On Saturday morning the local churches sang some Advent hymns and related songs in Stourbridge town centre. A street-seller engaged me in conversation and spent the next few minutes lamenting about our nation's current financial struggles and economic downturn during these recessional days. "It's going to hit us all very hard this Christmas". But looking around the shops and market stalls, traders were still busily trading and shoppers were still eagerly buying.
Later on, I then read a harrowing story in The Times about the ongoing plight of many folk in Zimbabwe. The article movingly described the Ncube family who live in the bushland of western Zimbabwe. They are just one family that represent many of the five million currently facing food shortages. They live in a thatched mud hut, one hundred miles away from any main population centre. They rely on nuts and berries to survive, for which they spend hours foraging in the bush each day. The father has recently had to bury their eldest daughter who died following severe stomach pains, caused by the berries she had eaten. Their two remaining children suffer from kwashiorkor, a bloating of the stomach, caused by severe malnutrition.
A local priest has offered help from his nearby church-run clinic. He described the growing crisis as "a silent tsunami", later adding: "I've seen too much suffering. We were never trained for this sort of priesthood. This is the priesthood of the concentration camps". The article also included a prayer he has prayed with the family:
"Lord, help us during these terrible times of hunger.
Give us hope and courage.
Heal these children.
Bring food to our fields and homes.
Show us your love!"
During our church services yesterday we will no doubt have used very similar words to the prayer above, despite living in a vastly different environment. Hope, courage, healing, love are familiar words in our intercessory prayer vocabulary, regardless of where in the world we live or who we share our lives with. Preparing intercessory prayers on a weekly basis is not always easy, particularly when we are not directly confronted with praying about where our next meal may come from or for a young child that is on the cusp of starvation. But pray we must. It is an eschatological longing for the coming Kingdom. Sometimes it feels like the actual words I use in intercessions probably sound nothing more than a half-hearted sentiment to send some warm wishes to those who just happen to be less 'lucky' or 'fortunate' than ourselves. Maybe in such cases, getting the right words isn't what matters: the Spirit carries forwards our inner thoughts and prayers, however inarticulate they may be, and offers them to the Father.
As we sang 'O come, O come, Immanuel' last night, the image of the Ncube family and the struggles for freedom and peace in Zimbabwe came into my mind.
"O come, Thou dayspring, come and cheer
Our spirits by thine advent here;
Disperse the gloomy clouds of night,
And death's dark shadows put to flight."
May Immanuel come to them.
(by Andy Scott)