June 25, 2012 – the twenty-ninth day since Pentecost

Are you ready for a story?

Today in this blog let me share with you a short selection of worship from a Baptist Archbishop from the Republic of Georgia. Archbishop Malkhaz Songulashvili contributed many beautiful worship words to the book Gifts in Open Hands and some of them were very personal, including liturgy from his son’s funeral and celebration of his own wedding. What follows is an excerpt from that wedding ceremony and then after that I share, with his permission, a story – a small bit of memoir from experiences that he is having in Oxford England as he is studying for his PhD. Enjoy … laugh … and consider how your small prejudices may affect your interpretations of events.

The Crowning

The minister says aloud the following:

O Master, Lord our God, send down Your heavenly Grace upon these Your servants, (name) and (name), and (+) Bless them. O Lord our God, as you blessed Abraham and Sara. (+) Bless them, O Lord our God, as You blessed Isaac and Rebecca. (+) Bless them, O Lord our God, as you blessed Jacob and all the Prophets. (+) Bless them, O Lord our God, as You blessed Joseph and Asenath. (+) Bless them O Lord our God, as You blessed Moses and Zipporah Bless them, O Lord our God, as You blessed Joakim and Anna. (+) Bless them, O Lord our God, as You blessed Zacharias and Elizabeth.

Preserve them, O Lord our God, as You preserved Noah in the Ark. Preserve them, O Lord our God, as You preserved Jonah in the jaw of the sea beast. Preserve them, O Lord our God, as You preserved the holy Three Children from the fire, when You sent down upon them the dew of the Heavens.

Remember them, O Lord our God, as You remembered Enoch, Shem, and Elias. Remember them, O Lord our God, as You remembered all Your holy Martyrs, sending down upon them the crowns from the Heavens …

After the Amen, Minister, taking up the Crowns, crowns first the Bridegroom, saying:

The servant of God (name) is crowned for the servant of God, (name), in the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen. (Three times)

And he crowns the Bride, saying:

The servant of God (name) is crowned for the servant of God (name) in the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen. (Three times)

Procession Around Altar

Then the minister takes the couple and leads them in a circle around the Altar thrice as a symbol of joyful dance and God’s guidance the couple will need in their lives. The choir and people chant:

The Dance of Isaiah

O Isaiah, dance your joy, for the Virgin was indeed with child; and brought to birth a Son, that Emmanuel, Who came as both God and human; Day‑at‑the‑Dawn is the Name He bears, and by extolling Him, We hail the Virgin as blessed. Hear us, you martyred Saints, who fought the good fight, gaining crowns: entreat the Lord to shed His tender mercy on our souls. Glory to You, O Christ our God, Your Apostles’ proudest boast and treasure of Your Martyrs’ joy,..

A Story — One day in the life of a Wandering Georgian

I cannot believe it – I am finishing the last chapter of my thesis.  I keep going to the Bodleian Library every day. Very often I am the first reader to arrive at the library and the last to leave. I enjoy every minute of my routine. I find it fascinating. My place is not far from the library but I usually cycle because during the day I have to go to various places and colleges.

I should tell you a little bit about my bicycle. The concept of a bicycle brings rather funny associations to me. Some years ago I visited Burundi for the first time (now we have a Bishop in Burundi whom we consecrated in Tbilisi). One evening I was in Kayanza where we had a rather informal encounter with the leadership of the Burundi Baptist Church.  I was interested to know more about the issues of poverty in the country.  I was told that if you have a bicycle you have some social status in Burundi society. If you do not have a bicycle nobody will marry you. I thought it was a rather interesting measure of social standing. Then the conversation took us to more informal matters – families, relationships, gossip… In the course of the conversation a young Burundi minister turned to me unexpectedly and asked, “Are you married?” I gather everybody wanted to know things about my family. By that time I was feeling comfortable among them and therefore I answered immediately: “No, I do not have a bicycle, who will marry me?” We laughed a lot. Some time later when I married Ala in 2008 the Burundi Baptists wrote to me and said, “Now we know you have a bicycle.”  But the truth of the matter was that I did not have a bicycle. It was gracious of Ala to marry a bike-less man. I got my first bicycle in Oxford where everybody cycles – or almost everybody, to be correct.

I had an Orthodox priest to stay at my place in Oxford. He realised that everybody was cycling around us except me, and decided to do something about it. One evening he came home and proudly delivered a big cardboard box containing a bicycle.  It was in fact a pre-fabricated bicycle, which needed to be assembled. That was how an Orthodox priest and a Baptist Archbishop ventured into the bicycle-assembling business.  That was an ecumenical project, if you wish.  At first neither of us could make head nor tail of the parts. But ultimately we assembled the thing, which actually looked like a two-wheeled vehicle. Unfortunately we fixed the fork wrongly, it should have been the other way round, but we did not know that. Even though it looks very trendy and nice, it is a rather cheap bicycle. Fr. Nicolas had bought it in a sale somewhere in Oxford. He is exceptionally gifted at shopping. But this does not matter – everybody thinks it is a very posh bicycle. A writer, who lives in Oxford and is an expert in bicycles, is interested in buying it if I decide to sell it.

Why am I telling this story? I should be telling you something else. This is about my daily routine. The other day I got to the library as early as usual and attached the bike, with a sophisticated lock to the black railings encircling the Radcliffe Camera. My day starts. I go to a librarian to collect my books. I usually get a dozen books every day. “Would you like a book or two?” asks Simon, the librarian, with a cheeky smile on his face. He has a tremendous sense of humour. “No thanks,” I answer jokingly, “I’d rather have a nice cup of tea.” We laugh. I take my books to the area where I usually sit. On a long table there is a piece of laminated paper saying: “This bay is a quiet area. Please do not use laptops here!!” This is my place.  I start reading Teilhard de Chardin and soon become completely absorbed in his world. I am fascinated by his understanding of the cosmic Christ….

As I read one of his treatises a phrase prompts me to remember my appointment at Regent’s Park College. In panic I look at my watch. I have ten minutes left. But I stop worrying. I have my silver ‘horse’ to get there. The college is only about a mile away. I rush to the bicycle, still being captivated by Chardin’s theology, and unlock the chain. I try physically to move the bike but it does not move, like a stubborn donkey.  I look at the bike and see that late-comers had parked their bicycles on either side of my bicycle in such way that there is no way I can untangle it from them. I realise that I am losing time. I quickly re-attach the bike to the rail and dash to the college. I am running. I am late for the meeting but not too dramatically. I am still punctual by Georgian standards. After the meeting I go back to the library and continue my studies. In the evening, when it is already dark, I leave the library. This time there is only one bicycle left on the rail, and that is my bike. I slowly unlock the chain and start peddling away. As I cycle I have a feeling that something is running in front of me. I slow down and gaze carefully at the front wheel. I stop the bicycle and find out that there is a piece of white paper stuck between the spokes of the front wheel.  I take the paper and see that something is written on it. I move slowly towards a street lamp and start reading. “What is it?”, I think. “An advertisement or what?” I try to read in the dim light. The first sentence says: “To the owner of this bicycle.”  I realise that it is meant for me and continue to read. The second sentence seemed even more intriguing: “I just wanted to warn you…” Goodness!  I tucked the letter in my pocket and quickly pedalled home. Now with my spectacles and the light on I can read it without difficulty.  Do you want me tell you what was in the letter? I hope you do. Let’s read it together:

‘To the owner of this Bicycle. I just wanted to warn you that you may need to purchase [a] new lock soon as I saw an older man with a long gray beard prowling about the yard about 11 o’clock this morning. Unusually he had a long chain in his pocket with an attached set of keys and he started to make away with your[s] bike. In staring him down for what I considered to be unusual behavior, he seemed to change his mind, reattached your lock, and made his way down Brasenose Lane. I hope that I prevented a theft today…’

I am so sorry I cannot help interrupting your reading.  Apparently the person who wrote this letter realised that the thief might come back and have read the letter before the owner of the bike. The writer of the letter quite thoughtfully decided to drop a line for the thief as well, just in case. This is what she writes:

‘…But if you are that older man, beware, as your appearance is highly suspicious.  For further information, you may reach me at [Address of the e-mail]. ‘

For a split second I thought, “Somebody tried to steal my bike.” But I immediately realised that I was the thief! It is I who have the long chain in my pocket with an attached set of keys; it is I who have ‘a long gray beard’; and it is I who have the ‘highly suspicious appearance.’

Today I carefully worded a thank-you letter to the writer.  Are you interested to know what I wrote? You are most welcome:

‘Dear Eleanor,

I suppose I owe you this letter [to you]. Let me thank you most sincerely for [your] vigilance and willingness to prevent a theft at the Radclif[fe] Camera. Thank you also for writing a message and stacking [sticking] it between the spokes.  I suppose I should invite you over [for] a cup of tea if you like.

Gratefully yours,
Archbishop Malkhaz Songulashvili, Regent’s Park College.

P.S. You should forgive my absent-mindedness. I forgot to tell you that I am that grey-bearded man you saw the other day.’

Obviously I do not know who Eleanor is. If we bear in mind her spelling of ‘gray’ and ‘behavior’ one could assume that she an American, perhaps an American student studying at Oxford. But I may be totally wrong. I will let you know about her when she writes back. In the meantime I will continue prowling in the yard of the Radcliffe Camera, stealing my own bike every day.

If you would like to purchase a copy of Gifts in Open Hands, please go here.

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