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Thank you to Joan Freeborn for sharing the gift of music with us this week
Below, you’ll find Andy’s reflection and Steve’s prayers for this week. Our weekly e-newsletter will continue to keep you up-to-date on what’s happening at St. Paul’s. If you don’t currently receive that, and would like to, please contact us and we’ll happily add you to our mailing list.
In these exceptional times, please do stay in touch, with us and with each other. The peace of Christ be with you all.
Fifth Sunday After Pentecost
Scripture: Song of Solomon 2: 8-13
Music: You, Creator God, Have Searched Me; O God, I Know Not What to Ask
Musicians: Joan Freeborn
There are some passages of text that I can only remember when I sing them; today’s passage from the Song of Solomon is one. I know it best because of a beautiful choral setting by the 20th c. Anglo-Canadian composer Healy Willan. “Rise up my love, my fair one, and come away. For lo, the winter is past; the rain is over and gone.”
The Song of Solomon is a small book found in the Hebrew scriptures and is likely not overly familiar to you. It only appears twice in the three-year cycle of weekly scriptures that we follow called the lectionary. And although I could be wrong, it might not appear often because it’s the kind of book that would make many people blush, because the Song of Solomon is a collection of poems rich with sensory language and sensual images.
It’s unique among the Hebrew scriptures because it shows no interest in the Law or the Covenant, and contains no mention of the God of Israel. Instead, it focuses entirely on the intimate and personal love of two people. Some Jewish interpretation reads the poem as an allegory of the relationship between God and Israel, while much of Christian tradition has tended to view it as an allegory of the love between Christ and the Church.
More modern interpreters have admitted, though, that the Song of Solomon is not allegory, but is actually just a collection of love poems. The images and language are unavoidably erotic in some places, and undeniably romantic throughout. And there it is, right in the middle of our Bibles.
I remember discussing the Song of Songs (as it’s also known) with some of the members of my weekly Bible study group in my first congregation in Oak Bay. When we had read a few passages of the book, I waited for reactions. Some people were surprised; most were a little shy. One person said, “What’s this doing in the Bible, anyway?” But my favourite reaction was from Bernice, who was 93 at the time. Bernice had lived through a lot and seen it all. She was a woman of quiet strength and good humour. And she said, simply, “Well, it’s a part of who we are, isn’t it?”
For many ancient cultures, there was no division between body and spirit, but the early Christian tradition inherited a philosophical notion whereby flesh is corruptible and must be mastered by the spirit, which is eternal. This notion persists today; when we describe someone of strong faith, we often use terms like steadfast, unshakeable, unwavering. This is the language of a kind of stoicism: a strength of mind, or will, which keeps the experiences of the body buried deep under a layer of control and modesty.
The Song of Solomon is the scriptural antidote to that way of thinking. It doesn’t celebrate mastery of the flesh; instead, it celebrates the beauty and freedom of intimacy, and even of sex. We may not always feel comfortable talking about these things in public, and we have an almost Puritanical aversion to discussing them in church. And yet, it’s a part of who we are, isn’t it; we were all created and born the same way.
For so long, discussion of the connection between our physical selves and our spiritual selves was taboo; but it was so at our peril. For so long, questions of sexuality and gender, as well as the difference between loving relationship and abuse, were avoided and denied the attention they needed. Which is ironic, considering that not only is everything God created said to be good, but in Jesus, God became flesh, and dwelt among us. Jesus is God’s love in bodily form, which means that as Christians we believe that God knows our pain and our joy, has felt physical hunger and thirst; not just a metaphorical hunger and thirst for justice, but actual hunger.
This begins, I think, to move us forward from faith as easy moralism – do this, don’t do that – to faith as embodied. Our bodies and the bodies of others are included in our reflections on what kind of life we want to live, who we want to be. Not only how we treat others and their bodies, but also how we treat our own bodies – how we care for ourselves; nutrition, rest and exercise; work-life balance – all of these are part of our spiritual life. Honouring the sanctity and dignity of our physical selves is also a spiritual act.
We need to recover from centuries of denying our sensuality as a fundamental aspect not only of existence, but of spiritual life. Of course, we’ll all have different levels of comfort talking about love, relationships, sex. But avoiding awkwardness also comes at a cost. There are important conversations we need to have about what happens to our bodies as we age and face the end of life. As we’ve seen especially in recent years, we need honesty and action with respect to sexual and gender-based violence.
Even now, what we do in the midst of a pandemic isn’t just a matter of following rules and determining levels of risk, it’s also a matter of recognizing the fragility of our bodies and, especially, the bodies of others. As a community of faith, to honour our bodies is to honour the Body.
So, since the winter is past, the rains are gone and summer is in full bloom, why not have a read of the Song of Solomon? It’s short and beautiful. You don’t have to recite it to your kids, or worse, your parents. But why not have a read and take a moment to reflect on your relationships with others and with your own body – that spiritual terrain of beauty and blemish, which tells your story. As a wise woman once said, “It’s just a part of who we are.”
Perhaps you’re not ready to discuss it with others, and that’s good, too. Not every life of faith is a life lived out loud. But remember that all of you – heart, mind, body and soul – all of you is blessed by the God of Love. Each of us, a gift of that love. Amen.
God of every land and of all people, we thank you that during this time it feels as if we live on a small sheltered island in the middle of a raging sea. Be with us and help us to be truly thankful for all that you offer us in this time and place.
As we travel closer to home, we thank you for the beauty that surrounds us in the varying land and seascapes that are so near. From the wonder of the tides that reach our community so far from the shore, to the warm beaches that invite us to play and rest. Help us to be thankful even for hills that look like they go up when they actually go down.
We thank you for our encounters with wildlife who live in our woods and fields, backyards and parks; from watching deer gently graze as they move about, to hearing birds singing sweetly in the trees, to the wonder of bees buzzing in roses and pollinating our crops. For these and for all of the other creatures that share this planet with us, we give you our thanks.
We thank you for the cultural differences that are growing locally – for the diversity of all people who we encounter and how they help us to see the world from a different perspective when we genuinely engage with them.
As we continue to deepen our understanding of what it means to be an Affirming congregation, we hope and pray that someday, someday soon, that all will recognize the importance of diversity. Strengthen us to live into our vision of celebrating and reaching out to all.
Help us become a community that actively seeks peace with justice and equality in this diverse community and world.
In these turbulent times we pray for those in leadership positions who are striving to keep us safe in the midst of the pandemic. We ask that you bless them with wisdom, compassion and insight.
We pray for those who are working to solve the long term problems we face; from scientists seeking a vaccine or better treatment for the virus, those searching for ways we might create a more caring, compassionate and egalitarian society, to those in health care willing to be on the front lines and placing themselves at risk for others.
Be with all of us this week, especially with whom we are close. We pray for those who are sick in body or spirit, may they find wholeness and healing.
We pray for those who are grieving, especially for Gordon Wilson’s family, his wife Allison and mother-in-law, Rose MacLeod, grant them strength and comfort.
We ask all this in the name of Jesus, our brother who teaches us to pray, Our Father…