Revised Common Lectionary, Proper 28C, texts: Isaiah 65:17-25 and Luke 21:5-9
If you’ve ever been here for the “Midnight Mass” on a Christmas Eve, you may have noticed that when we sing Silent Night, as we traditionally do at the end of that service, I don’t sing. It’s not that I don’t like Silent Night; I do! It’s a lovely carol. Perhaps it’s because I like it too well. The reason I don’t sing it is that I can’t sing it. It’s one of those songs that, for some reason, “tugs at my heart strings.” I get a lump in my throat and I just can’t sing!
Perhaps there are songs that are like that for you. Another one that always gets to me is one written by the Irish folk singer Phil Coulter during that time of terrible conflict in Northern Ireland which the Irish, with characteristic understatement, call “The troubles.” I don’t know when I first heard the song, but I do remember that I just started weeping when I did so … and after that I simply avoided listening to it. I love Irish folk music, but if I would get an album with that song on it, I’d make the player skip the song (unless, of course, I felt like crying for some reason).
Earlier this year, my wife and I were in County Clare, in the town of Doolin, which is called “the capital of traditional Irish music.” We stayed in a bed-and-breakfast run by Bev and Adrian O’Connor, and Adrian is a guitarist and folk singer. One evening we went to a local hotel-pub to listen to him sing and, of course, he sang Phil Coulter’s song and there I sat with tears streaming down my face.
I don’t know exactly why this song gets to me, but it does. It’s called The Town I Love So Well:
In my memory
I will always see
the town that I have loved so well
Where our school played ball
by the gas yard wall
and we laughed through the smoke and the smell
Going home in the rain,
running up the dark lane
past the jail and down behind the fountain
Those were happy days,
in so many, many ways
in the town I loved so well
In the early morn
the shirt factory horn
called women from Creggan, the Moor, and the Bog
While the men on the dole
played a mother’s role
fed the children, and then walked the dog
And when times got rough
there was just about enough
but they saw it through without complaining
For deep inside
was a burning pride
in the town I love so well
There was music there
in the Derry air
like a language that we could all understand
I remember the day,
when I earned my first pay
as I played in the small pick-up band
There I spent my youth,
and to tell you the truth
I was sad to leave it all behind me
For I’d learned about life
and I’d found me a wife
in the town I loved so well
But when I returned,
how my eyes were burned
to see how a town could be brought to its knees
By the armoured cars
and the bombed out bars
and the gas that hangs on to every breeze
Now the army’s installed
by that old gas yard wall
and the damned barbed wire gets higher and higher
With their tanks and guns,
oh my God what have they done
to the town I love so well
Now the music’s gone,
but they still carry on
though their spirit’s been bruised never broken
And they can’t forget
for their hearts are set
on tomorrow and peace once again
For what’s done is done,
and what’s won is won
and what’s lost is lost and gone forever
I can only pray
for a bright brand new day
in the town I love so well
This song came to mind as I was contemplating our gospel lesson today. I thought that Coulter’s sentiments about Derry during “the Troubles” would probably ring true for anyone going through the kinds of things described by Jesus in today’s reading from Luke. And, if you’re following the daily office lectionary, as my wife and I do in our daily prayers, you know that we’ve been reading the same sorts of things in Matthew’s Gospel every day, as well. What must it have been like to live through “the Troubles,” what must it be like to be living through the conflict in Iraq, or to be living through the terrible destruction in Bangladesh caused by Cyclone Sidr?
Two events in my life this week also made me think of what it must be like to witness such cataclysms if one takes a somewhat different view of Scripture than we do in the Anglican tradition. The first event was channel surfing. There I was flipping through channels and I landed on the Eternal Word Television Network, which is certainly one of the more interesting offerings on cable in today’s world. There was one of the priests who regularly appears on that network holding forth in a program called A Crash Course in Catholicism. “This looks interesting,” I thought; so I watched for a while.
His presentation was a sort of PowerPoint thing with informative slides. At first he went on for a bit about the relationship of Christianity to Judaism and Islam, and then he began comparing the Roman tradition to Eastern Orthodox on the one hand, and western Protestantism on the other … and one of his PowerPoint slides popped up saying that the Roman church teaches that the Bible is the “inspired, literal, infallible, and inerrant” word of God. “What?” I thought, “I didn’t know that’s what the Roman Catholic Church teaches!” I know that Southern Baptists hold that view and some of the other more conservative evangelical sects, but not the Romans! That certainly isn’t what the catholic tradition has taught down through the ages, at least not the catholic tradition represented by the Anglican Communion and the Episcopal Church.
The other event was a conversation with my local Presbyterian colleague. He was telling me about once having had a staff member, his Sunday School superintendent, who had been reared in a church which followed what is called “dispensationalist theology” – these are the folks who believe in “the rapture” and “the tribulation” and all that sort of stuff. That isn’t what Presbyterians teach, nor is it what Anglicans teach, and he was telling me about how he had to reign in this Sunday School teacher.
Part of our conversation got me to wondering how someone with that sort of Scriptural view would understand events like “the Troubles,” or the Iraq war, or even a natural disaster like Cyclone Sidr or Hurricane Katrina. Have you ever noticed that the folks who hold a literalist view of Scripture tend to focus only on the scary bits of Scripture, like these words of Jesus today or the parts of the Book of Revelation? And have you ever noticed how they seem to be somewhat negative people? I guess it would be no wonder if you thought every conflict, every disaster, might be the beginning of the end.
But such an outlook overlooks what is said in the prayer that we began our worship with today. Turn with me to page 236 of the Book of Common Prayer. Each Sunday we begin worship with a prayer, called a “collect” which is the “proper” for the day. This Sunday, being the Sunday closest to November 16, the prayer book calls us to offer Proper 28, which begins with these words:
Blessed Lord, who caused all holy Scriptures to be written for our learning: Grant us so to hear them, read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest them….
We should underscore that word “all” … because therein lies the antidote the negativism encouraged by a literalist, inerrantist misconception of Scripture. If one reads, marks, learns and inwardly digests all of Scripture, one knows that the Bible includes many kinds of literature, including poetry and even fiction, in addition to history and prophecy. And one would be familiar with other sorts of visions, not just the scary ones – visions such as that which we heard today from Isaiah, that vision of a time when “no more shall the sound of weeping be heard … or the cry of distress,” when the lion and lamb will feast together, and no one will be hurt again. When, in Phil Coulter’s words of hope for the town of Derry, there will be a “bright, brand new day.”
When one reads, marks, learns, and inwardly digests all of Holy Scripture, one learns that conflict and disaster are not the end, no matter what may befall us, there is always “the blessed hope of everlasting life, … given us in our Savior Jesus Christ.”