Ministers Blog by the Rev Dr Norman Shanks

Why are you cast down, O my soul, and why are you disquieted within me? (Psalm 41.11)

I’m sure that I am not alone in feeling that the ‘lockdown’ is playing tricks on my mind and in experiencing from time to time, five months on now, a sense of weariness, moments of a decline in energy and motivation.  Reluctant as I may be to acknowledge it, this may be attributable of course in part to the ageing process!  But it is due too, I’m sure, to the things I’m missing.  While I have benefited from the more relaxed rhythm of life I’ve now become accustomed to, and it has certainly been good to get back to Wellington, albeit subject to significant limitations, and a special joy to be able to meet family and friends again even in a restricted way, I feel deprived without the social interaction, stimulation and interest from the other activities that previously have been an important and regular part of my life and are at present suspended – such as CAB-advising, Warriors-watching, cinema-going, community choir, swimming,  Crypt-helping.

My spirits have been lifted though by a couple of books. A week or so ago Ruth and I attended, through Zoom, the virtual launch of Riders on the Storm by a friend of ours Alastair McIntosh.  He is an environmental campaigner/activist, author, regular contributor to ‘Thought for the Day’ on BBC’s Good Morning, Scotland, and a Quaker. This book has the intriguing sub-title ‘The climate crisis and the survival of being’, and the blurb says tantalisingly Climate change is the greatest challenge to humankind today. While the coronavirus sheds a light on the vulnerability of our interconnected world, the effects of global warming will be permanent, indeed catastrophic, without a massive shift in human behaviour. …. In rejecting the blind alleys of climate change denial, exaggeration and false optimism, [Alastair] offers a scintillating discussion of ways forward. Weaving together science, politics, psychology and spirituality, this guide examines what it takes to make us riders on the storm. In introducing the book at the online launch, Alastair spoke powerfully about the themes of spirituality and social priorities, highlighting our interconnectedness and the importance of local action to combat the excessive consumerism that blights today’s world; we are all called to be ‘riders on the storm’, echoing the old hymn –

God moves in a mysterious way, His wonders to perform;
He plants his footsteps in the sea,  and rides upon the storm.

Deep in unfathomable mines of never failing skill;
He treasures up his bright designs, and works His sovereign will.

Ye fearful saints fresh courage take; the clouds ye so much dread
are big with mercy, and shall break in blessings on your head.

Judge not the Lord by feeble sense, but trust him for his grace;
behind a frowning providence, He hides a smiling face.

That ‘smiling face’ phrase and the injunction to trust takes me to the second book, recently published in the United States.  It is entitled  Surely Goodness and Mercy – a journey into illness and solidarity and is written by another friend, an American Presbyterian minister called Murphy Davis.  It is a remarkable story, told by a remarkable woman, one of the most inspiring people I know – an embodiment of the gifts of ‘courage, faith and cheerfulness’ spoken of in one of our much-loved Iona Community prayers.  She and her husband Ed Loring founded the Open Door Community in downtown Atlanta, Georgia, which several times Ruth and I have had the privilege, joy and challenge of visiting and working with.  For over 35 years the Open Door carried out a ministry of hospitality, rooted in worship and prayer, providing accommodation and meals for homeless people, campaigning against racism, poverty and the death penalty.  For more than four decades Murphy has visited and advocated for prisoners on death row.  In 2017 the Open Door moved to Baltimore where its ministry continues. For 25 years now Murphy has lived with a virulent form of cancer, Burketts Lymphoma; she was initially given 6 to 18 months to live; she has, as she puts it, lived through the impossible: a quarter of a century of intensive medical treatment, nine major surgeries, five regimens of chemotherapy and two of radiation, lymphoma, breast and squamous cell cancers, and a nearly fatal case of fungal pneumonia. Her ministry of compassion, justice and solidarity continues to this day, founded on her limitless trust in the grace of God.  She describes herself as a living witness to the healing miracle of brilliant, skilled, and compassionate medical treatment combined with the daily reality of being carried through it all by prayer and hope. Truly she is a ‘rider on the storm’ and her courage and commitment are an inspiration to countless others.

Since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses….let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith (Hebrews 12.1-2)

Every blessing
Norman Shanks


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