There is no doubt that 2016 has been a turbulent and unsettling year for many...
23 December 2016
There is no doubt that 2016 has been a turbulent and unsettling year for many, and as it draws to a close I find myself casting about for signs of hope. In what is supposed to be the ‘most magical time of the year’, the suffering faced by many is so great - both here and overseas - that it sometimes feels overwhelming.
One cannot deny the darkness of winter.
The Church, too, has its problems. Like any major organisation, we struggle with the challenges of finance and recruitment, of public image and coming to terms with our past failings. But, more than that, we share the challenges facing the communities in which we live. And I tend to feel that it’s a good thing that the Church is not immune to these troubling times. Because, if we truly seek to serve and care for our communities across East Kent, it is only right that we should suffer with, in and alongside our communities, sharing their hardships and pain. If we as Christians are doing our jobs right, the Church should be deeply embedded where we live, working in partnership with others to make a positive difference to our neighbours. The Church should never see itself as separate, to one side of – or (heaven forbid) above – the lives of the people of East Kent. We are the people of East Kent.
But if we’re all in the same boat, what hope is there? Where is the life raft? “I lift my eyes to the hills – from where will my help come?” cries King David in the book of the Psalms. And I wonder if that’s the challenge for us all this winter – to lift up our heads, to open our eyes and search for signs of hope on our own doorsteps.
If we do, I am confident that we will discover that there is, indeed, much to celebrate, much to give us comfort and hope in the winter darkness. Like the growing relationship between churches and the arts community on the Isle of Sheppey, the warm welcome extended to new residents at Howe Barracks in Canterbury, or the opening of winter shelters to offer refuge for the homeless across our county.
One of my favourite stories of 2016 is of the concert in St Mary’s Church, Goudhurst, which raised more than £5,000 for work with unaccompanied children seeking asylum in this country. St Mary’s works with local charity Kent Kindness, which teaches English and basic life skills to teenagers who arrive in Kent without any adult care. These youngsters often arrive here with seriously disordered sleep patterns, having travelled for many months at night, sleeping during the day. Dr Ana Draper, who is Project Lead for local NHS services supporting these youngsters, has developed a ‘Sleep Pack’ with funding from St Mary’s. This can help the teenagers return to a normal pattern of rest and is now being rolled out across the UK.
Inspired by this small success, the congregation at St Mary’s has set up a new fund to administer the funds raised at the concert - and some additional money they have raised. It’s to be called The Mustard Seed Project and aims to provide small seed funding for projects that otherwise couldn’t be funded quickly, and which will have a proportionally larger effect than the donation that is given.
So what started as the sowing of a small seed of hope in Goudhurst – local people seeking to help in their own small way – will now affect many more lives across the UK, and will have a legacy that will truly last.
Each such story gives me hope. Each such story is a small act of defiance, a refusal to let the darkness win - for we serve a defiant God. We serve the God who refuses to let sin and suffering and failure have the final say in his world. A God who seeks us out even though we turn away from him. A God who loves us, even though he knows our whole life stories. This is the God and the hope we celebrate in the midst of deep winter darkness. This is the defiant heart of the Christian faith, the God-image in each one of us.
So, though we cannot deny the darkness of winter, we can choose to live in spite of it. We can light candles, string up fairy lights, set a fire in the grating, welcome people in with steaming cups of tea and a warm smile. Let each simple, defiant act hail the coming King, the one who is the Light of the World, who suffers with us and for us – and who loves each one of us defiantly.
It is my hope and prayer that the love and peace of Christ will be with you and those you love this Christmas. And I offer this short prayer for each of you:
Lord of light,
Give peace and comfort to all this Christmastime.
Bring hope to each one of us in our darkness,
and empower us with the courage to let that light shine for the sake of others.