Our guest preacher on Thursday November 26 was Rosie Deedes, sometime Westcott Ordinand herself, recently a prison chaplain. She gave this powerful sermon, meditating on our reading from the prophet Daniel and her times in prison. chaplaincy.
Readings Daniel 6.12-end Luke 21.20-28
After some to-ing and fro-ing of emails between myself and Brother Malcolm, we finally ascertained that the OT reading for this service was from Daniel. I was pleased at this information for 3 reasons:
- I have never preached on Daniel before, and it gave me the chance to read the whole book at one sitting. It’s a good read, I recommend it.
- It gave me a good reason not to preach on the Gospel, – apocalyptic passages are not my strong point.
- And as I come back to Westcott after 20 years, I can empathise with Daniel going into the lion’s den. Let’s see if the angels come to protect me too! And I get out of here unscathed.
Leaving aside any discussion about the historical evidence or accuracy of the book of Daniel – the meaning of the story, I think, is how to remain faithful to God despite long years in exile.
How could we sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land? Ps 137.4
(won’t burst into song at this point)
Being in exile is something else which I can identify with. Until February of this year I was in prison. I served 16 years, longer than a life sentence, as a prison chaplain.
To be a chaplain, in any context, especially when you are fulltime, requires one to step away from the comfort and familiarity of the Church, (if I may call it that), and to establish oneself in a secular environment.
In this context people don’t know what to call you – padre, vicar, father even (Rosie will do fine, thanks!) Here many people that you encounter won’t know the difference between a Buddhist and a Baptist, but they will expect you to be knowledgeable about both. Here you will be expected to work harmoniously with chaplains as different as Pentecostal and Pagan, Muslim and Mormon, and to demonstrate collaborative working despite theological differences. Here, you won’t be in charge, you will be the guest of the institution where you serve, managed often by someone who knows little about what you do, and wonders why you do it. You will be subject to someone else’s rules and regulations – their HR policies, their rewards and incentives. These experiences can seem a very long way away from parish life.
In this kind of ministry, far from being embraced and supported by clergy colleagues, you may be forgotten at worst, or at best wheeled out during Prisons week – to preach on Matthew 25. 36
I was in prison and you visited me.
For many working in chaplaincies, and in particular for those in the closed off, hidden away world of prisons, they can feel in exile both from the Church, but also from society; not unlike the feelings of the prisoners themselves.
But for me, being on the edge of the Church, and doing ministry on the margins, I have found great freedom, liberation even, as well as great challenge. When I first mentioned to the Bishop of London, Richard Chartres – an imposing figure of a man, that I was considering going to be a prison chaplain, he said in his booming, deep, resonating voice
Are you going native?
I didn’t really know what he was talking about at the time (but I was too polite to say.) Perhaps I understand better now. Perhaps after all this time in chaplaincy, I have?
There is a rawness, a reality of being alongside those in extremis, which cuts through the crap, and draws you deep into the pain of human experience, deep into the encounter with the suffering God.
|HM Prison Holloway|
Most Sundays in prison, we had a Eucharistic service. There is debate in Christian prison chaplaincy circles about the appropriateness of regular communion for those who were often unchurched, not baptised and unfamiliar with the liturgy. Wouldn’t it be better to have a lively praise service which left everyone on a spiritual or emotional high as they went back to the isolation of their cells? Whilst of course there is justification for a variety of worship traditions in a congregation which is as culturally and theologically mixed as is possible to imagine, there is something profoundly significant about the Eucharist.
In this coming together to remember and re-enact the last supper, we are reminded of God’s grace and love for the whole of humanity. Should I not give communion to those who are not baptised, or who may not understand, or who may follow a different belief system altogether? If I should exclude, I never have. Some prisoners exclude themselves – they may feel unable to receive because they have such a strong sense of unworthiness and shame; I hope that by coming and being part of the gathered community they will hear and know that all are welcomed, all can come and share. I hope they will understand that not one of us is perfect, we all of us have fallen short of the glory of God, and that this is a about grace – a gift, freely given by God, in Christ. Didn’t Jesus share his last supper with one who would betray him, another who would deny him, and the rest who would desert him?
As I have distributed communion in prisons, I have walked along a line of women whose outstretched arms have revealed visible scars of lives damaged and broken. I have placed bread into the shaky, lined hands of old men who bear the uncomfortable labels nonce, pervert, sex offender. I have listened to the lives of these men and women, and have thought of their stories as I have said innumerable times “the body of Christ, broken for you; the blood of Christ shed for you.” And I have known, in those intense moments of connection and connectedness, that God is here in the midst of it all, knowing, sharing, living and loving amidst the brokenness of our lives, our bodies, our world.
I wish, like Daniel, I could tell you of my piety and priestly virtue throughout my chaplaincy, that my prayer life and saying the office has sustained me. I cannot. I have been a terrible example to others in my ill-disciplined prayer life. But what I have never lost sight of is the presence of God to guide and sustain me through some situations which I simply could not have handled on my own. There have been times, too many to number, where I have felt unprepared, ill-equipped, and totally out of my depth. How do you say prayers with a mother for her still born child, when she feels she has murdered the child by her chaotic lifestyle and drug habits? What words do you use in those circumstances, when you yourself are heavily pregnant? Or how do you comfort a young woman whom you have just had to tell that all her family members have been killed in a plane crash in Nigeria, and then help her prepare to be deported back there a few weeks later? How do you sit with a prisoner whom the world has completely disowned for his horrendous crimes against children and help him to die peacefully? Many times I have cried to God, you’ve got to help me out here.
And of course He was there, He was always there, He is always there. Often not to give me words, but to give me the capacity and strength to be; to be silent, to be alongside, to be without judgement, to love.
Daniel was chosen from amongst the royalty and nobility of the Israelites to come and live in the courts in Babylon, and I believe those of us who find ourselves in chaplaincy, or indeed in any kind of ministry, are chosen, and called to be there, at that time.
I don’t know why God called me into prison, but I know He did and that I couldn’t have lasted this long there if he hadn’t. I also know that when I went to visit HMP Holloway women’s prison for the first time, I immediately felt at home! (don’t know what that says about me!)
I know too, that God equips and sustains those whom he has chosen. He recognises in us our vulnerabilities, as well as our strengths, and can use us warts and all in the work of his kingdom. I have come to realise more and more that all that we have to offer is ourselves, and that no amount of lectures or studying can equip us as well for ministry, as knowing who we are, and being who we truly are, as God wants us to be.
Perhaps what we need for ministry is there modelled in the life of Daniel. He lived in a strange land, but never lost his identity. Daniel trusted in God, not in his own strength. He prayed, often, and praised God in all things. He was filled with the spirit of God and was full of wisdom. He suffered for his beliefs, and was thrown into the lion’s den for holding on to them. He was a man of integrity, true to God, true to his beliefs, true to himself.
Whatever ministry God calls us to, may we, like Daniel be found blameless before Him. And whatever den of lion’s we may be thrown into in the course of our lives, may the angels of God minister to us to save us. And let us remember that is God whom we are serving, and let us be faithful to Him, just as He is always with us.
For He is the living God, enduring forever.
His kingdom shall never be destroyed, and his dominion has no end.