This morning I was doing the first of two Confirmation Services today and preached about Paul’s story (and our own distinctive story) from Galatians 1. Considering Saul’s conversion on the road to Damascus, but beginning with my own story of coming to faith as a child in Liverpool, I was trying to encourage the congregation to consider how they have been met by God in a way that brought life in the midst of death. Every person’s story is unique and God never seems to replicate his encounters in ways that make them susceptible to engineering or formulaic repetition. (Which is why I am sceptical of the many ‘health and wealth’ preachers who advertise themselves around London…)
Driving home afterwards, I was thinking about how the media narrative that lazily trots out unchecked ‘church in decline’ or ’emptying pews’ language should be embarrassed by the reality that lots of people are becoming Christians and affirming their commitment publicly. Most confirmations I do are for adults these days and candidates often have remarkable stories to tell of how they have come to this point. 18 this morning and a load more this evening. Week in, week out, I find myself baptising and confirming adults and young people.
What interests me today, however, is the uniqueness of their stories and a particular story I read a couple of days ago. Joanna Robertson wrote for the BBC’s From our own Correspondent an article entitled ‘Setting the memory of Holocaust victims in stone’. Basically, in Berlin brass cobblestones are appearing in the pavement outside buildings and houses in the city. These brass stones bear the names of Jews who lived in these places before being removed and sent to their deaths in Hitler’s Final Solution.
In fact, this isn’t new. I walked round Hamburg a couple of years ago with German friends and these stones appeared everywhere we walked. It struck me then that this is almost more powerful than simply putting up hundreds of names together on a single memorial in a town centre. It becomes impossible to take in the enormity of the crime and the loss when hundreds or thousands of names are put together in a single place. The names blend in and become anonymous to those who had no other connection with them.
But, when you walk down city streets and every step you take seems to place your foot against yet another brass Stolperstein (literally, stumbling block) bearing the name, dates of birth/death of a dead Jew… and the nature of their fate (‘murdered’, ‘suicide’, ‘killed while trying to escape’, etc.), it brings it powerfully home that each individual counted – that each one had a name, a story to tell, a home from which they were ripped out, a family that was destroyed like vermin. Their stories might be largely forgotten now; but they themselves cannot be forgotten because these stumbling blocks cannot be ignored.
This need to re-member the story and to dignify the individuals involved is rooted in the Judaeo-Christian fundamental conviction that human beings have infinite worth – not because other people happen to say they do, but because they are ‘made in the image of God’ (Genesis 1:27). According to this conviction, every human being is valuable, and Christian ethics start at that point. Therefore, every story of every person deserves dignity.
Just before laying hands on a candidate and confirming him/her, I look them in the eyes while I say the set words:
[Name], God has called you by name and made you his own.
Each one needs to hear that clearly. And behind it lie the stories of people in the Gospels whose experience of religion told them they were worth little or nothing (ritually unclean women, for example)… until they met Jesus and he restored to them their value – sometimes even giving them a new name.
A good example is in Luke 13: 10-17 where Jesus takes an excluded woman and heals her. However, the real point of the story is twofold: (a) the religious keenies miss the point (a woman got healed) and diss Jesus for having done it on the wrong day (the Sabbath); (b) he publicly refers to the woman as ‘this daughter of Abraham’, immediately and unequivocally restoring to her her place in society, her dignity as a human being and her identity as part of the community of God’s people.
I have always thought of ‘stumbling blocks’ as a rather annoying problem. Perhaps they have a positive purpose in making us stop, read the names, think about our fundamental anthropological-theological assumptions, root our human ethics and consider how easily we dehumanise those with whom we disagree or who we would prefer to stay outside our preferred group of the self-defined ‘righteous’.
If you go to Hamburg or Berlin, you can’t avoid them.