FROM THE MINISTER
There is a poem by John Betjeman entitled ‘Blame the Vicar’ which, like all truly inspired humour, contains a clever strand of truth.
For what’s a vicar really for
Except to cheer us up, What’s more,
He shouldn’t ever, ever tell
If there is such a place as Hell,
For if there is it’s certain he
Will go to it as well as we.
Maybe for that reason, I am not exactly your typical “fire and brimstone” kind of guy. In fact, I don’t know if any of those stereotypical preachers actually exist anymore. But we all get glimpses of what hell might be like. Between the heart breaking incidents of people smuggling and the continuing plight of refugees in our world, we are reminded that there are many who wish to escape from a version of hell – brought about by human injustice or conflict. In fact, if ever a reminder was needed, we only need to read the harrowing accounts of those who have survived to tell their tale.
When I was studying divinity at university, my friends and I visited a church in a very deprived and run-down area of Edinburgh. The people there were wonderful, but due to persistent bouts of vandalism, the church frequently suffered interruptions to their electricity supply. On the day in question, this is exactly what had happened. But the resourceful congregation adapted to this nuisance by lighting candles in the sanctuary and this improvisation extended elsewhere in the building. In the Gents toilet, a candle had been placed on top of each urinal which gave out light piercing the blackness. ‘Have you seen what they have done in the bog?’, my couthy but amazed friends asked. I wrote an essay about it, the general theme being how the candles reflected the role of the church in a community which wasn’t unlike hell at times. The vision of those flickering candles in the toilet has somehow remained with me. Around Christmas even we all tend to light candles in our churches and in many homes too and we love getting out the coloured lights, untangling the cables and switching them on. In doing so, we are unconsciously delving back into our past, for the idea of light conquering darkness is a deep human need. Christians would say that the Light of the World came in the form of an infant, dependant and impoverished. The flame was not strong, not overpowering, but fragile and spluttering and was gently coaxed to life amid circumstances dank and grim. Born in an outhouse meant for animals and whose parents faced the imminent prospect of an unsafe and perilous journey as refugees themselves, the new born Christ-child got off to a vulnerable start. Paradoxically, this very sign was given to bring hope to the weak and feeble of spirit especially those in bleak and inhospitable places.
I don’t know if there is an unexpectedly higher proportion of dog-collars in Hell as the poem might suggest. You do wonder? But we could be forgiven for thinking that Hell is often nearer than we think and made by human hands. There is a deeper truth of the candle in dark and bog-like places. God gives us a transforming and life affirming light which shines out and which illuminates the way forward for our world.
May I wish you all very happy and light-filled Christmas and a bright year ahead.