The intangible presence

This is a reflection based on the road to Emmaus story from Luke’s gospel (Luke 24:13-31).

A few years ago, I was lucky enough to got to Buckingham Palace. Sadly, it wasn’t to receive my OBE but rather to go to the Queen’s Gallery! We went to see a fascinating exhibition of photographs from 20th Century polar expeditions. The main attraction was the material relating to Captain Scott’s doomed Terra Nova Expedition to the South Pole. This expedition had been incredibly well-documented by the mission’s official photographer and he had presented a complete copy of the plates he’d taken to the king. It was heart-rending to see the photos of these incredible icy landscapes and these hale and hearty young men celebrating Christmas in their little hut in Antarctica, knowing full well the terrible fate that lay in store for so many of them.

Grotto_in_an_iceberg copyFor me, though, the most striking aspect of the exhibition were the photographs and artefacts relating to the Shackleton expedition. I vaguely knew the name and perhaps a few scant details but I became utterly engrossed by this incredible story of survival against all the odds. Shackleton and his men set off in 1914 on what was called the Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition. Its aim was to march across the Antarctic continent via the South Pole. It became known as the last great adventure of the ‘Heroic Age of Antarctic Exploration’.

The expedition hit problems even before the march began, when Shackleton’s ship, the Endurance, became trapped in the ice of the Weddell Sea. Unable to escape the pack ice, they had to wait in their ship during the long, dark Antarctic winter. When the ice finally began to break up, the ship was crushed by its incredible power and the men (and dogs) were forced to camp on the surrounding ice floes. Running low on supplies and struggling with the freezing temperatures, Shackleton decided that their best hope of survival was to head to the uninhabited Elephant Island, on the edge of the continent, where they hoped to be able to escape the ice and organise a rescue. Crossing the perilous ice floes, with a constant danger of death, they managed the feat in three lifeboats rescued from the Endurance.

LaunchingTheJamesCaird2 copyThen came the greatest challenge of all: crossing the South Atlantic Ocean in an adapted lifeboat to reach South Georgia and the hope of a rescue party for the whole expedition. Shackleton and five others completed this feat in two weeks, in some of the most appalling conditions imaginable, in a boat no more than 7 metres long. This despite the fact that it required pinpoint navigation in an open boat where everything and everybody was soon drenched by the icy water and bitterly cold, facing some of the worst storms any of them had ever seen.

PanoramaOfSouthGeorgiaWhen they finally reached South Georgia, though, their ordeal was not over. They had landed on the south of the island and all the whaling stations, where help was to be found, lay on the north. They could not risk another boat journey and so three of the men, led by Shackleton again, set off across the uncharted interior of the island to get help. Without maps they had to make the best way they could, crossing treacherous mountains and at one point wading through an ice-cold waterfall. Miraculously, they reached the whaling station, and help, and were ultimately able to organise the rescue of the entire expedition. Not a single man was lost, despite their horrific ordeal.

You will have to decide for yourself what kind of man Shackleton was. It is reasonable to suggest, though, that he was no romantic, and certainly not given to flights of fancy. Reflecting on his incredible adventure later, however, Shackleton described having something like an Emmaus Road experience during that final ordeal, crossing South Georgia. He wrote:

When I look back at those days I have no doubt that Providence guided us, not only across those snowfields, but across the storm-white sea that separated Elephant Island from our landing-place on South Georgia. I know that during that long and racking march of thirty-six hours over the unnamed mountains and glaciers of South Georgia it seemed to me often that we were four, not three. I said nothing to my companions on the point, but afterwards Worsley said to me, “Boss, I had a curious feeling on the march that there was another person with us.” Crean confessed to the same idea. One feels “the dearth of human words, the roughness of mortal speech” in trying to describe things intangible, but a record of our journeys would be incomplete without a reference to a subject very near to our hearts.

(Ernest Shackelton, South!, chapter 10.)

This idea of the unrecognised, and unseen, travelling companion was taken up by T S Eliot in his poem ‘The Waste Land’:

Who is the third who walks always beside you?
When I count, there are only you and I together
But when I look ahead up the white road
There is always another one walking beside you

Since then, many others have spoken about this idea of the unknown presence beside them at times of great challenge, especially when they have been at the very edge of human endurance. Times when they felt it was impossible to go on with life; to put one foot in front of another, even. Just like those two unnamed disciples in Luke’s gospel, who felt that their world had come to an end. Their leader, their friend, their hope had been nailed to a cross on Good Friday: how could they go on? How could it be just ‘business as usual’. As the hymn writer Mary Haugen expressed it so well: ‘On the journey to Emmaus with our hearts as cold as stone’.

Altobello_Melone_-_The_Road_to_Emmaus_-_Google_Art_ProjectYet, somehow, against all the odds, Christ appeared among them. Not with fanfare, hosts of angels, or dazzling light. But just as an ordinary man, walking and talking with them on the dusty road. Helping them to make sense of all the madness that had happened. Giving them hope once more: hope for the future; hope for themselves; hope not just for their friends back in Jerusalem but for the whole world.

In my life, I have certainly experienced enough ‘dark nights of the soul’ and know only too well what it is like to feel the absence of hope, and even of God. But I have also been lucky enough to have know that presence in my journey through life as well. The unnamed stranger walking with me through the darkest times of my life, giving me encouragement, strength and that most precious gift of all, hope. Sometimes it has been like that mysterious presence that Shackleton described, at others it has been the words of a hymn or verses from the Bible that have given me the strength to go on. At others, it has been words of wisdom and encouragement from someone else – quite often the most unlikely fellow traveller. Yet somehow, Christ has always walked beside me at the lowest point of the road.

Caravaggio_-_Cena_in_EmmausThe road to Emmaus is not a fairy tale. Nor is it just saying that everything will be fine, if you call yourself a Christian. The unknown presence that Shackleton described did not take away the frostbite, the pain or the horrors that those men experienced. Nor did the Emmaus encounter erase the reality of the pain of the crucifixion: of the suffering, betrayal and loss experienced by all. But it does give us all the hope that we are not alone as we each make our own journey through life, with all its twists and turns, adventures and disasters. It reminds us all that God chose not to remain remote and aloof from his creation but to walk among us as a simple man from Galilee: to experience all the joys and sadnesses of our common humanity. He chose to make himself real to us, and continues so to do, if we but open our hearts to his presence in our lives. I pray that you may know that presence through all the days of your life. Amen.

Easter: same old, same old

Some of you may know the old hymn, “Tell me the old, old story”, a great favourite of Sunday Schools of yesteryear! One of the great challenges about Easter for preachers, and perhaps all Christians, is that it is always the same old story. It’s the same story each year about Jesus, the cross and the empty tomb. We know all the characters – Peter, Pilate, Mary, etc. – and all the places, and we have seen the scenes reproduced in countless paintings, books and films. It is, I would argue, an endlessly fascinating story with countless nuances and tiny details to explore, but the plot remains unchanged. As a younger generation might observe, ‘Same old, same old’!

resurrection-pieraI must confess that, even after only five years in ministry, I sometimes struggle to come up with new ways of relating this “old, old story”. I was on retreat a few months ago with a group of fellow Methodist ministers and over lunch we tried to come up with new ideas for Easter assemblies at schools – usually the hardest congregation to please! We all encountered the same challenge each year to make it fresh and alive for the children. This year, I tried an idea from Scripture Union using real eggs covered in chocolate and others that had had all their contents blown out. It plays on the idea that that which we thought was full was actually empty (the blown-out egg / the tomb), and that which we thought was lifeless was actually full of life (the chocolate-covered egg / Jesus).

Of course, countless others have tried similar ideas over the millennia, bringing fresh life to the events of Holy Week through Passion plays, oratorios, rock operas and countless other ideas. But all of them are essentially just retelling the same story. Same old, same old! If we went on to Amazon or to a library, we could find so many other, new and exciting stories – why don’t we tell one of those for a change?

Yet, perhaps the endless repetition is the whole point. Perhaps we need to hear the same old story again and again because it is the story of all our lives, the story of our common humanity. It is the story of all stories. This truth has been brought back to me with renewed clarity in the last week or so.

For me as a minister, what makes this period of the year so tiring is not just the church services that we lead (although there are plenty of those!). It is the visiting that I try to do in the days leading up to Easter. Visiting the sick, the housebound, those in care homes and those in need. These are the folks I try to visit throughout the year but I see them in the most concentrated fashion in this period, and every day this week I have been in a nursing home or the local hospital it seems. Much of this visiting is very pleasant: sharing home communion with faithful folks or catching up with people I have now been visiting for five years. I usually manage to extract a cup of tea at each venue and, if I’m very lucky, a biscuit!

crucified-tree-formIt can also be extremely draining work, though, as anyone knows who has cared for elderly relatives or coped with a loved one facing illness. In many cases, it is only too apparent that this is “it”; that you can’t wish them ‘get well soon’ as you leave. The future, medically or perhaps mentally, is bleak. A miraculous cure is extremely unlikely and the best many can hope for is a warm bed and caring nursing staff. I often find the situation of those facing what Ronald Reagan called “the journey that will lead me to the sunset of my life,” as they struggle with dementia, the most poignant. I hope and pray that many of them achieve a form of happiness but know only too well that they shall never be the people that once they were.

One particularly difficult visit that I pay is to a man suffering from advanced dementia. Unlike some of the others I see, he really does not know who anyone is at all and just sits mumbling an endless stream of meaningless repetitions, silently rocking in the same chair. It is a terrible state for someone who used to be so active and such a pillar of the local church. In a busy week, like Holy Week, it is always tempting not to visit as it is only too obvious that he neither knows who I am or that I have been. Medical science can do nothing for him and all I can do is sit and pray for him, not even with him.

And as I pray, I realise that this is why we repeat the same old Easter story each year. Because, when all the trappings of life with which we surround and protect ourselves are torn away, it is the only story that matters. It is the only story that gives any hope to that man’s life; it is the only story that I can turn to when faced with a woman dying of cancer; it is the only story that means anything ultimately to all of us as we face the greatest mystery of our existence – life itself.

noli-me-tangereAs I try my best to help and support people, try personally to face all the daily struggles of our common humanity, to respond to the terrible images on our daily news, it is the Easter story that alone gives meaning and hope. The false stories upon which so much of our world seems to be based – stories of endless progress, of happy ever after endings, of the power of wealth – all prove worthless eventually. They may work when all is going well, but when we face our own Gethsemanes and our inevitable Calvary, they have nothing to say to us.

Only the Easter story makes sense of a world that too often seems senseless. The story of a faithful, loving creator, who shared our life and walked our road. The story of torture and terror overcome. The story of hope triumphant, even in the face of death itself.

That is why we need to repeat the story again and again, because it is the story of all our lives. The only one ultimately that we need as we face all the joys and sorrows of life. The only one that holds the real truth our existence. The truth about which St Paul wrote about so eloquently: “For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Rom. 8:38). That is our hope, brothers and sisters; that is our story.

Alleluia. Amen.

“How great a forest is set ablaze by a small fire!”

This is the sermon I preached today at North Watford on Palm Sunday. It drew both on the set reading for today, Matthew’s account of Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem (Matthew 21: 1-11), and a passages from the letter of James: James 3:2-12.

In a few minutes we shall sing one of the most well-known and best-loved Passion hymns, Samuel Crossman’s ‘My song is love unknown’. The hymn is a worthy survivor from the 17th Century, when it was written, and its verses still have the power to challenge us deeply. None more so than the third verse, which speaks of the events of that first Palm Sunday and the fickle nature of the crowd that cheered Christ into Jerusalem that day:

Sometimes they strew his way,
and his sweet praises sing;
resounding all the day
hosannas to their King.
Then ‘Crucify!’
is all their breath,
and for his death
they thirst and cry.

Christ's Entry into Jerusalem by Hippolyte Flandrin c. 1842Many other hymn writers and commentators have highlighted the contrary nature of the crowds in Jerusalem during that first Holy Week, and the dramatic change in the voice of the crowd. “Hosanna to the Son of David!” (Matt. 21:9), on the Sunday, morphing into the terrible cry of “Let him be crucified!” (Matt. 27:22), on the Friday. Throughout the centuries many Christian writers have associated ordinary Christians with that treacherous crowd, cheering for Christ one minute and condemning him the next. Like the writer of our previous hymn, ‘Come and see, come and see’, they make it clear that it was as much our sin that “pierced him there” as that first crowd in Jerusalem so long ago. They make it only too apparent that we are not just talking about some episode of ancient history here but a vital part of all our human stories: the reality of evil, temptation and the need for forgiveness in all our lives.

The human capacity to do both good and evil, and in particular the ability of our tongues to both ‘bless and curse’ is one that is highlighted in the book of James. This is one of the shortest books of the New Testament yet it is full of vivid imagery and language that still has the power to inspire and challenges its readers today. Some of us have been studying this book during Lent on Wednesday mornings at Bushey & Oxhey and I think we have all been struck by how relevant its wisdom remains. None more so than when its writer, James, the brother of our Lord, speaks about the power of the tongue. It is perhaps a strange passage to preach upon during this Passion season but studying it with others, I was strongly reminded of the power of the tongue that was evidenced among those first Palm Sunday and Good Friday crowds. The power to speak good or evil. Let us hear James’ words now: James 3:2-12 (The taming of the tongue).

Palm-Sunday-Pictures-imagesAs you can hear, James is a skilled and vivid writer. In that short passage he makes numerous images come alive in our minds: tall ships at sea, horses galloping across the plain, babbling springs producing fresh, clear water. And perhaps that most powerful of images: “How great a forest is set ablaze by a small fire! And the tongue is a fire.” (James 3:5-6). As I said earlier, one of the aspects of James that is so impressive is how relevant and contemporary his writing remains. There is no one here today, sadly, who has not experienced or witnessed the terrible power of the tongue. No one here has escaped the temptation of gossip. All of us know how difficult it can be truly to “tame the tongue” (James 3:8).

The story of that first Holy Week bears painful testimony to the truth of those verses. “From the same mouth comes blessing and cursing,” wrote James (3:10). And that it precisely what we saw with that crowd in Jerusalem: blessings pouring from their mouths on Palm Sunday and curses on Good Friday. Truly, springs pouring forth “both fresh and brackish water” (3:11). A phenomenon that has sadly been repeated too many times in human history: a mob praising someone to the skies one day, and crying for their blood the next day. Newspapers using their voice to both laud and condemn the same person or group. And individuals like ourselves using our God-given ability of speech both for good and evil. The writing of James makes it only too apparent that the sin of that fickle crowd in Jerusalem 2,000 years ago is indeed our own sin. With our tongue we can do both good and evil, and too often we choose to do evil.

maxresdefaultI was reminded very strongly of what James wrote last Sunday morning when many of us awoke to yet another appalling news story, after what seems like an endless stream of such stories. A 17 year old Kurdish asylum seeker beaten close to death by a mob at a bus stop in Croydon. His offence? Being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Waiting for a bus, he was approached by a group of over twenty people and asked where he was from. When he replied that he was an asylum seeker from Iraq, he was savagely attacked and left with a fractured spine, a fractured skull and a bleed on his brain. The hospital where he was treated said that he was lucky to be alive. There was no apparent motive for the attack and police have now charged 13 people with violent assault. It was a despicable act of savagery committed against a young man who was simply trying to escape the terror and warfare of his homeland, and find a better life studying here in the UK.

As with the events of Holy Week, it is tempting to say that this incident, while tragic and inducing our sympathy, has nothing really to do with us. We were not in Jerusalem on that first Palm Sunday and we were not in Croydon last Saturday night committing this terrible crime. They are sad events but of no real concern to us.

The writing of James, however, reminds us that through our God-given power of speech, we do have a role. We can choose to bless or curse with our tongue, and with a tiny spark of speech, set ablaze a whole forest fire of destruction. Why was that young man attacked? Partly because he looked and sounded different. Probably because he was in the wrong place when this angry mob appeared, looking for trouble. But almost certainly because he used that loaded term ‘asylum seeker’ to describe himself. A term that has become a byword it seems for all that is wrong with our nation; a group of people whom no one wants to love; an easy scapegoat for our newspapers and the worst kind of politicians.

We did not brutalise that young man in Croydon, just as much as we did not cry ‘Crucify’ on that first Good Friday. But I would argue that the way we speak – the way we use our tongue – as individuals and as a society inexorably helped to create the conditions whereby that attack was justified. The way we speak about ‘asylum seekers’, the way in which we use terms like ‘migrant’, ‘refugee’, ‘foreigner’ all help create an atmosphere that ultimately encourages and permits this kind of abuse and violence. I have no doubt whatsoever that the young people who committed that terrible crime had heard such terms bandied about by their parents and peers, and seen it in newspapers and on social media, and like poison drip-fed into the body, it had inexorably led them to conclude that such people truly were ‘the scum of the earth’. Their values and their attitude towards this young man did not come from thin air; it came from the evil of the tongue, misused.

Now, we could say, ‘Well, that’s nonsense. How can what I say here have any effect in Croydon or anywhere else?’. But let us heed again those words from James: “How great a forest is set ablaze by a small fire! And the tongue is a fire.”. Think of those great forest fires that sweep across places like California and Australia. Huge blazes that engulf whole towns and communities, forcing thousands to flee. Where do they start – most often with a few reckless individuals starting a tiny fire in one corner of the state that gradually gets out of hand until it is a raging inferno. In the same way, as James so appositely observed, by our indiscriminate use of language, each of us has the capacity to set small fires ablaze that ultimately end up engulfing whole communities, and bring down disaster on individuals like that young teenager in Croydon.

Triumphal Entry - LorenzettiWhen we think of the terrible evil that has been committed over the centuries in our world, how often has it started not with a mighty conflagration but with a tiny spark? With people using their God-given voices not praise the wonders of his creation but to condemn or abuse it. Think of how we have used terms like ‘Jew’, ‘Papist’, ‘Black’ or ‘Paki’ in our history. How the most terrible deeds in our history, like the slave trade, have been justified by the simple repetition of lies and prejudice by ordinary people. Think how the Holocaust did not begin with the gas chambers and mass deportations. Rather it began with people mindlessly echoing stereotypes and untruths about Jewish people: ‘they can’t be trusted’, ‘they’re all liars and thieves’, ‘they’re not like us’. We must reflect how those simple sparks, repeated endlessly by ordinary people and fanned by wicked women and men for their own ends, eventually set ablaze the furnaces of Auschwitz and Belsen.

Like so many people, I am deeply concerned about the divisions within our own society and world today. A world that seems much keener on building walls and barriers than bridges and understanding. I am deeply troubled about how acceptable it is becoming to hate whole groups of people simply because they are different from us in one way or another. I am horrified at the fear I have witnessed amongst people who have, in some instances, lived most of their lives in this country and yet now feel like the ‘enemy within’.

This fear cannot be the will of God. As James says of the tongue: “With it we bless the Lord and Father, and with it we curse those who are made in the likeness of God.” (James 3:9). He rightly reminds his listeners that to insult another human being is ultimately to insult their maker: the Lord, our God. And the words of James, and the example of the Passion story, shows us that the responsibility to tackle evil begins with us. It begins with our lips and tongues. It begins with us choosing to bless or to curse. To speak truth or to repeat easy and convenient lies. It begins with us saying that our mouths shall be like a fresh spring, bringing out only that which is good and pure, not the brackish water of malevolence and fear.

As we enter this most holy week of the Christian year and we reflect on the events that led Jesus from that triumphal entry to the dereliction of the cross, let us take our place in the crowd. Let us acknowledge our responsibility for the sin that nailed Christ to his cross, and continues to nail him there when innocents suffer and evil triumphs. Let us resist the temptation to use the same mouth to pour forth both words of praise and words of hatred. Let us tame our tongues, brothers and sisters, and let us use them only to bless the Lord and all of his creation. Amen.


Words from ‘My song is love unknown’ by Samuel Crossman (c. 1624–1683) and ‘Come and see, come and see’ by Graham Kendrick (b. 1950). Quoted from Singing the Faith Electronic Words Edition, number 277 and number 270. Words and Music: © 1989, Graham Kendrick / Make Way Music Ltd, PO Box 320, Tunbridge Wells, Kent. TN2 9DE UK.