What a week it has been! At midnight we were coming home from Greece, and in the last ten minutes getting onto a packed Jazz Festival bus my rucksack was stolen in a split second of inattention from me. So I got the bag back the next day, minus telephone, iPod and passport. This will cost me about 1200.00 SFr. The person who stole the bag got my phone and iPod and a bag. Big deal.
I have been thinking a lot about this. First of all is the sickening feeling in my belly when I asked ‘Where’s my rucksack?” Then the hurried dash-in-hope back to the bus stop, only to find no rucksack. Then the sleepless night with worry about all the things I’d have to replace: cards, driver’s licence etc., etc. and on it goes.
Sunday morning comes and I am up early, preparing for Church. It was a great day. It was my first Sunday back from holidays. I missed the people. I enjoyed preaching. Two things came together. The Gospel was about the people who put themselves at the centre of their universe, and so will neither respond to John the Baptist’s asceticism, or Jesus ‘Party-like’ joy and effusiveness at the immanent arrival of the Reign of God. They want to be in charge, and so any engagement with either of these figures is out of the question.
That is what I found happening to me. On Sunday morning, my focus shifted from the normal woes of being grieved by the loss of my rucksack, and onto the task I had as a priest. As Luther might have said: I was ‘living before the face of’ my responsibilities to God and the congregation’ rather than ‘before the face of’ my own sorrow. More homely wisdom might have said that I was ‘taken out of myself’ by my need to serve others.
Now this is an interesting thing. It is common wisdom that when people are sad, it is important to ‘keep busy’ so that they ‘do not dwell on their loss’. Our friend in Germany has been widowed now for two years, and she says ‘My extra responsibilities with guests in the house is helpful. The days can be long.’ When something goes (be it a rucksack with valuables or a partner) there is a great sense of loss and a sense of vacancy about life. One way of dealing with that loss is to ‘keep busy’ or to begin to replace it after a time with other activities. On the other hand, I am a believer in attending to the loss. In the case of my rucksack, I had to have my tears. I had to integrate the fact of the loss into my present self. Talking to the police, talking to others, rationalising the situation (‘It’s only numbers in my bank account that are going down!’) is all part of the internal work of adjusting to a loss. But I was helped by being focussed on my duties too. I think that both activities, the inner work and the outer work are necessary parts of life.
Then I began to think about the people who took the phone and iPod and took the bag in the first place. Were it I, I would have just taken the bag straight to security and said ‘Someone has lost their bag.’ So who goes through the bag and takes the devices and the money? Who thinks that this is an OK thing to do? Clearly someone with little empathy for another’s plight. Clearly someone who enjoys ‘having’ something that belongs to another. What are they missing in their lives that causes them to covet something. I don’t think I lack anything. That’s why I would hand in the bag straight away. Does this mean that the people who did not hand in the bag ‘lack’ something?
My mind immediately goes to psalm 23. ‘The Lord is my shepherd, therefore can I lack nothing!’ Or Psalm 16:5 “Lord, you alone are my inheritance, my cup of blessing. You guard all that is mine.” Well all that is mine was not guarded in property terms, but in this case, being in relationship with God is a thing that fills my life. It makes me feel as though I am not needy. It means that I don’t have to covet anything that someone else has. Does this mean that the poor people who took my things do not have such a sense of being full? How lovely it is to be able to go into church on a Sunday morning, and to do as psalm 27:4 says: “One thing have I asked of the Lord, that will I seek after; that I may dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of my life, to behold the fair beauty of the Lord, and to seek god’s will in his temple.” What a privilege.
If I met these people, I think that’s what I would say. Hey, guys, you don’t need by stuff, need to become disciples of Jesus. You need to go to Church regularly and see how having a life filled with the worship of God is better than anything you have at the moment.
Then on Monday, our renewed Permis B cards were waiting for us at the Post Office. A miracle! Normally we can expect to wait six months while the the Office de la Population makes up its mind whether we can stay or not. Then we can expect to have letters that do not answer the questions I have put to them but which continually demand more French of me than I can possibly have at present, despite my best endeavours to learn the language. Then we can expect to pay SFr. 90.00 for a visa that lets us return to the country while waiting for the new cards.
This year I wrote to the authorities suggesting that it were possible to grant us a residence permit for two years, and that would give me a chance to learn enough French to satisfy their requirements and would solve the problem of continual delays and the need for them to keep on making decisions every year.
So they did!! The issuing of the cards was not delayed and we are now legally in Switzerland till July 2016! It was so relieving to know that we are ‘accepted’. It made me want to study French even harder. People say ‘Oh the bureaucracy. They are just functionaries! They don’t really care about you. You can’t have a relationship with them.’ But they are the ones who demand that I spend 1200 SFr. A year on French classes to be able to have a relationship with them, and other authorities and the society at large. I admit it! I have in the last week found the knowledge of French I have very useful with the police and the shopkeepers and so on. So I feel that demands have been made on me by the authorities, that is ‘having a relationship’ but that the other side has been ignored (our need to feel accepted or heard by them). But now I do. I have some status ‘before the face of’ the Swiss authorities. I want to do the right thing and keep on learning French because a relationship of negotiation has been established.
In some ways, dealing with the bureaucracy is like dealing with the people who stole my bag! Both have a tendency to de-personalise the person (me) on the receiving end of their actions through their lack of empathy. I am relieved and happy that the Office de la Population has shown some ‘personhood’. If every hair of my head is numbered, far be it from you to treat me differently!’