March 2018

The daffodil is such a joyful flower. It famously cheered Wordsworth on a gloomy day – well hundreds of them together did - and I always feel that Spring is coming when the first leaves of the daffodils outside the Vicarage start to poke through. There is something really rather heartening about this indicator that the power of winter is on the wane.

In The Lion the Witch and the WardrobeCS Lewis captures brilliantly the bleak prospect of endless winter. The curse on Narnia is that it will be always winter and never Christmas. The enchanted world that the children encounter when they pass through the wardrobe of the book’s title is in fact cursed. It is a world frozen and lifeless. The reality of winter is bad enough, but worse is the lack of hope. Narnia, it seems, is frozen for ever and there will be no respite.

For me, one of the great things about living in a country that has proper seasons, is the constant reminder every spring, as the daffodils poke out their heads, that no matter how dark the winter, no matter how short the days, warmth and daylight will return. That small earnest of hope puts a spring (forgive me) in the step and a song in the heart. 

I have had cause in recent months to reflect on this change in the seasons and the passing of the seemingly interminable winter. We took the kids to see Gary Oldman’s excellent portrayal of Winston Churchill in Darkest Hour, and I was very struck by how different, in retrospect, Churchill’s decisions in those bleak days leading up to the Dunkirk evacuation look to how they must have appeared, and indeed felt, at the time. The sense of peril and the temptation to despair are easily forgotten for those of us who didn’t live through them but who know how the story ends. 

It is not even vaguely comparable, but my own recent experience offers the merest echo of this sort of triumph of hope over expectation. After ten years of working at my PhD thesis, I finally added the final full stop last month. Over that decade, various interruptions and circumstances had made me wonder if it would ever finish. Then, suddenly, I woke up one morning to discover that it was basically done. At least that’s how it felt. I am still, to be honest, a bit bewildered. But even so, I find it strange to look back and think about how impossible it once looked that the thing would ever be finished that now it sits on my desk, unmistakeably real and reassuringly heavy. 

Hope is a vital and not unrealistic commodity, but sometimes we need reminding of that. Linda and Phil have written in this month’s issue about the importance of personal connection in an age of loneliness. It is a very striking feature of our age that there seems to be this breakdown of relationships at every level. We are supposedly more connected than ever, and yet in our communities many have never met their neighbours and can easily go a whole day without speaking face to face with another human being. It is not before time that the Government have appointed a minister to deal with this issue. I rather suspect, though, that in the end the real solution to this problem lies much closer to home. People need people, and without change at the grassroots, there is unlikely to be significant change. In which case, the churches have much to offer, and we must give thought to what we can do in ministering to the loneliest members of our community.

In the face of the sheer scale of loneliness, and the escalating sense of anomie growing from our increasingly fractured social structures, it would be easy to despair. We might not feel that we can make much difference. But we have grounds for more optimism than that. Massive social dislocation resulted from urbanisation in the eighteenth century and led to all kinds of appalling squalor as satirised in Hogarth’s Gin Lane. Yet, due at least in part to the work of Christians like the Earl of Shaftesbury and William Wilberforce (who has a strong Edgbaston connection) in England, and Thomas Chalmers in Glasgow, there was never a meltdown in British society that led to the sort of chaos and bloodletting that followed the French Revolution. These figures worked tirelessly for the good of the very poorest in society, and indeed for those kept as slaves, and made Britain a much kinder, fairer and safer place to live. They refused to believe that the winter was inevitable or perpetual.

Their obstinate optimism came from something inherent within the Christian view of the world. Not that, Pollyanna-like, Christians should fail to engage with reality, but because at the heart of the Christian faith is a refusal ever to concede ultimate defeat to evil. The Easter Story, the centre of Christian belief, guarantees that. The worst possible thing that could happen, has already happened. We killed God. But, somehow, in God’s wisdom and unfathomable kindness, humanity found itself in so doing confronted by goodness and mercy rather than disaster. Jesus Christ did not stay dead, he rose from the tomb, defeating our worst and most rapacious enemy, death itself, and guaranteed that for Christians, the future is unimaginably bright. 

Last month, the 99-year-old evangelist Billy Graham, confidant to every living American President and indeed to our own Sovereign Lady, Queen Elizabeth, died. He once gave the following instruction to those who would, one day, hear news of his passing: “Someday you will hear that Billy Graham is dead. Don’t you believe a word of it. I shall be more alive than I am now. I will just have changed my address. I will have gone into the presence of God.” 

In Narnia, Aslan, the leonine creator of Narnia, broke the power of endless winter when he was slain by his great enemy, the White Witch, but rose from the dead. Lewis believed that the resurrection changed everything and every spring we have a reminder of that world-changing event. We have it in our Church calendar at our joyful celebration of Easter morning. We also have a reminder in our gardens, as the daffodils which last year died back and disappeared, poke their heads through the soil and presage the change in the seasons. As we see these small earnests of a much greater reality, let us look forward, not only to the warmer months of summer, but to the ultimate triumph of the Kingdom of God. If we do so resolutely, it will never even be an option that we should give in to despair.