Compline Address: Pathways on the Way to Freedom: 2. Discipline and Action
Given on Monday 5th March 2012 at The Abbey by Revd Lesley McCreadie, Assistant Curate
I wonder how many of us have heard someone say (or you may have said it yourselves) ‘Discipline, that’s what they need. It never did me any harm!’ Usually by this people mean some sort of physical punishment or a hard regime of some kind. I expect a lot of us can think back to our school days, if school for you was before 1984, when corporal punishment was the name of the game. I can admit to having received the ruler across my knuckles as well as administering a slap from a ruler across the legs of pupils. Whether it did any harm or not, who knows? I learnt very quickly not to ‘tell’ about my punishment at school when I got home because I could be sure to receive another slap!
Discipline of course comes in all shapes and sizes, from the discipline of an athlete in training, to that of training an apprentice, to our own personal self discipline, and generally speaking we are better for having some discipline in our lives. My daughter works with severely autistic children and for them discipline allows them to function. They need to know routine and order, the unusual really disorientates them. Some believe that the so called growth in numbers of children on the autistic spectrum is because families now lead very much more chaotic lives and the routine that perhaps you or I knew as children is a rarity in many homes.
Certainly in my 37 years as a school teacher discipline in schools did change, but it went hand in hand with changes in attitude in society. Children were often asked to adopt a standard in school which was unheard of at home. Many parents believed that the best way to discipline children was to say ‘yes’, and in recent years the mobile phone meant that as soon as a child was punished they called a parent, who called school, to say how unfair it was that their child had been disciplined.
The discipline referred to in our Lent course is self-discipline; the discipline an athlete or actor requires in order to give of their very best when performing; a discipline which enables them to have the freedom to be really creative, and to push themselves in their chosen genre to new heights. Many of us may be on a journey through Lent which requires us to be very disciplined; whether we are struggling to avoid the food or drink we have decided to forego, or whether we are setting aside time for study and reflection. Why do we do this? Is it just to put ourselves under pressure; to remind ourselves of Jesus in the desert, denying himself food and company; or do we believe that as people we just need to know that we can ‘do it’ if we want to.
Within the Christian tradition we are also blessed with people who have been prepared to offer their lives to the disciplined living of a ‘religious’. Their discipline of living a life bound to the rhythm of prayer has inspired and sustained the Christian world. This Abbey church is testament to that tradition and to the wisdom of St Benedict. Dietrich Bonhoeffer was greatly influenced by the Anglican Community of the Resurrection at Mirfield. He saw in that community a way of organising community living which made sense and when he returned to Germany he set up a seminary based on the Mirfield model. He believed that in the tough times being experienced by young men in training for ministry that discipline of living a community life, with its emphasis on study and prayer, would sustain them. This type of community was not something which existed in the Lutheran tradition but it became a characteristic of the Confessing Church of which Bonhoeffer was part. The testimony of the Community of the Resurrection was also seen in such men as Trevor Huddleston as he took a stand against apartheid in S Africa.
Many of you I know have adopted this type of spiritual discipline by becoming lay, or third order members of religious communities, for example as a Tertiary Franciscan, as an Oblate of the Benedictine tradition or as a member of the Iona Community. Others may have a Rule of Life that they have worked out personally. This is a very committed way to bring a spiritual discipline into our lives and I commend it to you as something to explore.
The big question is of course what happens after Lent? Do we breathe a sigh of relief and return to the way things were. If that is so then really our Lenten discipline has been a waste of time. I’m not suggesting that you give up alcohol forever, if that was your Lenten discipline, but I do suggest that you should find a way to take this discipline forward.
If our disciplined approach to Lent does anything I hope it inspires us to be more active in the world as Christians. We could just decide that we will stay in a cocooned world in a sense free from the cares of the world, but this is not what we are called to do or to be. Thankfully none of us, I hope, have faced or will ever face the dilemma Bonhoeffer faced, but there are smaller challenges which might take us out of our comfort zone
John Simpson the BBC correspondent said
But what if . . . the point of living isn’t to be placid and happy and untouched by the world, but to be deeply, painfully sensitive to it, to see its cruelty and savagery for what they are, and accept all this as readily as we accept its beauty? To be touched by it, moved by it, hurt by it even, but not be indifferent to it?
This is surely a very Christian approach to the world we live in. Last Friday I spoke at one of the services organised for the Women’s World Day of Prayer. The service had been prepared by Christian women in Malaysia, a country on the map for gap year travellers, but a country of injustice, greed and corruption; a country which welcomes the more up-market traveller who delights in its scenery and wildlife, but a country where women face powerlessness, discrimination and violence. One of the ways in which Christians must act is to work for justice in places like Malaysia so that all God’s children can live in a fairer world. What can we do? I hear you say. One of the ways I think is just to let people know you know. If the Christian women in Malaysia know we are aware of what is going on, they might feel empowered and more courageous. We have to be more discerning about our holiday destinations, or if we decide to go to a country we know has a poor record on justice and equality to seek out ways of supporting organisations working in those countries with the poor and disadvantaged.
Taking action to support the weak has never been easy; it usually comes at a cost, often to the point in extreme circumstances of giving your life. Martin Luther King once said, ‘if a man has not discovered something that he will die for, he isn't fit to live.’ Others followed him in their determination to rid the world of injustice and paid the ultimate price. Oscar Romero was considered the safe, compromise choice when he was made Archbishop of El Salvador in 1977. This man, more at home among his books at the university, soon realised that he had a responsibility to speak for those who had no other voice. To demand fairness and justice in politics and in the running of the economy was linked completely to the gospel of our Lord. Jesus did not shirk from challenging injustice wherever he found it. Throughout the Hebrew scriptures God had demanded a high sense of social responsibility from his people and Jesus extended this to include women, foreigners and outcasts because he believed that we are all made to live with dignity, justice and freedom.
Thankfully, we are not asked to make the great sacrifice as Martin Luther King and Oscar Romero did but in small ways our actions can make a difference. I have been delighted that one of our Lenten projects has been to support The Lord’s Larder. It has been a cause close to my heart since I visited it when I did a training placement at St John’s Church, Yeovil. Here is a very simple way for us to take action. At St James, we collect food each week and all our tinned goods at our harvest festival are given. At our Crib service at Christmas we asked the children to bring a gift for a baby; food, baby wipes, nappies and so on. Many of the congregation see a ‘bog off’ – buy one get one free – and the ‘get one free’ they give to the Lord’s Larder. It is so simple but makes such a difference. In her professional life one of our congregation uses the services of the Lord’s Larder regularly. She works with disadvantaged families in Yeovil and says that the difference it makes to the well being of families is phenomenal.
Our other Lent project is to support the work of the Leprosy Mission in Anandaban Hospital in Nepal (the word Anandaban means ‘forest of joy’). This hospital, the largest of its kind in Nepal, sees over 6000 out-patients every year with 600 admissions. Leprosy is one of those diseases where great strides have been made in the last twenty years or so, and the number of people with leprosy has dropped from 11 million in the 1980’s to 1 million today. The need for research is as great as ever and for practical help to assist those who have been disfigured by this disease. Once again we have Christian love in action and with leprosy we really are following in our Lord’s footsteps.
I am often asked, ‘Well, ok, I hear what you are saying, but what can I do? I am only one person and the problems are huge. How can I make a difference?’ It is true, we do feel overwhelmed. How can we truly make a difference for those women in Malaysia who seek justice and peace? We cannot hope to make a difference to the big issues, unless we start where we can make change happen; if we don’t do this nothing moves, there is inertia and indifference. n his book, To Heal a Fractured World, Rabbi Jonathan Sacks writes,
We are here to make a difference, to mend the fractures of the world, a day at a time, an act at a time, for as long as it takes to make it a place of justice and compassion where the lonely are not alone, the poor not without help; where the cry of the vulnerable is heeded and those who are wronged are heard.
If we are to do this we need the discipline which comes from an ordered spiritual life; a life which seeks to learn, to pray, to be creative and daring. From this orderliness we will have the strength to act and to sustain any action we begin. If we reflect on Bonhoeffer again, his strength to act in such a way which set him on a path of opposition to the government was sustained by the discipline of his spiritual life and his belief that we can only really be free when we respond to God and to mankind made in His image, even if this means giving our lives in his service. Let us pray that we will never be put to such a test, but also pray for God’s strength to dare to resist oppression and injustice wherever we meet it and to take action.
Let me leave you with a quote from Robert Kennedy to consider,
Each time a man or woman stands up for an ideal, or acts to improve the lot of others, or strikes out against injustice, a tiny ripple of hope is sent out, … those ripples build a current that can sweep down the mightiest walls of oppression and resistance.
May we have the courage to start a few ripples.