Hope and truth are our reference points says Bishop Michael as he battles to untwist an adjective in this month's Chad Blog.
At the time of writing this, the situation in and around Ukraine seems to be deteriorating, with many citizens in Kyiv and Kharkiv sheltering in underground stations and others heading towards the borders, with Russian soldiers apparently bewildered what they are being asked to do and Russian civilians reeling under the impact of sanctions, with a rising death toll and escalating anxieties, and with all of us trying to come to terms with how quickly and dreadfully Europe has become a theatre of war. Jesus words to his disciples about ‘wars and rumours of wars’ have suddenly come to have a new urgency – not simply a saying from long ago, but a description of our own times.
And these terrible developments have followed close on the heels of other events which have reminded us of the fragility of life: just as we were emerging from two years of the scourge of the COVID pandemic, with all the traumatic suffering, mental and physical that brought, three successive storms in less than a week hit our beleaguered island, bringing widespread disruption, damage and destruction. And then, to cap it all, there was an earthquake – admittedly a small one, but as its epicentre was Walsall it felt very close to home.
The popular press increasingly uses one word for events of this kind and for their impact on human beings. Widespread scenes of climatic devastation, massive crowds of displaced people, terrible scenes of military destruction – all are regularly described as being ‘biblical’ in scale. In fact, it is probably the case that the use of the word ‘biblical’, outside the Church, is now almost restricted to situations of catastrophic malfunction and suffering.
It seems to me that this both expresses a profound truth and at the same time completely misses the point. The truth is, that the Bible is set in a world which is full of violence, division, pain and anxiety. And the faith of Christians, shaped by the biblical witness as we are, does not try to pretend that the world as we know it is a safe, comfortable or easy place to live. The biblical writers describe the societies in which they lived with searing honesty and unflinching challenge, and we in our turn know from the teachings of our faith that the world is not how God wants it to be.
But that is only half the picture. Our faith indeed tells us how the world actually is, but it also reminds us of how it could be – of how it will be when God’s purposes are fulfilled. We have a message not only of realism but also of hope, and it is for hope that our society is so hungry. Christian hope is not a mere cheerful optimism, but a solid expectation built upon the truth that Jesus’ cross and resurrection offers a better way for us to live than the sad and destructive ways of the world. And hope built on faith helps us to do what Jesus told his disciples to do in their own violent and conflicted times: ‘Hold your heads high, because your redemption is at hand’.
As our churches enter into the wonderful season of Lent, given for our refreshing as we prepare to celebrate the triumphant feast of Easter, what we offer above all to our troubled times is a commitment to pray. Prayer changes many things, and most of all it changes us, because it aligns our wills to God’s will. So through prayer we see the sin of the world more clearly as God sees it, and we imagine the glory of the world more vividly as God would have it be. My prayer at a time like this is twofold: first, ‘Lord, have mercy’; and then, ‘Your kingdom come’. Have mercy on us all in the mess we have made of your world; and renew our hope to work for Jesus’ kingdom of justice and peace.