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 cactus

I left them to die. I had to go away for about a week and didn’t have time to deal with them. So I left them in my room, locking the door behind me with the life ebbing out of them. When I arrived home the other day their shrivelled corpses were there slumped by my window.

Marigolds and snapdragons are touchy, sensitive plants. I’ve decided I don’t do ‘high maintenance’. Or maybe I should’ve just put them outside in the sun. I dunno.

I don’t have the greatest track record with plants. OK, OK, I’m a serial killer. This is the reputation I’m garnering among family and friends. Over the years plant after plant has died. The little parlour palm and my Dracaena fragens ‘Massangeana’ I purchased recently also nearly gave up the ghost but lest you think me heartless let me clarify that in their case it was because I cared too much. Those things just wanna be left alone. Preferably in the dark (who am I to judge?). Yet despite almost completely loving the life out of it even the palm looks set to pull through. Ish.

This pathological repressed hatred of all things botanical seems to run in the family. One sibling has long since given up and changed to fake plants urging me, for the sake of any poor vegetation that might otherwise cross my path, to do the same. Meanwhile another sibling, apparently, killed a cactus. Yeah you heard me. I didn’t think those things even could be killed. You may be designed to survive the harshest, most plant hating terrains on earth, but you’re no match for our gene pool.

It was in fact while I was at the nursery picking out my poor doomed garden flowers that a friend actually suggested that I get a cactus.  I declined, long feeling that in their grim, stoic I’m-still-here-come-and-get-me-ism towards the aridity of life and their passive aggressive  stay-the-hell-away-from-me attitude to all other living things, not to mention their plain old squat ugliness cacti are rather depressing plants. Just move somewhere fertile, grow some leaves, look nice and chill out, for crying out loud. Before I could point this out my friend told me the reason I should get one is that they’re the perfect plant for me. Representative. Cheers buddy.

And yet this throw away line, like so many, became a seed planted in my brain. As I contemplated the brown husks of flowers I knew awaited me when I returned home yet being unwilling to concede botanical defeat the seed grew and I decided to embrace the cactus in all its butt ugly glory as my own. Why not embrace the truth? I’m not daisies and dandelions after all (thank goodness), but I’m still here. And though my transformation long ago into a person guarded behind a thick protective, spiky barrier that both I and those I love find so difficult to penetrate has been one of the deepest griefs of my life, sometimes that which causes pain also brings about something good. I’m still here. And I know now what I must do.

And so I write. I have begun and I won’t stop. It takes its time, effort and devotion but the ball point is the weapon I wield, with which I’ll pierce a hole in that tough flesh to let out some of the stuff stored up inside.  It takes time, effort, devotion – but it gives such joy. Drink or not as you wish, just mind the spikes.

So there now sits a little pincushion cactus on my window sill. It’s small and squat, but in a lovable kind of way, and I hear it’s beautiful in bloom. Growth will be very slow, but it will grow.

And it will live.

(Wellllll… then again I sort of tipped it over in the bag as I was walking home. Got all the soil back in the pot but was it naturally growing with that lean when I purchased it? We’ll see).

John Donne: A Hymn to God the Father

This poem struck me when I first read it, and many times since. It captures the Christian’s heart so simply and beautifully and has been my prayer. I won’t go on about it – I just wanted to share it.

I
Wilt thou forgive that sin where I begun,
Which is my sin, though it were done before?
Wilt thou forgive that sin, through which I run,
And do run still: though still I do deplore?
When thou hast done, thou hast not done,
For I have more.

II
Wilt thou forgive that sin which I have won
Others to sin? and, made my sin their door?
Wilt thou forgive that sin which I did shun
A year, or two, but wallowed in a score?
When thou hast done, thou hast not done,
For I have more.

III
I have a sin of fear, that when I have spun
My last thread, I shall perish on the shore;
But swear by thy self, that at my death thy son
Shall shine as he shines now, and heretofore;
And having done that, thou hast done,
I fear no more.

1633

happy resurrection day!

‘Why are you looking for the living among the dead?’ asked the men. ‘He is not here, but he has been resurrected!’

Happy Resurrection Day! Also known as Easter. A day we Christians commemorate the rising of a certain man from the dead which will precipitate the rising from the dead of all those who put their trust in him. Death brings all our efforts and joys and desires to nothing… but death need not be the end. New life is the prize won by Jesus going to the cross to pay the penalty for our rejection of God. Trusting in his death and coming under his reign is how we take hold of it.

When the perishable has been clothed with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality, then the saying that is written will come true: “Death has been swallowed up in victory.” “Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?”

1 corinthians 15.54-55

Does Easter have any significance for you? Do you have something to say or ask about its significance for Christians? 

a good friday to you

By George Herbert1593–1633

Love bade me welcome, yet my soul drew back,
               Guilty of dust and sin.
But quick-ey’d Love, observing me grow slack
               From my first entrance in,
Drew nearer to me, sweetly questioning
               If I lack’d any thing.
“A guest,” I answer’d, “worthy to be here”;
               Love said, “You shall be he.”
“I, the unkind, ungrateful? ah my dear,
               I cannot look on thee.”
Love took my hand, and smiling did reply,
               “Who made the eyes but I?”
“Truth, Lord, but I have marr’d them; let my shame
               Go where it doth deserve.”
“And know you not,” says Love, “who bore the blame?”
               “My dear, then I will serve.”
“You must sit down,” says Love, “and taste my meat.”
               So I did sit and eat.
How incredible that love should shine so brightly on so dark a day. When we think of love it’s usually so sunny and carefree – love sweeps us up and chases the clouds away, makes it all better etc. But real love has a cost, and had a cost, which I still cannot fathom.
This poem by George Herbert doesn’t dwell on the events of that dark day, but on the outcome. How is that so many of us take for granted the idea that if God does in fact live up in heaven we should be able to assume that we can have access to him and his help and love, despite never acknowledging his presence except when it suits us. we wouldn’t treat another like this, and wouldn’t expect a warm reception if we did. But we do with God, if we don’t completely reject him altogether.
And here the wonder-full love of God, that Jesus should take the blame. That by placing my trust in him I could come in to God’s house and eat with him… many say this demeans us. The fact that someone so incredible should pour such incredible, costly love onto me begs to differ.
There’s much more I could say about this delightful poem, perhaps another time. Today I want to simply remember such love that calls me, yes even me, to come in and eat, to turn away from my broken past and know him.

I need not deny my guilt and shame to try to live without it… I take it to him, and he has done away with it.

What about you? Does Good Friday mean anything to you?

a short lament

I don’t want to fight, raise an argument, make a case. Christopher Hitchens died today age 62 from cancer. I did pray for him. I haven’t as some apparently have, been praying that he would burn in hell. To such people I have little to say except that despite carrying his name they neither know nor understand the friend of sinners they claim to follow, nor understand how much they themselves deserve to burn in hell, as do we all. It is for sinners like them and Hitchens and myself that Jesus came to die.

No, I simply want to express grief – I feel compelled and think it’s appropriate – at the death of this man but even moreso that he wasn’t reconciled to the God who offered reconciliation on a bloody wooden cross. I didn’t agree with his views, I didn’t enjoy reading his book, but from one sinner to another I had hoped he might even at the end have accepted the offer of forgiveness and new life held out to us all, if we but take it.

…God proves his own love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us! 
Romans 5.8