|Pen and Ink Reflections||
When I was young, parts of the country in which I grew up literally blew away. Living in Lincolnshire, one of England’s greatest agricultural counties, I could see this whenever I traveled. For I grew up as a child at the time of the greatest destruction of England’s hedgerows, many of them very ancient. Indeed, hedgerows are, as the Campaign to Protect Rural England has put it, ‘the most widespread semi-natural habitat in England’, and, more poetically, ‘the vital stitching point in the patchwork quilt of the English countryside’.1 They not only provide character, but essential life to all kinds of creatures, and help protect the soil itself without which there can be no sustainable farming yields. As a child however, I would see such features regularly ripped away, and a vast desert of landscape created, with vital topsoil whirling up in dust storms and carried away. Such soil frequently blinded us, reflecting the blinkered industrialised agricultural thinking which had produced it. It was an early lesson to me of how if we mistreat the land out of which we come and are fed, we also destroy ourselves. How then are we to live, without seeking the forgiveness of the land itself, and renewing creation together?...
Years ago in the east end of London, I met a remarkable little old lady. She was what some call a ‘bag lady’: a homeless woman who carries her possessions with her, perhaps in just a pair of plastic bags. Her story was typical of many homeless people, although very unique, like that of every homeless person. In this lady’s case, she would tell a very brief biographical tale on a kind of continuous loop. This began with the words ‘I was a Barnados girl’, which, when repeated would start her off again on her abbreviated life-story. Was she then a sad person lost in a tiny, poor and vulnerable world, cut off from the rest of us? No, not exactly. For, in some ways, she was more in touch with existence than most, if not all of us. For this seemingly poor and aged waif had an amazing quality: namely the ability to see the plants and the animals alive around her, even in the middle of such a busy and environmentally threatening city as London then was. If you walked along with her for just a minute or two, she would point out, and open your eyes and ears to, the animal and plant life you almost always missed: the grass and the sometimes beautiful flowers which pushed through the concrete and the cracks; the birds and the insects and the urban wildlife, which, sometimes incomprehensibly, managed to thrive in the otherwise all-too-human jungle of the city. Almost everyone else was too busy, or too self-obsessed, to ‘consider’ these ‘lilies of the field’ and ‘birds of the air’. It took a similarly overlooked human being to notice and to celebrate these astonishing signs of God’s resistance. And, as she drew you into such contemplation and celebration, you thereby discovered the presence of mystery and grace.
I may have told the following story before but it is worth re-telling. For it vividly expresses particular ways of being open to growth, or otherwise, in God’s world.
There once was a very old man with multiple heart problems. Towards the very end of his life he had a particularly massive heart attack and was essentially detained in hospital indefinitely. His sons and daughters had largely lost contact with him and, even after this last heart attack, they visited infrequently. Somewhat reluctantly they ran little errands for him, including buying him his weekly Lotto ticket. Then, one day, the Lotto ticket turned up trumps. The old man had won a multi-million Lotto jackpot. The family were thrilled, and then they were chastened. Who was going to tell the old man? If they didn’t tell him right, the shock and surprise might give him an other heart attack and kill him. Then there would be not time to persuade him to change his will if, from their point of view, he hadn’t got it right. So they ummed and ahhed, and, in the end, decided they’d ask the local Anglican priest to do the job. For they had to know who he already had as beneficiaries in the will and the priest, they reasoned, was experienced at handling delicate and weighty pastoral matters with sick and dying people. ‘Please find out for us’, they said, ‘and make sure you do so in a way which doesn’t mean he has a heart attack and dies.’
So the priest went in to see the old man and talked with him for a little while, until he had just enough confidence and the right opportunity to make the urgent enquiry. ‘I know you still like buying your weekly Lotto ticket’,, said the priest. ‘What would you do?’, he asked tentatively, ‘if you were actually to win a huge jackpot? To which of your family would you leave your money?’ ‘Oh’, said the old man without a second’s thought, ‘that’s easy. My family are a bunch of wastrels and hangers-on. In that circumstance, I‘d give all the money to your Church.’ At which moment, overtaken by the shock, the priest himself had a heart attack, and died.
Well, its a joke, isn’t it. and dark humour at that, yet there’s a certain truth in it too, isn’t there? How much expectation do Christians, including Christian Ministers, sometimes have? Do we anticipate that God is seeking to give us gifts, or do we often simply fear the worst, or, at least, the same old same old thing? Do we believe in a generous God, and a God of growth, or just a God of making do?