Tuesday, 30 July 2013

Footprints in the Sand

I've just got home from a short break in Wales. Not long after we gratefully emerged from our sweaty car after what seemed like several hours edging up the M6, we clambered across some sand dunes and down onto a golden sandy beach that seemed not miles long but also miles deep - the sea was a distant vague blueness - and enjoyed the breezy warmth of a beautiful evening. Within minutes, the children were rolling up trouser legs and discarding footwear, toes squelching into the wet sand.

I took a photo of their footprints in the sand, and, later in the week, as I looked at the photo and spent more evenings wandering along the beach, I started thinking idly about that famous piece of writing, Footprints in the Sand. Even if you're not religious, you've probably heard of it, or at least one of its earthier take-offs. It's a statement of God's presence through difficult times of life, and it's given great comfort and meaning to many.

But...to be honest, it's never quite done it for me. Leaving aside aesthethics, this piece of writing (it's not exactly a poem, is it?) has never satisfied me as an account of my own experience as a Christian. Or, to put it in other words, it hasn't ever rung true. That's not to say that I don't believe there to be any truth in it; it seems to take its inspiration from the poetic recollection at the start of Deuteronomy of how 'in Egypt before your very eyes, and in the wilderness...you saw how the Lord your God carried you, just as one carries a child, all the way that you travelled until you reached this place.' It is a beautiful image.

But....what struck me, as I enjoyed the North Wales coastline last week, is that if I were ever minded to depict my life through the medium of beach markings, there wouldn't be two sets of footprints, or, indeed, one. There would be loads. Some would be parallel to one another, some criss-crossing, some huge footprints of six-footers, and others the tiny steps of a baby just learning to walk. The whole beach would be one big mish-mash of all sorts of types of footprints, of all sorts of people who have, at various points, walked beside me, and, at other times, have picked me up and carried me and my faith. My own footprints would be mingled in there somewhere; those would be the times when, by the grace of God. I've been able to carry others. Some footprints would be light, the sand kicked up effortlessly; those would be the times I've run with freedom and joy. Others would be deeply dug into the sand; those would be the times I've been carrying heavy burdens, or been a burden for others to carry. Some may be veering off in tangential directions; some may be backwards.

And where is Jesus in this rather different picture of footprints in the sand? Well, my utter belief is that he is in every single footprint, of every single person with whom I have walked and by whom I have been carried. Some of them are obvious; family and good friends. Some are highly improbable. Others are people I've known for shorter, but still significant, times. Others are people whom I wouldn't recognise in a crowd but who have walked alongside me no less; songwriters, poets, writers, theologians, and thinkers whose ideas and articulations have shaped my faith. This faith tells me that God is, and was, in each of them, that their footprints are all the footprints of Christ. A piece of Christian writing which I find much more satisfying than 'Footprints' is that of  St Theresa of Avila;

"Christ has no body now on earth but yours,
no hands but yours,
no feet but yours,
Yours are the eyes through which to look out
Christ's compassion to the world
Yours are the feet with which he is to go about
doing good;
Yours are the hands with which he is to bless people now.”

If this is true, and I believe it is, then my own 'footprints in the sand' are a divine gift to treasure, a moment of looking back to all the wonderful people I've been privileged to know, and realising that in their company, 'before your very eyes...the Lord your God carried you, just as one carries a child, all the way that you travelled until you reached this place.'

Tuesday, 16 July 2013

Of Windows and Winchester

A while ago, I was visiting a friend in Winchester, and while I was there, I had a good nose around the cathedral. Now, one thing about me: I'm a bit of a stained glass window fan. if I could, I'd have them in every room of my house, except for the kitchen. Thankfully, I'm blessed to be serving a team of churches with some absolutely beautiful windows, and one of these days, I'm going to spend an hour or two with some paints and decent paper, and try to paint a few of the details from them.

Back to Winchester. I'd bought myself a guide book, and a cup of tea in the refectory, and had read about the stained glass window a the western end of the cathedral (that's the opposite end to the altar). I'd read about Oliver Cromwell's men, and how they'd smashed up the stained glass window during the 1600s, as part of a Puritan drive to rid the land of 'images' of the holy. I'd read about the people of Winchester, and how they'd taken the broken parts of stained glass and re-patterned them into something quite different. I was intrigued. I finished my tea, and headed for the cathedral.

What I wasn't prepared for was the sheer scale of the window. If you've been there, you'll know that it is vast. Standing, craning my neck up at the huge, compelling mishmash of colour and shape, I started to wonder how Cromwell's Puritans had felt, destroying so grand a vision of sanctified splendour. Did they hack at it gleefully, almost drunk on the heady power of iconoclasm? Or did they labour methodically, dutifully knocking off bits of glass at the behest of a power every bit as authoritative as that represented in the very window they were wrecking? What did it look like when they'd finished? Did they stand, like I was, craning their necks to see the light streaming in through the empty hole in the wall where the window had nestled? Did they dance around the piles of broken fragments, rejoicing at another victory for the Puritan cause?

I didn't know this at the time, but later I read that other stained glass windows that had been broken up by Puritans had been painstakingly re-laid to approximate as closely as possible the picture that had been scrambled. It's easy to see why that wasn't an option at Winchester, though: it was simply much, much too big to put back together again in the manner of a jigsaw puzzle whose pieces had been broken apart. My historical imagination pictured the people of Winchester, realising the scale of the task before them and simply deciding to put it back together anyway, and to see what new picture emerged out of the patterns of the old.

When I was first thinking about the possibility of ordination, one of the first things I did was to join a course at the local NHS trust which trained me to visit patients in hospital as part of a volunteer chaplaincy team. I was assigned to visit patients on two wards, one of which was a stroke unit. My overwhelming memory of the stroke unit is that of tears; the patients' tears, their relations' tears, and very occasionally, the tears of a staff member. I recently sat with another person who had suffered a stroke, and the tears flowed again. Stroke is an iconoclastic thing; like Cromwell's men, it smashes up the images of a person's identity, and putting the broken pieces back together again is a long and painstaking task. Other iconoclastic events happen, too: the sudden, unexpected death of a loved one, or a freak accident which changes forever the way we see ourselves, or a thousand other life-changing moments. Sometimes the pieces are just too many, and the scale too vast, to re-order in the old formation; sometimes a new pattern emerges out of the fragments of the past, and in that new pattern, new meaning, new hope, new life.

As I stood, looing up at the Winchester window, with its almost modernistic jumble of shades and shapes, I realised that I was tracing the repetitions in the detail, the patterning in the randomness. I wondered whether everyone who came to this cathedral did that. I wondered how many different patterns and pictures had been seen, had been discerned in this window. Where there had once been one image, now there were countless images, because the countless pilgrims and visitors to the cathedral over hundreds of years found their own pictures in this vast picture. Where Cromwell had intended destruction, what had resulted was multiplication, like the broomsticks in the Sorcerer's Apprentice. My prayer for all who have suffered stroke, terrible accidents and mishaps of all kinds, physical, emotional and spiritual, is that, like the good people of Winchester before them, they will find the strength and willpower to gather up the jagged fragments of their pasts, and the frame that once held those pieces and gave them meaning, and start the job of re-patterning, and in that re-patterning, to begin to rejoice in the many new images that start to emerge.