"My Favourite Island Church
- Poet Laureate Sir John Betjeman CBE (1906-1984)
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St. Alban's Church, St. Alban's Road,
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When I read today’s Gospel passage, I was reminded of an encounter I had with a patient some years ago, when I was asked to bring Holy Communion to a man who was in the final stages of cancer. He was very anxious and, although he was of a generation and personality type which made it difficult for him to talk about how he was feeling, was physically demonstrating it by his rapid breathing and the heart palpitations he was experiencing.
I noticed that, as I went through the short bedside service with him his breathing slowed quite considerably, and when I said the words of the blessing, which start, ‘The peace of God, which passes all understanding…’ he clasped my hand.
After the service, he repeated these words to me and said what a comfort he’d found them. I commented on the fact that he seemed a lot calmer than when I’d first arrived, and suggested he might use these words as a kind of “anchor” to hold onto through the day. He said he would.
When we look at Christ’s life and work, it seems everything he did was, in some sense, about bringing peace. He worked at lots of levels both within individuals, bringing them the peace and wholeness they so desperately needed, but also working to bring these qualities into people’s relationships with one another as part of his kingdom purposes for the world.
In our gospel reading we heard the familiar story of Jesus stilling the storm. It is interesting that when the disciples in the storm wake Jesus in their terror of the life-threatening storm of wind and water, he first calms the physical storm which is raging about them, and then tackles their own inner storm of panic. “Where is your faith?” he asks. I think if I was one of the disciples I’d be panicking too – surely at a time like that it would be a pretty reasonable reaction? But what Jesus is trying to show them is that faith can transform their attitude, as he does for us, to whatever experiences human beings are going through.
Over this past year particularly, I have found myself having conversations with people who are going through some especially difficult times. Many have said to me, “Where is God in all this; or why has God allowed this to happen to me?”
I would say that turmoil and storms are part of what it is to be human and that, although God may not prevent them happening, he is always present and active in them. As well as this he is constantly working to bring us through these experiences, and often we find our faith has been deepened and strengthened because of them - if we can learn to trust him.
Turmoil and storms are, as I said, part of life – and heaven knows, we’ve all had our fair share of those this past year - but they can also teach us some important lessons about ourselves and our relationships; so we can have confidence that there’s no need to panic, despite what is going on around us.
What we need to remember is that, like the disciples in the boat, Christ is there in the storm with us, whatever form that storm is taking, drawing close to us in times of need and giving us new courage and strength to weather the storm until normality is resumed. And how does he do this? He does it through other people.
There’s a greetings card with a picture of a man on the upper floor of his house, calling for help as flood waters rise. “Help me, Lord”, he cries. A man in a boat comes and offers to take him to safety. “No, no, I’m waiting for God to save me”, he says.
The flood waters continue to rise and the man climbs onto the roof of his house. “Save me, Lord” he cries again. A rescue helicopter flies overhead and someone with a loud hailer calls down to the man, saying ”We’ll drop a rope for you. Take hold of it and we’ll winch you to safety”. “No, no” the man cries, “I’m waiting for God to save me”.
Eventually the waters rise above the roof and the man sadly drowns. As the man enters heaven, God says” You shouldn’t be here yet! I sent a boat and a helicopter, but you refused to accept their help”.
Throughout the pandemic, we have seen God at work in the many selfless acts of kindness, compassion and self-sacrifice, both from professionals and those acting more informally, to bring practical help, relief and succour to those in need during the pandemic.
Men and women healthcare professionals have used their God-given gifts of professional skills to bring practical help, so that people could get physically well enough to be able to deal with the emotional trauma of COVID. I would say these people are acting as agents of God’s healing love, whether this is recognised as God’s work or not.
Let’s then not be like the man who fails to see God at work in those who are trying to help him. Let us open our eyes to the reality of the fact that the God-given gifts of care, healing and compassion we see all around us are the channels through which God works in the world today, holding us firm through the turbulence of life and bringing God’s comfort, peace and wholeness. Let us pray, too, that, as we have the opportunity, we may also be prepared to be channels of God’s grace ourselves.