Everything has a Context…

“I am a rock,
I am an island.”

I am a Rock; Paul Simon 1965

I’ve had this song stuck  in my head for a couple of days now. I like Simon & Garfunkel. Their songs often reflect where I am. Billy Joel is another favourite of mine, in fact I’m fairly sure his “Innocent Man” album was written specifically about my life at that point!

I’ve been feeling a little out of sorts recently. My focus, which with ADD isn’t great to start with, has been off. Physically I’ve been in pain for longer than I can remember and it’s getting worse, my psychologist had to postpone my appointment with him for this coming week (I see this guy because he’s also got Bible Study qualifications – my experience with non-Christian psychologists has been less than great and very expensive) and my ability to help the people I care about as an individual is compromised because of all of the preceding factors.

BUT…

Things are changing. Finally.

Despite the best efforts of my family I’ve felt very isolated the last few years. As a group we’ve had some major issues to deal with, which are not my testimony to share, and as an individual I’ve had to deal with an altered reality after finding the context of my early life changed by initially one, now two medical discoveries: ADD being the first, and a diagnosis of Schoemann’s Disease – a condition where the vertebrae in the thoracic part of my spine are not “normal” leading to chronic back pain – being the second, and I only found out about that a month ago. It changed the context of my life – again – and I’m dealing with the change that means for me, and my perspective of who I am and have been for 44 years.

“Have you considered my servant Job?” asks God several times in Job. Satan takes his family, influences the “helpful” comments of his wife and friends, bankrupts him and finally is given leave to attack his body as long as he does not actually kill the man of God.

Job refuses to curse God or blame Him for his current situation, no matter how bad it gets. He can’t see it, but somehow he recognises there is another perspective to what he’s experiencing and God will be faithful if he remains true to his God.

So true he remains.

And God restores him with more than he’d originally lost.

Job realises his life is part of a context he can’t quite see.

Now I said things are rough. I’m not Job, but I can see how the guy could be tempted to quit. Isolation is not a good thing. Job’s friends and his wife left him feeling isolated, marooned on his own private island of contemplation.

That’s the part where I identify. 17 years ago at this tie of 1999 I was facing the imminent death of my dad from cancer. We knew it was coming, the tumour in his brain could not be completely removed because – as I understand it – a glioblastoma sets “roots” into surrounding tissue. Brain tissue. The tumour they removed was the size of a grapefruit. For a while dad’s personality returned, but there was damage. He lost his sense of balance and had to use a wheelchair or walking sticks to he didn’t fall over. I had made a mistake that had undone my faith to see him healed: I had asked the doctor straight out if the tumour would kill him. Rookie mistake. We place weight on the words spoken by experts, and when the answer came back “yes”, my ability to pray without doubt for healing was shattered and I didn’t have enough time for it to recover before he died.

I’ve built walls,
A fortress deep and mighty,
That none may penetrate.
I have no need of friendship; friendship causes pain.
It’s laughter and it’s loving I disdain.
I am a rock,
I am an island.

I felt alone then, despite my mum’s best efforts. I realise now she needed me to need her so she wasn’t alone, but I was broken badly and couldn’t get past it.

In many ways I feel similarly broken at the moment. Lots of people are reaching out to help, but I seem to be unable to express what I really need – probably because I’m not 100% sure. I want them to be around and help me with what I’m going through, but at the same time I want them to butt out and leave me alone to do things my own way. The two are mutually exclusive.

I have my books
And my poetry to protect me;
I am shielded in my armour,
Hiding in my room, safe within my womb.
I touch no one and no one touches me.
I am a rock,
I am an island.

But things are changing. My time as an island is drawing to a close, finally.

Our regular receptionist is on leave this week so we have another lady filling in. I find it easier to relax with our stand-in for some reason I have yet to figure out. My wife is going to be in doing more hours, which I’m nervous about but is a good thing in the long run. We have a lady starting this week who I’m training to take over the part of the job I can no longer do. Exciting times.

We live in an isolated world today.

Growing up, “social networking” meant having my best mate over to play “Elite” on my computer, a few of us getting together to go for a walk, cycling to the local reservoir or just to hang out and talk. The internet hadn’t been invented yet, and my current SIM card has more memory than my computer did then.

Simpler times. And harder to be isolated in. We were there – physically – for one another. When my brother died I was with a good friend. I spent the next few days in the company of him and a handful of other real friends, not “virtual” ones.

I wasn’t an island. I couldn’t be. At a party I’d be the guy sitting in the corner making small-talk with the potted fern, sure, but in real-life when the ones tormenting me were split off from the group I was also the go-to guy for real advice. And I had go-to friends when I needed advice as well.

There’s a place here in South Africa I love to visit, although it’s been a couple of years since I was able to. Jongensgat has 2 timber cottages that have electricity and running water but no phone. No TV or internet either. My cell-phone gets no reception there.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
View from Jongensgat cottage

When you go with a few people you have no option but to interact. There’s no sense of urgency. Whilst there is a kitchen, cooking is done over a slow fire by the door in a potjie – a cast-iron pot that resembles a small cauldron – and the stews it creates take several hours to cook, so you settle down with a glass of wine, scotch (or two), cider or beer and talk. It’s a great way to be.

You get to really know people after a few days in that environment. The artificial barriers we put up as social norms begin to come down and we rediscover we were meant for fellowship. God was right when He said it is not good for man to be alone. Alone we kind of find new and improved ways of screwing up – not that it is possible to underestimate the impact of large groups of stupid people.

But to be able to unplug with people you care about and remind yourself why you care about them is very important.

Even Jesus had friends. He spent over 3 years walking around the countryside with 12 guys, talking, joking, eating, sleeping and praying together. And that’s just the time we know about from the Gospels. He was over 30 when executed, so some of those guys He’d probably known for some time. He was God, but He was human too – and humans are designed to function around other humans. His nature as God could not escape the fact that as Man, Jesus had needs. He needed rest, sleep, companionship. Maslow’s hierarchy would apply to Jesus just as much as it does to you and me.

Yes, Jesus drew away from time to time to be alone. We all need to do that sometimes, but He came back because as a man He was designed to need company of humans – and God designed humans to be His friends, not automatons mindlessly worshipping Him. Before the Fall, Adam walked with God in the cool of the evening as a friend. God wanted to get that back, so He dressed Himself in Jesus’ body and became that He wanted to be reconciled with.

God didn’t want to be an island. He didn’t design man to be either.

And a rock feels no pain;
And an island never cries.

We’re not islands. Our lives have a context within the life-stories of those we are around.

My dearest friend is a young woman I met a few years ago. She was my boss at the company I was working for at the time, brought in from another city. I miss her company dreadfully because other than my wife, she’s the only friend I’ve had in over 20 years who makes me forget to check my phone every five minutes. The truest friend I’ve made in many years. One of her poems is an entry on this blog, “If I Give Up Now”, and is a post I frequently re-read myself. Please have a look as I know it will Bless you in ways you won’t realise unless you read it!

I’m not afraid to have female friends. It’s part of not being an island for me. Billy Graham made a point of never being alone with a woman so he could never be accused of improper conduct. There’s wisdom in that, but sometimes the softer nature or stronger nature of the opposite gender is exactly what we need. If the only waves to strike shore were stormy the coastline would be destroyed in no time. Similarly if all the waves ever did was to lap gently on the rocks there would never be any change. Nature needs soft and hard impressions, so do our spirits. That’s why God made men and women different from one another. A woman’s strength is often hidden in softness, a man’s softness hidden by strength.

Things happen in life. During the last 30 or so years in mine I’ve seen new lives enter the world, held the hands of the dying, attempted suicide, buried over 20 family members – some of whom I’m now older than – made and lost friends, loved and been loved.

I’ve also isolated myself and allowed myself to be brought back in by the ones who love me.

I’ve learned that while I can be an island, this life is so much better if it’s shared.

 

Island

Empty Road

Empty

Living in South Africa I’ve gotten used to long drives. For example, non-stop it’s about 17 hours from my home in Cape Town to Johannesburg, so the trip takes 2 days.

It’s the same going to my wife’s family in Namibia. Again, about 17-18 hours drive.

On the Namibian road, like the one in the feature picture, you can drive for a very long time in a very straight line and not see another vehicle. It’s largely deserted except in the cities, and much of that is desert like the movies show it. Not all, but a lot.

The first time I drove up was exhausting. Thankfully the car had aircon or I’d be a puddle. Even with it running full we were hot. There’s little or no cell phone coverage and no emergency phones on the roadside. If you break down or have an accident you have to hope someone else comes along, and that they stop.

It’s empty.

There’s a lot to be said for emptiness. It encourages conversation between travellers. It also can mean long silences when you run out of topics. Music is helpful as a distraction.

The road is hypnotic. The emptiness unceasing and the landscape unchanging for hundreds of miles at a time.

It sets me thinking about life as a Christian.

Christianity isn’t a sprint. At least, it’s not meant to be. It’s a marathon and then some.

There’s a lot of emptiness in much of our road though. Far more than God intended.

Jesus said He came to give us abundant life, but so often it feels like walking a straight road through the desert. It feels like nothing changes. There’s as much ahead after ten hours walking as there was when you set out. Only now you’re hot, sweaty, tired and sick of walking.

We’re supposed to walk alongside one another, but the road feels empty. My wife and I have different paths even after over a decade of marriage. There are things about one another we just don’t “get”. Every couple has those things, and it’s only a problem if you let it be. I know couples who lost sight of why they were together because of their differences and split up. I know others who embraced them and tried to join in with each other’s stuff – sometimes it worked, sometimes they split up. Most of us are somewhere in the middle.

So the road feels empty.

And there’s a BIG difference between “empty” and “open”.

And open road holds possibilities, hope and adventure. I’m a biker and I love the open road, especially if there’s nothing else around. I used to go out for a ride when I lived in England, just to ride. The road was open and I just went. Sometimes I was home an hour later, sometimes five or six. I loved it.

But an empty road, a road that never changes, is a road that can break your spirit.

The road starts with something life-changing.

For me it started at 2:55pm Wednesday 20th February 1985. A phone call. “Robin’s dead”. Nobody else I know has walked that path. I was not quite 13 years old. Robin was younger, taken by a moment of stupidity and childish impetuosity when he swung out in front of a driver.

There have been times on my road where I’ve been through bustling activity. Those I can deal with. But the emptiness between them, even after 31 years, can be soul-destroying.

Other things hit people and set them off on their empty road. Cancer, addiction, AIDS, divorce, marriage (if it’s the wrong choice), bereavement, so many other things that can set us off down empty roads.

Our focus has become our own walk. We don’t pay attention to what’s going on around us.

So our road feels empty.

But it’s an illusion. We’re surrounded by others, we just don’t see them. There are always people with us. We just have been conditioned into a self-centred existence. Western society is incredibly selfish. Not so long ago in some of the European cultures around the Mediterranean you could buy a house with a “generational” mortgage over a century. Your children and their children would inherit the house and it would become their home. Now the American culture of self has infected it and that is changing society. The concept of a “single” European culture is laughable, except it’s being rammed down everyone’s throat. Dire warnings from the far left about leaving the EU and from the far right about staying. Apparently if Britain stays it will cripple the economy, cause unemployment and weaken the currency, whereas if Britain leaves it will cripple the economy cause unemployment and weaken the currency.

Both sides make out the other is an empty road, desolate and bleak with nobody around to help us.

That’s what is happening in the Church. We’re conforming to the pattern of this world instead of being transformed by renewing our minds in the light of the Holy Spirit. America is leading the way down this path. The “socialist” left is almost indistinguishable from the “evangelical” right these days. Policy debates have been replaced with personal slanders and jibes. And yet somehow this country with more debt per capita than Greece is the one everyone wants to be like.

Yikes.

Because that really is an empty road, and the trip is led by the vacuous and incapable who rely on charisma not character. They are empty vessels. When I was a kid we travelled by train a lot. I used to love watching the freight trains with the oil cars come past, but you could tell which ones had oil in them. They were quieter. Empty vessels make a lot of noise. Useless, worthless noise.

Like politicians from all sides. I’m sure we could reduce Global Warming by simply banning politicians from speaking. The hot air they generate…

But this isn’t a political blog, so I’ll stop on that track.

It’s empty.

We need to open our eyes, or rather we need to get back to letting God open our eyes. We need to see the people around us, take time to really see them. You know, like the Early Church did. All the people had everything in common so none were in need Acts tells us. They met in each other’s homes, saw to it they were all fed. Those who had gladly gave up everything to provide for those who didn’t. They had substance.

Today we have hot-air preachers in mostly empty (and draughty) old churches that need the hot air to heat them.

But there’s a fire coming. This emptiness can’t go on forever.

In the 1700s, Wilberforce stood against the “greed is good” element in Parliament and fought them tooth and nail until he won and slavery was abolished throughout the British Empire. In the 1800s, Lincoln stood fast against the South and saw the end of the Civil War and delivered the Emancipation Proclamation, but never got to see the results in his lifetime. JFK stood strong against entering Vietnam. After Chamberlain’s failure to stop Hitler with words, Churchill led the Allied thrust against the Nazis’ tyrannical rule until it was wiped out. Mandela stood fast against Apartheid.

In every generation men and women have stood as a remnant for God when greed has overwhelmed society. Fullness of character battling against the empty rhetoric and hopeless roads.

We have companionship on our journey. Jesus is beside us every step of the way. He makes sure our roads are never empty.

We just need to open our eyes…