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Encountering God in abandonment

The Revd Dr Isabelle Hamley, chaplain to the Archbishop of Canterbury, charts her walk with God and with Covid-19. Producer: Andrew Earis.

The Rev Dr Isabelle Hamley, Chaplain to the Archbishop of Canterbury charts her walk with God and with Covid-19. In a recent Thought for the Day on Radio 4 Dr Hamley spelt out the devastating effects Covid-19 has had on her personally, an early sufferer from the disease, referring to the biblical book of Job. "Job goes from being incredibly fortunate to losing everything, his wealth his loved ones, his health." In this service the Archbishop's Chaplain will reflect on the story in Mark’s Gospel, Chapter 5, of a child restored to life and a woman healed. It’s a story of two halves, one, a story of urgency, of crisis, of acute need. The other, a story of chronic pain and illness, always present but never urgent. Producer: Andrew Earis.

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Script

Music
Spiegel im Spiegel – Arvo Pärt
La Pieta & Angèle Dubeau
CD: Arvo Pärt: Portrait (Analekta)

Introduction

Good morning. Another uncertain Sunday, with reports of Covid cases rising and local restrictions, so soon after the country had starting to wake up a little. Many had sighed with relief when they were finally able to leave the confines of their homes in order to get to the sea or countryside. Some, of course, will be left behind. A group of people of all ages are finding that Covid is far from being a short illness. They became ill as far back as February, and are still struggling daily with a chronic and lesser known form of the illness.

I fell ill in March, just before lockdown. First I thought it was just a bit of a cough and a temperature. Then I got very ill, struggling to breathe, coughing incessantly; I couldn’t get up without help or I would collapse. I had pneumonia, a kidney infection and excruciating muscle pain. Three trips to hospital, fortunately I did not need to be admitted. I remember little of these first few weeks, except that breathing became everything.

How deeply moving it is that the Hebrew word often used to refer to life, translates as breath or wind. When every breath was exhausting and hard won, I often thought of the song, Breathe on me, Breath of God, and how glibly I had sung it before. And thought of how much those around me take breath for granted.

Music
Breathe on me, breath of God – Ronald Foot
King’s Singers
Choral Essays, Vol. 2: Reflections (Salvationist Publishing & Supplies)

After a few weeks of intense illness, Covid settled into an ongoing pattern of difficulty breathing, coughing, chest pain, hoarse voice and utter exhaustion. No one knows why it stretches out like this, and no-one knows how long it may last. Doctors are puzzled, and all they can do is try things out. I feel a little bit like a lab rat in a giant cosmic experiment. The fragility and uncertainty of life looms large. Dependence on family and friends is both cherished and deeply uncomfortable. There is nothing I can do but wait, and hope. And some days, rage.

Prayer
Gracious and loving God, who breathed life into the whole of creation, may your Spirit breathe on us today; may you fill us with new life, and may we know your presence around us as you sustain our life and our being moment by moment. Amen.

Our reading today will be taken from the Gospel of Mark, chapter 5. This is one of my absolute favourite stories in the Gospels. A story of two halves. One, a story of urgency, of crisis, of acute need. The other, a story of chronic pain and illness, always present but never urgent.

Bible Reading
Mark 5.21-29

Music
Immortal love for ever full (Bishopthorpe)
St Paul's Cathedral Choir
CD: Great Hymns from St Paul's (Griffin Records)

Reflection
What to do? If Jesus doesn't hurry, the little girl may die. But if Jesus does hurry, the unnamed woman may live, still in pain, still struggling, still ostracised by all around her. A child’s life is in the balance. Of course, it is an impossible decision. No-one can, or should, measure the value of one life against another. Yet to the crowd, and to the readers, maybe the answer is obvious. Jesus should attend to the urgent. Jesus, of course, unlike us, maybe, has the ability to attend to both. He does not let urgency blind him to other pain and need. He extends the same care and compassion to the woman who is not dying, but whose life has shrunk to unbearable proportion.

The discipline of attending to long-term struggle and pain is so difficult. It is so much easier to run to the acute, when we can see that we are helping. So much harder to sit and hold someone’s hand and hear the same story as yesterday, and the day before, and the day before that. And know that we will probably hear the same story tomorrow, and we simply cannot fix it. Chronic conditions do not call for heroes. They call for people to dwell with others, in the pain, the waiting and uncertainty. They call for persistence, faithfulness and, more than anything, incredible patience.

Music
It is well with my soul
Lynda Randle
CD: Lynda Randle - Hymns (Spring House Music Group)

Reflection
The woman in the story had spent years looking for a cure. She’d gone to many doctors, spent all her money. I am part of Covid support group. I often read stories of people spending savings to pay for tests; people trying out cures suggested by others, diets, new products, anything that will give hope. And in the midst of the search, there is a constant, aching loneliness, because it is so hard to get anyone to listen, day after day after day, and to keep searching, hoping and praying. Whenever I read the story of this woman in Mark’s Gospel, I hear her cry for others to dwell with her, and carry her hope, and I wonder how many women, men and children like her I may have passed by, or forgotten, in my hurry to attend to the urgent parts of life.

Music
O God you search me and you know me - Bernadette Farrell
St Martin's Voices
BBC Recording

Prayer
Loving God, we pray for all those who live with illness as their constant companion. We pray that your Spirit would comfort them and give them hope; we pray that you would open our eyes to those around us and give us the patience and compassion to walk with those who suffer, day after day after day. Amen.

Reflection
This woman, losing blood, searching, what hope was she seeking? As she stretched out her hand to touch Jesus, did she really think things were going to change? She was so eager not to be seen, so that if she wasn’t healed, no-one would laugh, or condemn her for being part of a crowd. Others would not have wanted to be touched by her, of course. Her illness meant that if she touched anyone else, they would be made unclean, too.

Every day I try and go for a slow walk, to get some sun, and some sense of life stretching out beyond the confines of my home. But every time I cough (and it happens quite a lot), everyone turns round sharply. I keep my distance. I wear a mask as needed. I have been told I am not contagious any more. But still, the fear is there, and I see it in people’s eyes. I saw it in the eyes of medics behind all their PPE in A&E, too. How do we find ways of true human contact when meaningful contact, through touch, through hugs, through smiling, through sharing the same space, has become dangerous?

Illness affects not just our bodies, but the way we see ourselves, the way others see us. It makes it harder for the sufferer to reach out, and harder for others to extend love and care back, and receive the gift of someone’s trust and hope. Yet all of us have the power to look for meaningful conversations, for ways to care – if we only stop, and ask, as Jesus did, ‘who?’ who needs to connect? Who is around me, let me see them. And then, then comes the harder task: to truly listen, and respond not to our own need, but even theirs, but establish a true human relationship, between people of equal worth. Then hope can blossom.

Music
Clair de lune from 'Suite bergamasque' - Debussy
Pascal Rogé
CD: Debussy - Clair de Lune (Decca)

Prayer
God of all hope, help us to place our hope in you, knowing that in all things you walk alongside us and hold our hand. May we also be givers of hope, as your Son Jesus Christ, walking with those who suffer, and sharing the Good News of your transforming love. In Jesus’ name, Amen.

Poem
Up Hill - Christina Rossetti

Bible Reading
Mark 5.30-34

Reflection
The woman, her hopes met in the face of Christ. The crowd – well, the crowd must have felt pretty confused. Scared, of course, of contagion, of being made unclean. Puzzled that Jesus stopped for her rather than follow Jairus, the leader of the synagogue, after all. And a little abashed, maybe, that they had for so long ignored the woman in their midst – and many others besides. It’s so easy to do. I mean,  we understand acute illness, we understand death. We fear it, and do everything to keep it at bay. But chronic illness, hidden pain, carrying on limping, that’s hard to bear. It’s in your face, constantly. It tells us we are fragile, dependent, and finite. It is too much to bear to look at every single day. Once in a while is more than enough to be reminded. Yet maybe that is the gift that those who struggle for months, or years, have to give all of us: to remind us of our fragility, of our mortality, but also, that it is within this fragility that God has chosen to dwell. As theologian Paul Fiddes writes, ‘instead of finding that God negates the finite when he participates in it, we may say that God is humble enough to hide his glory within it.’ As we dwell in the difficult places of life, we can let go of our need to fix things, to have to say something useful, and instead learn to be, as human beings, together.

Music
My Lord, what a morning
Moses Hogan
CD: Spirituals - Moses Hogan (Erato)

Poem
To Know the Dark - Wendell Berry

Prayer
God of light and shadows, who came into this world as a fragile human being, and knows the pain of a broken body, we pray for the courage to look at the whole of life through your eyes; the courage not to shrink from what scares us, in ourselves or others, and the courage to keep walking with you and one another, one step at a time. Amen.

Bible Reading
Mark 5.35-43

Music
Norfolk Rhapsody No. 1 in E minor - Vaughan Williams
The New Queen's Hall Orchestra & Barry Wordsworth
CD: Vaughan Williams - Orchestral Works (Decca)

Reflection
The end of the story is no less astonishing than its main part. Let us just think about it a little. Jairus, the leader of the synagogue, had run to Jesus with an emergency. He is a well known man. Visible, powerful. We know his name. The crowds are interested, curious. He has the right and power to ask and be heard, and he uses it. And his pain becomes a spectacle for crowds eager to see another miracle. Meanwhile, the unnamed woman has no rights, no power, no confidence. She is unseen by all around her, and wants nothing but to remain invisible. The crowd isn’t really that interested. Why should they be? She is not spectacle material. Her life is not one others aspire to.

And Jesus – Jesus, of course, does the unthinkable. He will heal Jairus’ daughter, but will do it behind closed door. He doesn’t allow the crowd to follow, and not even most of his disciples. He shields the visible, and refuses to let a child’s life being turned into a spectacle. He responds to Jairus’ need, but does not tell him his need overrides that of anyone else. He makes the visible leader with status invisible, equal to the unnamed woman. Meanwhile, he stops for the woman first – a woman, not a man. A poor woman, an unclean woman, not the rich leader of the synagogue. He does not heal her in a hurry, as a discarded act of pity. He turns, and invites her to make herself known. The woman who was shrinking into herself, invisible and disregarded, is invited to be fully seen, touched and affirmed by Jesus. By healing her publicly, he tells everyone they have nothing to fear from her. He enables her to be reintegrated to her community. He restores not just her health, but her personhood, and shows that she is just as valuable and precious as Jairus’ little daughter.  In this, Jesus shows himself once again to turn human expectations on their heads, inviting us on a road to transform a world that value some and disregards others, into a world where we cherish every person just as God cherishes them.

Music
Love divine - Howard Goodall
Choir of Christ Church Cathedral, Oxford & Stephen Darlington
CD: Howard Goodall - Eternal Light (Warner Classics)

Lord’s Prayer

Music
The Mission: The Falls - Ennio Morricone
Yo-Yo Ma
CD: Yo-Yo Ma plays Ennio Morricone

Prayers
Gracious and loving God,
May each of us know your gaze upon us
May we know your touch upon our lives
Your affirmation and your challenge
To everything that we are.

Forgive us when we have walked past those who struggle
When we have nurtured our own fears at the expenses of others
When we have fled from discomfort
And refused to weep with those who weep.

Teach us to sit quietly
To truly see those around us
To notice those who are invisible
And pay less attention to those everyone can see.

In the quiet of long hours,
Whether we are sick or healthy, grieving or laughing,
May we learn to rest in you
And with one another.

May you bring hope and new life
In places of pain and despair,
And heal the humanity that you once shared. Amen 

Blessing
May God the most holy enfold you;
may Jesus our Saviour restore you;
may the Holy Spirit surround you. Amen.

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