Thursday, 10 March 2011

The Truth Shall Set You Free.

When Jesus stood before Pontius Pilate he was given a few brief minutes to explain himself to the man who had it within his power to inflict enormous pain and, eventually death. Jesus summed up his life and ministry in these words: "I have come to bear witness to the truth", which is a statement I have always thought significant for what it doesn't say. Pilate responds by asking "what is truth?" - a question steeped in, soaked, boiled and deep tissue injected with agnosticism. I don't think that Pilate saw anything beyond doubt. All claims to truth, he seems to be saying, were ephemeral and personal and tentative, including the claim being made by this odd Galilean whom he was being badgered into crucifying. What he couldn't quite get was that the truth he was doubting, but who knows? - quite genuinely and ardently seeking - was standing right in front of him. He didn't get it for the same reason we don't get things: growing in our grasp of the truth is not about learning things, it is about unlearning things. In Pilate's case, what he had to unlearn was the idea that truth is an idea. He had to get rid of that before he could grasp that the truth was -IS - a person.

God sets us here in fragile, breakable bodies, swamped at every turn by real and present danger and God does this in order that we become whatever it is that only existence in time and space can make us. But we are not treated in this like so many lab experiments. God doesn't seem to have set the equipment up, chucked us into the middle of it all and then nipped out for a pie and a Fanta and left us to get on with it. God seems rather to have taken a passionate interest in how we manage. God's interest in this small corner of the project is so intense, in fact that God has taken form and participated in it personally. I have come to bear witness to the truth.

If we want to know what is at the heart of the universe we need to make the same journey of unlearning that Pilate was invited to take. The truth is witnessed to by the birth, life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. The only trouble is of course, knowing where to look for Jesus Christ.

Given what I said yesterday, most of us have an instinct of where to look, and this instinct is one of the things which must be unlearned. "Knowing" as we do that God only likes the nice bits of life we look where we expect God to be found. So God is present in the acts of kindness and bravery but definitely not in the earthquake that makes them necessary. But there is another image of Jesus that I have been thinking about quite a bit lately: Jesus walking on the water. This incident happened when the disciples got impatient with Jesus' tardiness and took off in the boat without him. So impatient were they, in fact that they didn't even take the time to check out the weather reports and it cost them. Alone on the open lake, blown about by a gale and with  the safe shore lost behind the sheets of driving rain, they were unable to sail or row or steer or do anything except hope that their wives would know where the latest version of the will was kept. And then Jesus was there: not on the safe shore; not in the very approximately safe boat; but walking on the face of the great deep, right in the middle of the raging, howling, threatening death and damnation storm. Whatever you  accept about the literal truth of the story, the metaphorical import of the story is astounding. Jesus wasn't trying to fix or chase away or mend or explain the storm; he was in it, just as, later, he was in the calm and the amazed questioning of afterwards.

We have some unlearning to do. When faced with our own metaphorical storms, our approach is usually therapeutic. That is, we want to fix and heal, or at the very least to give a soothing explanation. So I sit in the office of a kind and intelligent man who explains to me with the candour born of his Hindu faith that I am going to die, and all the statistics give a reasonable idea of when. My instinct is to cry to God to take me to the safe shore; to heal, to restore, to fix it up. But for what? So that I can die of something else a little bit later?

Jesus is in the storm.

God's presence in my disease isn't found in the cure which may or may not come, or in my bravely and nobly enduring it, but in the disease itself. You shall know the truth and the truth shall set you free, said Jesus, and as much as anything I have ever experienced, my cancer has brought me to truth and thus accomplished the purposes for which God placed me on the planet in the first place. In this experience I have unlearned  the fact that I am permanent. I have unlearned the hope that pain is avoidable and the belief  that it is unendurable. I have unlearned my dependence on many things I once thought were essential to my sense of self. I have unlearned the nonsense that I am limitless and am master of my own destiny. I have unlearned my independence of other people.

We all die of something and for many people, that something first knocks on their door and leaves its calling card sometime in their late 50s. So I'm normal. Of course from the point of my diagnosis onwards I have had no intention of curling up and meekly waiting for the skinny guy with the hood and the sickle: life is far too wonderful for me not to put every ounce of effort into wrestling back as many years from him as I possibly can. But looking at my own storm, and trying to see it as truthfully as I can has set me free. I know that what has happened to me is not karma or the Judgement of God. It is the inevitable result of accepting the gift of humanity: a gift which is, in fact, only ours on loan and never for quite as long as we want it but a gift for which I am nonetheless utterly, profoundly grateful. .

5 comments:

Eric Kyte said...

Thanks for this Kelvin
Puts me in mind of Metropolitan Anthony - 'We are always beginning'

VenDr said...

Wow. Being compared to Anthony Bloom! What a way to start the day! Thanks!

Anonymous said...

Thanks for this. This is something to be re-read as it makes so much sense and it's wise and comforting and hopeful.

It has glimmers of both Michael Ramsey and Paul Tillich, though funnily, Ramsey never quite fully warmed to Tillich's writings.

Perhaps your comforting insights reflect, for me, the very best of both Tillich and Ramsey.

Warm Regards,
Blessings.

Julian.

She said she'd never post anon said...

Reading this, it sounds like you've been given some recent news, and it hasn't been good.

All I can say is I've been through death, and it isn't anything to be afraid of. The worst part is dealing with it later, if you're forced back.

If you want someone to talk with, I'll dare to suggest that I'm still here. A friend.

Anonymous said...

very occasionally people compare me with you - and that's always the best way to start my week, let alone a day.