Think on these things
Given on Sunday 26th September 2010 at The Abbey by Revd Dr. John Rennie
I love the writings of TS Eliot. Not that I understand them very often. But this does give the impression at least of being in the presence of genuine mysticism and substance and is genuinely alluring. This quotation has a degree of accessibility in that it does at least get me thinking. What is the shadow? Where are my dreams and projects in this? Where do I most find God here – in the idea, the reality or the shadow?
I would like to paraphrase it a little for Harvest – ‘Between the sowing and the reaping… lies the nurturing and waiting’. The traditional harvest parable is that of the sower – ‘and the sower went out to sow…’ – a tale with its beginning in sowing and its end in reaping; the story of seed to harvest.
As someone who is far more used to philosophy than farming (I always say that I found even theology a bit on the practical side), it’s a bit of a risk to comment here, but my friends in farming tell me of the uncomfortable wait that exists between the arrival of the turkey chicks and Christmas, the sowing of seeds in the fields and the harvesting of the crop, the birth of a lamb and its going to market. In the arrival of the chicks, the sowing of the seeds and the birth of the lamb is the idea of the produce, but the reality comes later. And, in the interim, there is the wait, wondering, despite all they will do, whether the rains will destroy everything, a fox will carry off a lamb, the turkeys will turn on each other and so on. We might term farmers as producers, reapers, harvesters. I wonder if they might best be termed ‘waiters’, ‘hostages to fortune’. Maybe it is the very precariousness of their lives that moulds who they are. The most tragic funeral I ever conducted was that of a four year old girl whose father drove over her in his tractor. Without in any sense diminishing the sheer awfulness of his experience he said to me that what had been helpful to him was the living on the edge of success and failure/life and death that comes through farming.
If we too live inside the parable of the sower, we know that God has sown the seed in us. We know too that, at the end of all things, the harvest will gather in the crops. Now, though, we are in the middle of the story, possibly uncertain whether we are stony ground, pathway, thistle-filled land or good soil, in that grey area of life, faith, humanity, God, where little seems as clear as we would like it to be. We too live in the shadow.
My own life now is dominated by an idea – that of using the Anglican Church in sub-Saharan Africa to set-up a large-scale microfinance project. Great idea, I think (or hope). But the reality lies ahead of me and I live in the shadow where anything can go wrong – funding failing to materialise, key partners dropping out, structures on the ground breaking down, political circumstances overtaking us and so on. It’s in this time that the success or failure of the project will be made but it is the most uncomfortable place to be. I rather suspect you’ll hear more about this as time goes on but I know you will all have been here in the uncertainty between idea and reality.
And so to the question – where is God most in this? Well, I’ll be safe and say that He is of course in all of it. However, I think He is closest to us in the shadow. While the idea and the reality come from Him, His presence is most felt in the uncertainty of the shadow. If I were to ask you about your own spiritual lives and when you’ve felt God to be closest to you, I suspect I would hear a lot about the dark times when things were uncertain and your faith somehow managed to sustain you, carried through the difficulties by the love of God and how this experience has formed your faith more than anything else.
There was a column in the Tablet (the rather ‘Anglican’ Roman Catholic journal) in the run-up to the extraordinarily successful Papal visit, in which, each week, different people were asked what they would say to the Pope if they had five minutes with him. You had the usual things about contraception, women priests, apologies for abuse and cover-up, none of which I would have disagreed with. However, as an Anglican, I think I would have wanted to take a different tack entirely. I would want to say that Christ gave us the idea of the Church, not the reality of it; the start not the end; the impetus not the conclusion. Declaring that such and such is what Christians have to believe runs into the danger of conflating idea and reality and missing the shadow where God is most present with us.
I would go on to say to Benedict that the strongest blessing of the Anglican Church now is its living in the shadow, where uncertainty is not just an abstract concept but is lived with. As someone who talks daily with a range of Anglicans from around the globe, I am acutely aware of the issues that are tearing us apart. And yet, I still believe God is very much with us. The way Anglicanism is structured across the world by accident or by providence means it combines in a unique way being local and being universal. It truly responds and adapts to the nature of the culture in which it finds itself – it seeks to be Christ incarnate in each place and time. Yet it also seeks to be one world-wide communion – a brotherhood and sisterhood of Christians, separate in many ways but, more strongly, united. It is deeply flawed, essentially risky and profoundly painful, yet it is for me authentically living in the shadow. It is only in the idea, and the reality that will only come in the next life, that things are perfect. Imperfection is the nature of things now and it is in the integrity of living with that that our openness to God is used by Him to come closest to us. Knowing this means that though I am imperfect, that I am living in the shadow, I am yet loved by God and He will still guide me – that we, as Anglicans, are yet loved by God, and that He will still guide us too, and that in doing so, He will bring us closer to the reality of His kingdom.