A Time to Embrace acrostic

This acrostic was written during the Covid-19 pandemic in the summer of 2021, when we were officially allowed hugs once more.

At first we thought it would not last very long,

This ‘new normal’ of elbow-bumps – we were wrong.
It became a time to refrain from embracing,
Mouthing our kisses from a two-metre spacing.
Encountering friends, we stopped short and withdrew,

Touching became a luxury, hugs became taboo.
Old folk close to death could not understand

Eye-moist loved ones who would not hold their hand,
Masks covered lips that craved a final kiss –
Bidding last farewells was never meant to be like this.
Relatives and friends severed by borders and oceans
Awaited a chance to share long-suppressed emotions.
Covid’s grip is loosening: soon we’ll re-discover touch,
Embracing friends and family we’ve missed so very much.

Embracing is important in the Bible. It suggests love, surrender, trust, joy and perhaps relief at being reunited with close family and friends. Sometimes it expresses forgiveness and reconciliation.

Laban and Jacob were reconciled through an embrace (Gen 29:13), as were Jacob and Esau (Gen 33:4). Joseph, his brothers and father repeatedly embraced as past wrongs were forgiven and mutual trust restored (Gen 45:14, 46:29; 48:10; 50:1). There is much love and embracing in the Song of Solomon (8:3), whilst the forgiving father embraces his prodigal son (Luke 15:20). With good reason, the Ephesian elders, fearing they would never again see Paul, embraced him as he left (Acts 20:37).

So it’s no surprise when the ‘Time for Everything’ poem in Ecclesiastes (3:1-8) tells us there is ‘a time to embrace’. Most of the couplets in this poem make perfect sense, but I had always wondered why there might be ‘a time to refrain from embracing’. Perhaps it might relate to enemies or to situations of unresolved grievance, or maybe metaphorically about embracing false doctrine? Possibly it could relate to infectious diseases; indeed, Jesus touched the untouchables.

Then Covid-19 struck. During a global pandemic we were instructed to keep our distance. Babies went a year without being hugged by grandparents. Dying relatives could only waved at through a screen. Aged parents in nursing homes could only receive a mouthed kiss through a window. It was a terrible time that caused some real heartbreak. It was a time to refrain from embracing.

I wrote this acrostic for our church magazine just as the vaccination programme was starting to kick in and regulations were being relaxed. Hugging was once more allowed, as was international travel. We have just returned from Spain (September 2022) with hardly any restrictions, just a vaccination certificate and mask-wearing on public transport. A year previously it was a major rigmarole. The year before that we had to cancel our planned visit to family.

Before the memory of Covid-19 fades too much, it’s worth pausing to remember the importance of embrace, and how much we missed it. And, whilst horrible things happen, a couple of verses later Ecclesiastes reminds us of the bigger picture in which good and bad fall into context: ‘God has made everything beautiful in its time. He has also set eternity in the human heart…’ (Eccles. 3:11). 

(A Time to Embrace acrostic appears on my Old Testament: History, Law and Poetry page).

Suffering Acrostic

Christians are not spared heartache and difficult times, but we have a God who shared (and still shares) directly in human suffering.

Say it! Rant at God. Tell Him you’re mad.
Unleash the anger you didn’t know you had.
Faith should help, but now it’s hanging by a thread;
Friends speak clumsy words that are easier left unsaid.
Empty. Bereft. Scared by a diagnosis.
Raw emotion lets guilt seep in by osmosis.
In a heartbeat, your known world turns to dross.
No-one feels your pain or comprehends your loss.
God only knows! He went through it on the cross.

One of the most difficult questions we face as Christians is when friends contract serious illnesses or even die prematurely – often despite the earnest prayers of many people. Sometimes they have endured undue physical and mental distress, and usually they are thoroughly nice and decent people. And, of course, their families have suffered and perhaps been left in difficult circumstances.

Why?

Plenty has been written about the problem of suffering. It began, as Christians know, when sin entered the world through human rebellion in the Garden of Eden. Christian wisdom assures us that things would make more sense if we could see the whole picture rather than just the individual tragedy. Poems about “Footprints” and “threads of silver and gold in the tapestry” spring to mind. And we know that heaven awaits where we will be free from suffering.

I know the theory, but in honesty it can still leave me feeling frustrated, and it doesn’t help me say useful things to people in distress.

I am greatly reassured to know that people have always felt like this. Daring to be angry with God, daring to question why bad things happen to good people, is not just something that started during the Enlightenment. The oldest books in the Bible – Job and Genesis – square up to this most difficult issue in no uncertain fashion.

For most cultures throughout most of history, woman’s blessing has been in her children and man’s regard has been in his work. So why were childbirth and work – hard physical work in the blazing sun regardless of injury or illness – associated with so much pain? Why was Job, the most righteous and highly regarded of men, singled out for so much tragedy and illness? Scripture gives convincing answers, of course. But what helps me even more is knowing that people have struggled with this problem ever since they had an awareness of a just and loving God.

Theology is useful. But it’s also useful to know that God realises we get angry with apparent unfairness. We struggle with faith. We ask “why”? Gradually, with the passage of time, God’s promises and assurances start to seem real again. But there is a period of rawness when sometimes words fail, and only supportive, faithful companionship will help.

As always, other saints have been there before us.

(The Suffering acrostic appears on my Old Testament: History, Law and Poetry page).

Songs of Praise Acrostic

Soprano, alto, tenor, bass
Offer thanks to the God of Grace
New hymns, old hymns, anthems raise
Gospel songs and ancient lays –
Sing a sacrifice of praise.

Organs, praise bands, harmonise;
Fanfares echo to the skies!

Powers of darkness: feel despair,
Recoil as worship fills the air! –
Aware that Heaven’s victorious King
Inhabits the very words we sing.
So saints on earth lift up your voice,
Even the hills and trees rejoice!

Today’s blog comes with apologies for not having a post about our late Queen Elizabeth II. I have tried to compose a suitable acrostic without success, but shall continue endeavouring to produce something appropriate.

When we moved to West Kilbride in 2011 we were quickly persuaded to join the church praise band. I wasn’t too keen – I felt it was a job for a younger person and didn’t fancy myself as a rock dinosaur. In fact, when a member of the congregation congratulated me on my playing, I must admit to being none too gracious, expressing the view that I was past my sell-by date.

At that time, my way of starting a morning quiet time was to dive into the Psalms at random, and alight on some verses for reflection. Thus, the following morning I chanced upon the opening of Psalm 33 – “Sing joyfully to the Lord…it is fitting for the upright to praise him. Praise the Lord with the harp; make music to him… Sing to him a new song; play skillfully, and shout for joy.” What really struck me was the phrase “play skilfully”.

I realised the congregation was still divided about modern worship. It wasn’t fair to ask a young person who only knew three chords to take responsibility. God was very clearly telling me that, at that particular juncture, I should use my skill as a classical guitarist.

Since then, I have been a willing and enthusiastic praise band member. Helping to lead worship is not only a privilege but also confers a unique perspective. You hear how a congregation is picking up on the words of a hymn, singing with understanding and meaning, following the crescendos and diminuendos of the musicians. You sense how even the sceptics are being won over by new hymnody and new musical accompaniments. A responsive congregation impels the instrumentalists and singers to give even more of themselves as a praise offering.

 

As a member of a praise band I have been privileged to sense those special moments when people are really offering a sacrifice of praise, really combining as a body of Christ, really giving space to the Holy Spirit, really gaining new insight into spiritual truths, really banishing darkness and really rolling out a red carpet for God.

 

In a very tangible way you sense God inhabiting the praise of his people, dwelling within a congregation’s songs of worship and adoration (Psalm 22:3). Let the demons shudder, indeed!

 

(The Songs of Praise acrostic appears on my Old Testament: History, Law and Poetry page).

Psalm Acrostic

Whether you feel like rejoicing, crying or venting your anger, the psalmists have already been there before you.

Praising, sing out when you’ve blessings to spare;
Sorrowing, cry out from the depths of despair;
Angry, storm Heaven when nothing seems fair;
Life can be carefree or too much to bear;
Mourning or laughing, a psalm speaks your prayer.

The Book of Psalms runs the gamut of human emotions. Broadly speaking, a psalm will focus on praise, lament, thanksgiving, grateful remembrance, kingship, wisdom, confidence or pilgrimage (songs of ascent). Some commentators suggest more categories, others fewer. Through the centuries, psalms have helped people pray and praise because of their depth and diversity. They have a message for every occasion.

For many people, the beauty of psalms lies in their depiction of God. For others, they stimulate prayer or praise. For me – and I know many others – it is the writer who packs the punch. Whatever the situation, a psalmist has ‘been there, done it, got the T-shirt’.

This is true for when we’re feeling happy and close to God. The psalmist has plenty to say about joy and thankfulness. But, practically speaking, it’s even more profoundly true for when we’re feeling dispirited and far from God. Here, I find it invaluable to sit with a psalmist who has gone through the difficult times, whose faith has helped them, and who has emerged stronger and with their faith intact.

Have you ever felt you’re in a minority of one and everybody’s against you? So has the psalmist – Lord, how many are my foes! How many rise up against me! Many are saying of me, “God will not deliver him.” (Psalm 3:1-2).

Are you in physical or mental pain and wonder why God lets you suffer? The psalmist has been there too – I am faint… my bones are in agony…My soul is in deep anguish. How long, Lord, how long? (Psalm 6:2-3). For my days vanish like smoke; my bones burn like glowing embers. My heart is blighted and withered like grass; I forget to eat my food.. (Psalm 102: 3-4).

Does God seem distant? The psalmist was not afraid to admit this – How long, Lord? Will you forget me forever? How long will you hide your face from me? (Psalm 13:1) My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? Why are you so far from saving me, so far from my cries of anguish? (Psalm 22:1)

Have you been bullied or browbeaten? So has the psalmist – In his arrogance the wicked man hunts down the weak, who are caught in the schemes he devises. (Psalm 10:2)

Do you sometimes feel like you’re the only person of faith in a sea of unbelievers and wish for the days when everybody believed in God? It really was never like that, as the psalmist knew – They are corrupt…God looks down from heaven… to see if there are any who understand, any who seek God. Everyone has turned away, there is no one who does good. (Psalm 53:1-3) All have turned away… there is no one who does good, not even one. (Psalm 14:3)

Have you been betrayed? Join the psalmist – Even my close friend, someone I trusted, one who shared my bread, has turned against me. (Psalm 41:9) For people who are wicked and deceitful … repay me evil for good, and hatred for my friendship. (Psalm 109: 2,5)

Have you ever just wanted to run away from it all? The psalmist wanted to take flight – “Oh, that I had the wings of a dove! I would fly away and be at rest… I would flee far away …to my place of shelter, far from the tempest and storm.” (Psalm 55:6-8)

Do things seem unfair and unjust? They seemed equally bad to the psalmist – Do you judge people with equity? No, in your heart you devise injustice, and your hands mete out violence on the earth. (Psalm 58:1-2) They slay the widow and the foreigner; they murder the fatherless. They say, “The Lord does not see; the God of Jacob takes no notice.” (Psalm 94:6-7)

Have you been tempted to envy and covet? The psalmist was certainly not immune – But as for me, my feet had almost slipped; I had nearly lost my foothold. For I envied the arrogant when I saw the prosperity of the wicked. (Psalm 73:2-3)

The list could go on.

God needs people who have come through hardship and can empathise with others. Have you ever tried to console someone, or offer them advice on how to face an intractable situation? We might try to reassure them with an encouraging word or verse, but sometimes this can feel inadequate or glib. Whereas speaking, comforting, advising, supporting from a position of painful first-hand experience can be far more helpful.

Time and again, the psalmist comes to our rescue by doing this. In turn, perhaps, we can do it for someone else?

(The Psalm acrostic appears on my Old Testament: History, Law and Poetry page).

Selah Acrostic

Selah is a term often used in the Psalms (and also in the psalm-like third chapter of Habakkuk). Despite its frequent occurrence, its meaning remains a mystery. Many commentators think it meant ‘to pause’ or ‘to reflect’.

Still yourself: can you hear the beating of God’s heart?
Even Jesus cherished time to be apart;
Learning to press life’s pause button is a vital art
As when Martha’s sister chose the better part.
Heaven’s symphonies are pianissimo when they start. 

Most of the Psalms that include the word Selah contain a heading, “to the choirmaster,” which has led some scholars to conclude it was a kind of musical notation or expression. The general belief is that Selah meant “pause” or “silence”, although it is sometimes translated as “interlude”, suggesting that the singers were silent while the instruments performed alone. All of these would have provided an opportunity for singers and worshippers to reflect.

As a member of our church praise band, I find these suggestions very interesting – making a joyful noise is important, but so are moments of silence and wonder when we can listen attentively for God. Perhaps Selah was a pause to “be still, and know that I am God” (Psalm 46:10) – an opportunity to listen out for the “still, small voice”/”thin silence” (1 Kings 19:11-13).

One of my main pastimes is classical guitar and one of my favourite pieces to play is Bach’s lute suite in E♭ (mercifully tranposed into D for the modern guitar). At the end, the final note is sustained, then followed by a rest (dotted, to increase its length by half), followed by a double-note rest (again dotted). In other words, Bach is letting the music gradually fade away and then asking that we observe a period of silence to reflect and hold on to the final strains as they drift heavenwards. Perhaps this is when we can hear angels singing?

At the time Bach was composing, most instruments were quite quiet and the listener would have had to concentrate and filter out background distractions in order to fully appreciate the music. I once heard a harpsichordist say we should “listen with 18th century ears”.

If we have been praying and praising, we shouldn’t be too quick to rush on. Pausing, whilst listening with 18th century ears, can help us remain in that thin silence, to reflect, absorb and refresh.

(The Selah acrostic appears on my Old Testament: History, Law and Poetry page).

Neighbour Acrostic

In Advent 2021, Tearfund ran an online “Advent Calendar” of daily reflections on the theme of neighbourliness, especially our global neighbours. Two of the contributors chose Romans 15:2 as their verse for reflection – Each of us should please our neighbours for their good, to build them up. Therein lay the inspiration for the following acrostic:

Neither the priest nor the Levite any compassion showed
Even though a fellow Jew lay maimed across the road,
In time a Samaritan – not of their ilk – passed that way,
Gave comfort, dressed his wounds, found him a place to stay;
Hospitality prevailed over centuries of bad blood.
Build up your neighbour, please them for their own good –
Old or young, rich or poor, our turning worlds collide,
Unsung acts of kindness ensure trust is multiplied,
Roads must be crossed if need calls from the other side.

It has long fascinated me that, when Jesus is asked about the greatest commandment, he delves into the depths of Deuteronomy and Leviticus. Surely it would have been more obvious to choose one (and certainly not two) of the Ten Commandments? But “you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart…” is from Deuteronomy 6, whilst “you shall love your neighbour as yourself” is from the middle of Leviticus 19. Jesus conjures an unexpected and surprising answer.

Another thing that puzzled me for a long time was the very nature of many of the laws given to Moses. Whilst most were directly applicable to people living in the wilderness, some clearly related to a settled people with cities, farms and vineyards. What sense would these laws make to nomadic tribes? I learned only relatively recently that they were possibly sermons by Moses in anticipation of occupying Canaan.

Amongst a settled, as opposed to a nomadic, people, neighbourliness would have posed a real challenge. Suddenly there would be boundary disputes, weeds and pests spreading from poorly tended land, envy of adjacent fields and soils, capture of groundwater, antisocial behaviour, etc etc. There would also be animosity towards foreigners in the land, yet they too were to be treated with favour (Leviticus 19: 18, 33). Remaining neighbourly would be difficult, even litigious, yet Canaan was to be a land whose population would practise kingdom values.

I am fortunate to have good neighbours. Even so, the modern idea of a good neighbour is someone who is ‘on tap, not on top’. There if you need them, but not excessively familiar or inquisitive (unless you want them to be!). The Christian idea of neighbourliness, though, goes beyond this. As noted at the outset, Romans 15:2 says Each of us should please our neighbours for their good, to build them up. Although part of a familiar passage, this verse had never really struck me until it appeared twice in the Tearfund Advent study. We regularly speak to our family and friends in ways that build them up and help reinforce their self-esteem, self-belief and happiness. I must admit, though, I hadn’t thought through the implications of Romans 15:2 about extending this practice beyond our kinship and friendship circle.

As Christians we are challenged to be neighbourly in a very positive way – perhaps as the Samaritans in our society. Not just being inoffensive, nor simply polite, nor just occasionally helpful, but actively looking for opportunities to build up the wellbeing of our local and global neighbours. Such an important idea, in fact, that Jesus redeemed it from the very depths of Leviticus.

(The Neighbour acrostic appears on my Old Testament: History, Law and Poetry page).

Remembrance Acrostic

Remembrance

I originally wrote this acrostic one Remembrance Sunday, but felt that it had a wider application so decided to include it in this collection. The Bible attaches great importance to the idea of ‘remembrance’.

Recall, O Israel, your deliverance
Escaping Pharaoh’s army, brought safe to shore;
Moses’ song of triumph, Miriam’s victory dance.
Each day a fiery pillar going before
Multitudes – those who wandered in Sinai’s expanse –
Becoming a special people under a perfect law.
Remember’ cries the psalmist, ‘and cast a glance
At how God saved us in peace and war’.
Nations delivered from direst circumstance,
Captive souls plucked from Sheol’s jaw,
El Shaddai, God of victory, God of the second chance.

Many years ago, as a recent Christian, I remember reading the account of the Israelites crossing the Red Sea. I was familiar with the story but this was the first time I had read it as God’s word. What really struck me was the brevity of the narrative. Given the amount of text devoted to other key episodes in the Old Testament I had anticipated a lengthy, repetitive and rhetorical blockbuster. But the core event is covered in 11 verses at the end of Exodus Chapter 14. Suddenly they are singing and dancing on the other side. Is that it, I thought?

Subsequently I discovered that, whilst the original event received only brief attention, it is attested many times in other teachings and psalms. It is repeated and reinforced. The people of God are told to remember and tell it to their children. Amongst the many examples are Psalm 77, Deuteronomy 6:20-23, Joshua 24:5-7, 1 Corinthians 10:1-2.

It has been said that some people never remember whilst others never forget. Raking up the past, being a victim of history, can be bad. Sometimes it’s good not to remember – God is capable of blotting out our sins and remembering them no more (Isaiah 43:25). Quite something for an omniscient God!

Yet the preacher in Ecclesiastes bemoans that there is no remembrance of former things (Ecclesiastes 1:11) – resulting in a generation that has lost touch with God. There can be great blessing in collective and personal memory provided we remember the right things. Not just the nice things that have happened, but all the times we have known God’s presence, whether beside green pastures or in the darkest valley.

It’s worth reading what the blogger “Life in The Spacious Place” has to say on this topic here.

I would say that if we don’t consciously practise the remembrance of God’s blessings, we tend to lose our faith. Would you agree?

(The Remembrance acrostic appears on my Old Testament: History, Law and Poetry page).

Angels Acrostic

Whatever our view on angels, we have to admit they get a lot of mentions in the Bible.

Announcing glad tidings to God’s chosen heirs
Never ceasing their praises, Heaven’s glories are theirs
Guarding us, ministering, hearing our prayers
Emissaries of God in our worldly affairs
Leading us through life’s darkest thoroughfares
Sometimes we entertain them unawares.

Apparently there are over 350 references to angels in the Bible. They appear in different guises for different purposes. They have numerous roles, notably bearing messages and carrying out God’s purposes on earth. Commentators dispute whether or not we have guardian angels.

When Abraham encounters three angels he treats them with uncommon hospitality (Genesis 18:1-8). To Abraham, it was immediately obvious that these strange men were angels, and in in most cases the supernatural appearance of angels is not in dispute.

But they may not always so obvious – according to the writer of Hebrews we may entertain them unawares (Hebrews 13:2). This possibility has long interested me. Some angels, as they go to and fro across the earth (Zechariah 1:10), may just blend in with society.

In Genesis 28, Jacob has a dream of a ladder ascending to heaven (angels again are key figures in the narrative), and when he wakes he says, “Surely the Lord is in this place, and I was not aware of it.” Sometimes I think to myself, “perhaps there was an angel in this place, and I was not aware of it.” Perhaps it was someone I snubbed, a homeless person I passed by, someone who was feeling lonely…

Hospitality and acts of kindness never go amiss. The first church in Jerusalem went out of its way to practise hospitality and spread kingdom values. I strongly suspect they often entertained angels unawares.

(The Angels acrostic appears on my Old Testament: History, Law and Poetry page).

Rainbow Acrostic

Recalling an eternal promise, a covenant sign
Arched over the earth, God’s valentine.
Ineffable light made visible in refraction,
Noah knew that it meant ‘God in action’.
Being ever alongside us, the Ancient of Days
Occupies our hearts, inhabits our praise –
Wavelengths of God illuming our ways.

The rainbow symbol has been widely used in different contexts, but it has a particular meaning in the Bible as the sign of the covenant God established with all life on the earth (Genesis 9:17) after the Great Flood.

The Lord is light, in which there is no darkness. Light cannot bear the dark, and vice versa. The Lord regretted making humans, and the animal kingdom that had been caught up in ‘The Fall’, and sought to wipe their sin from the face of the earth with a great flood.

However, amidst the darkness, there was a glimmer of light, a remnant of hope. Noah found favour in the eyes of the Lord.

Whilst Adam and Eve had rebelled, ‘Noah did everything just as God commanded him’, no matter how ridiculous it must have sounded. Darkness had not extinguished the light.

Because of Noah’s obedience (not to mention the trusting and long-suffering nature of his family), The Lord established a covenant – “never again will I curse the ground because of humans, even though every inclination of the human heart is evil from childhood”. The sign of this covenant was the rainbow.

There are many things that could be said about this symbol of covenant love, but I want to reflect on just two of them.

First, God said that whenever the rainbow appeared in the clouds, He would see it and remember His everlasting covenant with all living creatures. Somewhere on earth there is always a rainbow. I live in a part of the world which enjoys some spectacular rainbows – on the west coast of Scotland where the highly changeable weather means we have the classic ‘four seasons in a day’ climate. Perfect for the necessary combination of water droplets and sunshine. But if there isn’t a rainbow here, there will be plenty elsewhere. So, if there are always rainbows somewhere, God must be continually remembering his everlasting covenant with us. God’s ‘rest’ is an active rest, constantly seeking after us.

Second, God is unimaginable light. We cannot, in our temporal bodies, bear to look at that light. Like Moses on Sinai, we would have to avert our gaze. But we have other ways we can look at God. We can see God in Jesus, in other people, in the natural world, in the work of the Holy Spirit, in answers to prayer… And in the rainbow we have another way of seeing God. Although gazing directly at brilliant white light would damage our eyes, God breaks it down into a coloured spectrum. Some of the spectrum remains invisible to us (ultra-violet and infra-red), but we can see enough to grasp its nature and wonder. We will never, in this life, fully comprehend the riches of the wisdom and knowledge of God. But we can see in part – we can see enough of God’s ‘visible spectrum’ to reassure us of His presence and covenant.

(The Rainbow acrostic appears on my Old Testament: History, Law and Poetry page).

Creation Acrostic

This blog marks the first in a series of posts adding a short meditation to an existing acrostic. Some of my acrostics were written for a particular event; I hope they have sometimes continued to have relevance after the event has passed.

This acrostic was written for the World Day of Prayer a few years back, when the theme was All God’s Creation is Very Good (Genesis 1:31)

Cosmos called out of infinite dark,
Restless void roused by wisdom’s spark
Emergent shapes formed in deepest night
A piercing voice summoned primal light
The sun and moon obeyed its command
Infinite life teemed through water and land
On ground that had been mere dust, Adam stood.
Now, for a time, all was very good. 

At the start, creation is described as being ‘very good’. Then comes the fall. Christians sometimes think that the fallen world is not very good. It is corrupt and heading for destruction. It is not our permanent home; it’s just a place we are passing through.

But, whilst the world is not perfect, it is still very good. Despite our fallen nature, we are still ‘fearfully and wonderfully made’. Despite pollution and misuse, our planet is still awe-inspiring. It is a place that is still wonderfully loved (‘For God so loved the world…’).

We should not think of the world and humanity as a ‘write-off’, and just focus on our personal salvation. Christians are for the here-and-now, not only the hereafter. Creation is very good. We are to cherish it. We are here to infuse it with kingdom values, we are to be the salt that stops its decay, we are to be its light in the darkness.

At times, we can react against the terrible things happening on earth by becoming excessively focused on the glory of the next world. We need to remind ourselves of the importance of a practical day-to-day engagement with the goodness of creation.

(The Creation acrostic appears on my Old Testament: History, Law and Poetry page).