Dismissing Pain

“Well, it’s part of God’s plan.”

And so the Christian negates the problematic tragedy of pain. Your very real and perplexing struggle boxed up and dismissed in one statement that so many of us, as Christ-followers, roll off our tongue as if it’ll make everything alright. As if everything will somehow be solved because of the blithe mantra that “everything happens for a reason.”

Sometimes everything doesn’t happen for a reason.

Sometimes, life is arbitrarily mean, cruel, and heart rending.

When, as Christians, we dismissively make these kinds of statements as excuses for God, we in a way elevate ourselves to a position of removed security. We apathetically presume some higher knowledge of God’s purposes, without giving thought to the agony of those facing suffering. We give the spiritual pat-on-the-back without getting dirty and hurt in standing with others in their pain. But, to remove the reality of pain in this world as some abstract happening that a distant God weaves into some unknowable, incomprehensible blueprint is to do a disservice both to the acutely distressing position of the sufferer, and does no justice to the presence of an all-loving God through their suffering. The Christian position, if I understand it rightly, is that God is not removed from our present condition, passively watching down from up in heaven’s ivory tower. He is not somehow sitting “out there” in the controller’s seat, a puppet master pulling inconsolable cosmic strings together for his amusement. He is not patiently sitting out eternity waiting for the day when he can smite the evildoer to hell in order to balance the books.

I think we Christians say that painful circumstances and uncomfortable happenings are somehow part of God’s plan because we haven’t fully comprehended the work of Christ. You see, the Gospel, the great scandal of the Christian faith, reaches its climax with its protagonist, God made man, entering into the darkest reality of the human condition, stepping into the malevolent arms of Death, and coming out victoriously holding the keys to eternal life. This is a God of nail-scarred hands, saturated in sweat and blood and doused in man’s darkest depravity. God walking in skin. This – this incarnation – is the assurance of a God who stands with the sufferer through the devastating reality of their pain.

The Christian isn’t removed from pain or shielded from its dark reality by some lacklustre excuse that it is part of God’s plan. Instead, the reverse is true – the Christian is born from pain. The marks of a Christian are the scars of when abundant love met eternal justice in the paradox of grace – when a saviour stepped into sin, when God was slammed into godlessness, when Christ shed blood for humanity.

For this is a God who partakes in the tragedy of a world torn from his blueprint, in order to bring about the design of a world willed in perfect love and mercy and joy and kisses and laughter. When we make out that God is somehow removed from our pain when we say that it’s all part of his design, we forget that his design was to enter into the maelstrom of our affliction to redeem us from it.

If, then, we’re going to be Christ-followers walking out into a broken world, we have to stop with half-hearted answers and making excuses for God. Our story is of a God who was utterly broken on our behalf, who came to stand by the afflicted in their pain, not watch them from afar in security. That means we need to forgo our security on behalf of those we find ourselves alongside – the pain stricken, the least, the lost, the broken. We need to stop with the safe, but often unhelpful, answers, and get our hands dirty and hearts broken by standing with our family in their suffering.

Reckless love means sacrifice. Reckless love means just standing by when everyone else has ran away. Reckless love takes courage.

Guilty Missionaries

A photograph: an emaciated, starving child clinging to his clearly desperate mother. Most likely an African country, but could as well have been a picture from the Indian subcontinent, Asia, or South America. However, it wasn’t the picture’s content that struck me most, as it sat there in the midst of my Facebook news feed, but its caption: “You think your life is hard?” An address to us in the West, the home of the First World Problem; a stark juxtaposition of the lives of the poor with our lives of creature-comforts and material abundance.

This little piece of text rattled all the wrong chords in me.

You see, by painting this little microcosm of global poverty, all this type of portrait achieves is to perpetuate a culture of guilt in regards to our apparent position of privilege in contrast to their need for help. In doing so, the people portrayed, the “poor,” become nothing more than detached, dehumanised objects of comparison. The way these images are circulated creates a dangerous power dynamic – we, in a way, are elevated from their suffering, voyeuristically peering down into the dark reality of their situation from a position of privileged security.  It becomes a case of us and them – we, sitting in the full-bellied luxury of comfort in front of our computer screens, contrasted with the impoverished ‘nameless and faceless’ living in extreme poverty.

This is symptomatic of our distorted Western perception of global poverty, an image severely tainted by the way that the issue is painted in the media and advertising campaigns. Images of malnourished babies in Cambodia, scarred child soldiers in the Congo, and bone-thin men in rags have come to characterise our ideas of what life for the poor looks like. And, indeed, there is no escaping that this is the dark reality of poverty. However, it appears to me that these typified images and descriptors of “poor people” have come to be a stereotyped caricature. The “poor” are treated, in a way, like a detached, remote category of people defined only by their circumstantial destitution, and not as infinitely valuable individuals just like ourselves. This characterised image of a stark material and circumstantial division is the paintbrush that has daubed a limiting, degrading portrait of people trapped in poverty.

These sorts of images, deliberately contrived to evoke sympathy and guilt, and perhaps inspire our wallets, has painted the picture of people who are necessitous, deprived, under-privileged, and absolutely helpless. This inspires a response to poverty out of a kind of benign elitism – the rich giving to the poor, the us giving to them, from a sense of misplaced duty or “doing our bit” or guilt at what we see.

As such, our response to poverty can become more about feeding our own sense of a saviour complex than it is about truly engaging with their need as real people, who didn’t choose to be born in the situation they are in, who are human beings equal in worth to us. They are in need of help, yes, but they cannot be defined by helplessness. They are need of material aid, yes, but their poverty cannot be the measuring line of their worth. This image of the caricature “Poor Person” is a dangerous contrivance, a face for well-meaning charity hiding a dark underbelly of patronisation of those who are poor, and a damaging perception of people as being defined by their social and economic need rather than their worth as individual people.

There is no us. There is no them. There is one family of broken people, beautiful people, infinitely valuable people, sharing one world. No one is more than the other.

Our generosity cannot be inspired by a misguided sense that we are sympathetic gods putting the world to rights. Neither can it be about being guilty Western missionaries doing our conscience-inspired bit to put the worlds to right. We are in a privileged position to be radical harbingers of justice, indeed; but that justice must be inspired from a position of loving equality, not the elevated “us” descending to the deprived “them”. Just as we had no power over being born into privilege, so those living below the poverty line had no choice over their circumstantial material depravity. We have no right to what we have. This radical reassessment of wealth and power should change the way we interact with global injustice. We cannot be ivory-tower watchmen, idly dispensing our spare cash to appease our own consciences by sympathetically responding to some oft-heard about, never-met idea of the poor person.

It is not feelings of guilt or patronising sympathy that people living below the poverty line need. It is solidarity, inspiring radical acts of sacrifice from a position of humble love rather than elevated pride that should characterise our response to poverty. We are not rich gods descending to distant, lesser peoples out of pity; no, we are brothers and sisters positioned with a material abundance, when our other brothers and sisters have a need. We are no less equals because some have more than others; we are family.

The Deposit

Lying asleep one morning, you are woken from slumber by the click of the mail slot. A plain white envelope addressed to you in elegant handwriting greets you on the doormat. Inside is enclosed a cursory letter,  same handwriting,  and a debit card in your name; bank undefined.

No pin number or security details are detailed; you cannot, it seems, access the mysterious bank account to which this peculiar card is the key.  Perplexed,  you turn to the letter for clues or some identification of the sender:

The bank account to which this card gives you access has been created for your benefit by myself. You cannot access this bank account,  you cannot pay your own funds into it.  You cannot withdraw funds from the account until a day of my choosing. 

I will deposit a regular sum of credit to your account; this credit will gain value, with interest, as time passes.  You cannot at present know the sum of the contents of the account;  but be of good faith: when it comes to the time when you may withdraw from the account,  the time I choose, you will have access to a fortune far exceeding what you now own.

All you need to do to receive this fortune is keep safe the debit card enclosed until the time comes. If you think I am a liar,  a fraud,  you may throw the card away, and forget about the affair altogether. That is your free choice. But,  be warned;  if you choose this course,  you will lose any and all access to the account’s contents. Any damage or wear to the card is of no consequence to me;  my only requirement is that you keep possession of it until the time I so choose.

And so the letter ends.

This is the great ultimatum which the Christian faith presents us with, the kerygma on which all else hinges; to persevere in trusting the character of a God who in the scriptures promises the inexplicable fortune of eternal life, or to discard the offer as fraudulent, a pseudo promise contained in a book of lies. This is the choice that Christ thrusts upon us –   through an exertion of faith,  to trust in the nature of the one who credits the account, that one day we might gain access to the funds within; or to throw away his claims as coming from a fictitious character with no historical importance or reality.

Just as we do not know the value or nature of the fortune deposited in that metaphorical account,  so we cannot know in sureness the nature of the eternal life Christ alleges to offer. However, one thing is clear in all of the elusive claims we are to believe or reject;  that this ill-defined,  mysterious existence will leave us better off than the state we exist in at present. A world where “God shall wipe away all tears from their eyes; and there shall be no more death, neither sorrow, nor crying, neither shall there be any more pain: for the former things are passed away” (Rev. 21:4). We cannot access that state of existence until Christ,  the Door of the sheepfold,  opens the gate and lets us in. So we hope, against everything, in that which is unseen.

Christianity, if false, is of no importance, and if true, of infinite importance. The only thing it cannot be is moderately important. C.S. Lewis

Maintaining the account,  receiving this Life, does not require that a regular deposit be made,  nor does it require our efforts to earn any of it. It only requires our simple act of faith. No matter how damaged,  how battered that access card gets on the way, no matter what causes us to stumble and deviate from the path of faith,  we still gain access to the offer of Life. If we let it go,  we risk losing it all.

This is the ultimatum of the Christian faith: that the Life is a freely given gift,  and requires only that one trusts the character of the One from whom it is given, nothing else.  If we throw away the card,  if we throw away faith,  we throw away the key.

If I reach the end of my days having trusted and find the offer to be false,  I have lost nothing.  Conversely,  if I reach the end of my days having not trusted and find the offer to be true,  I lose everything.  So I bet my life on the former of two alternatives.

The letter is waiting on your doormat.  All access to this Life requires is that you read the conditions and keep the card safe.

To cheat oneself out of love is the most terrible deception; it is an eternal loss for which there is no reparation, either in time or in eternity. Søren Kierkegaard

Rey Ban, Trademark

If you were to happen upon me on a bright and sunny Summer’s day, you would, from a distance, notice my sunglasses. These, my only pair of shades, carry a striking resemblance to Ray Ban’s original Aviators. And, from afar, they might as well be the genuine article – formed of the same curvilinear form, framed by the same slim metallic enclosure, even sporting its own impersonation logo in the tell-tale position of the real model. A true marvel of imitation manufacturing, this pair of fakes cost me (after a round of haggling) around ten times less than genuine Aviators, from a friendly Camden market trader.

Aside from a disappointingly shabby quality of construction, only one other feature would mark my pair as a fake to an unassuming eye. The logo. My glasses, with their counterfeit branding, substitute an for an a in Ray Ban, making mine the produce of Rey Ban. Because of this aped parody of design, my sunglasses are effectively worthless before a judging fashionista; nothing more than a mimicry of the originals, cheap goods, a forgery.

They, trying to imitate the pricey quality of genuine Ray Ban Aviators, fall desperately short of succeeding. Agreed, from afar they may trick you into believing my wallet is wide enough to extend to designer shades, but a quick closer inspection would immediately discount that notion.

What gives the original, designer Aviators their value is not the mere fact that they identifiably look like Aviators, but because of the designer who made and produced them – Ray Ban. Because mine are a laughable parody, they have no value, even if they carry an unerring resemblance in design.

The value of designer sunglasses comes not by merit of the quality of production or materials, so much as it does because of the designer who conceived them and brought them to being. So it is with human beings.

Human value does not come because we can attain some self-imposed standard of moral greatness or academic excellence or imitation of beauty. No matter how the judges of this world judge the worth of human life, there is an intrinsic, unsurpassed, infinite value to human life, simply because of the Designer who designed it, the Creator who created it.

Your value is not determined by a set of academic results, or an intelligence ranking, or by cultural labels, or by career successes and failures. Nor is it determined by adverse circumstances, by societal standards of beauty and ugliness, by thoughtlessly uttered words.  You are no less valuable because of how you have been treated, because of what you have or haven’t done, did or didn’t do. Your value is not dictated by might haves or could’ve beens or “If you’d only turned out differently, you might have been better.”

You are no more or less valuable because of labels, black or white, straight or gay or bi, disabled or able-bodied, male or female. Culture’s labels do much harm to the intrinsic beauty of humanity.

You are more than skin and bones; you are an intersection of flesh and spirit. You are not merely the genetic imitation of your parents, an advanced ape, a socially conditioned clone, a gene machine; no, you are dust breathed with eternity. You are designed by the Designer, and that is from whence your beauty and your unquantifiable value comes.

This is your identity, and this identity cannot be shaken. Not by human laws, nor man’s words, not by abusers and haters. You cannot do anything by striving or working or modifying to increase your value; that would be to fake that which you are not. You, created to the perfect blueprint of the Creator, are loved and worthy of love, and there is no exception to this rule.

This is a call to equality, based on the unmerited value of life itself. Equality is no less than a universal right, but it is so much more – it is a call to celebrate the way we are made, a festival of light dedicated to the varied spectrum we call humanity.

I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made;
    your works are wonderful,
    I know that full well.
My frame was not hidden from you
    when I was made in the secret place,
    when I was woven together in the depths of the earth. 

Psalm 139:14,15

Discourses From Camden

It is a hot spring afternoon, and I am but a drop in the sea of commuters on which the watching sun casts her rays. This is the Camden Town Underground Station, buzzing with the eclectic bustle of market goers, football supporters, urban travellers; London’s great and small. Each is contained in the self-indulged bubble of his or her own travel trajectory; this is the soundtrack of the City, everyone occupied in the bubble of their own business.

Camden’s ground-level entrance, on a Saturday afternoon, is a slow moving bottleneck; movement is sluggish as a hundred commuters worm their way through turnstiles not designed to anticipate this volume of people. So there I stand, watching, waiting, enjoying the last of the sunlight before I take the plunge beneath ground.

It is in this spirit, of the observer, that I notice two things worthy of note. First, on the left of the entrance, quietly stands a well-dressed lady with some pamphlets and free literature. Behind her, a stall stacked with give-away books, each bearing the title: “What Does the Bible Really Say?” She, a well meaning Jehovah’s Witness, I am sure, stands like the unseen pebble in a fast moving river.

Second, I notice on the right of the entrance, a man sat on his rucksack; this backpack probably contains all the possessions he owns. He has no home, no bed but the concrete. He is silent, nameless, barely perceived by the tide of passing eyes. And, just like this acquiescent pamphlet-provider to my left, he is ignored.

They are separated by barely metres, the Jehovah’s Witness and the man with no home, yet they might as well have been worlds apart. The entrance was narrow, but it might as well have been a chasm. Her books claimed to tell me what the Bible “really says,” while his situation was so far detached from hers, it seemed absurd.

Now, I am sure this lady was well-meaning and operating to the optimum in what her faith requires of her. And yet, as I pressed through that station entrance, I wondered, considering my own faith in Christ: how can any of us, of any faith, claim to have an inkling of what the Bible says, and yet still pass the homeless man without batting an eyelid?

And yet, having made this observation, it was I too who kept on walking, caught up in the self-consumed flightpath as everyone else. Her, the street preacher, and I, the commuter, obviously had very little knowledge of what this Word does; her, the Jehovah’s Witness, and I, the Christian.

When did we start finding it necessary to impose on people vast annals of literature, endless reams of doctrine, libraries of well-figured arguments, and stopped seeing the Word for what it does, the way it works its way out in our lives?

When did we start standing on street corners with the message on our lips, and yet no bread in our hands for the homeless?

For this, I realised, is what has come to compose my Christianity, our Christianity: words with no deeds, argument with no substance, doctrine without justice. We debate to no end about the subject of that lady’s books, “What the Bible Really Says,” and yet we have neglected what it does. We walk through the open station doors with our lofty opinions and well-formed theologies, and yet lift no hand for the needy in the scorching heat of day.

When Christ walked the earth, he did not stand in the pulpits or the meeting places debating the moral implications of gay marriage or women bishops or our other institutional controversies. Instead, he set the pattern of what the Word meant; his life was an active demonstration of what he said. He, the Word became flesh, lived out a law of love, of justice, of mercy, of compassion. And, with that spirit, he openly denounced hypocrisy. For, in observing the religious institution of the day, he saw the bankruptcy of their faith. He saw in them, as there exists in me, in this generation, a dichotomy between what we say, and what we do.

It is my contention, my struggle, that we need to read the Word with pragmatic, not theoretical, minds. Rather than consuming ourselves in the fires of our own doctrine, can we not live united by Christ, a life of freedom, whose yoke is easy and burden is light? For Christianity was never meant to be a subscription to an academic school, but a renewing of the mind, a transformation, eternal life.

Christ’s love is simple to understand. We’ve made it complicated. Quite simply; Act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God. (Micah 6:8)

A Brief Story of Things

Once upon a time, in a land far away but not so much unlike our own, there was a prosperous city ruled by the good King Corporation. In his day, the land enjoyed peace and stability. Even the poorest people who, heaven forbid, could only afford to wear last season’s fashion brands, could at least afford to keep full tummies and homes with at least one extra room (that’s what the newspapers said, and they must be right!). Everyone was happy; they had Things in abundance, and as we know, with many Things comes much contentment.

King Corporation was a good, god-fearing man; after all, who could refuse to worship the sovereign Thing-god from whom all good Things come? The Church of the Most High Street enjoyed a profitable, healthy relationship with the King;  who could fail to support a regent appointed by the Thing-god himself, a ruler upheld by the Divine Hand of the Free Market?

The people too were devout worshippers of the Thing-god. Every day, extravagant services were held in the city’s many temples to appease the Thing-god. The people would gather to hear the Priests of the Most High Street divulge the Divine Commandments: the profane fashions, the sacred fashions, how to live a good, healthy consumer life. And then, when all was done, when the sermon was preached and prayers said, then would be the time to offer the sacrifices:

People would bring their offerings, big and small, to receive the blessing of the Thing-god. But this was not a system of selfless giving, oh no! For the Thing-god delighted to give to his children reciprocally. To those who had, unto them more was given, and from those who had not, even that will be taken away. The wealthiest threw their fare in the buckets, and to them would the Priests give the choicest Things.

And so it was that King and Country prospered, with the fear of the Thing-god in their minds and the love of Things in their hearts.

But one day, someone raised a hand in one of the churches, and asked the good Priest something no-one had neither thought nor cared to ask before:

“Who makes all these wonderful and beautiful Things? Every Thing must itself have some creator, some First Cause.”

“Why,” the Priest knew his theology, “The things are made by the denizens of the Thing-god, his servants, the Thing-Elves.”

But this one was clever. “Why have we never seen the Thing-Elves, Father?”

“Ah,” the Priest replied, a little exasperated, “It is because the Thing-Elves are invisible.”

And so the question was answered. And the man went home.

But the matter of the Thing-Elves continued to trouble him. So, picking up his knapsack one day, he decided to go on a long journey to see if he could see the Thing-Elves. Over the mountain he went, but the Elves didn’t live over the mountain. Down the river he went,  but still the Elves did not live down the river. Into the forest he went, but could he find the Elves? No, not even in the forest!

Weary, sweaty and almost ready to accept that the Elves really were invisible, the man was about to turn back. But then, all of a sudden, he saw a building in the distance, and, what would you know, there was a train track leading to it; empty trains going in, and full trains leaving, packed with Things! So, with hope rekindled, the man made his way there. Surely that must be the Elves!

Walking through the small entrance into a dingy, dark interior, he immediately perceived the smell of sweat, and the whiff of something perhaps a little more unpleasant. “Why,” he thought, “these Elves aren’t as clean and hygienic as us humans are!”

Then, as his eyes adjusted to the gloom, he started to make out figures. “Ah,” he thought, “that must be the Elves! I’ll finally see who makes the Things!” But, as he got closer, it was not Elves he saw, but children, human children! Small children, children of different colours, children with one eye, children with one arm, children with not as many toes as the people he knew; but no Elves. How curious!

“Do you know where the Thing-Elves are?” He asked of one child, a little girl with burn marks on her arm.

“No, I’ve never heard of the Thing-Elves,” she replied.

“Then who makes all these Things?” enquired the man.

“Why, that would be us! The people who keep us here have always told us that the Things are what makes the world go round, that there are Angels of the Thing-god living far away who need these Things to survive, that we are doing the work of the Thing-god. I’ve been here all my life – I know my work is very important, and necessary for the Divine Free Market, and that is why I don’t get paid much – but I do wish I could one day go and meet these great Angels who I have heard so much about!”

The sun went down that night, and all the people of King Corporation slept tight in their beds while the Thing-Elves carry on their work.


Grass Economy

Spring’s breeze gently stirs the stillness, carrying in her breath the cologne of freshly cut grass, barely grown to maturity, yet already cut down in youth. I lie here tranquil, my skin catching now and then the seeds of the disintegrating dandelions. In this moment I lie in the shadow of Eternity, a shadow I cannot grasp or touch and yet I am always in her cool darkness. I taste the unchanging Forever, yet Forever passes me by for I am composed of the here and now.

This, the tingling touch of the everlasting, juxtaposed with the components of which I am made: flesh passing to dust, breath passing to vapour, mountain passing to sand. I perceive the eternal sky above; yet, like the breeze that rinses through my hair, I will soon be gone, and she will watch, unmoved. My flesh, like the sheaves beneath, will be cut down in adolescence, and she will remain. Empires will rise and fall, and the wind comes and it goes; all the while, eternity taunts the hearts of men.

I pass through her sand timer, somehow imaging that there is something more on the outside of the glass jar, something more than the collapse of the days as they fall away. Yet all the while, I am all too wary that this is all slipping from me. We look up, out of that habitat, while the grains tumble down, taking with them youth, breath, life. There must be more, yet I am on the inside and she is on the outside, and I am powerless to escape the decay of time.

These moments ravage me. My fingers try to grasp at the wind, yet in futility, for flesh cannot hold breath. We are fickle creatures, are we not? We know this, that we cannot hold what we have, for we cannot hold on to vapour. Yet we play with eating and drinking and spending and sex and life and lust and romance like there will be no tomorrow to take it from us. We hope as if we are not on the tether. We look to the future like we do not know that there is an end to a length of string.

Is there hope, when every time I reach out all falls away?

Will you console me, Eternity? Or will you only tempt me, temptress? I am a caitiff living in a young man’s body, I am an old man wanting a coward’s ticket out.

Or could there be freedom in the madness? Can I embrace you, elusive Forever? Would you dwell with me, let me stay here in your shadow, until you take me from the sand timer?  Would you teach me to tread lightly, knowing that it will all be taken, and that one day, you will make it right?

Would you teach me to love with all my heart, for love will be the only currency to survive your economy? Would you help me to give all I have, for all of it is only borrowed?

Would you give me contentment, when this breath ceases to fill my lungs?

And would you hold my hand as I face Death, knowing that when I pass his gate, that is when I will experience Life in her fullness?