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Bannocks (Loaves) of Bread

FIFTY-FIVE YEARS AGO I spent a memorable week on the tiny island of Iona off the west coast of Scotland, the site to which St. Columba came from Ireland in A.D. 563, to inaugurate the Christian mission to northern Britain.

In 1938, amid the Great Depression, George MacLeod, a Scottish minister from an industrial section of Glasgow, brought together on the island a half dozen craftsmen and six or so young ministers. They labored with their hands during that summer and subsequent ones to reconstruct the ancient medieval cathedral buildings which had fallen into ruin. Their objective was to establish a common life and discipline of worship and work, of stewardship of time and money, renewing their covenant in Christ in order to return to the cities and factories of the mainland with an expanded vision of their Christian witness, where they continued the discipline.

From that rather inconspicuous beginning there emerged a global fellowship of laity and clergy who have come to be known as the Iona Community. Their pilgrimages to the island today are for the same purposes as their predecessors, and groups of them meet in other lands.

My memory of Iona has stuck with me through the years, even though I am not an official member of the community. I recall my own pilgrimage for its daily morning and evening trek over heath and fence to the beautiful greystone Abbey of St. Columba. The churchyard is graced with the thousand-year-old Cross of St. Martin and tombstones commemorating pilgrimages of saints and sinners from earlier times, including the renowned Duncan and Macbeth. Jokingly, one of our group referred to Iona as the paradise where God takes sabbaticals.

The worship that week was among the most compelling I have ever encountered. The liturgies were a blend of a timeless living tradition and a deep sensitivity to the contemporary human condition. Memory preserves even now the simple echoes of sacred sound reverberating from the balcony piano . . . hushed silences beneath the vaulted ceiling between vesper biddings . . . the liturgist’s reading of inspired words from an “ambassador in chains” to the Ephesians, with the prayer that the gospel be boldly proclaimed . . . the flux of worshippers presenting bodies and souls for consecration at the midweek service of healing . . . and the solemn thanksgiving processional of bread and wine to the holy table on the Lord’s Day.

Iona Abbey

These were not all. The koinonia of several hundred sojourners had congregated from faraway lands and diverse Christian traditions. Faces were not the same nor accents familiar. It was incumbent upon all to build bridges.

My final recollection consists of the serious nature of theological conversation, in itself a form of prayer, as George MacLeod sat in our midst to speak with us for an hour each morning. Never did the chatter of voices drift from the complex individual, social, economic, and political realities that comprise the framework of every person’s spiritual existence. There lay before us the real issues of life and death, of discipleship and spiritual formation. Iona was not for escape.

That was the summer of rioting in Watts, war in Vietnam, strife in Northern Ireland, and starvation in the Orient. All of those realities were mixed in.

Iona is a spiritual center in a whirling vortex. Geographically removed, it is planted at the heart of a groaning creation, a “thin place” in the eye of the tempest. Steady offshore gusts are reminders.

So, what was gained? Very simply, one thing. An image of the church at the crossroads: worship the centripetal event, mission the centrifugal event. Both are one service, “always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be manifested.”

When visitors to Iona take holy communion, they proceed directly afterward to the cloister for tea and conversation. The concluding rubric of the liturgy states that each worshiper will be given “small bannocks of bread to flake and share” while mingling with strangers. “Thus is communion brought into the ordinary ways of life.”

It is powerful imagery. Saints, as forgiven sinners, are “bannocks of bread,” the loaves of the Christ at the crossroads of a hungry world.

Photo by Akela NDE

© 2020, Charles Davidson – All Rights Reserved

This essay was published in Vox Populi on Christmas Day, December 25, 2020

An earlier version appeared in Christian Education Shared Approaches, Spring 1981


Charles Davidson, writer and editor, is a retired Presbyterian (PCUSA) pastor, psychotherapist, and professor of pastoral theology, care, and counseling. He is the editor of George Buttrick’s Guide to Preaching the Gospel (Abingdon Press) and the author of Bone Dead, and Rising: Vincent van Gogh and the Self Before God (Cascade Books).

 

The Slaves of My Ancestors

DICK, STEPHEN, CHARITY, AND LUCY were their given names — these beloved “Negroes.” They were the propertied slaves owned by my fourth great grandfather at the time of his death in the year 1810. At the top of the inventory of all of Philemon Davidson’s worldly possessions, the court appraised Dick at 120 pounds sterling, Stephen at 100, Charity at 20, and Lucy at 90. Together they comprised more than half the pecuniary sum of the entire estate lumped together, down to and including five axes, a grindstone, two handsaws, a pair of spectacles, and one “woman saddle.” It does not take a microscope to discern whose fingerprints fell upon the axe, the grindstone, and the handsaw.

Given the irrecoverable distance of the ancestral past from which these sons and daughters of Africa had come into an unforeseen and splintered destiny in America, they and their fellow slaves passed through a myriad of predictable and unpredictable daily dangers to life and limb, including torture and lynching, as they trudged their beleaguered path toward the Promised Land. From the vantage point of the auction block as slavery’s narrow vista and constricted view of the future — “I’m here today and gone tomorrow” — these children of God were promised nothing remotely akin to a realized eschatology. Short of stumbling through the gates of heaven, theirs was a stumbling block into repeated disaster.

Shamefully and disgracefully, by legal decree if not divine dictate, due to the theological falsehoods of many preachers and the economic egotism of numerous slaveholders, the likes of Dick, Stephen, Charity, and Lucy were deemed, if not ultimately doomed, to the lot of mere mortal chattel. In an ethos of white supremacy wedded to the wealth of landed aristocracy and entitled gentry, this human “capital” was numbered among any “moveable…article of tangible property other than land, buildings, and other things annexed to the land.”

Official_medallion_of_the_British_Anti-Slavery_Society_(1795)
Official Medallion of the British Anti-Slavery Society by Josiah Wedgwood, 1795

In truth, every slave in the Old Dominion was affixed to an entire system of which the appurtenances included blistering hot rows of tobacco leaf baking beneath the scorching sun, outbuildings consisting of one-room shanties that housed and slept an entire family, and the bricks and mortar mixed with the sweat of the brow that built and sustained the Big House. Therein the white master and missus partook of daily morsels of dough kneaded by black mammies whose bruised feet stood atop packed earth while their gnarled fingers baked the loaves of the white man’s freedom upon the iron griddles of oppression.

In that respect and with regard to the fate of the black man, I lament the awful truth about one of my not so greatly esteemed ancestors. Opposite the branch of the family tree bearing my surname there is a line that gave me my middle name, Nuckols. Philemon Davidson’s great-great-grandson, my grandfather Clarence, married a dear and sweet woman, my grandmother Susie Nuckols. Her paternal grandfather, Joseph Nuckols, being large of stature but small of heart, bore his strength in such a way that with his one hand high in the air he lifted his slave-man upside down by the feet, and with the knuckles of his other hand beat his slave-man’s rump into stinging raw meat.

Thus, when the hopes and dreams of slaves sprang up like lilies in a scorched field, theirs were the songs and dances of a faith-vision that fashioned a cry: “O, come, sweet Jesus, deliver us!” Nothing else, not anyone else, sufficed to assuage the morning dread and to curb the evening hunger. The underground rail to freedom for those who made it through thickets of woods to safe harbors hidden behind plaster walls and beneath knotty pine floors was as tumultuous and turbulent as the waters of the Red Sea. Only Jesus as Living Water could quench the thirst of souls whose bodies lay wilted in the heat of the noonday pestilence and whose spirits grew weary and faint from the hunt of the midnight rider.

Dreams and visions, not of an actualized fulfillment but of imaginings with the scope of an unflinching mind’s eye and pining heart’s desire peering over the horizon, propelled these wayfarers to see beyond the brutal and bitter plague of their captivity. In a land flowing with milk and honey, the only true, wise, just, righteous and loving Master of All would someday, on the far side of the Jordan, blessedly grant a better way of life than the crack of the whip and the curse of the hoe.

Slave_sale_poster

Think of it this way. Since none can see far down the line of vision, we can only trust past the point at which we do see. Dick, Stephen, Charity, and Lucy, plus countless others who endured the horrors of slavery in this unfair and unjust land, bequeathed us a gift of faith that defies the sight of everyday comprehension and ignites the power of astonishing hope. To dream dreams and see visions, in life and death, is to dare to believe the impossible beyond the familiar. It is to picture that what has happened thus far along the way, some of it lovely and too much of it dreadful, simply cannot add up to the culmination of what life is about. To our world-fatigued eyes there is yet more to enter our line of vision than what has narrowed our vista and constricted our view. There is even far more of goodness itself still to come than, caged in the darkness, we can possibly imagine being true.

Today, beloved children of Africa, you ache with the torment of fire in your bones, miserably attached to your shackles, hopelessly bound to your chains. Tomorrow — surprise! — in defiance of all that appears inexorable, you spring loose into the cool, fresh air of freedom. Your bruised feet and jagged toes leap from the soil with elation. Your scarred hands and crippled fingers touch the tips of the clouds in ecstasy. Your dry lungs and parched lips burst forth upon the firmament with praise. Halleluiah!

SlaveDanceand_Music
Slaves Dancing on a South Carolina Plantation, John Rose, ca. 1785-95

Dick, Stephen, Charity, and Lucy — this outlandish event called Resurrection is yours not by chance but by Providence. Hooray for you as the last become first while the first become last! Seen through the eyes of your long-suffering faith as “the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen,” this marvelous turnabout through God’s everlasting mercy is the one thing, the only saving thing, for a saint to believe in. To trust courageously against entire odds the line of vision your hearts most desire, like the craving of sight by a blind person whose glass eyes eclipse the sun, in the end is not so preposterous after all in the new Jerusalem.

“O, come, sweet Jesus, deliver us!”

Ω

The featured photo (top) is of “Slaves Waiting for Sale” by Eyre Crowe, Richmond, Virginia, 1853
© Copyright 2018 Charles Davidson – All Rights Reserved
This essay was published April 29, 2018, IN Vox Populi at voxpopulisphere.com

Charles Daivdson

Charles Davidson is a retired Presbyterian minister, psychotherapist, and professor of pastoral theology, care, and counseling. He is the editor of George Buttrick’s Guide to Preaching the Gospel (Abingdon Press), and the author of Bone Dead, and Rising: Vincent van Gogh and the Self Before God (Cascade Books, Wipf and Stock Publishers).

A World of Surprises

BEING MOTHER OR FATHER TO YOUR OWN LIFE’S WORK is like the stone-deaf Beethoven birthing the Ninth Symphony’s Ode to Joy. The craft of creativity is far more formidable than comprehensible. We become infinitely more dependent upon what we do not know than upon what we know.

Who knows for sure whether this score will ever make sense or sound? — as Beethoven most certainly must have plagued himself in fruitful self-doubt while laboring over a multitude of musical phrases.

We, deeply stirred by the sound and sense of Beethoven’s muse, must ask a question. Are we the sole proprietors of our works? Unlike clocks ticking in a hushed universe, are we swept along by something far more compelling than the ill-fated motions of hands and faces gradually winding down? How do we, being at times so mortally hard of hearing, like Beethoven, become at other times acutely attuned to the sounds of silence that strangely disrupt our imperviousness to grace?

Ludwig van Beethoven Portrait by Joseph Karl Stieler

What comedy amid tragedy! Here is Beethoven arranging the musical harmony of one of the most sublime moments of his life—an entire symphony. Yet he’s composing the riches of a majestic melody to the dread, awful contradiction of absolute, mute silence.

Henry van Dyke sought words for the Ode: “Joyful, joyful, we adore Thee, God of glory, Lord of love.” And Beethoven, it is ascribed, also composed seven measures of a chant for an offertory response. “All things come of Thee, O Lord, and of thine own have we given Thee.”

Enter upon the scene. You, music lover, take a deliberate glance at the deeply entranced Beethoven. By fits and starts he is sitting with his muse. His “time” has caught up with him. The years immediately preceding have been overwhelmed with anxiety and grief, his output brief. But now comes one of those “given” instants, some would say, of brilliance. The master musician is composing his Joy in eerily deafened silence, yet the moon and the tides are waxing eloquently. Is unbridled faith able to muffle the world’s screaming dissonance long enough for anyone to listen and know that it is none other than God who speaks? Ludwig, alone but not alone, “hears” the music of the spheres as the presence of None Other. Are we surprised?

Mundane explanations aside, is it not forever true that “of thine own have we given Thee”? Did Beethoven love God all the more for not being able to hear the chanting cardinals and warbling snowbirds awaken him in the morning? Did their sound waves inaudibly split the air of his silent universe, mysteriously entering the marrow of his bones that he might declare in song, “O God!”?

The rest of us, being uninspired mimics of the world’s misfortunes, are less than attentive. We possess all our faculties, save one. We in the digital age, perhaps permanently, have lost the quiet composure of staying still long enough first to dream and imagine, then to sing the joyous melody close in for one solitary split second. The world of immediate bellow and clamor has dulled our inner senses. Our spirits have sprung loose like frayed violin strings. If only our lost souls were to commit the art of our living to the deaf side of our being, we might be surprised at what we hear when silenced like stone.

One day, early on, before his ears were hardened to the vibrations of audible melody, the young Ludwig was handed the task of learning to play the piano. What if there had been no piano? Would an “enthused” Ludwig have had the presence of heart, like an oyster, to take up pearl making? Mark Twain once quipped, “It is a world of surprises. They fall, too, where one is least expecting them.”

Wolfgang Amadeum Mozart
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart Portrait by Johann Nepomuk della Croce

Consider the child Mozart. Full of gift, full of surprise, his “lyrics” were like pure “liquid sunshine,” as Karl Barth exclaimed. Yet Mozart’s ordinary life remained tumultuous. What, then, explained his music? In the midst of Wolfgang’s gathering storm, how on Earth was he able to compose such implausible reverberations of grace? Was it by lunacy that he achieved ethereal heights? To what end? Only so that he could be cast into an unmarked pauper’s grave, his lot thrown in with the rest of us? O “liquid sunshine,” like that yellow ball of fire in the sky, how quickly you fade to the west, wearing out your heart in the fever of darkness!

Mozart exhausted his song. His song exhausted Mozart. In his thirty-fifth year the virtuoso perished, not having completed his life’s last measure of mirth. Had he lived yet a few more, then what? Maybe not nearly so much. For what is life when measured by years? Among the last words that Amadeus, “lover of God,” penned to his unfinished Requiem were these: “Make them pass from death to life.”

Truth is, each day is a divine-human “passage.” In “a world of surprises” belonging first to God before being found of us in ways we least expect, each day is passage “from death to life.”

Come, close your eyes and see. Come, close your ears and hear. Like chanting cardinal and warbling snowbird, come open your heart and sing — with whatever song you are given grace to say thanks. Ω

 

 

 

 

 

This essay was published in vox populi on december 25, 2019
Bird Photography by Charles Davidson
© 2019 Charles Davidson – All Rights Reserved

Charles Daivdson

Charles Davidson, writer and editor, is a retired Presbyterian minister, psychotherapist, and professor of pastoral theology, care, and counseling. He is the author of Bone Dead, and Rising: Vincent van Gogh and the Self Before God (Cascade Books, Wipf and Stock Publishers).

 

Portraits of You

AS THE SAYING GOES, and as you have heard it said, you are the food you eat, the clothes you wear, the friends you make, the name you bear, and the words you speak. You are also your social security number, your high school picture, the glimpse of you a passerby brings to mind, and the epithet to be etched upon your tomb.

Not least, you are what you see and think of yourself for better or worse when you look in the mirror and either sigh with satisfaction or scream in dismay. You are what you reconstruct of yourself at the end of your days when you add up the balance and subtract the failures from the achievements and trust the sum to be greater than zero. In that sense you are what you forget as well as what you remember.

You are also the person who has an honest conversation with yourself about not always being your best self, and needing more often than not to be your forgiving self. And when you are your false self, you are that part of yourself that hides from the rest of you your true self.

When you are your true self you may hardly know exactly who you are, for in truth every true self is a composite of more than one self. It is several selves resident in one, and one centered at the heart of many.

Today you feel rotten, tomorrow on top of the world, which means you are somewhere within the vast range of normal.

When the wind blows right and you go left, you are the person who discerns the difference between what is right for you and wrong for others. You respectfully leave it to them to know their own minds, even as you trust they will kindly leave it to you to make up yours.

You are a blundering idiot when you cannot help yourself, and a surprising wonder when you entrust yourself to the wisdom buried deep within you.

You are the sacred ground you tread upon, the holy sights you see, and the mystical things you do. You are the lover who, being loved, loves, and yet the one who can miss the mark of love altogether.

You are the hilarious moments you stumble upon that lift your spirit, and the horrendous deeds you witness that diminish your soul.

You are the prayers you say as you fall asleep, and the dreams you live before and after you awake.

Yes, all these are portraits of you.

Yet even more, you are the living image of the One who made you the exquisite glory you are.

(Composed for those persons who were Charles’ pastoral counseling clients over the course of twenty-three years)

© Charles Davidson, All Rights Reserved


Charles Davidson, writer and editor, is a retired Presbyterian minister, psychotherapist, and professor of pastoral theology, care, and counseling. He is the author of Bone Dead, and Rising; Vincent van Gogh and the Self Before God (Cascade Books, Wipf and Stock Publishers).