Breath on a Feather


A hymn for Epiphany

You Lord of grace, you’re breath on a feather,
You inspire us to care, adore;
Your breath helps us to praise you together,
Our song, just our song, can make us more.

You Lord of grace, you’re barbs of a feather,
Strengthen our spirits with love’s surprise;
Your longing heart helps us to tether
Ourselves to you, with you improvise.

You Lord of grace, you’re shaft of a feather,
You hold us tall whatever the storm;
You teach us to hold your standards to treasure,
And upright in virtue our lives may transform.

You Lord of grace, you are the whole vane,
You let us fly to love’s true height;
We feel your guidance your will ascertain
And our obedience makes you shine bright.

 

  • Ted Witham 2017
  • 9999 St Clement, O Waly Waly.

 

220px-parts_of_feather_modified
Courtesy Wikipedia

Parts of a feather:

  1. Vane
  2. Rachis
  3. Barb
  4. Afterfeather
  5. Hollow shaft, calamus

 

 

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Christian bird song?


Sermon preached at

St Mary’s Busselton on

October 2, 2016, for the Feast of St Francis,

at the Blessing of the Pets.

Scripture readings: 

Colossians 3:12-17
Matthew 10:8-15
**********
In the name of + the living God, Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.
**********

You are very welcome to this service. Thanks for bringing your owners with you. I hope you enjoy being here with other animals, and you don’t find that Labrador too big, or that cat too smelly!

There’s a wild story about Saint Francis of Assisi, preaching and birds. Today we mark St Francis’ day, technically on October 4, and this saint, who lived 800 years ago, has a large part in our hearts. We like him partly because he seemed to have a special rapport with you animals.

The story starts with Saint Francis preaching. Saint Francis had a beautiful voice. In fact, one of the brothers, who used to be known for his elegant, resonant beautiful speaking voice, thought he was the best speaker in Italy, until he heard Saint Francis and was so spell-bound he joined the Brothers.

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St Francis preaching to the birds. Bardi Chapel – Italian School, (13th century) – Santa Croce, Florence, Italy

But on this occasion Francis was having trouble. A group a swallows was making a racket. ‘Little Sisters,’ St Francis said, ‘no-one can hear the words of the Gospel because of your noise. Please be quiet until I have finished my sermon.’ And they were. And so were the people. They were so moved that they wanted to follow him, leave their town, and become wandering preachers like him.

‘Don’t be in a hurry,’ St Francis, ‘and don’t leave, and I’ll arrange everything for your life with God.’ So St Francis set up the Third Order, which consists of Christians who want St Francis as their guide in Christian living, but who, unlike the Brothers, live in their own homes and get married. This Third Order still exists. My wife Rae and I are members of it.

But after this sermon, St Francis set out on the road again. He saw ahead of him a vast throng of birds. There were thousands of birds, maybe tens of thousands, more than you could count, maybe more that you could make with computer graphics. In any case Francis was impressed with such a mob of birds.

He told his companions to stop while he went ahead to preach, this time to the birds. He told this huge crowd of birds how much God loved them, because God had created them. He told them how thankful they should be for being able to fly and for being well insulated with two or three layers of feathers. They also should thank God for the air to fly in, and for the fact that they didn’t need crops to live. ‘You don’t sow or reap, and God feeds you and gives you the rivers and springs to drink, and trees and high mountains to make safe nests.’

The birds then opened their beaks and stretched their necks and reverently bent their heads to the ground. Their singing and movement showed St Francis how much they’d understood.

St Francis then made the sign of the Cross and let them leave. They followed the Cross Francis had signed. Some went to the north, some to the south, others to the west, the rest to the east. They sang magnificent songs, marvellous songs, as they flew off.

The birds set an example to us, to live according to the Cross of Christ, and to go in every direction, thanking God that we depend only on him, like the birds, trusting God to provide enough for each day, and singing our beautiful song, the song that tells the story of Jesus.

Our beautiful song is our song, our own song. There’s a legend about an African tribe that african-art-street-a-eececce-130355-2says a pregnant woman listens to the child in the womb and learns a song that is unique to that child. She teaches the father-to-be the song, then she teaches the midwives who sing it as the child is born. As the child grows up, each time the child falls and hurts herself, the village gathers around and sings her song. When she does something wrong as an adult, she is brought face to face with those she has wronged, the villagers form a circle around her and sing her song. The song is sung at the person’s funeral, and then is never heard again.

Our own song: one that our loved ones sing when we need healing or restoring. Wouldn’t it be wonderful?

The song each bird sang as it flew in one of the directions of the Cross was its own individual song. At the same time, each song fitted in with the songs of all the other birds. It was in close harmony with the song of the community.

In the same way, our own song with its individual story of God with us, with each of us, harmonises with the song of the community with its story of Jesus who came among us to share love.

So when we sing ‘All Creatures of our God and King’, we are singing the song that was originally St Francis’ own song. It’s now the community’s song, and we sing it along with the whole community. But we also make it our song. We remember the times we have been awed by the night sky and we sing,

‘Thou silver moon with softer gleam, O praise him. …

Thou rising moon, in praise rejoice,

Ye lights of evening, find a voice. O praise him.’

 

When we get to,

‘And all those of tender heart,

Forgiving others, take your part, O sing ye Alleluia’,

we can remember a time in particular when we forgave another, or when we were forgiven even though we were filled with shame and remorse.

I’m now going to make the sign of the Cross over you, and your owners can watch. When you leave, at the end of the service, you can go in the direction of the Cross that is your path, thanking God for God’s provision for you, and continue loving and forgiving your humans. As you go, go singing your wonderful song.

+  As you go to the north, or to the south, or to the west, or to the east, do not be guilty of the sin of ingratitude, but travel with God’s love and with your song. Amen.

Education in Christian Character and the Dean


First published in the Anglican Messenger, March 2016.

Nearly every week from 1938 to 1972, an elegant lady clutching a music case caught a tram from Perth College. The tram trundled down Beaufort Street to the ABC then situated in the Stirling Institute buildings in the Supreme Court gardens. Dorothea Angus, Head of Music at Perth College made over 250 broadcasts for the ABC performing solo, as well as with contralto Phyllis Everett and violinist Vaughan Hanly. She played concerti with the WA Symphony Orchestra, for example under Henry Krips, Mozart’s A major piano concerto (K488).

Her night-time performances followed a long day of teaching from 7.30 a.m. to 4.00 p.m. and a practice hour until 5 p.m.

She preferred to perform Australian composers like Miriam Hyde. As a star student in Adelaide’s Elder Conservatorium she had made a compact with Hyde and other fellow-students to exchange new compositions. With advance access to Sydney-based composer Dulcie Holland’s piano music, Dorothea encouraged her students to learn Australian music for their exams.

But much more than that, Dorothea instilled in the girls at Perth College a love of music. With the WA Symphony Orchestra established properly in the 1950s, Miss Angus began a Friday night tradition of bussing girls to concerts. I was with the boarders in 1975 as they went wild for WASO’s rendition of Sibelius’ ‘Finlandia’!

Dorothea opened up a bigger world up for her students. In the classroom she talked about music around Australia, and she introduced a world expressed in beauty and art. Her own person, always elegant and fashionable, impressed the girls. The stylish Miss Angus was a fascinating contrast to the Sisters dressed always in habit, veil and wimple.

Dorothea was not a straightforward Christian. In her previous appointment in Adelaide at St Peter’s Cathedral her talents as a world-class organist appear to have been eclipsed by the internal politics of male chauvinism. When I met Dorothea towards the end of her life, I found her always willing to engage in a robust and sceptical discussion about Christian faith. She was deeply interested in it but unable to admit to a commitment to it.

At Perth College, Sister Rosalie, the Principal, often crept into Dorothea’s practice room to enjoy her playing. I can imagine her friendship with Sister Rosalie included similar discussions.

‘Gus’ or ‘Fungi’, as Miss Angus was called, is still remembered with affection by former Perth College students nearly 40 years after her death. A half-dozen still meet annually to salute her memory.

Dorothea championed Australian music to the public. As an artist, she felt a responsibility to share generously her gift with the school and the church. When I met Dorothea she was playing hymns for services in Balga Parish despite a paralysis in her left arm. Her disability frustrated her. She could easily have excused herself, but would not.

To Perth College she brought not just music skills, but education in character. Through her own forceful personality, she modelled character. She opened a wider world to the girls in her care. She chewed into Christian faith, examining it, discerning the truth for herself. Agnostic she may have been, but her respect for Christianity was imprinted on those she met.

I am more optimistic than the Dean, who argued in the December Messenger that church schools were failing in their central task of Christian formation (he and I have been chaplains to the same two church schools!) I believe that our church schools have been deeply enriched by teachers of integrity and longevity – like Miss Angus – who have imbued Christian character in their students.

*****

An article focusing more on Dorothea Angus’ musical achievements appeared in the December 2015/January 2016 issue of Limelight magazine.

Archbishop of Canterbury’s Lent Book Renews Engagement


Looking through the Cross

Graham Tomlin, Looking Through the Cross: The Archbishop of Canterbury’s Lent Book 2014, Bloomsbury Academic (2014), Paperback, 240 pages.

Good stocks at St John’s Books, Fremantle. $19.95
Kindle edition available from Amazon for $10.88

Reviewed by Ted Witham. First published in Anglican Messenger, February 2014

Being a Christian requires personal engagement – with God, with Jesus Christ, with neighbour and stranger, with truth, with good and evil. For most of us, being a Christian can be complex and demanding, but we remain committed because we believe that God is eternally committed to us.

A good Lent book refreshes this sense of personal engagement with Christian living. It should encourage, inspire and inform by taking readers both back to when they fell in love with the faith and forward by challenging readers to grow spiritually. Good Lent books are often about the Cross and Resurrection clueing us into the liturgical movement of Lent and the Paschal mystery at its climax.

Graham Tomlin’s Looking through the Cross is a very good Lent book. It is about the Cross. Tomlin tells us that his early chapters are looking at the cross, trying to understand more deeply its meaning for us, and the later chapters are looking through the cross, using the cross as a lens on the world.

In the chapter headings, ‘The Cross and Wisdom’, ‘The Cross and Evil’, ‘The Cross and Power’, ‘The Cross and Identity’, ‘The Cross and Suffering’, ‘The Cross and Ambition’, ‘The Cross and Failure’, ‘The Cross and Reconciliation’, and ‘The Cross and Life’, it is not entirely clear when we change from looking at to looking through. I am sure that ambiguity is deliberate: the cross always both teaches us about itself and reveals how it has changed God’s world.

Graham Tomlin writes clearly. Reading his book is like sitting with the most patient teacher, sharing with us his understanding of how the cross comes alive for him. His explanation of the connection between the cross of Christ and our personal sin is the clearest I’ve encountered in 40 years of reading books about Christianity. ‘Those who have perpetrated evil must be held to account,’ he writes. ‘The evil that has disrupted the world cannot simply be ignored or glossed over: it must be banished, dealt with, put right. Restoration is possible, but only when sin is somehow atoned for.’

Archbishop Rowan Williams commissioned The Reverend Dr Graham Tomlin to write this year’s Lent book. His successor in Canterbury, Justin Welby, ‘could not be more pleased’ with the choice. Centred in scripture, scholarship and pastoral experience, this book seems to me to bridge some of the divides in contemporary Anglican thinking.

The cross demands that we clearly separate Christian faith from the surrounding culture. In the powerful chapter on identity, Tomlin describes how our experience of family christenings obscures the radical change God makes in us in baptism when God gives us a new identity. Using the image of a protected witness or juvenile criminal with a new identity, he reminds us how hard it is to live out of a new identity, and how the old identity will continue to exert a pull on our lives.

But the cross is ultimately the path to life. We are made not to end in death, but in life. Tomlin reminds us of the leap in imagination we need in order to lay hold of this reality, but also rallies us with the knowledge that the new life of the cross and resurrection is ultimately God’s work and not only ours.

It is helpful if a Lent book has some guidance for its use: questions to provoke reflection or small group discussion, suggestions for art response, even a reading program. Looking through the Cross has none. This is a significant drawback in a book promoted for Lenten reading. Even without this, individual laity, clergy and groups will find Dr Tomlin’s book refreshing, challenging and clear. At the end of Lent, the book will help readers emerge at Eastertide re-engaged with their Christian faith.

As At The Dawn


As At the Dawn

 

Because you love them free as they are
They say you have nothing to say

 

Because you put on a human face
They say you’ve hidden yourself

 

Because you’re all heart God
They say you’ve gone to sleep

 

Because your Spirit cannot be grasped
They say everything has gone wrong

 

Because you refuse to collude with evil
They say you’re good for nothing

 

Because you don’t crush people
They say they haven’t called on you

 

Because you’re not just any God
They say you’re just anything

 

Because you made me in your image
You are also everything they say

 

Dear God won’t you take pity on me?

 

Original French P. Fertin “Comme à l’aurore”, Paris: Desclée, 1974, p. 17
Translated by Ted Witham 2013

 

Passing on the Faith?


It is a privilege to regularly post on the website of Dunsborough Anglican Church. I have just posted there today on passing on the faith. I’ve based some of the article on the ideas of Etienne Wenger and Jean Lave on communities of practice and situated peripheral learning, as I think they have a lot to offer our understandings of faith formation.

Francis the pastor


Of course the name chosen by the new Pope, Francis, has encouraged me to think that his ministry will be different from his predecessors. In his first 100 days Francis has behaved like a pastor, like a parish priest, encouraging his flock in following the Gospel.

In his informal style Francis has also used some charming and helpful images: while encouraging bishops to be exemplars to their people  of Christian living, the Pope also shows that he trusts the faithful to be the faithful: “they have the scent of the Gospel anyway,” he has said more than once. That’s refreshing.

I know that a faraway personality can become simply a blank screen on which to project our own hopes and values, I can see that his apparently off the cuff homilies are actually quite studied,  and I hear the warnings that despite the gestures of austerity, he is governing like an old-fashioned Jesuit (listening to all but making decisions by himself), and that his theology on issues I care about is still conservative (I am certain he disagrees with my views on the ordination of women, and the acceptance of LGBT people in the Church!), however, what counts is clear: Francis is a pastor encouraging all Christians in their faith.

In this address to the Cardinals Francis shows that he trusts God with the future of the church, and for that we can be encouraged:

Let us never give way to pessimism, to a sort of bitterness that the devil offers us each day; let us never give way to pessimism and discouragement: let us have the firm certainty that Holy Spirit gives to the Church, but her powerful breath, the courage to persevere and also to look for new methods of evangelism to carry the Gospel to the ends of the earth (cf Acts 1:8)

–          Pope Francis  at Rome, 15 March 2013

As an Anglican, I am in the nice position of being able to pick and choose what I like from the Pope’s leadership, and this Pope is showing forth Gospel values in his reported lifestyle and gestures, and is speaking about the Gospel from the heart. I thank God for him.