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Pilgrim, priest and ponderer. European living in North East England. Retired parish priest, theological educator, cathedral precentor and dean.

Sunday, 24 May 2015

Veni Creator: the seven gifts of the Spirit

At the end of this service, we shall sing one of the best known of all Whitsunday hymns, our own Bishop Cosin’s Come Holy Ghost, our souls inspire. It has the distinction of being the only hymn, in the modern sense, to be included in the 1662 Book of Common Prayer where it invokes the Spirit at the start of the ordination prayer for priests and bishops.

            Come, Holy Ghost, our souls inspire
            And lighten with celestial fire;
            Thou the anointing Spirit art,
            Who dost thy sevenfold gifts impart
Cosin drew on a 9th century Latin hymn of Pentecost when he wrote it in 1625. But the event he composed it for was not an ordination but a coronation, that of King Charles I. And in this his instinct was faithful to the biblical origins of this opening stanza. Its reference to the ‘sevenfold gifts’ takes us back to the lesson from Isaiah that we heard earlier. There, the prophet is looking forward to a new and glorious reign of the coming king who will emerge from the root of Jesse, the line of David. What kind of ruler will he be? Isaiah tells us. ‘The spirit of the Lord shall rest on him, the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord’. That makes six gifts. What about the seventh? That was added by the Greek translators of the Septuagint who included the spirit of piety or reverence.
In catholic moral theology, these seven gifts came to be seen as among the God-given lists that offer compass-bearings for the faithful as they navigate the spiritual life: seven deadly sins to avoid, seven virtues to embrace and live by, the four cardinal and three theological virtues, and the seven petitions that make up the Lord’s Prayer. So on this Whit Sunday, let’s reflect briefly on these beautiful qualities as gifts of the anointing Spirit to the Messiah, to the church and to us. And although they have moved some way from their original setting in the prophecies of Isaiah, John Cosin, an accomplished moral theologian who had read St Thomas Aquinas, would have understood this way of speaking about them.
Wisdom, sapientia, embraces all the other gifts; it means having the insight and capacity to place the spiritual above the material and transient and to see into the life of things. Understanding, intellectus, suggests the disciplined training of a Christian mind to think as God thinks, pursue truth as it is taught us by the Spirit of Truth, see through falsehood and illusion. Counsel, consilium, is right judgment or discernment to know right from wrong and make and follow the choice to live by what is good and true. Courage, fortitudo, is the overcoming of fear and evil and embracing risk to follow the way of Jesus Christ and publicly stand up for it. It is the virtue that emanates from a mind that is single-focused, set only on doing the will of the Father as Jesus obeyed him in his life and death. Knowledge, scientia, is one outcome of the second gift of understanding as the believer begins to grasp the meaning of God, not as the accumulation of information or doctrinal grasp, but as an aspect of Christian formation whereby we make the good choices of loving God and our neighbour.
Piety, pietas, is not simply ‘spirituality’, but rather the respecting and honouring the sources of our life and health: our parents, teachers and the church who together have shaped us, the public institutions to which we owe gratitude and loyalty, above all God himself whom we reverence as the author and giver of all good things. Finally, the fear of the Lord, timor Domini, stands for the gift of wonderment and adoration as we become ever more aware of the glory and majesty of God. The fear of the Lord teaches us that God is the perfection of all we long for: perfect knowledge, goodness, power, and love. Thomas Aquinas says this is not being afraid of punishment but rather a child’s fear of displeasing the parent they love. The Hebrew Bible says that ‘the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom’, so it brings us full circle to that first and all-embracing gift of wisdom.
All this, says Isaiah, is true of the promised anointed king, the messianic ruler who will judge the poor with righteousness and decide with equity for the meek of the earth, in whose days the lion will lie down with the lamb, and children will play safely over an adder’s den, when nothing will hurt or destroy on all God’s holy mountain for the earth shall be full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea. We cherish these promises and live by the hope they set before us, and are right to think of the reign of Jesus our risen and glorious Lord whose kingship we have celebrated in the days of Ascension and whose just and gentle rule we long for when we pray ‘thy kingdom come!’ And come it will, be it soon, be it late. We wait for it, we long for it, and because of it, we are always ready to give an answer for the hope that is within us.
Whitsunday invites us, not indeed to lose that long view but also to set our sights on the tasks and obligations of Christian living in the present. This, says Jesus to his disciples in the upper room, must be our daily concern when he is gone. It is for this that the Spirit of Truth comes, to lead us into truth, to give us a right judgment in all things, to impart the sevenfold gifts of the Spirit the hymn teaches us about. For in Christ, these are not the prerogatives of anointed messiah alone, but are for all who are anointed in baptism and sealed by the Spirit, for all of us whom Christian faith has made into the royal companions of the King of Glory. In St John, Paraclete is a word that glitters with expectation and is bright with promise: the Comforter, the Strengthener, the Encourager, the Advocate who both teaches and puts into our hearts the blazing fire and rushing wind and living water of God’s eternal love. Thy blessed unction from above is comfort, life, and fire of love. What would life be without the Spirit among us, between us and within us? What use would we be without the Spirit’s sevenfold gifts to make us fully human and perfect in us the image of Jesus? How can the church be a transforming influence in the world unless the Spirit’s gifts animate and inspire every breath we breathe?
Which is why I want to urge on the church the need to meditate on these sevenfold gifts. I see a church today that is at risk of panicking as it watches itself diminish in numbers and influence, as it wonders whether even Christian faith itself could be at risk of eclipse and a lingering, painful, sclerotic death. It’s understandable that our church is tempted to become busy and excitable, embark on great outreach projects with relentless energy, invest vast sums of money to try to turn this stately galleon Christianity round before it is too late. It is understandable. Like climate change, we can either pretend it isn’t happening, or engage seriously in mitigating its inevitable effects.
But the texts of Pentecost tell us that all the best-intentioned endeavour in the world will count for nothing without the Spirit of God and the seven gifts of an anointed people: wisdom, understanding, counsel, fortitude, knowledge, piety and the fear of the Lord. They give us a ‘values statement’ for the imitation of Christ. But they call for a deep and spiritual intelligence – ‘mindfulness’ - if we are to become life-changing agents of mission. These are gifts to make us into reflective practitioners, as they say, to foster wisdom before they are impulses to activity. The question at Pentecost must be: how do we cultivate the vocation of the church to practise mission with this kind of contemplative wise biblical insight? How do we make sure that in what we do and the way we do it, we are truly emulating our anointed King, and listening to what the Spirit is saying to the churches?

Durham Cathedral, Whitsunday 2015. Isaiah 11.1-9, John 16.1-15

Friday, 22 May 2015

A Lion Hunt: farewell to school-leavers

In Iraq and Syria, Isis has been destroying priceless remains from the ancient world. The legendary site at Palmyra is only the latest threat. A few weeks ago we learned about the ancient site at Nimrud where Isis has hacked down marvellous buildings and sculptures that were irreplaceable. Human life is cheap at the hand of radical Islamists, whether it is flesh and blood men, women and children, or the memories and heritage previous generations have left behind.

However, all is not lost. If you go to the British Museum, you can see some of the reliefs from Nimrud that were taken away by archaeologists in the 19th century. My favourite is a 9th century lion hunt from Ashurnasirpal’s palace. Lion-hunting was the sport of kings in the ancient world. Ashurnasirpal claimed he had killed 450. The king is standing in his horse-drawn chariot. One poor lion is being trampled underneath, while another is rearing up behind the king who is firing arrows at him. But don’t be taken in. These iron age lions were not wild. They were reared especially for the king’s entertainment, stabled and then released like greyhounds let out on to the track. It was entirely staged.

Maybe leaving school feels a bit like being a captive lion let out of the trap in order to be hunted for the sport of others. Not for you I’m sure: Dunelmians have the prospect of excellent results this summer, and university, college or a promising job to go to. That’s not true of other, less privileged students whose future may be a lot less promising. When my Jewish mother came out of Nazi Germany as a refugee, she was much the same age as you. But it meant the end of her education. This was among many things she could never forgive the Nazis for. She made sure that her own children had nothing but the best when it came to school and university. How much I owe to that!  

At leavers’ services I’m usually the one who stays behind while everyone else heads off for new horizons. Not this year. I am in the odd position of being a leaver too. When School reassembles in September, I shall be retiring. This is my last school sermon here. So what I say to you I’m saying to myself too.  For you and me, what lies ahead of us is a threshold we must cross into another life beyond. It may not seem real just yet. After all these years of schooling, what is life going to be like for you? After all these years of taking services and preaching sermons, what will it be like for me? It is edgy, facing a future that we can’t know yet. Yes, life should always be opening up ahead of us, full of possibility and promise. But like E. M. Forster’s past, the future is another country. They do things differently there. It’s a landscape we need to get to know. It will take time.
So how so we say goodbye? First, with thankfulness. My schooldays weren’t the happiest time of my life: I’ve found that life goes on getting better. But education is such a formative period in our lives. There will have been difficult or uncertain times when we have been under pressure, or wondering why we are here, or feeling anxious or fearful or alone. But I hope that while still being true to those experiences, we can all celebrate this rich period in our lives. In our second reading, St Paul asks us to think about what is true and honourable and commendable: ‘if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.’ This isn’t just the popular wisdom of the old song ‘accentuate the positive, eliminate the negative, don’t mess with mister in between’. It’s seeing how all of life is a great gift. At these thresholds it’s important to take stock, reflect on the ways God has been good to us and has led us on our journey to this point. And this should make us thankful. Gratitude lies at the heart of a contented and fulfilled life.

Second, we should say goodbye in a spirit of hope. Looking ahead is as important as looking behind. Yes, so much is unknown to us. How can we predict where we shall be even a year ahead, let alone a lifetime? But life has begun well for you. I remember as a five year old seeing a huge advert in the tube for Start-Rite shoes. It showed a child holding the hand of a parent, brave but not quite certain yet, taking tentative steps down a long straight road towards a sunrise. ‘Start right and they’ll walk happily ever after.’ I used to wonder what lay beyond, how far these little shoes of mine would carry me. The journeys you make, your life’s work, the friendships and the loves that shape your lives: it is all part of the sunrise that lies ahead. And school has given you the foundation of lifelong learning which is not simply gaining knowledge and skills, but about knowing yourself, about emotional and spiritual intelligence, about becoming good citizens, about forming sound values and growing into mature wisdom. Even in dark times, we can grasp the future confidently, for God walks with us at the best and worst of times. He promises never to leave or abandon us; he is the focus of our best hopes and expectations.

 ‘For all that has been: thanks! To all that shall be: yes!’ said a great UN statesman Dag Hammarskjold. So we pause on this threshold today, being aware of what is happening to us. I am finding out that ‘mindfulness’, stopping to think and reflect rather than rushing headlong from one phase of life into the next, is making a big difference to how I feel about leaving here and retiring. But let’s end where our readings do. From the Old Testament: ‘you shall go out in joy and be led forth in peace.’ And St Paul: ‘Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, rejoice.’ He goes on: ‘do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving, let your requests be made known to God.’ I should love to promise you a future free of anxiety and care, and would be glad if someone offered it to me. That’s not reality, of course. But this is: something that was said by a great woman of the middle ages, Julian of Norwich. ‘God did not say We shall not be troubled, we shall not be travailed, we shall not be dis-eased; but he said, we shalt not be overcome.’ Isaiah and Paul would have liked that. It makes all the difference to how we navigate the challenges and complexities of life.  

Paul says finally, ‘the peace of God which surpasses all understanding will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.’ That is the truth by which I have tried to live and hope to die. He will not let us down. So have wonderful lives. Make a difference to the world. Flourish and be happy. Trust in God. Go well. And God be with you all.

Durham School Leavers’ Service, 22 May 2015 Isaiah 55, Philippians 4.4-9

Sunday, 10 May 2015

70 Years after the End of the War in Europe

‘Greater love has no-one than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.’ Those words we heard in today’s gospel are familiar to us from thousands of wartime graves and memorials from both world wars of the twentieth century. Our thoughts have been much occupied with the Great War for the past year. But 2015 marks the seventy years that have passed since the end of the war in Europe.  We must not forget that in the Far East the war did not end until August 1945 with the terrible bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.  But here in Europe, on the 8 May seventy years ago, the bells rang out to announce the long awaited end of hostilities. We observed the silence here on Friday to remember the fallen, and yesterday the bells rang out at 1100 as they did in cathedrals across the country.

Today we can be thankful that since then our continent has been spared armed conflict on this scale.  We must not be complacent about this. The Balkans and Ukraine showed that war can erupt along forgotten fault-lines without warning.  Global terror poses new threats to peace and stability.  Our democracies must be vigilant in the face of far-right neo-fascist movements that reawaken old hatreds.  We must keep alive the vision of our common European home where our peoples are learning to live together as a community and heal past memories.  This vision ought forever to have laid to rest any thought that we could ever be at war again.  You cannot stand in the bombed-out ruins of Coventry Cathedral, or in the Frauenkirche in Dresden, or in the Marienkirche in our partner city of L├╝beck where the shattered bells still lie where they fell during the allied bombing raids of 1942 without recognising this.  Each human life that was lost in the war on either side was unique and precious.  We do not forget that today.  Because of this attrition, our nations have invested in peace.  The memory of sacrifice demands it of us.  The work of reconciliation is how we best honour the fallen.  

What is a Christian take on today as we look back to the 8 May 1945? In our church, the same day is kept as the festival of one of our most remarkable saints.  Her name was Julian, and she lived in the fourteenth century.  She devoted her life to prayer walled up in a small cell attached to a church in Norwich. You can see a rare example of a surviving anchorite cell just up the road at the beautiful church of Chester-le-Street. Many people came to her for spiritual guidance.  She was famous for the visions she received, her ‘showings’. Julian wrote them down in her book Revelations of Divine Love, to this day one of the most treasured classics of English spiritual writing.  She said, you might almost think for VE Day: ‘He did not say, you shall not be troubled, you shall thou shalt not be travailed, thou shalt not be dis-eased; but he said, you shall not be overcome.’ It came out of the profound assurance that whatever life’s circumstances, whatever the trouble or difficulty or pain, whatever the hardships and sufferings, nevertheless God’s nature and God’s name is love.  So she wrote: ‘all shall be well; and all shall be well; and all manner of thing shall be well.’

It is a promising saying for this day. On 8 May 1945, the message was that despite all that war had inflicted, people dared to look forward.  They dared to hope once more, dared to believe that all might ‘be well’.  After the pain, there was the prospect of healing; after the conflict, reconciliation; after the passion, resurrection; after death and destruction, life and love. No doubt it felt hard to say this out of the ashes of war. No doubt it was hard to say it in Julian’s time: the middle ages were a cruel and dangerous era for most ordinary people. There are times for all of us when it is still hard to say, and harder still to believe.  Yet Easter requires us to take this massive step of faith.  For the first dawning of Easter faith was a hoping against hope that God had indeed raised Jesus from the dead.  Easter faith dares to believe that God’s purposes of love can never be thwarted: all shall be well. 

This is our faith in this eucharist as we gather together on the first day of the week to give thanks once more that God raised Jesus from death and that he is alive forever in our midst and in the life of our world.  Thursday is Ascension Day when we acclaim that he is Lord of all things.  He fills heaven and earth with his presence, for as the psalm says of the Son of Man, ‘God has put all things under his feet’.  That means all nations and rulers, the world empires, every human family and institution, even, in the New Testament, the demonic powers of the air.  His reign gives us the strength to do his work on earth.  He is the Prince of Peace, so we make peace in his name.  He is the righteous Servant, so we establish justice in his name.  He is King of creation, so we care for the environment in his name.  He is King of kings, so we bring hope in his name.  And because this Lord of glory bears the wounds of the passion, we stand with all who suffer, in his name.

Our world is more broken than ever: the reign of the risen and exalted Christ is not realised yet.  That is to come in God’s time, be it soon, be it late. But the resurrection invites us into the movement of God’s eternal love for the world to play our part in embodying and living it in our own love for the world and our service of humanity. It is as clear as the day in this morning’s gospel: ‘this is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you.’ The greater love of a friend for a friend, of a comrade for a comrade, of one human being for another is the love of the Saviour for his people, of an incarnate Son for those whose lives he comes into our world to share. The laying down of our lives for our friends delineates the cross-shaped character of our humanity as the Spirit of Jesus is re-making it in his own image. It is the self-emptying, self-giving sacrificial character of God himself. It is how love manifests itself in the myriad ways whose truth and beauty we see all around us when people are good, and merciful, just, and kind, that is to say, when they act out of their true God-given humanity and recognise, with Julian, that in all things, ‘love was his meaning’. 

We have just emerged from an election. Our freedoms to speak, debate and vote are central to VE Day, because the war was fought precisely to resist the tyranny that overwhelmed Europe in the 1930s. Now our politicians must turn their thoughts to building a society where people flourish, the common good is honoured, and all are treated with justice and compassion. Peace-making and the quest for a better world order, about which we have heard far too little in the campaign, require that the voice of the weak is heard, refugees are cared for, the despairing are given hope and the poor are not forgotten. But the lesson of the last war is that nationhood, like patriotism, is not enough. Our flourishing happens as we play our part in the family of nations to whom it falls to care for the world and for humanity. This was the vision that sustained those who fought and fell in the war, and the architects of the peace that followed seventy years ago.

Mother Julian gives us the inspiration to turn our hope into the prayer that all may be well because ‘love is his meaning’. She says: ‘See that I am God. See that I am in everything. See that I do everything. See that I have never stopped ordering my works, nor ever shall, eternally. See that I lead everything on to the conclusion I ordained for it before time began, by the same power, wisdom and love with which I made it. How can anything be amiss?’. This is what we see with our own eyes at Golgotha in the greater love God shows us as he lays down his life for his friends. 

Durham Cathedral, 10 May 2015.  1 John 5.1-6, John 15.9-17