St Andrews Catford
25th June 2000
We Saw The Sea
"We joined the Navy
To see the world:
And what did we see?
We saw the sea!"
... at least that's what the old Fred Astaire song tells us.
Imagine for a moment that you're one of a group of passengers on an ocean-going cruise standing on the deck early one morning to watch the sun rise over the horizon.
The Captain has said, the night before, that it should be a sight worth seeing, and so this little party has, with varying degrees of enthusiasm, got up early to see the sight.
Now let's look into the thoughts and feelings of the individuals in the group. For simplicity's sake let's think of them as being typical of the sort of people we meet in everyday life: that means that nobody we know personally is exactly like the people we shall now consider, but that we all know people who resemble them.
Firstly there's Adrian who's a scientist. As he looks out over the ship's rails he would say that he was seeing several million gallons of salt water, and beyond that, on the horizon, a star which we call the Sun, 93 million miles away, whose rays are reflected according to certain laws by the surface of the water in between.
Then there's Betty. She's an artist. What she sees is something of incomparable beauty, and she just wishes that she had brought her water-colours on deck with her to try and capture it on paper.
Next there's Clive, a bored teenager. He didn't really want to come on the cruise at all, but this morning he found himself dragged reluctantly from his bed by his enthusiastic parents. "What a bore! What a lot of fuss about nothing" are his thoughts as he shivers on deck and and feels he would rather be back in his bed again or better still, lying on the sofa at home and watching television.
Fourthly, there's Derek, a historian. The uppermost thought in Derek's mind is how much history there must be on the seabed concealed by the ocean. Wrecks, treasures, bodies of the drowned, geological wonders, all hidden from sight yet undoubtedly there.
Next there's a Edward, a marine biologist. He, like Derek knows that the sea in front of him contains an enormous variety of sea life, beautiful, ugly, dangerous, precious and worthless. In his mind he recalls some of the experiences he's had whilst scuba-diving off the coast of Dorset.
Finally, there's Fiona. To her, the sight, in all its beauty, suggests the majesty, and power, and awesomeness of the God who created both Sea and Sun and Sky and, not least, herself. In other words for her, the experience of watching the sun rise on the horizon is first and foremost a spiritual one.
Now let's ask the simple question: which of the six people has seen the sea? The answer of course is that all six of them have, but it has affected each of them in a different way.
The important point to grasp is not that there is a "right" and "wrong" way of seeing things, but at the same time there is infinitely more to the apparent simple process of "seeing the sea" than at first we might suppose.
Even Clive, the bored teenager, if he is prepared to be patient may be willing to admit, however grudgingly, that there's more to the business of "seeing the sea" then he first supposed, and that’s even more probable if he gets talking to some of the others about their own particular view of what they’ve seen. The experience in that case might be a real "eye-opener" for him.
Now let's try an experiment. Let us, as if by magic, transport our six passengers into Saint Andrew's Church this morning. Let's suppose that they are standing on a platform, rather like the deck of a ship, looking over the guard rail about 30 ft above by heads. They are at the back of the Church behind us so that we can't see them but they can see us; and remember they've come to observe, not to take part, just as their counterparts on board ship were invited by the Captain to "come and see".
Well, what do they see? They all see the Church of course but there the similarity ends.
Adrian, the scientist, sees a brick building, put up in 1905 by someone called P. Robson; he sees inside it a group of people, that's you and me, taking part in some act of worship, presumably he thinks, because you and I "happen to like that kind of thing".
Betty on the other hand is much more interested in the aesthetics of the place. She admires the vestments; being an artist, she particularly likes the stained glass; she finds the music uplifting, and despite our shortcomings, of which she is occasionally aware, she thinks the whole thing "rather attractive", perhaps at times even beautiful.
Clive, I'm afraid, thinks the whole thing rather a bore. That's what he thinks about most things, mark you, so you and I are in good company, because Clive would say the same of Mount Everest, the Taj Mahal, Bach's Toccata & Fugue in D minor, and the Niagara Falls. However, to be fair to him, there are degrees of boredom even in Clive’s mind, and he admits perhaps rather reluctantly that in anything that people take so obviously seriously there may, just possibly be something of importance.
By contrast Derek, the historian, is immediately aware that there’s something here which has its roots deeply in the past and is therefore something really important whether he understands it or not. Every word spoken, every act performed, every book, banner, pew and memorial tablet is there for a reason and is therefore significant. If only he had the time, he thinks to himself, it would repay detailed study.
Edward, the biologist is, by contrast, intrigued by the people, by you and me. "What's their background?", he finds himself asking; why are they here? Why are others not here? What does it all mean? Like Derek, if only he had the time, he'd like to go into it much deeper.
And then Fiona. Though not a Christian, she at once recognises that there's something here which "speaks to her". The whole show touches a live nerve in her mind, and she at once senses that what she calls "The Supernatural", which plays such a large part in her own thoughts, is here present at Saint Andrews this morning. Of course she may see no further than this, in which case Sunday at Saint Andrew's Catford becomes just one more "spiritual experience" as she would describe it, comparable with the beautiful sunrise, the smell of a bean field on a spring morning, or a performance of Handel's Messiah. But then again, if Fiona were only to start comparing notes with the others she might just possibly find herself being drawn in further.
Now let's ask ourself a question like the one we asked on board ship: Which of these people have seen the Church? Well, of course they all have in one sense or another, and it would be unfair to any of them to say that his or her particular vision of the Church is of no value at all
Yes, even Clive who sees the whole thing as being "rather a bore ". He's got a point, you know. You and I who are the Church in Lewisham must have learnt by now that being the Church is sometimes quite boring and demanding. If anybody imagines that being the Church, is going to be one long succession of spiritual excitements and gratification then he’s soon going to be in for a rude shock. Life on earth isn't like that: and Eternal Life as we experience it on earth is more like a series of troughs with the occasional peak rather than vice versa. Of course once we've been perfected through the process of death and resurrection Eternal Life will become quite a different matter.
Now you might imagine that I'm going to say that of our six observers, Fiona, the spiritually aware one, is the closest to the truth.
Curiously, this isn't always the case. People like Fiona who depend so much on their feelings are often no closer to the truth than somebody who looks for it diligently by reading their Bible, by saying their prayers and receiving God's sacraments on a regular basis.
For my money, the one who's nearest the truth is Derek the historian.
Why? Because of all of them Derek is the most aware of the layer upon layer of history that lies underneath what where doing here today.
So here's a tip: if you want to learn more about your faith, get a good book on Church History.
All those other approaches – like studying natural science, appreciating art, being bored, knowing about human nature or looking for spiritual uplift – may indeed all be ways into faith in Jesus Christ; but the person who knows his Church history, more to the point the person who knows how little he or she knows about Church History, and who makes up his mind to find out more about it, will, in my experience, be the one who comes quickest to the knowledge of the truth.
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