Extracts from Chapter 16
“You need to tell [people] what Jesus has come to mean to you in the midst of your disappointments and losses.” (From the novel “Chasing Francis” by Ian Morgan Cron)
The pain and bitterness arising from being excluded from TESS and seeing the vision lost overwhelmed me at times and felt too painful to cope with, although I could sometimes push it to the back of my mind when I was busy with other things. But then something would happen which brought it all to the surface again. Having had a breakdown in 2000 and been on medication ever since, the problems with TESS often threatened to push me over the edge again, which was quite frightening. And I had become spiritually ‘inert’ and out of touch with God.
Various things ‘came together’ in the second half of 2016. A university friend challenged me about why I had given up painting since the breakdown. “Is it to do with a fear of failing?” I realised he was spot on! Feeling that I had failed, in many of the things I committed myself to do in Teso, was very hard to cope with. At Taizé (the ecumenical, international monastic Community of Reconciliation in France), I found myself sitting in front of Rublev’s icon of the Trinity, a portrayal of the Father, Christ and Holy Spirit sitting around a table with a chalice on it and space at the front for someone (the viewer) to join them. I knew I couldn’t accept the invitation to join them at the table – I feared the intimacy.
When I was back in Teso a few weeks later, I spent time with a close friend who told me how he had lost his job because of a mistake he made – and how it had brought him back to God as he spent time in prayer and fasting and Bible reading, leading to repentance and confession. He continued to share his experiences with me (by email) of ‘death’ and being ‘in the tomb’, leading to resurrection and a new and intimate relationship with God, which I envied. But then his experience challenged me and led me to re-evaluate my own relationship with God.
I needed to deal with letting go of all the bitterness, anger and resentment I felt towards certain people because of what had happened with TESS and to forgive those who had hurt me deeply over the past ten years. They didn’t need to admit what they had done and apologise before I forgave them. Feeling bitter towards them was my problem, not theirs, which I needed to let go of. I realised God had already forgiven me and was just waiting for me to recognise and accept this so that I could experience reconciliation. In turn, I needed to forgive those who had hurt me, or hurt TESS and Shalom School. As Jesus said on the cross, “Father, forgive them for they don’t know what they are doing”. It was my responsibility to say those words, with meaning from the depth of my heart, without first demanding any approach from them. For if God had already forgiven them, who was I to withhold forgiveness? But this was where the problem was for me! I found the idea of forgiving them impossible and knew I couldn’t do it in my own strength. I have talked to others in the past about the problems of hanging on to bitterness and resentment, and about the need to open one’s arms and let go of it so that one can hold out one’s arms in love again, as Jesus did on the cross. Now I needed to do that myself. At the same time, I needed to confess when I had hurt others, and that I had held on to the pain and bitterness for too long.
Although a bit of me (a very small part!) was looking forward to going away on my own, the biggest part of me was finding the idea very scary. Having got married and started a family straight from university, I don’t think I had ever spent more than a few hours completely on my own, without any distractions! It had been so long since I had really prayed or encountered God (not since I was in Teso before the breakdown in 2000) and I had so many feelings of failure and darkness and hopelessness that I was very apprehensive about being on my own in silence, with “nothing to do” and without all the familiar things and activities and routines around me which I had come to depend on so much more than on God. I had been lacking energy and motivation to work at my relationship with God for years – it always felt like too much effort, especially when I wasn’t aware of his presence. God no longer seemed relevant. So how would I concentrate and focus on God for long periods in the campervan, especially when I wasn’t aware of him?! What if I never felt his presence or love for me? Brother Roger of Taizé wrote, “It is up to us to keep on waiting ‘until day breaks and the morning star rises in our hearts'”. But I feared that the morning star wouldn’t rise in my heart, that I wouldn’t encounter the Lord, that I wouldn’t cope on my own, and that I would be left feeling even more of a failure. Six days of silence and being alone with nothing to distract me could be six very long days of hopelessness, darkness, loneliness and despair! However, I knew I must give God the opportunity to draw me back into his presence and start to transform me – but it was a risk.
It felt like there was a close similarity between the processes and experiences of going into hospital for a major operation and going away on my own to spend time with God! Both would entail waiting for several weeks, with mixed feelings such as anxiety, fear and apprehension. I had decided to fast for the first two days in the campervan – going without food for a couple of days would be a necessary part of both processes. Both would be painful – but the pain should lead on to healing and renewed strength. There were likely to be ups and downs, progress and set-backs, days of feeling a bit better and then feeling worse again. Both processes involve entering into the unknown and into the dark; I have to submit to them and go through them on my own – no-one else, such as Roger or friends, can do it for me or take my place. I have to be willing to surrender to the surgeon, to God and, early on in the process, let go of control and trust him to do what is necessary and best for me, to enable healing. And there would be a long ‘recovery’ process after getting home, learning to live with the renewed, transformed ‘me’.
My fears were unfounded. Although there were some difficult times, I actually enjoyed being in solitude. Verses from the Old Testament book of Hosea had come to mean a lot to me during the week, including:
I am going to draw her back
And lead her into the desert
And speak tenderly to her heart. (Hosea 2:16)
What turned out to be a very important part of the retreat were the few days I spent afterwards with Felicity, before going home. As I received the bread and wine of Communion, I offered God my experiences of failure as I accepted and received the gift of his ultimate failure, the body and blood of Jesus who died on the cross because most people never accepted his Way of Life.
On my last evening with Felicity, I wanted to ask God to bless me – and to bring me into his presence at the table, as invited in Rublev’s icon. The story of Jacob wrestling all night with an angel, or God, had been presented to me four times in the previous three weeks. Why?! Added to this, Felicity had a lovely sculpture of Jacob wrestling with God which expressed such a struggle and tension – but a determination not to give up until God blessed him.
Jacob’s story encouraged me to be bold and to persist in asking God to answer my prayer that he should bless me – so I told God I would wait all night until he did bless me! I had never dared to be so demanding before.
I sat on the floor in flickering candlelight, with Rublev’s icon and the sculpture in front of me and Felicity nearby. The icon also represented to me the home in Emmaus where two friends invited the stranger, who had been walking with them from Jerusalem, to come and eat. It wasn’t until the man broke bread that they actually recognised who he was – and understood why their hearts had been burning. It was the resurrected Jesus.
Eventually it happened. I was drawn gently into their presence to join them at the table. It wasn’t dramatic, but I was aware of peace and grace, love and mercy in the silence.
So, back to the original question – what has Jesus come to mean to me?
I do not believe Jesus said, as most Christians assume, “No-one can come to God except through me”, thereby excluding billions of faithful, saintly, religious people of all faiths and through all ages (including the Jewish people of Old Testament times) from having any sort of relationship with God! He said, “I am the Way, the Truth and Life. No-one can come to the Father except through me” (John 14:6). This is what I can now say he has come to mean, through all the disappointments and losses: Jesus is the Way for me to enter into the same intimate relationship that he himself had with God as his Father.
Jesus also said: “I will return to take you to myself, so that you may be with me where I am” (John 14:3). It is through and with Jesus Christ that we can enter into the very heart of the eternally flowing, loving relationship he has with God the Father and God the Holy Spirit (that is, within the heart of the Trinity in whose image we are made). The analogy he used of there being many places in his Father’s house to live in had always made it difficult for me to really understand and imagine what he was talking about. But now I see it is about being united with him in an intimate relationship with God as Father and Holy Spirit – for that is “where” he is. It is about being in a relationship rather than in a place. This is truly awesome!
There have only been a few special occasions in my life when I could say that I have had a conscious experience of the presence of God with me in some way, or I have felt fully alive and free. And I’m not sure I have ever really known how to explain what Jesus means to me. I have caught glimpses – and then lost sight again. It’s like the two friends of Jesus who were walking the long road back home to Emmaus after he had been crucified. They were sharing their grief, confusion and bitter disappointment together when someone joined them. This man gave them some comfort and hope as he explained what the Old Testament said about Christ being killed and then somehow being raised from the dead, but that wasn’t enough – they needed to know it was true from their own experience. It wasn’t until they were sitting at supper together, and their companion broke bread and gave thanks, that they realised he was actually Jesus himself – then he instantly disappeared. Presumably, they never ‘saw’ him again, but they rushed all the way back to Jerusalem, full of joy, to tell the rest of his friends about their experience. That is how it has been with me. I am sure Jesus has been my companion along the road, especially through family and friends, worship and the Bible, but he is almost always ‘hidden’ from me.
I have come to understand and experience more fully and deeply that Jesus was a man who lived out the truth that God has always been, and still is, intimately involved in the world, present in it, experiencing all its suffering and bringing new life. And Jesus showed us the way – the Way, as a human being, to live a full life of love, humility and service, of non-violence and forgiveness, prayerfulness, dependence on God, compassion and faithfulness in the face of rejection, failure, hatred, evil, suffering – and even death. But Jesus showed us more than just this. Followers of all the major religions also try to live in this way and worship God in a variety of ways.
I have come to see that Jesus is The Way – that suffering and death of any sort, whether through bereavement, rejection, hopelessness, shattering of one’s dreams, unemployment, confusion, pain – and ultimately physical death itself – are all, eventually, the way through to some experience of new life. God has redeemed suffering by entering into it fully himself, bringing new life and hope when all was lost.
It is Jesus’s experiences, as God himself, of suffering, rejection, failure, vulnerability, weakness and death that make him The Way. And what has come to mean most to me are his experiences of failure and rejection.
I have had problems coping with failure and rejection all through my life. As a twelve year old, my rock cakes that I had to make for my Girl Guide Cookery Badge were a failure. Despite the simplicity of the recipe, they can be a disaster if you add even slightly too much milk – which I must have done! They collapsed and spread across the baking tin, joining up with each other! I had failed. Yes, the school kitchen, where many of us were using ovens at high temperatures, was suffocatingly hot, but I don’t think that’s the only reason why I came over very faint and had to be taken out to sit somewhere cool. I couldn’t cope with having failed – and wanted an excuse for my failure.
I gave up training to be a doctor – because I couldn’t cope with the idea of making medical mistakes (which everyone inevitably does) that could affect people’s lives disastrously. (However, I still believe it turned out not to be the right career choice for me, for various other reasons!)
Being rejected at St Leonard’s church, and as a Lay Minister in the Anglican Church generally, after I stopped working in a paid role, took years before I started to come through on the other side.
There are stories of my failures and being rejected (me personally, or my vision or sense of vocation) all the way through this autobiography, especially during the second half of my life, which makes it even harder to cope with because there’s not much time left to try again or for my dreams to be fulfilled as I expected in my life-time! I said to Jeremiah some years ago, “I hope I live to see Shalom School completed, running fully and changing lives before I die”. I realise now this is not going to happen.
Having lived nearly all my life believing that Jesus was perfect and never sinned, it is only more recently that I have really taken on board the fact that Jesus, God himself, sometimes actually failed! It feels shocking to write that down! Is that because we are so geared up to thinking that failure is always to do with doing something wrong (like putting too much milk in the cake mixture), or failing to do something we should have done (like forgetting to feed the cat next door) or not taking enough care (like not noticing the traffic lights have just turned red)?
But failures may often be, at least partly, because of circumstances or other people, and not just because of our faults or omissions. It has taken years and I still haven’t really accepted this, even though Jesus shows me that this is part of life, part of his Way, The Way.
God, it seems, has failed again and again throughout human history: failed to get his message of love, holiness and forgiveness across, which is why he gave himself up to become part of his Creation as a human being. This is hard to understand and believe. But even Jesus often failed to get his God-given message and vision across, even in the towns where he did most of his miracles; nor could he do much to help the people of his own town of Nazareth. He failed to make any real impact on the vast majority of Jews and sometimes had to go outside Israel, where people were more receptive. He made people angry and uncomfortable by confronting them. His time and strength were limited, so he failed to meet everyone’s needs – he sometimes just abandoned the crowds and disappeared! Unlike the other criminals, he was too weak to carry his own cross. And of course, his ultimate failure was dying on the cross, helpless, humiliated and rejected, having failed to get his message of God’s redeeming love and forgiveness across to more than just a handful of people. And even they thought he had ultimately failed as they stood at the foot of the cross with all their dreams shattered. “Save yourself!” “He saved others, let him save himself.” He even failed to be aware of God’s presence with him in the depth of his suffering on the cross – “My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?”
But Jesus’s failures weren’t the end. The Way of God is to bring transformation, resurrection and new life out of every experience of death and failure, rejection and suffering, both during our life on earth and after passing through the final physical death of our bodies. This is the pattern of life, of The Way, and is available to all of creation – because God loves his creation without end.
I have also come to see that Jesus is not exclusive. I don’t think he ever claimed to be the only way to experience God, as so many Christians would have us believe; and his whole way of life was inclusive, across all man-made boundaries of race and religion, traditions and social norms. What he offers us is The Way to enter into the same amazingly intimate, life-giving, life-changing and saving relationship that he had with God and the world – even while we are living in this world. I don’t believe God is going to exclude anyone who has ever looked for him or tried to worship him or pray in some way, however briefly, whatever their beliefs or doubts or lack of faith. At the end of time, when all is fully revealed, then (and only then), “All beings in the heavens, on earth and in the underworld shall bend the knee at the name of Jesus and every tongue confess Jesus Christ as Lord, to the glory of God the Father” (Philippians 2:10-11). This is wonderfully inclusive and on a cosmic level – how exciting! It portrays how all beings (not just humans) will recognise and worship Jesus as Christ and Lord, their Creator, in unity with the Father and Holy Spirit. Jesus offers us a foretaste of this glory, and life in all its abundance, here and now if we choose it.
We will never fully understand the mysteries of creation, life and God. Talking about life after death, Paul said, “Now we see only reflections in a mirror, mere riddles, but then we shall be seeing face to face. Now, I can know only imperfectly; but then I shall know just as fully as I am myself known” (1 Corinthians 13:12).
Instead of fighting against the dark periods, feelings of abandonment and exclusion, failure and rejection, doubts and unanswered questions, with anger or bitterness, despair or resentment, I want to keep choosing to accept and submit to The Way, The Truth and Life that is God in all his fullness as the Trinity. This is the freedom I am searching for. But I still find failure almost impossible to pass through, feeling I won’t come out on the other side with a sense of hope and new life, especially when other people suffer as a result, such as with the failure of TESS to thrive and Shalom School not even starting!
Christ has always existed within the Trinity. Christ, who created the world, consented to be born as Jesus to show us The Way to experience intimate unity with God. This is Salvation and Life. This is what Jesus increasingly means to me in the midst of my disappointments and losses, even as time is running out for me!