18 January 2022

Reflecting on the journey

Sometimes our Christian journey requires alone-ness of us, and sometimes together-ness. When we maybe feel a little forlorn, it’s good to remember that we are one dot in a great company. Although it sometimes feels as if we are plodding through the boggy heath – like Bunyan’s pilgrim in the slough of despond – when the mists lift it turns out that there are many, many others all around whose presence we maybe hadn’t noticed.

Vice-President, Barbara Easton reflects on her time as President as she reaches the half way mark

A few years ago, "The Husband" and I found ourselves in a boggy, open heath in the middle of Estonia. We quite like birdwatching and nature, so this was just our cup of tea! The vast flat, wet landscape is something of a natural phenomenon as well as an important wildlife habitat, but it doesn’t make easy walking. We had to strap things like small tennis rackets onto our feet so that we could move at all but, even then, it was hard-going and there was always the danger of falling over in the mud.

Our young guide told us a story of her grandmother in the Communist era. The local people had always used the heath as an important source of berries in the autumn to make the jams that would see them through the coming year. Readers who go out picking blackberries from the hedgerows will know that you have to do it when the fruit is just ready and that you have to get in early. However, the local Party apparatchiks decided that this wasn’t fair, so they picked one Saturday which they designated ‘fruit-picking day’ and made it illegal on all the rest.

Our guide’s gran wasn’t having any of this so one foggy morning, when the fruit was ready, she set out alone, very early to pick bilberries. It was one of those days where you couldn’t see your hand in front of your face so, in the silence and solitude, she thought she could get away without anyone noticing. Into her basket went more and more berries. Imagine her astonishment then, when the sun came out and the mist lifted, to see that there were people all around her. In fact, the heath was full of people – all quietly getting on with it, picking their bilberries and thinking that no-one else would ever know. Each believed that they were entirely alone, and each was astonished to find out that they weren’t.

Almost half way into being Vice-President, people are asking questions that invite me to reflect on my experience. What have you learned? What are you noticing? Well, what I am noticing is that there is a lot more of us out there than we maybe think. We are becoming accustomed to stories of gloom and doom, of decline and closure and, don’t get me wrong, we are seeing that reflected in our travels. But I am also strongly seeing that, as Elijah discovered, ‘there are still 600 who have not yet bowed the knee to Baal’. There are people of faith all around us, getting on with the business of being a Christian. All over the country we are meeting dedicated people: leaders and members, creative-types and conventional-types in both pulpit and pew – and quite a few outside familiar church settings. We live in a world which likes to present itself as secular – when Sonia and I were doing our media training we learned that people in the media are twice as likely as the rest of the population to be non-religious. Maybe that enhances our feeling, like Elijah, that "I alone am left". And that can be quite dispiriting. But take courage – there’s more of us than we think!

One of the places I have been as Vice-President is to represent the church was to COP26 in Glasgow. I was at the front of the "faith" section of the massive March for the Climate, helping to carry the banner on behalf of the Methodist people. Alongside me were companions from the breadth of Christian tradition and new friends from other faiths, more and less familiar – I have never met so many Ba’hais! You can probably imagine that, as it was November, it got pretty wet and cold, with a biting wind. I confess that, after three hours or so of mostly standing still, soaking and gripping the banner, I began to feel more than a bit miserable. "There’s 100,000 people here", I thought. "What would it matter if I went back to my hotel room and made a cup of tea?"; "It isn’t really important whether I am here or not – if I go home there’ll still be 999,999 people. Me being here doesn’t make any difference…". As I reflected on this I realised that, of course, it does. If each of those 100,000 people had gone home and not bothered then there wouldn’t have been a march at all and the popular cry for climate justice would not have rung out across the world. That 100,000 people is made up of many individuals, all faithfully doing the right thing, on their own but alongside so many others.

Barbara at COP26 (bottom row second from right)

As the day went on, the fellowship of others on the journey became really important. Chatting with friends old and new cheered the way; someone I’d never met before lent me dry gloves for a while and a young lad, in echoes of the gospel story, shared his packet of Penguin biscuits with the crowd. I remember what Wesley said about the importance of mutual support, and "watching over one another in love" in the close, intentional fellowship of Methodist societies. I hope that, at other moments on the journey, my presence was encouragement to others(!). But I know for a fact that, when I see the pictures of the great crowd on the telly, I can be proud to say, "I was there. One of those little dots is me".

Sometimes our Christian journey requires alone-ness of us, and sometimes together-ness. When we maybe feel a little forlorn, it’s good to remember that we are one dot in a great company. Although it sometimes feels as if we are plodding through the boggy heath – like Bunyan’s pilgrim in the slough of despond – when the mists lift it turns out that there are many, many others all around whose presence we maybe hadn’t noticed. Sometimes, we really do need to follow a more solitary path. Still, we are never alone. And the words of Joshua resonate with me – whether I am swimming with the tide or against the tide, "As for me and my house, we will serve the Lord".

Barbara Easton, Vice-President of the Methodist Conference, 2021-22.

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