Wednesday 25 September 2013

A recovering lopsided Christian

A sermon by Kim Fabricius (his third-last before retirement)

During August, downsizing my files, preparing to move my study from downstairs to upstairs, amidst the passports, birth certificates, the memento mori of a will, and assorted detritus accumulated over the years, I discovered a large brown envelope labelled “Ordination”. In it are a couple of orders of services, a photograph of Angie (looking uncharacteristically mousy!) and me (looking characteristically whatever) flanked by the Moderator John Morgans and my Mansfield College chaplain Charles Brock, who preached “the charge”. And then, the real find, a copy of the charge itself. My eyes scanned the page and then settled on this particular passage: “Kim is a dreamer. He will lead you to the precincts of the heavenly temple, offer you the bread of heaven, and let you drink the clear, gold, red and very heady wine of paradise.”

And I thought, “Wow! Kim the Sketty mystic and visionary! Nice one, Charles!” But then, as I always tell you, no text without a context. And Charles’ context? “You could say,” Charles had been saying, “that what ordination training is all about is this – to put our right minds at stake so we can be beside ourselves for God [II Corinthians 5:13], but” – BUT! – “but also to make practical people out of dreamers.” And he concluded that this is what ministry is all about, keeping together these two dimensions, the visionary and the practical.

Charles didn’t actually say it – he was too kind – but his silence was deafening: I am not a practical person. Nor could ministerial training turn me into one – not even three years of it! No, I am not a practical person. And not just in the sense that – well, let’s just say what a relieved man-about-the-house I was when UK electrical gadgets starting arriving with the plugs attached! No, I mean that I am not a practical person even “professionally” (if you like), in the sense that, pastoral care excepted, I’m happier in the study than on the hoof, at the desk on my PC than at a meeting in the chair, better at thinking things out than getting things done (though I think I’ve gotten rather good at getting people who are good at getting things done get things done!). In temperament and as a personality type, I’m Reflection Man, not Action Man. That’s my psychology. But it’s also my confession. I am an excellent example of what you might call a “lopsided” Christian.

Can you relate to what I’m saying? Or is it simply conceit or presumption on my part to suggest that lop-sidedness is a chronic Christian malaise? I don’t think so. And to demonstrate, let me put this practical/impractical, action/reflection dichotomy in a different way: private/public, or even spiritual/political – prayer and contemplation on the one hand, the struggle for peace and justice on the other. And that’s just the problem: instead of one hand and the other hand, the hands should be clasped or even clapping. So you get Christians who are into “quiet days” and retreats, and you get Christians who are into rallies, marches, and sit-ins. But what happens all too often is that people who go on retreats do not allow the experience to release them for action, while people who are involved in the struggle for justice are not as sensitive as they might be to human sin and divine grace.

I get it. When I began university in 1966, I was pretty sure what I wanted: a good degree, a fetching wife, a successful career, two kids and a dog. But by my second year I started thinking, “Is that it?”, and by my third year I concluded, “No, it’s not. There’s got to be more.” But what? Thus began my search, reading literature and philosophy and religion, travelling east and west. Eventually I learned that the “what” is actually a “who”, in fact, a “You”: “Lord,” as St. Augustine wonderfully wrote, “our hearts are restless until they find their rest in Thee.” But when you find God – or rather when God finds you – you don’t stop seeking God. On the contrary, it’s only then that the search gets really interesting. You seek, you find, you seek, you find – and if you stop seeking, you lose. And as the great rock band U2 put it in one of their most misunderstood songs, “I still haven’t found what I’m looking for.” Augustine’s longed-for rest comes only on the other side of eternity.

So far, so good. My mistake, however, was that I initially thought that this search was a private investigation, that faith is what you do with your solitude, very personal, altogether inner. During my final year at college I had become disillusioned with politics – the murders of Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy, followed by the awful Nixon, the actor Reagan, the wars (secret and open), the stupidity, the lies, the “America the indispensable nation” guff. My Christian spirituality came by way of Buddhism and Zen, my prayer-life informed by techniques of meditation. Charles Brock was right: heavenly-minded, maybe, but of no earthly use for sure.

So what happened? The Bible is what happened. The Bible disturbed my peace – or rather the truce I negotiated with myself in bad faith. I had thought “spirituality” was done in the lotus position; the Bible taught me that it is done on two feet. I had thought that knowing God was some kind of religious experience; the Bible taught me that “knowing” God is not a “religious” experience at all.

Take our reading from Jeremiah (22:10-17). The prophet excoriates the king of Judah for not “knowing” the Lord. But what – is he saying that the Joahaz should be spending more time on his knees? No, he points him to his father Josiah as a role model. A heavenly-minded monarch then? No, much more down to earth: “He was always just.… He gave the poor a fair trial.… That is what it means to know the Lord.” In contrast, not knowing the Lord: “You can only see your selfish interests; you kill the innocent and violently oppress your people.”

In our reading from I John (2:3-11), same question: How can we be sure that we “know” God? And same answer: “Keep his commandments. If someone claims, ‘I know him well!’ but doesn’t keep his commandments, he’s obviously a liar.” And what are these commandments? John, following Jesus, reduces them to two: love God and love your neighbour, with the latter the test of the former. So John adds: if you say you love God but hate your neighbour, you’re of the night, you live in darkness. Again, knowing God isn’t something that goes on in your head, knowing God is something you do, knowing God is a practice.

“To make practical people out of dreamers” – that’s what Charles Brock said ministerial training is all about. I’d only add that it’s what training in discipleship as such is all about too: to bring dreaming and practice together, to balance that reflection/action lop-sidedness. So let me conclude with a bit more biography – but not (you’ll be glad to hear!) my own. Rather let me introduce you to two famous Christians, both of whom have been on my mind lately: Dag Hammarskjöld (a long-awaited biography of Hammarskjöld was published in the spring) and Thomas Merton (an excellent University lecture was given on Merton in May).

Dag Hammarskjöld was a Swedish diplomat, so Action Man. Appointed 60 years ago, he was the Secretary-General of the UN during the critical Cold War fifties, when he “almost single-handedly shaped the vision for international co-operation and crisis management that we [still] struggle to realise [today]” (Rowan Williams). It was Hammarskjöld who famously wrote that “in our era, the road to holiness necessarily passes through the world of action.” Yet while hardly a conventional Christian, he immersed himself in such classics of spirituality as The Imitation of Christ and the works of the German mystic Meister Eckhart. In his posthumously published journal called Markings, we see Hammarskjöld commenting on the foolishness and vanity of world leaders, but, above all, engaging in lonely soul-searching and relentless self-examination. Hammarskjöld is Action Man as Reflection Man.

Thomas Merton was an American Trappist monk, so Reflection Man. He spent most of his 24/7 in solitude and silence. Even occasional visits to the nearby town to buy provisions made him feel uncomfortable. It took a moment of revelation for Merton to see the intimate and inextricable connection between withdrawal and engagement. In March, 1958, “In Louisville, at the corner of Fourth and Walnut, in the center of the shopping district, I was suddenly overwhelmed with the realization that I loved all those people, that they were mine and I theirs.… It was like awakening from a dream of separateness, of spurious self-isolation in … the world of … supposed holiness.” True to his epiphany, Merton went on to campaign, religiously, for nuclear disarmament, racial equality, and inter-faith dialogue. Merton is Reflection Man as Action Man.

From these two great mentors – not to mention Jesus of Nazareth! – I draw the conclusion: reflection without action is empty, action without reflection is blind. From such wisdom, with Charles Brock’s heads-up and your help – and by God’s grace – maybe, just maybe, over these 31 years, I’ve grown from being a lopsided Christian to being a recovering lopsided Christian. You too?

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