Dear Friends and Colleagues,
Cnut (or Canute) the Great (c. 995 – 1035), was “king of all England and Denmark and the Norwegians and of some of the Swedes”, often referred to as the North Sea Empire. Had his heirs not died in rapid succession and a weakened England not been conquered by William of Normandy in 1066, the European Union might now be a thousand years old with the UK and Scandinavia at its heart. If history was fair, Canute would be better known, as it is, he is often unfairly remembered as the idiot who thought he could stop the tide coming in – a 12th century story recorded by Henry of Huntingdon.
In fact the story is of a wise ruler demonstrating to his flattering courtiers that (even) he has no control over the elements, and that secular power is vain in the face of God’s supreme power. Huntingdon records: ‘Canute set his throne by the seashore and commanded the incoming tide to halt so as not to wet his regal feet and royal robes. Yet “continuing to rise as usual [the tide] dashed over his feet and legs without respect to his royal person. Then the king leapt backwards, saying: ‘Let all men know how empty and worthless is the power of kings, for there is none worthy of the name, but He whom heaven, earth, and sea obey by eternal laws.’ Then he hung his gold crown on a crucifix, never to wear it again to the honour of God the almighty King.
I am often reminded of Canute when on the telephone to the local authority’s health or social care departments, whose sometimes testy response suggests that they believe that airport chaplains stand on the Arrivals piers of our airports like the Statue of Liberty calling out to the world: “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, the wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me.’
Emma Lazarus (1849 – 1887) a Jewish American author of poetry, prose, and translations, as well as an activist, wrote the sonnet “The New Colossus” in 1883, to raise money for the construction of a pedestal for Frédéric Auguste Bartholdi’s Liberty Enlightening the World. The words are inscribed on a bronze plaque on the statue’s pedestal installed in 1903:
“Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
Mother of exiles. From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.
“Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she
With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”
So much of what airport chaplains are called upon to undertake is beyond our control. Our common experience is that, however much we plan our day in advance, how it turns out, by the end of the day, will almost certainly be very different.
The Serenity Prayer was written by the American theologian Reinhold Niebuhr (1892–1971). The best-known form is:
God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
Courage to change the things I can,
And (the) wisdom to know the difference.
Some later versions add a second paragraph:
Living one day at a time, Enjoying one moment at a time, Accepting hardship as a pathway to peace, Taking, as Jesus did, This sinful world as it is, Not as I would have it, Trusting that You will make all things right,
If I surrender to Your will, So that I may be reasonably happy in this life, And supremely happy with You forever in the next.
I prefer the simplicity and inclusivity of the original, shorter version, which is truly a prayer that anyone can say (and probably all should say) on a regular basis.
It contains a sentiment that has been found to be true by many generations and cultures:Epictetus (c. 55 – 135 AD) the Greek Stoic philosopher, wrote:
“Make the best use of what is in your power, and take the rest as it happens.
Some things are up to us and some things are not up to us.
Our opinions are up to us, and our impulses, desires, aversions —in short, whatever is our own doing. Our bodies are not up to us, nor are our possessions, our reputations, or our public offices, or, that is, whatever is not our own doing.”
The 8th-century Indian Buddhist scholar Shantideva suggested:If there’s a remedy when trouble strikes,
What reason is there for dejection?
And if there is no help for it,
What use is there in being glum?
The 11th-century Andalusian poet and Jewish Neo-Platonic philosopher, Solomon ibn Gabirol wrote:
At the head of all understanding – is realizing what is and what cannot be, and the consoling of what is not in our power to change.
I have as much control over who will be referred to the chaplaincy tomorrow (or today; I’ve just received a referral from the Police, as I write!) as Canute has over the tides of the English coast a thousand years ago. But I do have supreme control over how I plan my day in the first place, and what priorities I set for my ministry. I do have control over how I respond to people I meet. And, compared with many people who find themselves totally reliant on a stranger for assistance, I have so many choices at my disposal.
The Board is working on materials to promote the Association and the discipline of Airport Chaplaincy – to help us advocate for the valuable work of airport chaplaincy, and tools to assist us to do our jobs to the very highest standards of ethics and professionalism. Still (and over this, we are all like Canute) the most common question we here is: “You’re an airport chaplain. What (on earth) do you do?”
But by far the more important question, perhaps is: “Why do you do it?” (leaving aside the lavish wages, the kudos/status, the company sports car and so on…)
Why did you first volunteer / apply – and why do you get up and go to work to exercise this ministry?
(This is not a rhetorical question – I would love for every reader to send me a short paragraph about what motivates you in your work as an airport chaplain – I’m pretty sure you won’t, but I’d love it if you did!)
In the Christian Scriptures, Peter’s first letter encourages his readers: “Always be ready to make your defence to anyone who demands from you an account of the hope that is in you…” (1 Peter 3:15)
Going to work and doing the job of a chaplain is, in itself, an expression of hope, and an act of generosity.
How do you express that hopeful generosity in your work as an airport chaplain?
‘There but for the grace of God, go I’
In the Hebrew Scriptures, Deuteronomy 26 instructs those who have benefitted from the blessings of a home, a job, and a fertile land should first remember their own nomadic heritage: ‘A wandering Aramean was my ancestor…’ their history as aliens and slaves – those times when their choices and decision-making abilities were taken from them – and should offer the first-fruits of their labour as an offering not of coercion but entirely of their own free-will. The people are also enjoined to celebrate their freedom and their bountiful wealth “together with the Levites and the aliens who reside among you”.
The Quran describes those who are “truly good” as believers “who give away some of their wealth, however much they cherish it, to their relatives, to orphans, the needy, travellers and beggars and to liberate those in debt and bondage; those who keep up the prayers and pay the prescribed alms; who keep pledges whenever they make them; who are steadfast in misfortune, adversity and times of danger. These are the ones who are true, and it is they who are aware of God.” (Al Quran 2:178)
The worship of Allah is to “show kindness to parents, and to kindred, and orphans, and the needy, and to the neighbour that is a kinsman and the neighbour that is a stranger, and the companion by your side, and the wayfarer, and those whom your right hands possess.” (Al Quran 4:37)
Our scriptures give us pointers towards some motivations for ‘doing what we do’ – but ultimately, we are not just being ‘obedient’, we are often faced with situations beyond our control and beyond our own resources, but even in these, we make conscious decisions about how we respond.
God make us hopeful and generous, and grant us Serenity, Courage and Wisdom in all we undertake and all that is presented to us. God knows, we need it.
The Revd George Lane