Too much time spent watching or reading the news can easily bring a sense of hopelessness, for people of faith as well as those of none. Whilst I have been enjoying David Attenborough’s latest series “Seven Worlds, One Planet”, the evidence of the destruction humans are wreaking on God’s planet is heart-breaking. The torturous politics of Brexit can also induce a nihilism and cynicism about those governing or seeking to govern the country. Meanwhile those who need justice, hope and comfort are left just as abandoned as ever.
What does the bible have to say about our situation today-written thousands of years ago by people who couldn’t imagine our world, just as we struggle to relate to relate to theirs? It so happens that the bible has plenty to say and God’s voice can be discerned quite clearly through all the layers of history and culture. It speaks of justice and hope and tells us how these things can be made real in the lives of ordinary humans. It’s not easy and certainly isn’t a matter of us sitting back and waiting for God to act in some miraculous way or shutting ourselves away in private prayer without acting on that prayer.
Justice in the bible is about looking after the vulnerable, restorative not just retributive justice. God’s justice is even what some would see as unnecessarily generous, “God’s preferential option for the poor”. The Hebrew term for this restorative justice is mishpat but the bible also calls us to primary justice-a way of treating each other that is God’s template for economic, ecological and social relationships- tzadeqah in Hebrew. In other words, living in a way that all can have enough, treasuring and respecting God’s earth, treating each other without prejudice and enabling those who are disadvantaged to have what they need to be on a level playing field for jobs, housing, education and health.
Deuteronomy 10:17-19 tells us: “For the Lord your God is God of gods and Lord of lords, the great God, mighty and awesome, who is not partial and takes no bribe, who executes justice for the orphan and the widow, and who loves the strangers, providing them with food and clothing. You shall also love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” Justice in the bible is equated with righteousness, it is not an optional extra for those of a trendy lefty tendency or who like “charity work”, it is the necessary expression of our faith in a just God.
This is the way that the spark of hope can be rekindled and nurtured until God’s justice is seen in the world. As Teresa of Avila said “Christ has no body now but yours. No hands, no feet on earth but yours. Yours are the eyes through which he looks compassion on this world. Yours are the feet with which he walks to do good. Yours are the hands through which he blesses all the world. Yours are the hands, yours are the feet, yours are the eyes, you are his body. Christ has no body now on earth but yours.”
This week's blog has been written by Kirsty, Parish Administrator for All Saints and also an ordinand in training.
The smell caught me off guard. I had already brushed off the powdery residue of toxic raindrops on my bear arms and wiped the crud off my cheeks as I came in off the streets. And now a fume that carried a sickening sense of forgottenness was scraping at the back of my throat as I crossed the threshold. This dilapidated orphanage in some backwater industrial zone of Suceava was nothing short of shocking. From no fault of its own, what once stood as a life giving infant sanctuary was now debased; spoiled by an arrogant death that smugly showed off its stench to any good intended visitor.
P%$* and s*!& came to mind before the fact I was in the company of motherless children. I felt like a bloody tourist.
I was 16 and had signed up for a Christian mission in Romania to build a church and do some street evangelism. In the summer of 1992, before the cotton wool world of risk-aversity emerged, I spent a few weeks with a Romanian family in a block of flats that overlooked the city. From this height I was expecting to see a city scape or maybe even the ominous Carpathian Mountains to the west, but instead nothing other than the thick layer of smog that covered everything. Pollution had saturated the clouds and whenever it rained it bubbled like a fizzy lemonade on the pavements. The smog acted as a oppressive reminder that nothing had really changed since the fall of communism and the assassination of Nicolae Ceaușescu in 1989, well at least not yet anyway. The country’s economic system had collapsed entirely, barely getting by with a GDP growth rate of -12.4%, the lowest in Romania’s recorded fiscal history. Money had no real value anymore, so many people paid with items that had a much higher value, like milk, potatoes and beans.
I had arrived in Romania as part of a mission team that carried aid like clothes and medical supplies. We also had kid’s toys, lots of kid’s toys. The UK had reacted with a knee jerk and there were lots of aid trips going over with all sorts of donations.
After spending a week digging out a trench for a new sewerage system for the church build, the team decided to take our donations to a nearby orphanage in Suceava. Aside from the smell which was just simply impossible to ignore we were told that there were 10-12 nurses on staff at any one time, for the 400+ children that were accommodated. Children from new-borns to teenagers were separated on each floor of the concrete multi-storey complex.
I remember the building feeling more like a prison than a hospital, but it had a similar layout to both. Long corridors with rooms off each side. Large windows in each door allowed you to look in on the desperate occupants. Some rooms had larger windows beside the door, so you could check more carefully without the need to enter. Light switches were on the outside of the room.
As we toured the corridors I began to feel increasingly more uncomfortable with my own life at home. I felt embarrassed that we had thought to bring toys, and even ourselves. Mickey Mouse and I were about as useful as an ashtray on a motorbike.
The smell was getting worse.
We were led up the stairs to this first floor dedicated to children aged 2 to 4. We passed a room filled with cuddly toys and unwrapped gifts, we paraded passed another containing cot mattresses. Then after a few more paces we stopped outside a room with two children in cots. One, a girl, seemingly dead, still, pale and eyes wide open, the other a boy. If it weren’t for the other boy’s crying lament I would have thought it was a morgue. The nurse checked the girl and reassured us she was breathing. The boy wouldn’t stop weeping.
I didn’t know who this boy was, what his name was, or where he was from; but at that moment I had never felt more connected to anyone else. His tears were my tears. I don’t mean in some westernised empathetic sense, the kind that signals to the virtue before the humanity, but in a sense that i was feeling lost, entirely lost. I don’t know why I did what I did next. Maybe I just felt compelled to do something, to prevent this 'feeling of being lost' entirely overwhelming me. Maybe it was the combination of the soiled mattress, the cold walls, the crying, the smell of urine catching the back of my throat, the girl laying lifeless, and Mickey Mouse in the room next door. I was nothing, I was lost, and yet I had to do something.
As the nurse turned to leave the room, I walked over to the boy and held out my hands to offer an embrace. He reached over the cot side bar and I lifted him up and out. His arms clung to me like a limpet on a jagged rock. His head rested in my neck, shaking and convulsing, hyper-ventilating. His body had resorted to a kind of physiological revulsion over the circumstance and his surroundings. He wouldn’t let go.
This was my conversion experience. The day that death died. I had come to Romania to share the good news, but I had at times slipped into thinking that I had brought Jesus with me. That I had something that others needed and wanted. The truth is I had nothing. I was lost. I hadn’t even contemplated the idea that Jesus might have already been there.
Yes, I was a Christian. I had a sense of mission. I wanted to do good and share the message of God’s love. I knew Jesus was light of the world, and that his Church was like a prism refracting his light in the darkest of places. Yet, in this orphanage I was lost, I had nothing. I couldn’t even say Dumnezeu te iubește, God loves you.
This boy. In my arms. He was like Christ to me. I’d read about Jesus appearing to Paul on the road to Damascus, I had heard about the fisherman being called out of their boats, and how Thomas had seen the wounds of Christ and believed. I didn’t think it would happen to me.
This boy was Christ to me. I had nothing, and he held on. I was lost, and he found me. Most of the time humanity hates and attack what it has good reason to love. I hated poverty, I hated the stench and my lostness in it. And yet, in a worldly sense, this boy I held and every other child in that orphanage was more lost than I will ever be, and more hated than I will ever be – hated so much that their lives are seen as burden. But in that embrace and my conversation to really let Jesus into my life, I remembered that hope is not some vague belief that all will work out well, but as Richard Rohr puts it, ‘biblical hope is the certainty that things finally have a victorious meaning no matter how they turn out.’ Now I believe in generous justice, a God who met us in the poverty of Christ and spoke to us in the terminus between dark and light.
I have always wondered about that boy, where he is now, what he's doing. In my searching for him, I keep finding Christ.
If you want to know how to respond. Speak to your nearest Christian about Jesus, and/or lookup www.whitecrossmission.com
Revd Jeremy Putnam
A collection of thoughts and reflections from the people of All Saints.