Tuesday, 16 January 2018

The ones we overlook

When I was a curate at Holy Trinity Cathedral, Port of Spain, in the mid-1970s, there was a little old lady who regularly joined the choir procession into Choral Evensong. In the way of things in Trinidad, nobody minded very much; she was just a part of the untidiness and unpredictability of life. She occasioned the odd titter or comment, but she almost became a member of the choir.

Her music folder was an old school exercise book, with meaningless scribbles in it, but she sang her heart out anyway, without seeming to clash with the Anglican chant. It was a little miracle of the sort that nobody notice
s, really.

Now, here's the thing. I guess that we all wrote her off as a little strange, soft in the head. Until, that is, the day when she turned up in the Cathedral Office when I was on duty, to ask for me to certify her application for a passport renewal. I discovered then that she was an 88 year old Anguillan, in complete possession of her faculties. It was we who had lost touch with our faculties of discernment and hospitality, in putting her in the category of 'harmless but strange'. Our behaviour was certainly strange, but not harmless.

How many of the saints of God have I dismissed in this way? Countless perhaps. One of the besetting sins of church leaders is to measure people by their usefulness to the institution, the programme, the active life of the church. So when Jill and I came across Malcolm Guite's sonnet for All Saints' Tide, on 'A Last Beatitude', I remembered my little old lady with gratitude, an angel sent to me by the wisdom and grace of God.

Here's the sonnet: hopefully, you'll be encouraged to buy this wonderful book on 'Sounding the Seasons':

And blessèd are the ones we overlook;
The faithful servers on the coffee rota,
The ones who hold no candle, bell or book
But keep the books and tally up the quota,
The gentle souls who come to ‘do the flowers’,
The quiet ones who organize the fete,
Church sitters who give up their weekday hours,
Doorkeepers who may open heaven’s gate.
God knows the depths that often go unspoken
Amongst the shy, the quiet, and the kind,
Or the slow healing of a heart long broken,
Placing each flower so for a year’s mind.
Invisible on earth, without a voice,
In heaven their angels glory and rejoice.

Wednesday, 27 December 2017

Simeon's song, Eliot's poem and all our laments

I don’t know how I haven’t come across TS Eliot’s Ariel poem “A Song for Simeon” before. He wrote it and several others (including “Journey of the Magi” as ‘Christmas cards’ towards the end of the 1920s. I won’t reproduce it here, because it’s still in copyright, but you can find it online at http://bit.ly/eliot-and-simeon. It’s a reflection on the Nunc Dimittis, portraying Simeon as a tired old man waiting for his own death. It begins innocently enough on a window sill:
Norwich Cathedral

Lord, the Roman hyacinths are blooming in bowls and 
the winter sun creeps by the snow hill

 but quickly turns to the dominant theme of the poem, death as a fading:

My life is light, waiting for the death wind,
Like a feather on the back of my hand.

Over the past six months, as Jill’s father has grown progressively weaker (and lighter), we’ve watched on as he too has begun to fade, and have prayed with Eliot’s Simeon:

Grant us thy peace.

Simeon goes on to talk about his faithful discipleship as an observant Jew, lamenting that the memory of his house will fade in the desolations that are to come, the ‘time of sorrow’ when

They will take to the goat’s path, and the fox’s home,
Fleeing from foreign faces and the foreign swords.

This too has marked 2017 for us, with its endless flow of refugees fleeing war, persecution, economic disaster. For them too, we have prayed:

Inverness Cathedral
Grant us thy peace.

Simeon’s musing turns next to the passion of Christ, the ‘time of cords and scourges and lamentation’, of Mary’s sorrow, and imagines Christmas as ‘this birth season of decease’. Over many years of preaching at Christmas, I’ve only been able to make proper sense when I’ve coupled it with Calvary. This year, I’ve carried a Christmas refrain around in my head:

This day is a day like any other;
Yet unique, the hinge of history.

Those are not Eliot’s words, but mine. The ‘day like any other’ is an allusion to the fact that December 25th doesn’t obliterate or mask pain, suffering and despair, though it often exacerbates it with its superficial air of jollity. And yet, I know somewhere deep down that because of this ‘birth season of decease’, I find hope in Christ’s coming, and pray it with longing for our tragic world:

Grant Israel’s consolation
To one who has eighty years and no to-morrow…

St Aignan's Church, Brinay
As the poem draws to its natural end, Simeon’s ordinariness come to the fore. He is not a giant of the faith, though he experiences both the glory of the coming Christ and the derision accorded by the world to the people of the Word, the children of God. Nor is he a mystic or a martyr like John of the Cross or Teresa of Ávila:

Not for me the martyrdom, the ecstasy of thought
and prayer,
Not for me the ultimate vision.

He is every person, everyman, you and me, who walk in faith, struggle with faith, often finding little to gladden our hearts:

I am dying in my own death and the deaths of those
after me.

But Simeon, like us, at the end, can pray ‘Let thy servant depart’ because he has truly ‘seen thy salvation.’ May you in 2018 find a little faith, a little hope, a little prayer in your heart, and may God grant you too his peace.

Thursday, 21 December 2017

Barnabas, the Apostle of Cyprus

Monastery Church of St Barnabas
There was a Levite, a native of Cyprus, Joseph, to whom the apostles gave the name Barnabas (which means ‘son of encouragement’). [Acts 4.36]

The disagreement became so sharp that they parted company; Barnabas took Mark with him and sailed away to Cyprus. [Acts 15.39]

Barnabas, cousin of John Mark, is remembered widely on Cyprus as their apostle, the one who brought them the good news of Jesus Christ. While we were on holiday, we were able to go to the Monastery of St Barnabas, which had three monks in residence as late as 1976.

Thomas doubts no more
The story goes that Barnabas, having returned to his home city of Salamis, was martyred there by some in the Jewish community. His body was dumped in the marshes and recovered by Christians. They buried him on the site where the monastery remains as a museum.

The tomb of the saint
In 477 Archbishop Anthemios had a remarkable dream which enabled him to find the remains of the saint with his handwritten Gospel of St Matthew in his arms. As a result, Cyprus became an autocephalous or self-governing Orthodox church, the fifth in the world.

The monastery church is now an icon museum, somewhat spoilt by being more like an art gallery than a church. The icons themselves are not particularly remarkable.

Barnabas remembered by followers of Jesus
What we found specially moving was the tomb of the saint, now in the crypt of an 18th century building somewhat apart from the museum and much less overrun by tourists. Underground is a simple tomb covered in a drape, and tapers burning in Barnabas' memory. He is after all the one who told Cyprus about Jesus!

The pictures show both the large monastery church with its icon displays, and the tomb church.

Thursday, 23 November 2017

God bless Africa

In the wake of the bloodless coup in Zimbabwe, I thought it would be good to revisit my prayers for the continent. Most Sundays we were there, we prayed Bishop Trevor Huddleston's prayer:

God bless Africa
Guard her children
Guide her leaders
And give her peace
for Jesus Christ's sake.

I will update this blog over the next few days, as there are 54 sovereign states on the continent. But for now, this is an invitation to pray for:

  1. Zimbabwe, that Emerson Mnangagwa and the ZANU-PF government may build a new, prosperous and reconciled nation;
  2. South Africa, that President Jacob Zuma may step down, having learnt the lesson that Robert Mugabe failed to learn, that there is an end to everything; and that justice may prevail;
  3. Lesotho, for national unity following the assassination in September of the army commander by disgruntled former soldiers;
  4. Swaziland, that King Mswati may relinquish his absolutist and tyrannical grip on power, and allow modernization and development that benefits the poor;
  5. Angola, that the mineral wealth may not become a source of greed, blood diamonds and violence;
  6. Namibia, that SWAPO's (ruling party) National Congress may seek justice and serve the whole nation;
  7. Botswana, that this model country's stand against political and economic corruption, long lauded internationally, may continue and set a good example to the rest of the continent.

Tuesday, 7 November 2017

Is it my right to carry a gun?

President Trump famously said of the church shooting in Texas on November 5th that "This isn't a guns situation. This is a mental health problem at the highest level. It’s a very, very sad event." Meanwhile, a town mourns its dead and injured. Back in 1999, when we arrived in an equally gun-violent South Africa, we were told by our bishop that there was an absolute ban on guns in church in his diocese, and that any minister found to possess a gun licence would lose their church licence. For us, it was a relief to know that there was a clear choice.

About four years later, our racist white Irish neighbour was shot and killed while cycling to work. Why? Because the thieves wanted his proudly displayed gun, tucked into his waistband. I wish I could say that those who live by the sword die by the sword. The trouble is, that so often the innocent bystander and the vulnerable get taken down as well, or instead. I'm not a pacifist (I wish I could be, but the world is a fallen place), but I do not think that guns lead to a safer society. The evidence is quite clear.

So maybe it's a matter of human rights? The Second Amendment of the American Constitution says that "A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed." We'll leave aside the particular interpretation of this held by gun-rights advocates, as there is a debate about the implications of the text. I have two questions about it. The first is whether the right of the people is an absolute right or a right relative to other rights, like my right to safety, and society's right to walk in public without fear? I personally don't think that a constitutional right is a human right. It is a political and social right, and, more importantly, it is a political and social responsibility.

The second question is whether Donald Trump's denial that the shooting was a 'guns situation' is expressed as a conviction of the truth, a moral stand, a fear that he might lose his power base, or a deeply paranoid reading of the way to control the world. His approach to North Korea seems to me even more dangerous than the American love of gun freedom: let's all have a big shoot-out between the West and North Korea, and may the best gun win? Really? The costlier way is the way of dialogue, but it takes time, effort, and a commitment to play less golf...

The pictures that I have posted to accompany this blog are from Namibia and Angola, where mines, bombs and shells continue to maim and kill decades after they were laid or shot in anger. As for the fallout from a global nuclear conflict, Chernobyl is a sobering and terrifying reminder of the stain on all our lives, and consciences.

Monday, 6 November 2017

A disciple walks in the way of the Lord

Next year marks 50 years since I arrived at the University of Leeds to read Theology and Religious Studies under Professor John Tinsley. He was a somewhat stiff and aloof figure, and few of us warmed to him. But even then I was struck that he invited new students to his house for cheese and wine, clearly wanting to make the effort to be sociable and supportive. The only time that I saw him excited was when he was explaining to us how the mosaics at Ravenna, and the architecture of the basilica, demonstrated better than words the theology of the early church.

In the second and third years, he taught us Christian Doctrine, focusing in one on the Trinity and the Incarnation, and in the other on the Atonement. Much of my preaching and my own Christian reflection is rooted in all that he gave us, and I am deeply indebted to him. I only wish that I had told him so at the time, but students rarely thank their teachers!

He didn't give away much of himself, and when he became Bishop of Bristol, he had to walk with his wife through a traumatic time of illness and premature death from cancer. For some reason, I felt the need to go and see him when we were in North Devon, travelling from Barnstaple to Bristol with Jill. He welcomed us hospitably and gave us lunch at his kitchen table, though he was clearly the only person in our theological past who hadn't seen our marriage coming! "Oh, that came off, did it?" was his reply to our self-identification as fellow students of his.

The thing that I never did was read his book, and I'm making up for that now, 49 years late. "The Imitation of God in Christ" was published by SCM Press in 1960, the only book that he wrote, I think. At last, I'm beginning to get a measure of the man, and his spiritual journey, and it's very moving.

In the first part of the book, he deals with the theme of imitation in the Old Testament, and though I'm not here attempting to summarize what he writes, the key is that to imitate God is to walk in the way of the Lord. In this great 'journey' of faith, Israel is the imitator as it walks behind the Lord, miming and rehearsing all that God has done and is doing, by taking part in those works.

And here we come to the nub of it. Israel's covenantal discipleship is fivefold in structure: to walk after the Lord is first, to obey [to keep the commandments]. Secondly, it is to reverence the Lord [to fear the Lord]. Then comes love [to love the Lord and to cleave to him]; perfection [to be perfect in the Way] and to know the Lord. I love this, and it seems to me a powerful blueprint for Christian discipleship today rather than some intellectual assent to a set of plausible or provable truths or even an emotional and deeply felt passion which waxes and wanes with the ebb and flow of life. It is a covenant. We are called by a God who commits to us. In response we obey, worship, love, grow and know.

I wish I had known John Tinsley better, but this undeservedly forgotten little book is giving me rich insight into his faith and personal journey, and I find myself again giving thanks for one more saint in the unsung calendar of 'ordinary unremarkable but faithful children of God.'

Monday, 30 October 2017

Saints fit to follow

I'd love to be back in Trinidad tomorrow night, on the eve of All Saints', driving past the cemetery in the old capital of St Joseph after dark, nearly every grave lit up with a mass of candles. Ever since I was a child, it's reminded me of the way in which the risen Christ lights up the gloom of our lives and our deaths with a promise of the new creation.

Today, we're more inclined to make our own saints of our celebrity singers, actors and sports personalities. We idolize them and scour the newspapers for titbits of gossip. The glitter and razzmatazz draws us like moths to a flame, and consumes us with bitterness and envy as we approach. We can never be like them, try as we might. They are the icons of our broken dreams and failure to find meaning.

Which is why, in the end, we rejoice at their downfall. I am in no doubt that the spectacular 'fall from grace' of Harvey Weinstein and others is appropriate, and an object lesson in the danger that is inherent in our veneration of the secular 'company of saints'. Yet, having been poisoned by their narcissism and our voyeurism, we are even further corrupted by the danse macabre with which we surround their fall. Both celebrity heroics and the anti-heroic glee with which we welcome their fall to earth stain us.

The Christian gospel holds up a different band of pilgrims, of apostles, prophets, martyrs, teachers and confessors whom we revere, not because they are utterly unlike us, but because they show us in small and great ways what we also can be in Christ. They are models of what is possible, in Christ. They are beacons who light up a way that is open, in Christ. And of course, they challenge us to the narrow way of the kingdom, the way of ascent, the way of the cross, the way of dying to self that new life may come.

So tomorrow and throughout this week, I'll be remembering the unremarked and unremarkable saints who've shaped my life and my journey, as well as those whose names I carry: Thomas the doubting apostle who said 'My Lord and my God'; Francis, the little poor one, who stripped himself bare the better to follow Christ, and Adrian of Nicomedia, soldier in the Praetorian Guard who was converted and martyred at the beginning of the 4th century. May they, and we, rise in glory.