The Heart of Darkness

There comes a time in everyone’s life when you realise that the world really is as dark as you feared.

If you’re new with us, this post will make more sense if you read my previous post first. See you soon.

The world really is a dark and scary place. We all know this of course. You know that many countries around the world know only war or oppression or famine. You know that horrible things happen to people away from the public eye. But when it touches you it’s like you never realised it before. My previous post was my reflections of what it feels like to be touched by it.

But today I want to expand a little on something I said in my previous post:

Jesus stepping into the meaninglessness destroying the world  to make something meaningful out of it.

Because I also want to reflect on what it’s felt like to have faith in a loving God whilst living in a world that’s intent on blowing itself to hell.

When Mum got sick it was like I’d been looking at the world through a filter. A rose-coloured filter that was suddenly and violently ripped off. I remember driving to the hospital, stopped at traffic lights. Across the intersection I was looking at the entrance to Brisbane’s South Bank Parklands. A very attractive set of parks and gardens along the Brisbane River. The sun was bright and the day was just the perfect temperature. Healthy attractive people were jogging, people strolled along, sipping coffee with family and friends. The perfect day to be out enjoying the beauty.

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That was the filter. But now it was ripped off to expose what I had always known but now felt in my heart and intestines in a visceral way. I saw clearly what had always been there.

Death. Everywhere.

It’s not that I realised there was and never had been anything good or beautiful in the world. There is and always has been, and they are precious to me. It’s that all of it, every single one, is being poisoned  and brought to nothing by death. Hiding behind every blossoming plant and the glorious sunlight, working quietly and unceasingly within every life. Corrupting every good thing and bringing it to nothing, to dust. To air. And in my own life too.

Looking back over my journal I found an entry early on where I described a potential artwork I kept imagining – an installation sculpture. I’ll never be able to make it and I’m sure I subconsciously ripped it off stuff that’s been done before anyway. But you’d set up a room, or even several rooms like a house, lived in, with furniture, family photos etc. But you can’t enter the rooms because it’s filled with a bulbous black mass, overwhelming everything. Swallowing every space of the place up. Nothing left untouched. Evil. Death. It didn’t occur to me at the time how much like cancer itself my image of death and evil was. Because cancer certainly is a form of evil, but evil is also, actually, a type of cancer. It’s the world just doing what the world does but doing it in rebellion to its original purpose and design; and in the process destroying itself. That is the Bible’s depiction of evil and it’s true to experience.

Near the end, when God felt absent, I reflected that for the first time I really understood why some people are atheists. I’ve never really grasped why someone might think an acceptance of science must preclude an acceptance of anything else. But there is a reason someone might not believe in God: in the face of a cruel, unjust and painful world for so many people, the world simply feels meaningless. Certainly at that moment, at the bottom of the pit it does.

But I didn’t go the way of atheism. Wasn’t tempted to. Because atheism is only engaging with half the data. It’s true that often this world feels meaningless… but at the same time it also feels meaningful. Deeply, vibrantly, vitally meaningful. More accurately – the world and life feels like it has a deep meaning and purpose which is being consumed and destroyed by meaninglessness one day at a time. The horror of our lives and the lives of our loved ones being cut short isn’t that we know our lives are just pointless. In that case who would care? It’s that we know our lives have a point. We have a deep, deep sense that they’re meant for something. They’re meant to be good. It wasn’t that my mum’s life was meaningless that made me want to kick and yell and throw chairs and scream helplessly into the night. It was that her life had real meaning and beauty and purpose; her love, her strength and courage, her selflessness towards those in her life, her thoughtfulness of others… and cancer came and ripped all of it – all of it – out of her hands for no other purpose than to throw it all in the river and watch it wash away to nothing. It’s a nightmare.

And so, does the meaningless win? Everywhere you look is beauty and life and purpose…and all of it infected with the corruption and decay of death. Everywhere is darkness. Where’s God? I was forced to stare into the darkness and it’s in the darkest spot, the very stroke of midnight, that you see him.

The very heart of the Christian story, it’s climax and centre is God revealing himself to humanity. And the heart of the Christian story is dark. Very dark. Because it’s the story of God entering the world as one of us – Jesus – to overcome the darkness, to destroy it. But not, like some hero in a fable, by swooping in on horseback and slaying the dragon. God destroyed the darkness by entering into it. He overcame suffering and death by submitting to them, suffering and dying. By reaching out in love to suffering people and being arrested, humiliated and tortured to death by the people he came to save.

At the heart of evil in the world is humanity doing what it does… but doing it in rebellion to its original purpose and design, to honour God; and in the process destroying itself and the world. That found fullest expression the day humanity gleefully executed God and stood around gloating as they watched him slowly die. But it’s in that act that Jesus overcame the darkness. Because in that act he was stepping in for us all in our rebellion against God and taking the punishment for it. It was all being punished and destroyed in his body and buried with him. And then he rose to life and left it there. And that is the way to a new life without the corruption of death and evil in it.

Every good and beautiful thing in this world is infected with the rot of death. Every single one ripped from our hands to be thrown away and leaving us empty. All except one. The one you see when you look at the heart of the darkness, the mob killing of Jesus:

Grace.

God repaying our hatred with costly, sacrificial love God giving himself for us, laying himself down at the greatest cost to bring us new life.  God overcoming darkness not from a safe distance but by willingly stepping into in and taking it onto himself for our good.

I don’t have answers for why the world went dark and in the pit I have to admit I don’t like it. But I saw God’s beautiful grace in darkness, the one beautiful thing worth living for. In destroying evil and death ‘from the inside out’ as it were, Jesus has overcome the meaninglessness destroying everything and he has made it meaningful again. Nothing else good in this world can carry the weight of our hopes but grace carries the hopes of all the good and beautiful things in this world. Shortly before she died I gave mum a photo I’d taken over a decade earlier when travelling in Jerusalem. I gave it to her as a reminder that because Jesus died things won’t be like this forever for those who put their trust in his grace. It was a photo of an empty tomb. Almost certainly not, as it turns out, THE empty tomb. But a reminder none the less. She had me blow it up to poster size and put it on her wall.

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As it stands, the world is dark. The aesthetically pleasing culture and society and life we surround ourselves with is just a thin veneer over what’s really going on. And I hate it and want to kick and yell and get angry and sad. And I do. But when I look at the grace God showed in Jesus dying on the cross I see the one most beautiful and meaningful thing that will bring meaning and beauty to everything being swallowed by meaninglessness and death for those who trust in him. I see the one thing worth holding onto and living for and trusting in.

And I trust him.

 

And then, the Bomb

The bomb. In modern times it’s become something of a symbol. Of terror. Of despair. It’s becoming an increasingly frequent horror to hear of another terror related bomb detonating somewhere, causing irreversible grief and loss to the innocent. The word ‘symbol’ though doesn’t quite fit, as symbols are by definition images, pictures of something; whereas bombs – real bombs in the real world, rather than in James Bond movies – are invisible. The real horror of the bomb is that you don’t know it’s there. Not until, in an instant, it isn’t there anymore. And then it’s too late.  The Boston Marathon bomb of 2013 is the one that I personally always recall to mind. An innocent community event turned into chaos instantly.

boston-bomb

Cancer is a bomb.

3 months ago everything was fine. Then, out of nowhere, my mum was diagnosed with cancer of the duodenum which was quickly upgraded to terminal. This form of cancer is rare and also unusually aggressive. It moved fast.

A bomb is, in its essence, a mess. It’s the instantaneous turning of any order, beauty and structure within its radius into random chaos, the very process of which wreaks destruction and death. Assassins don’t tend to use bombs (I presume) because assassins have specific targets. They are trying to do something particular. They are trying to be precise. Bombs are not precise. They don’t have specific targets. They aren’t trying to do anything to anyone in particular. Who is caught within the bomb’s radius is random. And who in that radius is killed and who is maimed and how they are killed or maimed is random. The mess itself is the point. Recently a bomb detonated in a marketplace in the Philippines. For some reason some ordinary men, women and children were walking through the blast radius at the moment of detonation and others weren’t. Had the bomb detonated even minutes earlier or later the people whose lives were ripped apart forever would’ve been different. The bomber doesn’t care. Chaos for chaos’ sake. Death for death’s sake.

And cancer is, in its essence, simply a mess. Cancer is nothing more than the turning of the order, beauty and structure of a person’s body into random chaos. Chaos that wreaks destruction and death. There doesn’t seem to be any rhyme or reason for where this bomb will go off. My mum was incredibly healthy. No reason why her life was swiftly cut short by a very rare and unusually aggressive form of the disease. No reason why it devastates a body the way it does. Shrapnel could’ve just as easily not hit the liver as hit it. And the anarchy explodes outward beyond the person and shrapnel maims everyone nearby, but not necessarily all in the same way. Cancer is a mess that starts as a tiny point and spreads outward with unstoppable force like an explosion. It might explode a lot more slowly than a bomb, but that doesn’t mean you can outrun it. It’s still inescapable.

When I was younger I found conspiracy theories kind of interesting. But when I read up on some I was struck more by the conspiracy theorists themselves than their theories. For the conspiracy theorist, the conspiracy isn’t just something they think happened in the world. It expands into an over-arching narrative to explain the world in its entirety. The conspiracy theory becomes a meta-narrative of the force of evil in this world, a force that has a sinister plan and purpose for the world as a whole and is working secretly and non-stop to fulfill it. But what the conspiracy theorist has failed to understand about evil and which I have now experienced is this: evil has no plan or purpose for the world other than to rip it open. Evil doesn’t seek to make the world into anything. It simply wants to demolish. Why? Well, why not?  ‘The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy…’ (John 10:10) Chaos for chaos’ sake. Or is Bashar al-Assad and ISIS and whoever else bombing Syria into a crater because they have some goal and desire for the country? Evil is evil for evil’s sake.

In the end, what’s scary about a bomb isn’t that it’s loud and explosive. It’s that it’s pointless and indiscriminate and yet completely irreversible. And what struck me as mum’s life drew to a close was the horror of how pointless but irreversible this tragedy seemed to be.

And God?

I’ve spoken a number of times from the Bible on suffering, but nothing prepares you for when you experience it personally. People always depict the life of having faith in God as a walk through the countryside, with some ups and downs in the path, or being gently carried along a beach. They never depict it as finding yourself in the crater of a bomb blast. Trusting God is hard. So hard. Hard when the Bible asks hard questions about why there’s suffering in the world but gives no ultimate answer. Hard when suffering is unfair. Hard when all the evidence the world gives you seems to point in the opposite direction to that of a loving God who’s in control of things.  Hard when prayers are met with silence or even what feels like mockery.

Early on I would confront God in the hospital chapel. Was just a quiet space for it really. I was grappling with what exactly I was trusting in. No circumstances indicating God’s love. No explanations for how this all fit into something good. No reassuring feeling of divine presence. What I had in my mind however was a picture of the cross, Jesus dying on a cross. God choosing to step out of safety and into the darkness and chaos of this world, to suffer in it in order to overcome it. Jesus stepping into the meaninglessness destroying the world  to make something meaningful out of it. It isn’t any explanation of why evil is here but when I considered Jesus doing that I asked myself, ‘Can I trust him?’ I answered ‘Yes’.

Not that trusting Jesus removed any grief. From that point on we were all still living in the bomb blast. Awful fear and anxiety. Guilt. Loss. Helplessness. Feeling nauseous. Seething anger with no one to aim it at. The fraying of relationships. People saying ‘helpful’ things. The anguish of seeing the toll on someone you love steadily increasing. The world feeling cold and empty. Every consolation you hoped and prayed for – a decent amount of time with Mum at least, the chance to say a proper goodbye, the end to at least come quickly – ripped away one by one, feeling like a cruel joke. Nothing left not maimed by shrapnel. More angry questions at God left unanswered. More silence after prayer. And now moving ahead with a massive hole left in everything.

I want to write much more about faith in darkness and Jesus in the darkness soon. This post has been much more about the darkness itself, I know. And I know that cancer isn’t the only darkness in people’s lives. I’m just sick of a Christian culture that thinks it can down play the reality of evil and suffering in faith, bring about nice answers or a sense of uplift. One day I walked into a Christian bookstore looking for just a little thing I could buy to help me remember as I looked at it the truth of God in the message of Jesus. But all I found filling the whole place was treacle like this:

 

job

 

joy

 

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Bible verses certainly. But verses ripped out of their contexts of chaos and pain and disorder and draped in an anesthetising image able to give only a general feeling of uplift when times are generally good. When life turns dark it evaporates like a fog. Never a mention of Jesus dying on the cross, which is the heart of the matter.

It’s not real. At some point, for everyone, life turns into a disaster zone. At some point everyone faces death. And nothing, nothing, can prepare you for every vain hope and survival strategy you’ve developed over however many years crumbling to nothing in an instant. At that point, either Jesus died and rose, or bust.

 

 

 

 

 

Life as a Clay Rembrandt

There are days I don’t feel like much. I’ve never been much possessed of a sense of my own strength or ability or beauty. I have days of introspection and self doubt. But it was in such a period recently that I stumbled upon Paul’s words in his second letter to the church of Corinth, ‘But we have this treasure in jars of clay…’ (2 Corinthians 4:7) They’re words I’ve kept on returning to.

There’s a painting of Paul I love; a Rembrandt. It’s a beautiful piece. It might be my favourite painting. Paul the Apostle sits at his writing desk penning part of the New Testament. Pen arm slung over the back of his chair, he seems to be contemplating what to write down next.

De apostel Paulus aan zijn schrijftafel

Saint Paul at his Writing-Desk Wikipedia

The composition is perfect, the play of soft light and shadow is masterful as is, above all, Rembrandt’s sensitivity to capture the heart and soul of someone in their face and posture. Rembrandt’s love affair with brown doesn’t always pull off but here it’s just right. But a confession: although I always thought of it as a lovely picture itself I didn’t, until recently, really think it quite worked as a picture of Paul. Paul the intrepid traveler, crossing dangerous terrain and seas to spread the message of Jesus, shipwrecked, attacked, jailed is, in my mind,  a fiery, steely eyed bull dog of a man who fought hard. Here though he looks, to be honest, like he’s just about had it. Maybe Rembrandt foisted his own particular glumness onto him.

But as I’ve chewed over those words of his I’ve wondered if it hasn’t actually been me who’s brought my own assumptions and laid them over Paul. There would’ve been plenty of days Paul would’ve felt just like this. He doesn’t describe himself as a bull dog but as a clay jar.

Clay is wonderful stuff. I remember at uni discovering the joy of working with it. It’s a warm and intimate material. It can be shaped into whatever you want. I have a friend who makes really lovely and meaningful objects with clay. I like it.

jars

But clay isn’t fancy. Part of the joy of working with clay is its messy tactility – for the childlike part of you that never quite got over playing in the mud. Clay isn’t that far removed from soil, really. Maybe Paul had in mind God’s creation of humanity from dirt in Genesis 2:7, ‘Then the Lord God formed a man from the dust of the ground…’ It certainly isn’t gold or diamonds. It’s easy to come by and cheap. As I pondered all this and thought of buying a little clay jar to sit on my desk as a reminder of it all it struck me that my house and garden are full of clay vessels. A shelf in a kitchen cupboard is packed with mugs. All sorts. There’s a few lovely hand made gifts but most are mass produced $2 gear. On the other side of the kitchen are a couple of shelves of multiple sets of plates. Outside, my little cactus sits in a tiny black pot and a stack of dead plants sit in bigger ones. They’re all used for ordinary, every day tasks.

And it breaks. My goodness, just last night I pulled another mug out of the dishwasher to discover a crack up the inside. Why?! What’s next, my beloved Picasso mug? Is there no hope? As I get older that brittle fragility begins to resonate more.

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Beloved Picasso Mug

Mainly, what’s really important about most clay vessels isn’t they themselves but what they hold. As Paul looks at himself; pretty ordinary, not impressive by the standards of the church he’s writing to, starting to crack with age and normal mortality and just tired, he isn’t despondent. In fact he’s alarmingly confident. I’m trying to learn what Paul knew. Within a culture that finds the value of a person in what they’re able to achieve, a humanist worldview proclaiming ‘Yes you can! And you need to…’ and worst, a proud heart that wants all this to be true, what I am learning to hold onto is the truth that the clay pot isn’t the treasure itself… but there’s treasure within.

 For God, who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” made his light shine in our hearts to give us the light of the knowledge of God’s glory displayed in the face of Christ. (2 Corinthians 4:6)

The message of Jesus – that God is known in Jesus Christ as he hung and died on a cross – that’s treasure. The message of forgiveness and new life for everyone who trusts in Jesus’ death in their place. It’s that message which is light shining in darkness. That message which brings life to the dead and hope to the hopeless. Not my skills and ability. Not my health or strength. Not my personality.

But we have this treasure in jars of clay to show that this all-surpassing power is from God and not from us.

That, and that alone, drove Paul on when he no doubt felt like a Rembrandt painting. Not his abilities, skills or traits. But that he had a message in his heart through which God gave him life that can’t be crushed and through which God gives life to others. And so he spoke it. And so must I.

a story ancient and contemporary


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Personally I often (not always!) find that a trip to see contemporary art becomes an exercise in the banal, cranial and pretentious. In the midst of grainy repetitive videos of nothing happening and piles of junk, some of the most disheartening works come under the title ‘political art’. Combining raw visceral rage at some soulless institution of power with a soullessness that rivals or perhaps concedes defeat to said powerful, unjust institution, political art can leave me feeling empty most of all, as if there’s simply nothing more to hold onto than being ticked off.

In contrast however, the work ‘Rustam-e-Pardar’ (Rustam With Wings) by Khadim Ali at the Queensland Art Gallery is a work that shimmers and resonates, moving me at a number of levels yet (or perhaps by) always just eluding my grasp, as if constantly fluttering just out of reach like the winged figure at the centre of the work. A series of five small images of water-colour, ink and gold leaf on wasli paper, and part of a larger series of ‘Rustam’ images, it draws from the 10th century Persian epic the ‘Shahnama’, the hero of whom is apparently the demon Rustam who defends his people from, well, other demons. I haven’t read the Shahnama (or even heard of it before) but this work has created the desire in me to get a hold of a translation. Bless you, Kindle. Rustam-e-Pardar is a sensitive work dealing with the plight of the Hazara people, to whom Khadim Ali belongs.

Unfortunately copyright laws means you're stuck with my blurry iphone flashless photos.

Unfortunately copyright law means you’re stuck with my blurry, flashless iphone photos. Ugh.

The Hazara are a people group from Afghanistan and Pakistan who have been horribly persecuted. As both an ethnic and religious (Shia muslim) minority in Afghanistan the Hazara have borne the brunt of Taliban (and now other extremist Sunni groups) violence. For many Hazara who fled Afghanistan in the face of the rise of the Taliban, finding a new home in Pakistan has proven no refuge from the deadly violence against them. The stance of the Taliban and other groups is nothing less than genocidal, despite my Hazara friends being the most gentle and peaceful people you’ll ever meet. In an earlier post I link to an article spelling out the plight of Hazara seeking refuge in other neighbouring countries. Fortunately some have managed, against incredible odds, to make their way to Australia where they’ve found… no, don’t get me started.

It’s to the Taliban’s war against the Hazara that Rustam-e-Pardar refers. I’ve come to this work as a cultural outsider and so most of what I know of it has had to be explained to me: that in 1998 the Taliban began calling themselves the ‘Rustam of Islam’ to give their jihad broader Persian cultural appeal; that the shades black and white with which Rustam is depicted represent not good and evil in the Shahnama but hypocrisy and deceit; that the script overlaying the images is Arabic, perhaps indicating the overlaying of Persian/Afghan culture with that of Arabised Islam.

Nevertheless there’s so much more to this work than a blunt, angry political shout. The work communicates in a way that words on their own simply can’t, subtly and delicately drawing from the rich and ancient Persian culture to comment on the hypocrisy of those who’ve claimed to defend that culture even as they’ve systematically set out to destroy it, the hypocrisy of a demon fighting against a people they’ve demonised. There is a deeply felt pain here and yet it’s so heartfelt and soulful, resonating with Ali’s obvious love for his cultural roots and his own people. That’s obvious even to me as an outsider, with so many details hinting at ideas or emotions that lay beyond me. But even as the work slips from my grasp, leaving me wondering about this detail, or that figure, or what this scene represents, I find myself with the rare desire to just pluck them off the wall and take them home with me. More than that it creates in me a yearning I can’t quite put my finger on, a desire to connect more deeply with the stories and culture of these Peoples, ancient and contemporary.

hitting the ground

Have just come through one of the more painful exam periods in living memory. Hence no writing for a while. Seems also no complete sentences. Have hit the ground.

Summer holds potential for many wonderful projects, books to read, things to write and draw and sculpt. Now however I’m going to curl into a ball for a while.

OK so peace out and yeah ok.

new developments for the benefit of humankind over here!

Me, delirious with excitement

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