Haunted by Death?

Early November is a time of late autumnal reflectiveness. The secular focus of this is that variable little space between Armistice Day and Remembrance Sunday.  We remember with relief the cessation of the First World War, and with sadness and regret the loss of life in all the wars since the war.

The related Christian festivals of All Saints and All Souls come right at the beginning of the month.  All Saints is in the greater occasion, but its All Souls which touches imaginations and hearts. Many candles are lit, lists of names of the departed are read out – whether they are the recently departed or those whose loss is felt keenly many years after their death.

And ushering all this in is the crazy carnival of Halloween, with its ghoulish costumes, pumpkin lanterns and tricking or treating children. Inevitably those brought up with the idea that this is an occasion of significance feel the need to continue the partying into early adulthood, so halloween parties, for which costumes fit for horror movies seem to be obligatory, are a crucial part of the social calendar at colleges and universities, as well as pubs and clubs.

I am not quite sure what to make of all this, but there does seem to be quite a lot of unresolved energy around death here. And I wonder how healthy it is, and how happy it makes us.

The Victorians made a big thing of death and mourning and we have done the opposite. For us death is unexpected and unwelcome. And when it comes, our inclination is not to focus on the loss but to cover the sadness with the celebration of life that has so recently been snuffed out.

Funerals today are celebrations. They are thanksgivings and upbeat.  People are told not to be sad but wear some particular jolly colour or ‘anything but black’ (Henry Ford would turn in his grave). Music is chosen not from the huge repertoire written to capture, express and beautify the feelings of grief and loss, but to remind us of the good old days, as if remembering them now will not, when we think about it later, rub salt into the wounds of fresh grief.

I may be wrong about this, but might it be that we need a more healthy approach to death and grief?  This might involve overtly sad funerals that, without morbidity, name and capture the reality of the moment of grief-stricken loss, and then, as the years go by, perhaps on the birthday of the deceased, or the anniversary of their death, parties to give thanks for all they did and were and achieved.

And at halloween, rather than tricking and treating, children would be at family gatherings where stories about their grandparents and great grandparents would be told that give them a profound sense of gratitude and respect for their forebears, and a deep sense of existing in a peaceful and good world, where love is stronger than death.

I am serious about this. It is when we are at peace with death than we can be at peace with life.










Happy People

Here is a brief sermon that I preached at a big service in King’s College Chapel on All Saints Day. The music was wonderful; the atmosphere was mysterious, as it often in the semi-darkness, the congregation was large, international and attentive, and the sermon was well, short. But I hope positive too.

I expect that many people think the word ‘saint’ means something like ‘hero’ or ‘celebrity’. Or maybe people think of sanctity as the spiritual version of a doctorate. After all when you get a PhD you get letters in front of your name – and it’s the same when you become a saint. So perhaps a saint is a spiritual doctor?

Well, ‘saint’ doesn’t mean ‘hero’. A hero is someone who does something exceptional in a life-threatening situation. And you don’t need to do that to be a saint.

Nor does ‘saint’ mean ‘celebrity’. Some saints are very well-known and have been looked up to for centuries, but others aren’t famous at all.

And ‘saint’ doesn’t mean ‘spiritual PhD’ because many saints aren’t especially well-educated or learned people – though some are. (You can’t be too educated to be a saint by the way; just as you can’t be too clever to be a Christian.)

The word saint’ means ‘holy person’, and the New Testament idea is that everyone who follows Jesus and is baptised becomes such a holy person.  But the word ‘holy’ doesn’t get us any further in our understanding because it’s just as alien from everyday speech as is the word ‘saint’.

If I was to say that a certain person is holy many people wouldn’t really know what I meant; though they might expect a person described as holy to be regularly at prayer, vigilant in attending public worship, and perhaps a bit pious in the way they present themselves.  In a word, a holy person is, or so it seems to us, a churchy person. This is not a good understanding, and so I want to suggest that our assumptions about the sanctity and holiness could do with a bit of a shake-up.

So here are two little shakes. First, God’s vision for humanity is so wonderfully diverse that it’s almost impossible to put your finger on what sanctity or holiness might look at the level of behaviour or habit or self-presentation. What makes a saint is something deeper than behaviour.

Second, there are some traits which are common to all people who are rightly called holy. One is that they will be, deep down, a person of joy. You could say that a saint is a person who enjoys true happiness. That’s why the ‘beatitudes’ are the beatitudes.  ‘Blessed are’ means ‘happy are’.   Those strange sayings in Matthew chapter 5 are Jesus’ description of the deepest joyfulness.

In short, a saint is a person who knows how to be happy, eternally happy.

And so the challenge  of All Saints’ Day is simply this: to notice who the most profoundly happy people are, and to seek to follow them in the way of eternal happiness to the place of eternal happiness – the kingdom of God.

Every now and then I preach a sermon about forgiveness. It’s something I do with trepidation because I know as a person how sensitive an issue it is, and also because my studies in theology and psychology have convinced me that it is really difficult to think about forgiveness clearly.  So talk about it coherently and concisely in public is a real challenge, and yes, trepidation is appropriate.

But after all these years of thinking, writing and talking about forgiveness I feel that I am getting towards being able to say something sensible about the relationship between divine forgiveness and human forgiveness.  Anyway, that’s what I try to do in the sermon that follows, which I gave in the Chapel at King’s College Cambridge earlier today.

I offered it there, and share it here, because there is an urgent need to talk publicly about forgiveness, remembering that people who have suffered, and still continue to suffer, abuse or betrayal at the hands of others may be listening or reading.

The key point in the sermon is perhaps this: ‘you are not God, so don’t expect yourself to forgive like God’.

And here ‘s the whole thing.

Christianity is a religion of forgiveness. Jesus preached forgiveness, he regularly forgave others, and the church has taught from the earliest times that Christ died to save us from our sins.

Others may question whether or not forgiveness is a good principle for living, but for Christians, forgiveness seems to be the name of the game.  There isn’t a service that goes by here without mention of forgiveness. Usually it’s God’s forgiveness of us. We say we believe in it the Creed and we seek it as we say the prayer of Confession. Some people might question the sense or the psychological health of all this; but one fairly obvious truth is that forgiving someone something doesn’t necessarily stop them doing it again. So repetition is inevitably part of the forgiveness process.

At the human level, you can be sure that if you have forgiven someone once it’s likely that you might have to forgive them again and again quite a few times. Peter once asked Jesus how often he should forgive. ‘As many as seven times?’ he speculated. ‘More like seventy times seven,’ Jesus replied.

But if Christianity is a religion of forgiveness it is a rather unbalanced religion. For while unimaginably huge amounts of effort have gone into puzzling away at the question of how it is that God forgives sins so readily – these are questions of atonement and justification; and truly incalculable amounts of liturgical and pastoral time have been spent with individuals articulating their need for forgiveness in ways that they believe might elicit the forgiving love of God; the questions of how, when and why it is good to forgive other people for what they have done to us is relatively unexplored.

Our two readings today touch on both the divine and the human forms of forgiveness. In the Gospel, Jesus comes across a man who is so sick that he can’t walk. But rather than tell him that he is healed, Jesus says that his sins are forgiven. The sick man presumably liked what he heard. But the bystanders weren’t very happy about it. They didn’t say anything, but Jesus knew what they were thinking. Perhaps he saw that they were catching each other’s eyes and raising their eyebrows. There goes Jesus, tut tut tut, forgiving again.

So Jesus spells it out. And he spells it out in two ways. First, he emphasizes that he has gone for the easiest option. ‘Which is easiest?’ he asks.  And implicitly makes the point that it’s right to make divine forgiveness easy.  God isn’t a reluctant forgiver, but a generous and enthusiastic forgiver.  God is quick to forgive and very good at it. You could even say that forgiving is what God does most and best.

And Jesus, the son of man, is equally adept. That’s the second point.  You could almost say that wherever God is, there is forgiveness. Father, Son, and Spirit too, are all equally adept at forgiving; because its forgiveness that you find not on the rare occasions when God’s divine arm is twisted, or God’s ethical algorithm calculates that you have repented enough or suffered enough punishment to deserve forgiveness, but whenever you encounter God.

In the Epistle we also come across forgiveness. It’s another of those passages where Paul is telling us what a good Christian life looks like.  The old man, the old you, is a sad, bitter and twisted sort of person; the new you, the you that believes in the good news that Paul has proclaimed, is no longer to be bitter and twisted, but is to be righteous and holy; living a decent life and being kind, warm and loving towards others.

As part of this we are to forgive one another. And Paul deliberately connects this human forgiveness with God’s forgiveness of us. This connection is made elsewhere in the New Testament, of course. Most notably in the Lord’s Prayer, ‘forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us’.

But there is a problem with this aspect of familiar Christian teaching. 

Forgiveness, as I have said, is at the core of God’s being and nature. It’s what God does. God’s heart is a forgiving heart.  But human beings are not God.  And while there is no reason why we should not look to Jesus as example as well as Saviour, we should not set ourselves a standard which we can never achieve.

When it comes to forgiving others we need to recognize that while we put our faith and trust in a forgiving God that does not give us superhuman powers of forgiveness. It might seem that our faith commits us to be as forgiving as God is, but it does not, because we are not God. This is a really important message. Should we seek to be forgiving people? Yes. Does this mean that we will always readily and completely forgive those who hurt or harm us? No.

You are not God. God lives in eternity and you live in time.  God lives in heaven, but you live on earth.  God is infinitely wise and powerful and you, my friends, are not. So whatever we might say about human and divine forgiveness we can say that they are connected, but different.

And what of Jesus? Until the last few days of his life, Jesus wasn’t a victim. He wasn’t bullied or abused; he wasn’t subject to domestic violence. No one murdered his mother. Certainly he was a refugee as a child, but he never said anything about that and so we don’t have a clue what he felt about it.

True, Luke’s gospel says that from the cross Jesus cried out, ‘Father, forgive them for they know not what they do’.  But that wasn’t Jesus saying to those who were hurting him, ‘I forgive you all’.  It was a prayer for their forgiveness. It wasn’t the finished, signed, sealed and delivered moment of decisive forgiveness. It was a cry from the forgiving heart of a man in dire straits.

Forgiveness in real life is often messy, difficult and open-ended.  It’s also quite rare. Obviously there are lots of little forgiveness of minor offences, but the word ‘forgiveness’ really comes it into its own when we have been hurt in such a way that feels – well, unforgivable.

So this is the good news about forgiveness. God is infinitely forgiving, but you are not God, and God doesn’t want you to be God. God wants you to be a forgiving person, but God doesn’t want you to be exploited by people who prey on your good nature.  If you have been hurt or are routinely being hurt my advice to you is as follows. First, get it stopped. Second, get some help to get yourself back to normal. Third, in the fullness of time ask God to give you the generosity to forgive. 

That’s about all that can be said in a sermon. In real life all these things are difficult and so if you are struggling with forgiveness don’t struggle alone. Find some help and support. The Christian gospel is not that people should feel guilty when they can’t forgive. It is that  whatever happens to us God’s love and grace is there not to make matters worse but to bring us, through healing and restoration, to the love, joy and peace that characterize the fullness of life for which we were made and saved. And from which we should not be excluded because people have treated us badly or hurt us deeply.

David Lammy’s Guardian article offers a challenge to Oxbridge.  It’s fine to be elite, but not to be elitist. No one would disagree.

He also argues that the only way to move away from elitism is to centralise the admission process. This is where I beg to differ.  If Colleges lose their role in admissions their pivotal role in overseeing the teaching and welfare of their students will quickly follow, and Oxford and Cambridge will lose their educational distinctiveness.

The better approach is to build on the positives, the unnamed Colleges who are, to quote Lammy ‘doing great things’.

My own College has long championed the need to open access to those who deserve to be here but maybe haven’t had the start in life, or the support on the way, to encourage them to think it possible. The results vary from time to time, but the overall achievement is impressive, persuading me that the crucial thing in a progressive admissions policy is to excite the ambition and imagination of those who, if they were to come, would find the educational opportunities transformative.

There are many stories to be told of those who have been inspired by an open day or a visit to a school by an admissions officer to apply here.  Stories can’t  be put into bat against statistics, of course, but stories do have the capacity to change minds and hearts in positive way. More such stories need to be told, and the Colleges must find ways of both generating them and putting them forward.

And there are stories too of the work that is done by students, staff and academics in reaching out to potential applicants.  As it happens, I spent a week last spring visiting schools in the North East – two a day for five days, and I could name-check several of the places Lammy mentions. I enjoyed it a lot and the feedback was tremendous. Whether or not my visits caused even one young person to apply to Oxbridge or not I don’t know, and in the absence of any evidence I doubt it.

My hunch is that significant change would need much greater investment. If a group of Cambridge academics, perhaps supported by graduate and postgraduate students, could run significant numbers of week-long residential programmes focussed entirely on inspiring and enabling under-represented young people to make an application that had a reasonable chance of being successful we might begin to get somewhere.

But the truth is that there is so much pressure on schools and colleges to deliver A-level performance that it is genuinely difficult to imagine them releasing their more able students for this, lest it distract them from their A-levels. Some might argue that Oxbridge should be running supplementary courses designed to help students get better A-levels; though why should we think that University academics would be better at teaching A-levels than A-level teachers?

It seems to me that the best suggestions for improvement will involve looking again at the possibility of post-result application, especially when students do better than predicted.  That’s asking a lot of a student.  And its more than a little presumptuous about the actual benefit of a place at Oxbridge in a year’s time against one at another University right now. My hunch, however, is that there is quite a lot to  be said for embarking on a university course after another 12 months of maturation, and some carefully guided reading or other preparatory work in the six months before arriving might be of great help to those who face the awesome challenge that all our freshers face – how to make the best of the opportunities presented by a world class university.

And there is something a bit special about what is on offer here that definitely ought to be fully on offer to all those equipped to make the best of it. Potential has to be in that mix alongside achievement so far, and hunger for learning.

Yes, the doors ought to be more widely ajar, but a centralised admissions process is not the answer. What is needed is Colleges that develop an educational vision that is socially and politically responsible, admissions processes based on potential as well as achievement, and a renewed commitment to nurturing the potential of those with the greatest capacity to make the most exceptional contributions to the common good over the coming decades.

David Lammy’s Guardian article





Rebooting the Blog

As regular readers of this blog will know, its not been easy be a regular reader of late because there have not been many regular posts. That’s about to change as I have decided to take a new approach to blogging.

From time to time I will still post the longer pieces, perhaps a transcript of a talk or sermon. But for the rest of this year, at least, I am going to try a ‘little and often’ approach to blogging.

So don’t expect complete thoughts or well-polished articles. Posts are going to me more fragmentary and provisional. Many will be brief reflections of things I have observed or encountered while doing my day job as Dean of King’s College, Cambridge.

I realise now that it was moving to this job just over three years ago that slowed my blogging down and has almost brought it to a standstill. That’s not because there is nothing interesting going on, but because there is so much that is interesting. But three years in I feel that I at last know my way around the issues and sensitivities well enough be able to find intriguing observation and reflections to share. At the same time I know that life is wonderfully unpredictable and amazingly fast here, so that I can’t, at the moment, predict what I will be writing about …

One last thought, should I change the name of the blog to ‘A Dean’s Diary’?  I think probably not, but that suggests more the sort of thing I have in mind for the future.




This is an intriguing pair of words put alongside each other.  Complacency is the naughty little child and contentment the good little child.  Let’s deal with the naughty one first.

None of us would like be accused of being complacent, and we sometimes fend off the potential criticism by saying ‘I don’t want to be complacent, but’ as if our carefully chosen words would prevent us falling after exposing a little too much pride.

But complacency isn’t confidence.  Anyone who plans anything must have some confidence that their planning is at least good-enough.

Complacency is more likely to lead to no planning at all.  Its source is idleness. In terms of the seven deadly sins complacency is connected to sloth as much as it is to pride.  And, perhaps I could say in passing that I am not convinced that the western tradition is right in making pride the most deadly of the deadly sins.  Theologically it is a car-crash of an attitude, of course, because ultimately pride is the devil’s sin – to put oneself in God’s place.  But that is a rather specialized and particular form of pride; and one that isn’t the biggest worry in our secularized world – though of course megalomaniacs and narcissists are capable of horrendous evil and of generating untold suffering as they strut their way towards destruction.

But our focus is on complacency, not megalomania.  It’s an attitude created by several deeper sins and which is seen in the biblical Pharisee who prays in terms of self-commendation while the poor publican says, ‘Lord have mercy on me a sinner’.

And complacency is a terrible spiritual danger for us who have seen the flourishing possible in the era of peace and prosperity which Europe and North America have enjoyed since the Second World War.  We have delighted in economic and political progress, and from time to time preened ourselves that we are not only significantly wealthier but also far better educated and much longer lived than our parents were; and that we enjoy a lifestyle that those who were our age seventy years ago would be staggered by.

All this came to a symbolic high point when a book was written in the 1990s called ‘The End of History’.  The author has since recanted it; hardly surprisingly given the way in which so many things have gone wrong since, let us say, September 2001.

It’s relatively easy, of course, for us to look back a decade or two and think – ‘goodness me how complacent – we didn’t have nearly enough on our worry-about it lists, our pray-about-it lists and we didn’t make up our to-do lists with anything like enough of a global perspective or even medium-term temporal reference.  Our priorities were, in retrospect, complacent, even if we experienced ourselves at the time as busy and rather important.

Hindsight is beautiful thing, they say, but not when what you see in the rear-view mirror of your life was a younger person of great complacency. It’s at that point that we realize that our sins are only as scarlet when our faces flush with embarrassment and shame at what we allowed ourselves to have become by not observing or caring enough.

Complacency is a very horrid thing – but most of us can be reasonably sure that if we were complacent then we are probably complacent now; it’s just that we haven’t got the angle of vision on ourselves to see where our complacency lies.

But if complacency is horrid, and common, contentment is wonderful, and rare.  If complacency is the woe, contentment is the beatitude.  It’s contentment that allows us to rest and relax, to lie down in peace whether to sleep or in fact to die.

And it’s contentment that is the antidote to that most pernicious and problematic of sins – the contemporary expression of greed that is called insatiability; that never-satisfied hunger and longing for more, for difference, for novelty, for better for faster, for consumption, for praise and for personal affirmation and reward.

We have a service of Compline in King’s Chapel four times a term and the most difficult line for the cantor to sing is the first half of the first verse of Psalm 31. ‘We will lay us down in peace and take our rest’.  I find it a challenging sing. But it’s also a challenging attitude.

And yet some kind of spiritual peace in the midst of life, even when we know that all is not well, and where our insatiability tells us that there is so much more that we could say or do or enjoy or eat or collect … some kind of spiritual peace in life is what we all crave and the best form of it must be contentment.

I often say on occasions like this that while the world is obsessed with Islam as the religion of greatest threat it is perhaps Buddhism that Christians need to pay more attention to.  I heard this phrase in Canada. ‘Show me a bishop and I will show you a business man. But show me a Buddhist and I will show you a holy man.’ (I hope that I will be forgiven the sexism of those quoted remarks.  Personally I suspect that most women bishops are just as businesslike as the men.  And I have no doubt that Buddhist nuns are in many ways more admirable than the monks. )

Of course the little saying isn’t really fair – I have come across some extraordinarily savvy Buddhist monks. But the questions are real, where is holiness to be found? Where can we have peace of mind which is neither complacent nor quietist nor cut off from the pain and suffering and anguish of the world?

Some activists might even question our right to contentment. How can you dare to rest when the hungry are starving, when the weak are exploited, when the vulnerable abused? How can you even want to have peace in your heart when there is such rampant injustice in the world?

In a way these thoughts are nothing much more than a statement of a fairly obvious question:

Is there a form of contentment today that isn’t actually a disguised form of complacency?

Or, to put it in a more Zen-like way, is there a smile that is so genuine, so deep, so kind, so compassionate, and so absent of pity, superiority or cynicism that any person who beheld it would know that it was the smile of pure, compassionate and endless love?

Is there a smile of pure contentment? Is there ever rest without complacency?

These are questions for each person to learn how to answer for him or herself.


This is an edited version of a talk given to the C.S. Lewis Summer Institute in Great St Mary’s Church, Cambridge, 2 August 2017

True Prayer

One of the things about great church buildings and cathedrals in England today that ought to surprise us, but rarely does, is the presence of votive candle stands.  People now expect to see them; and many use them, finding them a helpful way to express some desire or feeling too deep for words. But these stands haven’t been in place for ever, most have been introduced over the last 20 or 30 years. Religion may be on the decline, but the desire to pray has not gone away, and in this sermon I want to offer a few thoughts about this surprisingly persistent, perhaps resurgent, aspect of life.

Prayer is a common, if not universal, human activity. I don’t mean that every individual on the planet prays, but that prayer is found in an extremely wide variety of cultures and contexts. And prayer takes many forms, ranging from the highly controlled to the completely free – though sometimes the highly controlled isn’t as controlled as it looks, and the apparently free can be strangely predictable.

One of the questions we might ask ourselves given the widespread nature of prayer is whether there are any rules that govern it. Is there the possibility of quality control on praying, or of an appropriate critique of our own or anyone else’s prayers? In short, can we distinguish between good prayers and not so good prayers?

We tend to think that prayers are private and personal and that they are what they are; never good, never bad, but vindicated by their authenticity; we tend to think that an heartfelt prayer is an acceptable prayer.  But is it as simple as that?

As well as votive candle stands in Chapel we also allow people to write prayers on slips of paper which we then use in the intercessions at our daily lunchtime Eucharist. We don’t give instructions to people about how to do this or what might be acceptable, but not all prayer requests are equally easy to honour. If a prayer is for someone’s parent with cancer, or a child with leukaemia it is easy to share the sentiment. If, on the other hand, someone simply wants a happy life, or to get into this university, or become prosperous, it’s more difficult.

These prayer slips give a privileged insight into the burdens and issues that people carry in their hearts. Reflecting on them I notice that there are a surprising number of questions for help with fertility issues, and a good number seek spiritual guidance regarding choice of career or help to meet someone they can really love. Names added to prayer slips often suggest that authors either come from Catholic countries or China. The Catholic ones will often list a number of departed relations, whereas the Chinese ones are often closer to personal life wishes, and these remind me of a ‘wish tree’ that I saw in a Buddhist monastery in Shenzen.

As well as the obvious spiritual challenge of how to relate to these prayers, I have found that engaging with them has challenged me to think about the quality of my own prayers – both my personal ones and those that I offer in the course of the services here.  The pitfalls of public prayer are obvious and many: from length, what is too much, what is too little? to many aspects of register and style of language, ‘thee’ or ‘you’; formal or personal; scripted or extempore; contemporary or tested by time and repetition?  Then there is the question of subject matter, to what extent should public intercessions follow the news headlines, and to what extent should we be offering in prayer the issues and places and people that the media tend to ignore?

One guide to prayer that we might look to more carefully is the book of Psalms.  These are prominent at Matins and Evensong and often supply the text of an anthem. They are the prayers of God’s people the Jews, and they were obviously important to Jesus – so important that his cry of dereliction from the cross was a quotation from Psalm 22.

Psalm 70, which was read as our Epistle, is a good example of a Psalm prayer. In fact, it is such a good little prayer that it appears twice in the Psalter – as a standalone Psalm and as the final verses of Psalm 40.

Consider, Psalm 70, for instance – which is a great example of a Psalm prayer. In fact is such a good little prayer that it appears twice in the Psalter – as a standalone Psalm 70 and as the final verses of Psalm 40.

HASTE thee, O God, to deliver me: make haste to help me, O Lord.

Let them be ashamed and confounded that seek after my soul: let them be turned backward and put to confusion that wish me evil.

Let them for their reward be soon brought to shame: that cry over me, There, there.

But let all those that seek thee be joyful and glad in thee: and let all such as delight in thy salvation say alway, The Lord be praised.

As for me, I am poor and in misery: haste thee unto me, O God.

Thou art my helper and my redeemer: O Lord, make no long tarrying

Like many Psalms it involves a rather bolder, more direct form of address to God than today seems polite.  The person who prays is in trouble and they want help, and they want the help now. There is desperation as well as impatience here: ‘haste thee O God’, ‘make haste to help me’, ‘haste thee unto me’, and finally, ‘O Lord, make no long tarrying’.  This is the tranalstion found in the Book of Common Prayer and  modern translation would put it differently, but the energy and sentiment, ‘come on, God!’ would be the same.

I love this table-banging, explanation mark aspect to the prayer of the Psalms – it makes it real. It’s not just, ‘Almighty God, you have infinite power and endless love, if it pleases you I’d be very grateful if you could perhaps give some of your unbounded energy to making my life a bit easier and more pleasant.’ The Psalmist’s demand comes out of real trouble and genuine distress and an urgent need for things to be different.

This is, as it were, the wrapper of this Psalm-prayer. The middle part of it is also pretty raw, and we see that whoever is making this prayer is not suffering from toothache, but suffering from other people, in particular those who, ‘cry over me “there, there’”. Other translators don’t have ‘there, there’ but something like, ‘aha, aha’ or, ‘hurray, hurray’. It’s bad enough to be suffering – but someone is gloating over my distress! No wonder there is irritation in the prayer and a desire that the gloater gets their comeuppance; be brought shame and exposed for what they are, mean-spirited and hurt-inflicting brutes.

And there’s another sentiment in there too – ‘let all those who seek thee be joyful and glad’. We can see an element of self-serving in this. The psalmist would rather like to have his piety rewarded, but the scope is wider. Let all those who seek God find joy and gladness.  And to that we might say ‘Amen’ ourselves.  But if this is going to happen then God needs to hasten to help us because we are a long way from it right now and so the Psalm ends where it began, ‘come on, God!’, except that things are already a bit different because the prayer has been prayed and its in the very act of praying that things begin to move on spiritually.

The book of Psalms is an astonishing and rich source of guidance and inspiration in prayer. If we try to pray with it we will explore aspects of our soul and our relationship with God that unguided prayer will never dare to reach. Sometimes this will make us rather uncomfortable.  But so what? Discomfort is part of the process of spiritual growth. Anyone who seriously seeks God will find themselves squirming over their mistakes and inadequacies again and again; but they will also find that that they are given the spiritual gifts to enable them to handle this and to move forward until, like the book of Psalms itself, they come to an end where the mood music is not lament or despair or impatience, but praise and joy.

The book of Psalms not only teaches us the detail of prayer but also the trajectory of prayer – so much so that you could say that the doctrine of resurrection and new life is built into its very structure. However deep and despairing, angry or resentful, or even violently hostile, the prayer of the Psalmist is always looking ahead to Psalm 150 where we hear the sound of the trumpet, the lute and the harp, the crashing of well-tuned and loud cymbals, and the heartfelt cry that everything that has breath should praise the Lord.

Prayer begins in reality and ends in praise, in the vision of God and in infinite beatitude. It is God’s job to take us to endless bliss, and our job in prayer to be honest about where we are personally, practically, politically and spiritually right now. It is the honesty of prayer that makes it true.

A sermon preached in King’s College Chapel, Sunday 14 May, 2017