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Confession, by Haddon Willmer

18 December 2017

It is time I confessed. I am uncomfortable in church – and not because of the chairs. I am uncomfortable in Moortown Baptist Church and I would be uncomfortable in many other churches known to me.  

Anyone who confesses to such discomfort will be told to look to themselves. Many people are happy here, so what is it about you that makes you unhappy? Don’t let your personal quirk disturb the life of the church – get over it.  

Confessing discomfort is too vague to be useful. But now I can put a finger precisely on one cause of my discomfort:  I am a fairly regular on-line reader of The Guardian. There I encounter segments of the world we live in, concretely reported and often interpreted in prophetic ways.  

Just this morning (18 December) for example, there is an article on Hunger in the Wirral: the truth behind the tale that made a Tory MP cry. It is about increasing numbers of people who are driven to use food banks.  

Frank Field, the MP there for 38 years, told this tear-jerking story first (the picture on the left is of him with volunteers filling Christmas hampers for Birkenhead’s needy). Until five years ago, no one had come to see him complaining of hunger.

“Now, two-thirds of the people who come to my surgery are on the brink of destitution. There’s a lot of crying and gnashing of teeth in the surgery. It was totally unheard of before.”

Now of course our church supports the local food bank.  Some church people are active in it, but, on the whole, is it not at the fading margins of church consciousness?  If we talk about it, do we not tend to see it from the point of view of the providers, and to be glad that we are able to do some good? 

What The Guardian does is to take us further in two ways. First it helps us to see food banks from the point of view of desperate users. So we hear stories that can make a Tory MP weep. Do we ever get near to weeping in Church? Do we not expect weeping to be done in private, if at all? Do we, as Church, go with Jesus on his way, in the world, of ‘strong crying and tears’ (Heb.5.7, Luke 22.43, 44)?

Please read these stories for yourself – https://www.theguardian.com/society/2017/dec/18/hunger-in-wirral-truth-tale-tory-mp-cry-frank-field-heidi-allen – any summary I could give would be inadequate. 

Secondly, The Guardian does not give us a chance to hear the human story without challenging us to take a responsible view of the politics of it. Why is this happening in so rich a country? And in so professedly a democratic and open society? Why do those who arrange our social and economic order do it so badly? Why do we free citizens allow them to do so and demean ourselves by supposing we can do nothing much to alter things? Why do we so easily scorn politics and give up on politicians as a whole? 

Do we have ways of being Christian which insulate us from the realities of the world and of our society, that part of the world where we have real if limited responsibility? Why does our language lack the concreteness, the pain, the desire of some of the prophetic writing to be found in The Guardian?  

I am not at all arguing that we should put The Guardian in the place of the Bible. I have preached many times, and always from a Bible text which I try to attend to carefully, never from The Guardian. But The Guardian can help us to be more open to the Bible as prophecy, as what God says to people today in the realities of life. Truly, before ever  there was The Guardian, there was the Bible, and before, with and beyond the Bible, there is the Word of God, God speaking God-self in Jesus. All the same, I can imagine that if Church muffles the prophetic word, God may be grateful for a secular newspaper.  

The Guardian is not the only help to becoming more open to the call of God. If you can find help elsewhere, take it.   The Guardian is not in its totality the voice of God – it is a mixed up very human construction and much in it exemplifies our contemporary lostness. But somewhere in the mixture, the sharp if small voice is to be heard, for those who have ears.  Some of its writers sometimes are prophetic. Don’t take king Jehoiakim’s knife to The Guardian (Jeremiah chapter 36, see verse 23).  

Elements of prophecy which The Guardian often exemplifies and by which it could help us in Church are:

Telling human stories in detailed rawness, soberly, accurately

Even to the point of

Weeping, 

and of

Understanding them politically and so getting and keeping ourselves in a position to act together more effectively for good. 

A final note: sometimes prophecy works by telling stories that have the three elements I have identified but in a more cheering form. They are raw, there is weeping in them, but they also show some good being achieved in this dark world. 

In today’s Guardian, we read the story of Simone Veil, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2017/dec/17/simone-veil-remembered-by-robert-badinter

Once more, please take five minutes to read it for yourself – a summary would spoil it.  I specially valued the example of wise, practical, political forgiving Simone Veil worked for, after the Holocaust and the terrible history of wars between France and Germany.

“With her indomitable youth and determination, she became a champion of reconciliation with Germany. Instead of looking back, she looked ahead: the future for the next generations and hope of a lasting peace could lie only in a European Union, with a reconciled France and Germany at its heart. It required true moral greatness to have felt this way just months after returning from the death camps.”

“That is how I see her: as a woman who managed the incredible achievement of transcending her own immense personal suffering in the higher interest of her country and of her children’s future. Against all the odds, she turned her back on despair and chose hope.”

Haddon Willmer

 

 

 

 

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