Closer than you think - St Bride's: Reflection

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St Bride's: Sermons

Closer than you think

The Second Sunday after Trinity

In the name of the living God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit.  Amen.

I have just survived one of those dreadful weeks that turns out to be unbelievably challenging.  The particular source of my grief, frustration, and exasperation was the non-arrival of some valuable items of computer equipment that I was expecting to be delivered here.  I was variously informed by the carrier on different occasions that my delivery had been refused (which was not true); that the driver did not have any contact information so could not make the delivery (also not true); and that the delivery had in fact been safely received and signed for by someone who, as far as we were aware, didn't actually exist.  What?

So I spent countless miserable hours being kept 'on hold' in queues for telephone helplines, eventually managing to speak to 'specialist advisers' who were less than useless, and being given information, both electronically and verbally, that turned out to be misleading, inaccurate, or simply untrue.  And all this in a week when I also discovered that some visiting electricians had managed to disconnect my doorbell without my realising it.

Some of you may recognise the particular quality of emotional turmoil that can accompany that kind of experience, which combines misery, frustration and rage, with a terrible sense of utter helplessness and despair.  The whole wretched affair ended up so dominating my waking, and indeed my sleeping hours, that I found it difficult to concentrate on anything else.  It was just awful.

After one particularly dreadful day of trying to do battle with unhelpful helplines ('your call is important to us', indeed!), I woke up in the early hours with the whole thing churning round in my head. Eventually I abandoned any hope of getting back to sleep and so I got up.  By then it was around 5.00 am. 

I stepped outside the house for a few moments, and I was reminded of the particular quality of light, and silence, and stillness that you encounter at that time of day, before the world has really started to come to life. 

Now, it is my normal practice to spend an hour with God first thing every morning - an hour of spiritual reading, silent prayer, and the morning office.  I am an early riser by nature, but never usually quite as early as that.  And the hour that I spent with God on that particular morning was special in ways that I find it hard to put into words. 

What I can say, is that by the end of it I was in a completely different place.  I felt much calmer about the whole situation.  And I was also able to look much more objectively at my own emotional reaction to it.  Feelings of anger and exasperation can burn up an immense amount of energy while achieving very little.  So I began to realise, that perhaps I needed to try and approach the whole situation from a completely different emotional starting point: by being much more calm, and measured, and objective.  And strangely enough, the minute I started to think and to behave like that, everything gradually began to fall into place.  I was courteous and polite to the girl on the helpline; and she was profoundly sympathetic and went out of her way to be as helpful as she could; we made some progress; the electricians turned up again as requested and fixed the doorbell.

When the time for one of the rescheduled deliveries arrived, I was keen not to miss it for a third time, so I went out onto the street at the appointed time to look out for the van.  The previous day I would have stood there impatient and frustrated at having to waste my valuable time in that way.  But instead, I decided to use that time creatively.  So I took the time to look around me and observe. 

It is so interesting: I have lived here for nearly six years, but it is surprising what you fail to notice, even in your home environment, when you never take the time to pause and to be attentive.  I learnt a great deal during that 30 minutes or so: about the surrounding buildings; about my neighbours; about the businesses that I could see preparing to open up after the lockdown.  It felt illuminating rather than frustrating.  And the rest of that day continued in the same vein.  I approached a whole number of tasks, in a completely different way.  Indeed, I could suddenly see with absolute clarity, the most appropriate way of tackling one task that was particularly difficult.    And so, quite unexpectedly, all kinds of positive things started to emerge.  What had started as a major problem began to feel much more like a weird sort of gift.

The example I have just given is a pretty trivial one, but it is strange, isn't it, how sometimes, the thing that we most need to enable us to take the first step out of despair into a situation of hope can turn out to be something that is either already very close at hand - or indeed, actually within us.  We are just not able to see it.  And I was reflecting on that when reading our Old Testament lesson this morning.

Just to set the scene for that reading: a bitter rivalry has developed between Abraham's wife Sarah, and his concubine, Hagar, both of whom have given birth to Abraham's sons.  Sarah, jealous of her own son's inheritance, orders Abraham to cast Hagar and her baby, Ishmael, out in the wilderness.  When her water runs out, knowing that they are doomed, Hagar places her child under a bush, and moves some distance away.  She cannot bear to watch her baby die, but nor can she abandon him completely. 

It is then that an angel of the Lord comes to Hagar and does two things.  First, he speaks words of comfort to her, telling her, 'Do not be afraid.'  And second, he opens her eyes to the fact that there is a well of water close by.  The well has been there all along.  Hagar has simply been unable to see it.  So in this story, the angel's appearance does not suddenly cause all Hagar's problems to cease, as if by the wave of a fairy godmother's wand - indeed, Hagar remains living out in the wilderness and goes on to bring up her son there.  But in her moment of utter and abject despair, the message of the angel: the encouragement to cease being afraid, and the discovery that water, the means of life, was indeed close at hand, meant that Hagar suddenly found she had the means to keep going.  She could take that first step.  She would survive.

My own very paltry and fleeting example of distress seems trivial by comparison, of course - but I do find it fascinating that what emerged out of my own time with God that morning, on a day when everything felt so desperate and out of my control, was the surprising discovery that actually I did already have within me the means of dealing with my fear, my distress, and my inner turmoil.  And having made that first step, a lot of other stuff then fell into place, too.  What I was experiencing as a curse turned into something that felt rather more like a blessing.

Our other biblical readings this morning also help to illuminate this, in their different ways.  St Paul, in his letter to the Romans, reminds us that as followers of the crucified and risen Lord, how we live, and how we choose to conduct ourselves are things that matter.  Because of what Christ has already done for us, we need to respond.  But please note the order of those two things.  We do not earn Christ's forgiveness by behaving appropriately.  Rather, Christ has forgiven us, and so we should respond to that life-transforming gift by how we choose to live and to shape our lives.  Because that is the response of love to love.

And in our Gospel reading, Jesus reminds the disciples that, however bleak their external circumstances may be, what truly matters is what is within them: 'Do not fear those who kill the body, but cannot kill the soul.'  And we hear again the same words that the angel spoke to Hagar: 'Do not be afraid.'

Are not two sparrows sold for a penny?  Yet not one of them will fall to the ground unperceived by your Father.  And even the hairs of your head are all counted.  So do not be afraid; you are of more value than many sparrows.

I have spoken of how the key to moving from despair to hope is often to be found within us, or in something that is already very close to hand.  But remember once again how it was that I experienced that insight for myself this past week.  It was rooted in prayer; it was rooted in my experience of being open to God, and entrusting my turmoil, my anger, and my despair to him.

The strange and perplexing thing about prayer is that when approached in the spirit of openness and trust, and without any attempt to dictate to God what we think God ought to be doing in a given situation, oddly enough, it seems to work.


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