Tuesday, 2 December 2008

Waiting in the Snow.

Yesterday morning I found time to go to the leisure centre in the centre of Manchester for a swim and an hour or so in the sauna reading the Guardian. I have been trying to find the time to go for weeks, but kept failing, so it was with a great sense of satisfaction that I sat on the top bench in the sauna cabin, opened the paper, sighed and immediately fell to the floor, not having noticed the 'danger, unsafe bench' sign on the wood. Never mind, the other benches were more stable. After a while a conversation struck up as the cabin became busier, amongst the very different people who were there enjoying a morning sweat on a freezing day. We were representative of Manchester in our diversity, in a city of immigrants and that other odd breed, 'northerners' since before Karl Marx and Engels met in Chetham's Library a short walk from here and Marx began writing Das Kapital, horrified by the exploitation of the workforce around him. Flawed though his ideas may be, he must have felt like a more loquacious version of Karl Barth as he tried to address his flock in Safenwil, unable to preach the Gospel of the enlightenment and the progress of nations to a town who had suffered terribly to provide that same progress. Bonhoeffer engaged with the brutalist underbelly of modernist enlightenment rather more successfully that Marx or Barth, by, conversely, keeping his attention fixed on waiting for the King of Kings and stressing the Kingdom through scripture, at a time of rising ultramontanism in the Roman Church. I have to admit that I veer between thinking 'who are these silly people and why do they say all this stuff' about Protestant enlightenment theologians on the one hand and feeling cold about claims of Papal infallibility on the other but I hope to have time yet to work these issues out. Anyway, here is an extract from a sermon Bonhoeffer gave in Barcelona on Advent Sunday in 1928, which has nothing to do with early morning visits to leisure centres.

Celebrating Advent means learning how to wait. Waiting is an art which our impatient age has forgotten. We want to pluck the fruit before it has had time to ripen. Greedy eyes are soon disappointed when what they saw as luscious fruit is sour to the taste. In disappointment and disgust they throw it away. The fruit, full of promise, rots on the ground. It is rejected without thanks by disappointed hands.

The blessedness of waiting is lost on those who cannot wait, and the fulfillment of promise is never theirs. They want quick answers to the deepest questions of life and miss the value of those times of anxious waiting, seeking with patient uncertainties until the answers come. They lose the moment when the answers are revealed with dazzling clarity.

Who has not felt the anxieties of waiting for the declaration of friendship or love? The greatest, the deepest, the most tender experiences in all the world demand patient waiting. This waiting is not in emotional turmoil, but gently growing, like the emergence of spring, like God's laws,* like the germinating of a seed.

Not all can wait--certainly not those who are satisfied, contented, and feel that they live in the best of all possible worlds! Those who learn to wait are uneasy about their way of life, but yet have seen a vision of greatness in the world of the future and are patiently expecting its fulfillment. The celebration of Advent is possible only to those who are troubled in soul, who know themselves to be poor and imperfect, and who look forward to something greater to come. For these, it is enough to wait in humble fear until the Holy One himself comes down to us, God in the child in the manger. God comes. The Lord Jesus comes. Christmas comes. Christians rejoice!

In a few weeks we shall hear that cry of triumph. . . . But, not so quick! It is still in the distance. It calls us to learn to wait and to wait aright.

If more were satisfied and contented as Bonhoeffer suggests, I suppose there would be less windows like this in the financially poor part of town which I was in yesterday. Three hundred and twenty pounds to go to Toronto seems a good deal, but many good deals have a sinister underbelly and I rather assume that it would be harder to return. Would that Gordon Brown could offer such assurance as this travel agents do on top of the travel deals in the window! Mind you, I have always wanted to visit Cairo, I can imagine myself being deliriously happy for a while walking around the cramped streets dropping into bars for a fig liqueur wearing a fez. I wonder what shape Western politics would have taken if Marx had been in Cairo, rather than rainy Manchester?

The Blue Peter Garden was covered in snow this morning, making the bamboo bend worryingly to the grass. I wonder if this may be the first year that it will snow on both Easter Sunday and Christmas day for an awfully long time? I thought that it seemed unusually quiet early this morning, of course the inch of snow had brought chaos to the roads, closing schools and crippling bus routes. I abandoned my car at home and walked to the tram station around the corner, buying a coffee on the way from the local shop and eating my chorizo and gorgonzola toasted muffin. Breakfast muffin fillings have for some time been dictated by the changing range of special offers on chilled produce at Lidl. The above are currently a pound for a generous amount. What British Telecom will do I do not know, for there is little left for the 'phone bill, but unlike the London Scottish 'bank' I doubt that they will fall into bankruptcy.

I am sorry for the few hundred people in Manchester who work at the central offices of London Scottish who may well lose their jobs at this time of year (or indeed at any time of year) but I am finding it hard to suppress a grin at the news that a bank which has existed for years on charging vast rates of interest on cash loans collected door to door (for which I am sure there is a name, but our legal department advises against using it) has itself been unable to pay it's own creditors. Mind you, there are worse companies which thrive in the less salubrious parts of town, sharp toothed predators existing on other people's misfortune, fear and random approach to accounting. Credit Unions are relatively straightforward to set up and are something that a Church can make a priority, I believe. It may also be a true return to some of our roots to do so.

Whittaker Lane, where Saint Hilda's Church lives, is the nearest road to me of any busyness, thus it gets gritted, which makes it look as though very dirty snow has been falling all night. By now it will be clearing, hopefully it will not be so cold tonight or we end up in the rotten situation of fresh snow on compacted ice. At least our Christmas Parish Lunch this year is only at the Golf Club a mile away, rather than up in the hills again, as the usual premises could not manage us all this year.

One day, at the last judgment, he will separate the sheep and the goats and will say to those on his right: "Come, you blessed?I was hungry and you fed me?" (Matt. 25:34). To the astonished question of when and where, he answered: "What you did to the least of these, you have done to me?" (Matt. 25:40).

With that we are faced with the shocking reality: Jesus stands at the door and knocks, in complete reality. He asks you for help in the form of a beggar, in the form of a ruined human being in torn clothing. He confronts you in every person that you meet. Christ walks on the earth as your neighbor as long as there are people. He walks on the earth as the one through whom God calls you, speaks to you and makes his demands. That is the greatest seriousness and the greatest blessedness of the Advent message. Christ stands at the door. He lives in the form of the person in our midst. Will you keep the door locked or open it to him?

Christ is still knocking. It is not yet Christmas. But it is also not the great final Advent, the final coming of Christ. Through all the Advents of our life that we celebrate goes the longing for the final Advent, where it says: "Behold, I make all things new" (Rev. 21:5).

Advent is a time of waiting. Our whole life, however, is Advent - that is, a time of waiting for the ultimate, for the time when there will be a new heaven and a new earth, when all people are brothers and sisters and one rejoices in the words of the angels: "On earth peace to those on whom God's favor rests." Learn to wait, because he has promised to come. "I stand at the door?" We however call to him: "Yes, come soon, Lord Jesus!" Amen.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer.