“Two men looked through prison bars/One saw mud, the other saw stars”

That little ditty has been running through my mind a bit over the last week. I suppose lockdown naturally brings jail metaphors to mind. To be honest I am beginning to regard Port Meadow as a fairly pleasant prison exercise yard. You wander round for an hour before retreating to your cell.

But the little ditty is helpful at the moment for other reasons. It points out that there are two ways to approach our current challenge: to fix our eyes on mud or stars.

Let’s be honest- there is plenty of mud to look at. The challenges will be different for each of us depending on our circumstances but could include loneliness, claustrophobia, disappointment and fear. One of the realisations for me this week is that painful issues that were around before the pandemic still exist and can now take on a greater potency because there are fewer distractions and coping strategies available. And all the while there is the crushing uncertainty that we simply don’t know when all this will end. Putting that together- there’s a fair amount of mud to look at or even wallow in. And I am not suggesting we deny those realities. The Bible contains the language of lament and it will be inevitable that there are tears to be shed. Indeed better that than having unexpressed anguish that tends to emanate in grouchiness and anger (I was conscious of being at my most irritable during a meeting yesterday- apologies to my fellow elders…). Having said that, the Bible doesn’t encourage lament alone.

I have been reading through the Psalms recently and realised this morning that I was up to Psalm 103. If I am honest, my heart sank slightly. I love Psalm 103 but I have preached on it, led services around it and sung it for years. I can pretty much recite it from memory. Was there any hope in finding anything new in it? It led to a desperate prayer- “Lord, please show me something.” As it happened I didn’t get through the Psalm because I was stopped by the little phrase in v.2- “Forget not all his benefits”. And that was the phrase that I needed to hear- a reminder that the Lord’s benefits have not gone away in the midst of this situation and that there are still stars to view through prison bars. Now in many ways my recommendation would be to go away and read Psalm 103 to remind yourself of those benefits. But let me mention one that feels particularly pertinent.

One of the repeated themes of Psalm 103 is the Lord’s mercy and compassion. He crowns us with love and compassion in v.4. His character is compassionate and gracious in v.8. As a father has compassion on his children so God has compassion on us because He remembers that we are just dust in v.14. Already there have probably been times and doubtless there will be occasions in the weeks to come where we reach the end of our resources. It may be that we just don’t know how to handle the kids any more or carry out our responsibilities without others around. Perhaps we become disappointed with how we are handling things and aware of temptations to which we have succumbed. Possibly it is just a sense of “I can’t take it anymore.” Here is the good news. On those occasions we run straight into the compassion of God. He is under no illusions about what we are like. His love is not dependent on our performance. He knows our weakness and our frailty. And in Psalm 103 those simply incite His love and grace towards us. They really are great benefits.

You see when I am looking at the mud the Lord has disappeared from the picture. Or perhaps He is there but disappointed in how we are doing. But when I see that He is here and that He cares there is a slightly different atmosphere- even in the prison cell. There is a chance to gaze on stars.