What a week! Hallowe’en, All Saints’ and All Souls’ days just past, Guy Fawkes day and Bonfire Night tomorrow, Covid-19 still dominating our lives with the latest 5-tiered lockdown restrictions, and of course yesterday’s US Presidential election with the result and outcome still apparently in the balance. Our weekly Bible study group has just finished a series of discussions on Paul’s letter to the Ephesians. We’ve found it challenging and inspiring – difficult perhaps at times to get to the heart of what Paul was saying, but raising a whole range of questions on its significance for our time and situation.
In chapter 3 of Ephesians, in The Message version, the phrase ‘desperate times’ appears, as a description of the situation when Paul was writing. One of the participants in the Bible study suggested that times have always been desperate and things were no more so now than they had been in the past. That may or may not be true – but the difference is that we are living now in this particular time and place (shades of the joke about the Irishman directions: ‘I wouldn’t start from here’!). So the question for us is – perpetually and not just at this moment – what, from the perspective of faith, do we make of it all?
At all times we live with a degree of uncertainty as to what is around the next corner and what the future may hold. But the times we live in at present, amid the second wave of the pandemic and reinforced lock-down restrictions, feel a good bit more uncertain than usual. Meanwhile the outcome of the US election is still not clear: has Trump, against the odds, won another 4-year term? if he has lost will he accept the result and go gracefully? and if Biden wins will his presidency fulfil expectations that things will be significantly different? And while last week there may have been much encouragement for supporters of nuclear disarmament in the news 10 days ago that, with ratification by a 50th country – Honduras, the UN Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, already accepted in principle by an overwhelming majority of the world’s nations, now has international legal force, the nuclear powers show no sign of changing their policies.
Against this background the season of All Saints reminds us of the immense value of the heritage of faith and how much we owe to those who have gone before us. And it is not stretching the association too much to say that the imminence of November 5th might highlight the explosive potential of the Gospel – the good news of God’s loving purpose, conclusively revealed in Jesus Christ – with its message of transformation, renewal and hope. So it is may be not entirely surprising on the eve of Bonfire Night that my thoughts have turned to a hymn written by a friend of ours, a long-standing Iona Community member, Ian Fraser, who died not long after his hundredth birthday two years ago. Ian was a remarkable man – the son of a blind Forres butcher, he had a distinguished career in ministry. He was the first warden of Scottish Churches House, Dunblane and went from there to work for the World Council of Churches and then to be Dean of Mission at Selly Oak Colleges, Birmingham; he was an authority on ‘grass-roots Christianity’ world-wide; he had a strong commitment to the education and empowerment of people in the pews; he was an indomitable anti-poll-tax campaigner; and well into his 90s he continued to live independently at Gargunnock, tending his garden, making soup, commenting and writing on the issues of the day. His hymn appears in the Pentecost part of CH4 (584), but, with its spirit of hope, message of transformation and call to commitment, truly has a much wider, perpetual relevance, welcome indeed in these uncertain, demanding, anxious times,
Like fireworks in the night
the Holy Spirit came;
disciples’ fears took flight
when touched by fronds of flame:
and suddenly the world was young
as hope embraced a Saviour’s claim.
For Jesus bade them dare
to venture, as they should;
his love taught them to share
their homes, possessions, food:
the mind of Jesus gave them speech
all tribes and peoples understood.
Thus God our spirits lifts
fresh daring to inspire
as common folk get gifts
to change the world entire:
the tongues of flame at Pentecost
ran through the world like forest fire