That promised upbeat post isn't coming quite yet, I fear. S.D. likes the idea of there being clouds of melancholy which sort of hang around waiting for someone to encounter them, and that you can blunder into them unawares and take some time to re-emerge.
As sometimes happens, I was in one of these over the weekend, and arrived in church on Sunday with my mind primed for misery. There weren’t very many people around and some of the most active people in the church are away for all sorts of different reasons. Anyone under 70 was in short supply. Debbie our ordinand (‘our ordinand’ no longer, but ordained) will now be reeling around the southern suburbs of Ipswich as she gets used to her training parish, removing another enthusiastic presence from Swanvale Halt. As I was on my way down the hill I was accosted from a car by another couple: ‘we won’t be in church this morning, our grandsons are with us’. Family as rival to faith rather than partner with it. Never have I got so close as I did yesterday just to walking out in despair at our ability to have any impact even on the lives of those who are the most faithful. ‘It’s hardly uplifting to suspect that you’re merely in the business of spiritual terminal care,’ S.D. had reflected when I saw him. Of course those people matter as much as anyone does, and our hearts should be set in heaven and not on earth and its vicissitudes. We know that; ‘It doesn’t really help, though, does it?’ S.D. concluded.
I was deacon at the 10am mass, so not presiding, and as it happened not preaching either. I sat and listened to Marion our curate talking about Jeremiah 20 and how in church life we tend to cover up what we really feel, worried that it’s not appropriate. I wondered how far I could share what I felt, how far it was real, how far it was merely neurotic, and how far it would be helpful or harmful for my grimmer emotions to be let free to lash around the church. Gradually it became easier to ignore my sloshing inward negativity. The adrenalin of doing a big christening service with lots of children kicked in: at one point I was leading some prayers and opened my eyes to see a little girl in the process of knocking over the Paschal Candle, just in time for me to reach out and catch it.
This morning I sat with Zechariah the prophet and read what he had to say. ‘When you fasted and lamented in the fifth month and the seventh month for these seventy years, was it for me you fasted?’ the Lord asks the people. The answer is clearly no, which is why they end up driven out of their city and scattered abroad. But that’s not the end of the story: ‘old men and women shall again sit in the streets of Jerusalem, and the streets shall be full of boys and girls playing. Even though it seems impossible to the remnant of my people, shall it seem impossible to me?’
Caught up in our own particular circumstances, it’s hard to see beyond them. This time of the purging of the Church, which still has to give up its desire for power and success, means it’s a surprise anyone still wants to come to church at all. We have fasted for entirely the wrong things. But this is the long story of God’s people, and this oscillation, this wave, moves through the narrative again and again. The remnant turns again to God, and things change. Our call is, as it always is, to persist.