Tuesday, January 22, 2008

by any other name

This is a post on death - just for a novel change in Allie's preoccupation (not).

Basically I am just intending here to quote a few things I've read recently. The first was in chapter one of Philip Yancey's book Finding God in Unexpected Places.

One night Donna, a member of the Make Today Count group [for terminally ill patients], told about watching a television program on the public service station. In the program, Elisabeth Kübler-Ross discussed a boy in Switzerland who was dying of an inoperable brain tumor. Kübler-Ross asked him to draw a picture of how he felt.
He drew a large, ugly military tank, and behind the tank he drew a small house
with trees, grass, sunshine, and an open window. In front of the tank, just at
the end of the gun barrel, he drew a tiny figure with a red stop sign in his
hand. Himself.

Donna said that picture captured her feelings precisely. Kübler-Ross had
gone on to describe the five stages of grief, culminating in the stage of
acceptance. And Donna knew she was supposed to work toward acceptance. But she
could never get past the stage of fear. Like the little boy in front of the
tank, she saw death as an enemy.

Someone brought up religious faith and belief in an afterlife, but the
comment evoked the same response in Make Today Count as it had in Amnesty
International: a long silence, a cleared throat, a few rolled eyes. The rest of
the evening, the group focused on how Donna could overcome her fears and grow
toward the acceptance stage of grief.

I left that meeting with a heavy heart. Our materialistic, undogmatic
culture was asking its members to defy their deepest feelings. Donna and the
small Swiss boy with the brain tumor had, by sheer primal instinct, struck upon
a cornerstone of Christian theology. Death is an enemy, a grievous enemy, the
last enemy to be destroyed. How could members of a group that each month saw
families fall apart and bodies deteriorate before their eyes still wish for a
spirit of bland acceptance? I could think of only one appropriate response to
Donna’s impending death: Curse you, death!

This excerpt was (a) somewhat of a relief and (b) a breath of fresh air - for me. Hooray - at last someone is acknowledging that death is horrible and dark and ugly and those are not strong enough words. Death is not something that is designed to be "gotten over" or placated. It'll hit you hard between the eyes when you least expect it, whether it's your own or someone else's.

This is where the next piece of writing comes in - a poem by Adrian Plass in his novel An Alien at St Wilfred's, which I've also copied out on another blog of mine, Another Grief Observed.

What do we do about death?
We don't -
The monster is hidden away.
It's not in the zoo for the public to view
The look on its face would empty the place
We don't want to die, the people would cry
Death is the curse in the back of the hearse
We don't need to see it today.

What do we do about death?
We don't -
We shovel it under the ground
Under the sod and hope there's a God
Whose principles bend at the bitterest end
Or we burn it away, and whispering say
Death is the scream at the end of the dream
There isn't a lonelier sound.

What do we do about death?
We don't -
We don't even give it a name
He's gone before to a distant shore
She's passed away, we gloomily say,
He's fallen asleep in a terminal heap.
Death is the spear that is poisoned with fear
It pierces the heart of the game.

What do we do about death?
We don't -
But once in the angry sun
A winner was slain at the centre of pain
When a battle was fought at the final resort
But because of the cross it was fought without loss
And death is the knife that will free us for life
Because of what Jesus has done.

And I think everything I want to say is in that poem.

Saturday, January 12, 2008


So, the last little while I've been assailed by all these doubts. I don't think I need to go into them as they are only too unoriginal - but sometimes I feel like I am literally battling them, whenever I am alone. I've always been ashamed by doubt, like I can't speak about it, but as I get older they get more difficult to handle and I realise that a lot of other people are in the same boat. A little voice comes into my head - it speaks much more clearly than my normal thoughts do - suggesting that this is ridiculous and unlikely and then I get caught up in a brain storm of 'is that my own voice or the devil's?', 'do I really believe?', etc etc. Sometimes I wish I had to undergo a little persecution because it's much easier to identify evil to resist when it comes at you plainly; evil wears a subtle garment in our Western world.

I was sitting in church today thinking about how annoying I find myself. I have seen more than enough to decide for myself that God is there and that he revealed himself through Christ. But somehow it all comes to naught when doubts come into my mind. And I worry that I will spend my entire life fighting those doubts.

But then we read a few verses in the service that really encouraged me. (And that's what church is for, right?)

For this reason, ever since I heard about your faith in the Lord Jesus and your love for all the saints, I have not stopped giving thanks for you, remembering you in my prayers. I keep asking that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the glorious Father, may give you the Spirit of wisdom and revelation, so that you may know him better. I pray also that the eyes of your heart may be enlightened in order that you may know the hope to which he has called you, the riches of his glorious inheritance in the saints, and his incomparably great power for us who believe. Ephesians 1vv15-19.

What, then, shall we say in response to this? If God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all - how will he not also, along with him, graciously give us all things? Who will bring any charge against those whom God has chosen? It is God who justifies. Romans 8vv31-33.

The remembrance of God's love for me is a powerful thing. The remembrance that Jesus is at God's side right now, fighting for me, is something a little more than encouragement. The remembrance that if I ask it of him, God will reward me with answers and wisdom and understanding, is hope. As I sat thinking about these verses, another little voice spoke in my mind, this time a different one: You are someone who has to fight for understanding, who will not be content with blindness - and that's a good thing.

Sure, in a few hours I will probably dismiss the voice as my own or a figment of my imagination - but I want to write it down now for me to remember. God gave me my personality, he gave me the people I grew up around and the things that have influenced me. He doesn't need me to be a clone of those amazing Christians who understand everything right away and stay steadfast every moment of their lives (if, in fact, they exist). I suspect that if I fight hard enough I will be a better witness for my Father than if I had never had to struggle at all.

So, on a different note, this is what I do when I start getting worried by it all:

1) I read the Bible. My favourite bits, bits I've never read before, bits I've never understood just to get my mind active - anything.

2) I read a few authors who form my unit of Surefire Protection from Idiocy. One is C. S. Lewis. The Screwtape Letters is especially relevant when I start noticing the little voice. Mere Christianity is another good'un which I wish I could memorise and recall at opportune moments. And the Narnia Chronicles are old favourites. The other author I read is Adrian Plass. He's a British guy who writes books about Christians who are flawed, funny and REAL. Instant reality check, instant encouragement and inspiration. A favourite is The Sacred Diary of Adrian Plass, Aged 37 and 3/4, but just about any of his books will do.

3) I listen to, or play, music. Mendelssohn's Hear My Prayer or Handel's Messiah are my most common choices on the piano for this purpose. I like listening to Brooke Fraser or Jars of Clay a lot in these times, but my very favourite is my brother, Russell. He has made a few CDs over the year, as the muso of the family - he writes amazing Christian lyrics, plays and composes all the music, and sings too. He's really good. He gave me his most recent work when I visited him in Malaysia in November, and there is a song on that called "Every Living Thing", based on the words of Psalm 148. It is such a joyful song and every time I listen to it I can't help but be infected with the joy of the song and I want to jump around shouting - usually I don't but you get the idea. I wish I could share it with whoever reads this but I don't have Russell's permission. His other music too - maybe it's that we're in the same family but he writes about things that come up so often in my head that almost all his songs are miracle cures for me. And I'm just a little bit proud of him too. :)

4) I'm an amateur historian and so I start thinking about what happened around New Testament times. I try to think of Jesus not as some faraway concept but as a real man I could have touched or seen with my eyes if I lived then. I think of the disciples and try to imagine being in their place, and I look at how they behaved. To me, the transformation of the disciples after the resurrection of Christ is the most tangible proof I could offer as to the reality of the resurrection. Eleven woebegone, scared men who doubt Jesus and deny him, suddenly become men who proclaim what has happened from the rooftops and will do anything to pass on the message. Almost all of them die for their Saviour. I'm aware that some people who aren't as thrilled by history as I am won't find that a compelling argument - but I do.
I also read books like The Case for Christ by Lee Strobel during doubtful times.

5) I start praying in the way easiest to me - by writing. I get lost very quickly if I try to pray in my head and I stray into cliche very easily if I pray out loud in front of people.

How do you combat doubts?

Saturday, January 05, 2008


I blogged here a little while ago about how I was agonising over whether to move on from my childhood church or not when I got back to New Zealand. Now I'm back, I've been back to church a few times, and now I know - I have to move on.

It seemed when I was away that not all that much important stuff was happening to me, but now when I go to my church here, I feel so different. I hesitate to say that I've outgrown my church like I would an old jersey - but I think I can tentatively quote Stacy in saying that at RBC I feel like a mitten and everyone else is a glove, or was it the other way round? Or perhaps I could explain it someway else by stating the facts: I love the people at my church but they are at completely different stages of life to me. Coming back reinforces what I already knew, that while I can do basic things for them like play the piano, I am not getting the support that I need, and until I get that support, I can't do anything for The Church (by which I mean that thing that even the gates of Hell will not prevail against) which actually matters in the long run. I felt very unChristian admitting this before - shouldn't it be all about what I can give and not what I can receive? - but now it just seems so obvious to me that I have to leave that I am not going to apologise for it.

Phew. So now I just have to break it to them.