David Williams and Frits know that their moral responses to disease or injustice is to do something. To make some kind of performance.
Last Saturday I experienced one of the privileges of the priestly life. Frits Bakker, the brother of a Montreux resident, swam across the lake from Evian to Vidy in Lausanne (about 13 km). He was doing this because recently his sister died from MS at the age of 50. Frits was accompanied n the water by another swimmer, Rita, and lots of us on boats, including Austen who guided them on a kyak. I was on one of the boats.
Before we left the shore Rita asked me if I would give the two of them a blessing which, after obtaining Frits’ permission, I was glad to do. It was thjis first request that started me thinking.
Australia is such a secul ;ar country, that it is rare for people to request the involvement of priests, or religious people in everyday life. But twice now, I have been asked to do ‘priestly work’ in places where I was not necessarily expectng it. (The other occasion was the blessing of a couple who after lots of trials and tribulations renewed their weding vows). I just feel so happy to be able to offer God’s blessing, in what ever people are doing. Another person is in distress, and has said ‘come and pray with me’. And I have prayed for them each morning at morning prayer, and will go to their place soon to pray with them.
Sometimes people don’t feel worthy to receive the blessing. Frits said ‘Oh, I hacven’t been to confession for a long time’. I am reminded of people in australia saying ‘If I came to Church, the roof would fall in’. But I say ‘If you came to church, you would find your seat with your name on it waiting for you !’ So I was also happy to convey the good news that there is no ‘If’ «’Then’ clause with God. (If you go to confession and tell me how sinful you are, then I will take you back’). There is plenty of room for for reviewing one’s life, and regretting all that has not been right. But I’m sure that when a person says ‘Please, now I would like a blessing’ God, like the father in the story of the Prodigal Son is already running toward that person with God’s ‘Yes’.
This is what I try to do too in the congregation. If people are going on holidays, or if they are going into hospital, or if people are sick then it is a wonderful privelege for them, and for me to be able to call down God’s blessing upon them before they go. This is part of what members of the Church have by right. Sometimes false modesty or an over active sense of privacy prevents people from receiving these gifts from God. But I think that especially in the congregation, to give and receive these blessings is part of what makes us into the body of Christ. Of course the consent to be blessed must be freely given, but I think that the direction of flow should be more toward this kind of sharing than not.
Then I began to think about the actual swim itself. Frits decided to swim the lake a year ago, just after his sister died. He wanted to do something to raise money for all of the other people who are suffering from Multiple Sclerosis. Strangely enough, I happened so see exactly the same thing on TV this week. David Williams, of ‘Little Brtiain’ fame swam the english Channel only nine months after visiting Ethopia. He went to an orphanage and saw a number of young girls. He wad told ‘Each of these young girls whom we have rescued from the streets of Addis Abbaba has been raped’ David Williams said ‘It was like a sword piercing my heart, I had to do something when I got home’. So he swam the channell !
Both of these people have been motivated to do something with their bodies. They have literally ‘put their bodies on the line’ for something that has deeply touched their souls. What is that !?
There are some ethics scholars who are talking about morality as ‘performance’. That is, our moral views or attitudes to certain conditions (like MS or the state of people in Ethiopia) has to be ‘performed.’ Here is a quote from one of them, Stanley Hauerwas. “Religious belief is not just some kind of primitive metaphysics, but in fact it is a performance just like you’d perform Lear. What people think Christianity is, is that it’s like the text of Lear, rather than the actual production of Lear. It has to be performed for you to understand what Lear is – a drama. You can read it, but unfortunately Christians so often want to make Christianity a text rather than a performance.” Another scholar, Richard Norris says the same ‘Christianity is a divinely authored play, whose first and actual performance will be in the age to come., What we are about now is learning our parts.’
So although I think it is unconscious, both David Williams and Frits know that their moral responses to disease or injustice is to do something. To make some kind of performance.
St. Paul urges us to ‘present your bodies as a living sacrifice’. This is his way of saying ‘Do something!!’ Or St. John’s saying ‘It is by showing how you love one another that the World will come to believe’.
This is what the martyrs were doing. The word ‘martyr’ means ‘witness’. So with their bodies, the martyrs were ‘witnessing’ to their faith. In the early days of Christianity, after the time when being a martyr was an option, people still wanted to ‘perform’ the truth of the faith by doing something. So they went out into the desert where the daemons lived to do battle with them there, on their own turf. They sat up poles to show how little they cared for the things of this world. Their message is ‘We are prepared to risk something, we are prepared to undergo pain and discomfort because there is something else more important that we want to point to, and to draw your attention to, for God’s sake’ This is what St. Patrick did too in lighting his fire before the king’s fire at Easter.
In other parts of the culture, people put on what is called ‘demonstration events’. They say ‘let us show you what our product can do’. This is exactly what I think Frits and David were doing. There is something more important (MS or injustice) that needs your attention. I am performing the ‘sacrament’ of this issue in my own body so that you will do something to help.
This too is what we need in the Church. Each Sunday morning that you go to Church, you are beginning to ‘perform’ the faith, because your presence is a witness to a reality that needs people’s attention. But we need more. We need visible signs (like our mutual, infectious love for one another, like alllowing ourselves to be blessed) to be our ‘witness’ to the bigger issue.
I’m glad that Frits and Rita did their ‘performance’ in the framework of the blessing of God, because that prayer completed the meaning of their swim.