Wednesday, November 14, 2018

A Sermon from Pusey House Oxford

This evening, I had the responsibility and privilege to preach the sermon at Pusey House for Evensong.
Psalm 73, 74
Ecclesiasticus 22:6-22
Acts 11:19-end

So foolish was I, and ignorant: even as it were a beast before thee.Nevertheless, I am alway by thee : for thou hast holden me by my right hand.Thou shalt guide me with thy counsel : and after that receive me with glory. Ps. 73: 21-23 BCP
Let us pray.
May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts be acceptable unto Thee, oh Lord, our strength and Redeemer. Amen

When I first studied in Oxford in 2007, the phenomenon of Fifth Week Blues was mentioned to me.  I thought that malady a bit odd . . . until I got a case of it myself.  And I got my Fifth Week Blues around Third Week! The decreasing light and increasing cold, rain, and academic pressure dragged me down. And I caught myself having a sort of tunnel vision that focused on my unhappiness instead of on the excellent opportunities all around me.  Fortunately, I had enough perspective to realize that wasn’t right and that my blues were not entirely rational; I did make a point to enjoy the good of my Oxford opportunity; and I got through that Michaelmas Term well enough – with good grades even.  But it was nonetheless a trying time.
In our first Psalm tonight, Psalm 73, the Psalmist, too, was not happy.  What had him down was a version of the Problem of Evil, that bad men seemed to be doing very well while good people, including himself, were not.  And God did not seem to be in much of a hurry to make things right!
And, the Psalmist, too, got a sort of tunnel vision.  His frustration distracted him from the goodness of God and even had him thinking, “What’s the point?”  What’s the point of following the Lord and seeking to walk in his ways?  Why even bother?
Now he was smart enough to sense that probably was not the best way to look at things. And that was an important first step out of his rut, not unlike my realizing back in 2007 that my blues were not very rational.  But that was a first step only.  For as he put it:
Then thought I to understand this : but it was too hard for me.
But then a very important second step helped him snap out of it further.  He went into the sanctuary of God.  And it was then and there that he saw the bigger picture of God’s goodness, justice, mercy and, yes, beauty.
Again back in 2007, frequently attending Mass here at Pusey House and Evensong at the excellent choral foundations in Oxford were a great help in getting me through that dark cold Michaelmas Term. One of the many benefits of experiencing and participating in worship that is “in the beauty of holiness” is that it helps one to glimpse the big picture of God and of hisbeauty and goodness.  Even more important is the principle repeated any number of times and ways in Scripture: if we draw near to God, He will draw near to us.
I think there is also a third step to see the big picture of the goodness of God.  Who do we hope to meet in the place of worship?  Well, of course, we should go there to meet God. But who else do we meet there?  The people of God.
Very early in Genesis, God said, “It is not good for man to be alone.”  And, as he tends to be, God was right!  Now, yes, there are times when it is good to be alone with the Lord. But God created us as relational creatures.  We need God, and we need each other.  And if we get too alone, it can be hard to maintain joy and a healthy attitude. It can become that much harder to see the goodness of God.
So each of us has a role to play in helping each other to see the big picture of the goodness of God when it is too easy to get distracted and dragged down by the darkness, hardship and loneliness of this world.  St. Barnabas provides us a good example of that in our second lesson from Acts.
Now it is easy to overlook the very beginning of that lesson.  Acts 11:19 reminds us that after the martyrdom of St. Stephen, there arose a persecution that compelled most of the Christians in Jerusalem to flee and to get out of the city. Many felt it necessary to leave Judea as well. That was a significant hardship.
That may be hard to understand here in Oxford where it seems everyone is from everywhere and is going everywhere. But to move suddenly like that back then was hard and with lasting consequences.  There were no cars or buses or trains; so to move oneself any distance, not to mention move one’s possessions, was laborious.  There was no internet and no phones.  And mail back then made the Royal Mail seem fast.  So to move largely cut one off from friends and family you may be leaving.
To people who had undergone such persecution and hardship for the Lord, St. Barnabas was a son of consolation – which happens to be what the name “Barnabas” means.  He not only greatly encouraged the faithful; the love of God he taught and reflected attracted others so that “a great many people were added to the Lord.”
And note that Barnabas encouraged not with mere happy talk.  He taught God’s truth and exhorted the people to be faithful to the Word.
At the risk of getting a bit spooky, may I say that during times of darkness and discouragement, that is the very time Satan likes to whisper gloomy lies in our ears to drag us down.  We must be ready with God’s truth to rebut those lies.  One of the many reasons we must read, learn, and, yes, memorize Scripture is to remind ourselves of the big picture of the goodness of God when immediate difficult circumstances distract us and tempt us to forget or even to believe something else. To put it another way, we must remember the Good News, the Gospel, to contradict the Bad Fake News of Satan and of this world.
To give one example, Romans 8:28 has been especially helpful to me.  When I get frustrated or discouraged, sooner or later, I remember that God causes all things, even very difficult things, “to work together for goodfor those who are called according to his purpose.”  That gives me something reliable to hold on to when the gales of life would blow me about.  And I cannot count the many times the Lord has been faithful to keep that promise to me.
So I don’t know about you.  But, not only in November in Oxford but always, I need worship “in the beauty of holiness.”  I need the real presence of the Lord andthe real presence of his people also.  And I need God’s truth to debunk and defeat the dark lies of the world, the flesh, and the devil.
I suspect I am not alone in that. And you know well that there are many around us who are struggling, with academic pressure being a particular problem this time of year.  Frankly I was shocked by the recent Oxford Student front page article about the pressure many Classics students are under.  But that probably was not news to many of you.  And perhaps some of you are experiencing more than your share of academic pressure among other pressures of life.  Behind all the brave faces we pass every day are a great many who desperately need a haven from the pressures of the world, who need to see the goodness and beauty of the Lord, who need to experience the love of Christ.
The people of God have a vital role in meeting those needs.  Pusey House has a vital role in meeting those needs.  And that all the more as the days grow darker not only in this time of year, but in this time of history.
Pusey House and all Christians are called to be a real human presence of God’s truth and love to people who need that so. We are called to be light in the darkness.  I know Pusey House has been a light to me.
May God help us all to see the light of Christ . . . and to be the light of Christ.
Let us pray.
Lighten our darkness, we beseech thee, Oh Lord; and by thy great mercy defend us from all perils and dangers of this night; for the love of thy only Son, our Saviour, Jesus Christ.  Amen.

Thursday, November 08, 2018

Armistice Centenary: Tolkien and the Great War

With the 100thanniversary of the end of World War I this Sunday, there are so many heartrending stories about the Great War I’ve come across the past few weeks – mothers who lost all their sons, battalions that lost so many men they were disbanded, soldiers who died just weeks or days before the Armistice, and more – too much more.
But the story that has most drawn my attention is the war experience of J. R. Tolkien.
Orphaned at 12, Tolkien had experienced deep loss years before.  The War would pile loss upon loss.  The recent Tolkien exhibition here in Oxford and John Garth’s book, Tolkien and the Great War, brought that home to me.  Both quoted this from his preface to the second edition of The Lord of the Rings:
By 1918, all but one of my close friends were dead.
When I first read that at the exhibition, I had to stand aside for a moment to regain my composure.
A theme of Tolkien and the Great War is how the war tore apart what was an inseparable society of four friends at King Edward’s School, one of which was Tolkien.  Two died.  The other two drifted apart.  Tolkien survived because he came down with trench fever after combat on the Western Front in 1916.  As a result, he had chronic bad health the rest of the war and served on the British coast instead of being sent back to the front.
Having just finished that book, I highly recommend Tolkien and the Great War to anyone interested in Tolkien’s experience of the war, including his literary output and evolution during those years. I also highly recommend the Oxford exhibition book, Tolkien: Maker of Middle-earth, part of which deals with the war years and is very reasonably priced given how lavishly it is illustrated.
We can be thankful that God somehow got J. R. Tolkien, along with his future friend and Inkling, C. S. Lewis, through the Great War.  Yet one can hardly imagine what great minds and writers we lost in that cataclysm.  That is all the more reason to remember them this Armistice Centenary.  We shall remember them.  We shall remember them all.

Thursday, November 01, 2018

Being on Speaking Terms with All Saints in Oxford

As you may have noticed this All Saints in Oxford has had me reflecting in a number of ways. One way is thinking back on how I have progressed in my relationship with departed saints.
When I was a new Anglican and went to my first Easter Vigil (a glorious one at Smokey Matt’s), it included a Litany of the Saints.  I could not conscientiously participate in that but was just respectfully quiet. To me, it sounded like praying to saints.
But somewhere down the line, I figured that asking a saint to pray for you, as is done in the Litany of the Saints, is different than praying to a saint.  I never have studied the matter deeply; but just I would have no problem asking you good readers to pray for me, I got to the point where I had no problem asking saints to pray for me.  Besides, the triumphant saints are better at prayer than you.
And one of the endearing traits of traditional catholic Anglicanism is we do not put a great gulf between living and departed saints.  “We forever more are one” in Christ.  And, as I’ve mentioned, here in Oxford you can hardly escape the saints!
So where am I now, for better or for worse (but better I think) in practice?  I will use some of my experience here at Pusey House this term to illustrate.  About the only thing I cannot do here is sing the Salve Regina.  Now I can say or sing the Angelus, but not the Salve Regina.  Why? – as both are very Marian.  Whereas the Angelus uses Biblical language and asks Mary to pray for us, the Salve addresses Mary in a way that I think only God should be addressed.

But I am not just respectfully quiet during the Salve Regina.  I quietly say a personal litany of the Saints, which includes Mary but mainly consists of favorite saints, such as Ignatius, King Edward the Confessor, and King Henry VI (Yes, I know the latter is not canonized, but he should be.). And I often incorporate such a litany of the Saints into my personal prayer times.  Hey, I need all the prayer I can get!  And the saints are good at prayer.  In fact, I am convinced the prayers of King Henry VI brought me a very good answer about five years ago. And I will thank him and God once again when I visit St. George's Windsor soon.
This visit to Pusey House, I even kissed an icon for the first time on my initiative.  An icon of St. Nicholas given to the Principal has been on the altar (for forty days I think) in accordance with Orthodox practice. This morning the blessing of it was completed during morning Mass.  As I love Nicholas, I asked to kiss it afterwards.  (I guess now we are getting into the subject of images, but that is a whole ‘nother topic.)
So to sum up, when I was a very new Anglican, I saw the departed saints as a subject of historical study and as examples along with some inspiration, but not much more for me personally.  But now I see them as joining us in worship and prayer and in the fellowship of God’s Holy Church right now.
This loner has learned more and more through the years as a Christian not to be alone.  And because of God and all his holy saints, I am that much less alone.