Seasons of preparation

In my tradition, we’re about to start the season of Advent.  It’s a time of preparation; a time when we look forward to, and prepare ourselves for, what is to come.

No matter our tradition, it can be good to intentionally set aside time to focus inward, to build strength and resilience, to prepare ourselves for new challenges.

There are four key themes to Advent which might be worth focussing on in any season of preparation:

Hope:  Hope is an exercise in optimistic imagination.  Not imagination as in fantasising, but imagination as in being open and creative about what might be possible, about what can be done, what relationships can be built, what can change.  Hope is even better when it’s shared with others who are excited about the same possibilities and visions for the future.

Peace:  Peace is the bridge between us and those with whom we differ.  It looks at others across divisions and conflicts, and holds on in loyalty to the idea that the other person or group is worth persevering for.  That beyond the divisions and conflicts lie real people with worth and value, and that our future is better with us in collaboration than in bitter and destructive habits of behaviour.

Joy:  Joy is a fountain of refreshment.  It looks beyond discouragement and sorrow and sees the charm and the goodness of life in all its rich diversity.  It celebrates whatever is true and just and excellent.  It takes delight in human flourishing, wherever and however it might be found.

Love:  Love is what binds us to one another in healthy relationships which serve us all.  It is patient, kind, not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude.  Willing to sacrifice getting its own way in order to serve the good of the other.

Would it help you to make more room in your life for hope, peace, joy and love, at this time?

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Joyful noise

This is a sermon for the sixth Sunday of Easter.  The Scripture it references is Psalm 98.

Well, you might remember that I told you last week, that I was going to preach this week about music and singing in worship.  After all, we just sang in the psalm that we should “send forth a joyful noise,” so what better reason to think about how and why we do that?

And yet, for all that it’s supposed to be a joyful noise, I’d have to observe that in just about every church I’ve been involved with, music has been in some way a source of tension and conflict; in one church I worked in for a few years, I actually had to be careful what shoes I wore, because if your shoes were too noisy on the floor, you faced the wrath of the director of music for disturbing the music!

Okay, so that was an extreme example.  But, when I think about all those arguments and fights about music, what music we should have, what instruments, how to support the congregation to sing, all of those things… I conclude that Christians argue about this so much because it matters.

It matters.  Music and singing as part of worship matter.  So what I really want to talk about a little bit is why it matters; and some of the principles we might use to navigate those conflicts which crop up from time to time.

And here’s the thing; our worship doesn’t exist, and can’t be captured, in a book, or on a page.  Worship – liturgy – is in its essence an experience.  It’s the lived interaction between the gathered people and our God; and what happens in and between us in that interaction. The books and papers (or even screens) are a prompt and an aid to what we do together with our bodies, minds and hearts.  We want to get to the point where rather than being focussed on the pages, the pages (if we need them at all) help us to focus on God.  And one way to do that is to sing our hearts out.

Shared music and singing is a way of building shared faith and identity. It’s something which allows us to participate to the full; with our bodies, our intellects and our emotions and memories.  And singing together creates community; we join our voices, listen to one another, keep the same tempo; the people with stronger voices support those less well practiced to do something worthwhile together (especially true when there are no instruments, as you might have noticed last week!)  Even when one person can’t sing (for whatever reason), they can be caught up in the swell of voices from behind and around and in front of them, making us all a part of something bigger than ourselves.

There aren’t many things that we do together the way we sing together; it’s a living expression of being one body.  We’re not a random crowd, not a group of people who just happen to be in the same space, but a community with a shared identity and purpose.  Bonhoeffer put it this way: “It is not you that sings, it is the Church that is singing, and you, as a member of the Church, may share in its song.”

Now I realise, of course, that this gets tricky when hearing becomes a problem.  For people who are deaf or have hearing loss, music or singing can pass them by or be difficult, and that then requires more creativity on our part about how we do things together.  So I’m speaking here about what we might reasonably expect for most of us who can hear and do have a working voice; and for those people – which is the vast majority of us – the question is not, do you have a voice?  But, do we have a song?  The music and singing we share in worship isn’t supposed to be a professional production or a performance, but it can be a giving to God of our best, done with confidence and reverence.

And here’s some of why music adds so much to what we do together.  It creates connections in our brains, between our thoughts, our emotions and our memories; connections which don’t happen if we’re just hearing words spoken.  So by doing that, it helps us integrate ideas and experiences with our sense of self; it enriches our understanding.  And because when we sing something familiar, we remember where we’ve sung it before, and the emotions and meaning it had then, it connects our past with our present, and relates both of those things to our hopes for the future.

More than that, because music as an art form expresses beauty and order, in itself it says something about the character of God; that God is not chaotic or ugly.  Music isn’t just something that belongs to human culture on earth; in the book of Job God talks about how the heavenly beings sang before the beginning of creation, and the book of Revelation tells us of sung worship in heaven for eternity.  Our own music and singing, in our worship, give us an echo, a hint of those incredible realities, and allow us to participate in them just a little through the beauty, the order, and the goodness of music as an art form.

In that way, too, music gives dignity to what might otherwise not be very dignified at all.  It can give us a container for our grief, bring peace to our anxieties, and relieve our stresses.  None of which are an end in themselves, for us in church, but can help us put ourselves in the right frame of mind to really worship.

Music moves us, sometimes quite literally; hopefully, in worship, carrying us to a spiritually healthier place than we were in before we gathered.  When I say that it moves us, I mean it shapes our sense of identity, it gives us a sense of belonging, of commitment, of hope and joy, and so on.

And because of all of this, music and singing help us to connect our own personal life stories with the big Christian story; helping us to see who God is to and for us, and the meaning of our own ups and downs in the bigger picture.

Now we do need to be careful.  Music is supposed to support us in all of this, but it’s not supposed to be manipulative.  Ultimately, worship music – just like any of the arts involved in churches, like architecture or the visual arts or the poetry of prayer – any of these things done well invites us into a space where we can encounter God; but it can’t create that encounter, and it can’t substitute for it.  We do have to let God be God, and leave a little room for mystery.

But if we approach questions of music and singing in worship with the questions: how does what we’re doing together help us in the process of worship?  How does it enable every person present to truly participate?  How does it help us to be the sort of community we’re truly supposed to be?  And how does it, not just proclaim the good news, but give us a lived experience of what that good news means in our own lives?  Then I suggest we’ll be on the right track, and we’ll truly be making a joyful noise.

Meaning

This is a sermon for the second Sunday of Easter.  The Scripture it references is 1 John 1:1-2:2, and it was written for a baptism.

Light and dark, life and death, good and evil… the last couple of weeks, in different ways, have given us a lot of reason to focus on those themes.  And this morning, we’re looking at the same themes again, but from a slightly different angle.

Partly because it’s Samuel’s baptism day, and in the rejection of selfishness, injustice, and evil, and turning to God, we come again to some of the fundamental things in the Christian life.  But also because of our readings; in the letter from John, he wrote, “God is light, and in him there is no darkness at all.”

There’s more than one aspect to light; more than one thing that’s meant by saying that “God is light.”  By that we can mean that God is truth; that God is essential to life; that God is dynamic; and so on.  But the aspect I’d like to pick up on this morning is the idea that in light there is meaning, as opposed to the darkness of meaninglessness.

If God is light, and light is a mediator of meaning, there are some things which flow from that.  One of them is the value of every human person – including Samuel – because we each have a place in the meaningful creation of an intentional creator.  As one ancient poet put it, that each person is “a jar full of delight,” suggesting that God delights in us, and that we’re invited to delight in each other.

Another is that every person has something valuable to bring, a part to play, in human society; because each one of us is created uniquely as we are and is irreplaceable in the network of relationships that make up community.

Another is that faith – or religion, if you prefer – is supposed to operate on a different level than a set of rules.  Becoming a Christian isn’t about committing to be “good,” as if goodness meant no sex or chocolate or freedom; it’s about committing to a system of meaning; a system of meaning in which we discover and cherish and nurture the goodness God has given to all aspects of the created universe in which we find ourselves.

Some ethical boundaries will arise from that, of course; but not because religion is a controlling force in our lives, but because boundaries are a healthy part of knowing who we are, and what we’re about.

And this parish’s long connection with various social justice causes is part of being committed to Christianity as a system of meaning; because it says that the vision of human flourishing being open to every person which is at the heart of the quest for social justice, is also at the heart of God’s system of meaning for human life.  They’re two different ways of relating to the same truth.

Having a system of meaning involves a sense of identity, of knowing who we are, and to whom we belong.  Of course on one level we can talk about family – and when you’re as young as Samuel, that’s pretty much your whole framework of meaning – but as we grow, it includes friends, work, leisure, a sense of what one’s life is about.  But there’s a level of meaning deeper than the daily routine of work and leisure, or even the personal connections of family and friendship; without denying the value of family, friendship, work and so on.

But that deeper level of meaning has to do with being children of God; with all that flows from that, as I’ve already touched on, giving meaning and significance to all the other, more mundane aspects of our lives.

This identity as a child of God can give us a self-confidence that’s not broken by adverse circumstances in life.  How can we hate or despise what we know God created to be good, our very selves?  It’s not about image or external success, but about something that remains even when we’ve messed up or failed or been the victim of external forces.  Who we are created to be can never be taken from us.

And it can give us a sense of purpose; a sense of the direction of our lives as contributing to the overall good of the world around us.

God is light, in whom there is no darkness at all.  God doesn’t do anything meaningless or make anything worthless, but everything God creates is good, and has value and purpose, including each of us.  That’s part of what we say yes to, in baptism.  It’s part of what we say yes to, as we gather week to week to worship together and be community to one another.  And it’s part of what we ought to say yes to, as we live our lives out in the world, the rest of the week.  That’s what it means to live as a disciple of Christ.

So with all of that in mind, I encourage you each to reflect on your baptism, and what it means in your life, as we continue to celebrate the season of the resurrection.

New beginnings

This is a sermon for the dawn vigil on Easter day, largely reflecting on the rite of renewal of baptismal promises.

“This holy night makes all things new, our hearts restored to holiness, washed clean of every stain of sin and bathed in heaven’s light.”  That’s what was just sung as part of the exsultet, the joyful and victorious proclamation of the resurrection.

It’s because we remember that – that intimate link between Jesus’ resurrection and our own being washed clean and bathed in God’s perfect light – that Easter is a time for renewing our baptismal promises, which we will come to in a moment.

You might be forgiven for wondering why we do that; after all, we were all baptised; we are part of the community of faith, and we are reminded of that as we gather week by week.  Do we really need to go through the process of saying these things again?

But I think that while need might be too strong a word, we can benefit from it.  It is very easy for our focus to drift in the Christian life; to treat church – at least subconsciously – as the place where we come to get our otherwise unmet needs met, or even just the place where we come to leave behind the stresses and strains of the rest of life.

But on this day, perhaps more than any other day in the Christian year, we remember that there is so much more than that at stake.

Baptism is all about belonging, not just to a social club, but to a spiritual reality which has the power and the potential to totally transform each of us.  Christ rose from the dead, and his resurrection redefines the horizons of human potential forever.

Paul put it this way when he wrote to the Colossians: “so if you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God.”  If you have been raised with Christ; this isn’t just an event in the past, which happened to someone else; it’s an intimate part of the life story of each one of us.  Seek the things which are above, where Christ is.

When we say that we “turn to Christ,” there is so much wrapped up in that phrase.  We are saying that we want to live a life in which evil and hatred have no permanent hold on us; a life free of crippling guilt and shame; a life in which we can walk in joy and hope and peace; a life, in short, in which we can experience something of heaven on this earth, and we know the companionship of the creator of the universe.

We are saying that we acknowledge that there is more than one way to be, in this life; that good and evil, light and darkness, are real; and that we want to, as best we can, align ourselves with what is good.  And that we want to incorporate ourselves into a community which has made the same commitment; a community which can offer us support, encouragement, teaching and enrichment, and in which we can also make a contribution and play a part in supporting, encouraging, and enriching others in turn.

That’s what we recommit ourselves to this morning.  We seek the active involvement of the Holy Spirit in our lives; that God might be at work in our hearts from today, helping us to grow in love and generosity and kindness, and looking outward to how we might be of service to others.

These are not small things.  They don’t happen by default.  They need to be approached intentionally, carefully.  Of course, good people of all faith positions and none will seek to be good and moral people, but this is about more than that.  It’s about seeking a life which will be profoundly shaped by the One who created everything that exists, and who so desires intimate, loving relationship with those He created that he was willing to become human, to suffer and die, to make that relationship a living reality.

And part of that relationship with God means knowing and being a part of God’s people, because the Holy Spirit isn’t given to us each individually just for our own benefit, but so that we can be integrated together into a community; a community which looks outward with passion and purpose towards the world which God loves.  In baptism, each of us brings something uniquely valuable to that community; each person is irreplaceable, and when one of us is not here, we are all diminished.

(And I don’t mean “not here” just in the sense of “not attending services” as if the sum and point of being a Christian were being in a pew on Sunday morning; but a broader sense of active participation).

This is what it means to fight the good fight; to seek after truth and accept no imitations or substitutes; to have the courage to grasp the vision of what God’s reign can mean for human life, and to work towards that at every opportunity; to learn to embrace the value of human flourishing above self-gratification.  To come to the end of life knowing that you’ve lived it with integrity and kindness and finished the race well, open to the glory of God wherever it may be found.

These are big things.  Sometimes they are hard things.  Sometimes they are costly.  But this is the vision and the set of values to which the church is committed and constantly recommits itself, even though we understand that we can never live up to it perfectly.

And that’s why the serious questions and the affirmation of faith.  Because they spell out and help us all to understand what it is that we are seeking to be part of.  They help us to integrate God’s vision for us more firmly into our own identity.  And they help us all to know what is at stake when we come to the font; not just some empty words.  Not just a feel good moment (although there is something of that).  But our own inheritance in the kingdom of heaven; an inheritance which comes with both blessings and responsibilities, to God and to one another.

This morning, as we celebrate the resurrection, we know that the kingdom of heaven has come near.  It opens us up to new horizons of possibility and makes available to us profound reserves of love and hope.  And it is to this that we come, open and trusting, and ready for new beginnings with God.

Darkness

This is a sermon for Maundy Thursday.  It is not a direct commentary on Scripture, but references the themes in John 13.

There are different kinds of darkness.

There’s the darkness of nothingness into which light came, when creation burst into existence.

There’s the darkness of blindness; when the light exists but we can’t see it.

There’s the darkness of confusion and incomprehension.

There’s the darkness of evil, of hatred, of violation and desecration.

There’s the darkness of death.

There’s the darkness of grief.

There’s the darkness of despair.

And there’s the darkness that is the absence of God, who is somehow, in Godself, Light beyond all our understanding.

Today and tomorrow, through words and symbols and liturgy, we will encounter something of all of these kinds of darkness, and we well might find ourselves in touch with our own inner darkness, as well; the places in our psyche which we seldom subject to scrutiny, but in which lurk some of our deepest fears and hurts and shames.

This is not necessarily bad, but it can feel threatening, and we can be afraid of being overwhelmed by our own emotions or reactions.

The liturgies of these days give us, if you like, a container for those emotions and reactions; and are designed to give us a safe space to have these encounters.  We bracket the descent into darkness with moments of light; on this side of events, with supportive community and caring human touch, expressed in communion and foot washing; and on the other side of the grave, with the bursting new light and sound and joy of the resurrection, at the Easter vigil.

We visit the darkness not to linger in it, but to invite the light of God to penetrate it ever more deeply.  John’s gospel tells us that the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness does not overcome it.  It does not overcome – conquer – us, either; because we belong to the light.

Just as it did in the very first moment of creation, new light, new experiences of God in love and joy and so forth, can literally re-create us; transforming our darknesses into something far more wholesome and making us radiant in our very selves.

That’s part of the point of worship, actually.

Worship in general – and the services for today through to Sunday in particular – prod the limits of our comfort zones, making us aware of darkness and also summoning the light to overcome every instance of darkness.  In this community and its dynamics of love, we all, as disciples, are drawn into the life of heaven; into that realm of light, truth, love, and beauty which is the dwelling-place God.

All we have to do is be open in participating, and see what God will do; what light God will bring to each of us.

Reality check

This is a sermon for the second Sunday in Lent.  The Scripture it references is Mark 8:31-38.

What do you get out of coming to church?  That might be a dangerous question for me to ask.  I might be concerned that actually, you don’t get much out of it at all; that you spend half the service mentally making shopping lists and pondering the plot twist in last night’s TV show.

Forgive me, I’m being provocative.  But there’s a point I want to make about what the purpose of coming to church is.  So often, when I talk to couples wanting to have their child baptised, or to get married, who aren’t regular church goers, they’ll tell me that they don’t need to come to church because “I know what I believe.”

And this bothers me a bit, because – while I know what I believe, and even have a degree in it – I don’t imagine that that means I don’t need to be at church.  Because the church service on Sunday isn’t only, or even mainly, about telling you what to believe, or, even worse, what to think.

It has two main purposes; first, to allow us to connect with and relate to God, as actual persons – Father, Son, and Holy Spirit – and not as a set of doctrinal ideas.  And second, to help us integrate what we say and sing and hear at church into how we think and live.

This goes beyond telling you what to believe, and into the realm of inspiration, of shaping the imagination, of forming a vision and a sense of purpose and commitment to action.  It’s starting with what we believe, and then pushing beyond that, to ask ourselves, so what?  We believe in God, so what?  How will that matter all the other six days when we’re not here, and we’re going about our lives as students and workers and grandparents and doing whatever we do?

This is also, by the way, why things like the architecture of churches matter.  It’s not just about what’s beautiful or appealing; because what we experience while we’re in the building, and how we move through it and relate to one another in it, shape our deep convictions about God, and how we act out those convictions.

Why should anyone have cared about the radical design of a round church like this one?  It implies a different view of the community that gathers in it, and how they worship together, than the old basilica-style rectangles where all the holiness is up one end and many people knew that their place was up the other end, away from any sense of participation in that holiness.  In a round church, theoretically, there isn’t a hierarchy of space and we all participate in the holiness of what happens here; and that equality might overflow into the rest of the week…

Oddly, we haven’t followed through with that conviction in the way we’ve arranged the furniture, but that might be a matter for ongoing consideration.

Anyway.  I could go on for ages about basic liturgical principles, but instead I’ll say, for more on that topic, come to the study series after Easter!

For now, let me come back around to today’s gospel reading, and in particular, Jesus’ rebuke of Peter: “Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things, but on human things.”

We tend to get hung up on the “Satan” bit; it’s so harsh, so confronting, and we cringe as we identify with Peter, at the idea that we might ever be rebuked in similar terms.  But if we focus on that too much, we might miss two other important points in what Jesus says.

Notice the reason Jesus gives for the rebuke: You are setting your mind not on divine things, but on human things.  I wonder what the background to this was; was Peter, over dinner at a disciple’s house or on the road, mulling over all he had experienced with Jesus and dreaming dreams of political and social glory?  Was he looking forward to the day when Jesus’ messiahship would become known, no longer a secret, and there wouldn’t be any more trailing around dusty country roads but perhaps more of a life of city comforts?

We can’t be sure.  But whatever he was thinking about, imagining, it wasn’t God’s picture of what all of this was about.  And out of all of this imagining a wrong-headed, a very human, perhaps ego-driven set of fantasies, as a result of that came Peter’s rejection of what Jesus actually needed to do.

He’s illustrating the principle I was talking about in terms of worship; what you allow to shape your imagination, what you spend time reflecting on and integrating into your sense of self; that’s ultimately going to shape your behaviour.  So just as worship matters for us because it’s an opportunity to get, if you like, a God-sent reality check, Peter needed a God-sent reality check to remind him that his fantasies were sending him off in the wrong direction.

Worship redirects our attention and sets our mind on divine things… or at least, it’s supposed to.

And notice the other thing Jesus says to Peter: Get behind me.  Often this is read as “get out of my way,” and that wouldn’t be a wrong way to read it.  But I’d push further and say, “behind me” is where a disciple belongs.  A rabbi would walk at the head of a gaggle of disciples who came behind him; observing his conduct, absorbing his teaching, and asking questions as they went.

Jesus isn’t just telling Peter off, he’s also telling him what he needs to do to get it right; get behind me, get back to being my disciple.  Quit daydreaming and pay attention to what I’m showing and telling you.

That’s not a twenty-first century model of discipleship.  Fortunately for us all, perhaps, today discipleship tends to involve much more reading and much less hiking around the countryside.  But the basic principle remains the same; get behind me; put yourself in a position to observe, absorb and integrate the lessons of our master.

So my challenge to you, today, is how do you do that?  Coming to church is good, and I’d encourage it, but I’d also argue that it’s not really sufficient.  Peter and the others followed behind Jesus all day, every day; at the very least it would be normal and healthy Christian practice for us to find some time every day to deliberately put ourselves in mind of divine things (rather than human things), and to “get behind” Jesus as the one who teaches us on the road of life.

How can you get behind Jesus, as his disciple, that little bit more this week?  Small changes in habits are more likely to be sustainable and to become part of your life.  So maybe pick one small thing that would let you do that, and give it a go; and if we each do that, we’ll find we’re much more on the right track – together – than getting lost in human wrong-headedness.  And that would be a very good thing indeed.

Songs for the journey

This is a sermon for the first Sunday in Advent.  The Scripture it references is Psalm 80.

 

Prayer the church’s banquet, angel’s age,
God’s breath in man returning to his birth,
The soul in paraphrase, heart in pilgrimage,
The Christian plummet sounding heav’n and earth
Engine against th’ Almighty, sinner’s tow’r,
Reversed thunder, Christ-side-piercing spear,
The six-days world transposing in an hour,
A kind of tune, which all things hear and fear;
Softness, and peace, and joy, and love, and bliss,
Exalted manna, gladness of the best,
Heaven in ordinary, man well drest,
The milky way, the bird of Paradise,
Church-bells beyond the stars heard, the soul’s blood,
The land of spices; something understood. 

That’s George Herbert’s poem, Prayer.  In it, he piles image on top of image to try to give an impression of all that prayer can be, might be, if we would give ourselves to it without reserve.  (I don’t understand all of the images, either; what does he mean by saying that prayer is “the land of spices”?  Does he mean we might discover both the bite of chilli and the sweetness of vanilla?)

But I did catch the mention of the “heart in pilgrimage;” the heart on a journey to some sacred place.  And perhaps because I’ve been thinking about change, which is a process of getting from here to there (wherever there is), and – at least in the church – change ought to be a pilgrimage of sorts, that image of prayer as “the heart in pilgrimage” seemed like it was worth spending some time on.

So between now and Christmas, I’ve decided to preach on the psalm each week.  And I’m thinking of that as a sermon series on “songs for the journey.”  I think that might help us to think about what we’re doing, on a number of levels.

Because of course, the idea of “being on a journey” can describe different things.  On one level, we’re journeying towards Christmas; with all the things – sacred and secular – which go into making Christmas special.  On another level, each of us is on the long journey of a lifetime, with its various seasons and themes.

There are other journeys too.  Every time we meet for worship, that’s a journey, of sorts; we’re supposed to walk out the church door not quite the same as we came in, having encountered God and one another in a way which will change our lives in some way.  And the psalms themselves are each a journey; they have a beginning, a middle, and an end; and the habit of praying them is supposed to move us along with the words so that we’re not unchanged.

So, many journeys; some long, some short, some individual and some shared; but all having this point of connection as we come together Sunday by Sunday for worship.  And all, hopefully, finding themselves as some expression of pilgrimage; all seeking something sacred.

And when we think about what sustains us on those journeys, what helps us to know who we are, gives us our ethical frameworks, and so on… a lot of that comes from the fabric of our culture.  From the stories we tell, the books we read, what we watch on TV, and – at least in church, still – the songs we sing together.

(I always try to remember that people will be humming a hymn from Sunday during the week, long after you’ve forgotten anything I said in the sermon.  Singing engages much more of the brain that just speaking and listening, and it helps embed things much more deeply in us).

And as part of all of this, we have the psalms; with all their requests, complaints and praises; all the breadth of human experience which they bring into our worship, and which help us to recognise and give voice to where we are in our various and shared pilgrimages.

And this morning, the repeated cry of the psalm is for God to “restore us.” To fix us; even, perhaps, to make us new.  There’s a cry from a heart in pilgrimage; journeying towards a sacred place of healing and wholeness, and praying that God would help us find it.

That’s what Christmas should be, of course; a sacred moment of healing and wholeness; but it isn’t that for everyone.  Domestic violence shelters get more calls close to Christmas time than other times of the year.  The strain of poverty is more keenly felt, as our society goes into its annual consumerist orgy.  And grief is sharp as people remember the faces who are missing from the family gatherings.  That’s part of why, a few days before Christmas, we’ll have a quiet service of evening prayer for people finding Christmas difficult; it doesn’t matter why it’s difficult, but even just being able to come, and be, without being expected to be all jolly and merry, can be a sacred encounter for people who are doing it tough.

The cry for God to “restore us” works at other levels too.  Every week we begin our worship with the prayer that God would “cleanse the thoughts of our hearts;” that whatever baggage we’ve picked up through the week, that’s weighed us down or distorted our love of God or one another, that we’d be relieved of that and, once again, be restored to love and worship as we ought.  That’s not trivial; it’s an important part of what Herbert called the “plummet sounding heav’n and earth;” taking soundings of what’s really going on in our hearts, and straightening what’s turned crooked.

Paul wrote about this pilgrimage of the heart, this journey towards the sacred, using a different image when he said that “the whole creation has been groaning in labour pains until now; and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies.”

Well, bringing something to birth is also a journey of many months, and yet Paul seems to think that we’re at the interesting end of that; with ourselves and all creation gripped in labour pains which are soon going to bring to birth restoration of God’s good creation.

We might come back to that idea at Christmas.  But for now, here is the question for our hearts in pilgrimage, this week: what is it in our lives – in your life – that needs restoring?  What would make you feel, tomorrow, that God’s face is shining on you just a little brighter than it is today?  What do you dare hope for?

Don’t be shy to bring those things to God in prayer.  The psalmist wasn’t, and Paul wasn’t, and even Herbert the poet wasn’t; and we shouldn’t be either.  “Restore us” can definitely be a song for the journey, even as we look forward to what is coming.