It’s snowdrop season on Exmoor. As we will all have seen, scattered in clumps in our gardens, in hedgerows, in churchyards and, most magnificently in nearby Snowdrop Valley, snowdrops are poking their heads above the parapet of winter. William Wordsworth described the snowdrop as a ‘Venturous harbinger of Spring.’ Wordsworth’s friend Coleridge referred to it as, ’Thou timid flower.’ As we all know Wordsworth and Coleridge walked together over Exmoor – I wonder whether their words were inspired by a visit to Snowdrop Valley. Snowdrops are, indeed, nature’s surprise: on one day everything looks a muddy green, on the next, snowdrops are there smiling at us. They are beautiful flowers which have invoked much poetry, many stories and a multitude of myths. One remarkable aspect of them is that they are so fragile, but also resilient. They depend upon each other – security in numbers – to survive heavy frosts and downpours of rain and snow. Yet not only do they survive but they flourish.
Much around us, both at home and abroad, at the moment is looking and feeling very fragile. What will happen in Ukraine? Afghanistan is unravelling. Our own government is facing crises of its own and, on top of all of that, we have all, to a greater or lesser extent, been impacted by the pandemic. We have been deprived of the touch of our loved ones, especially at times of sickness and death, we have been confined to our own homes and there’s little point in making long-term arrangements.
The world cries out, ‘Fragility.’ We don’t like it. We long to move on to smoother, less choppy and more predictable waters. Fragility is an uncomfortable place to be and we like to avoid it –in many cases, rightly so. At the same time, fragility is part of what it means to be human and we cannot live life to the full unless we recognise, accept and sometimes even embrace our fragility.
Fragility is part of life. We smile and feel protective towards a young baby. We recognise its vulnerability and fragility and stretch out to protect and look after it. In a similarly protective way, we stretch out and support people in old age, too fragile to look after themselves or make their own decisions. We accept and understand these times of fragility, through which we all pass. But we are also confronted by fragility, often unexpectedly, at other times of life: there are crises that may hit any of us such as disappointment, betrayal, exploitation and loss. And sometimes, in the middle of life when we would usually be full of vigour and energy, we are confronted with our mortality with illness or death. But that’s the reality of life. As we are reminded at funeral services, ‘In the midst of life we are in death.’ Life is particularly fragile today. And it will continue to be so for some time.
But it’s not all bad news. Uncomfortable as it might be, recognising, accepting and even embracing our fragility which is part of being human can be positive and creative. At the heart of fragility is life. Fragility is like the shell of an egg…it is easily broken, but inside it contains new life. Potential and new possibilities can emerge from it. We heard in the Gospel reading that, even though we may not feel it, it is a blessed place to be. God has a particular concern for those in fragile places. We heard from the Gospel reading:
Blessed are you who are poor…..blessed are you who are hungry……blessed are you who weep…..blessed are you when people hate you, and when they exclude you and defame you…
All places of fragility. These words are not justifying injustice or oppression or exclusion, the Bible condemns these things, but it is saying that when we are fragile, for whatever reason, the God of justice, love and hope has a special concern for us.
We are encouraged to go further. Our fragility needs to be accepted, recognised and embraced but it needs to be balanced and supported if it is not to be broken as it hits the ground. I now turn to an unlikely ally in support of what I want to say. That unlikely ally is Sir John Major who, a few days ago, made a speech about the present crisis facing democracy. I don’t quote from the speech to make a political point, that’s not my concern, but I quote because of what he says about fragility. He speaks in an almost biblical way. So, I quote from the Gospel of John (Major):
Our democracy is a fragile structure: it is not an impenetrable fortress. It can fall if no-one challenges what is wrong, or does not fight for what is right.
The protection of democracy depends upon Parliament and the Government upholding the values we have as individuals, and the trust we inspire as a nation.
But these values cannot be partial; cannot be occasional; cannot be taken out and paraded for political convenience. They are eternal.
(10th Feb.2022 – Institute of Government)
In the speech he recognises that democracy is fragile, but he doesn’t want to stop it being fragile, that’s part of its essence, but wants to support and protect its fragility with: ‘Parliament and the Government upholding the values we have as individuals, and the trust we inspire as a nation.’
So, too, we don’t flourish if we are ‘impregnable fortresses’. The fragility in our lives needs to be balanced and protected. There are two places from which we can achieve balance and find that protection. First, we need the presence and support of others. It may be friends and loved ones who help us see our fragility in ways that build us up rather than overwhelm us. It may be through other views and voices that we encounter in art, literature, music, sport, hobbies or pastimes that help us see the world and ourselves differently. Secondly, faith can be a support as it removes the focus from ourselves, turns our gaze outwards and helps us respect and value others as we would like them to value and respect us. In other words, faith helps us respect the image of God.
These ‘venturous harbingers of Spring’, these ‘timid flowers’ that are visiting our lives at this time of year have much to teach us about fragility and resilience and flourishing.
Readings: I Corinthians 15.12-20; Luke 6.17-26.
Carhampton Church 13th February, 2022.
Image 1 – Snowdrop Valley, Exmoor
Image 2 – Samuel Taylor Coleridge and William Wordsworth
Image 3 – Kyiv (Kiev), capital of the Ukraine taken by Romankravchuk