|Posted on 30 October, 2019 at 4:40||comments (0)|
Lest We Forget.
In a few days’ time the town will gather around the memorial on Market Square. The familiar words of the Kohima Epitaph will be read out, words from Lawrence Binyon’s poem, the Last Post, a chiming clock – the Silence.
For one hundred years this autumnal ritual has been performed. When an act of commemoration was inaugurated to mark the first anniversary of the end of the Great War I doubt any suspected that a century later it would still be observed. I doubt anyone thought that within a few short years the world would be at war again but this year we mark 80th anniversary of the beginning of that Second World War. And this autumnal ritual of remembrance continues. When I was first ordained it was not uncommon to see veterans of the wars on an Armistice Day parade. But the years have taken their toll: I have taken funerals of a good number of men (and a few women) who served during WWII; now there are very few left. It will not be many years before there is no veteran of the war left.
As a young(ish) curate I would often ask about wartime experiences. These mini-biographies helped shape the way I approached Remembrance Sunday. There was one group for whom the war was the best thing that ever happened to them. It gave them opportunities and broadened their horizons. They wore their medal with pride and would readily talk about (some of) their experiences. At the other end of the spectrum there was another group who never talked about the war; for whom Remembrance Sunday was a difficult day often spent in silent reflection in the privacy of their own homes. They may have been awarded just as many medals but those medals rarely saw the light of day for the memories associated with them were still, decades later, too hard to face. I remember an elderly gentleman in a nursing home being traumatised by an afternoon entertainer who led a sing-a-long of wartime songs in one of the day rooms. He was too frail to remove himself and the staff couldn’t understand why he was so distressed.
When I lead the service on Remembrance Sunday my mind is full of the stories that I have heard over the years, but most especially the stories of those who wanted to forget what they had experienced but were never able to. For me, this is not about glorifying war but about remembering the horror that so many lived through: some died, others carried the scars, mental and physical for the rest of their lives. As the generation that survived the war passes the motto of the Royal British Legion ‘Lest We Forget’ become ever more powerful, for if we do not remember, who will? If we do not remember history will repeat itself.
On this Remembrance Sunday we will pray, as we always do, for ourselves and for those wo would do us harm; we will pray for a world of peace where war is known no more; we will pray for that day when God’s Kingdom of justice, righteousness and peace will be known by all humanity. But in order to meaningfully pray for all these things we need to remember.
|Posted on 30 September, 2019 at 5:50||comments (0)|
I have just returned from a week at Launde Abbey in the rolling hills of the Leicestershire countryside. It was a retreat for clergy of a certain age who had served for a good number of years and had quite a few more years to go until retirement. The title of this piece – Celebrating wisdom – was the theme of the retreat. Whilst I was there I read a bit bout the history of the place. It was an Abbey before the dissolution of the monasteries. The small chapel is the only part of the original building. A country house was built on the site. In the 1920s Launde Abbey was bought by a gentleman without consulting his wife. Not such a wise move. She did not like it as it was too remote and so the house and land was given to Leicester Diocese.
On the retreat we were given tasks to help focus our thinking about who we were. How did we get to where we are? Why are we where we are? What might the next five, ten years look like? Where is God in all this? As we discussed our work in small groups I was surprised by how many resonances I found with other people’s stories. The certainty of youth had given way to ‘fifty shades of grey’; ambition and drive had become more nuanced and subtle; speed and energy had mutated in slower reflective practices. That which had been important in the past was less so now. The word that is so often put with mid-life is ‘crisis’: a recognition of what we are losing or never achieved followed by a ‘foolish’ attempt to gain or re-gain our youth – a motorbike or sports car, a trophy wife, etc. I have no idea how old the gentleman was who bought Launde Abbey without consulting his wife but it did seem to me that this was a rash act and could well have been an early form of mid-life crisis.
It can be so easy to look back at missed opportunities and try to re-gain what we have lost but this retreat encouraged us to look at the bigger picture; past, present, and future. It is only when we look at the whole picture that we can see the patterns and themes of our life, the changing priorities, and those things which are most important. But throughout it all is the constancy of God, ever present with us and calling us to follow him.
|Posted on 3 September, 2019 at 3:45||comments (0)|
In 1984 the Latin American theologian Gustavo Gutiérrez wrote a book spirituality from the perspective of the poor in Latin America – the book has become a classic and its title I have chosen for this month’s piece. ‘We drink from our own wells’ was a phrase I kept thinking about whilst on holiday in France. We were encamped on the banks of the Gironde, downstream of Bordeaux. The weather was hot and with the exception of one evening there was no rain. Now for someone on holiday who like the heat this was pretty good but signs were all around, if you were prepared to look, that this summer was not good for the locals. Irrigation of crops had been banned, car washing likewise. There might have been plenty of water in the tidal estuary but the reservoirs were low. In short, water was scarce. France is not in as bad a condition as some countries… yet. In Durban, SouthAfrica, households have been limited to 30 litres of water per person per day. That is 30 litres for everything – washing, cleaning, drinking, cooking, watering plants… France may not have put a limit on how much water can be used but the water pressure in the mains system has been reduced which makes having a shower at certain times of the day difficult.
We drink from our own wells. The well is a source of water and hence life but if we pollute the land then the water becomes contaminated and unfit to drink. Throughout history people have safeguarded the land to protect their water sources. Some of the public health laws in the Old Testament giveinstruction about avoiding contamination of water sources. The problem for today is not so much contaminated water as not enough water – the wells are dry. Demand for water is the highest it has ever been but changing weather patterns have made it harder to capture rain water – long dryperiods followed by flash floods for a day or two does little to restock the reservoirs.
Gutiérrez begins with the poor of Latin America and their struggle for life. He plots a spiritual journey through a wilderness where the need forspiritual water is as essential as finding water in a desert. Gutiérrez’s well is the resurrection of Jesus Christ, the source of life and victory over death. This is the well to which he leads us and it is to this same well that we must come if we are to really make sense of what is happening in our world. If we have created for ourselves a wilderness where water is scarce then we need first and foremost to return to the source of life to help us examine how we live in the world God has given us.
|Posted on 12 July, 2019 at 4:35||comments (0)|
The Archbishop of Polynesia
Little did I realise when I wrote back in February on ‘environment matters’ that climate change was going to feature so large in the consciousness of the diocese this year. Last month brought severe flooding in Wainfleet – the RAF deployed to transport tonnes of ballast in order to plug the breach in the river bank. The diocese is co-hosting (with the University of Lincoln) a conference on climate change this September with expert speakers flying in from around the world for the conference (oh the irony!). One of those speakers has been in the diocese for several weeks already; he led the ordination retreat and preached at the ordination services. The topic of climate change featured prominently in those sermons. The reason for this focus was that the preacher was the recently retired Archbishop of Polynesia, Winston Halapua. His diocesan office is in Fiji and he has episcopal responsibility for many Pacific islands and their communities. Five Pacific islands have already been lost to rising sea levels: others are at risk.
When the River Steeping broke it banks due to heavy and prolonged rainfall, people were (relatively) easily evacuated from their homes. The clean will take time and much that was valued by those whose homes were flooded will have been damaged or destroyed. Repairs will be made to the river banks and better flood defences put in place. This has happened in Boston and other places around the country. A consultation is even taking place in Sleaford about flood risk and management.
In the Islands of Polynesia the challenge is both more critical and more complex to deal with. As sea levels rise the low lying islands (never getting more than a few feet above sea level) are at serious risk. What defences can be built in such a situation? Some of these islands and their communities are already losing the battle with the sea.
Archbishop Winston is using his time in England to draw attention to the plight of his people and to educate us about the effects of climate change as felt by those most affected. The Pacific islands may seem far removed from us but Archbishop Winston reminds us that the Christian faith on these Islands is because of the work of a pioneering missionary, John Hunt, from Lincolnshire in the 19th century.
The Anglican Priest and poet John Donne (1572 – 1631) wrote the words
No man is an island entire of itself; every man
is a piece of the continent, a part of the main;
if a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe
is the less, as well as if a promontory were…Â
If we replace the word Europe with ‘Fiji’ or ‘the global community’ Donne is making the same point that Archbishop Winston wants to make. When Pacific Islands are lost to the sea we are all the less for it.
|Posted on 12 July, 2019 at 4:30||comments (0)|
Operation OVERLORD – D-Day
A service has just taken place to mark the 75th anniversary of D-day. Dakotas are preparing to drop parachutists into Northern France, some of the in the 90s. Ships are sailing once more to drop men on a short beach, some of whom were there 75 years ago. A few years ago, when he was still the president of the USA, Barak Obama said, “It was unknowable then, but so much of the progress that would define the 20th century, on both sides of the Atlantic, came down to the battle for a slice of beach only 6 miles long and 2 miles wide.” That progress that Obama speaks of came at a significant cost: 14,00o allied troops were injured or killed on that first day alone, some of them drowning in the sea before they ever reached the shore, others mown down in a hailstorm of gunfire. In the Battle of Normandy that followed there were in excess of 425,000 allied and German fatalities but that figure is much higher if you include the French civilian casualties. Some of those who today are retracing their steps of 75 years ago have only recently been able to begin to speak of the horrors that they endured. The few survivors today stand in stark contrast to the great cost. The American novelist, Barbara Kingsolver, writes, “There’s a graveyard in northern France where all the dead boys from D-Day are buried. The white crosses reach from one horizon to the other. I remember looking it over and thinking it was a forest of graves. But the rows were like this, dizzying, diagonal, perfectly straight, so after all it wasn’t a forest but an orchard of graves. Nothing to do with nature, unless you count human nature.”
We live in unsettling times – the world doesn’t feel as secure as it, perhaps, once did. The progress Obama spoke of may even seem a bit fragile. Long years of relative peace and security have perhaps bred a certain level of complacency. But that progress was one at a great cost of human life and that is the principle reason why we must remember. I suspect that this will be the last significant anniversary of the D-day landings when those who took part are still able to attend but we must remember. One of the dominant themes of the Old Testament is remembrance: when the people remembered their history and of all that God had done for them things went well, when they didn’t thing went awry. Each year they recited a great stamen of their collective identity: ‘a wandering Aramean was my father, he went down into Egypt…’ And so each generation is linked afresh back to Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph…the story of the Exodus. And for us Christians, through the communion service and the last supper, we too are linked into this great story. Each communion service is an act of remembering who we are what God has done for us.
As time increases the distance between us and the Battle of Normandy we need to learn how to re-tell that story afresh so that the progress together with the cost will be remembered and learned from for generations to come.
|Posted on 26 April, 2019 at 5:50||comments (0)|
At 5.30a.m. we gathered outside the church. The morning was not too chilly, although there had been an early fog as I drove to the church. Because of the lateness of Easter this year even at 5.30 there was more light than we normally experience as we gathered around the watchman’s brazier. The Pascal candle was lit from the fire and carried into the still dark church. As the candle was lifted above the font the sound rang out – The Light of Christ!
The sunrise service is, for me, the highlight of the year. The drama of the service is augmented by the forces of nature. We proclaim The Light of Christ whilst it is still dark but soon the light of our candle is augmented by the risen sun. the light of our candle become superfluous in the full light of day. I always think of this service in dramatic terms – the liturgy is brought to life with movement and light, with taste and smell (it is one of the services where we use incense). We journey from the churchyard to the font and from the to the nave. After hearing the Gospel, we process through all the side chapels, before arriving at the high altar to receive the first communion of Easter.
But it is this movement from darkness to light that makes this service special. On our journey we always stop at the font – the place of baptism. Here we are buried with Christ and his death (being dipped in the water) and rise to new life with him. Baptism tells the story of the crucifixion and resurrection. That is why the newly baptised are given a candle (the Light of Christ) and why the Pascal Candle stands near the font for most of the year.
The darkness of Good Friday is vanquished on Easter morn. The light of the risen Christ now shines in the darkness and the darkness cannot overcome it. But we live in a world where the darkness can seem very dominant: Christians murdered in their church in Sri Lanka as they celebrated Easter, is but one example of some many things that are happening in our world today. But that is why we need to sing: Alleluia, Christ is Risen!
It is because Christ is risen, because of Easter that we have hope. The powers of darkness have been vanquished and the Light of Christ is with us today. This is the hope of the world. And as the light drove the darkness out of the church building on Master morn we pray for that day when the light of Christ will shine so brightly in this world that all will know that the risen Christ is Lord.
|Posted on 2 April, 2019 at 4:20||comments (0)|
This morning the RAF Music Service announced that in 2020 there was to be the first Space Parade and that several well-known marches were being adapted for the occasion. The announcement was made in a short film in which the RAF Regiment Band performed the RAF March Past arranged to include elements of major themes from the Star Wars films. This morning is, of course, the 1st April. It was a cleverly planned item of fake news in the best tradition of All Fools’ Day. The origins of this day are obscure: it is probably referenced in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales (1392). Some suggest that it is a subversive parallel to All Saints’ Day and a version of the medieval Feast of Fools (mentioned in Hugo’s Hunchback of Notre Dame) which was celebrated by the clergy, often on the 1st January. If this is correct then it forms part of a long tradition of carnival and jesters and which perhaps reached its zenith in the crowning of a boy bishop for the day. Although the Feast of Fools was condemned by both Protestants and Catholics, and severe penalties were imposed on those who celebrated it as early as 1431, there is evidence that it continued to be observed in Paris well into the 17th century.
But was this simply irreverent tom-foolery or is there something more serious that lies beneath the surface? Mikhail Bakhtin has done a lot of research on the role of the comedic jester and carnival in literature. He argues that the carnival and the jester both subvert the power structures of their day whilst simultaneously speaking truth to those in power. The court jester had unparalleled access to a king and through comedy could (and did) say things to challenge the king that no-one else would dare to say. I wonder if contemporary politics might be different if there was a court jester in Parliament.
In much of Jesus’ ministry he challenged the power structures of his day, and through numerous stories encouraged those who listened to him to look at the world from a different perspective. St Paul talks of the cross being a stumbling block to the worldly-wise because this instrument of shame is subverted to become a symbol of victory.
All Fools’ Day may not be part of the liturgical calendar of the church but let us not lose its challenge to look at the world and its power structures from a different perspective and dare, in the name of Jesus, to speak truth to those in power.
|Posted on 28 February, 2019 at 6:30||comments (0)|
I sit, writing this, in a T-shirt! The outside thermometer reads 16 degrees Celsius. It feels more like a warm April, or even an early June, than February. On the day of writing the news reported a gorse fire on Arthur’s seat in Edinburgh, and moorland fires on the Yorkshire moors and in Wales – scenes rather too reminiscent of last summer. But this time last year many events were cancelled or postponed due to heavy snowfall.
Even if you are sceptical about some of the claims made by climate change pressure groups and what we need to do to avert an environmental Armageddon it is hard to deny that our weather is even more unpredictable than it usually is. But changes in the weather – global warming – is but one aspect of a wide range of environmental issues that are currently in the spotlight. The popularity of Veganuary – the Vegan Society’s push to encourage people to try veganism for a month – is well noted and much of their publicity emphasises the benefits of this diet both for human health and the environment. Although there is much that I disagree with in their publicity they are right when they make the point that what we eat and where it come from has an impact on the planet. The same might be said of what we wear: recent research has shown that a lot a clothes bought today are only worn five times before being thrown out. But if that item of thrown-out clothing has a high nylon content if will take a minimum of 40 years to decompose in a landfill site.
Over the past 40 years the way we live has been radically transformed: from what we eat and wear to our sources of energy and information. All of these changes have had some impact on the world we live in. We live in a finely balanced ecosystem so changes in one area will affect other areas of the ecosystem – not always in a manner that could have been predicted.
The Bible has a lot to say about the world that we live in and humanities relationship to the environment. Some of the obscure dietary laws and other less read areas of the legal texts in the Old Testament can help us to think more clearly about how we live ethically in the world today. This year’s Lent Course is going to look at some of the key environmental issues of our time and explore how the ancient Biblical texts might help us think and act on these issues more clearly.
|Posted on 30 January, 2019 at 6:30||comments (0)|
ST VALENTINE’S DAY
by The Rev’d Philip Johnson
I wonder how many people, when going out to buy a bunch of red roses on February 14th, realise they are celebrating a saint’s festival day. It probably isn’t helped by the fact that most retailers and hospitality establishments (pubs & restaurants) advertising this day in order to maximise profit tend to drop the ‘St’ from before valentine’s name. So what does an earlier Christian martyr have to do with the secular festival of courtship and love that it has become today.
First, we probably ought to ask who Valentine was. Actually there are two – both martyred and both celebrated on the same day (Feb 14). One was aRoman priest and doctor, martyred under Claudius II in about 269 on theFlaminian Way, where a basilica was built in his honour in 350. The other was a bishop of Turni who was brought to Rome where he was first tortured and then executed under the direction of Placidus, the ruling Prefect, in about 273.
The origins of the modern Valentine’s Day are probably rooted in theauthor of the Canterbury Tales. In a lesser known work, Parlement of Foules, Chaucer wrote ‘For this was on seynt Volantynys day, Whan euery bryd comyth there to chese his make.’ [For this was on St. Valentine’s Day, when every bird cometh there to choose his mate.] This poem was written by Chaucer to mark the first anniversary of the betrothal of Richard II to Anne of Bohemia – they were both 15 years old! – on the 3rd May 1381.
However, in the mediaeval church calendar there was a third St Valentine’s Day. May 2nd was the feast day of bishop Valentine of Genoa and it is almost certainly this Valentine’s Day that Chaucer referred to.
The dearth of historical evidence about these various Valentines and thecommercialism that has been increasing since the time of Chaucer has led to the relegation of this feast-day in the modern calendar to something barely noted. It is thought that no British Church has ever been dedicated to St.Valentine and probably never will be. But why should rampant commercialism cause us to neglect these saints. Why were they executed? Because theyrefused to bow down to the idols of their day. So, let’s reclaim St. Valentine’s Day as a Christian feast and remind ourselves that there are things more important than that which the world idolises.
Happy St. Valentine’s Day
|Posted on 3 December, 2018 at 4:50||comments (0)|
ADVENT - O COME, EMMANUEL
by The Rev’d Philip Johnson
Advent. The coming. The countdown to Christmas… well that is how it is often seen. A calendar window to open every day with the promise (if the parents have bought the right one) of a small square of chocolate behind each window. In church we light the advent candles marking off the Sundays of Advent. There are themes that go with these candles: the patriarchs, the prophets, John the Baptist (the pink candle) and the Virgin Mary. There is however an even more ancient sequence for Advent based on the Four Last Things: death, judgment, heaven (the pink candle), and hell. You are probably not too surprised that the church focuses on the sequence of the Patriarchs through to Mary in the principal services – most people coming to church on the Sunday before Christmas would not be expecting a sermon on hell! But we forget this ancient sequence at our peril.
The narrative of promise and hope from the Patriarchs to Mary prepares us to celebrate once-again the gift of God’s son to the world: that is why we can sing Emmanuel – God with us. But that is only part of the story.
Advent helps us to prepare for the fulfilment of God’s promise in the advent of the Messiah but it also points us towards a promise, as yet unfulfilled, when Christ will come again. Every Sunday in the Eucharist we say ‘Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again’. Advent helps us to prepare for that reality by reflecting on the themes of death and judgement, heaven and hell. Will we be ready to meet our God face-to-face when he comes again? One of the anthems sometimes sung in Advent has the line ‘thou knowest lord the secrets of our hearts’… are we ready for the final judgement by God who knows us better than we know ourselves? These aren’t, perhaps, the most Christmassy thoughts but just as we know that God is with us because of Christmas so advent reminds us that Christ will come again as King and judge of all.
Have a blessed Advent,