This is a transcript of the address given by Rev. Dave Tomlinson at the St Ethelburga’s Feast Day celebration held on October 10th.
In the early 1960s Edward Lorenz, a meteorologist, tried to understand why it is so hard to make accurate predictions about the weather. Crucially, he observed that small differences in dynamic systems such as the atmosphere can trigger vast and often unsuspected results.
In 1972 he presented his findings in a paper entitled ‘Predictability: Does the flap of a butterfly’s wings in Brazil set off a tornado in Texas?’ (He originally used the example of a seagull causing a storm, but decided a butterfly was more poetic).
Lorenz’s proposal sounded preposterous. But his ideas were shown to be entirely correct. The phrase ‘butterfly effect’ refers to the idea that even a butterfly’s tiny wings may create miniscule changes in the atmosphere that set off a chain of events that could, for example, ultimately alter the path of a tornado, or influence its speed, or impact other weather patterns.
Chaos theory, as Lorenz called this, has many applications far beyond weather behaviour…beyond science itself. For example, it’s a helpful way of recognising how decisions or actions we as individuals take, no matter how seemingly insignificant, sometimes play a massive part in determining the outcome of our lives and the lives of others – even entire cultures.
This is why Gandhi’s famous quote, ‘Be the change you want to see in the world’, is so powerful. It shows how one decision to change our personal world or the world of one other person can end up transforming a society.
Desmond Tutu says that the biggest defining moment of his life came through an unbelievably simple act of courtesy he witnessed when he was a young boy of nine or so. He says, ‘I saw this tall white priest in a black cassock doff his hat to my mother who was a domestic worker’, something you wouldn’t expect in apartheid South Africa. Tutu didn’t know that the priest was Trevor Huddleston, a dedicated anti-apartheid activist. But he saw something he says blew his mind and instilled in him a passion to pursue justice for black people. A tiny flap of a butterfly’s wings prompted a chain reaction that helped produce one of our world’s greatest moral leaders.
Trevor Huddleston did much in his life to combat apartheid, but could he ever have guessed that such a modest gesture of courtesy would turn out to be one of his most significant assaults on that racist system?
However, he didn’t do it for that reason; he did it because that was who he was – a kind, courteous person who respected black people and treated them as equally precious human beings.
I think authenticity is the heart and soul of spirituality in any tradition. To live in a spiritual fashion is to unite our inner and outer worlds – to be true to our internal values or deepest instincts by putting them into practice in the everyday world.
Sometimes, that doesn’t come cheap, there is often a cost in being true to one’s spiritual instincts. It may mean running counter to a prevailing culture or making choices that others don’t understand. Which may hurt.
And this is precisely what Jesus is getting at when he says that to follow him we must take up our cross daily. It’s not a literal statement. It’s a metaphor for a way of life in which our behaviour lines up with our spiritual values instead of being dictated by other pressures. It’s a ‘flapping’ choice that may have huge consequences.
After 1500 years we know only a little about Ethelburga but what we do know gives excellent cause to celebrate one of our greatest British saints – someone who flapped her wings fiercely.
When she refused an arranged marriage to a pagan prince (an outrageous decision at the time), her brother (later Bishop of London) banished her to a nunnery where she really did spread her wings, demonstrating natural leadership flair to become the first abbess of a religious community in this country.
Then during an outbreak of the plague, she told her sisters ‘we can stay in the abbey, shut away from the danger, and pray for our neighbours, or we can open the doors and care for them. They chose to tend the sick, and to ensure that the dying left this world cradled in loving arms – then perished from the disease themselves.
Life really is all about choices. We may have little control over circumstances but do have power over the choices we make within those circumstances – and it’s the choices that indicate and determine who we are…not the circumstances.
Our lovely friend Sophie Sabbage recently released a fabulous book on this very subject called Lifeshocks. It
speaks to all the unwanted and unexpected moments of our lives, many of which we don’t like. They surprise us. They blindside us. They shock us. They command our attention.
And as Sophie writes, ‘These are not necessarily once-in-awhile events, but often a dozen-a-day encounters with stuff we cannot control, predict or plan. Some bounce off us, some scratch the surface of our lives, others strike deep into our being. These moments are collision points between life as we see it and life as it actually is.’
Five years ago, Sophie was diagnosed with Stage 4 cancer and given a couple of months to live. Now that was a shock! – for Sophie, for her husband, for their then sixyear-old daughter plus a multitude of loved ones. But Sophie made a choice (flapped her wings); she decided not to battle cancer (a phrase she sees as toxic) but to live the best possible life she could with cancer. She also wrote a terrific book called The Cancer Whisperer all about living with cancer, which is translated into 27 languages and won multiple awards.
Sophie is funny, clever, compassionate and utterly resilient. Her point is that we can’t avoid the lifeshocks we experience, but we can choose how to react to them. And that’s where the flapping of wings comes in. Sophie doesn’t know what the future holds. She understands that the disease might kill her. But she has chosen to live. And to live in a way that brings strength, courage and hope to countless thousands of people – and like Ethelburga, to be a loving presence with those who are dying.
Counter-intuitively, I don’t believe we change the world by setting out to change the world (that tends to produce megalomaniacs!). We change the world (for some people, at least, by being true to ourselves, to our deepest instincts and values. Ethelburga never tried to change the world, yet she absolutely changed the world of suffering people around her abbey.
Some of the most authentic people I know aren’t even particularly religious – just rough and ready ‘pilgrims’ who practice what they most deeply feel and believe as human beings.
Take Kay, for example, one of my former parishioners – a grandmother with a heart the size of St Paul’s Cathedral. Kay lives in social housing, on benefits, in a smallish flat that is constantly filled with family and friends – plus lonely odd bods from the estate – people who feel sidelined. Sunday dinner at Kay’s is a spectacle to behold – ‘Come on in, it’ll stretch’ is her philosophy. And almost like the loaves and fishes, it does.
When Eric, one of her regular ‘odd bods’ died (a funny Glaswegian with no known next-of-kin and not a penny to his name), he was headed for a common grave without a headstone or any identification. So, Kay organised a whipround among the neighbours to pay for the funeral including a grave with a headstone bearing his name. And it was my honour to conduct the service in which Kay gave a lovely simple tribute to her neighbour.
However, the full extent of Kay’s generosity only became clear a year later when I discovered that, in the event, she only managed to raise half the money for the funeral, so she cut a deal with the funeral director to pay the rest over three years out of her very meagre income. When I told this story on Radio 2, I had people all over the place offering to pay the debt.
As I say, Kay isn’t particularly religious. When I suggested she might come to church she said, ‘Nah Dave, I’m not really the churchy type. This is my church, here with my family and friends.’ And you know, I reckon it’s true: the kingdom of God was (still is) an amazing reality in Kay’s home – not because she’s trying to change the world, but because she is just being true to herself, to her deepest instincts or spiritual values as we might see them.
We all make choices every day, every moment which can in some way change the world for the better – if we choose the pathway of love and reconciliation rather than anger or selfishness or revenge or indifference.
The great twentieth century theologian, Paul Tillich, wrote: ‘Death is given no power over love. Love is stronger. It creates something new out of the destruction caused by death; it bears everything and overcomes everything. It is at work where the power of death is strongest, in war and persecution and homelessness and hunger and physical death itself. It is omnipresent and here and there, in the smallest and most hidden ways as in the greatest and most visible ones, it rescues life from death. It rescues each of us, for love is stronger than death.’
So go for it, friends…beat your tiny wings silly…be true to your deepest instincts…and let the rest look after itself.
Dave Tomlinson is a writer and Church of England priest – a fervent proponent of progressive Christian theology and practice. His books include The Post-Evangelical, How To Be a Bad Christian (and a better human being), and Black Sheep and Prodigals (an antidote to black and white religion). Dave also regularly contributes to BBC Radio 2’s ‘Pause for Thought’ on the Chris Evans Breakfast Show. And along with his wife Pat, he co-founded Holy Joes, a church in a pub. He is part of St Ethelburga’s chaplaincy team.