Bahai faith – by Myah Popat

Full face upper bodyMyah is a second-year Theologian at Pembroke College Oxford

The Bahai faith was founded in 1863 in Iran by Bahaullah, who we recognise as the most recent manifestation of God. Essentially what the faith teaches is that all religions are equal and important as the prophets that came in past times have been part of a great progressive revelation. They are educators from God that give us moral guidance and teach us to embrace the arts and science – successive chapters of one religion from God. Because of this we do not believe that the Bahai faith is the ultimate or final revelation of God, but rather we believe that the teachings Bahaullah brought were specific to our generation, that it was tailored to our needs of the time and place – and that in the future, as we grow as humanity, another prophet will come and teach more, renewing our understanding of an infinite God. Our key beliefs rest in the oneness of God and religion, the unity of humanity and freedom from prejudice, the progressive revelation of religious truth, the development of spiritual qualities, the integration of work and service, the fundamental equality of the sexes, the harmony between religion and science, the centrality of justice to all human endeavours and the importance of education. We believe in independent thought guided by Bahaullah’s teachings and focus on the importance of discussion within community – a community which must be free from any sense of superiority, and one devoted to learning and action. We also do not believe in proselytising, but focus on the importance of being good people and good examples in the world, encouraging independent thought and autonomy. Because you cannot be born a Bahai – you must choose it when you turn 15 if you’re raised in a Bahai family, I chose to be Bahai last year when I had been in contact with the faith for around a year, and had completely fallen in love with it.

 

I think in our generation we are keen to call ourselves “spiritual” rather than religious, but for me I saw a lot of strength, power and freedom in following rules and being guided by Holy texts because it reminds you that you are not the centre of the universe. I wanted to be part of a religion that didn’t impede on my right to think, to be critical or to embrace the changes of the time – but I did want a religion that guided me, that taught me things, that imposes rules that I may not necessarily always understand, but that should ground me and humble me nonetheless. The Bahai faith was perfect for me, I could so proudly listen to Jesus telling me to turn the other cheek, Mohammed telling me to not search for the faults in others, Krishna telling me to desire less and love more, and Buddha encouraging me to stop overthinking. There are so many incredible teachers, and the Bahai faith tells me to listen and learn from them – and it also offers its own prophet. Bahaullah challenges me to understand my own humanity and process it in the most human way possible – by turning to God.

 

In the faith we don’t have a clergy or a priest, so when we have times of hardship or when we struggle we turn to one another our community that is totally equal without any hierarchy. I thought that today I could be part of your community and share a few of my favourite quotes for dealing with difficult times and pain, probably one of the most universal feelings and experiences. Bahaullah writes in his Seven Valleys: “If there be no pain, this Journey will never end”. Pain and death and hardship in suffering, in Bahai – like in Christianity, is one of the most valuable things we have. When misunderstood pain hurts – it hurts our ego, it reinforces our fears, but when put to good use pain can change us and grow us closer to God and closer to ourselves. It is important to recognise that suffering is never deserved – you aren’t at fault when you lose someone closest to you or when you are unwell, but it is an inescapable reality that we must let burn, when it burns and let it go when the time comes. A prayer Bahaullah gave us reads: “Glory to Thee, O my God! But for the tribulations which are sustained in Thy path, how could Thy true lovers be recognized; and were it not for the trials which are borne for love of Thee, how could the station of such as yearn for Thee be revealed? Thy might beareth me witness! The companions of all who adore Thee are the tears they shed, and the comforters of such as seek Thee are the groans they utter, and the food of them who haste to meet Thee is the fragments of their broken hearts.”. Pain can be the way we reflect on our motives, how we treat one another – it can remind us of the pain that we don’t feel, that others that we oppress through structure and patriarchy do feel. It is the greatest guide towards happiness as it takes everything we know to be “needed”, “good”, “important” and reminds us that we can be holy and joyous even in times of strife, much the prophets. Bahaullah’s daughter Bahiyyih Kahnum wrote: “Something greater than forgiveness she had shown in meeting the cruelties and strictures in her own life. To be hurt and to forgive is saintly, but far beyond this is the power to comprehend and not be hurt.” and “ … if one tried to hurt her, she would wish to console him for his own cruelty..” It is part of our humanity to find things difficult, for this to end, to be destroyed and to degrade and reduce – but it is part of the divinity within our humanity to look to our pain and struggles to not feel the pain as it is experienced by our ego but rather to reassess it as an essential opportunity to grow spiritually and experience every part of this human life. To be human and finite and small is not a curse or a flaw, but rather an opportunity to embrace our humanity, our finiteness and smallness and go beyond this to grow into something slightly bigger and wiser. It is through humanity and human experience that we can truly come to know not only ourselves, but God.

 

Being Bahai, one way I have learnt to embrace this humanity is by not drinking alcohol. It sounds strict and scary and imposing, but I realized that through avoiding anything that compromises my reasoning or perception of the world, life was harder, brute – at times less palatable, but I would be able to face my humanity and all the issues that come with it, more authentically. I’d like to end on a quote – not by Bahaullah but something I think is very Bahai nonetheless. Something that could relates to all persons universally, united as one in our community and in our human experience: – “What if it’s about choosing to experience life not heightened or dulled, not amplified or quieted, not harder or softer, but exactly as it is? What if it’s about trusting that when life is joyful or miserable or thrilling or boring, it is that way because it is supposed to be, not because it needs anything to make it more fun or more tolerable? And what if you get to be present for that—for all of it?”

 

 

 

 

 

 

God in Ordinary

 

A sermon for the First Sunday after Trinity, Fairacres Convent.

God in ordinary – we have had the superlative experiences of Lent, Holy Week, Easter, Ascension, Pentecost and Trinity Sunday – and now it is back to Green liturgical colours here at least. The week of Chapter has concluded, elevated thoughts about the sacrifice of religious life offered in superlative terms of Russian monasticism, has given way to getting back to the kitchen, or to the bursary, or to the laundry. The ordinary is where our life is lived, where grace is to be found, though it may not feel an elevated or excellent path.

Our gospel this morning [Mark 2:23-3:6] has Jesus living, healing and confronting in ordinary time – well, actually, the sabbath. The point of this story helping early Christians struggling with the balance of keeping cultural norms of the Law, and the needs of living mission to gentile communities. The stories in the gospels model a respect for the Sabbath which doesn’t imply that humanity or creation is made for the Law, but the Law given to make human society godly. The first lesson points this out – the Sabbath is not merely a cultural signal, nor an exclusive possession of Israel. Slaves, foreigners, aliens are all to be protected by its care, too. We are not made for any religious obligation, but they are stepping stones on the path to God.

Jesus heals in today’s gospel deeply hurt and angry at the hardness of heart of those who resent healing coming to another. If we want an insight into ‘the wrath of God’ look no further. God’s wrath is not a fury that possesses him so that he stomps around in destructive bullying. He doesn’t get so angry that he goes off and leaves the situation unresolved, the person unhealed – what we might do, when we let ourselves get personally offended and ‘spit our dummy out’ as the saying goes. But he is truly angry, as Aristotle in his Nicomachaean Ethics observes:

Anyone can become angry – that is easy. But to be angry with the right person, to the right degree, at the right time, for the right purpose, and in the right way – that is not easy.

Jesus is moved in the pit of his stomach for all involved – the blindness and arrogance of those opposing love comes from somewhere ungodly. He wishes of course to heal the whole situation. His passion cannot be hidden – he yearns for a new ordinary state of human beings – where we don’t make our religious life a theatre for our egos to play out. Where we don’t diminish another person by humiliating or manipulating them. And he is hurt and angry because he loves the sinner and sees us as sick, even as we are sickening!

What is it that makes us want to put another down and defend our own position – putting ourselves in the right? Is it just an inevitable function of being an imperfect creature, of being ordinary rather than extra-ordinary, of being at best ‘good’ rather than ‘excellent’? Oxford University rather idolizes excellence – after all it’s about reputation. But isn’t the notion of excellence really a terrorizing fantasy? It is a distraction from the wonder of God in ordinary – his power and purpose deeply woven into the whole creation – there in everyone and everything.

The notion of excellence seems to be propaganda to justify ourselves and make us special. While excellence in art and music and character and work and love is beautiful and inspiring, can this ordinary time open our eyes to the wonder of the ordinary?

There was a popular TV programme recently, David Attenborough’s Blue Planet – a careful filming of the ordinary life of our oceans – seeing whales and squids and octopus and conger eel in their beauty and rather frightening power. That is the ocean’s ‘Ordinary time’ – the programme managed to pay attention in patience and wonder to the ordinary, to what would normally pass unobserved.

Might this ordinary season challenge our disappointment in ourselves and one another, and rekindle deep down in pit of our stomachs a sense of awe – that we and those around us may not be Einstein or Karl Barth, but wonderful all the same? It’s a time to look, really to attend to the things that are most near to us but which we are most likely to miss.

“Learn to be content in the Ordinary.” In our drive for excellence and talk of constant improvement, we never learn that gift of contentment, indeed we can despise it as smugness or laziness. Many graduating students are set on a career trajectory of excellent achievement. Will they know what to do when they reach it? What will be the cost to character or family in the process? Like bankers working all the hours they have to spend enormous bonuses in champagne parties – it’s as if they learned everything apart from how to live.

Contentment is far from ordinary – but a gift to be enjoyed and a source of healing grace. It means “finding God’s sufficiency within yourself.”  Everywhere and in all things – in Eucharistic language ‘At all times and in all places’ – αὐταρκεία priompts us to find God in our ordinariness, where we are, who we are. This morning’s gospel shows us that the drive of life in society has always always distracted us and emphasized what we are not and what we want to be. There has always been communal neurosis and anxiety which implied that our real, ordinary lives are not adequate.

The heart, the moment, the ordinary, this second is a wonderful, miraculously ordinary place.

The heart itself is but a small vessel, yet dragons are there, and there are also lions; there are poisonous beasts and all the treasures of evil. But there too is God, the angels, the life and the kingdom, the light and the apostles, the heavenly cities and the treasuries of grace—all things are there. St. Macarius

With that wonder, with this as our ‘ordinary’ – let us rejoice and be glad in this ordinary day, which God has made.

 

Corpus Christi: the Church as Body of Christ

CORPS-ET-SANG-DU-CHRIST929x1219An address at Fairacres Convent on the Feast of Corpus Christi. A conversation and tutorial with Noel Cheong is gratefully acknowledged as inspiration in this address.

A visiting student from Asia this week asked why it is that the Queen of England has two birthdays. I tried to explain that one was personal and another a national celebration. It made me think about what people sometimes say about the Church’s birthday. There are different answers possible. John’s gospel seems to indicate that it was brought to birth through the labour of the agony on the cross: ‘Mother, behold: your son’; and to the Beloved Disciple – ‘behold your mother’. Pentecost might be the ‘Official Birthday’ – when the disciples who had been through so much in 50 days find themselves now empowered. But Corpus Christi also has a place – the Eucharist in the midst of the Church proclaims the future and destiny of creation. That sounds as impossible as any miracle in the bible! Look around you, this is the future and apex of creation.

In most English Bibles, “church” is a translation of the Greek word ἐκκλησία, which usually refers to an “assembly” and has overtones of those who have been “called out”, and is used in the Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible to refer to the Israelite “assembly of God”.[1] The Church is God’s present means of saving and serving the world in its needs, the ark of salvation. Some traditions emphasise the rescue of the soul from eternal damnation, others emphasise the liberation of human beings from oppression. The church offers to the world an imperfect but true representation of Christ and his kingdom, and thereby through its example, its service, and its proclamation of the Word, reconciles people to God.

The past century has witnessed various attempts to re-formulate the doctrine of the Church. One of the most influential attempts is represented by the Second Vatican Council (1962 – 1965), which asserted the sacramental character of the Church. Lumen Gentium articulates, “The church, in Christ, is a kind of sacrament – a sign and instrument, that is, of communion with God and of unity among all human beings.”[2] This idea is developed by Karl Rahner (1904 – 1984), who speaks of Christ as “the actual historical presence in the world of the eschatologically triumphant mercy of God,” whereby it is “possible to point to a visible, historically manifest fact, located in space and time, and say, ‘Because that is there, God is reconciled to the world.’”[3]  Because you are here, God is reconciled to the world. Christ’s historical existence is “both reality and sign, [sacramentum and res sacrament], of the redemptive grace of God,” in Rahner’s view, “the Church is the continuance, the contemporary presence, of that real, eschatologically triumphant and irrevocably established presence in the world, in Christ, of God’s …[saving]  will.”[4] Henri de Lubac (1896 – 1991) echoed this view, stating that the church “not only carries on his [Christ’s] work, but she is his very continuation.”[5] This represents a development of Lumen Gentium, which, “did not suggest that the church is a sacrament,” but rather that the church is “like a sacrament” insofar as it was a visible representation of a spiritual reality.[6]

Stanley Hauerwas (b. 1940) nuances Rahner’s emphasis on the sacramental role of the Church as the contemporary presence of Christ in the world. He writes, “[Christ’s] presence is not confined to the church. Rather, it is in the church that we learn to recognize Christ’s presence outside the church,”[7] He reminds us that God’s Spirit helps the Church in moments of blindness, stubbornness and sin to  see. Remember the parable of the last judgement in Matthew [25.35-40] when Jesus seems to identify himself with the materially impoverished – we need the grace given to the Church to see Him. The Church is also, then, “the clear manifestation of a people who have learned to be at peace with themselves, one another, the stranger, and of course, most of all, God,” and that “it is in the church that the narrative of God is lived in a way that makes the kingdom visible.”[8] He then explains how the church is to be a community of virtue, presenting to the world a Biblical image of patience and peace. Thus, for Hauerwas, the nature of the church lies not in its sacramental identity, but in its role as a “foretaste of the kingdom”. Despite these differences between these great and generous thinkers and servants of the Church there is an underlying unity. They alike recognise that the church is not the full story, but is pointing towards something greater than itself

So, in case we haven’t noticed, the church is not perfect. Augustine of Hippo emphasised the sinfulness of Christians, with the church as a corpus permixtum (“mixed body”) of saints and sinners, rather than a “pure body” of saints.[9] Karl Barth (1886 – 1968) concured, commenting that although the church is “the communion of saints…sancti means not specially fine people, but, for example, people like the ‘saints of Corinth’, who were very queer saints.”[10] “But these queer folk, to whom we too [can]… belong, are sancti, that is, [those] set apart – for holy gifts and works [of love].” In confessing belief in “the holy catholic church”, we affirm not the moral perfection of the Christian community, but our calling to perform deeds of righteousness in the world, for which the church has been “set apart” to serve.

This coming Sunday, Oxford will witness the Catholic Community walk from Blackfriars through the streets to Campion Hall. They will have a rather lovely band, and they will sing sacramental hymns. Thirty years ago, I moved into St Luke’s House in a rough part of Wednesbury, and just before I was ordained, was asked to crucifer for the Corpus Christi procession past the pub and park and through the council estate. The band on that occasion was the Methodist Church’s Boy’s Brigade band, and all they could play was ‘Here she comes just a walkin’ down the street, singing dooba dooba dibby doo dibby doo’. As I have told you before (when I sang the words) I was initially mortified, but came to enjoy it, and begin to understand it, especially as the faithful didn’t sing Sweet Sacrament Divine as planned but the words to the tune that was repeatedly played, with the blessed sacrament in our midst. The church carried Christ into the real world of Wednesbury and even sang a popular song whilst doing so.

I think the great theologians – Barth and Rahner and Hauerwas and even Vatican II – would approve. The Church is ordained to function as an ambassador, of which one of our primary responsibilities is “the proclamation of the Word of God.”[11], “The Church lives by its commission as a herald… Where the Church is living, it must ask itself whether it is serving this commission or whether it is a purpose in itself,” it’s always timely to beware of self-idolatry in the Church. Borrowing the ark-imagery, it seems to that the church is not just like Noah’s ark, sealed off from those perishing in the flood, but like a lifeboat which draws all the perishing into salvation.

Today is a great day to enjoy, then, a scandal that we are the future of creation and the world’s lifeboat institute!

At 7am this morning walking through the centre of Oxford, there were clearly rather a lot of people who were suffering, lost, broken, suffering from mental health issues – the homeless on our streets, a woman rocking by the bank, a man standing crying. A lot of people needing the spiritual RNLI.  For all we are not, the church, we, are the hope of this broken and wounded world, we’re not the Messiah – that’s for sure – but the Real Presence as truly as in the tabernacle, we are the body of Christ, his people: here she comes, just a walkin’ down the street, singing!

In the nae of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.

[1] Edward Schillebeeckx, Church: The Human Story Of God (London: SCM Press, 1990) 146.

[2] Alister E. McGrath, Christian Theology: An Introduction (Malden: Wiley-Blackwell, 2011) 385.

[3] Karl Rahner, The Church And The Sacraments (Exeter: Burns and Oates, 1986) 15.

[4] Ibid., 18.

[5] McGrath, 385.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Stanley Hauerwas, The Peaceable Kingdom: A Primer In Christian Ethics (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1983) 97.

[8] Ibid.

[9] McGrath, 380.

[10] Karl Barth, Dogmatics In Outline (London: SCM Press, 1966) 144.

[11] Barth, 146.

The Inviting Mystery that is the Trinity

A sermon for Trinity Sunday at Fairacres Convent, 2018. Preacher: Andrew Teal.

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In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Our preacher tonight at Pembroke College, it is a former curate colleague of mine from Yorkshire. When she realized that she was preaching at an Oxford College on Trinity Sunday, she expressed a sense of exasperation. ‘Why have you asked me to do this on this day? You’ll be teaching the Trinity to the students!’ And indeed, over the next three weeks there will be many scripts to mark, on the development of Christian doctrine, and the Trinity in Christian thought. So, if I look a bit ragged you’ll understand why! Sue was actually saying something similar to what Jesus says to Nicodemus in today’s gospel. ‘Are you a teacher… , and yet you do not understand these things?’

I’m glad to say that I don’t understand these things. I’m glad to say that although I relish the beauty and intrinsic interconnection of the doctrine of the Trinity, I cannot understand God. St Gregory of Nyssa admitted that he doesn’t even know what human person is, and he is one – so he can’t possibly begin to explain God in Himself in all his mystery, or what a divine person is. God graciously makes himself known to others in his divine energies, but we can never understand these things. And how beautiful that is – to know that we are loved by, and in love with, another whom we cannot control, nor utterly predict: anything that we can say about God is not God. Any doctrine we may have has the purpose of casting us onto God, not giving us the low-down about him.

And yet, as the doctrine makes clear, this mysterious Love, beyond all Being, beyond our understanding, has made himself authentically known. We may not be able to know him in his Mystery, and yet we shall see him as he is, in Christ.

The Spirit unites us to the one who has united us to himself, our life is taken up into the divine dance. So all our words and actions are invited into the presence and persons of the Trinity.

How can we speak of this in a world that wants soundbite tweets of 140 characters or less? Where do we begin to invite our world into the timeless light and brightness, the loving embrace of the Father in the Son through the Holy Spirit?

Let’s leave aside the fact that every other Christian community throughout Christendom is singing ‘Holy holy holy’ to the tune Nicaea at this moment today, to be followed by a sermon trying to find imagery worthy of the subject of the Trinity, with images of triangles, cloverleaves, or pictures of an old man behind the crucified Jesus and a dove. Let us instead look at the image which is on our altar – St Andrei Rublev’s Hospitality of Abraham. The image is of God manifesting himself to the patriarch. St Ambrose of Milan (like many others) spoke of the story in a trinitarian manner:

Abraham, ready to receive strangers, faithful towards God, devoted in ministering, Quick in his service, saw the Trinity in a type; he added religious duty to hospitality, when beholding three, he worshipped one; and preserving the distinction of the persons, yet he addressed one Lord; he offered to three the honour of his gift, while acknowledging but one power. It was not learning but Grace which spoken him, and he believed a better what he had not learnt than we who have learnt. No one had falsified the representation of the truth and so he sees three, but worships the unity.[1]

St Andrei Rublev embodies this blending of hospitality, gift, revelation and grace. He uses geometry to form our perception – the circle is there in the outline of the three, the triangle from the head of the central angel downwards, the Cross – the central axis (tree, central angel, small chalice) with the heads of the other two angels. Other observations abound – an octagonal shape enfolds them all… whatever their meaning, Rublev uses them subtly. One effect I find is that the eye doesn’t easily land in one place, the look from one angel to another creates movement, and the rods they hold point us upward, and the figures themselves seem to form a chalice, a transport of delight depicting, or, rather, suggesting the Mystery without explaining or containing it. The painting seems less about colours than light – the icon doesn’t seem to have light from any side, but from the centre – no hint of an external source of life and light that would create shadows, but there is a luminosity pulsating from the centre.

Few preachers can get where this image would have us travel – mystery, unity, diversity, hospitality, reciprocity, gracious revelation, love to offer the world as true food.

Today we can and must be grateful for those who have and who continue to articulate this life-giving Light of the Holy Trinity in words as well as images. Like a mathematician or physicist amazed by the beauty of an equation, or a biologist at the complex beauty of the world, we can relish the wonder of the Trinitarian accomplishment by people of faith and humility. But like a beautiful feat of engineering or atomic research, we can use this wonder as a dangerous weapon with which to beat others. That’s not what true doctrine is for – to expose and attack the faults of others, No: the Trinity, as we can glimpse in Rublev’s work, is an open invitation, a revelation of God in human terms and images, the depiction of a God far more mysterious and wonderful than any expression of him, but who allows himself to be accommodated to our small minds and wounded souls – who visits us unexpectedly, receives our hospitality, and weaves our lives into the dance of the three persons in one God by uniting us to Christ for ever by the All-Holy Spirit.

To this generous, kind and welcoming God, who is awesome mystery and immense might and wonder, be all glory and honour, and our love and faithfulness, now and to the ages of ages.

Amen.

[1] Ambrose, On the Death of his Brother Satyrus. Book II, para 96.

Trinity Sunday: an address by the Revd Sue Bond

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At Pembroke College Oxford, Sunday 27th May, 2018: Trinity Sunday

Exploring the glorious nature of God who is Three-in-One is not limited to Trinity Sunday but there a particular opportunity today to reflect on what that exploration might involve. Surprisingly perhaps, it was a holiday in Rhodes last month that helped me reflect on the encounter with holy God who is Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

My husband, James, and I stayed in Rhodes Town and every day we visited the Old Town which had captured our hearts and imagination. As the guide book says, ‘It is UNESCO’s number one world heritage site [which] catapults you back 2500 years into history … Buildings erected by the Byzantines, Crusaders, Jews, Ottoman Turks and Greeks are embedded in the ancient fortifications.’ It is beautiful, especially in the warm sunshine. We felt that a good place to start our serious exploration would be the Museum of Archaeology, which was highly recommended and we thought we’d learn a lot.

With high expectations of excellent curation and guidance through the complex history of an important ancient town it was extremely disappointing when we looked at the first interesting artefact in the open courtyard: a beautifully preserved ancient stone lion, that there was no sign to explain just what it was and from what era. As we wandered about the lower courtyard there was nothing to teach us more about what was displayed.

As I was grumbling that no one provides information boards like the English National Trust, we clambered up steep stone steps, and James suggested, ‘Let’s just allow the atmosphere to wash over us.’

On the next level in the sunshine, without pointers to guide us through any of it, we discovered numerous intriguing components to the space before us. As we wandered the winding pathways there were small lush gardens, heavily laden orange trees with falling fruit below, fragrant flowers, exquisite cool ponds, ancient stone staircases, eerie tunnels, gateways and doors, the constant sound of trickling water from hidden fountains, huge stone buildings with mysterious-looking Ottoman screens at the windows, tombstones inscribed in Hebrew, trees whose giant roots clasped huge cannon balls. The contrast of bright light and dark shade contributed to a truly amazing experience. It was full of surprises. And of course there were no information boards to explain any of it – thank goodness.

Inside what had been a medieval hospital there was a carefully curated museum of ancient Greek sculpture and next to it an enormous, imposing church used by Crusaders with tiny dark chapels and stone memorials remembering the Knights of St John.

Being outside had been most memorable. This lovely museum made perfect sense to us as somewhere we’d inhabited for just an hour or so, and although we hadn’t explored every square cm, touched every object or read a plaque for each artefact, it was sufficient to capture the sense of it. Far from being chaotic, the apparently unplanned nature of this place allowed for constant surprise and delight. The diverse nooks and crannies revealed beauty and mystery which made more sense and offered a taste of peace rarely, if ever, known in the best designed visitor experience.

Of course the museum was not unfathomable. I imagine those who work there or visit regularly do know every corner well, and especially as a workplace there’ll be little mystery or enigma, but the gift of surprise and delight for this first time visitor was something to treasure. Such an experience of beauty and unexpected loveliness may nudge us towards appreciating the pure beauty and boundless loveliness of God.

Ezekiel’s vision of the Glory of the Lord with its strange and beautiful creatures set beneath a crystal dome uncovers the reality that God transcends human dimensions and cannot be reduced to physical descriptions. Ezekiel doesn’t presume to describe his vision but suggests ‘something like;’ so ‘something looked like fire’, ‘something like a throne’ ‘like a bow in a cloud on a rainy day,’ ‘like gleaming amber,’ ‘like sapphire.’ He concludes, ‘This was the appearance of the likeness of the glory of God.’ Ezekiel had a life-changing vision of the glory of God and concludes ‘When I saw it I fell on my face.’ Getting close to apprehending the Almighty is completely humbling.

Resting entirely on our own understanding inevitably puts limits on what is to be known about God. More than that it is too burdensome. Having faith in the mystery of an omni-present God, which we glimpse when we encounter beauty or experience love, encourages us to trust our sense of apprehension. Whilst we might constantly seek to know more of God, this side of heaven, our understanding will always be partial. That is enough, more would be more than we could bear by ourselves.

Just as salvation is not something we gain or receive on our own but comes to us through our relationship both to God the Holy Trinity and to other members of the human family, our understanding of the nature of God is discovered in community. Individual experiences of beauty, purity and love do contribute to the Church’s understanding of God’s nature but there is more.

The Blessed John Henry Cardinal Newman says, ‘Firmly I believe and truly God is three and God is one.’ For him, there is sufficiency in the faith of the Church. The Church’s celebration of God as Trinity speaks to us about our fundamental identity as community. For Newman, life in Christ draws us into that community where collectively we find the search for truth about God’s nature, which gives us dynamic life and our true identity.

Too often the cares and demands of life prevent us from realising that a relationship with God who is Father, Son and Holy Spirit is neither elusive, nor something we can grasp. Trinity Sunday encourages us to keep open mind and senses to explore and appreciate the signs of God who reaches out to us in the world. Amen.

 

 

 

 

Abiding Journeys

Myles has played the organ for us here in Pembroke for over two years: he is director of music, lay chaplain, and supernumerary Fellow at Harris Manchester College. He will be leaving us to join Helen-Ann, his wife, who is the newly-appointed Bishop of Ripon in the summer. We are unfeignedly thankful to him, especially for this fine sermon preached in Pembroke Chapel on 29 April, 2018.

In 1925, London-born author G. K. Chesterton wrote, ‘There are two ways of getting home; and one of them is to stay there. The other is to walk round the whole world till we come back to the same place …’.[1]

Thank you so much to Andrew for the most kind invitation to speak this evening: it’s exciting to be in another part of chapel!  If I may, I would like to take this opportunity to reflect on the themes of journeying and abiding that we have heard in the readings, and to share some experiences of my own travels.

I wonder how many of us have had unexpected journeys, where we have found ourselves on roads and routes that we could not have anticipated or imagined?!

Helen-Ann and I would never have anticipated visiting New Zealand, let alone living and working there, but exciting and unexpected opportunities arose for us to leave posts in Oxford in 2012, and we had a very happy six years there: two in Auckland and four in Hamilton, both on New Zealand’s North Island.  In Hamilton, I worked as an organist, and Helen-Ann was Bishop of Waikato: a large Anglican diocese with wonderful diversity of rural and urban areas, which even included the town of Matamata – used by Peter Jackson as his location for Hobbiton in his film adaptions of J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings trilogy.[2]  Local friends joked that Helen-Ann was bishop of the Shire, and in fact one Ascension day, Helen-Ann ascended part way up Mount Ngauruhoe with a party of teenage girls – the very volcano Jackson used as Mount Doom!

Thankfully, all went well, but it was significantly more challenging than the tower ascent Harris Manchester choir will be doing next week for our Ascension day Service!

It’s good to reflect on Tolkien here: in this, his own college, where he was a Fellow whilst writing his epic narratives of journey The Hobbit, and first two volumes of The Lord of the Rings.  Bilbo and Frodo Baggins, central characters of these books undertake dangerous, unexpected and arduous journeys with companions, and return home transformed: the progress implied by the Chesterton quotation. Bilbo himself is an author, and entitles the record of his journey, ‘There and back again’.

Helen-Ann and I feel that we have been there and back again, have walked around the world even – albeit with thanks to Air New Zealand.

I even feel a sense of return here in this very chapel. Though I’m from Cumbria originally, from the age of eight I was a pupil at the Cathedral School on Brewer Street, just the other side of the chapel’s south wall, and next door to the birth-place of Dorothy L. Sayers.  She was a friend of the Inklings, and translator of Dante’s poem of the spiritual journey, The Divine Comedy[3] – Dante, son of Florence, where the choir toured in 2016.  At school I used to practise the organ at Campion Hall, and Oxford has felt home to me for a long time: a place to abide, to use language from the NRSV John reading, or a place to remain, to use the translation of the Greek word ‘menō’ by Campion Hall’s Nicholas King.[4]

Indeed, as we move towards the end of the academic year, for some perhaps a time of uncertainty concerning the next step, this college and chapel are places of abiding: places that we can hold onto and return to, even many years after the exams have been sat, and the dissertations submitted.

I certainly had an abiding connection to the UK whilst overseas, but was ever grateful for the amazing opportunities of New Zealand, the incredible welcome and hospitality of friends and colleagues: a true ‘home from home’.  I learned a great deal about abiding in that country, strength of family connections and friendships, Anglican faith and identity, particularly whilst in Hamilton, and from Māori and Pacific Island friends. Māori have the wonderful word whanau, meaning extended family, friends and community.  In a real sense, this college and chapel are examples of whanau.

To use a motif from the visual arts, an integral symbol for Māori is the koru (the Māori word for ‘loop’), which is a spiral shape based on the appearance of a new unfurling silver fern frond. You see this in carving and tattooing, where it symbolises new life, growth, strength and peace, a symbol very similar to the vine for John.

John’s vine imagery encapsulates Jesus’ teaching about relationality, about home and dwelling in God: Jesus the true vine, God the vine grower, and the branches called to bear fruit, inter-connected to the very source of being.

If we relate these themes to the Acts reading, Philip’s unexpected journey, to borrow Peter Jackson’s film title, shows that such abiding is not a place of stasis, or of comfort necessarily.

Through abiding in God, Philip is called to a hard desert journey, at first seemingly without reason.  In hindsight, through his meeting with the Ethiopian official, Philip enables new branches to grow on the vine: individuals and then whole communities both in Ethiopia and nearer to Philip’s home: physical and spirit-filled journeys of unexpected relocation and profound transformation.

The image of the vine also highlights that pruning is necessary for growth and transformation; the vine cannot prune itself!  To return to the journey metaphor, this is to recognise our limitations: that we can only carry so much for the road, only travel so far alone – to recognise that there are moments to grasp, and moments to release.   In words of the New Zealand poet and medical doctor Glenn Colquhoun,

The art of walking upright here

is the art of using both feet.

One is for holding on.

One is for letting go.[5]

 

Or, in words of Ecclesiastes chapter three, translated by Nicholas King:

For everything there is a time,

and a time for everything under heaven:

A time for giving birth, and for dying;

a time to plant, and a time to pluck up what was planted;

A time to kill, and a time to heal;

a time to destroy, and a time to build up;

A time to weep, and a time to laugh;

a time to mourn, and a time to dance.[6]

As a music finalist here, I remember a sense of holding on and letting go in selecting which topics to revise fully, which to consider in a more general way, and which to omit; similarly, I remember the sense of release, and dare I say relief, on handing in submissions.  At occasional times of feeling overwhelmed by revision and sense of limited time, I was given comfort by the advice to be attentive to the present moment – to rest in uncertainty if need be, to abide:

A similar message perhaps to these words from the New Zealand Prayer Book in the liturgy for night prayer:

It is night after a long day.
What has been done has been done;
what has not been done has not been done;
let it be.

The night heralds the dawn.
Let us look expectantly to a new day,
new joys,
new possibilities.[7]

In this time, season, and place of new possibilities, I would like to finish by wishing you a wonderful continuing Trinity term – good luck to finalists, and those with exams and submissions!

Inspired by this place, community, whanau and home, may we abide in our journeys: whether academic, work-related, physical or spiritual, even dramatic and unexpected like Philip’s, and may we enjoy the companions on the way.

To return to and echo the theme of my initial Chesterton quotation, I conclude with an extract from T. S. Eliot’s Little Gidding, the final poem of the Four Quartets:

What we call a beginning is often the end

And to make an end is to make a beginning.

…..

We shall not cease from exploration, and at the end of all our exploring will arrive where we started, and know the place for the first time.[8]

 

Amen.

[1] Chesterton, G. K., The Everlasting Man (Hodder and Stoughton, 1925).

[2] J. R. R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings (Allen & Unwin, 1954 & 1955).

[3] D. Alighieri, The Divine Comedy, volumes I & II translated by D. L. Sayers D.; volume III translated by D. L. Sayers & D. Reynolds (Penguin, 1949, 1955, 1962).

[4] N. King, The New Testament, Freshly Translated (Mayhew, 2004).

[5] ‘The trick of standing upright here’ by G. Colquhoun from The Art of Walking Upright (Steele Roberts Ltd Aotearoa, 1999).

[6] N. King, The Bible, A Study Bible Freshly Translated (Mayhew, 2013).

[7] A New Zealand Prayer Book He Karakia Mihinare o Aotearoa (The Anglican Church in Aotearoa, New Zealand and Polynesia, 1988).

[8] T. S. Eliot, Little Gidding (Faber & Faber, 1942).

Arte et Labore

The above arrangements, though in the Convent Chapel, are not those referred to in the address, below.

Address at Sunday Eucharist, 6th May, 2018, Convent of the Incarnation, Sisters of the Love of God, Oxford.

This morning’s address comes courtesy of Blackburn Rovers Football Club. Yesterday, at the match in Lancashire, opposite where we were sitting, was their Latin motto: Arte et Labore. ‘Gift’, skills given by God, Grace, without which there would be nothing; together with labour are needed; because without disciplined practice and working, those God-given gifts, the seed that God has planted, can be choked because of the world, folly, and laziness: and come to nothing. Fruitfulness requires God to plant the seed, and our active response and participation which allows that seed to grow.

There’s an anecdotal story about a vicar visiting a gardener, and having to listen to all the stories of her hard work over the years. Perhaps through boredom, or wanting to reprimand her lack of faith, he challenges her with the words: “Don’t forget that it is God who is the source of all beauty and fruitfulness: he is the real gardener.” Her response was “All I can say is that you ought to have seen when it was left to him alone!”

The lectionary readings today have in common an acknowledgement of the Christian community’s development in understanding of what to do now that the Lord is raised. Acts explores the practical boundaries between Christian community and the Jewish Church, which values and norms are lasting? It is Peter, so often depicted as the Conservative Jewish-orientated leader of the apostles, who asks the question “Can anyone really withhold baptism” from those in whom Holy spirit is clearly present? This is part of the unfurling agenda in which all foods, peoples, and nations are declared clean. (Acts 10:44-48).

This startling departure redefines Israel’s priestly rôle for all nations. Cultural distinctiveness and identity is seen to have come to fruition, not in a radical departure from the vocation of Israel to be a light to the Gentiles, but in a new fruitfulness and power: this is a victory which we hear of in the second reading, from the first Epistle of John (1 John 5:1-6), a victory of love, bringing obedience and faith to equip all to love God and all His children: ‘this is the victory that conquers the world.’

The Gospel (John 15:9-17), yet again this week, with simple vocabulary drives home a straightforward truth, which is difficult to appropriate. To be fruitful, as we heard last Sunday in the story of the vine and vinedresser, depends upon our abiding in Christ; being in communion with him means being connected to one another, so that we, to adopt a phrase of Sister Anne, might “love our neighbour whatever”.

But despite this being repeated Sunday after Sunday since Easter, as if saying “How many times do I have to tell you this?!”, despite this theological priority and power, it is remaining in the love of the Father for the Son, and being satisfied with the Holy Spirit which is that Love, that is so very difficult.

Again and again we vainly imagine that there are other theological truths which are more significant than this communion, participation, and unity. And the Church’s history is peppered with schism and heresy, which put opinion over communion. God is relationship: he is communion. And yet despite our stubbornness, God has not abandoned us, even when we refuse to see that we are all still part of the same vine which is Christ. He has left us no ‘perfect church’ or single communion which we are to join: he has not abandoned us, in whatever branch of the Church we find ourselves. ‘I call you friends; I choose you; I appoint you to be fruitful’ Jesus says in the gospel. The commandments he gives us are not absolute ends in themselves, but given to equip us to love the Lord, and one another, and remain in that love which is the All-Holy Spirit – as St Seraphim makes clear again and again.

Many problems and disappointments we may feel as we earnestly make our intercessions, how often that which is longed-for does not come, and the end we have asked for remains elusive: we must abide, remain, and continually pray that the deepest level of unity, in the mystery of God himself, be not breached by any of our impatience, folly, inadequacy, or sin.

Abiding, remaining, is not always easy. Far from it. We remember with love and affection sisters of this community who travelled with us for however long, but who found that abiding here was just too hard: not what they thought it would be, or not what they were really for.

And even if we don’t leave, how many times a month do we, in the words of George Herbert, do we strike

the board, and cry

No more! I will abroad! (‘The Pulley’)

It’s very hard to see sometimes what we are all contributing, or able to make a difference, how we might serve, even, when all the opportunities we’d like to take seem hemmed-off. But he has chosen us; loved us; and in his mercy, placed us where we are to serve him, even if, in this life, we can’t see how.

Last week there were moments of God nudging this blind and unobservant priest speaking to you. In the Eucharist on Thursday the words of the Eucharistic prayer “how wonderful the work of your hands O Lord” nearly stopped me in my tracks. The magnitude of the word meant I suddenly found it difficult to just push on. In Sister Claire Louise’s words, I had almost say to him ‘Put me down, Lord: I have to finish this!’ It is a rare but wonderful thing to be surprised by a familiar truth, which comes from beyond ourselves.

But it was last Sunday in particular that I was struck by another extraordinary vision. I so often don’t notice things like flower arrangements, but I was left nearly breathless as I saw one in front of the Lady Chapel, one of the foot of our Lady, and an arrangement at the bottom of the lectern. They opened me up to see what is here every week, and indeed all around me all the time. I sort of understood what their beauty was really about. Floral arrangements at special occasions, (wedding receptions, college “dos” and the like) can be rather showy things, putting on a front. But these arrangements were ‘all around’: someone had placed purple tulips by the altar and by Our Lady, among other flowers with variegated green around the lectern. They were arranged in such a way that made one aware of the space between the flowers. The arrangements made the flowers, the blossom, and the leaves – all beautiful in themselves – into a connected arrangement: a model of communion. And it was this arrangement, which the flowers had not themselves chosen, that showed and enhanced the space, and ordered wonder between them.

God arranges us, unique and beautiful in ourselves, loved ultimately by him, in such a way so as not to be a showy ‘front’, but to make visible his Love: to show the beauty of space in creation: to make visible the invisible God.

That is a sacramental sign to remind us to trust the Lord in his wisdom, who knows what he is about: he who has chosen us, places us is in such a way together that his arrangements are truth, and love, and light for the world. Our mission, therefore, is to remain where he places us: to live really in this present, knowing it won’t always be the mountaintop experiences of religious inspiration, or always receiving gift upon gift, but there will also be the need for labour, for laborious obedience and trust. Arte et labore, as the motto of the newly promoted Championship team Blackburn Rovers tells us: as laborious as it is, as impatient as we can get, abide in this Love: remain in him. That way, we can learn the patience to appreciate that this Arranger knows what he is about: let’s remain where he has placed us – until we are clothed with the power from high.