Reciting Morning Prayer over the last three years has rekindled a memory of a single Hebrew word – hesed (חֶסֶד). I have to confess, that after several weeks being taught Hebrew, the only the other word I remembered is Sus (סוס), which means horse!
What I do remember at college, however, was Gordon Thomas, the Biblical Studies teacher, speaking about this one Hebrew word which had such a rich meaning. It requires up to FOURTEEN English words to properly encapsulate its potent meaning.
It is a word that under normal circumstances we would sing about every Sunday in Church. It is the love God has for his people. Not the love we might have for a football team or a pizza, but something that is permanent, covenantal and faithful. It does not change; it lasts forever and is not based on feelings. It is everything we could possibly hope for and much, much more. It is the security, acceptance and devotion within a committed relationship, which every heart longs to experience.
It is a word that is everywhere in the Old Testament, occurring 248 times; but it is in the Psalms that it really comes into its own. Whenever you see the words “Steadfast Love” in a Psalm, that’s HESED.
As Melissa Briggs writes: “Accepting that God truly loves me with a hesed love had an amazing, unexpected side effect. Suddenly, there was the release of the pressure I had inadvertently placed on my human relationships to provide my sense of value and identity. As wonderful as my husband and children are, no other person can bear the pressure of providing me with my ultimate sense of worth and acceptance. The truth is I am fully loved and fully known by God. Any additional love and goodness in my life is an extra blessing and bonus to enjoy.”
Finally, if you’re wondering how to pronounce it, the initial h is pronounced like the ‘ch’ in loch.
Reciting Morning Prayer over the last three years has rekindled a memory of a single Hebrew word – hesed (חֶסֶד). I have to confess, that after several weeks being taught Hebrew, the only the other word I remembered is Sus (סוס), which means horse!
The above line is from the poem “God’s Grandeur” by Gerard Manley Hopkins. It has very much come to mind in recent days.
A constant source of fascination and joy is that our house backs onto open fields surrounded by numerous trees. It’s a landscape that provides a rich and varied wildlife habitat and in which the changing of the seasons is very evident. One of those remarkable, speeded up, time laps films would reveal this especially graphically, but in real time it is no less spectacular. Over the winter there is little change, but it only takes a few sunny spring days to bring about the first burst of new life and activity; suddenly there is blossom and the emergence of fresh green leaves which can seem to appear almost between glances. There is avian activity too; birds, in ever increasing numbers, busily feeding or collecting nesting material. Yet, at the present time, all this is occurring in what almost seems like defiance of the destruction and unfolding tragedy of the covid-19 pandemic.
Perhaps it’s because of such a stark contrast that this spring feels all the more intense. Without doubt I have been more keenly aware of it; the necessary restrictions on our lives have made what limited time and opportunity there is to be out in the open air all the more precious. A similar experience is summed up in a sentence from the transcript of a radio talk given by Sir John Betjeman in 1940, which I came across quite by accident. In referring to his observations in the early months of World War II he noted, “I have become grateful for small things that I had not time to notice in the hurried turmoil we called civilization before the war.” In our own present crisis, it is easy to identify with this.
It is a sobering thought that spring, the miracle of nature’s annual renewal, was occurring long before humankind arrived on the scene. Hopkins’s poem grasps something of the magnitude of this, the first line boldly declaring, “The world is charged with the grandeur of God.” But a few lines later the poet questions man’s failure to recognise this, noting with bitter regret:
“And all is seared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil;
And wears man’s smudge and shares man’s smell: the soil
Is bare now, nor can foot feel, being shod.”
But then comes a powerfully reassuring statement …
“And for all this, nature is never spent;
There lives the dearest freshness deep down things;”
Hopkins, with an abundance of faith, ultimately asserting …
“Because the Holy Ghost over the bent
World broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings.”
There is, of course, another parallel – the spring season is concurrent with that of Passiontide and Easter, in which the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ reveals God’s ultimate renewal of life and victory over death. Just now, the message of this also seems to be intensified in a way we may not have experienced before.
When we received the first instructions that we were not to hold congregational services in church, but churches could be open for private prayer, we had a team meeting at St. George’s to work out how we could achieve it all. The result was the streamed service last Sunday morning for Mothering Sunday, which I know that many people enjoyed. My part was minimal in the extreme, basically to watch James’s phone which was used for the streaming to make sure that we didn’t lose transmission. There was personal excitement before that however as I rang the single bell 10 times to tell everyone that we were starting, a new experience for me as I’m usually used to playing handbells, not big bells!
By last Tuesday we were in lockdown so our team meeting was held by Skype, another new experience as I tried to hold my tablet so that it didn’t look as if I had multiple double chins. We shared out the jobs that we needed to do to put the building into a state of lockdown, things like reseting the heating clock so that it wasn’t coming on for nonexistent services, changing the message on the answer phone, collecting the linen for washing, emptying the recycling, cleaning out the fridge and checking the mousetraps. Yes, you did read that correctly, we have had mice in the vestry that have taken a liking to the choir surplices.
So I went in to carry out my share of the tasks and am delighted to report that the mice must all be in lockdown too as the traps were empty, sorting the recycling was easy but changing the answerphone message required either a PhD in electronics or a handbook and as I had neither the last desperate action was to switch it off. Hopefully now the building is secure and we will all continue to support each other in a variety of ways until we can all meet again at a service. Oliver Passant has described the choir meeting together using zoom software. I couldn’t get that right either and my picture appeared upside down, hanging from the ceiling. Perhaps I’d better enrol now for a course in electronics!
Stay safe as we continue to pray for each other.
I caught the end of Radio 4’s The Moral Maze on Wednesday evening. Have you listened to it? It’s the programme that explores topical issues from a moral standpoint. Members of the panel question witnesses. I enjoy it most when it is exploratory, when a member of the panel asks brief, but incisive questions and allow the witness to respond. Sometimes a panellist seems more keen to make their own point rather than explore what the witness has to offer. I think that can happen to all of us when we have strong feelings and views about something.
Wednesday’s topic was one likely to arouse strong feelings in listener and panellists alike. Called Isolation, the programme was considering how far people’s behaviour during this coronavirus emergency could or should be judged as moral or immoral. Was hoarding toilet rolls an immoral act? Are people intrinsically good or bad? Is this the start of the breakdown of society if people continue to behave like this?
Of course, this was an intellectual argument, albeit born of experience. Jesus’ response to a question, or a situation was not to intellectualise it and have a debate. Many times he told a story and left his audience, and us, to figure things out for ourselves. He also gave us a very brief commandment to live by: Love God and love your neighbour as yourself. Often called The Golden Rule, the second half is common to many religions.
In 2008 the former nun and author Karen Armstrong was awarded the TED Prize of $100,000 and she chose to focus on compassion and called for the drawing up of a Charter for Compassion in the spirit of the Golden Rule. At some level, compassion means a commitment to relieve the suffering of others. On 22 March I received this story in an email from the Charter for Compassion (charterforcompassion.org).
“Years ago, the anthropologist Margaret Mead was asked by a student what she considered to be the first sign of civilisation in a culture. The student expected Mead to talk about fish hooks, or clay pots, or grinding stones.
But no, Mead said that the first sign of civilisation in ancient culture was a femur (thigh bone) that had been broken and then healed. Mead explained that in the animal kingdom, if you break your leg, you die. You cannot run from danger, get to the river for a drink, or hunt for food. You are meat for prowling beasts. No animal survives a broken leg long enough for the bone to heal.
A broken femur that has healed is evidence that someone has taken time to stay with the one who fell, has bound up the wound, has carried the person to safety and has tended the person through recovery. Helping someone else through difficulty is where civilisation starts.”
“I see the world being slowly transformed into a wilderness…And yet, when I look up at the sky, I somehow feel that everything will change for the better, that this cruelty too shall end, that peace and tranquillity will return once more.” (1) Anne Frank
Writing the above, Anne Frank was, of course, speaking of war and senseless slaughter rather than pestilence, but her attitude of hope amidst the very worst is something that we could all benefit from adopting. In fact, we are encouraged not merely to feel hope, but to feel joy. Dom Delatte wrote in 1902:
“It is a duty for each one of us to be joyful. It is a remarkable religion [Christianity] in which joy is a precept, in which the command is to be happy, in which cheerfulness is a duty.” (2)
Further, in the letter of James Chapter 1, verses 2 and 3 he writes
“Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance.”
We were all made differently, and for some the adoption of a joyful attitude is more difficult. This may be down to disposition or it may be that some of us are in circumstances which are objectively more demanding. Nonetheless, it is something to be striven for in every situation.
To take such an outlook on life requires faith. But what is faith all about? It helps to consider faith in historical perspective. Before the advent of science, nearly everyone had faith. You were practically born with it. The opposite of faith in that period was heresy—mad, bad heresy. A threat to society. And heresy was to be defeated and vanquished by inquisition or crusade. (3)
By the 19th century, after the advent of science and so called modernity, faith came for many to be seen as implausible. People began to doubt the scriptures, doubt the creeds, doubt the teachings on hell, and doubt eternal life. As I have said elsewhere, many people of this period began to see God as a being who established natural laws, set the world running and stepped back, not becoming involved in our affairs.
But we are all post-modernists now. We understand that most people regard everything as relative. If we have any sort of faith we will have to have chosen it and chosen it from a wide range of so called “options.” Ironically, if anything, the opposite of faith as it is now understood is certitude. But if we could scientifically prove all the aspects of our faith, it wouldn’t be faith. (4)
As Paul Evdokimov writes:
“Every compelling proof violates the human conscience and changes faith into simple knowledge. That is why (on the cross) God limits his almighty power, encloses himself in the silence of his suffering love, withdraws all signs, suspends every miracle [and] casts a shadow over the brightness of his face…It is because a [person] can say no that a yes can attain a full resonance.” (5)
But that is not to say that faith doesn’t make sense. We see meaning in the universe because the universe is fundamentally meaningful. (6) And closer to home– nature is beautiful and meaningful and reveals the glory of God. We know of ourselves and each other that the love of God revealed in Jesus Christ is the truth embedded in the universe. That is why we can have faith, and this faith produces hope, and hope makes joy possible. So no matter what your circumstances—try to practice joy.
1. Anne Frank quoted in Bywater, Lyndall,(2019), An unfair fight, in Prayer: Bible Reflections, edited by Andrew Roberts. Abingdon: The Bible Reading Fellowship. p. 31
2. Delatte, Dom (2016), Commentary on Psalm 1 cited in The Spirit of Solesmes, ed Sister Mary David Totah. Found in Sister Mary David Totah, (2019) The Joy of God, London: Bloomsbury Publishing. p. xvii.
3. Smith, Martin, (1995), Faith in Nativities and Passions. U.S.A.: Cowley Publications. Pp 177-178.
4. Smith, Martin, (1995), Faith in Nativities and Passions. U.S.A.: Cowley Publications. P. 180.
5. Evdokimov, Paul, (1966), The Struggle with God. Glenrock, New Jersey: Paulist Press. P. 34. Found in Smith, Martin (1995), Faith in Nativities and Passions. U.S.A.: Cowley Publications. P. 181.
6. Smith, Martin, (1995), Faith in Nativities and Passions. U.S. A.: Cowley Publications. P. 180
No school! The perfect dream for a kid. Only this time it is a killer virus! Only 3 weeks ago, I was going to piano lessons, singing in a concert, going to cricket training and looking forward to going to New York, with school. Now it has all changed.
As I sit here writing this, I can, for once, here the birds sing- I live on the flight path. It is so quiet and peaceful, I like it, but it is eery, and unreal, almost like in a film. I am missing the normality of life most, even Stuart Roughley’s jokes, I now know I’ve hit rock bottom.
There is a great irony which comes with Covid-19, adults, and teachers alike are always trying to get kids off technology, and now just to do the work I have to use technology. But my favourite part has been the support from the choir, via WhatsApp, even though it may have kept me up or a few nights, it is lovely to see the support from everyone.
It has been very interesting to see that something that has pushed me further away from friends has brought me and my parents closer. I will miss my family down south, but at least I can still text and talk to them via technology.
Also, I just want to thank all the key workers and NHS workers who risk there lives for us, and we will always be in their debt.
Oliver Passant (aged 12)
This morning the newspaper read that today had the highest daily death toll in Spain: 738. In all in Spain the Coronavirus had claimed over 3,434 lives, an even greater number than in China. But there is still more. The news talked about shortages, hunger, isolation, boredom and loneliness. Clearly, the pandemic has touched us all.
Under these circumstances are you beginning to doubt God and his goodness? If so, you’re in good company. Well-known Christian pastor and writer Max Lucado admits to having moments of doubt—particularly on Sunday mornings as he is about to face his congregation and give a sermon. At times such as these he fears his faith might be a delusion. He fears that the universal “why” might not have an answer; he fears a “pathless life”; he fears that “the status quo might be as good as it gets.” (1)
Perhaps you are feeling a little lost and alone. You may be elderly and frail and living on your own; you may be a lone parent with many bored and hungry children to look after; you may be cooped up with people who grate on you; you may suffer from any one of a myriad of mental illnesses. Clearly, for all of you in these situations life is hard.
Jesus’ disciples felt lost and alone as they gathered in the upper room after his crucifixion. But at least they had each other, and before long they had Jesus himself. The body of Christ, the Church, is one of the best antidotes to loss of faith. Although we are trying our best to support one another in this mess, you might still feel very much on your own, fearing what lies ahead—and fear leads to doubt.
Another antidote to fear and doubt is a turning to scripture. In word and deed Jesus continually directed his followers to banish their worries. Take, for example John 14:1, “Let not your hearts be troubled; believe in God, believe also in me.” Or Matthew 6: 25, 27, ”Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothes? Can any one of you by worrying add a single hour to your life?”
On the topic of doubt, we will consider a little story of a famous atheist who was known as “Jack”. Jack was a stellar student at Oxford, excelling in every field he turned his attention to. Eventually he was made a don. Regardless of all the honours and acclaim he received, he could not escape the conclusion that life was meaningless and that thought made him feel angry, pessimistic and depressed. At one and the same time he “maintained that God did not exist and he was angry with God for not existing.” (2)
Nonetheless, on the advice of two colleagues, Jack began to read the New Testament, initially to prove to himself what rubbish it was. To his surprise he was taken with the figure of Christ and he eventually reached the point where it seemed clear to him that Jesus was either “deluded, deceptive or the very one he claimed to be, the Son of God.” (3)
One evening, Jack, in the company of his two colleagues—who were, in fact, J R R Tolkien and H V V Dyson– took a long stroll through the Oxford campus where they “rehashed the claims of Christ and the meaning of life.” (4) That autumn night, 19 September 1931, there was a sudden breeze that caused the first leaves to fall and C S “Jack” Lewis came to faith shortly after.
What caused C S Lewis, this diehard atheist, to turn to Christ? It would appear that the combination of reading the scriptures and being in the company of two people from the body of Christ made all the difference.
So, if you are cooped up at home, gripped with fear and doubt, phone a believing friend and consult the book of life—the Bible. Review the stories of Abraham and Joseph in Genesis; pore over the history of Moses and the Israelites in Exodus, review the words and deeds of Jesus in the Gospels and read the guidance of the Apostle Paul and others in the Book of Acts and the Epistles.
One might imagine that it would be lovely if God were like a genie—you could simply rub a lamp and be granted wishes. But our God is greater than that. True, sometimes you have to wait; sometimes you might receive something other than what you have asked for, but God loves to hear your prayers in any case. He wants you to share your hopes and fears and your daily walk with him.
God really is good and you may encounter him in many of the hundreds and thousands of hospital and careworkers and in the 600,000 newly self-identified volunteer workers who are making such a difference in the difficult situation in which we find ourselves.
Passages from the Bible as shown in the text.
Passages from Max Lucado, (2009), Fearless. Nashville, Tennesee: Thomas Nelson.
1. Page 138.
2. Page 145.
3. Page 146.
4. Page 146.
It was good to talk to Alan and Val bell on the telephone Yesterday afternoon. They are managing satisfactorily in the present crisis, but Val had a fall at the end of last year from which her recovery is slow and, as a result, her mobility is somewhat limited. Nevertheless, they have been able to enjoy the welcome bonus of the sunny weather over the last few days.
They send their love and best wishes to us all at St George’s.
In the past few days life has changed for all of us and so quickly! We have only just got over Brexit (which seemed to be going on forever) then there was the storms and for some the floods!
While we were going through all that, in China the corona virus was unfolding! I can remember seeing the awful pictures on the news and being shocked at the terrible suffering they were experiencing! And praying that it would not happen here- but it has and we have to deal with it and its very scary!
It’s having an impact on our daily lives. Most of us are having to come to terms with not going to work/school as well as well as isolating ourselves from family and friends. We are now in a situation where we have to rethink our idea of love!
We naturally want to be with our families and friends, share times together and hug each other – God created us this way!
We all enjoy the physical presence of those we love- but as requested by the government on Sunday the best present we could give our Mothers’ was the ‘absence of our physical presence’, but that did not diminish the love. There were some lovely scenes shown on TV of moments shared by Mothers and their families, seeing each other through windows (at a safe distance) as well as others using skype and other technologies. The important thing is the emotional connection is there, shared and enjoyed!
We have been told to carry on this distancing behaviour to protect not just ourselves and our families/friends but the rest of society to prevent the spread of this virus! Whether from an ethical point of view, ‘duty of care’, point of view or from a ‘Christian perspective’ ‘Loving your neighbour as yourself’ We are also asked to (within a safe distance) to look after the older and more vulnerable members of our society.
All this can be very worrying, stressful. Before we are overwhelmed by these feelings, we need to remind ourselves that God IS with us and we need to pray and give to God – the concern we have for our family/friends, health, finances, loneliness everything! It is through prayer and faith that our strength will comes – relying on God to see us through each day remembering that we are not alone- God IS with us, as individuals, as families, and as a Christian Family
suggested readings: John 14 v1 and 27
Isaiah 41 v10
The bells in our church have been rung regularly since they were first installed by the Whitechapel Bell Foundry in 1896, apart, that is, from the time during World War II when bell ringing was completely suspended. During that time bells were to be rung only as a signal of enemy invasion, so it was not a sound people wanted to hear!
On the evening of Monday16th March the St George’s bell ringers met for their usual practice, but instead of ringing, those of us who were present decided it would be wise to discuss what we should do about ringing during the situation brought about by the Covid-19 virus. All sorts of restrictions were already beginning to affect ordinary, everyday life. We agreed that in the interest of social distancing we should suspend our weekly practices, but considered that those willing and able (some of us are over seventy and thus at higher risk) would attempt to maintain ringing for Sunday morning services. We have the facilities and provisions to enable hand washing (so important if handling bell ropes now cleanliness is absolutely essential) and our very large ringing room enables us to keep further apart when ringing than in most other towers. There was a feeling that the sound of the bells, in addition to being the usual call to worship, would remind of the presence of the Church and maintain morale at a time of national crisis. Nevertheless, we still had reservations – was this the appropriate action to be taking? Less than twenty-four hours later the decision was rather taken out of our hands; The Church of England suspended all services and events. With no services to ring for there was no alternative but to suspend all ringing until further notice.
Bell ringing is a very social activity, probably engendered by the team effort required to achieve a satisfactory standard of ringing. There are not many bell ringers who remember the war time ban, but records reveal that members of the various diocesan guilds and county associations continued to meet socially. For those who had the necessary skill, change ringing could be enjoyed on handbells. There was also plenty to discuss; how were people managing from day to day? There was news, such as was available, of ringers serving abroad in the armed forces, and the disheartening reports of the loss of rings of bells owing to enemy bombing raids. In all, forty rings of bells were lost, including the famous bells of St Mary-le-Bow, St Giles Cripplegate and St Clement Danes. Other losses occurred in such places as Liverpool, Plymouth, Southampton and Great Yarmouth. Fortunately, many of these rings were subsequently restored in the post-war period, but it took decades.
Though we shall not lose any rings of bells, the present suspension is considerably more far reaching in other ways: Church services, at which we could meet, are no longer taking place, we are not able to continue to gather, even socially, as was at least possible in war time. We are now isolated in a way we have not experienced ever before. Through the various forms of social media, the St George’s ringers will be able to stay in touch, but it won’t be the same – we shall miss each other’s company.
The bells are normally left it what is known as the “up” position, ready for ringing, but as they are now unlikely to be rung for some time, have been lowered into the “down” position. The ringing required to do this (only a few minutes) was logged in the register we keep of the ringing that takes place. As I was completing the details, the ball-point pen we have used for what seems quite a while ran out as I attempted to write the words “ringing suspended” – though the situation is temporary, this seemed to represent the uncertainty as to when we shall be able to resume ringing. It will be a very special day when the bells of St George’s are heard again, and for which we will give thanks to the God who they have called us to worship for so long.