Hazel McHaffie

practical Christianity

Royal weddings and a little serendipity

Well, I doubt I could have found a more suitable book to read during the week of the royal wedding if I’d tried!

I wonder what you thought listening to the African American Episcopalian Bishop Michael Curry preaching about love in St George’s Chapel in Windsor Castle on Saturday …? I personally loved his energy, his conviction, his relevant message, not just for the happy couple but for the world. Love would indeed redeem so many situations. And boy, did he put his heart and soul into it. He stood out in sharp contrast to the many staid, formal, set-texts of so many royal events. But even the very British Archbishop of Canterbury shared lots of smiles and humour with the first-name-terms royal couple.

This wedding has broken with so many traditions. A white prince of the realm marrying a mixed heritage American divorcee … in a church … in the presence of the Queen. The bride – a free-thinking actress – walking herself down the long aisle, only her mother of all her family present to witness her transition (my heart went out to her). The music a mix of ancient and modern, including a black gospel choir, a black cellist. Ordinary people who work tirelessly for humanitarian causes chosen guests instead of parliamentarians, heads of states, foreign royals. A lemon and elderflower sponge in place of the usual rich fruit. I could go on. It had all the hallmarks of an intimate wedding made to measure for the bride and groom, but on a massive scale and shared generously with the world.

And Gilead by Marilynne Robinson picks up so many of the themes we saw during that historic occasion, including a mixed-race ‘marriage’! I bought it at the Christian Aid Sale I told you about last week – the book not the marriage! The narrator is a minister of religion, Reverend John Ames, now in his late seventies. Totally unexpectedly, already in his sixties, he falls in love with and, at her instigation, marries a much-younger woman from a different social stratum, and together they have a son. Ames lives in daily expectation of his heart failing, he knows he will not be around to see his boy grow to manhood, so he commits to paper, the kinds of things he would want to say at opportune moments if he were to live longer.

It’s difficult to capture the beauty and tenderness of this writing. The Reverend comes from generations of men of the cloth and he’s steeped in the Bible and spiritual thinking; he is thoroughly authentic and believable. But his gentle exhortations and reflections are not dull or hackneyed; they’re full of compassion and understanding and wisdom. He roams over many important issues for his boy, illustrating his philosophy from his own life, his own mistakes, his own secrets, reviewed with honesty and humility. Forgiveness, temptation, covetousness, pastoral responsibility, relationship, heaven and hell … he shirks none of them, revealing a glorious all-embracing Christian love reminiscent of that Bishop Michael Curry spoke about at the royal wedding, hard won at times, an ongoing work at others, but ultimately a triumphant declaration of what it means to put the gospel into action in one’s life.

One illustration will suffice. Ames knows all too clearly that his love for his son is all-consuming. If anyone threatened the boy, he knows his principles would fly out the window.
Harm to you is not harm to me in the strict sense, and that is a great part of the problem. He (Jack Boughton) could knock me down the stairs and I would have worked out the theology of forgiving him before I reached the bottom. But if he harmed you in the slightest way, I’m afraid theology would fail me.

It surprised me to see that this was only the second novel by this most accomplished writer – her first being 23 years earlier! Even more remarkable, it won several awards, including the 2005 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. In today’s secular world, that a work of such meditative calm, such spiritual intensity, such simple grace, such solemn serenity, should be so acclaimed, is something of a miracle in itself. As I finished it in the garden on the beautiful sunny day of the royal wedding, It felt like a benediction.

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How should I live my life?

The suitcase remains packed in case of emergencies; flowers and cards keep coming; Flower arrangementthe heart continues to beat out a variety of rhythms that defy explanation. Nothing for it but to take each hour as it comes and try to conform to the expectations of an invalid. Both frustrating and sobering.

Plenty of time, then, for the mind to wander to existential questions. And I’ve been helped in my explorations by two books in particular. Headaches and dizziness aren’t really conducive to reading, so I dip in for a while and then lie back thinking while the outside world rights itself again. So what were these two books?

First up: The Lost Message of Jesus. Steve Chalke is a charismatic and enterprising evangelical Christian, a broadcaster and author as well as preacher. I heard him in the flesh a few years ago and I liked what I saw: he’s a man who puts his faith into action and crusades on behalf of the oppressed and poor. He speaks with conviction and erudition but in understandable language; he writes in the same clear and conversational style. In The Lost Message of Jesus he (with Alan Mann) challenges the reader to look beyond the tribal views of Jesus which have, through the ages, moulded him to fit preconceived cultural ideas, constraining both the man and his teaching. He advocates instead examination of the radically different message which Jesus actually brought to mankind. Essentially, he says, it was a message that brought an ‘irresistible hope’ to ‘the downtrodden, the lonely, the forgotten, the untouchable’. A message that had – and still has – the power to transform. In Steve Chalke’s hands this message is revealed in a refreshing light, at once reassuring and relevant for today. He’s had his fair share of poor reviews but this month this little book was exactly what I needed to cheer me when life was feeling pretty tough.

BooksIn His Steps by Charles Sheldon is completely different, although he too believed in the importance of making his message easily readable and accessible. This book is his most famous, written in 1967, and having print runs in excess of 30 million copies (according to the cover). It tells the fictitious story of an American urban community, in a city called Raymond. One Sunday a dishevelled man interrupts the measured and beautifully written Sunday sermon in the city’s most up-market and richest church, with a question as to what ‘Follow me’ really meant to this congregation. Calmly and without accusation he recounted his own experience of seeking shelter and employment: he had seen no evidence of Christian action in his short time in Raymond. As a result of this experience, the minister subsequently asked those who were willing, to pledge themselves to live their lives as Jesus would for a whole year. The newspaper editor works to rid his paper of undesirable elements; an accomplished singer turns her back on worldly fame and acclaim to help people in the slums; a rich family commits their wealth to good causes; a man of the cloth takes his message to the drunk and disorderly. Lives are spectacularly changed. It’s a very readable book but also challenging. How would I respond? Would I open my home to down-and-outs? Would I give up my creature comforts to seek out those whose lives are full of darkness and evil? Would I eschew worldly success to further the gospel? Not so easy to dismiss when you have lots of time on your hands and very little distraction.

Neither book would claim to be the last word in theological exposition. There are things in both with which I would myself take issue. But they both served a very useful function: they helped me contemplate the essential question; how should I live my life? Sometimes we’re so busy being busy we don’t pause to question ourselves. Lying still for long hours gives one a different perspective and different priorities. And what’s more, thinking didn’t make me dizzy! Only the complexity of the challenges did.

I was reminded of another sermon I heard once which asked: If you were accused of being a Christian, would there be enough evidence to convict you? Well, would there?

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