The Silent Cry

3 July 2020

There is a book on my shelf that is in perfect condition. That is because I have not read it despite it being there some years now. I cannot recall how long but it says that the English translation date was 2001. My guess is that I bought it about seven or eight years ago. In some ways, it is surprising that I haven’t read it because it is by Dorothee Sölle. In my final year at theological college, I devoured every book I could by Sölle; my college principal thought it would be good for me. One of a crop of theologians Hamburg-born Sölle sought to challenge the economic and political structure of the day with a radical re-visioning of theology. For a twenty-something ministerial student bent on changing the world through the Church it was music to ears.

So why hasn’t the book to which I have alluded been read? Have the years softened my edge? Do I no longer believe that the Church can change the world? Was Sölle of her time and the terminology, as well as the issues, no longer relevant? There is still a resounding ‘no’ emanating from my heart to each of those questions. Indeed, I will still flick through the pages of this book and find a quote that is worth holding on to. No, the real reason behind not reading the book from beginning to end is the title. It is in itself too close to home, too appropriate for me and would therefore be too painful for me to grapple with. ‘The Silent Cry’ is the title and it is a term that echoes in the deepest recesses of my soul.

A silent cry is not inaudible, it’s just not heard. Rising from a place of hurt and pain, the silent cry is loud and clear, it’s just not heard. It is as if the scream has been muffled by a padded room; no one hears, no one cares, because they have heard it before and it either failed to resonate with them or, for whatever reason, it was just too painful for it to be allowed in to their own lives.

Having never read it properly, I cannot tell if this is the thrust of the book – I suspect so, but I am not willing to risk finding out. My own silent cry is too painful, it is loud and it is excruciatingly solitudinal. I know it must go back a very long way. To being a child and a toddler in a household of teenage stepsiblings who had their own grief to deal with at a stage of life that is always difficult, even without the death of their mother so recently and at such a young age. My own loss went unnoticed by anyone around me. It was for the paternal grandmother, who had been grieving for her only child, my Father who died at 23, and it was she who had raised me those first four years prior to my mother re-marrying. Additionally, being unable to communicate my growing knowledge deepened a sense of isolation. By the time I was at Grammar School, no one in the family seemed to understand me. I have revisited these experiences frequently over the course of my 60 years. This is not because I cannot move on, not because I somehow wallow in them, but because they have made me what I am. They are simply too deeply embedded into my psyche and they are prone to colour my view of the world, especially when my hurt goes unnoticed, or my concerns unheard.

There are advantages and disadvantages to this, as may be the case with many experiences. I tend to hear the silent cry of others, including Kosova Albanian refugees, with whom I worked during and after the war of 1999, and Holocaust survivors, who often bore their angst in silence for many decades before finding the strength to tell their stories lest the lessons of the past be not learnt. The disadvantage of course is when my own silent cry goes unheard; it creates a frustration like no other and it probably transports me back to a childhood where my voice didn’t really count, or at least struggled to be heard above the clamour of others.

Over the past decade, I have sought to challenge the narrative of some within the Church regarding Israel Palestine and the occasional error of straying into naïve politicking and poor theology, not least the occasional hint of supersessionism. I have done so for the sake of the Church itself. At times my cry has seemed more silent than ever. The frustration of not being heard has been immense. I have dedicated so much of my life to trying to understand the contempt with which so many have towards those from within Jewish communities. I have studied in depth the path that led to the Holocaust, including the complicity of the Christian Church in Germany. I addition, I have watched in horror at today’s drive in many parts of the Middle East to rid the region of any strand of faith other than the one held by the majority in any particular country. Despite all of this, I do not feel that my voice is welcome. Not being able to contribute to a discussion because one’s views are out of line with others or are dismissed, for whatever reason, is tough, very tough.

This is my own silent cry. And it makes me wonder how it will be heard, if at all.  However, this is not new, even if utterly painful at present. I recall being ridiculed when in 2008, as the economy collapsed, I dared to suggest that inequality would increase and democracy itself could fail. I recall being scoffed at when I dared suggest that one day English nationalists would rule from Westminster and cause a fracture with the other home nations. That particular sermon was in the late ‘90s as I examined what had happened in the Former Yugoslav Republic; my view was if there why not here in another federation of countries. I still have the sermon somewhere and when I came across it a year or so ago I couldn’t help but feel some sense of vindication, too little too late, and with no pleasure in my heart at all.

When the silent cry is at its loudest and most ignored, questions are raised as to how it will ever be heard. I can understand the radical and ultimate path some take at such a point. When no one hears, what other option is there? It is at that point we must seek again and not give in to the temptation of nihilism. As I write these words I turn to Dorothee Sölle and do what I have only been able to do so far, open The Silent Cry at a random page and find out what it says.

Page 97 firstly quotes William Blake; amazingly, because it was the first poem I learnt as a child:

To see a world in a grain of sand
And a heaven in a wild flower.
Hold infinity in the palm of your hand
And eternity in an hour.

Then Sölle goes on to pose some questions:

Where do people experience mystical oneness, breakthrough, or wholeness? Where and when and under what circumstances does it happen that they move from feeling banished into a different state of consciousness – and in that different oneness they can let go of their atomistic separateness? Are there particular situations or events that bring about the experience of ecstasy and oneness? Is the desert such a place? Is the premonition of one’s death such an event? Or is it the gathering of people who in silence do no more than wait upon the Lord? Is there really something called a place of mystical experience? Where are we to look for it? Or is this a false question?

The question is far from false for me. Having experienced and let out many a silent cry and having crept back to the lonely room of my soul, I have somehow found, on occasion, not always but on occasion, a sense of mysterious conviction and justification. They crucified my Lord. The families of friends of mine processed into gas chambers. Even those once feted for their views fell afoul of the State and either ended up against a wall in the Lubyanka or in a Siberian Gulag. What cost is my silent cry?

One day, maybe I will find the strength to read the book from beginning to end.

 

Silent Cry

 

English published by Augsburg Fortress in 2001 

Cover ‘Jacob Wrestling with the Angel’ (1936) by Hananiah Harari, Smithsonian American Art Museum , the gift of Patricia and Philip Frost

Genesis 32.22-32 (NRSV)
22 The same night he got up and took his two wives, his two maids, and his eleven children, and crossed the ford of the Jabbok. 23 He took them and sent them across the stream, and likewise everything that he had. 24 Jacob was left alone; and a man wrestled with him until daybreak. 25 When the man saw that he did not prevail against Jacob, he struck him on the hip socket; and Jacob’s hip was put out of joint as he wrestled with him. 26 Then he said, “Let me go, for the day is breaking.” But Jacob said, “I will not let you go, unless you bless me.” 27 So he said to him, “What is your name?” And he said, “Jacob.” 28 Then the man said, “You shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with humans, and have prevailed.” 29 Then Jacob asked him, “Please tell me your name.” But he said, “Why is it that you ask my name?” And there he blessed him. 30 So Jacob called the place Peniel, saying, “For I have seen God face to face, and yet my life is preserved.” 31 The sun rose upon him as he passed Penuel, limping because of his hip. 32 Therefore to this day the Israelites do not eat the thigh muscle that is on the hip socket, because he struck Jacob on the hip socket at the thigh muscle.

“For I have seen God face to face, and yet my life is preserved.”
Or, as some translations have it:
“I have come face to face with God and lived.”

It is certain that the tale of a mere mortal encountering and wrestling with a supernatural being, demon or otherwise, predates the Jacob account that we have here. For as long as humans have been able to reflect on their place in the world, and through their imagination create myths that tell of some perceived truth, there have been accounts of chance meetings between a heroic human figure and a mysterious interlocutor or combatant. In addition, this encounter often occurs when the hero is either crossing from one place to another or progressing from one stage of awareness to a higher level, in other words the incident often occurs at a moment of transition.

Consider the troll on a bridge or at a ford as later examples. Thankfully, there is always a strong goat amongst the three billy goats gruff to deal with the threat. Interestingly, in ancient folk lore, the incident is often recorded as being at night; and as day breaks the threat loses its power and disappears from view, leaving our hero to contemplate what has taken place.

For Jacob this is a defining moment in his story. Wrestling has been in his very nature, in the womb with his twin, clinging to his heel at birth. Jacob has striven with Esau over his birthright and their father’s blessing. He has exerted great effort to roll away the stone from the well for Rachel and he has metaphorically wrestled with Laban over his daughter’s hand in marriage. Now he engages in this epic battle at night with what he can’t quite be sure, and neither can we. The Midrash tells us it is Esau’s guardian angel, which enables Jacob’s descendants, Israel, to warn their enemies that they shall not prevail over them, no matter how great or long the struggle. Jacob survives to tell the tale. For the writer he has come face to face with God and lived. Moreover, his journey continues.

Lesser referred to texts, elsewhere in the Hebrew Bible, include the moment God sought to kill Moses just as the wannabe liberator was about to descend back into Egypt: ‘The Lord met him and sought to kill him’ we are informed (Exodus 4.24). Later of course, on the journey into the Promised Land, there is the more familiar incident where, Moses, having met with the Lord, is informed that lesser mortals, and from then on Moses too, would not see the Lord face-to-face and live. Thereafter Moses would only see the back of the Lord. For Jacob, at an earlier time, even then, to claim that he, a mere mortal, believed he had come face-to-face with God and lived was extraordinary.

Today of course, in a time of pandemic, coming face-to-face with anyone may bring about sickness or even death. Hence the need to hold Conference on line and not as we would normally do. It has been the face-to-face encounters at our annual Conferences, the social interaction, that many have found to be amongst the most enjoyable and life-affirming experiences. However, the dangers of doing so this year are, as we know, for too great. Wrestling with the new challenges have been, and for many continue to be, utterly exhausting. It is as if we are still experiencing a long night as we journey from one place to another. The destination could still be far off, many will reach it, some may not, such is the seriousness of our encounter with this mysterious demon we call Covid-19. Naming an enemy of course enables us to fight it more effectively; Jacob knew that, better to have something to hit out at than just allow it to drag us to the ground.

History books of the future will consider the years before 2020 as pre-Covid-19, and every year from now on, we will be in the post Covid-19 era. Such is the gravity of the times in which we live, the predicament with which we wrestle. For how long this dark night will persist, we cannot say, but at least we can draw strength from our knowledge of the past.

My good friend Eva Schloss, Auschwitz survivor and posthumous step-sister to Anne Frank, said to me in the first week of lock down, just as she and her travelling companion were self-isolating after a speaking tour of the West Coast of the United States, ‘It reminds me of the war,’ she said. ‘We have to always keep in mind that this will pass’. This will pass. Who am I to doubt the wisdom and insight of a remarkable woman who as a young teenager spent time in hiding, experienced the unimaginable journey to Auschwitz in a crowded cattle truck and then survived eight months in the camp itself? ‘This will pass’. There speaks a true survivor. The demon when we come face-to-face with it, be it at a crossing point on the journey or in the darkest of nights, cannot win.

For now, we wrestle, we struggle and we strive. However, the night eventually gives way to dawn, the beast with which we have been battling loses its power and we are able to rise again with fresh insight, from what we have learnt, for what may lie ahead.
Like Jacob, we too cannot come out of this epic battle unscathed; he forever limped thereafter. Nevertheless, we should have every confidence that, as a Church, we will come through. However long it takes, whatever energies it consumes, no matter how many fall at our side, to draw on Psalm 91, the People of God come through. Like Jacob, who becomes Israel, we will give birth to new generations of disciples who may see the world differently and express their faith in ever evolving ways, but they will be as effective in conveying grace as any generation before them.

God’s people never succumb; such is the message we draw from the one who would have to rise that morning following his epic night time struggle at Peniel and face yet another challenge: an encounter with his brother Esau. Moreover, if we are honest, it is sometimes harder to wrestle with one another than with God.

So, may the dawn always rise upon us, bruised by the battle we have waged throughout the night, but remain, having vanquished the demon that would drag us to the ground, true to our calling and then may we declare loud and clear ‘we have come face to face with God and now we live, we truly, truly live.’

Acts 9.1-19 Paul on the Damascus Road

Karen and I moved from Somerset to Lincolnshire nine years ago next month. The two counties have some things in common, they are both very beautiful, and some things that are very different. Somerset is a place many pass through en-route to Devon and Cornwall, Lincolnshire of course is not en-route to anywhere, it is a destination in its own right! And quite right too!

Shortly after we arrived I was thrilled to discover Swanholme, a SSSI (site of special scientific interest) with wonderful trees and lakes. Actually it is a series of former quarries that supplied gravel for the airbases in the 2nd World War. On one occasion when I was looking through the photographs I had taken earlier in the day I spotted something in the water at a distance. So I zoomed in and there was no doubt about it – an otter. When I told Alison, whose great misfortune in life is to be my PA, she seemed a little sceptical. ‘I don’t think we have had otters in Lincoln for a very long time.’ she responded. Which was Alison’s nice way of saying, I think you’re mistaken. I could detect in her voice that she really did not believe me. I was a little incredulous I can tell you. I have seen otters; they were in the river on the walk I would often take outside of Taunton. So I put the image up on the computer screen and zoomed in – there it was as plain as could be, sure it was blurred because it was in the distance but it’s head was raised in the water. Alison looked, moved her head from side to side and gently asked ‘Are you sure it’s not a duck’s bottom and its head is in the water?’ I looked again, and sure enough, my otter was in fact a mallard duck looking for fish.

Living in Somerset I had been used to looking out for otters. So my mind said it was an otter. Alison knew that an otter in Swanholme would be a phenomenon; she had seen a duck where I had wanted to see an otter.

What we believe we have seen is often coloured by our experience and expectation.

On the road to Damascus we are informed that Saul, shortly to be renamed Paul, had a vision. He met with Jesus. So blinding was the light that when he opened his eyes again he could not see. When he arrived in Damascus, he met with those Jews whom he had intended to persecute because of their belief in Jesus. However, we are told that something like scales fell from his eyes and he could see clearly again.

The incident has given rise to a familiar expression – scales falling from eyes means to be able to see a situation clearly and accurately in a sudden and perhaps surprising way. A similar phrase but with a subtly different meaning would be ‘when the penny drops’. This alludes to a penny in a slot machine taking its time to drop and start the mechanism. This phrase then means a belated realization of something after a period of ignorance and confusion.

What happened to Paul on the road to Damascus has been a source of fascination ever since the writer of Acts first recorded it. Like my otter that was really a mallard duck, it is important to consider why this happened to Paul when it did.

As I said, up until my arrival in Lincoln I had been used to looking out for otters along the river in Taunton. Alison, having grown up in Lincolnshire, had never heard of an otter in Lincoln.

We know that Saul had witnessed the martyrdom of Stephen in Jerusalem some time before his journey to Damascus. Indeed, Acts informs us that he had approved of Stephen’s execution for blasphemy, which was to believe that Jesus was now at the right hand of God. Saul went on to take part in the attacks on the homes of believers, dragging both men and women off to prison.

When Saul set off from Jerusalem for Damascus as part of his campaign of terror, he left the city via the Damascus Gate. Just outside this gate is where the stoning of Stephen had taken place. Did Saul, as he rode by, recall and contemplate the courage and faith of Stephen in his dying moments? Did he reflect on what had been taking place since that day? Did he feel a sense of shame and guilt at persecuting people, who were sincere and resolute in their convictions? Did he, as the journey progressed, come to a mind that actually there was something in this Jesus guy after all? I think that a yes to all these questions is a distinct possibility. The penny dropped for Paul, the scales did fall from his eyes, or as my theological college principal would say ‘the doing experience, right between the eyes’. It hit him because his context had changed. He had passed the killing ground of Stephen; he had time to reflect on his journey and it all fell into place. He could not ignore the truth any longer.

When we come to scripture, or indeed many situations, our minds are coloured by our experience and expectation.

For me, an otter, for Alison a duck. For Saul blasphemous Jews who believed a crucified man was now at the right hand of God. But, the context shifted. In Lincolnshire, I came to realise that there are no otters in Swanholme. For Saul, now Paul, that the faith of those about him, which he once considered wrong, was the way forward for him.
This is what experience and a change in circumstances can do. They can inform us more, alter our preconceived notions, remove prejudice from our hearts and open us up to all sorts of new possibilities.

This is Good News – especially if we relate it to our own experience, expectations, perceptions and prejudice, for we then become alert to the truths of God.

Exodus 19
2 They had journeyed from Rephidim, entered the wilderness of Sinai, and camped in the wilderness; Israel camped there in front of the mountain. 3 Then Moses went up to God; the LORD called to him from the mountain, saying, “Thus you shall say to the house of Jacob, and tell the Israelites: 4 You have seen what I did to the Egyptians, and how I bore you on eagles’ wings and brought you to myself. 5 Now therefore, if you obey my voice and keep my covenant, you shall be my treasured possession out of all the peoples. Indeed, the whole earth is mine, 6 but you shall be for me a priestly kingdom and a holy nation. These are the words that you shall speak to the Israelites.”
7 So Moses came, summoned the elders of the people, and set before them all these words that the LORD had commanded him. 8 The people all answered as one: “Everything that the LORD has spoken we will do.” Moses reported the words of the people to the LORD.

When the famine swept across Ethiopia in 1984, it is said that God looked down from heaven and concluded that something must be done. Therefore, like the gods of old, this God came down to earth and searched for the right person to lead the response. He knocked at a door. It was opened by a scruffy guy with long hair and looking the worse for wear.
‘Who the hell are you?’ asked God.
The bemused man replied ‘Bob Geldof.’
‘Oh never mind,’ said God, ‘you’ll have to do.’ [i]

We may sometimes wonder why someone is chosen to fulfil a task, perhaps for a particular post at work, or the winner of Britain’s Got Talent. Why them and not someone else or even me? Additionally, when it is someone like Bob Geldof who is called to mobilise the nation, and eventually world, to do something about a famine of biblical proportions we might question the judgment and the ability of both the chooser and the chosen.

There have been many occasions over history when some will have wondered whether the people of Israel were worthy of the title ‘Chosen’. From the prophets themselves as they sought to work out the covenant in the light of the people’s failure to adhere to it, to those in the Church who blamed the Jews for the rejection of Jesus as Messiah, completely forgetting, of course, that those who believed in Jesus were themselves Jews. A group of human beings is an interesting bunch and for every good apple, there may be a bad apple. In fact, one bad apple in a bag of ten at the supermarket might affect our judgement on whether to buy them at all. I have yet to discover a body of people where every single one is without blemish. Moreover, no one is more critical of Jews than Jews themselves are, and they have a right to be so, those who are not don’t.
Being chosen usually brings with it not only a blessing but also a burden. Not only privilege but also a degree of responsibility.

Geldof had to get out of his house and do something about the famine. He couldn’t just stay put. Fans of Pink Floyd might recall the film The Wall, in cinemas a few years before the famine. In it, Geldof sat still in front of his TV completely impassive to the injustices broadcast on it, until eventually something triggered and he got out of his seat and smashed the TV. In 1984, he metaphorically got out of his seat and vocally and physically sought to address the images of emaciated children on the TV news bulletins. He had to do something.

When someone is chosen to play for the school team, it is no use sitting in the changing room at the time of kick off, you have to put on the boots, tie the laces and get out there onto the pitch ready for action.

When the Israelites, the descendants of Jacob, reached the foot of Mount Sinai they had been gone from Egypt two whole months. It was then and only then, that they were told that they were a Chosen People, chosen amongst the nations.
One of the most fascinating verses in this whole passage is verse 2: ‘They had journeyed from Rephidim’.

Now this reference is key to understanding what is going on here; of how the people came to understand what was in the mind of God why God should declare their chosenness at this particular point. ‘They had journeyed from Rephidim’.

It had been at Rephidim, just a month into the journey, when the people began to complain about their predicament. They weren’t happy about the water situation, they weren’t happy about the food, they felt like going back to Egypt. Better to be slaves, they argued, than starve. It was at Rephidim that they had questioned Moses anfd his ability to lead them. It was at Rephidim that they had begun to wonder whether it had been right to trust in God at all. It was at Rephidim that their doubts had spilt over into accusations. However, in their doubts and anger came a response. Commanded by God Moses struck the rock and water came out of it. Then whilst the people were still at Rephidim, they came under attack from the Amalekites. They had to fight for their survival. Thankfully, they prevailed but scripture records that the two tribes would forever be at war thereafter.

Now, and this is most important, at Sinai we are informed that the people had journeyed from Rephidim. Yes, physically, it has taken them a whole month to do so. But more than physically, they have moved on spiritually, they have grown in confidence and faith, they are now no longer where and what they had been.

I believe that, 3 months on from the beginning of the lockdown, we too have moved on; we are no longer where or even what we once were. When the PM announced that our church buildings should be closed for anything other than essential work, foodbanks and pre-school groups for the children of key workers, many within the churches were horrified, some couldn’t quite believe it. Many will have wondered how we would cope without being physically present together. However, we have coped. More than that, in some ways the Church has thrived. Yes, it is very sad that some of our sisters and brothers are unable to join in online worship and we have sought to include them through the use of telephone and printed material, yes we may miss the handshake at the door, but we have learnt new skills and drawn on the deeper resources of the divine within us. We are not where we were.

We have moved on as a church, a body of believers and as individual disciples of Jesus. In addition, as some of our buildings are now being prepared to re-open for private prayer we have had to ask all sorts of questions that needed to be asked. Why are we doing this? Do we have the human resources to do it? How might we sustain this? Can we do things differently? They are questions we have been avoiding for some time. The pandemic has now forced us to address them at last and reflect on our place and role in the world. We may end up leaner, but I think we will end up fitter, more effective and more meaningful in our mission and ministry.

We have also moved on as individual citizens and as a society. We are not where we were. Individuals in many cases for the better, but in society the jury is still out.
I recall sitting on the sofa one evening during the first week of the lockdown, and though the consequences of a global pandemic had been on my mind for some weeks by then, I looked at Karen and the reality sank in. Our nation was about to lose tens, if not hundreds of thousands of lives, globally perhaps a million or more. And before we get complacent with the easing of restrictions, let’s remember that we are still not through it, nor will our world be for some time to come.

As a nation, I think we have reflected that sense of growing reality. Not for a very long time have we had to face such collective trauma, bereavement of such magnitude. The Victorians were familiar with death, so too were wartime Britons, but not so much this past 75 years. It has come as a shock to millions to discover that they too are mortal, that their loved ones could be taken from them so suddenly, earlier than they had ever imagined. In church, due to our age profile and the fact that our friends and mentors have often been of an age that time with them is often brief we are always aware of the brevity of life. However, across the nation millions have not been so aware. Which is why I think that there is a sudden rush to change things.

When life is long and death seems far off, we can wait, but when death is near, things have to change now. The murder of George Floyd, in such a vile manner, filmed for the world to witness, has stirred up emotions on an almost unprecedented scale. I believe that many people now realising that time is short, due to the possibility of contracting coronavirus, have lost patience. They cannot wait any longer for natural justice to run its often-long course. They want justice now. There is a collective bucket list needing to be completed. It is now or never in the minds of many. Therefore, we are no longer where we once were.

Change has come, and even more change has to come, whether we like it or not. How we respond at this time will determine not only the future of our own place in this world, but the world itself. In history, pandemics of this size never left society untouched. Change was ushered in, sometimes for the best; sometimes the changes were far from good.

God is again knocking at our door. We may wonder why. If we are honest, we may be thinking that God is asking the same. After all, who are we? What can we possibly do to change the current direction of this world, a path that is leading to polarisation, deepening division and the rush to the extremities of political views? We can do, I believe more than we imagine.

At the foot of Sinai, a covenant was forged. As Methodists, each year we renew our covenant with God.We commit ourselves to being one with God and wholly obedient to God’s claim upon our lives.

• We must not fall for the narrow mindedness that thinks being chosen excludes all others – it does not. Being chosen means we have the responsibility of passing on to others what we have come to know for ourselves.
• We must not fall for the argument that there is no such thing as racism in our church our community. There is, simple as that.
• We must not fall for those who suggest easy answers to complex questions. Life is far more complicated than some are prepared to admit.
• We must not fall for the argument that we have nothing to learn from history, nothing to repent of and nothing to be ashamed of. We still have much to learn, much to resolve and much to accomplish.

I may be alarmed about the world in its present precarious state, I may be deeply concerned about what the future may hold, but I am absolutely resolute, perhaps as never before to do all I can to promote what I have learnt and come to know as the truth thanks to my discipleship in Christ.

In the words of John Wesley then I urge you sisters and brothers, to do all the good you can, by all the means you can, in all the ways you can, in all the places you can, at all the times you can, to all the people you can, as long as ever you can.

 

[i] I think this was first reported in the NY Times and subsequently quoted by Bob Geldof in his memoir ‘Is That It?’

Moon 4

Photograph 5th June 2020

Psalm 8
1O LORD, our Sovereign, how majestic is your name in all the earth! You have set your glory above the heavens.
2Out of the mouths of babes and infants you have founded a bulwark because of your foes, to silence the enemy and the avenger.
3When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars that you have established;
4what are human beings that you are mindful of them, mortals that you care for them?
5Yet you have made them a little lower than God, and crowned them with glory and honour.
6You have given them dominion over the works of your hands; you have put all things under their feet,
7all sheep and oxen, and also the beasts of the field,
8the birds of the air, and the fish of the sea, whatever passes along the paths of the seas.
9O LORD, our Sovereign, how majestic is your name in all the earth!

Psalm 8 is a song of praise. It reflects a moment when the individual stands before God. It is the moment when the human recognises their limitations in the presence of the greatness and power of the Divine. The structure of the Psalm is fascinating. It begins and ends with the very same verse:

O LORD, our Sovereign, how majestic is your name in all the earth!

It is not unusual in ancient literature, or even for a modern sermon, to begin and end with the same headline. However, it is not necessarily common to use exactly the same phrase to top and tail the communication. Here God is at the beginning and the end. Christians would say later, the Alpha and the Omega. The very structure of the Psalm, therefore, carries with it a theological message, for bang right in the centre of the Psalm is the term ‘mere mortal’. God is the source and the goal of the one in between, the individual human being. And more than that, the one at the heart of the story is actually in the mind of God, God, we are informed, is mindful of him, God’s heart is tuned to him, God’s concern is great for him. How can this be? That is the question the Psalmist ponders. Why should God bother? Yet bother God does. In the midst of all creation, beneath the panoply of stars, the very universe itself, this tiny individual, who only occupies a brief period in time, is of interest to God, the Creator of all that has been, of all that is and of all that will be.

The question begins, of course, when the individual looks up to heaven:

• When there is a need to lift their face above that which is pressing them down,
• when the dilemma is too much to resolve,
• when the pain seems endless
• and the grief too great to bear.

It is then, having realised that more is needed than this individual, or even community, can provide, that the interaction is efficacious. At a moment such as this, when we feel as if we are all alone with whatever it is that is troubling us, we too can look to heaven and marvel that we are still of interest to God.

Covid-19 has shaken our world to the core. Just five months ago, as 2020 got underway, we could have never imagined how nations would be brought to their knees, financially and in terms of health provision. We as a Church have also been brought to our knees not just in organisational terms but, and more importantly, in isolated prayer, distant from our usual places of worship. I believe that, as a Church and as individual disciples of Christ, our collective and personal spirituality has grown. In our sorrow at those who have been taken far too soon, in our regret that we may not have done some of the things we would have done before had we have known this would become so restrictive, in our anxieties about our futures and the future of the Church and world, we have had cause to look up to heaven; and we have not gazed into nothingness, but we have found the very presence of an all loving, all caring, eternal God, a God who is interested in us, even interested in what we thought to be the mundanity of our personal lives.

We may have realised perhaps that we were not as resilient as we thought, not as well prepared as we might have been, not as certain of our plans being implemented, as we believed. In addition, we may have been brought up sharp for what we thought was guaranteed is not necessarily so. Therefore, we have had cause to look up to heaven and we have not gazed into nothingness, but we have found the very presence of an all loving, all caring, eternal God.
It would be trite to suggest that everyone in our neighbourhoods have suddenly seen what we have seen.

• Some may have reflected on their mortality for the first time. Some have not.
• Some may have become more caring towards those next to whom they live. Some have not.
• Some have made great sacrifices to keep to the guidance and prevent the virus from spreading. Some have not.
• It might be wishful thinking to consider that the world will be much better after all this has blown over than was the case before. It may not be.

Without doubt, I believe that the world is on a knife-edge. We may fall on one side or the other. The world may become so much better, more caring toward one another, more respectful of creation, humbler in its awareness of our limitations. But equally so the world may become even worse.

It has been a long-held view of many that today we eat, drink and be merry for tomorrow we die. Such a philosophy has no thought of the consequences for the victims of such behaviour. When the 1918 pandemic ended some communities engaged in wild revelry. Morality took a nose-dive and illegitimacy rose.

But I remain firmly convinced that for those who do look up to heaven and become more aware of their mortality and limitations in the face of the One who stands outside time and space, the outcome is overwhelmingly positive. I am equally convinced that there are more good people in this world than bad. And one of the few things of which I am certain is this: that there is everything to play for.

• The world is not condemned to destruction and disaster.
• In a democracy our elected governments will be accountable at the polls.
• In the end truth and facts win out over lies and spin.
• Love of God and of neighbour, irrespective of ethnicity, faith or belief, far outweighs the prejudice and hostility that afflicts our communities.

There is indeed everything to play for. Never before perhaps in our lifetimes have we had such a weighty responsibility as disciples of Jesus: to engage in acts that will beat the evils of this world. To create a legacy from which future generations will draw and gain confidence. For as they face some presently unforeseen darkness they may look back on our response to this crisis and come to know that they will triumph just as we too triumphed in our time.

Matthew 28

16 Now the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus had directed them. 17 When they saw him, they worshiped him; but some doubted. 18 And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 19 Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20 and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” NRSV

It is understandable that his passage should be selected for Trinity Sunday by those drawing up the lectionary. The reference to Father, Son and Holy Spirit is a giveaway. Never mind that it is highly likely to have been a later development as the Early Church sought to understand the relationship between the Jesus who walked the hillsides of Galilee, the Father to whom he referred in those days and the sense of his spirit with them in their new faith communities. But what I want us to consider is that final familiar verse: I am with you always, even to the end of the age.

These words have brought much comfort to generations of believers as each have faced their own trials: the martyrs in the arena, the translators of the Bible in the medieval period, the missionaries in hostile lands, the terminally ill in a hospice; and now perhaps, we too draw some strength from the surety of God’s presence in these challenging days. Sadly, those who have sought to becalm the restless in the face of injustice have also misused the text. When Marx and Engels resided in Manchester they will have seen the chapels built into the settlements constructed by mill owners to appease their overworked and often ill-treated workforce. No wonder Marx was to conclude that religion is the opiate of the people. Such religion reassured the people that by putting up with such appalling living conditions whilst on earth they would gain a reward in heaven, congregations were reliably informed that such awful days will soon pass and the faithful would be transported to the paradise of eternity.

But what if religion is not the opiate of the people. What if it is the catalyst for change?
The 8th century prophets, Jeremiah, Isaiah and others thought so. Jesus thought so. William Wilberforce thought so. Martin Luther King thought so. The liberation theologies of the 1970s and 80s grew out of a concern that religious people had not previously done enough to challenge oppressive regimes. It began because a rising generation of young Germans started asking what their parents had done in the war. The mantra was that no one at the time knew about what was happening to the Jews, no one knew about the camps; not quite true of course, but that is for another day. Faced with the possibility that their parents had not been aware in their lifetime of the most heinous crime conducted by a ruling regime, a new post war generation asked what was happening in their own day that they needed to be aware of and to challenge it. Hence the growth of religious resistance to injustices across Latin and Central America. Even in Europe Solidarność, that played such a significant role in the collapse of communism in Poland, found its inspiration from the teachings of the Roman Catholic. It is ironic that a Polish Catholic Pope should be so supportive of Solidarność when it challenged communism yet so critical of its Latin American counterparts when it countered fascism, but again, that is for another day.

What we can learn from this is that religion has often been used by the oppressor to silence the growing restlessness of the oppressed, but has also been a source of inspiration for those who want to usher in change to the systems that have held sway for far too long. Hitler may have created the Deutsche Christen to preach a Nazified version of Christianity, but some saw through it and refused to be party to it, but by the time they did, it was too late to stop what had already got underway.

The situation in the United States is precarious to say the least. We will have all watched in horror as the events of this past week have unfolded. The most powerful man on the planet announces that he may turn the full force of the military on his own people before insisting that his paramilitaries force a way through peaceful protesters using tear gas and rubber bullets just so that he can sand before a church holding a Bible. It was upside down by the way. Never before in my lifetime have I seen a Western leader be so brazen about his misuse of Christianity. He might think of himself as some Messianic figure, but actually, he more resembled Pilate who had his forces kill pilgrims in the Temple at a festival.Most church leaders in the States have rightly condemned his words and actions; but not all, some on the Christian Right remain loyal to him.

For us, there is a warning here. Inequality and discrimination are both growing at a pace. The pandemic hasn’t suddenly become the great leveller some claimed it would be. The frustrations with Government advice have begun to spill over. Respect for authorities is diminishing. When people believe there is one rule for some and another for them we are on a very slippery slope and it is difficult to regain some balance. Frustration is setting in across many sections of society. We must not underestimate the anger, nor what we can do to right the wrongs.

For us, the believers in the teachings of Jesus, and the upholders of the good traditions of the Church, it is incumbent to be bold. There is a place for the prophetic Church in any society. We must be true to our calling. We are not being tear gassed outside our buildings, as the clergy and volunteers distributing water and hand sanitisers to the protesters in Washington were, but our values are under attack. An attack on any sister or brother doing the Lord’s will be an attack on us all. Nor must we fall for those leaders of dubious morals who expect much from the people and little of themselves. Standing tall before those who would cower us into submission is a long tradition within the Christian Church, from slaves on British-owned plantations to those who refused to pledge allegiance to fascism in Italy and Germany in the last century.

Today, in these island nations, and in particular across this wonderful county of Lincolnshire, we must hold our elected representatives to account; if we feel that there is something wrong in what is happening, we should write to them and let them know that they will have to face the electorate in the future. We should do so not with heavy or quivering hearts, but with a firm resolve that is founded on the strong and unflinching conviction that in our quest for justice God is with us, come what may.

I have two quotes with which I wish to conclude.

Firstly, from the American biblical scholar and social activist Jim Wallis who said that the Church has been good at pulling people out of the river but less good at heading upstream to stop others from throwing them in.

Finally another from the United States. Theologian Walter Brueggemann tells the story of an exchange between Protestant minister William Sloan Coffin and Henry Kissinger during the Vietnam War. Coffin was attacking the US Government policy about the war when Kissinger challenged him. ‘If you’re so smart why dn’t you tell us what to do in Vietnam?’ Without hesitation, Coffin responded, ‘Mr Secretary, my job is to say to you “Let justice roll down like might waters”. Your job is to get the plumbing in place.’ [i]

Over the last few decades, the Church has often allowed its prophetic voice to be silenced. Yet we are facing a perfect storm of ecological crises, economic disaster and social injustice. This year alone has witnessed fires in Australia to floods across these island nations, from a pandemic, the like of which our world has not experienced in a century, to the worst civil unrest in the United States since the assassination of Martin Luther King.

Like those before us who were able to read the signs of their times, so we too must now find our voice and not be silenced.

  • Black lives matter, all life matters.
  • Some people cannot breathe, we must stop others kneeling on their necks.
  • Political leaders think its ok to twist the truth or ignore it altogether, it is not, and the truth always wins in the end.

It has been a long tradition in our world to mollify or silence those inspired to challenge injustice but we are not alone when we speak out. We know that God is with us. God will never leave us nor forsake us. If we should come under pressure at a time of righteous endeavour then we will not falter nor fail.

I believe, and I urge you to believe too, that the Gospel of Jesus Christ stands the test of time. Over the centuries it has brought oppressive regimes down, it has brought liberation to entire nations; it has inspired individuals to stand tall and whole communities to usher in change. That Gospel is as alive today as it has ever been. I am excited at what may yet lie in store for us as we write our chapter in the book of life.

 

[i] Walter Brueggemann, Like Fire in the Bones, Listening for the Prophetic Word in Jeremiah, Fortress Press 2011, p200

The crowds had gathered from far and wide. Accents, languages, ethnicities. One aim: to celebrate. All singing to the same tune, with the same lyrics. A modern-day pilgrimage, pre-Covid 19, had tens of thousands heading towards their temple, the stage upon which their gods would appear at some point in the evening, once, that is, the high priests had sufficiently warmed up the worshippers.

My first outdoor concert was in 1979 to pay homage to Lindisfarne, not the place but the folk rock group; the place was yet to become part of my later understanding of pilgrimage. I said that the Oasis gig, at Knebworth in August 1996, was to be my last outdoor concert; not least because a disaster was averted as we left the arena when thousands of us got the wrong side of the fencing somehow. We ended up trapped between the surging crowd behind us and a lake ahead of us. We only managed to be saved when an alert security guard bolt-cropped the fencing and we poured through onto the correct side. I have kept my pledge; I have not been to an outdoor concert since. At that time, it was the largest gathering for a single band in British history, 250,000 over the two nights.

1996 was the beginning of my mid-life crisis. Because it came on early, at 36, it probably lasted a little longer than it should have done, perhaps a little over ten years. I preferred to call it a re-negotiation, not a crisis. There are many things, for sure, that had happened between a genteel sunny Bank Holiday afternoon in the grounds of Himley Hall, Dudley at the back end of the ’70s and a mad Saturday with the boys from Burnage at the height of Brit Pop. Since Knebworth much has changed further. Change is a fact of life, staying as we are not really being an option.

The crowds that gathered in Jerusalem for Shavuot, or Pentecost, the term used by Greek-speaking Jews because it is five weeks after Pesach (Passover), had come from far-flung places, cities, ports and villages where Judaism had reached. Their journeys had been made easier by the Pax Romana that had begun a couple of generations before and would last for another century and a half; although, for Jews, festival pilgrimages to Jerusalem would come to a violent end towards the last quarter of the first century with the siege and fall of the Temple. The languages and accents present that day reflected the diversity of the pilgrims, and they would have had different ethnicities, for Judaism was a proselytising religion at the time, not the birth-right of later centuries.

We are informed that the Spirit comes upon the believers and suddenly. as they speak, they are understood in all the native tongues of those present. Being able to communicate in such a way was a fulfilment of the Messianic dream, for the places listed were representative of every known nation on earth. Change had come:

• Young people will prophesy, in other words tell it like it is.
• Even the elderly will overcome the cynicism of age and capture something of the new zeitgeist.
• Those who have been imprisoned by the actions of others, the abused, the damaged, the frail, will play a full role in this transformation.
• Nature itself will change.

Over these last few weeks of lockdown we have witnessed for ourselves how nature has responded to fewer cars on the roads, fewer planes in the sky. Birdsong seems that much louder and clearer, the skies are often cloudless and a very deep blue with the jet trails of the lone airliner standing out far more than they would when dozens were on the same flight path. Urban centres are reporting that wild animals, long since last seen, are finding their way on to our streets and into our parks.

In addition to changes in nature, we have also witnessed a coming together of neighbours, even those we have rarely seen, let alone spoken to, in our past busy-ness. The divisions that became so evident after the Brexit campaign, and the oh so tight result, had been put to one side as we joined in a single cause: to face the common threat to us all. It had been a long time since we had witnessed such a united response.
As Christians, who believe that the Spirit has come upon us, we have sought to ensure the message of Jesus was at the forefront of our response: [i]

• Called to bring good news to the poor, food was collected and distributed in ever-increasing quantities.
• Knowing that many were self-isolating and unable to get necessary provisions or medicines for themselves, rotas were formed to ensure no one felt trapped by the four walls surrounding them.
• Recognising that mental anguish was a likely outcome of this frightening time, we have telephoned the vulnerable and spent hours and hours on calls.
• Understanding that our neighbours have been unable to visit loved ones, we have become a surrogate family.

We are now a long way from where we were in March this year. We are also a long way from the time when congregations can worship again in our church buildings, or, indeed, when crowds can gather to pay homage to their favourite musicians, be they folk, rock, blues or classical. This is the price we have paid and will continue to pay, not for our own health and safety, or even for our own children or parents, but for the greater good of society as a whole. Self-interest has been put to one side by many, at huge personal cost.

It’s a long way from Knebworth, even further from Woodstock, not just in physical distance but in mind-set and culture. There is much further to travel yet. Some of us will fall along the way, others may reach the destination and again leap and dance with joy in the places where we once gathered to celebrate.

But it is also a long way from Jerusalem. Those first apostles would not recognise the Church of today which speaks in languages not even present when the Spirit first came upon them. There are races they could have never imagined, places too remote for their first-century minds, liturgies and buildings far more elaborate and extravagant, but we remain one Church despite all our differences of opinion, conviction and style.

This crisis is a defining moment in the history of humanity. We have no proper idea of how long it will take to get through it; the claim that it would be beaten within 12 weeks sounded like the false optimism of 1914 when it was declared that the war would be over by Christmas. We do not know if we will ever be able to say ‘it is over’. We cannot imagine what the world may become; having a lack of trust in Government is a dangerous place to be, consider the current rioting across the United States as an example. Just as illusive is the model of Church we may live to witness in a post Covid-19 world. But, the Spirit is upon the faithful:

• We will not desist from proclaiming the Good News.
• We will remain steadfast to our calling.
• We will not be deterred by those who scoff at faithfulness and the fulfilment of civic duty.
• All because we are united, despite everything that the world and, sadly, we ourselves sometime do to divide us. We are one in Christ, thanks to the Spirit that comes upon us whatever our language, ethnicity, taste in music or phase we are in at negotiating life.

The disciples had come a long way from Galilee, the region that was derided by the scholars of Judah; they had come a long way from pulling in nets of fish; they had come a long way since they had not quite understood the implications of what Jesus was teaching. They had a come a long way. And now, thanks to the coming of the Spirit they were bold enough to pick up where Jesus had left off, whatever the cost to themselves.

Personally, I know I have come a long way from Knebworth, in my attitudes, understanding and behaviour. I am not what I was. I like to think that I remain on course to become ever closer to what God intends for me, though that is not always so. I believe that the Church, Spirit-filled and ever-open to possibility in the face of challenge, is a Church also on course to becoming a healthier Body of Christ for the world in which we live.

I will conclude with the well-known words of John Newton, converted slave ship captain:
“I am not what I ought to be, I am not what I want to be, I am not what I hope to be in another world; but still I am not what I once used to be, and by the grace of God I am what I am.”

[i] “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to let the oppressed go free,
19 to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.”

 

 

Many sacrifices have been made these past months.

NHS staff have undertaken duties they could have only reasonably expected to perform during wartime. Shop workers have stacked shelves round the clock in order to feed the nation. Delivery workers have kept the isolated from harm’s way. Teachers have gone into classrooms to ensure that vulnerable children have been safe and that key workers have been able to go to their tasks knowing their children are being cared for.

In order to help bring down the R rate, all Church buildings, and other places of worship, have closed. This is the first time since the 13th century. Learning new skills, many have turned to online services so that contact and prayer have been maintained, vital at such a time both for the community of faith and those outside it. Many congregations have turned more outward-looking than ever before, leading or joining groups that have cared for the elderly and frail; groceries have been delivered, prescriptions collected, all sorts of material and practical help have been provided. We have taken to heart what the Lord requires: to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly. Micah 6.8.

The Prime Minister was absolutely right when he said a fortnight ago that we are now entering a very dangerous stage of this pandemic. Just when lockdown restrictions are eased, a second wave may occur, one that could be even worse than the first. I hope and pray that this will not be so. But for the second wave to be avoided we have to remain ‘alert’, to use the Government’s own term. I understand the concerns that have been expressed about this phrase, and it is easy to make fun of it if you are so inclined, for the British have a wonderful way of satirising the most serious of situation. We only have to remember the Wipers Times in the trenches of the First World War to know that humour can take the sting out of even the worst of scenarios. But, as I understand the term and the situation, we have to be careful about what we now do to avoid widening the infection again. If there is complacency now then we would only serve to undermine the good work we have all undertaken, and the many sacrifices that have been made, since lockdown commenced.

All of us, from the Prime Minister and his advisors down, have to heed this directive. Which is why I am astonished that the senior advisor to the Prime Minister is still in place after flaunting the Government’s own guidance. Who knew what and when is an interesting thought. One thing is for sure: any organisation that does not act with integrity is likely to lose the respect others have of it.

I have been very concerned for some time about how the world might look post Covid-19. History teaches us that when one disaster occurs it somehow triggers off subsequent disasters: The French Revolution occurred after a failed harvest, we all know what happened after the defeat of Germany and the terms imposed upon her after the First World War; these are just two cases in point. This year alone our world has experienced devastating fires, flooding on an almost unprecedented scale, plagues of locust across Africa and now the worst pandemic in a hundred years. Political instability has often followed natural disaster in the past. There is no reason to suspect that the insecurity, uncertainty and disrespect for authority of our times won’t also lead to unrest and political instability. It should go with saying that this has to be avoided.

Over the last decade or so, public trust in government has eroded, firstly as a consequence of the MPs’ expense scandal, then the U-turn by the Liberal Democrats on University Fees, sending a generation of young voters into the arms of the far left. We now have a Prime Minister whose senior advisor undermines his own Government’s policy, at the most challenging moment in British peacetime history. Democracy should never be taken for granted; the history of the twentieth century should be a warning to us all. We may think this nation has had democracy for ever, it hasn’t. Universal Suffrage in these island nations is less than a century-old. There is every reason to suspect that democracy doesn’t last forever in any nation. When the so-called leader of the free world is incapable of engaging in coherent debate and the consistency of truth is dismissed as inconsequential, the path to tyranny is being paved. If, as I have witnessed these past twenty-four hours, Government ministers are going to make impoverished excuses to defend one of their own, whilst others have been denied a visit to their dying children, then we too are on the slippery slope towards an abyss that we could have only imagined in nightmares before. If others were to be so blasé about the Law we would have anarchy in next to no time.

Our role, as people of faith, especially so in such dangerous days as these, is to remain respectfully resistant. To resist the complacency creeping into society with regards the guidance so necessary for the safety and well-being of us all; to resist the calls to ‘get back to normal’ without a true consideration of the costs that would be incurred; to resist anything that would chip away at the common good that has taken generations to build up in this country.

There is a covenant in existence between the elected and the electorate in any well-functioning democracy. That covenant is undermined when one of those partners does not abide by the rules. When the rules are broken by Government, that leads to tyranny, when the rules are broken by the electorate that leads to anarchy; both have to be resisted and it is the Church’s moral responsibility to do so by calling either out.

So, stay alert, yes; stay resolute, stay safe and stay faithful to that which we believe, as followers of Jesus, to be true by respectfully resisting the complacency that is creeping in, the disregard for the rules and the dismissal of facts when it suits the self-centred to do so.

Crowds of evacuees, mostly peasants, were already jostling to get on board. Lucius grabbed the edge of the doorway, then a ladder, climbing onto the roof as the train began to move. There were people covering every inch of the carriages. The train groaned under the weight, and for a moment, with bodies everywhere it seemed ready to topple. But then they were moving, slowly, out of the depot and through the little town. On the roof beside him, the refugees clung to one another to keep from falling off. A pair of little boys gazed wide-eyed at his bloody face. He had a sense that this moment was being registered, that in their memories of the war, this vision would stand out. (i)

This extract is taken from Daniel Mason’s 2018 novel The Winter Soldier. The story is set in the collapsing Austro-Hungarian Empire of the First World War. The narrator is Lucius, a young member of the Viennese bourgeoisie, who finds himself acting as a medical doctor in a field hospital located in an abandoned and dilapidated church building close to the front. Much of the book is about his experiences there and his relationship with the religious sister who was acting as a nurse to the wounded and dying men. Whilst Lucius is away from the hospital it is overrun by enemy forces and he has to make his way to safety.
The eye for detail in the novel is clear throughout, the reader is given vivid sight of any scene being portrayed; on completing it, I took a while to ‘recover’. The incident at the railway station, as refugees are seeking to flee the encroaching front line, is one such instant. And as if to underline the details, Mason has Lucius noting that the two boys were capturing the moment: of Lucius before them, face bloodied and alone. Who was he? How did he sustain his injury? What was his story? Out of all that would happen to them over the course of four years of war, this incident, this one incident, might just be one that is logged into their memories, which they would revisit time and again throughout what remained of their future.

Twenty years ago I had the great privilege, and joy, of coaching football with a group of junior-aged school boys. What I remember of those days will be different to what the boys may remember; they were, after all, observing the sessions and games from a different height, there’s being around four feet! For them every match was a big thing and the recreation field Old Trafford; and to be honest, it was for me! Often, when a parent thanked me for what I was doing, I would reply that the best thing we can do, as adults, is to give ‘little ones’ happy memories. That has been my philosophy throughout my life. Despite some tricky challenges as a child, I still retain some lovely memories. Occasionally my sleeping dreams take me back to those places and happy times from my early years.

If we can carry that philosophy into our adult years, creating happy occasions that in the future we can recall as happy memories, we will be achieving a great deal; especially so if we are responsible for initiating memories for others, upon which they can draw in years to come. At some point, around the age of 9 or 10, I had the gall to ask an elderly widow who had befriended me what it was like to be ‘old’. She replied that it wasn’t too bad, because when she slept she dreamt of happy times in the past. I learnt a great deal from this conversation.

Much of the Judeo-Christian tradition is about memory; it is about remembering events of the past that informed subsequent generations about the nature of God and the relationship between us. Lessons are learnt, faith maintained, and hope is generated from recalling how God’s people behaved, responded to situations, coped with crises and held fast to their beliefs in times of trial. Ritual is based on such recollection; traditions are for a reason, having grown out of experience. Though they may be brought into question by changing circumstances, they are more often than not proven to be of help in sustaining the wellbeing of a community. Even the survival of the Hebrews at the time of the plagues in Egypt can be scientifically proven to be as a consequence of their customs. For example, it may be claimed that matzo, unleavened bread, was eaten because there was no time to allow the baked bread to rise; but equally so, it may have been wise to do eat unleavened bread at a time when the yeast had become infected.
During the lockdown we may have been sustained by memories of happier times: a family get together, anniversaries, holidays and weddings. This morning I found myself looking at a brief video of our son and daughter in law’s wedding last August. It was a little emotional, but nevertheless it was a reminder of good times, for which I will forever remain thankful.

For some, however, memories are hard to bear. For example, of the person with whom they would have been sharing this burden as they are no longer present in the household, or even in this life. What were memories of happy times may now have become painful to recall. Then there are those for whom only memories of bad experiences crash in on them. Trauma is a frightening and lonely thing to experience. All of these experiences make us the people we are: the joy and sorrow, the fulfilment and regret, the satisfaction and disappointment. Life is rich with experience and the broader the experience the richer life is. But these riches include both positive aspects and negative. God, in the act of redemption, seeks to transform all things to good.

That lesson, learned aright, is valued more
Than all experience ever taught before;
For this her choicest secret, timely given,
Is wisdom, virtue, happiness, and heaven.
Long is religion viewed, by many an eye,
As wanted more for safety by and by,
– A thing for times of danger and distress,
Than needful for our present happiness.
But after fruitless, wearisome assays
To find repose and peace in other ways,
The sickened soul – when Heaven imparts its grace,
Returns to seek its only resting place;
And sweet Experience proves, as years increase,
That wisdom ways are pleasantness and peace.
Yes, and the late conviction, fraught with pain,
On many a callous conscience strikes in vain …(ii)

What those who compiled the Gospels were seeking to do was pass on to others an interpretation of the events that had inspired both the first disciples and the second generation of followers. They drew on memory, perhaps more so Mark, and the oral tradition, to ensure that the lessons were not lost to eternity. We must be ever thankful for their work. The Gospel accounts have sustained generation after generation down the centuries, inspired us, cajoled us, given us food for thought, warned us, left us wanting more. So too have those writers who have related their own chequered experiences through written word, artists through canvas, poets through poetry, film makers through film, composers through music. We are the beneficiaries of centuries of reflection and creativity. Our own responsibility in this present generation may not be to create masterpieces of art or Booker-winning novels, but it is to help others forge good memories. The simple acts of goodwill can make a massive difference to someone’s life: spending longer than we would normally do chatting with a delivery person, at a distance of course, or sharing our baking with a neighbour, making a phone call to those with whom we have not spoken for some time; all manner of things that we once so took for granted so didn’t bother doing are now hugely significant to the beneficiary.
Many wanted the world to slow down, it has, so we must now seize the opportunity created by the present situation and make the most of the time we have. Helping others forge memories from which they will draw to sustain them through anything that may befall them in the coming weeks and years even, could be the most effective ministry we have ever had. We really have underestimated the impact our actions have had on others, good or ill. So may all that we say and do help make for others memories of deepest joy.

(i) Daniel Mason, The Winter Soldier, p196, Mantle 2018
9ii) Jane Taylor, ‘Experience’. Taylor (1783-1824)

 

The recent statement by the Prime Minister (Sunday 10 May) will have disappointed many. But there are few options available at the present stage of this crisis. Some will have wanted clearer guidance on when we can visit family and friends, or how we can open up our church buildings for prayer and worship again or the steps that will be taken for us to fully return to work. But these things cannot be rushed. Our world is in a precarious situation. We may feel tempted to ignore advice on social distancing and other measures, but we would be foolish and wrong to do so. All this is in place, not just for our wellbeing but also for the safety and health of millions of people across this nation and beyond.

To put things into perspective we should note that during the Second World War 70,000 civilians were killed in the UK, 40,000 of them during the Blitz between September 1940 and May 1941. We have lost between 30 and 40,000 in just eight weeks of this epidemic. The deaths will continue well into the future; of this we should not doubt. However, the rate of infection and death will rise rapidly again if we do not bring this virus under control. As some experts are saying, it may well be that we will have to wait for a vaccine before we can be sure the danger has truly passed.

If there is one term I would use to describe how we as Methodists in Lincolnshire should act at this moment in our history it is this: faithful vigilance. Vigilance is a vital aspect of our response and will help us to get through this time; and remaining faithful to our calling as disciples of Jesus, being resolute in prayer and offering what we can to be of support to our neighbours is the mark of a true believer.

There is not going to be any easy way out of this crisis; that is for sure. In the past, pandemics of this size took a huge toll on human life and even set back economic progress. It was many years, decades even, before full assessments of their impact could be made. There have been times when great societal shifts have occurred as a consequence of such trauma; and they always seemed to be accompanied by other natural disasters.

The flooding earlier in the year devastated much farmland in Lincolnshire and a harvest that may not be gathered fully in regrettably add to the economic burdens we face. Pressure on doing things differently once the virus is beaten will play a part in raising questions on the type of world we want for our children and grandchildren.
The magnitude of the challenge is only just beginning to sink in for more and more people. We didn’t want this, we didn’t ask for it to come our way, but it has and we are alive at one of the great turning points in human history. We should make no mistake about it, this could have as significant an influence on the future as some of the revolutions and conflicts we learnt about in history lessons at school. Just as those who lived through those momentous events were unable to see how their days would work out, so we too cannot see beyond the very near future. Which is why faithful vigilance on our part is an appropriate response for us. As Christians we know that it is as if we can for now only see through a dimmed glass. It is not for us yet to see the full story, to experience the clarity that is God’s alone to have; we are only human with all our frailties, limitations and vulnerabilities. This is not to argue for complacency in such a crisis or a laissez faire approach to life, but it is to recognise the confines placed upon us as mere mortals.

So, as the days, weeks and months pan out before us, and what seemed like a spring crisis is becoming more long term than our worst fears could have imagined at the outset, we will hold fast to what we believe: that the God who brought us into being knows our very thoughts, our hopes and fears, sees us as uniquely precious and at all times wants what is best for every single one of us. God will not abandon those who exercise faithful vigilance, for this is a God who exercises the very same, but in abundance and without limitation.

So, please stay safe, stay well and may God’s richest blessing be upon you, upon those whom you love and upon the communities in which you are set.