courage

I still have many things to say to you, but they would be too much for you to bear now. However, when the Spirit of truth comes he will lead you to the complete truth.

John 16.12-13

One of the deep bits of bedrock of my faith is that God is always so much infinitely beyond what we can speak or name or understand. I’m a person who likes to be in control. I find safety in setting the boundaries on my life so I can find freedom in order. I know that will surprise anyone who has seen my kitchen in a normal season of parish life — but it is true. I want the things that I can control to be in control so that I have the strength to deal with the unexpected.

And it is for that reason that the structure of my faith is the very opposite of that. God is vast and wild, uncontrollable. My hope is in the fact that I will never be able to control, or have the knowledge of completeness, so God teaches me to hover over the chaos and ride the wind.

‘I still have many things to say to you, but they would be too much for you to bear,’ is thus, for me a statement of hope. What we can bear now is smaller than what we will come to be able to bear. God will not overwhelm us. God will hover, remain present, and wait.

All through this pandemic, I’ve been worrying about the ones we haven’t found yet. There is a huge amount of good work going on in the community. Neighbours are looking after neighbours; a wonderful community organiser with experience of disaster planning has set up systems that give volunteers DBS checks, and that help local businesses respond to need without being overwhelmed. People are being kind. But I know there are some we haven’t found. The quiet ones who sit on the park bench alone an are known by sight but not name. The ones who look out their kitchen window at the back garden, and haven’t been through the front door in years. The ones who sit in the chair.

I know they are out there, and they are terrified, and they are the very ones who will not ask for help and not be willing to take it if it comes.

I know this, of course, because I have seen it at close quarters. My step-mother has become a recluse since my father died. On a good day you wouldn’t know it. If she’s in the mood she can put on quite a show, and be charming and funny and very much alive. But she rejects all the things that would give her strength and health. She experiences every person who tries to help her as an imposition. In her upside-down world, she experiences the things that help her as ‘hassle’, and is sure that what she really needs is to sit alone in her chair without anyone or anything bothering her.

And now, Corona Virus has come along, and she is terrified. She has become so afraid of death that she is ceasing to live — and she is so sure that no one can help, that she is barely speaking some days.

‘I have many things to tell you, but they would be too much for you to bear now.’

There are a lot of words that get linked with Jesus’ cross. The trimph of the cross, the victory of the cross, the pain of the cross, the weight of the cross, the shame of the cross, the wonder of the cross, even the wood of the cross — all part of our theology and devotion.

But this Holy Week, it’s the courage of the cross that strikes me.

In the days that run up to his death, Jesus has an unflinching awareness of the magnitude of what is happening. In John’s gospel, he prays and speaks at length, trying to make sure the disciples have ‘heard’ all that they need to hear even though they have not begun to understand it. He speaks of his relationship with the God, the sense of abiding, the invitation that they abide too. He speaks of love, and service, and being chosen. Misunderstanding, and betrayal. And yet — it is the ‘more’ that he holds back that is one of the great acts of love. ‘I will not overwhelm you. It can wait. Just bear with this now’

Jesus walks through this week open to the knowledge of what Judas is doing, what Peter will do. He senses every shift in the crowd, knows the limitations of his friends, knows that he will mostly bear this cross alone.

And yet he holds his head up high. He is utterly unafraid of death. And so he can live, open to reality, no matter what life brings.

The courage of God is the vast unfathomable bedrock of our existence — God creating and setting free, calling and redeeming, sharing and suffering, and always holding back, perfectly poised to stretch us to our limits, and increase our capacity, without causing us to break.

This holy week, we all have to learn to ride the wind, trust the vast self-restraining compassion of God. And that gives me joy and hope.

But I still want to fix things, and find the ones who are hiding from us, and stop all the fear and pain. Helplessness is demanding and tests the very limits of our courage.

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