“When the priest takes the basket from your hand and sets it down before the altar of the Lord your God, you shall make this response before the Lord your God: “A wandering Aramean was my ancestor; he went down into Egypt and lived there as an alien, few in number, and there he became a great nation, mighty and populous. When the Egyptians treated us harshly and afflicted us, by imposing hard labour on us, we cried to the Lord, the God of our ancestors; the Lord heard our voice and saw our affliction, our toil, and our oppression. The Lord brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, with a terrifying display of power, and with signs and wonders; and he brought us into this place and gave us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey. So now I bring the first of the fruit of the ground that you, O Lord, have given me.” You shall set it down before the Lord your God and bow down before the Lord your God.”Deuteronomy 26.4-10
As Christian worshippers celebrate Pentecost, Jewish worshippers Shavuot / Shovuos / Shavuʿoth / Feast of Weeks, and Muslim worshippers celebrate Eid al Fitr, which traces its origins to the migration of the Prophet of Islam from Mecca to Madinah, and marks the end of the fasting month of Ramadan with celebration and feasting.
For Christians, Pentecost or Whitsunday is the day that the Good News about Jesus was not just an internal matter for a small group of jewish country-folk from the north, but a global message for ‘every nation under heaven’. The three Abrahamic faiths have long-since journeyed all around the world, and in the twenty-first century, through global growth in travel and communication, all faiths and philosophies are, in some sense, global.
Since last November my family has been very much “in transition” – we have been preparing for (and have now completed) a move to South Derbyshire as my wife takes up a new role as Bishop of Derby, a diocese in the centre of England, encompassing the beautiful and mountainous Peak District, the historic Derwent Valley Mills World Heritage Site – cradle of the factory system with its ground-breaking 18th century manufacturing technology, and the diverse industrial City of Derby. To enable me to continue at Manchester, we have bought a house by the airport (a new experience for one used to living in tied-accommodation throughout my adult life!), we have also seen our daughter off to live and teach in South Korea, while our son is about to graduate and move to a new stage in his life. Manchester Airport continues its undergoing a £1Billion transformation, and after working on its buildings, is focussing on transforming its processes and engagement with passengers (who, having been renamed customers, are now becoming our ‘guests’). I write knowing that this kind of constant transition is part of your (and your airports’) experience too.
What this constant transition reminds us is that unchanging stability and permanence are merely illusions. I’ve recently read and listened to a number of articles on the philosophical nature of time. In that we can be profoundly, even painfully conscious of the passage of time (waiting for a flight, or an answer to an important question) or that it can flash by unawares (‘times flies when you’re having fun!’), it seems to be entirely subjective (moving much faster the older we get) and yet also demonstrably objective and observable, is connected to the natural world and the order of the universe, but also entirely personal, it is an interesting metaphor for our engagement with God, our creator. Time is “a great healer”, “Time, like an ever-rolling stream, bears all its sons away…”. So, of course, is change, for without change there can be no growth. We like to think of God as eternal and unchanging (and therefore wrongly as somehow ‘static’), and yet we experience God profoundly in our experience of time, of change and transition.
Our moving house – especially from one to two different addresses has made it quite difficult to register to vote. In the UK we have had two elections in May (Local Council and European Union, although the second is somewhat farcical, as we are voting for representation in an international parliament from which our government is currently trying (and failing) to remove us). Sometimes the pace of change can make your head spin!
All of the above leads me to note that we are, as airport chaplains, called to minister to people in transition. Though it may be less the case in large countries that use air-travel more often in their daily working life, most passengers passing through our airports will be experiencing the last day of their old life (even if it is just a matter of going on holiday or for work) or the first day of a new life. They may be harassed businessmen and women, salespeople, refugees, those seeking asylum, looking for reunion with family members, pilgrims, up-for-a-good-time vacationers or stateless deportees – whoever our passengers are, whatever their wealth or poverty, their background or education, they are always people in transition – and people far from the home they have left behind or are searching for.
Similarly, our staff colleagues will undoubtedly also be going through sometimes painful transitions – in their personal lives, quite possibly, but also because of the inevitable instability and changeability of the aviation industry.
When you go to worship, to offer your sacrifice to God, the Book of Deuteronomy (the Law of God) says, you should remind yourself by saying out-loud to yourself and to those around you: A wandering Aramean was my ancestor. It reminds me of the Alcoholics Anonymous opening greeting: ‘My name is (George) and I am an alcoholic.’ Let’s not beat around the bush; let’s not pretend. Let’s just say it straight: this is who I am. I am the descendent of a migrant. I have got where I am by God’s grace alone, and the (sometimes faithful, sometimes disobedient, sometimes legal, often covert) migration of my parents and their parents before them. I don’t own this land, but I have been given it to live in – for now. We are all far from home, and yet, where we find God, there we are truly at home. Which – you could add – is where airport chaplaincy comes in!
So, where is Aram – where my ancestor (and your ancestor) comes from?
It is present-day Syria, and includes where the city of Aleppo now stands (since 2012, in ruins). We are blessed to receive our Syrian brothers and sisters on a regular basis here in Manchester, in almost every case, families who have been separated by war and conflict that they, the people of Syria themselves, had as much control over as I and my family did. They are us and we are them – and we are all wandering Arameans.
While mentioning Christian, Jewish and Muslim festivals, I would also like to wish Sikh colleagues well for their remembrance on June 16 of the martyrdom of Guru Arjan the first of the two Gurus martyred in the Sikh faith and the fifth of the ten Sikh Gurus. Born at Goindwal in Punjab on April 15, 1563, Guru Arjan inherited the Guruship from his father Guru Ram Das in 1581. Guru Arjan compiled the first official edition of the Sikh scripture called the Adi Granth, which later expanded into the Guru Granth Sahb. Guru Arjan also laid the foundation of the Harmandir Sahib (Golden Temple) at the heart of Ramdaspur (Amritsar). While the Sikh community wanted the Golden Temple to be the tallest building in the new town, Guru Arjan reminded his followers that humility should be a great virtue, and ensured that the temple was built on as low an elevation as possible in the middle of the man-made pool (something that today adds to its great beauty). To counter conflicting (and mutually exculsive) beliefs that God’s House is in the west or in the east, the Golden Temple (now the pre-eminent pilgrimage site of Sikhism) was built with entrances on all four sides, because, (as Guru Arjan wrote) “My faith is for the people of all castes and all creeds, from whichever direction they come and to whichever direction they bow.”
Guru Arjan reminds us that if we listen carefully enough to one another, we will surely hear the voice of God. Resolute to the end in his devotion to God as a Sikh, Guru Arjan died (despite his hospitality to, and respect for, other traditions) at the hands of those who tried to force him to renounce his own faith.
Let’s embrace our different stories and experiences as a gift!
The Revd George Lane