it would feel wrong, selfish even, to do so, while no one else can.
The BCP has a solution to this, and there is an obscure rubric in the Communion for the Sick which mentions making an act of “spiritual communion” in which a person, who for various reasons can’t receive the Sacrament, to pray for Jesus to be close and to enter one’s soul, spiritually, if not in the elements of Bread and Wine. Here is a prayer, taken from the Oxford Movement (Anglo Catholic) that you may find helpful:-
O Lord Jesus Christ, since I cannot now receive Thee sacramentally,
I humbly pray Thee that Thou wouldest come spiritually to my soul.
Come, Lord Jesus, come and cleanse me, heal me, strengthen me,
and unite me to Thyself, now and for evermore. Amen
I offer this to you, I the hope that in the not too distant future we will all be able to celebrate our living Lord in shared services of Holy Communion. Like many I long for this day.
From a very different tradition I have received this from a good friend whose grandfather (who incidentally rejoiced in the name of Hebron) used to say this:-
God is faithful, not he has been, nor he will be…both are true.
But today, in this dark hour, God is faithful now, to you.
Another response to my post on embedded prayer came from my older sister, she asked me if I ever said the prayer that mum always shared with her, before going to bed. I have to admit I DID recall it once reminded of it, but I guess that by the time I was deemed old enough to say it mum was busy, not only with her 2 older children, but also by my younger brother & sister. So for me it was never embedded in quite the same way as it became for my sister, it goes like this:-
Angel of God, my guardian dear, to who God’s love commits me here;
ever this night be at my side, to light, to guard, to rule and guide. Amen
In Christ’s love Alice
A copy of the above for you to download here Communion and a Bit more on Embedded Prayer
PRAYERS AND THOUGHTS FROM THE WILDERNESS
At the start of Lent, we read the Gospel account of Jesus’ sojourn in the Wilderness after his Baptism, during which he experienced various temptations (Matt 4: 1- 11). He was there for 40 days, which in Biblical terminology means “a long time” and it is clear Jesus was dealing with the implications of who he was, what he was to do, and how he would do it. A testing time indeed. From which he emerged strong and able to carry out his 3 year Ministry.
During this time, we are told Jesus ate nothing and undoubtedly was hungry and not surprisingly one of the temptations was to do some miracle to sort the problem. He was isolated, and his life had taken a very different turn than anything he had known so far. He was in a hostile place. As the hymn puts it:-
Sunbeams scorching all the day,
chilly dew - drops nightly shed,
prowling beasts about thy way,
stones thy pillow, earth thy bed.
We might not be literally in a wilderness but we may feel the world has become hostile, we don’t know who has the virus, who may have had it and who is going to get it, and we are surely physically isolated, admittedly in rather more comfort than Jesus was. At least our beds sound more comfortable! And it is likely that we all have access to food. We are limited by new rules by which to live our lives, and there is much uncertainty. No one knows, or even dares guess when and how this all will end.
One thing Jesus must have done a lot of while in the wilderness was to pray, to talk with God, his Father. This is, of course an option we all have. We can bring our deepest fears, our frustrations, prayers for those in the NHS, the fearful and affected by the Virus, our isolated neighbours, friends and family. And it’s OK to let God know how you really feel. If you don’t believe me, take a look at the Psalms, there is a lot of raw pain and grief there, even if the Psalmist later affirms their hope for God’s mercy. Look at Psalm 22 for instance which starts with a desperate cry of pain and desolation which Jesus later shouted from the cross. I believe Jesus must have drawn on his knowledge and love of the Psalms while he was in the Wilderness and throughout his ministry. For him they may have been his “embedded” prayer that I have previously mentioned.
But the Psalms are not just cries of anger, pain and lament. Take a look at the next one in the book, Psalm 23:-
The Lord is my shepherd: therefore can I lack nothing.
He shall feed me in a green pasture:
and lead me forth beside the waters of comfort.
He shall convert my soul:
and bring me forth in the paths of righteousness, for his Name’s sake.
Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,
I will fear no evil: for thou art with me:
thy rod and they staff comfort me.
Thou shalt prepare a table before me against them that trouble me:
thou hast anointed my head with oil and my cup shall be full.
But thy loving kindness shall follow me all the days of my life;
and I will dwell in the house of the Lord for ever.
I will close with that, for the time being, but take a look at this wonderful book, reflect on it, pray it, shout it, share it.
A copy of the above for you to download here Prayers and Thoughts from the Wilderness
Also for you to download: