Homilies from the Diaries (July 16, 2014 – September 4, 2018 and September 16, 2018 – June 30, 2021)

The diary homilies began in May 2014. They were the fruit of a personal contemplation on specific biblical texts in the context of my ‘communion’ – being a daily discipline of reading and prayer, which was frequently referred in both the first and second the diaries.

Affliction (February 18, 2018)

Behold, I have refined you, but not as silver; I have tested you in the furnace of affliction (Isaiah 48.10).

The ore in which silver is found contains other less precious metals besides, such as lead, copper, and antimony. In ancient times, one of the processes by which the silver was separated was cupellation. This involved heating the ore in a fierce fire until the silver liquified. Substances such as nitric acid were added in order to dissolve the silver into silver chloride, along with sodium carbonate, separate off the dross, and leave the silver in its most pure state. This operation, or something like it, is frequently used in the Bible to illustrate the way in which God refines his people. They are impure. But he’s committed to removing the dregs and rubbish that would otherwise contaminate their lives: those things which are unworthy, inconsistent, unhelpful, distracting, debilitating, and sometimes downright dangerous. Usually this process takes places constantly, progressively, and in the background, like the action of an anti-virus software (to switch metaphors). But there are also particular times of intense heat when especially recalcitrant refuse is burnt-off. Affliction (be that bad health, dire circumstances, crippling disappointment, inconsolable loss, unremitting persecution, or appalling injustice) sometimes serves as the purgatorial fire. While the ordeal is profoundly unpleasant, the fruit is salutary and long lasting. The suffering is not senseless.

Anxiety (January 31, 2018)

Be anxious for nothing, but in everything by prayer and supplication, with thanksgiving, let your requests be made known to God (Philippians 4.6).

‘Hey you! Don’t watch that. Watch this!’ was the memorable introduction to the song One Step Beyond (1979) by the British Ska band Madness. In the verse above, the apostle Paul enjoins the same, essentially: redirect your attention away from the problem and towards the solution. The New Testament Greek for ‘anxious’ (μεριμνάω) means to be ‘distracted’, ‘over-careful’, or ‘to go to pieces’. We’ve all experienced those feelings many times in our lives in response to, for example, overwhelming circumstances, disturbing concerns, chronic illness, the possibility that our basic human needs (physical, emotional, and spiritual) may not be met, and the fear of failure. This list is almost endless. Paul’s encouragement is comprehensive in its scope: there’s ‘nothing’ about which you need remain anxious (no exemptions), and ‘everything’ that distresses you can be directed to God (no exclusions). But the means by, and attitude in, which you do so is crucial: ‘by prayer’, ‘supplication’ (earnest and humble asking), and ‘thanksgiving’ (for the good ‘stuff’ in your life, and because he’s willing to listen and act on your behalf). Of course, he knows your needs before you ask; but he still wants you to tell him about them. Because God seeks a relationship.

Anxiety (March 23, 2018)

Can any one of you by worrying add a single hour to your life? (Matthew 6.27).

The figurative meaning of the New Testament Greek word for ‘worrying’ (μεριμνάω) means ‘to be pulled apart in all directions’ or, as we would say in contemporary parlance, ‘to go to pieces’. Which is as close as you get to describing the psychological experience of excessive anxiety. We can’t think straight, and are distracted, and divided within ourselves. It only takes one worry of sufficient magnitude to put our whole life in disarray. Our phrase ‘What’s the use of worrying?’ is a distillation of the biblical text, in some respects. Worrying is unproductive. It’s not going to make you live any longer. Indeed, if anything, it’ll shorten your life. The context of Christ’s rather acerbic challenge is a sermon about God’s provision, given to those who were learning to rely on him for everything and in every situation. He’ll put food in your stomach and clothes on your back; he’ll cover all of life’s basic exigencies (and, by extension, provide much more besides), Christ assured. Why? Because God is fully aware of your needs, and values you above everything else that he’s made. As such, and for those who were only now beginning to grasp the full implications of faith in thought and action, worrying was not only absurd but also wrong, because it betrayed a fundamental lack of trust.

Bread (March 21, 2020)

Give us this day our daily bread (Matthew 6.11).

That’s to say, bread enough for today. (For I’ll pray again for the same tomorrow.) That’s to say, not someone else’s bread. (Hording at another’s expense is manifest selfishness, born of insufficient love for our neighbour and trust in God.)

Brokenness (February 26, 2018)

He heals the broken hearted and binds up their wounds (Psalm 147.3).

‘Time heals’, they say. Or, put another way: we heal over time, usually. In other words, the further we are removed from the hurt, temporally speaking, the better able we are to reconcile ourselves to events, self-repair, and move on with our lives. This is an entirely natural process. What the psalmist refers to is a supernatural intervention: God administering a comforting salve in the moment of our need (rather than a long time afterwards). Heartbreak is a type of grief. It’s experienced in response to, for example, the loss or absence of someone we love, separation, a great disappointment, a frustrated longing, or a unrealisable desire. The condition is not a slight thing. Scientifically speaking, you can die from it. Its symptoms are as much physiological as they’re emotional and spiritual. Never blithely tell anyone ‘you’ll get over it!’. They may not, ever. (Time isn’t guaranteed to heal in all cases.) Such can be heartbreak’s profundity. It’s one of a number of wounds that have no obvious outward sign. We carry them around inside, in secret. But God (‘the great physician’) sees, cares (achingly so), sympathises, diagnoses, and prescribes. He does not wish for our hearts and hurts to go unattended.

Clarity (February 27, 2018)

And they saw the God of Israel: and there was under his feet as it were a paved work of a sapphire stone, and as it were the body of heaven in his clearness (Exodus 24.10).

John Ruskin had something to say about this aspect of ‘clearness’. It’s curious that the description focusses on God’s feet and the surface beneath them. Perhaps only those elements were visible; perhaps, the sight of his entire visage would have been unbearable. There are several rationales governing the prohibitions of the second command. The danger of idolatry is only one. The other concerns the nature of God himself. He is, in essence, an invisible spirit. Thus, any visual representation of him would falsify his ‘image’. It was not for humankind to imagine him in any shape or form. God’s auto-self-visualisation in this passage is likely to have been a type of symbolic and anthropomorphic picturing. A little later-on in the text, Moses has another sight of God or, rather, of an attribute of his person: his glory, which was ‘like a devouring fire’ — bright, fierce, terrifying, threatening and, one assumes, noisy too (Exodus 24.17).

Darkness (September 27, 2017)

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 thy staff they comfort me. Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies: thou anointest my head with oil; my cup runneth over. Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life: and I will dwell in the house of the Lord for ever (Psalm 23.4-6).

We would not walk through dark valleys voluntarily and solitary. This is why we’re led. You can’t see the landscape in the dark, so it’s easy to lose one’s bearings and veer from the path. But go through them we must, if we’re to reach the green pastures beyond. There’s no alternative route; no bypass. But there’re other roads to other places. We could walk instead, as Shakespeare put it, ‘the flowery way that leads to the broad gate and the great fire’. It’s an axiom of life: the easy path leads inevitably to a dismal end; the hard course, to the ‘land of plenty’.

Dark-Light (June 11, 2019)

Even the darkness will not be dark to you; the night will shine like the day, for darkness is as light to you (Psalm 139.12).

The verse was written to assure the anxious faithful that they cannot escape God’s presence, influence, and cognizance of them. His reach is as wide as it’s deep. Though they feel overshadowed by doubt, sin, guilt, hopeless, grief, illness, or perplexity, bear a pain that’s invisible to others, or are obscured by their loneliness and isolation, nevertheless, God still sees. Our condition, however black it may appear to be, will not conceal us. We’re, as though, hidden in plain sight – in bright sunlight – where he’s concerned: entirely apparent; in sharpest focus over every detail; and understood, through and through. As a visual artist, the final clause takes the top of my head off: ‘for darkness is as light to you’. I think of night-vision technology, of an impossible chiaroscuro, of a paradoxical ‘dark-light’.

Dark-Night (July 9, 2019)

Through waves and clouds and storms
his power will clear thy way:
wait thou his time; the darkest night
shall end in brightest day.

(Paul Gerhardt, ‘Befiehl du Deine Wege’ (1656), trans. by John Wesley (1739))

For those of no faith, perhaps these sentiments read like wishful thinking. The hymn describes a life’s-journey, wherein, on the one hand, trust, dependence, yielding, and commitment are the Christian’s moment-by-moment responsibility towards God. On the other hand, strength, provision, compassion, and oversight are His promised reciprocation. However, God’s ‘ever present help’ is not always perceivable; (which does not mean that it’s any less real) (Psalm 46.1). An awareness of God’s active agency may become beclouded by unfavourable circumstances. As these hymn verses testify, there’re times when — under heavy-weather — anxiety, heaviness of heart, despair, and crippling sadness are the believer’s normative experience. God loves like a lover, and cares like a mother. Faith proves its mettle, and God demonstrates his consolations, most persuasively when every indicator seems to point to the contrary.

Delight and Desire (January 26, 2018)

Delight thyself also in the Lord: and he shall give thee the desires of thine heart (Psalm 37.4).

The verse above has been a comfort to, and the experience of, the faithful within the Judaeo-Christian tradition for millennia. Of course, God isn’t contractually obliged to give them anything their heart desires. Some desires are either selfish, or stupid, or vain, or potentially hurtful to others and themselves, or else downright immoral. That’s why the initial clause of the verse needs to be addressed first; it serves to curb waywardness and excess of expectation. The Hebrew word for ‘delight’ (עָנַג) is curious; it means, variously, to be happy and luxuriate in, and to live softly and delicately with. It was often used to describe a man’s tender and amorous affections towards a woman. To delight in God is, thus, to have an embarrassingly intimate relationship with him, one that is passionate, indulgent, sporting, joyful, committed, and fully knowing. As one lover attunes their heart to that of the other, so the faithful bring their will, ambitions, and feelings into accord with God’s own. Thus, his desires become theirs too; and those he will fulfil.

Enough! (June 19, 2019)

He came to a broom bush, sat down under it and prayed that he might die. ‘I have had enough, Lord’, he said. ‘Take my life; I am no better than my ancestors’ (1 Kings 19.4).

The protagonist in the above verse is Elijah, one of the greatest prophets in the Old Testament. At this moment in his life – having had a dramatic run-in with the prophets of Baal and run away from Jezebel, who’d threatened his life – he’s utterly exhausted and despondent. He can take no more, and would rather die than go on.

The psychology is instructive. The prophet was running-on empty; extreme physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual tiredness had grounded him, literally. Elijah no longer had any hope or plans for the future. He was a holy man who’d responded obediently to God’s call and directives, only to end in, what in today’s parlance we’d call, a partial physical and mental breakdown. This was God’s will (as much as any commission that Elijah had received previously): to be taken to the screaming edge. With what strength he’d left, the prophet prayed the death wish of a severely wounded animal: ‘Put me out of my misery!’, as it were. He was, by this stage, profoundly depressed, such that a sense of dignity, integrity, and self-worth had deserted him: ‘I’m no better than my ancestors’.

Enough! (June 20, 2019)

Lover and friend hast thou put far from me, and mine acquaintance into darkness (Psalm 88.18).

There’re periods in our lives when the future appears to taper, as opportunities are either lost or denied us, and hopes and anticipations prove groundless. The best in life lies behind, or so it seems. The monotonous predictability of the present acts like a drag upon our motivations, and sullies what little optimism remains. Our prayers are met with either an indifferent silence or a defiant and unalterable ‘No!’ The windows of heaven are sealed against us. Questions go unanswered. Answers are questionable. Little things cause great anxiety. Confidence seeps away. Nothing is in focus. Our passions no longer engage us; our achievements seem hollow and unimpressive. The forward motion of the ship cannot be sensed; the vessel has come to rest in mid-ocean and is drifting. Counsellors and kindness are debarred. Solitude turns to loneliness. We shrivel like a neglected plant. The dread of more bad news paralyses. Temptations assail; doubts prevail. Problems drop like rain into our lap. It’s not the intensity but, rather, the longevity of these periods that unsettles us most.

Examination (May 16, 2018)

Search me, O God, and know my heart: try me, and know my thoughts: And see if there be any wicked way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting (Psalm 139.23–24).

This was the psalmist’s prayer. He beseeched God to look within, search, and test him regarding his motives. God’s comprehensive and forensic knowledge of our hearts and its desires is a source of both disquiet and consolation. For what we desire is not always either good, ennobling, or helpful. ‘The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked: who can know it?’ (Jeremiah 19.9). Well, God certainly can. It’s a cess pit for all sorts of evil. Christ elaborated: ‘Out of the heart of men, proceed the evil thoughts, fornications, thefts, murders, adulteries, deeds of coveting and wickedness, as well as deceit, sensuality, envy, slander, pride and foolishness’ (Mark 7. 20–23). Our hearts are broken in the most profound and wide-ranging sense of that term. But it’s not a right-off. The heart, along with every other aspect of our humanity, having been made in the image of God, is also capable of acts of beneficence, honour, altruism, and self-sacrifice (Genesis 1.26). (‘Blessed are the pure in heart’ (Matthew 5.8).)

God fully and tenderly comprehends the height, depth, complexity, ambiguity, and vacillation of our desires, even before we utter them. This is an immense comfort. For not all of our desires are articulable in words. Some take the form of intense feelings rather than definite thoughts. We can pour them out before him only as sighs, tears, and an aching that radiate from our inner-most being and into our bodily frame. They may be feelings that we struggle to comprehend ourselves, even as they sweep us off our feet. It can be a confusing, disconcerting, and utterly exhausting experience. In desperation, we may pray that God will either fulfil or remove them, and that right quickly. He can change even the most profound and deep-seated desires of the heart. But when, in response, he doesn’t, what then? Interpreting their persistence is problematic. It may mean that those desires are God given, legitimate, and to be poured out before him until such time as they’re fulfilled. (Ache on!) Alternatively, the time is not yet right for their extraction, because we’ve still lessons to learn from our suffering. In either case, all we can do is wait and trust – which is of the essence of prayer.

Forgive and Forget (February 11, 2019)

Do not remember the sins of my youth and my rebellious ways; according to your love remember me, for you, Lord, are good (Psalm 25.7).

Recently, a number of politicians and celebrities have been publicly vilified and denounced, as crimes and misdemeanours that they committed decades earlier have come to light. The passing of time doesn’t, itself, expunge either culpability or guilt. Sin has no expiry date or statute of limitation. Even if we can bury our former, unconscionable, and inexcusable behaviour under the duvet of pitiable self-justification and self-induced amnesia, God still sees and holds us to account.

However, most of us, like the psalmist, remain deeply troubled by, if not the consequences, then, the memory of, our historic misdeeds. I’m sure the psalmist would have blushed to recount the reckless, lawless, self-indulgent, thoughtless, and hurtful thoughts and actions for which he was culpable as a young man. And, clearly, these failings still bothered him enough to talk them over with God in later life. His prayer issued from remorse and repentance. God signalled his forgiving in the instant of forgetting. Had the psalmist asked God about those juvenile transgressions thereafter, he would receive a reply to the effect: ‘What sins can you possibly be referring to?’

Forgiveness and Forgetting (January 6, 2020)

I am the worst (1 Timothy 1.15)

God had forgiven the Apostle Paul (formerly Saul of Tarsus) for prosecuting and punishing Christians, ‘unto the death’ in some cases. Moreover, God remembered his sins no more (Hebrews 8.12). Paul, however, could not forget his atrocities. Even after conversion, profound remorse coloured his self-estimation: Here is a trustworthy saying that deserves full acceptance: Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners – of whom I am the worst (1 Timothy 1.15). An admission of, and forgiveness for, sin doesn’t preclude a deep and abiding sense of regret for the harm that we’ve done to others and, in some cases, to ourselves. But Paul was neither emotionally crippled nor wholly defined by his past. While believing himself to be the worst of all sinners (and this was no hyperbole on his part) he, nevertheless, could experience spiritual ecstasy and intimacy with God and, with His help, go on to make an unparalleled contribution to the theology and nurture of the nascent church. Thus, the Apostle’s past life was no match for God’s unmerited favour: But where sin abounded, grace did much more abound (Romans 5.20).

Rembrandt, Saint Paul (c.1657) (courtesy of Wikimedia Commons).

Friendship (March 3, 2018)

There is a friend who sticks closer than a brother (Proverbs 18.24).

The verse (or this part of it) assumes that brothers, too, stick close. As an only child, I’ve no practical experience to draw upon other than the fraternal adhesion that my sons have one to another – which is admirable and enviable. But there are other brothers, whom I know, who you’d have to involuntarily rivet to their siblings for them to be considered close. The ‘friend’ in this text is a rarity of rarities. (If you ever gain one, then, keep hold on them for dear life.) Their bond isn’t predicated upon the obligations of kinship. ‘Sticky friends’ make a disinterested commitment; they’re in the relationship for you, principally, and for the long haul.

There’s a very telling verse about a remarkable friendship shared between Jonathan (the eldest son of King Saul) and David (the former shepherd, psalmist, and, later, king): ‘The soul of Jonathan was knit with the soul of David, and Jonathan loved him as his own soul’ (1 Sam. 18.1). Your soul is your greatest and most invaluable asset. ‘What can anyone give in exchange for their soul?’ (Mark 8.37). Not even the whole world would be a fair trade (Mark 8.36).

‘Sticky-love’ goes deeper than deep. It’s as profound as it’s inexplicable. When Jonathan died, David paid homage to that friendship: ‘Your love for me was wonderful, more wonderful than that of women’ (2 Samuel 1.26). The relationship couldn’t last forever in this life. But while it did, that bond was extraordinary, enabling, and enhancing, for both of them. So much so, that the man who’d said ‘The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want’ experienced an intensity of distress proportionate to that love (Psalm 23.1). The loss of a great friend is a grief beyond discussion.

Cima da Conegliano, David and Jonathan (c. 1505-10) (courtesy of Wikimedia Commons).

Hope (January 1, 2018)

Hope deferred maketh the heart sick (Proverbs 13.12).

The keyword here is ‘deferred’; that’s to say, postponed for a later time. In other words, this isn’t a text about the utterly crippling experience of hope abandoned. (That’s far, far more difficult to deal with.) We’re in the realms of delayed, rather than cancelled, trains. You may have a burning desire for something to come to pass, and the deep-seated expectation that, one-day, it will. However, its fulfilment has been a long time in coming. If you know that the object of your hope will be tremendously good for either you or others, then the wait can be utterly miserable. It may effect your whole disposition. That’s testament to how much you’ve invested in that hope, how singularly important it’s to you, and how desperate you are that it should be realised. That hope may be realised, but only at the right time – neither too soon nor too late. And when it arrives, you’ll know why it didn’t come any earlier, berate yourself for being so impatient, and rejoice with thanksgiving.

Hopelessness and Helplessness (March 8, 2020)

Our help is in the name of the Lord, who made heaven and earth (Psalm 124.8).

Some time ago one of my tutees, who’d an admirable concern for the wellbeing of her peers, remarked that in her experience most students get drunk because they feel hopeless. Alcohol creates a temporary sense of oblivion that masks their low expectations about life’s prospects, present distress, and inconfidence (a revived archaism) that anything will change for the better.

The ‘demons’ of Hopelessness and Helplessness often roam the earth hand-in-hand. There’re times in life when we can’t hack it alone. (I don’t believe we’re intended to. No shame in that.) When help arrives, hope revives. The psalmist’s help came from a God whose power, wisdom, knowledge, and beneficence, he believed, had been declared in the conception, creation, and sustenance of everything there is. Those same infinite and eternal resources were now directed towards the crises and intractable problems that dogged his life (and that of anyone else who called upon his name in faith). And in this were grounds for hope beyond measure.

Knowledge (October 30, 2017)

Almighty God, unto whom all hearts be open, all desires known, and from whom no secrets are hid (The Book of Common Prayer).

I pray this line at the beginning of every service of Holy Communion. Sometimes, to my shame, I say it too familiarly; at other times, fearfully (He sees the wrongs that I’ve concealed); but on these last few Sundays, I’ve taken hold on the text firmly, and with a clean heart. Or, rather, it has taken hold on me. How wonderfully consoling to be so completely naked and transparent before someone who cares deeply, unconditionally, and meticulously about your feelings, wants, and needs; someone who has the power to intervene and change anything that’s missing from, or out of kilter in, your life. This is God the good parent raised to the power of infinity.

Love (May 12, 2018)

Many waters cannot quench love, neither can the floods drown it: if a man would give all the substance of his house for love, it would utterly be contemned (Song of Solomon 8.7).

Love is a fire that burns fiercely on an inexhaustible supply of fuel. The combined forces of the New York Fire Department couldn’t extinguish it. Even if it was submerged under Noah’s deluge, love would remain defiantly alight – hot and bright – like some submarine volcano that’s constantly erupting magma from between tectonic plates on the seabed. Adversity is no match for love. Neither distance, separation, prohibition, discouragement (be that dissuasion or dispiritedness), and circumstance, nor even death itself, can dampen its flames. Love abides, whatever the external conditions and prospects.

As the Beatles song says: ‘Money can’t buy you love’. People of power, wealth, and influence can purchase another person’s body and company for the purposes of self-gratification, the exercise of control, and faking intimacy. But the other’s love isn’t up for sale. The very thought is repellent. You have to earn affection. Love cannot be bought, bribed, or bargained for. Only given, voluntarily and generously.

Underwater magma flow (courtesy of Wikimedia Commons).

Love (May 14, 2014)

The Lord delights in those who fear him, who put their hope in his unfailing love (Psalm 147.11).

Fear and love are unlikely bedfellows in a relationship. On the human plane, they’re opposites and, as such, don’t provide a basis for reciprocity. However, on the vertical axis of human and divine interaction, these two responses are in harmony. ‘Fear'(יָרֵא), in Hebrew, implies an attitude of reverence touched with awe. It’s not, in other words, the emotional reaction of an abused child to a wicked or neglectful parent. God is the maker and upholder of the universe, infinite in power, wisdom, compassion, and mercy, holy, and deeply committed to their lives. Thus, when believers approach him in prayer, a casual frame of heart and mind is inappropriate.

Those that fear God do so, also, in acknowledgement that his love towards them is consistent, constant, and reliable. (He’s not subject to their emotional and ethical vicissitudes.) Like reckless gamblers, they place all their bets on him alone. Because he never disappoints. Because he ‘is able to do exceeding abundantly above all that [they] ask or think’ (Ephesians 3.20). Nothing lies beyond the purview of what’s possible with God. Which is why they can lay before him their most knotty and intractable problems in full assurance that he can and will solve them.

Perhaps the most astonishing aspect of this relationship is that God takes pleasure it. Their deep respect for, and unconditional confidence in, him, and the love that he extends to them, gives him satisfaction.

Apse mosaic, basilica of San Vitale, Ravenna (built 547 AD) (courtesy of Wikimedia Commons).

Old Fruit (March 22, 2019)

They will still yield fruit in old age; They shall be full of sap and very green (Psalm 92.14).

The psalmist makes an observation about the righteous. ‘They’ endeavoured to live uprightly according to the law and, like Abraham, believed and trusted in God (Genesis 15.6). The righteous were never self-righteous. Far from it. A holier-than-thou attitude was anathema to them. Rather, like the tax collector in Christ’s parable, they beat their breast knowing how far short of holiness they fell (Luke 18.10–14). Even in old age, the righteous flourished under God’s grace and favour. Not for them propping-up the bar at Wetherspoons from nine in the morning until mid afternoon, and endlessly walking the dog wondering what to do with their lives in retirement. They kept on boogieing, strutting like Mick Jagger across the world’s stage, pursuing their passions with fire in their bones, delivering the goods, and giving the young a run for their money. If I’m blessed with long life, this is how I want to be too.

Planning (February 5, 2019)

‘For I know the plans I have for you,’ declares the Lord, ‘plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future’ (Jeremiah 29.11).

Even people of faith get weary and a little lost at times. They’re exhausted by the slog, disappointed at themselves and circumstances, and frustrated by failure and loss. The conditions of their lives appear to deteriorate, in spite of sincere prayers for improvement. Deep longings overwhelm them, with little prospect of ever being fulfilled. Day follows day in bland and predictable succession, as in a time of grief. (As it is, so will it remain.) Life no longer seems to have either direction or purpose. The surety that even their most bewildering and discouraging experiences form part of a grander scheme that ultimately leads to their betterment, is a sustaining consolation. Even though that plan may be inscrutable, it’s no less real for that. The motivation that lies behind it is nothing less than the greatest love directed towards their highest good.

Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Prayer (February 15, 2018)

He shall call upon me, and I will answer him (Psalm 91.15).

Unlike our attempts at making a mobile-phone call, the efficacy of prayer is not subject to either our location or the signal strength; and God is never too busy to respond. He not only listens but also replies. Yes, there’ve been times when I’ve wondered if there was someone on the other end. There’ve been times, too, when my motives for speaking with him have been wrong; my heart, awry; and my priorities, dishevelled. You can’t have communication without communion. (‘Reform and redial, John!’) God’s answers aren’t always straightforward, though. In other words, they’re not necessarily comprehensible in terms of a simple and absolute ‘yes’ or ‘no’. For example, there’s a ‘yes … but not yet’; and a ‘no, for now’, that’ll be superseded by a ‘yes’ in the future. Answers to prayer are always contextual and conditional. Sometimes, either we, or our circumstances, or the season, or the prevailing conditions must change before God chooses his moment. But act he will. ‘Gottes Zeit ist die Allerbeste Zeit‘ [‘God’s Time is the Very Best Time’], as J S Bach titled one of his cantatas (BWV106). But that time may be a very long time in coming. Which is why trusting God and waiting upon him are of the essence of prayer (Psalm. 91. 2, 4).

Prayer (March 7, 2018)

Likewise the Spirit also helpeth our infirmities: for we know not what we should pray for as we ought: but the Spirit itself maketh intercession for us with groanings which cannot be uttered’ (Romans 8.26).

This verse, from the Apostle Paul’s letter to the church at Rome, opens-up the concept of non-verbal articulation. It’s written in the context of God’s participation in, and commitment to, praying for us (which is remarkable in itself): God chooses to speak without words (in marked contrast to the expression of his fiat at the Creation (Genesis 1.1)). In prayer, his Holy Spirit intervenes through deep-feeling alone. (Bring on a doxology!)

Sculpture of the Holy Spirit, San Antone Church, Urtijëi (courtesy of Wikimedia Commons).

Promise (June 27, 2018)

Over the past months, I’ve been intrigued by the narrative of Elisha and the Shunamite woman (2 Kings 4.8–37). She’d been helpful to the prophet in a practical way – in effect, providing him with B&B. As a gesture of thanks, the prophet asked her what he could do for her. She had an elderly husband and dearly wanted a son. So Elisha promised her one. And God delivered on it. But when the child grew older he suffered what could be construed as a brain aneurism, and died. Even Elisha was taken aback, and utterly perplexed by this providence. What God had allowed seemed so cruel, almost sadistic, and without interpretation. The woman was in more anguish now than she ever had she been while childless:  Elisha said: ‘she is in bitter distress, and the Lord has hidden it from me and has not told me’. Why did God give something only to take it away, and so soon? Elisha, however, raised the son from the dead and restored him to his mother. We aren’t told why this course of events had to take place, or whether an explanation was ever given to Elisha and the mother (Diary of Departures (May 12, 2018)).

Adolf Hutt, the Shunamite woman, Bible Primer: for use in the primary department of Sunday School (1919) (courtesy of Wikimedia Commons).

Remnant (March 12, 2018)

And the remnant that remaineth of the curtains of the tent, the half curtain that remaineth, shall hang over the backside of the tabernacle (Exodus 26.12).

The Tabernacle – the Israelite’s portable tent of worship during their sojourn in the Wilderness – was designed by God, and fashioned by two distinguished artisans (whose talent for sculpting, casting, and representation had been supernaturally enhanced for the task). Others with natural gifts for woodwork, metalwork, and embroidery, among other crafts, were also conscripted. This was a sacred building that was undertaken in a spirit of reverence and wholehearted dedication. No part of anything that they made was superfluous. Even the ‘excess’ lengths of the goat’s hair curtains (‘the remnant that remaineth’), rather than be cut off and thrown away, were put to good use as covers over the Tabernacle. This principle of thrift and economy is also evident in the narrative of the feeding of the five thousand. After the boy’s meagre means of five small barley loaves and two small fishes had been multiplied, and the people had eaten, Christ said to his disciples, ‘Gather the pieces that are left over. Let nothing be wasted’ (John 6.12). Even though Christ could have fed the whole world over and over again from that basket of provisions, he didn’t countenance a careless disregard for the leftovers. Those fragments would go towards another meal. (That’s divine ecology and good housekeeping in concert.)

And, so it is in the realms of our lived experience before God too. However, dark, perplexing, hurtful, discouraging, futile, hopeless, and meaningless a situation may be (or appear), not the smallest part of it is, in his economy, either purposeless, redundant, or disposable: ‘And we know that God causes everything to work together for the good of those who love God and are called according to his purpose for them’ (Romans 8.28). Likewise, you may find yourself holding onto only the ‘remnant that remaineth’ of some life-changing and utterly wonderful experience that you once enjoyed. Don’t either despise or cast it aside. Gather up the fragments, and be thankful. Those pieces may go towards something equally enriching in the future.

Sanctuary (March 6, 2018)

God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble (Psalm 46.1).

Towards the end of my MA Visual Art degree (1982–4), I painted A Place of Safekeeping. The work referenced both verse 1 of Psalm 46 and a curious enclosure that was cut into the rock at the rear of the, then, University College of Wales, Aberystwyth’s Visual Art Department, on Llanbadarn Road, Aberystwyth. It was a ‘man’-made and, at the time of its construction, a secret concrete bunker built to store valuable pictures and documents that’d been evacuated from museums and galleries in London during World War II. Here, the treasures were completely safe from aerial bombing, explosions, fire, water, collapse, and discovery.

For the psalmist, God was a strong room – an unassailable and indestructible refuge that would preserve him from far worse calamities than the blitz: ‘Therefore, I will not fear, though the earth be removed, and though the mountains be carried into the midst of the sea’ (Psalm 46.2). The works in the bunker were returned to London in 1946. God, however, was his perpetual place of safekeeping, as well as a source of strength. It protected him in the ‘eternal now’ (as the old hippies used to say). Troubles would inevitably come. But this sanctuary was active, concerned, immediate, and remedial. God was not only the refuge but also inside it, with the psalmist, supporting him and changing his situation for the better.

John Harvey, A Place of Safekeeping (1983).

Season (December 21, 2021)

To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven: a time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, and a time to pluck up that which is planted; a time to kill, and a time to heal; a time to break down, and a time to build up; a time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance; a time to cast away stones, and a time to gather stones together; a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing; a time to get, and a time to lose; a time to keep, and a time to cast away; a time to rend, and a time to sew; a time to keep silence, and a time to speak; a time to love, and a time to hate; a time of war, and a time of peace (Ecclesiastes 3.1-8).

The longer you live, the more likely you are to observe (if not directly experience) that pattern of oscillations and oppositions. This side of the veil, these fluctuations in life’s conditions are an unalterable principle. Today it’s winter; tomorrow it’ll be spring, and so forth. We move from one to the other and back again, cyclically. At times, it may seem to us as though we are being batted, arbitrarily, between contraries. However, each change is as purposeful as it’s inevitable. We may not, however, discern the underlying rationale; life (and God) are often disconcertingly mute when it comes to explanations for the best and the worst that befall us. So, if (to use John Bunyan’s imagery) you are in the ‘Slough of Despond’ presently, lighten up. This too will pass. Likewise, if you are on the ‘Delectable Mountains’ … don’t get too comfortable. Make ready for your descent.

Separation (March 2, 2018)

It was also called Mizpah because he said, ‘May the Lord keep watch between you and me when we are away from each other’ (Genesis 31.49).

There’s a tradition in the Old Testament of setting up stones as either a witness of an agreement between parties or to commemorate a significant act of God. Today, we’d regard it as a mode of spontaneous land art, made from raw materials native to the site. Jacob and Laban (the Andy Goldsworthy and Richard Long of their day, on this occasion) constructed a pile of stones and titled the work Mizpah (מִצְפָּה) which, in Hebrew, means ‘watchtower’. So, the construction is likely to have made a figurative allusion to a lookout post. Quite apart from its legal status – formalising a separation and marking a division of territories – this collaborative artefact spoke of what would be an enduring bond between these two men. The stones memorialised a desire, namely, that God would watch over them (to keep them true to their commitment and one another) after they’d said farewell. This symbolic watchtower was, then, the materialisation of a mutual compact made in God’s sight. In Jewish culture, subsequently, Mizpah has accrued additional sentiments. It connotes a sense of a long goodbye that isn’t final; of the hope that relationships will endure and be restored once again.

Silence (December 20, 2016)

Zechariah, John the Baptist’s father, was temporarily struck dumb because he didn’t believe the angel’s news that God would or could answer his and Elizabeth’s (his wife) prayer for a child, so very late-on in their lives (Luke 1.20). Silence as punishment. Silence for faithlessness. Silence in waiting.

Juan Martínez Montañés, Zacarías [nd], Convent of San Leadro, Seville (courtesy of Wikimedia Commons).

Soul Sale (November 19, 2018)

For what shall it profit a man, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul? (Mark 8.36)

What is it to lose your own soul? I thought of Esau selling his birth right for a bowl of stew. I thought of David selling his integrity, wholesale, for another man’s wife. It’s like betting your prize possession on a horse that isn’t even going to make it to the finishing post. It’s like an ‘irretrievable disc error’ warning: once gone, gone forever. But it’s not like a Faustian pact; there’s no trade-off with the devil: a ‘your soul for the whole world’ type of transaction. Rarely is it that self-conscious in reality. (‘What soul?’, somebody shouted.) It’s more like an email scam that was known to be circulating, but no one thought they’d be fooled by. And, when their whole world was finally stripped away, they were left with nothing. Not even a bill of exchange.

10 (January 22, 2019)

Wherefore the law was our schoolmaster to bring us unto Christ, that we might be justified by faith (Galatians 3.24).

It’s not the role of the teacher to either flatter the student, or improve them, or massage their sense of self-importance, or encourage the idea that they’ll succeed, if only they’d try harder. Rather, responsible tuition sets before the learner the high standards of attainment, reflected in the criteria of assessment (of which they inevitably fall short), and points them towards the knowledge and the resources that they need to fulfil them. God’s law (the Ten Commandments) was given to convince us of our incompetence. We can’t fulfil it; the bar is set too high. The law mocks, as it were, even our best efforts and intentions, and cannot, of itself, make us any better than we are. That wasn’t its design. But like a diligent and compassionate teacher, the law doesn’t abandon its students to frustration and despair. Rather, the law leads them by the hand to one who has passed the examination with full marks on their behalf. Academically speaking, this would constitute unfair practice. Spiritually speaking, God’s provision is, similarly, as unwarranted and undeserved as it is unexpected. Mercy and grace trump protocol. In order to fulfil the criteria of assessment, the student must abandon trying and, instead, begin trusting.

Cecil B DeMille, The Ten Commandments (1923) (courtesy of Wikimedia Commons).

Thoughts and Ways (May 9, 2019)

For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, saith the Lord. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways, and my thoughts than your thoughts (Isaiah 58. 8–9).

It’s not that God’s opinions about, and approach to, the issues of our lives are necessarily contrary to our own. Of course, they may be on occasion. What Isaiah addresses is, rather, the comparative difference between God’s view of things and ours, in terms of both perspective and scope. In Google Maps, you can gradually pull away, upwards, from a view of your house to the … street … town … county …  country … and, finally, the world. Thereafter, you can survey the whole planet, as though suspended in space like a satellite. From up there, you more clearly appreciate your place within the larger context; your orientation in relation to what, ordinarily, would be beyond my field of vision; and your connection to other things and people around about you.

God’s eye-view is neither earth bound nor time bound. He sees everything and, more importantly, each one of us in relation to it. (We’re none of us insignificant in his eyes.) Our rationalisation and intuitions about things, however sophisticated, informed, and well-counselled, are limited in their scope and point of reference. For example, we can make what appears to be a right decision; but, in truth, we’ve little understanding of its consequences for ourselves and others beyond the present. A decision may be our best guess on the basis of the available information, in many cases. We are all partially sighted, in this respect. In the Judaeo-Christian tradition, seeking God’s guidance is, in part, predicated upon an awareness of this deficit. Only he can direct our paths in the light of all that can be known, as well as what’s unknowable to us. He sees the biggest picture. That’s a huge comfort.

(Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.)

Thoughts and Ways (February 19, 2020)

For who knows a person’s thoughts except their own spirit within them? In the same way no one knows the thoughts of God except the Spirit of God (1 Corinthians 2.11).

At times, people of faith are apt to interpret the events of their lives as though they knew God’s mind. The thought that the calamities which befall them may be meaninglessness is unbearable. Thus, they desperately contrive significances, patterns, rationales to make the appalling appear more palatable.

But we should never allow ourselves to believe that our thoughts necessarily bear any relationship to reality. They’re no more than conjecture and speculation at best. God cannot be second-guessed. He knows our thoughts (thankfully), but we cannot know his. God is inscrutable: his ‘ways are passed finding out’. Nevertheless, we believe that God always acts in a manner that’s consistent with his character, and in full cognisance of both our frailty and circumstances. ‘Even the very hairs on your head are numbered.’ These convictions may not explain, but they do underpin and support us in, our predicaments. And there’s a consolation to be had in that.

Tragedy (May 18, 2018)

Or those eighteen, upon whom the tower in Siloam fell, and slew them, think ye that they were sinners above all men that dwelt in Jerusalem? (Luke 13.4).

There’s something utterly monstrous about death, particularly when it comes before time. Inevitably and understandably people have asked ‘Why?’ and ‘To what purpose?’ I suspect that they don’t expect answers. In the Gospels, Christ addressed a similar inquiry in response to a local disaster that took place in the southern part of Jerusalem’s old city. A tower had fallen killing eighteen people. However, in this case, his interrogators (always eager to trip him up) wanted to know whether there was a causality between great sin and great tragedy. Did those who were killed get what they deserved? Christ would have none of this simplistic, heartless, and self-righteous folk theologising. Instead, he used the incident as an object lesson. What happened to those poor people awaits, in a far more profound sense, all who don’t repent while they still have breath, he warned (Luke 13.5).

Tragedy can appear pointless and arbitrary. Bad things may befall good people, out of the blue, and without rhyme or reason. Some calamities need not happen, of course. For example, the Grenfell Tower fire was wholly avoidable; gross human negligence was to blame. Likewise, the fall of the Tower of Siloam may have been the consequence of Roman jerry-building. But such events ought to prompt us to consider our readiness, should we, one day, fall victim to a disaster. This may be the only sense of purpose that we can impose on such awfulness.

‘Siloam, at the Foot of Olivet’, The Australian Abroad on Branches from the Main Routes Round the World (1885) (courtesy of Wikimedia Commons).

Transfiguration (October 9, 2017)

When Christ was transfigured, he became radiant: ‘his face did shine as the sun, and his raiment was white as the light’ (Matthew 17.2). Moses’s face had shone on his return from the summit of Mount Sinai. He had been in the presence of God for forty days (Exodus 34. 29–35). In some ways, it was like having been exposed to intense radioactivity, but without harm. In Mark’s account of the narrative, the writer adds: ‘his raiment became shining, exceeding white as snow; so as no fuller on earth can white them’ (Mark 9.3). I like that last phrase, particularly. It earths the transcendental moment. A fuller dyed cloth. Christ was white beyond what anyone could have achieved using bleach. White is the colour of heaven and the presence of God; and that presence was disclosed momentarily when Christ parted the curtain to reveal the fullness of his divinity. In the tradition of icons, the radiant white of the transfiguration was transmuted, by a theological and symbological alchemy, into gold. Therefore, for gold read white. Whereas, in the icon, white pigment denoted the light of this world; gold connoted a super-light: variously the light of God, a state of blessedness, and spiritual illumination made resplendently physical and sensual.

Trouble (January 19, 2018)

Yet man is born unto trouble, as the sparks fly upward (Job 5.7).

Here’s a truth that’s validated by our own experience in this world, and comprehensive in its scope. Our bodies, minds, relationships, work, hopes, fears, loves, and desires are all liable to difficulties, vexations, and trials at one time or another, and, alas, in concert too, sometimes. We’re broken people in a broken world. Troubles are self-evidently inevitable for all of us. And with them, come sorrows. And ‘When sorrows come, they come not single spies, but in battalions’ (Hamlet). They’re also as plentiful as the sparks that rise from the burning wood. Life can seem unutterably cruel, frustrating, and unfair sometimes.

Trust (March 27, 2018)

Trust in him at all times; ye people, pour out your heart before him: God is a refuge for us (Psalm 61.8).

Even in good times, trusting in God is not without its difficulties. We’re beguiled by the ease of living; the way in which things work out, almost effortlessly; the surfeit of provision (‘I nothing lack’ (Psalm 23.1)); the unsought opportunities that come into view; our rude health and brimming optimism; and the abundance of family, friends, and lovers in whom we can confide and find our deepest sense of significance and happiness. Under such conditions, we can become oblivious to the source of those benefactions and, worse still, assume (against common sense) that they’ll characterise our experience in perpetuity.

But when all these things are stripped away, as they were for Job, then trusting in God is tantamount to trying to scale Everest wearing only a pair of Flip-flops. We have to continue believing, against all evidence to the contrary, that he’s still loving and good, ‘touched with the feeling of our infirmities’, El Roi (‘the God who sees me’), fully in control of our circumstances, and able to intervene in and change them, for the better, when he sees fit (Job 42.2). In times of plenty, we should pour out our hearts in thanksgiving. In times of want, loss, loneliness, heartache, or distress, we must learn, like the psalmist, to complain, lament, spread out our troubles before him, yell in his ear, beat our breasts, and break a few plates. There’s no place for stoicism when it comes to trusting God.

Trust (May 5, 2018)

Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding (Proverbs 3.5).

In the Old Testament, the ‘heart’ refers to the seat of a person’s inner-most being, including their conscience, emotions, will, ratiocination, and understanding. So, in at least one respect, it overlapped with the functions of the mind – the domain of thinking (and also of understanding, in some senses of the word). Heart and mind were, therefore, not as far a part as we place them today, culturally. They overlapped. In this proverb, the heart and understanding are both distinguished and interrelated. Wholehearted trust in God implies that we fully yield our desires, feelings, plans, and grasp of what we think is going on in our life to him, in the belief that he has our best and highest interests at heart, acts with compassion and integrity, shepherds our comings and goings, and promises to help. (And he always keeps his promises.) In short, we trust him because he’s trustworthy.

Our understanding is God given. But it doesn’t necessarily provide a true representation of reality. The knowledge that informs our understanding may be either partial, incorrectly interpreted, or erroneous. So, we daren’t make important decisions based solely upon it – particularly, if we know that we don’t know the full picture. God does; he sees everything, including the future consequences of our choices, and will determine his will for us accordingly.

MRI image of a healthy human heart (courtesy of Wikimedia Commons).

Trust (December 13, 2019)

Put not your trust in princes, nor in the son of man, in whom there is no help. Breath goes forth, he returned to his earth; in that very day (Psalm 146.3–5).

The most dispiriting outcome of this election [the UK General Election of 2019] has been the unalloyed outbursts on social media: rank triumphalism, on the part of some of the victors, and vindictiveness and malice, on the part of some of the squarely trounced. (To be fair, there have also been heartfelt expressions of hopelessness and despair, by others in the latter camp, on behalf of those who can’t cope for themselves.) I’ve also read tweets by artists and musicians who’ve spoken of the solace that they’ve found in their work, and in believing in the resilience of the human spirit. Religionists, for their part, have written about the consolation they’ve found by trusting in a higher and overseeing governance. God can just as easily remove the wicked and unjust leader as establish a righteous and principled one (Daniel 2.20–21). In the end, all human authorities, however well-intended, falter and fail ultimately because they’re limited by their wisdom, compassion, resources, energies, and experience. For better or for worse, these times and seasons will pass. ‘Thy kingdom come. Thy will be done!’ And a little more civility would be a small step towards realising both.

Waiting (January 30, 2018)

They that wait upon the Lord shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings as eagles; they shall run, and not be weary; and they shall walk, and not faint (Isaiah. 40.31).

Waiting for, say, the outcome of either a medical test, or a significant exam, or an employer’s decision about our future, or the overdue homecoming of a loved-one or friend, can be an utterly debilitating experience. We spend our days unable to focus on the task at hand, feeling vaguely nauseous and lethargic, and watching the clock. Isaiah’s scenario describes those who wait neither upon events nor people but, rather, upon God. They aren’t anxious, distracted, and enfeebled. The very opposite, in fact. They experience something approaching superhuman enabling: a rejuvenating power to exceed far beyond their natural ability to endure and cope. And with it — by implication — vigour, optimism, and determination.

(Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.)

Why? (April 31, 2019)

Listen to me in silence (Isaiah 41.1).

We suffer most when unable to comprehend the purpose of either our own or other people’s distress. Apparently meaningless affliction or loss is so hard to bear. Thus, we should never cease to ask: ‘Why?’ While an answer may not be immediately forthcoming, it may yet be discoverable in due time. And in that knowing, we’ll learn of a truth that couldn’t have been revealed in any other way.

William Cowper (November 4, 2019)

Where is the blessedness I knew (William Cowper (1731–1800)).

I like the poet and hymnist William Cowper, whose hymn ‘Oh for a Closer Walk with God‘ is much loved and sung still. He was a non-standard Christian, one who’d been institutionalised for insanity, and suffered bouts of severe depression and profound loss of faith throughout his life. At one time, Cowper believed that he was eternally damned. He was also a fervent abolitionist. Martin Luther King Jr quoted from Cowper’s writings in his own political campaign against racial injustice.

This autobiographical hymn is Cowper’s lament for the absence of God in his life as a felt presence. The lyric describes a process of self-searching and repentance, as he tries to identify those sins, past and present, that were the reason for this sense of estrangement. But I do wonder whether Cowper’s psychological, rather than his spiritual, condition was more often the underlying cause of such experiences. Feelings are intimately linked, and responsive, to our mental health. If the latter is compromised, then, so too are our affections and apprehension. Thus, we may stand in a pitch-black room unable to appreciate that God is also there with us, close by.

‘William Cowper Esq.’ (1813) (courtesy of Wikimedia Commons).

Wrestling (October 7, 2017)

And Jacob was left alone; and there wrestled a man with him until the breaking of the day (Genesis 32.24).

Behind everything, is prayer. And behind prayer, is God. There’re times when praying = wrestling; like one-to-one combat, with all the implications of struggle, throws, grappling, pins, pains, and bruises. It can be a very lonely, spiritually unnerving, and physically exhausting ordeal. ‘Violent’ too, in its own way. As Jacob’s experience shows, the contest can go a great many rounds before it’s called. Of course, the angel (‘a man’) let him win; they were mismatched from the outset. And so it is with God and us: the purpose of the bout is to test your determination rather than God’s strength. ‘Are you serious about what you’re asking for’, he challenges? ‘Then, prove it.’ God always concedes the fight, not because he has to but because he wants to, by giving us the blessing that we need (which may be distinct from the one that we’ve asked for). We can takedown God through prayer. Now, that’s a thought to wrestle with.

Rembrandt, Jacob Wrestling with the Angel (1659) (courtesy of Wikimedia Commons).

Writing = Grieving (May 2, 2020)

Weep with those who weep (Romans 12.15).

Grief still catches me unawares. Oddly, it’s not the anniversaries of [my parents’] death and birth that tease open the old wounds. (That would be too predictable.) Sometimes it’s an emotional-memory that arises momentarily and, as you yourself said, ‘out-of-the-blue’. Photographs of them, taken before and after I was born, are among my most treasured possessions. These images are icons. (No inverted commas necessary on this occasion.) They represent their token enduring presence. (Barthes wrote so poetically about the tension between loss and the photographic index in Camera Lucida, didn’t he.) My thoughts about, and recollections of, them are one of the enduring themes of my online dairy. Writing = grieving, in this context. As someone once expressed it: mourning will pass; but grief will last for as long as our loved ones are dead.

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