There is a beautiful Georgia O’Keeffe painting of autumnal leaves which has the title ‘The Poetry of Things’. It is resonant of incarnation, of holy embodiment, and of the delight and worth held by the material and transient. Where in this world of beauty and terror, continually created and beloved of God, do you find a poetry that speaks to your innermost being?
There is a considerable difference between secular optimism and the spiritual virtue of hope. Optimism relies on a blind faith that things will get better, hope on an eyes-open trust in the nature of God. The glass of God’s grace is never half full or half empty – it is always overflowing.
You are God’s beloved.
What we believe is important, not least because it shapes our priorities and our choices in life. But equally essential to a faithful life is where we put our trust. Who or what do you trust beyond measure? Where is your heart secure in the knowledge that it will never be betrayed?
I can’t celebrate All Saints and All Souls without recalling my own beloved dead. One of them is my grandfather – the Revd Alexander Harpur, a parish priest in East Anglia till his retirement and a good, loving, gentle man. I didn’t know him for long – I was only four years old when he died in his 80’s – but I remember his smile and the sense of welcome whenever I was with him. He was one who could be remembered under the great crowd of All Saints who did their bit to make the world a more loving, God-filled place.
Another of my beloved dead is my oldest brother – Geoffrey. We shared a life on this world only for a very few weeks – not long after I was born, he died at the age of three, from the multiple disabilities that had been with him since birth. Geoffrey could not be said to have achieved anything in his short life on one scale of measurement, that of doing. But on another, that of being, he achieved a great deal – he gave my mum and dad and the others who cared for him someone to love and cherish. He opened the hearts of those around him by his need and helplessness and so also made the world a more loving, God-filled place.
Alexander and Geoffrey lived completely different lives but both deserve to be celebrated as souls who were created and loved by God and as saints who made a difference to the world. They, and all those like them, call us not only to remember and celebrate our predecessors but also to consider the legacy that we will leave after our own death. How will we have touched the world with God’s gentleness? What will we have helped to blossom? Where will we have sown seeds that bear fruit in the future?
As we remember those whose love has shaped us, it’s good to also think about the inheritance we will leave behind. In the words of the Australian cartoonist and prayer writer Michael Leunig: Let us live in such a way, That when we die, Our love will survive, And continue to grow. Amen.
The daisies which bloom at this time of year are named after Michaelmas, the feast of St Michael and All Angels. I like the echo this gives of the beautiful Talmudic saying that “Every blade of grass has an angel that bends over it and whispers, Grow! Grow!”.
Angels are part of the mystery of our faith, part of a way of understanding the world that takes us beyond the material and factual into the unseen and unproveable. In scripture they are agents of God’s purpose, bringing messages of reassurance – ‘do not be afraid’, of challenge – as in Jacob’s wrestling match, of calling – as Mary encountered through Gabriel. They are also agents of God’s justice, fighting evil like the superheroes of the spiritual world with wings in the place of capes.
I wouldn’t stake my faith on the actual existence of angels – they aren’t a necessary part of the story of God’s loving, creative interaction with humanity, more like an entertaining sub-plot. But I like to think they exist. I like to think that an angel hovers over each child whispering ‘Grow! Grow!’. I like to imagine that the world is full of creatures beyond my sight and understanding. I like to believe that my beloved dead are sung home by a whole choir of angelic voices. It makes the universe feel more alive, more loved and more beautiful to picture it filled with the fluttering of angel wings.
But I have one caveat to belief in angels. Such belief becomes less than helpful if we rely on angels to provide the love, life and beauty of the world. Rather than relying on a heavenly figure to nurture every child we should consider how we can do this ourselves. Rather than trusting angels to fight evil for us we should be out there committing ourselves to work for justice and for peace. Rather than believing that angels will protect the grass, the daisies and all the rich diversity of the natural world we need to take this urgent responsibility on our own shoulders.
So this Michaelmas let us both delight in the idea of angels, keeping our eyes open for the shimmer of a celestial wing, and also do the work that angels are supposed to do – becoming agents of God’s purpose in our own right.
I seem to be hearing a lot of talk at the moment about the generational divides – baby boomers, Gen X, Gen Y, millennials – usually involving one group sounding off at the other’s expense. In one way this is nothing new – older people have been berating the idleness of youth from time immemorial, while younger men and women have always loved to point out the ways that their elders have messed up society. What worries me is that these new generational titles seem to give a semblance of intellectual respectability to this way of talking. In other areas of life we seem increasingly aware of nuance – that we can’t, for example, make sweeping statements of ‘how women behave’ or ‘what men want’ without bringing into the conversation factors of race, class, sexuality, and individual psychology. But we seem comfortable making statements that ‘baby boomers behave like this’ and ‘Gen Y don’t do that’ which seem to get in the way of real engagement with one another.
Church is one of the few places in our society which is truly and intentionally inter-generational – it would be great if we could avoid the labels and hear the variety of voices with which each generation speaks. Then we might have our best chance of learning from the wisdom of all age groups, and know that the Spirit is at work in all of us, as Joel put it: “In the last days it will be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams.” (Joel 2:28)
(I write this as one who, back in Europe where the pace of social change has been different from North America, was an old Gen X-er and who in Canada is a young baby boomer. )
Twenty years ago I was ordained a deacon in the Church of England. It was a wonderful and terrifying day as I stepped into a new ministry feeling all too conscious of my failings and frailty and also of the honour that was being entrusted to me.
I served my curacy in a rural parish in Herefordshire, a county on the border of Wales famous for hops and apples and half-timbered houses. I was the first ordained woman in a church of which the oldest parts dates from the 13th century and there were some members of the congregation who were none too thrilled with this innovation. A number were honest about the fact that, while they welcomed me as a deacon, they were not sure whether they could receive my ministry if I was ever to be priested.
It was while I was in this rural parish that the vote on women priests took place in London about 6 months after I’d been deaconed. I went and stood outside the debating chamber with hundreds of others, all holding our breath to see whether our vocation would be recognized. The relief and joy when the vote went through were tremendous. I arrived home that night to find more messages than ever before on my answer phone (oh, those far off days before email) and my untidy garden transformed with beautiful autumn flowers – the work of parishioners who thought that vote would go the wrong way and wanted to let me know that I was loved and cherished.
All this is in my heart and mind today as I watch the Church of England fail yet again to move forward on women bishops. I think of the gifts of the women I was ordained with, of the need to connect with a secular society for whom women’s equality is a done deal, of my great affection for a Church which nurtured my faith and called me to ministry – and I am brought to tears but not to despair.
The day of my priesting in Hereford Cathedral in 1994, the first ordination of women to the priesthood in that diocese, was the Eve of St Julian’s Day. The cathedral was packed. The bishops had given us roses to carry down the aisle and our friends and families and worshiping communities were all celebrating with us. At the end of the service, as the procession was leaving, hundreds of balloons were let down by the great west door, all bearing Julian’s message ‘All shall be well’.
The movement of the Spirit may be delayed but it will not be denied. I firmly believe we will find a way through this, that the gifts of my sister priests in England will not be denied to the episcopate indefinitely. It has to be so if the Church of England is to survive. It has to be so if the hearts that rejoiced in 1994 and are broken today are to be mended.