Tuesday, 26 April 2016

Free to live God's dream

One of my projects over the holidays was decluttering the study. I kept only as many books as I’ve shelf-space for, thinned out old files, and cleared the junk on my desk so that I can see the surface again. I could always imagine a situation where I might have a use for something. But no, if I haven’t needed it in the last few years, it can go.

For many of us, decluttering is a very worthwhile attempt to change our inner selves by adjusting our environment – bringing order, reducing the number of things we are responsible for, and so minimising stress.

But I wonder if the fact that it’s hard to let go, to accept that there are things we don’t need is an indication that the best, and most successful decluttering begins within us. An inner decluttering expressing itself in the way we live.

The single most important truth I glimpsed in 2015 is that at the heart of Christian faith, and the heart of all good living lies an openness to enjoy God, to know ourselves enjoyed by God. The old Scottish catechism insists that humanity’s chief goal is ‘glorify God and enjoy God forever.’

We accept our dark side, the negative stuff in us, our sins and imperfections; but if we are still and listen, we grow aware in the very depths of our being that we are forgiven, loved deeply, cherished. We realise we’ve been trying to build an identity different from the ‘me’ God dreams of, and we seek to live God’s dream, befriending the true self from whom we’ve hidden for so long.

Caribbean poet Derek Walcott’s words express this joyful discovery of who we truly are: ‘You will love again the stranger who was your self. Give wine. Give bread. Give back your heart to itself, to the stranger who has loved you all your life.’

The secret of decluttering, I believe is to sense God within us, loving and strengthening us. This is our ultimate security. The more confident we are in God’s love, the more we are freed from the inner clutter which keeps us from being our true selves – fears, jealousy, guilt, insecurity, addictions, wounds from the past.

And then we look at the stuff we have accumulated, often to build our identities when we’d lost sight of God’s love for us; stuff to impress others and give ourselves confidence; stuff to win friends and secure our futures. But Jesus warned us that you can have all the stuff in the world, but lose sight of your true self.

We realise that the source of our life, the source of our every breath is the God who loves us, who gives us identity and meaning. We don’t need stuff! All we need is food, drink, shelter, friends – and didn’t Jesus promise that our heavenly Father would meet these needs?

You might say ‘You seem to be denying the physical world for some sweet dream of one-ness with God. You might as well become a hermit! It’s crazy!’

It’s anything but. Jesus was more at one with God, more living his true self than any of us. Yet that set him free to love life, to love the world, to say ‘Yes’ when Yes was appropriate and ‘No’ when No was appropriate. Because he knew himself secure in God’s love he didn’t need to be liked, nor did he need to be afraid.

The decluttering I’m talking about sets us free to enjoy, without wanting to possess; to interact with others and help them without being driven by our own agendas. Loved by God, we seek on our clearer seeing days to be expressions of God’s love. As Richard Rohr puts it beautifully, it’s a question of ‘love becoming love in the unique form called “me”.’

This is radical, revolutionary, powerful. This is the Christian message, and yet we often lose sight of the liberating, transforming power of the love of God.

But it’s hard, for we are all learners; we all come burdened with stuff, with ‘issues.’ Jesus said it was more difficult for a rich man, burdened with stuff, to enter God’s kingdom than for a laden camel to go through a wee man-sized gate in the city wall.

Jesus reminded us that those who find, are those who are ‘poor in spirit.’ We come to realise through breakdown or crisis or exhaustion that our work of building an identity isn’t succeeding. We reach out to God, we welcome Jesus, we share bread and wine with the stranger who has loved us all our lives, and in that oneness with God we are set free by God’s love to be the person of God’s dreams.

For God is the ultimate de-clutterer.

(Christian Viewpoint from the Highland News dated 14th January 2016)

The eye of the whale

The film was much better than the reviews suggested, but I had two issue with it. Herman Melville seemed less complex than he was in real life; and for all the brilliance of the computer generated imagery, the whale was not so utterly fearsome as I’d imagined.

Director Ron Howard’s new film In the Heart of the Sea is loosely based on the true story of the sinking by a whale of the American whaler, the Essex in 1820. Many years later, a survivor tells the story of the voyage, and the lengths the crew went to remain alive to young author Herman Melville who is researching his forthcoming novel Moby Dick.

The film vividly depicts the horror of slaughtering whales – massive, highly-intelligent creatures – to extract oil from them, and explores the grievously-mistaken idea that human beings are ‘supreme creatures’, ‘earthly kings’ able to ‘bind nature to our will.’ It depicts corporate and personal greed and its power to corrupt, and sets against this two shining examples of integrity. A reference to the new discovery of oil from the ground gives all this a sharp contemporary relevance.

But I am most interested in the whale, and what Herman Melville made of it. In his book, Moby Dick is a legendary albino sperm whale – enormous, immensely powerful and dangerous, shrouded in mystery, rumoured to be immortal and ubiquitous. The crazed Captain Ahab is obsessed with destroying the whale after having been previously wounded by it.

In Moby Dick, the whale is a symbol of the ‘accidental malice of the universe’ and a mask of evil, perhaps also a mask of God. For Ahab rages against God, unwilling to submit to God. Melville tells us that the whale has no face; you can see only his tail. Surely a reference to God’s insistence in the Bible that we can’t see the divine face and live.

On completing Moby Dick, Melville told a friend ‘I have written an evil book and feel spotless as a lamb.’ It’s a book which questions God. Why does God allow evil? Why does God, as Melville wrote elsewhere ‘witness all the woe and give no sign?

I have a profound empathy for this deep thinking author. I read of his ill-health; his problems finding lasting employment; the sad death of his father when Herman was 13; the collapse of his brother’s business; the loss of his brother and a son to illness; the apparent suicide of another son; his anxious nature and mental health issues.

He was raised in the Calvinist tradition to believe in a God who predestines, who is so much in control so that nothing occurs – evil included - unless it is God’s will. And so he cried out ‘Why?’

A friend of Melville wrote of him ‘He can neither believe nor be comfortable in his unbelief; and he is too honest and courageous not to try to do one or the other.’

It’s OK to ask ‘Why?’ when the white whale is pursuing us, and still feel ‘spotless as a lamb’. We acknowledge ‘the everlasting mystery He is,’ as Melville wrote of God. We acknowledge our many unanswered questions.

Melville tells us that the only way of grasping the immensity of the whale (and of God?) ‘is by going a-whaling yourself. But by so doing you run no small risk of being eternally stove and sunk by him.’

But that’s not the whole truth. Melville saw Jesus as an example of the life to which we can aspire, yet this Man taught of a divine Father’s love and mercy and was himself stove and sunk so that the fragile bark of our lives may remain afloat. In the light of the world’s woe God has given more than a sign.

The questions don’t go away – if anything, they deepen. But Christians speak sincerely of experiencing at times sustaining divine love, often in the very place of questioning and agony.

For me, the most memorable moment in Heart of the Sea comes as the whale approaches the shipwrecked sailors who are near death, in small boats under a torpid Pacific sun. The First Mate, Chase raises the harpoon. And then there is some eye contact between the Mate and the great whale, some understanding. Seconds pass, agonisingly. Chase puts down the harpoon. The whale glides away.

What is the whale in my life? My intractable problems and unanswerable questions? The darkness I sense within me at times? Or a relentlessly pursuing God?

In Jesus, we can look into the eyes of the Father, and put the harpoon down, and know ourselves loved and forgiven.

I don’t think Herman Melville ever saw the love in those eyes, but I am convinced that he now finds himself harboured in heaven.

(Christian Viewpoint from the Highland News dated 7th January 2016)