Hello everyone and welcome to this week’s video.
Clergy have a huge privilege in being granted access to some of the most emotionally intense periods of people’s lives. It's not just the obvious occasions such as baptisms, weddings and funerals. At other times pastoral ministry involves creating a listening space for people to unburden themselves. Many of us aren’t trained counsellors as such, but the simple act of being available to people for them to talk in confidence can of itself be therapeutic.
As a vicar, I remember talking to someone whose presenting issue was how he related to his family. (I hasten to add this story is anonymised and I have the person’s permission). His struggles proved to be related to a traumatic incident when he was growing up. The incident was so painful that he made the decision to guard his heart carefully. Of course, guarded hearts find it very difficult to love. The fear of further hurt always makes intimacy a challenge. He had over time reflected on this experience. The decision to follow Christ had a radical effect on him, allowing him to forgive in a way he hadn’t been able to before. It also allowed more perspective. He recognised the difficulties of his own parents’ background and how that had contributed to the situation. He could also see how the experience of grandparents during the trauma of the war had contributed to his own parents’ formation. All in all, his presenting issue was the tip of an iceberg, funnelled down through the generations. The transforming power of the Holy Spirit allowed the chain to be broken.
I’ve often struggled with the second commandment, recited as part of the Book of Common Prayer communion service. “for I the Lord your God, am a jealous God, punishing the children for the sin of the parents to the third and fourth generation of those who hate me, but showing love to a thousand generations of those who love me and keep my commandments.” At face value in the English translation it's amenable to a Richard Dawkins demolition job. A petulant and vengeful God taking out his anger on those who have the temerity to cross him. Unsurprisingly, the actual underlying Hebrew doesn’t say that at all. Jealous here is not spiteful revenge-seeking, but a passionate commitment to the good of the objects of God’s love. In the same way that a spouse might be jealous for a marriage relationship, or a parent jealous for a child. It’s a similar commitment to the good of the other. Similarly, the Hebrew idiom comparing the third and fourth to thousands is a way of contrasting God’s extravagant mercy and love with his justice. Mercy triumphs over judgement as James says in chapter 2:13 of his letter. There is also something here in the Hebrew way of seeing God’s agency behind every bad thing that happens, in a way that Jesus qualifies significantly in the Gospels. We are social beings, both sinned against and sinning. We might observe the children of alcoholics tend to become alcoholics, dysfunctional parenting rooted in childhood trauma seriously disadvantages children, and so it goes on from generation to generation, until something breaks the chain.
I’m recording this in the cloisters of the Cathedral. They are hundreds of years old, but even events here, long out of memory will affect our corporate life even today. This fact of human experience is often neglected in conversations about race. Many of us will think that because we aren’t prejudiced ourselves and have never consciously (and we hope unconsciously) acted badly towards someone on the basis of their skin colour or ethnic background, we can see racism as a problem for other people. But if we recognise the power of generational trauma it puts a different perspective on things. We are who we are as the cumulative result of behaviours done to us by our parents, who in turn were influenced by their parents, going back generations. If those experiences have been positive we are fortunate indeed. But for many people from a UKME background, discussions about slavery or colonialism are not simply history, they are an integral part of their lived experience. The
appalling trauma and abuse meted out to previous generations bleeds into the present. Christian love and empathy requires us to enter into that and understand it. But it's not just about interracial relationships, it applies to relationships between rich and poor, socio-economic groups, relationships between nations, even to domestic relationships between husband and wife.
If community is to be constituted at any more than a superficial level around some shared interests we need to be aware of these things. Jesus envisaged a community where social, racial and economic distinctions were abolished. He encourages us that we are truly one in Christ. If that is to be more than lofty idealism it requires us all to cultivate empathy and make allowances for one another. It takes a lot of work and commitment, but such a community says something profound about the love of God in a way no words really can. My prayer is that we can cultivate such a community in our churches. The Lord could do something remarkable with that.