And now for something completely different. Let’s leave liturgy aside until next week, and consider instead the subject of hanging on to God in grim times (#godingrimtimes). At the moment my life is in a bit of a mess, if I’m honest. I’ll spare you the details, but the past few months have seen me bullied out of a parish to the point where I could go on no longer, then being diagnose with cancer, and a lot of other stuff you don’t need to know about. So what is a Christian to do? I’ve written a book on the subject, which is due out next year, but I thought it might be helpful to share a few insights as to how I have managed still to believe in and love God when just about everything in my life has crumbled. I know there are a lot of hurting people out there, but it does seem to me to make it harder when you’re supposed to follow a God who can work miracles, who loves you and is supposed to be for you. All I can offer are a few hints as to what is getting me through the night.
I’m very aware, of course, that all this could come over unbearably twee and nice. I have no idea, dear reader, what you are going through at the moment, and I’m sure it could be even worse than my situation. I have been through the stage of finding all the pat Christian answers unconvincing, but somehow I have come back to the point of hanging on to God. So let me tell you some of the stuff which has helped me, and maybe you can come back to me and tell me if it has helped you or not.
The first thing to say, and you won’t like this any more than I do, is that real though it is your pain is relative. A few years ago a friend and I wrote a Grove Book called ‘Hanging on to God’. We were a pair of charismatic Christians who were going through hard times, and we wrote up a series of dialogues we had had trying to make some sense of it all. At the time I was reflecting on a period of joblessness, almost homelessness, and what seemed like utter rejection and abandonment by God. My friend had just lost his wife in the most cruel way to MS. I acknowledge in the book that I felt unworthy even to be bound within the same covers as him: what was my temporary unemployment compared to the tragic death of your wife? Yet the fact is that suffering is unique and personal, and doesn’t hurt any the less because someone else’s suffering is worse or different. But what I have found is that it can be a good discipline to find things, even from the depths, for which to thank God.
Tomorrow I will be journeying back to the church of which I was vicar in the 90s to the funeral of my successor, who dropped dead of a heart attack. I may have been diagnosed with cancer (everyone’s worst nightmare), but at least I’m getting over it. John’s life ended just like that, in a moment. I may face homelessness, but millions around the world live their entire lives like that, including many in my own country. On one level that doesn’t help me, but it is useful exercise to look for items for praise. It keeps the cynicism wolf from the door.
More tips next week!