Born in us today

30 November 2011

Prophets don’t see a different world to the one we see; they just see it in a different way.

Jim Wallis, social activist, evangelist and advisor to President Obama is often said to be a modern-day prophet.  He has recently visited the Occupy Camp outside St Paul’s.  He claimed that he could imagine Christ being born in the camp.

From what we know of the birth narratives the camp could be seen as a contemporary equivalent of the stable.  We have grown accustomed to believing in a Christ born in poverty, cast out from the more privileged in society.  And praise God that humble voices stifled by the loudly confident are still heard; that those who cringe in the corners for fear of abuse are gently and graciously drawn in; that those whose potential has been overlooked are valued.

Simon and Garfunkel may have hit the nail on the head when they sang that the ‘words of the prophets are written on the subway walls, or on the banners of the protesters, or in the daily seminars surrounding the cathedral.  But I live in the hope that the Christ may just as likely be born in the pew as well as the tent, the pulpit as well as on the protest, in the boardroom of a multi-national corporation, in the chambers of commerce, the corridors of power and on the trading floor of the city.  Why?  Because God is a God of Surprises, we cannot fathom the mind of God.  And if incarnation means anything then it means God may be born in any of us, rich and poor, influential and weak, powerful and excruciatingly vulnerable, anywhere and at any time.

That’s the good news.

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When I recall the level of sacrifice undertaken for my freedom I am almost speechless; which is why I believe that silence is the only true and appropriate form of remembrance on this day of
days.

Therefore I often look to the testimony of

  • those who ran for their lives along the beach on D Day,
  • those who longed to see port again while facing the mountainous waves on an Arctic
    convoy
  • and those who traversed the skies on the lookout for a speck of movement above or
    below while on a raid over enemy territory.

Over the course of my ministry I have been deeply privileged to have sat with those who did these things.

I have also sat beside those who were not at the front but who were nevertheless an integral part of the fight for survival. Such people were not called to venture far from the community in
which they were born but their contribution was just as valid.

So I want to begin with a quote from Vassily Grossman’s epic novel Life and Fate. As the foremost Soviet war correspondent Grossman knew war at first hand. He witnessed the defence of
Stalingrad, the horrors of the Holocaust and the catastrophic fall of Berlin.

“Human history is not the battle of good struggling to overcome evil. It is a battle fought by a great evil struggling to crush a small kernel of human kindness. But if what is human in human beings has not been destroyed even now, then evil will never conquer.”

This statement makes it clear that war, as part of that human history, is not the battle of good struggling to overcome evil; it is evil seeking to snuff out the goodness of humanity.

Ordinary human beings rose from their seemingly insignificant corners of the world and from what would until then been relatively uneventful lives.  They came together at whatever cost to themselves and faced evil not just for their own sakes but for the benefit of generations yet unborn.  This is why today is so important.

Therefore I now want to share with you just one human story amongst the millions that were played out during the monumental struggle against the forces of evil that swept across Europe seventy years ago.

Elizabeth, who is still alive and living in the South West, appears to be an unassuming widow. When I first met her, Harold, her husband, was still alive.  He appeared sprightlier
and more eager to chat while Elizabeth sat humbly in her chair as if nothing much had ever happened in her life.  Being an inquisitive sort I slowly unwrapped some of their past.  Harold was pleased to have the opportunity to speak of the pride he had in Elizabeth.  Eventually I discovered that she had been the PA to the Chief of Naval Staff in Portsmouth at the time of D Day; I believe the first Wren to ever hold such an office.  But it was just one brief incident that summed up Elizabeth’s integrity, courage, and loyalty.

It was the last day of May 1944.  Harold, a young lieutenant, had a 24 hour pass and took his young fiancée to the cinema.  As they parted that night he turned to Elizabeth and said ‘I am free
again next week; shall we do the same again?’  Knowing the secrets of the invasion Elizabeth was fully aware of the fact that this was the last night she and Harold would have before the invasion
got underway.  She knew that Harold was about to be confined to barracks before embarkation. Elizabeth knew only too well that this could have been the very last time she saw her fiancé.

But to the invitation to meet again the following week she replied without hesitation ‘That would be lovely dear.’

This is just one story amongst millions, of one woman playing her part in one of the greatest moments in human history.

Vassily Grossman’s novel is full of similar, seemingly insignificant, incidents surrounding the
defence of Stalingrad, one of the other turning points of the Second World War.   I believe it to be
one of the finest accounts of war ever written; ordinary people who had lived ordinary lives doing ordinary things but as evil threatened to sweep away the goodness within rose to face the challenge in extraordinary ways.

But as Grossman concludes in the quote I offered earlier “if what is human in human beings has not been destroyed even now, then evil will never conquer.”

This is clearly evident in the life and teaching of Jesus. The genius that was Jesus is encapsulated in the Sermon on the Mount, in particular the Beatitudes. Evil cannot win. No matter what is thrown at the goodness of humanity –evil can never win; goodness has the final, victorious word.

We are told and perhaps we know from personal experience that when we are poor in spirit, utterly depressed, we will rise to a new dawn and experience all that is good, beautiful and whole.

When we mourn, when we grieve as never before and seem totally disconsolate we will be comforted in such a way that those who have never known what it is to suffer will not understand.

When we are desperate to find fulfilment in our lives and clutch at straws in an effort to climb mountains we will come to a point when we know it was worth every effort.

When we overcome the pressure and expectation of others who see it as weakness to express compassion toward those who have been put to one side by society we will find a whole new experience of what it is to be in community.

When we act with integrity and grace we will know what it is to carry deep within us something of God’s essence.

When we seek to reconcile warring factions by standing between them, or we seek to defend the weak against a powerful aggressor, we will be given boundless strength to act and a previously
unimaginable peace of mind.

And when others accuse us of doing wrong in our attempts to do what is right we will discover an audacious belief in both ourselves and the causes for which we stand and fight.

We know all this to be true because we have seen it in others.  We have heard or read their  estimonies.  And if we have been lucky in this life then we may have even experienced it for
ourselves.

The last word belongs to Geoffrey Wellum, one of the very youngest of the Few.

“Nobody wants a medal.  Nobody wants a ‘thank you’.  But it would be nice to be remembered because then you would think of all of us, not just those who survived.”

Remembrance

9 November 2011

Longrun Meadow, Taunton

My own words never seem sufficient to describe the significance of Remembrance Day.  I therefore offer a quote from Vassily Grossman’s epic novel Life and Fate.  Grossman knew war at first hand.  He witnessed the defence of Stalingrad, the horrors of the Holocaust and the fall of Berlin.

“Human history is not the battle of good struggling to overcome evil.  It is a battle fought by a great evil struggling to crush a small kernel of human kindness.  But if what is human in human beings has not been destroyed even now, then evil will never conquer.”

Stand off at St Pauls

3 November 2011

When I captured the above photo I had no idea that days later a protest would take place that has since had serious repercussions for the authorities responsible for the Cathedral in whose shadow these two young people sit.

Once the media coverage of the Occupy London encampment on the steps of St Pauls got underway I arose each morning and selfishly gave thanks that I was not a member of the Cathedral Chapter.

As a Christian I am called to stand alongside the poor, even become poor, but if I am honest how difficult I find that vocation to be.  I may be willing to speak against the injustices of our world, the abhorrent 50% salary increases for some CEOs, the outrageous conditions under which people live and can never escape no matter how hard they try, I may even give more of what little I receive (that is little in comparison to some of my contemporaries but much in comparison to the majority in our world) but what right have I to criticise the ex Dean and Chapter who must have faced a situation for which they had little or no experience?  When the Health and Safety issues are read out I wonder how I might have reacted.

We who believe in a forgiving God live in an unforgiving world.  The press that builds someone up
into a celebrity is, for readership figures, just as likely to destroy their creation.  Where would the armchair and distant-pulpit critics have been had things gone very badly wrong as a consequence of taking some inadvisable risk with the thousands around and within the Cathedral?

Yes some of us may have dealt with the situation differently; we’d certainly like to think we would.   But who can be so sure with limited knowledge of the context in all its complexity?

I seem to recall that Jesus said we were to be as wise as serpents and gentle as doves.  Maybe that
goes for those of us who will be nowhere to be found when the consequences of any action take place for our brothers and sisters in Christ.  In recent years some sections of the press have sought to batter politicians over expenses and rightly so we might say; then those bankers held to be responsible for some aspects of the economic crisis and rightly so we might say; but now it appears to be the turn of the Christian Church for failing to live out the gospel in the face of understandable
and justifiable protest and rightly so some may say but let us not add fuel to the fires being stoked by our critics who long to see the influence of the Church, indeed Christianity, or any faith for that matter, lessen or even end altogether.

There is an old proverb ‘You were a keeper of vineyards, you should have kept your own’.  How can I tend another’s field whilst my own is left uncared for?  How effective have my words and actions
against poverty, inequality and injustice elsewhere been while I have failed to deal with the very same issues right on my doorstep?  Has the church to which I belong kept its doors open to those on the steps longing to be recognised and valued?  Is what I do alien to those who are seeking partners in tackling the issues we should be together addressing?

Specks, eyes and logs come to mind.

The two people on the bench have their backs to one another; let us not turn our backs on those who criticise a failing system but nor turn them against those who are doing their best in difficult circumstances.