Author: Michael Hopkins

Protect the children

You may have noticed that the Bible made the news headlines this week. The United States Attorney General Jeff Sessions quoted Romans chapter 13, which is about obeying civil authorities, to back up the Trump administration’s immigration policy, in particular the hotly disputed policy of separating children from their parents. That Bible verse was often used to justify slavery.

Almost 2,000 migrant children have been separated from their families at the US border over the last six weeks. Following a Trump administration crackdown on illegal border crossings from Mexico, adults are being detained, meaning the children with them are removed from their care, and on Thursday Attorney General Jeff Sessions quoted the Bible to defend this.

It seems that the adults entering the USA are being charged with a crime, and therefore automatically detained, and so the children that travel with them are being separated and classed as unaccompanied minors. Figures from the US Department of Homeland Security show that 1,995 children were separated from 1,940 adults who are being held between 19 April and 31 May. The children are passed into the care of the US Department of Health and Human Services. Some parents have been told that their children are going to be given baths, which you will recall sounds far too much like people being told to shower in Nazi death camps. The Bible is no justification for this. The United Nations has called on the US to immediately halt the separations.

Perhaps everyone does this? I did some research, and found that no other country has a policy of separating families who intend to seek asylum. In the European Union, which faced its worst migrant crisis in decades three years ago, most asylum seekers are held in reception centres while their requests are processed. Even in Australia, which has some of the world’s most restrictive immigration policies, including the detention in controversial offshore centres of asylum seekers who arrive by boat, there is no policy to separate parents from their children upon arrival. “What the US is doing now, there is no equivalent,” said Michael Flynn, executive director of the Geneva-based Global Detention Project, a non-profit group focused on the rights of detained immigrants. “There’s nothing like this anywhere”.

What really brought it home to me was a report posted on the internet on Friday by a flight attendant of their experience that day. I found it utterly chilling. I’ll read it to you:

“Through all the adversities we faced last evening with computer outages, cancellations and delays, nothing prepared me or my crew for 16 passengers. Sixteen. All dressed in black and gray cheap Walmart sweat suits, quietly boarding the 12:30am flight.

Children! Thirty-two scared eyes looking straight forward dazed. We try to speak, yet none speak English.

During the beverage service, one of the crew comes to me in tears. They can’t face these children that have been ripped from their families with a smile.

These children were probably ranging in age from 11, to the most adorable little girl maybe 6 years old. At 2:30 in the morning, deplaned here in Miami not knowing if they will ever see their loved ones again that they were separated from in Phoenix.

Those sweet innocent children, dressed as criminals silently deplaned with the same fear as our initial meeting. Except for the little girl. She looked up at me as she turned left for the main cabin door, with tears of fear streaming down her face. I’m not sure the protocol, but I leaned over hoping to offer some hope, she hugged me, which was returned – much to the scowl and comments from the adult escort.

I pray that these 16 scared little souls, as well as all the other thousands, find their way to reuniting with their loved ones. We are trained yearly in hundreds of possible scenarios as attendants. Something like this isn’t remotely one of those. I had only met one of my crew a few years earlier, the rest never. Thank God, we had one another to lean on to not only get through the flight, but also maybe some glimmer of hope for those babies.”

How on earth can we respond to these children, taken from their parents, quite possibly with the telling of lies, and flown over 2000 miles away? How can Christians respond to this?

Surely we must condemn any assertion that migrant children should be separated from their parents because of ‘orderly and lawful processes that protect the weak and lawful,’ a Biblical statement used to justify U.S. immigration policies. Mr Sessions quoted Romans 13. I’m going to quote Psalm 106:
“Still, when God saw the trouble they were in and heard their cries for help,
God remembered his Covenant with them, and, immense with love, took them by the hand.
God poured out his mercy on them while their captors looked on, amazed.”

Are we not once again standing at the brink of a moral precipice in our society? The question before us is will we choose to act in covenant with God on behalf of God’s people, or will we sacrifice our soul? Are not all Christians challenged to support all human beings in intolerable and unsafe living conditions? As people of God committed to the sacredness of all creation and the sanctity of every life, are we not compelled to heed the cries of families now being violently torn apart for political expediency and profitability? Such violent acts are unnecessarily punitive and place at risk the physical, emotional, psychological, spiritual, and developmental stability of hundreds of families who now find themselves separated, caged, and commodified in a strange land.

As the psalmist said, God hears the cries of his people. The plight of families whose children are ripped from their care cannot be the policy of any civilized land. Such behaviour leaves an indelible mark of evil that can only be redeemed by a conscious act of spiritual repentance and repair.

We must resist the evil of dehumanisation enacted upon the vulnerable. We must condemn the dismantling of families, and the caging of those whose only crime is to seek shelter from harm. How we treat those who seek shelter in our midst is a direct reflection of how we treat God. In a few days’ time it will be World Refugee Day, on Wednesday June 20. Are we going to stand up for people who cannot stand up themselves? Are we going to contact our elected representatives, asking them to stand up to these brutal and inhumane American polices? In less than a month president Trump is due to visit this country? Will we be protesting? Will we be making it clear what we think of his regime’s attitude to vulnerable children? There is a law that supersedes partisanship and political bantering, and that is the sanctity of all people of God.

Mr Sessions quoted Romans 13. I’m going to end with some verses from Matthew’s gospel, which remind us of the need to be true to the message and the work of Jesus, Matthew 7:21-23:
‘Not everyone who says to me, “Lord, Lord”, will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only one who does the will of my Father in heaven. On that day many will say to me, “Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many deeds of power in your name?” Then I will declare to them, “I never knew you; go away from me, you evildoers.”

Making the best of things

1 Samuel 8:1-22

Her father was an alcoholic. Her mother worked most all the time. She had little choice. Her brother had recently been killed. Things were chaotic at home. She felt she had to get out. So she decided she could finish school later. After all, the guy she was dating had asked her to marry him. She was sure that he didn’t really mean to hit her. He said he was sorry. He promised that it wouldn’t happen again. He’s positive that he’s going to get a job. His luck isn’t running too well. It’s decision time for her. What will she do? Will she make the worst of a bad situation?

Another true story: Two sixth formers are both contemplating going into pharmacy and opening a pharmacy in the small community in which they live. One young man has been promised by a wealthy businessman in the community that he will build for a pharmacy for him, and also mentor him in the details of running a small business. Here is success. Here is security. But the young man has a gnawing feeling that God wants him to be a minister. A minister? What kind of security is that? Think about all those years of college. It’s decision time. What will the teenager do? Will he go for the goal? Or will he go for the gold?

Another true story. The church has served its downtown community with a vibrant ministry for over one hundred years. But, now it is landlocked. It has no room for additional parking. The sanctuary is over one hundred and fifty years old and beyond repair. Growth is an impossibility; maintenance is a faint possibility. The people are leaving and moving to the suburbs. What will the church do? Will it move to the suburbs? That is where a church can grow. Or will the church remain downtown? Eight acres of prime property are available. The only problem is that the available property is downtown. Will people drive past dozens of other churches to come downtown to perform a ministry that no one else will if the church leaves? It’s decision time. Will the church move to the suburbs or will they continue in what they perceive God has led them to do? Will they be true to their mission? And where is that mission?

It was decision time for the nation of Israel in that reading from the first book of Samuel. Crisis was upon them. Samuel was now old. This great man of God who had led the people through countless crises now could not cut it any longer. Adding to the crisis was the fact that Samuel’s sons were ill equipped to continue in his stead. Abiah and Joel were pale imitations of their father. Serving the sanctuary at Beersheba, they had accepted bribes and perverted the very justice that their father had worked so hard to establish. Increasing the nation’s sense of decay was the fact that Israel’s external enemies were becoming more of a threat. The Philistines to the west and the Amorites to the east were becoming stronger and more aggressive. Things didn’t look good for God’s people. What were they to do? It was decision time.

The elders gathered to consider their plight. While their diagnosis was correct their prescription for its remedy was catastrophic. “We want a king. We no longer want God as our King. We want a king we can see – like the other nations.” With this wish, Israel was choosing nothing less than a radical change in its foundational commitments to and relationship with God. Their wish to be like the other nations was to some degree a rejection of their identity as God’s chosen community and the governing relationship that God had desired. Israel was making the worst of a bad situation.

Needless to say, God’s spokesperson, Samuel, was displeased. Perhaps Samuel thought to himself, “Why can’t we shore up the old system? Yes, the old theocracy has a crack or two in its foundation, but do we have to reinvent the wheel? Why can’t we work through the problem instead of casting aside the old system entirely?” Isn’t it worth consideration? Why throw out the baby with the bath water? We didn’t cast aside democracy because of the parliamentary expenses scandal. We don’t throw away the concept of marriage because some couples choose to separate. “Throw it away,” they said. “We want a new system. We want a king!”

Sometimes we can see the need to change. I know I don’t like things changing, when I get comfortable with them. So often, many folk say they find it hard when things change. That certainly wasn’t the case for the Elders of Israel. They were amazingly flexible. “Out with the old and in with the new! Give us a king.”

You might very well be thinking I’m going to say that their desire for change was a good thing, and we should try to be better at making changes that we’re perhaps not so keen on. But I’m not. I think the Israelites had lost the plot. Ancient Israel hadn’t been a monarchy or a democracy, but a theocracy: a gathering of tribes loosely ruled and reeled by God through spokespersons such as Samuel. God was Israel’s king, God’s unique people. Israel didn’t need a king. Israel had God. That’s why God responded to the prophet, “It’s not you they’ve rejected, Samuel, but they have rejected me as their king”. Israel had rejected its intimate and unique relationship with God. Israel wanted to be like everyone else. Israel didn’t want to be different.

“Mr. Speaker, I want to address the house as I have done so many times before,” said an MP. “I appreciate the opportunity to say a word about what the honourable members has suggested. ow I know it sounds wonderful, but let me ask you: If we stop manufacturing weapons and started growing crops to feed the hungry nations of the world, what kind of security would that give us? We would give away our future. I know it sounds good and I know the people are hungry, but it is a little bit idealistic, don’t you think?”

Being different is hard. We want to be like everyone else. We want to get on the current bandwagon. We want a king we can see, said Israel, and God said, “Samuel, them what they want.”

We have to be careful what we pray for because we just might get it. Israel ended up swapping one form of slavery, the slavery they knew in Egypt, for another form of slavery, the slavery they came to know under their kings. They rejected the God who drew them and brought them out of slavery. They rejected the God who sought to be not just their deity but their loving Heavenly Father who spoke to them before they needed to hear the word. We have to be careful what we pray for because we just might get it. It’s called making the worst of a bad situation.

What did God do? God gave Israel a king. He didn’t exactly approve their choice, only permitted it; but then went on to help them find a king. Isn’t that just like God? God is always trying to make the best of a bad situation.

Perhaps you’ve noticed that some things don’t start off well. I’ve lost count of the number of times I started some sort of DIY project full of an inflated sense of own abilities, and before very long I’ve cut the wrong bit of wood, or drilled a hole in the wrong place. I once thought changing a lock was a simple matter of unscrewing the old one, popping the new one in, and screwing it back up. Hours later, unable to even close the door, let alone lock it, I had to ask Steve Tremain to rescue me, and he sorted it very quickly and easily. Just because something doesn’t start well that doesn’t mean that God cannot help to make the best of it.

The point is that it doesn’t matter whether we begin poorly, or whether we start well and mess up along the way; God is there to help us make the best of a bad situation. God loves us too much to leave us to deal with our poor choices.

Mother Teresa was once asked by a reporter, “Do you still go to confession?” “Yes, every week,” she answered. The reporter said, “God must be awfully demanding to demand of you that you go to confession.” “It is like this,” she said, “When your child does something wrong and comes to you and says, ‘Daddy, I’m sorry,’ what do you do? You take that child in your arms and hug him and kiss him because that is the way you can show that child that you love him. That is what God does for us.” Whatever we do, God forgives us. God loves us, and helps us to make the best of a bad situation.

I mentioned a young lady at the beginning of the sermon. She left home and married the young man. He never got a job. After a few years she finally said, “I’ve had enough. I’m tired of the abuse and the laziness.” She left him and limped back to her parents. But she found another partner, and they raised three beautiful children. She and God made the best of a bad situation.

The two teenagers, the would-be pharmacists? One of them became a pharmacist in the small community in which he grew up. He became very successful and prosperous and a strong leader in his church. He used his wealth and influence within his church and community to make it a better place. One does not have to be a professional minister to be true to one’s calling. The other teenager? He rejected the wealthy businessman’s offer to build him a pharmacy and became a minister.

And the church? It relocated, but remained downtown and became a model for inner-city ministry.

We all make decisions, some good and some bad. We all mess up. Possibly to admit that is a good place to start in making the best of a bad situation.

The congregation was milling around at the end of the service, and the offering plate filled with money was lying on the communion table. Only the minister saw five-year-old Sam take a five pound note. The minister put her hand on Sam’s shoulder and said, “Sam, don’t you think you ought to put that back?”

Sam looked frightened and, “I’m so sorry. Please, please don’t tell my daddy, he’ll kill me.” Knowing that the punishment would not be quite that severe, the minister did tell Sam’s dad, and he immediately responded, “I’m going to kill that child.” The minister said, “Wait a minute. I’m sure there were times in your life when you took something that didn’t belong to you.” “Yes, you’re right,” replied the dad. “I was sent to town by my mother with two dozen eggs to sell. I told her that I dropped and broke one dozen, but I really sold them and kept the money. I was about the same age as Sam. I’ll talk to her.”

Sam’s dad told her that he knew she had taken the five pound note. Sam cringed, expecting to be banished to prison for the rest of her life. Then her dad began to relate the story to her of how he, too, had stolen something. Then, in a mutual moment of love, they hugged each other and Sam exclaimed, “Oh, Daddy, I’m so happy. We’re both thieves!”

Being there

Psalm 139
Matthew 11:28-30

The last film which Peter Sellers made was Being There in 1980, and I don’t suppose it’s the one for which he’ll be most remembered. He played an intellectually challenged gardener whose entire knowledge of life came from watching television. It’s not the content of the film that caught my attention, but the title. It immediately made me think of Psalm 139, where the Psalmist says of God: ‘If I flew away beyond the east or lived in the farthest place in the west, you would be there to lead me … to help me.’

Psalm 139 is all about the fact that by Being There, God being there by providing us with the strength of inner resources. Many of us like to think that God is there for that. Nonetheless, the notion of God’s all-pervading presence also has an unwelcome side to it. “The Lord sees what happens everywhere,” it states in Proverbs, ‘he is watching us, whether we do good or evil.’ This, the Big Brother aspect of God, is an unpopular view of God, yet it’s there in the Bible. Linnaeus, the Swedish botanist, had a Latin inscription over the door of his lecture room which said: “Live innocently: God is here”.

Psalm 139 isn’t Just a song of comfort in the omnipresence of God – it’s an articulation of awe, even of some alarm, at the thought of his omniscience too: Lord, you know me, you know everything I do, you understand all my thoughts, you know all my actions. Where could I go to escape from you, to get away from your presence? Escape? I am like a prisoner broken free who does a `runner’, but is soon recaptured. There’s no getting away from God at all.

This Psalm was traditionally set in the Church’s Burial Service for those who committed suicide. A minister told of how a girl in deep distress telephoned him, and without giving her name, said, “I am going to commit suicide. Only one thing is holding me back, and I want you to give me an honest answer. Will I have to face God after I am dead?” The minister told her to read Psalm 139. God isn’t waiting far away on the other side of the Ultimate. He is here and now.

Still, the reassuring truth remains. God provides us with inner resources for us to tap when we’re in trouble. Charles Wesley, in his famous hymn, bade the soldiers of Christ arise and put their armour on, “strong in the strength which God supplies through his eternal Son”. Jesus, in our Gospel reading, reminds us that he is there for us.

Another aspect of Being There is that the Church demonstrates the power of silent witness. As the Soviet state came to its welcome end under the brave leadership of Mikhail Gorbachev, crowds thronged Red Square in the name of democratic freedom. Many watched it open-mouthed on their TV screens, never expecting to see such a thing actually come to pass. And, amazingly, there was the sight of a crucifix rising up from the midst of that huge throng. It was a moving sight. The Church was there.

Those old tyrants and oppressors, the hard men of the Kremlin, had done their damnedst over the years to suppress the Church and wipe out the religious vision with their pathetic Anti-God Movement. But all the time, all the way through, the Church was there: and here it was, with the supreme symbol of Christian faith rising up in resurrection triumph above the heads of that crowd, almost mocking the folly of those who thought they could put it down for good.

It was the same story in Communist China. In the mid-eighties a congregation of four hundred, many of them office workers, students, and factory workers, gathered for the Sunday morning service at the Protestant church at Nanjing, which had only been reopened three weeks earlier as a result of the ending of the Cultural Revolution. Many church buildings had been taken over by the Maoist regime and used as schools, factories, and even living quarters. Now they were gradually being retrieved, a lengthy and difficult process. Even at that time 3,500 churches had reopened, and some ten thousand assembly points for worship had been established. Suppressed and driven underground, the Church had nevertheless been there. Jesus had so promised. His Church is built upon a rock, and the powers of death shall never conquer it.

By Being There, we can all exercise the ministry of a supporting presence.

Robert Dougall, the former BBC television newsreader received many letters. One was from a lady who asked him if he liked the colour of the new curtains in her sitting room. Are there still people who really do believe that the newsreader can see them? Or, Mr Dougall suggested, is this a symptom of something more fundamental? Is it that in the midst of so much change and upheaval, the newsreader embodies continuity and stability?

The family doctor and the vicar once provided this kind of security. Even the small shopkeeper helped, his shop always being reliably there at the corner of the road, like the parish church, the surgery, and the village pub. Lonely people, suggested Robert Dougall, look to an electronic image for reassurance. He was almost incredulous when someone wrote to say how much he has helped them at a difficult time, “How can you help a person by just giving out the news on television?” he asked. “But this has happened so many times that I can only think it is because they can at least rely on my being there”.

When some crisis looms up, when some trouble hits us, there are dedicated, responsible people who enter the situation to provide some service: the doctor, the policeman, the solicitor, the undertaker. Each has their specific job to do. But there are others who don’t actually do anything. They are just there. And you need them there. You want them to be around, to stand beside you, to give you moral support. Ministers often fulfil this function. Sometimes we’re at a loss to know what we can do, or what we can say, in a given situation. Sometimes Being There is all we can do, that’s still a vital work to do.

Leslie Cooke, great Congregational leader of a former generation, stood in the bandstand of a pulpit at the Westminster Chapel in London. “Over large parts of the world,” he said back in the 1950s, “it is no longer for the Church to engage in mission as we have understood it; you may not make a convert. Over large parts of the world it is not possible for the Church to engage in works of mercy, in caring for the aged, the sick, the widowed and the orphaned.” Then, he added, “These very restrictions force us back upon the essential task of the Church which is to be there, a Christian presence, carrying by its intercessions and its sacramental life the sins and sorrows of the world, and carrying them redemptively and reconcilingly”.

Who am I?

1 Samuel 3:1-10
Psalm 139
Galatians 2:15-21

The search for identity and purpose is all around us.

You only have to look at the situation in Italy, as those with vastly different visions of what it means to be Italian compete to run the country.

You only have to look at the Russian billionaire Roman Abramovich, temporarily without a visa to enter the UK, who now seems to be becoming an Israeli citizen. Is he Russian, or British, or Israeli? What is his identity?

You only have to look at Israel and the occupied Palestinian territories themselves. What do the actions of Israelis and Palestinians say about their identity?

You only have to look around us in the UK. The EU referendum has revealed a massive division in British society between at least two vastly different visions of what it means to be British.

All around us there are questions of identity and purpose, and our Bible readings today all have something to say about identity and purpose.

Samuel got off to a strange start. I have gave concerns about a small child being transported from their home and family, where they are loved, yet the hand of God is there in all of this. In this famous encounter, just as the darkness of night began to give way to dawn, God gently spoke to the child, and life for Samuel would never be the same. Samuel’s identity and purpose were secure. He would by this time have been in his early adolescence and would go on to serve as Israel’s last Judge, its first Prophet, and its king-maker.

From the time he was weaned until now, the child Samuel, dedicated to God by his parents, had lived with the priest Eli, helping with Temple duties. He had witnessed and shared in the routines and rituals of Temple worship and no doubt had witnessed the excesses of Eli’s sinful sons. In our reading, Samuel was charged with bringing a message from God to the elderly, frail, and compromised Eli. The message was direct and severe. Samuel shrank from breaking such bad news to the mentor whom he clearly respected but, prompted by Eli himself, he delivered it word for word. It seemed to come as no surprise to Eli. Samuel gradually found his identity and purpose, and grew into it.

Moving from the boy Samuel’s developing awareness of God’s purposes for him, we hear the psalmist’s mature and assured witness to God’s enduring presence, a testimony to God’s enduring presence and protection, from conception onwards, gave the psalmist their identity and hope. The psalmist is clearly not fazed by God, regarding God as a friend on whom he can utterly depend. If you’ve ever seen an ultrasound image of a baby growing in a womb, you’ll realise quite how astonishing it is for us humans to see that, and then we have to get our heads around the psalmist reminding us that God knows us even better than that. Wow! The psalmist wrote of us being “fearfully and wonderfully made”, and he couldn’t have known that centuries later one organ alone, the human brain, would be described as “the greatest, the most awesome phenomenon in the universe”. The psalmist is rejoicing in the way that his body has been fashioned and formed, and this leads him to find his identity, his security, and his purpose in the God, God who searches him, and us, for a response of loving trust. This is a psalm of someone searching for their identity and finding it in God.

And then we hear from Paul, writing to the new Christians in Galatia. This passage happened to crop up in the URC Daily Devotions this week, which I commend to you if you’d like a short email every day to start your day with God. I think that what we read in this passage is Paul being a bit confused about how his old Jewish faith and his new Christian faith relate to each other. Discovering grace, God loving us without measure, as a Christian must have led Paul to think that the law was now irrelevant. Yet, we read that Jesus came to fulfil the law, not to abolish it. Paul might have been a bit muddled up in this passage, but when you read the whole of his writings, it’s very clear indeed that he found his identity and purpose in Christ.

We live in a world crying out for identity and purpose, but many of us are also crying for identity and purpose in our own lives. Perhaps you remember a couple of years ago when the Archbishop of Canterbury discovered that his biological father was not the man that he had thought it was. He had this to say about that:
“In the last month I have discovered that my biological father is not Gavin Welby but, in fact, the late Sir Anthony Montague Browne. This comes as a complete surprise. My mother (Jane Williams) and father (Gavin Welby) were both alcoholics. My mother has been in recovery since 1968, and has not touched alcohol for over 48 years. I am enormously proud of her. My father (Gavin Welby) died as a result of the alcohol and smoking in 1977 when I was 21…My own experience is typical of many people. To find that one’s father is other than imagined is not unusual. To be the child of families with great difficulties in relationships, with substance abuse or other matters, is far too normal…This revelation has, of course, been a surprise, but in my life and in our marriage Caroline and I have had far worse. I know that I find who I am in Jesus Christ, not in genetics, and my identity in him never changes…At the very outset of my inauguration service three years ago, Evangeline Kanagasooriam, a young member of the Canterbury Cathedral congregation, said: ‘We greet you in the name of Christ. Who are you, and why do you request entry?’ To which I responded: ‘I am Justin, a servant of Jesus Christ, and I come as one seeking the grace of God to travel with you in His service together.’ What has changed? Nothing!”

However the past might affect any of us, it is in Jesus that the child of God finds true identity.

A faith to live by

John 3:1-17

You may have heard of a book called The Shack by William P. Young. Published in 2007, there are now well over 10 million copies in print. At the time of publication it raised a lot of questions among Christians.

The book covers the story of Mack, who having lost his daughter from a camping site, receives an invitation from ‘Papa’ to visit the shack – a hut in the forest. From his limited religious background, Mack knows that Papa is God himself.

He decides to respond to the invitation and spends the weekend at the shack. What he encounters at the shack are the manifestations of the three persons of the Trinity. God the Father takes the form of an African American woman, who calls herself Elousia, or just ‘Papa’; the Son is a Middle-Eastern carpenter; and the Holy Spirit physically manifests itself as an Asian woman named Sarayu. In that encounter with the Trinity, Mack is helped to deal with “The Great Sadness” of the loss of his daughter, and to forgive the killer of his daughter. And in the process, Mack learns a few hard lessons about God, suffering, and life itself. His daughter is not brought back to life, but the Trinity restores life to Mack.

The reason the book caused some controversy was because of the way it portrayed the Trinity. In the book, on meeting the three figures, the African American woman, the Middle Eastern carpenter, and the Asian woman, there is a moment when Mack struggles to figure out which of the people are God – two women and one man and none of them white. He asks them which one of you is God. In unison they reply “I am”.

Now the truth is that many of the illustrations used to illuminate the Trinity have limits: three entwined circles, the Fleur de Lis, three fishes, or a tringle are all popular. Irish spirituality have used the three leaf shamrock, some have used the three sides of a precious stone, or three cricket stumps. All have their limitations.

What I like about the image in The Shack is that it invites us to experience God and his love, and that is the invitation of the feast of today. This is the invitation of the Trinity: to experience the Living God as one who creates us, seeks us out, who saves us, who loves us, and enlightens us.

Nearly all of our other special feast days commemorate events in the life of Jesus, or events in the early history of the church or the lives of special saints, but this day, this one peculiar day, we celebrate a doctrine: the Doctrine of the Trinity. It’s a day which strikes terror in the hearts of many clergy. Every year we face the same dilemma: how do we make the Doctrine of the Trinity understandable?

The key point to understanding the Trinity is the invitation to experience God. The Trinity is the way we experience God the mystery, in different dimensions. If we only focus on the academic of the theology of the Trinity, we risk losing sight of this mystery.

What The Shack is trying to do, is to invite us to be open to the varieties of ways we experience God. The Trinity is a model that captures the three ways God has been experienced in history, described in scripture, and interpreted through tradition. But that is never the whole experience.

So how do you experience a sense of the Holy, the presence of the Divine One? For some, they recognise God in the wonderful music of choirs and instruments, others will recognize God in the worn stone of an ancient church, or in the brilliantly-coloured shafts of light refracted through stained glass windows. Other people may encounter God in the wonders of nature—a powerfully thundering waterfall, or the ever expanding and velvety night sky twinkling and pulsing with innumerable stars. Others in the warm embrace of another or the touch of humanity in the mist of inhumanity. In all these scenarios, it is easy to become aware of our own smallness in the presence of the Creator of the Universe.

From all these examples what is clear is that we don’t actually understand a mystery. One experiences God; one appreciates God; one enters into relationship with God, but finite beings such as ourselves are incapable of understanding in infinite.

There is a deep mystery in the Holy Trinity which we cannot fully understand but must simply accept in reverence, knowing that God is at work among us at all time. The wind blows where it chooses and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the spirit.

There is a word in Greek that can mean either wind, breath, or spirit. In his conversation with Nicodemus, Jesus is making a play on words that gives some idea of the mystery working in God’s world. We know it by its effect, as we know the power of the mysterious wind and the breath which sustains our life, as sometime invisible but unquestionably real. In a meeting at night, in secret and concealed from others, Nicodemus came in fear, yet determined to learn more of the teaching that had already attracted him.

Nicodemus was a Pharisee, a leader of the Jews. They emphasized being “separate” from the culture of the day, they thought of themselves as the purists, the loyalists and the traditionalists who kept the traditions of Moses alive. He may have been part of the Sanhedrin, the ruling body in Jerusalem, but to some extent he was trying his best within his understanding, of keeping Gods laws and being faithful. Struggling to understand who Jesus was, and as a political and religious leader of the day he would have had many friends who were plotting and instigating the death of Jesus – it would have been incredibly risky for him to come to see Jesus. Instead of being given an academic answer, he is invited to be born from above and given a glimpse of mystery which can be perceived if not fully understood.

God who is one and yet Father, Son and Holy Spirit has given us a faith by which to live and not a puzzle to solve. We shall never catch the wind by chasing after it, and we shall find more of God by devotion with the mystery, than by trying to sort out the details of the divine nature. What theologians have suggested about the Holy Trinity may indeed be helpful, but for most of us, it is enough to know that God is as close to us as our own breath.

This is the reality, that the God who comes to us as Father, Son and Holy Spirit, is a God who is both free and loving. May we encounter God as the living God, as one who created us, who loves us, who seeks us out and saves us, and one who enlightens us so that we, without fear, may carry the message of the gospel and of God’s love to the ends of the earth.

The music of God

Matthew 28:16-20
Isaiah 40:12-17, 27-31
2 Corinthians 13:11-13

If you’ve come wanting a learned lecture on doctrine, you’ll be disappointed. If you’ve come expecting a history lesson, you’ll be disappointed. If you’ve come expecting scientific explanations or logic deductions, or things empirically provable, you’ll be disappointed. If you’ve come expecting not to understand a word or see the point, I hope you’ll be disappointed. Trinity Sunday – the butt of more jokes than I can muster. Yet what I do hope to share with you is a mystery that cannot be explained, and yet which leads us to glimpse the very heart of God, and encounter the living God for ourselves; the God who is God is there, with us, alongside us, above us, beneath us, surrounding us, within us.

‘Great music’ said the pianist Artur Schnabel ‘is music that is better than it can ever be played’. Many musicians tell me that’s how they feel in their attempts. Yet, all music has an element of mystery, it’s more than the notes themselves, beyond even the most perfect performance of them imaginable. Worship, too, is something that is performed. The words we say and sing this morning – the hymns, the readings, the prayers, perhaps even this sermon – they are like a musical score: only in the performance, in the doing, do they come alive. And we realise that however good the words, however honest our intentions, our worship always falls short of what it proclaims, always points beyond itself.

On Trinity Sunday, of all days, we realise the impossibility of ever doing God justice by talking about him. We ask too much of language when we expect it to carry this profoundest mystery of all:
“Words strain,
Crack and sometimes break under the burden,
Under the tension, slip, slide, perish,
Decay with imprecision,
Will not stay in place.” says T.S. Eliot.

For how can we speak about the God who is both high and deep, beyond us, yet within, encompassing all that has been, and is, and is yet to come?

“To whom then will you compare God?” asks the prophet. I can barely comprehend the mystery of another human being, my own self even, let alone the mystery of God.

“For one like me God will never be plain and out there,
but dark rather and inexplicable” writes the Welsh priest-poet R.S. Thomas.

Perhaps what I should be saying today is that there is nothing I can say. Perhaps we can only be silent. Perhaps Trinity Sunday should make contemplatives out of us: people who are not afraid of the demands of silence, who are as ready to be as to do, who are at home not only with earthquake, wind, and fire, but also with the still small voice.

Religion, if it is anything, is about the practice of the presence of God, about discovering and discerning the signs of that presence in life. It is about exploration and awareness, about finding meanings and making connections, about celebrating what is yet to be in the face of what already is. To do that, we need to learn how to be quiet, become more present and attentive to life, to see what is there, and love what we find. Pascal said that all our troubles derive from one basic fault: our inability to sit still in a room. That is what the contemplatives and mystics down the centuries have always understood. They teach us that when the words run out we become open to God in a new way, because God is nearer to us than our own souls. In 2018 church is so often busy, and business is thought to be a measure of success, but actually success, whatever that really is, is learning to be pools of awareness where ordinary men and women can reconnect with the gift that is in them to know the mystery of God.

If you know anything about the Quakers you probably know that they worship largely in silence, and yet no Christians have been more active in politics and social concern than they. Prayer is not passivity. Trinity Sunday means more than what we can’t say. This ‘more’ is about what we can do, indeed must do, if we are to live as Christians. In the Trinity, we see a pattern of relationship that speaks of how we are to be towards others and towards the world. The threeness of Trinity means community, a society of persons moving constantly out towards one another in self-giving, living, and being, in that perfect oneness we call by the name of ‘love’.

‘Love’, as the New Testament understands it, is not so much a matter of the passions as the will. ‘If you love me you will keep my commandments’. To be a Christian is to acquire the habit of living and loving in this commanded, costly way that Jesus acts out historically, and that Trinity embodies eternally. So, Trinity Sunday calls me to the life of active love: love for my neighbour and community, love for my nation and for the world. There is no other way of being a Christian, no other path shown us by Jesus than this if we are to embody God’s Trinitarian life in the world. So contemplation and action belong together, as indivisible as loving God and loving my neighbour. As we immerse ourselves in the quest for justice, peace, and the integrity of creation, the more we need to be rooted in scripture, sacrament, and silence, for the healing of the world is God’s mission, God’s quest.

In this morning’s gospel reading, the risen Jesus says farewell to his disciples with the words: “all authority in heaven and on earth is given to me”. It is the climax of the gospel, the culmination of all that Matthew’s story has been leading up to. “I am with you always, to the end of the age”. It ends as it began – with the angel’s promise to Joseph that the child would be called Immanuel, God-with-us. The story has travelled far since then. But the promise is the same: that God, who is beyond all words and images, the creator of the world and the holy one of Israel, is in our midst, present to us forever as grace and truth. This is God the mighty and eternal who calls worlds into being and loves us into life. This is God the compassionate and merciful, who bears on his heart for all time the sorrow and pain of the world. This is the God enthroned in majesty who answers the longings of the ages and shows us his glory. This is God who is Trinity of persons, Father, Son and Holy Spirit to whom, as is most justly due, be all might, majesty, dominion and power now and to the end of time.

So, I end with some words of reflection by Malcom Guite:
In the Beginning, not in time or space,
But in the quick before both space and time,
In Life, in Love, in co-inherent Grace,
In three in one and one in three, in rhyme,
In music, in the whole creation story,
In His own image, His imagination,
The Triune Poet makes us for His glory,
And makes us each the other’s inspiration.
He calls us out of darkness, chaos, chance,
To improvise a music of our own,
To sing the chord that calls us to the dance,
Three notes resounding from a single tone,
To sing the End in whom we all begin;
Our God beyond, beside us, and within.

The Spirit of Reconciliation

When I was a child, our local cathedral was Coventry Cathedral. We weren’t Church of England and we didn’t go there all the time, but it was the local cathedral, and it was where we went from time to time. The cathedral was consecrated on 25 May 1962, so this the anniversary week. What you see is a modern building full of light, Graham Sutherland’s tapestry of Christ in Glory behind the high altar, on your right a kaleidoscopic baptistery window of hundreds of colours surrounding a font which is an enormous rock from Bethlehem, and much of the cathedral has a jet-black polished marble floor.

Coventry is, of course, one cathedral in two buildings. Next to the next cathedral stands the shell of the old cathedral bombed in 1940, as eloquent as any ruins in England. It speaks poignantly of ‘war and the pity of war’, Wilfred Owen’s words quoted by Benjamin Britten in the War Requiem, commissioned for the Cathedral and first performed there. But the ruins don’t only speak of sacrifice and death. They speak powerfully of life. At open-air communion services in the early morning on Easter Day and Pentecost, it can be as if the skeleton of that beautiful 15th century church reaches for the sky, a striking metaphor of resurrection as if we were in some great empty tomb. Ezekiel’s dry bones: arid, dead, lifeless things which the Spirit brings back to life again.

The focus of Coventry Cathedral’s ministry ever since the war has been reconciliation. Beginning with the rebuilding of friendship with Germany, this work has spread to many places of conflict across the world. The most recent partner who joined only a few days ago is Crookham United Reformed Church in Northumberland, who have developed a peace and reconciliation centre as they are close to the site of the Battle of Flodden Field where the English and Scots laid into one another in 1513.

Pentecost is all about reconciliation. We heard from Genesis the story of the tower of Babel. I don’t think this a story about building a tower. It’s nothing to do with buildings at all – it’s about the consequences of people not being reconciled with one another. Because people fell out with each other, they ended up speaking different languages, not understanding one another. And we find the response to this story in part of the story of the first day of Pentecost from Acts. Here there were many languages being spoken, and suddenly the disciples could understand them all. What I think this has to say to us is that an important part of the story of Pentecost is that the Holy Spirit is about reconciliation.

Indeed, Pentecost promises the transformation of the whole of life, even in its darkest, most broken passages. The face of Christ in that Graham Sutherland tapestry in Coventry has a gaze that seems to know you in a profound way, draw you upwards, put to you God’s questions, speak compellingly about grace and truth. Above him a shaft of light streams down on his head as if he were being baptised by a glow that pours over him from a window in the sky. And right at the top is the origin of that light: a dove. She is descending on that sunbeam towards Christ and towards us: the Holy Spirit of Christ the risen Head who animates the body of his church, the community of the baptised, the faithful of every age and the faithful of today. Us.

In 1990 Coventry marked the 50th anniversary of the Luftwaffe air-raids codenamed ‘Moonlight Sonata’, when incendiaries rained down on the city and burned its heart out, destroying the cathedral with it. The story is told that one day an elderly man came into the ruins, and walked slowly up the length of the nave to the stone altar in the apse, tentative as though he was not sure if he should be there. He stood for a long time gazing at the charred cross and at the inscription on the wall behind it, ‘Father, forgive’. And then he began to sob: not in a self-dramatizing way, but with the honesty of a child who has been confronted with some personal truth that is too overwhelming for words. The Provost embraced him and they held on to each other for some considerable time. That man had been a Luftwaffe pilot on that terrible bombing raid of 14 November. In 50 years he had never been able to bring himself to visit the city. But now he wanted to come before he died, and face the truth of what he and his comrades had done so many years before, the truth of ‘war and the pity of war’. It felt like a moment of life-changing forgiveness and reconciliation.

At Pentecost, we should ask ourselves if we are genuinely open to the Holy Spirit. Not that we speak with tongues, or prophesy, or understand mysteries, or give away all that we own or even have faith to move mountains. Paul tells us that there is one first-fruit of the Spirit’s harvest that we must covet above all others. Love is that fruit. Love is the only thing that matters: love that bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things, love that never ends. It is love inspired by the Spirit, brought back to life by the Spirit, which enables us to join in God’s mission to bring reconciliation to his world. The dove descending on that sunbeam on the tapestry reminds me why I am here: to learn how to see in a new way, and then to act on what I see. And then I know that in the power of God’s risen Son and his life-giving Spirit, anything is possible.

Letting the air in

Ezekiel 37:1-14
Acts 2:1-21

It’s very easy to make three serious mistakes about Pentecost.

The first is to assume that it doesn’t really apply in churches like this. We’re a middle-of-the-road church, people say. We’re not extreme. We’re not what is derogatively referred to as happy-clappy. We don’t all have our hands in the air for every hymn, nor clap to each one. While we all have our own preferences about worship, and our own views about changes we’d like to make, the centre of gravity in the worship of both our churches is undeniably rather more traditional than some. Now the point of mentioning this is that it’s very easy to find oneself thinking that Pentecost and the Holy Spirit isn’t so very relevant. That’s for the Vineyard Church or the Jubilee Church or such like. But that is a very serious mistakes. Our worship, perhaps our personalities, may be more reserved than some churches. However, it is a very serious mistake to underestimate the importance of the Holy Spirit, and our need of the Holy Spirit. We may be quieter than some, but the Spirit is still as important.

The second mistake we can make is to realise that the Holy Spirit is important, but to think that we’ve somehow failed we because our worship is not livelier, or because all manner of exotic things don’t happen on a regular basis. The concerns of the 21st century, running buildings and managing an organisation are a world away from what the first disciples were living and doing in Jerusalem, because we are in a different time and place. We haven’t failed because we are not different from who we are.

And the third serious mistake is to ignore or forget the Holy Spirit. In the United Reformed Church, and it’s true of all churches although perhaps the URC makes it more explicit than some, in the United Reformed Church we are not a democracy. There is no place for democracy, because we a theocracy, seeking what is that God wants. Not what we want, but what we think that God wants. And the Holy Spirit is the very essence of this. If we ignore the Holy Spirit, we soon lose track of keeping in touch with God, and drift into our own personal views. If we ignore or forget the Holy Spirit, then everything goes wrong.

So, I thought that the best thing that I could do was to tell you a little story. The story doesn’t actually mention the Holy Spirit by name, but it’s there throughout the story on many levels.

A new family moved into an old house and they did a lot of work on it. Lots of trips to Homebase for all manner of bits and pieces. A new kitchen for Jack – who was a dedicated Bake Off fan. Updated central heating. Lots of decorating: bright colours for the children’s bedrooms. And a fabulous new bathroom with beautiful tiles from that posh shop opposite the William Cobbett that Karen loved. There was only one room left to tackle, the attic room, up a set of narrow stairs.

It was a rather nasty little room; dingy, with yellowy-green wallpaper and sloping ceilings. So far, they’d used it as a junk room; all sorts of stuff from the move had been dumped up there, and now it was time to sort it out. It was hot and stuffy up there. And it was getting hotter and stuffier as the afternoon wore on. It was hard work sorting through the boxes and Karen really felt the need for some fresh air, but the window was stuck. Someone had painted it shut, and no matter how hard she tried she couldn’t get it open. By the end of the afternoon she’d made good progress, but she was in a foul mood. Hot, bothered and headachy.

‘What are we going to do with the room when it’s sorted?’ Jack asked, ‘Another spare bedroom?’

‘I’ve no idea,’ Karen said. ‘The more time I spend in it the more I dislike it. It’s a horrible poky place. I’m beginning to think I should have just left it as a junk room.’

But she’d started the job, so she was determined to finish it, although she was in no rush to do that. It was mid-summer and the sun on the roof made the attic room stifling. She really needed to get that window open. So the next time she went up there she went with a Stanley knife, some turps, a hammer, and a chisel.

‘Right then, window,’ she muttered, ‘resistance is futile.’ And she worked at it until at long last the blessed thing opened. And didn’t the summer air feel wonderful as it drifted in under the eaves. It smelled of the garden and it brought birdsong with it. Karen stood there and just breathed.

Then she turned back into the room and saw the breeze teasing a scrap of torn wallpaper. Underneath the nasty green stuff she could see other paper, something old fashioned with rosebuds on it, not her sort of thing, but a lovely colour. This room had been prettier once. And it could be again. Now that she could actually breathe properly up here and the mustiness was gone, she felt better about the whole project. And she liked the view from the little window. Maybe she’d put a table there. This could be a workroom, or a study for the children to do their homework. Maybe Jack and the children could use it for model-making…the ideas were coming thick and fast. She reached across, took hold of the torn wallpaper and pulled a great chunk of it off the wall. ‘Yes,’ she thought. ‘When I’ve sorted it out, this will be fabulous.’

Working with Christ

Acts 1:1-11
Luke 24:44-53

Is the ascension a fictional story of something that couldn’t have happened, written by people in an age when they still thought the earth was flat, of no relevance to us today? Or is it – although impossible to explain in modern rational and scientific terms – a literal truth?

The trouble with both those positions – while held by many – is that it all seems irrelevant to most people’s lives, and the ordinary, and difficult, situations and problems affecting us; our hopes, our fears, and our concerns do not even feature, let alone find an answer or a response.

I’d like to suggest a middle way somewhere between the two extreme points of view, which is to look for what truths the story has to tell us, rather than insulting our intelligence or rubbishing the Bible. Does the ascension have anything to say to thinking Christians, with the concerns of the 21st century on their shoulders.

The author of the Gospel of Luke and the Book of Acts, they are one and the same person, vividly describes the ascension of Jesus. The disciples have forty days with the Risen Christ and then he departs, he ascends into heaven. The Gospel of Luke records that they were filled with joy and spent all their time in the Temple giving thanks to God. But I wonder if there is room for a serious theological message in the departure of the Jesus?

The story of the ascension cannot be just literal history, because heaven is not physically up in the sky. Ever since Copernicus and Galileo revolutionised our understanding of the cosmos, it’s been impossible to think of heaven as up in the sky and hell underground. If our concept of heaven wasn’t challenged already, it certainly was with the advent of space travel. As one communist cosmonaut once remarked sarcastically, he couldn’t see God out of his spaceship window. By contrast, the late Billy Graham said that heaven is ‘as real as Los Angeles, London, Algiers or Boston,’ and that it is a place which is ‘1600 miles long, 1600 miles wide and 1600 miles high.’ Billy Graham may have found that a helpful way to think of heaven, but I do not, and I suspect many of you do not either.

In 1999, Pope John Paul II upset some Christians when he said: In the context of Revelation, we know that the ‘heaven’ or ‘happiness’ in which we will find ourselves is neither an abstraction nor a physical place in the clouds, but a living, personal relationship with the Holy Trinity. Heaven, said the late pope, is not an abstraction, but neither is it a place. This story of the ascension, then, is a story of faith, skilfully crafted to convey a significant message. That message is simple, and it is no wonder that the gospel records that the disciples were full of joy. Ascension is the lifting up of the human Christ into the Being of God, into the consciousness of God, into God as he is in himself. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, German theologian, said of the Church, “They wander on earth and live in heaven. They are poor and yet they have all they want”. The simple message of the Ascension is that we are destined, eventually, for personal union and communion with the Mystery we call God.

Even so, the departure of Jesus might have left the disciples feeling bereaved. Often joys have a sting that comes with them. What greater cause for a sting than the departure of Jesus: had Jesus not brought the disciples more joy than they could possibly imagine?

German theologian Karl Rahner described the Feast of the Ascension as ‘the festival of holy pain.’ He said, ‘He has departed from us. It is frightening that we feel so little pain about this….we should be inconsolable at the fact of his remoteness from us.’ At the outset of his ministry, Jesus said: The Spirit of the Lord is upon me because he has chosen me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim liberty of the captives and recovery of sight to the blind; to set free the oppressed and announce that the time has come when the Lord will save his people. In his ministry in Galilee, Jerusalem, and other places that is what Jesus did. But that isn’t the world we live in or, at the very least, there are only glimpses of it. In one sense, Jesus is not with us. Ascension is the festival of holy pain.

We live in a God-starved world. Despite what Jesus said at the beginning of his ministry, there are far too many people oppressed and broken-hearted, living as captives, mourning in ruin and devastation. The poor are still with us in great, even greater, numbers. Many of the lame, whether their limbs have been ravaged by disease or land mines or bullets, cannot walk. Many of the blind cannot see. And millions of children starve to death every year. The prophecy which Jesus read out in his local synagogue two thousand years ago has not come true, at least not yet.

I know that the Church is the Body of Christ. I know that next week we will be celebrating the coming of the Holy Spirit. Today I want to celebrate with great joy the message of Ascension that our humanity is taken up into the consciousness of God: we are made for a personal relationship with the Eternal, the Infinite, the Mystery, that we call God. We wander on earth and we live in heaven, but we are not there yet. Waiting for heaven, though, is not an excuse for staying on the sidelines.

Our choice is to remain on the sidelines or to live as Jesus lived, but there is really only one choice for us to make. At Christmas, we celebrate the birth of Christ, God with us. At Easter, we celebrate the Risen Christ in our midst. It is right for us to do that. But the Ascension affords us the opportunity not to wallow in the presence of God, the presence of Jesus, but to reflect on his absence. We live between the beginning and the end, when the prophecy of Jesus has not yet come true but can do so. Jesus’ absence is a call to decision, to action, and away from the sidelines. Do we stand idly looking up to heaven or do we set about the work of Jesus? In Matthew’s gospel Jesus asks each one of us if we have fed the hungry, visited the sick, and welcomed the strangers. In a sense, Jesus is not here. Now is our chance.

Love is the touch

There was once a grumpy old man, who said that: “There are some people to whom I couldn’t warm to even if I were cremated with them!”

Before we go any further, I ought to make it clear that Christians are not called to like everyone. The goes “They Will Know We Are Christians By Our Love,” and not, “They Will Know We Are Christians By Our Likes and Dislikes.” If there are people to whom you do not warm, that does not diminish your faith. We are not called to like, but we are called, to love. “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you,” said Jesus.

We often talk about Christian love in church as if it’s both a revered panacea and an underemployed practice. To say that the answer to the world’s problems is for people to love each other more is both right and banal at the same time. It sounds wonderful and grand, who could argue with that? But when you sit eyeball to eyeball with someone, especially someone cantankerous, obnoxious, difficult, unlovely, and seemingly unlovable, it’s anything but an easy task.

Christians love because it’s what Jesus told us to do, and it’s something that we learn from Jesus. We know something about love because we have first been loved by God. But when you think about it, all love is because we’ve learned about from receiving it. The love of a parent, or grandparent, or friend, or fellow believer are all ways in which we first learn what it’s like to be loved. Elizabeth Barrett Browning wrote that:
The face of all the world is changed, I think,
Since first I heard the footsteps of thy soul
Move still, oh, still beside me; as they stole
Betwixt me and the dreadful outer brink
Of obvious death, where I who thought to sink
Was caught up into love and taught the whole
Of life in a new rhythm.

For Christians how we experience “the whole of life in a new rhythm” is God’s love for us, simply because that’s what God is, not because of what we try to earn or deserve, as we have come to know it in Jesus. We live in a culture that loves to quantify. We weigh, measure, time, photograph, and generally assess just about anything we can get our hands on. What’s more, I’m not sure we much like that which we can’t quantify and therefore control. Maybe that’s why it is so hard for us to grasp the love of God: it is both uncontrollable and immeasurable.

A young boy once asked for the autograph of a young lady. She obliged and wrote the following: “Yours till the ocean wears rubber pants to keep its bottom dry.” The love of God is love of that duration and it’s not our task to understand nor comprehend that love, but instead our joy to share in it.

Because God’s love for us is this peculiar and unfathomable love, we’d do well to remember a wise person who said that:
All other love, whether humanly speaking it withers early and is altered or lovingly preserves itself for a round of time — such love is still transient; it merely blossoms. This is precisely its weakness and tragedy, whether it blossoms for an hour or for seventy years — it merely blossoms; but Christian love is eternal…Christian love abides and for that very reason is Christian love. For what perishes blossoms and what blossoms perishes, but that which has being cannot be sung about – it must be believed and it must be lived.

Sketching out what makes Christian love distinctive and special, it looks like this.

Christian love sees through walls and around corners. Following God means also we’re also challenged to love others by looking through the walls they place in our way, and around the corners where they’re hiding. This isn’t always, or even very often, fun, but it is what the gospel calls us to do. It is the work of love. When we try to love difficult people, our imagination can provide the transportation beyond those walls and around those corners. What must it feel like for Mabel to believe she must erect a wall? What must it be like for Bert to seem so afraid, and hide behind a corner? How can I gain Mabel’s and Bert’s confidence so that they will take down the wall or emerge fully around the corner?

Christian love is also patient. Waiting for the Mabels and Berts to take down walls and turn corners doesn’t happen overnight. It may take months, sometimes years. But consistent patience eventually pays off. In a culture that blindly salutes doing, and worships acceleration, patience can seem anachronistic. But the speed we demand of our machines, and by implication our people, is neither always healthy nor realistic. To be patient and honour another’s timetable is a manifestation of Christian love.

Christian love has bifocals. It sees the people we would love in two ways: It sees them close up (the way they are right now) and it sees them way down the line (at a place where we would eventually like them to be). Those who teach treat their students not only as students, but also as though they were already in that field for which they are training. Those who raise children, are not only nurturing them now, but leading them into the people they will became. If we lower the bar and expect less than we should, we will raise the probability of future failure.

Christian love, while offered unconditionally, is at the same time intolerant of love’s enemies in the lives of those whom we would love. Unconditional love does not equate to a blanket acceptance of all behaviour. An older gentleman paid regular visits to his doctor, but between visits was not always good at following his doctor’s advice. At times the doctor would become exasperated and say to the man: “Larry, I love you, but you’ve got to stop doing that!” Christian love is just like that. Fred, I love you, but you’ve got to stop riding roughshod over people’s feelings; think before you speak. Carol, I love you, but you’ve got to stop your carping, because it’s driving a big wedge between you and your children. Mary, I love you, but you’ve got to stop behaving like a doormat; there are more important things than being liked by everybody on the face of the planet.

Christian love is a tall order. It’s not easy work. But we worship, and are called to love, by one whose enacted love for us is seen in the suffering love of the crucified Jesus, who has become for us the Lord of life.

Poet Jennifer Woodruff has penned some poignant words that speak to our exertions in love. They come under the title “With the Drawing of this Love and the Voice of this Calling”:
Not only what we thought we could afford,
Not only what we have the strength to give
is asked of us; the grace that makes us live
calls for a death, and all we are is poured
Onto an altar we did not design
and yet which holds us in his perfect will
And in both flames and darkness keeps us still
and is the strength, the pillar, and the sign

Of all that never fails, though we are weak,
of he who calls, and asks us to embrace
our weakness, and our cross, to see his face —
and, made most strong in weakness, he will speak.