Random wedding hymn – On Ilkley Moor

I was asked to write a wedding hymn to the tune of ‘On Ilkley Moor’ and due to my complete inability to work out how to get a normal 8686 metre to fit to the tune, I wrote this instead. I now do understand how to get existing 8686 words to fit, but thought I might as well keep the words.

Jesus made water into wine
For joy and celebration,
Bless-ed abundance as a sign:
Foretaste of heaven, love divine!

In sickness or in health
In poverty or wealth
The greatest gift is love.

What God has joined we’ll not divide:
For love endures for ever.
Faith, hope and love will still abide,
Two lives entwined, lived side by side.

In sickness or in health
In poverty or wealth
The greatest gift is love.

Vows made this joyful, solemn day,
To honour, love and cherish.
This is love’s kind and patient way,
Living the wondrous words we say.

In sickness or in health
In poverty or wealth
The greatest gift is love.

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.

New (first draft) wedding hymn

Well, here’s something. This time the challenge came through twitter (rather than facebook).  The challenge was for a wedding hymn to the tune of Jerusalem (so as to avoid actually singing Jerusalem – which, given the wedding that gave rise to the conversation was in Wales, didn’t seem all that appropriate!).  The most observant of you will spot that I’ve used the second verse tune for both verses (the difference is in the rhythm of the penultimate line).

Here’s my first stab at it, with various people’s suggestions for improvement incorporated (for which many thanks!) – further suggestions are very welcome!

Freely we give, and freely share
All that we have, and all we are,
Our pledge to cherish and embrace,
Made through this covenant of grace.
With soul and body intertwined,
We give ourselves, in heart and mind,
to deeper union day by day,
and walk in step along life’s way.

[Alternative less personal first verse:
Freely to give, and freely share All that we have, and all we are,
A pledge to cherish and embrace, Made through this covenant of grace.
With soul and body intertwined, two lives together, heart and mind,
in deeper union day by day, will walk in step along life’s way.]

Kindle a flame both bright and bold,
Out of the earth bring purest gold,
Turn all our water into wine,
Teach us new songs of joy divine!
Give us your patience, make us kind,
Increase our faith that we may find
that in true love, good Lord, we pray,
we’ll walk together all life’s way.

Hymns for weddings

During a facebook conversation lamenting the over-use of All Things Bright and Beautiful at weddings (and indeed, at baptisms and funerals) a slightly tongue-in-cheek challenge was issued, and in a fit of procrastination I rose (or sank) to it. The fruits of my afternoon’s procrastination are below, and since they are still at the ‘scribbled-on-the-back-of-an-envelope’ stage, I’d welcome comments, criticisms and suggestions for improvement.

This is the first one, and it goes to ‘Lord of the dance’:

Love, faith and hope are free
to all who live abundantly,
So lead us, Lord, wherever we may be
in the dance of life for eternity.

The gift of love is a powerful thing,
Blessed and worn in a golden ring,
The vows are the binding of our lives,
words for all that the heart believes.

The gift of faith is the gift of care,
The words that say, “I will always be there.”
For better, for worse, in joy and pain,
faith brings love to life again.

The gift of hope is a burning fire,
a beacon to follow that will never ever tire,
A lamp to guide us in the darkest night,
and show us the path that leads to light.


This one goes to the tune ‘All things bright and beautiful’

Bless this sacred moment
with your greatest gift of love,
Bring us ever closer
to the joy of heaven above.

All future growth and flowering
are rooted in our past:
two lives entwined together
in promises that last.

Lord, make us more forgiving
to those who do us wrong,
give patience and endurance
and peace our whole life long.

The care of those around us,
our families and friends,
uphold us and inspire us
to love that never ends.

A ring to seal the promise,
A kiss to touch the heart,
A prayer to know the blessing
that you alone impart.

Love Life Live Lent Wednesday week 2: Tell someone you love them

I have a six year old son who tells me a gazillion times a day how much he loves me. And he means it. He is a child who feels things deeply, and wears his heart on his sleeve, and emotions for him are often played out in the world of the senses: “Here’s a strawberry for you mummy – I thought of you as I picked it so it’s got my love in it – eat it mummy and taste the love…”  Not surprisingly, Daniel loves the tactile prayers that we do in messy church, using cushions, blankets, soft things… the love of God can be felt in these, and is very real to him.

So, when he forgets to say please and thank you to me, and does what most six year olds do, which is to treat their mother like an omnipresent servant, I try and explain to him the loving someone also means treating them with respect, and that he can show me he loves me, as well as telling me, by treating me less like a slave and more like a fellow human being.

I am fairly confident that I’m not alone, as a mother, in this experience.  And yes, the please and thank you habits are important. And yes, treating others with respect is an important manifestation of our awareness that they are in fact human beings, let alone human beings for whom we have significant feelings.

But I’d be sorry for my son’s expressions of love to be reduced to politeness.  And I’d hate his declarations of undying love for me to become mere rote repetitions without the intensity of feeling behind them.

‘I love you’ is just three short words but it’s what they look like in real life that matters. I often get wedding couples to reflect on this. I show them the declarations and the vows and ask them,’what do these words look  like in your life? And how has the way that these words look in real life chanced over the course of your time as a couple?  And in particular, what does ‘cherishing’ look like in your lives?

Cherishing must be the part of the marriage vows that’s easiest to let slip; life gets in the way, busyness creeps in, there is no time and energy for cherishing any more, except perhaps for birthdays, anniversaries and Valentine’s day…  But cherishing can be not only the finishing touch of love lived out, it can also be part of the foundation of that love lived out.

If C S Lewis was right that we can become more generous by giving more, then we can probably become more loving by consciously cherishing those around us, particularly those who have been given to us to love.

So, do I wish that my son always remembered to say please and thank you? Of course I do.  I also wish I always remembered, too!  But I can also look at all the little ways that his love for me is expressed through small acts of cherishing that assure me that love isn’t just a word to him. As long as love is truly lived out in his life, and practiced every day it never will be just a word, for either of us.