Sunday, 7 November 2010

Be Thou My Vision

"I have set the Lord before me always; because He is at my right hand, I shall not falter...You will make known to me the path of life, the fullness of joys in Your presence, the delights that are in Your right hand for all eternity" Psalm 16:8-11

It was often thought that the non subscription of Unitarian Christians to the doctrine of the Trinity, somehow striped our faith of warmth and mystery. It is assumed that rejecting a doctrine that "humanises" God, that brings Him amoungst us in humility, results in a conception of God that is cold and distant and as far as can be, from the passionate love that results from an awareness that God became like us to feel our suffering and who died to save us. Well I could not but disagree most strongly with this. Methodists we may not be, but we need not lack the ecstasy that nearness to God can produce.

The words and tune of the beautiful Irish hymn "Be Thou My Vision" (Rop tú mo Baile) is so redolent of that personal relationship to God, which is a privilege to all who happen to embrace it.

"Be thou my vision, O Lord of my heart,
naught be all else to me, save that thou art;
Thou my best thought by day or by night,
Waking or sleeping, thy presence my light."

We live in very busy times, and often we have so very little time to spend with our loved ones let alone ourselves. How often do most of us sit quietly with no distractions and simply be alone with our thoughts? I am often struck looking back over a day, to see how every moment was filled with sound, either the radio, tv, music or conversation. As a society we have lost the love and awareness of silence, something our forebears would have found very strange and wanting about us.

"True silence ... is to the spirit what sleep is to the body, nourishment and refreshment." William Penn, 1699 (I discovered this quote on the beautiful Hay Quaker blog).

But we should most certainly pause, to quietly reflect and become aware that God is constantly with us. He is never far from us. Whether we are asleep or awake, working or at rest, He who neither slumbers or sleeps is never distant. In those moments when sadness or fear overcome us, or when our hearts are bursting with happiness, we need only close our eyes and direct our thoughts to the Eternal, and there a connection is made. If only we could attain the wish expressed in the original Gaelic version of Be Thou my Vision:

"Rop tú mo scrútain i l-ló 's i n-aidche;
rop tú ad-chëar im chotlud caidche."
(Be thou my meditation by day and night.
May it be thou that I behold even in my sleep.)

Aled Jones in his book "Forty Favourite Hymns" likes this hymn as he feels that it personalises God, and makes us want Him in our lives. Very true, and of course He is always in our lives He is the breath that sustains our souls, but like Hagar in the wilderness, we just have to have our eyes opened.

"Be thou my wisdom, thou my true word,
I ever with thee and thou with me Lord;
Thou my great Father, I thy true son;
Thou in me dwelling, and I with thee one."

Closeness to God, however, is a reciprocal relationship. We must be ever with Him just as He is always with us. But how is this to be accomplished? James Martineau expressed this question in the most sublime way "How should man that is born as the wild ass's colt stretch his wisdom to Thee:-to Thee, save to Thyself, Unsearchable? What connection can we possible have with He who said "as high as the heavens over the earth, so are My ways higher than your ways, and My thoughts than your thoughts"Isaiah 55:9. Well I believe there is more than one answer to this question, more than one way to come close to His Majesty, but for me the prime answer can be found in the Hebrew word "Mitzvah" (commandment). This word contains the root"to be found", for it is ultimately when we follow God's commands that we find our greatest connection to Him.

Imagine that your spouse for his or her birthday, would really love a rare book. Imagine yourself arriving at the book-store to buy the gift only to discover that it is out of stock. Now you have a choice. To pop into the next store and buy a gift that you personally would like to give as you feel it is better, or traipse across town in the rain or snow on the off chance that they will have the book elsewhere. If you choose to sacrifice your comfort and your own will, in order to get the present that your spouse wants, you have bound yourself to him/her. Their will has become your will. The same is true of our relationship with the Almighty. God needs nothing, but when we obey His will we have bound ourselves up with Him and the sense of tranquillity this brings is not describable by mere words. Our teacher's brother said it better than I ever could:

"But he who looks into the perfect Law of liberty, and continues in it, and is not a forgetful hearer but a doer of the work, this one will be blessed in what he does." James 1:25

"Be thou my battle shield, sword for the fight;
Be thou my dignity, thou my delight;
Thou my soul's shelter, thou my high tower:
Raise thou me heavenward, O Power of my power."

At times of crisis or concern the potential to draw close to God is great. But one need not wait for tribulations to come upon one. Each and ever day offers us the opportunity to place our trust completely in the hands of our Heavenly Father. It is not an exaggeration to say that deep seated trust in God was Jesus' central teaching. In almost every page of the Gospels, Jesus calls people to the realisation that in God alone we find our welfare. The power of the Almighty to comfort us and reassure us in times of hardness or worry, is infinite. I myself have had during my life moments of complete surrender to God, where I had placed myself entirely in His hands and trusted in Him to do with me what He saw fit. The feeling of God's embrace was palpable. Sadly as always distractions come along and that level of surrender is lost. This trust is not a reason for inaction, on the contrary it places our actions in their wider and truer context.
Many of Jesus' teachings on trust, can be found echoed in the rest of the Bible and in Jewish writings for example:

"Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? And not one of them will fall to the ground without your Father's will, But even the hairs of your head are all numbered. Therefore fear not; you are of more value than many sparrows." Matthew 10:29-31

"Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai said, "Not even a sparrow perishes without the will of Heaven, how much less the son of man." Jerusalem Talmud.

Relying on God when we are challenged preserves, in the words of the hymn, our dignity. Because the knowledge of God's embrace keeps us distant from rage, from cowardice and from lashing out against others. And we need not let the immensity of God's reality, His majesty and glory serve as a barrier to our feeling His personal providence. For He Himself told us through one of His prophets;

"For thus said the exalted an uplifted One, Who abides forever and Whose Name is holy: I abide in exaltedness and holiness, but I am with the despondent and lowly of spirit, to revive the spirit of the lowly and to revive the heart of the contrite." Isaiah 57:15

"Riches I heed not, nor man's empty praise:
Thou mine inheritance now and always;
Thou and thou only first in my heart;
High King of Heaven, my treasure thou art."

We need no intercessor. We need no-one's permission. When we want, in the privacy of our own heart, even under the boot of a tyrant, we can turn to the King of Heaven.

"The Lord is close to all who call upon Him, to all who call upon Him sincerely" Psalm 145:18

The words of that Psalm are clear enough. God is close to ALL. Male and female, child and adult, black or white, homosexual or heterosexual. With one condition, that we call upon Him with sincerity. Nothing in our lives, not our possessions, families or the praise of friends can replicate the constant and unchanging love of our Creator for us. The Gaelic version of the the previous verse uses a beautiful expression:

"Rop tussu t' áenur m' urrann úais amra:
ní chuinngim daíne ná maíne marba."
(Be thou alone my noble and wondrous estate.
I seek not men nor lifeless wealth.)

Lifeless wealth! A marvellous phrase in contradistinction to that holy wealth which is animated with a life so vibrant.

So yes we Unitarians may have been, and may still be, a little bit cerebral, a little bit "bookish" but there is nothing in our faith that prevents us from securing ourselves tightly to our Rock of Ages.

I leave the final words of this post to the essayist Charles Lamb in a letter to his friend, which I believe so eloquently encapsulate what we need know about our relationship with the Divine:

"Friends fall off, they change, they go away, they die. But God is everlasting and incapable of change; and to Him we may look with cheerful, unpresumptious hope, while we discharge the duties of life. Humble yourself before God, cast out the selfish principle, wait in patience, do good in every way you can to all sorts of people, never neglect a duty though a small one, praise God for all, and see His hand in all things: and he will in time raise you up many friends - or be Himself instead an unchanging friend. God bless you." Charles Lamb 1775-1834

1 comment:

Steve said...

As always, another very thoughtful insight Joseph. Thank you.