Bible Sunday hymn (reposted as it’s almost Bible Sunday)

I once commented to someone much smarter than me that there aren’t huge numbers of hymns about the Bible – they replied that this was because our faith is in the Word more than it is in the word – in other words, hymns are songs of praise and our praise is directed at God rather than at the scriptures themselves.

Having said that, one still needs hymns for Bible Sunday (last after Trinity, I think) so if you find yourself flicking through a hymn book and not quite finding anything, there is this:

A hymn for Bible Sunday.
Tune: Regent Square, or other compatible 878787 tunes.

Word of life! Such transformation!
bringing light to darkest space;
loving mother of creation,
forging life in every place.
Shine that light on every nation,
gather us in your embrace.

Word of truth! You spoke though history,
prophets knew you as their friend;
As you shared with earth the mystery
of your love that knows no end.
Yet your fullest glory must be
More than words can comprehend.

Word made flesh! You came to meet us,
pitched your tent among our own,
Born on earth so heaven could greet us:
God in human heart and bone.
Teach us, lead us, tend us, feed us
with the life that’s yours alone.

Words of scripture, here you teach us,
All you speak is here received.
Shared by print and voice to reach us:
written, read and now believed;
Speak again to all and  each, as
faith is grown and life is lived.

The Pharisees ask the wrong question again…

A Sermon on Mark 10.2-16, which owes a great deal to Tom Wright. Thank you +Tom!

During the mid 1990’s it was not uncommon for clergy, and especially bishops, to be contacted by journalists and asked, ‘What does the church think about divorce?’  It would generally be framed as a hypothetical question, but of course it was anything but, and no matter how the bishop in question responded, no matter how hard they tried to make it clear that their response was a general and broad statement, or not even a statement at all, the journalist would always end up saying, So you’re saying that in the case of Charles and Diana….’  The question addressed to Jesus in today’s gospel reading is similar.

Consider that the location for this whole argument is just beyond the River Jordan – that’s John the Baptist’s old stamping ground.  And consider that the reason John got into trouble with Herod in the first place and ended up being beheaded was that he had dared to criticize Herod’s marriage to Herodias, his brother’s wife. The Pharisees’ question that claims to be a general one about divorce and adultery is in fact a very specific one, designed to trick Jesus into revealing where he stands on the whole subject of Herod’s marriage, and hence where he stands on the question of Herod’s integrity as a leader of God’s people.

Rarely in the gospels is Jesus asked a straightforward question, so he is wise to the trickery.  In public he answers just as he did with the question of whether a Jew should pay tax to the Romans: asking first what the law says and then pointing out what really matters.

But there’s more. Jesus asks what Moses says, and at that time Moses was held to be the author of the whole Pentateuch, the first five books of the Hebrew Bible, and therefore ‘what Moses says’ is not just what we might think of as ‘the law’ but also the stories of creation in Genesis – and it is small part of these this that Jesus goes on to quote.

It is not the law that Jesus is most concerned with here, but rather the deep desire of God for his people to live in relationship, at one with him, with each other, and with the natural world around them. Those words from Genesis are a way of capturing that desire in tangible form – marriage as a metaphor (albeit an idealised one) for the kind of relational living that is God’s desire for all of creation.

If we turned to Genesis 1.27 we would read, ‘male and female he created them, in the image of God he created them’.  Male and female are but one facet of the diversity of humanity – one could reasonably add into that verse any pair of opposites – introvert and extravert, black and white, and so on – without distorting the sense of what the writer is trying to convey.

And, of course, in Hebrew a pair of opposites generally encompasses the full spectrum of everything in between.  Jesus’ quoted verse is in the context of a passage that is about the radical diversity within the unity of creation, and of humanity in particular.

I would go as far as to say that the image of God that we may find in humanity is not so much in each of us individually (no matter how different we may be from one another) but rather it is in our diversity-in-unity that we are mostly truly – collectively and communally – the image of God. This is hardly surprising, given the Trinitarian God in whose image we are made.

It is relationality – with marriage as one possible concrete example as well as a metaphor – that represents God’s deepest desire for his creation and for us as the crown of all creation.

But we also remember what happened next in Genesis.  The fall of humanity, as Genesis tells it, cascades from simple disobedience and quickly distorts that relationality: Adam blames Eve (and blames God for making Eve), Eve blames the serpent (and therefore also God for making the serpent) and thus every aspect of God’s desire for right relationship is broken.

When relationships broke down in Jesus day, and when they do so in our own day (whether those relationships are marriage, or between parents and children, between or within communities, or even between nations) that is a continuing manifestation of the same brokenness.  And even functional relationships are not perfect – none of us can say that our common life is a perfect expression of the image of God, though we may sometimes glimpse it.

We are fallen people. Every broken relationship is a crack in the image of God that we were created to be, and marriage stands and falls not just by the actions and attitudes of the couple themselves, but all the networks of relationships of which they are part: that’s why the marriage service talks of marriage enriching society and strengthening community, and that’s why the whole congregation is asked whether, with God’s help, they will support and uphold the couple in their relationship.

This is the wider context for Jesus’ response. And when we look at it this way, it shows up the Pharisees’ question for what it is: petty, legalistic, and condemnatory.

Yes, Deuteronomy permits divorce, because of ‘the hardness of our hearts’ – an acknowledgment of our fallenness. But to ask ‘is it lawful’ is to reduce to a matter of legality something which is, or should be, so much bigger, so much deeper. The Pharisees want to talk about laws: ‘What can we get away with before God will start minding’.  But Jesus wants to talk about the deepest desires of God for his creation – it is this desire that the laws were intended to express in concrete form, but too often we forget this.  ‘Is it lawful?’ is a question that condemns, that divides, that reduces human relationships to a line of legal text that takes no account of people as people. In Jesus’ encounters we see the opposite: a vision of what human beings look like in the eyes of God, what we could be.

For in our own day just as in Jesus’ time, divorce – or indeed any broken relationship – is not a subject that can be dealt with either generally or hypothetically, because it’s not an abstract idea but a human tragedy that happens specifically, personally, to real people, one case at a time, to people we know and love, or indeed to some of us. Jesus spent enough of his time with people who had been hurt by life to be very aware of this.

Around a broken relationship there is untold hurt, no matter who might be at fault, and not matter how mutual or otherwise the decision to end it. And a divorce that is ‘by the book’ and legally straightforward is in no way painless. The law at its best may work to protect people from injustice, but it cannot magically make things ‘alright’.

What Jesus says in today’s gospel is really tough. But perhaps it is tough in a different way from how it looks at first.  His condemnation is not of couples who divorce, but on the hardness of heart that characterises fallen humanity, and that characterises the Pharisees’ question in particular; the hardness of heart which mars the divine image, and prevents us from seeking, let alone actually living out God’s deepest desires for us.

Perhaps this is why Mark follows this difficult passage with Jesus’ blessing of the little children: maybe they represent, for the Pharisees’ benefit, an open-heartedness that has not yet learned to ask ‘what is lawful’ but still has the capacity to hold out its hands and ask for all the blessings that God desires to give – this is what it is like to live in the Kingdom, I guess- the kingdom of the blessed.

This side of heaven, the divine image in us will always be cracked and damaged, broken by our own sins, by the damage done to us by other people’s, and by the collective sin in which we collude.  But we can still seek out those glimpses – as Jesus helped the crowd to do when he placed the little children in their midst – glimpses of what God’s desire for us might look like in real life.

Perhaps we might find these glimpses in our worship, in the invitation to stand or kneel alongside one another in our fallenness and participate in Christ at the Eucharist; in our common life as a church, in our other human relationships with family, friends, colleagues and neighbours; in the miracle of forgiveness for deep wrongs, in the work of healing in the midst of conflict, in the willingness to risk everything to enable the love of God and of humanity to transcend the borders that human sin and pride perpetuate; in all the miracles of generosity and sacrifice and love that soften the world’s hard-hearted divisions.

Learning to perceive these as glimpses of the kingdom, to tap into a sense of what God desires for us, to keep ourselves open-hearted – these are habits of holiness that enable the kingdom to take root and grow here and now.  We are broken and fallen, but we are still the crown of God’s creation and what he desires for us and for all he has made is the same as it was at the beginning of Genesis.

Things to do during a baptism service

Some easy ideas for churches to try if they’re not sure what to do with all the kids in a baptism service.

  • Treasure hunt
    Give children a photo sheet of key places in the church that feature in the baptism service (ewer, font, candle, oil stock, shell, hands applauding, hymn book (or organ/piano/band) etc in roughly the order that they occur, and ask the children to keep watching to spot each one as it happens
  • Doodles
    Give all the children pencils, and ask them to doodle on their service sheet all the way through the service – encourage them to draw what they see, hear and feel.  You can ask them to focus on what they think are the best bits or the most important bits – and try and pick out some words that sound really important, and illustrate those.
  • Involve children in the liturgy as much as you can (lighting the paschal candle, carrying the water jug to the font, pouring the water into the font, holding the shell and the towel (if you use them), holding your service sheet while you say the prayer over the water etc).
  • Use movement if you can – start the service at the front of the
    church and move to the font for the baptism, and make sure the children get a really great view. Use big gestures, lots of oil, lots of water… make the service feel as multisensory and generous as you can.
  • If there are older siblings who are already baptised, encourage them to bring their own baptism candle and have it re-lit at the service.
  • Why not get the whole congregation to contribute towards something during the service? Perhaps hand out pens and small pieces of coloured paper to everyone and ask them to write a simple blessing on it. These could be collected (by the children) and stuck into a small scrapbook (the children might like to do the sticking) and presented to the family (rather like some families do at funerals to keep a record of who came and their messages of condolence!) or could be used to make a tag cloud after the service that you can send to the family for them to keep and share on social media.
  • Use all-age welcomers at baptism services – could a family from the regular congregation be there at the door to greet families and their guests? This would be a reassuring sign that the church is child-friendly, and that they are welcome as they are, and can enable baptism families who don’t usually come to church to get to know families who come regularly. Children who act as welcomers
    can also help with other aspects of the service, such as leading prayers, doing readings, etc.
  • Make sure people have something to take away – a prayer card, or some object to remind them of the experience and any pledges they may have made, etc. I know one priest who buys up baby socks from
    charity shops, uses them during the talk as a visual aid, and then gives everyone one to take home at the end as a reminder.
  • If you had a big banner-shaped piece of paper/card, you could write the baptism candidate’s name on it in big outline letters for the children to decorate (you could also write it, ‘St X’s Church welcomes N’)
  • Ask the children’s groups, if you have them, to make a dove-shaped card with words of blessing (suggested by the children) on one side, and ‘God says, N, you are my child, I love you, and I am pleased with you’ on the other side, adding the name of the baptism candidate. The children can decorate the dove using coloured pens, and present it to the family at the welcome.
  • If you are using the reading about the baptism of Jesus, why not print out enough stickers for each member of the congregation with a dove outline bearing the words, ‘God says, you are my child, I love you and I am pleased with you’ then get the children to take the stickers round and stick one to each person – you could link this to a talk about how the love of God comes first, and then we live it out (and that this can be true for each of us, every day, not just for people at the start of their life).
  • Parents may also appreciate something their children can do ‘in the pew’ with them.  To that end, here are two downloadable booklets that you may wish to use – they can be photocopied and given out to children along with a pack of crayons.Baptism Colouring Book
    Download it as a .pdf document here: Baptism colouring book
    This is something that younger children can do on their own, and uses colouring pictures to illustrate the baptism service – in our church we use the same images (smaller) to illustrate our order of service so that even if parents aren’t that great at engaging their children with the service, at least they can match up what they’re doing with what they’re children are doing…
    Print this out 2 pages per sheet, in the order 12,1,2,11,10,3,4,9,8,5,6,7 then copy it back to back to make a booklet.  Or you may have a clever printer that will do booklets for you!

    Baptism activity workbook for children
    Download it as a pdf here:  Baptism workbook
    This is based on the same illustrations as the colouring book, but has more questions, and is either for older children to do on their own or for younger children whose parents are willing to engage with them.  My 6-year-old is a good reader and can do it on his own, but I’d be interested to hear about how you end up using it in your own church, and what age group finds it most helpful.
    It is for use during or just before a baptism service:
    Print this out 2 pages per sheet, in the order 12,1,2,11,10,3,4,9,8,5,6,7 then copy it back to back to make a booklet.  Or your printer may have a clever printer that will do booklets for you!

  • Some of these ideas – and a few others, too – are archived here. Or you can search for ‘baptism’ on this website to find all related posts.

Dusty feet

This is a sonnet-format response to a friend’s facebook post asking if there are any hymns about shaking the dust off one’s feet. It’s not at all what he asked for – sorry Steve!

The dust reminds us of our origin,
from where we’ve come, not where we want to go.
And as it clings, brings with it all we’ve been:
familiar places, things we think we know
and may not like; perhaps we’d like to leave
them all behind, but they have made us who
we are today.  The stuff we now believe,
the wisdom our experience treats as true
is just as much a part of us as all
the atoms of our flesh. And we are kind
of stardust. That’s a fact with its own call
on what we choose to keep or leave behind.
Then, when we shake the dust from off our shoes
we do so, knowing what we have to lose.

Just a second…

On 30th June, just before midnight (GMT) we all get an extra second – this happens every so often because the rotation of the earth doesn’t take exactly 24 hours (just like the orbit of the earth doesn’t take exactly 365 days, requiring us to have leap years to get back in sync).  Brilliantly, there is an international body responsible for monitoring the rotation of the earth and deciding when we need a leap second.  You can read all about that here.

This means I will have to wait slightly longer for it to be my birthday – but as a bonus, it means I get to spend slightly longer being in my 30s before I become middle aged.

The question I ask myself, though, is what could we do with that extra second? A second is not a long time, but here are some suggestions (you can always do them earlier in the day if you’re planning on being asleep during the extra second):

  • Do nothing. Actually nothing – take a conscious, if only tiny, pause, to see what it’s like.  If you like it, try a longer one.
  • Smell the roses. Or whatever – have some sort of sensory experience of beauty that will last beyond the second it takes to do it.
  • Tell someone you love that you love them.
  • Kiss someone you love.
  •  Send up an arrow prayer for world peace.
  • Take a photograph of something beautiful, or interesting.
  • Smile at someone.
  • Think of someone you haven’t seen for a while.
  • Switch your computer off.
  • Sign a petition.
  • Store up your spare second and use it to vote in the next election (yes, I know it takes longer than that to vote, if you take into account the queuing up and travelling to the polling station, but to put the cross in the box does just take one second, and has a lasting impact).

Here are some things that take about a second to do, that the world could do without – they’re the ones that came to the front of my mind first:

  • It takes about a second to strike a match. What if people stopped setting fire to predominantly black churches in the USA?
  • It takes about a second for a bullet to travel 2500 feet. What if people stopped shooting each other?
  • You can insult someone or swear at them, or belittle them with a glance, in under a second. That’s a second that could be better spent.
  • And while we’re at it, it probably takes about a second to throw a punch. We could not do that, too.
  • Do we ever make judgments about people by the way they look, or dress?  That probably takes less than a second. What would happen if we didn’t?  Keeping an open mind takes longer.

Reading this through, it’s a load of idealistic sanctimonious rubbish, really, but if having an extra second makes us think about the split second actions (and failures to act)  that have a lasting impact, then that’s got to be a good thing. We have the extra seconds every so often (even though they’re a nuisance for certain technological infrastructures) because otherwise future generations would have to make much bigger adjustments. It’s one of the (few) ways in which our current generation is being responsible about the future. Maybe the best use of the extra second is to do something in keeping with that responsibility to the future, that ‘reorientation’ towards the world being at ease with itself.