I’ve been thinking about the way, when you walk
down a crowded aisle, people pull in their legs
to let you by. Or how strangers still say “bless you”
when someone sneezes, a leftover
from the Bubonic plague. “Don’t die” we are saying.
and sometimes, when you spill lemons
from your grocery bag, someone else will help you
pick them up. Mostly, we don’t want to harm each other.
We want to be handed our cup of coffee hot,
and to say thank you to the person handing it. To smile
at them and for them to smile back. For the waitress
to call us honey when she sets down the bowl of clam chowder
and for the driver of the red pick up truck to let us pass.
We have so little of each other, now. So far
from tribe and fire. Only those brief moments of exchange.
What if they are the true dwelling of the holy, these
fleeting temples we make together when we say, “Here
have my seat.” “Go ahead – you first.” “I like your hat.”
This is a poem by Danusha Laméris from her first collection, The Moons of August which was chosen by Naomi Shihab Nye as the winner of the 2013 Autumn House Press Poetry Prize. Naomi Shihab Nye has also written a remarkable poem on Kindness.
I like the language of kindness, of kith and kin, that in German children are kinder, that kindness is the making of humankind and that humankind should be qualified by kindness. By themselves small kindnesses are rarely remarkable in the sense that they are newsworthy, but they make our days and open the door to the greater kindnesses of friendship and community. Small kindnesses are usually intuitive, born by habits of the heart grown in rich cultures of difference and longing. In one place the bus stop is a silent waiting room of isolation, in another, like Glasgow, it’s a meeting place. Why the difference? What are the differences in the habits of the heart of both places?
Danusha Laméris asks the question, what if these small kindnesses are the true dwelling of the heart? Should we be surprised when everything about the kingdom of god is small? In two tiny parables Jesus explains the kingdom of God. “He said, ‘What is the kingdom of God like? And to what should I compare it? It is like a mustard seed that someone took and sowed in a garden; it grew and became a tree, and the birds of the air made nests in its branches.’ And again he said, ‘to what should I compare the kingdom of God? It is like yeast that a woman took and mixed in with three measures of flour until all of it was leavened.” (Luke 13:18-20)
So in a simple touch, a smile, a whisper or a word might be folded the holy – just a single seed planted in our lives. There probably isn’t anywhere else for the holy to dwell.
Theological perspectives have changed. Tonight I am meeting with our “Readers’ Council” to hear their concerns about their “Continuing Ministerial (Professional) Development”.These changes in theological perspective will be very much on my mind.
Reader ministry in the Church of England was “revived” in 1561 and in 1866 to minister in poorer parishes “destitute of an incumbent” and to cope with the population explosion in cities in the early 19th century. They had a different point of view from the clergy. The Bishop of Bangor (in 1894) saw the advantage of “Christian men who can bridge the gap between the different classes of society” – And the Dean of Manchester recognised that most Readers were “more in unison with the masses with whom they mixed”. Although the Diocesan Readers came from the professions, the Parochial Readers were described as ‘the better educated from among the uneducated’. Nowadays Readers and clergy train together both before and after licensing and ordination. I have been ordained long enough to remember that this was not always so, and to remember that the idea that Readers and clergy could train together seemed preposterous. Now we take it for granted and appreciate the advantages of learning together.
This movement of theology is reflected in many of our traditions. From a Roman Catholic perspective, Ilia Delio traces the development of theology from the preserve of the priest in his academic study to a vast lay, creative and inter-disciplinary movement. This huge paradigm shift is dated back as recently as the 1970’s when only 5% of theologians were non-priests. That figure has grown to over 60%. Theological education is now well beyond the control of the institutional church. Diarmuid O’Murchu lists features of this shift in his book Adult Faith:
- Theology is no longer reserved to the academic domain.
- Theology has gone global, even beyond the boundaries acknowledged in multi-faith dialogue.
- Theology has become quite multi-disciplinary and interdisciplinary. “The contemporary lay theologian seeks to address the here-and-now of evolutionary creation … [casting] a wide net within a contextual landscape … [seeking] dialogue with partners in various fields of learning, transcending wherever possible the dualistic distinction between the sacred and the secular” (O’Murchu, p66f).
- Lay theologians do theology in a vastly different way from their clerical counterparts, who “prioritise the church, its traditions, teachings and expectations” (O’Murchu, p119)
- Christian theology has become radicalised as theologians “sought to realign Christian faith with one pervasive theme of the Christian Gospels: the New Reign of God”. (O’Murchu). Christian life is increasingly seen as “empowerment” and “called to be a counterculture to all forms of destructive power … facilitated not by some new benign form of hierarchical mediation, but by dynamic creative communities.” (O’Murchu).
For O’Murchu the “Kingdom of God” is “the companionship of empowerment” with theology being the “servant wisdom” of that companionship, so that “theology once more becomes a subversive dangerous memory, unambiguously committed to liberty from all oppressions and to empowerment for that fullness of life to which all creatures are called.” (O’Murchu, p65).
Theology has changed. In many traditions theology was thought to have been the preserve of the clergy. Readers and other lay ministers helped to open those boundaries, but their tendency remains to “prioritise the church, its traditions, teachings and expectations.” Now we increasingly realise that theology goes beyond the church (why has that taken so long?). Our shared “ministerial development” is to realise this, to overcome the tendency to prioritise the church and to engage with the “companionship of empowerment” wherever that is found.