All Saints Sydenham

23rd August 2009

Taking Off


Last week we were walking along the towpath of the River Nene in Northamptonshire when we suddenly came across a swallow lying in our path. Whether it’s true or not that swallows can only start flying successfully if they take off from a platform at least a few feet above ground is a question about which opinions differ sharply; but the fact is that this swallow simply lay there, apparently unhurt, quite motionless. When one of us picked it up it did not, like wounded birds usually do, make a struggle and start pecking the person who is trying to help it. It stayed there quite calmly until the person who had picked it up raised their arms above their head when, with a graceful ‘swallow-dive’ it jumped off and was immediately airborne. So the probability is that at least this swallow (which looked quite young and small) really was incapable of taking off from the ground and would sooner or later have fallen prey to some dog or cat or fox, or simply starved to death where it lay. Be that as it may the idea for this sermon came to me as the result of two encounters on the River Nene towpath: a swallow and two foster-parents.

Most of us have experienced at some time the feeling of being unable to ‘take-off’ from the situation in which we find ourselves. It may be bereavement, or an illness, or failing an exam, or being faced with some financial problem which have brought this about: but whatever it is, the result is the same. Not only can we not see what we should do next, but there is the feeling that whatever we do about it ‘won’t make any difference’. So why bother, we ask? Why risk yet another disappointment when we’ve just been ‘knocked for six’ by something right outside our control? In the ancient world this feeling was called ‘accidie’ and it can attack equally the idle and the diligent, the poor and the rich, the old and the young.

But often, and usually sooner rather than later, somebody or something manages to give us a ‘hand-up’ –such as that swallow needed to become airborne again: and that hand-up needn’t be anything particularly dramatic or costly on the part of our Deliverer – indeed they may not realise until we tell them, perhaps several weeks after, that it was precisely the fact that they came to visit us, or something that they said or did, which ‘did the trick’ and achieved what any amount of antidepressants and professional help have failed to do. All that was needed was a slight lift-up, plus the willingness of the bird (or the person) in question to be ‘lifted up’ in that way, and things quickly returned to normality: the swallow flew, and the Accidie-victim begins to feel that life is worth living after all.

Notice that there are two quite separate components to this healing process. It requires the willingness of the helper, the hand-upper, to take the trouble to become involved; and it takes the willingness of the person being lifted up to co-operate with them. Where one or other component is lacking, the process is likely to be stillborn and fruitless.

It may, or may not, involve paying a visit. Sometimes the sheer knowledge that someone, or a whole number of people are praying for you can have an extraordinary effect on the course of an illness. A year or two ago when Anne, my wife, developed cancer which looked like being fatal within a few months, the knowledge that there were people praying for us not only in Lewisham but as far away as Nigeria and Ghana and Zambia was a source of enormous support and strength to us both; and little by little the cancer appears to be retreating. So when people say ‘we can only pray about it’ in that rather hopeless tone of voice they tend to adopt for saying such things, one needs to remind them that ‘the effective prayer of a righteous man availeth much’ as St James said in his Epistle.

But, of course, there are other types of hand-up which are effective, not so much as a substitute for prayer but something which goes alongside it and complements it: which brings me to the second incident on the towpath last week.

As we were waiting to go through one of the locks on the river, we met a woman who was on holiday with her husband and no less than six children under 12. She was middle-aged and told us that they had two grown-up children of their own who were married and had produced a number of grand-children; but that when her own children were off her hands and living their own lives, she and her husband had started fostering, (and then in some cases later adopting), the children of other people whose lives had been blighted by dysfunctional homes, absentee fathers, or experiencing early orphanhood. Of the six children she had with her on this occasion, and they were only the most recent of a whole number of previous ones, the older two she had adopted, and she was fostering the other four with a view to adopting them eventually including the youngest, aged 6, who is mentally retarded.

Now adopting or fostering other people’s children into one’s household is, of course, a whole different ball-game from giving an earthbound swallow a hand-up; but even so there are a number of things that they have in common.

Firstly, both enterprises require the willingness of one party to receive as well as a willingness to give on the other: and however advantageous the arrangement may seem to one or both parties, neither of which can be taken for granted. Anyone who has known children whose family life has fallen apart for whatever reason, will know the devastating effect that this can have emotionally on them. For an adoption or fostering, however ideal it may appear, to ‘work’ needs a two-way commitment by both parties. What it provides is an opportunity, and no more than an opportunity, to become ‘airborne’ again. It’s only when that opportunity has to be taken advantage of to the full by both parties that the most remarkable transformations begin to take place. Children who have never experienced the challenges and rewards of family life suddenly begin to discover them; in the present case they were also experiencing the fun of a river holiday, whilst discovering one of the most beautiful landscapes in England.

But it was the enthusiasm of the married couple who had enabled this to happen which was most remarkable. Once their own children were off their hands and standing on their own feet, instead of deciding (like most people do) to ‘do their own thing, and enjoy life for a change’ this couple chose to ‘start all over again’. Goodness knows how many children they had succeeded in ‘lifting up’ in this way – we only saw the most recent six – and no doubt there had been some cases where it hadn’t ‘worked’ because the children in their care had been so badly damaged. But there was only one word to describe what the whole party was experiencing at the time we met them, and that word was ‘Fun’.

Now it wasn’t, one can be sure, the prospect of Fun which started that couple on this enterprise, any more than one goes and visits someone with accidie with the thought ‘this is going to be fun’. One visits out of sympathy, or pity, or simply from a sense of duty. But if one perseveres it is often the case that one begins actually to look forward to such visits, and is rewarded, as a result by seeing the accidie gradually being replaced by the sense of purposefulness.

But the key to all three lift-ups is the same. It is called ‘using the imagination’: and to return, finally to the matter of praying for people, how often is it the case that when we hold others up in our prayers to God, the Holy Spirit is able to fire our imagination in such a way as to encourage us to take the ‘lifting-up’ a stage further by doing something practical.

That may be no more than giving an earthbound swallow a take-off platform; or it may involve paying a visit to someone who might like it; or it might even go as far as persuading us that we should be prepared to subordinate our own pleasures, for a while, to the business of helping to transform the life of somebody whose world has fallen apart, like the children being helped that woman we met on the River Nene.

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