Oh, thank God – he’s so good!
His love never runs out – The Message
O give thanks to the Lord, for he is good,
for his steadfast love endures for ever – NRSV
Several weeks now into the lockdown I‘m grateful for my tortoises – about which over recent years I’ve spoken in Wellington at least once! 25 years ago our younger son, Dave, spent a year as a volunteer with Scottish Churches World Exchange in Guatemala. When he came home he presented me with a very attractive little cloth tortoise, coloured red, blue and white.
Since then I have acquired a large collection of tortoises, gifts from family and friends, mementoes of my own visits to places at home and abroad. As you can see from the photographs, the tortoises are of different shapes and sizes, made from a range of substances – cloth, wood, ceramic, glass, soap-stone, metal, rope; some are functional (a door-stop, a shoe-cleaner, a pencil-sharpener, a keyring, containers, a wooden puzzle), most are purely decorative; and some are probably turtles. Fortunately, because they are all over the house and tend to gather dust, the inflow has gradually become a mere trickle and almost dried up. The reason for the fascination and appeal that tortoises hold for me has, I’m sure, to do with Aesop’s well-known fable about the race between the tortoise and the hare, where the hare, although stronger and much faster, is distracted, diverted, delayed en route (in some versions he decides he is so far ahead he can take time to have a nap), and it is the tortoise, sure and steadfast, who is first to the finishing-line. This speaks to me of the paramount importance, in our personal and social relations, of the qualities of persistence, patience, perseverance, reliability, loyalty, trustworthiness, faithfulness, integrity, strength of purpose. The mantra ‘keeping on keeping on’ has a significance that cannot be overstated for how we conduct and go about our lives day by day; and it is of course particularly relevant in the strange and challenging times we are living through.But, more than that, I have come to understand that the tortoise has also a deeper meaning for me. I see it as a symbol of God’s grace and faithful love – ever present, utterly dependable, with us through thick and thin, the steadfast love that will never let us go, from which nothing at all can separate us – especially not the present Covid-19 pandemic. In his introduction to the book of Job in The Message, Eugene Peterson writes The mystery of God eclipses the darkness and the suffering. To an extent we live with uncertainty all the time, but with Covid-19, and all its attendant necessary restrictions, we are experiencing it in heightened and much more acute form. At this time, looking to the future and the prospect of ‘the new normal’ we are promised, it is worth reflecting on the image of the tortoise, reminding ourselves, sustained through God’s grace and our trust in God’s loving purpose, of the importance of perseverance, patience, resilience, keeping on keeping on.
These past days ringing repeatedly in my ears have been the reassuring and soul-strengthening words of the great hymn (351 in CH4) by DT Niles (1908-70; Sri Lankan Methodist minister and former President of the World Council of Churches), speaking of the persistence and power of God’s steadfast love –
The great love of God is revealed in the Son,
Who came to this earth to redeem everyone.
That love, like a stream flowing clear to the sea,
Makes clean every heart that from sin would be free.
It binds the whole world, every barrier it breaks,
The hills it lays low, and the mountains it shakes.
It’s yours, it is ours, O how lavishly given!
The pearl of great price, and the treasure of heaven.
And I’ve been much encouraged too by this poem/prayer, drawn to my attention on two separate occasions this past week, by the Irish writer John O’Donohue (1956-2008; former priest), expressing the unquenchable hope that is rooted in faith and highly apposite to the present situation we find ourselves in.
To Bless the Space between Us
This is the time to be slow,
lie low to the wall
until the bitter weather passes.
Try, as best you can, not to let
the wire brush of doubt
scrape from your heart
all sense of yourself
and your hesitant light.
If you remain generous,
time will come good;
and you will find your feet
again on fresh pastures of promise,
where the air will be kind
and blushed with beginning.