At the beginning of April, one of the prescribed readings in the Methodist Church lectionary was taken from The Book of Lamentations in the Old Testament writings of the Bible. It seemed particularly appropriate for the dark times the world is living through at the moment.

There is much lament surrounding the Coronavirus pandemic. Thousands of people are ill; many, far too many, have died; countries’ economies are at a standstill as people endure the difficulties of lockdown, confined to their homes. It is a human reaction to lament, to grieve, at such a serious and widespread situation.

The author of Lamentations, Jeremiah “the weeping prophet”, had cause to lament. His nation of Judah had been defeated by the Babylonians, the Temple in Jerusalem destroyed, the people exiled. This had happened just as Jeremiah had predicted, a consequence of the people rebelling against God. The prophet’s tears were not for himself, but for his broken people.

But in the midst of all this sorrow, there was a bright ray of hope. In his darkest moment Jeremiah recalled God’s promise of future hope and restoration through his grace and unfailing love. He found a chink of light that turned his tears to praise as he recognised that God would always be faithful to his people.

The British soldiers who liberated the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp exactly 75 years ago on April 15th 1945 found much to cause them to lament. The veteran war reporter Richard Dimbleby gave a graphic account of the horrific scene that the soldiers encountered – bodies strewn on the ground, emaciated faces at the windows of the wooden huts, starved people too weak to come outside.

Belsen was the first visual confirmation of the Nazi persecution of the Jews. The stories of those who survived, and those who perished, deserve to be remembered in honour and retold in ways that inform us today.

Six million Jews died at the hands of the Nazis and their collaborators in the Holocaust. On April 20th their lives will be remembered worldwide in the annual Jewish remembrance day Yom HaShoah.

Many people who have lost relatives to Coronavirus are unable to grieve with their families and friends and share memories together while in lockdown. It is a time of lamentation for people and lives and time lost.

Jeremiah found some light in the darkness. The courage of Jewish Holocaust survivors, some still telling their stories today to inform the world of what took place and to guard against it ever happening again, is also a bright light shining in the dark.

The dedication of NHS staff and kindness of strangers during this pandemic is a beacon of light for all.

Let Jeremiah have the last word, for he found that even in the depths of his sorrow there was still reason to proclaim God’s unfailing love and grace.

Because of the Lord’s great love we are not consumed,

for his compassions never fail.

they are new every morning:

great is your faithfulness.

(The Book of Lamentations 3.22,23)

Loss, pain and hope – two inspiring books

Enforced incapacity due to a broken ankle has given me the opportunity to read these two books. They are very different, but both reflect some of the deep physical, practical and emotional challenges facing those who have to flee their countries, and are intensely moving.

Friends from church gifted me “The Beekeeper of Aleppo”, a fictional account of a Syrian couple’s harrowing journey from Aleppo to the UK. Nuri is a beekeeper, and Afra his wife, an artist. They live a simple life surrounded by family and friends in the beautiful city of Aleppo until war destroys the city and their home and their son is killed. Afra loses her sight, Nuri is threatened by militia, and they have to leave. Their journey is full of danger, deprivation and fear, and the impact of their loss is profound. Yet Nuri and Afra keep going, in the hope of refuge in the UK with their beekeeper cousin Mustafa.

Although this is a novel, the author Christy Lefteri, herself the daughter of Cypriot refugees, writes with authenticity. She bases her book on her time working as a volunteer at a Unicef supported refugee centre in Athens.

This is a compelling story, delicately and compassionately told. Read it, and be ready to be deeply moved.

In contrast, “No longer strangers” is a true story. Written by a persecuted Christian, Javed Masih, he tells how he was forced to uproot his family from their home in Pakistan and seek asylum in the Netherlands. Throughout the hardships they experience, the inhumanity of the bureaucratic process, the emotional and practical issues they have to face every day, the family find inspiration and encouragement through their faith and the life and teachings of Jesus Christ.

One example of the need for hope was when Javed, his wife Nasreen and two children found themselves at a new hostel, miserably cold and hungry in a tiny cramped room and desperately missing their home. The heating didn’t work, there was no food and Nasreen was forced to beg at reception for teabags so they could make themselves a hot drink. Then Javed reminded the family of the story of the nativity, of the lack of proper shelter and care for Mary, and Joseph. Despite the hard conditions, the glory of the birth of Jesus filled Mary and Joseph with happiness and thankfulness to God. Through the retelling of this Christian narrative, Javed and his family found hope and comfort to help them in their difficult situation.

While this book is a real and uplifting testimony to the family’s Christian faith, it is also an uncompromising account of the impersonal and often uncaring asylum process. Reading it gave me a better understanding not only of the complexities faced by asylum seekers but also of the tremendous courage and tenacity any asylum seeker needs to get through it all, whilst at the same time coping with the loss of their home, former life and country and the profound loneliness of being a stranger in a foreign land.

Europe’s “welcome” to refugees and asylum seekers has not always been wholehearted. Javed’s story shows the tremendous strength it takes to cope with a different way of life, an unknown language and a cold climate and should prompt us to do all we can to help.

Breaking the Ramadan fast

The IsIamic holy month of Ramadan ended last week. During Ramadan, Muslims do not eat or drink, not even water, from sunrise to sunset! That’s a very long time to go without food and drink – especially while still carrying on daily life. So breaking the fast at the Iftar meal at sunset is a special event.

I was honoured to be invited to share Iftar at the University of Surrey by the Muslim Chaplain Dr Husni Hammuda. The meal took place in a huge marquee and was hosted by the Surrey University Islamic Society. Hundreds of students, lecturers and guests broke their fast with dates and water before praying. Then followed a traditional meal of rice with chicken or a vegetarian option, women and men eating separately then ending with the evening prayer.

The students were in the middle of exams but most said that fasting was not difficult but concentrated the mind on revision without the distractions of mealtimes!

It was wonderful to see the friendship and sense of community among the students; the marquee was alive with chatter! I was made to feel very welcome – so hope to be invited back next year!