11 August 2014

A sermon for Claretide

Today is the the Feast of St Clare, so I thought I’d post a sermon I gave at a Third Order Claretide Eucharist a few years ago:
At that time Jesus said, ‘I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and the intelligent and have revealed them to infants; yes, Father, for such was your gracious will. All things have been handed over to me by my Father; and no one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son and anyone to whom the Son chooses to reveal him. 
‘Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.’ (Matthew 11:25–30; nrsv)
This Gospel reading seems particularly appropriate for a Franciscan gathering at which we are celebrating the life of St Clare.

It begins with Jesus responding to rejection – to the fickleness of the crowds who criticized John for one thing and Jesus for the precise opposite; and to the straightforward unbelief of many in the towns and cities he had visited. Strictly speaking it is a continuation of his response, which actually begins at verse 16. He has already addressed himself to those who have rejected him. These verses offer another dimension: he begins to praise God for what has happened. Human agency and divine agency are inextricably intertwined. It is impossible to divide up events or actions by saying humans did a, b, or c, but God did x, y, and z. God is intimately involved in every aspect of creation, even in the rejection of Jesus by these people.

What lies behind that rejection? Jesus says unequivocally that it has come about because God has hidden these things – the truth about John the Baptist and about Jesus himself – from ‘the wise and the intelligent’. Of course the other side of the coin – the human dimension – is that they have hidden the truth from themselves by their cleverness. Theirs is the intellectual pride that picks and chooses what to believe, that rejects the teachings of an itinerant rabbi because he lacks the necessary academic credentials (he’s just some carpenter’s son from Nazareth, hasn’t been to the right colleges, hasn’t been properly trained in the art of biblical exegesis) or more likely because he has touched a nerve with his ethical pronouncements (how dare he question how I choose to spend my money or express my sexuality or treat my employees).

And he contrasts the intellectually proud (the rich, the self-sufficient) with those to whom the Father has revealed these things – infants, those who have nothing, who are completely dependent on others. In order to receive the gospel, we have to become like infants. We have to cultivate intellectual humility (which, by the way, should never be confused with gullibility; though, of course, there will always be those who try to identify the two for their own purposes). This implies that, faced with the challenge of the gospel, we do not deploy the weapons of literary criticism (though I don’t deny that there is a place for those in the academic study of the Bible) but rather adopt the attitude which Eli commended to Samuel: ‘Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.’

I want to suggest, further, that intellectual humility does not stand on its own. I don’t think it is really possible to compartmentalize our existence in that way. Rather it is an aspect of humility in the broader sense, and that in turn is an aspect of evangelical poverty. If you like, humility is freely chosen poverty of status. What do I mean by evangelical poverty? Simply the joyful recognition that all I am (whether by nature or by nurture) and all I possess (whether inherited or earned) is rendered completely worthless by the overwhelming grace of God offered in Jesus.

And this, I think, is the vision of poverty that motivated Francis and (possibly to an even greater extent) Clare. This I think is the poverty Clare speaks of in her first letter to Agnes of Prague:
I am sure that you know that the kingdom of heaven is promised and given by the Lord only to the poor, because as long as something temporal is the object of love, the fruit of charity is lost. You know, too, that one cannot serve God and material wealth, since either the one is loved and the other hated, or a person will serve one and despise the other. You also know that a person wearing clothing cannot fight with another who is naked, because the one who has something that might be grasped is more quickly thrown to the ground. You know, too, that it is not possible for a person to remain glorious in the world and to reign with Christ in heaven; and that a camel will be able to pass through the eye of a needle before a rich person ascends into the kingdom of heaven. These are the reasons why you disposed of your clothing, I mean your worldly wealth, so that you might have the strength not to succumb completely to the one struggling against you, so that you may enter the kingdom of heaven by the narrow road and constricted gate.
So, I can imagine Clare nodding her head in vigorous agreement with this passage from Matthew. How should you approach the gospel? As an infant – as one who is humble, who is poor, who is naked.

Then Matthew adds these words: ‘All things have been handed over to me by the Father; and no one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son and anyone to whom the Son chooses to reveal him.’ If you like, this is the Matthean equivalent of Jesus’ saying in John’s Gospel, ‘I am the Way, the Truth and the Life, no one comes to the Father but by me.’ If you want to see what God is like; if you want to begin to understand the mind of God, the heart of God, the nature of God; if you want an inkling into God’s attitude to humankind, follow me, he says. Only through him can we see what God is like – which may sound terribly exclusive – but perhaps that is just pride speaking; perhaps if like Clare we approach it with the poverty of an infant, we would see it in a different light – the free offer of God and with him all things to all people regardless of race, social status or gender if only we would accept it with humility.

And, as if to underline that, the Gospel reading ends with Jesus making this direct offer: ‘Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.’

All the commentaries I have looked at seem to agree that Jesus is speaking metaphorically here about life under the Jewish law as burdensome. He is addressing people who have been driven to despair, who have exhausted themselves by trying to make themselves acceptable to God on their own terms. And doubtless that is part of the meaning. But I can’t help feeling that the offer is more than that. Jesus is offering freedom not just from the self-imposed burden of keeping the Jewish or any other law, but from any oppressive situation.

And that immediately makes me think of Clare again. By all accounts she was a pious young woman. When she was just twelve she sent some money to Francis and the brothers while they were repairing the Porziuncula. It is fairly clear that from an early age she had a vision of emulating Francis’s radical way of living out the gospel. But she was also the eldest daughter of Favarone di Offreduccio, of the family of the counts of Sasso Rosso. So she was a member of the minor nobility and her life was most certainly not her own. She was trapped, burdened by the ill-fitting yoke of impending marriage. As the eldest daughter of the family she did not even have the option of escaping into normal conventual life. All she could reasonably expect was to be used as a bargaining chip in the great game of dynastic alliance: married off to strengthen the family’s ties with a wealthier or more powerful family.

In Clare’s case it was not law-keeping that was burdensome. Rather the burden that weighed her down was her social status, her wealth and the prospect of marriage. She knew in her heart of hearts that she did not fit in to this life; or, it did not fit who she really was. The crisis came on Palm Sunday in 1212. Accept what her family and society in general expected of her, even though it chafed. Or throw everything away for the sake of her Franciscan vision of radical poverty. I don’t know whether this gospel promise played any part in her thinking that day, but it might well have done since it encapsulated the choice that was before her. That night she left her parents’ home through the door of the dead, slipped out of the city by the Porta Moiana, and ran down the hill through the olive groves to meet Francis and the brothers at the Porziuncula.

Just a couple of final thoughts about the yoke that Jesus promises. Anyone who doubts that Jesus has a sense of humour has not read this passage. ‘My yoke is easy’ – chrestos – literally, my yoke fits well. I imagine him saying this with a smile and a twinkle in his eye, after all those close to him would know that he was a carpenter’s son. How many well-fitting yokes had he made over the years? But there is a more serious point to be made about this. The freedom that Jesus promises, whether it is freedom from self-imposed legalism or freedom from the oppressive expectations of our family, friends, employer, society at large, political leaders, etc. is not freedom in the abstract; it is not freedom from all limits. No, what Jesus promises is a well-fitting yoke, a burden that we can carry without over-exerting ourselves. We will still be surrounded by limits, because we are finite creatures and because we are social creatures.

Think of Clare again. She abandoned the ill-fitting constraints of married life in a medieval culture for the much better fitting constraints of Franciscan radical poverty. The limits Jesus places on us are suited to our nature; they are limits that allow us room to grow into whatever he has called us to be.

In the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

31 July 2014

In praise of fountain pens

Like most people of my generation I was forced to use a fountain pen at school. And, like most people, I found the experience messy (blots on the paper and stains on my fingers), scratchy and slow. As soon as I could, I abandoned it for the convenience of the ballpoint pen and, more recently, the gel pen. However, in recent years, I have begun to discover the joys of writing with a fountain pen. Here are some of the reasons I am a convert to fountain pens:

  • The writing experience: Using a decently made modern fountain pen on good quality paper is a revelation. The nib glides effortlessly across the page. It is much easier on the wrist than the average ballpoint.
  • A fountain pen is for life: Fountain pens seem to be far more expensive than ballpoints. Typically they range in price from tens to hundreds (or even thousands) of pounds, though you can get a decent basic fountain pen for less than a fiver. But a well-maintained good quality fountain pen can reasonably be expected to last you a lifetime (in fact, there is a thriving market in vintage fountain pens), whereas even an expensive ballpoint is no more than a fancy holder for a disposable writing mechanism. If you want to reduce the environmental impact of your writing habits, think about a fountain pen – the only consumable element is the ink.
  • A bewildering choice of inks: Most ballpoints or gel pens are available in three or four colours (perhaps a dozen if you use something like a Pilot G-Tec-C4 or a Pentel Slicci). But there are literally hundreds of shades of fountain pen ink to choose from to suit your mood or style. I happen to like dark inks (blue-black, dark greens, reds and browns), but that preference is hard to satisfy with ballpoints or gel pens (a notable exception is the blue-black and dark brown Pilot G-Tec-C4s that Cult Pens imports specially from Japan).
  • A fountain pen gives your writing character: If you want a pen that produces a line of unvarying thickness, then a ballpoint or gel pen is ideal. With a fountain pen, the thickness of the line varies slightly with the pressure you apply and the angle that the nib makes to the paper. This is more pronounced with gold nibs and specially designed flex nibs. In addition, nibs come in a variety of shapes to create a range of writing effects (fountain pens are still the obvious choice for calligraphy).

29 July 2014

Thought for the day: On neutrality

A striking quote from Desmond Tutu:

If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor. If an elephant has its foot on the tail of a mouse, and you say that you are neutral, the mouse will not appreciate your neutrality.

19 July 2014

Some Christian resources for thinking about the independence referendum

The referendum creeps ever closer and the churches (and individual Christians) in Scotland are gradually articulating their views for and against independence. Here is a – hopefully representative – sample of resources to help you think about Scottish independence from a Christian perspective:

  • The Doctrine Committee of the Scottish Episcopal Church has recently published a piece in its Grosvenor Booklet series entitled The Church and Scottish Identity.
  • Last month the Edinburgh SOLAS group hosted a debate on Scottish independence. Someone has kindly put the entire 2 hours on Youtube, so you can watch it here.
  • In the run-up to their General Assembly this year, the Free Church of Scotland asked four of its members – Donald Macleod, Neil Macleod, Gordon Matheson, and John Ross – to prepare discussion papers for and against independence.
  • At its General Assembly this year the Free Church of Scotland (Continuing) accepted a report entitled Scottish Independence: An examination of the Scottish Government's proposals for Scottish independence.
  • Doug Gay’s contribution to the debate on Scottish independence at this year’s General Assembly of the Church of Scotland can be downloaded here. Unfortunately, Douglas Alexander’s contribution does not appear to be available.

12 July 2014

Idealist: sounding the death knell

Judging by the statistics, most readers of this blog will know that I have been a faithful user of Blackwell Idealist (a simple fully indexed free text database) since the mid 1990s. It has several strengths that have kept me going back to it after every dalliance with another database:

  • It is extremely simple and rapid.
  • It is utterly reliable. To give you some idea of what I mean, I have used it on every version of Windows from Windows 3.11 for Workgroups through to the 64-bit version of Windows 7 Professional (and for several months I also used it on Linux Mint with the help of Wine) and unlike some well-known programs I could mention it has never crashed and it has never lost any data.
  • It is easily manipulable. For example, unlike most databases you can create new fields within a record on the fly.
  • These days it effectively has no limits regarding size of database: originally it was limited by the amount of RAM available, but it is a very small program and the 8GB of RAM on my laptop would have no difficulty in handling an Idealist database far larger than the largest one I currently have (which contains about 25,000 records).
On the other hand,  I increasingly find myself rubbing up against its other limitations:
  • It works exclusively with ASCII plain text files. If you want store other kinds of data (e.g. images), you have to look elsewhere. In an ideal world, I need a database that allows me to store Unicode text files and equations in LaTeX.
  • While you can create links between records or to other files, it is not straightforward and the links have to be updated manually if any changes are made to those records or files. These days, life would be so much simpler if these things were done at least semi-automatically.
  • Most seriously, I’m not sure how much longer it will work with Windows. It runs happily enough on Windows 7 Professional, but the setup program does not work so I had to install it manually by copying the Idealist program directory from an earlier version of Windows into the Program Files (x86) directory and create shortcuts manually.
So, after years of dithering, I have started the long, slow process of moving my data out of Idealist. In the end, I have settled on two programs rather than one:
  • Evernote is a relatively simple notetaking program with some database features, which I now use as my primary notetaking application. My main reason for opting for it was the ease of syncing notes between my Android tablet and my laptop, which means that I no longer need to lug my laptop around everywhere. It is also a convenient home for a couple of my smaller databases, but it is not sophisticated or robust enough for me to trust it with my main databases.
  • For my main replacement for Idealist, I have finally settled on ConnectedText. Like Idealist, it seems to be flexible, powerful and reliable. Unlike Idealist, you can throw Unicode and LaTeX at it and it won’t blink. Because I’m into mind mapping in a big way, I also appreciate its visual navigator, which displays how individual records are linked to each other.

03 July 2014

Thought for the day: perfection and simplicity

A quote from Antoine de Saint Exupéry’s Wind, Sand and Stars (which I found in an interview with the landscape photographer Andris Apse in the current issue of fll magazine):

Perfection is achieved, not when there is nothing more to add, but when there is nothing left to take away.

I like that: it seems to have all sorts of applications. Apse quotes it in relation to his search for perfection in photography, but it could equally well apply to writing. I can certainly think of any number of books that would have been improved by judicious use of the red pen.

Beyond the realm of the creative arts, it reminds me of the process of abstraction that is necessary in solving most physics problems. Back in the dim and distant past when I taught physics, it struck me that students most often got into difficulties because they didnt simplify enough.

And, come to think of it, it could also be an expression of Franciscan simplicity – that radical process of self-emptying which cuts away all the clutter, internal as well as external, until all that is left is the image of God.

01 July 2014

Three sexes?

Some months ago I took part in a performance of Rossini's Petite Messe Solennelle in Poland. It wasn't an entirely authentic performance: the choir was much larger than the numbers called for by Rossini. He specified a choir of twelve singers including four soloists. Specifically, on the autograph manuscript he wrote:
Douze chanteurs de trois sexes, hommes, femmes et castrats seront suffisants pour son exécution ; à savoir huit pour le choeur, quatre pour les solos, total douze chérubins
Twelve singers of three sexes, men, women and castrati will suffice for its execution: that is, eight for the choir, four soloists, in all twelve cherubim.
[I note that Novello refrained from reproducing this in the prelims of their edition of the score.]