21 December 2020
‘He abandoned his plan and resigned himself to staying at home.’
Of course, as thousands of preachers and others will have observed, Christmas has not been cancelled. We will celebrate the Nativity of the Lord on Friday and churches, even in Tier 4, will be open for those worshippers who can attend safely. But there is an air of disappointment that so much that had been prepared now cannot happen and that plans have had to change at so late a stage.
When I was in my first appointment, the Superintendent planned an exchange with a minister in Australia. Shortly before he and his wife were due to fly to Melbourne, he was struck down by sciatica and confined to one room where he lay on the floor in considerable pain. All the plans had to be rearranged and the Antipodean adventure became a period of sick leave. As he improved, he used the time to write a series of articles that were published in the circuit magazine under the title (if I remember rightly) ‘Dealing with Disappointment’. I find myself wishing that I still had them; it was, he noted, an area that needed theological reflection.
There is plenty of material in the tradition for that reflection, as God’s people in every generation know the sense of disappointment. In every life, plans sometimes have to change; ambitions are unrealized; sacrifices reluctantly have to be made. In his Ecclesiastical History, the Venerable Bede (670-735) tells the story of Egbert and Wictbert. Egbert was a bishop living in Ireland who resolved to travel to Germany to preach the Good News to the pagan Saxons. He gathered a group to travel with him and made all the necessary preparations only to be told by one of his monks (who had had a vision) that God did not want him to go. Egbert ignored the admonition, but a storm that prevented his ship leaving harbour changed his mind and ‘he abandoned his plan and resigned himself to staying at home.’
One of Egbert’s companions was Wictbert who determined to go to Germany in the bishop’s stead. For two years, he engaged in missionary activity in continental Europe ‘but his great efforts produced no results’ so he returned home ‘to be of more help to his own people’.
Abandoning plans and being resigned to remaining at home will have been the experience of many this weekend. It is also the theme of one of the most popular of Christmas movies, ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’. George Bailey is a man whose ambition to leave his home town and make something of himself is repeatedly thwarted and we meet him at his lowest point where the accumulated weight of years of disappointment finally becomes too much – and an angel is sent to help him. The fiction expresses a powerful truth: the prayers of heaven are with us in our disappointment.
Of course, it is always important to keep these things in proportion; empty chairs at a Christmas dinner table or a cancelled holiday is a small thing compared to the grief that many have suffered this year (and many more will suffer should the spread of the virus not be brought under control). But in difficult times, small things that speak of hope are important and the promise of God’s presence with us is true at all times, whether the disappointment be small or great.
Over the last few months we have learnt that it is possible to serve God and God’s people even when we are not able to leave our homes. To the myriad examples of online services, prayer by phone and ministry by letter has been added the open air witness of carolling on the doorstep. The experience of disappointment is not one that we would ever seek but it can (as my first Superintendent found and many others have shown) offer us ways to be a blessing to others.
Loving God, in our fear, in our grief, in our disappointment, may we know that you are with us,
And as we heed the call to remain in our homes, help us there to serve you faithfully,
That others might know of Immanuel, God with us. Amen.
The Revd Dr Jonathan Hustler
The Secretary of the Conference