|Pen and Ink Reflections||
‘Cheer, cheer, the red and the white/ honour the name by day and by night’ – yes, that is the beginning of the song of the Sydney Swans. To my mind, and I admit my bias as a long-time Swans fan, it is the best of all the AFL club songs. For I won’t name names, but, with all respect, parts of some other clubs’ songs are, well, somewhat embarrassing. However, if Swans supporters are being completely honest, even we/they probably wouldn’t claim our anthem to be the greatest song ever written. I do wonder too, after all the rain we have had, and the consequent problems, whether the line ‘shake down the thunder from the sky’ is all that appropriate to sing right now?! I guess that is the point of what, in the best sense of the word, we might call ‘tribal’ songs. They may not always be perfect. They might even be awkward at times. We may not hold straightforwardly to all the details. We might even want to change some of them – and sometimes manage to make that change: just as the original Sydney Swans line ’while our loyal sons are marching’ was changed, in March last year, to ‘while our loyal swans are marching’, reflecting the emergence of the Swans girls youth program and the Swans women’s team (happily, albeit belatedly, to play in the AFLW later this year). They may also be quite annoying to others, even, after a victory, even a little insulting and enraging perhaps to some. However, despite all their limitations, such tribal songs are part of giving expression to shared experiences of deep connection and community, and to forms of faith and hope. As such, trite though they may be in comparison, I feel that they thus give us one way into approaching the historic ecumenical creeds of the Christian Church…
I’ve always loved words and the play of words – puns and shades of meaning, not always obvious in translation. All translations of the cluster of texts we call the Bible are exactly that – translations. As such they are always inadequate to some extent. And even if we read the original language, we read it with our own twenty-first eyes, and through numerous other lenses of gender, ethnicity, and other particularity. Hence, we need to be on the alert for nuances that are sometimes missed.
There is a little word play happening in today’s Gospel text – it’s around the word meno, which the writer of John uses a great deal, because of its fluidity of meaning. “Live on in me as I live on in you” Jesus says in our version. The older translations read ‘abide in me as I abide in you’ and that’s the translation offered in the passage we heard from 1 John. Now, abide and abode are not words we use much these days, which is no doubt why the Inclusive Bible has made the change to the Gospel passage that it has. But there are some shades of meaning that enrich our understanding here. That original word meno means many things - to stay, to rest, to dwell, to remain (and yes, with that sense of continuity) to live on. It can mean to stay strong in ones resolve. But we need the underpinning of the dwelling words as well. As a noun, menai, it means a dwelling place, an abode, a lodging – a place indeed, somewhere to live, to have life as well as furniture! When the disciples early in John’s gospel ask Jesus ‘where are you staying?’, it’s the same word – and not used idly. Eventually they will come to understand that Jesus stays, remains, dwells, lives on - in God – and we do too if we remain part of the vine – because as Jesus will eventually say in John 17, ‘in my Abba’s house are many dwelling places’ – same word.
So where are we going to live in every sense? Well one metaphoric answer that John’s Jesus gives is ‘in the vine’. It’s a metaphor that tells us something vital about our relationship with God - that it is a relationship of mutuality. We need God, but - and this is the bit we often forget - God also in some mysterious ways needs us to bear fruit. So, let’s think a little about vines...
Years ago in the east end of London, I met a remarkable little old lady. She was what some call a ‘bag lady’: a homeless woman who carries her possessions with her, perhaps in just a pair of plastic bags. Her story was typical of many homeless people, although very unique, like that of every homeless person. In this lady’s case, she would tell a very brief biographical tale on a kind of continuous loop. This began with the words ‘I was a Barnados girl’, which, when repeated would start her off again on her abbreviated life-story. Was she then a sad person lost in a tiny, poor and vulnerable world, cut off from the rest of us? No, not exactly. For, in some ways, she was more in touch with existence than most, if not all of us. For this seemingly poor and aged waif had an amazing quality: namely the ability to see the plants and the animals alive around her, even in the middle of such a busy and environmentally threatening city as London then was. If you walked along with her for just a minute or two, she would point out, and open your eyes and ears to, the animal and plant life you almost always missed: the grass and the sometimes beautiful flowers which pushed through the concrete and the cracks; the birds and the insects and the urban wildlife, which, sometimes incomprehensibly, managed to thrive in the otherwise all-too-human jungle of the city. Almost everyone else was too busy, or too self-obsessed, to ‘consider’ these ‘lilies of the field’ and ‘birds of the air’. It took a similarly overlooked human being to notice and to celebrate these astonishing signs of God’s resistance. And, as she drew you into such contemplation and celebration, you thereby discovered the presence of mystery and grace.
‘There was an ancient music on the earth before humans ever came here. Imagine what the first music of the wind was like when the earth was born out of nothing. Imagine the wind being released for the first time, and finding itself running into silver mountains, dark mountains, skimming over boiling oceans. And if you enter into the dream which brought you here, and awaken its beauty in you, then the beauty will gradually awaken all around you.’
- so begins the introduction to the film ‘Celtic Pilgrimage’ which shares much of John O’Donohue’s life and work. And, in a way, like many of his sayings, those gorgeously fashioned few words alone might really be enough for us to ponder tonight. For the heart of much of his insight and encouragement to live is contained in them: the vitality of creation and the landscape; the call to imagination and to enter into the dreams of our life; and the centrality of beauty and of wonder. John O’Donohue’s life and work was an invitation and example of how to attend to such presence and to travel as adventurous pilgrims into them…
The first Christmas sermon I preached here in Toowoomba empolyed words of a great poet songwriter singer: Leonard Cohen who, sadly for us, died recently. Let me then preach my final Christmas sermon here with reference to the words of another great poetic songwriter singer: Bob Dylan, who was recently awarded a Nobel Prize in Literature. For like Leonard Cohen, Dylan’s lyrics have typically been grounded in a relationship to existence which we can call religious, in the very best sense of that word: namely a relationship which is not always conventional, and certainly not ‘churchy’, but which is always seeking to connect with the deepest ground of our being. It is from this place that we find our truest meaning, both for our individual lives and for our families, communities and wider world. For, in Dylan’s words which take us to the heart of the feast of Christ’s nativity, whoever ‘is not busy being born is busy dying.’ In the nativity we see the ultimate meaning, source and purpose of life. We are invited to share that light and love, by allowing it to be born more fully in us and the world around us…