Tuesday, 17 July 2018

Is it right for Christians to be rude about their politicians?

The apostle Paul says: I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings should be made for everyone, 2for kings and all who are in high positions, so that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and dignity. Recently, I came upon a Facebook post chastising someone for criticizing Donald Trump, and used the quotation above from 2 Timothy to suggest that we should pray rather than criticize our leaders. I suggest that we have a twin vocation: to pray for our leaders, and to hold them to account. That will sometimes mean criticizing them, both in our prayer and in other forms of communication.
How might we criticize our leaders in our prayers? In the fashion of the psalmists, when they lament to God the corrupt or self-serving nature of the leaders of the day. At that moment, prayer becomes a safe place for saying the things we feel deeply but dare not express publicly.

But it is more than that. In those cries – which are sometimes so strong that they offend us deeply in a more touchy age – we call for justice and for change, not just for revenge. We ask God to help our persecutors to understand and feel what it is like to be helpless, at the mercy of powers stronger than us. We call for change.

We ask God to bring about change, but we also understand in political prayers that we too may need to be part of bringing the change into being. So in prayer we

1.      Interpret current events in the light of the great story of God
2.      Critique political actions through the Spirit’s prompting, in the gift of prophecy
3.      Act out our displeasure

There has been much debate about whether it was right to float a cartoon blimp of the ‘baby Donald Trump’ over London. Apart from the fact that cartoons and lampoons are a long-established part of the humour and political commentary of this nation, we know that the prophets of our tradition were not infrequently called to act out their prophetic words in a kind of zany divine drama. I’m not wanting to suggest that those who floated the blimp are thereby acting as the voice of God, but their humour might just serve as a prophetic warning.

Maybe most importantly, we must not use criticism to aggrandize ourselves at the expense of others. Politics is too important for that, and our words of criticism, our humour and our outbursts need to serve the common good. But I am grateful that in this nation, we have the freedom to express ourselves in that potentially prophetic way, and of course to receive the criticism that will come our way. We too, like Donald Trump, are fallible, flawed human beings.

Approaching my own death

Jill and I read Malcolm Guite's poem 'Westward' this morning in prayer, and were struck by the final words: "We watch the sunset, but we tread the dawn." Then, praying Psalm 90, my mind was drawn towards my approaching 70th birthday, and the clichéd words: "The days of our life are three score years and ten, or if our strength endures, even four score." I hope that it doesn't sound morbid to say that I often now think about my approaching death, which I want to grasp well. But it meant that 'watching the sunset' hinted to me - as I'm sure Malcolm intends - that watching for my own death, watching, if you like, for the fading of the light, is a good and blessed thing to do.

So of course is 'treading the dawn' or 'walking in the way of the resurrection'. Gerald Manley Hopkins puts it like this:

And though the last lights off the black West went
Oh, morning, at the brown brink eastward, springs.

I think that Malcolm Guite must have had this in his mind when he wrote his sonnet. But whether he knew it or not, here I now am, rooted in the present, reaching towards the future with curiosity and with some trepidation, delighting in the mixture of darkness and light that makes up our experience of faith. The accompanying photograph was taken from our balcony in South Africa, probably at the end of a thunderstorm, but it too has that blend of light and darkness, of smudge and freshness, which makes up the rough stuff of life tinged with the glory and compassion of God.

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.