The Reverend Andrew Deuchar gave an interesting sermon at the recent STFC carol service in Christ Church. With his permission we publish it below.
It’s great to be here this evening, celebrating together, in songs of joy and thankfulness. So thanks to Simon for inviting me to be a part of it, though I have to say that there’s still a way to go before you reach the heights of musical achievement of the Townend, and as for the lyrics…. I can only say our lyrics tonight are, shall we say a little less imaginative. I am particularly fascinated by the inventiveness, nay the poetry of the chants which greet some poor, misguided striker who a season or two before has been the hero of the County Ground, but has made the rash mistake of returning in different colours.
Last weekend, I wandered in to Simon’s vicarage prior to going down to the Doncaster game. In a scenario I well remember from my own past, he was sitting at his kitchen table, finishing his lunch, writing a sermon for the following day, and putting together all the bits and pieces for various people relating to this service this evening, all at once. In between writing about death and judgement, heaven and hell (nothing to do with the forthcoming game), he apologised to me – and I hope this isn’t divulging trade secrets – in case I didn’t approve of the translation of the Bible he had decided to use for this evening’s service. Since there have been over 450 English translations through history, there was a fair chance that he had not chosen my favourite. Contrary to popular belief in some quarters, Jesus did not speak in 17th Century English, and Ancient Hebrew and Greek, the original languages of the Bible, are notoriously difficult to render accurately into English, just in straight translation, never mind when trying to convey the complexities and subtleties of spiritual insight and religious tradition from an obscure middle eastern culture of 1000, 1500, 2500 years ago. But our brief conversation reminded me so sharply there was never an occasion so sure to create upset, disappointment and anger amongst church-goers and aggro for me than the annual parish carol service. This one remaining truly universal feast of the Christian calendar, which still inspires so many people to celebration, so easily and regularly degenerates into discontent and sulks. Whether it is the translation of the Bible, the omission of someone’s mostest favourite carol, or sin of sins, as I did one year, to mention the irony of the fact that as we were merrily dinging our dongs on high, tanks and heavily armed troops were smashing their way into Manger Square in Bethlehem, it seems that the season of peace and goodwill is actually open season for attacking one another. How strange!
A few weeks ago, on another visit to the County Ground, when we were delighted to welcome the Zambian High Commissioner down here to hear all about the growing link with Livingstone which Clive mentioned earlier, I had the enormous pleasure of meeting Don Rogers on the fiftieth anniversary of his first game for Swindon. Now, apologies to our current heroes here this evening, but for Town supporters of a certain age, Sir Don is where it’s at and it will take a truly massive earthquake in the playing staff to supplant him as THE legend of Swindon’s history. But in forty four years of supporting Town, I had never met him. Well, that’s not strictly true, because, as I told him the other day, as a young teenager, I had regularly stood gazing through the window of his shop, hoping to catch a glimpse of him, but never daring to go inside because I had no idea what I would say to him. Just once I went in, and chose a pair of red socks, and yes he was there…..aaaaggghh…what to do…. I waited until he had disappeared out the back before going to the counter where I paid my dues to his delightful wife. Of course, when I met him he was a very pleasant, quite ordinary person, and we chatted about the pressures of running a small business these days.
But I think there is something quite important to reflect on in the contrast of these stories, and the contrast has been magnified for me by events over the weekend. I am not going to make any amateurish and inappropriate analysis of the appalling tragedy in Newtown, Connecticut, or indeed the less-publicised attack on 22 children in China on the same day, which left them dreadfully injured and emotionally scarred, or any of the numerous stories every day of the cruelty which human beings inflict on one another. We have been reminded so powerfully over this past week and throughout the year of the dangers of words, of how easy it is to rush in, stirring up reaction, judgement and condemnation with no sense of concern or responsibility for the outcome.
So different from that magnificent celebration last night for the sports personality of the year, where words were actually unnecessary, repetitive, superficial; it was just awe, the wonder of human achievement, some of that growing out of the depths of adversity as with Martine Wright, Ellie Simmonds, and David Weir. That’s what pulled the strings. Most of the commentary was superfluous. Of course, adulation of sports stars or of anyone else is not necessarily a good or a true thing. At the end of the day we are all simply human beings, and we all share the challenge to live our lives to the full in order to create a world which is a better place for all to live; but there is in the first place, for better or for worse, a relationship between us and our heroes, a relationship that is not based on words, on rules or control. It is based on awe, on admiration, on wonder, on a recognition that, at a remarkably profound level, this person draws me from myself and changes my life. And I guarantee that if you spoke to any one of those people who become our heroes, you would find that they too would have their heroes – as we heard so many times last night. Whether it’s Beckham or Coe or Farah or Ennis or Redgrave, each is inspired by someone else. And words have little or no place in the heart of that relationship. We heard Chris Hoy say it was Steve Redgrave’s presence, through a hug of celebration or commiseration which was so powerful. Of course, words come into it later, as we try to describe and explain what it is that inspires us, but they never say what we want them to. It is like the love of two lovers. Even the most gifted poet will never fully speak the depths of that love.
Ben Okri, that most talented of writers and novelists ponders this in a powerful essay entitled ‘Beyond Words’:
“We began before words, and we will end beyond them. It sometimes seems to me that our days are poisoned with too many words. Words said and not meant. Words said and meant. Words divorced from meaning. Wounding words. Words that conceal. Words that reduce. Dead words……
We are all wounded inside in some way or other. We all carry unhappiness within us for some reason or other. Which is why we need a little gentleness and healing from one another. Healing in words and healing beyond words. Like gestures. Warm gestures. Like friendship which will always be a mystery. Like a smile, which someone described as the shortest distance between two people. Yes the highest things are beyond words.”
You will remember the playground chant: ‘Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me’. Well, in the words of another chant – not heard too often around the County Ground these days, I’m glad to say: ‘What a load of rubbish’! Words can build up certainly, but words destroy, and inflict great pain along the way.
The Church doesn’t have a great record with words. At the heart of the Christian Faith so we are told – as with most of the great faith traditions of the world – lies a book. It is a book which tells an extraordinary story, a story which, despite a myriad of translations and retellings, remains a mystery. It is a book which records the relationship between a people and their God. And you know, whatever you may all think, whatever kind of relationship you have with that which we call God, that story continues today. We are all struggling. We are all human beings. We all have the capacity to inspire and be inspired, and we all have the capacity to fail, to struggle and to fall. And the more you read that story and reflect on it with others – and even football fans do that, as I have discovered: there is no more passionate thread on the Townend.com fans forum than the one which regularly opens up on God and religion – the more you can see and understand that, in human relationships with one another and with God, there is nothing new under the sun. The Bible is a powerful witness to that fact and we can use it as inspiration in our search, or as a cautionary tale. But the Church, like virtually every other institution in existence, seeks to keep control. It does not trust us. It does not have the courage to let the Bible be what it is – a story of liberation for the oppressed, a story of healing for the wounded, a story of hope for the lost, of new life for those on the edge. The story of the Word made Flesh to overturn the way we control everything with words. The story of God, to whom we ascribe indefinable words – immortal, invisible, eternal, all-powerful, all-glorious – more than can ever be described within the confines of the language we have been given, being born in the humblest of maternity wards, amongst the strangest compatriots, acknowledged in awe and wonder not by kings and politicians, the rich and powerful – not even by sports stars, but by outcasts, unkempt and uneducated, by shepherds working in the fields. That is the depth of the relationship of love which God has, by this story, instituted and maintained with the world. No words can describe it, but in our hearts we discern truth. God’s warm gesture. And it continues to reveal itself. We don’t need to be tied down, controlled by the trillions of words, spoken and written by those who think they can see better than we can.
God could be forgiven for complaining a bit at what we have done trying to defend him. He must be sorely tempted to send an invading army of angels to win back the world, or an almighty earthquake to destroy the evil we do. But as Psalm 103 hints, God is slow to chide and swift to bless. God gives. If we are to celebrate this great festival of the Incarnation together as God’s people, then, remembering God’s desire to bless, we might heed the thought of the 16thC mystic, St John of the Cross: “Where there is no love, put love and you will find love”. That is what we are made for. That is what is so brilliant about the link with Zambia, and with so much of the work being done here, and in every football club around the country, quietly, without great words of acclaim or advertisement, all around our communities. As Ben Okri says, “It is not the size of the voice that is important: it is the power, the truth and the beauty of the dream.” And we all know about dreams, don’t we?
The Revd Andrew Deuchar