Compassion and Complicity

Chaplains always walk a fine line between the pastoral care of distressed people and the risk of making the intolerable, tolerable. It is an experience that runs deep in the history of chaplaincy. The workhouse chaplain and the workhouse master were designed to operate as ‘good cop, bad cop’. One the stern disciplinarian; the other the ‘friend of the poor’. Perceptive critique of this relationship arrived at the jarring description of the chaplain as the Sunday gaoler.

More recently – the early 1990s – an NHS CEO was feeling somewhat anxious about selling the concept of greater autonomy to a largely left-wing audience. As one of the first implementers of the new ‘Trusts’, the CEO imagined that there could be popular opposition to anything that might smack of gradual privatisation. So he asked the medical director and the chaplain to sit on either side of him on the platform. Not only that, but he was keen to see the medic in a white coat and the chaplain in a clerical collar. Armed with the presence of medical authority and religious support, the CEO judged that this would help lessen the opposition.

In a similar way during the organ retention crisis it was often left to chaplains to engage with parents and conduct the ‘reunitings’ – when newly discovered remains were buried alongside the original casket. Around the country special religious services were held to mark the experiences of loss which these circumstances had made more complex. I was involved with the one at Leeds Minster and preached the sermon. After the service one relative said that he felt better about the sermon than he had when he attended a similar event in the south of England. On that occasion the local bishop had preached and, when the relative saw him after the service, he asked the bishop: ‘So when’s the NHS going to give you your thirty pieces of silver?’ The relative thought the bishop had done everything possible to defend the institution – but done nothing to express solidarity for the grieving families.

“There comes a point where we need to stop just pulling people out of the river. We need to go upstream and find out why they’re falling in.”

Desmond Tutu

Desmond Tutu’s reflection emphasises the need to ensure that pastoral concern is matched with prophetic witness. It is better to stop the circumstances that lead to suffering rather than focus exclusively on saving those already drowning. Many well-meaning people baulk at the political involvement that requires injustice to be challenged – but in doing so risk participating in propping up systems that are fundamentally pernicious.

In meeting with members of the Faculty of Theology at the University of Stellenbosch I learned about the ‘Day of Courageous Conversations’. This took place in 2015 when the Anglican Archbishop of Cape Town, The Most Reverend Dr Thabo Makgoba, hosted representatives of the South African mining sector, civil society and faith communities to discuss the future of the mining industry. The aim was to see a way forward for sustainable mining that limited its damage to local communities.

The Most Reverend Dr Thabo Makgoba

One possible outcome of these conversations (which are continuing) might be the allocation of chaplains to the mines. Given that mining is undoubtedly at the sharp end of capitalism, not to mention environmental harm, chaplaincy in this context will be daunting. The balance between spiritual sticking plasters, and challenging unjust and injurious practices, will be extremely challenging. Perhaps, if chaplaincy is provided in this industry, there need to be clear and anonymous ways in which chaplains can reflect back to senior church leadership the concerns they identify. This could in turn enable and resource prophetic witness which would allow pastoral care to continue while moral questions are raised and pressed forward. Only time will tell if this is an ethical and faithful way in which to balance the need for compassion with the risk of complicity.

If any chaplain ever feels that there are no tensions between the organisation they serve and the people they pastor, this is probably the clearest warning that something is wrong in their ministry. Chaplaincy will always be at the messy interface of personal experience and institutional power. In the midst of all the distortions this creates, the chaplain’s calling is to stand by and for the things that belong to the Kingdom.

Wilful Ignorance

I’m sure that there will be a fancy word for it, but when our attention becomes invested in something, we often find that topic suddenly cropping up all over the place. I am about to go to South Africa and am becoming more and more aware of how entwined our histories have been. Not, I should add, by any sense of choice for the majority population of South Africa. On Friday afternoon, standing on a platform at Derby station, I suddenly noticed the plaque that heads this blog. A memorial with scores of names of the members of the Midland Railway Company’s staff who died ‘serving their country in the war in South Africa 1899-1902’.

The war was conducted, partly under the direction of lieutenant-general Kitchener, in a manner that was both new and terrifying. It gave to the world the concept of ‘Total War’, in which civilians were as much embroiled and harmed as combatants. It also saw the introduction of the kind of contained and controlled camps used to subjugate entire populations.

“This Total War strategy shattered the rural economy, leading to starvation and a humanitarian crisis. Displaced and captured civilians were taken to military managed refugee camps inside the military controlled zones. These camps became known first as refugee camps and then later as concentration camps and were established near towns, mines and railways sidings”.

Benneyworth, G. C. (2019). Traces and memory of African forced labour camps during the South African War (1899–1902). Traces, mémoires et mutations des camps de refugies. Investigations d’anthropologie prospective, 29-49.

It is perhaps no coincidence that the majority British perception of modern history begins in 1914. To stray back just a few years earlier, and look farther afield, brings a far less comfortable story of national conduct. Plaques like the memorial at Derby station are less common than those in memory of WWI and WWII, but they are more numerous than we might imagine.

“people conduct their daily affairs under the shadow of their own inevitable ignorance. People simply do not know everything about everything”.

Dunning, D. (2011). The Dunning–Kruger effect: On being ignorant of one’s own ignorance. In Advances in experimental social psychology (Vol. 44, pp. 247-296). Academic Press.

Dunning is right that ignorance is a fact of life. We make choices about the things we wish to understand, while simultaneously recognising that in some cases we are ignorant of our ignorance. However, there are also topics about which we make a decision – at some level – to avert our eyes. To avoid things too dangerous for our implicit sense of how the world works, and our place within it. This is when prophets discomfort our security and demand that we see the truth of difficult things. They ‘scatter the proud in the imagination of their hearts’ – something the proud will do anything to avoid. We are all proud.

I am looking forward to our time in South Africa, and to reunions with people we have met on their visits to the UK. Despite the histories of oppression and privilege, and the legacy of damage that is wired into the inequalities of society, human beings are not inevitably condemned to repeat the past. We should never be ignorant of what has made us who we are – or forgetful of how wealth is built on the misery of people we have othered. Thankfully, with great generosity and grace, I know that we are all interested in the future – and how the friendships and knowledge we share can lead to something more worthy, godly, life-giving and hopeful.

Hidden in Plain Sight

Churches pepper the landscape of England, to such an extent that there are few places without some kind of ecclesiastical edifice. Now well into my fourth decade of ordained ministry, I would be able to retire comfortably if I had received a pound for every time someone has remarked that the church is the people, not the building. I do not doubt the statement, but Christians are physical beings who need physical places in which to meet and pray. Even transient settings are altered for a few moments when a sacrament is shared. Countless times at a hospital bedside, with curtains drawn at the patient’s request, the ancient prayers and ritual have evoked a fleeting stillness and sense of the sacred. On very rare occasions, having heard the liturgy being spoken, a nurse has ducked into the space to received Communion as well – something I doubt there would be time for in today’s overstretched NHS.

There was a notable minority thread of comments on Twitter over Christmas from clergy who were not tweeting about full churches at midnight; crib services that were overflowing with children; or carols sung robustly by the faithful gathering of older parishioners. Away from the cathedrals and civic churches many services took place with thin congregations and in the absence of children. These were no doubt meaningful and moving, but they are also a reminder that in many communities the ‘fringe’ of people who attended on high days and holidays has mostly evaporated.

It was encouraging recently to be sharing in worship at rural churches in East Yorkshire where, statistically, a significant minority of the population attends church. I can well imagine that this is the kind of place where occasional worshippers would also be present at Christmas and Easter. It was encouraging, in conversation, to hear about plans to improve the welcome for new residents in the parishes, and fresh thoughts about how to connect and involve people who might be feeling isolated. All this within an Anglican-Methodist ecumenical partnership which is currently advertising for a Minister/Vicar.

The church building is at the heart of these communities. While maintaining them is problematic and costly they offer a focal point that pose questions of faith and purpose every hour of every day. It is quite true that on their own this seldom achieves very much – or some of the churches I’ve mentioned would be full to the rafters. The buildings require an active Christian community just as much as that community needs a place to meet, and a place to manifest the physical expression of faith over time. I’m not sure we understand fully, as a society, how precious and valuable our stock of churches is when it comes to art; social history; traditional crafts; and the evolution of theology and belief. Perhaps there is more that we need to do to enable these buildings to speak and, in their speaking, to tell afresh the faith that has inspired their creation.

“Comprehension of architectural monuments, signs, symbols, cultural codes allows students to penetrate into the spiritual life of another culture, especially the national character through comparison with their culture. Thus, when considering the semiotics of a Russian church and an English medieval cathedral, students’ attention is focused on symbolism, which helps decode non-verbal languages and meanings, helps to understand the mentality of the English people”.

Sabirova, D.R., Solovyova, E.G., Pomortseva, N.P. and Antonova, S.P., 2019. Comprehension of the english national character in building professional linguistic culture. Journal of Educational and Social Research9(3), pp.101-101.

Perhaps the lack of progress in this direction stems in part from anxieties concerning cultural heritage. For example, that prior to the 1950s Britain was a culturally much less diverse society than it is today. Using building to interpret the past could emphasise a narrow concept of being English and exclude the presence of the faiths now widely present in society. Furthermore, as the Church of England itself recognised with a debatable financial commitment, the construction of many churches was funded to varying degrees by the proceeds of slavery; exploitation; and the blessing of abusive power.

At the moment it seems that we do a modest amount to share the architectural marvels and complex histories that litter our countryside, towns and cities. In some cases, if just one of these buildings was somewhere in the USA, it would draw visitors from across the continent. Here many are closed most of the time; lack explanatory boards and information; and do little to make their presence known. No doubt funding is part of the problem – but that is also a catch 22. Without being open and communicative, fewer and fewer churches will have the vibrancy I encountered in rural East Yorkshire.

Today is Mothering Sunday and some people will be remembering with thanks a particular church in which their faith was once nurtured and inspired. A number of those church buildings will no longer be in use as a place of worship, while others will have disappeared entirely. However, the spiritual imprint of a church that has served us well is carried far beyond the walls of any given place. We carry its light into our daily lives, and hope that – meeting the lit shards of others’ faith and love – a pattern of greater purpose and beauty takes shape. At times this can feel a forlorn hope but, perhaps, it is the only meaningful hope we have.

A Fleeting Shadow

It is an incidental fact of the modern world that most of us are captured, unwittingly, in other people’s photos. Whereas once upon a time we might have dodged around the line-of-fire between camera and subject, there are now so many pictures being taken that it is almost impossible not to intrude. Outside York Minster cameras and phones are in all directions, with an almost continuous stream of snaps being taken from dawn until well after dusk. I’ve long given up trying to walk around.

No doubt my nonchalance about the risk of ruining an image is partly the result of technological progress. In my youth a photograph was a precious thing, involving physical film and a long delay between a click and seeing the image itself. If the camera was set incorrectly a whole reel of film could be lost, but you wouldn’t know until after all the photos had been taken and the cost of developing had been paid. As with all technology, there is a rearguard action against this progress and a growing interest in using film cameras, which market analysts expect to continue. Nevertheless, when I walk into someone’s line of sight today I know that more often than not the image can be deleted in a second, at no cost, and further attempts to capture the desired picture are almost unlimited.

In her new novel, The Hero of This Book, the novelist Elizabeth McCracken writes entertainingly about this shift in behaviour reflecting the altered state of the technology used in photography. At one point we find McCracken’s protagonist walking across the Millennium Bridge by Tate Modern:

I slowed but I didn’t stop. I strode out. “Well, that’s ruined it,” I heard a woman mutter as I passed. She was examining the screen of her camera – an actual camera, not a phone; she took herself seriously – and she wanted me to feel bad. The wind was pulling apart her ponytail in a quarrelsome way. I didn’t feel bad; I felt marvellous. For years I’d been polite around tourists taking pictures. I’d yielded, believing as many people did then, and some still do, that this was a moral law.

Elizabeth McCracken, The Hero of This Book, Jonathan Cape, London 2023 p. 38

Across the world millions of us will be captured on the edges and backgrounds of strangers’ photographs. In the Cloud there will probably be millions more – photos that will never see the light of day; be added to an album; or turned into images for cushions, mugs and mouse-mats. It is a theme picked up by the former doctor and hit TV script-writer Jed Mercurio (Line of Duty). In a semi-autobiographical novel that preceded his fame, Mercurio wrote about his time as a junior doctor in an NHS hospital. At one point he reflects on the fact that at the end of a patient’s life it is usually those closest to them who are present. However, there are also figures around the patient who have only appeared for the first time in the patient’s life at this critical moment: the clinical staff. As with many of the most significant moments in our lives, the images of this experience will be etched into memories for years to come. However, in those mental images – with key family members static by the bedside – the staff are little more than a blur:

Though I’m beside her I’m not part of the moment or part of another life ending for no reason I can comprehend. I’m a passer-by captured in a photograph who’s an out-of-focus streak of lines flashing through the frame and then gone. I’m a cold scalpel-sharp instrument slicing through scenes in other people’s lives and not ever being slowed.

Jed Mercurio, Bodies, Vintage Press, 2003, p. 134

I am less gloomy than Mercurio about the import and significance of the professionals’ fleeting presence. At our best we help foreground the key family members and the person whose life is ebbing away. By doing our work with suitable skill, attention and compassion we leave family members, not with the images of the clinical staff, but with an imprint of their loving concern and professional care. Many times I have heard people mention the commitment and dignity provided by professional staff when speaking about a critical moment in their life. The memory of faces may blur, but the impact of humanity and empathy remains. This isn’t only in the weeks and months following a loss, it can endure for a lifetime. What at the time may feel like a fleeting shadow, an intrusion into the frame of our family and friends, may leave a legacy of enduring goodness.

Champagne Rules

It became my custom to give up alcohol during Lent. I’m not sure when it started, but by the time I was ordained it was an established practice. With the eagerness of a new curate I was very clear that this was something I would observe, come what may. Like so many of the things we decide with absolute conviction, God is adept at questioning any rule we might turn into an idol. During those first few years of ordained life I found myself on one occasion at a 90th birthday celebration for a parishioner. Naturally, the fizz was circulating in abundance and there was to be a toast. I began to wonder whether my Lenten observance was pharisaical – placing the observance of a rule over its spirit and purpose. At that moment I took a glass and toasted the nonagenarian.

Rules can be very useful, even essential, but it can be important to know when they should be set aside for a greater purpose. In the Church of England the recent debates about same-sex blessings might be another example of the ‘champagne rule’. The moment when we realise that a rule no longer serves the purpose for which it was intended. When the Church realises it is operating a self-denying ordinance that leaves it skulking in the corner when the community we are called to serve is celebrating.

‘But to what will I compare this generation? It is like children sitting in the market-places and calling to one another, “We played the flute for you, and you did not dance; we wailed, and you did not mourn.”

For John came neither eating nor drinking, and they say, “He has a demon”; the Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, “Look, a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax-collectors and sinners!” Yet wisdom is vindicated by her deeds.’

Matthew 11: 16-19 NRSV

When we develop or change rules it can be unsettling. Many of those who have changed their mind on the topic of the blessings have done so because they have listened to people in relationships that are enriching each other, and the community: ‘Wisdom is vindicated by her deeds’. I am quite sure that they have also been open in prayer to seek what God is asking of the Church. Opponents simply battering on about marriage as something that has never changed (it has), or investing a particular interpretation and a huge weight on a few verses of the Bible, should not fly in the face of the overall purpose and direction of the Gospel. God is love, and enabling people in love to be blessed in the community does not seem un-Christian.

Perhaps it is only when we arrive at a particular moment, and are open to hear the whisper of wisdom, that we feel able to engage the champagne rules. For me it changed nothing about my overall observance of Lent. In fact, it helped dispel my youthful pride in a holy and sacrificial abstinence. God didn’t allow me to complete Lent with a clean sheet, but ensured that when there was a wedding or a birthday I always raised a glass. As the days of Lent progress it is important to remember that rules alone seldom (if ever) bring us closer to God.

‘Owe no one anything, except to love one another; for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law’.

Romans 13:8

Letting go

In a parish I once knew, long ago, there was a splendid cabinet in the vestry. Made from fine timber, it was a large chest with many drawers – in which, liturgical vestments were stowed. It had been given in memory of their father by two members of the choir.

When I was present to lead worship on a Sunday I often spent time in the vestry before the liturgy began. On several occasions these members of the choir would voice concern about something to do with ‘father’s chest’. An alien object had been placed on the top; or a drawer was sticking out; on more than one occasion it appeared to have been moved an inch one way or the other. The cry would go up: ‘what have they done to father’s chest?’

Over time a question began to form in my mind. Had this object really been given? The continuing bonds of attachment seemed so great, so proprietary, that it was hard to think of this as a gift that was given free, unencumbered and without strings.

“But when you give alms, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your alms may be done in secret, and your Father who sees in secret will reward you”.

Matthew 6: 3-4 NRSV

On Ash Wednesday I think there is much to consider about giving and detachment. The ashes remind us that our physical life is temporary, and that all we own will one day be dust. More significantly, God gives Jesus without any sense or implication of ownership. Horrifically, human beings did with this gift what happens to far too many lives. Even on the cross and hearing the cry of despair, God is silent. This is a gift – a true gift, and therefore God can make no claim even on that desperate day we shall mark six weeks on Friday.

All out genuine acts of letting go echo something of this divine gift. If we give we can never claim ownership or, indeed, any greater interest than anyone else. Perhaps this is why gifts are so rare. In his poem ‘Walking Away’ C Day-Lewis reflects on the moment his young child disappears, momentarily, for the first time:

That hesitant figure, eddying away
Like a winged seed loosened from its parent stem,
Has something I never quite grasp to convey
About nature’s give-and-take – the small, the scorching
Ordeals which fire one’s irresolute clay

I have had worse partings, but none that so
Gnaws at my mind still. Perhaps it is roughly
Saying what God alone could perfectly show –
How selfhood begins with a walking away,
And love is proved in the letting go.

A Jangling Noise

During a recent trip to Austria I decided it was time to learn some German. In the dim distant past, at secondary school, I’d done a couple of years studying the language – but with very limited success. Now the internet and various apps make language learning much more accessible and entertaining. Alongside this I decided to learn one or two phrases by rote, including ‘happy New Year!’, which had rather specific and time-limited utility. However, making any attempt to speak a local language brings rewards, not least as it conveys the desire to learn; to understand and to be understood.

The only language in which I have any proficiency is Spanish. Living for a year in a Latin American country immersed me in the sounds and the culture of a land which felt very different from my own. Slowly the words seeped into my thoughts and I realised for the first time that language is about far more than translation. Words approximate – but they are not identical. Living and speaking in a culture different from my own taught me that language is an embodied experience of a particular way of seeing the world. As a result, the way we speak offers a unique insight into how human beings encounter community; reflect history; and give voice to their desires.

In the book of Genesis there is a fascinating account of how human beings moved away from one language to having many. It is a myth of explanation that seeks to translate the phenomenon of linguistic diversity into a tale of divine intervention. In the beginning ‘the whole earth had one language and the same words’ (Genesis 11:1). This is typically interpreted as a story about human pride in which, in due course, we would be able to achieve anything. Consequently God intervened and ‘confused the language of all the earth’ (ibid., v. 9). As Milton puts it, God sowed a ‘jangling noise’ amongst the people. In effect, pluralism of language was a punishment designed to slow the development of human power in response to the growth of human ambition.

“But God who oft descends to visit men
Unseen, and through thir habitations walks
To mark thir doings, them beholding soon,
Comes down to see thir Citie, ere the Tower
Obstruct Heav’n Towrs, and in derision sets
Upon thir Tongues a various Spirit to rase
Quite out thir Native Language, and instead
To sow a jangling noise of words unknown”

J Milton, Paradise Lost, Book XII verses 48-55

Some interpretations of the Babel story have seen it as God’s response to Empire. When one people use their common heritage to mobilise resources and expand their territory, to such an extent that nothing seems impossible, their pride is met with punishment. This interpretation is linked in particular to the role of Babylon in the oppression of Israel and Judah. Undoubtedly this view is informed by the common practice of single-language empires to suppress (sometimes with violence) the use of local idioms. However, this interpretation feels at times to stretch a point beyond its supporting evidence, and some recent scholars have turned away from the ‘pride-and-punishment’ exegesis to focus on the narrative as a theme of cultural origins following the flood.

In his paper on the interpretation of the Babel story, Theodore Hibert, argues that the primary motive of construction is not to affront God (pride) but to remain in one place (i.e. to avoid being ‘scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth’ ibid, v. 4). This suggests that God’s concern is that human culture will remain homogenous and limited. Strikingly, this interpretation is aware that language and land belong together. Therefore, the mixing of language and the dispersal of the people is an early recognition that cultural diversity is dependent on geographical location. While there is no explicit reference to it Genesis 11, it is tenable to infer that the desire of the people to be culturally uniform and in one place ran counter to God’s instruction earlier in the book for the people ‘to fill the earth’. Consequently, the cultural diversity that arises from dispersion is seen to be divinely desired and instigated. (see Hiebert, T., 2007. The Tower of Babel and the Origin of the World’s Cultures. Journal of Biblical Literature, 126(1), pp.29-58. Vancouver).

Yesterday The Guardian featured an article about the demise of many languages. The reason for this is primarily connected with climate change and the fact that many distinct cultures live in places liable to be harmed by global warming. The article reports the launch by the United Nations of a Decade of Indigenous Languages, recognising that this diversity is not only important for the people speaking these languages, but for all of humanity. As languages become extinct (which happens for one language every 40 days) we lose a distinctive way of seeing the world and, importantly, connecting with the natural environment. At the same time, as the late Ken Hale put it, losing any language is the cultural equivalent of ‘dropping a bomb on the Louvre’.

In a few weeks time Lent will begin, the 40 day period of reflection for Christians with a focus on the time Jesus spent in the wilderness. This Lent I’ll be mindful that in that brief span of time a language will die, and hope I shall be more motivated to contribute towards limiting climate change and its consequences – as well as continuing to learn and appreciate new languages. In my experience the rich diversity post-Babel is a joyful jangle, and God help us if we end up with the horror of a single voice.

This Doubtful Day

In Austria, on Palm Sunday, branches of pussy willow are used instead of palms to honour the entry of Jesus into Jerusalem. In the parish church of Viehhofen, in Hinterglemm, I found a spray of pussy willow attached to a processional cross as part of the Christmas decorations. I am unclear about the reason for this, and a search of the internet turned up little. However, it seems a fitting nod towards the passion of Christ and serves as a reminder that events in the Christian year are interlaced in ways that are sometimes surprising.

In 1608 John Donne wrote about the coincidence of the Annunciation (25 March 1608) falling on Good Friday. (We don’t need to worry about that happening in our lifetimes, no matter how young you are, as it occurs next in the year 2157. It happened last in 2016). Donne reflected on ‘the head Of life at once not yet alive, yet dead’, the day when news of great joy lands on the remembrance of deep sorrow. News about the same person – anticipation of new life held simultaneously with the pain and suffering of that life being extinguished. In the calendar, the Church transfers the celebration of the Annunciation to another date. It is almost impossible to attend fully to both these extremities without experiencing some kind of theological breakdown.

All this, and all between, this day hath shown,
Th’ abridgement of Christ’s story, which makes one—
As in plain maps, the furthest west is east—
Of th’ angels Ave, and Consummatum est.

The conclusion of Donne’s poem: On Annunciation and Passion Falling on the Same Day

As a hospital chaplain there were many occasions when joy and sorrow were held in the same time. I shall never forget working in the neonatal units at Christmas, when all attention in the outer world was fixed upon a particular birth but, tragically, I was baptising and blessing lives that would not last the day. Every Christmas I think of those parents and families, for whom this date of joy in the world had become a time of painful recollection. Our annual baby remembrance service was held in early December in order to allow families a ritual of acknowledged loss, and then proceed to keep Christmas as well as possible for other children in the family.

We tend to think that Christmas should be a time when we are shielded from the harsh experiences of being human. Sadly, as the UK has witnessed, violent deaths have taken place over the festivities. Families have been devastated by loss when so much public narrative focuses on being together; reunited. Police officers speaking about these events have often said words to the effect that: ‘while this would be appalling at any time, it is particularly difficult coming at Christmas’. The remembrance of families will forever be made in a context of public joy and celebration.

It is the work of the Church to hold these things together. It is always both ‘our duty and our joy’. The word death is spoken in front of the family and friends of a child brought to baptism; in the joy of a wedding we are reminded it is ’till death do us part’. In a funeral we hear the language of a life to come, and resurrection. The wonderful life which Mary brings into the world is destined for abuse; mockery; humiliation; and a criminal’s execution. Donne called the coming together of joy and sorrow in 1608 ‘this doubtful day’. He knew not whether to feast or fast.

The crucifix doesn’t leave the church to make our Christmas feast more palatable. Neither is it wrapped in tinsel to pretend that suffering can be masked, so that our carols might be more joyful. Pussy willow seems a fitting decoration. A foreshadowing of the Passion that begins on Palm Sunday – but also one of the first heralds of Spring, and a reminder that in the death of winter, new life is promised.

Works of Darkness

The nose of a Springer Spaniel is a remarkable thing. Not simply the nose, but the overall capacity to find. Our morning walks now take place in darkness, and as I launch a tennis ball into a landscape of lesser and greater obscurity, I never doubt the ball’s return. It may take time – but another remarkable thing about spaniels is their tenacity. I watch as various search patterns are executed. There is always a careful eye kept on me, and if I start to head in a particular direction, the ground is swept from side-to-side in advance of my approach. Occasionally – very occasionally and after a long time – we concede defeat. However, almost always, the panting hound returns to my feet tail rotating in triumph, and discards the ball so that the whole routine can begin again.

In these shortening days we head towards the old feast day of Thomas, the 21st of December. As the Revd Richard Coles commented at the recent York Minster Carol Concerts, these are days when ghost-stories come into their own. Reading a section of Simon Armitage’s rendering of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (‘It was Christmas at Camelot…’), as well as A Christmas Carol, there is no doubting the antiquity of humanity’s imaginings during the days of darkness. In the Northern hemisphere this sense of gathering gloom, met with festive lights, seems an altogether fitting climate for Advent and the approach of Christmas.

The Collect throughout Advent petitions for grace to ‘cast away the works of darkness’. Looking at the world today it can feel that this call continues to go unheeded. Both cold and darkness will be the experience for many people, some of whom would never have imagined a time when they would need to choose between eating and heating. In the trenches and dugouts of Eastern Ukraine, soldiers will face winter warfare away from family and friends. In a world where wealth abounds for the few, most will struggle to find the basic securities and necessities of life. There is little need for ghost stories when the grizzly realities of life are so close at hand.

Once lost, it is never easy to retrieve from darkness the things we took for granted. Nevertheless, both Advent and Christmas feed the imagination of a better time; a more just world; and salvation from our own, dreadful, folly. Churches – at the only time of year when many people attend – are charged with holding out the vision and promise of something more worthy of our potential. To speak especially to ‘the people who walk in darkness’ and to stand with those who know their need of God. During the next few weeks we shall invite people in to taste something of the ancient hope the church is called to cherish and proclaim. More often than not, it won’t be the powerful who ask for grace so that we might live in light. As the poet Stewart Henderson puts it:

Don’t miss Christmas –
the splendour of it all
our brittle, gift-wrapped anthem
sleeps in a cattle stall
as the poor and lost and starving
weakly start to sing
it seems only desperate subjects
recognise their King.

Extract from: Stewart Henderson, Don’t Miss Christmas’

Waiting & Hoping

While standing on the platform, expecting a train to Machu Picchu, I noticed the sign to the waiting room. In Spanish, a waiting room uses the word associated with hope (‘la esperanza’): it is the ‘sala de espera’. At times it can feel in the UK that ‘hope’ would be a more fitting description for a waiting room on our less reliable routes. However, it led me to ponder whether there is any real distinction between waiting and hoping. Looking up the Spanish led me to an interesting thread, which includes discussion about the Bible translations of the two terms. Although there are alternative words in Spanish, in many cases – where either waiting and hoping would be used in English translations – it is the single verb ‘esperar’ that is favoured.

Perhaps the principal difference lies in the passivity of waiting. As with the example of a train station, waiting is what precedes movement and change. On the other hand, hope can be part of the journey. The people who travel from across the world to Europe, or across the border in the USA, are hoping to find safety and a new way of life. Writing about hope and waiting in the lives of migrants, Bendixsen and Eriksen ask questions about the different ways in which this can be experienced by people in an uncertain state of seeking refuge:

“What is it that we ‘do’ when we wait for something, given that waiting is normally defined as the opposite of ‘doing’ something? In what way can waiting be converted into political resistance? Waiting does in fact entail an engagement based on anticipation – an in-order-to motivation – of an improved life. How do conceptualizations of the future influence the ways in which people wait? And what can we say about people’s capacity to act in future-oriented ways even in a condition of temporal limbo?”

Bendixsen, S., & Eriksen, T. H. (2018). Time and the other: Waiting and hope among irregular migrants. Ethnographies of waiting: Doubt, hope and uncertainty, 87-112.

In his seminal book The Stature of Waiting WH Vanstone sees in the act of waiting the unfolding of Christ’s purpose. From the moment when Jesus is handed over to the Roman soldiers his willingness to be subject to the actions of others becomes the driving force of his mission. Here, waiting is not an absence of purpose but the only way in which salvation can come.

There are many things that can incline someone to journey hopefully. Often there is a life-long dialogue between the difficult experiences that are all too real, and the hope that is far more than simply wishful thinking. Such hope is strongly connected to the now, and sees the world as it could be and should be. Because of this connection hope itself is not static, but shifts as both our understanding and desire grow. Most often it is killed off by certainties we have decided are fixed and beyond change. For anyone finding faith difficult, Ronnie Scharfman expresses both the struggle to hope, and the hope-against-hope that faith might be found in the struggle:

I have always hoped
that struggling towards You
is You.
But I am never
And that is, perhaps,
You, too.

Ronnie Scharfman, ‘Prayer’ in The Poet’s Quest for God, 21st Century Poems of Doubt, Faith and Wonder, ed. Brennan, O., Swift, T., and Myddleton-Evans, C. Eyewear Publishing Ltd., London. 2016

The hope of faith during Advent requires courage. It is a time when the liturgy of the Church makes no bones about the darkness and suffering of the world, or the fact that the world as we know if will come to an end. Given the multiple crises assaulting the planet at the moment this seems less difficult to imagine. Holding any hope is an act of courage – a defiance of doom and a way to connect with others who share the idea that there is a better way. Perhaps this brings waiting and hoping back together, because our hopes are seldom realised quickly, and dissatisfied waiting can be a vocal irritant to the people who block the path to change.