I’m not generally one to panic or worry that much, but I’ve been thinking more about the recent looting/riots in Birmingham and how anxious I felt. After the night where my local shops were looted, I was reluctant to leave the house and head into Handsworth for a prayer meeting. That next night, three Asian guys were killed and I followed updates on tumblr and other sites with interest verging on paranoia. A couple of nights later I did go to an event in Handsworth Park but found that their main speaker had stayed away because of the violence, which made me feel a bit less of a scaredy-cat. I found it really hard to balance what was wise with what was acting out of fear.
Even after nights without further trouble, I still felt quite unsettled and a lack of peace. Only a few nights into my stay on the remote Scottish island of Iona did I properly relax. I felt like I had a shadow of some kind of post-traumatic stress, despite not being that directly affected. The scenes in London had been a lot worse, and had massive personal consequences for some people who lost homes and livelihoods. Families in London, Croydon and Birmingham grieved for relatives who were killed.
Reflecting on all this from my distant Scottish idyll I was challenged to remember some of the friends who couldn’t afford to get away from Birmingham, including some asylum seeker friends who had fled situations where violence is a much more everyday threat. Perhaps I’d had just a glimpse of what it must be like to live in a volatile situation where violence between different groups is frequent and where being on edge is arguably a survival strategy. It made me think how exhausting it must be, how high stress. In the last nights there has been further violence in Jos in Nigeria, with conflict between Muslim and Christian communities as well as heavy action by the security forces. Reports say over 1000 people have been killed in the area over the past two years, and even these numbers are low when compared to some of the violence witnessed in countries such as D R Congo and Rwanda over the past decades.
Whether the threats we face are real, exaggerated or imagined, worrying about them surely only increases stress and suffering. Jesus gave clear advice against worrying, arguing that it cannot add a single hour to our lives and in fact, given what we know now about stress-related illness, it probably reduces life-expectancy. Earlier in the same sermon, Jesus taught his disciples to pray what we now know as the Lord’s Prayer. Taking some time to meditate on this passage while I was on Iona, the main thought that struck me was how God already knows. Already knows what we need and already knows whatever situations we are experiencing. Already knows what we are going to say and already knows what we are thinking and are not going to say.
This might make some people question the point of prayer. I guess I think it’s more for my benefit than God’s. It pushes me to acknowledge how things are in his hands and in many cases out of my control. Perhaps some people pray in a way that just repeats worries, but we are cautioned against babbling on, with the Lord’s Prayer offering a simple example of glorifying God, asking for his will, for his forgiveness and trusting him with our needs. Trusting in God must surely be the only way that people who are persecuted for their faith manage to find strength to carry on. If you are confident of God’s goodness after death then there is less to fear in dying.
I guess it all makes me think I have a lot to learn, in trusting God and in appreciating the many blessings I daily take for granted. Over the weekend as I walked around a pleasant and mainly sunny Handsworth I prayed for my local community and wondered what I can do to bring more peace and unity between different groups. But I also feel challenged to consider the needs of our wider world, including some of the communities represented by those who have moved to Handsworth by choice, following family or out of dire necessity. There’s a prayer in a book in Iona Abbey based on one from the United Reformed Church:
Come to our world
of military might
and political blindness
to overturn our tired ideas
of power and glory, and cry
over our cities, our refugee camps,
our bombs, our greed,
our superficial values,
until your wisdom
invades our understanding.
Amen to that.