Friday, June 28, 2013

Like black buds unfolding

Hope“Every silver lining has a cloud.” So I remarked to a friend, in a gloomy moment recently.

But have you ever had a moment of hope? Irrational, bright, for-no-reason-and-yet? hope, like sun suddenly bursting through cloud, scattering silver like some crazed benefactor?

Ever felt that, despite everything, “all will be well and all manner of thing shall be well”? The moment may be fleeting – but it touches something real?

Some Thursday nights, we invite friends over to join in our community for the evening; we eat, talk, and laugh together.

Often, on such evenings, I read to everyone before dinner. It gives us a focal point before we thank God and eat. What I choose to read varies widely. Sometimes it will be overtly “Christian” or “spiritual” – Little Miss Sunshine or some other spiritual masterwork – sometimes less so.

Last night I read a short passage from Hilary Mantel’s prize-winning novel, Wolf Hall, which tells the story of Thomas Cromwell’s rise to prominence in Henry VIII's court.

The passage I read is from an early part of the novel. Cromwell is emerging painfully from a bleak time. His patron, influential but disgraced Cardinal Wolsey, has died. Cromwell himself may be finished. But opportunity is opening for him: if he champions the king’s prospective new wife, Anna Boleyn, there may be a future for him, a role. The passage describes the moment when Cromwell himself perceives this after his first encounter with Anne.
There was a moment when Anne gave him all her attention: her skewering dark glance. The king, too, knows how to look; blue eyes, their mildness deceptive. Is this how they look at each other? Or in some other way? For a second he understands it; then he doesn’t. He stands by a window. A flock of starlings settles among the tight black buds of a bare tree. Then, like black buds unfolding, they open their wings; they flutter and sing, stirring everything into motion, air, wings, black notes in music. He becomes aware that he is watching them with pleasure; that something almost extinct, some small gesture toward the future, is ready to welcome the spring; in some spare, desperate way, he is looking forward to Easter, the end of Lenten fasting, the end of penitence. There is a world beyond this black world. There is a world of the possible. A world where Anne can be queen is a world where Cromwell can be Cromwell. He sees it; then he doesn’t. The moment is fleeting. But insight cannot be taken back. You cannot return to the moment you were in before.

I read the passage partly just for its gentle beauty, but also because it resonated with me. Here, tenderly depicted, is one of those fleetingly powerful encounters with hope. One of those almost mystical experiences that I think we all know something about.

Hope is delicate – a bird’s wing, a quaver on a stave. But it is also strong. It touches something eternal. Weeping may tarry for the night, but joy comes with the morning. Death gives way to Easter. There is hope. And hope means we can go on.

The moment may be fleeting – but “you cannot return to the moment you were in before”.

May you know hope today, as a gift.

Thursday, June 06, 2013

Peaceable (the calm) and Peacemaker (the unpredictable)

Over the past few months, we’ve enjoyed having an older man staying with us in community. He moved in after his elderly father (who he’d been caring for) died – partly for respite, partly out of necessity, and mainly because as a Christian he felt it was a good place to be while he considered what to do next. He moved on last week – off to live with some Mennonites in Shropshire – but we know he’ll keep in touch as he’s become like a family member to us.

We have an informal custom in our church and community of giving people nicknames based on a virtue or quality we see in them. We’d called him “Peaceable”, not only because of his Anabaptist-inspired pacifism, but also because he had a quiet, calming presence about him. We received a lot from him while he stayed with us.

One day, over dinner, “Peaceable” told a something he’d learned that day about being a peacemaker – learned, ironically, from another man who sometimes comes to our church, who struggles with anger and psychiatric issues that can make him unpredictable, even dangerous at times. Here’s what he told us, in his own words:
I was walking through town, not far from my destination, when a voice behind me called my name. There was “B” who I had not seen for months. He is what used to be called a “rough diamond” (bare knuckle rough at times). I was telling him that I was living with the Jesus Army now since my father’s death had changed my life.

White van driverBut we didn’t get far with the conversation because a situation was developing behind us. Two vans had nearly collided on the side of the street. The first driver got out of his van and was swearing at the other driver. He was angry and showed no signs of calming down. The other driver took it at first, but after the third spate of swearing was about to get out of the van.

I was looking on and considering what to do and was getting round to a prayer, when all of a sudden “B” shot over to the second driver and said, “Stay in your van, mate”, then said to the first driver, “There are babies in there”, indicating the house he had just come from. (By now, I felt a bit like one of the “babies”.) Then “B” told the first driver to drive on, whilst calmly but firmly pointing out to the other driver, “Those are hazard lights” – which were still flashing on the first driver’s van. He got back in his van and all went quiet. The demon road rage fled before the Spirit of the Lord!

Reflecting on this, various thoughts arise. Firstly, we can learn from anyone: here is “Peaceable” learning peacemaking from volatile “B”. Secondly, we’re all different – strengths and weaknesses – but together can make a difference. And thirdly, I miss my “Peaceable” friend with his quiet stories and calming presence.