Tuesday, 31 May 2016

In Defence of the Devil

When I was little, I knew that demons existed.

I also believed in Robin Hood and secret societies and Father Christmas until I was 10 years old, when I sat my parents down and very seriously asked them whether or not he really did come down the chimney.

Demons, though; they were different. I knew demons existed because every Sunday I went to church where we sang about Jesus and long-skirted women waved flags and then a different man would get up and exhort us for an hour from behind a lectern – if we were lucky with shouting and fist-banging or maybe even crying. Some people didn't like it when the men shouted, but I thought it was exciting. The men all believed in demons. Nobody mentioned them much outside of those hour-long slots; certainly nobody claimed to cast any out, or suffer from an infestation. But demons were to be taken seriously, as was everything the Bible talked about. No one ever spoke about Father Christmas like they did about demons.

The devil was also mentioned, quite a lot in fact, and people did talk about him outside the sermons. The devil was responsible for most of what went wrong in the world; natural disasters, laws we didn't like getting passed, the elder who had an affair with a married woman. The devil was the one who tempted you by trailing sticky, tantalising thoughts through your brain to lead you off the path of righteousness; the one who thrust that red hot poker of rage into your ribcage so you wanted to swear at your brother; the one who trickled warm, dizzying excitement down your spine when you saw that hot actress on TV. The devil was real, personal and right up in your face, panting sizzling smoke into your lungs to get you hooked. The easiest way to get rid of him was to tell him to get lost in Jesus' name. I did a lot of that as a kid; even more as a teenager (admittedly, sometimes after a lengthy hesitation while I sampled the delicious temptations on display).

I've grown up a lot since then. I go to a different church where no one shouts and flag-waving is strictly prohibited. No one talks about the devil in this church. No one talks about demons much either, or temptation, and the 's' word is pretty much banned.

A few weeks ago, I went to the pub with my friend from church, Straight Claire. Straight Claire is the opposite of me in pretty much every way: she's a petite, blonde, hippy-shaped vegan, with two teenagers and a penchant for grey-haired men. Claire came to faith through her kids, a thirty-something Buddhist artist with a contemplative soul and a shitload of incense sticks. Straight Claire thinks almost everything I think is completely nuts, and I return the compliment. That's what makes drinking pints with her so excellent; we spend hours investigating the others' preposterous theological ideas, while I drown my incredulity with Cornish fish-gut ale and she rescues drowning flies from her vegan lager.

Straight Claire, when I first mentioned the devil in passing, literally laughed out loud and then stopped halfway through because she realised I was serious. "The devil?" she groaned. "You seriously believe in the devil?" She did a little half-hop pitchfork dance with pokey-up finger horns. "Tail, hooves, hellfire?"

I had to laugh at that. Even my hellfire-preaching fundamentalist church back home didn't believe the devil came in a red catsuit with cloven heels. But yes. Yes, the devil.

The devil's got real unpopular recently. Now society's all grown up and worked out how to use penicillin, we've got no use for myths like Satan. We know that if you practice for 10, 000 hours, you too can play like Robert Johnson, no soul-selling required. Even the church ducks its head apologetically at his mention, and mutters about medieval symbols and ancient cultural superstitions and the language of divine accommodation.

I've got no problem with divine accommodation: the idea that God communicates with us through the Bible as an adult to a small child, using simplistic concepts to communicate complex realities. I don't read the Bible literally; I'm with Calvin on this (if nothing else).

What fascinates me is that even though we acknowledge that spiritual reality is complex, far beyond our finite human comprehension, even though we read Biblical texts aware of their mythological purpose and the necessity of invoking simple imagery to give readers a handle on an incomprehensible spiritual dimension, we then stretch and say, "But obviously all that devil stuff was back then for those ignorant human societies. Now we've got combustion engines and can split the atom, we know the devil was just a metaphor for forces beyond human control." As if, now we can describe precisely what it looks like at a cellular level when cancer swarms your body and eats it alive from the inside, we have got a handle on all the perennial metaphysical agony humanity has wrestled with for years.

I don't know if the devil is real, in the sense of a dancing pitchforked hysterical twisted angel, screwing up every bit of good he can get his hooves on. I don't know if he's an impersonal force, the inevitable shadow side of creation. I do know what evil tastes like, when it brushes up against you and leaves a metallic sting of blood in your mouth. I know what it feels like to have depression suffocate you like a thick black fog of violence, so your own wrist twists the knife blade towards you against your will. I know what it feels like to slump against a brick wall, sluggish under the weight of living death, while Jesus screams in your ear, "Fight! Fight for your life!"

Does it feel better if you imagine the devil isn't real? Not really. On the days I lay shattered, twisted and cramped in the bottom of a deep, deep canyon of despair, it felt easier to see the devil dancing round me. The slurs ripping from his lips were then the cursing of hell. The blood-soaked thoughts seeping behind my eyes were the devil's work, not mine. All the violence, all the agony, all the cloud were Satan's work, the fumes of hell, not me, not my soul, not my mind. The depression was a battle to be fought, between the forces of light - me, a child of God, made in the image of Love, formed by a deliberate Creator - and the forces of darkness: something outside, external, a parasite trying to take me over. I was not the darkness. The darkness was someone else.

I don't think we've grown up much, in the past few hundred years. Sure, we can blow shit up. We can prolong the dying. We can make dazzling colours and lightning conversation and fly to the moon and back. But we don't know a damn thing more - if you'll excuse the pun - about evil. If anything, we've sanitised ourselves so much that we know less. The evil we know (here in the west) comes to us through television screens, hyped up and retold by film makers or sprayed with objectivity and recited by newsreaders. But you can't stop it. Now and again it rears its ugly head, like the parasite it is. Now and again the devil dances through our streets and leaves a hanging teenage boy or a battered child in his wake.

It strikes me as breathtakingly arrogant to assume that we have achieved such spiritual and emotional virtuosity as an entire generation that we no longer need any simple images to understand evil. That we, a nation who still drop bombs on delicate, middle-eastern villages, who stare straight in the face of terror-wracked refugee children and refuse them shelter, who spin webs of political deceit to avoid facing our mistakes, have fathomed the essence of good and evil beyond any of our predecessors. Are we really so advanced? It has the same ring of the accusation that faith in God is a crutch. Well sure; you're the one still stumbling around with your twisted kneecaps. At least I know I'm limping.

I'm not smart enough to know whether the devil really exists. I'm not wise enough to know what spiritual 'existence' even really means. But I know that the best way to fight against the sick evil that invades our world, that shatters children's skulls and rapes pregnant women and snaps the necks of husbands, is to declare war against it, and fight with all our breath against it when it threatens to poison our own souls too. Or in other words: to give him a name – and then tell him to get the hell out in Jesus'.

Wednesday, 25 May 2016

On Winning, Strutting, and Crowing: or how Jesus uses competitive, ambitious jerks

'This God will use you, this God will use all of you, and not just your strengths, but your failures and your failings. Your weakness is fertile ground for a forgiving God to make something new and to make something beautiful, so don't ever think that all you have to offer are your gifts.'
- Nadia Bolz-Weber, 'Accidental Saints'

Don't ever think that all you have to offer are your gifts.

Two nights ago, on our 'community night', the other members of Stithians Community House and I sat down to play Risk. One girl had only ever played it once before in her life - the week before, when I'd swept the board by my second turn, completely hammering her and our opponent, an avid Risk enthusiast, into the ground. Naturally, I had been a gracious winner - while smirking and doing a little gleeful dance. I'm very good at graciously winning.

This night, we were going to have a proper game. I'd explained to her how unlikely the previous win had been; how Risk usually drags on for three hours; how it was probably just fluke (or my incredible, unmatched talent! I added silently). This time it would be a more normal game.

It started evenly. I settled in for the long haul, tried my luck a few times, won a few, lost a few. The others took their turns, knocked off a few of my territories, lost a few battles themselves. So far so average. And then, as I counted up my reinforcements and began planning my final campaign, I realised it was going to happen again. I realised that once more, on my second turn, I was going to completely wipe the board. Now, I'd like to tell you that, knowing it was her second time playing ever, knowing that our other opponent was also competitive and wanted a chance to win, I let it slide and let the game continue. That I evened the odds and allowed the others a chance. But nope. The taste of supremacy was in my mouth! Cackling with joy and bloodlust, I gleefully destroyed my other community members, one by one.

You can probably tell from the blow-by-blow account I've given how much I relished that victory. I mean, I sent a tweet out in case the whole world hadn't noticed that I WAS THE WINNER.

The next day, a recruitment project I've been working on for the diocese came to a close, and to my absolute relish, we were hugely oversubscribed. My main focus this year has been to promote and recruit volunteers for the project lest it close, and as the emails rolled in yesterday confirming we had doubled the numbers, I felt the same sweet victorious smugness spread warmly through my limbs. "I AM THE CHAMPION!" my inner dancing victory-bot yelled out. "ALL HAIL ROSE, QUEEN OF MAKING THE THINGS WORK!"

Now as I've explained, I'm a terribly gracious winner, and so naturally I thanked God at this point. In fact I prayed several times over the next hour or so as I basked in my own wonderfulness. "Thank you God," I mumbled earnestly, "for making me so talented, and so good at my job. Thank you that I've done such brilliant work. I've been such a blessing to other people. I've really done the best stuff here..." Occasionally I would trail off, as one is want to do, into my own thoughts, remembering past triumphs and basking in the distant light of those also. I really am excellent at doing the things.

It wasn't until perhaps forty five minutes of this fairly continuous self-congratulatory spewage that, mid-prayer, God tapped me on the forehead and pointed out that my prayer was 10% God-related, 90% ego-masturbation. And how maybe 'thank you God for how amazing I am at everything' isn't a terribly honest prayer.

*   *   *

In case you hadn't noticed, I'm quite competitive. In fact, I'm a potent combination of competitiveness, ambition and perfectionism. The Belbin team-roles I automatically gravitate to are monitor evaluator, which means I am continuously analysing current activities and critiquing them for constant improvement, and shaper, which means I am super-focused on getting to the goal and conquering everything in my our path. I want to win, I want a perfect win, and when I do win, the sheer pleasure rolls through my body like a warm syrup, leaving glistening crystals of sugar satisfaction in its wake.

The trouble is, 'winning' doesn't just mean doing a good job; it means someone else losing. In order to be the best, someone has to be worse. And the Kingdom we live in, as disciples of Christ, is weighted to exactly the opposite attitude.

In Mark 10, James and John ('Sons of Thunder!'*) sneak up to Jesus while the other disciples are busy, and ask him to make them his Deputy Emperors after the revolution, over the rest of his subjects. Jesus, mind worryingly full of the excruciating torture awaiting him, tells them flatly, "You don't know what you're asking. Can you drink the cup I drink, or be baptised with the baptism with which I am baptised?" "We can," they state, and we can imagine their eyes firm and confident, their strong hands resting on their swords, ready to plunge them into the nearest Roman breast in the upcoming battle. "You will," he promises, "but the positions of honour are not mine to grant."

Naturally, the other disciples get wind of this and completely lose their tempers at the prospect of having to bow down and serve James and John when they've spent just as much time with Jesus, sacrificed just as many luxuries, suffered just as many hardships. So Jesus, the weight of the crucifixion still crushing his thoughts, has to wade in and break up the bickering, laying down the realities before them. How he must have wished they'd understand. Here it is, the cross looming over him, death imminent, and his closest friends still think that 'glory' means thrones and gold and dancing girls. "No!" he says, exasperated. "You're thinking backwards. The gentile rulers lord it over their subjects, throwing their authority around. But it's not like that here. Not with us. With us, whoever is the leader is the servant. Whoever wants to be at the top, he'll find it in the dust at the bottom. This is what I have come for: not to have my every need waited upon by others, but to sweat and bleed to grant the needs of the many."

The Bible doesn't record the disciples' response. We don't know whether it sank it then, whether they began to realise at that point that the suffering servanthood of Christ really was opposite to the world they lived in. For me, I still can't wrap my head around this. It still tastes utterly counter-cultural and, to be honest, a bit sour.

What makes you a lord, in this world? Your subjects. You're not a ruler unless you have people to rule - and the more people, the more important a ruler you are. What makes you a lord, in Jesus' kingdom? Your subjects. You are there to serve the people. The more people you lead, the more people you owe servanthood to. The more you are slave to the needs of the many.

What if being the 'best' isn't about exercising your superior skill? 

What if being the best means going at the pace of the slowest? What if your role as the best at something is to help, support, encourage and nurture the skills of those who are least able? 

What if, instead of showing how quickly and completely I could win at Risk, I'd spent my efforts enabling the game of the worst player? If I'd spent my time helping the least good player get better, in a few games' time we'd all be more equally matched. And that's gonna make for a much better game! What if instead of basking in my own brilliance in my role for this project, I focused on the project itself, and put my efforts towards helping all those involved benefit as deeply as possible?

What if instead of thinking of myself, I channel all that drive and energy of my own ambition into the whole group of those I instinctively compete with, so that we all improve our game, all get closer to God, and all get better experience?

*   *   *

The trouble with needing to be the best is that when you're not good at something, you write it off completely. You start valuing what you can achieve over who you are and you rate your personality traits in order of 'great' to 'rubbish'. But as Nadia Bolz-Weber writes in the above quote, our weakness is fertile ground for God. Our 'soft' areas are places where grace can flourish, where we don't storm in and slide behind the steering wheel saying, "It's okay God. I got this." We have to throw our hands in the air and cry, "God, if you don't work in this, nothing's going to work!" We have to rely on others, make space for others, operate as a body.

It looks like praying before a sermon for God to use the words I don't say as much as the ones I do. It looks like asking for people who meet me to have an encounter with God, even if that happens by them noticing me getting it wrong. It looks like acknowledging to someone I don't like, "I can't do this. I need your help." Those places are the fertile ground for forgiveness, for being vulnerable, for learning to trust others. Those are the places unity takes root.

Lord, may I grow by shrinking. Would you channel that powerful drive to succeed towards the good of others; and would you help me to value the small, weak, and pathetic parts of myself and others as the beautiful humanity they are. Thank you for bearing with me, little strutting cockerel that I sometimes am. Amen.

* Does anyone else really hope Jesus gave them that nickname because they farted so much?