Dark Nights and Wonders Part IV

Dark Nights and Wonders

‘The baiting of bulls, bears, badgers and dogs—with fireworks attached to them—was typical of the third and fourth decades of this century (England in the the 1700’s). Most of those tortures took place in public house grounds, on village greens, in village church grounds, or in cathedral closes. The animals were often baited to death to provide greater excitement.’

‘And another “sport” was cockfighting with metal spurs. Many eighteenth century clergymen bred fighting cocks and sometimes had church bells rung to honour a local winner. The setting of trained dogs on ducks in lakes was another favourite recreation, as was fox-hunting, cudgel-play and pugilism—boxing without gloves—for men and women, which sometimes went on for hours. Prize-fights between male bruisers who battled bare-fisted attracted mobs of twelve thousand or more.

‘Gambling was a national obsession for all classes, bringing appalling ruin to thousands. In London and other big cities, promiscuity became a sport, from court masquerades to fornication in broad daylight on the village green, or selling one’s wife at a cattle market.

‘There was an abundance of openly pornographic literature. Donald Drew quotes Irish historian William Lecky: “The profligacy of the theatre during the generation that followed the restoration (of the monarchy) can hardly be exaggerated.” Likewise, a judge remarked, “no sooner is a playhouse opened in any part of the kingdom, than it becomes surrounded by a halo of brothels.”9 The bible became a closed book, and the result was ignorance, lawlessness, and savagery. And until the advent of the Sunday School movement toward the end of the century, little of no provision was made for the free education of the poor, except the church system of charity schools, which were invariably a farce: most teachers being half-literate.

‘As for lawlessness, thieves, robbers and highwaymen, Horace Walpole observed in 1751, “one is forced the travel, even at noon, as if one were going to battle.” Savagery showed itself in the plundering of ships lured by false signals onto rocks, and in the indifference shown to the drowning sailors. This was regular activity along the entire coastline of the British Isles.

‘Into this spiritual and moral quagmire stepped John Wesley … One of nineteen children, he narrowly escaped death as a little boy when one night the rectory caught fire and was burned to the ground … He went through school to Oxford, where he was elected as a fellow and tutor of Lincoln College. Devoutly religious, he and others ministered to the poor and down trodden, but their peers despised them for it.’
John was ordained to the Church of England, after which he sailed to America and embarked on an embarrassing attempt at being a missionary. Having failed miserably and even gotten himself into an awkward romance that almost led to a duel, he sailed back to England saying, ‘I went over to attempt to convert them but who will convert me?’

This experience led him to conclude that he had misread or even missed something altogether. After talking things over with some Moravian missionaries and attending one of their services in 1738, he wrote, “I felt my heart strangely warmed. I felt I did trust Christ, Christ died for my salvation and an assurance was given me that he had taken away my sins, even mine … I testified openly to all there what I now … felt in my heart.”10

See Dark Nights and Wonders Part V on John’s second attempt at offering God’s love to the world.

9 Managalwadi V. The Book That Made Your World pp: 261-262 – Thomas Nelson 2011

10 Ibid p 263

If you can’t say ‘Yes’ can you at least stop saying ‘No’?

Infinite Love

Imagine if it it really is true that there’s a Higher Power out there that loves you deeply and is hoping to arrange things so you will be happy to let yourself be found by it. And what if, as long as you don’t say ‘No’, this power will keep moving towards your soul every day like a relentless fountain of grace, or even an affectionate old hound? Every delicious cup of coffee, every footstep on this beautiful old earth and every trembling leaf now has the possibility of being filled with the music of infinite love, and you—the curious, occasionally frustrated and not infrequently enraged little hominid—could be stumbling your way towards a dangerous meeting place. The place itself (if there is such a place) would be so drenched in love and sadness that you would feel you have been thought of since time began.

But beware the barking voices that want to turn every sunset and leaf into a moral lesson from a school-teacher god. As enthusiastic and sincere as these guys are, they don’t help. They are the stumble at the last minute that ruins your entire quest and leaves you thinking, ‘Oh, so that’s what this is about: just another spin-doctoring sell-job.’ They were ‘called on it’ long ago by the one who described them as voices speaking out of ‘whitewashed tombs full of dead men’s bones’.1 He pointed out that they are the control-freaks: alarmed by the very possibility of a real, live, infinite love breaking out, they crowd around the gate of heaven and foul it up so much that people like you and me are left frightened, confused and repulsed.

So, if you’re already over it, maybe that Higher Power sympathises deeply with your disgust. As one great advocate has said, ‘ “I hate all your show and pretence: the hypocrisy of your religious festivals and solemn assemblies. I will not accept your burnt offerings and grain offerings. I won’t even notice all your choice peace offerings. Away with your noisy hymns of praise! I will not listen to the music of your harps. Instead, I want to see a mighty flood of justice, an endless river of righteous living.2

On the other hand if you’re ready to give this—no longer saying ‘No’—quest a try. What might it look like? If you’ve been in the habit of saying ‘No’ it might look and feel like a nuisance: a sunrise you don’t want to notice, a child you’d rather ignore or even literally a pesky old stray hound at your back door.

A good place to start might be with this Prayer of The One Hoping in a Loving Higher Power: ‘I’m not sure you are there. But if you are I want to thank you for chocolate, for music, for that friend who really gets me. And for the sky, the birds and the sunrise. And I ask for forgiveness for saying ‘No’ to your very possibility. I can’t say ‘Yes’ cause I don’t even know if you exist, and if you do, I’m still not sure that I would actually like you—but from here on I want you to know that I’m happy to be found by you. Amen.’

  1. Matthew 23:27
  2. Amos 5:21 -24

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

 

 

The Belief and Action Trap

I’ve been enjoying having CH Dodd’s commentary on Romans as my breakfast reading book and thinking about his explanation that the etymological meaning of the word ‘Shaddai’ (an ancient divine name of unknown origin) is, ‘he who suffices’, which is helpful given that the more common rendering ‘almighty’ has a become set in the concrete of cliché. He also points out that (although in the end faith = belief + trust + action) there is a deep and powerful generative moment in faith that is ‘the negation of all activity, a moment of passivity out of which strength for action comes, because in it God acts.’ We western, activist people of faith may be systematically killing or even skipping that ‘moment of passivity out of which strength for action comes’ and hence not living by faith at all and actually giving ‘faith’ a bad name.

Feed The ‘Boy’ In Your Faith

‘Gutless B ..!’ (author unknown)

If you are setting out to be trained as a follower of Jesus Christ, beware the overeducated paranoia of Western Christendom, which can easily imprison Jesus in another kind of Nazareth and make him a prophet without honour in the home town of your carefully managed soul: a soul whose most exciting memories will be made in classrooms, facilitated by a teacher who unwittingly robs it of delightful journeys down the road of the ‘everywhere-present magic’ of Divine mysteries outside the classroom. The hall-mark of such a classroom-blessed or classroom-intimidated faith is that it does not expect to learn or to engage in personal faith-risks outside the safety of the talking room and consequently rarely experiences the pains and joys that go with the long (and unsupervised) expeditions of a curious and youthful mind into the scriptures, or the late-night adrenaline rush of a sharp (and unsupervised) exchange with a well educated scholar who is brimming with alcohol, antagonism and answerless questions. It is on such occasions that a young student of holiness and grace gets bruised and humbled and has their appetite truly whetted for the mystery of co-operating with—and being used by—the Holy Spirit in the work of communicating hope, love and faith. Without such experiences, you (the questing student) will develop a faith that resembles a boy with no love for exploring rivers because he’s never been allowed to dive in without an accompanying host of floaties, safety ropes, life-savers, advisors and parents—and to make matters worse you may find that you have no real affection for your fellow human beings who are so beloved of their Maker. And the great irony here is that the very same bible teachers, mentors and preachers who imprisoned you in their classrooms will be the first to criticise you for your lack of enthusiasm for dangerous places of God-adventure. 


Lomitas

Lomitas

Horses have much to teach us about ourselves.

By the time Lomitas was a three year old he was a dangerous nuisance on the race track and had been banned from the sport world-wide. But in 1991 Monty Roberts was called in to help. As soon as he saw the magnificent chestnut colt, he blurted out, ‘Gorgeous!’ And later, as he began work with the horse, he remembers thinking out-loud, ‘I am in the presence of greatness. I had better do my work with diligence, patience and competence.’

Fortunately for Lomitas, Roberts understood one of the golden rules of freedom and empowerment—especially as applied to those who have been hurt. So, whenever the horse wanted to take control, Monty respected that and gave him more freedom instead of less, and rather than forcing him to cooperate, he would turn his back and allow Lomitas to do whatever he liked. Lomitas responded by coming in closer. Soon he was running after Monty with his nose right on his shoulder. The rest is a magnificent piece of history—including Lomitas being honoured as Germany’s horse of the year—which can be read in The Real Horse Whisperer  by Monty Roberts. There is also a well presented eulogy to Lomitas (including some famous race replays) by Monty Roberts at the following site: http://www.montyroberts.com/horses/lomitas/

Easter as a Way of Life

 

     Take a moment to call to mind the people and things you value most, then go wider and deeper to your sharpest disappointments and wounds. Now imagine that you are gathering them all up and placing them in your hand. Now close your hand and keep them in there while we talk about something else.

     For many in our society, words like 'obedience' and 'surrender' invoke feelings of outrage and contempt. They belong to the discarded world view of tyrants and religious fanatics, which may have served some use as a kind of 'noble lie' to tame us in the youth of our civilisation—kind of like training wheels—but we have outgrown that stage. But what of those who argue that 'obedience' is in fact a beautiful, eternal and compelling law of the spirit world that can unleash power and joy and at the same time launch you and your family into a disturbing and terrible battle between good and evil?

      Jesus' mother for example, who, having been given an unusual message from an angel, asked for an explanation and was told: 'You will conceive in your womb and bear a son … The Holy Spirit will come upon you.' Mary then said, 'Let it be to me according to your word,' and abandoned herself to a mysterious virginal conception. The ensuing pregnancy aroused suspicion, jealousy, and in the end the rage and murderous schemes of a King. Then there were Jesus' disciples who followed him all the way to their deaths; and then there is us in our own daily experiences of having to 'go and see' someone to make a confession or offer forgiveness.

     The interesting thing about these moments is that those who have been in the habit of obeying for many years, frequently talk of—often through painful mistakes—acquiring an ear for the voice of the true Shepherd and learn to treasure common sense, reason and the advice of wise friends. Luke's gospel tell us that Mary 'was troubled' and 'considered in her mind' and James tells us that the wisdom from above is 'first pure, then peaceable; open to reason and full of mercy and good fruits; without uncertainty and insincerity.' (Js 3:17). And Jesus said: 'My sheep hear my voice.'

      So, having run these authenticity tests and established that this is in fact a message from The One, the obey-er understands that they are cooperating with The Author of one big and living story who is not only thinking of them and being influenced by them, but is also thinking of and being influenced by dozens and even hundreds or thousands of others (past, present and future) and is unable to explain the full significance of this one act of obedience.

      We see hints of this in the crucifixion story where The Messiah makes a lot of unexpected statements: 'You would have no power over me unless it had been given you from above; If it be your will let this cup pass; Behold your mother; Father forgive them; You will be with me in paradise.'

      These statements impled that Jesus had not at all been taken by surprise, which un-nerved Pilate and the soldiers. They saw their life in this world as the main event, but Jesus knew that his life was a two-stage quest: Stage I, where we do deeds in this life that follow us into the next (as in any quest). Stage II, where—after an intermediate stage of disembodiment—what we have grown and built in Stage I (homes, lives, friendships, families, work) is somehow caught up in a great physical resurrection and made deathless and eternal— a vindication of innocence and of those who have been loyal to the innocent.

     There is much in this for believers to think about. For, if on the one hand it is true that Calvary has already absorbed the judgement of even the most terrible of sinners, leaving no obstruction barring their entry—if they wish—into the blessings of eternal life; what of their past and present behaviour?

Is this merely about getting there, or do we need to think about what might be left of us when we get there? Could it be that, although we belong to Christ, part of us may have already been lost to the cancer of evil? It says in Corinthians: 'Your deeds will follow you into eternity,' and, 'The fire will prove what sort of work each one has done. If the work that a man has built upon the foundation stands the test, he will be rewarded. But if a man's work be destroyed under the test, he loses it all. He personally will be safe, though rather like a man rescued from a fire.' (1Cor3:12-15).

     Take a moment to think again about what you are holding in your closed hand. You have closed it on what is not in fact yours. According to the teachings of our Messiah, if we choose to continue holding on to what is not ours, the hand in fact is in a fire which could devour not just the 'hand' but our entire self. If you have left your arm in the fire for too long you may find that only the arm is redeemable and not the hand. 'We shall be rewarded for what we did when we lived in our bodies, whether it was good or bad.' (2Cor 5: 10).

     In other words, there is forgiveness and even redemption, but 'you reap what you sow.' As Boethius says in De Consolatione: 'The reward of the good is to be what they are; the reward of the evil is to be what they are.' And George Macdonald: 'In the end, the only cure of evil is to have to live with itself.'

George MacDonald's story Lilith implies that this problem of 'wanting to have it both ways: to be in heaven and to have our own way', could take us on a long journey of procrastination during that in-between disembodied state after we die. When Lilith finally comes to Adam and Eve's house to go to sleep, Adam says to her, “You will not sleep—even if you lie there a thousand years—until you have opened your hand and yielded that which is not yours to give or to withhold.” The problem for her was that, having had this hand closed for so long, she had lost the ability to open it, which meant she was going to have to consider a desperate measure (I won't spoil the story and tell you what Lilith does).

So what might happen if you open that hand now and let it all go? Anything could happen, but at least that 'anything' will now be in the hands of your loving Father and that's a relief.

Joseph knew about this and a great secret-revealing moment happens in his story when his father dies and his brothers are immediately terrified that he will now exact revenge, but he says to them: 'You meant it for evil but God meant it for good.'

     Lewis tells us: 'They wanted as we say, to make their souls their own, but that means to live a lie, for our souls are not in fact our own. They wanted some corner in the universe of which they could say to God, “this is our business, not yours” – but there is no such corner. They wanted to be nouns, but they were and eternally shall be, mere adjectives.’(5 CS Lewis – Problem of Pain – Ch 5)

Remember that closed hand? If you haven't already, I'd like to invite you to open it, and while you are doing that, tell God exactly what this means. You may even want to write it out as a prayer.

Maybe Lilith's story is not you today, but before you give yourself an all-clear, think about this: Two people can be doing the same work and claiming to walk with Jesus, but one of them is not actually resting in God. Their posture, as it were, is like someone almost sitting comfortably in a chair but kind of crouching with their bottom a few centimeters above the cushion. They will get 'spiritual arthritis in the knees of their soul' so to speak. What they need urgently is a 'trust-test', a kind of heavy weight dumped on them—which could be quite brutal by the way—but still a gift, because now they now know the truth.

     The other, who actually does trust, enjoys the chair and on top of that they experience the power of the Holy Spirit working in and through them. The mystery of evil here is that this life-time habit of self-protection means that this person, who is thinking that they are living the Christian life, will in fact have what has been referred to as a 'life half-lived' because they are ruled by fear. In thirty seconds they could have changed the next thirty years of their life by confessing their sin and being filled with the power of the Holy Spirit. 

     Obedience to God—in my experience—is the greatest wrongness-crushing, despair-crushing and redeeming thing that I know of because of the way that it constantly unleashes this mysterious cleansing power, which may not necessarily change the circumstances, but which changes me and fills me with hope and grace when I should have been a write off and—thankfully—is no respecter of my desire to make my life my own.