Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Freedom through discipline

Exodus 20.1-17
1 Corinthians 1.18-25

In 1944 Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote a poem in his prison celI. It’s called Stations on the Way to Freedom. It begins:

If you set out to seek freedom,

then learn above all things

to govern your soul and your senses,

for fear that your passions and longing

may lead you away from the path you should follow.

Chaste be your mind and your body,

and both in subjection, obediently, steadfastly

seeking the aim set before them;

only through discipline may one learn to be free.


‘Only through discipline may one learn to be free.’ It’s the kind of sentiment which would have appealed to Moses. His encounter with God at Mount Sinai was a formative moment in the history of of Israel and indeed for the whole Judaeo-Christian tradition. Plenty of Methodist churches have proudly inscribed the Ten Commandments in a long arc stretching around the walls of the sanctuary area.

The people of Israel wanted to be free from slavery but, after some fruitless wanderings in the wilderness, it was borne in upon them that in order to find freedom you have to learn discipline. Over the centuries that followed, their passions and longing did lead them away from the true path, many times, and they had to learn to be steadfast and obedient.

The milestones for their journey were the Ten Commandments. There could be only one God, who must not be represented by any human images because he is far above and beyond the limits of human imagination. God’s name must not be misused or taken in vain. The sabbath must be kept as a special, holy day. Parents must be honoured. Murder, adultery, theft and false testimony were proscribed. And, finally, covetousness was placed out of bounds.

It’s a fairly comprehensive list. ‘Do you want the bad news or the good news first?’ Moses asked the people of Israel. ‘Let’s have the good news first,’ they replied. ‘I’ve managed to negotiate the commandments down to ten,’ Moses said, ‘But the bad news is that adultery’s still in!’

And yet Paul goes on to describe the way of The Law as the way to destruction. Greek philosophers, he says, have tried to argue their way to righteous living. Jewish people have tried to get there by dogged obedience. But faith in Christ nailed to the cross is the real way to freedom, for the weakness of God is stronger than human strength, and the folly of God is wiser than human wisdom.

So why does Bonhoeffer, the advocate of freedom, come down on the side of discipline?

At our Lent course last week - based on this year's Churches Together in Britain and Ireland Lent course - the leader told the story of the Revd Cecil Pugh, who was an RAF chaplain on the troopship Anselm, which sailed from Liverpool to the Gold Coast of West Africa in June 1941. Because of engine trouble The Anselm missed its convoy and continued alone, carrying 1300 allied airmen to what I suppose they thought would be an easy posting. However, in the early hours of the morning on 5 July The Anselm was hit by two torpedoes and sank in 22 minutes.

Years later, a staff sergeant wrote to a London newspaper with his recollections of that night. His letter provoked a deluge of responses from other survivors, and from their accounts it emerged that Pugh had been the hero of the hour.

Apparently, after the torpedoes struck, there was panic and confusion in the darkness. Unskilled airmen tried to help the crew launch the lifeboats, with the result that some got stuck and others landed upside down in the water.

Pugh, 42 years-old, had been a patient in the sickbay and came up on deck in his dressing gown, but he soon ‘seemed to be everywhere at once’. ‘Because he was not thinking of himself, his presence calmed the panic around him.’ The chaplain went round the ship encouraging men to jump to safety and swim to the upturned lifeboats. One man, hesitating on the deck, felt a hand on his shoulder and a voice in his ear which said, ‘Go with God.’

When the time came to evacuate the last men from the deck, Pugh was told that a number of men - some wounded - were still trapped in the hold where the torpedoes had struck. There was no hope of getting them out. He spoke to a group of marines who were standing around the open hatch leading to the hold and asked them to tie a rope around him and lower him in. The sergeant in charge refused, ‘If you go down there, Padre,’ he said, ‘You’ll never get out.’

Pugh, who was senior in rank, ordered him to do it. His last recorded words were, ‘My faith in God is greater than my fear of death. I must be where the men are.’ So they lowered him into the hold, which was already awash with water. Their last sight of Pugh, before they abandoned ship, was of the Chaplain standing up to his shoulders in water praying with the men.

When the story came to light Pugh was posthumously awarded the George Cross, Britain’s highest civilian award for bravery. The citation read, ‘He had every opportunity of saving his own life but, without regard to his own safety and in the best tradition of the service and of a Christian minister, he gave up his life for others.’

His is not the only example. Chaplains are usually left behind in the attack and can only imagine the horrors of the battlefield, but on board stricken troop ships they seem to come into their own. In February 1943 another troop ship - The Dorchester - was hit by a torpedo near Greenland shortly after the 900 men on board had retired to their bunks following an impromptu concert organised by the four chaplains. Three of the chaplains were Christians, one of them - George Fox - a Methodist, the fourth was a Jewish rabbi.

After the attack, with the ship again plunged into darkness, the four chaplains were seen persuading frightened men to climb down ropes into the lifeboats. All four gave away their own life jackets when the supply ran out. One gave a sailor his gloves. That man - who spent several hours thereafter clinging to an upturned lifeboat - recalled that without the gloves he would have lost his grip and been swept away.

Perhaps the chaplains had concluded that, in the ice cold water, they stood little chance of survival anyway, but as the evacuation continued their voices could be heard above the panic, still encouraging the other men not to be afraid and offering them words of comfort. At the last, before the ship went down, they were seen linking arms and praying together - in Hebrew, Latin and English. For their example of selflessness and bravery the American government decided to award them the Congressional Medal of Honour, but when it was discovered that this could only be awarded ‘for bravery under fire’ Congress created a special medal, The Chaplains’ Medal for Heroism, and awarded it to them posthumously in 1960.,

Of course, as we saw last week when we talked about Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s decision to return to Germany at the outbreak of War, the better to galvanise opposition to Hitler’s criminal policies, these are exceptional examples of the folly of the cross, the steadfast obedience to Christ example which leads to true freedom. But there are plenty of ordinary, everyday examples too where Christian people have disciplined themselves to follow the path of Christ.

Friends and family members were reminded when my mother died how, in years gone by, she used to organise - with other church members - a Christmas Day celebration for thirty or so isolated people who would otherwise have spent the day alone. One of her allotted tasks was to visit them beforehand, to confirm whether or not they wanted to come, and she was given a list for this purpose by Social Services. But, of course, she quickly discovered that these people were not only isolated on Christmas Day but all year round, and she soon fell into a discipline of regular visiting to those who were in greatest need. Many became her friends. One had a song played on the radio for us when Helen and I got married.

Social Services asked mum to visit one person, in particular, who had worn out the patience of several previous Good Samaritans. As it happened, this woman was never well enough to leave her apartment and attend the party on Christmas Day, but mum visted her every week, collecting her pension and other essentials and liaising with her home-help, simply refusing to be put off by the woman’s off-hand attitude. In the end, they become very close.

And, of course, there are examples of people in our own congregation, some still living, some who have died, who have been wonderful examples of the same sort of discipline which Bonhoeffer is talking about - doggedly working to support good causes or minister to people in need. But this is not just the sort of discipline which consists of trying to follow a rigid set of instructions for living, however inspired they might be. It’s the discipline which comes from accepting the folly and weakness of the Cross. It is about making ourselves vulnerable, just as Christ made himself vulnerable. It is, as someone has put it, about constantly striving to ‘open our hearts to the God who is present in all of life’.

I conclude with a poem which we read on Wednesday, as part of the Lent course, written by someone called Isobel de Gruchy.

The Combatants:

In this corner of the ring,

sitting waiting, ready and still,

Discipline; lean and tough,

stripped to the bare essentials,

plain and unappealing;

of mature years, though some

would claim long past it,

few fans, little publicity;

an unknown entity.


And in this corner of the ring, focus of all eyes,

Indulgence, prancing dancing, posing

to show to maximum effect,

amid the cameras’ flashing lights,

stunning looks, copious gold chains,

flamboyant robe: young and self-confidant,

the idol of many.


The time: today tomorrow, always

The referee: the arbiters of today’s values,

whenever it is today

The trophy: freedom

The venue: the world out there and the world within

The duration of the fight: till death – yours and mine

The Winner: all those acting, suffering, disciplined and dying, for Jesus

Christ’s sake.

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