Sunday, 13 March 2011

Bearing with one another

I was rather taken with Rowan Williams letter to the Primates of the Anglican Communion, and it is well worth reading. It struck a chord with me partly because he starts off by focusing upon the suffering and tragedies that we have seen globally these past few weeks, he makes fleeting reference to the assassinations in Pakistan, the attacks on Christians in places such as Nigeria (among others) and the suffering in Christchurch, New Zealand, followed by the awful events unfolding in Japan. There is a real sense as the letter continues of the way in which suffering both moves and troubles us. We are troubled by the human cost of these events, and also troubled by the role humans play in atrocity, we are moved by the human suffering and moved by the role humans play in alleviating that suffering.

I have struggled to know what to write about events recently. On Friday I watched the video of the tsunami sweeping onto Japan's coastline and crumpling houses, trees and cars, carrying them - and the human lives caught up in them -  effortlessly forward in a tide of debris. I almost posted the video, except to do so  felt like voyeurism, I guessed people had seen it already anyway and I didn't know what I could say that would not sound inane and futile. We often forget what the scriptures tell us, that our lives are like grass, we can be swept away and our place remembers us no more, we forget, in the preoccupations of our lives that human life itself is fragile.

 I am not at always very good at bearing with other people! I don't  always have a lot of patience and can be easily irritated, or jump to conclusions about others too quickly. On the other hand, most of my hostilities melt away when I get to know others and see their vulnerabilities.  A lot of us are like this, so the message of bearing with each other, and bearing each others burdens is not a bad one for this Lent. It is a scriptural lesson, and  a lesson that needs to be learnt by the Church but it is also a message of universal relevance. It requires a change of heart - not a signature on a supposed covenant. It requires relinquishing power and replacing it with a genuine concern for the other, and it is as valid for individuals in their private and personal lives as it is to institutions, nations and movements. It focuses our hearts on the only thing we really have in an uncertain world which is our love for each other and God's love for us, which is reflected in human love when we see it at its most generous and self giving.


  1. Thank you for this. Forbearance is an important word in my vocabulary, so much stronger and more meaningful than mere toleration.

  2. Sue

    I was much touched by this post.

    Last Friday morning I heard about the earthquake in Japan on Radio 4’s Today program and so when I had to print off some e-mails before leaving the house I watched several of the videos available on the BBC website. The image of a wall of black sludge making its way relentlessly over farmland presented a stark contrast of a chaotic destructive force washing over neat, ordered land: wild nature vs. tamed nature, with the former as victor. The camera then panned over farmsteads and houses to a road where there were still vehicles either desperately trying to outrun the oncoming disaster or unaware of the danger close at hand. The video rolled on as did the tsunami and at the bottom of the frame a car and a lorry were swamped by the flood and it would be difficult to conceive of the drivers or passengers surviving this onslaught. In the right of shot, a loan individual could be seen running for his or her life. These deaths or potential deaths did not result in any comment from the narrator of the video.

    As I made my way down to the train station, a few minutes later, to commute into London, I pondered the fact that I had just watched at least two people die and yet have become so desensitised to such images, I was barely moved. In his rather wonderful book ‘Restoring the Kingdom’ (which I think is still in print) Andrew Walker makes the point that much of what we watch as ‘news’ is in fact a subtle form of entertainment. There is an element of emotional masturbation taking place. So I agree, posting a video many have already seen would be voyeurism. Do we need to know about disasters in such grim detail? The pragmatic, some would say ‘cynic’, in me concludes much of what we consume as ‘news’ is very much a product honed and manufactured. Is what we watch really going to spurn us on to bearing one another’s burdens?

    In Luke 10: 25-37 Jesus is asked ‘And who is my neighbour?’ (vs29) and Jesus then tells the story of the Good Samaritan to illustrate the point that our neighbour is the person we see in need. What this passage says to me, is that it is in the immediate and parochial that we are more likely to be called upon to bear one another’s burdens. I would even go as far as to say the ‘mundane’ is the place where this really happens. And while it is laudable to shove £5 in a Christian Aid envelope or have a direct debit set up for Oxfam, I think the real and prophetic work of bearing one another’s burdens is evident in the way we treat the person on the check-out at Tesco’s rather than great acts of charity or sacrifice.

    I take some pride in the fact that many of the blogs and websites we both know that deride and curse my own life choices (i.e. that I have forsaken the orthodox views on sexuality I held for almost three decades and have settled down with my same sex partner) make little, if any mention, of ‘washing one another’s feet’ (one of the few commandments given by Jesus); the fact so much effort is put into the ‘easy morality’ of condemning something that does not (so they say...!!!) affect the authors of many of these websites, rather belittles their message. If just once you read ‘This morning, while I was working at the homeless shelter...’ or ‘While I was helping at community centre...’ then I might just take their message a little seriously. Too often they remind me of the priest and the Levite – so sure of the Law and their own social standing and outward righteousness. Yet of the harder work – the less glamorous and mundane – there is little evidence. Something, which I think speaks volumes! Of course, as qualified a social worker, long term volunteer with mental health drop-in and the carer of a disabled friend I run the risk of taking pride in what really is the duty of an unworthy servant...

    Thanks again for this:


  3. Thanks Perpetually in Transit. It is nice to get a comment when someone has joined the followers' list:)

    Thanks S. I also saw the cars trying to turn around and drive away, it did make my heart clutch as I imagined being in those cars. But I knew that I couldn't fully imagine (didn't want to anyhow) and that nothing I felt would really be adequate and that I would (have to) soon forget about it, or put it to one side anyway. It made me think of the T.S.Eliot quote, "humankind cannot bear very much reality" - and because we can't, or can't afford to, we desensitise ourselves and seeing such events can becomes a kind of macabre entertainment because we are distant, detached (?) observers.
    I agree that practical Christianity lies in the mundane much more than the grandiose. I think kindness and just plain old fashioned decency are very underrated qualities.

  4. Sue,

    Yes, I agree, ‘kindness and just plain old fashioned decency are very underrated qualities’. One of the more disturbing events in my present research involved a situation early on in my time at a homeless hostel, run by a well known Christian charity. As I had not been there very long, many of the staff had not been introduced to me and so did not know who I was or my role in the building. Because the hostel takes a good number short term placements – particularly during severe cold weather – the staff themselves are not always able to remember who is a resident of the hostel (and it is a 150 place hostel, so no staff member can remember everyone!). On this particular day I was walking up the main staircase as a member of staff coming down, whom I had not met before. My habit in the hostel was to say ‘hello’ to anyone I met, be they staff or residents, hence I greeted this man with a smile and a warm ‘hello’. He looked into my eyes with a look of utter contempt, then looked through me as if I didn’t exist and carried on his journey, without saying a word. By this time another member of staff appeared who did know me and greeted me with a warm ‘hello’. So I said ‘hello’ to this member staff and as his colleague was now waiting for him, a flight or so down the stairs, but still in earshot, I asked the friendly staff member if his colleague was deaf or just pig ignorant!

    Of course, I realised what was going on. I was dressed in old clothes and shabby trainers, as my role that day was, with a few of the residents of the hostel, to help clear out a storage room. The silent staff member had presumed I was a resident of the hostel and treated me how he would treat any resident who dared speak to him – this is the kind of thing you can reveal when you do participative research! I sure if one of the senior staff had been present he would have greet me with warm ‘hello’ (though that would depend upon the senior staff concerned...alas) Of course as soon as the staff member was told I was doing research at the hostel, he crawled around me a most unpleasant and obsequious manner.

    I was shocked, because this man was one of the more overtly ‘Christian’ staff – leading staff prayers and generally jawing on about church life and peppering his conversation with ‘praise bes’ and ‘amens’ when in the staff room. Indeed at this particularly hostel there is a surfeit of such souls. The less overtly ‘Christian’ or the openly agnostic appear less likely to exhibit such ‘standoffish’ or ‘superior’ airs and graces. Don’t get me wrong, there are some very caring and able Christian staff, but there are others – unfortunately ones in positions of power and influence – who put a great deal of effort into creating an outward piety. Yet the fact one such staff member could not, because he took me to be a resident of the hostel, return a simple ‘hello’ demonstrates:

    “If I speak in the tongues of men or of angels, but do not have love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give all I possess to the poor and give over my body to hardship that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing.” (1 Cor 13:1-3).

    And I think this is the real truth. That love is not warm feelings or something we do to gratify the desire to be liked; but is found in treating others as we ourselves would like to be treated – and therefore the mundane and the ordinary are the best venues for living out ‘love’.


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