Last week I stayed in an inn-like hotel near Coventry Airport. I was there with others from College, on something called the ‘Access Tour’, a week of visiting schools to inspire and equip students to consider applying to university. The eight of us had arrived mid-Monday-evening after a long day of travel and talks; we collapsed in front of a fire crackling with golden warmth and light. The air smelt like bonfire smoke as we ate pre-dinner garlic bread and got to know each other a little more.
From this relaxing base we went out to twenty-four different schools over four days, each team of four people covering twelve schools. We spoke to all years, year seven through to year twelve, sharing our experiences of Cambridge life and all its quirks, work and fun. The quirks were the highlights, including mentions of the university Quidditch team and the lettuce eating competition held last term at Clare – Cambridge, we wanted to show, isn’t always about labs and libraries!
As we spoke our message, not every student was interested. Looking out at scores of year ten faces, for example, I could remember that feeling of Thursday afternoon assemblies with no end in sight; however, I could also remember and relate to the excitement in the eyes of ambitious year twelves, young people on the cusp of leaving school and and adventuring into the unknown. People on the verge, as a throwback-to-year-thirteen tune goes.
In small group conversations, it was amazing to see sparks fly – sparks of determination, challenge, hope. Seeing people’s faces light up as they realised that university (Cambridge or otherwise) or a particular college course or career path was a possibility for them – that it was something that they could aim for, look forward to, be encouraged by – these were the moments that made it great. To help another push on the doors of dreams and possibilities is a beautiful thing, a thing beautiful on both the Access Tour and through life in general. Our posture is beautiful when it is one of kneeling, kneeling in humility to build each other up.
This truth I saw in quite a different light when our team of four went to Coventry Cathedral in between two school visits. It was a stunning, sunny day; sparkles of early-afternoon light glinted off of stained glass, the tiny shards left in the ruins of what was once a Cathedral, anyway.
Coventry Cathedral was directly hit by a bomb on 14th November 1940. Now, it has no roof, and its pinksand-coloured pillars are merely the height of the few park benches that are there instead of pews. The windows are mostly empty, with only small shards of yellow, blue, red, and green stuck in some high-up corners, and the stonework which once was ornate is scarred by bomb impact and worn down by weather.
Despite the destruction, this isn’t a sad place. There is a statue of two people on their knees, holding each other – it’s called ‘Reconciliation’, and its sister statue stands in Hiroshima. Both cry this vision: ‘in the face of destructive forces, human dignity and love will triumph over disaster and bring nations together in respect and peace.’ It’s a cry so relevant to our own times, as walls (literal and metaphorical) are being constructed between peoples and countries. Look to this statue! The people are on their knees; in the middle of a ruined Cathedral they hold each other up, certain that love will overcome.
Look also to the altar. In Coventry Cathedral it stands in front of a window whose glass was blown out by a bomb, and it – overshadowed by a cross made from the Cathedral’s burnt roof-beams – prays the message ‘Father, forgive.’
I wanted to fall to my knees in this place, but with several crowds of schoolchildren and tourists I didn’t. Maybe I should have anyway.
Because this burnt cross is a symbol, and more than a symbol. It points to Jesus sacrificed for us while we were still sinners, showing us this as it stands in the midst of literal ruin caused by the self-destructive nature of humans. The cross, Jesus’ cross symbolised by that in Coventry Cathedral, blazes light into a dark world, illuminating both God’s anger against destruction and his greater, deeper Father’s love for his people.
The cross shows the act by which love overcomes darkness, the act through which all barrier-walls will be broken down whilst ruined Cathedrals are rebuilt, and through which the ruin of our hearts will be made whole. Sparks fly as I stand before the cross and I know that Jesus fell to his knees, in astounding, deeply unexpected humility combined with power, to rebuild his kingdom and reclaim his people from darkness.
Knowing this even in a small measure – you can only breathe praise.
These are the moments I treasure from Access Tour, amongst others, moments that show me what it looks like to be like Jesus, on my knees to serve and lift others up, see them made whole and holding onto dreams, see his world made new. This posture is for everywhere, everyday, and it is beautiful.
Father, may I learn to serve like you.
As your heart beats love for me, may mine beat love for your people.
As your hands emptied even to death on a cross, may I lift my empty hands to you that your grace might flow through me.
As you look on me with love and singing, may I lift my eyes to you and trust.
In your name,