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”.