Saturday, December 08, 2012

Courage to Wait

Jeremiah 33:14-16, Psalm 25:1-10, 1 Thessalonians 3:9-13, Luke 21:25-36

A prayer from Christian Aid, written for Advent, begins, ‘God of the waiting,
give us courage to wait.’

During the week I run a post office, and people are not very good at waiting. One day four big heavy bags of coins were delivered. By the time I’d taken delivery of them and then manhandled them into the coin safe the queue was getting restless. Not long after, but when I was safely out of the post office, a disgruntled customer snapped off the ‘Please wait here!’ sign. Somebody wrote a note saying they had queued for twenty minutes - surely an exaggeration. But then one of our trustees had been to the Co-op Bank where she was kept waiting for 25 minutes. And there was a clock in the branch, on that occasion, to prove it. We have to do a lot of waiting, don’t we?

‘God of the waiting, give us courage to wait.’ But why should we need courage? Wouldn’t patience be a more relevant gift? What exactly are we afraid of?

Because Downton Abbey has finished now I was listening to Andrew Marr on TV the other Sunday night and he reminded me of something which I’d forgotten about, or put to the back of my mind. When we were growing up, in the 1960s and 70s, we were all waiting - and we were afraid - because we waiting for the end of the world, weren’t we? We actually thought it might come like a thief in the night. Someone would throw a switch - or two or three people would throw their switches - and nuclear Armageddon would be launched. As Mark Antony says in Shakespeare's Julius Caesar, ‘Cry havoc, and unleash the dogs of war!’ We were afraid of the waiting, and thankfully that fear has diminished, though it hasn’t entirely gone away.

What are we afraid of now? What terrible future might we need courage to face? Climate change? Losing our jobs, or our children and grandchildren losing theirs? Economic meltdown, like we see happening in Greece and saw in Iceland? Natural disaster? Illness? Old age? Dying? Are we like people waiting for the flood waters to rise, hoping their little row of sand bags will be sufficient to hold back the deluge? ‘God of the waiting, give us courage to wait.’

The Christian Aid prayer continues, ‘We pray for those who have given up on the coming of hope, because they feel they wait in vain - at checkpoints, at borders, for jobs, for food...’

It’s easy to overplay our fears, isn’t it? To get them out of proportion. Someone commented on the radio the other day that people were much more matter of fact about their fears a hundred years ago. Every child, growing up, had seen a relative lying in their coffin in the front parlour. Even the ultimate fear wasn’t something to be so frightened of as people are now. People had more courage. They expected to have to endure, to need to be stoical.

Often today we’re in denial - about pain, about death, about fear itself. So much so that the Liverpool Care Pathway, which is supposed to ease people’s suffering, is on the point of being outlawed because the self-same politicians who want to make assisted dying easier for people with debilitating diseases want to outlaw a natural process that is designed to assist people to die in peace and with dignity.

When we’re not feeling afraid, what else weighs us down and prevents us from looking forward to the future? Is it the endless grind of providing first for our children, and then paying off the mortgage, and finally saving for our retirement? Is it the boredom of a repetitive job or a tedious routine? Is it anxiety and stress about all the things we’ve got to do, and about getting them done on time? What about that endless list of Advent chores - the Christmas cards, the shopping, the food, the parties, the carol singing? Or are we weighed down with regrets about relationships that have gone wrong or lives that have been cut too short?

When we’re afraid or anxious we tend to look out for signs, don’t we, to warn us that things are going wrong or to reassure us that they’re about to get better. It’s a bit like looking out for road signs, warning us of a 30 mile speed limit, or a z-bend, or stray wild animals, or the hidden brow of a hill coming up on the road ahead, or else reassuring us that there’s a stretch of dual carriageway, or a service station, or a lay-by within easy reach?

There’s nothing worse, is there, than missing the signs? Like the stretch of M1 motorway just south of here where you suddenly come to a gantry of average speed cameras and realise that you must already be in a 50 mile speed limit and - whoosh - there you are, it’s over and gone and goodness knows how fast you were going!

Jesus reminds his listeners how easy it can be to read the signs of the times. When the fig tree buds then it’s a sure sign that summer has arrived, just as wilting leaves on an ash tree are likely to indicate that Ash Die Back disease has spread to our neighbourhood.

And sometimes the signs of the times can be clear for all to see, even those who don’t know one type of tree from another. Someone reported recently, in a radio news feature, about the Cuban Missile Crisis that happened fifty years ago. People living just outside one of the air bases where NATO’s nuclear missiles were stored knew that if they saw a missile being fired they had exactly three minutes to live. That was the sign they were looking out for to tell them if the world - as they knew it - was about to end.

One of the RAF crew responsible for the missiles said there was an official drill, which they were supposed to follow, for tidying up the launch pad after their missile had been fired, but they also had their own unofficial plan for what they were really going to do. They were going to commandeer a fire engine, crash through the gates of the base, and get as far away as they could before the Russians retaliated. And they certainly weren’t going to pay any attention to road signs!

On a more contemporary note, a year or two ago we went into one of Helen’s favourite clothes shops and noticed to our surprise how little stock there was on display. Helen had some vouchers with her and we decided to spend them  straightaway - only just in time, as it happens, before the whole chain went into liquidation. We may not know our Ash Die Back from our elbows, or our fig trees from our olives, but on this particular occasion we had read the warning signs correctly.

Jesus also told us to look out for signs - but not just warning signs, like the Arctic ice caps melting away and the jet stream changing direction. He also encouraged us to expect signs of hope and comfort. Not only that, but he encouraged us also to be signs of hope and comfort.

As disciples of Jesus we’re not to be weighed down with worries and fears. We’re to raise our heads in joyful expectation. We’re to be strong, even when others are faint-hearted, hopeful even when others are downcast. ‘God of the waiting, give us courage to wait.’

One would imagine that only the most hardened American Methodist tourists would visit the New Room in Bristol, where John Wesley established the first Methodist chapel. But no, apparently it has what the Methodist Church rather pompously calls ‘missional value’. People come there seeking answers, or to find hope and comfort: homeless people, drug addicts, shoppers looking for a Bible to buy, the lonely and bereaved, those crushed by mental illness. In the New Room they find an unlikely sign of hope.

The Acorn Centre in Edinburgh is perhaps a more stereotypical example of mission on the edge, encountering people where they most need hope and reassurance. In partnership with the YMCA it offers support to homeless young people and helps them to rebuild their lives. Some of them go on to volunteer to help others. It’s a sign of hope.

God is already with us in the waiting. He is not just in the future. He is here and now. Jeremiah prophesied that ‘The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will fulfil the promise that I made.’ But Advent reminds us that those days are no longer coming. They have dawned.

‘Do not let those who wait for you be put to shame,’ said the Psalmist. ‘God of the waiting, give us courage to wait with those in the most broken places of the world, and with all those who struggle to be bearers of hope there.’

A colleague who’s just become a community organiser, going from door-to-door listening to people’s concerns and trying to inspire vision and hope among local residents, was telling me about the reaction she got when she told a friend she had a new job. ‘That sounds wonderful!’ the friend said. ‘Where will you be working?’ ‘In Darnall,’ replied the new community organiser. ‘Oh dear!’ said the friend. ‘Good luck there then.’  

Actually Darnall doesn’t deserve its bad reputation. It’s got a lot going for it really, but let’s just think of the most difficult communities to live and work in in our own city, and the most difficult places in our world. God gives us courage to go and wait with those in the most broken places, because if the Gospel doesn’t mean anything there it means nothing at all.

God’s concern is not with the powerful and the influential. God longs to be with, and to lead, the humble in what is right and to teach them his way.

Paul prays that we may be blameless before our God and Father at the coming of our Lord Jesus with all his saints. If we are blameless, after all, we can be of good courage. And the only way to be blameless, in case we find ourselves wondering about that, the only way is to abound in love.

The Christian Aid prayer concludes,

Turn our lack of hope into courage,
so that our waiting may be over
and all the things of darkness shall be no more.

I think the prayer means that hope in the coming of Jesus, two thousand years ago and again this Christmas, should be all that we need to encourage us to stop waiting for something to happen and go out - abounding in love - to be alongside those who are broken, or living in broken places.

But one final word of caution. Grace is not cheap. Nor is it easy to bring words of comfort. The people who are working around the country as community organisers - as part of a programme dreamt up by David Cameron and others - are cautioned to listen, and then listen again, before doing anything or breaking the silence with their own quick solutions.

R S Thomas understood this and captured it in his poem ‘Kneeling’. Is he describing a service in an empty church, where he’s saying the daily office alone surrounded only by the communion of long dead saints - the spirits of those who have worshipped here down the centuries? Or is he kneeling before an expectant congregation of the living, waiting for guidance, to know what to say and when to interrupt their thoughts?

Moments of great calm,
Kneeling before an altar
Of wood in a stone church
In summer, waiting for the God   
To speak; the air a staircase   
For silence; the sun’s light   
Ringing me, as though I acted   
A great rĂ´le. And the audiences   
Still; all that close throng
Of spirits waiting, as I,
For the message.
                     Prompt me, God;
But not yet. When I speak,   
Though it be you who speak   
Through me, something is lost.   
The meaning is in the waiting.

‘God of the waiting, give us courage to wait.’

Two Feisty Women and What They Show Us About The Way of Jesus

Ruth 3.1-5, 4.13-17, 1 Kings 17.8-16, Hebrews 9.24-28

Here are two Old Testament readings in the lectionary - a hard one and an easier one. The hard one comes from the story of Ruth, and it’s a hard reading to talk about because it is so alien to our understanding of what women should aspire to in their lives.

Ruth was an immigrant, and worse still she was the daughter-in-law of an elder widow, Naomi, whom she had to try to support. Purely because of her own unselfishness and loyalty to Naomi, whom she could just as easily have abandoned and gone back to her own family, she found herself stuck at the bottom of the economic pile and the future didn’t look too bright for her.

But Naomi had a cunning plan. Strictly speaking, the head of her husband’s clan - Boaz - had a duty to take care of them both. Clearly this wasn’t happening, otherwise Ruth wouldn’t have been going out scrounging for barley - picking up the gleaners left behind by the reapers in the field. But by God’s providence Ruth had found herself in one of the field’s belonging to Boaz, and he had recognised who she was - and how kind and loyal she had been to her mother-in-law - and had allowed her to collect more than just the leftover grain. He had also ordered the young men not to bother her and had shared his lunch with her,  but he hadn’t offered to look after Ruth and Naomi. Compassion and family duty apparently had their limits.

Naomi’s plan, therefore, was for Ruth to get dolled up - to make herself look and smell as beautiful and appealing as possible - and then to sneak under Boaz’s blanket while he was asleep on the threshing floor with the rest of his gang of harvest labourers. It was a fairly desperate plan, because the intention was for Ruth to compromise her good name by making herself look like a young woman of loose morals, in the hope that Boaz would take pity on her and do the decent thing by them both. Naomi was banking on the fact that Boaz was obviously a man with a social conscience and that, just to give him a nudge in the right direction, he would be attracted to Ruth.

It all worked out just as Naomi had schemed, and we are meant ot feel positive about the outcome because so much good clearly came out of Ruth’s marriage to Boaz. The prayer that Ruth’s son might be renowned in Israel did not come true but eventually - long after their deaths one suspects - Ruth and Boaz became the great-grandparents of King David .

Of course, even today one way for a young woman to make her way in life is to find a wealthier man to appreciate her and support he and no doubt a mixture of feminine wiles and allure can be useful in helping a man to realise what’s going to be good for him. But is that any longer an accepted role model?

And, even if it is, the problem with Ruth’s story is that she was trapped into the role. Today we would hope that young women might have a choice about their marriage partner, their career path and their lifestyle. But, life conspires against us, sometimes, doesn’t it? The first time she got married, Ruth may have had a choice, but then her husband and father-in-law died, leaving her with a difficult moral dilemma - to stick with Naomi and become a pawn in Naomi’s own attempts to secure the future for both of them, or to claim her right to walk away and remain in charge of her own destiny.

In some ways, then, Ruth’s story is very contemporary. It brings us up sharp against the modern debate about rights and responsibilities. Today we would be concerned about the rights of people like Ruth and how to protect her from exploitation by Naomi and Boaz. The Old Testament chooses, however, to focus on responsibility - Ruth’s perception that she was responsible for looking after Naomi and Boaz’s perception that he was responsible for looking after both of them. Ruth emerges as the hero of the story precisely because she chooses to put her own rights and self-interest to one side out of a sense of loyalty and love for her mother-in-law.

The second Old Testament story is a more straightforward one. It’s about another widow, this time unnamed. However, like Ruth she is not an Israelite. Elijah goes to stay with her to escape the consequences of a drought and to hide from his enemies and takes advantage of the traditional Middle Eastern custom of showing hospitality to strangers.

Elijah asks for food and water, without even saying ‘Please’. The woman happily obliges with the water but points out that she has almost nothing to eat. Elijah asks her to trust in his God to supply the needs of all of them - the widow, her son and himself - but, in a supreme gesture of faith, she must give the first bun that she bakes to him and not to her starving child.

The German philosopher Immanuel Kant once said, ‘I had to deny knowledge in order to make room for faith.’ That’s what Elijah asked the widow to do. She had to deny the certain knowledge that there was only enough flour and oil left in her storage jars to make one last meal for herself and her son, and in faith she had to bake a bun for Elijah before they fed themselves. The woman did make room for faith, as Elijah had asked. She denied the evidence of her own eyes and her faith was rewarded. Her household ate for many days.

Do we make enough room for faith? Are we too quick to be cowed by the facts into believing that what God wants is impossible?

I heard a comedy sketch in which someone was told that he couldn’t have his favourite drink because the barman had run out of stock, to which he replied, ‘I’m the kind of person who doesn’t take ‘No’ for an answer’, and, ‘I’m the kind of person who always gets what he wants.’ Of course, it didn’t make any difference. The barman still didn’t have his favourite drink in stock.
Some things just can’t be done. But Elijah was effectively saying the same thing. Sometimes we do have to be willing to refuse to take ‘No’ for an answer if we are to get done what God wants done.

The kind of person who always gets what they want is traditionally an aggressive, often unpleasant and pushy sort of person, who disregards the needs of others. But Jesus is a different kind of person who gets things done an doesn’t take ‘No’ for an answer. He doesn’t do it by ruthlessly pursuing his own interests; he does it by putting his own life on the line for others.

During the First World War a man disobeyed his commanding officer and crawled out into No Man’s Land to rescue his friend who had been shot while laying barbed wire. He picked the friend up, put him on his back, and started running towards his own lines. Just as he reached the safety of the trench the German machine gunner opened up and peppered him with bullets. He and the friend fell into the trench covered with blood. The friend was dead and the man who had gone to save him was dying.

‘Why did you go?’ said the officer furiously. ‘You have thrown away your life. And for what?’

‘No,’ said the man. ‘It was worth it. When I got to my friend he said to me, “I knew you’d come!”’

Well, we didn’t know Jesus would come to rescue the human race, though the prophets had predicted that God would act to save us. He came and, in the process of saving us, he himself lost his life. But his was not a sacrifice like the soldier’s sacrifice, that has to go on being made in each generation to save wounded men under fire, like the soldiers who have lost their lives or limbs in Afghanistan going to the aid of their friends. His is a once for all sacrifice.

Sacrificing yourself is not a popular idea in a culture obsessed with success, but Jesus is someone like Ruth who puts obligation and responsibility above self-interest. In her case it was her obligation to her husband’s family, even when he had died. In Jesus’ case it is his sense of obligation to God and to doing what is right.

Are we willing always to do what is right, whatever the personal cost, and to refuse to take ‘No’ for an answer in order to do God’s will? Are we willing, if necessary, to deny the odds against us in order to make room for faith?