Day Two – Psalms: The connecting tissue of community

My chosen title for this post is my attempt to define the Psalms, which is the book of the Bible being explored in this year’s Symposium.I spent yesterday getting to know the Psalms in a way that I never thought possible…

The opening worship of the day was based on Psalm 1. And what better way to begin than at the beginning…

Mary Hurst began her sermon by speaking of a book of letters that she picked up from a table and started reading. When she realised that she did not know anything of the relationship of the people contained within these letters nor the context in which a number of they were written, she decided to return to the beginning of the book when things soon became a lot clearer!

And the Psalms are no different.

The Psalms are a collection of intimate relationships where delving in at some random point along the way can lead to confusion. We need to know the full story…

Psalm One is an invitation to a relationship, a covenantal relationship where we are called to ‘delight in the law of the Lord and meditate upon it day and night’ where ‘the Law’ is the Torah-story of that relationship, that bond, that romance, the covenant that binds us to God. We are called to remember that vow and delight in it.

When the word ‘meditation’ is mentioned these days, there is, for some, amusing images of the lotus position, or balancing on one foot or, in my case at least, wobbling all over the floor and eventually falling flat on my face! But here, to meditate is to keep speaking of that bond over and over again; to murmur it again and again to ourselves, thus reminding us of that special relationship.
As you do this, you become like a tree that has not just been planted in the ground, but as the original Hebrew translates, transplanted into rich, fertile soil by streams of water where your bark sparkles with light and your rich fruits are yielded in season.

We have our own Psalms – our own words which connect us to God. They are like the first love letter written between two people – to anyone else outside that partnership, the letter may not make any sense at all. This is why it is important that when it is shown to someone else that it is explained; it is set in context – the scene is set, which marks the beginning of that beautiful relationship…

From here we were given pens and paper to write our own letter to God, which we addressed to ourselves, sealed in an envelope and placed back into a basket. I don’t know if I’ll ever see that letter again, but unless I explain it to the reader, it will not make any sense to them.

As a minister, it is SO important that one sets the scene of the Scripture being discussed. Many are good at exegesis of the Word, many are good at parsing the Word…but what we are called to do is set the context, allow others to see the characters involved and the relationship between those contained within the text in order that they too may be equally connected.

The Psalms – the connecting tissue of community through which we are grafted into the body corporate…

From here, I spent most of the day in a seminar led by John Bell, where we discussed ‘The Pastoral Resources of the Psalms.’

The Psalms – a collection of poems with an incredible variety of subject matter and emotions including puzzlement, trust, abandonment, delight, recovery, joy of liberation and salvation, complaint, aspiration and desire to name but a few… Through these poems, we are given, to quote John, ‘a vocabulary of pain’. Through our membership of the body of Christ, we, through the Psalms, join in the pain of our brother and sisters in other parts of society; there is a sense of corporate ownership.

We sang a number of Psalms written by John Bell as well as several found in the new Psalter – Psalms for all Seasons. While singing, there were Psalms where I was filled joy and other where I just wanted to cry; Psalms where I sang in delight for what God had given the world and others where I demanded to know how long people were to suffer.

The highlight of the day for me was being introduced to a Psalm, which is not included in the lectionary so is seldom touched. Psalm 88 – a Psalm which breaks the norm. There is no resolution, just a feeling of abandonment and absolute sadness and despair.

Psalm 88

LORD, you are the God who saves me;
day and night I cry out to you.
May my prayer come before you;
turn your ear to my cry.

I am overwhelmed with troubles
and my life draws near to death.
I am counted among those who go down to the pit;
I am like one without strength.
I am set apart with the dead,
like the slain who lie in the grave,
whom you remember no more,
who are cut off from your care.

You have put me in the lowest pit,
in the darkest depths.
Your wrath lies heavily on me;
you have overwhelmed me with all your waves.
You have taken from me my closest friends
and have made me repulsive to them.
I am confined and cannot escape;
my eyes are dim with grief.
I call to you, LORD, every day;
I spread out my hands to you.
Do you show your wonders to the dead?
Do their spirits rise up and praise you?
Is your love declared in the grave,
your faithfulness in Destruction?
Are your wonders known in the place of darkness,
or your righteous deeds in the land of oblivion?
But I cry to you for help, LORD;
in the morning my prayer comes before you.
Why, LORD, do you reject me
and hide your face from me?
From my youth I have suffered and been close to death;
I have borne your terrors and am in despair.
Your wrath has swept over me;
your terrors have destroyed me.
All day long they surround me like a flood;
they have completely engulfed me.
You have taken from me friend and neighbor—
darkness is my closest friend.

Unlike most Psalms where you would turn the page and see ‘Yet you did x and y and everything turned out fine’, this one ends unresolved. Here the Psalmist is saying that his life is in a hell of a mess and no one, including God, seems to be listening.

John went on to tell the story of a wee Glasgow woman who was in a a group discussing this Psalm. While everyone else felt deflated and saddened, this woman said that she thought it was fantastic! She proceeded to say something that I know will stick with me for a long time to come – You wouldn’t ask these questions or make these pleas unless you believed that someone was listening to you…

We live in a world where people are angry. We live in a world where many will choose to avoid people who churn out trite answers to life-affecting questions. And that is the beauty of Psalm 88, because we see that the Psalmist is not merely seeking answers but pleading to be heard in heaven, which for many, to quote Anne Zaki, is regarded as a wall of blue and white that is impossible to climb over.

‘If we are heard then we can heal’.

Thanks for surviving to the end of the post! More soon!

Calvin Symposium on Worship 2012 – Day One

Greetings from Grand Rapids, Michigan!
Having not stopped talking about it since coming back from Michigan last year, I have returned to Calvin College & Seminary’s Annual Symposium on Worship. This year is the 25th Anniversary with somewhere between 1800-2000 people attending – a record amount! This year, I am accompanied by Karen Harbison, my Supervising Minister and David McNeish who is training for the Ministry in the Church of Scotland as well!

Yesterday, after a full day’s travel, we arrived in Grand Rapids at about 5pm local time (10pm UK Time) before being driven to the hotel to dump the bags and head across the road to a beautiful Chinese meal. Bed beckoned soon afterwards…

Today has been fabulous. Our first port of call was the Calvin Seminary Chapel for worship followed by a very interesting lecture from Dr. Howard Vanderwell where we discussed ‘Worship Renewal – with a World-Wide Scope’. The aim of the Symposium is Worship Renewal, not Worship Revolution – radical change or replacement, nor is it Worship Reformation – taking something lost and bringing it back. The aim is to take what we have had until now, which is healthy and vibrant, and casting it in a way that vibrantly engages 21st Century worshippers. The goal is the same essence but revitalised…

From here we went to La Grave Christian Reformed Church, where we met Dr. Stan Mast, one of the 6 full-time ministers at La Grave for a short talk before hearing a wonderful organ recital by Dr. Larry Visser, Minister of Music and Organist.

The organ at La Grave is a incredible piece of craftsmanship. One of the first collaborations between the Austin Organ Company of Hartford, Connecticut and the Allen Organ Company of Macungie, Pennsylvania. It is among the most technologically advanced instruments designed and built today and maintains the very highest standards of quality. The Austin Organ Company built the 76-rank pipe organ consisting of 4,413 pipes. The Allen Organ Company built the computerized console and 32 ranks of digital voices. The organ’s 108 ranks are divided over five manuals (keyboards) and a pedalboard, speaking from both the main chancel and the antiphonal organ located in the balcony.

The antiphonal organ also includes a Trumpet en Chamade rank of 24 horizontal gold trumpets!

After a lovely lunch, some of us went to Baker Books Store, where a 25% discount was kindly arranged for us. I managed to restrain myself and only buy a couple of books before being bussed back to the hotel and heading over to the mall across the street!

Later on in the afternoon, we went to the International Delegates Banquet at Calvin College. We were invited to wear National Dress, which we all did in some shape or form!

We then had a lovely meal before heading to the College Chapel to listen and sing along to ‘The Psalms Project‘ – a group from The Netherlands, who were absolutely fabulous. Check out the link to their website if you would like to download their sheet music for free!

I’m sorry if this all seems like an hour-for-hour account of events today, but as you can imagine, there is a lot to reflect upon/churn over before I go into any depth. As I head to bed, I leave you with these words from the Psalms, which are the primary focus of this symposium.

Psalm 134
You servants of the LORD our God,
who work and pray both day and night, in God’s own hands lift up your hands and praise the LORD with all your might.

Lift up your hands in holiness. Come bless the LORD and give him praise. Kneel down before the LORD our God
and worship him in all your ways.

The LORD God bless you from his throne,
shine down upon with his face.
He who created heaven and earth
redeems you with his love and grace.

Good night everyone!

Happy New Year!

Let me begin by wishing you all a very Happy New Year! 16 days and one conference later, I am grabbing a quick coffee before heading down to Ayr for the first MTN meeting in 2012!

Last week was spent at Gartmore House for my second of four Probationers Conferences. Based on the theme of Exploring Mission, I think I speak for most if not all those there when I say that we not only shared a lovely four days of fellowship, but we left with a lot to reflect upon as has been the case for the entire conference programme so far.

From Working with Volunteers to Using Multimedia in Worship, from Mission to Psychology, we had a very busy four days, which I for one enjoyed immensely. With a great Chaplain, good food and a beautiful log fire to look forward to at the end of the evening (which I fell asleep beside on the last evening!), I am looking forward to concluding my Probationer Programme there in the Summer.

I am off to Calvin College in eight days time for their annual Worship Symposium, where I hope to have time to maintain my blog when I am away, so I will close this entry before I start waffling!

New tune for New Year

As my attempts to compose continue, here are the words of a song I am currently working on music for:

So it’s out with the old,
and in with the new.
But there’s one thing that always remains…
That’s the love of our Lord,
Which stays with us all
Through our lives – through our pleasures and pains.

As our new year begins,
May your love never change;
May your word guide us on for all time.

Now that Christmas has passed –
When your birth has been marked,
May the thought of your presence bring joy.
May the story live on,
That God’s love did come down
As a delicate infant; a boy…

As our new year begins,
May your love never change;
May your word guide us on for all time…

Shine a light this Christmas

This was written on over 300 candles distributed to children in Primary Six from schools across Hamilton, Hillhouse and Blantyre as part of the Calderside Chaplaincy Team‘s ‘Bubblegum ‘n’ Fluff’ Christmas event.

Bubblegum ‘n’ Fluff is a 2 hour long event, where we explore the true meaning of Christmas. After discussing the amount of things that are done in advance of Christmas commercially, we moved on to illustrating the need for us to move these things aside (not get rid of them!) in order that we may get back to the core meaning of Christmas and the celebration of Christ’s birth that we mark at this time. Through storytelling, drama, craft, games and extra accurate scientific experiments, we  explore this idea in depth while having fun and, of course, learning the Bubblegum ‘n’ Fluff song!

Since I began working with the team last year at Calderside Academy, I had heard a great deal about this event with kids spontaneously singing the song once in a while, I was curious to see how this event had made such an impression, which had remained with them for at least a couple of years! Having had the pleasure of being able to take part in the putting together and delivery of many parts of the event, I very quickly saw how this was the case.

The programme allows for children to explore Christmas in a very non-threatening environment where views, opinions and experiences are incredibly well respected. Nothing is rammed down a pupil’s throat, no one is made to feel that they are more right or wrong than their peers and yet a very powerful message is put across. Children soon realise that the tree, the cards, the gifts, the turkey are not what Christmas is all about and soon, they remember that it is the birth of Jesus that we celebrate with these items as ‘bolt-ons’. They are not made to feel that these things are wrong as they are not, but it is hoped that through what they have learned during their time at Bubblegum ‘n’ Fluff that they will take a moment on Christmas Day to take the candle they were given and light it so that the light of Christ – the light of the world – may shine upon those around them this Christmas and beyond.

While we were enjoying a coffee following one of the gatherings, a few of us found a number of broken mosaic tiles amongst the trays laid out for the children. After collecting these and perhaps making a couple of broken ones ourselves to help us along the way (!), we put them together to produce this:

When Peter realised that we could use the straight edges of the tiles to make the outline of a cross, the rest was history. Soon we had a very powerful message upon our tile. Even in our broken or fractured world, Christ is there. Christ is there when we feel like our emotions are shattered, our minds fractured, our hearts broken. Christ is there when we feel that we are left to put the pieces of our life back together alone or when we are struggling to help others with the emotional jigsaw that lies before them…
When we recognise the love of Christ and the warmth of his embrace which surrounds us as our cracks and fractures heal, it is the love that Christ has for us as it is our love for Christ which can be the glue which holds these parts together once more.

The preparations are almost complete – the candles of hope, peace, joy and love have been lit, surrounding the imminent illumination of the central candle that is Christ – the light of our world; the cards have been written; the letters to Santa have been posted; the CD players are roasting with Christmas discs on loop… The time is almost upon us to reflect, to celebrate, to rejoice, to give thanks for God’s greatest gift of all, whose birth we remember in a matter of days.

Shine a light this Christmas. May the light of Christ glow in your hearts and homes. May that light shine through the cracks in our being, for even in our brokenness, the love of Jesus Christ shines brightly.

Preparation amongst the busyness

Advent… A time of waiting, a time where we have a choice – do we sit and wait impatiently for the big day to arrive or do we enjoy every day and do all we can to prepare the way? Do we sit on our hands, burn the Advent candle down another day, open another door on the calendar and look with impatience at the double doored or double waxed 24 or do we think about how we can open a door to making a difference in the life of someone we know or encounter for the first time, how we can bring a flicker or a burning flame of hope in the life of someone who is feeling in the dark?

Many friends, including my supervisor Karen, and colleagues of mine are on the team for a great worship resource called Spill The Beans – a Scottish lectionary based ‘pick ‘n’ mix’ filled with countless resources for each Sunday.

From the first Sunday of Advent to Transfiguration Sunday, Trinity are focussing on the theme of Light with new ideas popping into everyone’s heads as the weeks unfold ranging from new songs to ways in which we can use Ikea lights to build up a weekly installation! See the website (link above) for more information!

Karen and I have even written a song for the season!
The words are by Karen and the music by myself:

Click here to download a PDF of ‘We Light 1000 Advent Lights’

I’ve just realised that I am writing this post backwards, but as Magnus used to say on Mastermind….

It has been another busy, but incredibly fulfilling month or so. The journey has continued on through the theme of remembering  – both those who have lost their lives in conflict as marked on the 11th November and those who have passed away in the parish over the years as marked in a service entitled ‘Remembering with thanks…Remembering with hope…’ It was a privilege to share in this service where I was able to participate in this emotional experience having known everyone for such a short period of time. Karen and I based the service upon the idea of turning tears of sadness into rivers of joy, where we set up a reflective element. For this, people were invited to collect two glass stones, which were to be placed into two glass bowls filled with water representing those who were there when we first cried as we entered this world and those who were there when we shed tears of sadness or joy as we grew up.

Everyone was also given a teardrop-shaped piece of paper upon which to write the name of their loved one, that they brought forward to be glued on to a spiral with several blue ribbons attached. At the end of the service, Karen and I  held the spirals up at the door as people were invited to cut a piece of ribbon to carry the memories and thoughts contained in the spirals beyond the walls of the sanctuary and back into their homes and community. It was an incredibly moving experience, which I will remember for a long time to come…

Cosy Café also continues to go from strength to strength both at Calderside Academy on a Thursday where we have been running out of Hot Chocolate because of numbers and on Sundays where we have just brought our series on ‘Imitators of Christ’ to a close.
The last two gatherings have been incredible. We looked at how we must make the most of every opportunity and the idea of Carpe Diem. We opened the evening with a Crystal Maze theme, which concluded with the famous Crystal Dome. Well…almost.

We had an inflatable dome, which we filled with Carpe Diem and Loser tickets. These were on two different colours of paper, which cancelled each other out in points! Given my desperate need for a haircut, I can safely say that I wasn’t Richard O’Brien that evening!

From here we went on to watch a couple of clips – one from Dead Poet’s Society, when Robin Williams is talking to his students about the concept of Carpe Diem and one, which was a modern day adaptation of the Parable of the Talents, where three painters were given gold paint and different sized canvases to paint a picture for the wife of a wealthy man instead of different amounts of money to be invested or buried in the ground!

Our most recent gathering, which brought this series to a close, was about people who lived in the light – people who through their faith in Christ, felt called to a variety of challenges: Ruby BridgesGeorge MacLeod, George Cadbury, Saint Columba (played by yours truly!) and the apostle Paul. Each figure had a candle with each one getting larger as we went further back in history.

The evening finished off with our room of light where our journey back in time concluded with the birth of the infant Christ – the light of the World. We all placed our candles on the table before a blinding light and the Hallelujah chorus from Handel’s Messiah filled the sanctuary with light and sound!

I feel so fortunate to have come to Trinity for this placement – the plethora of opportunities I have to work with so many different age groups has been and continues to be great!

We are currently working with the Primary Schools in the Hamilton, Hillhouse and Blantyre area for the Calderside Learning Community Chaplaincy Team’s Bubblegum ‘n’ Fluff programme, which I will write about in the next couple of days. I better head back out to pick up some more Starburst sweeties! All will be revealed in the next post…