The thick darkness where God is

It’s been a harrowing week for Ellen and those who love her. We finally finished sorting through her father’s effects and, as she has asked me weekly since he died, I gave her his collection of cassettes and CDs. But music is Ellen’s main way of communicating with, and understanding, the world. Every one of those music tracks reminds her of something about her father. She has been hit by a torrent of grief so overwhelming that her self-harming almost landed her in hospital and the doctor has had to prescribe tranquilizers. The bewilderment on her face betrays an emotion all the more crushing because she lacks the vocabulary to articulate it, and so cannot tame and constrain it in the way that words do.

I’ve spent today with her and, unable to restrain my own tears, I have found a curious relief in the discovery that my heart is not so calloused that it has become inured to her pain. I have had plenty of opportunity to reflect on the things God has promised me for her. It’s almost thirty years since God spoke to me unmistakeably clearly about her physical healing, that it would be in the land of the living, not in the sweet by-and-by.

I grew up in a very conservative evangelical tradition that would have denied the possibility of God even speaking to me like that, and would have dismissed it as a misinterpretation. This tradition took a fatalistic approach to life which, while it acknowledged that God could in theory heal if He chose to, had no expectation at all that He ever would, and was more likely to view a sudden healing as a demonic counterfeit than a divine miracle.

As an adult I parted company with that religious tradition and threw myself into the life of a church that encouraged a much more real and living faith – a faith that took God’s promises seriously and expected Him to live up to His word. I found this a much more satisfying approach because it lacked the gulf between faith and practice or belief and reality which had marked the religion of my upbringing. (I still belong to this same church, thirty-five years later, a mark of the fact that the church has also not remained static but its corporate journey has mirrored my individual one.)

The problem is that neither of these ways of relating to God can confront and deal with the unanswered question, the question that would receive a glib answer from either of them: what happens when a promise remains unfulfilled for thirty years? The beliefs of my childhood would say that I was wrong to claim such a promise, and that is the end of the matter. I should resign myself to Ellen continuing to suffer as she does, and go on believing in God despite it all. The beliefs of my early adulthood would blame my inadequate faith or lack of prayer.

But both these answers are cop-outs. They are different ways of denying either God’s desire or His ability to heal Ellen. What is more, both are counsels of despair. If God is powerless or unwilling to help Ellen, there is no hope of change. If it depends on my mustering more faith, I have already scraped the bottom of that barrel so often that I’m through to the bare ground.

It might seem that this leaves me no alternative but to doubt the goodness of God. Certainly that’s a stage I have passed through (I remember once saying to my pastor that the Romans had it right, the gods are capricious), but I’m thankful that it never became my resting place. I am still expecting God to fulfil that promise; I do believe He spoke to me, and I don’t believe the passage of time negates His word. But there is still no sign of the promise’s imminent fulfilment.

I know this is a journey; who knows where I will be a month, or a year, or a decade from now? But here’s where I am today as I witness Ellen submerged beneath a tsunami of sorrow, and desperately will her not to drown. There is a place in God where questions are unanswered. He is silent. The lack of any response from Him is the most deafening sound of all. And in that place is the immense relief of discovering that God is beyond my control. Nothing I do or fail to do can manipulate Him into acting in a particular way just because I want it. Which means that He is big enough to hold my most insistent, unanswered questions for me, and vast enough to sustain and embrace me in the middle of any storm.

A God whom I could command to do my bidding would be no God at all. Richard Dawkins has taught us to fear, or at least despise, the idea of mystery. But what would God be with no mystery? A God who was small enough to be comprehended within the little limits of my mind would be no God at all. I stand dumbfounded in the presence of an impenetrable and silent mystery. I feel I have an inkling of what Moses must have experienced when he encountered God in thick darkness.

It’s like standing, some moonless night, on a deserted beach before an arch of rock, and stepping through the arch, expecting to find the cold sea lapping at one’s feet, the wind chilling one’s bones and the vast emptiness of a dark ocean stretching away for an infinite distance; but finding instead that one has stepped into a light, warm, soft-lined and homely room where the richest fragrance and the sweetest music permeate the air. Sometimes it’s in the bleakest of silences that God is found.

The Glory of Christ

This post was written for Through the Roof (www.throughtheroof.org) and is reproduced here by kind permission.

Worldwide web watchers may have noticed recently that there has been some fresh controversy regarding a particular brand of “prosperity Gospel” coming out of America. In this particular version, at least according to its critics, God has been portrayed as being rather like an over-indulgent grandparent whose offspring have only to name a wish for it to appear in front of them. If it fails to appear, there is something wrong with the way they are asking, the words they are using or their levels of faith. The focus of this type of spirituality appears to be our own happiness rather than God’s glory. (I’m choosing my words carefully because the speaker in question claims to have been misunderstood and misrepresented; although the original words were, at least, ill-chosen.)

The problem with a version of the Gospel which emphasises God showering material blessings on us is not that there’s no truth in it, but that it isn’t half (or even one-tenth) of the story. I certainly know there have been occasions when God has blessed me materially. There have been times when praying for things has been answered by those things happening. There have been times when speaking out the truth of God’s word has changed situations. There have also been times when I haven’t received what I prayed for, for reasons known only to God, and other times when I haven’t received what I prayed for, because I wasn’t really asking in faith. I am also convinced that, for the most part, when God sees me happy, it gives Him pleasure. But these things form only a tiny part of my Christian experience.

Moreover, when God blesses us materially in these ways, we see it from our own perspective. We have a little need; we ask in faith; God meets our little need and sometimes even goes way beyond what we asked for. We are blessed, we feel really happy and we have a great testimony to share. But God sees it from a far larger perspective. He has only one real goal in everything that He does, which is, in Paul’s words from Colossians, that in everything Christ might have the pre-eminence.

The times of most transforming, lasting joys in my life have come when God has not instantly gratified my desire, even for things that might seem a really legitimate good to pray for. I remember sitting in the paediatrician’s office when my daughter Ellen was 11 and being told that her scoliosis was now so severe that it was crushing her heart, lungs and stomach and putting her at imminent risk of heart failure. She needed a very risky operation to straighten out her spine and insert a metal rod to support it. The paediatrician explained that the operation might kill her or leave her completely paralysed, but that without it she would certainly die. He concluded with the words, “We can’t leave it a year. She hasn’t got a year left.”

For complicated reasons which I won’t explain here, ten months went by before Ellen was able to have her operation, by which time her condition was critical. I was convinced that God can and does heal, and I could see no possible good to a child from having a painful and traumatic operation, so I confidently prayed for her healing. I confessed the word of God over her. The pastors from my church came round and prayed for her, and, in obedience to James 5. 14, anointed her with oil. (I remain convinced that they were right to do so.) I had every expectation that she would be healed. After all, James 5. 15 confidently asserts that “the prayer offered in faith will make the sick person well; the Lord will raise them up”.

Eventually she went into hospital, but still my faith never wavered. I believed she would be healed at the last minute, the operation would not be needed, and God would be glorified by her testimony. When they came to take her down to the operating theatre, I was reading Psalm 27 aloud to her.

Ellen had her operation, and it was traumatic. But she didn’t die and she wasn’t completely paralysed, although she did lose some physical function. We were told that the operation would take at least 5 hours, she would need at least 48 hours in intensive care, and would be in hospital for at least a month. In fact the operation took less than 3 hours, she went straight back to the children’s ward accompanied by intensive care nurses, and was well enough to be discharged 3 weeks later. I remained at her bedside day and night for 3 weeks, catching some sleep in a chair whenever she dozed. The thing that struck me was how much genuine, deep joy I experienced during those 3 weeks. I had an unassailable inner peace, and the presence of God in the ward was so real I almost expected to see Him with my eyes. My closeness to Him was deepened immeasurably, and the effects were lasting. It was an important stage in my spiritual development and, crucially, it revealed to me a glorious facet of the character of Jesus as the God of all comfort, which I would never have encountered if all my prayers had been instantly answered.

So to go back to the controversy about the “prosperity Gospel”, when God blesses us with answered prayer it’s not primarily for our own benefit (although of course we do benefit) but for His glory. And when He withholds answers to prayer, even to prayer offered in faith, it’s primarily for His glory, although we do benefit too. Any Gospel which misses this point has an incomplete view of the glory of Christ – and this matters because it’s the glory of Christ around which the whole of creation revolves, and towards which the close of the age will draw us.

In 1864 a puritan named John Owen wrote a little book entitled The Glory of Christ. If you can cope with 17th century language, or find a modern abridgement, I recommend it to you. In this book, he meditates upon different facets of Christ’s glory – the glory of His love, the glory of His mystery, His glory as mediator, His glory in the church, and the glory of His eternal being. He shows how beholding the glory of Christ with the eyes of faith in this life is preparing us for, and will be completely overtaken by, our sight of His glory face to face in the next. Any Gospel which has anything other than the glory of Christ as its chief focus is at best lopsided and at worst misleading.

As C.S. Lewis discovered, when he pursued happiness it eluded him, but when he encountered God he received joy as a surprising by-product. Yes, our happiness gives God pleasure. But only when our happiness is derived from our pursuit of God and His glory. Any other kind of happiness brings him sorrow because He knows it is a deceit that will ultimately leave us empty and unfulfilled. He has created us for relationship with Him, and it’s only in seeking to know and worship Him in all aspects of His character that we will find true and lasting goodness and joy.

Where is the outrage?

I’m not a party political animal at all; I evaluate party manifestos at the time of an election and decide which one I can most support. But I suppose I am political in the sense that I am impartially passionate about justice and mercy and goodness.

I am heartbroken about what I see going on in Gaza at present; who could not be? I am not pro- or anti- Palestinian, nor am I pro- or anti- Israeli. I am pro- justice and mercy and goodness. I know that more than 1300 people have been killed in Gaza in recent weeks. I am also aware that the only reason the figures in Israel are so much lower are because they have excellent defences to protect their people from the constant incoming bombardment. Like everyone else, I welcome every international effort to get this madness to stop and provide permanent peace and protection for the peoples in this corner of the world.

But – and here is the point I wish to make – more Christians (around 1500) have been killed in Iraq in recent weeks than the number of Palestinians who have been killed in Gaza. So where is the world’s outrage about this? Why has it been relegated to a quiet corner of the media? Why is the UN security council not pulling out all the stops to end this violence and protect the innocent and peaceable men, women, children, some of them disabled, who have all been either murdered or driven from their homes? Why has the world stood by as the most ancient population of the city of Mosul – the Christian population – has been entirely driven from its ancient home, and the church in Baghdad has dwindled in numbers every week as more and more of its congregation are murdered?

I am not writing this to make any statement about the general situation in the Middle East, but simply to plead that justice, mercy and goodness be upheld for every suffering population, including, and especially, the Christians in Iraq. Read more here and here.

Questions, questions….

I wrote this for Through the Roof (www.throughtheroof.org) and it is reproduced here by kind permission.

Around 30 years ago I was just beginning to discover the extent of my daughter’s disabilities. She had failed to meet any of the normal milestones during the first year of her life, was not moving around, sitting unsupported, picking up toys (or anything else), moving her head or forming any intelligible words, and already the tightness of her muscles was beginning to pull her little body into a distorted shape. A paediatrician came to visit us at home with the diagnosis; she told us that Ellen had cerebral palsy, with “spastic limbs” and might lack the intelligence ever to learn any speech (which turned out to be overly-pessimistic). After she had gone away, I put Ellen to bed and as I looked down at her twisted form on the mattress of the Moses basket which she was still tiny enough to fit into, a poem of sorts formed itself in my mind:

Limbs like a corpse, too stiff to play,
Voice that says nothing to no one all day;
No wonder, then, pillowed alone in the dark,
You coil yourself into a question mark.

Over the years that question mark came to symbolise so many things for me: Where was Ellen’s guardian angel the day when her catastrophic breathing collapse caused major brain damage at the age of nine weeks? Surely this couldn’t be God’s will; but what kind of God permits things that are not His will? As part of my degree course I had studied several theodicies (ways in which Christian thinkers down the centuries have tried to reconcile evil and suffering with the existence of an all-powerful, all-knowing and all-loving God). I knew which ones I found convincing in theory, but in the face of the actual suffering, both physical and emotional, which I had to watch Ellen endure, all of them rang hollow.

And yet alongside the questions I was finding an ever-deepening embrace in the love of God. Somehow, as my experience of His love grew larger, the questions grew smaller. They don’t go away – there are some I would still dearly love answers to. But first of all I came to see that the answers were not important as the questions; because asking the questions was an act of honesty with God, and being real with Him drew me ever closer towards Him. And secondly, in that growing closeness, I came to experience Him as utterly trustworthy. He holds my questions for me, and for now I am content to leave them there and know that whatever the answer is, it all has to do with Ellen’s ultimate good and blessing.

As an A level student, I had read Camus’ “La Peste” in which a Catholic priest watches a tiny child die in agony from the plague, and then asks, in his next Sunday sermon, “Who are we to say that even a whole eternity of bliss could possibly compensate for a single instant of human suffering?” As a degree student I remember writing an essay about the man born blind from John chapter 9, in which I explored the idea that to inflict him with blindness so that God could display His own works through him seems like the action of a megalomaniac. Now I came to understand that it was far better and more blessed for the man to have been born blind and to have been healed than if he had been born sighted in the first place. Somehow, every instant of Ellen’s suffering was working for her an eternal weight of glory. And I believe I can say that without at all meaning that God caused, willed or planned her suffering.

When she was 4 years old we went to a large, international conference headed by a well-known evangelist (I am not going to name or criticise him; he is someone for whom I had, and retain, a great deal of respect). Among the congregation was a man who’d had a leg amputated. At the first appeal for healing prayer, he made his way to the front on his crutches, and asked for prayer that his leg would grow back. In this article I’m less concerned with that than with the attitude of the congregation. This man went forward with the same prayer request at every meeting. As the week went on, he didn’t wait for the appeal, he simply went forward before the sermon ended. I began to hear people talking about him. I noticed that people would enter the auditorium and begin looking for him, pointing him out to one another when they spotted him. I heard people speculating about when he would go forward, whether he would wait for the appeal or go up during the sermon, and whether this spectacular miracle would take place or not.

During the conference another internationally well-known evangelist announced that he would be holding a healing meeting at 1pm. By 12.15 there was a 300 ft queue of physically able people outside the venue. Like other disabled people, our daughter could not queue outdoors for 45 minutes. When the doors finally opened, able people all rushed in to fill the front rows and get a good view. We, and many other disabled people, were relegated to standing room at the back.

The conference had been trumpeted as an occasion when great miracles would take place. It’s not true to say that nothing happened that week. I personally witnessed one lady with MS who was apparently cured, enabled to get out of her wheelchair and walk normally for the first time in many years, and her joy was palpable – I was left in no doubt that God had given her a gift of physical wholeness and I rejoiced with her. But there seemed to be no understanding of the deeper healing that God can bring about even without a physical cure, and the results of the week certainly did not match the hype which preceded it.

During that week the impression I gained was that people had gone to watch physical cures as a spectator sport. There was something very disturbing about the way in which physically able Christians appeared to have come to be entertained by the misfortunes of people who had been promised a physical cure (even though God might not have seen that as their most pressing need at that time). I overheard people gossiping and speculating, and it was unedifying. As I reflected on the impressions of the week, I found myself turning to Mark 5, the story of the raising of Jairus’ daughter from the dead. Verses 37 and 40 stood out to me: “And He allowed no one to accompany Him, except Peter and James, and John the brother of James.” And “But putting them all out, He took along the child’s father and mother and His own companions, and entered the room where the child was.”

By contrast with the vast spectacle of a public gathering, when Jesus performed a truly outstanding miracle in which even death had to obey Him and yield the little girl back to her parents, He admitted only those people who loved her and those few who truly believed in His power. I thought of Galatians 5.6 where we are told that faith works by love. The kind of “faith” that manifested in that conference was not true mountain-moving faith because it was not fuelled by love. Perhaps there might even have been more physical cures in evidence if there had been more genuine love.

Over the years, I know that God has given me some specific promises for Ellen. I haven’t seen all of them fulfilled yet, any more than I have had all of my questions answered. But I know that His love for her is unimaginably deep and constant, and my faith is fuelled by that love, as well as by my own love for Ellen. I hope that 26 years on from that conference, the church is beginning to understand that God’s omnipotence does not equal doing things the way we tell Him to, and that if we do sense that He is asking us to trust Him for a miracle for someone, whether of the outward and visible or the inner and quiet variety, genuine love for the person is the vital ingredient to activate our faith.

Assisted Dying Bill

Lord Faulkner’s Assisted Dying Bill is being debated in the House of Lords today. Supporters of this bill claim that it will apply only to terminally ill patients whose life is near its natural end. But there is reason to be very concerned indeed about any bill which devalues human lives simply because they are limited or painful. This is not an exaggerated Orwellian scare story – we know that already pressure is being put on families of healthy young disabled people to agree to “Do Not Resuscitate” directives. It was good to hear the much respected Sir Bert Massie on BBC tv this morning defending the rights of disabled people to be protected from the unforeseen effects of a misguided assisted dying law. Please take a stand against this culture of seeing limited or economically unproductive lives as disposable. Please encourage your friends and contacts to sign this petition so that we can make the strength of feeling known to the Health Secretary.
http://www.change.org/en-GB/petitions/health-secretary-stop-asking-families-of-disabled-young-people-to-discuss-do-not-resuscitate-directives

Andrew, one year on

It was more like a scream than a roar
as that dark tunnel swallowed you from view,
your dimming lights vanishing into the unknown
while the echo reverberated ever more faintly;
and the vacant track, lacking your presence,
vibrated with a shock of emptiness.

We were left startled, dazed,
until nothing but the merest puff of smoke
drifting from the tunnel’s gaping mouth
floated momentarily before dissipating
into the still air of a fresh day.

Your mortal remains,
scattered in peace and beauty,
seemed only to mock
the entity we knew you had been.

Yet the journey with you,
having left us many miles
from the station of our departure,
attests to a world forever changed
by your brief sojourn.