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July 2017

The Healing Moment: Towards Wholeness

Photo on 08-10-2016 at 10.51

Just over five years ago, aged 58, I suddenly, after a lifetime of being in pretty good health, mysteriously and suddenly collapsed; I was rushed to hospital where after a week's tests I discovered there was a small, dark 'shadow' in my small intestines. They didn't know what it was, but they did know it shouldn't be there, so they advised an operation. The morning after a five hour and extremely dangerous operation - as it proved to be - I woke to find the surgeon informing me that he had removed two malignant sarcomas (a very rare form of cancer effectively), one the size of a grapefruit, the other the size of an avocado; the latter pressed against an artery and threatened to split it. Which would have meant instant death. So much for ‘small’.

Unfortunately, the operation wasn't successful and two weeks later I had another five-hour operation and by this time some 30% of my small intestines had been removed: that's about 6-7 feet of internal tubing. Then they waited, for my system to kick in and work, which it didn't. So I went on to Nil by Mouth for nearly 5 weeks. For those who don't know Nil by Mouth it means that I couldn't eat or drink anything; all nutrition came, belatedly, via an IV Drip. Personally, I found the hunger easy to deal with, but the thirst - the unending desire to drink water, the dryness of the throat - is a torture almost beyond bearing. And I say belatedly because they took a while to realise that I needed the drip, and so I was wasting away. I read in America that 40% of cancer patients die of malnutrition, and I lost about 4.5 stone in that period, and looked like somebody from Auschwitz or Belsen. Indeed, I looked like somebody who was soon to die.

I should say at this point that my parents were atheists, and I was myself, but I had become a Christian in my mid-twenties, and a Quaker when I was about 50. And by the time I was taken ill had no previous experience of strange or mystical experiences.

Thus it was that during my 3 month stay in the Royal Bournemouth Hospital, lying in the hospital bed, early one evening, practising meditative breathing in order to control the pain, psychological and physical, and resisting - which I did consistently - the urge to activate the morphine drip that I was supplied and that they were eager that I used - I had a healing experience which changed my life.

I was staring at the blank ceiling above my bed. Without warning, effortlessly, I suddenly found that my consciousness was leaving my body and heading up and out into deep space. It was not alarming; I was curious. Ahead of me in the deep black I saw a light. Aware my body was far behind me on Earth, I willed my consciousness to head towards the light. As I approached I saw what looked like a huge, white, translucent index finger wrapping white - what appeared to be - candy floss round in a spiral, shell-like pattern. Intrigued, I willed myself closer. The finger casually flexed itself and just flicked the candy floss which spun off into space; as it did so, equally casually, the finger seemed to trail lightly behind.

Then I realised with total astonishment that this wasn't candy floss but an enormous white star that the finger had created and set off into its orbit in the cosmos. I realised that God - the mere finger of God - was about what it was always about: creation, and a star had been born. And as this sunk into my consciousness I became critically aware of the disparity between myself - helpless in pain, consigned to death on a hospital bed - and the Lord of all Glory, serene above the clouds, in deep space, creating a star. My whole consciousness was swept by an anguish that shook me to the roots of my being, and I cannot claim that I willed it, but almost involuntarily, as if I had been taken over by the Power who enabled me to do the only proper thing: my consciousness cried out in deep despair, 'God help me'. It was the simplest and profoundest of prayers.

And there in deep space as I made the cry, the finger instantly, broke from its casual sauntering, and like a gun turned and aimed itself at me. Before I could think what did it mean, the finger rushed straight at me - faster than light itself - and I simultaneously recoiled backwards and in one consummate movement I was abruptly back in my body as the finger went straight into me: straight into the point where the operation had opened up my intestines. It was like some pulverising shock, and I felt as if my whole body bolted upwards in the bed some six inches or more - though probably only less than an inch -  and then thudded backwards, relapsing as it were, on the bed.

There I was: my whole being suddenly and immediately was immersed, was saturated, in joy, sheer joy. The physical and psychological pain had all vanished, all gone. I felt the presence of God - which even to recall now fills me with awe and fear and trembling, like nothing else - and I wept. Not tears of pain; I wept tears of joy. And I became aware that I could die now; and thoughts of my wife and children came to my mind, and I saw the pain of leaving them, especially their pain in not having me. But selfish as it sounds, it didn't matter - dying was better, to be with God. Because, anyway, this power, just as it had looked after me, would look after them; in His hand, everything was possible. So I wept more, and more, and became aware too of the deepest thing of all: the one word for me that described this God who held me now. The 'purity' of God. I struggle to convey my sense of it. How unworthy I felt in myself, and yet God held me: the disparity between my unworthiness and His purity; my weakness and His strength; between my mortality and His unquenchable life.

 I wept yet I was in perfect peace, and in a perfect place where I never wanted to leave. My body curled up into a foetal position, and like some baby being rocked, slowly, slowly, I drifted into sleep. How long had the experience been? I do not know - maybe 30 mins - but it may have been 2 minutes or 2 hours.

But here's the thing: in all my 3 months in hospital I never got one night's sleep. The maximum was 2 hours before one was awoken by something or other. Yet on this night, for some reason, I slept till the new nurse shift at 6.00 the following morning. A perfect and profound night's sleep of at least 6 if not 7 hours. I woke feeling as if I had had pleasant dreams, which I could not remember, and feeling so refreshed. But more than that I woke knowing one other thing: that I wasn't going to die from this cancer now, that I was going to leave the hospital, and that I was going to re-create my life.

Curiously, too, my youngest son came to visit me from his university sometime after, and he told me. Dad, he said, I had a dream. In the dream I was crying and crying. Suddenly a man - a woman? -  a being of light stood before me and said, 'Why are you crying?'

And I said, 'Because my father is dying'.

And he said, 'Stop crying, your father is not going to die. He has not finished his mission yet'. The being disappeared and my son instantly woke with the scene fresh in his mind.

So I have come to believe that what happened to me - the healing that has allowed me to re-enter life - that has re-claimed me for a mission - is not unique to me or even to do with my being special in some way. No, as I contemplate that finger, and those words, I realise that every single human being is precious to God, and everyone has a mission - that their words and actions count. When we abandon these beliefs we are no better than atheists, and just as hopeless. True healing is from God - the Spirit - the Light - the Christ and I feel blessed to have directly experienced it. For this is the strange reality it has led me to: I am glad that I had the cancer - still have the cancer - I am glad that my pain and suffering enabled me to have the opportunity to experience the mercy, the compassion, and the healing of the Lord. And as a result I feel unafraid of death in a way that would have been impossible before this illness overtook me.

Review: The Naked God – Wrestling for a Grace-ful Humanity by Vincent Strudwick

Rowan Williams describes The Naked God as a “tremendously engaging and positive book”, and indeed it is just that. The author, Vincent Strudwick, must be at least 84 years old but he writes with the fire, passion and conviction of a man half his age. And the book is a strange amalgam of autobiography, Twentieth Century church history, radical polemic, and cri de coeur for a better world, a better church, and a better outcome for all, especially the dispossessed, the poor and the suffering.

What is his book about then? Essentially, it is about the re-imagining of the role of the church, specifically the Anglican community (but his principles extend to all churches), in the modern world. Citing the ideas of Christopher Dawson that the church has had six different and distinctive ages – the Apostolic, the Fathers, the Carolingian, the Middle Ages, the Renaissance and Reformation, and the Enlightenment – but that a seventh and very different age is now upon us. And, Strudwick argues, this new age is revealing the very real inadequacies of contemporary Anglican practises and beliefs both during the Twentieth Century and in the present. In the final part of the book Strudwick does present some glimmers of hope, although I must say I did not personally find them very hopeful, as they appeared to me patchy: patchy in that he describes small, isolated activities and also patchy in that commendably they cover a problem, but sadly only in a piecemeal way.

The essence of what is wrong with the Church is summed up in diagram in the chapter, Towards A Very Odd Church Indeed. Here we have three types of response to Christianity: the traditional, the liberal and the radical. There is little doubt where Strudwick’s loyalties are: the radical. So, for example, in the series of contrasts he draws, under the heading ‘Power’, the traditional wants ‘authority ...mediated through a hierarchy’; whereas the liberal position is ‘about management’; and finally the radical wants ‘all contribute through participation and challenge’. Or take the topic of Ideology: the traditional want ‘Divine right: it is all ordained’; whereas the liberal sees ‘the market leads’; and the radical says, ‘conflict must be recognised and worked at’.

It is all very admirable and I especially like his exhaustive and extremely interesting notes that consistently punctuate the text. Strudwick is well-versed in not only the history and traditions of the Anglican church, but also of other denominations, especially Catholics, too. Even the Quakers get a mention (though not in the Index, bizarrely). When near the end of his very long – and life time - tether with the Anglican church and its intransigent refusal to embrace radicalism, it is to the Quakers that he, via Richard Holloway, turns: “Quakers believed in the authority of the inner light … and if the Bible said otherwise, then the Bible was wrong”. On top of that Strudwick likes and cites frequently too the poets and literature. Wonderful – a small cornucopia of heaven for someone like me.

But that said, there are some less pleasing aspects of this narrative. The autobiographical weave reveals someone who has been at the centre of things for a long time, but possibly too obsessed with the centre. First, there is a slightly wearisome sense of name-dropping, especially of all the Archbishops of Canterbury over the decades but of other luminaries too. Then he also seems to think that re-hashing his notes or ideas from conferences held decades ago is going to prove useful or interesting. In his mind, clearly, he is still fighting those fights, but what I think we need is more core summaries and moving on to where we are now. A good example of this is where he repeats the ‘guidelines’ for the 1997 Quebec Conference where the ‘Anglican Bishop of Quebec, the Rt Rev. Bruce Stavert invited’ him to lead with the title ‘Models for a Changing Church’ – and then half a page of guidelines. The whole thing is too micro-orientated and the big picture is somewhat blurred by all this detail; though, I do not doubt Strudwick was very pleased to be invited to speak, as is clear in other examples.

Perhaps my biggest criticism, however, would be that for all his energy and enthusiasm for his Church, I am not sure he really empathises with those who disagree, or sees accurately the nature of what he is debunking. As the book progresses, we sense more and more how in tune with John Robinson’s ‘Honest to God’ position he is, and this position, of course, de-mythologises Christianity. It becomes apparent that Strudwick does not believe in miracles or in other core aspects of the Creeds as traditionally understood, and there are consequences of this which I think are important.

First, whilst he genuinely wants to help the poor, he seems not to realise that the de-mythologised version of Christianity he is advocating is not something the under-educated – often the poor – often readily ‘understand’ or ‘get’; and what – despite his assertion about the personhood of Christ being central – this comes down to is that why bother with Christianity at all? We just need to love people and have plenty of soup-kitchens? But the problem with that, it seems for Strudwick, is that he’d miss his cathedrals! Behind the radical, perhaps, a traditionalist in some profound and uneasy ways.

Moreover, he writes, “Many were horrified by the sight of the bishops lining up in the House of Lords to vote against equal marriage, which had so much support in society at large, especially amongst the younger population that the church so desperately wanted to attract.” This is a complex issue, but one thing I think is certainly true: Christianity, and no other religion I know of, has its policies and beliefs dictated by popular vote or plebiscite. Indeed, the Bible wisely advises us not to conform to the thinking of this world, but to be transformed by the renewing of our minds. For all the analysis and learning, I suspect Strudwick is simply a partisan: even his phrase ‘equal marriage’ begs the question in advance of determining if such a thing is right or wrong, or good or bad. The early Christians went to their deaths because they did not conform with what society thought right and proper, but that doesn’t seem to have occurred to Strudwick as even a spiritual possibility, so fixated is he on getting people into church and thereby re-vitalising it.

There is a lot to commend in this book, and it is certainly an interesting read: I did not want to put it down, although I found plenty in it which I thought undigested, naïve and – yes – desperate. But for an overview of the Anglican church in the Twentieth Century this is a useful and gripping story., despite getting overloaded at times with finicky details.

Review: Unbelievable? Why, after 10 years of Talking with Atheists, I’m Still a Christian

Quakers like words, and they produce enough of them, but if there is one form of words they are perhaps sceptical about, it is probably that type that is called ‘Apologetics’. Apologetics have been with Christianity since the very beginning; Christ himself engaged in them with his disputes against the Pharisees and Sadducees, and St Peter himself, as Justin Brierley notes, advises Christians to ‘always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks of you the reason for the hope that you have’ (1 Peter 3.15). Indeed, Christianity has been arguing with the world ever since its foundation; and whereas in the first century AD the opponents were either, mainly, the Jewish legalists or the pagans, now the enemy on the doorstep tends to be the atheists with their assault on Christianity in particular and religions in general. But as I say, Quakers tend to be apologetics-averse and for two very good reasons: first, because they are not a credal-type of religion, and so just as this makes them trickier to attack, so they have less reason to rebut and dispute; and this leads to the second reason, which is that the lack of creeds is quite deliberate in that early on Quakers realised that words, and forms of words, led to ceaseless wrangling – and even actual violence – that contradicted the spirit of Christ and what His inner meaning is: namely, peace and love. For these reasons, then, Quakerism does not much engage in apologetics, and prefers to be more experiential than intellectual in its approach to true religion.

I am a Quaker myself, so obviously I think this is a good thing. But I can also see its danger; and one such danger that I frequently encounter and is directly attributable to the lack of apologetics – or ‘think-through’ – is that acceptance of a wishy-washy kind of love that accepts everybody and so proclaims that all religions are equal, we are all on the same path, and we are all – eventually - going to the same destination. To me this (not the acceptance of all people but the belief consequent from it) is self-evident tosh because, were it true, there would be no reason to become a Quaker; indeed, why adopt any religion at all if all roads lead to the same place? The answer that one simply prefers being a Quaker is so weak because it leads one into the wilderness of entire subjectivism, and all that that entails, which includes deep atheism and the undermining of all true morality (which Quakers, wishing to emphasise the power of love, are most keen to sustain).

Thus, a book like Justin Brierley’s “Unbelievable”, on the face of it, is not a book that many Quakers are going to like. It is published by SPCK, so has an evangelical flavour anyway; it is overtly argumentative (though in a deeply respectful way – more anon on this); and it explicitly supports traditional and credal Christianity (an anathema to many Quakers). So, should you buy or read it?

Well, in my opinion, absolutely yes: I loved the book, and I think all fair-minded Quakers will. I wasn’t aware before I read it that there is a radio station in Oxford called Premier Christian Radio (available in podcasts, so you don’t need to be in Oxford) whose flagship programme is called, Unbelievable?, and on a weekly basis for the last ten years or more Justin Brierley invites two guests (it started with one atheist and one Christian, but expanded to include other religions) to debate their beliefs, and he hosts/referees this. It has led to some phenomenal guests either appearing in the show or in his being able to contact and interview; for example, famous types like Derren Brown and Richard Dawkins on behalf of atheists, and people of the stature of Alister McGrath and William Lane Craig on behalf of Christianity. The thing is, and what is so refreshing, is the respect and devotion almost, that Brierley pays to the ‘opposition’. There is no doubt he is a Christian and where his loyalties rest, but it is clear too that the best arguments for atheism have seriously challenged his position, his beliefs, and he has had to do some very heavy wrestling to be able to remain standing in his faith.

What we get in this book is a wonderfully respectful account of the very best arguments for atheism, often using the words from the ‘expert’ atheists themselves; and we get some of their adversaries’ ripostes and gems of wisdom too; and we get Brierley in the middle trying to make sense of it and, critically, truly anxious to avoid trivialising the matters or ever appearing smug about them. Towards the end of the book he observes, perhaps ruefully, but accurately: “In the end, nobody gets argued into the kingdom of heaven”.

Because he starts from this respectful, opening, and listening base, the net result is that I think this is one of the best books on apologetics I have read – and I have read a lot. There is a clarity here which is a joy to read, and especially to follow his thinking as it emerges. It would be too much to describe all that he covers, but in my view there are 4 main (‘main’ in the sense that ordinary people can get it – not just philosophers and theologians) arguments for the existence of God and subsequently of Christianity: one, the argument from design and the structure of the cosmos; two, the argument from the existence of objective morality; three, the historical argument, which includes discussion of the Bible and other related historical documents; and four, the one that Quakers especially like, the argument from personal experience. The pros and cons of each of these arguments are superbly covered in this book, and I found myself gaining new insights and perspectives from reading it.

For example, he quotes Os Guinness tellingly: “The Christian faith is not true because it works; it works because it is true”. Or, take the surprising riposte to atheism’s most effective argument against God, the problem of pain and suffering. Brierley, whilst exhibiting due compassion and humility in the face of what often appears to be its full enormity, then turns its cutting edge wholly against the atheists themselves: “Within Christian belief, suffering is at least a mystery we can hope to make sense of. In atheism, it is simply meaningless.” That – that – is perfectly put. It’s all very well atheists going on about ‘How can a loving God allow …” but what do they offer by way of exchange? Absolutely nothing at all, except we die, we rot. A more hopeless and useless position, it seems to me, cannot be imagined. If the situation of human life is bad with Christianity, then, Brierley is suggesting, atheism only makes it far worse.

There are nuggets of insight and information everywhere in the book. I was amused towards the end by a statistic that Brierley quotes that, despite the disproportionate noise that atheism makes, on a global level atheism is shrinking as a proportion of the world’s population: “In 1970, atheists made up 4.5% of the world’s population. That figure shrank to 2% in 2010 and is projected to drop to 1.8% by 2020”.  However, Brierley certainly doesn’t wish for them not to exist! Au contraire, he fully acknowledges what he has learnt from them, and how their existence how sharpened his own Christianity; for the truth is, it is so easy to become complacent about religion and dismissive of other people’s perspectives, and to retire into private spiritual ghettos. The Dawkins of this world, then, provide – despite their intentions – a salutary wake-up call to Christianity to get its act together, and to get its thinking right.

Finally, there is a lot in this book – since I have already mentioned Dawkins – about science and its supposed incompatibility with God. Clearly, Brierley rejects this notion and adduces a lot of authorities and ideas which also reject it too. But there is a wonderful quotation which he uses as an epigraph to Chapter 2 that is worth quoting in full: “The first gulp from the glass of natural sciences will turn you into an atheist, but at the bottom of the glass God is waiting for you”. This is attributed to Werner Heisenberg. How wonderful, how appropriate!

If you are interested at all in strengthening the intellectual basis of your Christian faith, then I strongly recommend you read this book.