It is still dark when I get up at this time of year and I walk the bus with the stars still shining (a rarity, I do admit, at the moment) and join the company of travellers: going to work, to college and to school. We sit in much the same seats earch morning with our iPods or other devices, staring straight ahead, uncommunicative, lost in our own little musical worlds. One man, who is always sitting sideways at the front conducts to the music he hears. Who knows what each is listening to? As it is Winter, the windows in the bus are all opaque with condensation and, although we trust the driver to get us to our destination and we all know what we have paid for, we can't see where we are going or what is happenlllg around us. Content to trust to others, we sit, nod (or conduct) in a Cloud of Unknowing until someone can bear it no longer and wipes a little of the window next to him / her. There IS something beyond our existence!
Some people think we miss out on life, tucked away in rural Gloucestershire. The action is elsewhere: London, Manchester, New York or Shanghai. The Christian Gospels give us reason to think otherwise. They tell the story of the most significant human life ever. Jesus was born in a small territory on the periphery of the Roman Empire. He grew up in a small town and had little contact with the great and good of his day. Yet his words and deeds have been pivotal to world history for centuries after.
Many of the other people we meet in the Gospels are ordinary folk like us, who find themselves able to play a part in God's amazing plan of salvation. The opening chapters of Luke's Gospel are full of such references. Village people discover that God has chosen them to be part of the greatest faith adventure: the birth of the Messiah. As Mary's song of praise to God puts it:
“He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly.”
Howard and I were fellow Brits far from ‘home’ in central Saskatchewan. But Howard was no newcomer to Canada. He had spent 10 years in the far north of Baffin Island in the 1960s and 70s, as rector of an Inuit (‘Eskimo’ in old terminology) congregation. I was impressed by Howard’s readiness to serve God in such a remote place with such a forbidding climate. But Howard told me about a more remarkable character, Archibald Fleming, also known as Archibald of the Arctic.
Archibald felt called by God to serve as a missionary to the Inuit people in the Canadian Arctic. And around the time of the First World War, he went to Baffin Island. After four years there he had a spell of ministry elsewhere in Canada. Then he returned to the Arctic, and in 1933 he became the first bishop of the newly created Diocese of the Arctic.
The British abroad in times past had a reputation for taking as many of the comforts of the old country as they could with them. Archibald was not that kind of ex-pat. At a time when many bishops in England gave themselves to mingling with the great and the good, Archibald Fleming devoted his days to visiting the ordinary Inuit people and sharing their lives. He dressed as they did. He ate their food and slept with them in the traditional igloos. His willingness to come to them in humble service made a big impression on the local people. They loved him and saw him not as a white foreigner, but one of their own.
Jesus said that being his disciple is like the owner of a house who brings out of his storeroom treasures new as well as old (Matthew 13:52). Jesus is alluding to the way in which his teaching is rooted in to old Hebrew Scriptures (our “Old Testament”) and yet brings fresh revelation from God and a new understanding of the old texts.
This ability to combine old and new reminds me of comments I heard in a recent television documentary about Fairport Convention. As some of you may know, Fairport Convention emerged from the underground music scene in the late sixties, an English rock band playing cover versions of West Coast American music, such as songs by Bob Dylan and Joni Mitchell. They played some of their own compositions. Then in 1969 they started to include traditional English folk music in their repertoire. Not only was this the first time that such music had been played on the instruments of a rock band, but the songs themselves were infused with elements of rock composition. Something old and something new.
I was introduced to the music of Fairport Convention in 1970 by a student doing a summer job in the same factory as me. He lent me some to listen to and I was captivated by the beauty and energy of the music. I had given up listening to pop music several years earlier and only tuned into Radio 3. Fairport Convention opened the door into a new realm of music for me, and for many others. This year is the 45th anniversary of the group’s formation and they’re still going strong, with a fan base that crosses generations. The documentary I watched was a tribute to their music and its transforming impact on the folk music scene.
Some of you will have heard my sermon last month where I mentioned my summer holiday visits to some of the great cathedrals of France. Two of the most magnificent were Chartres, which many of you may have heard of, and Laon which you probably haven’t. However, apparently Chartres cathedral was modelled on that of Laon, which is situated on a large outcrop of rock in the plains to the north east of Paris, visible for many miles. The architecture of Laon was particularly striking and it was very light and airy inside, a great relief from the 36 degree temperature outside.
The cathedral in the city where we stayed in the south, Agde, was about as different as could be imagined. It was built of black volcanic basalt and was squat and sturdy, more like a fortress than a church, as indeed it was when built. It was dark inside as well as out. But I still found it a good place to pray in the silence of the morning, on my way back from visiting the boulangerie to buy our breakfast croissants.
It’s a bitter-sweet time of year. The holidays and the Olympics are over; work, study, the usual routine resume in earnest, and the nights are getting longer and cooler. Things are maturing in hedgerow, field and garden, and much has already been gathered in. A good time for reflection then.
As a boy at school and living at home, I always thought that August and September were the healthiest months: plenty of fresh fruit and vegetables, lots of outdoor activity and the delight and bounty of wild-food gathering. So having had a recent close encounter in our family with the healing work of the National Health Service, my reflections have tended to focus around health, particularly in the form of a good diet, wholesomeness and holidays. It’s only when you or people you care about become unwell that you really value your health, the work of those who seek to bring healing and the importance of maintaining and restoring health by good food and exercise.