Sunday, 27 September 2015

A Thousand Lives

Every now and then, an article pops up on my Newsfeed that has a title that goes something a long the lines of "15 Things Only Sisters Can Understand", or "24 Things Only Dog Lovers Can Understand", or "83 Things Only Software Developers Can Understand." These articles annoy me no end. Not because I can't see the humour in listing things that are unique to a certain niche experience, or because I'm against the "Aren't Sisters/ Dogs/ Software Developments great!?" sentiment that I assume lies behind them. 

They annoy me because their title assumes that we live in a world without empathy;  that it is impossible to understand something that is outside your direct remit of experience. This is, of course, nonsense. If we're going to live in a world where we can only understand people who are just like us, then we may as well give up now.

Empathy is the ability to be aware of, understand and share the feelings of others from within their frame of reference. 

It's the basis of friendship, of compassion, of a diverse and kind society.

It's also one of the things that is most awesome about reading.

Unsurprisingly, this sentence is one of those most well-known in literature: "you never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view- until you climb inside of his skin and walk around in it." Not only does Atticus make a profound point about human relationships, but he nails what it is- or much of what it should be- to read fiction. 

When you read you are in the process of climbing inside of someone else's skin, and seeing life from their point of view. It scares me that reading is less popular than it was- not as much because I care about literacy as because I care about empathy.

There's such beauty in the capacity to pick up a book, and immerse yourself in another person's world, another person's frame of reference.

George R.R. Martin (author of a series called "Game of Thrones" - you heard about it here first #not...) put it, "the reader lives a thousand lives; the man who never reads lives only one." And it's true. For example, I don't know what it is to be someone's second wife, but as I read Rebecca, I glimpse what it might mean to wrestle with the weight of jealousy, fear and desperation that might threaten and swell in the weeks following marriage. I will never know what it is to be an African tribesman, facing the deterioration of everything precious and sacred about my culture and my person, but as I read Things Fall Apart, I begin to feel the anguish of a life, a worldview, a heritage torn apart. I am not a middle aged man, and I hope I never have an affair- but as I read Stoner, I could feel its compelling attraction for a man whose quiet, dutiful life was frustrated by lovelessness, by rivalry, by isolation. 

I want to read because I want to know what it is to live a life that is not my own. My life experience is narrow, and reading lets me see and feel life from the perspective of those with a different set of assumptions, weaknesses, privileges...

Reading allows us to live a thousand lives, to see, as C.S. Lewis puts it, "with a myriad of eyes", to "become a thousand men"- and yet remain ourselves. But while I remain myself, I don't remain unchanged. Literature lets me be shaped by experiences and feelings and motivations and bitternesses that are not currently- and may never be my own. But I'm better equipped to love for having felt them as I read.  

Reading teaches me to empathise. 

And what's awesome about empathising is that it's very like Jesus. 

But Jesus empathises with humanity in a uniquely gritty, uniquely real, and uniquely glorious way. The carol encapsulates the wonder so beautifully: lo, he abhors not the Virgin's womb! The Lord of glory doesn't despise our lowly frame of reference.Though he is in very nature God, he doesn't run from, reject or revolt against becoming one of us. 

From the womb to the grave we have a Saviour who empathises; who sees things from our point of view. He identifies with our weaknesses, our heartaches, our motivations. This is glorious. Jesus has taken on our skin, walked round in its weakness, and died to pay for its inadequacies. He identifies. He sympathises. He understands. He has felt as we have felt. And because from that place of weakness, he does not sin- he secures our salvation.

Christ took on a frame of reference that was not his own. And I want to be like him. And reading fiction is just one small thing that, I think, helps me do this.

Reading. Jesus. Get involved.

Thursday, 24 September 2015

Worst Case Scenario

Dread and I have been hanging out a lot more than I'd like recently. He's an aggressive sort; intrusive and verbose and takes far too much pleasure in rearing his dismal head. I'll be getting on with life- doing my work, chatting with friends, reading the Bible, going for a run, watching a film, searching for my iPhone... and then suddenly, Dread shows up.

Dread lays himself heavy on my heart and starts to choke out hope.

Dread tells me that the worst case scenario is going to happen. Dread says, "all those fears you've battled, all those disasters you've assured yourself probably won't come to pass, all those eventualities you've squirmed against and put off and (slightly desperately) insisted would ever happen- they're going to happen."

Dread tells me I've been right at my most despairing, that my negative predictions for the future were entirely justified (if a little rosy) and that the best thing for me to do is to stop doing whatever I have been doing immediately, climb in to some metaphorical (or literal) hole in the ground, and surrender to the flood of panic, despair and gloom.

Today I've been thinking about a Bible verse that looks Dread right in the face. It says, "ok- let's go there. Worst case scenario. Let's look at a future where the earth has given way, the mountains are completely submerged in the sea, where the mountains tremble at the threat of all those things we've always feared. Let's look at things when they are that bad. And then, let's not fear."


Because God is our refuge and our strength, our well-proved help in trouble.

It doesn't say: we won't fear, because the mountains won't fall! God won't let them! God won't let me face a future with X or without Y- surely it won't ever get that bad! It's all going to be fine, so we're not afraid!

Instead, it says: even if the mountains do fall from their place of might, even if they are swallowed whole by a ravenous, merciless ocean... even so, we will not fear- because God will still be there. Our well-proved help in trouble- the One who was faced our darkest hour in our place, will be with us still- there amongst the rubble of the mountains; his covenant of love utterly steadfast. Even in the direst of circumstances, even if what you dread most comes to pass, we won't fear, because there God will be our strength, our refuge, our help.

Recently I've found looking to the future fills me with fear. Sometimes it can feel pretty bleak.

But when Dread next shows up, I might point him in the direction of these verses.

Worst case scenario?  Even so, I will not fear.

"God is our refuge and our strength, 
our well proved help in trouble. 
Therefore, we will not fear though 
the earth gives way, 
though the mountains be moved in to 
the heart of the sea, 
though its waters roar and foam, 
though the mountains tremble at 
its swelling." 
Psalm 46:1-2 

For the mountains may depart, 
and the hills be removed,
but my steadfast love shall not depart from you,
and my covenant of peace shall not be removed.
Isaiah 54:10

Sunday, 20 September 2015

A Bold (and Broken) Approach

I like what people say to Jesus in the gospels.

Perplexed questions like, "Don't you care?" (Luke 10:40) and, "why have you treated us so?" (Luke 2:48) Statements pregnant with meaning, heavy with years of rejection and sin and damage and battle and scars like, "I have no husband," (John 4:17) and "my daughter is severely oppressed." (Matthew 15:22)  Desperate cries of, "have mercy!" (Matthew 15:22) and disappointed sobs of "if you had been here, my brother would not have died." (John 11:32) Those in straightforwardly awkward situations who said, "they have no wine," (John 2:3) to those whose words betrayed hurt and doubt: "Lord, by this time there will be an odor, for he has been dead for four days," (John 11:39). 

I like that the things they say to Him are recorded.

They're not neat, measured theological statements. They've not been systematically processed, neatly packaged and respectfully presented. They're full of truth- but not neat truth, removed from the realities of life under the scathing sun. When they speak to Jesus, their words are heavy with what human experience is really like. They express the complexities of existence in a broken - and often brutal- world, of circumstances that are breakers crashing relentlessly over those who speak. These words are not fancy- and often they are filled with fear, confusion, doubt and anguish. They're raw. They're honest. And they're spoken directly to Jesus.

I like that that's how these individuals go to Jesus.

And I like that Jesus can take it. He listens and (in his time- Matthew 15!) he responds and he doesn't condemn and he doesn't turn them away. He is compassionate and patient and perceptive ... and he doesn't turn them away.

For me, this has been a week without neat theological answers. A week more characterised by fear and desperation than by peace and fullness. It's been a week where, if I am to go to Jesus- I must go messy, frustrated, broken and honest in a way I trust he can cope with.

Sometimes we approach the throne bold. This week I've approached more like the woman in Mark 5:

"She came in fear and trembling and fell down before him and told him the whole truth."(Mark 5:33)

And this week, the Bible says, Jesus has heard my cries.

Tuesday, 8 September 2015

Visit to a Refugee Camp, circa 1995.

When I was ten I visited a refugee camp.

In fact, I visited a few. But this time, I was especially nervous. Perhaps because my parents were nervous and I'd picked up on it in the way that children do.  Although they'd worked in the camps since leaving Rwanda the preceding year, today we were driving across miles of savannah to visit close friends in another, accompanied by an armed guard- there to protect us from the notorious bandits that occupied the intervening miles.

But the preceding months had been heavy with tension and fear anyway. 

Their weight had descended almost immediately; we knew the President's death would mean war.

My memories of our last few days in Rwanda- the days following- run into one another. There was eerie - almost suffocating - quiet, there were odd- an increasing- snapshots of desperate fear: a frenzied sprint through the garden with an unfamiliar and disturbing urgency; a grown man cowering in the darkness of our spare room- trembling, humiliated by fear, at the feet of this nine-year old child- his eyes brimmed with a plea for mercy. There were houses burning ominously on the horizon, nights of sleeping away from home for safety; anxious discussions with other families; unfamiliar sounds; gunshots; tangible, oppressive tension. There were the haunting cries of mourning echoing around the valley in the mornings after desperate, brutal nights; there were death threats, reports of incomprehensible violence. There was the burden of impossible decisions. 

Then there was the tension of our leaving- the uneasy obligation of our privilege: the Embassy had spoken- Brits should leave. There was the rush, the pressure, the urgency that made making decisions about what to take utterly futile. There was the tension of the drive through checkpoints, the Union Jack taped to our windscreen as our refuge; threatening soldiers and oppressive trepidation; fear for our lives and those of others; misery- that we were able to leave when so many we loved had no choice but to stay- until they had no choice but to go.

And then there was the tension of having left. There was the tension of friends left behind. The survivors' guilt. What had happened? Should we have left when others had to stay? The news showed streams of refugees, reported countless deaths. But what about the individuals? What about families? People we'd known and loved and trusted? What did the future hold for them? 

By the time I was making the journey to this camp we'd had almost a year of the tension and uncertainty. We'd assumed our closest friends dead. But news had come that they'd made it to a refugee camp. Somehow, we'd found them. And we were on our way to see them. 

My first sighting of the refugee camp was overwhelming. Suddenly, the vast East African horizon was punctuated with endless blotches of unnatural blue. Dirt brown hillside was suddenly a sea of UNHCR sheeting. As far as the eye could see there were tents. Thousands and thousands of families, united by their obligation to escape. Each tent contained its own stories of desperation, of fear, or loss. 

I don't know how we found our friends' tent. But when we got there they welcomed us in; there were smiles, laughter, warmth. We sat on the floor of their makeshift home- nothing more than sheeting and straw, and at their absolute insistence, ate their food. In the camps they had daily rations- but they'd saved theirs up so they could host us. This family had lost loved family members and countless friends on the journey- carrying any remaining possessions in their own hands, they'd survived a horrific genocide- but they'd gone to their neighbours and collected spoons, so that there'd be enough for us all to eat their food, the way Europeans did. They welcomed us with warmth and love and kindness, and I learnt more about hospitality that day than I have in the twenty years since. 

We stayed for a while.

But then we left. We got back in to the Landrover, took the three hour journey, and before long were back in our brick home. Our roofed home. We had running water, and we probably had another meal. We got in to our beds, slept under duvets, and were set for the night. 

I don't imagine our friends ate again that day. In the months since we'd seen them they'd walked for miles, in constant fear for their lives- bewildered, horrified, surrounded by incomprehensible brutality. They'd experienced betrayal and slaughter. They'd finally got to safety in a vast refugee camp of plastic sheeting and rationed handouts- and remained there until - about three years later- they were sent back home.

Current circumstances have taken my mind back to these days and the overwhelming conviction I had even as a ten year old: it wasn't- and isn't- fair. It wasn't fair that I could escape the effects of the war simply because I was born in the UK. It wasn't fair that I could leave and they couldn't. It wasn't fair that I could leave in a convoy of cars, when they left on a perilous journey by foot. It wasn't fair that their lives had been emptied, chastened, traumatised and lost- when mine was able to carry on. I was able to go back home and sleep in a bed. I was able to know where food was coming from. It was so clear to me. I remember after one day with the refugees not wanting to sleep under my duvet. I knew: I did not deserve my freedom anymore than they deserved their suffering. 

This is not a political post. But as I hear the stories of desperate refugees in the media, I feel deeply, profoundly and certainly: that could be me. There is no merit in me that means it isn't me.

And this, I think, makes a difference to compassion. 
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