Finding Higher Ground

Most of the time, we get away with not asking ourselves what we really believe. New Zealand is safe, relatively prosperous, and basically cohesive. Our standard of living is good, our people lulled into irreligion and vague worship of the beach and the bach, and crises are far away in other continents or on time scales which make them seem so.

But it is in the moment of sudden shock, the moment in which our trust is tested, that we discover, deep down, what we really hold on to. I have seen this in every context I’ve ministered in: sudden heart attacks and strokes; the failure of the relationship you gave your heart to; the homeless person, dying at 42, asking if anyone loves her; the young adult on the Grafton Bridge, looking down into the dark. Crisis has a way of testing you—and Jesus said that it would. Despite the promises of the prosperity preachers, Jesus promises his followers: “in this world you will have trouble” (Jn 16:33), and that “through many trials” we enter the kingdom (Acts 14:22). We’re even told by James that we should expect and welcome trial because the testing of our faith produces patience and endurance (Jas 1:2ff).

No one I know welcomes trial. It’s heavy, hard, and, if long term, will test everything you’ve got. The whole country now will get the plague. The things we trusted in—prosperity, jobs, family life, the Big Blue Wall that makes us safe from the rest of the world—all those things have been ripped apart. We feel, some of us for the first time, our smallness, our vulnerability, and the shadow of death. It isn’t fashionable to say it, but as a Renaissance scholar, I have to—the whole country is frightened and fragile because we are completely unused to one simple sentence: “Remember, O Man, thou shalt die.”

As much as we should protect the vulnerable and take sensible precautions according to the law, COVID and its various mutations have given rise to another opportunity for us: God asks us in times of trial and crisis to return to him to make the sources and the place of our trust clear. When the things we have trusted in fail, we have two choices: to retreat into a world of meaninglessness and paralysis, or to strike out for higher ground—to accept the fragility and interdependence of the world and ourselves, and to find the one source of consolation, which is constant, even when hidden.

During my second mobility decline, I lost so many things. Muscle. Brain space. Energy. Friends, even some very close ones. I came within an inch of losing my PhD, and my faith. Lost in a fog of resentment, I lashed out at God in much the same way as some in my parish do in the moment of testing. This doesn’t feel fair. I hear the same from people sick from COVID, hospital patients, and the disabled. Partly, it’s because we are out of practice with unfashionable virtues like patience and endurance and self-control. Partly it’s because we too often no longer form communities in which vulnerability and long-term suffering are safe. But, in my own life, I came to realise that the loss of those things I valued, while excruciating, was an opportunity for me to abandon substitutes for God and find him in the dark. “Some trust in horses, some in chariots, we will trust in the Lord Our God” (Ps 20:7). Pope Benedict puts in this way in Spe Salvi (Saved in Hope):

We can try to limit suffering, to fight against it, but we cannot eliminate it. It is when we attempt to avoid suffering by withdrawing from anything that might involve hurt, when we try to spare ourselves the effort and pain of pursuing truth, love, and goodness, that we drift into a life of emptiness, in which there may be almost no pain, but the dark sensation of meaninglessness and abandonment is all the greater (37)

In the moment where we cannot see God, in the moment we are prisoners to our own limits and our own wounded sight, that is when mature faith begins; faith not in God as a cosmic Santa, Guarantor of Comfort, and Giver of Presents, but in the Crucified God who bore his cross that we might be healed and whole. We are so not necessarily by being spared every trial and every chance, but by taking every trial and every chance as a refining ground for Faith, Hope, and Love, and for the kind of community that values “suffering with” and nurtures deep relationships.

The difference between the people who outlast their trials and those felled by them is those acts of enduring trust and faithful service and “upright conduct”, even in the dark—supported by others, and by Faith:

• my friend Susan (not her real name), dying of painful motor neurone disease, her hands clamped around her holding cross, still saying “I love you” and “I am not afraid”;

• a bunch of old people, imprisoned because of lockdown, delighting in the youth choir that turned up to sing through the window;

• my brother Raymond Mok, who came to Wellington with me to speak to MPs about rediscovering his own hope after suicidality and who is now with God; and

• the homeless man telling me his story of horror and family abuse, and then belting out “Tama Ngākau Mārie” and receiving communion kneeling on the cracked footpath, like the child he used to be.

Trials are inevitable, and, even as we pray in the Lord’s Prayer to be delivered from them, we know that we will inevitably be bashed around—by life, time, chance, plague, and trial. Yet and still, the death of the things we are so often tempted to trust in can be “a severe mercy.” We can look upon trial as an invitation to join the human race, to embrace our littleness, to follow Christ in the Way of Sorrow, knowing that in the end it will be the way of Life and Glory.

I have never placed my hope
In any other than you, God of Israel,
Who can show both anger and graciousness
And absolves all the sins
of suffering man.
Lord God, creator of Heaven and Earth
Be mindful of our lowliness.

(Matins responsory from the Sarum Rite)

He was. He is. And He will be. Save us in the time of trial. Deliver us from evil. Amen.

(Image: “Descent from the Cross,” Workshop of Rembrandt, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)