Reflecting All The Light We Cannot See

Light
Light
The visible reminder of Invisible Light.
T. S. Eliot

all_the_light_we_cannot_see_doerr_novel

What was intended to be a summer read turned out to be an early winter read – very appropriately because this is a book about light and darkness, perfect for Advent and the darkest time of the year. In All the Light We Cannot See we see the world through the hands of a blind woman, Marie-Laure. As a child she is given a model of her world which helps her to feel her way in spite of all the light she cannot see. In telling her story, Anthony Doerr, is putting a model into our hands to remind us how complex life is and to help us discover the light that can be hidden in the smallest detail.

Anthony Doerr has spun for us a hopeful story that is full of humanity. Besides the blind girl, there is an orphaned German boy who becomes a radio technician. The setting is the Second World War which so divided and devastated Europe. Their lives don’t cross till later but Doerr skillfully weaves their stories together in brief alternating chapters.

With the rise of populist politics as expressed in the Brexit referendum and elsewhere, it seems that we are again in a dark age (and the book is a startling reminder of the institutions that have grown up in post-war Europe which so far have preserved peace – it would be stupid and careless if this were to be unpicked). There is a lot of darkness as we don’t know where we are heading. There is a lot of light that we cannot see as we turn ourselves inwards.

There is so much light we cannot see – from the past and into the future. But in the hands of a blind girl the author has placed a model which can help us through to the light we cannot see. The model maker is her father – significantly a locksmith. I say significantly because of these lines by poet Malcolm Guite in response to one of the Advent antiphons:

Even in the darkness where I sit
And huddle in the midst of misery
I can remember freedom, but forget
That every lock must answer to a key,
That each dark clasp, sharp and intricate,
Must find a counter-clasp to meet its guard,
Particular, exact and intimate,
The clutch and catch that meshes with its ward.
I cry out for the key I threw away
That turned and over turned with certain touch
And with the lovely lifting of a latch
Opened my darkness to the light of day.
O come again, come quickly, set me free
Cut to the quick to fit, the master key.

Julia McGuinness has also written about this book. She captures the ideas of light within limited spaces which is so much part of this story set in the extremes of human existence.

Part of my work is to support newly ordained clergy. One of the cheesy things I do is write to those who have been recently ordained, just before Christmas. I say something like:

Happy first Christmas to you as a “priest”. I hope you enjoy your first Christmas celebrations. It is a wonderful moment – embracing strangers/visitors. One of the ideas that came to me (when I was struggling to find yet another homily in a busy Christmas season) was a play with the word “manger”. Pronounced the French way it’s about eating. Pronounced the Christmas way it’s where Jesus is born. Do we prepare a manger with the hands we offer for the bread? Is this when Jesus is born? As we place the bread in the hands of others, are we laying Jesus in their manger?

When we take the bread into our hands, into the manger we prepare, we take all the light we cannot see. This is the body of Christ, the light of the world. This is the faith we have as Christians, a faith that in the darkest times there is all the light we cannot see. The light that shines in the darkness, makes a difference as to how we recognise one another, how we see one another, how we see our past, how we see our future – as not so dark as maybe we once thought. This too, like Marie-Laure’s model, is something so small that is placed into our hands, to help us discover the light that can be hidden in the smallest detail, in places we would never look into because of their depth of darkness.

Besides preparing a manger with our hands, we often put our hands together to pray (like a candle flame), and we often close our eyes (as if a reminder of the darkness). There are all sorts of reasons for these customs – but in our heart of hearts we know that there is all the light that shines in darkness. By praying we witness to the true light that gives light to everyone.

At the end of his magnificent novel, Doerr imagines:

People walk the paths of the gardens below, and the wind sings anthems in the hedges, and the big old cedars at the entrance to the maze creak. Marie-Laure imagines the electro-magnetic waves travelling into and out of Michael’s (game) machine, bending around them, just as Etienne used to describe, except now a thousand times more criss cross the air than when he lived – maybe a million times more. Torrents of text conversations, tides of cell conversations, of television programmes, of emails, vast networks of fibre and wire interlaced above and beneath the city, passing through buildings, arcing between Metro tunnels, between antennas atop buildings, from transmitters with cellular transmitters in them, commercials … flashing into space and back to earth again, I’m gong to be late and maybe we should get reservations? and ten thousand I miss yours, fifty thousand I love yours, hate mail and appointment reminders and market updates, jewelry ads, coffee ads, furniture ads flying invisibly over the warrens of Paris, over the battlefields and tombs’ over the Ardennes, over the Rhine, over Belgium and Denmark, over the charred and ever-shifting landscapes we call nations.

And is it so hard to believe that souls might also travel those paths? That her father and Etienne and Madame Manec and the German boy named Werner Pfennig might harry the sky in flocks, like egrets, like terns, like starlings? That great shuttles of souls might fly about faded but audible if you listen closely enough? They flow above the chimneys, ride the sidewalks, slip through your jacket and shirt and breastbone and lungs and pass out through the other side, the air a library and the encore of every life lived, every sentence spoken, every word transmitted still reverberating within it.

I am imagining it. I am imagining the map Doerr has drawn of some of the light we cannot see. 

I can’t wait to read this again.

Opening Advent Doors

advent-door

Advent is a time for praying for the coming of Emmanuel, that God may be with us, and for each of the evenings of the week before Christmas there is an “O” antiphon. Each of the seven antiphons is prefaced by “O” and addressed to the Messiah according to the names for him found in Isaiah. The “O” expresses our longing. The seven antiphons are addressed to Wisdom, Lord, Root of Jesse, Key of David, Dayspring, King and Emmanuel.

Doors are very much a theme of Advent. Doors are both barriers and openings. We open a “door” a day on our Advent calendar to signify our willingness to open our hearts to the coming of Christ. Many decorate their front doors in a way that invites the stranger, in a way that begs to be opened (as in the door of one of our neighbours pictured above). Some doors are hard to shift and many are locked behind them.

Malcolm Guite has written a beautiful poem in response to the O Clavis antiphon (based on Isaiah 22:22):

O Key of David and sceptre of the House of Israel;
you open and no one can shut;
you shut and no one can open:
Come and lead the prisoners from the prison house,
those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death.

This is Malcolm’s response (which is set in a beautiful image by Linda Richardson):

Even in the darkness where I sit
And huddle in the midst of misery
I can remember freedom, but forget
That every lock must answer to a key,
That each dark clasp, sharp and intricate,
Must find a counter-clasp to meet its guard,
Particular, exact and intimate,
The clutch and catch that meshes with its ward.
I cry out for the key I threw away
That turned and over turned with certain touch
And with the lovely lifting of a latch
Opened my darkness to the light of day.
O come again, come quickly, set me free
Cut to the quick to fit, the master key.

The poem senses despair but also senses freedom, if only we could find “the key  I threw away”, that “turned and over turned with certain touch and … opened my darkness to the light of day”. I love the sense of freedom because “every lock must answer to its key” and “each dark clasp … must find a counter-clasp to meet its guard”.

There are so many locks to spring. Back in the 14th century, Hafiz wrote about the sort of people who lock others up, and the sort of people who work in the darkness to set people free. They “drop keys all night long”:

The small person
builds cages for everyone
he
sees.

Instead, the sage,
who needs to duck his head,
when the moon is low
can be found dropping keys, all night long
for the beautiful
rowdy,
prisoners.

What are the cages, catches, vices, locks and blocks that bind us? What needs to be undone for peace to be declared on earth?

You may be interested in the Jesus Doors by Cheshire artist Ali Hutchison and the Advent Haikus Jim Bridgman has written for every day of Advent as part of his blog which is Really Nothing but which is in fact, quite something. You might also be interested in The Advent Door by Jan Richardson.

To Blog or Not – that is the question

linda-and-mary-blogger

Dear Linda and Mary (I’ve changed your names)

I was interested by your question, whether to blog or not. I thought I’d use a blog post to respond. It might seem less personal than an email response, or over the desk conversation, but others might be able to eavesdrop on this conversation if I blog in answer to your question. (And that is just one of the advantages of blogging.)

I have hit a brick wall with my blogging recently. I had thought that those who were posting had become more “expert” about their content. That was off-putting and intimidating. That might just have been an excuse I was using because I wasn’t finding the time for blogging (and I didn’t seem to have any inspiration). Here’s a summary of excuses I could have used (and being able to make these links is another advantage of blogging).

But your question has caused me to re-think.

You will notice from blogs you’ve read that there is a lot of learning contained in people’s posts. There is a lot of expertise on technical matters, as, for example, in this post on how to set up a blog (which you may find useful). But then, you really don’t have to be an expert to blog. I regard my blog as a memory bank – a jog for my memory and a way of reflecting on what I notice. It’s a workbench on which I can hammer out a few ideas. They’ll never be finished or finely polished, but I am learning and the blog is a useful place to put some of that learning.

I also don’t see any point in keeping things to myself. I do have a heart for some things and I do have a voice which is not to be kept silent, in spite of my introverted nature. I don’t believe that any of us should hide our light under a bushel (particularly in dark times) and I do believe that we should be sharing what we know in as many ways as we can.

But then, there are people who complain of the noise. They say that there is so much out there – so much noise, but so little sense: so much information but so little wisdom. Probably the same complaint has echoed through human history, from the time we started to talk, to the advent of the postal services, to the current development of online social media (social media is as old as our talk). Unless we use our intelligence to interpret the noise our talk will be babble, our mail will be junk and our conversation meaningless. Blogging is just another way of talking things through together – a way of publishing. Nobody needs to buy into what we have to say – but it is what we have to say, it is our part of the conversation. (I tried working this out in a post I called Chitter-Chatter five years ago – see how I can refer back to what I have done?)

I do have a bit of a problem about how social media fits my work culture. It’s widely seen as a distraction. But if we work by sharing blogging seems an ideal means to that end.

I would be interested in what you have to say because I know that you are in unique situations and I would love to know what you are making of those situations given your own passions and interests. I won’t promise to keep up with your posts if you do choose to blog though I will click the “follow” button.

It doesn’t really matter to me how many “readers” or followers we have. I think I am the main beneficiary of my own blog because of the opportunity it gives me to do some creative writing, because it gives somewhere to put my stuff, because it helps me work things out of me and because it makes me interesting to me.

Happy blogging
David

PS You might be interested in this no-excuses guide to blogging from Sacha Chua. She suggests that you always start with a question when you blog. So I did. To blog or not to blog – I am grateful that you asked me the question. Why not have a look at Sacha’s blog for some inspiration?

You zig while I zag – reflecting on some Myers-Briggs training

zigzag-mb

The way we make decisions and solve problems was described in terms of a zigzag by Isabel Briggs-Myers. Friend and colleague Julia McGuinness walked a group of us through the zigzag and highlighted how the hierarchy of what Myers-Briggs refers to as our “mental functions” affects the way we make decisions. Typically decisions flow from sensing (defining the problem) to intuition (considering possibilities) to thinking (weighing consequences) to feeling (weighing alternatives). This process reflects the pastoral cycle used for theological reflection (with the process often described as experience > exploration > reflection > response) and Kolb’s Learning Cycle (with accompanying learning styles inventory).

kolbs-learning-styles

Each of us has a hierarchy of mental functions. There are two pairs of functions. The first pair is about how we perceive, and they are sensing (S) and intuition (N). The second pair is about how we judge, and they are thinking (T) and feeling (F). Each of us has a preference one of those functions in each pair – they become the middle two letters in a Myers-Briggs profile. One is known as the “dominant” function, and the other is the “auxiliary”. Anyone who knows their MB profile can work out which is dominant depending on whether they are “judging” (J) or “perceiving” (P) types and whether they are extravert (E) or introvert (I). For example, someone who is ESTJ has thinking as their dominant function, sensing as their auxiliary, intuition as their “tertiary”. The hierarchy for an ESTJ is thus:

  1. thinking
  2. sensing
  3. intuition
  4. feeling

Elise Enriques Touchette at Shine a Light Coaching identifies them as driver, passenger, disengaged child in the back and baby rather than dominant, auxiliary etc, making the point that we have to make an effort to engage the disengaged child (the one less inclined to function). She uses a square to describe the ideal decision making process from sensing to feeling via intuition and thinking. The process is squared and divided into equal quarters.

myers-briggs

But life is not like that. We start our own decision making processes from out positions of strength. We have a mental function that drives us, that gets us going. The driver for the ENFJ and the INFP is pictured at the top of the right hand diagram, and the shape within the triangle is the measure of the time, ability/inclination/preference the driver brings to the process. Thinking is the baby in the car – there is little ability, inclination or preference to “apply logic”. (I know – I am an INFP!)

The hierarchy of mental functions demonstrates that we find some things easier than others (as if we need to be told that). It reinforces the fact that we need each other to complement one another – that we do need to collaborate in ministry, learning, everything. It reminds me that I need to stretch myself in some directions I find difficult and that I need the help of others for what I find well-nigh impossible.

What is true for us as individuals is also true for any group. The hospital chaplains I mentioned above are not the only group in which the mental functions aren’t equally shared. Any congregation, family, business organisation has its strengths and has its weaknesses which they will need to address either by finding help from the right sources or by making the effort of stretching out from my comfort zone. For me that will be concentrating more on the larger picture (N) and learning to look more at the facts (S). The “T” I might have to leave for another life.

Leadership Styles and a Political Divide

lamdin

Sometimes you hear bells ringing all the while through reading a book. There was so many chimes in Finding Your Leadership Style by Keith Lamdin – so many “just so” moments”, so many reminders of other reading – and I so agreed with the direction of Keith Lamdin’s travel.

Two women staffing a train tea trolley lead Lamdin’s book. While passengers on a delayed train were getting upset about missing their connections these “trolley assistants read the emotional climate of the passengers on the train and knew that they needed to stay calm”. They led in that moment offering “something different from those more familiar teachings about leadership, vision and motivation”. Their example demands a second look at “leadership” and suggests that leadership is for all types, leadership is not something special and that all of us have natural ability to lead others – though some make better leaders than others. Lamdin writes:

“leadership, like love, is a natural human capacity and that what makes Christian leaders distinctive is their seeking to live as disciples of Jesus. Discipleship informs our discontent, colours and shapes our vision and strategic purpose, and fuels our courage.”

That discontent, vision and courage is what calls people into leadership.

Lamdin describes six leadership styles: monarch, warrior,  servant, elder, contemplative and prophet. They fall into one of two categories: the politics of salvation or the politics of revelation (h/t Gordon Lawrence for that).

Monarchy exists where one person is in charge. If the buck stops anywhere it stops with the monarch. Lamdin suggests that monarchy and hierarchy can’t be justified from Jesus’ teaching. He says that there is nothing hierarchical about a priest’s walk alongside others in the territory of the holy (Countryman’s language) but “the moment that a priest is appointed and installed as a rector, vicar or priest in charge, he or she is bound into the hierarchy”.

A lot of leadership thinking has taken place within earshot of battle and this has given rise to the warrior category. So, for example, early British writing on leadership was shaped by experience of leadership in World War 2. “They” (for example, Bion and Adair) “developed ideas about officer selection, and the language of strategic objectives, missions, leadership development and battle plans seemed to transfer easily enough into the post-war world of reconstruction.” I remember a time when the Diocese of Chester was led by a Major and a Wing-Commander – not only officers, but also gentlemen – and there was a special room at diocesan HQ marked “hierarchy” with a capital H! This tone of leadership is reinforced by the “heroic warrior paradigm” that is the basis of much of Christian formation (for example, Joshua, Gideon, David, and even Jesus).

The monarch and the warrior belong to the “politics of salvation”. Lawrence understands “politics” as “the sense of influence of one person or party over another”. The politics of salvation is demonstrated through the “isms” – communism, fascism, capitalism and democracy. “The preoccupation of the politics of salvation is with change – that is, others holding power impose it from the outside on individuals and systems”.

The monarchs and warriors within our systems are easily identified and they have their place. In certain contexts they are the right styles of leadership. So, Lamdin comments, “the monarch provides safety and stability and organisational effectiveness” and “many great changes in social welfare and charitable work are fuelled by this sense of energy, vision and sacrifice. Where the enemy can be constructed and named, whether it is slavery, child poverty, capitalism or socialism, Christianity or Islam, then the energies of the warrior leader are released”.

I would suggest that there is a problem in any organisation that organises itself around these two models of leadership because they are only particularly suitable for certain contexts (where there needs to be a rule and where there’s a battle). Lives which become just that are dysfunctional and organisations that become just that are abusive and xenophobic.

These are also male models of leadership. In a paternalistic and patronizing culture the likelihood is that the monarch is going to be male (and does monarchy thrive in cultures that aren’t paternal and patronizing?). Sport is prominent in our culture. So much of the talk within sport is fighting talk (defence/attack, fighting relegation etc etc) that it isn’t surprising that we have so many “warriors”.

Was Jesus not spending time with those who’d had more than enough of monarchs and warriors? He spends his time with those the monarchy cast out and he challenged the very essence of enmity by teaching his disciples to love their enemies. Was he not saying that we’ve had enough? Does he not expose the limitations (and suffering) of the monarchs and warriors, indicating other ways that deepen and transform community? Lamdin writes: “Jesus finds himself in a religious culture which should be liberating but which is stifled by regulation and political compromise. He sets himself against the establishment and seeks to overturn it with his capacity bot to heal people and to teach them about his understanding of the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob”.

The politics of revelation is the landscape from which the trolley assistants emerge. Their leadership takes people (eg Lamdin) by surprise. Their leadership is a revelation. For Lawrence, “the politics of revelation is preoccupied with the conditions and resources for the exercise of transformation that come from inside the person or system, and are brought about through the people revealing what may be the truth of their situation to themselves and taking authority to act on their interpretation”.

The move from one politics to the other is, according to Lawrence, a paradigm shift. It is a shift which allows us to notice a wider range of leadership, to allow the emotionally intelligent trolley ladies to lead us and to recast our organisation for more than battle and an imposed rule.

Lamdin recognises the servant, the elder, the contemplative and the prophet. Of servant-leaders, Steven Covey writes:

“It has generally been my experience that the very top people of truly great organisations are servant-leaders. They are the most humble, the most reverent, the most open, the most teachable, the most respectful, the most caring and the most determined.”

They lead by relationships, not by coercion or domination, guiding people, not driving them.

The elder is the source of wisdom in many communities (though in western society the elder is often redundant). The elder is the consultant belonging to the wisdom tradition represented so well by Jesus through his parables. Here there is no interpretation imposed from outside. Lamdin writes beautifully about this:

“Every time you are faced with something that puzzles you and you discuss it with friends and in the end come to your own decision, you are exercising your freedom and your responsibility. You are more fully inhabiting the world that God has given us in which to work out what it means to be made in God’s image. Every time you do what you are told without thinking, you opt out of the calling that the early stories of Genesis seem to indicate God has imagined for us all.”

The contemplative secures the place of the important and the priority for “prayer, meditation and contemplation” in a world that is at it 24/7.

Lamdin’s comments on the prophet are inspired by Arbuckle’s work on leadership, which Lamdin refers to as the “only book on leadership which is about dissent”. Gerry Arbuckle suggests that the “healthy future of any organisation is to be found not only in the leadership of the hierarchy but also in the leadership that emerges in dissatisfaction and dissents, and in the conflicts between them” It is the prophet who raises the voice of the poor and needy, “a voice that cries for justice, an end to evil abuse of power and the redistribution of wealth”.

Some questions:

Where is there monarchy and where are the warriors in my organisation? Are they strictly necessary in these circumstances?
Should we build a whole leadership industry around them?
Do the politics of salvation shape our pedagogy and church? What would they look like if they didn’t?
And where are the servants, elders, contemplatives and prophets through whom our souls really rejoice?

The Heresy of Western Leadership

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I am grateful to Justin Lewis-Anthony’s scepticism about leadership. The same day that America was going to the polls to elect Donald Trump I was exploring leadership in ministry with friends and colleagues in the Diocese of Chester including Helen Scarisbrick and Jenny Bridgman. Lewis-Anthony suggests that the leadership bandwagon started rolling in the early 90’s (he blames George Carey), and since then leadership programmes in the church have been proliferating. The Diocese of Chester was quick onto the bandwagon and I was involved in one of their first courses. (I don’t understand why we haven’t given as much attention to other ships which have a more legitimate claim to be part of the fleet – we never hear of friendship, fellowship or companionship training programmes do we, even though there is more theological justification for them?)

Where do our ideas of leadership come from, and why are we so bothered about leadership anyway?

Justin Lewis-Anthony’s book has the clever title You are the Messiah and I Should Know: Why Leadership is a Myth (and Probably a Heresy)He traces our thinking about leadership to the double headed Emersonian “ur-myth” of “the frontier” and “the American Adam”. For Lewis-Anthony “there is a layer of mythology which is omnipresent, omnipotent and omni-transparent, pervading and influencing every part of our understanding of the world. Our knowledge of leadership comes from believing in and living under the power of the myth of leadership”.

There is a reminder here that we can’t escape mythology in ideology. Drawing on the work of Levi-Strauss, Lewis-Anthony reminds us that ideology develop in an unconscious process shaped by the stories which we tell ourselves. He quotes Kelton Cobb (p.99):

Our myths feed us our scripts. We imitate the quests and struggles of the dominant figures in the myths and rehearse our lives informed by mythic plots. We awaken to a set of sacred stories, and then proceed to apprehend the world and express ourselves in terms of these stories. They shape us secretly at a formative age and remain with us, informing the ongoing narrative constructions of our experience. They teach us to perceive the world as we order our outlooks and choices in terms of their patterns and plots.

In other words, we are caught in a bubble – a bind. Once the myth making took place round the camp-fire. Since the 1950’s it’s been on-screen through film making. One nation has dominated the film industry, and consequently the unconscious formation of our ideology. For a long time we have been subjected to the only films available which have relentlessly had the same story to tell. They have fed us our scripts.

Lewis-Anthony quotes German film maker, Wim Wenders: “No other country in the world has sold itself so much and sent its images, its self-image, with such power into every corner of the world. For 70 or 80 years, since the existence o cinema, American films – or better, this ONE American film has been preaching the dream … of the Promised Land.” (p.75).

The frontier is not about place, but about defining experience. It is to the frontier that the American intellect, according to Turner, owes its striking characteristics. “That coarseness and strength combined with acuteness and inquisitiveness; that practical, inventive turn of mind, quick to find expedients; that masterful grasp of material things, lacking in the artistic but powerful to effect great ends; that restless nervous energy; that dominant individualism, working for good and for evil, and withal that buoyancy and exuberance which comes with freedom – these are the traits of the frontier.” (p.81).

The American Adam myth breeds the individualism that Turner talks about and which is such a modern phenomenon. The frontier depend the sense of individualism to the extent that Americans told themselves, according to Billington, that “every man was a self dependent individual, fully capable of caring for himself without the aid of society.” (p.93).

The journey to the frontier is essentially westwards. The journey spawned a genre of film which took over our screens, the “Western”. The western myths of the Western have shaped a leadership that is essentially masculine and white. The films show how the west was won and defended and how the wild was tamed and controlled. Typically the hero is a man “in the middle, between civilisation and savagery”. Lawrence and Jewett describe the Myth: “A community in harmonious paradise is threatened by evil: normal institutions fail to contend with this threat; a selfless superhero emerges to renounce temptations and carry out the redemptive task: aided by fate, his decisive victory restores the community to its paradise condition: the superhero then tends to recede into obscurity.” (p.210).

The American Adam is a man, and a man with a gun. Lewis-Anthony is quite right to point out that in carrying out the redemptive task, the American Adam becomes the American Cain. But it is with the status of hero and leader that this American Cain is expelled, rather than with a curse.

For Lewis-Anthony any leadership based on this Myth is fundamentally violent, and therefore wrong. “Under the American mono myth of redemptive violence, to be a leader/hero means to be prepared to use violence. To be a disciple/follower means to accept, in turn, an invitation to use and be thrilled by violence.” (p.213). Leadership in our society is “fatally flawed by its roots in violence, the will to power and destruction”.

Tom Wright asks the question about “what any of this has to do with something most Americans also believe, that the God of ultimate justice and truth was fully and finally revealed in the crucified Jesus of Nazareth, who taught people to love their enemies, and warned that those who take the sword will perish by the sword”. Lewis-Anthony continues: “Wright reminds those within the church, the ‘religious admirers of leadership’ that there is a basic problem in this admiration of North American society. With its roots in the mythic use of violence by the outsider, the extra-societal Adam, what can we find in the scriptural tradition to counteract, or set aside, this cult of violence? Surely we can find some ways in which the crucified Jesus of Nazareth rescues leadership from both Marduk and John Wayne.”(p.213).

starwarsrallypng

Why are we bothered about leadership? It matters to those who are the victims of leadership violence. It matters to those of us whose minds have been made up by a myth of leadership. It matters to those who are excluded by such a myth – anyone who is not a white, male, rooting’ tooting’ son of a gun. It matters to God’s mission. The Washington Free Beacon has put these two images together, a Nazi rally – which inspired a scene in Star Wars. It all looks frighteningly ecclesiastical, except there’s more people.

Training Champions of the Human Race

Yusra Mardini
Notes for a sermon for Christ the King, Birkenhead, August 14th 2016 (Proper 15C, Ordinary 20C, Pentecost +13)

Have you been watching the Olympics?  It’s too easy to watch too much isn’t it? What have been your highlights?

Did you see Yusra Mardini win her 200 metre freestyle swimming heat? Yusra was swimming for the Refugee Olympic team. She got such a cheer. She won her heat, though didn’t qualify for the semi finals because others had swum faster than her.

Yusra is 18 years old. She was born in Damascus, a Syrian Christian and represented Syria in 2012. Her family’s house was destroyed and the roof of her training pool was blown off. She and her sister Sarah decided to flee Syria last summer. They reached Lebanon, then Turkey, and then boarded a boat for Greece. There were 20 of them in a dinghy designed for six. The boat was soon in trouble with the motor failing after 30 minutes. There were only four swimmers in the boat: Yusra, her sister and two others. They had to get out and pushed and pulled for 3 hours until they bought the boat to shore on Lesbos and the lives of the people on board so saving the lives of all their fellow passengers.

Last August, after 25 days, she arrived in Berlin. She gets up at 4 o’clock every morning to train before going to school. That has been her training schedule. That is how she arrived at the Olympics.

Also in the swimming pool was Adam Peaty, our first swimming gold medal since 1988. He’s from Uttoxeter. He used to be scared of water. You couldn’t tell could you?

Besides his own dedication – his story is one of immense and sacrificial support by his mother, the rest of the family and his neighbours – as they have struggled to make the money to pay for the petrol to get him to his training.

His response to winning: “I’m proud to have pushed the boundaries of the human race.” Are we pushing the boundaries of the human race? And if we are thinking to ourselves how old we are, that we are too frail, there will be the Paralympians coming along next month to shame our outlook. And if we are thinking that we are unfit then we have to open our ears and hearts to the good news that God’s love helps us fit for the kingdom, not our strength.

Are any of you successful athletes? Or maybe you’re not medal winners, but you’ve got a life of achievement because of the work that you have put in – you’ve brought up children, you’ve supported a sick relative, you’ve ….

Or, perhaps more of us are conscious of our failings, the missed opportunities, inability to keep our resolve – losing our way in lives full of regrets. Me too.

 

Our first reading (Hebrews 11:29-12:2) gives honourable mentions to many people – to the prostitute Rahab, to Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, David, Samuel and the prophets – those who administered justice, those whose weakness was turned to strength, those who endured torture, imprisonment and persecution – destitute, ill-treated, homeless. They are all commended for their faith.

The letter is written in the past tense, but the honourable mention is intended to embrace those who now administer justice, those who endure torture, imprisonment and persecution, those whose faith is commendable. They are all champions of the human race – and we are all encouraged to run with them for a podium finish – at the right hand of God. “Let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfected of faith.” (Hebrews 12:1f)

 

We have all been introduced to the pool in our baptism. It might be a long time since we swam in those waters but perhaps it’s worth casting our minds to our baptisms and the call to swim in those waters. That is the training pool for future champions – champions of the human race.

Those who get honourable mentions are commended for the race they ran even though they could hardly make out the tape. According to this letter to the Hebrews, God has planned something far better for us. I don’t know whether any of you have been to the dogs but the greyhounds race after the hare that has been set running. We have Jesus before us, to fix our eyes on, to follow.

Where Jesus goes, our eyes follow. That is where we set our sights. The highways and by-ways, the margins ………… “Let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith.”

Yusra Mardini, in an interview this week says that she has been overwhelmed by the support that she has had and that she hopes that she has “opened the world’s eyes to the plight of those who have been displaced” – which is where eyes will focus if they are fixed on Jesus because we know his time was/is for them and those like them who are strangers (even aliens) to the powers that be.

Jesus is the goal, but what about our training schedule?

The words of Psalm 90 shouted out to me this week:

The days of our life are three score years and ten, or if our strength endures, even four score; yet the sum of them is but labour and sorrow, for they soon pass away and we are gone (verse 10)

How soon life passes. Before we know it we are at the end of our days, and we can easily become overwhelmed by the sense of opportunities missed. Life runs away with us. In this context the psalmist prays:

Teach us to number our days, that we may apply our hearts to wisdom (verse 12). Numbering our days means making our days count, whether we have 3 days, months, weeks, years. How shall we use the time that we have? Shall we train them on the human race we run?

The psalmist continues (verse 15), Give us gladness for the days you have afflicted us, and for the years in which we have seen adversity – a simple plea for a better time than the times wasted or suffered.

Part of my own training schedule is to pick up a poem each day. For me it’s like a protein shake – it builds me up and gives me energy. This poem I picked up this week is by Annie Dillard and is called How we Spend our Days  It is about how we manage our time, structure our time so it helps us keep a good time and a winning time.

How we spend our days
is, of course,
how we spend our lives.

What we do with this hour,
and that one,
is what we are doing.

A schedule
defends from chaos
and whim.

It is a net
for catching days.
It is a scaffolding

on which a worker
can stand
and labor with both hands

at sections of time.
A schedule is a mock-up
of reason and order –

willed, faked,
and so brought into being;
it is a peace and a haven

set into the wreck of time;
it is a lifeboat
on which you find yourself,

decades later,
still living.
Each day is the same,

so you remember
the series afterward
as a blurred and powerful pattern.

So what about a training schedule? (And what would go in that schedule?)

What about aiming for a good time? (And what a good time for you be?)

How about championing the human race and the whole of God’s creation?