Tuesday, January 13, 2009

nature, red in tooth and claw

I've been thinking about nature recently. Nature with a capital N, I suppose. Don't worry, I'm not going to launch into a glowing account of fluffy bunnies and cute little ladybirds. I'm thinking more of "nature, red in tooth and claw". Or the Nature that you hear about on the news. It's hard to avoid thinking about it, actually, at the moment.

We've been having a lot of deaths, near-deaths, and accidents in New Zealand lately. It's summer, it's beautiful, and it's deceptively dangerous. Every few days there seems to be something else in the news. One woman has been missing for over a week on a tramping track and is probably dead, two men were crushed when they ventured too close to the Fox Glacier and tons of ice fell on them, one man died and another only just survived when they were stranded on Mt Cook for days in a howling blizzard, a child drowned while waterskiing, a boatload of two adults and three children were lost in raging seas for a day, and more. The world seems so small now, and humans so big, that I think we forget to take Nature seriously and these sorts of things happen.

We are tiny little insignificant beings caught in huge forces and if we are in the wrong place at the wrong time, we are defenceless. It is amazing how quickly we wither when we don't have the tools of civilisation any longer.

And although I'm not going to equate Nature with God, these thoughts echo some of my other developing thoughts. I've always considered God as good because he should be, almost as though I set the rules for what is good and what is not. If he does something I don't understand, I disapprove or try to ignore it, thinking of God as bound to my notions of good. In the past, people might explain some of these issues to me by asking "Who are you to challenge God?" And I would think, well, that's all well and good but it's not exactly a rational argument, and, well, it's not very nice. An authoritarian God seems so different from 'gentle Jesus, meek and mild'.

Perhaps I underestimated God, like we underestimate Nature.

I do still think that God has no choice but to be good; his nature is intrinsically good and that cannot change. However, for the first time I've learnt to take their point. Considering God and his awesome power, displayed in a much lesser extent in the sweeping power of Nature, which he created... well, maybe I've learnt a little more humility. I've learnt to see the point of people like C. S. Lewis, who described Aslan, the Lion who symbolised God in the Narnia Chronicles, as "dangerous", or "not a tame lion". The God of the Old Testament, so terrifying that we could not bear to look upon him, is a crucial part of the nature of God that I've only just learned to accept.

And at the same time, I haven't lost any of my idealism. To think that such a God loved us, when really he could have annihilated us with ease and no one could have stopped him - that God came to us, humbled himself, died for us... Although it seems a paradox, maybe in order to really understand the Cross, the ultimate sign of God's love and closeness to us, we also need to recognise God's BIGNESS and POWER and SCARINESS.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

my testimony

Here it is, the promised testimony-of-sorts. I found I had a whole heap of expectations of what a testimony is supposed to be like and this doesn't really slot into them - in fact, it's more like a normal blog post. But it feels more to me like the message I need to say than any "I was born in 1986 to a Christian family" sort of testimony. Here goes.

I haven't really written anything of substance on here for a while, because if I was honest, I was afraid someone I know might read it and think differently of me, and if I lied, I knew whatever I came out with would be hypocritical. I've actually already managed to be a hypocrite and liar on my other blog, when I wrote that the "spiritual course of up-and-downs" I've been through this year had left me stronger.

Actually, I've been having a really hard time. And this is the first time I have admitted it to anyone. The shame of it felt too much to bear on my own and yet the shame of it held me back from confiding in anyone. Everyone I know seems to have such a joyful, exemplary Christian life whereas I am a failure. I have all the book-knowledge; I can put on my special voice and argue free will over predestination. I also actually believe it all. But! I want to do things that God doesn't want me to do, and although I guess I've always struggled with this it suddenly all crept up on me in the last month or two and I could think of nothing but what I wanted to do. I even came to the firm decision that I was going to do this, although I knew it was a bad idea, I would regret it, and it would make things even harder for me in my faith - maybe draw me away from God permanently. A big change, because in the past, even if I was having what Christians like to call a "dry patch", I always firmly believed I would never lose my faith. In a way, I just stopped caring, a few weeks ago, or even trying to pull myself away from it all.

I felt like here I was, wanting these things, letting them take me over, paying no heed to God - and somewhere, far away, my spirit was crying out for help, even though I didn't want it to. Thank you very much, God, but I don't want to be drawn out of the Slough of Despond. It was my body first, from now on, then my soul, and my spirit a clear third.

In all fairness, I decided, I should give my spirit a chance. Its last chance. Even if I didn't care so much about myself now, I did care about my father, and my family, who I didn't want to grieve by going off the deep end.

So I made a few token gestures. In the past I had found a prayer group with some of my closest friends incredibly helpful - friends whom I didn't mind being honest with, even if I lost Christian-cred because of it. So I emailed them all and started organising a prayer meeting with a few of them for this year. But this is unlikely to start at least for a month or so, and by this time I was losing it.

All the while I avoided looking at myself, because I knew I hated what I saw. I am everything, at the moment, that I never wanted to be, and most of all a hypocrite. I haven't done what I have set out to do, yet, but I've never believed that the deed alone makes us sinners. The very fact that I have set out to do something wrong makes me a sinner, not only helpless, but determinedly helpless. I have never had any patience with people who change the Bible to suit what they want to do, and I knew that it was either a case of choosing to turn my back on its teachings, or to give up the path I was about to set foot on. Reject it entirely or accept it all. The fact that I was very close to giving it up made me despise myself as a weakling.

I don't know how to describe what happened next. However, I can say that I wondered why God wasn't fighting harder for me. I was aware that I was being tossed around by the devil and wasn't putting up much resistance, but isn't a spiritual battle meant to be tougher than this? Then the following things happened:

Last night
I listened to "Rock of Ages", sung by Chris Rice. This is the most played song on my iPod but I hadn't listened to it for a couple of months, maybe because it's like an arrow into me.
One verse of it in particular:
Nothing in my hand I bring
Simply to thy cross I cling
Naked, come to thee for dress
Helpless, look to thee for grace
Foul, I to the fountain fly
Wash me, Saviour, or I die.

Suddenly, old feelings came flooding back on me. I had felt helpless before, but never this much, and I have certainly never felt this "foul". A strong word but entirely appropriate.

This morning
I was in a bad mood all morning at church, reluctant to talk to anyone. Just before I left, though, my old Sunday School teacher, a woman who quite possibly has a heart the size of Canada, and a freaky spiritual instinct, came up to me, asked me how I was, blah de blah de blah - all lies on my side, of course. Finally: "You know, the Lord has had you in my mind rather a lot for the last couple of weeks."

That was all. No forcing of confidences. But I'm sure she saw a shocked look in my eyes which I quickly hid and was confirmation enough that no, I wasn't just fine. On the other hand, I came to the conclusion that God has been fighting for me and it wasn't just me on my own versus the devil.

I went along to my church on campus, skeptical that I would hear anything new enough to shock me. A speaker, Chris Greene from London, spoke on the servant king of Mark chapter 10, who said:
For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his
life as a ransom for many.

Not exactly words I haven't heard before. Although the talk wasn't the same old same old, it did repeat the old gospel message... that we, the scum of the earth, have been given the gift of life by a Saviour who loved us so much, so undeservedly, that he died for us. That, like blind Bartimaeus who asked only for mercy, we too can receive sight. That sin is a stranglehold for which Jesus paid the ransom. [You can listen to the sermon here if you would like.]

I will always be shocked by this when I am least expecting it. We sang a song, this one by Stuart Townend, and there was a verse I couldn't sing because I was all choked up and it would be too embarrassing to collapse into tears in front of an entire congregation.
When I'm stained with guilt and sin,
He is there to lift me, heal me and forgive me,
Gives me strength to stand again,
Stronger than I was before.

Why do I forget this? How do I manage to be shocked every time by the depth of God's love? This God we're talking about is the God who has limitless power, who could snuff me out with the lift of a finger - the God who chose to die, so that he could know me.
So with every breath that I am given,
I will sing salvation's song.
And I'll join the chorus of creation
Giving praise to Christ alone.

So now I am:
A little humbler.
A little happier.
A little more determined not to fall away.
A little more grateful to God.