‘Do you love me?’
Inside all of us–I guess and hope, because I’m surely not the only one–is a red-faced, awkward, sweating, small and ugly person. It’s when that person and Christ talk together the real work is done.
Peter and Jesus had that conversation. Ignore their history, their beards, the sound of lapping waves and crunching footsteps, the barbecued fish in their teeth. Ignore their age and size, big blokes, rugby team blokes. Ignore Peter’s secret tears, recriminations, justifications, sleepless nights, self-doubt, arguments with himself and despair.
Here’s the conversation:
‘Do you love me?’
‘Tend my lambs.’
… It’s a place of welcome and laughter, of healing and hope, of friends and family and justice and new life.
‘It’s where the homeless drop in for a bowl of soup, and the elderly for someone to chat to. It’s where you’ll find people learning to pray, coming to faith, struggling with temptation, finding new purpose and a new power to carry it out.
‘It’s where people bring their own small faith and discover that when they get together with others to worship the true God, the whole becomes greater than the sum of its parts. No church is like this all of the time. But a remarkable number of churches are partly like that for quite a lot of the time.’ (p 105)
Not found in common books of liturgy, I reproduce it here with thanks to the peerless Neal Stephenson who puts the prayer into the mouth of Samuel Pepys. (Lithotomy is of course the removal of a gallstone.)
‘Lord of the Universe, Your humble servants Samuel Pepys and Daniel Waterhouse pray that you shall bless and keep the soul of the late Bishop of Chester, John Wilkins, who, wanting no further purification in the Kidney of the World, went to your keeping twenty years since. And we give praise and thanks to You for having given us the rational faculties by which the procedure of lithotomy was invented, enabling us, who are further from perfection, to endure longer in this world, urinating freely as the occasion warrants. Let our urine-streams, gleaming and scintillating in the sun’s radiance as they pursue their parabolic trajectories earthward, be as an outward and visible sign of Your Grace, even as the knobbly stones hidden in our coat pockets remind us that we are all earth, and we are all sinners. Do you have anything to add, Mr Waterhouse?’
‘Only, Amen!’ (p 500)
Behold the work of her hands
“I believe in the grace of God. For me, that is where all these questions end”
and then this:
“then there he would be, fresh from the gallows, shocked at the kindness all around him.”
I can’t remember the last time I cried while reading a book. I could feel the sobbing welling up inside. It was doubly embarrassing because I was lying next to a pool in the Cote d’Azur on a brilliant blue day, and my wife was reading Bill Bryson.
Perhaps it was post-traumatic stress speaking after my coma and paralysis three years ago. The book I was reading had the weight of an old hymn, suffering graced in music.
Or perhaps it was because God was beautiful and humans, like mathematics, need infinity to make the sums come out right.
Either way, Marilynne Robinson’s Lila is extraordinary.
Where in your sickness is the meeting place between really wanting and quietly knowing? Invest there.
I’ve done time in Addenbrooke’s isolation ward in Cambridge (mysterious tropical diseases); Intensive Care (both Addenbrooke’s and nearby Papworth); and the high dependency unit at the Heart Hospital in London. And that’s just counting the wards with one-on-one, high intensity, or barrier nursing, not the ordinary wards for the merely tediously sick.
Between 2009 and 2013, I nearly died three times. I’ve met loads of people who have faced much worse, and I am humbled by their courage. What I have to say is nothing special. I felt panic and fear and I still do sometimes.
I did learn some stuff though.
- There is a sort of detachment as your life fades away. When my heart stopped and the crash team started electrocuting me, which hurts a lot, I remember still being me. There was still a me in there, despite the crowd around me, and the draining oxygen, and the deteriorating consciousness. Unscientific but interesting.
- It helps you sort out what you want. I have spent months convalescing, with my wife kindly trashing all my emails. It is wonderful. I realized that many parts of my career were not really worth the bother, and I’ve been able to refocus since.
- Take charge. I found I wanted just two things: my family, and my writing. I also found (a) I wanted them so much and (b) I was confident I was going to get them back, and see good days again. At the time I had an illness that kills 70% of those it infects, even in Western Intensive Care units. This is worse than getting Ebola. Yet I was so sure I was going to live that I was determined not to die. I think that’s key in chronic illness. Not only, ‘what you really really want?‘ but ‘what are you confident you will receive?‘ Some people are desperate to live but don’t think they will (and they don’t). Other people are oddly confident in something — for example that will see their daughter’s graduation. And they do. Their faith heals them. What’s God got in his hands for you? Where in your sickness is the meeting place between really wanting and quietly knowing? Invest in that place, I would suggest. And if, deep down, you know you’re going to die, take charge of that too. Don’t let people soft-soap you.
- The love of others is astonishing. My family were like this, as were others, including some of the medical staff. I still find it hard to think about that; I do not have the capacity for it; like staring into the sun.
- My Christian faith helped. I am a Christian and in the happy position, irritating to many people, of being convinced that God loves me. In our dark times, I found myself exposed to the relentless goodness of God. He prepares a table for me in the midst of my enemies. Blessed are the broken. Nothing can separate me from the love of God. He is my friend and it will be all right. That’s a good lesson.
This isn’t meant to be a book plug but…
Six weeks after I left hospital I started writing this book, about how the Christian faith worked for me in good times and bad. To me, it is one of the best things I’ve written, it has sold a lot of copies–relatively–and people seem to have enjoyed it. It’s available in various formats and you do bulk orders too.
I have made it FREE to people with Kindles and other e-readers. Please help yourself, tell your friends, and if you want to help out, perhaps you could write a review.
I’ve also put up an audio version free as a set of readings on YouTube.