Happy New Year to each and every one of you!
Seldom have I meant this greeting so wholeheartedly. In fact, generally I just find the New Year a bit of an annoyance. For me the new year always begins in September, when school (or now University) begins. Since I was 5 years old the new year begins in September with the ritual buying of new clothes, new stationary (color crayons, glue, ruler, folders when I was little, now a new ‘academic’ diary, of course a restock of my favorite pens and lots more post-it-notes), and full of expectation and excitement. I always found the new School Year was my real new year. But this year, everything - including the new school year has been disrupted. I didn’t buy a new outfit or new stationary. I only was able to meet a few of my new students in person, and even now I haven’t actually ‘seen’ most of them in the flesh. This has had the odd effect of making this New Year that began yesterday, actually more important to me than the September start of school. Like everyone in the world I suppose, I look with hope to the months ahead, and pray that decisions regarding vaccines, treatments, tiers, support for those in difficult financial positions, and those suffering in mind and body will be enough to bring us a happier year. And as ever I look to our Lord to protect us, lead us and uphold us.
I was looking at Tom’s Wright’s book God and the Pandemic this week, which came out last Summer, after the first wave. It seems even more relevant now. In the summer I thought I was pretty much looking at a retrospective, rather than a really practical spiritual guide for a much longer journey. One of the things that Wright reminds us of, is the importance of what he calls the ‘Kingdom Prayer’ and what we know as the ‘Lord’s Prayer’.
Wright reminds us that the Lord’s prayer is a prayer of forgiveness and penitence - two things that are really important now, and I would add that it is a prayer that wraps forgiveness and sorrow for past wrongs we’ve done within the promise of Hope. Wright also notes that the Lord’s prayer is not about the past but about the NOW and the Future which exists in the NOW. When we say the Lord’s prayer, when we really enter into it - saying it slowly, savoring and thinking on each phrase - it really does contain everything we need to refocus our weeks, our days, even our moments. And it points forward most emphatically to God’s Kingdom. I still marvel that it is the prayer that Jesus told us to say - the perfect answer to the apostles’ question about how to pray. It is so completely perfect, placing our daily needs – the needs of our body for sustenance, our individual mental health, and the health of our community within the context of God’s purpose and promise offered to all people of a resurrected life in God’s Kingdom. The Lord’s prayer points us in the only direction there is for us - forward - into God’s love. So, do take some time over the next few days to really think about the Lord’s prayer, consider what it says and what it enjoins us to do as we prepare ourselves for the next part of this difficult journey.
I also had a look at my notes from the French mystic, Elizabeth Leseur (1866-1914). In her journal during a particularly difficult year she wrote, ‘I believe that no humble, unknown act or thought seen by God alone is lost, and that all in fact serve souls’. Here she is speaking of prayers and those small acts of love and kindness that so many do, often without even really thinking about it - God’s divinity shining through the humble individual soul. She believed in the power of addressing one’s prayers, thoughts and love toward particular souls reminding us that ‘Did not Jesus the Eternal model do the same’? So, while we are all praying diligently for the state of the world and the world’s problems, lets also allow ourselves, indeed task ourselves, to praying for one or two particular individuals. The small acts of love, prayer, and kindness do add up.
Perhaps this would also be a good time to have a look at the Beatitudes in Matthew 5:3–12. Again, Jesus gives us just the right words to guide us in difficult times. The beatitudes point out those who are most at risk at all times, but most especially at times of crisis. Let us use these words to guide our thoughts, our prayers, our actions. Because we are image bearers, we are made to bring light into the darkness by whatever means God has equipped us with. And even now, we are being guided into our inheritance - spoken of by the prophets, especially Isaiah, and fulfilled through the life, death, and resurrection of our Lord.
I’ve been reading over Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. Tolkien was a devoted Christian, and while he integrates his profound Christian beliefs so successfully within his imaginative world of Middle Earth, that sometimes we don’t quite see them for what they are, there are key moments in the narrative when these shine through and work on us directly in our own journeys in life. One of these comes early in the first book, when Frodo must face up to the impossible task before him, when great darkness has entered the world:
“I wish it need not have happened in my time," said
"So do I," said Gandalf, "and so do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.”
This is a question that we have all been asking ourselves during this time, and this is a question that the Lord’s Prayer most profoundly answers. And the second quotation that comes to my mind, Tolkien took from the Gospel of John, and placed in the mouth of the Elven Queen Galadriel: ‘Do not let your hearts be troubled,’ she said. ‘Tonight you shall sleep in peace.’ This is, of course a rephrasing of John 14.27: ‘Peace I leave with you, my peace I give unto you: not as the world giveth, give I unto you. Let not your heart be troubled, neither let it be afraid’ (KJV). We live in troubled times, as in fact most of humanity always has, but looking forward with and in God’s love gives us the peace we need to know what to do in the time that is given to us.
I have enjoyed rereading the Lord of the Rings because, well it’s a good story to read in the long nights of winter. It’s a story of adventure, of resilience, but most of all it is a story of love in its most sacrificial form. It is as we literary scholars call it, a Christian narrative of sacrificial giving of self, long part of our literary heritage including Beowulf, the King Arthur stories, and so many more, which of course Tolkien knew well as a professor of English Literature. This is what I love about literature, it takes those core and vital aspects of our redeemed humanity and places them in front of us again so that we can look at them anew and re-evaluate our role in God’s purpose to draw us all into God’s love - that Kingdom Come where God’s will is done on Earth as it is in Heaven, where we truly understand and can live fully in the saving Grace Christ speaks of, where we are part of the divine whole, “At that day you will know that I am in my father, and you in me and I in you’ (John 14.20).
We continue our journey. We continue to support each other in love through prayer, through acts of kindness and love, large and small, through being with each other through thought and word and deed.
And it is this sacrificial love that has convinced the church wardens and I that we cannot safely continue live services at present. The decision was taken last Monday to move to Zoom services during the month of January as we await to see how issues like the spread of the new variant and the result of possible increased spreading of the virus during the holiday period. While celebrating the Eucharist with all of you has been really one of the chief joys for me during this time, your physical safety is more important and so worth the sacrifice. We have asked Bishop Nick’s permission which he has granted, and he sends also his prayers for us at this time. We will re-evaluate at the end of January and hope to resume services again in February in some form if it is safe to do so. As you all know we were one of the first parishes in our area to resume live services but always we have been guided by our sense of what is safe. We ask that you continue to pray for the work of this parish, for God’s blessing and guidance on us. Do join our Zoom service, the information will be on the website and also e-mailed out to all of you.
So again, I say, Happy New Year, because even now we live in God’s Kingdom, and we look forward to God’s continued Grace and Love. And thus, it seems fitting to end with Paul’s words that I keep close to me at this time:
I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, 3nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord (Romans 8.38-9).
God Bless all of you and those you love during this coming year.
Revd Professor Jessica Malay
Almondbury with Farnley Tyas