Tuesday 7th January, Evening prayer
Have you ever felt like a wretch?
I´m imagining most of us have at some time or another, because I guess it´s a qualification for being here, in training, or as an ordained minister, that we have a proper sense of our need of the amazing grace which saved us.
My own sense of being a wretch can get a little out of hand at times. It feeds on external things like essay deadlines and fines for accidentally driving the wrong way down Silver street and hard conversations with people that matter to me, and also on internal things like sensitivities of one or another kind, uselessness at filling in forms, or the relentless signs of ageing. I have a little list, in the back of my head, too banal to rehearse, of various ways in which I should do better, or be better. If I´m not careful, I also catch myself placing other people on pedestals, imagining – despite evidence – that they don´t have such problems, and backing away – keeping them at a distance. In fact my sense of my own wretchedness can get a bit bigger than my actual awareness of the grace that has saved me.
Some of us were chatting in the common room on Sunday about these sorts of issues. About the occupational hazards of the helping professions: the kind of lonely denial of vulnerability that can afflict, for example, healthcare workers or policemen or teachers or priests – how, in seeking to be strong for other people, we can neglect to be there for ourselves, disappear from real relationship with each other, and lose sight of God´s boundless grace and mercy. We were talking about how proper self-reflection can tip over into self-excoriation, how instead of seeking nourishment, we can get stuck in fear of punishment, and how, unwittingly, we can contribute to those organisational blame cultures which undermine welllbeing without improving efficacy.
This evening´s readings offer us a real antidote to all of this stuff – a route back to spiritual homeostasis and health, a balancing and a recalibrating of our inner world. Psalm 118 begins by shouting out – Oh give thanks to the Lord, for he is good; his mercy endures for ever. Just in case we missed it first time, or needed a stronger dose, it is repeated no fewer than 3 times, in crescendo, and again at the end:
O give thanks to the Lord our God for he is good.
His mercy endures for ever..
Let Israel now proclaim
His mercy endures forever….
Let the house of Aaron now proclaim,
His mercy endures for ever…
Let those who fear the Lord proclaim
His mercy endures for ever”
I don´t know about you, but something happens to me when I read these words out loud. As I dwell in them, as their repetition builds in me, something shifts, physically, as well as mentally (and there´s a false distinction if ever there was one!). My overhyped nervous system, primed for fight or flight, fear and failure, competition and comparison, is turned down a notch. And all the good stuff that my body knows how to produce – all those hormones associated with nourishment, and repair and relationship, are released.
Word by word and line by line, using all the poetic devices which get under the radar of my intellectual defences, the psalmist´s song begins to reach parts of me not easily accessed: These are not just words on a page, they are quite literally, balm for my afflictions – realigning me, body, mind and spirit, with the healing power of God´s infinite mercy.
But this psalm is not just about consolation – a kind of liturgical “there, there” – it´s also theological challenge, addressing an underlying misunderstanding I need to wrestle with again and again. For as the psalmist refers me back to God´s infinite mercy, the truth begins to seep into my whole being, that my brokenness, constraint, and wretchedness are not the point.
In my constraint, the psalmist goes on, I called to the Lord;
The Lord answered me and set me free.
The stone which the builders rejected, he continues,
Has become the chief cornerstone
This is the Lord´s doing
Never mind our limitations, the psalmist seems to be saying, The Lord is good. The point he seems to be hammering home is that inadequacy is only a starting point for something new. A point of entry for God´s grace. Constraint …. is the beginning of freedom; brokenness is a precursor to strength, to being uplifted, as a cornerstone.There is a theology of reversal at work here, one which is familiar, which finds its ultimate fulfilment in the crucifixion and resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ, but which has been present from before the world was, right from the beginning.
Today´s other readings point us in the same, divine direction. Isaiah, in chapter 63, lifts our eyes to see the gracious deeds of the Lord, the praiseworthy acts of the Lord, and of the Lord´s steadfast love. 1 John 3 begins with a wonderfully embracing and enveloping reminder:
See what love the Father has given us, that we should be called children of God.
We are reminded of our identity as children of a loving heavenly father. And also, that we should love one another.
Ah! love one another. That´s the hard bit, isn´t it, if we insist on hanging on to our own wretchedness? It´s quite hard to love while nursing a sense of our own inadequacy and hiding our vulnerabililty. The whole business of love depends on vulnerability – on being prepared in one or another way to be unhidden and available; and fear, as John goes on to say, is its opposite.
Little children, he says, let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action. It´s striking to me that the epistle writer is so specific that love needs to be embodied, to be about what we do not what we say, including what we do with our words. We´re taking about listening ears, and shared books, and cups of coffee and washing up and thankyous and kind words, and gracious reminders and bearing with each other´s forgetfulnesses. It´s also interesting to me why we are to do this. Not, of course in order to earn salvation, but not, according to this passage – we can´t do that – but ….
because by this we will know that we are from the truth, and will reassure our hearts before Him whenever our hearts condem us.
Let´s run that past ourselves again – reassure our hearts before Him, whenever our hearts condemn us. Loving each other is the medicine to silence the voice of self condemnation.
Dear friends, I see, and receive, great kindness in this place, every day. But as we start a new term, full of challenges and deadlines and all manner of other possible invitations to wretchedness, and as things inevitably occur which confirm that we are flawed, can we also remember that we are God’s children, and turn away from self-condemnation, as Scripture invites us to? Can we accept our limitations as something which connects us, rather than something which needs to divide us? And can we really take in the healing words that today´s scriptures offer us, scriptures which sing of God´s mercy and gracious deeds?
I was reminded, while reading 1 John´s prescription against self-condemnation, of Wesley´s wonderful hymn, written just after his conversion in 1738. The first line, “And can it be,” captures a redeemed sinner´s wonder and incredulity at God´s grace, but I wanted to leave you with its final verse:
No condemnation now I dread:
Jesus and all in him is mine
Alive in him, my living head
And clothed in righteousness divine
Bold I approach the eternal throne
And claim the crown, through Christ my own.
Dr Sandy Goldbeck-Wood is a first year independent student studying the Diploma in Theology for Ministry.