16 July 2018
Tilds and Al came over on Saturday evening, and with Hugh and Sammy, we walked on the Workington beach at low tide with Blisco and Cora, their dogs. The tide was just on the turn, with a fresh south-westerly wind. The manmade cliffs of slag shaped the land,
with St Bees Head in the distance as we walked.
Tilda called me over. ‘Look at this!’
She pointed at an orange starfish, and picked it up. I’d never seen starfish washed up – and of course it brought that simple parable to mind:
One day, an old man was walking along a beach that was littered with thousands of starfish that had been washed ashore by the high tide. As he walked he came upon a young boy who was eagerly throwing the starfish back into the ocean, one by one.
Puzzled, the man looked at the boy and asked what he was doing. Without looking up from his task, the boy simply replied, “I’m saving these starfish, Sir”.
The old man chuckled aloud, “Son, there are thousands of starfish and only one of you. What difference can you make?”
The boy picked up a starfish, gently tossed it into the water and turning to the man, said, “I made a difference to that one!”
We too threw it back – and the others we found. One was there, regenerating one of its limbs.
Later I googled starfish, and found out that they are the species that first led to the designation ‘keystone species’. If you’ve read George Monbiot’s Feral, you’ll know that he argues convincingly that wolves also are keystone species – their presence in an environment controls other species that are likely to become dominant and diminish biodiversity – like deer. Keystone species enable diversity. The term was first used by Robert Paine in 1966 as he studied the low intertidal coasts of Washington State. Paine found that the predation by a particular starfish controlled the mussels that, when the starfish was removed, out-competed other organisms.
Starfish also clean surface films and algae, so enable regeneration of organic matter that fish, crabs and sea urchins feed on.
That evening, on Workington beach, the water was clear, the sea weed clean, with oyster catchers crying.
It’s been quite a week. Trump throwing his weight around Europe, the UK, even HM the Queen. Theresa’s Brexit blue print unravelling; and now Justine is calling for another referendum. We could do with some keystone species in our political systems to enable diversity, such is the monochrome boringness of it all. Boring, if the sort of populism Trump – and Boris, and Jacob – represent wasn’t so dangerous for Western liberal political systems. And there’s Putin, too, gnawing away at the West, undermining the foundations. I dread to imagine the Helsinki conversation between him, with all his 18 year’s experience of political Machiavellianism, and Trump’s baby naiveté.
There’s been no escaping the sport. Even I watched the England/Croatia match, and Djokovic winning, as I pulled my rag rug. At least that won’t unravel any time soon.
‘We must walk to St Bees’ Head from Workington some day’, Peter and I agreed. The coast looks intriguing, over those slag cliffs and through Whitehaven, and up onto that prominent head land. On Friday we’d been in St Bees, and seen, in the rain (so welcome), how the headland had been affected by fire.
The ground is seriously dry still. We need more rain.
Though the rose-bay willow herb, and native willow herb are in full bloom.
And the chickens enjoy a moment in the shade.
St Bees was disappointing. A great café above the beach (somewhere to go for a quiet, anonymous time to read and reflect).
But I’d been looking for a craft shop at least to satisfy my insatiable desire for retail therapy. Especially when it’s raining.
No matter, though – as we had been on our way to the Animal Rescue Centre near Egremont. There we met Cleo. She’s being rehomed because her current owners don’t have time to walk her properly. She’s an unfit lurcher, aged seven, black, with white paws, a white breast and tip to her tail – the size of a medium sized labrador. We walked along the road with her and were pleased that she didn’t pull, that she sat when asked to, and chased a ball with a lurcher’s turn of speed. She was so anxious though, at the separation from her owner, it was difficult to tell what she’s really like. Lisa, the staff member who organised the visit, has arranged to do a home visit on Tuesday, and bring Cleo with her. It’ll take her a good month or two to relax though, if she comes to us.
Peter is resigned – no, more positive than that. Mainly he’s relieved it’s not a puppy we’ll end up with. Cleo’s gentleness appealed to him.
As we walked on the beach, I imagined her running with Blisco and Cora. It would be good to give her the exercise and attention that a dog needs. Something makes me think the owner may change her mind, though, so I’m not building up my hopes.
I dreamt about Joe Hawes last night. A good, affirming dream about the good impression he makes as he meets all sorts of people. He’s been installed as the next Dean of St Edmundsbury now. He preached well, I’ve been told. I’m sure he’ll be great, with his excellent experience in Fulham and his lively, positive outlook and sense of fun. I sent a card, wishing him and Chris all the very best. He’s in my mind all day Sunday as he’ll be presiding for the first time.
It’s been a week of settling down into our new home. Peter’s been out and about, visiting people, and at various meetings in the Mission Community. He’s finding his feet. On Sunday we had the visiting priest and his wife for lunch. David and Anne had been in Cumbria all their ministry together, and have now retired to Aspatria. It was good to get to know them, to hear of their experiences.
I’m beginning to work at the blog book, which will be titled Larkrise to Skipton – (obviously) as it relates the voyage on the narrowboat through May and the first half of June. I don’t have a publisher yet, but will write it first – not the usual way around, for me. Putting all the blogs together – there are twelve, and the word count is 33,000 words. So that’s well on the way. There are aspects I want to research more deeply, and it’s a book that I hope will be about transitions and coming to terms with what has been, a meditation on the Psalms, drawing on the wide range of human experience found there, particularly where water is the element.
Richard Sudworth and I talked on the phone about the next Littlemore group book, on Preaching. We’ve got to persuade the contributors to write their chapters by the beginning of September. My chapter is on the encounter with Christ that each sermon should enable. Each of us is engaging with a classic sermon, and I’m going to work with St Paul, as he preached to about the Unknown God at the Areopagus, in Acts 17. I also have in mind the statues to unknown soldiers that are all around us, in towns and villages across the country, as we remember the war a century ago. Ecce Homo. And then Nietzsche wrote a short book with that title. I can’t find my copy, so have ordered another from Abebooks.
I preached on Sunday evening at St Michael’s. About the daily office, and how important it is. Peter and I have been saying Morning Prayer, with his training incumbent, establishing a routine on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays at 7.30 am. We’ve had people joining us each time, building up a core group.
I borrow a story to begin – one I heard ordinand Jill use in a sermon at Mirfield, where it went down particularly well.
A new monk arrives at the monastery. He is assigned to help the other monks in copying the old texts by hand. He notices, however, that they are copying copies, and not the original books.
So, the new monk goes to the Abbot to ask him about this. He points out that if there was an error in the first copy, that error would be continued in all of the other copies. The Abbot says, “We have been copying from the copies for centuries, but you make a good point, my son.”
So, he goes down into the cellar with one of the copies to check it against the original. Hours later, nobody has seen him. So, one of the monks goes downstairs to look for him. He hears sobbing coming from the back of the cellar and finds the Abbot leaning over one of the original books crying. He asks what’s wrong.
“The word is celebrate not celibate,” says the old monk with tears in his eyes.
The sermon I preach continues, with the reading from Deuteronomy in mind (28.1-14).
It’s a story about handing on traditions, isn’t it? How we shouldn’t just do things blindly, because that’s the way it’s always been done. We should ask ourselves, why do we do it this way? We should think it through, and check back, as the Abbot did, into the past. Ask questions about now – as the new monk did. And wonder what’s going to be the best thing for the future.
In a world – and church – where there’s much change, and much talk of change, it isn’t always easy to work out what changes are right and good, and which changes are just for the sake of it.
Take this service of Choral Evensong, for instance. There will be those who argue that it should be allowed to die. That it’s old-fashioned and doesn’t speak to today’s generations. And in many ways, such people are obviously right. Gone are the days of the photo on the choir vestry wall from the 1920s when there’s a choir that most Cathedrals would be give their eyeteeth for. Culture around us has changed; surely we should change too?
I’m not so sure. When it comes to change, the pattern of our prayer and worship isn’t just about what culture around us is doing. The prayer life of the church is altogether more important.
Choral evensong belongs within the daily round of prayer that has traditionally been called the offices – morning and evening prayer. The daily office has for centuries been the bedrock of the church. Priests and deacons take a vow to say the office – and hopefully they are joined by others too, and that’s a good tradition – because it means that the church, on a daily basis, is filled with prayer.
Choral evensong is the service where we offer that much more, because it’s Sunday. We sing hymns, listen to two readings from the bible, sing the responses, we have a sermon. It’s special, because it’s Sunday, and it’s special because it belongs within the observance of the office through the week.
If we look back, as the Abbot did, to the original texts, we find good reason to pray the office on a daily and weekly basis.
You can’t go much further back than Deuteronomy. There obedience to the commandments of God means blessing on our lives.
If you will only obey the Lord your God, by diligently observing all his commandments that I am commanding you today, the Lord your God will set you high above all the nations of the earth; all these blessings shall come upon you and overtake you, if you obey the Lord your God.
If we pray – daily, and weekly – God will bless us. We will grow and flourish.
I wonder, sometimes, if all the talk of change and all the new initiatives in the Church of England today are really about a loss of heart in God. A fear that we’re going into decline because the old traditions don’t work anymore. Some old traditions don’t work anymore, but prayer will always work. It’s always worthwhile to pray. To come together, as the Church of England has done through the ages, to pray, to say or sing canticles, to listen to the bible, to share thoughts.
Because when we do, we recognise God’s blessing amongst us.
You’ll know that Peter, Julia and I and others are saying morning prayer at 7.30 on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays in the Lady Chapel. On the other mornings, Peter is out at Harrington Church. We’re continuing that tradition of prayer that goes back as far as Deuteronomy. Hopefully, before long, even more will join us, so it becomes a habit in our lives. The ancient texts support regular corporate prayer – so we’re in no danger of being caught out in our celibacy. Indeed, it’s a reason to celebrate – the gift of prayer.
For prayer takes us to the heart of the God of grace and love.
It’s very hard to continue to pray off our own bat. Unless we realise that we depend on God’s support and love, we soon dry up. If it’s just down to us, it’s really hard work – particularly when it’s cold and dark on a winter’s morning, or the World Cup is on. When we know, though, that our prayer life is a gift, that God gives us the structure, handed down to us through the ages, then our prayer life becomes something we celebrate.
So I celebrate that we gather here, every Sunday evening, to worship God. Let us continue to give thanks for the living tradition of prayer in this church. Because it does bear fruit, as Deuteronomy says. It bears fruit as people come to know that that’s what we’re about. Prayer and worship of God, first and foremost. Fellowship and togetherness, and service of the world around us. Deuteronomy had it right, all those centuries ago.
Blessed shall be your basket and your kneading-bowl. Blessed shall you be when you come in, and blessed shall you be when you go out. The Lord will establish you as his holy people, as he has sworn to you, if you keep the commandments of the Lord your God and walk in his ways. All the peoples of the earth shall see that you are called by the name of the Lord.
Last week, Peter told us the story of Paul’s travels, when he had got as far as Malta. Now, Paul has got to Rome. He meets with the Jewish leaders of that great city. He tells them that their hearts are hardened. He quotes Isaiah back at them: “Go to this people and say,
You will indeed listen, but never understand,
and you will indeed look, but never perceive.
For this people’s heart has grown dull,
and their ears are hard of hearing,
and they have shut their eyes;
so that they might not look with their eyes,
and listen with their ears,
and understand with their heart and turn—
and I would heal them.”
When we pray together on a weekly, on a daily basis, we open our ears and eyes to God. We continue to seek God’s guidance and presence in our lives. We are open to what God brings to each of us, to this church, to this town and to our nation. The daily office, which includes evensong, is our offering to God, that keeps us fresh and attentive to the God of grace, in whom we celebrate all our days.
I liked throwing the star fish back into the sea. It felt like giving back something to the immensity of the ocean. That hymn came to mind, the one about hands that flung stars into space.
Perhaps our prayers are like that.
Offering into the immensity of God’s love our own selves – our confession, petition, intercession, thanksgiving and praise.