Last summer, for a variety of reasons, was not fun for me. One was the intense stress of having to submit my Masters Dissertation at the end of August, but … Continue reading Being Thankful in 2020
So I think after five months, lockdown is beginning to break me a little bit.
In the beginning it wasn’t so bad. The stress of it all sucked, and not seeing my friends who mean the world to me was really hard, but lots of things were ok. I live with my parents so money wasn’t an issue, as they are far too generous to let me squat here for nothing. I got to take my dog on daily walks and started a daily readings group with my church. I was furloughed so for the first time in about two years I actually earned money (most of my big expenses we’re driving), so I had plenty of spare capital and time to spend on hobbies. I even had some phone counselling sessions (not related to the pandemic, and its a story for another time) which have really helped clarify some things. All in all, things were not looking too bad.
But in the past month or so, things have taken a bit of a downturn mood wise. Not critically, but enough for me to notice. I began watching a video essay by Patrick H Willems on timeloop movies (e.g. Groundhog Day) and how they reflect so much of the present moment. The feeling of endless repeating days that have no meaning, stuck in a perpetual loop with no end in sight. It’s a good essay, and really clarified some things in my head. https://youtu.be/2IrZD94CTxw
For me, it’s the monotony of it all. Wake up late, walk the dog, watch some Netflix, have lunch, think about doing something productive, get depressed reading Twitter, play some old Xbox games, have dinner, watch some more Netflix/ play Xbox/ stay on Twitter/Facebook/Hinge, stay up too late, sleep, repeat. Every day the same, no variation, except which app takes up most of my time that day. The hobbies no longer bring the joy they did because they aren’t there to be a break from everything anymore; the counselling finished; the reading group stopped being fulfilling; Hinge, started out of boredom, never went anywhere, and I’m convinced now I wasn’t in it for it to do that (although I have made a couple of friends from it which is positive). Even writing this blog, something which was a welcome cathartic release after work and other stressful things became its own work just to think of anything. It’s just like everything has become the sludge zone, just oozing, slimy nothing that sucks you in like quicksand and doesn’t let you go.
Gods work – Invisible String
So how is all of that relevant to the title?
I was chatting to my friend the other day about the new Taylor Swift album Folklore. We were talking about our favourite tracks, and she said one of hers was Invisible String, a song all about connections between two lovers that brought them together. My friend said it was her favourite because she had just got married, so she could look back and see all the invisible string that tied her and him together.
Christians often say and believe that God works in our lives. The degree to which He does and what He chooses to get involved in vary from person to person. I used to pray for Gods intervention in my exams, but now I’d hope something more important would get priority! I also do not think God intervenes in favour of any given side of a football match, unless he is a [INSERT WINNING TEAM AT YOUR SPORT OF CHOICE HERE] fan. But millions, perhaps billions of people believe that God is actively at work in their lives, guiding their footsteps in the right direction. This is not restricted to things that are positive, because that’s not what God is there for. God is not a genie designed to fulfil our deepest desires (I’m looking at you prosperity gospel people), so it makes sense that some things that happen to us that are bad are also from God right?
Thisnis the idea that God puts trials in our lives to test us; can we go through something bad and become better people? I can agree with this to an extent, because I can look back on moments in my life where I think God was working for me and putting me in the best position possible, even when the thing that caused it was painful. For example, because it’s news relevant in the U.K. at the moment, I didn’t get the required grades to go to my first choice of university, despite many hours of procrastination and hastily said prayers and promises to be good as I sat down in front of the exam! I was shocked at the time, but now looking back I see it was all for my good. I went to a Uni where in my second year, a student group was created for likeminded Christians. This group was one of the best things to ever happen to me, and many of the people who went are still my friends today. I do not know if I’d have had the same experience going to my first choice of uni.
That student group was really uplifting, and convinced me I needed something new from my church life. This meant I moved churches to my current church, where it’s safe to say all of the good things that have happened in my life since have come from. I do think God helped me to get to this place, to realise how much I need and thrive when I have a strong community behind me.
This I think relates to the invisible string conversation I had with my friend. We can look back on our lives and see how God created situations both good and bad that allowed us to grow. It’s lie driving a car and looking in the rear view mirror to see where we have been.
The Flaw in Looking Back
But I can’t find it that comforting, and I haven’t for about a year. The past year has not been brilliant, even without the lockdown. I lost a relationship and friendship in one go, and then had to write a dissertation I hated doing. The qualification I achieved has only served to make getting new jobs harder as it overqualifies me for some jobs, but I lack the experience for others, meaning I stayed trapped in a dead end job until the pandemic happened. I have sent out dozens of applications without success, getting close but “I’m sorry we’ve found another candidate with more direct experience”. Not only isn’t the string tying together, it’s seems to be completely frayed.
Trying to stitch things together yourself doesn’t always help either. I tried that with some things, trying to see what Gods pattern might be and putting together an apparent map for myself; getting a job in the city where my church is, moving out, getting my own place, starting a life. But that dream seems a little further away. I saw all of that happening after finishing my qualification, creating that life with my then partner, being part of a thriving church; but all of that stuff has either fallen away or seems to be in jeopardy. All of these feelings have been compounded in this global pandemic, the lack of direction and purpose it has created in me merely adding to the crushing weight of everything that came before.
And I think I understand the flaw in what I was doing. Looking back and seeing God’s invisible string tying things together is only possible when those things are good, or if they were bad, they have created something better. Its easy for me to see now that going to a different university because I didn’t get my grades was ultimately a good thing, because I have the good things that resulted from it. But at the time I couldn’t have foreseen all of that! It sucked! I felt like a complete failure! And that is where I am at now with all my current baggage. I cannot see the good in it yet because the good hasn’t happened, and I do not know if it ever will.
The book of Job is a strange book. It tells the story of a righteous man called Job who loses everything; his crops are burned, his house falls down, his kids are killed and he becomes diseased. His friends show up and they try to make sense of it. They decide he must have done something bad in order to be suffering this way. It reads almost like a debate, or a Shakespeare scene, four guys meditating on suffering because there must be a reason for it. But in the end, God speaks to them, and he doesn’t give them an answer, even though in Job chapter 1 it tells God has done it to test Job’s faith. God asks them where they were when he made everything, in a really poetic passage:
4 “Where were you when I laid the earth’s foundation?
Tell me, if you understand.
5 Who marked off its dimensions? Surely you know!
Who stretched a measuring line across it?
6 On what were its footings set,
or who laid its cornerstone—
7 while the morning stars sang together
and all the angels shouted for joy? (Job 38:4-7)
Gods point is that his ways and means are so far beyond our comprehension we cannot understand. There sometimes is no discernible reason as to why bad things happen to us, they just do. There doesn’t have to be some life lesson for us to learn right away.
This is really frustrating because we as human beings like completed stories, a neat little ending wrapped up in a fancy bow. Imagine a murder mystery novel where the mystery is never solved! It would suck! But that is what life is sometimes. We don’t always get closure handed to us without pain, and sometimes we don’t get closure at all. We just have to keep muddling along, having to accept that things sometimes will not make sense.
Something I tried to do very quickly as all of this stuff was happening was try to make sense of it all. I tried to predict why God would be doing this to me, if indeed it was from him, and draw lessons early. I think that was a mistake. A healthy perspective on things requires some emotional distance from the events, so a lot of the supposed lessons I was trying to take from it weren’t actually helping me, only making me feel worse. I took on all the blame for them in an effort to force change, but was not in a position at that time to bring it about, which lead to further uneasiness. In a weird way, I was trying to use my God rear view mirror to drive forward, which wasn’t working.
So I am going to ease up a little on trying to make sense of things. I can still use my God rear view mirror to look back on past events and I can see how God was connecting things together. But I am going to stop using that mirror to try and make sense of things that I do not have enough distance on yet. The car has to keep going down the road, and only when these problems are dots in the rear view mirror can I begin to look for the lessons.
The teacher looked out over the city from the balcony of his palace, taking in the skyline that stretched out before him, the sun a brilliant burnt orange as it started to set. He could see the temple he had built, the city’s magnificent walls, the beautiful marketplaces teeming with life. The teacher’s mind wondered away from the scene to his own household; he thought of the vast underground treasure store full of riches from all over the world; he thought of the harem full of his wives and concubines who would keep him company should he so desire; and he thought of the library full of knowledge and books, many written by the teacher himself. He had everything he needed to be happy. So why wasn’t he?
The teacher turned away from the window moving stiffly towards his desk. Age was not being kind to him. His hair had turned a pearly white almost a decade earlier, and he found his knees and hips were giving him more trouble with every day. He turned around and looked back at the setting sun – his life was like that sun, close to dipping below the horizon, disappearing from the Earth. But, thought the preacher, the sun would be back tomorrow, heralding a new day. Would he be so lucky? Would he rise to see the dawn or would his servants find his cold body in his bed, his spirit having left him in the night? And what then? One of his sons would replace him, and eventually one of his grandsons would replace his son. And so time would roll on, mercilessly taking each generation and replacing it with another. Suddenly it felt as if a weight had been placed upon his shoulders. He sat down at the desk, and pulling a quill and parchment towards him, wrote “everything is meaningless”.
A Life of Doing
“What do you want to be when you grow up?” Its a question I’m sure we’ve all heard at some point in our lives, usually from grown ups such as parents, family, teachers etc. but also from other children. From an early age, we are asked to consider what we want to do with ourselves when we hit adulthood and have to start earning a living. My ambition when I was seven was to be a combination of footballer (anyone who has seen me play knows what a stretch that would be), astronaut, rock star and history teacher. I am doing none of those things, probably because I got distracted by playing with my Pokemon cards or Beyblades. But the question of what we want to do begins to take a more pronounced importance once we hit our teens. We are expected to select GCSEs, A-levels or college courses, and maybe even University Degrees, all in the pursuit of this goal. But why?
Human existence is based around one thing – achieving. All of us will have a series of goals, dreams and dearest ambitions which we wish to accomplish in our time on on Earth, some of them realistic (getting a job we are passionate about, making money, finding love and starting a family), some fantastical (being the first man on Mars), but all probably near and dear to our hearts. Our lives revolve around reaching these goals, seeking the elation that satisfaction brings to us, that sense of achievement.
But as Fleetwood Mac once said, ‘Time made you bolder, even children get older and I’m getting older to’.
Things Fall Apart
The goals we have all require a sense of a better future. We have to be able to think that if we achieve these goals our lives will keep going and get better. To have goals requires us to have hope. So what happens when the future stops?
At some point, our future will run out, or at the very least our sense of the future can run out. One of two things will happen; we could fail at some of our goals, and suffer an immediate sense of disappointment and despondency, the future immediately becoming darker as we realise we cannot get what we want; or we achieve everything we set out to do, but then realise that it hasn’t actually made us any happier at all. Think of an athlete, seeking to excel at their sport, to be the champion. What happens if they have a career ending injury, or never become the best because there is someone better? Or maybe they do achieve all those things, but are forced to retire in their thirties. What do they do next? Studies of athletes post-retirement have found that many of them become depressed, their lives having lost the meaning that competition and training brought.
I have my own personal experience with this sense of futurelessness. About a year ago, my relationship ended, leaving me almost unable to contemplate a happy future. Although life went on, and I achieved a great mark in my Masters Dissertation, I couldn’t help but think of the meaninglessness of it all. The grade didn’t make me happy because it didn’t replace the absence felt in the loss of the relationship. It hasn’t even translated into a career which was the entire reason I subjected myself to studying. And it was in the middle of this hopelessness that I read Ecclesiastes.
Ecclesiastes is a twelve chapter meditation on the human condition found almost at the centre of the Bible, part of five books with Job, Psalms, Proverbs and Song of Solomon that put us at the centre, viewing God from the ground up, the ants eye view. Ecclesiastes is reported to have been written by King Solomon, son of the great King David. For those of you unfamiliar, Solomon was blessed with wisdom at his request by God, who then also blessed him with everything he could have asked for; he was richer than any man living (1 Kings 10), had great palaces and had over 1,000 wives and concubines (1 Kings 11). Solomons wisdom was renowned throughout the ancient world, and we are told he wrote many Proverbs and Psalms, and also contributed to early scientific explorations into nature. If we could look at any man and said ‘He was contented’ it would be Solomon.
Ecclesiastes puts pay to that notion. The first words written by Solomon are ‘meaningless, meaningless, everything is meaningless”, a cry of despair about the state of the world. Solomon’s collapse of the future was imminent and in the most natural way possible; old age and death. In his twilight years, Solomon realised that all his great accomplish were for nothing in the grand scheme of things:
I undertook great projects: I built houses for myself and planted vineyards… I denied myself nothing my eyes desired; I refused my heart no pleasure... yet when I surveyed all that my hands had done, and what I had toiled to achieve, everything was meaningless, a chasing after the wind; nothing was gained under the sun. (Ecclesiastes 2: 4, 10, 11)
Solomon is realising just how fleeting his achievements are. Later on in chapter 2, he realises that he wont get to enjoy all he has built, because he will die and it will be given to someone else. Solomon’s life, all his glory, riches and splendour is just something that will pass, time ceaselessly moving on, the sun rising and setting, rising and setting until he, everyone he loved or ever remembered him is gone, and still time will roll on long after that.
The same thing will happen to us eventually. We spend our entire lives running after our goals, only to find ourselves old and maybe rich, maybe having even achieved something, but for what? Some people may remember us after we are long gone, but who cares? You’ll be dead. I’ll be dead. All of us dust in the earth.
12 I know that there is nothing better for people than to be happy and to do good while they live. 13 That each of them may eat and drink, and find satisfaction in all their toil—this is the gift of God. – Ecclesiastes 3:12-13
Well this has been a bit of a downer right? “So much for the joy and hope of the Bible and of Christians” you might say to yourself after learning about Ecclesiastes. But the book is in a weird way slightly hopeful, and this is why its one of my all time favourite Bible books.
See, if we realise everything in this world is ultimately meaningless, that means we can stop worrying about it. Who cares if you leave a great legacy behind you, or amass a large fortune? Its all for nothing in the end. God doesn’t value such things! He has given us a life in large part to do what brings us joy, not great renown, hedonistic pleasure or untold riches. Its a life to be enjoyed a celebrated!
Once, when on holiday down in Devon, I stood watching the fishing boats come in and out of the small harbour of a small seaside village. It was a small moment of tranquil bliss, with the smell of the sea, the sound of gulls, and I could imagine myself on a tiny trawler fishing for crabs and being perfectly contented with the world. That’s what God wants for me and for you, to enjoy the little things in life. There’s a beauty in the pointless, and joy in the meaningless
The crowd watched as the three men were hoisted high above them, silhouetted against a dark sky. The men’s soft moans were barely audible over the sound of jeers and insults, punctuated by a few sobs from the back of the crowd. Further away, a group of men in robes stood watching, grim satisfaction on their faces, pleased with a job well done. That was at least, until a young man in Roman armour propped a ladder against the cross in the centre, climbed it and nailed a board above the head lacerated by a crown of thorns. The satisfaction on their faces slowly turned to rage as they read the white inscription daubed on in Hebrew, Greek and Latin: JESUS OF NAZARETH, KING OF THE JEWS. As the Roman official overseeing the execution walked past, his work done, the priests shouted at him “why have you done this?”, to which the man responded “on the orders of Governor Pilate”.
Why write this? what was so incendiary about this inscription? Well, it gave the man on the cross the title prophesied that he would hold, but that the priests denied was his. Jesus Christ, descendant of the royal line all the way back to King David himself, the Son of God, was that day proclaimed king.
But what a strange King he was, for there was never one like him before or since. Nothing about this man would ever have struck anybody as Kingly. Born literally in the straw, from a mother who would have been considered a bit of a wrong’un (pregnant and unmarried), growing up in a less than desirable part of the neighbourhood, who was a carpenter until the age of thirty, decided one day to quit that job and become a travelling preacher! People who knew him must have thought he’d lost his mind!
Once this campaign started, he starts preaching his manifesto for his Kingdom. But it’s not a manifesto like we’ve ever heard of; it’s one where the meek will inherit the earth, that tells you to love your enemies, give to the poor as help the sick. He surrounds himself with the most motley assortment of people, the weirdos, the outcasts, the money-lenders, scabs, hookers and diseased. His own closest followers are uneducated country bumpkins from the middle of nowhere, not the generals, priests and the wealthy diners one normally needs for a revolution! Even worse, he shuns those people in favour of the outcasts! And he touches them! Rather than remaining aloof, away from the unwashed rabble, he rolls up his sleeves and gets on in there, with no fear for his personal health! He touches the blind, the lame, the mentally ill, the lepers and even the dead! He gives out food, washes feet and hugs those who need them. He acts with compassion, not judgement, never turning anyone away who might accept his help! In this way, he became a revolutionary, a man at the vanguard of a new way of life, one that chose to value all people, not just those with power and influence. Anyone could join his movement, regardless of status.
But all revolutionaries run afoul of the authorities eventually, especially when his own people turn on him. They come for him in the night. They put on a show trial with a predetermined outcome. Even when the Roman governor can’t find fault, the frenzy of the crowd cowes him. He releases Barabbas instead, a violent militant on the removal of Roman power. And the self-proclaimed king? Is nailed to some wood and left to die on a hill, his friends, family and followers left to watch as he agonisingly dies.
The Act of Dying
I’ve spent a lot of time reading about death. In history it’s unavoidable. Everyone dies, including Kings and revolutionaries, and they range from the heroic to the cowardly, from the mundane to the ridiculous. But this death is the strangest, and I’ve only just realised why.
One point is that Jesus’ death is kind of pathetic from a human point of view. If you were a King, you may want to die in battle, having cut down a dozen men in a heroic last stand that echoes down through the ages. If you are a revolutionary, perhaps you want the same, maybe after delivering a heroic braveheart-esque “FREEDOM” that ignites rebellion in the populace and that leads your face being plastered on t-shirts and the walls of teenage idealists. But Jesus dies without shouting, not ordering his followers or cursing his enemies. No heroic battle-cry, just suffocating slowly, hanging from a cross. Not exactly epic, is it?
Were the Bible pure propaganda, then you would expect something different. Perhaps a defiant Jesus, killing several people before being overpowered. A Jesus who at his trial delivered a speech so rousing that it rallies people to the cause, causing a revolt and the overthrow of the Roman autocracy. But the Bible doesn’t do these things. It chooses to tell us how the son of God died in public view, slowly suffocating as the pain in his hands and feet grew too unbearable to support his weight to breathe. It chooses to tell us of his cry out to God “My God, my God, hey have you forsaken me!”. It chooses to say he forgave rather than cursed. All this, because that’s what the revolution was about. Love, forgiveness and honesty.
But there is another, far more crucial thing at play here. You see, Kings are kings and revolutionaries are revolutionaries because they are the leaders. They are the names on the banners, the faces on the leaflets, the statues in the town squares. Their image and prestige are everything to their people. They are indispensable. But that means the people, their subjects, are in some way disposable.
Rarely does a King fight on the frontline. They send people to fight for them, choosing instead to sit on their horse overlooking and perhaps directing proceedings. The members of our armed forces swear allegiance to the King or Queen of the day. The President if the United States is the Commander in Chief of the armed forces. And the same is true for all leaders throughout history; they all require grunts to do their bidding for them, and in many cases die for them. For millennia men have marched to war for the cause of their ruler, who does not put himself in harms way, except if he may achieve some glory. And when they are in danger, it doesn’t really matter how many of their people might die for them. When the wolves are at the door, the royals and people of power are often last to die, staying safe behind their walls as the ordinary ones are beaten and killed.
And that’s the distinction between them and the King Jesus. Because Kings don’t die for their people – their people die for them. Thousands, perhaps millions of men may lay down their lives in blood-soaked battlefields for their monarch or leader. But in this case this King, a King who could have wielded power beyond anyone’s wildest dreams, chose to die for his people, and not have his people die for him. His death didn’t come at the end of a long war, with thousands already perishing for his cause. He saw the danger, the threat of sin and death to his people, to all people, and chose to face it himself.
But also unlike other Kings or revolutionaries who die, Jesus is alive now. When these other Kings die, no matter how much wealth they may have had, will end up just like the rest of us plebs, rotting in the ground as worm food. But this man Jesus through his death conquered sin and the power of death itself, and by so doing broke the chains of the rest of us. This King chose to die for you. But his death means new life for us. No other leader would do that for you. So, maybe question your allegiances, because the King who died for you offers something far greater than anything in this world.
I am currently reading Rachel Held Evans’ final book Inspired. I have been meaning to read it ever since she died last year and after enjoying her other books Year of Biblical Womanhood and Searching for Sunday. She had such a beautiful way of writing and it will always be a shame that it was silenced so soon.
Anyway, I have just finished reading the chapter on the deliverance stories and their importance in the bible. She makes the point that these stories mean so much more to certain people because of their circumstances; the language and story of the exodus from Egypt resonated down the centuries to the African slaves stolen from the homes and trafficked across an ocean, where they and their descendants toiled from birth until death, many never knowing freedom. A story of liberation would have meant so much more to them than it does to a white boy from Britain. Evans crafts a fascinating chapter centring around the idea that the wilderness represents moments of change or being lost from God or moments or the journey between two points.
This got me thinking about my own journey. I feel like I am definitely in a wilderness sort of place currently. A lot of the securities in my life, or ones that appeared to be securities fell away or at least became less secure last year. The future for me is uncertain, wild, without a clear path of where to go.
This is something that I think comes up a lot for me, but also many people of my generation: where am I going? We have been brought up into a world where all the usual goals of life (good steady job, married in your twenties, two and a half kids) are still present, but fewer and fewer of us are able to achieve them. My parents were both married by their mid-twenties and had me before they were thirty; I am 26 and single. They were both employed in salaried jobs; I am very much part of the gig economy where zero hour contracts are the norm. And it isn’t just my parents generation either; I have attended four weddings in the past two years and all but one of the individuals getting married were younger than me.
I think God is definitely taking me through the wilderness. But for me, who likes to be in control of what he is doing, this is a bit of a nightmare. Even if what I end up doing is nothing, it is still my choice, and besides, there is no pillar of fire outside of my window last time I looked. But I know that I need to trust in the LORD and not lean on my own understanding. I just need to close my eyes, take a breath and walk humbly with my God.