A reflection written for Marlborough’s Tower and Town
Old friends, old scenes, will lovelier be, as more of heaven in each we see; some softening gleam of love and prayer shall dawn on every cross and care.
After six years in Marlborough, I am writing this last clergy letter for Tower and Town amidst packed moving boxes, in front of the computer screen used for leading Sunday worship in the past three months, when our Churches were closed.
As for many others, these weeks of lock-down have given me a lot of time to reflect – or to overthink, depending on the day. There are two thoughts that keep coming back to me. Firstly, how lucky I have been to have something to be looking forward to: a new job, and a new place, new challenges and opportunities. Secondly, how my time in Marlborough, spent with you, has made me so much better prepared for whatever lies ahead of me.
A reflection for Wednesday in Holy Week Luke 22.54-end
As I already wrote in an earlier reflection this week, accepting our own limitations is one of the spiritual challenges that we face in these weeks of uncertainty, loss and isolation. A letter written from Italy in the Guardian last week put it rather well and in Luke’s Gospel this morning we hear the story of Peter, the disciple who epitomises our inability to be committed and faithful.
I am sure that I am not the only one who finds it very easy to relate to Peter’s story in which he denied Jesus three times before the cock crowed. Peter was one of Jesus most faithful followers; knowing that he would deny Jesus must have grieved him deeply. Indeed, it had a great impact on both men, as we hear that also Peter himself wept bitterly when he realised that Jesus’ predication had come true.
Address given at Shell Chapel at Marlborough College, Wednesday 8th January 2020
It is your second term now at Marlborough. I am sure that coming back yesterday felt very different from coming here the first time in September. Probably it feels a long time ago, that first afternoon when you all went to Court to meet your teachers; your first experience of Norwood and being lost quite a lot of the time, if you’re honest. Not so this time. You have learned a lot and grown a lot, but that also means that the expectations are now a little bit higher. You will get a blue chit if you’re late, if you have forgotten where you need to go, or if you’re not wearing your uniform properly. You are no longer newcomers, you are now part of this community as much as anyone else.
Part of growing up means that as you get older, you get more privileges, but also more responsibilities. The two go hand-in-hand. In your first term, you made friendships and learned to get to know the workings of this place, hopefully enjoying at least most of it. Now starts the time to build on those experiences. You start to know what it means to have real friends: people who support you when you need it, but they are the same who will need your support at times too. Friendship is a two-way process, you cannot only take, you will also have to give.
This is the second of five reflections following my pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostella. As I was walking, I quickly realised that I was not only part of a community of walkers, but also of a community that extended far beyond.
Behind the scenes
Even before I set off on my pilgrimage, I already felt part of a community of walkers (and cyclists): friends who had already been and were ready to give me good advice, both practical and spiritual. Walking the Camino gives you something in common very quickly.
This sense of belonging to a community was also my experience as soon as I arrived in Madrid. At the train station I met an Italian walker, who was also heading to Leon to start her journey there. We talked a little, and then made our way to our allocated carriages. I saw her again a few times in the following week. Although I did not set out to make great friends, the conversations and encounters on the way were moving and profound, whether we shared a common language or not.
Here we are, on the last day of term. I’m sure most of us are looking forward to the holiday, to a break: a change of scenery and a change of rhythm. Some of us will travel far, others will stay closer to home. However, all of us, at least hopefully, will make it out of Marlborough. And, I also suspect that for most of us, the rhythm of the days and weeks will change for these two months: no check-in, Studies or prep. No assemblies, Chapel or fixtures.
And of course, although you may take some friends with you, it is also a break from those you see every day, whether that’s people you like or those whom you find slightly more challenging. The summer gives us an opportunity for a change of scenery, a change of rhythm, and a change of company.
The Lord said to Moses, ‘This is the land of which I swore to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob, saying, “I will give it to your descendants”; I have let you see it with your eyes, but you shall not cross over there.’ Then Moses, the servant of the Lord, died there in the land of Moab, at the Lord’s command. (…) The Israelites wept for Moses for thirty days; then the period of mourning was ended. Joshua son of Nun was full of the spirit of wisdom, because Moses has laid his hands on him; and the Israelites obeyed him, doing as the Lord had commanded Moses. (Deuteronomy 34.4-5,8-9).
Our friendships are not limited to the people we meet. We can meet friends in books, films and poems: fiction or non-fiction, and occasionally feel a connection with them just as we would feel with those we meet in person. In this reflection, I will look at the way in which those who are no longer with us can continue to influence our lives in a similar way that our friends can. This ‘type’ of friendship is not about getting stuck in the past, but acknowledging that our present and future are shaped by it. Whether we have known a person well or not, their stories and memories can teach and influence us, inspire and guide us not unlike our present friendships can.
After this I looked, and there was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, robed in white, with palm branches in their hands. (Revelation 7:9)
Yesterday, it happened to be Ascension Day, I made a flying visit to Berlin. The occasion was a sad one: the funeral of a beloved friend of many and associate priest at St George’s, but as so often it is an opportunity to meet friends, to share memories and to be thankful for not only what she meant to us, but also what we mean to each other. In a subsequent reflection, I will write some more about the friendship of those who have gone before us. However, here I would like to focus on the friendship offered by a hugely diverse group of people.
Until 1994, St George’s was the Garrison Church for the British military stationed in Berlin. When the Allies withdrew from Berlin after the Reunification, St George’s became a civilian church. By the time I arrived in 2010, so in about a generation, the congregation had turned into an eclectic mix of Brits, Germans, Americans, Africans and many others of different nationalities and backgrounds such as myself. As soon as I walked through the door, I felt welcome, and I was not the only one. The fact that St George’s has produced a steady stream of ordinands is only one of the signs of its ability to welcome and nourish people in their faith.
“While they were talking and discussing, Jesus himself came near and went with them.” A third reflection on the nature of friendship, looking at the importance of sharing our experiences.
One of the first things one learns when undertaking any pastoral training, is never to say “I know what you are feeling”. None of us know what someone else feels, particularly not when they have experienced something we have not. However, I suspect many of us have also been in situations when we did have the sense that the other knew what we felt, and were indeed much comforted by this experience.
In those conversations, our experience mirrors the encounter between Cleopas and the other disciple as they are on their way to the village called Emmaus (Luke 24.13-35). It is the day of the Resurrection as they are discussing everything that has happened in the last few days. Presumably still scarred by the reality of the Crucifixion, the two disciples are trying to make sense of the events and seek their significance. Continue reading “The Road to Emmaus: Companionship”→
The second reflection on the nature of friendship looks into the fact that even our closest friends have their limitations, just as we ourselves do.
The story of Job is familiar to many, and has been seen an attempt to answer the question of why there is seemingly purposeless suffering. On the surface, the narrative looks like a simple story, in which Job is a pawn in the eternal battle of Good and Evil. However, there is much more to be said, and for example Eleonore Stump gives an excellent in-depth exploration of the theme of suffering in Job in her book Wandering in Darkness.
In the following, I would like to turn our focus away from Job himself towards his friends: Eliphaz, Bildad and Zophar. When they hear that Job is struck by suffering, together they go and try to console and comfort him – indeed the sign of a true friend. Before anyone says anything, they sit together in silence for seven days and seven nights, and maybe they should have left it there. Job himself is the first to speak. Although he curses the day that he was born, he does not blame anyone for his misery: not himself, nor God. Although he is looking for an explanation, he does not find fault: he maintains his own innocence, but doesn’t hold God responsible either.
The first post in the series ‘Friends’, reflecting on the nature of our friendships.
I am sure that I am not the only one who at times has tried very hard to push away those who care about me most. Usually through frustration about my own short-comings, I have tried to push others away, often successfully, but not always. There have been some remarkable people who were not willing to let me go, not willing to give up on me, no matter how hard I tried. And I have realised, these people are my friends.
It brings to mind the famous story of Jacob wrestling with the angel (Genesis 32.22-30). In the story it seems Jacob who is not willing to let go of the figure who is wrestling with him: “I will not let you go, unless you bless me”, we hear him saying. I wonder, however, who is really holding whom? I suspect Sir Jacob Epstein’s rendition of the story is truthful in the sense that it is ultimately the angel embracing Jacob, who seems rather helpless in this statue. Continue reading “Jacob: Never let me go”→