Monday, 27 April 2015

A Giant Leap . . .

Well, here we are - time for one more blog post before what feels like a giant leap into the unknown tomorrow. All the preparations in Preston seem to have gone well, and on Tuesday it's Stereotactic Radiosurgery day - 45 minutes of carefully focussed high intensity beams of radiation on the tumours in my brain. Will they be obliterated, shrunk a bit, or not really helped much at all? Who knows. Will I feel sick and exhausted afterwards, or back to normal in no time? Who knows that either. So it's hard to plan for next week at all, or to know what lies beyond it. I know the last few days I've been progressively more tired, and just recently there's been a little recurrence of some of the original language muddling and right arm deadness . .  so the steroids which have served me so well for symptom relief (whilst turning me into an even more moon faced than usual Telly Tubby) are beginning to struggle to keep the tide at bay. So - here's to Tuesday; the finishing line - or the starting line - or both.

Just in case it proves to be a while before I can write again, I want to tell you something about what I've been working on for ..... well, for a couple of years, now; but in a focussed and more intensive way since last September. Some of you know I'm writing what I think I can best call a novel, although novel isn't quite the right term for it, really. It's something I've wanted to do ever since reading Wolf Hall and being totally captivated by it. If Hilary Mantel can make us live and breathe and care passionately about Thomas Cromwell, I figured, would it be possible to do the same for Jesus? To write his story in such a way that it's authentic the accounts we have, and yet fired and fleshed out by the imagination? Could such a book make Jesus accessible, capture the reader's heart and mind; make her see what I see in him, what has drawn me to shape the whole of my life around him? Various people have tried this before, of course, so it's not a new idea, but I haven't yet felt really grabbed by any attempts that I've read. They can so often feel a bit "men in tea-towels"; locked in a past world, not really letting the imagination go enough to lift the characters off the page.

This idea stayed no more than that, an idea, for a long time, and then I found myself doodling a prologue, and an introduction, and before long,  I couldn't stop.  And last September, it felt as if my week had found a perfect balance and ordering - 3 days working at the wonderful Susan's Pie Shop earning a bit of cash, and two days disciplined (well, disciplined-ish) days at the library with Yeshua.  By the end of January, I reckoned I was about a third of the way through what I think the final project is likely to be. 

All this, of course, has been on hold for the past couple of months. But my excitement for it was awakened again last week by an encounter with Professor Kate Cooper, historian and author of Band of Angels - "the surprising story of early Christianity from the woman's point of view."

It was an event organised by my dear friend Anjum Anwar, with whom Kate was in conversation; a Muslim woman and a Christian one sharing their excitement about the way in which women have always shaped and transmitted the stories that keep their faith traditions alive,and continue to do so now. I travelled home from Blackburn with my head buzzing. Realising afresh just how much I'd love the time to finish my telling of this story which has so captivated my life. 

Why does it matter to me so much? Because this story, apart from being the best story I know, is also about what is truth and what is love and what is the point of being human, and those things matter to me more than life itself - certainly more than biological life. Having life threatening cancer doesn't make me cry. But listening to a young girl on the radio yesterday morning saying that because she was a Christian, she would be voting for UKIP as the only party "standing up  for Christian values"? That made me cry. Having life threatening cancer doesn't make me angry. But hearing  people in middle class, self - protective church ghettos talking of themselves as "proper Christians" because their children still go to church? That makes me want to smash things. I'm not sure I can even handle the term 'Christian' any more - like it's a badge of merit, something that draws a ring of inclusion round the clever smug few and leaves the rest of humanity in a different place. Jesus would never have merited the label Christian. And I'd rather not have anyone think I merit it either. 

Because what I want is what he had; where I want to be is on the way he walked. For twenty years I tried to function as a priest, and then it dawned on me that he - the one true priest - was never a priest. Never an insider. Never recognised. So I resigned my license. Because I want to be where he is.

So this novel, if its a novel, is also profoundly theological, profoundly about the nature of truth and reality and what the word 'God' might mean if it didn't mean one little figure slugging it out in an absurd Divine Pantheon, trying to prove he's better than everyone else in there. Which is the caricature we so often seem to present of Jesus, and of the prophets of other ways and traditions too. 

One of my favourite writers, Richard Rohr, gets this so beautifully . . .if I could sum up in a nutshell the Jesus whose story I long to tell, it would be something like this, where he describes St Paul's encounter with truth though Jesus:

  Paul never uses the word "Almighty" for the Divine, despite its common usage to this day. His image of God was of someone crucified outside the city walls in the way a slave might be killed, and not of a God appearing on heavenly clouds. Christ was not the strong, powerful, military Messiah that the Jews had been waiting for throughout their history of being enslaved, oppressed, occupied, and colonized.. . . rather, God consistently chose the weak to confound the strong.

Paul's view of himself, of God, and of all others was turned on its head. He had to utterly redefine how divine power worked and how humans changed. All he knew for sure at the beginning was that it was not what anyone expected. 

It takes a long time to move from power to weakness, from glib certitude to vulnerability, from meritocracy to pure grace. In Paul's letters, he consistently idealizes not power but powerlessness, not strength but weakness. It's as if he's saying, "I glory when I fail and suffer because now I get to be like Jesus--the naked loser God."  

The revelation of the death and resurrection of Jesus forever redefines what success and winning mean--and it is not what any of us want or expect. On the cross, God is revealed as vulnerability itself (the Latin word vulnera means woundedness). We ourselves grow through vulnerability and not through any need to posture, pose, or present.  Now only the humble will ever find God.

Until you understand that truth on some level, even if it takes until the later years of your life, you can't fully understand the Gospel. And I don't think most people do, not even most Christians. The egoic or unconverted self reads everything in terms of its own ascent, various attempts at spiritual achievement, the attaining of merits and rewards, climbing upward, performing for God, concocting my own worthiness game, and then pretending I am succeeding at it. It is all so futile and so unnecessary. Despite the immense freedom and permission of the Gospel, most of Christian history has been trying to run up the escalator that Jesus (and Reality) has aimed downward. This has produced many frustrated people and frustrating clergy. Yet it is so natural and even easy to go down the downward escalator.

Adapted from Great Themes of Paul: Life as Participation, Richard Rohr. 

So much more I want to say - so much more I want to write. But even more I want to live, this side of dying and beyond.

And here I am, weeks after barely daring to ask that my little lantern of Fragile Hope might last the night, watching it burning away steadily. 

It's just before 6am. And it's a beautiful day. The Sure Hope of Dawn is flooding through the window. 


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  2. You write so beautifully and so authentically in such a way as to engage with the deeper stirrings of the Spirit within and to enable the reader to do so also. Life is a search and a finding, an exploration of all the human conditions that are lodged within and around us. Stay strong over these coming days and stay rooted in Him. Thank you for sharing your Fragile Hope with us in with such painful and beautiful authenticity and honesty. My thoughts are with you.

    1. Thank you so much for your encouragement - means a great deal.

  3. Beautifully written. I'm really longing to read your 'novel' Xxxx

  4. Beautifully written, can't wait to read your 'novel'. xxxxxxx

  5. One of my favourite comments about Christ comes from CS Lewis’ Prince Caspian, when Aslan says "Do not be afraid, for I am the great bridge-builder." It's interesting that in Herman Hesse's novel on Buddhism the hero Siddhartha also renounces what is seen as a successful religious life to become a ferryman. Between Susan's Pies and storytelling you have found your own ministry giving sustenance to so many different people that come your way and help them on their onward journey. Now you have your own road to travel, and I know that at times it may seem lonely, but we are praying that you will encounter Christ's loving ministry in unsung and unexpected places. You have those wonderful words of St Paul 'My power is made perfect in weakness' to hold on to as you step out into the coming days.
    God bless you and keep you.

  6. nothing more to be said except you go with our prayer and best wishes and hope it work out for you and what ever the out come i thank the lord above for bring you in to my life you have been so helpful and supportive of me and my family and i am deeply proud to say your a friend and it as been great to walk a little with you and hope that it wont be along till you walking along again but that is for another day and only god will decide that my god bless and keep you all at this most testing time but a better person you will never find to keep you safe

  7. So clearly and beautifully expressed Mrs. Look forward to reading the 'novel' thinking of you and praying today and this week in particular. Sending squeeze hugs and lots of love xxxx

  8. All the very best for tomorrow, Debbie, I'll be sending waves of love and hope to accompany the waves of radiation. Oh you have to keep going with that novel. Thank you for writing about it here and about faith, it's all going to take some pondering, but that's good. I haven't been able to fully articulate my similar resignation from the church, but some of what you've said here lies within it.

  9. We are praying for the best possible outcome tomorrow. What you write leaves us hungry for more because your honesty and insight are profoundly refreshing. God bless you Debbie. Very much love.

  10. Thank you for sharing so passionately what you stand for and what you hope to do. God bless.