When we are stuck

I just managed to catch the 17.07 to Lime Street from Euston. Then, just ten minutes later, at 17.27 this Virgin tweet appeared in dramatic block capitals.  “NEW: ALL CUSTOMERS TO ABANDON TRAVEL. Awesome.

Soon our train pulled up at Milton Keynes Central – and stayed there, along with other pendolino trains.  A thoughtful decision by Virgin – you could always get off rather than be stuck between stations.

Amazingly I discovered that Jennie’s husband, Ewan, was just five miles away, about to leave work.  He could give me a lift to Bedford, where I could spend the night and meet up with granddaughter Neve.  PTL.

As I gathered my possessions to leave, my fellow passengers looked at me wistfully.  One asked: “How many bedrooms does your daughter have?”  They knew they were in for a long night – and there was nothing they could do about it.  They eventually made Lime Street at 2.30 am.

There’s nothing worse than being trapped, deprived of choice – in whatever context.  In fact, this feeling of loss of control is one of the main causes of stress and lack of wellbeing.  This is especially so of the workplace where mindless routine has been shown to more stressful than carrying heavy responsibility.

Many of the Psalms speak about such loss of control., often using the now familiar image of flood waters.  “I sink in the miry depths, where there is no foothold. I have come into the deep waters; the floods engulf me.” (Psalm 69:2).  We all have this fear of being swept along by events, overwhelmed, losing our footing.

I remember being bowled over by the opening chapters of “Love’s Endeavour, Love’s Expense,” a remarkable book by Bill Vanstone, who had been a vicar up the road from me in Rochdale.

Canon Vanstone observes that for the first part of Mark’s Gospel, Jesus is invariably the subject of the verb.  Jesus teaches, Jesus heals, Jesus prays,  Jesus reaches out his hand.  He is in control.

Then comes Gethsemane when Jesus tells his disciples that he is about to be betrayed (literally: handed over) into the hands of sinners (Mark 14:41).  He now becomes the object in the sentence. So Judas kisses Jesus, the soldiers seize Jesus, they mock Jesus and above all, they crucify Jesus.  And you can’t get any more loss of control when nailed to a cross.

And yet.  And yet the cross of Jesus changes everything, the most powerful act in the history of the universe, when it seemed he could do nothing, not even breathe.

It is the apostle Paul who develops this understanding of Jesus being handed over.   I have just read in this morning’s BRF notes 1 Corinthians 11.  In verse 23 he writes: “the Lord Jesus, on the night he was betrayed, took bread. .  .”  A more literal (and accurate) translation is the Lord Jesus, on the night he was handed over.  These are significant words in helping us understand how the cross works.

Now Paul is not thinking of Judas here – it is no less than God himself who hands Jesus over into the hands of sinful people.  The cross – against every appearance –  is God’s intention, his purpose. He does the handing over.

So the apostle can write to the Romans: ‘He who did not withhold his own Son, but handed him over for all of us, will he not with him also give us everything else?’ (8.32).

This may seem all very theological but the bottom line is that God can use us (even use us best) when we feel trapped, hemmed in, imprisoned.  Paul did some of his most fruitful ministry when chained up in some Roman gaol.  It didn’t seem to faze him – he knew how God operated.

So the apostle can write
to the Philippians: “I want to report to you, friends, that my imprisonment here has had the opposite of its intended effect!” (1:12).

And this has huge implications, especially if you are lumbered with my personality type and hate being in a long queue at Morrison’s or held up in heavy traffic.  Strangely and in a way we don’t really understand, God can use us most powerfully when we feel most powerless.  Hold onto that.  I may have lost control but God hasn’t.