Service of Thanksgiving for 25 years of Helen House, Oxford
Saturday 27th October 2007A sermon given by the Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams, at a service held in Christ Church Oxford celebrating Helen House Children's Hospice.
How do you manage to live with some kind of faith and hope when the future for you and the people you most love is completely out of your control? When all you could possibly hope for seems to have been taken away? Or, to put the question another way, how do you live with some sort of freedom when everything is moving inexorably towards loss and pain?
Every hospice seeks to provide a practical answer to that kind of question. The whole of the hospice movement is about the discovery of freedom in the midst of all sorts of constraints and threats, most often in the face of the inevitability of decline and death. The care and skill that is shown in the life of the hospice is all in the service of freedom – creating a climate where you can get on with being human and loving and intelligent even when the world seems to be closing in. We're tempted so much of the time to be mesmerised by our own weakness and mortality, to sit and gaze at the brick wall; or else we're tempted to pour out our energy in anger and protests. And in the face of all this, the ministry of the hospice says, 'There is space for you to experience something different from either anger or apathy.' The feeling of being paralysed may come back again and again, and so may the rage. But they don't have to be everything.
Yes. All very well when you can just about cope with an adult facing prolonged suffering or premature death – but it has always been the suffering and death of children that has most savagely challenged what believers want to say about the possibility of living freely or hopefully. Children's hospices surely ought to be the hardest, most draining places of all in which to nourish freedom or hope. And yet, while no-one can deny or ignore the uncompromising challenge in the background of everything, what you remember and value in places like Helen House and Douglas House isn't any sensation of constant strain but a steadiness of positive purpose and an intensity of surprising joy.
And if you ask why, I suppose part of the answer would have to be that a place like this takes completely seriously the biblical axiom that a thousand years with the Lord are like a single day – with its implication that 'with the Lord', in the presence of a timeless and unconditional love, a single day is like a thousand years. What matters isn't the measure of time available, short or long, but the depth of value given to each moment. In the care of a child whose future can look and feel like a brick wall, it somehow becomes all the more urgent and important not to sit paralysed or to waste energy in anger, but to approach each day as if it were indeed a thousand years. Each moment matters; each moment has to be lived in with thought and feeling alike. And the strange thing is that just where faith ought to be most under pressure, it is faith that offers the resource to give this value, this depth to the unique moment.
Jesus once said to his followers, 'Don't think about tomorrow'. I don't believe that he was saying, 'Stop planning, stop trying to make things better.' Helen House and Douglas House have depended a lot on people who have given their skill not only in face-to-face care but in planning and fundraising and making the work known. But Jesus is certainly telling us that freedom comes when we are living in the real world, not the unreal one. And living in an unreal world is trying to live in the future – whether that means living in fantasies that everything will be all right after all or in turmoil and anxiety about how terrible it might be and how we might feel if and when disaster came. No: we are to live in the only reality we can be sure of, which is here and now – sometimes wonderful, sometimes almost unbearably demanding, but real. And it's when we discover in this here and now that there is room for more than we ever thought, room for joy and for the intense awareness of unique moments with unique people, that we perhaps begin to see where a hope for the future comes from that is not fantasy.
It's been said often enough, but it bears saying again, that what places such as Helen House and Douglas House offers isn't an answer to the agonising questions of why suffering comes in such dreadful forms to children and young people; instead it offers something stronger and deeper than any explanation. It offers a place to stand, a place to live. It says that we do not have to be imprisoned by a future closing in that is full of fear. If we go more and more deeply into the experience of each moment, there is a stillness at the heart of all storms; and out of that stillness, we find strength to celebrate, even if we don't quite know at times what we are celebrating. Perhaps it's simply the knowledge that, if there is this stillness and this joyful absorption in the present moment, there is always more in our situation than we ever guessed or could guess when nearly everything we see points to distress and loss. And we may begin to sense why faith speaks of something that death itself can't touch.
Jesus – quite unlike anyone else in his historical setting – said plainly, in the gospel story we're just heard, that we had to learn from children. We still find it difficult to believe that he was serious; and we live in a culture where there are all too many signs that we really don't take children seriously, and that we are content to turn our backs on their deepest troubles and challenges. But what exactly are we supposed to learn? One thing, surely, is that children don't experience time the way grown-ups do: it may be the complete absorption in something profoundly enjoyable or fascinating that makes them late for things – 'For the last time - your dinner's on the table!' 'Coming...' It may be the unspeakable boredom that makes an empty half an hour an eternity of anguish – 'What shall I do?' But it's a sort of picture of the day that feels like a thousand years and the thousand years like a day. It's what happens when a child just gives himself or herself over to what's there.
And what Jesus seems to want us to grasp is that this is the way to freedom – and perhaps even more, that this is a reflection of one dimension of God's own attitude to us and the world. For God, there are no big and little people, no more and less important, no older and younger: there are only unique, once-off bodies and spirits, each one deserving unbounded love. And for God there are no periods of time that are too short to care about, no lives that are insignificant because they last a few hours or a few years. There is only the time in which God walks alongside each of these unique, treasured beings.
At Helen House and Douglas House, we are able to join with God for a while in walking alongside these treasures. We are summoned to share for a while that child's sense of time – which is also the most mature attitude that human beings can achieve. And today we thank God that this walk has been possible, that this witness has been given – not only a response to what was literally a crying need twenty five years ago, but a call to the whole Church and the whole human family to remember what they're meant to be: communities where unlikely freedom happens, where faith and hope and love show their strength in the face of what could so easily look like the greatest defeats. So may the God whose loving energy inspires Helen House and Douglas House help us all to grow into that freedom, to take the time we need to enter into each moment with each person we encounter; to find and live in the space that the endless patient love of God opens for us in life and death and beyond.
© Rowan Williams 2007