Friday, 30 August 2019

A cloud of witnesses

Since we have a cloud of witnesses: This is a neatly turned phrase and leads into one of the most evocative passages of the book of Hebrews. Paul having given us a host of historical examples - the crossing of the red sea, the falling of Jericho’s walls, Rahab, Barak, Gideon, Samson, David is about to press home his point with the ultimate example of Jesus and the resurrection. But does this retrospective work in today’s world? Paul would be unflattered indeed but I am minded of Jacob Rees-Mogg who notoriously begins many of his parliamentary speeches on current issues with historical parallels:

“I was thinking of Achilles sitting in his tent “ or
“I thought I would go back to Odysseus”

These do not really help; our knowledge of the classics has diminished and in any case it is all so far away from our time. I wonder then is our faith likely to be illuminated by the fall of the walls of Jericho, will they make a sufficient argument? Or have we dismissed the ancient miracles as being from a time before enlightenment and no longer pertinent to us?

But witnesses are important. My own curiosity to reestablish a connection with formal religion was stimulated by the witness of others. A man whose skills and comportment I admired was known to be a church going man - he did not flaunt that but it was a matter of general knowledge and was never denied. It made me pose the question, the one that Paul is trying to answer with his lists of past evidence of faith.

“If my man believes and practices then surely there must be something in it, I cannot simply dismiss it and in any case I want some of what he seems to have.”

Statistics show that by far most people come to faith in childhood, which is why the church spends such energy on the young. Today the regular and formal teaching of religion in schools, in assemblies and so on, a way of life until a few years ago is largely absent. Because of this there are large numbers of completely unchurched, those who have no idea of faith at all, as well as (and it is an ugly word I know) the dechurched, those who fell away as other interests took over in their lives, those who were driven away and there are diverse reasons for that and those who have been persuaded by modern secularism that there is no God.

So today the  witnesses are few. I am I know preaching to the choir, this is something we all know, but of course it makes it the more important that in our diminished cloud we witnesses well.

And we can - how interesting, by the way, that Dr. Ince having been persuaded to stand in the All Saints pulpit for better audibility said wittily “If only my mother could see me  now…” and after a moment of what seemed genuine reflection added “she would be proud.” You see despite the many failures of the churches, and they have been very great, there is still a general goodwill towards those who faithfully attend, who profess, and serve and I would say there is a hope that thoughtfulness, peacefulness, compassion, generosity, truthfulness will prevail - that the values we espouse will permeate the world.
We try to exhibit these, not ostentatiously, but gently and with humility and as far as possible consistently. In this way we ARE the cloud of witnesses and people will see it and will I pray say to themselves “I want some of that.”


Thursday, 15 August 2019

Can we be ready?

Luke 12:32-40

There was a time when I had a boss who was more difficult than most and it took me a while to understand why. It turned out that he had been involved in a very serious industrial accident, suffering thirty degree burns, spending many months in hospital and having been expected to die. This had changed his whole attitude to life especially to taking risks and in his case not in a good way: he swapped out his wife for someone new, moved halfway across America, took up a new career, burned the candle at both ends and all at the same time. The trouble was he grafted his ideas onto others insisting for example that a quiet, shy, family man up sticks from the outlying suburbs of Cincinnati and move alone to Tokyo or face being fired. Following on from last week he “seized the day” alright and expected everybody else to follow. He was difficult to be around professionally and socially. There is a lesson to be drawn though:

It is one thing to read ”For the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour” and another to really feel and experience that. Greg felt it for for him the Son of Man had almost come, the house had been broken into and the thief was on the stairs. How much I wonder would our lives be changed if from the start we did know the hour of our death? It would perhaps make some things easier but in my view it is a mercy that we do not and it means of course that we do have to have the lamps lit and be dressed for action in case the master returns.

It is rather a frightening thought - will we be, are we ready? What shall we feel if Jesus came in that door just now, while we are all here,? I am sure we will recognize the Lord as he walks along past the hymn books, turns the corner in front of the wall painting of St. Christopher, and comes up this North aisle. But what will we feel, what will we be saying to ourselves, will we be ready?

Perhaps the confession from the morning service will be the most appropriate:

Almighty and most merciful Father, we have strayed from thy ways like lost sheep. We have followed too much the devices and desires of our own hearts. We have offended against thy holy laws.
We have left undone those things we ought to have done and we have done those things that we ought not to have done. And there is no health in us.
O Lord have mercy on us miserable offenders.

Or then again those words from the general confession - we have sinned in thought word and deed. Especially the thoughts, for Jesus knows all this, he knows every thought on our minds before it is formed, every word on our tongue before we hear them -  how can we be ready?

“Do not be afraid little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.”

Please hear that “It is the Father’s pleasure to give us the kingdom; you may be aware of a strand of thinking that we earn our place in heaven but discard it. We can never really do that - the gift of eternal life, the gift of heavenly rest and peace, of the good things that the Father gives us are from his grace and we can be ready only when we live in a way that anticipates - our wicks are trimmed, our oil  replenished,  but which anticipates that meeting with Jesus here in the chapel knowing all and still taking pleasure in giving us his love.


Friday, 2 August 2019

Emerging from retreat

The first thing to say is that the generosity of the community of nuns at the Community of St. Mary the Virgin is so gently offered that you may overlook it. I arrive bearing the impedimenta of the world, car, telephone, computer, Google, not to mention maleness into a society that has lived together, reclusively, for years. They have grown older together, watched their sisters die, worshipped together and established a pattern of being which is focussed on their desire to know God more nearly. There is nothing boring, repetitive or unexciting about that nor I suspect about their lives as a whole but it is sustained by rhythm, peace and cadence. Yet I am welcomed (and many are welcomed) into the poem, breaking in as it were into a late stanza without the benefit of the earlier pages. This is my third year in Wantage, yet it is still, even knowing what to expect and what I came for, difficult to fall into the pattern, feeling awkward, atonal, making a colon where there should be a comma. Yet I am welcomed into their spaces, their chapels, libraries, refectory, garden and silences. The generosity so gently offered is overwhelming in magnitude.

Emerging from this into the town there are innumerable words, all around in snatches of caught conversation crashes of sound which are jarring. Firstly swearing, lots of it, outside the pub, from the windows of a passing car, among the school age, between friends somehow exchanging greetings, men women children. No poetry here, only a short drive from the dreaming spires; it is painful. The some mothers with small children issuing warnings: do not run you will fall and cut yourself, no you cannot have them now, you will drop them and lose them. Some lewd remarks are heard in the market square.

And all this, usually just so much background, is picked out unwantedly as I walk to sit on a bench in a graveyard and in doing so I recognize how truly generous the sisters have been.
But they know that.