Preached at St. Finnbarr’s Dornoch
Preached at St. Finnbarr’s Dornoch
I am a student of Zen.
For over twenty years I have studied the writings of Zen masters, most notably the modern day Vietnamese Zen Master and beautiful man, Thich Nhat Hanh. In them, and in the Zen practitioners grace has enabled me to walk alongside, I have found that my own spiritual life in Christ has deepened into a life of contemplative prayer and living. Whilst the Church has been, and remains, the home in which I find community and expression of my calling, it is through Zen Buddhists and those of the Christian faith who embrace Zen that I have I have come to meet my ‘Original Face before I was born’ – a Zen Koan riddle I have no intention of explaining. You can explain it to yourself if you wrestle with it long enough, and then allow it to wrestle with you!
At least every Sunday I preside at the Eucharist. In my younger days I used to be very precious about the theology of this rite: how Christ is present, how it is sacrificial, etc. I was a staunch defender of seeing how my identity both as a Christian and as a priest was tied up in this rite.
I have real difficulty with superficiality in worship. For me prime examples of this are many of the ‘praise choruses’ of the ‘Mission Praise’ style-stuff when they’re used in adult worship, usually led by a praise band. To me they come across “Jesus, we love you. Yeah we really really really really love you”. They don’t, for me, inspire awe and wonder, nor an immersion into the depths of the Divine Life. They’re more the Birdy Song, but for churchgoers (1980’s reference – if you’re too young, go look it up on YouTube or something). Maybe not ALL of them, just 99.999%.
O Beloved, I offer my repentance.
I, a hunter, have sought you like prey, out to capture you in false words and faltering actions. Made you small. Displayed you as a safe prize for the admiration of others. Kept you under control.
Or so I thought.
The ego-mind illusion has dropped away. You are no prey. You are not safe in tidy neurons.
I never sought the Light that shines, the Heart that Beats. I was too fearful. Too small.
Yet, desire kindled, the flame of Divine Life warmed me and I drew close to that fire and in that enraptured comfort both found and was found.
You are Life. My Life. My Ground. My hope. My joy.
Not in straw cages of the human creation but in the very heart. Lover and beloved. No separation. No distinction. The one I sought was my very truest Self. Time to laugh at The other-ing of my foolishness.
Keep away my fear. Envelop me in you and you in me. There is but One.
My Life. My Ground. My hope. My joy.
The declaration, in the past few days, by David Cameron, that by 2020 a total of 20,000 refugees would be resettled within the UK is, to me, a major disappointment. It seems but a token gesture designed to assuage the growing cry for a compassionate and just response for those seeking not a better economic life but simply a life away from the terror of the bomb and the gun. For me as an Episcopal Priest, I find it devoid of the rigour demanded by Jesus in caring for the poor and dispossessed. It is an attitude lacking any meaningful sense of a duty of care. Unfortunately, this seems to undergird the current ideology of the UK Government.
The thing about having been on restricted duties due to ill health is that it allows much more time for reflection. In many ways the past few months have been an extended experience of grace, an opportunity to explore what I think, feel and believe.
I have for a while being rethinking the nature and purpose of the institutional Church. The words of the Nineteenth century theologian Alfred Loisy are drilled into my brain:
Jesus announced the coming of God’s kingdom, but what we got was the Church.
Stay for a time, if you will.
Call to new searching eyes the echoing of yesterdays
as once a figure, be-cowled, a consecration of watchfulness and waiting
might have also echoed earlier yesteryear.
Stand with that ancient Peregrino and look
thrice-times look into darkness.
Is not the Siren Dark but a blinding of light,
a witness to the hand of eternity?
To us who run, crash, burn in a twinkling of time,
is this unchanging Titan not also watching, waiting?
Its silent stillness soliciting oration from the foundations of the earth,
an everlasting hymn of praise to the Light of the Heavens?
Through its millenial regard of those which pay so little heed
to the yielding skin of earth, are we not also captured in its harmonic
heart, raised alongwith those blest of visions beatific?
So that, alive to the now, joining in its ancient quietness
we find footing in that stillness,
daring to speak the language of sweet song celestial.
For a long time I’ve believed that ministers in congregational ministry should encourage engagement with political thought and process as the out-working of the Gospel but should stay clear of publicly dictating which party best fulfils that. I still feel it is not my role to dictate party affiliation but I can no longer keep silent where I feel government policy and praxis is blatantly at odds with the Gospel imperative.
The Kingdom of God is a political entity in the widest sense of that term. It has values that promote inclusion, equality of access, healing for all, challenge to massive wealth inequality, a refusal to label the vulnerable (which is what is meant by ‘judge not lest Ye be judged’). This means that the people who ultimately claim to be Christian have to accept that this is what it means to be a citizen of heaven here on earth. Whilst this is aspirational it is also something we are required through baptism and Eucharist to be committed to fulfilling both individually and corporately, since as Paul says, Christ cannot be divided. The church should work with partners of goodwill to transform society into a place where those values thrive. Not all believe in God as a personal being but many believe in the societal values the Gospel espouses. This may mean encouraging or challenging the state and political animals within it.
Over the past years we have seen the burden of austerity fall upon the least able to bear it whilst any hint of additional taxation upon the wealthiest is met with the usual threat to take money elsewhere – effectively oppressing those who have no such freedom of financial or geographical mobility.
We have seen a land of food banks, praised by the government as an example of The Big Society at work whilst that same government simultaneously decries anyone who asks why they should exist in the first place when the UK can, seemingly, fund a replacement for weapons of mass destruction.
We have seen the failures of health and educational services blamed on practitioners whilst those questioning the underlying issues of lack of financial and human resourcing that create impossible conditions of service are touted as enemies of the free market – branded as being at best misguided, at worst as dangers to civic society.
We have seen those on welfare scapegoated as ‘takers’ whilst corporate and non-domiciled Tax avoiders go largely unchallenged by the government. After all why would you cut off your own tail, one which seems too often to wag the dog?
I could go on but you get the picture. As I see it we increasingly live in a society where the political elite in UK government use the poor and vulnerable to maintain a broken system that continues to benefit the wealthy and privileged. I would like to think that at least for some it is that they simply do not understand. Understanding or not, this cannot go unchallenged. To do so would be to fail in our call to discipleship of The Man for Others.
However, the calling to justice is one that must arise out of following the Christ who leads us into that thing which the Biblical Prophets call Mercy. For them mercy is the active response to a life lived in prayerful connection with God. Mercy flows from God and emerges into this world through our compassion and wisdom, the imperative to ‘love one another as I have loved you’.
In mercy we pray for those charged with exercising governance and leadership, that they in turn may govern in that same spirit of compassion with wisdom. In mercy we raise our voices for the voiceless when the system dominates and fails them. In mercy we challenge those policies we see as running counter to Mary’s cry of ‘lifting up the lowly’. In mercy we refuse to stay silent when we witness oppression. In mercy we challenge those values and attitudes that reduce a human being to an economic unity.
In mercy we are honest with ourselves, lest that thing that Jesus challenged so frequently – hypocrisy – brings a dissonant chord to the sound of our voices.
And in mercy we forgive. We seek to build, not destroy.
I know there will be those in my Church denomination and indeed within some of my own congregations who will disagree with my equating recent policy with a lack of wisdom and compassion. Some may criticise me for not following the expectations of sticking to ‘religion’ (although I maintain that the outpouring of faith and our Christ-like living is based on our response to issues of social justice and the well being of society).
C’est la vie. I can live with that far more easily than being unable to look into the eyes of another victim of unfettered Captalist dogma. Now THAT’S a real religious agenda….