It so happened that during October I found myself in two very contrasting worlds on two Sunday mornings in the month. As regular readers of this column now know, I usually find myself preaching on Sunday mornings, and October being part of the harvest season, I was occupied right through leading and preaching at harvest thanksgivings. Thus it was that I was in an Essex market town early in the month on a mellow, misty autumn morning. I arrived at the church early: too early in fact, because I needed a toilet and none of the congregation had yet arrived!
So I headed hastily to find a supermarket (more reliable on Sunday mornings than public houses, I tend to find). The first one was open and packed with people, but alas it had no toilet facilities. So I drove as expeditiously as I could to Morrisons, and was rewarded with a sign telling me that the male toilets were being cleaned! By now the need was such that I chose to use the baby changing room. And then I was able to relax and take in the ambience of the supermarket. The shelves were predictably stacked high with food and confectionary. What surprised me was the fact that early though it was, the aisles inside were as full of customers, as the parking area outside was full of vehicles. And it was obvious that this was a family occasion for many. There were children of all ages going shopping on a Sunday morning.
Mission accomplished, I headed back to the church, and by now the place was buzzing with activity, as people of all ages were arriving, many of them with produce to be displayed on the harvest table at the front of the chapel. The whole building was decorated with flowers, fruit and vegetables. And as the sun had now pierced the mist, its rays cast a golden hue on all the produce.
The service began and soon we were singing, “All good gifts around us are sent from heaven above; then thank the Lord, O thank the Lord, for all His love”. At some point in the hymn it suddenly struck me that here we were, just a short remove from the two supermarkets, and in another space full of families, and also unusually full of food. But whereas the supermarkets were places of acquisition, the church was a place of thanksgiving. I felt the irrational desire to return to the shops inviting the shoppers to join us at the church. Surely one Sunday in the year it might be appropriate to pause in the activity of life, and as human beings on this fertile planet earth to give thanks to the Creator for all the benefits of this life, with special reference to the harvest and the fruits of the earth.
Of course I didn’t and couldn’t return, and the mind boggles at what the reaction of the shoppers might have been to my invitation. But I pondered the contrast hard and long, and couldn’t help feeling that the children in the supermarkets had been short-changed.
As things turned out, a few weeks later on another Sunday morning I found myself on a Central Line train heading for a place of worship in central London. If you know the Central Line and where Mill Grove is situated, you will realise that the journey took me through Stratford, the venue of the 2012 London Olympics and Paralympics, but most popular now for the Westfield Shopping Centre.
Although I am a sociologist, I always tend to use my underground journeys for reading rather than for social research, and this journey was no exception. I was in fact studying a book as part of the task of translating my PhD thesis into something more suitable for publication. The reason I mention this is that I was pretty engrossed in my task, busily making pencil notes in the margin. So it is that I wouldn’t be able to tell you who else was in the carriage or what they were doing…except, that is, for a group of three females immediately opposite me.
My guess is that they were a mother, auntie and daughter/niece. The lady whom I took to be the aunty of the little girl caught my attention because she was asking a repeated question, “What do you want to do, first? Eat an ice-cream, or have your lunch?” And each time the question was put there was a description of the freedom being conferred on the girl. “We don’t mind which you do first…”
As far as I could detect, the girl was unable to reach a decision by the time the little group had reached Stratford Station, and so I was left with a cliff-hanger, and will never know what she finally decided. Perhaps she never was able to choose between two such appealing options.
I continued my journey to the church, and found it packed to overflowing, with a host of families, with children of all ages and cultures. And, as you may already have guessed, my heart went out to the little girl I had left behind at Stratford. How I would have loved to have invited her (and her mother and aunt) to join us at this place of worship! “We thank thee for our creation, preservation, and all the blessings of this life…” How could you possibly compare the two experiences: consumption on the one hand, and corporate worship on the other?
Yet the fact is that over the whole of my life the balance has been shifting steadily from corporate acts of thanksgiving (and Sunday School), towards the supermarkets, shopping centres and car boot sales. I am of course thankful that many families are together on Sunday mornings, but I grieve that children are being deprived of the experience of being together with others in order to praise their Creator God.
Now it possible that while some readers identify with my feelings, others may be wondering how this all relates to agnostic and atheist parents. I do not feel this is a column in which to try to convince readers of the veracity of a religious worldview over a rationalist, empirical one. But I simply can’t get out of my mind the words of the theologian Professor Frances Young in her book, Face to Face: Narrative Essay in the Theology of Suffering. After parenting a son who was profoundly mentally and physically disabled, she wrote this remarkably honest and revealing book. And somewhere along the way she explains why she is a Christian. She is clear that she is not trying to persuade anyone of the truth of her position, but simply to explain how she sees things. And the core of the matter is that she feels profoundly thankful for the blessings of this life, notably her marriage, and that she is convinced that there must be Someone who will receive her thanks.
And I could not have put it better. There is so much cause to give thanks in this astonishingly rich, diverse, and fertile world that I cannot imagine there being no One to thank. And that is why I have always encouraged my own children and those who live with me to join me not just in church, but before and after every meal in giving thanks for our food and drink, and all the blessing of this life.
Then just as this memorable month was coming to an end, I found myself standing beside a mother of three children who is spending a week with us at Mill Grove. We were looking out of the kitchen window at the autumn leaves covering the ground, and a creeper that was turning a deep shade of red. She said how thankful she was for God’s wonderful world. I agreed but then, given that the youngest of her children had just had an operation, and that she is suffering from a return of cancer, I told her how I admired her plucky attitude to life. You can imagine my astonishment when this young and recently baptised Christian replied calmly, “There is always someone worse of than me”. And before I could take another breath she continued, “And it was a lot worse for Jesus”.
There really was nothing more to be said. Yet I couldn’t help but think that times of worship, not least in thanksgiving, have a lot more to offer by way of preparation for all the vicissitudes of life, than childhood Sunday mornings spent shopping. Please understand that this line of thought would never have occurred to me had I not needed a toilet somewhere in Essex, or been travelling through Stratford to get to church on the Central Line. All the same when it comes to it, I will always side with Frances Young and this brave mother.