Things Temporal and Things Eternal – Dr Susan Gillingham

I wonder if any of you have read a recent study of why people ‘deconvert’ from Christianity? It was intriguing. Those surveyed were between 20 and 50, and from different Christian denominations. There were three main reasons. A key one was ‘intellectual and theological concerns’. Science, hell and human suffering made people ask how a loving God could be worthy of such devotion. Another reason was unanswered prayer. Here it was acknowledged that God existed, but some felt they had done so much for God – praying, attending church, leading a moral life – yet experienced God doing little for them in return. The broken relationship was even described as a ‘divorce’. The third reason was frustration with the beliefs and actions of other Christians: sincere questions of doubt about the Bible and about the Church were too often given trite and unhelpful answers, whilst ‘rule enforcement’ dispensed with an element of hypocrisy were also too much to take.

The Christian life is never easy, and many of the teachings of Jesus make it clear that not everyone will stay the course. As we near the end of the academic year it makes me think of where we’ll all be in, say, ten years’ time. How many of us might ‘de-convert’ – whether gradually or suddenly? Being in the comfort zone of this wonderful chapel and with the richness of Christian resources at Oxford is one thing; embracing the new and unfamiliar is quite another.

As I reflected further, the words of a Prayer Book Collect kept coming to mind. The prayer is for the 4th Sunday after Trinity, and because this is usually a Sunday in late June or early July, we never hear it in term-time. This is a shame: like so many of the Prayer Book Collects, it is rich in theology and spirituality.

O God, the Protector of all who trust in Thee, without Whom nothing is strong, nothing is holy; increase and multiply upon us Thy mercy; that Thou being our ruler and guide, we may so pass through things temporal, that we finally lose not the things eternal. Grant this, O heavenly Father, for Jesus Christ’s sake our Lord. Amen.

I want to focus on the phrase ‘that we may so pass through things temporal, that we finally lose not the things eternal…’ This is a clever juxtaposition of ideas: it suggests that we can actually find the eternal within the temporal: it’s not something we wait for at the end of life’s journey. So often we think that we have to travel on through the temporal, until we arrive at the eternal at the hour of our death. But I don’t think this is what this Collect means, and I don’t think it’s what some of the New Testament teaches either. And yet a foretaste of the eternal within the temporal could be sufficiently compelling to support us whatever the threats to faith might be – whether intellectual, experiential or social.

One of the greatest reminders of our ‘temporality’ and transience is change. From our early childhood onwards all of us have had to learn how to come to terms with change. Throughout our lives – at school, university, or whether working, parenting, retiring – we are constantly faced with the fact we are constrained by the temporal. Some of us might remember our first day at school: or moving house and losing close friends; or moving up to secondary school; or a family break-up and broken relationships. Some of us will have vivid memories of leaving home; or the illness of grandparents and even parents; or of our first job and first home; and perhaps the loss of work, or financial troubles, or difficulties of being parents or spouses; and then there is the life-changing prospect of retirement. Transitional psychologists tell us that in each case several responses are possible. We could simply deny it is happening to us. We could fight it and be angry. We could ‘negotiate’ by making small changes which give us the impression that we are really in control. We could sink into depression, feeling we cannot go on. But we could move into a state of acceptance, and adapt ourselves to it.

So how do we learn such acceptance and stability? How do we pass through things temporal without losing the things eternal? And how do we find the eternal within the temporal?

There is a partial answer to this within our Old Testament reading tonight. There we heard how the prophet Elisha had to come to terms with transience and change as he witnessed the ‘passing on’ of his master, Elijah, a great prophetic figure, whose ministry in many ways foreshadowed that of Jesus of Nazareth. The story of Elijah being taken up to heaven might remind us of the account of Jesus being taken up to heaven which we reflected upon last Thursday, Ascension Day: it is vividly depicted in the stained glass window immediately to my left. In our reading today, Elisha, Elijah’s disciple, had to learn to say farewell to the familiar and embrace something new and unfamiliar: he was soon to be a prophet on his own. Note his cry of despair as he watches Elijah disappear: “Father, father! The chariots of Israel and its horseman” meaning – “What will I do and what will God’s people do without you in our midst to guide us?” Elisha’s response is so like that of the disciples at the time of Jesus’ Ascension: the disciples’ last words to their master, just before his being ‘taken up into the heavens’, was about how the kingdom was to be restored to Israel – again, meaning – “What will we do and what will God’s people do without you in our midst to guide us?”. The disciples, like Elisha, had to learn how to say farewell to the familiar and embrace the new and unfamiliar: they too had to learn how to be disciples without the earthly presence of their Master.

This reading of Elijah and Elisha has been deliberately chosen to follow Ascension Day. Note how Elisha was promised a portion of the Spirit of the Lord who had worked through Elijah of Gilead; so too the disciples of Jesus were promised a portion of that same Spirit who had worked through Jesus of Nazareth. And just as Elisha was then equipped to perform miracles and speak the prophetic word through the power of the Spirit, so too those first disciples were equipped to perform miracles and preach the Gospel through the power of the Spirit. So in each case neither Elisha nor Jesus’ disciples were left on their own to face the new and unfamiliar: in each case the Holy Spirit becomes the bridge between their temporality and the eternal presence of God still in their midst.

The problem with applying both the Elijah and Ascension stories to our own situation is that we could claim they are about exceptional periods in the history of the People of Israel and the history of the Christian Church; and because nothing quite this dramatic happens to us, we cannot apply this to the vicissitudes of life in the twenty first century. In a way, this is right. Those were exceptional times.

And yet there are clear connections, too. We all face constant challenges where transition reminds us of our temporality. And we, like them, have been given the Holy Spirit as a reminder of the eternal within our midst – actually a theme we will be thinking of much more next Sunday when we celebrate the Feast of Pentecost.

So it is appropriate to ask: how can the Holy Spirit be a bridge between the temporal and the eternal in our lives today? How does the Holy Spirit enable us to pass through things temporal, so that we do not lose the things eternal?

It is important to realise that, even within Scripture, the Holy Spirit is not only seen as that mighty force which impelled Elisha and the first Christians to perform miracles and speak with power, but he is experienced as ‘a still small voice’ as well. Elijah himself discovered this on Mount Horeb, when he found that the voice of God was not in the wind, nor in the earthquake, nor in the fire, but in a ‘still small voice of calm’. This is what is being referred to in the hymn ‘Dear Lord and Father of Mankind’:

Breathe through the heats of our desire
Thy coolness and Thy balm;
Let sense be dumb, let flesh retire;
Speak through the earthquake, wind, and fire,
O still, small voice of calm!

And, not surprisingly, this is also what Jesus Christ also discovered in his own earthly ministry. The same hymn says it far better than I could:

O Sabbath rest by Galilee!
O calm of hills above,
Where Jesus knelt to share with Thee
The silence of eternity
Interpreted by love!
So let us focus on what is possible: how can we, like Elijah and Jesus, experience the eternal through and within ‘the changes and chances of this fleeting life’?

The first and most obvious way is in prayer. However, if a ‘still small voice’ is speaking, then we have to be listening: if we too are speaking, we will drown it out. How often, I wonder, do we fail to hear God’s Spirit, and so fail to experience the eternal now, because we spend more time talking to God than listening to Him? The art of finding the eternal as we pray is to listen first and, perhaps, to speak later.

A second way of discovering the eternal in the temporal is through learning to listen to Scripture. As someone who critically analyses Scripture as a profession, I know how vital it is to learn to listen as well as to question, dissect and evaluate. Just as a score of music both has to be taken apart, and then heard through performance, so to Scripture has to be studied analytically and listened to as well.

A third way of experiencing the eternal here and now is through the worship and sacraments of the Church, and most especially through the Eucharist (or Holy Communion, or the Mass). Here, as the bread and wine are offered to us, by Christ and through the priest, we have to be receptive. There is nothing we can do other than accept the gifts offered to us. Kneeling or standing on the chancel steps, here we are given another opportunity to taste eternal life – through physical elements.

A fourth way is through the preaching of the church, where God’s Spirit works through the spoken word of a sermon as it interprets the written word of Scripture. This is another time when we are in position simply to receive whilst the preacher (however imperfectly) seeks to be a medium of the Spirit and in another way incarnate the eternal through the temporal.

A fifth way is through the gift of music, particularly sacral music. I would be surprised if there was anyone here tonight who had not at some stage been touched by the eternal Spirit of God as they listened and responded to the music of our Choir. Tonight we have been reminded of the Kingship of God in their singing of Psalm 47; had the psalm been simply said, we just could not ‘feel’ the words of the psalm in the same way. Similarly the triumphant singing of Purcell’s ‘O God the King of Glory’ can touch us far more profoundly through music than the recitation. .

A sixth window onto the eternal is through the power of art. Many of us have found that the bizarre iconography of this Chapel is actual a creative aid to worship; it might be through the skilled walnut carving of the animals on the pews, or the delicate frescoes against the windows, or even the windows themselves, where we can see the intersecting of the temporal and the eternal in the themes of the life of Christ. ‘Imaging eternity’ in art stirs our imaginations in manifold ways.

And the seventh is through the beauty of Creation. We have to be fairly hard of heart not to be touched when we leave the Chapel and see the summer evening sun playing on the wisteria and on the stonework of the cottages. And as we leave the church for the world, we realize that the Spirit of Creation and the Spirit of the Church are one and the same. Whether it’s in the scent of the roses as we walk down the north side of the quad, or of the cut grass after a summer shower, we are offered so many glimpses here at Worcester of the beauty of eternity captured within time.

And so this is my own ‘reworking’ of the seven gifts of the Spirit. You might have noticed how this involves all our senses – what we hear, what we see, and what we touch and taste and smell. All that is required of us is that we stop, and listen to that ‘still small voice of calm’ and hear ‘the silence of eternity, interpreted by love’. To pass through things temporal, without losing the things eternal, is not just something which saints learn to do. It is a challenge for all of us: we have nothing to lose, and everything to gain. And by practicing it here we can create a way of life which will prevent us ‘de-converting’ when life might seem more – bleak.
A man may look on glass,
On it may stay his eye,
Or if he pleases, through it pass,

Dr. Susan Gillingham, Fellow in Theology and Lay Minister, Worcester College
5th June 2011

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