All Saints, Benhilton
11th September 2005
The Eye of God
Can you guess who said the following?
"Children today are tyrants. The contradict their parents, gobble their food, and tyrannise their teachers."
No, it wasn’t some tetchy old lady in Sutton High Street who has just been jostled off the pavement by a party of merry young people who have had too much to drink. They are the words of Socrates, who lived in Athens about two and a half thousand years ago, describing is a deep fault-line in society – the Loss of Oversight.
Not so long ago everybody expected to be overseen by from the cradle to the grave. Our overseers were parents, brothers and sisters, teachers, friends, bosses, tutors, policemen and magistrates. They praised us when we did right, but when we behaved badly at home, in the street or school there was someone whose job it was to criticise us.
But over recent years the idea has taken hold that we can oversee ourselves. That’s only a step away from thinking that we don’t need God to oversee us.. And if we don’t need God why bother about parents or teachers or policemen? Closed-circuit television today replaces the all-seeing God of Heaven. Unlike God, however, it tends to break down making the likelihood of being caught remote. So why bother to behave decently?
So what’s the answer? When things get out of control neither Socrates nor we are likely to discover simple answers, for simple answers to complex situations just do not exist, as the people of New Orleans have found out only too painfully. But that’s no excuse for failing to look for solutions to problems, however difficult.
Let me suggest two quite different lines of enquiry, both of which, in my experience, can be made to work.
Firstly, all churchgoers should familiarize themselves with Psalm 139 – because it ‘says it all’. It confronts us with the truth that our earthly life is at all times under the surveillance of the all-seeing God of heaven.
Let me quote to you some vocal gems from the [Prayer Book version]
LORD, thou hast searched me out and known me : thou knowest my down-sitting and mine up-rising, thou understandest my thoughts long before.
Thou art about my path, and about my bed : and spiest out all my ways.
For lo, there is not a word in my tongue : but thou, O Lord, knowest it altogether.
Thou hast fashioned me behind and before : and laid thine hand upon me.
The writer reminds us that the eye of God sees, the ear of God hears, and the mind of God understands, everything you and I do, say or think – ‘unto [Him] all hearts are open, all desires known and from [Him] no secrets are hid’. God is the Overseer – from whom there is no hiding-place. It is therefore useless to try and conceal from God what we may successfully hide from our fellow-men. He continues:
Such knowledge is too wonderful and excellent for me : I cannot attain unto it.
Whither shall I go then from thy Spirit : or whither shall I go then from thy presence?
If I climb up into heaven, thou art there : if I go down to hell, thou art there also.
If I take the wings of the morning : and remain in the uttermost parts of the sea;
Even there also shall thy hand lead me : and thy right hand shall hold me.
If I say, Peradventure the darkness shall cover me : then shall my night be turned to day.
Yea, the darkness is no darkness with thee, but the night is as clear as the day : the darkness and light to thee are both alike.
But that’s not only true of the present moment. God has seen and will make us give account for all our debts ‘from the womb to the tomb’, like the King in today’s Gospel. So even if we have forgotten our deeds and misdeeds, even if our fellow-men never knew anything about them, they are ever-present in God’s eyes:
For my reins are thine : thou hast covered me in my mother’s womb.
I will give thanks unto thee, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made : marvellous are thy works, and that my soul knoweth right well.
My bones are not hid from thee : though I be made secretly, and fashioned beneath in the earth.
Thine eyes did see my substance, yet being unperfect : and in thy book were all my members written;
Which day by day were fashioned : when as yet there was none of them.
‘But of course’, you may be thinking, ‘we don’t need anyone to tell us that, because every time we come to Church we are reminded of it’. All Saints people are well taught, I’m sure, but many who ‘profess and call themselves Christians’ confidently imagine that they will not be held accountable in the end because, in the short term, they have managed in human terms to ‘get away with’ what they’ve done.
And what about those hundreds and thousands of our fellow-men who never darken the doors of a church? Just listen to the average funeral service. Nothing is said there that would lead anyone to suppose that the Dear Departed had any regrets, or need for regret, about anything they had done, or failed to do, during their lifetime.
‘Je ne regrette rien – I have no regrets’ is the most ghastly admission we can make when in the hour of our death we ‘fall into the hands of the living God’: ‘a ‘terrible thing’, as the writer to the Hebrews says. As Claudius, the wicked king in Shakespeare’s Hamlet, having murdered his brother and (seemingly) ‘got away with it’, says:
In the corrupted currents of this world | Offence’s gilded hand may shove by justice |…but ‘tis not so above; | There is no shuffling, there the action lies | In his true nature; and we ourselves compelled | Even to the teeth and forehead of our faults | To give in evidence.
We need reminding over and over again that, however much it seems that we have ‘got away’ with shuffling something in this world, that will certainly not be the case once we are dead.
But how do we begin to convey this fact to the unchurched masses whom we meet at closing time in our streets?
Let me describe a form of Oversight which really works. It’s based on the tried-and-tested fact thatthe mere presence of someone seen to be an Overseer automatically has the effect of bringing unruly people up short and makes them think twice about what they are doing. The Overseers in this case are Christians like you and me.
The scheme is called Street Pastors. It’s operated by a group of Christians of many denominations who walk through local streets in pairs just in order to be seen, and to talk to anyone who wishes. They wear a uniform with the words STREET PASTOR on it. Each Street Pastor agrees to go out just one Friday or Saturday every month between 10pm and 4am . It’s all done with the approval and cooperation of the local police force.
One thing Street Pastors don’t do is preach or evangelise or scold the people they talk to. They are far more likely to find themselves escorting some tipsy young girl to the bus-stop or station to help her get home, or simply chatting with the shopkeepers who keep late hours. It’s astonishing how many hairdressers and corner shops are open till well after midnight, not to mention all-night filling stations. Those who work there are often bored to tears and a chat with a Street Pastor makes a welcome diversion.
It may interest you to know that the Police in Bristol, where my son is an Inspector, say that closing-time crime has fallen by 70% when the Street Pastors are around. The mere presence of Street Pastors makes a big difference.
People today have lost sight of their need for oversight and the responsibility of the Church of God to provide them with it. Oversight entails both seeing and being seen. An invisible (or absent) pastor or overseer much is less useful than one who both sees and is seen..
I myself have enrolled as a Street Pastor. My induction session the Saturday before last was in New Cross, and was really worthwhile. Street Pastoring is open to all Christian men and women, 18 years-old and upwards (no top age limit). It’s a most rewarding activity, besides doing something (and something which really works) about the present downward slide in the public behaviour which we see all around us.
So why not find out more about it?
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