slowKirk

Faith, Food, Farming and Human Survival. This is my place for sharing my interests, images and reflections on my work and issues that matter to me. You can feedback to me on minister@greyfriarskirk.com
Fri Jun 1

Kindling and Extravagant Hope

At key moments in human history circumstances have led to seismic shifts in human consciousness and the rise of new ways of thinking and acting. The emergence of agriculture in the Neolithic period 10,000 years ago saw hunter – gatherer people’s domesticate animals, raise crops and create the first cities. Other shifts in human consciousness have taken place with the rise of ancient civilisations, and in Europe the Renaissance, the Reformation and the Enlightenment have ushered in the modern world as we understand it today.

As human beings adapt and develop, study and pray, settle and explore, their resilience, ingenuity and imagination contribute to a groundswell of thinking that frequently leads to a “paradigm shift” in human thought and behaviour. For most cultures understanding will change as new truths and new circumstances emerge. Our world view is rooted in a psycho-spiritual as well as a material and intellectual framework. We have belief systems about how the Universe works, how human beings interact and, from the algebraic formulae first pioneered by Arab culture, to the realms of contemporary science, we have gained insight into how the earth system works too. Faith communities may differ in their conclusions but physical circumstances play their part in shaping the thinking of all people’s and the current threats of climate change, resource scarcity and environmental degradation impact on all cultures equally. They demand a response and it may be that Providence is moving humanity towards a new form of consciousness and inviting us to embrace new ways of being on this fragile earth.

At Greyfriars Kirk in Edinburgh, where I am the parish minister, the National Covenant was signed in our Kirk in 1638. It is sometimes described as the greatest moment in Scotland’s history and was marked by violence, deep intolerance, religious fanaticism and persecution. But it is possible to characterise this turbulent period in history as revolutionary, ushering in a shift in thinking and human consciousness that helped to create the modern western world we know today. What was happening in Scotland at this period has eddied down the centuries and continues to shape and challenge human culture, from the American Declaration of Independence in 1776 to the Arab Spring of 2011/12.

Up until the beginning of the 16th Century, the idea of the Divine Right of Kings with its origins going all the way back to the Mesopotamian kingdoms that were at the heart of the Agricultural Revolution 10,000 years ago went largely unquestioned. God ordained and anointed rulers, and it was those rulers who controlled the political and religious life of nations. In the Reformation period and in the writing of the National Covenant a new perspective was beginning to take root. The idea of individual conscience, the democratic intellect and a vision of the value of each individual were beginning to be articulated. The seeds were being sown for the patterns of democratic governance and human rights and that we now take for granted in the west and promote with such vigour across the globe. 

Humanity is on a journey, a pilgrimage, constantly moving into new territory and is being invited to look with fresh eyes. The manner in which we organise our lives, institutions and cultures is in a constant state of transformation as events, insights and circumstances challenge us.

The last few generations have witnessed a time in which the needs, fragility and stresses on the Earth have come much to the fore. For centuries we have assumed that the Earth was an inexhaustible resource and we have only recently begun to see that the well being of the earth and the viability of the human community might actually depend on our capacity to cherish and care for it. Additionally, people across the globe in almost every psycho-spiritual tradition have come to see that our social, spiritual and religious well being depends on the Earth as the principal mode of declaring the glory of the creator, “You will go out in joy and be led forth in peace; the mountains and hills will burst into song before you, and all the trees of the field will clap their hands”. Isaiah 55: 12.

The Earth provides us with the nourishment, climate and habitat for our physical, emotional, spiritual and imaginative well being. Many people have recently defined “nature deficit syndrome” as a condition that can manifest itself when people are deprived of exposure to the rhythms and influences of the natural environment. There is no doubt that our moods, patterns and even our calendars (religious or otherwise) are governed by the Earth system. For centuries we have not thought that the Earth needed our attentiveness and care, the world was just there, consistently abundant, reliable and productive. Now such assumptions are being called into question and for religious people the question of the viability of human life itself invites us to re-examine our relationship to the Earth.

We are on a shared pilgrimage towards a new consciousness. How we inhabit, tend and serve the earth system must be the means by which we gain the wisdom for survival, the flourishing of the earth community and our awareness of the Divine, for as Thomas Berry has put it, “in the 20th Century, the glory of humanity has become the desolation of the earth”. We must re – invent humanity if we are to avoid the “desolation of the earth becoming the destiny of humanity”. Already the signs are emerging of a new consciousness through the coming together of our spiritual traditions with our science and learning. The Green Pilgrimage Network brings together the world’s pilgrim people, in their shared search for this new mode of existence.

Richard Frazer, May 2012.  

Tue Feb 7
Mon Jan 30

The Ragged School Minister

Thomas Guthrie 1803 - 1873

Thomas Guthrie grew up in what is now the county of Angus but used to be called Forfarshire. He studied in both Edinburgh and Paris and pursued an interest in medicine as well as theology but chose to become a minister, though he would undoubtedly have excelled at either profession. He became minister of Arbirlot parish in Angus and was soon involved in a project to start up a savings bank, one of those Friendly Societies that so characterised the industrious and thrifty Scottish cultural identity the 19th Century.

In 1837 he moved to Edinburgh and became minister at Greyfriars. At the Disruption of 1843 he came out of the Church of Scotland and became minister of St John’s Free Church, now St Columba’s Free Church, close to Edinburgh Castle on Johnston Terrace.

When he arrived in Edinburgh, he was appalled by the squalor and poverty in which so many people lived in the Old Town of Edinburgh at the time. He wrote bloated and brutal figures…. fierce looking women, and many a half clad mother, shivering in cold winter, her naked feet on the frozen pavement, a skeleton infant in her arms….dashing in and out of the closes careering over the open ground engaged in rude games, arrayed in flying drapery here a leg out and there an arm, are crowds of children; their faces tell how ill they are fed; their fearful oaths tell how ill they are reared.”

Whilst George Heriot, goldsmith to James VI, had founded a school or hospital to provide an education for “faitherless bairns” just over the wall from Greyfriars in 1628, that school, whilst still able to provide a free education to many orphaned children was increasingly being used for the education of the well healed of Edinburgh society.

Education, health and social improvement were at the heart of Guthrie’s passion and he was inspired by the ragged School movement to establish a Ragged School in Edinburgh that provided a square meal, education and a moral framework to many young people in the slums of Edinburgh’s Grassmarket, Lawnmarket and Cowgate.

 

 

Today, Greyfriars continues to be engaged in the support of the most vulnerable and the work of the Grassmarket Community Project is Greyfriars contemporary expression of this commitment to the poor and the marginalized.

 

Mon Jan 16

The Power of Arts and Crafts

The Greyfriars Kirkhouse is now home to the Grassmarket Community Project. You can visit their website at www.grassmarketcommunityproject.co.uk  We still have our Tuesday night Parish Meal and still offer the hospitality and friendship that has always been a characteristic of the Kirkhouse. Now, however, we are doing a great deal more to assist people to move ahead in life, develop skills and enjoy success. Many people know about the GRoW workshop, recycling church pews, but there is a new social enterprise getting off the ground that involves weaving spinning and dyeing textiles and we are lloking at opportunities to find paid work for our participants who feel ready to move away from dependency on benefits.

Here is an article about craftsmanship by satish Kumar that chimes with our vision at GCP.

"Artists and artisans are alchemists. They transform base material into objects of beauty, utility and delight. Whether the alchemists of old turning base metal into gold is a literal truth or a metaphor is still debated, but there is no doubt whatsoever about the transformative power of artists and artisans.

For millennia, potters have taken a lump of ordinary clay and revealed its extraordinary ability to be a pot of pure visual pleasure as well as a vessel to fulfil everyday functions of holding water and wine, food and flowers.

Similarly, painters take pigments of red, blue and yellow of no great distinction, and put them on a pot or paper, on a wall or a canvas, and we witness the emergence of a great work, be it folk art or fine art.

Materials used by the vast number of potters, painters, sculptors and basket makers are often inexpensive, natural and locally available.

It is the power of patience and practice, the power of imagination and endurance, the power of our own hands, feet and voice, the power of the human spirit that transforms willow wands into baskets, stone into sculptures, wood into wardrobes, sounds into songs and words into poems. The joy of it all is that we are all potential alchemists. We are all capable of becoming artists and artisans.

As the maker transforms clay into a pot, the clay transforms the maker into a potter. The capacity of clay to transform ordinary and unformed humans into evolved and self-realised sages like Bernard Leach and Lucie Rie is unquestionable. If there was no clay there would be no Cardew, if there was no paper or colour purple there would be no Picasso, if there were no flowers there would be no Vincent Van Gogh or Georgia O’Keeffe. As the artist is an alchemist transforming the ordinary into the extraordinary, so too does the material bring about the metamorphosis of the maker.

I have used the terms ‘artists’ and ‘artisans’ together, as I have used ‘folk art’ and ‘fine art’, because all artisans are artists, as all artists are skilled in their crafts. The distinction between arts and crafts is divisive and derogatory. Arts and crafts are identical twins: they belong together. Henry Moore was no less a craftsperson than Lucie Rie, and Lucie Rie was no less an artist than Henry Moore.

Being an artist or an artisan is not a hobby: it is a livelihood. Moreover, a craft economy is a truly sustainable and resilient economy; indeed, a peace economy. The sooner we embrace the arts and crafts as an integral part of our daily lives, the sooner we will be able to address the economic, environmental and spiritual issues of our time. The industrial economy is a growth economy – never enough and never satisfied – whereas the craft economy is a dancing economy – always active and always joyful.

The way to a fulfilled life is through the arts and crafts. They lead us out of consumerism. The practice of arts and crafts is a spiritual practice through which we honour the material world, and while we do that we develop a sense of beauty and generosity in our lives”.

Satish Kumar is Editor-in-Chief at Resurgence.

Thu Dec 8

Sermon – 4th December 2011

Comfort, O comfort my people, says your God, speak tenderly to her and cry to her that she has served her term, that her penalty is paid, that she has received double for all her sins” Isaiah 40: 1-2.

These words come to the people of Israel from the prophet and strike a note of hope and promise in the midst of prospects that seem to most to be bleak and unlikely to be resolved. They are spoken to a nation in exile. Following a war with the Babylonians that Israel had lost, the whole nation became prisoners of war and had been forcibly removed from their promised land and their great city, Jerusalem with its dear Temple. They were being held captive in the city of Babylon, the city that we now call Baghdad.

During those years of exile, it had not been bleak for everyone. They may have lamented the loss of their homeland and wondered how they could worship the living God in a strange land? You know the psalm, by the Rivers of Babylon we sat down and wept when we remembered Zion. But the people also enjoyed a degree of freedom and many had become successful street traders and merchants in the city, making themselves very wealthy. Many people forgot who they were and it was Isaiah’s task, as he saw it, to rekindle a spiritual imagination in the people and to remind them of their true vocation. For Israel was, of course, God’s chosen nation, a people set apart to be ministers and priests of the living and true God to the world.

In Isaiah’s vision a situation of despair is being turned around. The wasteland that is Israel and its great city Jerusalem is about to be rebuilt. The people are going to return home from exile. The places that have become crooked are going to be straightened out. All that has distorted and corrupted the people’s vision will be evened out and the people will recover their homeland and their true vocation because the Lord is faithful and promises to feed his flock, to gather his lambs in his arms and gently lead his people. A situation of austerity, ruin and hopelessness is about to be turned around.

Let me read for you now a piece of poetry that was written in the aftermath of the Great War.

Unreal City,

Under the brown fog of a winter dawn,

A crowd flowed over London Bridge, so many,

I had not thought death had undone so many.

Sighs, short and infrequent, were exhaled,

And each man fixed his eyes before his feet.

 

These are words from TS Eliot’s poem the Waste Land, published in 1922. It is a grim reflection on the state of the world in the aftermath of World War I. So much was undone by that eruption of Barbarism. Right in the middle of hope, creativity, enlightenment, rationalism and the white heat of the Industrial Revolution, a period in human history that had witnessed one of the longest period of peace and prosperity and economic growth, and suddenly the heart of Europe was ripped out of it and the flower of its youth sacrificed in the muddy fields of Flanders.

This moment of devastation and loss clear to the bottom shattered so many dreams. But as Eliot writes, he goes on to sound a note of hope, a glimmer of promise like the faint slither of gold that heralds the returning sun on a bleak winter’s morning. “These fragments” he says, “I have shored against my ruins”. And he goes on,

Who is the third who walks always beside you?

When I count, there are only you and I together

But when I look ahead up the white road

There is always another one walking beside you

Gliding wrapt in a brown mantle, hooded

I do not know whether a man or a woman

—But who is that on the other side of you?

What is that sound high in the air

Murmur of maternal lamentation

Who are those hooded hordes swarming

Over endless plains, stumbling in cracked earth

Ringed by the flat horizon only

What is the city over the mountains

Cracks and reforms and bursts in the violet air

Falling towers

Jerusalem Athens Alexandria

Vienna London

Unreal

 It is as though Eliot takes on the mantle of the prophet. Like Isaiah, he trusts that out of the rubble and destruction of a shattered Europe, fragments of light can be detected and out of a lost world things can be rebuilt. He perceives this in terms of a third person, like a companion or bread sharer, a shepherd like, shadowy figure robed in mystery who walks with us, even through the valley of the shadow of death, therefore we will not be afraid. The companion is like a mother, ever faithful in her love, lamenting for lost youth but utterly devoted in her presence, like Mary at the foot of the cross, holding her beloved in the warmth of her embrace.

We can reclaim our true identity. We can piece together the fractured fragments of our lives and the remnants of a shattered world. We can reclaim the Waste Land. In grim economic times for the world, in the midst of a world fractured by division and ecological threat, hope is a candle that people of faith must light.

It is the artists, the poets and the prophets and those who go on loving in spite of loss; it is the visionaries, those who speak the truth and refuse to buy into the easy slogans of the day and follow the crowd into cheap compromise. All these help us in the midst of our blunders, our blindness, our failed projects and even our despair. They can help us to re-find our true selves and our real vocations.

It feels as though we need a new vision for our world today. If all that our politicians can offer us is the gloom of years and years of austerity, we need an alternative vision. We need a politics reborn, a politics that has more imagination in it than that which can only equate well being with economic performance and gross domestic product. How is happiness faring? What about indicators of friendship, community and a sense of inclusiveness?

We need figures like the Mahatma, Ghandi of whom the South African authorities wrote when he was engaged in a campaign against racial discrimination long before he returned to his native India, “the working of his conscience, his ethical and intellectual attitude, based as it appears to be on a curious compound of mysticism and astuteness, baffles the ordinary processes of thought”.

We need people who will baffle the ordinary processes of thought, for the way of ordering our communities and our economies are as bankrupt as many of our economies. Vaclav Havel, the intellectual and former president of Czechoslovakia once argued for what he described as anti-political politics, “politics not as the technology of power and manipulation, as cybernetic rule over humans or as the art of the useful, but politics as one of the ways of seeking and achieving meaningful lives, of protecting them and serving them”. Love, friendship, solidarity, sympathy, mercy, tolerance and compassion, these, argues Havel are, “the only genuine starting points of meaningful community”. Even Adam Smith warned against the anxiety, fear, sorrow, disease, danger and death that would result from unfettered materialism and an unbridled capitalism.

What Isaiah understood and set out to achieve was the reforming or the reframing of the lives of the people of Israel who had lost a sense of who they were and what their lives might be in their time of exile. He realised that this must be a spiritual exercise, reconnecting with the ground of their being, a reconstitution of a people not as political pawns in a power game or as consumers or categories in some sham economy that was not their own, but a people located within a community in relation to each other, to their God (the one whose spirit gives life and breath), the world and the Universe.

And who is that one? Who is the third person who walks beside us?

When I count, there are only you and I together

But when I look ahead up the white road

There is always another one walking beside you

Hear the words of John the Baptist, “The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thongs of his sandals. I have baptised you with water, but he will baptise you with the Holy Spirit”. (Mark 1: 7 – 8).

Christ is coming, he will come again, he is in you and through you and with you, he is that mysterious companion that you often feel walking with you on life’s journey, in the midst of its pain and in its moments of exultation. In the face of the offering by our politicians of little more than austerity and gloom, let us begin the task of remaking our world, remaking it in a manner that takes account of our spiritual identity, where love, friendship, solidarity, sympathy, mercy, tolerance and compassion, creating opportunity for people to contribute and live useful lives and helping all people, especially our young people, feel that they belong and have a place. It is a vision such as this that will remake our shattered world. It is through lives lived with a mixture of mysticism and astuteness that a new society might be built out of the ashes of our burnt out economy.

                                                                                                                                Richard Frazer – 4th December 2011

Pilgrimage in Scotland

Launch of the Green Pilgrim Network, Assisi, Italy, November 2011

1.       Pilgrimage is making a comeback and it may be that we do not fully realise what the Spirit has in mind by prompting people to consider this as a spiritual activity but there are some key elements:

·         The pilgrim travels light and, in a time of recession and climate change and the realisation that there are limits to growth, it may be that we are being invited to consider an alternative social economy. The present economic system suggests that the only indicator of success is growth. But there may be other “well being” indicators such as deepening community (especially across generations), connecting people to their cultural story, rediscovering hospitality, social enrichment through shared simple activities (such as eating and walking together), discovering that “when you have more on the inside, you need less on the outside”, and that, as in nature, change, evolution and adaptation can come about without using more and more finite resources but by creative transformation. We can learn from the Spirit.

·         Pilgrimage allows the sharing of stories, wisdom and insight across cultural and spiritual traditions as ARC has demonstrated and much can be learned by listening to the wisdom of other “alien” traditions (e.g. Sustainable forest management amongst followers of Shintoism who have been managing “sacred” forests responsibly for centuries). We can learn from each other.

·         Pilgrimage contributes towards a healthier and more active population. We can learn from ourselves by attending to our body’s well being.

·         Pilgrimage enables us to learn our cultural and spiritual story and our place within it. We can learn from our past and rediscover a sense of belonging to an ongoing story.

2.       In Scotland there are many agencies and individuals involved in pilgrimage related activity. Local authorities are obliged to invest in the core path initiative, others seek to preserve some of the ancient paths of Scotland (Roman Roads, Drove Roads etc), others wish to improve access and encourage more rambling and the churches want to ensure that there is scope for the spiritual dimension of pilgrimage and that access to and knowledge of sacred places is maintained and stories told and shared. The importance of working together was emphasised. This requires all to talk, share knowledge and not work against each other or in isolation.

 

3.       There are a number of layers to the network and these need to be “gently” laid together in order to achieve a kind of synergy and “win win” for all interested groups and ensure that none feel that their noses have been put out of joint. Here are some that I feel would be essential:

·         The path network must become just that, a network (it is 80% there already but linking up is essential so that walkers have options). This means encouraging those links such as one along Glen Dochart to link up the path network in the west linking the West Highland Way with the Rob Roy Way that begins on Loch Tay only 15 miles away.

·         Support for rural access by disadvantaged and excluded groups.

·         “Twists” in the routes that enable less well known areas to be included (such as the shrine of St Margaret at Dunfermline or the ancient capital of the Scots at Dunadd), it is not just about Iona and St Andrews.

·         Educational resources with links to the Curriculum for Excellence and the chance of a “buy in” by schools. The reality is that the vast majority of the young population of Scotland have not even begun to think that going on a pilgrimage might be fun, meaningful or worthwhile. The fundamental issue is an educational one. There are plenty of people talking about pilgrimage but in reality precious few actually doing it in Scotland (even some of those that talk about it!). The whole concept and vision needs some serious marketing, nurturing and promotion.

·         Worship resources need to be developed to enable any chance of a “buy in” by the churches and religious groups both at home and from overseas. Presbyterian Heritage Pilgrimage is one example that we are beginning to explore at Greyfriars enabling overseas groups, many of which already contact us asking for help with organising such a tour. The idea is to create a social enterprise tour company that would create a tailored pilgrimage experience that would include the journey to key destinations/accommodation/ education and history/ worship and hospitality for groups wishing to explore their religious heritage. All of this would be structured to meet with the Green Pilgrim Network guidelines, promoting Green Pilgrimage. Some discussion is already taking place about the creation of a pilgrimage guide to Scotland that would include maps/stories/worship resources etc.

·         It will be important to explore the theology of pilgrimage and find resources that make sense of it in the modern context for all people of faith, especially as pilgrimage is an “open door” within the ecumenical movement in a way that shared Holy Communion for example is not. Andrew Patterson has already done much on this and is planning to write more in the course of 2012.

·         A “one stop”, web based resource should be created for people to access maps and trail guides, transport and accommodation information, ferry times, educational resources, worship and meditation, information about the ARC Green Pilgrimage Network and encouragement about what to do to green our pilgrimage and our pilgrimage places,  material and a forum for discussion and feedback. www.scottishpilgrimage.com is already owned by those involved in the ARC initiative. This needs to be a one stop shop, the first place that you are directed to by Google and should give people the opportunity to gain all the information required to undertake a successful and green pilgrimage on any of the Scottish routes as well as enabling people to feedback to others about things they have discovered and useful hints and tips etc. The web resource therefore becomes a dynamic, changing thing. It should become a social media site (such as tripadviser/ facebook etc)

·          A “buy in” from the Scottish Government and its agencies (such as the National Parks and enterprise and tourist authorities) in order to maximise the potential economic and regeneration benefits of supporting the development of the network and its infrastructure. Much learning about this has already been done by Luss Pilgrimage Centre and there is no need to reinvent the wheel.

·         Overlaying all of this should be an effort to make Scotland the World’s first Green Pilgrim Nation as we persuade all participants to buy into the GPN charter.

·         Every element of this initiative I see as a layer that gently overlays all the rest. No single element need have more prominence as all can learn from the others. Perhaps it is like a tartan, weaving many different strands and colours together that ends up being a lovely thing to behold because of the diversity that each strong colour brings and contributes to the whole.

Thu Nov 24

A Reflection for Graduates - November 2011, Edinburgh

The world is full of experts. Fairly soon, those of you who are graduating today will join them – that is if you can find a job. This is not straight forward in these difficult economic times.

It is wonderful to be an expert, to be a professional person in a specific field. But, as you proceed into the world of professionalism with your particular expertise, never stop listening to those who have something to say about your sphere of activity, even if they are not qualified.

Do not become a “laboratory hermit”! Do not live in a professional “silo”!

One of the problems we face today is what has been described as “disabling professionalism” – the idea that if you are not qualified, you have no right to an opinion. We should not always defer to experts.

The economic problems we face today, the challenges of climate change, the looming end of the petroleum interval, global poverty, the rise of radical extremism and so much else are not just management problems to be fixed by experts.

The problems the world faces today ask us deep questions about the kind of society we have created and invite us to consider that the solutions we need might not in fact lie in “more of the same” or “business as usual”, but in embracing an alternative imagination using different tools. As Mahatma Ghandi and others have said, you cannot expect the tools that created your problems to be the right tools to use to fix them.

Meeting the challenges of our times invites us not just to be experts and professionals in our particular sphere, but to nurture discernment, understanding and wisdom in order that the world might flourish and humanity survive and thrive. I love the vision of the American beat poet, Gary Snyder who wrote the following not long ago. “We need a religious view that embraces nature and does not fear science; business leaders who know and accept ecological and spiritual limits; political leaders who have spent time working in schools, factories or farms and who still write poems. We need intellectual and academic leaders who have studied both history and ecology and like to dance and cook. We need poets and novelists who pay no attention to literary critics. But what we ultimately need most is human beings who love the world.

In a world that cries out for better and more gentle governance we need to learn that aliveness and joy are as important if not more important than expertise and professionalism.

Tue Nov 15

Remembrance Sunday – 13th November 2011

     

What did you do during our 2 minutes’ silence this morning? Were you able to use that time well?

Did you manage to reflect during those 2 minutes on those who are affected and suffer due to war? Were you able to think about what it might take to work for a better and different world where it will be possible truly to say that those who died in conflict did not die in vain; that their sacrifice has led to a tangible change of heart and we are slowly learning to turn swords into ploughshares and spears into pruning hooks, discovering how to work towards a world without war?

Did you manage to say a prayer for peace; a prayer that wasn’t about self concern or about seeking Divine rescue for whatever troubles you?  Did you manage in those precious moments of silence to place yourself in the presence of the “Eternal Beyond” and allow that transformative flow to take place where your primary concern was not yourself but the care of the other, the well being of the world, and the giving of yourself in love to the world? (That, at least, is what Jesus meant by prayer).

Wow! That is a tough call! Highly esoteric stuff! A long way from the mundane things that usually fill our silence, for after all, we don’t really do the lofty, high minded stuff, do we?

Perhaps your mind did what mine usually does. Did you drift off in the silence and wonder if you remembered to turn the iron off at home? Or maybe you suddenly panicked that you might have left your mobile phone switched on. Or, did you think about what you might have for lunch or stare at the pattern of the jacket of the person in front of you, realising that it is quite tough to train your mind for the silence? 

Only you know how you spent these 2 minutes and no one is going to judge you if you failed to use the silence well and frittered it away.

But let me suggest to you that silence, time for reflection, prayer even (that scary word that makes most of us feel like terribly poor Christians because other people seem to be so good at it. Which has always bothered me, because didn’t Jesus suggest that we should hide our piety, rather than making a show of it?) And yet, all these disciplines, which amount more or less to the same thing, are so worthwhile and repay nurturing in our lives.

You see, some people will tell you that the Christian Faith is finished, that it is on its way out. Some people argue that we are overcoming the age of superstition and that all we need is rational thought and a scientific outlook. Some would say that faith is what has been holding us back as a species and the sooner we put it behind us the better. I want to suggest to you the exact opposite and that the potential for faith and developing our spirituality is only just getting going. I love the comment that Michael Ramsay used regularly to make when he was Archbishop of Canterbury and people challenged him in the 60s about church decline. He’d say, “But we are the early Christians!”

We are just getting going as people who have the capacity to cultivate that inner life that is waiting to be explored. And, silence is one of the keys. As we take time to think, reflect, meditate or pray, we might be surprised to discover an entire inner continent of possibility that has remained largely unexplored in much of our shared human history.

All sorts of things happen to us when we enter deeply into silence. The capacity for stillness is something we should take seriously in our lives, not just for these two minutes at the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month, or on the Sunday we set apart as Remembrance Day. In our busy, chatty lives we can so easily suffer from information overload. Walking through our streets has been likened by some to walking through the pages of a dictionary. We are bombarded day in day out by information, by appeals for our attention, by advertisers telling us that this or that object, if only we acquire it, will make us happy and fulfilled. We have cultivated an appetite of wants that is endless. Then there is the idle, whingeing gossip about the lives of unremarkable celebrities or the parlous state of our economy that journalist think we want to hear all the time.

They tell us, for example, about the terrible pension burden we have to carry in order to provide for a growing elderly population. Is that all we have to say about the generation of those who sacrificed so much for us in World War II, that they are a burden?  If we only thought about it we’d be ashamed. And that is the point, isn’t it, we need to think and reflect about what matters about what the point of our life is about what we are doing here. “How will you spend your days?” That is probably the most urgent and compelling question we can ask of ourselves and it takes a bit of maturity, wisdom and silent reflection if we are going to answer that question in a way that ensures the well being of others and the planet as well as ourselves.

Victor Frankl, who survived the horrors of Auchwitz suggested that the most intolerable of all human conditions is not what we might think. He said, it is not imprisonment or the denial of freedom or hunger, bad as these are, for him the most intolerable human condition was a lack of meaning.

That is so important, especially when that thought comes from one who has seen at first hand deprivation and human barbarity of the worst kind in the holocaust and especially when so much of our human project has laid waste the planet and destroyed so many promising young lives – a lack of meaning.

So, when I say that Christianity is far from finished and that it is only just getting going, I mean that humanity is slowly evolving, not just physically, but also emotionally and spiritually too. In the silence of meditation, reflection and prayer, call it what you will, if we make space in our lives for the spiritual (and by that I do not necessarily mean the habit of church membership as it has traditionally been defined and understood); if we are truly still, huge opportunities for growth and development and grasping wisdom and understanding open up. The Christian Church ceases to be an Imperial Project, getting bums on seats and expanding the frontiers of the Christian Empire and instead it becomes the “laboratory of the soul”, an opportunity for us all to reflect on the mysterious story of creation and to connect the ground of our own being to that ground of being that shaped a Universe. In the silence, we begin to place ourselves “in the silent presence of the Eternal Beyond, the God of truth and love” and in the flow of communication that comes from that disciplined and mature use of time, silence and reflection, we begin to discern a meaning and purpose behind our own existence.

The silent space is not the place to look for personal credit (“look at me, I am holier than thou”), nor is it the space in which to look for some kind of bargain to be struck between ourselves and a generous God who can be buttered up; and nor is it even a space “for worrying about the world on our knees”.

The silent space is the place where we begin to connect ourselves to the one who said and did some of the most extraordinary things in history. In the silence we begin to make some sense of the message Jesus has left us with. It is a message about sacrifice, about a meaning that comes when we lose ourselves in love for each other and the world. That somehow, when we begin to learn to die we start to live. It is about connecting our lives to the one who said, “Love your enemies and pray for those that persecute you”, about discovering as so many have done in the battlefields of this world that, “greater love hath no man than this, that he lay down his life for his friends”.

The power that is really worth depending on is not the counterfeit power of riches and political advantage, but the enduring power of love that holds on and ultimately wins through. This is wisdom for the world that today so desperately needs an alternative imagination and leadership that turns its back on wasteful violence and destruction as the answer to our problems. True meaning will come about for humanity when we evolve as human beings into people who are prepared to develop deeper bonds of community across the divisions of race and creed as an antidote to the plunder and avarice that lays waste habitats and communities in the name of so called progress and wealth creation.

So, as we reflect today, let’s just think a little bit about this message in the Gospel, the message of sacrificial love. Let us reflect on this message that Jesus gave (and lived) and that so many of our comrades whom we commemorate today began to understand in the heat and turmoil of war. At the moment before he was arrested, in an intimate meal with his disciples which he shared, even with the one who was about to betray him, he took bread and wine and said, “This is my body, broken for you. This is my blood, shed for you”. He gave his life for his friends, for the world and, in giving he found his life, his meaning.

And, as we remember all those who have given their lives in conflict and who continue to do so even today, may their sacrifice not be in vain as we struggle as a human race groaning and travailing towards that new birth, that spiritual maturity in which we can use the silence well and be transformed into people that know what it takes to love our enemies and build a peaceful world, safe and habitable for our children’s children and all the world’s people.  Amen. 

Sat Nov 12