Tuesday, 15 July 2008

Reach Out I'll Be There: a truth we learn hand in hand

This exquisite twelfth century sculptured panel forms part of the lavabo in the ruins of Wenlock Priory, Shropshire.  Day after day, month after month, as they came to wash their hands, this is what the monks would have seen. I guess that eventually the picture and its associations would have become imprinted within their psyches, so I am left wondering why the Cluniac Order choose to carve this particular story in stone? Perhaps the reason lies in the timeless potency of what is represented: the powerful narrative in the gospels of the disciples caught in a storm, fearing for their lives and struggling to make for the shore, when Jesus comes to them walking on the water and saying Courage! It's me, don't be afraid. The sheer immediacy of the story, with its easily recognisable feelings of being threatened, at risk and worryingly powerless when confronted by forces we do not control, is what leaps from the stone. Like a medieval Post-it note it grabs our attention and reminds us of something we should not forget.

Yet I wonder how many of the tourists who gaze on the carving today actually make the connection to the gospel story? They will see one bloke reaching out and grabbing the hand of another, with a third holding out his hand in expectation, but what does it mean? What connotations does it have for them? Nowadays some might more readily think of Peter Jackson's epic Lord of the Rings trilogy,  with its strongly masculine images of danger and bravery, conflict and comradeship, and make connections there, such as when Sam desperately grabs onto Frodo's hand inside Mount Doom and prevents him from falling to his death in the lava stream below. The theme of a hero or heroic few being engaged in a struggle to save the many from powerful and overwhelming forces of evil seems as old as time itself; such myths, sagas and epic tales are embedded deeply within our collective human story. The intense camaraderie and bonding which is typical of such narratives will be familiar to many who have served in the Armed Forces, but it is not found exclusively there, nor is it gender-specific. The context for the sculpture in Wenlock Priory was exclusively male, and the monks may well have connected deeply with such themes. Yet the fundamental dynamic of the gospel account carved in stone speaks into what it is to be human. Even a cursory reading of human history shows that heroism and courage are no more gender-bound than fear or suffering. In all our adversities the sculpture reminds us of a fundamental truth for men and women alike: Jesus always reaches out to grab hold of us when we are in danger of being overwhelmed. We need to be reminded of this every bit as much as did the monks in Wenlock Priory. The real test of Christianity is to experience this reality for oneself. But of course there is more. If we can readily identify with the disciples in the boat, we are then challenged to identify with Jesus and do likewise for the sake of a world that is overwhelmed by suffering and fear.

In this sculptured panel the figure of Jesus models a pattern of behaviour which is intrinsically part of what it is to be human. The urge to help, to get involved and do something, to stretch out a hand, to hold on and risk being there for one another, these are profoundly good aspects of what it is to be human. So often we don't even need to think about what to do, our first reaction is to plunge in and risk our own wellbeing in order to save someone else. The picture of Jesus standing alongside the fearful disciples and grabbing hold of them is a vocational challenge to the Church. It reminds us of the priorities of Jesus, those of the Kingdom of God about which he spoke so frequently and which he demonstrated so often. It reminds us of what Incarnation is all about. It is a Post-it note about the very nature of God who is love.

As a life-long devotee of Motown and Soul Music I am well aware of the way in which all these very human themes were at the heart of the struggle for liberation in the Black communities of inner-city America. So much of Soul reminds me of the photo from Wenlock Priory. This is not meant to sound trite or ill-informed, it simply reflects the way in which music naturally mirrors the struggle of being human. The Four Tops 1966 Motown classic Reach Out I'll Be There really nails this truth for me in a similar way perhaps to what the monks might have understood when they gazed upon the gospel carved in stone:

Now if you feel that you can't go on (can't go on)
Because all of your hope is gone (all your hope is gone)
And your life is filled with much confusion (much confusion)
Until happiness is just an illusion (happiness is just an illusion)
And your world around is crumbling down, darlin
reach out come on girl reach on out for me
reach out reach out for me
I'll be there with a love that will shelter you
I'll be there with a love that will see you through

Edward Holland Jr., Lamont Dozier & Brian Hollandspa centre

Having recently returned from the Methodist Conference in Scarborough I am keenly aware of the tension between focusing on our own needs as a church (in the boat) and reaching out to others. My own frustration was keenest when we were locked into debates of the 'how many presbyters can you get on a pin-head' variety. The waves breaking on the shore outside the Spa Centre were a constant reminder to me of an ocean of suffering, of the need to plunge in and do something incarnational. In the space of the last ten days my mother has been twice rushed into hospital by paramedics. She is still in as I write. The photo from Wenlock Priory is pretty personal just now. And its truth is just as real for me as it was for those monks.

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