Victories and valleys
As we enter the month of May, with the auspicious 11th almost upon us (don’t worry, you’ve still got time!!!), this week, I had a stark reminder of my increasing age. No, it wasn’t the silver in my beard, thank you very much…no, not the hair disappearing from my head – how very dare you! – but rather a memory that I discovered was many years earlier than I recalled.
“Do you remember when we watched Granddad march in the VE Day parade at Buckingham Palace?”
I asked my sister, who had escaped the cacophony of her brood for a brief moment.
“Of course,” replied my sister. “I can even remember what I wore!”
“Well…I can’t work it out…was that the 60th anniversary of VE Day?”
“No.” My sister answered ominously. “That was the 50th anniversary.”
And as she said that, another bit of the beard grew grey, another forehead follicle flopped off! Could it really be twenty five years ago that I, as a thirteen year old, went up to watch my Granddad – he who received his basic RAF training at St Athan – march along The Mall under the watchful gaze of the Queen and, more importantly, my Nan?! The evening following that conversation with my sister, as I spoke online with a member of our churches who was yet to be born twenty-five years ago, I felt my advancing age and imagined myself appearing on the screen as Old Father Time!
Of course, some of you won’t only have memories of the fiftieth anniversary of VE Day but of the fortieth, thirtieth, twentieth…some even of that very first Victory in Europe Day – the 8th of May 1945. Our newest nonagenarian told me this week that she can remember gathering with her teenage friends at a street party on Merthyr Road that day as they riotously celebrated the end of conflict in Europe…at least for a short period, anyway.
Well, as some of us were strongly reminded last week (!), now is not the time for riotous street parties. The country-wide celebrations that had been planned for next Friday have been massively scaled back and instead we are invited to mark the day in our homes and on our doorsteps, with a public sing along of “We’ll Meet Again” amongst the day’s offerings. Some in our churches will be relieved by this, feeling that celebrations have become more political, even jingoistic, over the years. Others will be disappointed by the lost opportunity to remember those who sacrificed much in the cause of freedom.
Well, one voice that will be heard next Friday – through a replaying of his VE Day speech – is that of Winston Churchill, a figure who continues to divide opinion seventy five years on. This was evident just last year when Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell’s two word reply to the question of whether Churchill was a hero or villain garnered many headlines and generated much debate. Whether you’re someone who voted to declare Churchill ‘The Greatest Briton’ in the BBC poll or someone who agrees with McDonnell’s assessment of “Tonypandy. Villain.”, many historians argue that opinions on Churchill were as divided when he first became Prime Minister as they are today – an environment of disquiet which is excellently portrayed in the acclaimed, if sometime apocryphal, film ‘The Darkest Hour’ that I re-watched last week. In what is a delicious irony for those who used Churchill as the poster boy for Brexit, the phrase ‘the darkest hour’ was actually used by him to refer to the dire circumstances in France in a speech shortly after D-Day in which he emphasized the importance of standing in solidarity with our European allies. It was only in later years that it became shorthand for the time in which the United Kingdom appeared to be under direct threat of invasion following the evacuation of the British army from Dunkirk and prior to successes in the so-called Battle of Britain.
Of course, Churchill wasn’t the first political leader to use the metaphor of darkness to refer to periods of national crisis or personal distress. In this week’s psalm we encounter another great political leader who was no stranger to controversy and who had bitter experience of the shadowlands of life – King David. I’m sure to offend some people when I suggest that the psalm’s likely author and the inebriated politician had quite a lot in common – from military success, political prowess and a natural eloquence to personal vulnerabilities and very public humiliations. It was because of such experiences, not in spite of them, that we have Psalm twenty-three in our treasury of psalms today. In six short verses, David manages to convey the frailty of the human experience and the strength of God’s provision, abundance, restoration:
1 The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.
2 He makes me lie down in green pastures;
he leads me beside still waters;
3 he restores my soul.
He leads me in right paths
for his name’s sake.
4 Even though I walk through the darkest valley
I fear no evil;
for you are with me;
your rod and your staff—
they comfort me.
5 You prepare a table before me
in the presence of my enemies;
you anoint my head with oil;
my cup overflows.
6 Surely] goodness and mercy shall follow me
all the days of my life,
and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord
my whole life long.
Psalm 23 NRSV
Perhaps, here, I should confess that Psalm 23 is not actually one of my favourites. If I had to draw up a top 10 of psalms, it probably wouldn’t make the list. This is partly to do the sentence structure of the psalm and its subsequent arrangements. As a child that single comma in the opening line did little to dissuade me from my interpretation that the psalmist did not want the Lord as his shepherd and speaking of the flock-defenders, is shepherd really the metaphor I want to use when it comes to God? Do you know where shepherds eventually lead their sheep?! No…still waters, oily heads, the sake of God’s name…the psalm just doesn’t easily connect. Except, that is, for verse 4. Green pastures mean little to me but a time of darkness I can identify with. After all, the thirteen-year-old boy who waved a flag as his grandfather saluted the Queen was the same boy whose life had been turned upside down with a single ‘phone call just weeks earlier. Darkness, I can do.
The death of my mother was, for me, my first significant journey into the darkest valley. I wonder what it was for you. Perhaps, like me, it was a death that beckoned you in – the loss of a parent, child, sibling or partner. For others it would be a different type of loss – the end of a relationship, a period of unemployment, a betrayal of trust. Still others will have encountered the darkness during times of ill mental health, at the hands of neglect or abuse by supposed loved ones, through engaging with climate crises, global pandemics or a whole range of other factors. The contours of our valleys will be different but many of our experiences will be shared.
I wonder, too, what you remember about your bleak pilgrimage. What, if anything, did you discover there? Who, if anyone, did you encounter? Perhaps some of us grew accustomed to the darkness. Like on a dark night, perhaps our vision altered in the dark and we began to make out things that were hidden before. Just as the great stars of the sky which are hidden from view in the day but can be seen and appreciated in the darkness, perhaps some of us learned a new way of seeing thanks to the dark.
Perhaps others of us saw signs of new life or personal growth within the darkness. Like that caterpillar in the cocoon we spoke of, or the seed in the ground, the baby in the womb, Jesus in the tomb…perhaps our time in the darkness led to new or resurrected life.
Perhaps others of us remember nothing but the darkness – no light, no life, just the abyss – and to pretend otherwise would be a lie.
Whatever our experience of the dark valley, I am thankful that David doesn’t offer a picture of faith that ignores it. I am thankful that the shepherd that enables him to lie in green pastures isn’t seen to divert him away from the dark valleys but rather is with him as he walks through them.
And this is where the radical nature of this pastoral poem comes alive. For me, the image of a shepherd doesn’t connect until I remember that in the Ancient Near East, kings were often referred to as shepherds to their people. The message that I hear then is that God is a King, a leader, a deity like no other. God is not like a politician who says ‘We’re all in this together’ before heading back to their mansion where they turn a pandemic into profit. God is not like the monarch who looks down on their subjects from a golden throne, the boss who applauds their workers whilst cutting their pay, or even the friend who tells you to look on the bright side and pretend the darkness isn’t there.
Rather God is the King who puts on his walking boots and accompanies you through the darkest valley; the boss who packs her first aid kit for a hike through hell; the friend who says ‘whatever comes your way, however all-encompassing this darkness gets, I am with you every step of the journey. I will never leave you. You might trip, give up, shout at me or worse but I will always be here. We will get through this. From the shadows of the valley to a feast laid out for you; from the darkness of the cross to the light of resurrection; from the gloom of war, personal loss or global distress towards the promise of peace, restoration and universal shalom’.
Perhaps then, you might share David’s refusal to fear for God is, has been and will always be your comfort in the darkness. Or perhaps the darkness still feels bleak and impenetrable for now. In either case, I won’t be delighting in Churchill’s vehemence of victory next Friday but might well heed other words of his next time I find myself in a darkened valley – the phrase that he used to start each day and end most conversations with (well, the version he used when a woman was present anyway). “Keep plodding on”. For God is with us and always shall be. Amen.
The rod and staff were images of hope for King David for they conveyed God’s presence with him in times of darkness. Last week many of us shared the images that symbolized hope for us (I recommend those who haven’t seen them and have internet access to look at this week’s midweek reflection) and as I reflected on finding hope in the darkness, one given image came to mind – that of a full moon on a dark night. Professor Dr Teh…known to us at Castle Square as our Lee Suan and who, like our other friends working in the health services at the moment, is no stranger to dark valleys, explains why she finds the full moon on a dark night a symbol of hope –
The moon is very symbolic in my culture/heritage. As I was growing up I was exposed to Chinese folklore (but I do get them mixed up!) and there was a legend about a Goddess living on the moon…It is a sad romantic story about the love between her and an archer. At that time there were many suns and earth was too hot and to save lives, he shot all the suns down apart from one and as a reward was given the elixir of immortality. He did not drink it immediately but gave it to his wife for safekeeping. When he was out one day someone he knew broke into the house and tried to steal the elixir and to prevent that she drank it and flew to the moon to live forever. So they were separated, but once a year this sacrifice is celebrated in the Mid-autumn Moon Cake Lantern Festival when her favourite cakes are baked and consumed. The full moon at that time of the year is largest as it is closest to earth. Thus the Goddess is closest to her beloved as she could get. (Just by the by when China launched their lunar probes in 2007 and 2010, they were named after the goddess).
On a more personal level, there is another reason why I love the full moon on a dark sky. At aged 10 I listened to Man’s first landing on the moon with my parents in the garden of American missionaries on the radio in the wilds of Borneo (Sibu, Sarawak, Malaysia). I was star-struck and didn’t stop going on about it. To me it was amazing that someone could fly all the way to the moon and walk on it. From then on each time I looked at the moon (especially full moon), it symbolised achievement and hope and everything good. I even got my mother to buy me the recording of the landing on the moon and I still have the LP in my loft in Salford. And of course, they quoted the Bible when they were heading back to earth. The achievement is aptly summarised by Kennedy in 1962, “We choose to go to the moon.….and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard,….” To me after that anything was possible when man could land on the moon. I wanted to be a physicist and an astronaut and fly to space and beyond. (Obviously my parents persuaded me that being a physician was more useful than a physicist!).
When asked about her work as a Consultant at this time, Lee Suan shared:
It was only end of March, beginning of April that we had the right PPE and then only plastic aprons and gloves and not the hazmat suits. Working differently and in a different hospital and not meeting up with colleagues and the isolation has created higher stress and anxiety levels and it has taken me about a month to settle into this new routine and some of these change from day to day or week to week creating new stresses (advice on PPE has changed 3 times since middle of March). Some pluses – easy commute to and from work and later start and earlier home. Also we have embraced technology in a very short space of time. We now have team meetings regularly (initially daily – now twice weekly).
And what gives her hope?
When I first came to Bonnie Scotland (Aberdeen University) from sunny Sarawak, I was homesick, miserable (disliked the food as well) and petrified of failing my exams and disappointing my parents. It all felt hopeless but I had to hope to overcome all these and survive. Which I did and although I vowed to go back to Malaysia as soon as I graduated as I missed it so much, I didn’t because I found myself and a new life that I now love. So I have to hope that this pandemic will soon peter out and that we get back to some form of normality and I can travel once more to see all my friends and family again. I read the Bible most days with the help of daily readings (and have been doing so for years) and….[alongside] daily contact with Jan…a network of church friends…good technology…and the weekly conference call to all my friends in Castle Square…I feel that gives me strength to face the day and hope.