In the last episode of Fry on Words, wordsmith Stephen Fry explored the origins of the English language. He argued that Shakespeare was more responsible than anyone else for the development of the English language. In particular, he focussed on the most well-known line from Hamlet:
‘to be or not to be, that is the question’
In his explorations of this famous line from his play Hamlet, another Shakespearean actor suggested another possible reading,
‘to be or not, to be that is the question’
How much difference a comma can make! This change shifted Hamlet’s thoughts from just weighing up suicide to claiming that to continue to live is the only response, but the question is, how to be, how was he going to live now, who is he going to be?
Coincidentally, on the same night, following this programme, was the televised annual lecture for the Sydney Institute by Lord Melvyn Bragg speaking about the historical impact on language, society, slavery and democracy of the King James (Authorised) Version of the bible,
The King James Bible gave to the English-speaking world the authors all over the place, basis of its language – all the idioms, more than Shakespeare and so on. The turns of phrase, the stories and so on. When the [400th] anniversary of the [KJV] came up, he said, I started to think about it, and I thought, erasing of the power of that particular book, that particular Bible is [a] very, very serious matter for anybody interested in what’s happened in the 400 years.
In a difference of opinion to Stephen Fry, Lord Bragg argues that it was the writing of the KJV of the bible, as a part of the reformation of the Church, that is responsible for the origins of the English language. Even Shakespeare was dependent upon the Bible for many of his ideas and phrases that are found within his plays.
I found myself thinking as I listened to these two programmes, that there was a common theme connecting them. The ultimate description of God’s identity: to be; and for most of us, the temptation for God not to be. God is by name a verb. God’s name is not just a name, it states the expression of his identity.
Moving forward in history, we arrive at the accounts of Jesus resurrection appearances. ‘Peace be with you,’ says the risen Jesus to the disciples, locked away in fear that they would be the next to be executed, ‘As the Father has sent me, so I send you.’ He who is ‘to be’, sent Jesus ‘to be’ amongst his people, now sends his disciples ‘to be’ and, therefore, sends us ‘to be’.
Note that the post-Pentecost disciples do not get involved in a whole raft of mission programmes and activities to try and convert others to their faith in Jesus Christ, they were of one heart and soul… no one claimed private ownership of any possessions… everything they owned was held in common… they spoke about the resurrection of Jesus… they were graceful with one another… there was no one who went without physically; they were simply ‘being’ uniquely present in the society of their day.
Simply ‘being’ is our greatest act of worship because it is revealing the essence of God the creator and it is the expression of who we are in that image and likeness.
The problem with our modern western society, which I am afraid we have allowed to be expressed in the life of the relatively modern church, is that we define the value of a person by what they ‘do’. In the Church we refer to this as the Protestant work ethic, a product, ironically, of the reformation. In society, one of the first questions we ask someone on meeting them, “What do you do for a living?” We have transferred our allegiance from the God who named himself ‘to be’, ‘I am who I am,’ to a god we have named, ‘to do’, ‘I am what I do.’
This has implications for us as a church. All too often I hear so many of our people saying, there are too few of us doing too many things. The church is like football: there are 44 people desperately needing a rest being watched by 100,000 people desperately needing some exercise. We have defined our sense of belonging to Church by what we do. No wonder no one wants to become a part of the church even if they have faith. I can’t imagine anyone living in the business of doing of our society and culture wanting to become a part of the church that will add to their business of doing.
In John Jesus says,
In my Father’s house there are many dwelling-places. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may be also. And you know the way to the place where I am going.’ Thomas said to him, ‘Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?’ Jesus said to him, ‘I am the way, and the truth, and the life. John 14:2-6
The image of dwelling-places is not the idea of many rooms in the heavenly mansion, but more of a green oasis with a spring of fresh water to escape the heat of the journey through the desert. To be amongst those who are God’s friends, is to find a context simply ‘to be’.
This does not mean that we do nothing and are called to do nothing. The idea of vocation is that it comes from who we are; it is an expression of who we are. We need ‘to be’ first, or to work out a sense of our being, first. It is who we are that will inspire us into action. This doing, then, will not be something that is a burden, but will be something that inspires us and helps us grow in the knowledge of our being.
Here at St Stephens I hope that we can understand the model of discipleship we are building is not an invitation into business. Rather, it is an invitation into being. Through our house groups we are being with others who are on this journey of discovery of God and self, and who can help us on that journey. In our house groups we can discover what God is inviting us, as an individual and as a house group to do that expresses who we are.
As people of God who names himself as ‘to be’ and through his Son, Jesus Christ, sends us as he was sent, ‘to be’, the question is not ‘to be or not to be?’ Since Jesus has conquered by his death and resurrection the call is ‘to be’ and the question is simply ‘who am I and how am I going to be?’