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Wisdom amid the Platitudes


'I pray in vain for wisdom amid the platitudes of Thought for the Day’. Last Sunday the Observer carried an opinion piece which took aim at the representatives of organized religion in the media. The regular columnist, Catherine Bennett, can be a cynical but clever sniper and this time she had the BBC’s daily ‘God-slot’, Thought for the Day, (TFTD) in her sights. Her particular complaint was the platitudinous responses on TFTD to Putin’s invasion of Ukraine and the war that has raged now, through the forty days of Lent. She had listened to almost all the broadcasts since the invasion and was, predictably perhaps, disappointed. One of her targets was the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby. She remembered that Welby had in 2016 invited the Putin-blessing pro-war leader of the Russian Orthodox Church, Kirill, to Lambeth Palace.


Some of Bennett’s criticisms are no doubt valid. Some of the contributions are rather anaemic. But it’s particularly difficult to say something meaningful in three and a half minutes - at any time, but especially when breaking news calls for a rewrite at short notice. Bennett complains about some of the empty words uttered in response to the barbarities committed on Ukrainian soil in the last fifty days. In one sense, she has a point - the only proper responses to such human suffering might be silence, tears, anger, anguish, lament. But none of these work very well on broadcast morning radio with an audience trying to kickstart their day.


On this Good Friday, what words might we offer in response to the suffering of the Ukrainian people? Maybe all that is available to those of us powerless to actually do anything is, like the women, to stay by the Cross and bring physical comfort to victims when and where we can. The Passion story shows that sometimes the only appropriate response to violence is witness and solidarity: ‘staying by’ in empathetic observation and silence. We are wise if we do not offer our own platitudes on the massacres of which we hear daily.


On a very small scale but very large to us, of course, our own family has had some dark days during the three weeks and two days since the birth of our fourth grandchild. Dominic has multiple health challenges. An operation on his bladder and kidneys at eight days confronted us all with the possibility of imminent loss. He is more stable now and we’re praying for some ‘boring’ days where he grows and develops some strength to face the inevitable health challenges ahead of him.


Catherine Bennett seeks ‘answers to all the awfully big questions beyond the speaker’s declaration of faith’. In the darkness of some recent days, we were reminded once again that faith - the following of our deepest instincts and experience - is all any of us has. And everyone has faith in something - if it’s not God, it may be science, medicine, fate, an organisation or even themselves and their own ability to ‘get through’.


The underlying teaching of the Passion is that darkness never succeeds in extinguishing light permanently. No God-slot or sermon can ever do justice to that idea. At the heart of Good Friday are not words but an extraordinary life violently cut down. To receive that life and see the flickering light it throws is an act of faith to which no words can do justice.

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