by Revd Canon Keith Lamdin 30th July 2017
There is a Russian story with a moral that I like. A peasant was walking along in the dead of winter and came across a half frozen bird. He picked it up and came across a newly laid and steaming cowpat. He tucked the bird in the pat up to its neck and went on his way. The bird began to warm up and coming back to life began to sing. A hungry wolf on its way heard the sound and sprang to the bird and ate it up. The moral goes like this. It is not always your enemies that put you in it nor is it always your friends who get you out of it, and if you are in it up to your neck don’t sing about it. I like it because it turns things on their heads and that is always a good thing to do.
And thinking upside down leads me to say that singing when things are at their worst, and writing poems, and dancing for rain, and laying flowers and lighting candles and swinging incense is exactly what we all do, sometimes not quite knowing why. In moments of great joy or pain we turn to music and poetry and the realm of the spirit. And here today we do the same thing. We take the poetic words of the mass, set them to music and sing hymns, and craft this together into a theatre of God’s presence and kingdom.
What is distinctive about the poetic is the juxtaposition of words and thoughts without worrying about what people might make of it. Take John Donne for instance, writing the words of our anthem three years before he died, and after the death of his daughter and his own life threatening illness.
- where there shall be no darkness nor dazzling, but one equal light;
- no noise nor silence, but one equal music;
- no fears nor hopes, but one equal possession;
- no ends nor beginnings, but one equal eternity:
These words do not make any sense to accountants or management consultants, as they are words that make sense and make no sense at the same time, allowing you in between them to make your own meaning, purpose and food for the spirit. Take for instance a single sentence from RS Thomas that I love – The cross an example of the power of art to transcend timber.
Some of you will know that we have today the first mass setting by Britten written for Westminster Boys choir whose sound he came to love, coached by George Malcolm who wanted them to sing in church as they did in the playground. Boys singing in church as they do in the playground, is not what we expect, but again art collapses the boundaries and breaks the rules, just as Jesus did.
It is as if we live in a world in the west that is deeply divided between the rational and the poetic. Ian McGilchrist, in his wonderful book the Master and his emissary indicates that singing came before the speaking of words and the scientific revolution brought the use of words to serve the investigation of the world rather than its celebration. Yet musicians nearly always take the words not of prose, but of poets, and create celebrations of hope and imagination of human life. Of course we need both languages but today we bring the poetic language of faith coined hundreds of years ago and the music of the last century to call attention to something that is eternal and of life changing significance.
This brings me, and I hope you as well to these two short parables of Jesus, told as stories so we can never be sure exactly what they mean. Here are two people. The first recognizes a pearl of great value. My guess is that he must have been an expert, with many years of practice before he could recognize such excellence. The other? A treasure seeker or just someone who came across it without even looking for it.
For both it was a moment of inspiration. A life changing moment; a moment of decision and commitment. A moment when all other things pale into insignificance and committed action seems the only thing to do.
RS Thomas again captures this is his poem The Bright Field.
I have seen the sun break though
To illume a small field
For a while, and gone on my way
And forgotten it. But that was the pearl
Of great price, the one field that had
The treasure in it. I realize now
That I must give all that I have
To possess it. Life is not for hurrying
For both these people it marks a turning point – a moment of decision – or if you like, a moment of inspiration. The same kind of inspiration, that comes from God that brought us the words of John Donne and the mass and the music of William Harris and Benjamin Britten.
This is the world, not of the moneychangers and strategic planners, or politicians but of the poets, artists and the composers, and the musicians and the bird up to its neck in it that sings as an act of celebration regardless of the consequences.
Sara Miles in her book Take this Bread tells the story walking into a church on a Sunday morning that she normally walked past on her walks. Without understanding what she was doing she stayed and ate a piece of bread and took a sip of wine. She writes:
‘what I found wasn’t about angels or going to church or trying to be good in a pious idealized way. It wasn’t about arguing about doctrine – the virgin birth, predestination, the sinfulness of homosexuality and divorce – or pledging blind allegiance to a denomination. I was hungering and thirsting after righteousness (like the man searching for treasure or the pearl) and I found it at the eternal and material core of Christianity: body, blood, bread and wine, poured out and freely share by all. I discovered a religion rooted in the most ordinary yet subversive practice: a dinner table where everyone is welcome, where the despised and outcast are honoured.’
For her, like the pearl finder and the treasure hunter it was a moment of inspiration that changed her life. I find myself wondering how often such moments come my way and I guess it would do us all some good, like `R S Thomas found, not to hurry for a change.