Margaret Reeson, (2003), Insights Magazine: May 2003, Uniting Church NSW & ACT Synod: Sydney.
This time it was not a party game. Most of us have played, at some time, the game of ‘What six books would you take to a desert island?’ or ‘What three things would you rescue from your house in a crisis?’
This time it was real. I was one of many who walked through my home in the days of ‘high alert’ during the period of bushfires in south-east NSW and the ACT in January, deciding what to take and what to leave. In work places, churches and other meeting places we asked each other ‘So, what did you pack?’ or ‘What were you able to save?’
It was a sobering experience. In the height of the firestorm in Canberra suburbs, people who escaped with their lives were thankful for that. Everything else, or almost everything, was gone. In many other households as the threat of fire continued, people made choices. Cars were loaded, just in case. Photo albums. Heirloom jewelry. A computer with vital business records. A piece of cherished art or hand craft. A rare book. We realised how many things in our homes were simply ‘stuff’.
A woman who had experienced the loss of her home in fire a few years ago advised her friends as fires approached. ‘Just take a change of clean undies, your identity documents, and comfortable shoes. Leave the rest.’ (One friend who followed the advice discovered when the crisis was over that her shoes were comfortable – but odd.)
Even though most of us were able to unload the car later and to put everything away again, it had been a thought-provoking time. What do we value? What can we live without? What really matters?
A young traveller limits the load in the backpack, leaving most things behind. A homeless man keeps one or two things he values, even when most other things have gone. A refugee abandons a whole world of experience and clings to surviving family. An older couple is moving into a much smaller home and must shed many of the treasures of a lifetime. An athletic woman gradually loses her physical strength as illness overcomes her. A distinguished academic drifts into the narrowed world of dementia. A victim of war grieves over unimaginable loss.
The famous passage from 1 Corinthians 13 is often associated with weddings and the rich description of real love it offers. Yet it also points out that many things we value will one day be stripped from us.
‘Everyone who prophesies will stop, and unknown languages will no longer be spoken. All that we know will be forgotten. We don’t know everything and our prophecies are not complete. But what is perfect will some day appear, and what isn’t perfect will then disappear… For now there are faith, hope and love. But of these three, the greatest is love.’ (I Corinthians 13: 8-10,13 CEV)
Prophesy, spiritual gifts and knowledge will be taken from us. Arguments over who is right in their interpretation of scripture will no longer matter. Questions of academic achievement, or seniority of rank or our ‘rights’ evaporate into nothing. Differences that have brought us to verbal blows or into the law courts become meaningless. Church structures in every possible configuration will not matter any more. Even church committee meetings, church rosters, church rules and worry over church finances will one day cease.
What is left? ‘For now there are faith, hope and love.’ Our love for others, and when even that fails, the knowledge that we are loved by God.
My grandmother lived into very old age and in her final months she was frail, bedridden, very deaf, losing the strength to communicate. She had shed the accumulations of an active lifetime. My father used to read the Psalms, and pray with her. More than once she surprised my parents, when the prayer spoke of the love of God through Jesus Christ, with a firm ‘Amen!’. And Amen to that.