There are so many things one can say on an occasion like this that it is hard to know where to begin. In preparing for my remarks today, I couldn’t help but think of the story of an Officer Cadet in the Army who was learning how to drill his troops, and had them marching up and down the barrack square, counter marching, doubling and so on, under the instruction of his Sergeant Major. On one side of the square was a very steep cliff. He wanted to shout the command to stop them, but the words wouldn’t come. As he helplessly tried to give the command to ‘halt’ and as the first ranks started to disappear over the edge, the Sergeant Major turned to him and said: “For heaven’s sake, Sir, say something, even if it’s only ‘Goodbye’!”
On an occasion like this, just to be here, and say “hullo” rather than “goodbye” would perhaps be enough—in these celebrations, the real reward is in renewing your acquaintance with those whom life has taken elsewhere, and anything by way of a message is an extra. As I look around, I can see that some things have changed since I was with you twelve years ago, and some remain the same. The lovely building with its wonderful acoustics is still here—the carpet under the altar is blue now, and the choir has blue gowns instead of the surplices we wore. On your walls I see hangings I never knew, and across the ceiling a fearful array of electrical gadgets of all sorts. In the congregation, though, I see many familiar faces—above which, I am afraid, like myself, I see more grey hair than I used to remember. I, too, left you as a choir director and return now as a priest. Times change, but the underlying spirit and friendliness of this church is something that the years don’t change.
Still, I do have a message for you, and it’s connected to the day we are celebrating today—Mother’s Day. I want to take up the theme that a mother is someone special, not so much for what she is, but for the relationships she enjoys with the members of her family, and from this go on to talk a little about this whole question of relationships in our world today.
A mother cannot exist alone. By definition, she is the parent of a child. And if she has a child, it must be because some other person is a father. Just being a mother involves being at the point of tension between two different relationships, towards husband and towards child. No wonder that the Church also, with its same tension between obedience to God and the demands of her children, is referred to as a ‘mother’. The tensions and the conflicts and the need to provide are really not so different.
A mother is a person involved in relationships—and this in a world where relationships seem daily to be becoming less and less essential in the scheme of things. It used to be that buying the groceries, filling the car up, calling the doctor—these everyday activities of life—were all of them occasions involving human contact. Now they are passing progressively out of our lives. We pump our own gas, select our own groceries, and our visits to professionals are timed by the minute, because human contact is an expensive luxury in the grinding pressure of doing the most business at the least cost. Worse than that, though, we have become believers that this is all to the good—that being individuals in a society where we all look after ourselves is good. This has left our families shattered and our world full of confused and lonely people. Modern travel means that many children grow up not knowing the relationship of aunts and uncles and grandparents that was the ‘extended family’ of old. People feel lost, and in trying to ‘find themselves’ cut themselves even more adrift from these ties of relationship. I am thinking of a good friend, a very intelligent man, who faced with a mid-life crisis and the need to ‘find himself’, has left his wife and two children, his job, and his acquaintances, to head off down East to start again and discover who he really is. My fear is that he will never find anything that way, and in fact, by leaving behind the relationships and responsibilities of a lifetime, he is likely to do nothing so much as to end up on skid row. He is like the biologist who tried to find out the essential nature of an onion, by peeling off layer after layer to get to the core of things. When he had peeled all the layers away, there was nothing left—at which point, I guess, he decided that onions are a figment of the imagination that don’t ‘really’ exist at all. Something like the cosmonaut, who went up to outer space and was disappointed that he “didn’t find God up there.”
We live in a scientific world, and we love to find out how things work by taking them to pieces. That is fine, so long as we remember that the pieces are not the same as the whole we started from. A clock may be no more than a collection of springs, plates and cogwheels—but a collection of springs, plates and cogwheels does not tell the time—a clock does. So with the universe. We can take human society to pieces, and say it is just a mass of individual people. We can take the people to pieces and say they are just a collection of organs. We can take the organs to pieces and say they are just collections of living cells—cells are collections of macro-molecules, the molecules of atoms, the atoms of subatomic particles. We can show that the whole universe is composed of energy in curiously complicated forms of relationship—nothing more.
All this is true enough, but then people go on to say that what they see around them in God’s world is ‘nothing but’ a collection of atoms: people are ‘nothing but’ a few dollars’ worth of chemicals, forgetting that it is precisely in their relationship of one level of organization to another that God as made His visible universe from the elements of the invisible world. God puts an atom of Sodium and an atom of Chlorine in a particular relationship, and we have something new that was never there before, namely salt. The atom of sodium is still there, the atom of chlorine is still there. But in the relationship between this very corrosive metal and chocking, poisonous gas, something new has come into the world—salt—that is essential to life on this planet.
The Christian message is that something new is created, without destroying anything of the old, when relationships are established in this way. Atoms become molecules, molecules become living cells, organs become bodies, when the parts are properly related to the whole. The transformation of character that takes place is not from a change of the smaller unit—it is from the new creation that comes from the manner in which the smaller units relate to each other. The atoms are unchanged. Mrs. Chlorine well may get up in front of the divorce court judge, and sob on His Lordship’s arm that “My husband is like an unstable, corrosive metal”—and her husband will have his say to tell the judge that “my wife is like a choking, poisonous gas”—and at the end of it all His Lordship is likely to say to them both “I find you two are quite incompatible: you should never have tried to live together: Decree granted.” But even in circumstances like these, the voice I hear is the voice of God, that says “Ye are the salt of the earth”, and “What God has joined together, let not man put asunder.”
The essence of relationships is that those who take part in them are unchanged—yet the result of their togetherness is something that none could have achieved alone. In my very happy days directing the choir here, I remember now many people I approached to see if they would be interested in singing and so may answered that their “voices just weren’t good enough”. Maybe I can tell you a secret. In the physics of musical appreciation, there is something known as the ‘choir effect’. If all the singers in a musical line are not exactly in tune—not too far off being in tune either, mind you—the effect to the ear will not be unpleasant—rather it will be a greater richness than a single, correct, solo voice. The relationship we have with the other singers makes our little contribution that much the better. And if I could make another comment on musical matters—I guess I can because I won’t be back for some time!—it is that I find the tenor line of the “Hallelujah Chorus” rather dull to sing. So much of it is pushing out a single rhythmic phrase on a high ‘G’ that, alone, is almost unpleasant. But add the other voices, the organ or the orchestra, and that chorus will be one that brings royalty to its feet, and opens Heaven itself to the vision, as Handel himself said when he wrote it. There ought to be a Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to the Altos for the dullness of some of the parts they sing. Yet the beauty of the choir when the parts all sing together can bring tears to your eyes, and it is the monotonous, dull Alto line that binds all the harmony together. Mothers, please note!
So with other groups. If you have been glued to your TV watching the hockey finals these past days, you will know the spirit between the team members—when they play together and support each other—is what wins the game. The game is lost when the spirit cracks and the team ‘falls to pieces’. So in a church. So in a family. So in society.
The hymn says “Just as I am”—and that has to be the key to our relationships. Wives and Husbands—stop trying to change the person you are married to. The key to your relationship is your success in blending within the relationship of marriage the resources that you have. The Kingdom of Heaven is composed not of the righteous, but of sinners. In His wisdom, God has a way of making a whole that is magnificent out of component parts that leave much to be desired. Don’t argue with Him. Enjoy it.
Eliza Doolittle in “My Fair Lady” finds out that “the difference between a Duchess and a flower girl is not who she is, but how she’s treated,” and that’s a thought worth pondering as we think of our Mothers today. If I could sum up what I am trying to say, it is in this ‘prose poem’ that was passed on to me by a great friend who lost his wife recently, after many years of marriage in which she had been a wonderful support both to her husband and her children: it’s headed “I Love You”:
I Love You
Not only for what you are
But for what I am
When I am with you
I Love You
Not only for what you
Have made for yourself
But for what you are making of me
I Love You
For the part of me that you bring out
I Love You
For putting your hand
Into my heaped up heart
And passing over all the foolish
Weak things that you can’t help dimly
And for drawing out into the light
All the beautiful belongings
That no one else had looked
Quite so far to find
I Love You
Because you have done
More than any creed to make me good
And more than any fate could have done
To make me happy
You have done it without a touch
Without a word
Without a sign
You have done it
By being Yourself
– Text of a Sermon delivered in May 1984