I read a striking essay this week.
Two women counsellors listened to my story. I was prayed for very gently. I was encouraged to forgive all the people I felt had done me real or imaginary hurts throughout my life. It took a long time. Eventually, I came to the last thing, and I couldn’t make a sound. I struggled for words, but they would not come out. The only way I can describe it is to say it was like labour contractions in the chest, not the stomach. I struggled to control my breathing, and eventually gasped out, “I forgive.”
The most amazing inner change occurred instantly. I have never experienced anything like it before or since. I was aware that a huge burden had been lifted. I realized that forgiveness has its own dynamic…
Wow! I emailed the author, asking for suggestions of books on inner healing through forgiveness.
But even before the reply arrived, I said to my soul, “Be still. Oh come on, Anita. It’s the end of a long academic year. Where are you going to summon up the energy for inner healing, counsellors, reading one more heavy book?”
* * *
I was wondering aloud to my husband Roy about why I have a whole lot less energy this month than when I started blogging four years ago.
And then I looked back at the last 12 months. A retreat alone at the Harnhill Centre in Gloucestershire this week last June; a family camper van trip to France, Switzerland and Italy in August, walking in Tuscany with Roy on a pilgrimage with Kim and Penelope Swithinbank in September; a week in a cottage in Cornwall with Roy and Irene in October; a week in Sicily over December with Roy and Irene; a week in the Loire Valley, France, with the family in February, (and returning to find we’d been burgled), a week in Cambodia with Tearfund in March, a week in Spain on retreat in May (just me).
Whoa! T.S. Eliot has this phrase, “Distracted from distraction by distraction.” I have a horror of living like that. Whereas normally travel increases my mental and emotional energy and my productivity, this year—not so. It has decreased it! Over the last ten years, we’ve evolved a rhythm of working hard for six weeks during the girls’ school term, then travelling over the term breaks and coming back full of bounce. This year, however, had Tuscany, Cambodia, Spain and Cirencester breaks during term which were one-offs (I think!) and too much.
I am going to Helsinki next month, and am not up to any extraordinary spiritual or actual effort until then.
* * *
Martin Luther and his great friend and fellow renaissance reformer Philip Melanchthon had a debate on the nature of grace. Melanchthon says grace is like one parent helping a wobbly toddler across the room to the other parent.
Luther says ‘No! We are caterpillars in a ring of fire. Our only hope is that someone from above will rescue us.’
When I am tired, that’s the kind of grace I need. No more DIY spirituality. Just help me, Lord!
* * *
Who, oh Lord could save themselves, their own soul could heal?
I love these words of Matt Redman’s. I hear them sung, and think, “Of course, of course.” To me, they are full of hope.
In my intense thirties, I used to pray: “Lord, I want to be twice as close to you by the end of the year as I am now.” And my game plan? Well, Bible study (45 minutes a day), prayer (45 minutes a day), giving (10% of our income), small groups, church attendance… I even tried to double up, oh yes, I did! Play the Gospels and epistles on CD while doing housework. I jest not!
(And I probably did grow closer to God because of all my striving, but not dramatically so. And, sadly, that’s because I was following the evangelical method of spiritual growth: prayer and Bible study, ever so diligently, but not the ancient, excruciating method outlined by Jesus: Love. “My command is this: Love one another.” Had I done this I would have been pushed into Jesus far sooner.)
The disciplines advocated by Richard Foster in his splendid “Celebration of Discipline”—prayer, study, worship, service, have some value. They make us more disciplined people!
But they cannot change our hearts.
If prayer, spiritual reading, Bible study, church attendance and giving could save us, we would not need God.
We’d be able to save ourselves.
But when Christians self-destruct—destroying their marriages, their ministries and themselves—it’s because of their hearts. Outwardly, we may be blameless—we read our Bibles, and lead and preach and give. Inwardly, there’s ice in our hearts and vitriol in our veins.
* * *
We cannot change our own hearts.
We cannot make ourselves love our enemies. Heck, we cannot even make ourselves love our family and our friends.
Ha, if forgiveness was a mere act of will, who would heft around the gorilla of grudges and grievances on their backs? We need God’s help to forgive.
We cannot unaided shed the envy that sends its distracting spider tentacles through our hearts; who’d choose that cancer?
We cannot get rid of the spiders of fear than lurk hidden in the recesses of our minds, that crippling rejection-sensitivity. Who wouldn’t want sunlight and bravery?
If self-help could save us, Christians would be the happiest and healthiest people in the world.
* * *
We are caterpillars in a ring of fire, but we often forget this because we are rather clever caterpillars, all bristle and camouflage and colour and potential.
And if the definition of insanity is to do the same thing we did before and hope for a different result, we are insane caterpillars, trying to change ourselves by the strategies which failed every time.
* * *
But remembering that someone can lift us caterpillars out of the ring of fire is the true magic of the spiritual life.
And the theological word for this magic is: Grace.
* * *
Self-effort cannot save me. If it could, I would have attained perfection decades ago.
But what if God watches all our busy-bee effort to save ourselves with a sad smile, knowing he can put on all the lights in our soul, can change its deep structure, accomplishing in a moment what we have toiled at and failed at through all our decades of spiritual effort.
* * *
In future, I am not going to try to save myself before I have asked for just one touch from the King. He may touch me and change me in an instant, or he may decide it’s best I grow strength through many sets and repetitions.
There is a short-cut between heaven and earth, fingers which can lift the caterpillar out of the ring of fire—or, better still, metamorphose her into a butterfly.
Lord, remind that my first course of action should be to ask you to lift me out the ring of fire in every challenge I face.
Come, Holy Spirit.