Hold on: A reflection for the dark days

Psalm 88: Stark, honest, raw. It joins voices of despair that span place and time. It gives permission to lament, and it carves a space for unresolved sorrow. It resists shallow niceties and bland platitudes.

The time between Good Friday and Easter Day is unresolved time. The Messiah is dead; the curtain is torn (but what does that mean?); God is silent. I wonder how many of us live in this unresolved, painful place, not just this weekend, but through much of the year. How many of us hang between darkness and resolution?

Here is a reflection for all of you who are holding on by your fingertips, as you plummet through this liminal space.


Are your wonders known in the darkness, or your saving help in the land of forgetfulness?
Psalm 88:12

An uncertain glance.
A silent tear.
Darkness rises, chokes and blinds.

It is finished,
And you launch into the unknown
Falling through the nothingness of what next?
Into the endless void of where now?

Fear sings her taunts
And Doubt dances on the place you used to stand:
What will catch you?
Who will save you?

In the land of forgetfulness
No memory sustains you
No story reminds you
No music restores you.

Going back is not an option:
That door has closed.
Beasts of regret and fires of what if? lie behind.

But you can go on.

Is there a glimmer in the darkness?
A seed planted but long forgotten?
A fresh shoot of – what?

You wait.
You watch.
You hope.

And then you step forward
Because forward is the only way to go.

Hold on, weary one.
Cling to the echo of a promise you have never understood.
Remember the hope you once passed by.
Believe that beyond what you know, there is a more brilliant future dawning.

Look up.
Look back.
Then travel on.

It’s night time, but morning is coming.

By the tender mercy of our God,
the dawn from on high will break upon us,
to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death,
to guide our feet into the way of peace.
Luke 1:78-79

 

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The ghosts of Christmas: A reflection on hauntings and hope

Adapted from a sermon preached at Holy Cross Church, Timperley, for the First Communion of Christmas 2016.


You’re probably familiar with the story of Charles Dickens’ novel A Christmas Carol. Written and set in Victorian London, Dickens tells the story of miserly businessman Ebenezer Scrooge. Over a series of evenings, Scrooge is visited first by the ghost of his former business partner, Jacob Marley, and then by ghosts of his past, present and future.

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The Ghost of Christmas Past takes Scrooge back to his childhood and youth, showing how he was once a warmer and gentler soul, but that as he became increasingly miserly, so he began to forfeit everything good in his life. The Ghost of Christmas Present opens Scrooge’s eyes to the plight of others who live around him, especially his employee Bob Cratchit and Bob’s son, Tiny Tim. Finally, the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come takes Scrooge to the moment of his own death: the end of a life that, while full of wealth, was empty, futile and despised by all. Scrooge wakes from this final dream a changed man, and you will know, or can guess, how the story ends.

What better time than Christmas Eve to revisit this story, evocative as it is of Victorian Christmases and the virtues it extols of generosity, goodwill and friendship? At Christmas, more than other times, we come face to face with our past, present and future. This may stir within us both great joy, and deep sadness.

I wonder what our own ghosts of the past, present and future might say to us? I’m sure that none of us are quite as miserly as Scrooge, but I do wonder whether each of us is haunted by our own regret, anxiety and fear. Equally, we will each hold onto treasured memories from past Christmases, and hopes for what future Christmases might have in store.

If you are like me, you are most likely haunted by these ghosts in the middle hours of the night. The moments when sleep evades you, and past memories or future worries seem overwhelming. It can be very difficult to let go of past mistakes: the hurts we have caused, the wrong choices we have made, the relationships we have damaged. And worries about the present or the future can seem endless at 3am. A nagging sense that life isn’t quite as we hoped it would be. As we planned it to be.

Perhaps, like Scrooge, we become tormented by all that has happened, or the fear of what will happen. Perhaps we even wake up with a fresh resolve to live a different way, or atone for a past mistake. Does our anxiety push us so fast into the future, that we forget to cherish the present, which soon becomes the longed-for past?

Every time we walk into church, we are met by our past and our future. For all of us who are baptised, our Christian journey is rooted here in church with the presence of the font, or baptistery. Every time we come, we see the font and we are reminded of our own beginning – our baptism into Christ’s light – and everything that has happened since through which he has walked alongside us.

And every time we come, we see the table, and we are reminded of our future hope. As we gather around that table to share the bread and wine, we receive a foretaste of the feast that awaits us in God’s eternal Kingdom. As we gather around the table, we don’t do so alone. We meet in the company of all those who have gone before us, and all those who will come after us. Holy Communion unites us with all God’s saints, as we look forward to a day when we will feast with them at the table in Heaven.

We live in a strange time. The liminal, transitional, suspended space of the “then” and the “not yet”. Something happened, in that manger in Bethlehem 2000 years ago. Something life-changing, world-changing – as choirs of angels lit up the sky and shepherds and kings were drawn and invited to worship the first born child of a humble Jewish carpenter family. It happened.

Tonight, we place God – the baby in whom all our hope is founded – into the manger.

But he doesn’t stay there.

God’s plan is still unfolding. His kingdom is still growing. You and I, simply by being here in this church tonight, are part of that expanding, life-changing, unstoppable plan. 

In all our regret and anxiety and fear, God uses us and God changes us. We are a people who are always on the move. The Christmas that you and I celebrate this year will not be the Christmas we celebrated last year, nor the Christmas we celebrate next year. We have changed, and we will change. We are not the people we were last year. And this moving is the faithful work of God’s Spirit within each of us, whether we know it or not, as we change to become more and more people of the Light.

Never mind the ghosts of past, present and future that haunt us. On this most holy of nights, God holds the darkness of their taunts: the regret and anxiety and fear, and fills that darkness with his marvellous light. And so I wonder what Christ – not a baby now – but risen, ascended and enthroned in Heaven, might say to us about our past, present and future? I don’t know, and perhaps the answer is different for each of us. But to me, I think God might say:

About the past: “Let it go. I forgive you. Forgive yourself”.
About the present: “Trust me and don’t rush”.
About the future: “All shall be well”.

Perhaps in a few moments of silence, you might like to invite God to speak to you the words of encouragement, affirmation and love that you need to hear tonight.

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Donald Trump: The fairy godmother

“I am not an Athenian or a Greek, but a citizen of the world”. Socrates.

Why has Donald Trump been elected president today?

That’s a question I’ve seen asked time and again on social media this morning. I’m not an expert in American politics, and the reasons for Trump’s rise to power are complex. But there is a subtle factor in his success that isn’t unique to the USA.

Across the Western world, privileged people are feeling disempowered. Those who have always done well, socially and economically, suddenly find themselves feeling hard done by.

There is a mistrust of the establishment and a suspicion of institutions. We can speculate on events of the past decade that have fed this ill feeling.

A vote for Trump, or (in the UK) for Brexit, or UKIP or Corbyn is, for some, an anti-establishment protest vote. Here are people or movements, set slightly apart from the establishment, who promise a voice to those who have been told that they are voiceless.

(This in itself deserves some unpacking. What has gone so wrong that those who have most privilege, most opportunity, most wealth, feel like they actually have least? What about those who are truly voiceless: victims of violence, racism and trafficking, asylum seekers, those who can’t afford to eat or stay warm – who is giving them a voice?)

Amidst the fear and anxiety and disempowerment appears a man who can promise to make all our dreams come true. He hears these narratives of disappointment and disillusionment, and he tells a winning story. The shady tycoon plays the part of fairy godmother. What does he offer that is so attractive that it sells to the USA a man so otherwise repulsive?

These quotes are from his victory speech this morning:

Now it is time for America to bind the wounds of division, we have to get together.

I will be president for all of Americans, and this is so important to me.

We will begin the urgent task of rebuilding our nation and renewing the American dream.

Every single American will have the opportunity to realize his or her fullest potential.

The forgotten men and women of our country will be forgotten no longer.

We will double our growth and have the strongest economy anywhere in the world.

Nothing we want for our future is beyond our reach.

We must reclaim our country’s destiny and dream big and bold and daring.

While we will always put America’s interests first, we will deal fairly with everyone.

Sounds pretty good right? The perfect remedy, in fact, to fear and anxiety about the future. The people will come together. Every man and woman will be encouraged to reach their full potential. No one will feel forgotten any longer. Jobs will be created and wealth generated. America will be safe, secure and successful. The dream will come true.

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But these words are the first bricks in the wall that will shut the privileged in, and everyone else out. There are no bridges promised here. Here is America saying me, me, me. In Trump’s references to international relationships he made it clear that any such relationships would be on America’s terms:

We will get along with all other nations [pause] willing to get along with us.

Watching this speech live, Trump’s pause was deliberate, manipulative and threatening.

This is a fairly tale that feeds fear and denies America’s responsibilities as citizens of the world. It reassures the disempowered by offering them safety and security at a cost that they won’t have to pay. America’s dream becomes the world’s nightmare.

There has to be another way. What story can people of faith – the everyday theologians on the ground – tell, to counter these narratives of fear and the fairy tales that promise all and deliver little?

One of the greatest challenges facing faith communities this century is the rise of religious and political extremism. I heard Rowan Williams speak recently about how the Desert Fathers and Mothers – the theologians of 2000 years ago – were “thinking through what it means to live as a guest in God’s world”.

Here is the seed of a radical theology of hospitality. We are not citizens of our nation, but of the world. And this is not our world, but God’s world. God is the host, and we are his guests. The people we hate are his guests too. You and I, Donald Trump and the jihadist fighter – all guests of God.

How does this begin to reshape our narratives of fear, anxiety and disempowerment?

A Lament for Love

We gather
Under storm clouds of our own bigotry
As Spite pours down his torrent upon our heads.

Clouds settle
Marring our vision and dimming our light
As Darkness binds and chokes and snatches hope.

Thunder rumbles
Silencing words that stick in our throats
As Grief cries loud his pangs of painful wrath.

Lightening burns
Casting eerie shadows on our down-lit faces
As Fear takes hold and rests in our bright eyes.

We gather
Sharing tight the umbrella of our likeness
As Hate, invited, batters and beats us cold.

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