Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Lambeth and Canterbury

I returned last week from a couple weeks in England. I was there for a meeting, and stayed to visit a friend, and explore. The meeting was a roundtable discussion on health, theological education, and agriculture in Sudan, and the Archbishop of Sudan, three other Sudanese bishops, and some of the ECS staff, as well as partners from the US and UK were all there. The roundtable was held at Lambeth palace, the residence of the Archbishop of Canterbury, just across the Themes river from the houses of parliament. It was quite an experience.

On the first evening, they held a welcome service for us at Westminster Abbey. We stood in the heart of the Abbey, surrounded by the tombs of such notable people as Isaac Newton, Charles Darwin, Charles Dickens, and what seemed like most of the former kings and queens, right back to St. Edward the Confessor. The voices of the spectacular choir echoing marvelously, surrounded by all that history and wealth. There was one tomb of a missionary in Africa in the 1800s, whose body was “carried by faithful souls over land and sea”. And there we stood, being welcomed with a liturgy that included some of the favorite hymns in Sudan (“What a Friend we have in Jesus” and “Stand up, Stand up for Jesus”), and prayers written by women in Sudan.(see post script). The simultaneous juxtaposition and unity between life and worship in England and Sudan, was wonderful to behold. We are different, and yet the same. And those moments of unity, when we reach beyond our own norms to embrace each other in welcome and worship, are beautiful, and are the commonality we need in order to engage in discussion and relationship.

I am reminded again and again of the importance of prayer. Before we (the ECS community) do anything, have a meeting, drive a car, eat a meal, we pray. And that prayer helps us to stay focused on what’s really important. I was complaining about something just the other day, and one of the pastors said, “Let us pray,” and as we focused on prayer, the frustration was put back in it’s rightful place of insignificance. I am constantly amazed and inspired by the faith of the church leaders around me. “It is in God’s hands,” “God will Provide,” “It is to the glory of God,” are phrases I hear daily.

In England I also got to make a pilgrimage to Canterbury, because a friend of mine happened to be there. There is not a place in Canterbury Cathedral which is not incredibly moving. The holiness, the sense that your prayers are joining the prayers of millions of other pilgrims, is palpable. There is a simple candle that burns at the place where the tomb and shrine to St. Thomas Beckett of Canterbury, used to be, until it was destroyed by Henry VIII. Where Thomas was martyred, there is a kneeler that the Pope and Archbihshop of Canterbury once knelt on together in prayer. At the front of the Cathedral there is a chapel dedicated to the modern martyrs. There is a simple altar, and a small statue of a martyr being bared along by mourners. There is also a binder that has stories of the martyrs.

As I knelt at the chapel of the martyrs, I wanted to be overcome by sadness, morn the tragic loss of these brave and faithful people, morn the suffering and evil in this world, but I was interrupted. Perhaps because it is the place where so many have come to pay there respects to the martyr Thomas, but in that place the martyrs seemed more real to me than ever, and they seemed alive. I thought about who they were, and how they lived their lives, about the joy they felt in their walk with Jesus, about how even death itself could not tear them from the love of Christ. And that is the great secret of the martyrs isn’t it? Their foes finally kill them, as they killed Jesus, thinking that they have silenced these lovers of Jesus, these non-violent justice seekers. Only to find that even death cannot conquer the martyrs. I suppose the martyrs can be an example to us in faith and courage and all that, but let’s face it, we are always going to fall short of their example. More than anything, I think they are calling us to not be afraid, reminding us that nothing, absolutely nothing can separate us from the love of God. Not the economy or unemployment, not persecution or hunger, not our daily annoyances and frustrations, not even death can separate us from the love of God. And that is a lesson everyone everywhere can share in!

Prayers Adapted by the Cannon of Westminster from prayers written by women of the Episcopal Church of Sudan (1997) for an ecumenical day of prayer:

O God, into the pain of the tortured,
Breathe stillness

Into the misery of the displacement,
Breathe comfort

Into the hunger of the very poor,
Brethe fullness

Into the death of the innocent,
Breathe life,

Into the pain of the widowed and orphans,
Breathe Hope,

God our Father, you are the source of all truth and peace: look with mercy on your children in all the world. Purify our hearts form all hatred, falsehood and prejudice, and so guide us by your loving wisdom that peace and righteousness may be established among all nations. Come, Holy Spirit; grant us the peace of mind and soul, so that we may receive the great blessing of love, peace, and reconciliation , wherever there is conflict and loss, through Jesus Christ our Lord.

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