Sunday, 23 February 2014

“Everything will be all right in the end. If it’s not all right, it is not yet the end.”

A few weeks ago, an internet 'fun' quiz told me that the type of parent am, is (wait for it) 'prematurely old.' Which is exactly why I've stopped doing 'fun' internet personality quizzes. Maybe the reason I was deemed past it, in soul if not in body, was that I confessed a preference for the 2012 movie 'The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel', in which an ill-matched assortment of British gentlefolk in the late autumns of their lives, sell up their UK homes and move to what promises to be a luxury hotel for retired Brits in India. The owner, Patel, is exuberantly, ridiculously, irresponsibly optimistic, and where others see a pile of rubble with leaking pipes and no doors into bedrooms, he sees 'the best exotic marigold hotel.' Everything will be all right in the end, he assures both his new paying customers and the family who are bankrolling this enterprise, and if it's not all right, it's not yet the end.

In my church ministry, I spend time with people who are nearing their own end, or who are responding to the end of life of someone close to them, which in itself is an ending in the life of the one left behind. Some of the worst things I have encountered have been endings of lives in which everything didn't become 'right', endings which were brutal or cruelly unexpected. Much more often, though, happily, I hear from people a profound sense of things becoming 'right' as people near the end of their lives, and of there being a 'rightness' at the time of death, and of a 'rightness' emerging out of the dark grief and gnawing loss following the ending of a loved one's life. As many clergy say, it is a deep privilege to hear these stories and to be with people at these most poignant and precious times in their lives.

And in these precious and poignant endings, there is a whisper that what I am witnessing in the ending of a person's life - a person unique and uniquely gifted, uniquely loved and with his or her own unique stories to tell - is a kind of microcosm of Christian hope.  “Everything will be all right in the end. If it’s not all right, it is not yet the end.” It was when I was reading for my Theology degree that I had the opportunity to scratch the itch to think more, read more, ponder more deeply what we mean by 'the end of the world' and how belief in a Christ who will come again may shape our lives as they are now. As you probably know, some Christians are only too keen on eschatology (the belief in 'the end'); on a daily basis you can check the statistical likelihood of the Rapture, should you feel so minded, not that Jesus commanded us to do anything of the sort (quite the opposite, in fact). Other Christians nervously back away from anything  answering the description 'eschatological.' I joked with my fellow Theology students that my own burgeoning interest in eschatology would turn me into a wild-eyed, crazy-haired apocalyptist. At least I think we were joking.

Yet as I sat in our very comfortable college library and, for the first time, read the book of Revelation from start to finish in one sitting, not pausing to ask tricky questions or dwell on obscure details, the cumulative effect on me was the overwhelming assurance that everything will be all right in the end, not only for individuals facing the end of their life, but for the whole of everything; for the world that God created in love and in infinite potentiality. Everything will be right in a way that we can't even begin to imagine, which strains at the very, very edges of language to describe. The deepest, fullest, most satisfying rightness we've ever known will be just a tiny foretaste of the rightness when, as Revelation puts it, God will wipe away every tear from our eye and, with our eyes wiped of all suffering, will show us the wonder of the new home which we will share with him forever.

Maybe I am prematurely old, but what I loved about 'The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel' wasn't so much its cast of well-loved British actors of later years, but its irrepressible optimism in a future only as yet imagined, and that dimly, and its hopeful hero who makes every decision in light of this optimism.  “Everything will be all right in the end. If it’s not all right, it is not yet the end.” One of the problems of ignoring eschatology as a  Christian doctrine is that we lose sight of this hope, and we are left to measure immeasurable things like success and meaning from within our own lifetime only, which is hopelessly short-sighted. If all our individual endings are only a mere foretaste of that great ending, then even the endings we experience which are not 'right' are held within the hope that ultimately, all will be right. I think of one or two deaths I've known which were not right, and this ultimate rightness is what I believe gives them all the meaning and rightness they need. To change the terminology slightly from 'right' to 'well', Mother Julian of Norwich famously said 'All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well.' These words sound so easily like mind-numbing platitudes, and yet they were borne out of a time in her life when she was anything but well. Knowing that 'all shall be well' enables us to see our unwellness in the light of the great wellness that awaits us in the coming kingdom of God, to accept it with grace, and, when we glimpse moments of it in our lives as they are, to receive them gratefully, not as the thing in itself, but as the promise of what its to come. “Everything will be all right in the end. If it’s not all right, it is not yet the end.”


Tuesday, 11 February 2014

With or Without You

When I was a teenager, at church youth group, we used to sing a song. If you're of a certain age and a certain church background, you might recognise it. The chorus ran:

I have a destiny

I know I fill fulfil.
I have a destiny
on that city on a hill.
I have a destiny
and it's not an empty wish
For I know I was born
For such a time as this.

Heady stuff for a fourteen year old girl whose immediate concerns involved learning German vocab and which friend to knock for on the way to school! If you'd asked me then about the Book of Esther, I'd probably have said something along the lines that although the book of Esther never mentions God's name once, it's all about knowing that you are born for such a time as this; it's all about knowing your destiny.

A few weeks ago, I led a Bible study on Esther. To be honest, it had been years since I'd last looked properly at Esther; I'd managed to get through a Theology degree, majoring in biblical theology, without really spending much time with Esther, simply because even within a very intensive two-year course, there simply wasn't time to do it all. Studying the Bible in two years was was a bit like touring Europe in two months. As well as that, my study on Esther came in the middle of a busy period for me in the parish. I had baptisms, funerals, midweek services, church business meetings, church school meetings and all manner of other things to busy myself with, so it was only a couple of days before the study that I opened the Bible to Esther and had a good read. If studying the Bible in two years was like touring Europe in two months, studying Esther in two days was like 'doing' Paris in a day.

As I read it, I was shocked, not only at the story that unfolded before me, but at my own blithe ignorance of it. Our study session was just before Holocaust Remembrance Day; this was a story about the near-annihilation of the Jewish people on grounds of ethnicity and bring 'different', and it chilled me to the bone. If I'd had more time, I could have lost myself deep in a research library reading books such as Emil Frackenheim's 'The Jewish Bible After The Holocaust: A Re-Reading' which argues that, along with Job, Esther is 'emblematic of the post-Auschwitz Jewish condition.' One thing became clear, though, even on the most cursory of readings; this book was only about me and my destiny to the extent that it was about the Jewish people and their destiny, and the Pauline belief that as Christians, by God's grace, we are 'grafted onto the branch' of this ancient and faithful people.

The verse that I would have quoted to you, if you'd asked me, aged 14, about Esther, is Esther 4:14, which I might have paraphrased to say something like 'You have come to royal favour for such a time as this.' This verse, and indeed the whole book, I might have said, are about knowing that such is God's faithfulness that we find ourselves just in the right place, just at the right time. When I returned to Esther after quite some years just recently, I noticed that all the faith in this statement is weighted onto the first part of the verse; 'if you keep silence at such a time as this, relief and deliverance will rise for the Jews from another quarter, but you and your father’s family will perish. Who knows? Perhaps you have come to royal dignity for just such a time as this.’ Relief and deliverance will come. There's the faith. The second part is more ambiguous, and, in the strict sense of the word, agnostic;who knows? Maybe the person through whom relief and deliverance will surely come, might just be you. Then again, it might not. But it's worth a shot. 

This got me thinking back to my fourteen year old self, and the songs of certainty that we sung; 'I have a destiny / that I know I will fulfil.' The problem is that this song is more certain than the Bible verse it's quoting. Esther didn't know that she was going to save the Jewish people from genocide. She did know that trying to persuade the King was worth a shot  (I won't tell you the whole story here, but do read it.) There is a world of difference between saying, 'Come on Esther, you've got to persuade the king! Without you, all your people will be wiped out' and 'Esther, help will come. This present threat isn't the end of the story. We know that. But who knows how the story will go? And what your part in it might be? Hey, it might just be that you can make a difference.'
Now this might all sound a bit irrelevant. After all, Esther was written a long time ago; does it really matter how we read it, if at all? But it seems to me symptomatic of a problem within modern Christianity, which is probably symptomatic of a problem within modern western culture, which is this: our sense of destiny is centred on ourselves as individuals. We believe that we have been born for such a time as this, that we have destiny which we will fulfil. Now, for some people, that's not a problem at all; it's a challenge to which we rise boldly, and I am in awe of all who, through a profound sense of destiny, give themselves to love and serve God by loving and serving the world. 

But for many, it becomes a burden too heavy to bear, and the disjunct between our mundane, everyday, often-failing lives and this high and heady destiny is too much, and we lose heart and lose faith. More than that, though, the 'I have a destiny' thought-world is, ultimately, too small, too parochial to be true to the Gospel. If it is all about me and my destiny, that vision only stretches as far as my lifetime does and has little sense of what is over the horizon. If my destiny is only about the time in which I was born, then it is so easy to lose sight of God's great love that spans centuries and continents; it is so easy to lose sight of that 'great cloud of witnesses' surrounding us as we journey on our particular path through life; it is so easy to lose perspective. 

As I was thinking about Esther, and my fourteen year old self (and, let's face it, teenagers are rarely big on perspective), what struck me was this: we find our highest, deepest, broadest, most meaningful and personal sense of destiny only when we find it in the grand plan God has to 'enfold all the world in one embrace' , when we catch sight of the patient, loving work of God that goes further back than we can imagine and will go forward  into futures as yet unknown. It's when we see ourselves as a part of that awe-inspiring destiny for the whole world that we might be able to imagine our own place within it. 

And the liberating thing is this; God's plan will go on, with or without us. Help and relief will come, of that we can be sure. This can either sound like a blessed relief, or a get-out clause, or an invitation to be part of the help and relief effort for this ailing world. And the compelling thing is this; help and relief will come, and somebody will be the one who brings help and relief to another, in times of great historical crisis and in the everyday warp and woof of life. And it's in asking whether we might be that someone, in any given moment, that we will find our true destiny.  It's worth a shot.   If not now, then when?