Category Archives: Faith and Spirituality

The sounds of silence

In the months since I last wrote in my blog, I have spent a considerable amount of time in solitude. I’ve had to. An exacerbation of ME/CFS symptoms including migraine, dizziness, nausea and brain fog have made it essential. For much of January and February, I was rarely far from my bed. I struggled with any form of socialising and spent most of my days entirely alone. When my husband was home in the evenings, our conversation was reduced largely to the bare necessities.

Since then, I have seen a slow improvement, but have also weathered the relentless pain and broken nights that have accompanied the onset of a frozen shoulder. As a result, my blog has remained silent.

Silence. I’ve written about it before: https://ripplesinthewind.wordpress.com/2014/07/02/silence/

In that post, I made the point that silence is not empty. In fact, if we stop to listen to them, the sounds of silence can speak much louder than words because words so often get lost, falling over themselves in a cacophony of human jabber that communicates little and hence, paradoxically, is silent.

My words like silent raindrops fell
And echoed in the wells of silence

(Paul Simon, ‘The Sounds of Silence’)

We need true silence in order to distinguish one voice from another and hear what it has to say. Yet prolonged silence can be difficult precisely because of this. It compels us to hear voices that perhaps we would prefer not to hear. With only ourselves for company, we become subject to all the fears and distortions that can be dreamed up by the human mind, together with the worst (and best) manifestations of our own human nature.

Back in January, I picked up a book that had been left on my bookshelf a couple of years previously by a friend. I picked it up primarily because I was bored. I hadn’t the energy to write, draw or communicate. So, thinking that on this particular day I might at least be able to read, I picked up the book: Taken on Trust – the story of Terry Waite’s captivity in the Lebanon. It’s not a book I had read before. When he wrote it, I was busy having children. But the more I read, the more I became fascinated by the similarities and differences in our experiences. He spoke of the long days and nights in which time seemed to have no meaning, separated as he was from the world outside. He spoke of his attempts to exercise – walking up and down and round and round until the steps became miles – and of his sense of frustration when he was chained to a wall and could no longer do this. He spoke of living for months without books. No books! And here I was reading his book because it was the best means I had of holding on to my own sanity!

Towards the end of his time in captivity, he became seriously ill with  some kind of chest infection and it was then that he says he came closest to being overwhelmed by what he describes as self-pity. Initially, this surprised me. Up to that point, his freedom and personhood had been violated in so many ways that I didn’t expect illness to make so much impact. Yet it did.

Self-pity. I know what he means. I know it only too well. But the more I thought about it, the more I wondered about that word self-pity. In the garden of Gethsemane, Jesus is ‘overwhelmed with sorrow.’ Is that self-pity, I wonder? He asks his friends to watch with him. Is that self-pity? He prays that he might not have to face the end that he knows is coming. Is that self-pity? Or is it more about a deepening realisation of one’s own vulnerability and hence a very human need for help, support and protection? And if it’s about a human need for help and support, is having that need really such a despicable thing that we must label it as self-pity and strive to hide it?

The sounds of silence.

Voices that can echo so loudly with vulnerability and inadequacy that it becomes hard to distinguish between them. At what point does the cry of genuine human need become the cry of self-pity? Who is able to make that judgement? As a child once put it:

pain is lonleyness because know one noes what I feel

(From ‘In Times of Pain’ by Jane Grayshon)

Brian Keenan, in The Evil Cradling (his own account of life as a hostage in Lebanon), is a good deal more open than Terry about the horrors of being at the mercy of nothing but your own mind. With nothing else to occupy it, the mind can and does torture us with all manner of distorted perceptions. However, because his time in solitary confinement was limited, Brian is also able to speak of the enormous strength and comfort that he gained from the companionship of someone who shared his cell and hence could walk the journey with him.

Having someone with whom to share even a little of the pain makes all the difference. There have been times in the past few months when I have been overwhelmed to the point of tears by the warmth, kindness and respect of folks who have shown me that they care, even if they haven’t always known how to help. Just by their presence, they help hold the shattered fragments of my being together far more effectively than they know.

I wish I could be more profound in my spiritual life. I am still very much a child in my understanding of my faith. I have no deep thoughts, no great insights, no outstanding qualities. I am a very ordinary man chained to a wall and attempting to struggle through another day of boredom and uncertainty.

(Terry Waite)

To me, this says it all. Those of us who face such difficulties are not heroes and would not want to be thought of as such. We are just ordinary people living what has to be lived because it has to be lived. We don’t deserve admiration and we don’t want it. Nor do we want pity. But, at least for me, kindness and respect are like gold in a world where everyone from the psychiatrist and politician to the local quack seem to be clamouring with opinions about what is wrong with me and how I could be or should be living my life.

People talking without speaking
People hearing without listening

(Paul Simon, ‘The Sounds of Silence’)

In such a world, I am profoundly grateful for all those who have walked beside me. I would not be without them. However, I also know that there is a sense in which the journey can only be mine. No-one can walk it for me. That’s why I need the silence. Not just because I am sick or because my brain cannot cope with input, though this may be true as well. But because I need to be able to hear my own voice in order to find my way through. And because, beyond that, in the darkness, whether I hear it or not, there plays the silent music of hope, the gentle rhythm of grace, the fiery heartbeat of God inviting us to dance.

Hello darkness, my old friend
I’ve come to talk with you again
Because a vision softly creeping
Left its seeds while I was sleeping
And the vision that was planted in my brain
Still remains
Within the sound of silence…

(Paul Simon)

Disclaimer: I cannot say what was in Paul Simon’s mind when he wrote the song. The above is simply one interpretation of his words.

No need to say goodbye?

‘Remember, remember, the 5th of November…’

Whether it’s gunpowder, treason and plot, whether it’s the saints of old, whether it’s members of the armed forces, or whether it’s simply those we have known and loved, early November in the UK is traditionally a time of remembrance. It’s the time of year when the veil between our world and the spirit world is said to be at its thinnest. Hence the spectres of Halloween. It’s also a time of preparation for the darkness and frugality of the winter season (in a world without air travel and supermarkets) and for celebrating the awe and beauty of…

Autumn trees

Autumn leaves

Death.

In an odd sort of back-to-front way, it’s also a time of new beginnings. However you look at it, what was is passing away. The long, carefree days of sunshine, growth and wellbeing that the summer brought us are fading into the darkness of winter. Those who celebrate the Pagan festival of Samhain often see this as a time for letting go.

This is all very interesting to me because it was at just this time of year when I caught the virus that was to make me seriously ill with ME. On 31st October 2001, I spent the day with my family on the beach at Burnham-on-Sea. That night I fell ill and nothing was ever going to be quite the same again.

Over the years since, this anniversary has faded in and out of consciousness. The first year it was particularly significant, marking the end of what had been the most difficult year of my life. I remember facing November very much in the spirit of a new beginning. I had hope that the coming year would not be as hard as the one I had just been through and a new confidence that, even if it was, I could now live through it. There was some fear of the approaching winter, because of the viral illnesses that so often come with it, but there was also a new sense of inner strength.

Three years later, I chose to celebrate the anniversary by doing something I’d not been able to do since falling ill. I went to see a film at the cinema. Since then, there have been years when I have marked it and years when I have not. Last year, for example, the day passed without my even noticing. On the whole, however, the movement from October to November has come to have far more significance for me than January 1st has ever had.

This year, for some reason that I feel unable to fully explain, I felt an overwhelming desire to go back to Burnham and say goodbye – goodbye to the Ros that once was. It’s not the first time I have felt this. Our church holds a memorial service at this time of year to remember those who have died. Two or three years into the ME, I remember having to fight the temptation to write my own name in the book of remembrance so that it could be read out during that service. It wouldn’t have been appropriate, of course. I knew that. But I so wanted to do it. If I could have held a funeral for my old self, I would have done. But I didn’t know how and there was no-one to help. On the rare occasions when I voiced such feelings to others, I was met with complete incomprehension: ‘But you’re still you. You haven’t become someone else…’ or ‘But this is not forever. You will get better…’

Well, 14 years on, it’s looking pretty much like forever to me. Even if my health were miraculously restored tomorrow, I wouldn’t be the same person that I was back then. My body has aged. My children have grown up and moved on. My life and my relationships have been changed irrevocably. In that sense, the losses have been very real for all of us. Of course, there have been gains, too. But the fact remains that I will never climb the mountains, build the sandcastles, watch the films, share the hugs, or do any of the countless other things with my children that perhaps we might otherwise have done, had I not been ill.

So, this year, I decided to do what (in face of such complete incomprehension from others) I had never quite dared to do before. I decided to go back to Burnham and say goodbye. Properly. Perhaps it was the fact of not having been so well that triggered the desire? Perhaps it was something much deeper? But one warm, sunny afternoon towards the end of October, I went.

I drove myself there – a route I haven’t driven for 14 years. I wasn’t even sure that I could do it safely. These days, I rarely drive more than 30 minutes from home and this journey was to take me 50 minutes each way. However, I felt relatively well – better than I’d felt for some weeks – and the inner prompting was so strong that backing out just didn’t seem like an option.

When I arrived, I drove down to the lighthouse end of the beach and parked on the sea front. I don’t remember much of that last fateful day, but I do remember that we walked out to the lighthouse and that I was carrying my youngest daughter because she had come down with a fever while we were out. We didn’t know it at the time, but I would never do this again.

This time, I walked down on to the sand and looked at the lighthouse for a few moments, remembering. Then I stooped down and wrote ‘Goodbye Ros’ in big letters in the sand. As I wrote, it occurred to me that the real meaning of those words is, ‘God bless you, Ros’ and that seemed like a fitting parting. I thought again of that last day on the beach in the autumn of 2001 and remembered how, that summer, I had run with a friend’s dog for a mile across a beach in Northern Ireland – running just for the sheer joy of being able to run.

Suddenly, to my complete surprise, I was sitting on the beach sobbing. Not with pain, but with joy. I was overwhelmed with it – a deep, deep thankfulness for all that those 37 years of good health had given me. It was a powerful moment. A liberating moment. A moment of pure grace. For 14 years, I had not been able to remember those days without pain. Indeed, I had learnt not to remember them for precisely that reason. Suddenly, I was remembering them with joy. It was a special moment. I had not come expecting such a gift.

After that, I wrote two more words in the sand: ‘Thank You’. Then I sat for a long time just looking out to sea. And then I wrote, ‘Welcome to all that I can now be’.

Remembering.

I used to think loss was something that one was supposed to get over. Why do we punish ourselves with that thought, I wonder? Anyone who has ever been there knows it’s not true. As I have discovered, learning to live with loss is learning to live with just that. Loss doesn’t go away. Rather, he’s like the most annoying of good friends. You know the kind of people I mean. The ones you get to know really well. The ones who think they can turn up on the doorstep quite unexpectedly – often when you least want them.

On Burnham beach, as on many other occasions in the past 14 years, I discovered that it’s only when I open the door, welcoming him in and even embracing him, that I find Grace, smiling broadly, sitting at my table, too. That’s why I needed to say goodbye.

How are you?

People who know me well will have heard me say that this is a question I have long hated. The reasons go something like this:

Friend: How are you?
Me: (Actually, I’m ill. Still. In fact, this week, I feel crap. Do you want to know this or don’t you want to know this? If you don’t want to know this, why are you even bothering to ask?) I’m OK. How are you?

I hate it because, for me, it’s a question that lacks honesty. From time to time it’s been suggested to me that I’m reading too much into this. It’s a polite greeting. Nothing more. So why don’t I just treat it as such?

Well, that’s a good question. Where I live, for example, it’s quite common to be greeted with “Alright?” to which (or so I am told) the correct response is “Alright?” It’s an essentially meaningless exchange along much the same lines as “Hello”. We might as well say “Fluzbot” or something, except, of course, that “Fluzbot” is not a word any of us are familiar with, which makes it slightly risky. After all, it might mean “You swine!”. You never know! Usually, however, expression and tone tell us all we need to know. It’s like two dogs wagging their tails:

A: (Smiling) Fluzbot? (I’m friend not foe!)
B: (Smiling) Fluzbot! (Me too!)
A and B: (Good. That’s settled then.)

The intent is simply to put one another at ease.

So far, so good. However, it seems to me that the “How are you?” question, at least among friends, doesn’t operate on quite the same level as this. Rather, it has a range of acceptable responses from “Fine, thank you…” all the way through to “I’ve had a rotten cold this week…” That’s why it’s problematic. Whilst there are a range of acceptable responses, a response is acceptable only in so far as it is perceived to be “normal”. It’s “normal” to be well. It’s “normal” to have a cold and get better. It’s “not normal” to live in the shadowy lands of bereavement or chronic illness. These are not the stuff of polite conversation. They are disturbing places. Places we would rather not go. You can tell this by the way the question may change when a person is known to be recently bereaved. Those who want to show they care will ask it differently. It’s as if the inhabitants of this shadowy land need special acknowledgement. They are “not normal”, so they must be specifically invited to speak. Even when they do, they still risk dismissal and they know it. It’s a risky business emerging from the shadowy land.

The shadowy land. In depth psychology, the “shadow” is representative of all the things about ourselves that we would rather not acknowledge, but instead seek to hide or destroy. In its worst form, this is seen as being worked out in events such as the Holocaust, where the alien, the sick and the criminal were systematically dehumanised and destroyed. Rightly, we are shocked by such events. We dare not believe that we are capable of such things. And yet… yet there is a very real sense in which we continue to push those “other” from us into the shadows. The “migrants” are just one example. LGBT folks would be another.

Back at the beginning of my illness, the very first time I went out in my wheelchair, I had the following conversation with someone I knew:

Me: Hello!
Friend: (With apparent concern) Hello! What on earth has happened to you?
Me: I had a virus and now I can’t walk.
(Short silence)
Friend: (Looking at wheelchair) Well, don’t get too used to it!

It’s a conversation I’ve always remembered because it underlined for me the reality that I was now facing. In her world, people with viruses got better. Hence the only plausible explanation for my use of a wheelchair must be that I was getting some kind of kick out of it. In other words, that there was something not quite right about me. Hence in just those few brief words she informed me of my future place in the world. Life in the shadows had begun.

Interestingly, it was only this morning that the full significance of the words she used struck me. The fact is, I have “got used to it”. I have had to “get used to it”, as has my family. Not getting used to it has only ever been an option for those the shadow has not touched.

How are you?

The question invites and expects answers that fit in the safe, comfortable world of normality. When most folks say, “I’m fine, thank you”, the chances are that at least some of the time this will be true. However, when I say it, it’s never true. So, effectively, the real me disappears into the shadows. Repeatedly. On the other hand, if I do reply more honestly, I risk the averted eyes, the shuffling feet or the cheery brush-offs that tell me that the shadows is actually where I belong. That’s why I hate the question. Day after day, week after week, month after month and year after year it acts as a continual challenge to my right to exist. And if that sounds overly dramatic, I don’t care. I am weary of it.

So what’s to be done? Well, frankly, I don’t know. No doubt, the question will continue to be asked and life will continue in the shadows, where those of us with chronic illnesses will plot and scheme for the destruction of the rest of humankind… 😉 Alternatively, we could try the court jester approach and attempt to reclaim the question through humour:

Friend: How are you today, Ros?
Me: (With an evil grin) I’m sorry. My brain is a bit slow today. Could you repeat the question?

More suggestions welcome…

How deep is the Father’s love?

Cross 1m

Last week, I came across this blog entry: http://tworiversblog.com/2015/03/11/mark-1534-abandoned/

The author, Beejai, invites us to view a clip from The Pusuit of Happiness where father and son have reached rock bottom. He then asks us to, ‘Imagine if, at that point, Chris got up and just left his son there in the bathroom floor. Imagine him walking out the door and leaving his boy all alone…’

So I’m imagining. And while I’m imagining, I’m thinking, ‘What kind of a father would do that?’ And the images that come into my mind are not at all pleasant.

There is a famous hymn by Stuart Townend which contains the following words:

How great the pain of searing loss
The Father turns his face away

http://www.worshiptogether.com/songs/how-deep-the-fathers-love-for-us/

They are words that many people seem to sing quite happily. The idea behind them is that God could not look on Jesus when he was on the cross because he was carrying our sin. Instead, God abandoned him to his fate in order that he should experience the full punishment of our sin, including separation from God. This is considered by some, including Stuart Townend, to be good theology. And the reference usually given in support of it is the prayer that Jesus prayed in Mark 15:34: ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’

Nonetheless, this is a hymn I cannot sing. The words stick in my throat. They stick in my throat precisely because of the image that Beejai asks us to imagine, of the father walking out on his son. I cannot bring myself to believe that God could be that kind of father. Not ever. Especially not at the worst possible moment of the worst possible day that anyone could ever have. It makes no sense. If God were that kind of father, then what does it say about God? Is God someone I can trust? I think not.

But that’s not the only reason I have difficulty with those words. For me, they raise questions about the other prayers that Jesus is supposed to have uttered from the cross: ‘Father, forgive them…’ and ‘Father, into your hands I commit my spirit.’ Did the Father hear those prayers? How could he have done, if he had abandoned Jesus? Yet, Matthew and Luke tell us Jesus prayed those prayers, trusting his Father to hear and honour them.

Also, there is the rest of Psalm 22 to consider. As already noted, Verse 1 reads:

My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?
Why are you so far from saving me,
So far from my cries of anguish?

There is little doubt that this is a cry of desperation, of the same kind that you or I might make in a similar situation. The cry expresses everything that the Psalmist is feeling and experiencing. Where is God in all this mess? Surely, not here! There follows a lengthy description of the Psalmist being mocked and insulted, stripped and wounded – a description that is remarkably similar to the one Mark offers us of the crucifixion (Mark 15:21-33).

But what then? In verse 24 of Psalm 22, we read:

For he has not despised or scorned
the suffering of the afflicted one;
he has not hidden his face from him
but has listened to his cry for help.’

In other words, if we put Jesus’ cry back into the context of Psalm 22, we find a clear reference to God’s face *not* being turned away – the complete opposite of what Stuart Townend’s hymn suggests.

Interestingly, the picture Mark is pointing to is one that would have been contentious even at the time of Jesus. Jews and Romans alike would have found it preposterous. As Paul wrote, We preach Christ crucified: a stumbling-block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles.’ (1 Corinthians 1:23) The concept of God being present with the man on the cross was beyond belief. The whole fact that he was hanging there was taken as a demonstration that God was *not* with him. Weak, beaten, shamed, powerless, dying; this man could not be a son of God! Dammit, this man wasn’t even worth God’s notice! Hence the heckling from the crowd.

It’s at this point in Mark’s story, when the heckling reaches its height, that we hear the first line of Psalm 22 on Jesus’s lips, apparently confirming all that the crowd is yelling. For Jesus, it can only be the end; a bitter, God forsaken end. It’s not until we look a little deeper that we see, contrary to all expectation, that God has not hidden his face from this man after all (Psalm 22:24 above). The relationship is not severed. God has heard the cry – Jesus’s cry and our cry all wrapped up together – and God is answering it. Hence (from the final verses of the Psalm):

Future generations will be told about the Lord.
They will proclaim his righteousness, declaring to a people yet unborn:
He has done it!

In other words, human sin did not have the last word. Its power to abuse, oppress, maim, kill and destroy did not win through. Instead of being the end, this was to be the start of a new beginning. A new power had been released, with the potential to change the world.

That’s how deep I believe the Father’s love is for us. He did not turn his face away. He does not turn his face away. Ever. No-one is too shameful for him to look upon. No-one is beyond redemption.

Time will tell

Back in the spring, I planted some bell pepper seeds. I can’t remember when this was. Around March, I think. I had never grown bell peppers before, so this was to be a whole new experience. I watered them and then I waited.

The days and weeks went by and two little seedlings appeared.  As they grew taller, I planted them out into larger pots. Then I waited again.

Over the summer, I have appreciated their greening presence in my kitchen. I enjoy watching things grow. But what I didn’t know when I planted them was just how long it would be before we would see any fruit. Or, more significantly, how long it would take for each fruit to ripen. Again, I waited.

I began to wonder if maybe the secret was to stop watching them.

Then…

A long time later…

Last week, in fact…

Red Pepper

Red Pepper

We picked our very first home grown red pepper!

There are several more green ones on the plants in various stages of development. However, green peppers don’t really suit my stomach, so I am hoping that there is still enough autumn sunshine for at least some of them to ripen to red in the coming weeks. Only time will tell. So, once again, I am waiting.

Meanwhile, my potted cyclamen has spent the summer outside. The summer seems to be its resting time and it likes the relative cool of the patio for this, rather than the kitchen window sill. Just recently, however, it has started to flower again. So I brought it back inside.

Cyclamen

Cyclamen

Then I discovered that it wasn’t alone.

Snail

Snail

I discovered our visitor soon after I brought the cyclamen in. Later, to my surprise, I counted no less than seven little snails in or on the pot, all smaller than my little finger nail. Thinking that perhaps my kitchen wasn’t the best home for a family of snails, I took them back outside where they could have the freedom to roam. Two days later, an eighth was spotted by my daughter, who named him Oliver. Yesterday, I spotted yet another!

At the moment, Oliver and his companion seem quite happy lodging at the base of the cyclamen pot. Having found a source of water (the kitchen sink) and a suitable crevice in which to while away the daylight hours, they don’t seem to have much interest in exploring the rest of the kitchen. One day soon, I will give in to sense and take them outside. Eventually, they will probably be caught eating my vegetables. However, right now, I’ve decided I like having them around. They don’t appear to do much. But that’s the point. Like the peppers, they remind me that there is a time and a season for everything (Ecclesiastes 3) – an important thing to remember when living with ME/CFS.

In contrast, Rudyard Kipling spoke of the ‘unforgiving’ minute that needs to be filled with sixty seconds distance run.

Unforgiving? Really?

Since when did the time who tells become so impatient?

(Updates on the snails: https://ripplesinthewind.wordpress.com/2014/09/24/snail-adventures/ and https://ripplesinthewind.wordpress.com/2014/11/14/the-sound-of-a-wild-snail-eating-2/ )

Take my life and let it be… gay?

Last week saw a public announcement by Vicky Beeching, Christian singer and songwriter, that she is gay. Predictably, the reaction to her story, published in The Independent, has been mixed. Some, despite disagreement, have paid tribute to her courage and integrity:

‘I’d like to publicly offer my love, prayers, support and thanks to Vicky who has modelled Christian behaviour, tolerance, compassion and understanding to someone with whom she is ideologically opposed.’ http://carolinefarrow.com/2014/08/14/message-of-support-for-vicky-beeching/

Others have been more critical. Scott Lively, for example, an American anti-gay campaigner, said on Channel 4 News that she has given into a lie: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5GivMLlmeAU. For me, this is a bit like telling a person with one leg that they are wrong to think that this is okay because God has ordained that people have two legs. But more on this later.

A more sensitive critique has come from an evangelical ordinand on this side of the pond: http://deanroberts.net/2014/08/14/vicky-beeching-is-gay-so-what/ He is concerned that the description of the prayer ministry that she received may reflect badly on churches that don’t offer such ministry. He is also concerned that her reference to the Archbishop of Canterbury may result in undue pressure being placed on the Church of England: ‘Look what you’ve done to her. You better issue an apology and pass canon law to allow same sex marriages.’

I understand these concerns. They come from the heart. However, my own feeling is that they fail to take account of both the breadth of Vicky’s audience and the reality of the experience of gay people within the church. Telling her story as it is, prayer ministry included, has allowed her to communicate some important messages:

Firstly, to the conservative evangelical churches that have formed a major part of her background, a message that many are unwilling to accept: ‘I was absolutely committed to change. I wanted nothing else. Yet despite years of struggle, prayer and deliverance ministry, I’m still gay.’ Secondly, to the Christians who continue to struggle with their faith and sexuality: ‘I’ve been hurt too, but it doesn’t have to be this way. God loves people like us just as they are – gay.’ Thirdly, to the wider church and world, ‘This is me. I’m gay. I’m a Christian. I’ve been hurt, but I still want to take a full part in the life of the church.’

All these messages strike me as hugely important, particularly when she has been booked to speak on LGBT theology at a number of venues in the coming year, including the Greenbelt Festival this weekend. It seems right to me that those present should know where she is coming from and that she is speaking for the LGBT community rather than about them. For some, this is an important distinction: http://therachelmannblogspot.blogspot.co.uk/2014/05/oasis-open-church-lgbt-voices-privilege.html

Meanwhile, if Vicky’s revelations result in more pressure being placed on the church to change, then I’d see that as a far better outcome than people saying ‘Look what they’ve done to her. I don’t want anything to do with them.’ Indeed, it looks to me as if she was working hard to limit this latter response. The media tends to be intensely critical of the church, stirring up trouble wherever it can. However, Vicky’s refusal to name and shame the camp at which she received ministry, together with her emphasis on not being angry with the church, both show that this was not her agenda. I would suggest that her primary concern throughout has been for honesty and integrity and for the abuse to come to an end:

‘What Jesus taught was a radical message of welcome and inclusion and love. I feel certain God loves me just the way I am, and I have a huge sense of calling to communicate that to young people… The Church’s teaching was the reason that I lived in so much shame and isolation and pain for all those years. But rather than abandon it and say it’s broken, I want to be part of the change.’ http://www.independent.co.uk/news/people/news/vicky-beeching-star-of-the-christian-rock-scene-im-gay-god-loves-me-just-the-way-i-am-9667566.html

In the light of this, I would see her references to the Archbishop’s family as a show of solidarity with them. After all, that’s what being ‘close friends’ is about:

‘Even when you don’t agree… love can supersede everything.’

All this fits with what she has since said on radio – that she wants to see the church get to a place where members can agree to disagree on the rights and wrongs of homosexuality, but still be family.

It’s a vision I can identify with. When theologians have such widely differing views on what the Bible has to say about homosexuality, I don’t think it is right for the church to dictate to its members how they should behave. Part of what the Protestant Reformation was about was the freedom of individuals to reinterpret the Bible for themselves rather than submit without question to established authority/tradition. That said, I have difficulty seeing how an agreement to differ could work out in practice. Whilst I can picture a church where clergy are free to decide whether or not they wish to bless a gay marriage, I struggle to picture a church where the ministry of people who are practising homosexuals is fully accepted by those who believe such acts to be sinful. As I see it, that will only happen if and when homosexuality ceases to be seen as an impairment to be fixed and instead begins to be seen as an impairment to be fully accepted, lived with and even welcomed.

Now I’m fully aware that this is controversial. As the responses to Vicky’s revelation have shown, acceptance of any impairment as ‘okay’ will be a huge challenge to those who see it as sinful. Meanwhile, many in the LGBT community will be very quick to affirm that homosexuality is not an impairment in the first place! So let me explain further.

The Disabled community defines impairment and disability as follows:

Impairment: An injury, illness, or congenital condition that causes or is likely to cause a loss or difference of physiological or psychological function.

Disability: the loss or limitation of opportunities to take part in society on an equal level with others due to social and environmental barriers.

Their point is that an impairment need not be seen as a problem. Lots of us have them. They may result in behaviours (such as using sign language) that depart from the norm, but they don’t stop us from being fully human. On the other hand, disability *is* a problem because it’s about what society does to those with impairments in not treating them as full members.

In as much as homosexuality appears to be an innate psychological difference from the heterosexual norm, I would see this model as helpful. If we don’t have an issue with people with a body or mind that is different from the ‘God-ordained’ norm living out their faith in the way they believe is right for them, we shouldn’t have an issue with people with a sexuality that differs from the ‘God-ordained’ norm living out their faith in the way they believe is right for them. Indeed, as the privileged majority, I believe we should help structure both church and society in a way that enables them to do so with integrity.

Meanwhile, much has been written by others on the subject of whether the Bible condemns homosexuality and I’m not going to repeat all of it here. I will, however, say the following:

Yes, there are verses in the Bible that condemn homosexual acts. However, in the context of a fully consensual, committed, loving relationship, where there is neither abuse nor promiscuity, it seems to me that the only thing that could make homosexuality sinful would be something in the physical acts themselves – e.g. oral sex, anal sex, mutual masturbation etc. For the Old Testament Hebrews, these would most certainly have been an issue. The Law, as given in Leviticus, places a lot of emphasis on bodily fluids and what is to be done with them. Contact with them was a major concern and carried the potential to separate people from God. For example:

‘When a man has an emission of semen, he must bathe his whole body with water, and he will be unclean till evening.’ (Lev. 15:16)

‘When a man has sexual relations with a woman and there is an emission of semen, both of them must bathe with water, and they will be unclean till evening.’ (Lev. 15:18)

‘Do not approach a woman to have sexual relations during the uncleanness of her monthly period.’ (Lev. 18:19)

‘If a man has sexual relations with a woman during her monthly period, he has exposed the source of her flow, and she has also uncovered it. Both of them are to be cut off from their people.’ (Lev. 20:18)

‘Do not have sexual relations with a man as one does with a woman; that is detestable.’ (Leviticus 19:22)

‘Do not eat meat with the blood still in it.’ (Leviticus 19:26)

I will set my face against any Israelite or any foreigner residing among them who eats blood, and I will cut them off from the people.’ (Leviticus 17:10)

These things mattered hugely. So anal sex, with its potential to mix semen, blood and faeces, almost certainly would have been seen as a major taboo. But in the early Christian church, contact with bodily fluids, including blood, became much less of an issue. Such contact was no longer seen as potentially separating the person from God. On the contrary:

‘Don’t you see that nothing that enters a person from the outside can defile them? For it doesn’t go into their heart but into their stomach, and then out of the body… What comes out of a person is what defiles them. For it is from within, out of a person’s heart, that evil thoughts come – sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, greed, malice, deceit, lewdness, envy, slander, arrogance and folly. All these evils come from inside and defile a person.’ (Mark 7:18-23)

I would suggest that this is precisely the reason why the church doesn’t waste valuable preaching hours telling heterosexual couples how to behave in bed or what they should do afterwards. It’s become a non-issue. In the same way, I would suggest that it’s a non-issue for those who are gay. As I see it, the main reason Paul condemned homosexual acts (Romans 1:26-27, 1 Corinthians 6:9-11 and 1 Timothy 1:9-11) is because they happened in the context of lustful, promiscuous and/or abusive relationships together with a more generally immoral and godless lifestyle. Such relationships were well known in Graeco-Roman society. They happened openly and hence would have been worthy of comment. But now the LGBT community have shown us something of which Paul probably knew nothing. They have shown us deeply loving, consensual and committed homosexual relationships that harm no-one. So will we still seek to condemn them? I hope not, even if we would feel unhappy about doing the same ourselves.

‘For the entire law is fulfilled in keeping this one command: ‘Love your neighbour as yourself.’ If you bite and devour each other, watch out or you will be destroyed by each other. So I say, live by the Spirit…’ (Galatians 5:14-15)

The acts of the flesh are obvious: sexual immorality, impurity and debauchery; idolatry and witchcraft; hatred, discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, dissensions, factions and envy; drunkenness, orgies, and the like… But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. Against such things there is no law.’ (Galatians 5:19-23)

How much better for us to concentrate on living this out ourselves!

‘Take my life and let it be
All for You and for Your glory
Take my life and let it be Yours’

(Vicky Beeching)

Silence

 

Night sky

Night sky

I like silence. We are friends. This is one of the reasons why I stay up late sometimes. I love the silence that descends upon both house and street when most people are sleeping. A week or so ago, I found myself out on the lawn in the earliest hours of the morning just listening to the stillness. For a brief moment, I could hear no sound at all. Instead, I became much more deeply aware of the cool grass beneath my bare feet and of the soft movement of the leaves on the trees. It was almost as if my being expanded to fill the space. Then an owl called. Then there was the sound of a car on the town’s bypass. The silence was broken.

The best nights, of course, are those (rare ones in Somerset) when it is snowing. Again, there have been nights when, unable to sleep for excitement, I have been out in the garden at 3 am watching the snow fall; each flake gently kissing the earth as it wraps the world in silence. They have reminded me of these words from John Greenleaf Whittier’s hymn:

‘As noiseless let Thy blessing fall
As fell Thy manna down’

I like silence. In silence, I can think without distraction. Or I can just be. In silence, if I stop to listen, I become aware of the depths of the Presence that I call God. This is not to say that God is not also found in the hub-bub of people existence. It’s simply to say that, in the silence, I can plumb depths that cannot be plumbed in the midst of distractions. It’s like the difference between paddling on the edges of a vast ocean and suddenly becoming aware that it stretches for miles and miles in length, breadth and depth and holds far more than I am able to fully comprehend.

I like silence. That is, I like a certain kind of silence. However, some kinds of silence are not so easy to deal with. There is the silence of absence, for example; a silence that aches with the memory of those who are no longer with us. Then there is the silence of hostility; a silence of words too full of anger, hatred or dismissal to be spoken. There is the silence of fear; a silence of memories we’d rather forget or nightmares we’d rather not face. There is the silence of agitation; a silence that wants to be doing rather than being. Finally, there is the silence of subjection or limitation; a silence that is imposed rather than chosen.

There is a sense in which none of these are true silence. The voices may not be audible, but they are still there. I remember some comments that were made the first time I experienced silence as part of a group retreat. We were students. Several of us had never had the opportunity to share in an extended prayerful silence before, including the speaker. He said that people had often said of him that he was a quiet person. He said that what they didn’t know was just how much ‘noise’ was going on in his head. He said that, even in the silence, he had found it extremely difficult to shut that noise up.

All this creates a paradox. When the silence becomes uncomfortable, the temptation is to avoid it; to fill it with more noise, whether audible or not. The noise of Facebook, for example, with its pictures, news, events, ideas, games, cartoons, comments, appeals… Yet, for me, silence remains necessary. I need to be able to hear the voices in the night of my soul, even if I might prefer to block them out. If I do not allow myself sufficient quiet to hear and respond to them, then the noise in my head becomes overwhelming.

In the outer world, I cannot live without silence. It’s part of the way I’m made. This is why I rarely turn on the TV or radio and why I don’t like cities. I find the noise too overwhelming. Sometimes, too, I have stayed away from Facebook or unfollowed certain friends for a while. I’ve needed to cut the noise down. Yet it’s this latter kind of noise that I find the hardest to put the boundaries on – the noise that invades without a sound being heard. My restless mind is inclined to chase one thought after another in endless spirals, frequently oblivious to the need for true silence… until it leaps out unbidden and captures me again with its depth and beauty.

I like silence. Silence is my friend. But sometimes I think we could do with getting better acquainted.