One Sunday recently, I got my hair in the Communion wine. I was receiving the wine, not serving it, so the situation could have been worse, but was nonetheless embarrassing. Short hair flopping in one’s face combines poorly with a very large goblet, so that I sipped the wine through a filter of my own hair, choked slightly, and could only hope that all this had gone unnoticed by the server. Meanwhile, at the piano, the tune was being played to which I know only these words:
Speed, bonny boat, like a bird on the wing
Onward! the sailors cry;
Carry the lad that’s born to be King
Over the sea to Skye…
Perhaps it was high church and therefore slightly vertiginous to socially awkward communicants: one could not really think at all about Jesus from roughly the second-to-next-to-go position in the queue until arriving back at one’s seat. And now I’m not sure whether such blunders at Communion are irreverent or irrelevant: whether it was radically disobedient to be so led astray in one’s thoughts by trivia, or whether, since one did, at least, consciously and deliberately take Communion, a bit of surface muddle was neither here nor there.
It seemed, somehow, not how things were meant to be, either according to the charismatic evangelical standard narrative of encounters with God, pure and intense and like a tidal wave knocking you to the floor, or according to the actual script in the prayer book, where God was not a God of disorder but a God of peace. And yet. This is the body of Christ, broken for you. This is the blood of Christ that was shed for you. How much did it matter, really, if one happened to feel a complete numpty at the time?
Here I’d like to quote a verse of Scripture which encourages some people greatly and makes others feel like this bowl of petunias.
Oh no, not again: not, I should rush to say, lest I be thought Unsound, because we think there is anything wrong with the Bible, with the verse itself as it stands in Jeremiah, or that we would risk falling foul of Revelation 22:19. The problem is with the verse qua inspirational meme, and starts with the fact that someone had to take it away from the book of Jeremiah’s prophecy to make a meme out of it in the first place. The original context missing, we provide a new one from our own circumstances, and then the past condemns us, the present terrifies us, or the future requires more optimism than we can muster. Whatever is wrong now, whatever was wrong before, the mistakes we know about, the mistakes we don’t know about but presume to lie behind our general lack of prospering in one area or another, as when a charismatic evangelical becomes tired and grumpy for no reason: these things were apparently not just annoying, but epically disastrous failures on our part to fulfil God’s plan. Imminent decisions, to be made, as they often must be, in the absence of any direct divine indications as to what the plan is, become scarier than ever: there is an unknown script to keep to, a sense that one is likely at any moment to commit some horrible error, like a charismatic evangelical in a liturgical service for the first time, and no-one can point us to the correct page number in the prayer-book. And then there are all the world’s griefs, the things that cannot be explained, in which there is no hope or future or prospering, and for which there is no justification.
Not that anyone wants anyone to think all this when they tell them that God knows the plans He has for them. I imagine the verse is often given as an Encouraging Verse out of the same emotional movement that makes us say, “I’ll pray for you”: the feeling that I would move heaven and earth to make things go right for you, if only I knew how, but, not knowing how, lacking any common-sense practical ability to be useful, I’m defaulting to prayer and platitudes, assuring you both that He must have the situation in hand, and also that I will be personally insisting on Him taking it in hand without further loss of time, which seems, on the face of it, just a little bit confused.
But it is a confusing situation. Our commitment to truth and humanity means we have to acknowledge that these dear precious ones have asked and not received, sought and not found, knocked and not had the door opened; that instead of a fish, they were given a serpent, and a scorpion instead of an egg. We cannot apply the magic wand of Scriptural promises to anyone’s life and suddenly discover that shit didn’t happen after all. And people must not be allowed to think that it was their own fault, that they should have had more faith, served harder, prayed more or surrendered themselves more, or, by a careful correction of their heart attitudes, learned to think that the scorpion was a very enjoyable thing really. But all this, without me talking or thinking as if I care more than God does, as if, having that little tourniquet of anger and affection inside that never leads to anything of any help, only the spilling out of useless words, I have gained the moral high ground, and would obviously have done a better job than He did.
Where possible, we need to find more ways to actually give each other a hope and a future: we need to listen to more people, build better friendships, give more hugs, cook more meals, use our skills and time and money. We also need (ahem) to avoid guilt-tripping anyone, so let me rephrase: we need where possible to continue to muddle along as best we can, with conversations and silences, with brains or brawn or neither, with hit-and-miss encouragements and attempts to lend a hand, with prayer times and peace-be-with-yous and with the wise words and terrible clichés of all the ages. Small things with great love. Small things with small love. At least it’s something.
So we also need to try to be patient with platitudes when it’s likely that the platitude-presenter just wants to be helpful. But we should perhaps be less patient with preaching and teaching that refuses to speak to people’s real lack of hope. The situation is not that we just had a difficult morning with a broken coffee machine, through which God graciously taught us to be humble and trust Him instead of coffee. It not necessarily either encouraging or true, in any immediate sense, to say that the best is yet to come.
Because all we really have to offer people is not an answer or a promise or anything really very cheering, but the cup of that rich crimson tide stinging one’s mouth. This is the body of Christ, broken for you. This is the blood of Christ, shed for you. Maybe there is no such thing as Christian prosperity: whether our ambition was health or wealth or wisdom, or thriving relationships, a happy home, intellectual flourishing, productive involvement in our local church, professional development, a sense of being useful, the fulfilment of one’s need to be needed, the world changed, revival in our cities, thousands or dozens or one person led to Christ, some evidence of having become a nicer person: whatever we were hoping for, whatever happened in fact, there in the cup are the same still depths. For all of us, everything comes back to the same thing. He became one with the broken. Jesus Christ died.
Which means that now we can see Him all over the place. We see Him where people need, where they are desperate, because He became like those people. We see Him where people give freely and kindly and quietly, perhaps with some secret confidence about the plans He has, but not always; perhaps not often; mainly just because they have become like Him. As in this song, which I may be wildly misinterpreting for my own purposes, we know there’s no success like failure, and that failure’s no success at all. That is, whether we succeed or fail, we can’t talk (‘My love, she speaks softly’): perhaps we would have found more truth, more grace, by not succeeding; in fact, whatever was to our profit we are to consider loss; but neither do we pretend that our loss was actually profit, or that failure was anything but failure. All that matters is the truth and the grace we find. Not that we should beat ourselves up, either, if we aren’t sure we’ve actually managed to find it. It is all that matters, it is boundless love, endless mercy and a complete mystery.