to help you discover the God you already know

Month: April 2016

Where might the gift be in all this?

On a Thursday in mid March of this year my GP referred me into our local hospital in Worcester because I clearly had a problem and it was getting worse: I hadn’t eaten much for some time and was losing weight, digesting food was very painful, I had little energy and spent more time than usual sleeping. I was very glad to go into hospital: I knew I wasn’t well and I needed help.

They gave me a CT scan and the Registrar came to give me the news. The bad news was that I had a tumorous cancer in my colon, the good was there was no sign that it had spread and it ought to be removable. It took me a while to take that in!

The doctors operated on the Sunday morning, I was back on the ward that afternoon, and went home on the Thursday, where I am gradually recovering and now await a course of chemotherapy. I feel much better, my appetite has returned, and slowly life is returning to normal. It has been quite an experience, and a profoundly spiritual one.

One of my favourite questions in spiritual direction is ‘where might the gift be in all this?’ So, not surprisingly, friends have been asking me where the gift has been for me in all this? And my answer has been that this has been a time full of gifts: a time of rich blessing. Not what I might have expected, and not all of them either welcome or recognised at the time, but gifts nevertheless. Let me name some of them.

[1] The overarching one was the gift of finding myself vulnerable, weak and largely passive. I recall a book by W H Vanstone that I read years ago. In it he noted that for most of His ministry Jesus was active: calling, teaching, challenging, healing, feeding, moving from place to place. And then He was arrested in Gethsemane and that all changed: He became passive, done to by others; He initiated nothing. Yet we tend to think of that time after His arrest as the most significant of His life. Most of the gifts I received came through my being passive, weak and vulnerable.

[2] The first was the pain. I didn’t experience it as gift at first, of course, but it was in fact my body’s way of letting me know that it had a problem and that it needed outside help to deal with it.

[3] I have preached just one sermon this year, on Valentine’s Day. From the beginning of the year I knew intuitively that I wanted to talk about the different languages of love. I had thought about it, offered my sermon to our small congregation, and then continued to mull on its content up to and including my time in hospital and beyond. I know that most of my sermons are preached primarily to myself, and this one keeps on nourishing me spiritually. It seems as if something unconscious in me knew what was going to happen, at the beginning of the year, and was preparing me to face it. I have heard many different languages of love while I’ve been ill, but I’m not sure that I would have recognised them without that sermon! [I’ve written about the subject elsewhere on this site]

[4] There was the practical love, kindness and care of my wife and my four daughters: each incarnating it differently.

[5] There was the love, concern and prayer of more friends than I thought that I had, expressed through cards, emails, phone call and small gifts.

[6] There was the earthy, practical care and teamwork of the nursing staff in the hospital.

[7] There was the skill of the surgeons and doctors, with all their technical equipment.

[8] There was the gift of being prodded to review my life in the face of the reality of my mortality: there’s nothing like a major operation in hospital, and the word ‘cancer’ to kick that process into action. It wasn’t welcome, it was sometimes dark and uncomfortable, and it was mostly lonely work because you face the prospect of death alone. But gradually I experienced it as gift: it prodded me to focus on what is really important, of the value of setting time aside for reflection, and to write pieces like this.

[9] There was the gift of being gently stimulated from outside when I lacked the energy to stimulate myself. I couldn’t read for long, I hadn’t the concentration, but I could listen to the radio [something I otherwise rarely do], podcasts and music. I could look at art and watch a film. I thank God for mobile phones, tablets and my ipod!

[10] Rather like my sermon, it was amazing how what I seemed to need came my way without my having to do much except recognise and accept it:
waiting for my operation, on a whim, I listened to Daniel Barenboim playing Bach’s ‘The Well-Tempered Clavier’ and found myself taken into a place of stillness and peace where I experienced my unity with all of creation and a deep trust in God.
a friend who was also unwell, told me how he was listening to an audiobook of a Jane Austen novel, and I thought that’s just what I need. So I downloaded it, listened to it and was entranced.
gazing blankly out of a window an image of a painting by Giotto came to mind [from where I don’t know, but I’ve learnt to trust these things] and I went to a lovely book of Giotto’s paintings in the Scrovegni Chapel in Padua that I have, and was hugely nourished by reflecting on one particular sequence of images.

[11] Having to move more slowly and gently: being less active, I found myself noticing things that I would otherwise have not noticed: the glorious signs of spring in our garden viewed through the window; the beauty of the surrounding countryside during my first short walk outside; the smell of good coffee; a decent cup of tea, my own bed, my shed.. etc etc….

[12] I know from experience that if I’m not well and take to my bed, then as I drift in and out of consciousness, unable to get my mind into gear, then sometimes everything can be seen with great simplicity and clarity, I know that I and all creation is held in love by something much greater, and I know that there is nothing to be worried about. There is no greater gift.

And I received it from time to time while ill this time too. Barenboim took me there, as did the zombie-like weariness of the post anaesthetic, waking up in the middle of the night can take me there, as do religious experiences. I guess that fasting has traditionally taken people there, and I certainly effectively fasted during my illness.

[13] My wife Sylvia showed me her copy of the autobiography of Oliver Postgate who some may remember as giving us, with Peter Firmin, such wonders as ‘Bagpuss’ ‘Noggin the Nog’, ‘Ivor the Engine’ and other childrens TV programmes. There is a section towards the end of the book [entitled ‘Seeing Things’] in which he described an experience he had whilst ill in hospital similar to what I have described above. He writes: “I knew that I was seeing clearly for the first time in my life……seeing how things are……..I had found something that had been lost, something I had known all along but in some fear or confusion had mislaid.” I intuitively felt that I knew what he was talking about. His life was not the same afterwards, as I suspect mine won’t be either.
I am reminded of what William Blake wrote: “If the doors of perception were cleansed everything would appear to man as it is. Infinite. For man has closed himself up, till he sees all things thro’ the narrow chinks of his cavern.”

This speaks of contexts where the rational mind is somehow bypassed and we access a deeper wisdom which we’ve usually mostly lost contact with. Illness has gifted it again to me.

On one level all of the above simply affirms what God has already taught me. The challenge, as always, will be to keep it nourished and alive, and above all to deepen my trust, my faith in God. As luck would have it [is it luck, or just another gift?] I have a course of chemotherapy ahead of me through the summer which I hope might provide a fertile opportunity.

The languages of Love

Some years ago I read a book that suggested that there are five different languages of love: five different ways of expressing love. It named the five as:
1] touch: ranging from a light touch on the arm through to sexual intercourse;.
2] words of affirmation, affection & encouragement;
3] practical actions of service: men of my parents generation with memories of the Depression often did paid work that they hated because it paid for a roof over their family’s heads, clothes on their backs and food on the table. Women of the same generation saw it as their loving duty to stay at home, do the domestic chores, care for the children, and make sure the house was ready for the return of their husbands after work, often at the neglect of themselves. Both were offering practical acts of service as a language of their love.
4] giving of gifts; from tiny gestures upwards
5] time together: presence, quality time together; just being there for each other.

The suggestion was that different people tend to favour one or two languages to the exclusion of the others, either not valuing other languages of love for what they are, or dismissing them entirely. The result is that people who speak languages other than the ones we favour ourselves are seen as not loving us, when the reality is that they are simply offering that love in a language we haven’t learnt to value. Whereas, the more languages we are open to, the more we will be aware that we are much more loved than we imagined, which would be a plus!. And the more languages we can learn to speak, the more loving we will become for each other. Simple when put like that, and it opened my eyes no end!

Now this seems to be transferable wisdom to our relationship with God, Whom we address in a cacophony of different languages, Babel like! This was brought home to me when I served for a time in a well to do parish with a large churchyard, it employed David from a nearby council estate to come and look after the churchyard on a couple of days each week. David, to my knowledge never entered the church itself but he took meticulous and loving care, well beyond the call of duty, of the church yard. Watching him week by week I came to realise that this was the language in which he offered worship to God, [although he would have never put it like that]. Moreover the language we used for worship in church could not have been more alien to him: it involved words [he was a man of few words], books [and I doubt he read books], singing [which I never witnessed him doing], sitting in rows facing the front as if in school [of which I doubt he had happy memories] and dressing up [which was not his style at all]. David and the church congregation were using different languages of love in addressing God, without much mutual awareness or appreciation of each other.

I used to say that the door of the church should be wide enough to allow any to enter who wished to do so. I realised that it also needed to be wide enough for the folks inside to see those outside worshipping God in a multitude of different languages of love.

God of course addresses us in an astonishing range of languages, but most of us only hear a few of them. Let me list some of the more obvious:

1] ‘the God Who takes care of me and mine’. This may serve us well until tragedy strikes, when this language of God’s love either no longer speaks or, may seem to have disappeared altogether.
2] ‘the God Who touches us through the love languages of :
other people & animals
all of creation; its beauty
through the story of Jesus
through holy books, worship and prayer;
through the arts: music, poetry, literature, painting and sculpture
direct religious experience
3] the God Who provides a planet that can meet all our needs & enable us to flourish
4] the God Who bestows the gift of life, our senses, and a variety of other creative gifts that nourish us

We need not be dependent on just one of God’s love languages and we are not well served if we do so, because there will likely be times when it will seem to fail us. Better by far to be open to the God Who speaks in many languages, and Who’s love reaches out to us in so many different and varied ways. Both our vision of God and of love will be that much the greater.

If God speaks many languages then there cant be one ‘Word of God’ can there? Unless of course, its a word that appears in all of them, like love. So the Word of God is love. God is love, and wherever love is God is. The problem is that just as our vision of God is always too small, [how can it be otherwise?] so our vision of love is always too small. Yet life is constantly challenging us to leave our comfort zones and embrace a love strange beyond our current knowing.
Another thought occurs to me. Jesus commanded His followers to love one another: indeed He said that people should be able to recognise His followers by the way that they love one another. Of course He exemplified this teaching Himself: no word of condemnation for Judas or Peter or the others who abandoned Him, just acceptance, tolerance and words of forgiveness.
He never commanded His followers to believe particular things or to hold particular points of view. Indeed, He was often frustrated by their failure to understand Him and by their constant misunderstanding of Him. But He seems to have embraced, accepted and loved them nevertheless. Love was more important to Him.
Jesus’ community was based on a love that rose above intellectual conformity, that accepted and transcended all manner of human differences. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if churches were like this, and to be fair some are. But I am still appalled by the recent meeting of Anglican Archbishops from around the world who seemed to place greater importance on doctrinal agreement, than a truly Christian spirit of loving acceptance of differing opinions and practices.
Why can we not see that the Spirit is calling us to accept that Churches in different parts of the world will take different positions on certain matters and that that is OK? We can live with our many differences if we fulfil Jesus’ call to place primacy on loving one another. Why is this so difficult? We manage it with Christians from the past: they took views on a whole range of matters with which we would strongly disagree, but we accept them as fellow Christians. Why can we do this backwards through history but not in the here and now? Indeed why can we not see that this is of the essence of our calling as Christians?

%d bloggers like this: