I have spent half of the last month away from my office, touring churches and projects in Counties Down, Antrim and Derry. In many ways, the things people have told me, as we have met in their homes, or places of work, have not been a great surprise.
Local councillors lament what they see as lack of support from central government. Small business owners lament what they see as lack of support from local councils. Some farmers lament what they see as a set of perpetually moving goalposts, rendering many of their commercial activities uneconomic. Healthcare workers in hospitals are exhausted, and in need of some love. They are genuine heroes – as are teachers and classroom assistants in our schools.
There is genuine frustration that the Northern Ireland Executive has stopped functioning. A few folk have told me that they are fed up with politics and politicians. They see lies and deceit in high places, especially London, and wonder at the gullibility of an electorate which tolerates it. When trust in leaders erodes, the whole of society gets sick.
I heard differing views on Brexit and the Protocol, some more passionately expressed than others. The same was true if the topic of a ‘New Ireland’ came up. With such a diverse set of opinions in the pews before me, as I led worship over the weekends of these tours, I wanted to step away from the expectation that I reinforce one stance over another.
That is not what the Church is for. And here is the really great thing about the Christian gospel, fully expressed in the Easter story of hope. No matter what your politics, tradition or background, or indeed your experience of trauma, stress and concern, God’s extraordinary love trumps them all.
So, as my wife and I walked with Street Pastors in the late evening chill in one of our larger towns, the talk wasn’t “whose church is best” or “what do you believe about this or that?” It was offering a drink of water to a lad who needed it, or some reassurance to a girl who was trying too hard to be accepted by her peers.
These small acts of kindness offered every week without fail, authenticate grace in the minds of a generation who don’t see it demonstrated often enough by the rich and powerful. It was watching the meticulous work of a volunteer stacking shelves with tins of peaches at the back of a church building, because their foodbank was about to open.
The fact that we need foodbanks at all is of course scandalous and a major social and political issue, which needs to be addressed head on. But the fact that we are able to run foodbanks all over the place, stocked by voluntary donations and staffed by ordinary people giving up their time without fanfare or publicity, is a miracle of practical Christian care. I was so proud and humbled to watch them at work.
Easter explains that God pushes back the frontiers of evil and death. Good Friday’s story of death gave way to Easter Sunday’s story of new life. We live, and then die – but Christ died, and then lived.
This reversal of the natural order which Christians celebrate with their call and response: “Christ is Risen! He is risen indeed!” describes much more than a remarkable moment in history. We see a glimpse of the world working in a wholly different way. In such hope, we offer a cup of cold water in his Name, and lend a hand to stack the shelves of a foodbank.
Christ is risen. He is risen indeed!