Mission Sundays

At church, about eight times a year,
a preacher recently returned
from some part of ‘the mission field’
reported on the sacred task of harvesting of souls.
(In deep suburbia, our metaphors evoked the earth beneath.)

Progress was slow. The Catholics in Ireland
stubbornly maintained allegiance to the cult of Mary;
Dublin’s churches, rank with incense, stuffed with painted images,
were dangerous dark places haunted by unhealthy priests.

Nor were the Jews in Whitechapel and Stepney
any nearer to salvation;
God’s own people, they had stopped their ears
and could not entertain the joyful tidings that Messiah had come.

In Africa, the Lord was moving in our generation;
heathen souls in thousands had received the Word
and turned their backs on spirits, stocks and stones.
And yet beware the shade of Islam,
coming like a plague of locusts, blotting out the gains of light.

In China, Godless Communists had driven Christians into hiding;
some had suffered martyrdom. But secretly
(and here the preacher lowered his voice;
the congregation felt a faint frisson)
God’s work was carried on.

Jehovah’s Witnesses were building giant temples in Brazil
and luring poor illiterates into the night of heresy.
The time was short…

And so on while I sat, despairing.
Even as the preacher spoke,
another flock of unsaved souls had closed their eyes
and gone to everlasting torment. What to do?
What use my paltry sixpence added to
the modest cairn of silver on the plate
which travelled, hand to hand and pew to pew,
as strenuously we sang the final hymn?

‘Who dares stand idle on the harvest plain
while all around him waves the golden grain?’

Idler am I, I thought while walking miserably home.
Not out of daring; out of helplessness.

Listen to this poem — read by the author