I keep thinking about Jesus. Everyone else pales into insignificance next to Him. I wrote that phrase in an essay about the space race last week and Mrs Ash said it would have been very apt if I didn’t spell ‘pale’ like ‘pail’. Not as bad as Beth though, who wrote that the soul of Odysseus hoovered in the after life. Anyway, in RE we were talking about how Christ was a prophet unrecognised in His own country and all that, and I told Fishface that the convent statues are all wrong because Christ was a Jew in the Middle East so even if he wasn’t small and wiry and brown, with a hooked nose like lots of Arabs, then he was pale skinned and blue eyed but not like we are, like a white Arab who looks different from us, and she went very pink and flustered ‘Stop it! Just stop it, Lucy Gannon.’ She said it wasn’t about that sort of being recognised, but I told her I saw lots of people like that in Egypt and she said Israel isn’t Egypt and stop being so perverse, and Leanne said that Israel didn’t exist in Jesus’s time and Fishface said it did – what about Bethlehem? I told her my Dad said it was all a terrible mistake after the war and some eedjit in Whitehall drew up a new country and you couldn’t do that to people and Lisa chimed in with ‘Israel was the Jewish race in the Bible, not a place at all’, but she’s a protestant, so she doesn’t properly know anything. Catherine, who is also a Prottie, but wants to be a Catholic more than anything, and sneaks a little bottle of Holy Water home to sprinkle on her sick old dog, told her to shut up and it all got noisy and chaotic and a bit too much for Fishface who was nearly crying by this time, and she stamped her foot which made us all laugh. I do love it when the whole class goes off on one like that. And then we felt mean so at break time we helped her to stock up the tuck shop. An excerpt from ‘The Amazingly Astonishing Story’
57 years later: Today a friend came over for lunch and a Bible Study. We ate sandwiches and crisps and did the usual catching-up chat, and then got down to Isaiah. Good stuff. I love that book – as you may have gathered by now. I must have read it five times in the last couple of years and every time I’m captivated and surprised. New every morning and all that.
After Isaiah we talked about a reading plan we’re following – the New Testament in a year. A doddle! Just one chapter a day, Monday to Friday and the weekend to recap or whatever. Easy peasy. I mean, Isaiah is meant to be dense and the language is poetic and full of imagery and it slips in and out of three time scales (or 4) so yep, there are times it takes some real study. But the Gospels are a simple story simply told. So how come this week the Gospel of Mark, and particularly the words of Jesus, gave me three lots of trouble? Three chunks I didn’t understand. And when I admitted it to my reading partner, it turned out she hadn’t understood these verses either… so out came the commentaries, usually so good, and after some to-ing and fro-ing we decided that they all ducked our question in one case, kinda answered it another and did actually answer it only in the third.
But the intellectual practice of reading the Word is only half the story, or maybe less than half the story. The Bible is a living and nurturing book, it works with us and in us and if we read it prayerfully there is a peace, and a trust, even in the not-knowing. We don’t challenge God because He doesn’t challenge us. There is no impatience from God, we learn by His grace at His pace. There’s no disappointment from Him when we struggle, no punishment when we forget, just nurture.
We closed our books and agreed that we didn’t have to understand absolutely everything in one big fell swoop, because the answers were there and we would find them and that better minds than ours had travelled that same route. “You know,” said my friend “what I like about our weekly meetings? I can come with some question and I can ask you what it means…”
I smiled, glad to be of use of her. Feeling quite good about myself. And she added
“and you don’t know what it means, either, and I feel so much better!”
Hah! Friends, eh?
When I was a teenager we had a poor (and poorly educated) stressed nun teaching us RE (yes, the one in the excerpt above, poor Fishface). Of course our whole lives were a really rather rich adventure into the romantic idea of religiosity but in the RE lesson we learnt about the essential dogma of the Roman Catholic Church. One day I had something really important to say (I probably thought it had never been thought of before) and I put my hand up, stood up “Madame, I think -” Fishface, always easily exasperated (we were a cheerfully exasperating lot) snapped “Lucy Gannon – you are not here to think! Sit down!” The whole class roared with laughter, even us indoctrinated little Catholics seeing the absurdity of that statement, as she flushed and flustered. Talk about a Freudian slip!
Years later, when I was living in South Africa and dilly-dallying about becoming a Christian, my husband (who had been brought up by very strict Presbyterian parents and no longer believed that there was a God) agreed to investigate Christianity with me. I had started attending a Baptist church, and was intrigued by the teaching I heard there, while George hadn’t stepped inside a church for just about all his adult life. I don’t remember why, but somehow we both decided that before I made the commitment to the Baptists, I had some really pressing questions for the Catholic Church. A sort of ‘before I turn my back on it for ever’ moment. So one day George and I sat across a desk from a Catholic priest in a Durban presbytery and tried to engage him about the teaching I couldn’t find anywhere in the Bible – purgatory, limbo, praying for the dead, transubstantiation, the assumption of Mary, holy water, the honouring of relics, the infallibility of the Pope, the sacraments of Confirmation, Holy Orders, Confession, Extreme Unction…. all the things that seemed to me like sentimentality and superstition.
Looking back I see that we ambushed the poor guy. We didn’t mean to. We had thought we’d get a few answers from him and take them home and mull over them, and I’d decide whether I wanted to give Rome another ‘go’ or not. George just wanted me to say ‘no’ to Rome and and even bigger fatter ‘no’ to the Baptist church. He was not happy about the prospect of a church-going wife.
Anyway, the poor priest reacted much as Fishface had, all those years before. He was bewildered that anyone could want to question these things and panicked that I expected any answers at all. Finally, in obvious desperation, he gestured wildly towards a doorway, and said ‘I have a book in there. And it tells us all these things. All these mysteries.” Seeing that this didn’t impress us, he waved his hands even more wildly, his anxiety clearly visible, “A book that… it’s a book that… well now, you wouldn’t understand it…. it’s a great big book.”
My very academic, highly qualified design engineer husband just looked at him. The priest nodded his head, thinking our stunned silence was a sign of our admiration “Oh, yes, indeed” he said “I have a very big book.”
I think we laughed all the way home. Jesus was a blond British man, I was not in a religious education lesson to think, and 25 years later the priest had a very big book. A book that explained mysteries. So, that’s OK then.
On my table at this very minute, I have a Bible, a commentary on Isaiah, a Bible commentary and a paperback. I am embarking on the adventure I should have stepped into when I was just a youngster. It’s so fascinating. So circular. I don’t know if you know what I mean by that. It is so whole. Everything, every single storyline, every scene, every verse, pointing to the truth of Christ. I can’t wait to get back to it; it’s a gentle, kindly obsession.
Better late than never.
But hang on, that paperback on my table, is about reading the Bible, but it’s not about amassing knowledge. It’s not about being clever. It’s not about taxing a poor stressed nun, or bushwhacking a lazy priest. It’s not about being right. It’s not even about meeting for lunch on a Friday in Wales and reading Isaiah and working out the meaning, with a good friend.
It’s about meeting God, listening to His voice, opening the Bible with a humble heart, a receptive mind, a willingness to be transformed by the words and the Word, trusting in Him to do the work. Listening.
I’m only on page 33 but already I know that this book is taking my life into a gear change. My attitude is being reshaped. There’s a phrase I love, and aim for in my life, and it’s the description of a pupil as ‘sitting at the feet of’ the teacher. It’s a picture of someone listening avidly, wanting to hear every word, understanding their place in the relationship, trusting. I feel as if I am there, sitting at the feet of my teacher. In life. That’s where I am.
I wish I was 50 not 70. I’ve got so much to learn and enjoy! In fact, I wish the Buddhists were right about reincarnation and I could have another shot at it. But they’re not. Dammit.
I shall be right fed up if I have a stroke tonight, I’m telling you now. I’ll be very happy, obvs, if I’m taken to glory, but if I have a stroke and am rendered unable to do stuff, I shall be right miffed. I will. It’s no good pretending that I’ll be saintly and bear it with thankful fortitude. I won’t. I’ll be right peeved. I want to enjoy this Christian life to the full, to the FULL. I want to grab everything I can
and there’s the paradox.
It’s not about grabbing, achieving, reaching, it’s about surrendering. It’s not about the books on my table, much as I love them. It’s not even about the Bible. I could read a chapter every day for a hundred years and still not know this joy. It’s about reading the Bible with an open surrendered mind and an open surrendered heart. It’s not about what I can learn from the Word by my fabulous brain power(!), it’s about what the Word will do in my soul, my essence. How it can transform me. And that’s not about me. It’s about Him. I can’t transform me. I tried that for years and years. It didn’t work.
Listen, this life of following Christ is more exciting than anything I could ever imagine. I’ve travelled the world, I’ve been in places of danger, and times of danger, I’ve lived life to the full at the top of the mountain and deep down in the bowels of the Earth, I’ve lost and survived and been lauded and honoured and none of it meant a bloody thing. Nothing compares, nothing comes near, nothing in this world is as joyful and rewarding and exciting as knowing Jesus.
Maybe I need to slow down with the books, my lovely books, cool it, calm….. put them away for a day, sit at the table, fold my hands, and just be still.
Be still and know that I am God.
Better late than never.