Tag Archives: Reflections

‘In The Midst Of Thy Temple’: A Response To Psalm 48

Psalm 48 is a celebration of the city of Zion and the temple in her midst, a celebration of the covenant promise that God would faithfully meet his people there. For a Christian this psalm takes on a new significance. Firstly because we know that the Temple, the meeting place of God and his people was a archetype and foreshadowing of Christ, who would himself be the temple, the meeting place of God and the whole of humanity. And secondly because of the wonderful truth that when we are members of the body of Christ, whose body is the true temple, then we ourselves, both body and soul, become a temple of the Holy Spirit, that Christ himself comes into us to a abide with us and in us. No longer need we travel to some outer destination to meet with God, but need only turn inward to find that ‘in our hearts are the highways to Zion’. The temple is already there within us, and Christ is waiting, deep in the mystery of our own heart and soul, if only we will enter those depths and find him. And there, in the depth of our own being he will meet with us, to cleanse us and renew us.

This is especially good news for us as Covid tightens its grip and lockdown looms again. If we are self-isolating, or if our churches are closed again, we can find him in our own hearts and homes where there will be no social distancing, only spiritual intimacy.

As usual you can hear me read the poem by pressing the ‘play’ button if it appears, or else by clicking on the title. For the other poems in my psalm series type the word ‘psalm’ into the search box on the right.

XLVIII Magnus Dominus

For heaven’s king has made the earth his home

Not just the hill of Sion, but the whole

Round world. Call him from anywhere, he’ll

 

Come to you and make his dwelling. Hail

Him in any language, he replies

In your own mother-tongue. For now your soul

 

Is his true Sion, and each day you rise

Already in the city of your God.

So mark the towers and temples, and apprise

 

Again the beauty of your new abode.

Your soul is greater than you ever knew:

Walk round its walls, then take the holy road

 

That winds towards its centre, where the new

Temple of his spirit shines and stands,

Where Christ himself is there to welcome you.

 

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He Is The Great King: a response to Psalm 47

If there was a struggle in the midst of trials, that issued in the hard-won hope of psalm 46, then that hope and confidence flowers into a great hymn of praise and joy in psalm 47, a hymn that rings with greater assurance precisely because it follows on from the struggles of the preceding psalm. Psalm47 is often set by Christians as a psalm for Ascension Day, especially with its ringing line, so often set to music:

God is gone up with a merry noise: and the Lord with the sound of the trump.

But to my mind the real joy of psalm 47 is not so much that he has gone up as that he has also come down. The great revelation here is that, though heaven is, in one sense, still to come, we can nevertheless begin rejoicing now because God has not abandoned us here on earth but has already come down to be our king and kindle our hope. So the key line for me is the second verse, which acknowledges that though the Lord is high and transcendent, the glorious king of heaven, he is also, ultimately, the king here on earth:

For the Lord is high, and to be feared: he is the great King upon all the earth.

Indeed psalm 47 begins a little sequence of psalms that anticipate the way that, in Christ, who is both fully God and fully human, heaven and earth can finally be brought together, and his will done on earth as it is in heaven. And that insight provided the key to my interpretation of this psalm.

As usual you can hear me read the poem by pressing the ‘play’ button if it appears, or else by clicking on the title. For the other poems in my psalm series type the word ‘psalm’ into the search box on the right.

XLVII Omnes gentes, plaudite

That wrongs may be redressed and wars may cease

He must be king of earth as well as heaven

We must invite him here, to make his peace

 

Within us and between us, that forgiven,

We may release forgiveness here on earth,

Working and spreading like a holy leaven,

 

A secret of the kingdom, heaven’s breath,

A kindling from the place where Christ is king

For he has triumphed and defeated death

 

And even now he calls our hearts to sing

Sing praises in the kingdom still to come

And in the one already here, to bring,

 

Ourselves, our arts and music, trumpet, drum

And tabor, all to make a merry noise,

For heaven’s king has made the earth his home!

 

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God Is Our Hope And Strength: A Response to Psalm 46

Today we come to Psalm 46 which is is a firm favourite with many people and for good reason. Its opening line sets the theme of God’s reassuring strength and presence:

  1. GOD is our hope and strength: a very present help in trouble.

It is in the context of that reassuring strength and confidence that we can face our fears and deal with what the prayer book calls ‘ all the changes and chances of this fleeting world’ and 2020 is certainly a year in which we have seen more than our fair share of those changes and chances. And so the psalm continues:

Therefore will we not fear, though the earth be moved: and though the hills be carried into the midst of the sea;

Though the waters thereof rage and swell: and though the mountains shake at the tempest of the same.

The rivers of the flood thereof shall make glad the city of God: the holy place of the tabernacle of the most Highest.

God is in the midst of her, therefore shall she not be removed: God shall help her, and that right early.

And then, towards the end comes the wonderful prophecy of peace, and the vision of God as peacemaker:

He maketh wars to cease in all the world: he breaketh the bow, and knappeth the spear in sunder, and burneth the chariots in the fire.

It was through Mary’s obedience that the Prince of Peace was born into this world, so I pick up the thread of the final line of my poem on psalm 45 to begin this poem, a poem for strength and encouragement written in the midst of this appalling year in which it seems, as I say in the poem, that ‘everything around us falls apart’. Everything except our loving God.

As usual you can hear me read the poem by pressing the ‘play’ button if it appears, or else by clicking on the title. For the other poems in my psalm series type the word ‘psalm’ into the search box on the right.

XLVI Deus noster refugium

Through her our saviour came, Love’s revelation,

For God was in the midst of her, and now

We too are called, in every generation

 

To find in him our hope and strength, though

Everything around us falls apart,

And all our towering schemes have been laid low

 

Now is the time to take his truth to heart

And to be glad within the holy place

That he himself has made in us. To start

 

Each day with him, abiding in his grace

As he abides with us. To know his peace

To turn towards his light and seek his face

 

And let his flowing spirit find release

And flow through us into his weary world

That wrongs may be redressed and wars may cease.

 

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‘Hearken O Daughter’: a Response to Psalm 45

After another brief break, this time for a pilgrimage to Canterbury and beyond, I resume the love-worn thread of the time-worn psalter, and we come now to psalm 45. In making my response I was tempted, of course, by its famous phrase ‘My tongue is the pen of a ready writer’ to write about writing itself and make a poem about poetry. But there is an older and richer tradition of interpretation for this psalm and I was drawn to that instead. That older tradition is to draw from this psalm some phrases and images that help us appreciate and bless Mary, the mother of our Lord. The scripture tells us that all generations will call her blessed and rightly so. Scholars think this psalm, with its image of the kings daughters, the handmaidens, the queen in a vesture of gold, may well have been set for a royal wedding, but from early on Christians found themselves thinking of Mary when they read it, and so I have taken occasion of this psalm to write another poem in her honour. I was brought up in the reformed tradition, which tended to ignore Mary in reaction to what they thought was Catholic ‘mariolotary’ but anyone who venerates Jesus must stand in awe of the one through whose obedience and courage he came into the world, the one to whom God entrusted his upbringing, and who, in Luke’s gospel, is filled with the spirit and speaks prophetic words. There is a deep sense in which every Christian must be like Mary and say to God ‘ Be it unto me according to thy word’, and like Mary, try to bear Christ fruitfully into the world and bring others to him.

As usual you can hear me read the poem by pressing the ‘play’ button if it appears, or else by clicking on the title. For the other poems in my psalm series type the word ‘psalm’ into the search box on the right.

XLV Eructavit cor meum

And still we live as if we have forgotten

But someone keeps all these things in her heart.

Who bore for us the only one begotten,

 

The Son of God. And now she takes our part

And calls us to remember all his mercy

Calls us with all our skill, and all our art

 

To magnify his name, for it is holy

For now she dwells with him, in joy and gladness,

The Mystic Rose of heaven, once so lowly

 

Whose heart was also pierced, who feels our sadness

And shows us how to pray. Each generation

Has known her help and presence, heard her witness

 

The great things done through her. In every nation

She nurtures those who bear Christ to the world,

Through her our saviour came, Love’s revelation.

 

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Smitten Into the Place Of Dragons: A Response to Psalm 44

After a much needed holiday, internet free in the remote parts of the Norfolk Broads, I am back and taking up again, the poetic thread of my journey through the psalms. We come now to psalm 44, a psalm at once of despair and hope, and a challenging psalm for  Christians to read. It speaks to our moments of despair because it describes the experience of feeling that God is ‘far off’ or even absent, and it laments the experience of defeat that we often endure in the world:

But now thou art far off, and puttest us to confusion: and goest not forth with our armies.

Thou makest us to turn our backs upon our enemies: so that they which hate us spoil our goods.

Thou lettest us be eaten up like sheep: and hast scattered us among the heathen.

And yet it also renews our hope for it invokes the very presence whose absence it laments:

Up, Lord, why sleepest thou: awake, and be not absent from us for ever.

But it is challenging because its context is battle and warfare, and we are rightly wary of invoking God to be partisan in our own bloody and sinful conflicts. One way for a Christian to read these battle psalms is to see them in the context not of our partial conflicts but of the ultimate struggle between good and evil whose front line runs through the centre of every human heart. In that ultimate and cosmic struggle Christ has already won the victory, and won it, not by bloody conquest, shedding the blood of others, but by shedding his own heart’s blood for all of us on the cross. The psalmist here complains that we have been ‘smitten into the place of dragons’ and ‘covered with the shadow of death’, but it is Christ who can really pray that line, for he entered death’s abode and fought with the devil, ‘that old dragon’ for all of us, and so my psalm ends with the passion and victory of Christ, which is, and always was, our only true hope.

As usual you can hear me read the poem by pressing the ‘play’ button if it appears, or else by clicking on the title. For the other poems in my psalm series type the word ‘psalm’ into the search box on the right.

XLIV Deus, auribus

The living fountain whence I drink my fill,

Must rise in me before I sing this psalm

How could it ever be God’s Holy will

 

To raise an army, to inflict the harm

The special horror of a holy war

How could we ever conquer in his name?

 

Oh Jesus, did you sing this psalm before

You girded strength to brave your agony,

To fight the only holy battle for

 

The world you loved, and heal the misery

Of all mankind? As for us you were smitten

Into the place of dragons, victory

 

Was won for all of us, as it is written

And so in Christ shall all be made alive

And still we live as if we have forgotten.

 

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Living Streams: A Response to Psalm 42

Like as the hart desireth the water brooks

Psalm 42 is one of my all time favourites, I love its opening line:

  1. LIKE as the hart desireth the water-brooks: so longeth my soul after thee, O God.

In English, though not in Hebrew, this translation offers us that other sense of the deepest desires of the heart, which is, of course what the psalm is all about. And I love the image of the ‘water brooks’ the ‘living streams’ the ‘fontes aquarum’ as it was in the old Latin translation.

So it was a pleasure to make this response to the psalm, and to remind myself that though I am also an author of ‘dusty books’ and my words too have ‘rung from pulpits’, in the end it is not the words about God that we want, but God himself.

As usual you can hear me read the poem by pressing the ‘play’ button if it appears, or else by clicking on the title. For the other poems in my psalm series type the word ‘psalm’ into the search box on the right.

XLII Quemadmodum

You are my heart’s desire from first to last

Like as the hart desires the water brooks

So longs my soul towards you, so I thirst

 

For living streams, not for the dusty books

They write about you, nor the empty words

That ring from pulpits, nor the haughty looks

 

Of those who market you. These are the shards

Of broken idols. I long for the deep

In you that calls the deep in me, the chords

 

That sound those depths and summon me to weep

At first with tears of grief and then with tears

Of joy, that I may sow those tears and reap

 

A timeless harvest, that the ripened  ears

Of grain may shine as clean and clear as gold

Shucked of the husk of all my wasted years.

 

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The Shell Is Breaking: a Response To Psalm 39

‘Take thy plague away from me: I am even consumed by the means of thy heavy hand.’

This verse from psalm 39 will resonate with all of us in the midst of the covid crisis, and so perhaps will those verses about our mortality and the frailty of things in this world, verses calling us to set our hope more firmly on God:

‘Behold, thou hast made my days as it were a span long: and mine age is even as nothing in respect of thee; and verily every man living is altogether vanity.

For man walketh in a vain shadow, and disquieteth himself in vain: he heapeth up riches, and cannot tell who shall gather them.

And now, Lord, what is my hope: truly my hope is even in thee.’

For a Christian of course that hope is rooted in Christ, in his death and resurrection. This was all in my mind as I composed my poem in response to psalm 39, but so were those lines of Leonard Cohen’s, that it is just when you begin to perceive the ‘crack in everything’ that you also perceive that that is ‘how the light gets in’!

This present plague has prompted me, like many, to reflect that we must not return, afterwards, to our old ways, but must take this kairos moment as an opportunity to strengthen the things that remain and renew our true hope in Christ

As usual you can hear me read the poem by pressing the ‘play’ button if it appears, or else by clicking on the title. For the other poems in my psalm series type the word ‘psalm’ into the search box on the right.

XXXIX Dixi, Custodiam

Deliver me and raise me from the dead

For I have walked in shadows. Nothingness,

The vanity of things fills me with dread,

 

The sheer inanity, the pointlessness

Of how we used to live – we can’t go back

To that – the rush that masked our emptiness,

 

All the pretence that covered what we lack

When what we really lacked was always you.

I held my tongue, but I could see the crack

 

In everything we build and say and do.

And now the crack is widening. I pray

That we will turn and see a light break through

 

These fissures that so fill us with dismay.

The death we fear is birth, the shell is breaking:

The stone itself will soon be rolled away.

 

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He Shall Give Thee Thy Heart’s Desire: a Response to Psalm 37

the cool inviting glades
Of my new life in you

In my new sequence of poems written in response to the Psalter we have come to psalm 37. One of the most trenchant, and the most comforting of the psalms, it puts the brief flourishing of wickedness in this world into its true context and invites us to re-orient our loves and desires, to delight in the true God who knows our hearts and will give us our heart’s desire:

  1. FRET not thyself because of the ungodly: neither be thou envious against the evil-doers.
  2. For they shall soon be cut down like the grass: and be withered even as the green herb.
  3. Put thou thy trust in the Lord, and be doing good: dwell in the land, and verily thou shalt be fed.
  4. Delight thou in the Lord: and he shall give thee thy heart’s desire.
  5. Commit thy way unto the Lord, and put thy trust in him: and he shall bring it to pass.
  6. He shall make thy righteousness as clear as the light: and thy just dealing as the noon-day.

In my response to this poem I have dwelt on both the lovely promise that He will give us our heart’s desire, which is really the desire for God himself, and also on that image of the clear and growing light of his coming Kingdom. I also allude briefly to that passage in Milton’s Comus where the two brothers are discussing the problem of evil and one of them says

But evil on itself shall back recoil,
And mix no more with goodness…

As usual you can hear me read the poem by pressing the ‘play’ button if it appears, or else by clicking on the title. For the other poems in my psalm series type the word ‘psalm’ into the search box on the right.

XXXVII Noli aemulari

I’ll fret no more for passing wickedness,

No more than for the new mown grass that fades

To leave room for the growth and tenderness

 

Of fresh green leaves; the cool inviting glades

Of my new life in you, my heart’s desire.

The True Sun rises now, and soon the shades,

 

The last black shades of night, will ‘back retire

And mix no more with good’. Then I will sing

The song of my redemption in that choir

 

Where I, whom you have made, at last can bring

My song to its beginning and its end.

Till then I’ll be content with each small thing

 

Your love provides, and let the rich contend

With one another for their fading wealth

For I have found my God and my true friend.

 

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With Thee Is The Well Of Life: A Response To Psalm 36

Chalice Well gardens in Glastonbury

After a little break for saint’s days and site launches I return to my new sequence on the psalms.Psalm 36, is one of those psalms that suddenly shifts in tone part way through and rises to the sublime. It starts, as so many psalms in anger and frustration at the manifest evils in the world:

MY HEART sheweth me the wickedness of the ungodly: that there is no fear of God before his eyes.

For he flattereth himself in his own sight: until his abominable sin be found out.

but then, from the fifth verse on our vision is suddenly lifted, quite literally, into the heavens:

Thy mercy, O Lord, reacheth unto the heavens: and thy faithfulness unto the clouds.

Thy righteousness standeth like the strong mountains: thy judgements are like the great deep.

And then comes, the master image of the psalm, one of the most sublime images in all of Scripture:

For with thee is the well of life: and in thy light shall we see light.

In my responsive poem I have dwelt on that image, together with the other lovely phrases that precedes it:

the children of men shall put their trust under the shadow of thy wings.

They shall be satisfied with the plenteousness of thy house: and thou shalt give them drink of thy pleasures, as out of the river.

As usual you can hear me read the poem by pressing the ‘play’ button if it appears, or else by clicking on the title. For the other poems in my psalm series type the word ‘psalm’ into the search box on the right.

 

XXXVI Dixit injustus

As pilgrim souls on whom your light has shone

Let us leave judgement to your tender mercy

And turn instead to you, keep pressing on

 

Towards the steadfast heights, the mountain country

Of your holy presence. Let us drink

From that swift river, our true ecstacy.

 

Refresh us Christ, and bring us to the brink

Of that deep well where life itself is light

And goodness, more than we can dream or think,

 

Flows from your plenteousness, from your delight

In all your works, and where your loving kindness

Shines through our day and comforts us at night,

 

Like soft wings safely overarching us,

That we might put our utter trust in you

And fret no more for passing wickedness.

 

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Lord Convert Me: A Response To Psalm 35

Psalm 35 is one of those powerful psalms that epitomises for us one of the great challenges of the whole psalter. How are we to read those psalms in which the psalmist, suffering deep injustice, calls on God to act on his behalf and to bring swift justice against his oppressors? So this psalm opens:

  1. PLEAD thou my cause, O Lord, with them that strive with me: and fight thou against them that fight against me.
  2. Lay hand upon the shield and buckler: and stand up to help me.
  3. Bring forth the spear, and stop the way against them that persecute me: say unto my soul, I am thy salvation.
  4. Let them be confounded and put to shame, that seek after my soul: let them be turned back and brought to confusion, that imagine mischief for me.
  5. Let them be as the dust before the wind: and the angel of the Lord scattering them.
  6. Let their way be dark and slippery: and let the angel of the Lord persecute them.

This is tough stuff. Are we to throw up our hands and say, ‘we are Christians now, we can’t possibly pray this sort of thing, for we have been commanded to love our enemies’? That is true of course, but hidden in such a  response is the comfortable assumption that we are with the psalmist, that we are the good guys, and that these enemies and oppressors are always someone else. But supposing it is the other way round? Supposing right now there are people praying this psalm to God who, with some justice, regard us as the oppressor and are calling for God to deal with us. After all this psalm was prayed, and still is prayed, by devout Jews whom Christians were persecuting, and in some places still are persecuting. This psalm was prayed by African Americans from slavery days through the civil rights movement and even today, when their oppressors were, and sometimes are, fellow Christians. Is it prayed today by Christians in minority groups here in England and all over the world who are being in one way or another being exploited or marginalised? What if it turns out that we are on the wrong side of this psalm, that it is on us, and not on others that some desperate person is calling down God’s justice?

I think we must respond in two ways. As far as we have enemies or are mistreated ourselves then we must complain to God but also ask for mercy on our oppressors, knowing that in Christ God has already dealt with the sin and suffered the punishment that our oppressors deserve. But we must also seriously and soberly ask God to show us if we are the oppressors here, and seek his forgiveness, and beg him to convert us, to change our hearts, to teach us to join with him in his solidarity with the poor.

When I came to write my poem in response to this psalm I found myself praying exactly that prayer and I am glad that this sharp piece of scripture taught me to do so.

As usual you can hear me read the poem by pressing the ‘play’ button if it appears, or else by clicking on the title. For the other poems in my psalm series type the word ‘psalm’ into the search box on the right.

XXXV Judica, Domine

The poor cry out, Oh help them speedily

And plead their cause, though it may not be mine

The psalmist here is sure in crying ‘help me’!

 

But he was poor himself. Help me divine

How these sharp psalms call out for change in me

Lest I should be an ‘enemy of thine’,

 

And find the poor, who cry to you for mercy,

Have cried against me too! Oh let me not

Be numbered with these scoffers, Lord convert me,

 

Show me with whom I ought to share my lot,

For whom I ought to put the sackloth on,

Whom you remember, whom I have forgot,

 

That having wept with them and helped them on

To better things, we may rejoice together

As pilgrim souls on whom your light has shone.

 

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