I have long been troubled by the insistence that Easter should be celebrated with unalloyed joy.  Three days may be all it takes for God to raise the dead, but we all know from experience or observation that it can take a very long time to ‘get over’ traumatizing experiences.  

I suppose it would make sense if the resurrection were merely the reversal of a bereavement. We thought our friend had died, but no, he’s back among us. Hurray! Let’s party!  But for those who have travelled the long and hard path of the so-called holy week that careered from ‘hosanna’ to ‘crucify’, and ended with the various cries from the cross – never mind the shrieks and wails of the sympathetic onlookers, and the taunts and jeers of the rest … For those of us who have let at least some of the suffering in as we have meditated on the sights, sounds and smells of the betrayal, abandonment, torture and murder of a friend … For those of us who have taken at least a few imaginative steps down the Via Dolorosa … it’s not so easy, and in fact it’s probably neither very mature, nor very healthy, simply to flip from desperation to joy. 

It’s always a mistake to connect our feelings and our faith too closely. Feelings come and go – but faith – like hope and love – is the sort of thing than can, should, must and will abide, remain, endure.  And it’s this solid, reliable stuff that the traumatized and disillusioned, the broken and the disappointed, need.  Don’t just take my word for it, Shelly Rambo puts this point at the heart of her deep and powerful study, Spirit and Trauma: A Theology of Remaining.

In the Authorized Version of the Bible, the two disciples on the road to Emmaus ask Jesus to ‘Abide with us: for it is toward evening, and the day is far spent.’  These words from Luke’s gospel inspired the great hymn as ‘Abide with me, fast falls the eventide’ as Victorian clergyman Henry Francis Lyte witnessed the death of his vicar and then moved knowingly and prematurely towards the end of his own life.

I don’t suppose that hymn will be much sung over Easter, and yet I feel it might accurately reflect not only the truth of where many find themselves to be on their spiritual journey at the moment, but also the depths of what they long for.

Abide with me is often sung by sad people at funerals or memorials.  But is it not also true that we are, if we are honest, increasingly aware that sadness is not a feeling that comes and goes, but a profound and dignified constant in the human condition?

A chance remark in a zoom discussion a few days ago reminded me of Gillian Rose’s memoir, Love’s Work, which then became my Good Friday reading.  I was arrested by this thought:  ‘Earthly, human sadness is the divine comedy – the ineluctable discrepancy between our worthy intentions and the ever-surprising outcome of our actions’.  She goes on to say more about this comedy, quoting Hegel who writes that it characterises someone ‘raised altogether above his own inner contradiction and not bitter or miserable about it at all’.

This in turn leads to ‘sureness of self’ but, for Rose, it is a very particular kind of sureness. It is the sureness of self that is ‘ready to be unsure’. And it’s the unsureness, not the sureness, that, she argues, makes for the holy comedy of our condition and which requires of us the work of love, which is also the abiding of love.

The point of the resurrection is not that joy quickly trumps sadness, but that love abides; love that is the partner, not of supercharged and switched-on happiness, but of faith and hope.

The truth is that sadness persists. And it’s right that it does.  When we think of all we regret not only in terms of our own actions in the past but also in the injustices that are perpetrated every hour, and in the untold suffering of millions in places of deprivation, violence, sickness or any other misery every day and every night, we can never be content with a kind of joy from which sadness is excluded.  And yet the persistence of sadness is not the end of faith, any more than the unsureness of self is the contradiction of appropriate, humble and compassionate self-confidence. The persistence of sadness is the beginning of faith and hope. It is not denied, but it is answered by the abiding of love.  And therefore we rejoice.

My 2021 Lent Book, Thy Will Be Done, doesn’t include ‘questions for personal or group study’. However, since publishing it I have written a question for every chapter. I offer them here, hoping they might be helpful to anyone using the book in Lent.

Part 1 HEAVEN

  1. Do you agree that the Lord’s Prayer falls naturally into two halves –heavenly and earthly?
  2. To what extent is ‘motherly father’ a helpful phrase for you?
  3. Who are the ‘our’ in ‘Our Father’?
  4. How big a problem is patriarchy for those who pray this prayer in these words?
  5. Which do you find it harder to believe – that God is powerful or that God is intimately close?
  6. What does it mean to say that ‘the Lord’s Prayer is not a spell’?

Part 2 EARTH

  1. Bree Newsom took the Lord’s Prayer to the top of a flagpole in dangerous protest – where might you take it?
  2. How might Christianity be different if Jesus had defined the ‘kingdom of God’?
  3. Can you think of any good things that have happened while you were waiting for something or someone?
  4. What are the best and worst aspects of monarchy?
  5. What does it mean to see care-givers high-achievers?
  6. What do you make of the phrase ‘my own special God in my heart’?

Part 3 BREAD

  1. Is bread ever simply bread?
  2. What does it mean to say that food is a spiritual issue?
  3. Might it be helpful if the word ‘ordinary’ replaced’ daily’ in the Lord’s Prayer?
  4. Is there a distinctive or clear Christian sense of what we mean by ‘now’?
  5. How does praying for daily bread impact on our relationship with the hungry?
  6. Do you feel that the author might be being a bit hard on the foodie generation?

Part 4 FORGIVENESS

  1. Is it true that Christianity doesn’t encourage us to sweat the small stuff of morality or scrupulosity?
  2. How unusual is ‘weird Christian thinking’?
  3. Would the Lord’s Prayer be better if the word ‘trespasses’ were replaced by ‘debts’?
  4. Do you agree that the word ‘sin’ today lacks the full range of meaning and means either trivial or super-serious offence?
  5. Does forgiving involve ‘forgetting the remembrance of injustice’?
  6. How helpful is it to think of both the grace of forgiving and the grace of not forgiving?

Part 5 TEMPTATION

  1. What are the strengths and weaknesses of ‘distancing’ as a way of avoiding temptation?
  2. How do you hope that God might respond when you pray ‘and lead us not into temptation’?
  3. How do you understand the difference between a test and a trial?
  4. Is it more helpful to pray ‘deliver us from evil’ or ‘deliver us from the evil one’?
  5. Do you agree that there’s nowhere to hide from the tempter?
  6. Has the pandemic had an impact on the way you understand what it is to be spiritually tested?

Part 6 GLORY

  1. How much does it matter to you that the final petition of the Lord’s Prayer is not Biblical?
  2. How does the word ‘fulfilment’ feature in your spirituality?
  3. How does the example of power as empowerment given here connect with your belief about the power of God?
  4. When, how and why is it right to say that glory is more than beauty?
  5. How do you respond to the ‘version’ of the Lord’s Prayer presented in this chapter?
  6. Is there a more profound or important prayer than ‘thy will be done’?

Readers of this blog will have noticed that there hasn’t been much to read for a while. One reason for this is that I’ve been writing books and not blogs. In fact last year I published two. The first was Psalm Prayers – the second Thy Will Be Done which Bloomsbury are calling The Lent Book 2021.

As I was writing the Lent Book I was trying to imagine what we would be feeling about the coronavirus after the pandemic was over – anticipating that, by the time it was being read, lockdowns, masks and social distancing would have been mere memories. I couldn’t have been more wrong.

I think I was right, however, to choose the Lord’s Prayer as the theme for a Lent Book. As I read through expositions of the prayer from different historical eras, and made new connections of my own, I had a strong feeling that going for full immersion in the Lord’s Prayer would be spiritually enriching and renewing.

The idea was a good one for any time, but I now feel that it was an especially good one for this time of pandemic. In a time of uncertainty the familiar can be especially important for us. It’s comforting for sure, but that’s not the whole story. If you stay with the familiar for a while you realise that its more than comforting – and that it begins to open up new realities and truths and insights.

I’ve come to feel that there’s a real connection between engaging with something as deeply well-known as the Lord’s Prayer and the practice that many of us are engaging with in this lockdown, as in previous ones, of getting know our neighbourhood – not to mention the inside of our home – much more deeply. Day after day we are walking the same paths, sitting in the same rooms, having meals with the same people. This can be wearisome indeed for those of us … most of us … all of us … who have based our lives on busyness and novelty-seeking. But if forced to slow down, to calm down and to pay attention the local and, dare I say it, the ‘parochial’, we begin, after a while, to realise that the whole of life really is there – or rather here – in our locality, our home, and among our familiar companions.

If William Blake could see eternity in a grain of sand then the rest of us might just be able to see an awful lot more in our neighbourhood than we had previously noticed; and its the same thought that might lead us to hope to find not only daily bread but a feast of spiritual nutrition in the prayer that Jesus taught us.

No apologies from me, then, for writing a book about the most familiar prayer there ever has been.

Thy Will Be Done is available as a paperback in all the usual places and also as an ebook and as an audiobook.

By the way – next week Launde Abbey is hosting an online study day on the book next Monday, so do consider joining us. It would be great to see you. Check in here https://www.laundeabbey.org.uk/event/deepening-discipleship-day-twbd/

Details of this year’s service from King’s College Chapel, Cambridge, together with links to help you find where it is being broadcast in the UK or overseas can be found here. https://www.kings.cam.ac.uk/chapel/a-festival-of-nine-lesson-and-carols-2020

What’s on your mind at the moment?

For many of us its the frustrations of lockdown – or now, perhaps, the anxieties and ambiguities of coming out of lockdown.

But for me, and for many, many others, this strange pandemic time has been filled with not only with concerns about health and safety but with an even deeper seated question. The questions of what it is that human beings have been doing to each other in recent centuries on the grounds of race. And, this question: how we are going to move on from the canker and corruption of human personalities and societies that is racism?

With that in mind I share a few words now written by a priest friend of mine, Sara Fischer, who has recently moved to a post in Portland, Ore. I found them moving and challenging, and I hope you might too.

When City Commissioner JoAnn Hardesty asked faith leaders to show up to protest against the uninvited presence of federal forces in Portland, I found myself downtown at the Justice Center on July 17. I listened to some speeches, chanted some chants, and enjoyed running into some colleagues. My husband and I left before dark.

Curiosity and a pull to witness called me back the next night and almost every night after that, staying well past midnight most nights. I couldn’t tear myself away. A friend asked recently: “Are you there as a clergy person? Or as a mom? Or as a citizen?” The answer is yes to all three.

I witnessed people caring for each other, chanting relentlessly about justice and peace. I witnessed expressions of outrage that not everyone supports, outrage at centuries of oppression. With the thousand-strong “Wall of Moms,” I marched from the waterfront. As we rounded the corner past the graffiti-covered federal courthouse, I felt, more than ever before, the energy and tension I imagine some of the disciples felt on the first Palm Sunday procession into Jerusalem, the procession that so unnerved the Roman authorities. In our case, the authorities are federal troops stationed behind plywood ramparts inside the federal courthouse with teargas and other weapons.

We live in a complicated, messy, cacophonous moment bursting with power and the potential for lasting change. I pray we are moving ever closer toward transformation into a society that looks just a little bit more like the beloved community where, as Dr. Martin Luther King taught, there is no room for poverty, racism, or war.

You can learn a little more about Sara here https://mothersara.com/

Here is the entry for Psalm 90 in my new book, Psalm Prayers. It was, of course, written long before our ‘current crisis’.

Psalm 90: A thousand years in thy sight

The reality of time shapes this psalm. First, God’s unbounded time, which stretches back before the dawn of geology, ‘Before the mountains were brought forth’ and in which a thousand years are ‘but as yesterday’. And second, the pulse of limited human time, the ‘threescore years and ten’, or perhaps ‘fourscore’, but ‘so soon passeth it away, and we are gone’. The psalm, which is associated with Moses, also references a third type of time, ‘crisis time’. The moment is difficult and worrying; vulnerability and fragility have become apparent. There is hope that the time of difficulty that the people are now encountering will soon come to an end. And there is prayer that the concern that directs this psalm, that our time is running out, will focus minds and hearts so that the people might address the situation wisely, ‘So teach us to number our days : that we may apply our hearts unto wisdom.’

The psalm ends with a plea for collaboration. God’s work is needed and invited but the people are working too. Their hands are busy trying to sort things out, and that effort is offered as the psalm concludes, ‘O prosper thou our handy-work.’

The prayer seeks to give the same perspective to a current crisis.

O God of the endless ages, as we look to you from the midst of our current crisis, we are overwhelmed by our lack of power, our lack of wisdom and our lack of time. Look with pity on our condition, console our hearts, and strengthen our resolve. Bless all who seek your will, and all who are working to further your purposes.

To move in one poem from unimaginable eons of geological time to the desperate crisis of the current moment is to expect a great deal of our imagination. And yet this imaginative dexterity is precisely what we lack when we panic about time.

Psalm Prayers is available direct from the publisher here

Where can we find the words to pray?  Especially when life is difficult or strange – or both?

One idea is to look to words that others have used in prayer in the past.  There is real value in that but sometimes it is all too obvious that the words of ancient prayers come from another era; that they have about them the feel of a time when people thought and spoke differently. There is no value in prayers having an antique feel  – even if they are beautiful. Prayer needs to come from the heart and to be of the moment.  And yet the problem remains – the heart doesn’t always know what it wants to say and the meaning of the moment is often far from clear.

The psalms represent an extensive, direct, honest and diverse range of prayers.  Unlike more recent prayers they are not over-thought or over-polite.  Those who wrote or edited them did not strive to be coherent or logical in the way in which they heaped up petitions, protests or praises.  Rather they projected a poetic rawness into their prayer and put before God not what we think God wants to hear, but what we need to say.

With all this in mind I decided to use the psalms as the inspiration for a set of new prayers.  150 new prayers, in fact, one for each of the psalms.

The result has just been published by Canterbury Press. The little book not only contains the prayers but also an introduction to each psalm and a few words that invite the reader to extend their own refections to the psalm.

In a follow-up blog later today I will post a sample page from the book.  Meanwhile, here is the prayer based on Psalm 60.

Turn our hearts and minds, O God, from their anxious concern about recent troubles to the recollection of the great days in the past when we were confident of your love and protection. Rekindle in us the gifts of faith and hope, that we may overcome our troubles and serve your purposes.

Psalm Prayers is available direct from the publisher here

Etty Hillesum I mean. The young Dutch diarist who died in Auschwitz.

Etty narrated her spiritual journey through pre- and early-war years with such candour and perception that her words touch the souls of any who come across them.

Two years ago I produced a dramatic presentation of Etty’s journey as part of the our Easter at King’s Festival.  This week we have made the recording available online. It is the ‘featured concert’ for 6 April and called  Blazing Harmonies

I hope that you might find an hour to listen, and that she touches your soul in some way.