30 June 2019
Revd Nicholas Mercer
In the middle of last week, we held a vigil at Bolton Priory.
It was a moving and powerful event
Joined by St Paul’s Manningham, we marked the United Nations Day to remember victims of torture
We spent an hour together in silence and prayer, listening to accounts from torture victims from around the world
Over fifty people attended, including many Iranian Christians, and we joined together to share lunch in the Rectory Garden after the service
It was wonderful act of fellowship and we felt empowered by our collective act of witness
Just the day before, we hosted the Diocesan clergy study day
Bishop Helen Anne posed the question “Who is my neighbour?”
But by contrast with the vigil, I am not sure we made very good progress……………………….
The Old Testament reading this morning tells us about Abram and his journey to the promised land of Canaan.
God says to him “Go from your country and your kindred…………..to the land I will show you”.
It is a truly remarkable story of an old man, who at the age of seventy five, obedient to the word of God, set’s off with his family to a foreign land
His whole life was uprooted and, as we heard from the story, his journey was by no means easy
Travelling to his destination, he became “an alien” in an alien land and
This sense of being uprooted and journeying to a foreign land is something many of us experience in our own lives, particularly mid-life
The Jesuit priest Gerald O’ Collins describes this as a “Second Journey”
A journey where “We are dragged away from chosen and cherished patterns to face strange crises”
And many of us will know exactly what this means
An illness, a bereavement, divorce, an encounter, a call from God can uproot our lives and take us somewhere we never expected
Since I have arrived in the parish, two parishioners have kindly lent me books
The first book was called “Bags to Blenders”
This was a story of a well-known business family who, in the course of their business life, have become involved in the Charlie Waller Memorial Trust
Charlie Waller was a kind and considerate young man who, at the age of twenty nine, took his own life,
The charity seeks to help those with mental illness
This is one of the scourges of our age and something of which all parents, particularly of teenagers, are acutely aware
The charity they founded seeks to:
- Encourage those who are depressed to seek help
- And to alert families, friends and employers to the risk
This encounter with a family friend took the author and his family to another land
Inhabited by those who were grieving and those who were struggling, in silence, with mental illness
The second book was called “Nevertheless”
This time it was about a man called John Kirkby, of whom some of you will have heard
He went bankrupt in his early life and lost everything, including his family
He went on to found an International Christian Ministry helping thousands of people trapped in debt and poverty.
He movingly said this in his book
“If you have ever been unsympathetic to a single parent or judged them for struggling, try it yourself for a couple of days. If you are a single parent, my heart goes out for you and I pray you will be strengthened as you try so hard alone. God knows your struggles and is there to help”
His journey through bankruptcy and divorce took him too to an alien land,
A land of bedsits, debt, single parents and benefits
The last place he expected to inhabit but he was invited to attend by God
There will be many, many more such examples within the parish
But, in the case of Keith Carmichael, he was working as a businessman in Saudi Arabia in the early 1980’s
Without rhyme or reason, he was interned in 1981 and remained in jail until 1984 without charge or trial.
For three months he was detained in solitary confinement and, during 857 days of arbitrary detention, he was subjected to gross mistreatment.
In an incident of aggravated assault, his spine was severely fractured.
He suffered other grave bodily injuries including psychiatric trauma,
Injuries that have affected him for the rest of his life.
I know him relatively well and he is still suffering today
But as, a result of his experiences, he founded a charity called Redress
The charity was to enable victims of torture to seek legal redress for the injuries they suffered
His journey took him to places most of us never want to visit.
Detention, solitary confinement, torture and impunity for those who carried out these heinous acts.
For my own part, I found myself wandering in the same land, alongside Keith, but having taken a very different route
As a relatively young army officer, I visited a Prisoner of War Camp in Um Q’sar in Iraq in 2003
Quite by chance that prisoners of war were being subjected to what are termed the five techniques
Techniques which were cleverly crafted after the British Colonial Wars when bodily injury was found to be evidentially inconvenient
The techniques are designed to exert maximum pressure on a prisoner during interrogation without leaving a mark on the body, often causing life- long psychiatric damage
Declared inhuman and degrading in 1978, they somehow, found their way back into British Military doctrine in the new millennia
In my naivety, I expected that we would treat our prisoners of war properly but you only have you look at our prisons today to see how we treat those we incarcerate
As Doskeyeski said “you can tell the health of a nation by the way it treats its prisoners”
Like Abram, in a sense, all those I have mentioned this morning have had their lives uprooted
Uprooted and “dragged away from chosen and cherished patterns to face strange crises”
We naively, perhaps, saw our lives continuing on an even keel until our inevitable demise
No one ever does
But none of us ever expected to inhabit the land of
- debtors and bedsits,
- suicide and mental health crises,
- torture and Iraqi prisoners of war.
But the land we went on to inhabit, the land into which we found ourselves peculiarly wandering, helps to answer the question posed by the Bishop earlier in the week
Who is my neighbour?
It is the debtor, the single mother, the grieving family, those with responsibility for our young people, the tortured and the prisoner
But it is more than that
Abram’s wanderings are part of a circuitous route he takes to the promised-land
A land promised by God for him and his descendants “to make them a great nation”
We too are invited to the promised-land where, in a sense, we are invited to join God at great banquet
The invitation that has been extended to all of us
By strange co-incidence, last Wednesday, after the vigil, we broke Iranian bread together (Sangat) with many who had also been tortured.
The picnic was overflowing with generosity
Our neighbours, the last people we expected to wander with, came and joined us
As our Lord said, “Come now, for everything is ready”
As we say in our communion together, each and every week
“Draw near with faith and receive the body of our Lord Jesus Christ”