I’m in Wengen, Switzerland, taking a couple of weeks as ICS chaplain. I’ve been doing these little stints at St Bernard’s Church for 21 years. You never know what lies ahead when you arrive - who you will meet, what you will see, what opportunities you will have to share faith and help folk along the way. It’s a wonderful thing - but for all sorts of reasons, I’ve decided this is my last such trip.
There’s the practical: ICS provide accommodation & a travel grant, but Switzerland has gotten expensive! The pound went a lot further 21 years ago… And there’s the emotional. Last year, at my 50th party, it struck me that I really needed to do new things or I’d be doing the same-old same-old for the rest of my life. Sometimes you have to let go of the past in order to discover the future.
On Sunday night I was at Merton, talking of the past, for a Candlemas Communion. There was an excellent sermon, and the choir were on superb form. One of the things they sang was a piece by Byrd:
Senex puerum portabat; puer autem senem regebat. Alleluia.
The old man was carrying the boy; the boy however was ruling the old man. Alleluia.
In context of a Candlemas service, it’s a reference to Simeon holding the infant Jesus. But the infant Jesus is Simeon’s Lord and Saviour, and the hope of seeing this child has ruled the old man’s life. Now the hope is fulfilled; he can die in peace.
As I sat there, having heard an excellent sermon on suffering and life and the presence of God through the dark times, it struck me that there was another layer to this. So let me re-translate:
When we grow older, we carry the memories of our younger days with us. What we don’t always realise is the power those memories, those experiences, those past times have over us. Alleluia.
And the problem is, that’s not always a good thing.
A look of disappointment. A word that cut us down. A failure. A shame. We carry them with us from youth to age. And these follies of youth can maintain a power over us even when we are so old we have forgotten them.
Why are some adults frightened of dogs? Because a puppy jumped up at their pushchair. I remember at five years old scoring a goal in the playground, and a lad - who went on to become a leading light in the local football club - punched me. I’m not sure I scored too many goals after that!
Salvation, it seems to me, is sometimes letting our old man get to know our child a bit better so that the past loses some of its mysterious power. You shall know the truth, says Jesus, and the truth shall set you free. We’ll reveal what has been hidden; we’ll face up to what we’ve avoided. Because the child within us is an important part of the old man, and shouldn’t be ignored or wiped away or forgotten - but one certainly shouldn’t rule the other. A little harmony goes a long way.
And sometimes Salvation is about recognising the time to put away childish things. Not especially because they’re childish, but because if we don’t, we’ll never discover life has even more to offer.
My tastebuds may always like Ribena. But there’s a time to appreciate coffee, and I’m missing out if I don’t try it…
Through the last twenty-one years I’ve certainly had some times when I have had to see the truth a bit more clearly, and in the process the mystery of the past has lost a little of its grip, and the present has become a better, healthier place to live. A little Salvation has happened. And times in Wengen have played their part in that for me. And yet I know that letting go is growing up. The friends I have made here will always shape me; and I will always come back to them. But the chaplaincy that first brought me here is coming to its end for me. Or I won’t find out what else lies out there… And that’s a taste of Salvation too. A taste of the ‘even more’ that all life, and especially life with God, is supposed to bring.
I tell you, I am seeing every single person who ever meant anything to me in this place this week. And every time I do, I am filled with gratitude. It is quite a thing.
All good things…