Sunday, 18 June 2023
Marion Chatterley, Vice Provost
Through pain, despair, suffering... God reaches out offering love that transforms and gives us hope.
Some words from St Paul's letter to the Romans. …we also boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.
As we gather this morning in the shadow of a week of horrendous news coverage, Paul’s words feel pretty difficult to hear. The lazy reading of this passage of Scripture is that suffering is good for us. It builds character; it resources us to take a next step on our journey of faith and eventually helps us to arrive at a place of hope. So the conclusion is that the suffering is a necessary step on the journey towards something better. That narrative is supported by some of the expressions that have become common parlance: God doesn’t give us more than we can deal with. We learn more from hardship than from serendipity. That which doesn’t kill us makes us stronger.
The God who would support those statements isn’t a God who I want to know better. Can it really be that a God of love, a God who gifted us the Incarnation, a God whose Son spoke about love and compassion wants us to suffer before we experience that compassion?
I don’t actually know whether this week has seen more horrendous acts of violence and atrocities than previous recent weeks, but it certainly feels as though it’s right up there. Each day there has been something shocking, something that chills us to the bone. One of the ways that we might respond is to declare that we have reached saturation point. To decide that actually we don’t have the capacity to hear any more. We switch off – perhaps physically switching off the news programmes but, perhaps more importantly, we emotionally switch off. We protect ourselves from the pain of those people who are directly involved by closing our eyes and our ears to their situation. It’s not that we don’t feel compassion – perhaps we feel too much compassion - which then leads to a need for self-protection.
Charities concern themselves greatly with compassion fatigue. They know that telling the story of one individual makes their cause far more accessible, and therefore increases the possibility that they will raise the funds they need to continue their work. We can manage to hear the story of one person whose life we might be able to change. We can’t conceive of changing the lives of hundreds or thousands of people.
All of this turning away from the excruciating pain that we see in the lives of people who are touched by tragedy, is happening in the context of an increasingly secular world. There is a contemporary discourse that tells us the church has nothing useful to offer. The church is out of touch and only interested in itself. A discourse that may well tell us that the church itself has been a source of pain. That the church needs to get out of the way in order to allow for human flourishing.
And yet – this week in Nottingham, the very first images I saw on my TV screen were of a vigil being held in the parish church. People of faith and of no faith found their way to a sacred space where they could light a candle. A place where they could be still. A place to bring their suffering and their grief. A place to bring their anger and their sadness; their fear and their bewilderment. A place just to be.
There was a shared sense of purpose, a permission to grieve publicly alongside others. And the following day there was a gathering in a civic space, a gathering where I noted that the Bishop was central to the event. None of that speaks about a church that has no relevance. None of that speaks of a church that is out of touch and has nothing to offer. It witnesses to the distinctive voice that the church can bring into our troubled world. And that voice is a voice of hope. It’s not, contrary to many perceptions, a voice of platitudes. Nor is it a voice that fails to recognise the pain of those most affected by tragedy. Rather, it is a voice that acknowledges all of that and is still able to say – and yet there is hope.
In today’s Gospel reading, the disciples are sent out to the lost sheep of the house of Israel. I understand that to mean the marginalised and ostracised. But also to mean those who have lost their way in their journey of faith. Those people for whom life has dealt some significant blows and who found themselves turning away from God, because they hadn’t been protected in a way that they might have hoped. The people for whom platitudes just didn’t wash.
And the disciples were tasked with telling them about the Kingdom of God. However we understand the Kingdom of God, we can perhaps agree that what they were being brought was a message of hope. There is something better. There is another opportunity. There is healing. There is the possibility of finding inner peace. And that, I think, is why people gathered in a very ordinary parish church. That is why the Bishop of Nottingham and Southwell had a place in the public arena. That is why hundreds of people come into this place and light a candle – on our Ukraine prayer station or elsewhere. It’s about hope.
Hope transforms. Hope allows the possibility that there is something more than the immediate horror. Hope allows us to get alongside others – hope is often a collective experience as well as a personal journey.
I wonder whether we can reframe, perhaps reclaim, St Pauls’ narrative. Just suppose that we find a way to read those verses not as a linear journey, but as a statement of human experience. We do experience suffering – all of us at some point or other in our lives. There are times when we can only endure, waiting and praying for something to change. Change comes when we manage to find a glimmer of hope, when we recognise that whether we are suffering or enduring, whether we are coping – or not, whether we are angry or despairing, God’s love for us is unchanging.
God’s love is unchanging – and love transforms. When we are rooted in love, we are perhaps resourced to be less insular, less embroiled in our own lives and better able to cast a gaze outward and to allow ourselves to be drawn, by compassion, into recognising the suffering of others. We can’t take away the pain, it would be wrong to attempt to minimise other people’s pain, but we can offer a narrative that says, in the midst of excruciating pain, despair, anger, suffering, at those times when we may feel that things will never change, God continues to reach out to us in love. Through love there is the possibility that we might find just a glimmer of hope. And hope transforms.