One Saturday recently I was reading when I found myself no longer able to understand words and phrases. It was an odd sensation – I’d see a string of characters which I knew was a word, a symbol which would normally instantly deliver meaning to me, but on that occasion it was merely a shape on the page.
A few minutes later, I was reading normally again, but I went to the doctor and was referred to the neurovascular specialist at Raigmore Hospital. He concluded that I’d had what he called a ‘mini-stroke’ – a Transient Ischaemic Attack (TIA). Such TIAs are a sign of increased risk of full-blown strokes and heart issues, and so the doctor put me on medication to reduce this risk factor.
This was a very scary experience, which left me with a heightened consciousness of the fragility of life. This may not be a cheerful subject to reflect on the week before Christmas, but I suggest that any genuine Christmas celebration must take into account a context of darkness and pain as well as joy and light.
Following my mini-stroke, there were times when I felt very alone. My wife, family and friends, and NHS staff have been wonderfully loving and supportive – indeed at such times you realise how much you are loved – yet ultimately you are the one with the problem.
The experience left me empathising more deeply with those who suffer physically or mentally – young, dancing spirits constrained by frail bodies – and the many for whom each day is a parched desert of loneliness. This Christmas, may we embrace in love and compassion those who are hurting.
Having been told not to drive for a month, I found myself surprised by a stab of jealousy at those, clearly older than me, whom I saw driving around cheerfully. I wondered if they knew how blessed they were? Sometimes we need to see ourselves through someone else’s eyes to realise our own good fortune. This Christmas, may we discern the ways in which we have been blessed, and be truly thankful.
And over the last weeks, I’ve been reminded of a lesson I am always learning, but never quite learning. The lesson that I don’t need always to be doing, filling my life with busyness, driven to achieve by some inner neediness. It is more than OK just to be, to love life, to make time for laughter, to have fun. And the message of Christmas is that we are loved by God and secure in God, a divine regard which sets us free to celebrate.
But there’s a question we ask in our darker moments. Do these comforting religious thoughts actually represent anything real? After my TIA, I felt under a shadow. I prayed and called out to God, but I had no sense of God and it seemed that the foundation was swept from under me. What does it mean to talk about Christ being light when you can see only darkness?
I interpreted people’s kindness to me as a whisper of grace, an evidence of God’s concern. But then I wondered if it were merely an expression of human grace.
I heard a sermon about Jesus’ words to one of the men who died with him ‘Today you will be with me in paradise.’ That, said the preacher, can be our daily experience – encounter with God in a spiritual dimension. But is this true, I wondered, or just words? I wanted a God who walks with us through dark places and does not leave us.
Then one day it was as if God were saying ‘You are reaching up, trying to find me. But you are looking in the wrong place. I am here, within you. I am the foundation, the ground of your being. You are secure in me.’
Often, anxiety blinds me to this sense of God as foundation. But I continue to believe. I have always held in a deep way to the principle ‘Don’t doubt in the darkness what you saw in the light.’ And I take my stand in a centuries-old tradition of faith alongside the many millions who believe that in Jesus Christ God walks with us through dark places.
‘Christmas’ is a symbol of that promise – light piercing darkness, God entering history. The symptom of my TIA was seeing a symbol yet not discerning its meaning. In the same way it’s possible to see the symbol of Christmas while remaining blind to its significance.
I believe that the more our eyes are opened to the meaning of Christmas, the more we can truly celebrate. We do not need to pretend for the duration that darkness doesn’t exist, for a light has come among us more powerful than deepest darkness. Happy Christmas!
(Christian Viewpoint column from the Highland News dated 19th December 2013)