Back in 1975 when I was part of the ‘Para-Church’ movement, we were led by a new testament scholar by the name of Athol Gill. Athol had come to Melbourne from Brisbane and I was part of setting up a Christian community with him and a group of Christians from Melbourne and Brisbane.
As part of our training Athol told us his story. He said ‘As a New Testament scholar I was very used to the idea of ‘God’ and ‘Christ’ but I did not often think about the person of Jesus, and what it meant to be a follower of his. When I turned about 50 it came to me that the very simple thing of ‘following Jesus’ was important. This is the kind of deepening of faith that happens from time to time in the Christian walk.
Something like this has happened in my walk recently.
You know we blithely sing the hymn ‘Oh Breath of God’, but the words are very dangerous to sing. They go ‘Oh breath of God come bend come break us, till humbly we confess our need, then in your tenderness remake us revive, restore for this we plead.’
So the first step in a deepening of relationship with God is the one of the bending and the breaking. Perhaps it has been the trials and tribulations of the first two years that we have spent here, but now that we have some moments of rest, I feel as if I have been ‘broken open.’
The process starts to make itself apparent in thought rather than in emotions. I remember preaching a few times about Cardinal Newman’s hymn ‘Lead Kindly Light’ where he prays
‘I was not ever thus, nor prayed that thou shouldst lead me on, I loved to choose, and see my path; but now lead thou me on.’
In the face of conflict, my constant companion is self doubt. ‘What if all the people who are sending these e.mails condemning me and the project that we have undertaken are right?’ In the end, I have to give up wondering if we are right or not and simply say ‘lead thou me on’.
Then, the other day at morning prayer, I was reading the story of the healing of the Garadene Demoniac. Perhaps because of the state of being ‘bent and broken’ I actually felt like the wild man, raging away, with people around trying to chain me up, but with no success, but at the same time pushing me out into the tombs to live.
The Gospel of Mark is really about demonstrating the arrival of the reign of God in Jesus through the fact that he is the ‘stronger one’ who binds Satan, and can deliver us ‘clothed and in our right mind.’ All of a sudden it came to me ‘Yes, Jesus really is the ‘stronger one’.
I have read Mark’s Gospel numerous times, but when the right time comes, in the Spirit, something about the text jumps out, and there it is. When I am weak Jesus presents himself as ‘the stronger one’ on whom I can, and must rely.’
As a result, I have arranged on my prayer desk a number of prayers and texts to remind me of this. One is St. Paul’s text ‘My strength is made perfect in weakness’ and the other is Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s prayer that he wrote at Christmas 1943, when he was in Tegel prison. It goes
“O God, early in the morning
I cry to you.
Help me to pray
and gather my thoughts to you,
I cannot do it alone.
In me it is dark,
but with you there is light;
I am lonely,
but you do not desert me;
My courage fails me,
but with you there is help;
I am restless,
but with you there is peace;
in me there is bitterness,
but with you there is patience;
I do not understand your ways,
but you know the way for me.
It is as if the reality of God in Jesus, the one who died for me, really me, is a little more real, and that when I hurt other people it is really him whom I am turning away from or hurting.
This kind of closer walk with God is not easy. It takes the breaking of the difficult times and the darkness of not knowing where the ‘right’ lies, and the painful knowledge that in my own pain I have hurt others . I am reminded of the power that the idols that I worship have over me, and so acknowledge with the verse of the hymn
‘The dearest idol I have known, whate’er that idol be,
help me to tear it from thy throne
and worship only thee.
I understand the power that the idols can have, but I do not think that I have ‘torn it from its throne’. Rather the
feeling at this time for me is one that directs my focus more on Jesus as the one who loves me, who is ‘the stronger one’ and the one who really has my best interests at heart.
When I was working as a chaplain in the Youth Prison, those working with the ‘boys’ had an account of what was going on with them. Because the ‘boys’ found it difficult to succeed in the world where ‘being good’ delivered benefits, then it was easier to identify with ‘being bad’. At least there was some company and identifying with ‘satan’ meant that there was a certain amount of excitement in
transgressing the normal laws of polite society.
Growing out of delinquency meant growing into the sense that ‘my girlfriends grandma likes me’ and that my girlfriend says ‘If you get locked up again I’m leaving’. The transformation of these boys meant a challenging of their identification with being a ‘transgressor’.
This is what it feels like for me too. At some place there is a ‘tape loop’ that plays that is challenged by success. Like the song says ‘I’m feelin’ too good today, I’ve got the blues’ If one is used to feeling ‘blue’ then the challenge is to stop believing on one’s own badness and to begin believing in one’s own beloved-ness. That is in some ways more difficult. But the bending and breaking that is going on is it seems a process of being
‘agnostic’ about myself, and learning to trust in the ‘stronger one’ who loves me, rather than to slip back into the familiar pattern of believing myself to be the ‘problem child’. That is the idol that is worshipped rather than God. On the ‘throne’ is the description of me as ‘problematic’. This idol needs to be deposed by the ‘one who loved me and gave himself up for me.’
So there you go. All things work together for good for those who love God.