Through Lent with George Herbert
Tuesday after the Third Sunday of Lent
Lord, how can man preach thy eternal word?
He is a brittle crazy glass:
Yet in thy temple thou dost him afford
This glorious and transcendent place,
To be a window, through thy grace.
But when thou dost anneal in glass thy story,
Making thy life to shine within
The holy Preacher’s, then the light and glory
More rev’rend grows, and more doth win;
Which else shows watrish, bleak, and thin.
Doctrine and life, colors and light, in one
When they combine and mingle, bring
A strong regard and awe; but speech alone
Doth vanish like a flaring thing,
And in the ear, not conscience, ring.
I like to preach on the stained glass windows of a church. When a story arrives in the lectionary that links in with one of the windows in the church building I take advantage of it. St. Matthias Church in Victoria, BC, Canada, where I was the rector from 2014 to 2017, had a good collection of modern stained glass depicting stories from the Gospels and Genesis. The picture above was taken for an article about my lobbying around then-proposed legislation recriminalizing sex work, but the window behind it relates to refugee work. The window illustrates the story, originally from the Gospel according to Mark, of the Syrophonician woman, who begged Jesus to heal her daughter. The version in Matthew 15.21-28, where she is called a Canaanite woman, runs like this:
Jesus left that place and went away to the district of Tyre and Sidon. Just then a Canaanite woman from that region came out and started shouting, “Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David; my daughter is tormented by a demon.” But he did not answer her at all. And his disciples came and urged him, saying, “Send her away, for she keeps shouting after us.” He answered, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” But she came and knelt before him, saying, “Lord, help me.” He answered, “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” She said, “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.” Then Jesus answered her, “Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.” And her daughter was healed instantly.
In late February of 2015 I was asked if I would be the Refugee Coordinator for the Diocese of British Columbia. As a diocese we had sponsored hundreds of people, going back to the late ’70s with the exodus of Vietnamese fleeing oppression. With a Sponsorship Agreement with the federal government of Canada we had privately sponsored many individuals and families, raising money to settle them on Vancouver Island. When I took on the position we would sponsor some twenty people a year, creating one or two groups to sponsor them, applying on behalf of refugees, training volunteers, and waiting a long time – usually years – for approval to bring the refugees to Canada.
Then in September 2015 everything suddenly changed. A toddler died in the waters between Turkey and Greece. The toddler was Alan Kurdi, a Syrian refugee whose family had sought to find a home in Canada, but whose application was denied on technical grounds. So instead the family sought a home in Europe, and they attempted to cross the short distance between the mainland of Turkey to a Greek island. The boat was overloaded, and capsized. The child’s mother and sibling also died in the attempt to cross over. A photograph of the young child, dead on the beach, made the front covers of the newspapers, and circulated rapidly because of social media. Because of the connection to Canada there was a strong reaction. A well of compassion erupted, and I saw a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for mobilizing people to privately sponsor Syrian refugees. We could not help little Alan Kurdi, but we could do our best to make sure that some Syrians would make it to Canada.
Long story short, after two years some 250 Syrians and refugees from other nations had come to Vancouver Island and the Gulf Islands, or were in process of being sponsored. We had somewhere between five-hundred and eight-hundred volunteers in over fifty groups up and down the islands. To set up these groups we worked with other churches, a group of doctors, and neighbourhood groups. Two staff were hired on to do the massively expanded work, and gradually my role became redundant – I worked myself out of a job. It’s probably the most important work I’ve done in my life.
The poem “The Windows” talks about the improbability of the good news being effectively preached by the fragile, imperfect person of the ordinary minister. Herbert compares the preacher to a window, who, although akin to brittle, crazy glass, can still show forth a story. The last stanza extols the values of imagery over mere speech. Speech is transitory and might not move one’s conscience to do good works for God and for one’s neighbour. Windows, for Herbert, were permanent, and had an eloquence that transcended long sermons. Herbert would have had in mind the centuries of beautiful stained glass in churches, chapels, and cathedrals, most of which were to be destroyed within a decade of his death by the iconoclastic Puritans of Oliver Cromwell and the English Commonwealth.
The life of a preacher is like that. They are to be windows into the divine, such that you forget the medium and see only the story being shone forth. In my work with refugees I sought to preach in my actions the good news of Jesus. Jesus, who in youth we are told was a refugee in Egypt, reached out to the Syrophonician woman. In our day we seek and seek to help refugees from the Syrian Civil War and others who are seeking safety from war. I am a brittle, crazy glass, and so are you, but I pray that our lives may show forth in word and deed the love of God in Christ.