I read the Archbishop of Canterbury’s book, ‘Reimagining Britain’ a week or two ago, and one phrase in particular stuck with me, it wasn’t part of the main content, which is broadly a brief analysis of the state of the nation and the loci where our society could start mending/ rebuilding and suggestions of ways the Church and Christian Faith generally may be able to speak into that brokenness.
No, what stuck with me was a phrase that the Archbishop recalled when speaking to a fellow bishop from the Democratic Republic of Congo… he had asked the Bishop how many refugees there were in his diocese, and the answer… around 2,000,000. Two million people having fled violence and without a settled community. Two million. In one small, economically and socially unstable area.
The Archbishop was understandably struck by this…
‘What do you do in the face of such unmeetable needs?’ he asked.
‘We do what we can, with God’s help,’ was the reply.
Unmeetable needs. That line struck a chord. I wondered how I could possibly minister under those circumstances, with 2,000,000 people in constant and urgent need of help, support, and community… would I stay hopeful? I couldn’t imagine it, that scale of need.
But on a smaller scale, every day there are unmeetable needs… like the awful hollow grief of the whole school who lost a young staff member in a car accident last week. The young man who died, only 19, was well liked by all and had barely begun a life of service and encouragement to the next generation, something sorely needed in this community. He was also the son of another staff member. A brokenness and pain that can’t be fixed and can’t be rushed, and cannot be denied.
Unmeetable needs… like the young couple who find themselves endlessly homeless, unable quite to hold themselves on an even keel long enough to contact the council, claim the support, find the flat and sign the lease, without disaster, crisis or their dramatic personalities and drugs needs overtaking them. So many babies taken into care… and so many pets they won’t give up, even if landlords demand it. Even accessing the support services with help, they often can’t get their heads clear enough to make use of it, and when their heads clear they start to bicker like children… it’s hard to tell if they even know what they want, or if perhaps they don’t want to start coping because then they’d have time to remember all that is passed, and instead maybe they are trying to sleepwalk into oblivion? Brokenness that maybe can’t be fixed, because it would reveal so many other pains?
And I go, and I ‘be’ there… and I listen, I cry with them or encourage, sometimes I try to help them think about it in alternative ways, to see if they can change around the pieces of their puzzle and somehow make things fit a little. But mostly I just meet with them, at the place of unmeetable needs, at the crossroads.
In fact that is often all I can do, I stand at the crossroads, whilst others come limping or burdened, and they stop, and talk… And then they move on… still limping, still burdened, but sometimes they have rested their limbs, or set down their burden for a while. And they often leave me with a smile, which always feels like they have given me more than I have given them. And I pray, I pray sometimes with them, but more often I pray after they have left… I pray that they will receive what they need and get to wherever they are meant to go; and I hope earnestly that God hears me… because I cannot meet any of their needs, and standing emptyhanded in the place of unmeetable needs is excruciating.
When I meet Christ in the world to come, maybe I will ask him,
‘Why was it, when you knew how much I wanted to help with all the pain and sorrow, that you called me to be so helpless? Why didn’t you call me to be a vet or doctor to heal? Why didn’t you call me to be a farmer or builder to feed and shelter, or a psychologist or schoolteacher to enable and strengthen… ? Why did you call me to be there at all the times when no-one can help, and to be the one who doesn’t help, but stands there watching others gathering and passing by in pain and sorrow? To hurt for them and cry for them and not be able to make it better?’
I know what kind of thing he’ll say… ‘You saw where I made my stand when I called you to follow me.’