Beauty surrounds us, but we usually need to be walking in a garden to know it - Rumi
A few weeks back I wrote about the weeds in my lawn. Now, as any gardener knows, weeds tend to return and so here is another piece on the subject. This one ends with an environmental plea; one that I hope we will all take to heart.
Firstly, let me introduce you to a man with whom I share the same birthplace and religious upbringing. He was born just over one hundred years before me but, like me he was brought up in the Anglican tradition. There, however the similarities end as our life journeys took a very different course, although a love for poetry and the environment is common to each of us. Indeed, if he were alive today he would have welcomed wholeheartedly the Pope’s Encyclical Laudato Si. Like Pope Francis he became a Jesuit, having taken the advice of John Henry Newman to embrace the Roman Catholic tradition whilst studying at Oxford aged 22. I am referring, of course to Gerald Manley Hopkins SJ.
Hopkins had been a prolific poet since his days at Highgate School and continued to write poetry alongside his duties as a Jesuit priest. In 1881 whilst a pastor at a church in Glasgow, he spent some time in the little village of Inversnaid, some 40 miles north of the city at the head of Loch Lomond. Near the village are some streams that race down over rocks into the lake. In addition to his love of the natural world Hopkins loved to hear how people speak, their dialects, their accents, their intonation patterns and that love shows up in this poem that I invite you to read aloud as Hopkins intended. Importantly as I said earlier, the poem ends with an environmental plea that resonates with us today. I hope you enjoy it.
This darksome burn, horseback brown,
His rollrock highroad roaring down,
In coop and in comb the fleece of his foam
Flutes and low to the lake falls home.
A windpuff-bonnet of fáawn-fróth
Turns and twindles over the broth
Of a pool so pitchblack, féll-frówning,
It rounds and rounds Despair to drowning.
Degged with dew, dappled with dew,
Are the groins of the braes that the brook treads through,
Wiry heathpacks, flitches of fern,
And the beadbonny ash that sits over the burn.
What would the world be, once bereft
Of wet and of wildness? Let them be left,
O let them be left, wildness and wet;
Long live the weeds and the wilderness yet.
Gerald Manley Hopkins SJ
If you enjoyed this poem I invite you to visit: https://hopkinspoetry.com/ where you will find out more about the man and his poetry.
How can we as Christians be distinctive in the world?
The answer one might expect is that ‘faith divorced from action is futile’ James 2.20(RSV). But this implies a Christian faith whereas compassion for our neighbour whether in terms of social justice, or concern for the environment is not the sole prerogative of the Christian. There are many Jewish and Muslim charities, for example. Indeed, some charities do not appear to have a link with any religion at all. Equally some people who deny any religious affiliation do, and have done, great and vital work in the field of social justice. So, rather than ‘faith without works…’ it seems to be ‘works without faith’ (certainly a Christian faith.) Let me explore this a little further by introducing you to two very different people from different backgrounds and a different period of history.
The first is Annie Besant (1847-1933), who was born into a wealthy family. She was five when her father died at which point she went to live with her teacher, Ellen Marryat. Religion was her chief preoccupation although she preferred ritual to her teacher’s plain serviceable faith, (She was prevented from converting to Roman Catholicism only by a prior commitment to the Oxford Movement). In 1867 she married the Rev Frank Besant, ‘an impecunious, parsimonious, stiff necked young man whose evangelicalism was described as serious’. In 1871 she felt that God had been unjust in failing to spare her daughter from a near fatal illness and so lost her faith. Three years later, in 1874 the marriage broke down and she moved to London. Here she devoted the same relentless passion she once had for her religion to social justice for the poor of the East End. She published a halfpenny newssheet called The Link that sold like hot cakes. Its object was “building up” of a “New Church dedicated to the service of God”. In her autobiography she writes: ‘There the petty injustices inflicted on the poor found voice; there the starvation wages paid to women found exposure; there sweating was brought to public notice. A finisher of boots paid 2s. 6d. per dozen pairs and "find your own polish and thread"; women working for 10½ hours per day, making shirts - ' fancy best" - at from 10d to 3d per dozen, finding their own cotton and needles, paying for gas, towel, and tea (compulsory), earning from 4s to 10s per week for the most part; a mantle finisher 2s. 2d. a week, out of which 6d for materials; "respectable hard-working woman" tried for attempted suicide, "driven to rid herself of life from want. Another part of our work was defending people from unjust landlords, exposing workhouse scandals, enforcing the Employers Liability Act, Charles Bradlaugh's Truck Act, forming "Vigilance Circles" whose members kept watch in their own district over cases of cruelty to children, extortion, insanitary workshops, sweating, &c., reporting each case to me.’ Charles Bradlaugh MP was an avowed atheist though energetic social reformer and a good friend of Annie Besant
The second character is Cyrus, one of the most powerful rulers of his time (around 500 years BC). In the Old Testament reading for this Sunday, (Isaiah 45:1-6), we learn that even though Cyrus did not know God, yet God worked through him, giving him all that he needed to help accomplish God’s plans; the release of the Israelites from their Exile, enabling them to return home to rebuild the Temple at Jerusalem.
Each of these cases seems to illustrate that good works can be achieved without faith in God. Yet each confirms the view that God has a specific purpose for every member of His Creation, whether it is humankind or the rose in my garden whose specific purpose is to be beautiful, and brighten an otherwise dull day by reminding me of God’s glory.
The message of Sunday’s Gospel reading, (Matthew 22:15-21), is that we all belong to God completely and are therefore called to offer God our entire selves. Jesus confirms that our first duty is to serve God, and to give God what is due. So whether we volunteer to work in a soup kitchen or a food bank, give money to charity, or simply phone a friend who we know to be lonely at this time for a chat, we are serving God. John Henry Newman once wrote: ‘I am a link in a chain, a bond of connection between persons. God has not created me for naught.’ It is in this way we Christians can be distinctive in the world. By being a 'bond of connection between person', for by loving our neighbour we love God.
This week, let us pray for the rulers and leaders of our world, particularly during these difficult times, asking that God will work through them towards justice and peace. We ask too that the Holy Spirit will guide each of us in how we can serve God best.
Each year Her Majesty the Queen invites a number of members of the public who have made a positive impact on their community to a Garden Party in the grounds of Buckingham Palace. Tea and sandwiches are served with a slice of cake, but the highlight must be to see the Queen who will come down at 4pm to take tea in the Royal Tea Tent with specially selected guests. Dress, of course is formal, morning suit or lounge suit for the gentlemen and day dress with a hat for the ladies. Obviously any old dress will not do, and so time for an expensive new one! As only a relatively few members of the public are invited to the Party it is a great honour, something that will bring great joy, so that the Royal invitation will no doubt remain on the mantelpiece for years to come as a reminder.
In Sundays Gospel reading (Matthew 22:1-14) we hear about another garden party. Here Jesus compares the kingdom of heaven to the wedding feast of a king for his son. Here, too, many people are invited but, strangely, the select few who were originally expected to attend declined, and so the king ordered his servants to scour the highways and byways to bring in any person they found. Thus the party was filled with a variety of people who might not normally have been seen in polite society, “good and bad alike” (Matt 22:10); even the thief crucified with Jesus found a place at table. You see, rather than just a select few being invited, everyone regardless of race, gender, sexual orientation is welcome in the kingdom of heaven. And, yes, like the guests at the Queen’s garden party they were attired in their best wedding clothes.
Now, think about that for a few minutes. How wonderful is it to know that God welcomes each and every one of us into His kingdom “good and bad alike”! Remember, however, that although we are all invited we do not have to accept His invitation; as the parable tells us many did not. What about you, will you accept His invitation? Maybe you think yourself unworthy but our loving compassionate God loves every member of his Creation equally.
Let me repeat that, we are all invited to God’s wedding banquet; in accepting we must allow the rags of our old life to be exchanged for the freely given robes of holiness and right living. ‘Clothe yourselves with the Lord Jesus Christ’ as St Paul says in his Epistle to the Romans (13:14).
And what should be our response to such a wonderful invitation? St Paul again, this time from his Epistle to the Philippians that we also heard on Sunday: ‘Rejoice in the Lord always; again I say Rejoice.’ Philippians 4:4
I invite you to join with me in a simple prayer: ‘Father it is such an honour to be invited to your banquet; make us worthy of our calling. Amen’.
Peter is a father and a grandfather who has been retired from full time employment for a number of years