Friday, 28 March 2014

Brad, a little boy who gave as much love as he received

“When Brad was born, the hospital staff told me to go home and forget about him. He said he would not live longer than six months and that it was best for my husband and me to get over his birth and to have another baby. That was 14 years ago. Now, he is the longest-living child in this country with his condition.”

Liz stared reflectively at her cup of coffee, knowing that it was only his family’s love and care which had made Brad’s survival possible. She continued speaking. “Apparently his disability was the result of my having something like flu when I was pregnant. I was not particularly ill and thought that I recovered quickly. How could I have known that the virus attacked my unborn baby and caused such devastating effects?”
While we spoke, the subject of our conversation lay on a mattress on the floor. Brad rolled his head from side to side, his arms clenched under his chin and a big grin on his face. Even if he could not tell his own story, somehow he knew that we were talking about him. Every so often his gurgled laugh interrupted us. Liz carried on with her story. “My husband Colin is a policeman and has to work shifts. It has been very difficult for him, especially when Brad has been ill and when he has had to leave us to go to work. His sergeant has been fantastic and, wherever possible, has adjusted the rota to help us. Colin’s colleagues have also been wonderful. It has been an amazing experience to have a succession of big, burly policemen coming into the house just to say hello. They have also fallen in love with Brad’s laugh. Without exception, they have left the house, smiling, feeling better about their own day, whilst I have also benefited from their support.”
Liz and Colin had two other children, both born after Brad. How did they respond to their severely disabled brother? “Although he is now 14, Brad has never functioned beyond the level expected of a three-month-old baby. When he was born, his legs and hips were so rigid that we needed to have his hips permanently dislocated. This might sound cruel, but it was the only way that we could change his nappy. We had been advised that he would never be able to sit up, so this really was the best option for him. The children have been wonderful and, right from the start, have been fully involved in his care. They know that Brad is very different from other children, but he has always been the centre of this family. Colin and I have been constantly amazed to see how, when they come in from school or from playing with their friends, Brad is always their first port of call. The children tell him about everything they have done. When they are happy and when they are sad, they go to Brad and talk to him. He can be serious for a few moments, but he always laughs and they laugh too. At a recent parents evening, a teacher commented that caring for Brad has made our other children compassionate and understanding. Even with his limitations, Brad is the girls’ big brother: he has taught them to care for others before looking after themselves. That is his gift to the family.”
With his severe disability, is Brad able to recognise his family? “Colin and I believe he can. Do not ask us how, but there is something different in his response to us and to outsiders. I talk to him and know that he is listening and that he understands. We have always known that Brad has a limited life expectancy. These days, he is ill more frequently than ever. I have told him not to hang on for our sake; that he is to feel free to let go. When I told him that, he became serious and I saw a single tear run down his cheek. That had never happened before. I really felt that he appreciated what I had said and I loved him all the more. I do believe that my words made the difference. We all love him so much and do not want to lose him but I know that Jesus loves him even more than we do. I have always believed that my son is very special to Jesus. That is why I do not think that we will have Brad with us for much longer. He has been our angel on earth. Soon he will be our angel in heaven.”
When Brad died, the local church was filled with people whose hearts he and his family had touched. Somehow, Brad made others feel that they could keep on going when life was difficult. He could not judge and therefore people approached him without any pretensions, becoming gentler and more vulnerable. There was no point in putting on a show before a boy who listened, but could not speak; who heard and responded with laughter to the most serious story. In fact, they talked to him simply to hear him laugh. It was impossible to be with Brad without joining him in his smile. When someone was asked why he was so important to her, the woman shrugged her shoulders and stretched her hand towards him. “I cannot take myself too seriously when I am here. His laugh always makes me laugh and brings the sunshine into the darkest moment.”
When Brad died, his family moved to a smaller house and I lost contact with them. Yet, many years later, I think of that family and see Mary at the foot of the cross. Jesus, fastened to the wood with nails through his hands and his feet, was, in a sense, helpless. It was, however, at the moment of his greatest incapacity that he achieved a miracle beyond all imagining: the resurrection. 2000 years later, a child born with profound physical and intellectual disability changed the lives of his family and of all those who met them. Their quiet faith and heroic care for a child they refused to reject, transformed Liz, Colin, their other children, the local community and its police service. Their GP, himself the father of a child with Down’s syndrome, found the courage to extend a similar all-embracing love towards his daughter and to other families with a disabled child.
Holy Week is, in one sense, a journey accompanying a mother and a son to an inevitable conclusion. Both Jesus and Mary knew that, if he continued challenging the Jewish authorities, they would take their revenge. Yet, through his death and resurrection, we find life and hope. So also, through the most unexpected encounters, perhaps through meeting our own Liz, Colin and Brad, we find a depth of meaning which, without them, would never have been ours.

Perhaps the song was written for Brad, which said,
“He won't ask for your pity or your sympathy,
But surely you should care.
Scorn not his simplicity
But, rather, try to love him all the more.”

This little boy gave as much love as he received.

Wednesday, 12 March 2014

Will kindness heal their memories?

Would we be justified in thinking that the jury might possibly have been prejudiced? Twelve “good men and true” - all-white, of course - found the man guilty. In 1983, in the American State of Louisiana, a black man, Glenn Ford, received the death sentence, found guilty of the murder of jeweller Isadore Rozeman. In spite of his plea of innocence and several appeals, Ford spent the next 26 years on Death Row. Recently new evidence caused a judge to throw out the case altogether, rule on Ford’s innocence and order his release. Now aged 64, Ford walked free from prison. When journalists asked what were his plans, he simply said that he was going to get something to eat. Poignantly, he also remarked that when he was first imprisoned, his son was a baby and is now himself a father. That said almost everything. Thanks to what appears to have been a prejudiced verdict, Ford has, in many ways, lost his life without needing to go to the electric chair.

During his many years in prison, an innocent man will have seen many of his fellow prisoners walk that final walk towards execution. He will have wondered how long it would take before he himself would make same journey, his final appeal rejected. His family and friends shared his anxiety. The difference was that they anticipated the death of a family member whereas, for Ford, he expected, in full health, to be dispatched by the State Executioner. Now that he is free and exonerated of all guilt, how many times that he think of “what might have been”? Will he feel resentful and angry? How will he return to a normal life when his normality for so many years has been limited by iron bars and the keys of his jailers? Can society possibly give him adequate compensation for all that she has lost?

Take another scenario. This time it is in Syria. A journalist was recently released from prison after being held for more than a year and, during that time, tortured on more than one occasion. His crime? He tried to take photographs of government troops brutalising civilians. We speak of the freedom of the press: he had been trying to do his job, trying to tell the world of injustice and to bring about peace. That, however, was insufficient. In a gross miscarriage of justice, this unnamed journalist received no trial and no apology when the prison doors opened. It was only in leaving his country, that his tale was told.

Yet another scenario. This was also an occasion when a young man rocked the proverbial boat and upset the authorities. He was probably aged around 30 and had gathered a small group of followers. An itinerant preacher, he attracted attention for challenging the political and religious leaders of his day. Interestingly, his words were never directed towards the occupying power which held his country in thrall, but only towards his own people. It was they watched and eventually arrested him on the word of a traitor. We know the story - or think we do. Jesus was arrested during the Jewish celebration of Passover, the sign of his betrayal being the supposedly affectionate greeting of a one-time friend. Every year at this time we hear and reread the story of his passion, death and resurrection. It is so familiar that the reality is often overlooked.

It seems that the soldiers based in Jerusalem were not the elite troops who were the glory of Rome. They seem to have been a mixture of conscripts and mercenaries, possibly from Syria and the countries around Israel. Poorly trained and many of them antagonistic towards the Jews, they were not over-concerned about gentleness, justice and integrity. Possibly they welcomed the occasional opportunity for unsupervised brutality towards the people they controlled and who resented their subjugation by Rome. Capturing a young man who made no effort to fight back, it was easy to mock him in ways which went beyond their immediate remit. Pontius Pilate had ordered that Jesus be scourged, not that the troops responsible for his “chastisement” should then drape him in a cloak, adorn him with the crown of thorns and then further humiliate him. This is, of course, a scene with which we are familiar in our religious setting, but how often, in reality, will bored guards abuse the vulnerable captive for whom they are responsible? Jesus was simply one in a very long line of victims. We know about him simply because he was important to us: there are many of whom we will never hear and whose fate might remain unknown even to their families.

Pilate was a small-time official in an insignificant State of little importance to Rome. It seems that he resented his responsibilities in Jerusalem and was certainly disliked by the Jews whom he governed. Fearful of higher authority and not exactly outstanding in his practice of mercy and of justice, the loss of one life, even that of an innocent man, was not very important. Concern for his own position and comfort, he made little effort to stand up to the High Priests and their machinations-and so, Jesus died. We know the story. We hear it every year.

Yet the miscarriage of justice which led to the crucifixion is replicated time and again today. In this country, we pride ourselves on the independence of the judiciary. Compared to certain other countries, the integrity of our legal system is outstanding. Yet here, too, mistakes are sometimes made and the innocent can suffer as a result. The hen-pecked Mr Bumble in Charles Dickens' Oliver Twist, declares, “The law is an ass! It is an idiot!” It is blunt, but, sadly, sometimes true.

In Shakespeare’s play, The Merchant of Venice, Portia, disguised as a lawyer, speaks eloquently of the quality of mercy. She declares that, “Earthly power is most like to God’s when mercy seasons justice”. Yet the play also includes a plea for understanding from an unlikely quarter: Shylock, the Jewish moneylender. “Hath not a Jew eyes? Hath not a Jew hands, organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions; fed with the same food, hurt with the same weapons, subject to the same diseases, healed by the same means, warmed and cooled by the same winter and summer, as a Christian is?” It seems that Pilate could not overcome his own blindness and see that Jesus deserved both mercy and justice. In the case of Jesus, justice would have meant freedom, a physical freedom which he was denied although spiritually, he was supremely unfettered.

Nelson Mandela realised that unless he forgave the injustice he had experienced, he would remain imprisoned for the rest of his life. Will Glenn Ford and the unnamed journalist be able to practice such magnanimity? Will the kindness and goodness of those around them heal their memories? On the cross, Jesus prayed, “Father forgive them, for they know not what they do.” How did those who hear him respond to his words? We do not know. We will probably never learn of the official reaction to the freedom of Ford and the journalist. May their new life also be one of resurrection. 

Sunday, 9 March 2014

Three Jews who went from death to life

Sometimes, the only possible reaction is one of amazement and profound awe. Within the space of a couple of days, the BBC broadcast two interviews with women who survived the Holocaust. The first was with an 84 year-old Eva Schloss, the sister-in-law of Anne Frank, famous for her diary, written before her death in Auschwitz. As children, the two girls had played together. Eva’s mother, after the war, married Anne’s widowed father, Otto Frank. By that time, just as he had lost his wife and daughter, so too, her husband and son had long been victims of the Holocaust which took some of Judaism’s finest and condemned them to a horrific death.

The second interview was recorded several years ago with the eldest of the Holocaust survivors. Alice Herz-Sommer, who lived in London and was originally from Prague, died recently at the age of 110.

At first it would seem that the two women had little in common. Certainly, the two interviewers had not planned that their broadcast conversations would be separated only by a few days. Yet they enabled their listeners to enjoy an unforgettable moment which celebrated the true meaning of freedom.

Eva, a former concert pianist, described the loss of her father and brother after she and her mother were separated in Auschwitz, surely devastating moments for all. When asked what music held special memories for her, she explained how, on Saturday nights before their arrest, the whole family would lie on the floor, in the dark, listening to the exquisite music of Schubert’s Trout Quintet as their “preparation for sleep”. This music, many years later, still conjured up the peace, tranquillity, and happiness of their family’s love and togetherness. No wonder this precious memory would, in decades to come, still bring joy to the only survivor of those evenings.

The surprise came with the second inheritance track. She, who had lost so much, explained that what she would like to pass on to the world is the message enshrined in Louis Armstrong’s song, What a Wonderful World. Instead of learning bitterness, Eva had learned to appreciate life and its immeasurable capacity for all that is good. In seeing the horrors of the death camps, she saw life and learned to value things that perhaps would remain unnoticed by those who had not faced the ultimate in human brutality. She finished her radio interview, repeatedly saying, “It is a wonderful world!”

Days later, when Alice Herz-Sommer died, the BBC replayed an interview recorded several years ago. When Alice was taken to Theresienstadt, she was a musician with a young son. Just like Eva, Alice lost most of those who were dear to her. Often starving, she declared that what kept her alive was her love for her son - and her music, “For in music I found God.”

The inmates of Theresienstadt included many musicians and other talented people simply because they were regularly displayed to visitors in an attempt to show the “humanity” of Hitler’s concentration camps. Some would describe the good food which would be placed on the tables in front of the prisoners, who knew only too well that, immediately the visitors left, they would be starved in compensation for the meal that they almost ate. Musicians would be required to give concerts to an audience of their fellow prisoners, again a facade to mask the reality of their suffering and deprivation. Alice, a gifted pianist, was also required to perform from time to time. She herself said, “We had to play because the Red Cross came three times a year. The Germans wanted to show its representatives that the situation of the Jews in Theresienstadt was good. Whenever I knew that I had a concert, I was happy. Music is magic. We performed in the council hall before an audience of 150 old, hopeless, sick and hungry people. They lived for the music. It was like food to them. If they hadn’t come [to hear us], they would have died long before. As we would have.”

The amazing thing was, in the interview, to hear the number of times that Alice said something to the effect of, “It was beautiful”. She appeared to have not an ounce of bitterness or resentment towards those who had done all that they could to make her life miserable. Her piano gave such joy and meaning to her life, that, until her death, she spent at least three hours daily at the keyboard, making music.

Alice and Eva had one important thing in common, their reason for living, the strength which allowed them to survive the concentration camp: they both had someone to love, someone who needed their care. For Alice, it was her son, Raphael, who died in 2001, but was one of the very few children to survive Theresienstadt. Eva had her mother and of her she wrote, “Her presence helped me a lot, and then of course, she very often gave me her bread ration.  She gave me courage and I gave her courage as well, so being together was a great help for us... But, in the camp, there came a time when the things reversed suddenly.  Suddenly I was looking after her, and I grew up, this was for me a very important moment that I felt.  You know she [was] not able to look after me anymore; I [had] to look after her.”

The two Jewish women, who might or might not have met each other during the course of their post-war experiences, were also supremely free. Their memories, however painful, however dark and beyond the stuff of nightmares which most of us can never imagine, did not destroy their lives. Rather, they found new life and new hope in the realisation that having been to the limits of all that might have destroyed their humanity, had they lost hope, had they lost love and the determination to keep on caring for someone else, they would really have lost everything.

When he was released from prison, Nelson Mandela declared that unless he was able to forgive his captors, he would remain in prison and their victim for the rest of his life. In forgiving those who hurt him, they had no more power to consign him to the iron bars and hard labour which destroyed so many others. So too, Hitler, Auschwitz, Theresienstadt, the Holocaust and the worst excesses of the Third Reich were powerless when confronted by the power of love and two women who refused to stop loving. In that love, regardless what the outside world might have said or seen, they retained their dignity and sense of self-worth. They learned what was most important in life and celebrated it. This is exactly why some people would say that, on the cross, the heart of Jesus burst with joy. It was not a denial of evil or of pain, but of rising above it. In their suffering they found redemption and experienced the resurrection. Whether or not Alice and Eva, as Jews, would acknowledge the part they played in the history of salvation, Alice, Eva and Jesus were three Jews who went from death to life.

Saturday, 1 March 2014

A desert transformed

I don’t know if you like natural history programmes on television. One documentary shows the effect of rain on the Okavango Desert in Kenya. We see the animals and birds, desperately looking for water, grow thinner and hungrier as the dry season over ever larger expanses of land. Many die, their skeletons lying stark and unburied on the parched and cracked soil. Then dark black clouds appear on the horizon. The air, humid and heavy, fills the vast desert with an atmosphere of waiting. Everything changes with the first few raindrops. At first they are absorbed by the thirsty soil, as if it were drinking with an unquenchable thirst. Gradually the droplets come together to form a trickle of water which becomes a stream and then a fast flowing river. Dried-up watercourses change into raging torrents which chase forwards to fill the arid river beds which have seen no water for a year or more. Lakes appear as if from nowhere. Places which, only hours previously, were parched desert, suddenly attract, not only the thirsty wildlife, but also tiny shoots of green leaves. Flowers emerge as if by magic, piercing rock-hard clay with the same ease that snowdrops emerge through our own frost-hardened mud. The gift of rain transforms barren desert into a scene of exquisite beauty.

The famous Australian artist Sydney Nolan once spent a month living beside his country’s Western Desert when it received its first rainfall for many years. Every day he went out and painted what he saw. The result was a series of pictures of flowers, beautiful flowers which could only live where there was water. As the water evaporated and disappeared, so the plants withered, died and vanished from sight. Yet in the short time when they had water, flowers were pollinated, produced seeds and set them in the soil to await the next rain, however long it would take to appear.

I lived in Africa for 13 years. Of those years I spent one in Nigeria and 12 in Zambia. A Tanzanian friend once said to me, “We Africans begin to prepare the ground for cultivation long before there is any sign of rain. We know that God, if he is God, will send rain and we will have our crops. It may take time, but there will be rain because God is God.”

This year’s Women’s World Day of Prayer was prepared by the women of Egypt. They included an explanation of the Gospel reading which suggested that the Samaritan woman whom Jesus met at the well was not a promiscuous woman who only went to the well when nobody else was around so that she could escape from their criticism. It proposed instead, that she might have been someone who had suffered. It was entirely possible that her five husbands had died and, according to custom, she had been inherited by their nearest male relative. It was equally possible that the man with whom she was living could have been another male relative who had simply decided not to marry her. That suggestion is by no means as far-fetched as we, in our own society, might think. That the women of Egypt even thought of interpreting the Gospel in this way is a sign that the same situation is quite common and almost considered normal in their own environment.

This idea took me back to Zambia and the day that one of our staff was widowed. Margaret was our Deputy Matron and a gifted nurse and midwife. When her husband died of a heart condition, in accordance with her cultural tradition, along with the household goods, she was to be inherited by her husband’s cousin, an illiterate fisherman. Deeply worried, Margaret came to us and to the parish priest. We secretly helped her to find a new job in a nearby hospital and, at dead of night, drove her away from our village. By day, we quietly transferred as many as possible of her possessions to her new home before time ran out on us. Sadly, she had to count many household items as lost because her in-laws had already raided her house whilst she was at work. When her relatives came to take Margaret to her proposed new husband, they were told that we did not know where she was. Perhaps it was not true, but, in this situation, it was her only protection. Had we given them her new address, she would have been forcibly taken to their proposed destination, a grass hut in a distant fishing village in the middle of the swamps.

Sadly, in many societies, a woman has the same status as household belongings. She only has value in relation to her husband and her childbearing ability. If she is childless, it is not the husband’s fault, but hers. If he dies, as with Margaret, she is handed on to someone else. People will say that this is to ensure that she has someone to look after her and to protect her, but this reason has long been replaced by an unspoken wish to possess all that the married couple had gained during the husband’s lifetime. Margaret was a woman of education, outstanding ability and abundant commonsense. Her husband’s relatives saw her as an asset to the family economy, not as a grieving widow. They did not care that an illiterate fisherman, spending his life in the remote and beautiful Bangweulu swamps, was unlikely to be a suitable match for Margaret.

Margaret’s story re-echoes across many countries and cultures, including Egypt. That is why many women live in a personal desert. Images of women carrying water jars to a well make for beautiful photographs. A source of water is not always convenient for the home, however, especially during the dry season. So much time is needed to collect the water, that there is little space for rest and food doing those things which help a woman to reach her potential and to dream her dreams. Often, her dreams might be as simple as wanting not to go so frequently to the well. Perhaps she might also dream of being able to read and write, of having a career, of having a child who will live beyond infancy. One grandmother told me that so many of her children and grandchildren had died that she no longer had tears to shed. “I have wept so many times”, she said, “that my tears have dried up.”

Perhaps the Samaritan woman was a victim, trapped in a desert with no prospect of rain and no chance of living her own life. Her dream was of a source of water close enough for her not to need the well. It is a practical dream, one which transforms a village and gives women new dignity and respect.

Jesus gave the woman hope and the freedom to dream her dreams. He did not give her a new well in the physical sense and so, perhaps externally, her life changed little. Yet after talking to him, she could do the same jobs with a different outlook - and that made the difference. No longer was life a cup half-drained of tepid water, but a chalice, half-full of the richest wine. He transformed the desert  of her life into a flower-filled wilderness of loveliness.