Revd Richard Bromley, Mission Director of ICS (Intercontinental Church Society), explores this week’s lectionary epistle, Hebrews 11.1-3, 8-16.
To get the best from this lectionary reflection you might want to follow this link, to Watersky by Jeff Johnson and Phil Keaggy and allow it to play as you read.
On a visit to Amsterdam, my daughter and I went to the Van Gogh museum to see a new exhibition. Of course, the centre piece was his ‘Starry Night’, painted in the asylum in St Remy in 1889. Van Gogh wrote at that time that he often felt the night to be ‘more richly coloured than the day’. Unable to go outside at night he painted the Starry Night from memory. We had to buy a print that now takes pride of place on the wall of my lounge.
Vincent Van Gogh: The Starry Night
The writer of Hebrews, having written of Christ and his work has moved to our response and now, reaching his peak in chapter 11, pronounces: ‘Now faith is confidence in what we hope for and assurance about what we do not see’. He goes on to develop what this faith looks and feels like.
By faith we have confidence in his invisible hand at work (11.3), all is not chaos, however the news reads, family life feels or the latest development on Brexit looks.
By faith we obey the call to go, even though we realise later we did not really know where we were going or what it would be like when we got there. If we had known, we may not have left. But this is what it means to be a pilgrim (11.4).
By faith we make our homes in other lands, realising this world is not our home. We find ourselves integrating into and forming community, making friends, working, playing and serving. We seek the good for our host countries, they become ‘our home’ because God has brought us here (11.9).
The Daily Telegraph’s Helen Brown commenting on Van Gogh’s ‘Starry Night’ explains how the painting ‘maintains an electric tension between ecstasy and melancholy’. It is wonderful, but at the same time is dreadful. Don McLean wrote of the painting ‘It makes you glad to be unhappy,’
This time of year, in chaplaincy life there is a sense of the ecstasy and melancholy. It is the summer holidays, we go places, see family and have time to pick up a book or paint a picture. It is also the time some of our friends have packed their bags and returned home or to their next assignment, being less confident where home really is. We are aware of people returning for family, for work, or for financial reasons. We know people moving on as the journey leads them somewhere else. We know people delighted to leave, others with a torn heart.
In Cyprus, where we lived for a time, we marked this time of year with our church young people. On the last evening they were all to be together we took them to the beach in Larnaca, we played games and laughed in the evening sun. As the sun went down and the stars came out, we sat in a line with our feet in the sea, lapping at our toes. I read them today’s lectionary reading from Hebrews 11, emphasising v 12 and 13, ‘And so from this one man, and he as good as dead, came descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky and as countless as the sand on the seashore. All these people were still living by faith when they died. They did not receive the things promised; they only saw them and welcomed them from a distance, admitting that they were foreigners and strangers on earth.’
God had brought us together and then scattered us. It is a painful experience, especially for the Chaplain, who ‘starts again’ every year in a way not normal in an English parish. But these stars are sent out, we as chaplains and chaplaincies rarely get to see the impact we have had. The faith which we have created and the space to grow and develop in, the changes that are wrought in people’s lives in their time with us.
Occasionally a well-known person (Archbishop Justin) appears who was nurtured in one of our chaplaincies, but there are, like the stars in the sky, people who have been impacted, developed, grown in faith in chaplaincies who we will never really know about it until we get to that better country spoken of in verse 16, where God greets us in the place he has prepared for us.