Monday, 31 October 2016

Becoming Saints

Shaping the lives of the Saints - All Saints’ Reflections
Ephesians 1.11-23; Luke 6.20-31

Guildford Cathedral is flanked on the north and south by a series of statues. At first glance you might think they are a collection of saints; but they’re not. There are holy men and women on the West End, but the statues on the north and south sides are less obvious than that.  In the form of the human body, they seek to express the virtues, cardinal and theological, down the south side and down the north the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit.

The virtues - Courage, Justice, Prudence, Temperance, Faith, Hope and Love - may be regarded as a series of values, ideas to aspire to. Values are very fashionable. Businesses, churches, schools, hospitals all trumpet their values in prospectuses. Teachers, clergy, and others, have to do school assemblies based on the school’s values which often feels like an exercise in promoting the school’s propaganda or performing contortions to make an abstract value seem applicable in the children’s lives and connect to the gospel.

The virtues are not highly fashionable, not least as they seek to form moral character, which is usually is assumed to mean moralistic, self-righteous, pompous behaviour, which is the polar opposite of what they are meant to do. That sounds a little like the perception of saints. They could be seen as being holier-than-thou, unhealthily unworldly, stained glass wimps.

The purpose of virtues is in the forming of habits and ways of acting that lead to what we call a virtuous life. This means that they train us in the making of decisions. From classical times the virtues shaped moral living. So you could say that saints are those frail human beings who have responded to the call to be formed in the virtues, especially those of faith, hope and love. But also the saints, like you and me, have bestowed upon them the gifts of the Holy Spirit: Wisdom, Understanding, Counsel, Fortitude, Knowledge, Piety and Fear of the Lord.

A rather grainy picture of 'Understanding' by Alan Collins
Guildford Cathedral
It’s the Holy Spirit’s gift of understanding that has intrigued me recently as I have walked past. This depiction connects the gifts of the Spirit and the virtues with being shaped and formed in the ways of holiness in a slightly unlikely way. On it, the haloed figure holds an unfurled scroll with the Biblical reference Ephesians 1.18. It’s inviting us to read that verse:

The eyes of your understanding being enlightened; that ye may know what is the hope of [God’s] calling, and what [is] the riches of the glory of his inheritance in the saints” (AV)

This are significant words for what it means to be a saint: eyes seeing the light; knowing the hope of God’s calling; and knowing the riches of the glory of God’s promise to us in company with each other and those who go before us.

In this passage, which is a prayer being offered, an expansive and expanding vision of holiness is being stretched out before us. After all the prayer goes on to refer to ‘the immeasurable greatness of [God’s] power’ (v19). And let’s be clear: holiness is not pie-in-the-sky, vague or wishy-washy.

To read this alongside Luke 6.20-31, as the lectionary asks us to, roots the blessedness of that vision of holiness firmly in lived, embodied, daily realities and offers a deeply stretching way to approach them. It does so in the language of blessings and woes. The poor, the hungry, the weeping, the excluded and reviled will all find blessing. Jesus beholds them and blessing falls upon them. 

Those who have life ‘sorted’ - the rich, the replete, the laughing ones – and who seem comfortable now will find that they need to rely more on God to know blessing, so that the rich will recognise their poverty, the replete their hungers, the laughing their pains. So you’re blessed now: seek further blessing from God.

This is the way to becoming more human not less, with the most stretching instruction of all, ‘do to others as you would have them do to you’. Do we even know what we really want others to do and be for us?

In his Rule St Benedict says, ‘Do not aspire to be called holy before you really are, but first be holy, that you may truly be called so’ (My italics). In other words don’t ask for the label of saint without first behaving like one.

Holiness is a life lived in the intensity of the awareness of God’s presence day by day and a life lived and shaped by that reality. The ecology of holiness is supported by the intensity of God-filled moments that we call the sacraments. The Eucharist is the supreme example of this where in word and sign we are pointed to the divine banquet gathered with all the saints. Bread and wine, Christ’s body and blood is the food of the saints.

Holiness is humanness in all its fullness and potential. Just as the virtues were named so as to shape habits and actions, so the call to be saints invites a transformed life. The call to holiness is the call to be a saint; one of the holy ones of God. The call to holiness is the call to be real, more real than you can possibly imagine. The call to holiness is the call to be part of a family that extends beyond biology, kinship and DNA.

So I pray for myself and for you: May the eyes of our understanding be enlightened; that we may know what is the hope of [God’s] calling, and what [is] the riches of the glory of his inheritance in the saints. Amen.

Sunday, 9 October 2016

Reflections on the Advocate & advocacy

The definition of advocacy from the mental health charity Mind is the act of getting support from another person to help you express your views and wishes, and to help make sure your voice is heard’. 

There is a growing recognition of the need for this sort of advocacy and its real power and worth. Advocacy enables those who, for whatever reason, cannot articulate their own story: in other words those who cannot give an account of what makes them, them; their identity; who they are.

Classically, in legal terms, we are familiar with the role of the advocate as the person who has the expertise and training to articulate the story or case of another person in their defence, the role a barrister takes in our system. The advocate gives clarity to the defendant’s story, marshals evidence and articulates the case. The advocate is not the defendant. The advocate does not even have to believe the defendant, but comes to inhabit the defendant’s story such that it can be put on the defendant’s behalf.

That is the case for someone accused of a crime, but advocacy goes wider than that. We can add to the example of ‘Mind’ those of advocacy for the many groups of people whose voice goes unheard in society, like carers at home, minorities, children, those undergoing coercive control, survivors of abuse or trauma, those for whom life is being sucked out of them by over domineering colleagues or family members.

This sort of advocacy in a social sense, either in the workplace, at school or society, draws on the same skills. This often hinges on helping someone not simply articulate their own story, but to help them to understand it and take hold of it. The advocate in this sense also helps identify when someone else is suppressing a person’s story or their identity and sense of who they are.

So for example, part of my role as a chaplain, indeed in my job description, is one of advocacy. This is advocacy in the second sense that is not about a courtroom. That might be advocacy on behalf of a student who extenuating circumstances affecting his or her work, or a member of staff who is feels victimised or bullied by another.

More generally I am, with fellow chaplains, an advocate for the place of faith and belief on campus, which involves telling the story of the way personal faith and belief within a community of faith is integral to the identities of so many people.

In the Christian Church the role of a priest is to help God’s people to articulate their story corporately and personally. That is the sense in which a priest is a storyteller. Not spinning yarns, but holding together a narrative of identity, into which is woven the hope, the faith and the love of God presented to us in Jesus Christ, who, in the power of the Holy Spirit, gives us the narrative of what it is to be human and a creature made in the image and likeness of God, where we find our first identity.

This is where our dedication to the Holy Spirit at this Cathedral points us to the importance of advocacy because advocacy is at its heart the work of the Holy Spirit, named in the Gospels as parakletos, the principal meaning of which is ‘lawyer for the defence’, ‘defender of the accused’, or in the words of the Te Deum sung at Morning Prayer, ‘the Holy Spirit, advocate and guide’.

The Spirit is the advocate who helps us articulate our identity in Christ, and draws into the narrative of the love of the Father and Son. This is the process of sounding the depths of our faith, seeing who we are in relation to who Jesus Christ is, all the better to understand how we take hold of our humanity and the person we were created to be.

That is the context of Advocate in the passage of St John 15.12-end. Read in the context of the imminent prospect of martyrdom and it has a very pressing character: the parakletos is what gives the martyr the ability to speak and act as one shaped by the story of the death of Jesus that becomes more than a wasted life but one that is enveloped in the friendship of God, the fruitfulness from God and testimony of God.

For those of us not facing martyrdom, the parakletos still operates to shape our lives that we, like the martyrs, abide in the love of God that gives wholly of itself.

So then we have the parakletos on our side, but that implies that there is someone or something not on our side. This is what the Bible, and Jesus, term Satan, a name which means the adversary, the one who puts the case against us, the one who wants to declare us guilty.

The adversary wants to unravel the story of God’s love, faithfulness and simply being on our side. The adversary wants us to believe that we are laden with guilt, never good enough. The adversary wants to tell the church today a story that takes us off in directions of despair and patching things together, not remaining faithful to the story of God.

As the story unravels we become gospel amnesiacs and then we really are lost and in need of seeking out, which of course God will do. Counsels of despair about the future of the church or the worthiness of human beings disregard the work of the Holy Spirit, our Advocate and Guide.

Perhaps sometimes the problem is that we tell the story against ourselves.

Surely inspired by the Spirit, the Advocate, St Paul asks in Romans, ‘If God is for us who can be against us?...who will bring any charge against God’s elect?’ (Romans 8.31b, 33a). It’s a question that comes in a passage where Paul has asserted that the Spirit helps us in our weakness. Paul knew as we do that our live and hope comes from the extent to which we are grafted in, to use St John’s imagery, into the life of the True Vine, Jesus Christ. It is this life that gives us the capacity to love in a way that counts nothing of the cost, to be fruitful and to testify to that love for as Paul answers his own question:

“No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” Romans 8.37-39

There’s the case for the defence, the story into which we are grafted, the story of the self-giving, saving love of Jesus Christ articulated for us in our life in the parakletos, our Advocate and Guide. 'Come, Holy Spirit, fill the hearts of your faithful people, and kindle in us the fire of your love'.

© Andrew Bishop, 2016