THERE was one particular moment I’ll never forget on my six-month pilgrimage across the Diocese of York. During that time I covered a lot of ground, saw a lot of wonderful things, prayed many prayers and met many incredible people.
However, this one particular afternoon, I wondered what on earth I was doing. I know that Yorkshire weather is not that best at times, but this was off the scale. As a small group of us trudged through towards the Gare, an area of land near Redcar in Cleveland, we were suddenly caught up in a mini-storm. Driving wind and rain battered us as we fought to stay upright. I thought I was going to be blown away at one point. Is it a bird? Is it a plane? No it’s Sentamu!
By the grace of God we stayed on terra firma and were able to take shelter until the weather had cleared.
This experience reminded me that life can be a bit like that. We get caught up in and are faced with unexpected storms beyond our control. It can feel like we are in danger of being swept away – emotionally, physically and spiritually. Our storms could be in the form of a sudden bereavement, a personal tragedy or the onset of serious illness.
When the storms of life come, do we have the courage to stand? To not just survive but to go on and flourish? For me, that’s where love – the Bible word is Agape – comes in. I believe with every fibre of my being that God’s love is powerful enough to help us do just that.
My latest book, John Sentamu’s Agape Love Stories, offers compelling evidence. I’ve unearthed 22 real-life accounts of how God’s love changes lives. These are stories which stand as inspiring demonstrations of Christian faith in action. Among the contributors are people who have lost loved ones to murder and natural disaster, some who have overcome extreme personal challenges and some who have devoted their lives to a God-given calling to the service of others.
These are not just any kind of love stories. I’m writing about the highest form of love that exists – an Agape type of love. It comes from the New Testament Greek word and describes a love that involves faithfulness, commitment and an act of will. It is God’s love for us and, in response, our love for God.
There is no better description of what Agape love looks like in practice than what is laid out in that great Biblical text found in St Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians, Chapter 13: “Love is patient; love is kind; love s not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.”
It’s no surprise that this passage is such a favourite at church wedding ceremonies. What a thing to strive for in married life!
Some of the people featured in my book highlight what Agape love looks like in practice. They include the story of Jean Vanier who founded the L’Arche communities where people with and without intellectual disabilities live and work together. Richard Taylor, the father of murdered 10-year-old Damilola Taylor, shares movingly about the impact of his son’s death and how he fought to bring about positive change to inner city communities. Peppered among the accounts are several remarkable people from Yorkshire.
There is Irene Wilson, who now ministers to the poor and destitute in Hull after suffering a life-threatening car crash, and Emily Finch, who reaches out to young people in North Yorkshire in her specially-adapted double decker bus.
The story of Maureen Greaves, from north Sheffield, is heart-wrenching. As was well publicised in the media at the time, her husband Alan was brutally murdered as he walked to church to play the organ at the Midnight Mass service on Christmas Eve. No family should ever have to experience something as dark and traumatic as what happened that night. And yet by the grace of God Maureen has shown a depth of Agape love that could only come from God himself. She has found the strength and compassion to forgive Alan’s murderers and carry on the charity work they started together.
As Maureen writes: “My prayer has always been that while in prison they will have time to reflect on their lives, on what they have done, and to come out different men. By God’s grace our family has not been ruined by anger towards them. We came home after the trial and said it’s okay to leave them in God’s hands now, and it’s been that way for us ever since.”
My prayer for everyone today is that in the midst of your calm and sometimes stormy lives – in the good times and the hard times – you may you know this Agape love for yourself. May you be transformed, renewed and inspired by the gracious love of God. The love that transcends the most desperate of circumstances. The love that pours light into the darkest of situations. The love that turns despair into hope.
As 1 Corinthians 13 reminds us, it is the love that never fails.
God bless you!
Dr John Sentamu is the Archbishop of York. His latest book, John Sentamu’s Agape Love Stories is available in paperback, priced £9.99. A book signing is scheduled at St Michael le Belfrey Church, York, on December 1 from noon until 1.30pm.