I have several Diocesan Church Newspapers from the 1970s given to me by Art Shields. I picked one of them up today and read these words inside…
“There is a persistent tendency to regard Christianity as a system of noble teaching, of high precepts and beautiful ideals and splendid moral principles. Well, it is all that, but it is much more than that, and primarily it is not that at all. It is not a set of rules, not a code of laws, not a scheme of ethics, but a gloriously happy piece of news – an announcement to quicken the pulse and thrill the soul…What is the nature of the good news? It is good news about God…Christ came to tell us that the Almighty is not a distant, awful Jehovah, jealous of His prerogatives, and swift to anger and wrath, but a loving, approachable Father, willing and eager to welcome to His heart all human children. What good news is this! It means that the fundamental fact of the universe is the friendliness of God.”
These words were written by a learned priest of the church in 1974. The priest is the Rev’d Canon Geoffrey Dibbs our Honorary Assistant who, at the time of writing the above, was Editor of the Huron Church News. (Geoff and Margaret will be with us on Sunday at St. Mark’s.) It comes as no surprise to those of us who know Geoff that he would write such great theology.
God is not distant, jealous, and swift to anger. God is LOVING and APPROACHABLE. God is EAGER to WELCOME ‘all human children.’ My favourite line is “THE FUNDAMENTAL FACT OF THE UNIVERSE IS THE FRIENDLINESS OF GOD.” Listening to some of the chatter between factions within the church we must assume that many have not yet heard the good news about ‘the friendliness of God.’ The image that seems to be often painted of God is one of anger and vengeance. So you ask, “Where do people get that image of God?” The answer is from within the church – It is taught to all of us from a young age.
Many of us were given images of God in our Sunday School days that were downright intimidating and at their worst scary. As we had no Sunday School at the Church of St. George the Martyr, I attended Sunday School on Sunday afternoon at St. Andrew’s United Church. Alice was the kindest of women and was a great Sunday School teacher. A devout Christian, Alice was a great influence in many of lives and continues to be a great witness today. Even Alice’s kindness could not soften the details of a God who decided to destroy the earth by flood, have a father kill his own son, drown the Egyptians…well you get the picture. If hearing this in Church and Sunday School were not enough reinforcement, I had a Children’s Bible that also chronicled all of those great stories – it was complete with illustrations. It seems that the loving, forgiving, gentle, and friendly God that Geoff wrote about was an afterthought. Little wonder then that so many embrace the narrower notion of God.
The good news of LOVE is shown in the lives of God’s saints. I am a Christian because I have been influenced by loving Christians. I learned about the frindliness of God from the lives of people like Alice. I learned from parents and siblings, from grandparents and from elders in my community. I saw the goodness of God and friendliness of God in people. This has continued to be the case for me in my adult life. I am so pleased that I belong to a community which has embraced the GOOD NEWS. God is LOVE! God is FRIENDLY. God is FORGIVING. God is APPROACHABLE. One of the great gifts of being a Christian has to be the knowledge that we have a FRIEND is sticks with us through all things. We ought to be so please at the ‘friendliness of God’ that we invite others to share in it. Knowing what a great Friend that God is, we should offer others the friendship of Jesus. When I think of how I have been loved, healed, forgiven, restored, embraced, challenged, renewed, changed, by God and by God’s people, my pulse quickens and my soul is thrilled. God is GOOD NEWS. So let us let people know that “THE FUNDAMENTAL FACT OF THE UNIVERSE IS THE FRIENDLINESS OF GOD.”
George MacLeod was a tremendous man who founded the Iona Community in 1938. He rebuilt the ruins of the Abbey with people training for ministry in the Church of Scotland. His model was community driven as those who went to Iona lived as community while working there. After completion the community model was retrained as Iona took on an ecumenical dimension and began welcoming guests from all over the world. The worship, the music and the life of the community is very much focused on justice, peace, creation and bringing faith to the world. McLeod was quoted as saying; “I simply argue that the cross be raised again at the centre of the marketplace as well as on the steeple of the church. I am recovering the claim that Jesus was not crucified in a cathedral between two candles, but on a cross between two thieves, on the town garbage heap, at a crossroad so cosmopolitan they had to write his title in Hebrew, Latin and Greek. It was the kind of place where cynics talk smut, thieves curse, and soldiers gamble. That’s where he died. And that’s where Christians ought to be and what Christians ought to be about.”
Being at Iona was a great reminder that our call is indeed to be community by being called out of our churches and into our neighbourhoods. We experienced liturgies focused on refugees, the environment, and justice and peace as well as gathering and leaving liturgies. The Eucharistic celebrations were tremendous in that they were a great reflection of encouraging the community to be the Body of Christ. We read in Henri Nouwen’s Bread for the Journey, “When we gather around the table and break the bread together, we are transformed not only individually but also as community. We, people from different ages and races, with different backgrounds and histories, become one body. As Paul says: ‘As there is one loaf, so we, although there are many of us, are one single body, for we all share in the one loaf.’ Not only as individuals but also as community we become the living Christ, taken, blessed, broken, and given to the world. As one body, we become a living witness of God’s immense desire to bring all peoples and nations together as the one family of God.”
Communion at the Iona Abbey was transformative for me. It was a real reminder of who we are. When we gather at the table we gather with the multitude of those who have witnessed before us as well as those who stand with us today. Being with so many from so many places was a reminder of just how many and how diverse of a group we are when we stand each week at the table. We stand together in solidarity with Jesus who used simple elements of the earth, bread and wine, to show us who we are and who we are called to be. As different as we all may be, we become one. We bring the gift of our diversity to the table and pray for the courage to push back from the table and go into the world as the living Body of Christ. We are called to go into a world which is diverse, divided, and dynamic. We need to go to the crossroads, the garbage heaps, and the places of cynical smut and bear witness to Jesus. We are the broken body, we are the blood outpoured.
The evening before we left Iona, there was a celebration of communion. The center aisle had a table set for the feast that stretched the whole length of the front section of the church. The chairs were rearranged so that we were all sitting around that table with the celebrant at the end of the table. (I suspect that if the space could have provided it, the table would have been round).
It was a very stirring moment to be at that Eucharistic table. We were from different places, races, and communities. We spoke different languages and dialects. We were men and women. We were gay and straight and transgendered. We had different theologies. We were diverse and a week earlier we had been strangers. Together we were a painting of Body of Christ. It was a wondeful mosaic.
As we left the Isalnd the next day I was still living that closing Eucharist. The staff and volunteers that make Iona Abbey what it is, stood on the peir and ‘waved us off.’ As we sialed away and they waved, it was as if we were being reminded that having been well nourished at Iona, we were now called to go into the world. We drifed away from our table experience to find the many tables around the world at which we will dine, each time hoping to bear witness to the Body of Christ – to bear witness to Jesus.
Tomorrow we will gather around the table at St. Mark’s. We too bring our uniqueness to the table. We bring our own diversity. We will break the loaf and in so doing we will stand in solidarity with Jesus and all who have followed him. We will proclaim forgiveness of sin, resurrection to new life, hope to all in despair, and love to those forgotten. It is a great gift to celebrate communion and an even greater gift to take the love we receive in that sacrament into the world. I am so pleased to have experienced communion at Iona. It made me all the more grateful for the sacrament that we share each week together. Feel free to join us at the table at 8 am or 10:30 am on any Sunday or on Wednesday at 10:30 am.
A couple of weeks ago I was privileged to spend a week in the Iona Abbey. It was a deeply moving week and the moments I spent in prayer, in song, in worship, and in theological reflection shall remain with me forever. It is a special place. It seems that each word is weighed when it is included in liturgy. Each song seems to exemplify the adage of Francis that "when we sing we pray twice." The week of living in community was a great experience. The daily tasks were a reminder of how important working for and with each other is. Living in community and sharing the tasks of daily living reinforced the idea that we are reliant on each other. As we live as a Christian community in our parishes and our churches we also rely on each other. We often forget that. It leaves me asking how we can better foster that sense of community and the work of the whole Body of Christ in our churches. The whole week was life changing and an important part of my spiritual journey. I will no doubt be referring to my time on Iona for a long time.
One of the more profound experiences of the week was visiting an Island called Staffa, also in the Scottish Hebrides. Uninhabited, Staffa is a small Island about a 10 km journey by boat from Iona. It is the home to thousands of sea birds including the common shag, the kittiwake, and the star of the program…the puffin. Given the fact that the puffin is the provincial bird of Newfoundland and Labrador, I was excited to get out there to see the birds. It was in many ways like being home. I had no idea that we would have such a great look at these tremndous birds. We sat on the grass a couple of hundred feet from the ocean and these colourful creatures flittered and played for us at our feet. It was magnificent. One could not stand there in the wind and behold these birds without becoming keenly aware of the magnitude of creation and what God has done in making this world.
If the puffins were not enough to inspire awe, Fingal’s Cave would certainly do it. As we walked along the basalt formation of the island, it is hard to imagine that this island was formed by volcanic activity. The multitude of hexagonal stones all joined gave the impression of being formed by skilled tradesmen with concrete. The beauty of the stone, its shape and colour make the trip to Staffa worthwhile. But just a few minutes from where the boat landed we found ourselves at the mouth of Fingal’s Cave. It was a harrowing walk as we were walking a narrow path with the sea lapping at the rocks about 30 feet below. Reaching the mouth of the cave we were taken by the majesty of the grotto. Over 200 feet deep and over 70 feet high, this natural cathedral is a ‘thin place.’ For Celtic Christians the ‘thin place’ was a place where there was no more than a thin veil that separates one from the Sacred, the Divine, the Kingdom of God. Listening to the music of the sea at the back of Fingal’s Cave, I was deeply conscious of the ‘thin place.’ It was not hard to imagine Mendelssohn being inspired in 1829 to compose Opus 26 (Fingal’s Cave) of his Hebrides Overture. The acoustics in the cave are tremendous. When Wordsworth visited the cave he penned this poem.
"Thanks for the lessons of this spot….
The pillard vestibule,
Expanding yet precise, the roof embowed,
Might seem designed to humble man, when proud
Of his best workmanship by plan and tool.
Down-bearing with his whole Atlantic weight
Of tide and tempest on the structure’s base,
And flashing to that structure’s topmost height,
Ocean has proved its strength, and of its grace
In calm is conscious, finding for its freight
Of softest music some responsive place."
William Wordsworth, 1833
I love the sentiment of the cave seemingly designed to humble humanity. Our best workmanship and our grandest technology pale in comparison to this wonderful work of God in nature. Having spent those thin moments in Fingal’s cave, I too came away giving ‘thanks for the lessons of this spot.’ God is in all places, and being in such a remote and austere location made me very aware of how very present God is. The psalmist writes in psalm 139, Where can I go from your spirit? Or where can I flee from your presence? If I ascend to heaven, you are there; if I make my bed in Sheol, you are there. If I take the wings of the morning and settle at the farthest limits of the sea, even there your hand shall lead me, and your right hand shall hold me fast. If I say, "Surely the darkness shall cover me, and the light around me become night," even the darkness is not dark to you; the night is as bright as the day, for darkness is as light to you."
The trip back to Iona was also wonderful. The wind was up and we we soaked in sea water upon our return. It was reminiscent of being in Newfoundland in many ways, most especially while on the water that day. John F. Kennedy once said, "We are tied to the ocean. And when we go back to the sea, whether it is to sail or to watch – we are going back from whence we came." I very much felt by mid week as we rolled across the waves back to Iona that I had indeed gone back from whence I came. It was marvellous day in the middle of a week that I am glad I had opportunity to experience. God is good!