Random Wandering

Random Wanderer 

A few days ago I found myself walking along a street late at night in a big regional Australian city enjoying what I refer to as a ‘random wander’ in the presence of that dreadful and captivating mystery, which the English language has tagged with the cliché, ‘God’. Like all clichés the concept has lived in my mind for decades and has at times been a useful metaphor and at other times a useful fiction assisting me—or not—on a faith journey inside an experimental laboratory called ‘me’, which of course is another cliché.

Anyway, there I was, a little homo sapiens at large in this place filled with homes and families, glories and tragedies, attempting to listen to and to enjoy the cool of the night, the old buildings and the people, which I understood to be filled with the presence of a God who ‘pervades all things visible and invisible’. If that was all there was to it then the event might have been just another poet wandering in the darkness of an impersonal universe. But according to our faith,

‘There’s more that dances on the prairies than the wind

More that pulses in the ocean than the tide

There’s a love that’s fiercer than the love between friends

More gentle than a mother’s when her baby’s at her side … ‘1

And it was this love that I was thinking about as I walked and began to imagine and to feel a deep overflowing love and goodness that drenched every rock and stone and human being like some sweet and un-nerving secret. All of which reminded me of a painting of London described in a Charles William’s novel All Hallows Eve. The further I walked the stronger the feeling became, as if I was getting close to an epi-centre of some kind.

Then—outside a hotel—I met two men, one sitting on a bench and drunk and the other standing, clearly a security guard, who looked relieved to see me. Both men were engaged in a kind of loud exchange of words: not hostile but what could have been mistaken for aggressive because of the volume with which they spoke, but since they were a couple of meters apart (and the wind was blowing) they needed to talk loudly.

The drunk introduced himself and wanted to know if I could go with him to play the pokies. I made it clear that I would rather not but he was persistent so I agreed on the understanding that once we had wasted our money we would then go for coffee. By the time we made it to the pokies—at another late night pub—he was a little more sober but still excited about the prospect of winning, a fact he soon became embarrassed about when he realised he had lost his entire $5 bet and I had won twice that amount.

By this stage he had told me enough of his story to make it clear that he was not just having a bender, his entire life was becoming one big train-wreck and he was desperate for help. But a man doesn’t admit that kind of thing easily, so, even as he was ‘fessing up’ to it he would suddenly launch into a soliloquay of bravado, and backwards and forwards on the see-saw of despair we went until finally even he was tired of his bluster and we drove back where I was staying: at the local Cornerstone team house. As it turned out he didn’t want a coffee, but we found a bed for him and—having woken one of the boys (who knew him)—he chatted for a while and then fell asleep at 3am.

In all the travelling, talking and preaching involved in my kind of work, these ‘random wanderings’ have become what I cannot do without because they break me out of Christendom’s domesticated, predictable God-bubble and lead me back into the unpredictability and chaos of reality. Here is where I suddenly find myself looking into the eyes of Jesus in the form of another dishevelled, angry and frightened human being. And there’s no telling what might happen when you attempt to offer grace to someone who’s laughing at it but hanging on it by a thread—at once resenting and hungry for agape love; resenting and hungry for you and your friendship.

Will you be tested and found wanting? Of course! But so what? For this is a redemptive partnership with the Father, Son and Holy Spirit: the ‘No longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me’. All of which leaves you facing your own weakness, lostness and need of that same grace in order to be able to give not just cold charity but the very best you can offer of your own heart and soul; of your imagination, time, money and strength. On many such occasions, I realised later on that I was the one who was given the greater gift. As it says in the poem,

‘Love’s as hard as nails, love is nails

Blunt, thick, hammered through the medial nerves of one,

Who having made us, knew the thing he had done.

Seeing with all that is, our cross and his.’2

This love, boldly—and it could be said, irresponsibly and recklessly—asserts as a fact, that possessions, money and even our own lives have the potential to become fountains of eternal love, if only we will allow them to be released into the lives of others—not out of a morbid fear or a sanctimonious desire to be ‘unselfish’ or to impress someone, but as a ‘joining in of the dance’ that is love made alive and hilarious. As Anthony Bloom once said, ‘All the food of this world is divine love made edible … The moment we try to be rich by keeping we are the losers … This is the Kingdom, the sense that we are free from possession.’ ie. from being possessed by our possessions. And in particular, from imprisoning eternal love in our own soul out of a grubby little desire to somehow hoard it.

1Mullins R. If I Stand (lyric)

2Lewis C. S. Love’s As Warm As Tears (poem)

A ‘Thank You’ Reflection On Surrender

Four days ago—suffering a little from ‘conference cringe’—I drove from Dubbo to Melbourne with an old mate (Paul) for the Surrender conference in Victoria. We left quite late in the day, we did not get bogged, we did not confuse anyone (except each other), and we were surprised by a servo attendant who told us that ‘the costumer is God’. So … by now those close to us will know which ‘Paul’ it was who came with me.

We reached the outskirts of Melbourne more or less on schedule and then followed the wandering—and sometimes wobbling hopelessly—blue dot of our gps across the spidery lines of Melbourne at 3am looking for Belgrave Heights. The satellite failed us and we found ourselves getting lost lots, laughing lots and sort of enjoying the ride. Finally, when it was truly getting wet and miserable, we reached the actual summit of the mountain itself and moseyed around tents and cabins in a slow tyre-crunching and headlight-startling cruise until we settled on a flat bit of gravelly mud where we pitched our tent and went to sleep. Next morning we discovered we were perched above a sharp slope at the bottom of which a busy yellow hunk of back-hoe growled and bit into the earth for most of the day—seemingly oblivious of our brinkmanship.

From there we went our separate ways and I found myself listening to a Catholic latino lady1 telling an awful story about living through the burning of the Bronx; the crack epidemic in the Bronx and then organising a protest march against the drug problem, which culminated in the burning of her church. Standing there and watching the people weeping over broken statues, she heard God say, ‘I am not here, I am walking around inside these beautiful human temples of mine that are being burned down by drugs every day!’ She also spoke of moving from ‘being a fan of Jesus to being a follower’, and of ‘enabling people in your neighbourhood to see that they belong to each other’, and of people crying, ‘Lord! When are you coming?’ and the Lord replying, ‘No! When are you coming?’ She added, ‘We are here to awaken from the illusion of our separateness.’

I was quickly cured of my ‘conference cringe’ and found that the rest of the weekend, which included a huge variety of missional tribes, was true to that first note struck by the lady from the Bronx—where she and her family still live by the way. In another moment ‘by the water fountain’ (literally), I found myself sharing help and hindrance advice with a deeply hurting young person who had lots of questions about childhood trauma, something that I’ve had to walk through myself. Then there was our Cornerstone tent with Gus’ pizzas and Rose & Chris’ community garden extravaganza and a well thought through statement of ‘what we are for’: life deep formation preparing people for a lifetime of mission. It was a relief to see it being explained and being made available and useful in an appropriate way, knowing that there would be many young people getting challenged and stirred up but also needing to find some place that would enable them to walk sanely, intelligently and sustainably along the road towards that vision mountain they had first glimpsed.

Being at Surrender was a good little picture-story of the fact that we are called to prepare this world for the great day of its resurrection and the return of its king by growing little gardens of goodness (the ‘culture of eternity’3) here on earth. The particular ‘gardens’ on display included an exhibition of indigenous art—one of the pieces inspired by the story of a young aboriginal boy who had  murdered a man and, as an outcome of the trial, was invited to live with the family of his victim: an unforgettable story and an unforgettable work of art that called to mind the Day of Pentecost when the murderers of Jesus—’whom you crucified’ as Peter put it—were invited into God’s family. Then there were the other exhibits and stalls: young people volunteering to help release kids from slavery, getting sanitation into villages, translating the bible and the setting up family-style households for girls coming off heroine and so on. Add to this the easy-going but sweet and rhythmic worship music, the random call-outs from the stage for happy birthdays, the haka, and prayers in different languages. All of which somehow made it easy to see why (despite some of the more diabolical messes we have gotten ourselves into over the centuries) we have a long and energetic history of Christians happily foregoing personal wealth and comfort in order to love and serve their families, neighbours and tribes in ordinary moments every day: initiating meaningful conversations, hosting reconciliations, volunteering at soup kitchens and taking on foster care; breaking up dictatorships, confronting drug lords, building hospitals and hospices; creating birthday parties, administering medical clinics and a host of other ‘… ings’.

For me personally, there was a kind of voice at Surrender, which said, ‘These people know that everything counts and nothing will be in vain even if it does ‘all go up in smoke’ in the end.’ Yes it was a conference and we were all ‘on show’ but I’ve been to lots of conferences and when the sweet and holy carelessness of the Paraclete’s love soaks into the deepest places, dissolving denominational, racial and other ‘boundaries of pride’, you get the sense that the stuff on the stage (as great as it is) is not the main event, that the big part is what is happening in casual conversations, random glances, and meetings between old friends, or even warmth between those who once might not have felt so warm. It is unmistakeable.

You know that you are all being hopelessly and self-forgetfully caught in The Grace and you couldn’t contrive it even if you tried. In these places and times of truly, deep and natural human and uncontrived surrender, we do not fall for the trap of being religious or churchy, instead we get a taste of the fact that possessions, money and even our own lives are destined to become fountains of eternal love, if only we will allow them to be released into the lives of others—not out of a morbid fear or a sanctimonious desire to be ‘unselfish’ but out of a kind of ‘joining in of the dance’ that is love made alive and hilarious. As Anthony Bloom once said, ‘All the food of this world is divine love made edible … The moment we try to be rich by keeping, we are the losers … This is the Kingdom, the sense that we are free from possession’ i.e.: from being possessed by our possessions. And in particular, from imprisoning eternal love in our own souls because of a grubby little desire to somehow hoard it. It is thus that the Christian life is released from being a grinding and noble journey of ‘stoic surrenders’ to a childlike and astonishing journey of ‘sweet surrenders.’

On behalf of those who came and soaked up the goodness of it all I would like to pass on a deep ‘thank you’ to those who thought of, prayed for, arranged and staffed; spoke at, played, sang and shared their lives at, a Surrender that truly was a ‘sweet surrender’.

1Alexie M. Torres-Fleming

3McIntosh L. Teaching at Cornerstone Community, Burrabadine

Altars & Fires

 Recently when I was visiting one of our teams, a small group of us gathered in a lounge room where lights were down, a candle burned and a tiny plate of oil sat on a table. We talked for a few minutes and asked some questions of the one who had requested special prayer for healing. Then gentle hands were laid on the shoulders and head of the one in pain, prayers were offered and tears flowed in this place of deep stories. Some of those who wept would probably have been remembering their own pain that had never quite gone away, others may have been gratefully recalling when their pain left for good, and all of us were lifting up this one we loved to the One we were sure was hearing our prayers.

Welcome to what I call Embarrassment #1: our pain, which often leaves us with a sense of shame and an impulse to hide it. Sometimes this is out of a sense of courtesy to our fellow human beings and sometimes it’s because we feel judged by a universe that has some secret and awful information about us and how screwed up we are.

The problem with such imaginings is that they give a foothold to our shadow-self1a and can weaken our soul until we get to the stage where we may be a bit like the cripple who needed the faith of his friends to get him the help that he needed. These men loved him so much and were so sure of God’s love that they were prepared to make a public spectacle of him and of themselves by cutting a hole in a roof of a stranger’s house just so they could get their sick brother close to Jesus.

Talk about embarrassment! But they were confident because they knew the sort of things Jesus had already been saying. Things like, ‘Come to me all you who labour and are heavy laden and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.’1

This journey with Jesus and pain can be a long one. It requires determination but it also takes a bit of pluck, an attitude that says, ‘OK, you say you love me, well I’m coming to find you no matter what it takes.’ Why the determination and the pluck? Isn’t Jesus always present? He is, but sometimes there are obstacles to overcome. Daniel for example prayed for weeks before the angel arrived with news of his answer: “Don’t be afraid, Daniel. Since the first day you began to pray for understanding and to humble yourself before your God, your request has been heard in heaven. I have come in answer to your prayer.’2 The angel went on to say that a demonic agent, ‘the prince of the kingdom of Persia,’ had fought with him and tried to stop him. Fascinating in that Daniel’s prayer was for understanding and was an attempt to humble himself and that the evil spirit wanted to obstruct humility and understanding.

Then there are the obstacles in our own soul (sometimes of our own making but sometimes not of our own making) that need to be broken down and disassembled one piece at a time, for this is not just a matter of you finding God, it is also a matter of letting your entire self be found by God: a self—described by CS Lewis as resembling an estate—that is so large we will only ever be able to be familiar with a small fraction of it. Hence the need to allow yourself to be found by God.

Yes this is sounding like spin-doctoring on behalf of heaven. What about those who claim to have gotten their healing and now they’re happy? Well, they might be happy but there are countless examples of those who experienced a miraculous healing and then went ‘happily’ on their way down the road of smug, self-centred living.

Problematic? Yes, especially if you are in agony and are just so ‘over the whole thing’. But be on your guard here, because God, like any other doctor, needs your utmost co-operation, and reckless behaviour can have tragic consequences. In particular, a good dose of patience on the part of the ‘patient’ is required. Losing your nerve, expecting a ‘sudden miracle’, or demanding that this happen in a hurry is usually not a good idea. And in particular, beware the instinct to demand that you first know where this will all lead to before you embark on the quest for healing.

It’s important to remember too that healing is frequently a pathway or quest of stepping stones across a swamp (usually only able to be seen one at a time) and can involve a long period of time as various obstacles are removed or overcome via the help of all kinds of people or situations: learning processes, special prayers for healing, embarrassments, confessions, hospital time and even awkward helpers who arrive at crucial moments. Remember Namaan the proud Syrian General who’s pride almost caused him to contemptuously dismiss Elisha’s instruction to wash seven times in the muddy Jordan? There may well be many who are still unwell in this world because they demand that the only healing they will accept will be one that allows their pride to stay intact—’Heal me with style or forget it.’

So, today might be a good day for you to ask yourself if you you missing out on the ‘I will …’ of Jesus, simply because you are too embarrassed to allow your pain to be seen in public.

Lastly, keep in mind that healing, like everything else with God, cannot be separated from your family, your friends, your church community and the entire story of you that’s unfolding with God. Amy Carmichael for example was a gifted healer and many would come to her every day for healing. But one day the Lord said to her, ‘Amy, they don’t want the gospel anymore they just want to be healed. I’m taking this gift away from you.’ The gift was gone and then sometime later she herself became crippled and remained that way for the rest of her life.

Physical suffering (and/or healing) always involves your whole life (body, soul and mind) and the lives of those around you. And this is a hard saying, but sometimes it is largely for those others. So whatever you do, do not assume that this is primarily because of some problem you have, some lesson you have to learn. Of course you will—if you allow it—grow and learn through it, but this particular wounding might mostly be about a need in someone else’s life. When we choose to fast for example, we have chosen a kind of suffering that could be described as a ‘hunger strike against evil’ that somehow assists in our prayers for others. Lewis says in one place that it can be helpful to think of a suffering that falls upon you as if you had consciously chosen it in the same way that you might decide to fast. And in your situation there may be others not too far away who are going to be saved through this. As Charles Williams says, ‘Sometimes an altar must be built in one place so that the fire of heaven can fall somewhere else.’3

1a MacDonald G. Phantastesshadow self plays an important role in the story

1 Matt 11: 28-30

2Daniel 10:12

3Lewis C. S. Letters to Malcolm Ch. 21

The greatest evil is not now done in those sordid “dens of crime” that Dickens loved to paint

“I live in the Managerial Age, in a world of “Admin.” The greatest evil is not now done in those sordid “dens of crime” that Dickens loved to paint. It is not done even in concentration camps and labour camps. In those we see its final result. But it is conceived and ordered (moved, seconded, carried, and minuted) in clean, carpeted, warmed and well-lighted offices, by quiet men with white collars and cut fingernails and smooth-shaven cheeks who do not need to raise their voices. Hence, naturally enough, my symbol for Hell is something like the bureaucracy of a police state or the office of a thoroughly nasty business concern.” *

 

 

 

* Lewis C. S. Preface to his book Screwtape Letters

Voices of Good Friday

Voices of Good Friday

The last part of the story of Jesus is called The Passion. There are at least nine significant moments in it. The first is the voice of hope when Jesus sings a song with his friends, walks out into the night, is enveloped by the power of the curse1a, betrayed and executed.1 This is followed by the voice of desperation when Peter tries to kill a man;2of failure when the rooster crows and Peter goes out to weep;3 and of self-pity when Judas hangs himself.4

Then we have the voice of apathy, when the soldiers—having finished their work—play dice for Jesus’ clothes. This is echoed in our world when, having finished our ‘life’s work,’ we cash in our superannuation, buy a big caravan and drive round and round Australia until we die. The next voice speaks to that.5

Number six, the voice of ancient prophecy is present in the memories of all the Jewish people who are gathered around the site of the killing. It assumes that sooner or later they (and we) will all come to this place. It was already in their scriptures and said things like, ‘There’s an evil that I’ve seen under the sun, and it lies heavy upon men: a man to whom God gives wealth, possessions and honour, so that he lacks nothing of all he desires, yet God does not give him power to enjoy them: a stranger enjoys them. … even though he should live a thousand years twice told …all is vanity.’5a Then, in the midst of these dark writings the voice speaks of a great hope, ‘The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light … for to us a child is born …’6 Later this child is described as a Suffering Servant, ‘The Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all … He was oppressed and he was afflicted, yet he opened not his mouth; like a lamb that is lead to the slaughter.’


Seventh is the voice of love—of sacrifice and confession—when Jesus is nailed to a Roman cross, mysteriously breaks the power of the curse, unhinges the darkness and causes death to begin working backwards.7

 

Eighth is the scary voice of silence when there is darkness over the land for three hours and Jesus says, ‘My God, my God—why did you forsake me?’ Many of us, having experienced the voice of love, think that’s all we need but love has a good friend and the scary sound takes us to her if we allow it.8

Ninth is the voice of faith: a cry for help, when the thief says, “Jesus, remember me ..!” and what is true of Jesus became real in him because he has surrendered himself. A fact that Jesus asserts when he says, ‘… you’ll be with me in paradise this very day,’ and which he later confirmed when he rose from the dead and said, ‘Why are you so disturbed? Why do these questions come up in your hearts? Look at my hands and feet; it is really me myself. Touch me and see! Ghosts don’t have flesh and bones like you can see I have.’9

Most of us know five of those voices well. The drawn sword reminds us of times when we made a violent effort to fix a problem. The rooster crowing late at night reminds us of when we failed. The suicidal thoughts when we felt sorry for ourselves. The awful silence when we screamed at heaven. The lure of mindless amusement when life seemed a sick joke. But we forget about the three voices embodied in Jesus himself at the beginning, middle and end of the passion, which—according to Jesus—transform ordinary life into eternal life (in the here and now as well as in the future).10

 

These are what make Easter a way of life. So why not stop for a moment and choose to hope even if things look hopeless. Instead of getting discouraged, stoned or drunk, go for a lonely walk along a beach, read a poem or play some music and sing: hoping against all hope. Then, rather than just allowing this to be a pathetic romanticisation of despair, take the ultimate gamble and cry out to your Maker, expecting that if hope means anything it means the love and faith of Easter resurrection!  So admit your pride, nail it to the crucifix and make that your confession and surrender. Lastly, face the fact that you need this saviour to save you, and say, “Jesus remember me!” allowing the unhinging of the powers of darkness and the beginning of his resurrection life in you now.

 

 

1aLuke 22:53 & Galatians 3:13

 

1Matt 26:29-30

 

2John 18:10

 

3Mark 14:72

 

4Matthew 27:5

 

5John 19:23,24

 

5aEcclesiastes 6: 1 – 6

 

6Isa 9 & 53

 

7Matthew 27:33-35 & 1Peter 2:24

 

8Matthew 27:45

 

9Luke 23:42,43 &  Luke 24:38,39

 

10Luke 10: 25 – 37

3Mark 14:72

 

 

Conversationally Deaf

We are mentored by our favourite screen faces, which do everything so loudly, cleverly and colourfully that we lose our ability to hear, and become conversationally deaf. You notice it when you have stumbled on a great idea and try telling someone about it but within moments they have changed the subject and are talking about something else, probably themselves. You quietly realise that they were not listening at all—at least not hearing. Love is not like that, it is so interested in others that it is ingenious at entering into the speaker’s inner world and allowing itself to be immersed in their imagination and thoughts. Soon it is asking questions—real ones—not just contrived ‘showing an interest’ questions, and you know that this person has seen what it is that made you so excited.