Over Christmas we may have received presents from family members, friends, neighbours or colleagues. Exchanging gifts is an interaction that says something about us as individuals and how we relate to others; it may even say something about the value we place on them.

For example, we may go to great lengths to choose wisely for the person we wish to please or to express our appreciation of them. However, we may be disappointed that someone we thought would appreciate our relationship has hardly given a thought to the present they hand over to us. By now we may be wondering what to do with the unwanted gifts.

The most precious gift of all may be that of time. Something that we are reminded of as New Year beckons; a whole twelve months has passed since last we sang Auld Langs Syne or watched the fireworks with Big Ben striking midnight in our ears.

Without time there can only be nothing, for how can anything exist outside of time? That is the question many have wrestled with over millennia.

In order to reflect upon the dilemma it might be helpful to draw from our experience of sleep.

Did the world not exist while we slept? Of course it did. Even though we were not aware of the hours, completely oblivious to the striking of the clock and the events that may have occurred overnight that does not make any of it unreal.

Just as there are those who will work on our behalf during our sleeping hours or take decisions that affect our world God continues to be whether we are aware of it or not.

If we have slept soundly it may be said that we were dead to the world, the world continued to exist. When we wake it is as if we have risen to new life.

But a new day is actually all we have.

Someone once said that the miracle of life is not that we exist but that we are conscious of our existence. We have been created out of nothing, but now we are alive.   Like rising on a bright new morning after a deep sleep, we have become aware of our environment, those about us and the possibilities that exist for ourselves and world.

I am showing my age now but I recall the lyrics of a song by Gladys Knight as she and her lover pondered the uniqueness of the present ‘Yesterday is dead and gone’ she sang ‘and tomorrow is out of sight.’

Time is something that comes and goes and once it is gone, it is gone for ever. Therefore we have to make the best use of it as is possible; we shouldn’t waste time or abuse it.

When we are alert to what is going on all around us, the hours we have are God’s precious gift to us. But as God is all-loving we are given the freedom to use those hours as we see fit.   How we use them is up to us. We can build or we can destroy. We can create positive things or wreak havoc. We can love or hate. We can engage in acts that will impact upon so many, for good or ill.

The pressures of life today, and the lifestyle that is more often readily adopted than any other, means that we are constantly rushing and take little time to pause and ponder. This makes it increasingly difficult to maintain and develop a society based on empathy, tolerance and selflessness. I know how easy it is for me to choose a path that is not good for me or helpful to those about me. I could so easily slip into a world where the only communication I have is via email, text and social media. Even a telephone conversation can be a rarity today. So many of us prefer to hide behind keyboard and monitor than face a situation head on with a neighbour or colleague. The end result is that when we do meet face-to-face we have lost some of the interpersonal skills that have evolved over generations, skills that include discernment and expression through body language appropriate for the encounter.

So much misunderstanding, breakdown of trust and ensuing conflict could be avoided if we spent more time reawakening and developing those skills that make for a better world.

If we want to consider how best we use the precious gift of time then consider picking up the phone rather than placing finger to keyboard, better still get out and see the person we need to be with. Make them feel special because we have given of our time; we have shown them love, because our minutes and hours will never come again and could be valued therefore for much longer than it took to talk.

 “Time is very slow for those who wait; very fast for those who are scared; very long for those who lament; very short for those who celebrate; but for those who love, time is eternal.”

William Shakespeare

The love we give through the offering of time is a means by which we enter into eternity, for our impact upon those whom we love or ought to love, and who in turn are inspired to love others, could be forever.

Time is not a gift available in our local department store or on line. It’s a gift of God and it can be exchanged between us for the greater good of all.

Over the last eighteen months I have grown increasingly concerned about the way in which some have used either their religion or other forms of identity as a reason for attacking others or defending the indefensible.

We have boxed ourselves, or allowed others to box us, into a place where we are frightened to venture out. Outside the box has become a threatening place, it is filled with prejudice and hostility and people who are only prepared to judge us by the marks of our faith or culture. So we are left to stay, dark and cocooned, in that which is our only place of safety, our familiar and limited world.  This place has no distant horizon promising a worthy adventure but only the walls that press in on us from every side.

Much of this is unreal but it is very real indeed to those who are in fear. It becomes more real still, however, when we happen to encounter someone or something that confirms what we had, up till then, falsely held to be true. There then seems to be no way of going back. Our ‘belief’, or suspicion, has been held up to be true all along.

It is hard, it has always been hard, but it seems to be getting harder still, to break down the walls in such a way that doesn’t expose us to open conflict; for the trust that once existed between us has diminished to  levels close to the medieval period. The hope engendered by a new millennium has been almost lost in the terrorist attacks on the innocent, the rampant evil that is Daesh and the deep despair over an uncertain future.

Today, for there is no other day, we are called to live as if this were true: that even the one who would abuse, insult and kill us if they could, is our neighbour. That does not mean that we roll over and let ourselves be walked upon, it does not, because we must name the evil and confront it for the common good.

Questions

6 December 2015

‘Questions, questions, questions! You’re always full of questions!’

So responded the woman to her little boy as they stood in the grocery queue.

He wanted to know where the bananas came from.

Questions, questions, questions.

Another mother, another little boy.

80 years ago in the Transylvanian village of Sighet now in Romania, Sarah would ask her young son on his return from school, not ‘what did you do today?’, or ‘who did you play with today?’ but ‘Did you have a good question today?’

Sarah wouldn’t survive Auschwitz, nor did her husband Shlomo and their little girl Tzipi, but her other two daughters and her little boy Elie would. Elie Wiesel would emigrate to the US, become a writer of more than 50 books, a professor and winner of many major awards including in 1986 the Nobel Peace Prize.

Questions, questions, questions, they are so important.

The greatest movements, ideas, discoveries came because someone began with a question.

  • Where does the sun go at the end of the day?
  • What lies beyond the horizon?
  • Which colour best captures a certain mood on the canvas?
  • Could we just try it another way instead?
  • Maybe this component will create a different reaction?

The best scientists, artists, philosophers, politicians and preachers ask questions.

Likewise prophets.

Malachi was a prophet unafraid of asking the pertinent question.

‘Who can endure the day of his coming, and who can stand when he appears?’

It is no coincidence that Malachi is the last book of the Old Testament and Matthew the first of the New.

Malachi’s message is all about the immanence of the Messiah. The book concludes with the promise that Elijah would appear before the Lord comes.

Matthew then begins with the appearance of John the Baptist whom some would wonder if he is Elijah and then of course Jesus steps onto the scene as if to fulfil the prophecy of Malcahi.

The Early Church deliberately ordered the books in such a way as to create some continuity: here is the promise in Malachi and here is the fulfilment in Matthew, the Gospel account that draws on the Old Testament prophets more than any other.

The Jewish order is entirely different; which is one reason why Jews have difficulty in understanding how Christians can readily conclude that Jesus is the Messiah. The order of the books in Judaism ends with Chronicles and the promise that God would restore the fortunes of Israel with the people returning to the land. Which is why Christians have difficulty in understanding two important areas, firstly, why Jews don’t draw the same conclusions as we do and secondly, why Jews see the founding of the State of Israel every bit as a fulfilment as we the coming of the Messiah.

It is important to ask questions.

In this case: why do we see Jesus as Messiah and Jews do not?

Why is the land important to Jews, when we think of the whole world as holy?

Questions, questions, questions.

Johnson may have been right when he suggested that those who tire of London are tired of life. But it doesn’t end with London.

Those who tire of questions are also tired of life, the quest, the journey of discovery, the expansion of our horizons, the growth in understanding and the potentiality of it all.

When I candidated for the ministry the widow of a Local Preacher invited me to choose some of his books that were still in the spare bedroom. Fred had worked at the local pit. On entering the room I was confronted with a wall of books, from floor to ceiling.

I took down volume after volume and each was the same, Fred’s neat handwriting filling the margins and inside the covers. Note after note; sermon suggestion after sermon suggestion; question after question.

The Church is at its best when it asks questions.

In the late 18th and early 19th century some in the church would ask, even though scripture permits slavery, was it right to continue supporting the slave trade?

Over the last century we would ask why women should not be regarded as equal candidates to men for every office of the church.

Or more recently, why we should not bless a couple that love each other whilst some see no irony in blessing without hesitation cats, dogs and goldfish in pet services.

When Jesus was asked a question he would often reply with a question.

‘Master what must I do to inherit eternal life?

‘What is written in the Law?’ asks Jesus.

The lawyer responds

‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind and love your neighbour as yourself.’

Jesus suggests that the lawyer does this and he will live.

But the lawyer comes back at him: ‘And who is my neighbour’.

Again Jesus doesn’t answer but tells a story, one of the most famous ever told of course.

He concludes the parable of the Good Samaritan with a question ‘Now which of these three was a neighbour to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?’

The lawyer is faced with a dilemma, posed by Jesus; of course the neighbour whom he must love is the outsider, the one outside his own faith, the Samaritan whom the lawyer’s tradition taught was not included.

When we ask questions it shows not only our interest but also our desire to grow.

When we ask questions it’s not that we are being a nuisance but that we care.

When we ask questions we are one with a God who, in Jesus, asks the ultimate question ‘Will you follow me?’

‘Will you take up your cross daily and follow me?’

‘Will you leave all behind, give up selfish interest, face the refiner’s fire when I come amongst you to purge way all that is wrong in your life and be prepared to begin again as if there was no yesterday and no tomorrow for today, this second, this very second is all that matters?’

Questions, questions, questions.

They are no bad thing, questions; in fact they are good news.

On occasions I have sat with someone whose parent, partner or child has committed suicide.

So often the view in church has been that such a drastically final plea for help is somehow wrong. This view hasn’t always been in the distant past but remains in the present too, if not consciously expressed then somehow existing below the surface.

Such a view isn’t helpful, especially for those who are burdened by guilt because they feel they should have done more to prevent such a tragic outcome.

As someone who has experienced the magnet of self-destruction, I can honestly say that it is beyond our comprehension – putting it simply and inadequately, the chemicals in the brain somehow trigger thoughts and behaviour that at all other times would be irrational and even unacceptable to the sufferer.

However, there remains a great ignorance of depression and anxiety, even a prejudice against those who suffer such awful distress. Take Ken Livingstone’s recent comments about his colleague Kevan Jones that suggested Mr Jones should get psychiatric help just because he disagreed with Mr Livingstone. Mr Jones had famously bared his soul in the Commons by sharing his own battle with mental health. Mr Livingstone seemed very reluctant indeed to acknowledge his mistake and only after much pressure did he issue an apology.

Even now our ignorance of depression and anxiety is such that many still prefer to hush it up or, often in a church community, pretend that the sufferer is somehow of inferior resilience and faith.

But the truth of the matter is that just as darkness and death are real, so too is despair.

There is no hiding the fact – despair, be it all consuming or not, is part of life.

Humans despair when they experience isolation or abandonment.

And for the faithful to despair it is often deemed that they must have lost a sense of the divine presence.

Despair is not an uncommon feature of life. It is often prevalent in the lives of the saints and artists, prophets and politicians; more so than many non-sufferers are prepared to admit.

The Apostle Paul, Augustine, St John of the Cross, Swift, Keats, Van Gogh, Churchill, I could go on but we would be here all night. But I do want us to consider Jeremiah.

One of the passages set for the 1st Sunday in Advent this year is taken from his more hopeful writings. Some commentators have suggested that Jeremiah was the closest the Word came to being flesh before the coming of Jesus, so close was he to what we perceive to be the eternal truths of God.

However even Jeremiah was not immune from the occasional word of despair. Take this for example, though I could have chosen many more:

“O Lord, you deceived me, and I was deceived; you overpowered me and prevailed. I am ridiculed all day long; everyone mocks me.” (20.7)

Jeremiah is depressed. He has been scoffed at by the ignorant. He has been put in stocks by the powerful. He has a right to be disheartened. And the nation is facing war and catastrophe. Ring any bells?

At such a time the last thing you want is someone coming along telling you to pull your socks up, or asking where your faith has gone.

I recall a colleague who was suffering depression. When he began to feel as if he could face the world again he decided to go to a church other than the one he was ministering to. When he sat down a retired minister sidled up to him and asked if he was a visitor. Having said that he was a minister taking time off the priest asked if he was on holiday. ‘No’ replied my friend ‘I have had a breakdown so I am off sick at the moment.’ ‘A breakdown?’ the retired minister exclaimed ‘A breakdown? But you’re a man of the cloth, pull yourself together man’.

Not the most pastoral of responses.

But it is possible to find some light in it all.

Thankfully my friend has a wonderful sense of humour and humour is one of the gifts God has presented us with that enables us to face despair when it threatens to envelop us.

Victor Frankl, psychotherapist and Auschwitz survivor, tells us in ‘Man’s Search for Meaning’ that while luck would play a part in surviving the camps, nothing could guarantee coming through them. In Frankl’s view, without humour even the physically fittest, mentally healthiest and most religiously faithful would find it nigh on impossible without humour.

Jeremiah had, not only great faith, but a sense of humour that enabled him to get through even the most despairing of experiences.

Much of the humour is lost on the ears of the 21st century brought up in a very different context and culture, but Jesus too retained humour in his debates with the ones who could not see what he saw.

Humour is what I find so sadly lacking in the lives of those who hold hard and fast to rules and regulations of faith, those who retain a fundamentalism of scripture that defies all common sense, somehow miss so much of what God is saying.

Though they don’t realise it they are simply not taking their Bibles seriously; if they did they would know that revelation is not static but an ongoing disclosure, or as the German theologians would say heilsgeschichte, literally translated as the story of healing.

We have sometimes forgotten that Christian doctrine and ethics have evolved as a consequence of reason, tradition and experience.

Doctrine and ethics cannot be left solely to scripture for if they were the world would be in an even sorrier state than it is today.

Jihadists have lost, if they ever had it, humour. They have no grasp of the notion that faith is a journey of discovery where developing truth is gradually revealed. So rooted are they in text without analysis and reflection that they fall far short of the fullness of God’s grace and glory.

But the jihadists are not alone.

Take one woman in a congregation I served and the reaction some had to her. Joan was happily married to Chris for many years, they had known each other since they were teenagers. Then Chris fell ill. He suffered an advanced form of dementia. Finally he experienced a series of severe strokes leaving him bedridden in a nursing home. His body was alive but his mind and soul were long gone. After quite some time Joan grew fonder of Bill. Bill and his wife had known Joan and Chris since they were teenagers together in the same church. But his wife had died and Bill now found himself alone. In their loss a friendship developed between Joan and Bill. They would take an occasional holiday together. One day in a supermarket aisle Joan asked me ‘Is it wrong? Is it wrong to just want a cuddle now and again?’ Her children thought it was. I was not so clear that it was wrong. Scripture, as written is clear of course. But what is the pastoral response to such a dilemma?

There is a wonderful book entitled One Yellow Door: A memoir of love and loss, faith and infidelity, by Rebecca de Saintogne who faced a similar dilemma when her husband became so incapacitated that she could no longer cope without a cuddle. In it she has to come to terms with the fact that because the suffering was so great her view of God had to be addressed and possibly changed. It was not that God did not exist anymore but that her previous understanding was insufficient.

In an article in Third Way magazine she said ‘It was to be a long and lonely process of shedding the skin of all the old ways of thinking that I felt, through experience, just had to be wrong. I realised I had to unlearn everything and start all over again. I had to find understanding, a new language, a new way of thinking about the divine.’

It is understandable that Jesus caused a stir.

His way of thinking about the divine took those who would listen and follow on a journey that would lead them to destinations unthought-of before.

When they sought to make sense of all that they had experienced they would turn to their traditions and sacred texts.

As Jesus was a Jew and the vast majority of them shared his religion it was inevitable that they would draw upon Judaism and reflect upon the Law and the prophets. They could do no other.

So the despair of Jeremiah at the collapse of society in Judah, the utter destruction of the city and the prospect of captivity in Babylon would somehow echo their own sense of loss, especially so when Jerusalem fell again in 70, a full four decades after Jesus.

It was only then that the birth narratives were constructed, becoming important and featuring in the sources that would eventually form the Gospel accounts of Matthew and Luke. Before then such matters were unnecessary to the conveying of the Good News.

So it is out of an experience of despair that hope rises, from a sense of isolation and abandonment, and especially the forsakenness of God, that the immanence of the Messiah becomes real.

Even death itself could become life again.

That was what the early believers learnt through their reflections on the teaching of Jesus and his sudden departure through death.

But Jesus remained alive in them and in their actions. What they had experienced could not be taken from them. So the message spreads.

And the message is this: you need not despair for ever, for God transforms despair into hope, because light is somehow shed on the darkest of all experiences, ignorance and misunderstanding; even death does not have the last word.

Others may have doubted the presence of God, I can understand that. But I didn’t doubt the presence of God.

Not once in that long night when I woke almost every hour to catch the latest news from Paris: the rising death toll, the emerging details of a coordinated onslaught and the wave of comments being made around the world.

Not once did I doubt that God was in the actions of those brave officers storming the Bataclan to end the siege.

Not once did I doubt that God was in the hands pressed hard onto gaping wounds in order to stem the flow of blood.

Not once did I doubt that God was in the reactions of those who threw themselves onto their friends and loved ones in cafes and on the streets to protect them from the bullets.

Not once did I doubt that God was in the casualty receiving centres, operating theatres and counselling rooms.

Make no mistake about it God was present in Paris, of that I am sure; but as one theologian replied when asked where was God in Auschwitz “the question ought to be ‘where was man?’

On another occasion of course Ellie Wiesel famously watched two men and a teenage boy being hanged in the camp.

The men died quickly, the boy too light for his neck to break, struggled on.

Someone in the line asked ‘Where is God now?’

And Wiesel recorded that he heard a voice say ‘he is there writhing on the gallows.’

Let’s consider the passage from Jeremiah set for the First Sunday in Advent, here is a man who had despaired but could see that hope would win out in the end.

‘The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will fulfil the promise I made to the house of Israel and the house of Judah. 15In those days and at that time I will cause a righteous Branch to spring up for David; and he shall execute justice and righteousness in the land. 16In those days Judah will be saved and Jerusalem will live in safety. And this is the name by which it will be called: ‘The Lord is our righteousness.’ Jer. 33.14-16.

I want to end with a poem by a great saint. Canon W H Vanstone.

Vanstone was an Anglican priest, former RAF pilot, a double first at Oxford and a starred first at Cambridge. Vanstone was committed to the poor.

He served on a 60’s housing estate in Lancashire as it was being built.

I understand that he moved into the parish before the presbytery was finished and slept on the floor of the church so that he could be available to the parishioners.

It was some time, I believe, before there was sufficient money to complete the presbytery.

When I met him in the mid 1980’s he was a crippled ‘old man’, he was just 62, who had been forced out of parish work by ill health.

He had sacrificed his physical well-being for the poor, but he had not lost his spiritual spark.

In 1979 he published his masterpiece Love’s Endeavour, Love’s Expense.

I will close with his poem from the book.

 “Morning glory, starlit sky”

W H Vanstone (1923-1999)

Morning glory, starlit sky,

soaring music, scholar’s truth,

flight of swallows, autumn leaves,

memory’s treasure, grace of youth:

 

Open are the gifts of God,

gifts of love to mind and sense;

hidden is love’s agony,

love’s endeavor, love’s expense.

 

Love that gives, gives ever more,

gives with zeal, with eager hands,

spares not, keeps not, all outpours,

ventures all its all expends.

 

Drained is love in making full,

bound in setting others free,

poor in making many rich,

weak in giving power to be.

 

Therefore he who shows us God

helpless hangs upon the tree;

and the nails and crown of thorns

tell of what God’s love must be.

 

Here is God: no monarch he,

throned in easy state to reign;

here is God, whose arms of love

aching, spent, the world sustain.