Psalm 8 – The Carpenter’s House

‘You made him ruler over the works of your hands; you put everything under his feet’ Psalm 8:6

Wandering around Tate Britain during a spare hour in London, I paused and then sat to ponder a picture by John Everett Millais entitled Christ in the House of His Parents – The Carpenter’s Workshop’. I’m not usually a huge fan of old religious paintings, as they tend to be idealistic and awash with symbolism that doesn’t do much for me. However, I liked this picture at first sighting, as it seemed to show Jesus and his dad working together at either end of a bench … with not a halo in sight! This was good, as it demonstrated that Jesus was a real man doing real work in a real place. Fully God, fully man. The biblical Jesus. Excellent.

But (don’t you hate that word!), I then looked closer and saw that the woman at the back I had assumed to be Jesus’s mother, was actually far too old. Then the eyes of the lad on the right were fixed on the cherubic boy at the front (usually a sign that this is the focus of the picture); and the hand of Joseph was likewise resting on the shoulder of the cherub … who had a nail hole in his hand, with blood pouring down onto his foot. So this was Jesus and the picture turned out to be awash with random items of symbolism – a dove on the ladder, a herd of sheep looking in … The young man at the other end of the workbench could have been the bloke next door. How disappointing.

Yet it had set me thinking … about Psalm 8, where the Psalmist, David, wonders with some astonishment that Mankind had been placed in charge of the very work of God’s hands – the Heavens, the Earth and everything in it. That God should entrust His Creation to us is extraordinary enough. That He should come down in the person of His Son, Jesus Christ, to live and work as one of us, so He could understand what it was like to be human was, frankly, beyond belief.

Yet this is the hope of the Gospel – God with us – celebrated through the Christian Year as it progresses from Advent and Christmas to Holy Week, Easter and beyond to Ascension and Pentecost. And this amazing story was all for you and me – that we might be restored, here and now, to right relationship with our Father and the sure hope of eternity with our Saviour Jesus.

So maybe Millais’s picture was not so bad after all – the wood of the cross, the nails that pierced Jesus’s hands, the church that was formed and empowered by the Holy Spirit …

I wonder if those around me as I sat at the Tate had any inkling of what was going through my mind!

Simon Ward
Easter 2018

Psalm 136 – Winners & Losers in the Greatest Showman

‘To the One who remembered us in our low estate – His love endures forever.’ Psalm 136:23

Did you see ‘The Greatest Showman’ – the story of P T Barnum, who founded the first travelling circus in America in the 19th Century. A wonderfully uplifting film!

Apart from the great songs and feel-good factor, what leapt out at me was the stark contrast between the well-heeled members of the establishment, clinging onto the position they had created for themselves as the in-crowd; compared with the freaks and no-hopers, who formed the acts for the first circus. They had no position to protect.

Winners and losers. Or so it appeared.

The turning point of the film comes when Barnum stops trying to ‘make his name’ with the in-crowd – meeting none other than Queen Victoria and promoting a sell out concert tour with the famous opera singer, Jenny Lind – and focusses instead on the people he has recruited to make up his circus.

When his ‘losers’ start to realise who they are, and what they have – their identity – that’s when they start to become ‘winners’. The song ‘Come Alive’ speaks of the realisation of something deep within; … ’dreaming with your eyes wide open’ … ‘breaking free.’

And when the considerably oversized and bearded (yes, bearded) leading lady of the circus sings ’This is Me’, she is discovering her true identity. A poignant and beautiful moment.

Psalm 136 tells the story of how God led His people through the wilderness – where they were a rabble on the move for 40 years – striking down great kings to allow them to move into the land of their inheritance, Canaan – The Promised Land, where they were to discover their true identity as the provided-for People of God. (By the way, one of God’s names in the Old Testament was: Jehovah Jireh meaning ‘God will provide’.)

Can you see the similarity here between the Circus people and God’s people? (The image is of my home church – which looks a bit like a Big Top!) … each discovering that their identity is not to be found in what others are saying, but by realising who they have been made to be – in God’s image.

And God can do something similar in our lives today – if we will lay down our insecurities, let Him help us to break out of the ghettoes we get stuck in … and follow Him into the inheritance He has prepared for us. ‘For we are God’s workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do’ Ephesians 2:10.

And when we share our story with others, we shouldn’t be saying how great we are; rather, pointing to how our Saviour God has, in the imagery of the prophet Isaiah, called us out of darkness and into his glorious light.

There’s a lot more to be said around what God has done to move us from being losers to winners, including our own preparedness to be transformed, but that’s for another day.

Simon Ward
March 2018

Psalm 8 – Twinkle Twinkle Little Star

‘When I consider your heavens, the moon and stars which you have set in place.’ Psalm 8:3

Pride and Joy gave each other a big hug as I listened to my not yet two-year-old grandson singing ‘Twinkle twinkle little star’. He wasn’t on stage at a nursery concert; he was in his cot, re-joining the world after a lunchtime nap, and I was listening to a recording made outside the door as he quietly sang to himself. He didn’t get every word, although he finished with a confident flourish: ‘twinkle twinkle little star … how – I – won – der – what – you – are’. And it was almost faultlessly in tune. Stand aside Mr Jones – Tom or Aled!

How do the words go? ‘Twinkle, twinkle little star, how I wonder what you are’. A source of amazement not just for a toddler, but for anyone who will gaze into the skies, by daytime or night. Nothing quite like it for stretching the imagination. How huge is the Universe? How small are we? Where did it all come from? Where do we come from? Why?

I imagine that, when David was writing Psalm 8, he was recalling his childhood as a shepherd, when he will have spent many a night on the hillsides around Bethlehem, tending sheep and wondering about the vast skies above him. I’m pretty sure he’d have been singing songs as he lay there looking up at the stars … maybe even ‘twinkle twinkle little star’. Perhaps David wrote the lullaby! Actually, no; the lyrics are from a 19th Century English poem by Jane Taylor, ‘The Star’, set to an 18th Century French tune arranged by none other than Mozart!

There’s something marvellously resonant about a two year old singing in his cot as he quietly ponders life – ‘from the lips of children and infants you have ordained praise’ (Psalm 8:2) – when set alongside David’s majestic outburst of praise:’You have set your glory above the heavens’ (8:1).

We will do well to learn from children that our lives are the richer, and our faith the stronger, if we regularly put the brakes on our frantic round of activity and wonder, in the words of the Welsh poet W.H. Davies: ‘What is this life if, full of care, we have no time to stand and stare’.

It’s actually rather important that we learn this lesson, for Jesus once told His disciples that: ‘unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven’. (Matthew 18:2) There’s something to ponder.

Meantime, I can’t wait to see if our little cot-singer follows in the footsteps of his granddad and learns to sing the Psalms. What a duet that will be!

Simon Ward
March 2018

Psalm 27 – The Shadow of Swan Lake

I asked in another blog what the connection was between Psalm 27 and Jesus’s prayer in John 17 (answer – intimacy with God in times of trial). This is an even more remote question … what is the connection between Psalm 27 and Swan Lake?

I’m not a great Ballet Buff – opera and orchestral music are more my bag on the classical front – so it will not be a total surprise that a recent visit to watch the Tchaikovsky masterpiece was my first sighting of Swan Lake. I loved it. And it held my attention; not just because of the ravishing music, or because of the extraordinary balance on stage between graceful elegance and hidden strength. And, actually, not just because the whole piece is a parable of the Christian Gospel – wicked villain enslaves as a swan a beautiful young woman (Odette), who can only be released back to her original humanity by the willing sacrifice of her lover’s life. Neat.

No. What startled me was a scene, early on in the ballet, when the aforementioned evil sorcerer (Baron Rothbart) dances, unseen, behind the hero (Prince Siegfried), copying his every move – like a shadow. What he’s trying to do is draw Siegfried into his plot to fall in love with his own daughter (Odile), and thus foil any possibility of releasing the enslaved Odette (who is also, actually, his daughter – it’s a complex story!)

Psalm 27 opens the door for us to see – if we will but look – that we live in a spiritual battlefield, with the forces of evil all around us, waiting for their moment to pounce and cause our undoing. They are, if we will believe it, like shadows around us, unseen but with the power to do us serious harm, if we are not alert to their wiles.

That image of the evil Baron Rothbart – circling around Prince Siegfried as he was wooing his lover – was a sobering reminder that we need to be on our guard at all times. David, the writer of Psalm 27, knew it … and survived, even when under the harshest attack: ‘though an army besiege me, my heart will not fear; though war break out against me, even then I will be confident.’ The apostle Paul knew it: ‘Put on the full armour of God, so that when the day of evil comes, you may be able to stand your ground.’ (Ephesians 6:13). Jesus knew it: ‘I am sending you out like sheep amongst wolves.’ (Matthew 10:15)

You and me? Will we follow David’s example and ask: ‘Teach me your way, O Lord, lead me in a straight path because of my oppressors’?

We’d be wise to, for our oppressors are as close to us as shadows.

Simon Ward
February 2018

Psalm 51 – Jigsaw Puzzles & Dirty Cars

I recently re-discovered the joy of the jigsaw puzzle. After many years in the jigsaw wilderness, I’m back in the swing, spending many a contented hour scouring the box for the last piece of that turquoise macaroon. And, as the evening draws in and the daylight has long since passed, it’s easy to carry on regardless, pretending that I can still pick out the subtle variances in shade and pattern needed to identify the correct piece. In fact, as I discover the next morning when I find that elusive piece in a matter of seconds, artificial light is no substitute for daylight. Hold that thought.

And then my car is in desperate need of a wash, after the battering from salt and grit it has taken after the recent snows – caused by The Beast from the East doing a Pas de Deux with Storm Emma! I once heard a talk where the speaker likened sin to a dirty car. Wash it regularly, and the dirt is easy to get off. Leave it for a month and it needs a lot more elbow grease. After six months, you’ve lost the battle – the dirt has become immovable grime!

What do these random observations have to do with Psalm 51, where King David is confessing his sin before God? Well, I would suggest that they can help us to get a grasp of what was going on in David’s life in the run up to Psalm 51.

David had committed adultery with his beautiful neighbour, Bathsheba. He thought he could get away with it but, when it became apparent that he couldn’t cover over the consequences, her pregnancy, he resorted to an even worse misdemeanour – he arranged for Bathsheba’s military husband to be killed in battle. Yet, David still thought he could get away with it – that is, until he was confronted, some time later, by the prophet Nathan. It was only then, when he came to see the magnitude of what he’d done, that he realised his sin was primarily against God, even more than against Bathsheba, her husband or, indeed, David’s God-ordained position as King of Israel.

Jigsaw puzzles and dirty cars? The longer I let the light fade, the more difficult it is to see what’s before me and I convince myself (erroneously) that the descending gloom makes no difference to my discernment. The longer I leave it to ‘fess up my sins, the more they will get a hold of me and the harder it will be to throw them off.

In plain English, we need to take sin seriously and be alert to what is likely to ‘lead us into temptation’.

Now, where’s that bucket and sponge?!

How to apply a Psalm to your life

The words of old are still applicable for us today. God’s Word is a lamp unto our feet, a light to our path (Psalm 119:105). In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God and the Word was God (John 1:1). If we say that His Word can’t still speak to us today, we are saying that God Himself can no longer speak to us.

I don’t know about you, but I’m still in need of God to be my Shepherd, to lead me beside quiet waters, to restore my soul, to guide me in paths of righteousness.

God has given us the book of Psalms to show us the humanity of the Psalmist and to remind us of where our hope must be placed. The Psalms remind us that even David, a man after God’s own heart, had failures and was cleansed, worshipped freely, had many times where he didn’t know what to do, and proclaimed his trust in His God despite the scary circumstances around him.

Extract from and written by Candace Crabtree