This universe—with its glory, its lies, its butterflies and its tigers—expects to at least be given the dignity of grateful and honest, curious and (along with a healthy fear) courageous souls, and those who hope to meet her and know her should come to her Table of Knowing with these things in their hearts. Don’t be surprised then that those who treat her with contempt are broken by her. As George MacDonald says, ‘The business of the universe is to make such a fool of that you will know yourself for one and learn to be wise.’*
But there are not many of us who come with this due sense of respect. Instead, thanks to greed, pride and self-centredness, we mostly find ourselves stumbling accidentally to her table after years of enslavement by an hysterical traitor: emotional doubt, which destroys our capacity for thought and reduces us to a state of pathetic need and terrified despair. So, before you embark on this adventure of all adventures: the search for a worldview, decide that this hysterical-traitor-friend will not be getting a ‘seat on your bus’ but instead, that this seat will be occupied by reasonable doubt.
Having gotten this far, you will most likely find that honesty demands the admission that this will not be a truly disinterested investigation, for (apart from the prejudices and weaknesses of the human mind) there is the question of the existence of evil—not just blind accidental evil but personal and vicious evil, which the dictionary defines this way: ‘evil |ˈēvəl| adjective, profoundly immoral and malevolent: his evil deeds | no man is so evil as to be beyond redemption. Of a force or spirit: embodying or associated with the forces of the devil: we have been driven out of the house by this evil spirit.’ It is said that this ‘evil is on both sides of your door’47.
*Mr. Raven in Lilith (George MacDonald)
In 1996, Veronica Guerin was an Irish mother who deeply loved her family and loved goodness. She was not a church goer, in fact she had good reasons for being disgusted with the world of religion: one of her investigations involved exposing pedophilia in the church. Her journey shows the truth of John 3:19, which says, ‘This is the judgement, that the light has come into the world but men loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil.’ Veronica was no saint, but as time went by, her love for the light filled her soul with a love for the hurting and drew her into the darkest of places where she then became a light to others—and still is.
She had qualifications in accountancy, business and journalism. Her training fitted with her passion for following the facts all the way to their source, even if it meant putting herself in serious danger. It came to her attention that the drug lords of Ireland were brazenly dominating and destroying Irish society, to the extent that outraged families were marching in the street trying to get intimidated government ministers to do something about it.
By the June of that year, Guerin had gathered a lot of damning information and was putting pressure on those responsible. People were listening and she was booked to speak at a ‘Freedom Forum’ conference in London on the topic “Dying to Tell the Story: Journalists at Risk.” But two days before the forum—on 26 June 1996—Veronica was driving in traffic, she stopped at a red light and was shot six times by a motorcyclist. The shooting was fatal.
Her murder sparked anger all over Ireland. Numbers of crime bosses were arrested and imprisoned and it is claimed that drug crime in Ireland dropped by 15% in the following twelve months. For the first time in Irish history, a criminal turned ‘state witness’.
The movie Veronica Guerin has been made of her story. If you want a good spiritual exercise to prepare you for the new year I recommend watching it and then praying a prayer like the following one …
“ Dear God of self-forgetful love, there’s a paralysing and unspoken fear threatening our society. I need your grace to stand up to it. I want to be more like Veronica. I’m volunteering to be one of yours. To be the one who grasps the nettle that everyone sees but does nothing about. If this means that I’ll be regarded as naïve, arrogant, or even reckless, then so be it. For this life is short and I would hate to reach the end of it and realise that I had made a habit of trading the chance to love and serve you and my neighbours for the sake of a little (temporary) social approval. As Pink Floyd sang, “Did you exchange a walk on part in a war for a lead role in a cage?” Such a pretty cage too: hours and hours of fun. As for me, I hope that—like Veronica—whenever I’m faced with the smell of brazen, socially entrenched evil, I will be one in whom curiosity, indignation and love are aroused, and who will be prepared to place all my gifts, training and skills at your disposal and walk patiently and courageously into the fight, where I will burn like a wick in the candle of your grace. Amen’
After decades of missionary service in Africa, Mary Slessor said, “It is a real life I am living now, not all preaching and holding meetings, but rather a life and an atmosphere, which the people can touch and live in and be made willing to believe in when the higher truths are brought before them. In many things it is a most prosaic life: dirt and dust and noise and silliness and sin in every form, but full too of the kindliness and homeliness and dependence of children …”45
Thomas Cahill said, ‘when we read the lives of the Celtic saints we find ourselves taken unawares in the company of lions and it’s every man for himself’46. Mary was one of those lions and Cahill was talking about the terror this kind of person is to our pride. Pride must find some way to excuse us, to show that because of genetics or upbringing, we have good reason not to expect anything like this of ourselves. At all costs we must protect ourselves and our children from any sense that ‘this could be you one day’. This is the terror of the logos incarnate, the divine word revealed in the flesh of ordinary people. It would be less of a worry if we could show that they had started out with some added advantage, that they were not ordinary.
The author says in the preface, “some have said that she was in a sense a miracle, and not therefore, for ordinary people to emulate. Such an estimate she would have strongly repudiated. It is true that she began life with a strong character, but many possess that and come to nothing. She had on the other hand, disadvantages and obstacles that few have to encounter. It was by surrender, dedication and unwearied devotion that she grew into her power of attainment and all can adventure on the same path.” One day when a new missionary lady told her she did not know what to do, Mary exclaimed, “Do, lassie? Do? You’ve not got to do, you’ve just got to be and the doing will follow.”
On the other hand there are those of us, especially preachers, who are quick to own someone like Mary as an Exhibit A in our gallery of pulpit stories, as if she had it sorted, because she was ‘like me’. For a long time Mary was ignored by the preachers and teachers. Regarded with concern, and given very little support, she allowed herself to be poured into the hearts and souls of the untouched tribes, even for a time living in a small curtained room in a harem, as a temporary measure, while a chief built her a house. She had no time for citadel-style Christendom that unwittingly demonstrates its cowardice by trying to impress pagans with shows of power and noise, like a drunk outside a police station.
Mary was a seasoned missionary of 30 years when she wrote those words about “… a life and an atmosphere …”, having won over whole tribal groups to the Kingdom. She knew all about preaching and holding meetings and churches being planted, but in these words she tells us what really makes her heart beat faster. It’s what happens outside the ‘meetings and preachings’ that turns hearts and minds, because this is “a life and an atmosphere, which the people can touch and live in and be made willing to believe in”.
This plausibility matrix is not an accident and although it takes the shape of a richly coloured social fabric, incorporating individual personalities, families, tribes and political structures, it is not the creation of clever social engineers, it is the fruit of total surrender to—and a compliment from—a mysterious thing called Agape love, which happens when individual believers and their communities engage and become sweetly embedded in real life, assuming that this is a world drenched in the love of God but that it is also a world whose heart and soul will shrink back and hide like an abused child if its shepherds (the human race) refuse their great calling, and so, like Mary, they happily forego the allure of material comforts and instead pour out their lives in the love and service of their neighbours—not because of fear or guilt or to prove something but because they have allowed themselves to be what every fabric of their soul tells them they were made to be. Hence they delight in what most others would despise. As Mary said, a place of “…dirt and dust and noise and silliness and sin in every form, but full too of the kindliness and homeliness and dependence of children …”. In CS Lewis’ Narnia Chronicles, Aslan says, ‘In the end eveyone gets what they want but they might not like it.’
Here are three recommended readings on ‘allowing reality to be lived’, as spiritual exercises in the new year …
- Mary Slessor of Calabar W.P. Livingston Hodder& Stoughton 1917 9th Ed.
- Miracle on The River Kwai – Earnest Gordon
The Jesus I Never Knew – Phillip Yancey (Ch 7)
Given that religion is ‘us talking about God’, what is this unique claim Christianity makes about what God does about us? Lewis gives a brief answer in the following statement. ‘Christians … of all men must not think of spiritual joy and worth as things that need to be rescued or tenderly protected from time and place and matter and senses. Their god is the god of corn and wine and oil. He is the glad creator. He has become himself incarnate. The sacraments have been instituted. Certain spiritual gifts are offered us on the condition that we perform certain bodily acts. To shrink back from all that can be called nature into negative spirituality is to run away from horses instead of learning to ride. There is in our present pilgrim condition plenty of room for renunciation, but behind all asceticism the thought should be, ‘Who will trust me with a spiritual body if I cannot even control an earthly body? These small and perishable earthly bodies were given to us as ponies are given to schoolboys. We must learn to manage these not that we may someday be free of horses altogether, but that someday we may ride bareback, those greater mounts, those winged, shining and world-shaking horses which perhaps even now expect us with impatience, pawing and snorting in the kings stables.’
The picture is of a quest or expedition to accomplish a prescribed task and along the way there are certain opportunities and hazards out of which great blessings can come, or not. In other words, there is a story and we are co-creating it with our great creator. As I have written in a previous post, ‘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 imply 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 us 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).
Then there is the other part, all that stuff about being made new and eternal. The appearance of what has been described as ‘transphysical’ bodies, of which Jesus is the first, the pioneer. And even a transphysical universe that has also been somehow impregnated with every good and beautiful and true thing ever done.
It is this that explains the long and energetic history of Christians happily foregoing personal wealth and comfort in order to love and serve their families and their neighbours in ordinary moments every day: soup kitchens, foster care, hospitals, birthday parties, medical clinics and a host of others. They know that everything counts and nothing will be in vain, even if it does ‘all go up in smoke’. They know for a fact that possessions, money and even their own lives will somehow become fountains of eternal love, if only they allow them to be released into the lives of others—not out of a morbid fear or a pious desire to be ‘unselfish’ but in 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’—in other words, from being possessed by our possessions. And in particular, from having potentially eternal love imprisoned in us by a grubby little desire to somehow hoard it.
For you, the best time to release the love tied up in your lifestyle and your possessions was probably a long time ago, but the second best time is today. Why not imitate God and make your love edible today?
“So far from being the final religious refinement, Pantheism is in fact the permanent natural bent of the human mind; the permanent ordinary level below which man sometimes sinks, under the influence of priestcraft and superstition, but above which his own unaided efforts can never raise him for very long, Platonism and Judaism and Christianity (which has incorporated both) have proved the only things capable of resisting it. It is the attitude into which the human mind automatically falls when left to itself. No wonder we find it congenial. If religion means simply what man says about God, and not what God does about man, then Pantheism almost is religion. And religion in that sense has only one really formidable opponent – namely Christianity.” 1
What does Lewis mean by ‘what God does about man’?