Thursday, 22 May 2014

Thoughts on the Desert

My favourite Bible passages are, and have always been, passages about the desert. When I was in uni, I stuck up twenty sheets of A4 on my tiny bedroom wall and scrawled across them the text from Hebrews 11:32-8: 

'And what more shall I say? For time would fail me to tell of Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, of David and Samuel and the prophets - who through faith conquered kingdoms, enforced justice, obtained promises, stopped the mouths of lions, quenched the power of fire, escaped the edge of the sword, were made strong out of weakness, became mighty in war, put foreign armies to flight... They went about in skins of sheep and goats, destitute, afflicted, mistreated - of whom the world was not worthy - wandering about in deserts and mountains, and in dens and caves of the earth.' 

'Of whom the world was not worthy'! Doesn't it get your blood racing? I love that image of prophets and wayfarers, roaming the earth as aliens and strangers, as princes of a foreign land. DL Sayers wrote my favourite poem, 'Desdichado', in which she depicted Christ as a 'bonny outlaw' and 'rascal fiddler' who roams the world, calling to his Bride, the Church, like Orpheus or a prince from a fairy tale. There's something mouthwatering about the desert, about the kind of raw, wild existence where your only security is utter dependence on Christ and there are no false comforts to hide behind. 

A few weeks ago I stayed with the Northumbria Community, a new monastic community with a retreat house near Alnmouth. Stuck in the middle of the bleak northeast, curled up beside roaring log fires with thick, chewy books pilfered from their library, I learned a bit more about the desert; its role and its riches. 

The desert is a place of acknowledged need. It is a place of thirst and hunger, a place of extreme heat and extreme cold. It is a place where your dependence on God is brought to the forefront. The desert fathers chose it as a place of solitude - a time for the heart to be alone with God. A place to face and fight your inner demons (as in the monastic refrain, 'your cell will teach you everything'). A year ago, I sensed God telling me that he was leading me into a year of drought. A few months later, everything fell apart. Does that sound dramatic? It felt dramatic. Things I had counted on for security were taken away, and in their stead a whole raft of changes blew in. I became depressed, and in trying to deal with some of the challenges that threw up, came face to face with a whole host of inner demons. Part of this year has been learning how to embrace celibacy - and so much of that feels like a desert.

Here in this place of depression and desert I am in a place of loss - a place of grief and anguish. It's a place where I am alone with my heart - with all its pains and longings and weaknesses and fallibilities, stripped of falsehoods and deceptions which comfort and self-satisfaction provide. I am in a place of extremes: extreme cold - the absence of the warmth love and partnership bring, of embrace; and of scorching heat - the heat of anger, rage towards myself, the church, and perceived injustices. There is no shelter behind which to hide from these extremes. Here in the desert I am left bare before them. 

But as I stood in the barren, bare, windswept fields in northumbria, watching the thick mist roll, I found myself thanking God for the desert. Thanking him for the insight it provided, the opportunity to rinse my soul, to uncover wounds and perceptions which fogged my faith. In reply, he told me there were more riches to be found in the desert; and to enjoy it. 

Before you start worrying I'm going all dark ages and self-flagellating on you, I don't mean 'enjoy' as we commonly use it, but meaning literally 'to find joy in' the desert. The more I walk with God, the more I realise the link between suffering and joy. 'The crown of suffering is joy' keeps floating through my head, and I think it's true. "We have left everything for you!" exclaimed Peter to Jesus in Matthew 19, and Jesus replied, "Everyone who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or children or lands, for my name's sake, will receive a hundredfold and will inherit eternal life.' It's not just that God blesses us; suffering increases our capacity for joy. We train our souls to let go of the foolish, filthy toys of this world, and in doing so open our hands to receive the solid, true riches of God. "Indeed," wrote CS Lewis, "if we consider the unblushing promises of reward and the staggering nature of the rewards promised in the Gospels, it would seem that Our Lord finds our desires not too strong, but too weak. We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased." 

It's not fun in the desert. There is altogether too much pain for that. But I pray that as I continue to journey deeper into this drought, that it would be a journey deeper also into God's heart; that my eyes would be opened to new joys, new riches and new loves; and I would hear DL Sayer's bonny outlaw Christ singing, 

"Lady, lady, will you come away with me? Was never man lived longer for the hoarding of his breath; Here be dragons to be slain, here be rich rewards to gain... If we perish in the seeking, ...why, how small a thing is death!"

Finding a Voice

I spent this weekend with Diverse Church, a wonderful group of genuinely inspiring young evangelical LGBT+ Christians. It was the first gathering of the group, which has existed mainly online up to now, and there was an electricity in the air, a fizzling sense that this was the beginning of something exciting, something transformative.

On the Saturday afternoon we joined the Two:23 Network for a time of worship and a talk from Dr Kristin Aune, a feminist academic and the author of Reclaiming the F Word. She spoke vividly and engagingly on modern feminism and the evolution of the movement from its 60s roots to its twenty-first century incarnation. It was fascinating to hear how modern feminists define themselves, the issues they engage with and perhaps more pertinently, the issues they do not. One shocking statistic revealed that 75% of those affected by austerity cuts in Britain are female. It was good to see a group focused on combatting one particular form of oppression - that of the LGBT community - engage with other forms, looking beyond their own boundaries to the issues of gender inequality.

But the most significant event of the day, for me, was what happened next. The chapter of St Paul's Cathedral invited members of Diverse Church to come and share our stories with them. In we trooped, a ragamuffin gang of mostly twenty-somethings, down cool stone corridors through to a room below the sanctuary. We met with the Canon Pastor Tricia Hillas and the Canon Chancellor Mark Oakley, who came out at Greenbelt last year, and shared briefly some of his own experiences with us. We, in turn, shared some of our stories with them.

How can I describe the feeling? There we sat, in one of the most historic, significant cathedrals in the country, a symbol of the authority and establishment of the Church of England - and spoke, finally, as if breaking a long, suffering silence, of our experiences, our story. It felt as if, after decades of being silenced - by fear, by suppression, by the church's stonewalled response - we had finally found a voice. And the Church, finally, finally, was listening.

As I sat, listening to friends talk of being ostracised, of being removed from ministry and service, of being openly ridiculed and abused, I felt a quiet swell of pride within me. Because in the midst of all the pain and confusion and grief there was hope - a small, sweet ray of hope which couldn't quite be extinguished. Despite all the rejection they face, the scorn and assumptions of church leaders, the closed off response of the families they love - they're still here. These guys are still in church, still battling to hold onto their faith, still fighting to love their fellow church members. Isn't that beautiful? Isn't that a stunning example of grace, of the triumph of love over discord? Some of these young people had been removed from their home groups, banned from ministry and told they had no place in the church, and yet they still attended. Some of them had parents who regularly told them to not to look 'so gay', to be more heterosexual in appearance and manner, to hide their orientation for the sake of their parents' ministry; some had experienced kinds of forced 'deliverance' of the 'spirit of homosexuality'. These were people who were experiencing rejection by Christian friends and family they had grown up with on a daily basis. "I'm terrified of losing my faith," one guy said. "The church is all I've got." And yet in spite of all this opposition, these people were holding onto God with everything within them, fighting to keep coming to church, fighting to keep loving the very people who were rejecting them. Is there anything more Jesus-like?

I really believe that the gay community has something to offer the church beyond diversity. I believe that at the moment, LGBT Christians have an amazing opportunity to witness to our brothers and sisters by our lives. We have the opportunity to show grace and how powerful forgiveness and the love of Christ can be. 'They shall know you by your love for one another,' Jesus said in John 13:35, but too often Christians are known for our infighting and bickering instead. Wouldn't it be a beautiful thing if what we remembered from this issue isn't the churches splitting over it, the friendships broken and the Body of Christ torn apart, but how we met each other from across a great divide, carrying our wounds and our prejudices, and embraced? We are one body. We all share in the one spirit. Christ died for all of us, and it is only by his blood we may share in his kingdom at all. What are we doing, vilifying our brothers and sisters as if they were opponents in a battlefield? It is the favourite trick of satan to distract the Church from her true calling by sowing discord. Let's not submit to the illusion, but 'walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit.'

We don't have to agree - but let's disagree in love.