That Which We Have Heard & Known

Occasional thoughts of an Anglican Episcopal priest

Category: Wales

Nostalgia Is a Lie: Brexit & Plowing (Sermon for Pentecost 6, Proper 8C)

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A homily offered by the Rev. Dr. C. Eric Funston on the Sixth Sunday after Pentecost, June 26, 2016, to the people of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio, where Fr. Funston is rector.

(The lessons for the day are Proper 8C of the Revised Common Lectionary: 1 Kings 19:15-16,19-21; Psalm 16; Galatians 5:1,13-25; and St. Luke 9:51-62. These lessons may be found at The Lectionary Page.)

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Brexit-flagsAs many of you know, this past week was a harrowing one for my wife and for me; specifically, Wednesday was one of those days you would rather not have to live through. In the afternoon, I was told by a urologist that I probably have prostate cancer, and later that night Evelyn nearly died from pulmonary embolism. She is OK now – I will be leaving right after this service to bring her home from the hospital – and my diagnosis will be either confirmed or proven wrong by a biopsy in about a month.

So all is well . . . but, really, I’d rather go back to Tuesday!

And I’m not the only one who’d like to start the week over!

No doubt, you have heard about this week’s “Brexit” referendum in Great Britain which decided whether the United Kingdom would continue to be part of the European Union. There were the Remainers or the “Ins” on the side of doing so, and the Leavers or the “Outs” on the side of exiting the Union. The “Outs” won to the shock and horror of nearly everyone else around the world.

The pound sterling lost more than 30% of its value in a matter of hours. Stock markets tumbled; the FTSE 100 index (the British equivalent of the Dow-Jones Industrial Average), which had closed the previous day at £6,388 opened the next morning at £5,789, a drop of more than 8.5%, inching back up during the day to a final loss of 3.15% The Dow itself closed down 610 points, its eighth-largest point loss ever.

In my humble opinion, the entire exercise of the referendum, from the decision by the Conservative government of David Cameron to hold it, to the very poor campaign run by the Remainers who simply didn’t believe they could lose, to the patently dishonest campaign waged by the Leavers, to the eventual outcome has been and is an exercise in monumental stupidity!

That the Outs’ victory was predicated on falsehood is the worst part of the whole mess. As Nick Cohen wrote in Saturday’s edition of The Guardian, the “politicians who [led the Vote Leave effort] knowingly made a straight, shameless, incontrovertible lie the first plank of their campaign. Vote Leave assured the electorate it would reclaim a supposed £350m Brussels takes from us each week. They knew it was a lie.” (EU referendum Opinion) Nigel Farage, one of those politicians, after the votes were counted and Leave had won, admitted that the assertion was (as he put it) “a mistake.” (USUncut)

The Brexit Leave campaign was a lie in another much more subtle way, as well, a way to which we on this side of the Pond are equally vulnerable. The campaign played upon the people’s nostalgia for a Great Britain that they believe used to exist: “We want our country back” was the campaign slogan of Mr. Farage’s UK Independent Party, and other Outs resurrected Margaret Thatcher’s early campaign slogan from the 1960s “Let’s Make Britain Great Again.” The day after the election, London’s Daily Star newspaper ran a picture of a bulldog (remember that Winston Churchill’s mascot was the British bulldog) with the headline “Now Let’s Make Britain Great Again.”

Nostalgia has been defined as the “yearning to return home to the past – more than this, it is a yearning for an idealized past – a longing for a sanitized impression of the past . . . – not a true recreation of the past, but rather a combination of many different memories, all integrated together, [with] all negative emotions filtered out.” (Hirsch, Alan R., Nostalgia: a Neuropsychiatric Understanding)

And that brings us to today’s lessons, to Elijah’s call to Elisha to be his servant and apprentice prophet, to Jesus’ encounter with three potential disciples who wish to follow him but have other business to attend to before hitting the road. Elisha had such business as well – he wished to say good-bye to his parents – and Elijah allowed it (although the Hebrew is unclear; we cannot tell if he did so supportively or grudgingly).

Jesus was not so understanding. He told the first potential follower that to come with him would be hard and uncomfortable and, by not telling us that the man came along after that, Luke implies that this dissuaded the would-be disciple. When the second asked for a delay to bury his father, Jesus replied, “Let the dead bury the dead;” not the most pastoral response! And to the third who, like Elisha wished simply to say farewell to family, Jesus said, “No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.”

“Here, Jesus makes reference to the story of Elisha out plowing in the field that we encountered in the first reading. And so it seems that Elijah’s [enigmatic reply] was indeed scolding Elisha – or at least, Jesus is suggesting Elisha should have been scolded for his request to kiss his parents goodbye.” (Soltis, Kathryn Getek, The Tensions of Discipleship)

The text from the First Book of Kings doesn’t tell us whether Elisha did, in fact, kiss his parents. What it tells us is that he slaughtered the oxen with which he was plowing, cooked them over a fire made by burning his farming equipment, and fed them as a farewell feast to his co-workers. We sometimes speak of burning our bridges behind us; Elisha prophetically acted out such a burning – the destruction of the return path in this feast of boiled oxen. Nostalgia was no longer an option for the young prophet-to-be.

Elisha, a farmer who had plowed a field, seems to have known that you have to watch carefully in front of you to keep the furrows straight, that you have to look forward not behind. “Look backward and you will swerve one way or another.” (Rogness, Michael, Commentary on Luke 9:51-62) And so, to avoid doing so, he destroys that which might lure him to look backward.

Elisha knew this and so, too, did the people of Jesus’ time. Luke “attributes to Jesus a saying that would have been rather well-known in the ancient Mediterranean world. For example, in Hesiod’s Works and Days [a didactic poem written around 700 BCE], a plowman is described as one ‘who attends to his work and drives a straight furrow and no longer gapes after his comrades, but keeps his mind on his work.’ In other words, to look back from the plow (whether to family living or dead) was to risk cutting a crooked or shallow furrow and thus ruining the work altogether! There is no place for looking back or even trying to look in two directions at once (being ‘two-faced’); rather, would-be disciples must be single-minded in purpose, setting their faces like Jesus on the task at hand.” (Parsons, Mikeal C., Commentary on Luke 9:51-62)

Nostalgia, that bittersweet yearning for a past that never was, encourages us to be “two-faced,” because nostalgia is a lie. Nostalgia is never true. “Nostalgia is a dirty liar that insists things were better than they seemed,” writes the poet Michelle K. Another poet, Alessandro Baricco, writes, “It’s a strange grief… to die of nostalgia for something you never lived.” He continues:

What is nostalgia?
What is it for you?
Is it the other half of a whole…
a fraction of a whole,
which takes up more space than the rest…
Is it a perfect day…
the sun was shining even if it was stormy,
even if it was the darkest of night…
there was sun in your heart
and it lit everything up in a glow
which you will never forget…
which still shines…
but do you remember it as it was or as…
it felt in that blissful moment
when all was right in the world, in your world…
it feels now seen from a distance
which has changed what it was
because of where you are now…
you wish you’d enjoyed that moment
rather than wasting it…
you wasted it…
why…
because it wasn’t as good as…
but now it is…
better than…
so you make amends in retrospect…
Is it a perfect memory…
one which isn’t anything like
what actually happened,
but you like this version better…
time heals wounds
sometimes by blurring the truth
with pretty lies…

Have you ever been accused of lying
when you told the truth…
it was not what others wanted to hear
and so it became a lie.
Have you ever accused someone of lying
because they told the truth…
but it was not one you wanted to hear
and so it became a lie.
Have you ever wondered how much
of what you remember is true…
and how much is a lie.
So much gets clouded…
sometimes by very beautiful clouds…
in a cerulean sky…

Like all untruth, nostalgia is a trap! It is a trap, says author C.G. Blake in his advice to new writers, because “by living in the past, we cheat the present.” He continues:

I’m a big believer in living in the present. Learn from the past, yes. Revere loved ones who have passed on. Keep the past in our hearts, but keep our eyes looking forward. Don’t dwell on the past because no matter how hard you wish it, you’re never going to change it. You can only change your present and your future. (The Nostalgia Trap)

We’re never going to change the past. And we are never, ever going to go back to it, especially not to that sanitized impression of the past with no negative emotions that nostalgia offers us!

If we dwell on it, we are trapped. The Brexit Outs wanted to make their country “great again.” What they got was a monumentally stupid mess of unknown proportions that no one knows how to handle, a country in turmoil where the Prime Minister had no choice but to resign, a nation now fracturing as politicians in Scotland call for a second independence vote and politicians in Northern Ireland seek a poll on whether to leave the United Kingdom and become part of the Republic of Ireland. The Brexit Leavers wanted to “take back their country.” What they got was a free falling economy, a nearly 10% reduction in the value of their investments and pensions, and a very uncertain future. They were trapped by the false promises of nostalgia.

Don’t get me wrong! I understand the lure of nostalgia, the desire to go back to some simpler and emotionally better time, even one that never existed. As I said, I’d like to go back to Tuesday! But we are never, ever going to go back to – nor recreate – the past!

What sets us free from the nostalgia trap, what sets us free from any lie, from any untruth, is truth. “You will know the truth,” Jesus told his followers, “and the truth will make you free.” (John 8:32) And the Truth tells us to get started on the important the work before us and to fix our gaze straight ahead, because “no one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.”

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A request to my readers: I’m trying to build the readership of this blog and I’d very much appreciate your help in doing so. If you find something here that is of value, please share it with others. If you are on Facebook, “like” the posts on your page so others can see them. If you are following me on Twitter, please “retweet” the notices of these meditations. If you have a blog of your own, please include mine in your links (a favor I will gladly reciprocate). Many thanks!

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Father Funston is the rector of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio.

Don’t Carry All That Baggage – From the Daily Office Lectionary

From the Daily Office Lectionary for Saturday in the week of Proper 11, Daily Office Year 1 (Pentecost 8, 2015)

Mark 6:7-9 ~ He called the twelve and began to send them out two by two, and gave them authority over the unclean spirits. He ordered them to take nothing for their journey except a staff; no bread, no bag, no money in their belts; but to wear sandals and not to put on two tunics.

A few years ago I took a sabbatical. It was my first (and, so far, only) sabbatical in 40 years of professional life, 25 of them in ordained ministry. I went to England, Scotland, Wales, and Ireland for a total of three months. The first two weeks I visited pre-Christian and early Christian sites in southern Scotland, northern and western England, and Wales. Then I flew from Edinburgh to Dublin. Checking in for the flight, I learned that I had misunderstood an airline website and my baggage was overweight. Substantially overweight! The fees and penalties amounted to nearly £300! (I paid more for my baggage to go one way than for myself to fly round-trip.) I’d brought books for a course of study I was undertaking in Ireland; I’d brought a summer’s worth of clothing; I was carrying a heavy CPAP machine I use while sleeping; I was way, way overweight. I could have carried nothing, ” no bread, no bag, no money in [me] belt,” and purchased everything in Ireland for less than those airline penalties. I guess I would have needed the money, but the bread, the bag, and everything else I didn’t need.

We carry so much that we don’t need. That’s what this story always says to me. We carry so much that we don’t need, that gets in our way more than it helps, that weighs us down and impedes us, that distracts us from what we are supposed to be doing. Jesus is clearly telling his disciples, originally the Twelve and, through them, us, that we don’t need all that stuff. We need some good footwear and something to lean on when we’re weary, and that’s about it. Anything else we may need we can acquire along the way; in fact, the promise of the story is that we will acquire it – it will be provided when it is needed.

When my two-month sojourn in Ireland was ended and I flew back to Scotland to join my wife for a two-week end-of-sabbatical vacation, I left behind most of what I had paid £300 to ship there. Books I could purchase again in the US, I gave to a school library. Clothing I wouldn’t need for those last two weeks, I gave to church to pass on to the needy. A second bag no longer needed, I gave to my landlady who had admired it. Things I was keeping but didn’t need to travel with, I shipped home. The CPAP machine I took back to Scotland, but for that I had pared my possessions down to one backpack; I was carrying again the same spare load I had carried on my first three-month trip to Europe when I was 16 years old. Following Jesus’ lightweight travel advice, I received the promise of the Psalmist: “He satisfies you with good things, and your youth is renewed like an eagle’s.” (Ps 103:5)

Take Jesus’ advice: don’t carry all that baggage!

Entering Silence – From the Daily Office – May 7, 2013

From the Letter of James:

If any think they are religious, and do not bridle their tongues but deceive their hearts, their religion is worthless.

(From the Daily Office Lectionary – James 1:26 (NRSV) – May 7, 2013.)

Silent CloisterThere are a lot of people today who claim to be religious but do not bridle their tongues. Just spend a few hours searching the internet. Limit yourself even to Facebook. Plenty of “religious” people saying lots of, shall we say, non-religious things. I won’t say their religion is worthless, but I do wonder how much they actually value their religion and what it teaches.

But what about those who do not think they are religious? You know, the ones who claim to be “spiritual but not religious” (SBNR). Sometimes they don’t do a very good job of bridling their tongues either. Would James condemn their spirituality as worthless? Would James even acknowledge a difference between religion and spirituality? Would he rather not focus on the unbridled tongue which seems to be a commonality between many so-called religious and many so-called SBNRs?

Some of the religious are so busy defending religion against the SBNRs. Some of the SBNRs are so busy denouncing religion as unnecessary. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if both would simply bridle their tongues for a while and enter into silence?

In the Ignatian spiritual tradition, silence is a mark of spiritual maturity. In the Hindu tradition, the sages teach that if we have something to say that is truthful, kind, or useful, we should say it; if what we have to say is not, we should not say it. In some Muslim teachings, it is said that the voice of the soul is in love with silence and will only speak when its beloved comes; conversation with this voice, which speaks for the inner spiritual world, is impossible in the absence of silence.

We may claim to be religious. We may claim to be spiritual. But if we do not bridle our tongues and spend time in silence, we are neither. If we do, if we enter into silence, we may find that there is no difference between them and that we are both.

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A request to my readers: I’m trying to build the readership of this blog and I’d very much appreciate your help in doing so. If you find something here that is of value, please share it with others. If you are on Facebook, “like” the posts on your page so others can see them. If you are following me on Twitter, please “retweet” the notices of these meditations. If you have a blog of your own, please include mine in your links (a favor I will gladly reciprocate). Many thanks!

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Father Funston is the rector of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio.

The Possibility Is Just Too Wonderful – From the Daily Office – February 23, 2013

From the Psalms:

Lord, you have searched me out and known me;
you know my sitting down and my rising up;
you discern my thoughts from afar.
You trace my journeys and my resting-places
and are acquainted with all my ways.
Indeed, there is not a word on my lips,
but you, O Lord, know it altogether.
You press upon me behind and before
and lay your hand upon me.
Such knowledge is too wonderful for me;
it is so high that I cannot attain to it.
Where can I go then from your Spirit?
where can I flee from your presence?
If I climb up to heaven, you are there;
if I make the grave my bed, you are there also.
If I take the wings of the morning
and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea,
Even there your hand will lead me
and your right hand hold me fast.

(From the Daily Office Lectionary – Psalm 139:1-9 (BCP version) – February 23, 2013.)

Multiple Worlds IllustrationA few days ago I wrote about my interest in superstring theory, m-theory, and the multiverse concept which springs from my life-long love of science fiction and the especially the “alternate reality” sorts of tales. I suggested that Jesus’ miracles might have been accomplished by his somehow accessing an alternate reality to affect this world; that would imply some sort of access to knowledge of those other universes.

I’ve never believed that the human Jesus had access to the divine mind in that way, so I’m not sure how I feel about that implication. Or maybe a spiritual connection to another reality doesn’t require that; perhaps that sense of and access to a healthier reality is what the Celts are onto with their idea of a “thin place”. Perhaps there are places where the divisions between the universes are permeable, and perhaps there are people who, like Jesus can sense that, and draw the realities together. Perhaps the ability to do this is what Jesus promised his disciples when he said, “If you do not doubt in your heart, but believe that what you say will come to pass, it will be done for you. So I tell you, whatever you ask for in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours.” (Mark 11:23-24) I know that’s a lot of “perhapses” . . . . but that’s part of what meditation is all about, imagining the possibilities.

And it is possibilities and alternate realities, and the question of God’s knowledge of them, that grab my attention today as I consider the evening psalm. The psalmist sings of God’s knowledge, which is all encompassing; God’s understanding of the psalmist’s existence is inescapable. In theology this is call “omniscience”; God is described as “all knowing.”

If there is only a universe, a single reality, this would mean that God knows the past, the present, and the future of the one-and-only timeline, and this gives rise to the doctrine of predestination, a sort of determinism: if God knows ahead of time what will happen, then events in the universe are effectively predetermined from God’s point of view. I have a lot of difficulty with predestination because, if it is true, then Jesus promise that “the truth will make you free” (John 8:32) is hollow. There is no freedom in a single universe whose future is determined.

But what if m-theory is right and there are alternative realities, an infinity of them? What if what God “knows” is not the future of a single reality, but all the multiplicity of possible outcomes? What God “knows” in that case is not what must be, but what might be. God knows, for example, what will become of Schrödinger’s cat . . . in every possible outcome there may be.

The multiverse theory is much too complicated to lay out in a brief theological reflection (and I’m certainly not the theoretical mathematician who could do so, in any case), but at its highest level it simply postulates that any universe that is mathematically possible has equal possibility of actually existing: if the physicists and mathematicians can get it to work out on paper, even if it can’t exist in this universe, it would exist “somewhere”. And, I would suggest, the God of possibilities would know about that universe.

God’s omniscience over a multiverse reality truly is “too wonderful for me.” It is also, from my point of view, much more exciting than any deterministic, single-universe idea that God simply knows the future of a solitary timeline. It means that God is the God of possibility. “For God all things are possible,” said Jesus (Matt. 19:26) And again, “What is impossible for mortals is possible for God.” (Luke 18:27) And again, “Abba, Father, for you all things are possible.” (Mark 14:36)

Søren Kierkegaard wrote, “Inasmuch as for God all things are possible, it may be said that this is what God is: one for whom all things are possible . . . God is that all things are possible, and that all things are possible is the existence of God.” (The Sickness Unto Death) For Kierkegaard, human existence is not confined to the known, to one concrete, “factual” reality; a multitude of possibilities is fundamental to human life. The human soul is released by possibility; it is possibility that makes us free.

Superstring theory, m-theory, the multiverse hypothesis . . . these are the new science of possibility. Our omniscient God is the God of possibility. And possibility is the truth that sets us free! That is just too wonderful!

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A request to my readers: I’m trying to build the readership of this blog and I’d very much appreciate your help in doing so. If you find something here that is of value, please share it with others. If you are on Facebook, “like” the posts on your page so others can see them. If you are following me on Twitter, please “retweet” the notices of these meditations. If you have a blog of your own, please include mine in your links (a favor I will gladly reciprocate). Many thanks!

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Father Funston is the rector of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio.

A Toy Telephone – Sermon for Christmas 1, Year C – December 30, 2012

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This sermon was preached on Sunday, December 30, 2012, at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio, where Fr. Funston is rector.

(Revised Common Lectionary, Christmas 1, Year C: Isaiah 61:10-62:3; Psalm 147:13-21; Galatians 3:23-25;4:4-7; and John 1:1-18. These lessons can be read at The Lectionary Page.)

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Baby Girl with To Phone“No matter how big and bad you are . . . when a two-year-old hands you a toy telephone, you answer it.” That piece of wisdom showed up on my Facebook newsfeed recently and I will return to it in a moment, but first I want to share some more Christmas poetry with you.

Many of you may know the work of the late Madeleine L’Engle, the author who died in 2007. She was best known for her young-adult series called “The Time Quartet”: A Wrinkle in Time, A Wind in the Door, A Swiftly Tilting Planet, and Many Waters.

She was also a first-rate theologian and a poet. Her poem about the Nativity of Christ, First Coming, is among my favorites:

He did not wait till the world was ready,
till men and nations were at peace.
He came when the Heavens were unsteady,
and prisoners cried out for release.
He did not wait for the perfect time.
He came when the need was deep and great.
He dined with sinners in all their grime,
turned water into wine.
He did not wait till hearts were pure.
In joy he came to a tarnished world of sin and doubt.
To a world like ours, of anguished shame
he came, and his Light would not go out.
He came to a world which did not mesh,
to heal its tangles, shield its scorn.
In the mystery of the Word made Flesh
the Maker of the stars was born.
We cannot wait till the world is sane
to raise our songs with joyful voice,
for to share our grief, to touch our pain,
He came with Love: Rejoice! Rejoice!

The first lines of that last verse speak to me most clearly: “We cannot wait till the world is sane to raise our songs with joyful voice.” Those lines speak to me of our Gospel lesson today, which is the prolog of the Gospel of John: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.”

John’s prologue is also the Gospel lesson, shorter by four verses, for the Eucharist on Christmas morning. It is for me a much more meaningful Gospel of the Incarnation than Luke’s sweet story of innkeepers, shepherds, angels, and the virgin birth: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” (v. 1) These words speak to me of a God who communicates and through communication creates, redeems, and saves. It reminds us of the story of creation in Genesis: “God said . . . .” God spoke the creative word and everything came into being. Through the prophets and in the birth of Jesus, God spoke the redeeming word and guaranteed our salvation. When another speaks we must respond, as L’Engle wrote, “We cannot wait till the world is sane;” we must raise our voices.

On the Calendar of Saints, we remembered John as apostle and gospel writer on Thursday; his feast day is December 27. In the Daily Office readings for his commemoration we heard from the Prophet Isaiah:

Thus says the Lord, the King of Israel
and his Redeemer, the Lord of hosts:
I am the first and I am the last;
besides me there is no god.
Who is like me? Let them proclaim it,
let them declare and set it forth before me.
Who has announced from of old the things to come?
Let them tell us what is yet to be.
Do not fear, or be afraid;
have I not told you from of old and declared it?
You are my witnesses!
Is there any god besides me?
There is no other rock; I know not one.
(Isaiah 44:6-8, NRSV)

Isaiah’s prophecy in the reading for John’s feastcay, underscores John’s Gospel. Isaiah, speaking on God’s behalf, demands communication from other gods who would seek to supplant the Almighty: “Let them proclaim . . . let them declare . . . who has announced? . . . let them tell.” And God reminds us that God is a communicator: “Have I not told you from of old and declared it?” Our God is a God who communicates, who is in relationship with his people, who comes among them to speak and to listen. The other gods are nothing but mute idols.

Or, at least, in Isaiah’s time, they were. Have you watched any TV the past few days? There are as many advertisements now as there were before Christmas. They are sprinkled among “new” stories of post-Christmas sales, politics, and “the fiscal cliff”. They come every 13 minutes as we watch programs and movies in which brand-name consumer goods are strategically placed on the set or used by the characters. The gods of greed and consumption are communicating most loudly; the objects of modern worship are promoting themselves wantonly.

But are they listening? Do these gods hear the cries of the poor and homeless? Do these idols listen to the moans of the hungry and the sick? Do these objects demanding our devotion pay heed to the needs of those who have no resources, who cannot pay homage in their temples of commerce?

These are gods for whom communication is one-way. They tell of themselves and they expect their worshipers to come . . . come and buy, come and consume, come and be consumed. But they do not listen. They do not listen anymore than the idols of the nations against which Isaiah prophesied. Only one God listens. Only God the Word who became incarnate in that Baby celebrated in Luke’s sweet story . . . only the God who communicates, who “became flesh and lived among us” . . . only the God who communicates, who is still speaking, listens to us. The God who communicates wants to listen to us, wants to hear from us; God would love to hear from us!

“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. . . . . And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us.” God spoke the redeeming word and guaranteed our salvation, and we must respond. The God who communicates is calling. The Baby in the manger is a two-year old handing us a telephone . . . . and when a two-year old hands you a telephone, you answer it! You cannot wait till the world is sane! Answer the phone and “Rejoice! Rejoice!”

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A request to my readers: I’m trying to build the readership of this blog and I’d very much appreciate your help in doing so. If you find something here that is of value, please share it with others. If you are on Facebook, “like” the posts on your page so others can see them. If you are following me on Twitter, please “retweet” the notices of these meditations. If you have a blog of your own, please include mine in your links (a favor I will gladly reciprocate). Many thanks!

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Father Funston is the rector of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio.

My Day in Wales (Postcript)

I should probably make mention of the fact that on my return to Hay-on-Wye I spent a couple of hours wandering through a few of the several book stores in this town, which is famous for the used book trade. I saw lots and lots of books, so many that even I, bibliophile that I am, was overwhelmed. I’m quite proud of the fact that I didn’t buy a single one! That’s saying a lot for a man who, I’m quite sure, has never before entered a bookstore without leaving with at least one purchase! It’s a fun town, though, if you’re into books. And it has some good restaurants – I recommend The Blue Boar for local fare and Red Indigo for really fine Indian cuisine.

My Day in Wales (Part 3)

This post concludes the tale of this day begun in Part 1 and continued in Part 2.

Llanthony Priory was a monastery of Augustinian Canons nine miles south of Hay-on-Wye. St. David is said to have lived in the area as a hermit, but this tradition lacks confirmation.

The story of the Priory is that around the year 1100 the ruins of a chapel and cell, supposed to have been that occupied by St. David, were discovered by a retainer of Hugh de Lacy, Baron of Herefordshire, named William. He thereupon decided to quit the world and become a hermit himself. He was later joined by Ernisius, chaplain to Queen Maud, wife of Henry I. These two anchorites became famous and their story reached Baron de Lacy, who in 1107 founded and endowed a monastery for them, dedicated to St. John the Baptist. The rule of the Canons Regular of St. Augustine was adopted. In the course of time, the severity of the climate, the poverty of the soil, and the persecution of the Welsh natives combined to make life there impossible. In 1134 the entire community, numbering about forty, abandoned the monastery and took refuge in the palace of Robert, Bishop of Hereford. After two years a new monastery was built for them near Gloucester by Milo, Earl of Hereford, which was called Llanthony Secunda. Only a few canons lived from time to time in the original monastery, and both houses were governed by one prior, who resided at Gloucester.

The buildings at Llanthony fell gradually into decay and passed into private hands when Henry VIII dissolved the monasteries in 1539. In 1807 the property was bought by Walter Savage Landor. It still belongs to his descendents, the habitable portion of it having been added to and converted into an inn during Queen Victoria’s reign. The church is in ruins, but the western towers, part of the central one, and some of the nave piers and arches are standing.

Here are a few pictures of Llanthony Priory taken today, 11 July 2011:

Llanthony Priory, Black Mountains, Wales

Llanthony Priory, Black Mountains, Wales

Llanthony Priory, Black Mountains, Wales

Llanthony Priory, Black Mountains, Wales

Llanthony Priory, Black Mountains, Wales

Llanthony Priory, Black Mountains, Wales

Llanthony Priory, Black Mountains, Wales

Llanthony Priory, Black Mountains, Wales

And this is the Inn built into the Priory ruins by the Landor family:

Victorian Inn at Llanthony Priory, Black Mountains, Wales

Victorian Inn at Llanthony Priory, Black Mountains, Wales

There is also a functioning Anglican Church in Wales parish church on the site of the Priory, St. Davids, Llanthony. The structure first seen in this picture is a cottage attached to the church, presumably intended to be the vicarage:

St Davids Parish Church, Llanthony, Wales

St Davids Parish Church, Llanthony, Wales

This is the interior of the church:

Interior of St Davids Parish Church, Llanthony, Wales

Interior of St Davids Parish Church, Llanthony, Wales

Notice the pulpit … it is built into the wall and cannot be accessed from the congregation’s side of a wall and arch that separates the congregation from the choir and chancel.

Pulpit of St Davids Parish Church, Llanthony, Wales

Pulpit of St Davids Parish Church, Llanthony, Wales

I entered the pulpit through this door. I almost couldn’t fit in and getting back out was a really spine-bending challenge!

Pulpit Doorway of St Davids Parish Church, Llanthony, Wales

Pulpit Doorway of St Davids Parish Church, Llanthony, Wales

All things considered, it was a good day in Wales. After visiting the parish church, I made my way back to the B&B in Hay-on-Wye by way of a “single track lane with passing areas” about which I’ve written earlier.

My Day in Wales (Part 2)

I left Llantwit Major, where I had surveyed the Church of St. Illtud (see My Day in Wales (Part 1)), and having given serious consideration to driving the 101 miles from there to St. David’s where the primatial Cathedral of the Church in Wales is located, I set out to do just that. It really is a lovely cathedral and there are well-preserved ruins of a monastery founded by St. David there. (Here is a link to the Cathedral’s website.) I got onto the M4 motorway and started driving west, but a little bit beyond Swansea, stopping for petrol and a Diet Coke, discretion got hold of me and I realized that I really didn’t want to spend two hours driving there and then to face three hours getting back to Hay-on-Wye. So I went back to my original plan, which was to drive to the village of Penderyn and visit the only whisky distillery in Wales.

I didn’t take any photos at the distillery; I simply enjoyed the tour in the company of an American family from Florida and their friends from Wales. The whisky at Penderyn was lovely – if you ever have a chance to sample any, do so. They have three finishes – standard, which is aged before bottling in bourbon barrels then finished in madeira casks; sherry, which is aged in the bourbon barrels then finished in sherry casks; and “peated”, which is aged and finished in barrels previously used for Laphroig Scotch. Penderyn is not the first whisky made in Wales. Welsh monks made whisky in the middle ages, but the practice died out. The last commercial distillery before Penderyn was R. J. Lloyd Price’s Welsh Whisky Distillery Company established in 1887 at Frongoch. However, it was not a success and was sold in 1900 to William Owen of Bala for £5,000. The company made its last batch of bottled whisky in 1903 and was finally liquidated in 1910. That last batch met with an ignoble end when the horse cart it was being carried on fell over and all the bottles except two were smashed! One of the two is at the Penderyn Distillery today and the other is supposedly owned by Prince Charles, the Prince of Wales. However, our guide told us that the Prince’s steward is reportedly unable to locate the bottle! The bottle at Penderyn is on display and we were told that it is believed that, at auction, it would fetch a price of £300,000! For one liter of whisky! (The Frongoch product must have been pretty good … a cask of it was given to Queen Victoria by the local lodge of Freemasons when she visited the area in 1900 and she is reported to have gone through it rather quickly.)

The Penderyn products are pretty good, too! They didn’t have any of the peated available for tasting, but the standard and the sherry were delightful. They also make a gin and a vodka. Not being a vodka drinker I didn’t try that, but the gin is superb. More like the Dutch oude jenever than a traditional English dry gin. (The distillery has a very good and informative website which I invite you to view for yourself.) I only tasted very small sips of these spirits because, after all, I was on the road and still had to drive to Llanthony Priory and then back to Hay-on-Wye.

Driving through Wales today, I was struck by contrasts. From Cardiff to Swansea and beyond the M4 motorway is a broad, modern expressway on which cars and lorries zip along at 70 mph. Actually, many race by at even faster speeds. I’ve gotten the impression that in the United Kingdom “speed limits” are really “speed suggestions”…. Off of the motorway, on roads labeled as “A” roads, it’s a somewhat different story. “A” roads are two lane highways (one each direction) which back in the States (or at least in Ohio where I now live) would have a speed limit of no more than 45 mph and in many places, 35 mph. Here they generally are posted at 60 mph! And then there are “B” roads … these can be anything from something equivalent to a city residential street back home to a cow path!

My friends Ruthie and Clive live in Tylers Green, Penn, Buckinghamshire. To get to their home, my GPS (or “sat nav” as they are called here in the UK) directed me up a street called “Cock Lane” at the beginning which was a sign saying, “Single Lane Track with Passing Areas” … and that’s exactly what it is. I traveled on another road today with the same sign on display. Here’s few photos of that road taken from the driver’s viewpoint in my car:

Single Lane Track with Passing Areas, Black Mountains, Wales

Single Lane Track with Passing Areas, Black Mountains, Wales

Single Lane Track with Passing Areas, Black Mountains, Wales

Single Lane Track with Passing Areas, Black Mountains, Wales

The speed limit along here, by the way, is 30 mph! I did not drive anywhere near that speed; to travel these 9.2 miles took me 45 minutes. I met several vehicles coming the other way and often one or the other of us would have to stop and back-up to find a “passing area” where the other waved a thank you and we each went our way.

Single Lane Track with Passing Areas, Black Mountains, Wales

Single Lane Track with Passing Areas, Black Mountains, Wales

This particular single lane track with passing areas runs from Llanthony Priory to just outside Hay-on-Wye, a distance of 9.2 miles. Shortly after I took the photos above, the road got even narrower, and darker as trees growing along side arched over it forming a verdant tunnel. But then, rather quickly and unexpectedly, the roadside bushes and trees just disappeared and though the road got no wider, the vista broadened considerably.

Single Lane Track with Passing Areas, Black Mountains, Wales

Single Lane Track with Passing Areas, Black Mountains, Wales

I was in a mountain valley that was lush and green and filled with grazing sheep. It reminded me of the scenery in that great old movie starring Maureen O’Hara, Walter Pidgeon, and Barry Fitzgerald, How Green Was My Valley, a movie about growing up in a Welsh mining community (a young Roddy McDowall played a principal character). I don’t know where that movie was filmed, but my B&B host tells me that the area I drove through was where the outdoor scenes of another movie were filmed – An America Werewolf in London!

High mountain valley, Black Mountains, Wales

High mountain valley, Black Mountains, Wales

Sheep Grazing, Black Mountains, Wales

Sheep Grazing, Black Mountains, Wales

Shortly after I stopped to take the pictures above, I rounded a curve, topped a summit, and was treated to a breathtaking view of the Wye River valley. Even though the day was overcast at the time, the view was magnificent.

Wye Valley from Black Mountains summit, Hay-Llanthony Road

Wye Valley from Black Mountains summit, Hay-Llanthony Road

Wye Valley from Black Mountains summit, Hay-Llanthony Road

Wye Valley from Black Mountains summit, Hay-Llanthony Road

I was on this road driving from Llanthony Priory in the Black Mountains to my B&B in Hay-on-Wye. In the third and final installment of this description of my day in Wales, I’ll have pictures of the Priory. See My Day in Wales (Part 3).

Driving this sort of road (or any road, for that matter) is one of the times when I especially pray for God’s protection. In Dánta Dé there is a morning hymn (described as a ceol na ndaoine or “folk music”) which seeks God’s protection as “king of the graces” when “in each way that I shall take in the road that I wish to go.” First, the Irish Gaeilge:

A Rí na ngrás thug slán mé ó oidhche aréir,
Buidheachas naomhta do gnat do Rí na gCréacht;
Do bhrigh Do Pháise, a Árd-Mhic, dídean mé saor
Ó ghníomharthaibh Shátain gach lá is go críc mo shaoghail.

‘Athair na gcómhacht fóir mé ó phéist an uilc
Anns gach anach a ngeóbhad san ród ‘n ar méin liom dul,
Go cathair [Do Ghlóire] a gcómhnaidhe téidhim ar dtús
‘S a n-ainm na trócaire treóruigh féin mé indiú.

And the direct English translation:

O King of graces, Who brought me safe from yester-night,
Holy thanksgiving (be) always to the King of the Wounds:
By the power of Thy Passion, O High Son, protect me safe
From the deeds of Satan each day to my life’s end.

O Father of powers, save me from the serpent of evil,
In each way that I shall take in the road that I wish to go,
To the Throne [of Thy Glory] always first I go,
And in Mercy’s Name lead me Thyself to-day.

My Day in Wales (Part 1)

Noswaith dda!

Noswaith dda is Welsh for “Good evening” – do not try to pronounce it – whatever you guess will be wrong, I assure you.

I drove a circle through the Brecon Beacons today – I almost drove to St. David’s – but five hours of driving (two to get there from where I was just west of Swansea and three to get back from there to my B&B in Hay-on-Wye) didn’t seem like a good idea, so I didn’t. Instead I went to St. Illtuds in Llantwit Major, then to the Penderyn Distillery, then to Llanthony Priory … and then walked the streets of Hay-on-Wye and looked at lots of old books. It was overwhelming, even for a bibliophile like me … there are too many books … and some of the shops are simply disorganized. Many have the books categorized by subject, shelved alphabetically by author, etc. But some are just disorganized heaps of books – I think even the owners don’t know where anything is.

I was disappointed in St. Illtud’s Church and the ruins at Llantwit Major. The modern Welsh-English name comes from the old Welsh name Llanilltud Fawr. Llan means “monastery” and you can see St. Illtud’s name in the rest of that first word. The second word, fawr, means “great”. So the name is something like “Illtud’s Great Monastery” which was founded in the early 5th Century by St. Illtud as a center of learning … but it’s not so great any longer.

This is a very important site in Celtic Christian history and it’s not cared for very well at all. The monastic community here, over which St. Illtud and St. Samson were priors, was once so important in the formation of monks, priests, missionaries, and bishops that it has been called “The University of Celtic Saints.” St. David of Wales was educated and ordained there, and he is not the only one: in addition to St. David, St. Samson, St. Paul Aurelian, St. Gildas, St. Tudwal, St. Baglan and King Maelgwn ap Cadwallon (King of Gwynedd and apparently High King of Wales in the middle of the 5th Century) are said to have studied at the Cor Tewdws or “divinity school”.

The Scots and the Irish seem to have a sense of reverence for their ancient Christian monastic sites, but apparently not so the Welsh (or at least not the people of Llantwit Major). Although inside the church there is a poster about a fund raising effort to preserve what’s left and build a visitor center, it’s pretty clear it’s not going anywhere – the poster is a few years old. And in the old chapel, there are dustbins and a composting thing set up….

Here are some pictures of the Church of St. Illtud’s and what remains of the medieval buildings that were once found at this site. Of course, the earlier Celtic site has long since disappeared. First, the church as seen from the town’s public car park and then a couple of photos of the building from the church yard.

St. Illtuds Church, Llantwit Major, from town car park

St. Illtuds Church, Llantwit Major, from town car park

St. Illtuds Church, Llantwit Major, from church yard

St. Illtuds Church, Llantwit Major, from church yard

St. Illtuds Church, Llantwit Major, from church yard and showing ruined monastic chapel at west end

St. Illtuds Church, Llantwit Major, from church yard and showing ruined monastic chapel at west end

There is a ruined chapel affixed to the functioning church directly out the west door; in this chapel are currently housed dustbins (trash cans, to an American) and a green plastic composting container!

St. Illtuds, ruined chapel with composting bin

St. Illtuds, ruined chapel with composting bin

On the grounds was also a ruined chantry which has now been turned into a memory garden:

St. Illtuds, ruined chantry memory garden

St. Illtuds, ruined chantry memory garden

Inside the church there are some stones with Celtic carving and Latin inscriptions which may date from the early Celtic monastery:

St. Illtuds, Celtic Cross bearing name of Illtud

St. Illtuds, Celtic Cross bearing name of Illtud

St. Illtuds, Celtic carved stones

St. Illtuds, Celtic carved stones

And, of course, the Victorians got to the place and their influence is seen in the chancel of the church and the reredos:

St. Illtuds, chancel, altar and reredos

St. Illtuds, chancel, altar and reredos

After surveying the church at Llantwit Major (which didn’t really take as much time as I thought it would), I gave serious consideration to driving the 101 miles from there to St. David’s where the primatial Cathedral of the Church in Wales is located. It really is a lovely cathedral and there are well-preserved ruins of a monastery founded by St. David there. (Here is a link to the Cathedral’s website.) In fact, I got onto the M4 motorway and started to do just that, but a little bit west of Swansea, stopping for petrol and a Diet Coke, discretion got hold of me and I realized that I really didn’t want to spend two hours driving there and then to face three hours getting back to Hay-on-Wye. So I went back to my original plan, which was to drive to the village of Penderyn and visit the only whisky distillery in Wales. (See My Day in Wales (Part 2) for more about that.)

(Later in the day I visited Llanthony Priory, another monastic ruin, in the Black Mountains south of Hay-on-Wye. Read My Day in Wales (Part 3) for that story and more photos.)

Summer and Sabbath

In about two hours I will be headed for Cleveland-Hopkins Airport to get on a flight to Newark and thence to Edinburgh. Checking email, Facebook, etc. before packing up the laptop, I found that a friend forwarded me an email from a United Methodist board of some sort containing two delightful quotations about summer and sabbath. The summer thought is from John Lubbock:

“Rest is not idleness, and to lie sometimes on the grass on a summer day listening to the murmur of water, or watching the clouds float across the sky, is hardly a waste of time.”

I had no idea who John Lubbock was, although I now know that I certainly should have. He was a Victoria era banker with many side interests, and the First Baron Avebury. He also was a good friend of Charles Darwin, whose hometown of Shrewsbury, Shropshire, I will be visiting in just under two weeks. Wikipedia has an extensive article about John Lubbock which includes this information:

In 1865 Lubbock published what was possibly the most influential archaeological text book of the 19th century, Pre-historic times, as illustrated by ancient remains, and the manners and customs of modern savages. He invented the terms Palaeolithic and Neolithic to denote the Old and New Stone Ages respectively. More notably, he introduced a Darwinian view of human nature and development. “What was new was Lubbock’s… insistence that, as a result of natural selection, human groups had become different from each other, not only culturally, but also in their biological capacities to utilize culture.”

Lubbock complained in the preface about Charles Lyell:

“Note.—In his celebrated work on the Antiquity of Man, Sir Charles Lyell has made much use of my earlier articles in the Natural History Review, frequently, indeed, extracting whole sentences verbatim, or nearly so. But as he has in these cases omitted to mention the source from which his quotations were derived, my readers might naturally think that I had taken very unjustifiable liberties with the work of the eminent geologist. A reference to the respective dates will, however, protect me from any such inference. The statement made by Sir Charles Lyell, in a note to page 11 of his work, that my article on the Danish Shell-mounds was published after Ms sheets were written, is an inadvertence, regretted, I have reason to believe, as much by its author as it is by me.” Preface to Pre-historic times.

Lubbock was also an amateur biologist of some distinction, writing books on hymenoptera (Ants, Bees and Wasps: a record of observations on the habits of the social hymenoptera. Kegan Paul, London; New York: Appleton, 1884.), on insect sense organs and development, on the intelligence of animals, and on other natural history topics. He was a member of the famous X Club founded by T.H. Huxley to promote the growth of science in Britain. He discovered that ants were sensitive to the ultraviolet range of the spectrum. The Punch verse of 1882 captured him perfectly:

How doth the Banking Busy Bee
Improve his shining Hours?
By studying on Bank Holidays
Strange insects and Wild Flowers!

Apparently, Mr. Lubbock’s time spent lying on the summer grass was not wasted. I hope that mine spent, in part, walking through the summer hills of Scotland, England, Wales, and Ireland will likewise not be a waste of time. And in that vein is the second quotation in my friend’s United Methodist email, a prayer for sabbath:

Sabbath God, in this season of long days and long daylight, we are grateful to be alive. Give us the wisdom to pause from our hectic routines and enjoy the simple things of this time of year. Let us live easily for a time, putting away watches and looking away from clocks, ignoring all the things that need to be moved, fixed or cleaned. Let us lose ourselves in the bounty of the earth you created. May this be a time of rest, refreshment and renewal. May we be calm enough and quiet enough to perceive your presence. Let us not fill all our time with endless activity.

The email says that this is prayer is “based on a prayer composed by Ted Loder in his book, My Heart in My Mouth.” I also didn’t know who Ted Loder is. It turns out he is another blogging clergy person. The profile on his blog says, “The Reverend Dr. Loder is a retired United Methodist minister who served as Senior Pastor for 38 years at Philadelphia, PA’s First United Methodist Church of Germantown (FUMCOG), which became well known around the country for its dynamic worship and preaching as well as its urban involvement and prophetic social action. He was named one of America’s most creative preachers. He has published several books of prayers, sermons and commentary including Guerrillas of Grace and Loaves, Fishes and Leftovers.” The header on his blog reads, “Stay Watchful – God is Sneaky.” I shall have to read this fellow….

As I fold up this laptop, stow it in my backpack, and start loading my bags into the car for the trip to the airport, my prayer is one petition in particular in the Rev. Dr. Loder’s prayer, “May this be a time of rest, refreshment and renewal.” Amen!