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.

 

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sculpture by the sea

For 2 weeks each year in Sydney the 2km coastal walk from Bondi beach to Tamarama beach is transformed during the Sculpture by the Sea exhibition. This afternoon I checked it out, though so far I haven’t been able to see all the works – a return visit may be in order. I love this exhibition. So too does the rest of Sydney, judging by the crowds even in the late afternoon. Each year at this time the coastal walk becomes jammed with people enjoying the elegant, the quirky and sometimes the downright weird, all with a beautiful seaside view. I love the crowds for this reason: instead of festering in some whitewashed gallery art is out in the public space and people are getting out there and enjoying it. The only drawback of so many people being there at once is the effect on the relationship between the sculptures, the space they’re placed in and the viewer – where I feel sculpture’s power really lies. Finding a quiet time for a viewing has its benefits.

Still, there’s something I love about going with the rest of the world too. It raises a question for me: What is it with art and the public? Why do I have this perception of most people scorning art and yet when something like this is put on it seems half the city – young, old, families and singles – turns up? Is it just that people ‘just like to go to things’, as someone put it to me this week? That is, do they not really care about the art at all, but just go along to whatever’s ‘happening’ this weekend for something to do?

No doubt there are some. But I love the sort of thing I saw today. When a big name gets a show, like a Picasso or Rothko retrospective, I have a tendency, justified or not, to think a lot of people might be drawn just by the name, especially in Australia where the big names are displayed so rarely. But there are no big names in Bondi, yet people are really interested in the works. They take photographs, they laugh, they pick their favourites. They aren’t generally interested in the way we’re told interest in art is supposed to manifest itself: dispassionately deconstructing everything to find the deeper ‘meaning’ in the work. Sadly there is still a strong sense for people that that’s exactly the way art has to be appreciated and the completely obtuse and indecipherable works that follow this artistic philosophy themselves only serve to continue enforcing this sense by alienating the very people they’re supposed to be communicating with. The great legacy of modern art has been to drive a wedge in people’s thinking between their life and visual creativity. But after people have stood mutely and impassively in front of them for a few moments (myself included) they move on to the stuff that’s actually cool and connects with them and their experience in some way, and often quite simply. It’s obvious in the comparison between works which always have a crowd of snap happy and grinning people around them (again myself included) and those which are left sadly alone. The works people love explore and re-imagine the beauty of this world or the human experience of living itself. The works I’ve snapped here were some of my favourites which I felt did just that.

The incessantly elitist and deconstructing nature of so much modern and post modern art (and talk about it) in the west has cultural and philosophical roots reaching back a couple of centuries , but the creative impulse has spanned human existence across cultures and centuries and has elsewhere always been much more closely tied to the lived experience of a culture’s people and their relationship with the wider world around them. I’ve said this before here.  ‘Art’ wasn’t the intellectual domain of a specific subculture who were in the ‘know’. You didn’t need an ‘art appreciation course’ (spare me) to engage with it. It reflected and still reflects life. In future posts I’d like to explore further how contemporary art is trying to reflect and speak to how we in the west tend to view the world and our lives, for I think there’s much to be said. But I wouldn’t hold your breath if I was you.

For now though, let me say that I think there is a real desire in people’s hearts for beauty and truth in the world, and for people to engage with and express it through acts of creativity. And there is a joy when it’s done.

What do you think? Do people love good art or am I mistaken? Do you enjoy art, and if so, what do you love about it? 

they stole the stars

One of the things about the city is, there’s no stars. I  miss them, markers of eternity, filling the night sky with dazzling depth and richness.

There’s many good things about the city, of course, life in this human landscape, written over with the human story in its cracks and stains and crumbling walls and graffiti and historic buildings and eclectic eateries and defiant little parks and countless lives being lived all round each other, all the time. Don’t let anyone say that cities are just blights on the world. For cities are humanity, and humanity is something incredible – both profoundly beautiful and incredibly ugly at the same time. Much like their concrete steel glass bitumen worlds they build around themselves.

But this is one of their great crimes, this robbing the sky of their stars. It’s not to say that there’s nothing beautiful about the lights of a cityscape by night, but it’s a different beauty. A different glory. The bustling rushing honking stop-starting movement, the sheer life of
the city stands in stark contrast with that endless inky blackness full of its myriad of brilliant sentinels, watching in silence age after age, so tranquil and peaceful (at least from this distance).

Two scapes, city and star, full of light, unable to meet. One ageless, timeless, endless emptiness and vastness. The other constructed space, full and unceasing in its flux.

What about you? City or stars?