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Islands in the snow

Being of an uncertain footing on the levelest and driest of surfaces, the recent wintry outburst marooned me in our house for four days straight, with little but my Bible, my Kindle, several bottles of red wine, and a dangerously diminishing supply of apples, carrots and peanut butter. I was panicked -- not just about how I would sustain myself without said staples, but about the potential repercussions of sustained solitude. It felt like a return to the 'bad old days', when sitting around on my own was my predominant activity, and I was worried that I would quickly re-adapt and would struggle to remember how to be around people once the sun came out and melted my excuse for isolation.

The episode was not without its advantages though. For one thing, it gave me a good clear stretch to finish Robinson Crusoe -- a book which, I confess, I was not overly sorry to escape from. Less "rousing testimony to the triumph of human spirit in the face of adversity", more "middle-classness will out..." He begins with nothing...and winds up with a town house, a country house, a fully stocked kitchen garden, a herd of goats, a host of pets, a boat, and a folding umbrella! [Reminds me of the Marks and Spencer's ad campaign of a few years back: "This is not just survival...*Santana plays in the background*..."] During the process, he also undergoes a kind of religious awakening, finding a Bible amongst the things rescued from the wreck of the ship's boat and discovering a deeper understanding and renewed piety, as well as an increased tendency to acknowledge providence and grace.

However, the book almost inseparably associates Christianity with being 'civilised' and respectable; moreover, it displays some truly hideous ideas about racial superiority (sadly not unique to Defoe within the culture from which he was speaking). Crusoe's unchallenged contentment to take and treat (and even sell) other people as slaves, and to assume ownership and lordship over the land that he builds his new life in, jars somewhat with his profession of faith; it is unsettling to see Jesus being aligned with ideas which seem so obviously at odds with his teaching and example. Of course, every follower of Jesus, and I count myself among the worst offenders, produces a lifetime's worth of life which is at odds with his teaching and example -- even as we experience grace for continued transformation. And, shocking though it seems to us now, racial superiority and the acceptability of slavery was so culturally ingrained in Defoe's world that even many with sincere faith and relationship with God continued blind for a long time. It is scary -- really scary, really -- to consider what our own cultural blindspots might be and how they will look in (say) 100 years time.

There were some aspects of the 'Christian' element of the book that I found I could identify with, though. Most especially, the theme of Crusoe's eventual gratitude for, and contentment within, the reduced circumstances which produced, for him, the opportunity to grow in faith:
I gave humble and hearty thanks that God had been pleased to discover to me that it was possible I might be more happy in this solitary condition than I should have been in the liberty of society, and in all the pleasures of the world; that He could fully make up to me the deficiencies of my solitary state, and the want of human society, by His presence and the communications of His grace to my soul; supporting, comforting, and encouraging me to depend upon His providence here, and hope for His eternal presence hereafter.
It was now that I began sensibly to feel how much more happy this life I now led was, with all its miserable circumstances, than the wicked, cursed, abominable life I led all the past part of my days; and now I changed both my sorrows and my joys; my very desires altered, my affections changed their gusts, and my delights were perfectly new from what they were at my first coming, or, indeed, for the two years past. (Daniel Defoe, Robinson Crusoe)
Reminded me of the 'Teth' stanza of Psalm 119:
You have dealt well with your servant,
    O Lord, according to your word.
Teach me good judgement and knowledge,
    for I believe in your commandments.
Before I was afflicted I went astray,
    but now I keep your word.
You are good and do good;
    teach me your statutes.
It is good for me that I was afflicted,
    that I might learn your statutes.
The law of your mouth is better to me
    than thousands of gold and silver pieces. (Psalm 119:65-68, 71-72)
I guess it might sound harsh, unpleasant, unnatural, that God should administer grace and blessing through 'affliction'. It's a bit different when you feel like you've experienced it personally: it just wouldn't be possible to separate some of the transformational and revelatory stuff I've learnt or received from the toughness of the accompanying circumstances -- even to the point where I can honestly say I'm grateful for those hard times, and wouldn't swap them for an easier ride... Wow. At the time, there is no way I could have begun to imagine ever saying or feeling such things. Such is the power of redemptive grace...

Most of the hardship in Paul's life specifically resulted from his faith in the good news about Jesus and his commitment to sharing that with other people. And yet, he saw fit to 'boast' about that fact:
Five times I received at the hands of the Jews the forty lashes less one. Three times I was beaten with rods. Once I was stoned. Three times I was shipwrecked; for a night and a day I was adrift at sea; on frequent journeys, in danger from rivers, danger from robbers, danger from my own people, danger from Gentiles, danger in the city, danger in the wilderness, danger at sea, danger from false brothers; in toil and hardship, through many a sleepless night, in hunger and thirst, often without food, in cold and exposure. [...] For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong. (2 Corinthians 11:24-27, 12:10)
His struggles represented, to him, a testimony of grace and miraculous provision, and of God's strength in the midst of his own weakness; they prompted him to trust God more fully; they reminded him that his 'success' was not brought about by his own efforts or by good fortune, but by God at work in him and through him -- and was therefore something truly worth being confident in and excited about. "But we have this treasure in jars of clay, to show that the surpassing power belongs to God and not to us." (2 Corinthians 4:7)

Circumstances, then -- a few frustrating days trapped in the house by the weather, or the longer-term isolation of mental illness, or a life of persecution and danger...and the good times too -- fun, and friendship, and family, and success, and celebration [1]...I firmly believe that any or all of these things can be openings for God to speak into our lives; all of them can prompt us to seek Him, to investigate if He's really there and, if so, what He's like, to listen more closely for His voice, to depend on Him, to lament before Him, or to praise and thank Him... But, all of them can also be distractions or excuses for us to ignore or dismiss Him. When life is full of heartache, why would we believe in (or want to know) a God who allowed it to be so? When life is full of fun, why would we want to risk encountering a God who might spoil it for us, take up all our time for Himself, and make us give up all of our favourite things?

Pascal uses an island as a picture of the universal human experience of 'being'...
When I see the blindness and the wretchedness of man, when I regard the whole silent universe, and man without light, left to himself, and, as it were, lost in this corner of the universe, without knowing who has put him there, what he has come to do, what will become of him at death, and incapable of all knowledge, I become terrified, like a man who should be carried in his sleep to a dreadful desert island, and should awake without knowing where he is, and without means of escape. And thereupon I wonder how people in a condition so wretched do not fall into despair. I see other persons around me of a like nature. I ask them if they are better informed than I am. They tell me that they are not. And thereupon these wretched and lost beings, having looked around them, and seen some pleasing objects, have given and attached themselves to them. For my own part, I have not been able to attach myself to them, and, considering how strongly it appears that there is something else than what I see, I have examined whether this God has not left some sign of Himself. (Blaise Pascal, Pensées, 692)
By contrast with Crusoe, who allows his circumstances to incline his heart towards God, most of the inhabitants of Pascal's island respond to their circumstances by distracting themselves with whatever comforting diversions they can find. Pascal suggests, gently, that they are irrational and unwise to do this -- there is evidence of 'something else', and he is not content to ignore that evidence. (Most of his writings are aimed at encouraging the 'wretched and lost beings' around him to open their eyes and investigate for themselves). T.S. Eliot, inspired by John 1, explores his own idea of the 'evidence' and our response to it in the poem Ash Wednesday:
If the lost word is lost, if the spent word is spent
If the unheard, unspoken
Word is unspoken, unheard;
Still is the unspoken word, the Word unheard,
The Word without a word, the Word within
The world and for the world;
And the light shone in darkness and
Against the Word the unstilled world still whirled
About the centre of the silent Word. 
O my people, what have I done unto thee. 
Where shall the word be found, where will the word
Resound? Not here, there is not enough silence
Not on the sea or on the islands, not
On the mainland, in the desert or the rain land,
For those who walk in darkness
Both in the day time and in the night time
The right time and the right place are not here
No place of grace for those who avoid the face
No time to rejoice for those who walk among noise and deny the voice 
(T.S. Eliot, from Ash Wednesday
Similar to Pascal, Eliot seems to suggest that wherever we are, whatever our circumstances, if we won't hear, we won't hear. I have awakened to something of this in myself lately -- suddenly becoming aware that I had begun more than usually pursuing life on my own terms and completely forgetting to listen. The danger was all the greater because 'my own terms' seem quite decent, and reasonable, and 'good' -- so there's a fair old dose of spiritual pride in play. But in practice, I'd been reading the Bible less, and hastily; praying in the mornings, but then largely disengaging from God as I 'got on with my day' (which is, after all, when I most need Him). I was "honouring [Him] with my lips, while my heart was far from [Him]". (Matthew 15:5, quoting Isaiah 29:13)

By contrast, the Bible has a lot to say about God's availability to those who actively seek Him:
  • "The Lord is near to all who call on him, to all who call on him in truth." (Psalm 145:18) 
  • "Ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives, and the one who seeks finds, and to the one who knocks it will be opened." (Matthew 7:7-8)
  • The parable of the Prodigal Son: "And he arose and came to his father. But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and felt compassion, and ran and embraced him and kissed him." (Luke 15:20)
  • "Draw near to God, and He will draw near to you..." (James 4:8)
To those like me who believe in the possibility of relationship with God, but sometimes (often?) opt for an easy life of vague piety and safe distance... Really? Do we really want to turn down the 'more' that we supposedly believe He has in store for us? As for the skeptical... I can well imagine how strange it must look from an outside perspective. In a Dylan Moran routine I was watching the other day was the line:
"I respect all the [religious] differences, but I once said that if you believe in any of them, you are a moron. ... The thing is, to me, it really is just people talking about their imaginary friend." (Dylan Moran, Monster, 2004)
If that is what you think of my claimed 'relationship with God' I don't know what I could say to convince you of the powerful, two-way, transformational reality of it. After all, in your eyes I'm just one more mentally unstable person with an imaginary friend...why would you trust anything I say? [2] I mean, seriously -- if you really do think that, one might argue you'd be pretty crazy to hear me out on any subject of more import than the current weather. Trouble is, there is something of a circular argument in play there, and one which becomes even more problematic when you start factoring in the substantial number of other people who share in that particular aspect of my 'instability'. One thing I would say to someone trapped in such reasoning is that I hope they have at least done (or are prepared to do) some 'drawing near'/listening/seeking/investigating of their own. After all, the Bible seems to be making some testable claims on this front. To dismiss them without testing, well -- would that be rational? I'd be tempted to say that it looks more like an act of fear, but on a good day I'm vaguely wise enough not to guess at the motives of another's heart.

[1] All of these blessings put in an appearance last week when I celebrated my graduation... :-D More about that another time, maybe. Lots to be grateful for, anyway.

[2] It probably doesn't help that I have had various 'mental-type struggles' -- and tend to be quite open about this. Although, I can say confidently that there has usually been a remarkable correlation between seasons of 'closeness with God' and 'good mental health' as typically understood... Make of that what you will!