WHY ME? LENTEN TALK BY DAVID BUCKLEY, ST JOHN THE BAPTIST, SUNDAY 26 MARCH 2017
WHY ME? LENTEN TALK BY DAVID BUCKLEY, ST JOHN THE BAPTIST, SUNDAY 26 MARCH 2017
When Father Peter first asked me to speak tonight, it started me thinking. For my own personal journey through faith has been, in the immortal words of Jerome K Jerome in his sequel to “3 men in a boat”, a Bummel. The word is an unusual one and comes with several definitions, so I’ll use the one author uses himself in which he defines a Bummel as “a journey, long or short, without an end…“
My own journey through faith has definitely been a random walk, stumbling across various direction posts and signs on the way – some -- or perhaps many -- of which I’ve missed, and others which now make much more sense to me with the passage of time and the benefit of 20:20 hindsight.
Many of you here today will probably know me best as the person who plays the organ here from time-to-time. Every so often, Paul kindly asks me play “the big beast” as he describes it, and at St. George’s, Andrew offers me the chance to to play when he is away.
I think it was the well-known and flamboyant American organist, Virgil Fox, who once described a concluding fugue as: “a composition in which the voices come in one by one and the congregation go out two by two.” One of the nice things about both St John’s and St George’s is that the congregation does stay to listen but that’s certainly not the case for most churches and I’m sure that all my fellow organists would agree that Virgil Fox had a point!
And whilst I’m not a musician by profession – I’m very much an enthusiastic amateur – the organ, organ music and music more generally have played a pivotal role in the development of my faith over the years. I have been fortunate enough to have had the opportunity to play at many churches and cathedrals both in the UK and abroad, and there is definitely something quite unique about being alone in a large church or cathedral with all stops blazing – the sense of power and spirituality one feels doing so can be something very special.
I started playing the organ at church services at quite a young age, and perhaps somewhat predictably was also enlisted into the school choir – against my will and with no opportunity to refuse!
Singing was never really my thing since for me there is nothing more exhilarating and uplifting than sitting at an organ console leading a choir and congregation in worship. In the early days there was also nothing more nerve wracking, and at school I had the added bonus of leading a large student congregation trying to put me off -- but fortunately the nerves pass over time and the disruptive element is something you just need to deal with and is a good lesson in life.
But like many organists at the early stages of learning the instrument, I would practice in the school chapel for an hour or so, pause for a break and then return to play. During those breaks in practice I would typically wander round the chapel itself looking at and absorbing the wonder of the building and all it contained: and so it was when I was pausing from practice one day that I came across a small bookstall at the back of the building and bought a book that would turn out to mark the start of my journey into faith.
The book cost the princely sum of 12p and was called “Journey into Life” by Norman Warren. Norman Warren was the rural dean of Merton at the time and subsequently became the Archdeacon of Rochester until his retirement in 2000. “Journey into Life” is just 14 pages long, but sets out, in very simple and plain English what it means to be a Christian and the necessary steps to becoming a Christian. The wisdom in its 14 little pages has guided me throughout my life, through good and challenging times. In the section entitled “The Way Ahead” it offers this advice: “Tell one other person within the next 24 hours what you have done and that you have surrendered your life to Christ. Don’t be ashamed to be known as a Christian at work and at home”. In today’s secular society, and perhaps even more poignantly in the context of this week’s terror attack in Westminster, this advice is just as relevant today as it was then.
So for a young student, with a strong sense of the wonder of the chapel in which he had been practicing his music who had stumbled across this book by accident – this was quite a “wow” moment. So how to take it all forward?
I was very lucky at school to be guided spiritually by a very charismatic chaplain, who in the mid-late 1970’s wanted to find a different way to engage his students in the Christian message. So another major influence on the early stages of my journey was listening to him playing recordings of “The Man Born to Be King” by Dorothy Sayers during our religious studies lessons. For those of you who aren’t familiar with it, “The Man Born to be King” was a radio drama based on the life of Jesus, which was first broadcast by the BBC Home Service during the second world war.
The drama consists of twelve short plays depicting specific periods in Jesus’ life, from events surrounding his birth to his death and resurrection, and aroused a storm of controversy as it featured realistic identifiable characters with human emotions, who spoke using colloquial English.
For those used to reading the King James’ Bible each week this must have been something of an issue to contend with. There were questions in the commons, the BBC Central religious advisory committee became embroiled in the controversy, but the broadcasts were all made. And for someone like me starting out on their journey of faith, it was simply an amazing way to access Jesus’ teachings even if some of the plays involved some poetic license from the Gospels from which they were sourced. Most importantly the plays made for an exciting set of stories and certainly captured the imagination!
But the time soon came to take these studies more seriously, to understand more, and so “The Man Born to be King” led me to the formal study of Mathew’s Gospel which I was examined on at “O” level. This was followed shortly afterwards by confirmation, with all these experiences coming together to underpin the development of a strong faith that would last me for life.
So I’m going to wind the clock forward many years, through University and early working life and into the world of finance and banking where I have spent most of my career. For this part of my journey my faith falls into two distinct areas. Maybe or maybe not these areas relate to Carl Jung’s characterization of the first and second halves of life, but using his definition, I was clearly in the first half of life when I turned up for work on day 1 at what is now one of the World’s largest global investment banks. In our first meeting my boss rather curiously said to me: “If you ever feel you have sold your soul in this industry then it’s time to leave”. I found it an odd thing to say at the time, but it is a phrase that I have lived with and which has resonated with me throughout my over 20 years in the industry and a phrase that has continued to make more sense to me with the passing of time.
Much of my early working life in the Finance world was spent dealing with the huge pressure that goes with working for an Investment Bank: hours are long, deadlines are tight and there is much travel involved. It was difficult to find time to make it to Church except perhaps at Christmas and sometimes at Easter, and indeed for an ambitious individual like myself, someone who was keen to progress up the greasy pole, it was actually quite difficult to do much of anything outside work.
Most outsiders associate problems in the industry with the 2008 Financial crisis, since during the 1990’s and 2000’s, working in the banking world was THE place to be – bankers could do no wrong, indeed famously some were knighted for their services only to find out that some of their decisions had been major contributors to the meltdown. University graduates were paid silly money to join these firms and the annual bonus discussion was not about absolute numbers but was about pay relative to one’s peers who were all paid in a similarly inflated way.
People who worked for me used to get upset because their pay rise was only 20% when in the real world most people were achieving low single digits – if that.
How does all this greed sit with Jesus’ teachings? The answer is that it probably doesn’t really sit very comfortably at all.
From an insider’s perspective, the challenge was trying to do the right thing in this environment: balancing the need to create ever larger profits for the firm, the attainment of personal reward from this together with some concept of being grounded and trying to make a contribution to society -- whilst at the same time not getting caught up in the greed culture. This has been an interesting and challenging set of conflicting personal objectives to manage.
So whilst I have never felt that I have been asked to “sell my soul” in a business context, there have definitely been times where feel I have been asked to do this from a career perspective – and I have said “no”. And in my attempts to do what I have always believed to be the right thing, without a doubt I have chosen to give up some career opportunities to those who have been willing to take, shall we say, a different view to me.
Dealing with all this has not always been easy, but I don’t regret any of these decisions – with the passage of time things have just worked out in different ways.
My faith and the guidance that has come from this faith has without doubt helped me work through these so-called “difficult” times, but in reality it is just a job and there are many who are and were a lot less fortunate than I.
My friends, family, loved ones good health and happiness are actually much more important to me, and the quality times I chose to spend with my parents, particularly during my father’s dying days were times that were and are still worth their weight in gold.
The financial services industry has changed since then – a bit -- but at the time it was certainly an unreal and bizarre world to be caught up in.
As I get older, and perhaps a bit wiser -- I am increasingly finding that my Bummel is edging me towards the “second half” of life – by which I mean a greater understanding of spirituality, mysticism and what all that means for my faith. Here I am walking a path that I don’t fully understand, don’t fully appreciate – and am slightly apprehensive about -- but without doubt the prospect and what I have seen so far is as exciting as the day I first picked up Norman Warren’s book and listened to Dorothy Sayers’ plays. I have no answers at the moment – it is a work in progress.
At the turn of the millennium I spent a fascinating four years living in both Hong Kong and Toyko, travelling around the region. Although – and for the reasons I talked about earlier – I didn’t get to spend much time in Church – I did spend time visiting shrines to Buddha, Shinto, Seikh, Hindu and other non-Christian deities on my travels – largely as a tourist and mainly out of interest – but in doing so I definitely felt the mystical and spiritual side of religion very deepy for the first time – and even though these are all non-Christian faiths, it was the exact same feeling that I subsequently experienced at the Church in Assisi where St Frances is buried. How to explain this? I did not know at the time, but the strength of feeling was most definitely there and I wanted to explore and to understand more.
And having experienced this I also discovered that the feeling extended way beyond Shinto and Buddhist shrines: I realized that for some time I had been experiencing something very similar listening to the works of composers including Messiaen, James MacMillan and Bach (with or without all his people-departing fugues!).
These composers, and indeed many others, all have in common a strong faith combined with a desire to express it in their works.
Different people -- I know -- find spirituality in different things – art, architecture, nature, dance, prayer and meditation and through many other facets of life: but for me it is music where I had discovered that spirituality – and in reality I had discovered it many years before: the first time was not in Japan, China or India, but in the Chapel at School listening to my organ teacher playing Messiaen’s Nativite du Seigneur.
Today I now know that Messiaen attached significant importance to the Christian symbolism that forms the subject of many of his works, albeit he always claimed that his symbolism was theological and not mystical. Messiaen’s music is really very special: if you listen to La Nativite, or perhaps to the Quartet for the end of time, or indeed many of his other works, I would question his claim: my view is that these works are some of the most spiritual and mystical pieces of music ever written.
So for me personally this stage of my journey through faith is in many ways the most exciting and certainly the most unexplored.
I’ve found much to help me understand it better through reading, discussion with others in the benefice and through the Lenten Courses that Father James has been running in recent times. The excitement is getting a glimpse of what this all is, and how best to share it with others.
So I’ve lived in Kensington for some 15 years now and have been worshipping and playing music at St John’s and St George’s for around the last 10 or so. My wife and I were married at St George’s in 2012 and our son, James, who is 20 months old now - was christened there in 2015.
And so as I now reflect on where I am on my Bummel, and I look at our little boy, growing up with all the technological and other advances we have seen in recent years, a world of instant messaging, Facebook and Instagram, fake news, international terrorism and political uncertainty -- but also a world of huge opportunity for him to develop and grow, it all seems incredibly challenging compared to my own childhood.
But is it? I strongly believe that the world was just as confusing a place to the people alive 2000 years ago when Jesus was teaching and despite all the advances in technology and communications, that in many ways not much has fundamentally changed. And so I believe that a key stage on my Bummel is to guide and nurture little James in the Christian faith and to be able to share my experiences with him.
So thank you for listening to me today and let me conclude by sharing with you Norman Warren’s prayer from “Journey into Life”, the prayer at the end of that little book that started my journey:
Lord Jesus Christ
I know I have sinned in my thoughts, words and actions.
There are so many good things I have not done.
There are so many sinful things I have done.
I am sorry for my sins and turn from everything I know to be wrong.
You gave your life upon the cross for me.
Gratefully I give my life back to you.
Now I ask you to come into my life.
Come in as my Saviour to cleanse me.
Come in as my Lord to control me.
Come in as my Friend to be with me.
And I will serve you all the remaining years of my life.