Falling and Rising
Over the last couple of weeks, in my job at a university, I have had the difficult job of having to decide and (in some cases) tell students that they must leave the university. Sometimes this has been because they have failed exams, sometimes because of misconduct. This is never a pleasant job; many years ago, I recall how a colleague complained that staff would queue up to congratulate students on their successes; the same people were nowhere to be seen when bad news had to be given. Perhaps this is just as well, it does help to have some experience at undertaking this demanding pastoral role. It is essential to remember the welfare of the person concerned; no matter what the circumstances, we have a duty of care to them. It is important to tell them that whilst they no longer have a future at the university, they most definitely have a future outside it. With the benefit of grey hair, I can see that for some friends and relations, the best thing that happened to them is when they were forced to change direction; in the long run, this was a liberating experience, that allowed them to develop in new ways.
This idea of a fresh start is a very strong theme in Christian and Jewish teaching, indeed it features in most religious traditions. At the heart of Jesus’s teachings is the Greek word “metanoia”, which we translate as “repentance” but has the idea of a change of mind, a turning from the old that does not work to a new, better way. There is a sense in this that failure is inevitable, but we have it in our power to chose a better way. I do not talk theology at my failed students, but I am very aware that I am drawing on this to encourage them to look forward.
Rev David Poyner
“Church Going” is a poem by the late Philip Larkin, a person of robust views, not always in sympathy with the call of the Gospel. He famously described himself as “an agnostic, I suppose, but an Anglican agnostic, of course” . But he took his uncertainty about God seriously. In “Church Going”, he describes visiting an empty church, open for worship but with nobody inside. As he wanders, glancing at the open Bible with its “hectoring verses”, pretending to read a lesson, he ponders on the future of the building; perhaps unintentionally, on the future of the entire church itself in the face of apathy and unbelief. His conclusion is surprisingly upbeat and one I find myself agreeing with as I minister in the rural churches of this benefice and deanery. The church building is a “serious house”, there for when we need to be serious about our own life and death.
A serious house on serious earth it is,
In whose blent air all our compulsions meet,
Are recognised, and robed as destinies.
And that much never can be obsolete,
Since someone will forever be surprising
A hunger in himself to be more serious,
And gravitating with it to this ground,
Which, he once heard, was proper to grow wise in,
If only that so many dead lie round.
Rev David Poyner
The Sound of the Bells
I recently did a wedding at one of our local churches. The couple had requested that the bells be rung as they left the church and this duly happened. At a wedding the couple get value for their money from the ringers; the peel lasts for a long time. And so it happened that the bells were still in full sound as I left the church, about 15 minutes after the service had finished. As I came to my car, I noticed a woman who lives close to the church, standing, listening to the bells. She was entranced by the sound, living simply in the moment as she heard them. She noticed me, dressed in my dog collar and obviously the vicar. She spoke; “I love the bells”. She explained she had always loved the bells since she was little. Then she embraced me and I blessed her.
The ringers, the wedding couple, had no idea that this was happening, that their actions and choices were bringing such pleasure to someone who was not even at the service. But God knew, the Holy Spirit, the comforter was working alongside the ringers, in and out of the church, to speak to those with ears to hear.
Rev David Poyner
A Retelling of the Good Samaritan
My attention this week was caught by some news from Florida, where there is a memorial to the Northern Ireland journalist, Lyra McKee. Lyra McKee was killed in 2019 when she was struck by a bullet as she covered a riot in Londonderry. The main story was the death of a journalist doing their work, but a sub-text emerged as Lyra was gay and appears to have faced hostility by some as a result of this. Two years before her murder, she visited Florida as part of a delegation to visit the place where a gunman had recently massacred 49 people at a gay nightclub. As part of the trip, her party were taken to a mosque. She was not keen on this, as she later admitted; “I hated myself for much of my life because of what religion taught me about people like me and when I stopped hating myself I started hating religion,” (BBC News website). However, she found reconciliation through the mosque, where she was welcomed and learnt how it had led condemnation of the massacre.
As I read this, I found myself thinking about Jesus’s parable of the Good Samaritan, where the love of God is not shown by a priest or a Levite (a temple helper), but by a Samaritan, a person who the injured man would consider to be of a different faith.
Rev David Poyner