Learnings - about Faith, the Journey, God and Me
- Categorized in: Voices in the East
The time that I have passed on and off the road getting to Xi’an from Hong Kong has been a continuous education for me. New places, new peoples and new languages. For the most part, I remain the same as I was when I set out, but some things have become clearer in my mind, both through my own thinking and through the happenings along the way.
It is entirely impossible for me to describe any of these lessons without integrating these with references to my faith. There is nothing in my life that is not touched by this so any lessons learnt fit into this framework. If this is too difficult for you to endure, then I quite understand and suggest you read no further. On the other hand, even if you do not share this faith, it would be a grand gesture of tolerance to hear how a believer makes sense of the world according to his beliefs and experiences, and you may winnow away much of what I say to take away something of use to you after all.
The first thing I had to get to grips with was patience. As Guns n’ Roses sing to us, “all we need is just a little patience.” Quite right. This was particularly clear to me in the first three or four days on the road, when I seemed to be in a desperate rush (for no very good reason). In looking at the map, it became clear that the huge distances involved and the relative lack of pace in travelling by bicycle meant that every day had to be lived with a good degree of patience. The indent I would make on the journey each day was minimal. If I allowed myself to become impatient at my slow progress, there was absolutely no benefit from this, only frustration or even (in worse moments) the beginnings of despair. On top of this, impatience could arguably cause me actual physical damage as well, since my urge to press on over greater and greater distances as my body got fitter was probably a major contributing factor to the biggest problem I had to overcome – my injured Achilles tendon.
But the grand scale of the whole journey – which will be, in all likelihood, some distance greater than 16,000km in total – also meant in addition to patience, I had to rein in my perspective. Rather than looking at the whole of China and then Asia and then on to Europe, and wondering how on earth am I going to get across that, I had to restrain those thoughts, and “lift up mine eyes” only as far as the next day, or at most the next few days to a big landmark. This must be the same challenge that anyone faces in achieving anything they have set out to accomplish. Whether it be something in business, sport, literature, politics, music, acting, architecture or whatever. There is the final vision, the final goal, but without the patience to take each day as it is lived, and draw satisfaction from even a small amount of progress or growth on the journey, then you will cause yourself a great deal of unnecessary anxiety. It would be as much a waste of effort as a plant that is impatient to grow – growth takes time. And sometimes time itself is what is necessary in order to bring about growth.
Putting this in the context of my faith – I can only live each day as God has given it to me. To awaken and arise in one town and do what I can to reach another. To be concerned only with those things that are within my control on a particular day. That worry about weather, health and security is really a matter for prayer – and that once these concerns are given up to the will of God… well, continuing to worry will change absolutely nothing.
I especially had to take this on board in Enshi, where I had to wait and recover from my injury for 8 days. If it be the will of God that, for all my efforts to get my ankle better, that I was not to complete this journey, then so be it. While I very much want to achieve my goal, it is not what defines me, and should I somehow be called to fail in this, then the far greater lesson is how to let go of this dream and be free from it, rather than be bitter, resentful and ashamed if somehow it ends in failure.
So much for letting go of this dream so that it shall never become a burden, and being free from worry – but this doesn’t mean being reckless or stupid or negligent as far as I am able. Perhaps I had overburdened my body, or at least failed to care for it sufficiently at times. So to be patient with and good to my body is as important as anything I have learned.
Practically does all this work? It seems to. I can say honestly that while I may have wanted certain things to go my way, or reach certain places, I was never worried. As I was kicked out of Tongdao by the police, my thoughts quite quickly reconciled themselves into believing, “OK, Lord, so you want me to move on.” Maybe for reasons I could never know that might be profound or utterly trivial. And while was I held up in Enshi for 8 days, “God, if you want me to stop here, I will wait until it’s good to go again.” Now I believe He is overseeing the timing of my life. Whether you may believe this as well, what is true is that it means I seem to be content in whatever situation I find myself.
This freedom creates great joy in the journey. Almost every day I would roll into a town with no idea where I would end up. Yet I had no doubt that where I did end up was entirely according to the will of God. Whether it was a dump or a palace – uncomfortable or isolated or cold, or friendly and refreshing – I was sure it was the right place and there was no other. This gave me great confidence.
Is this fatalism? No, because I have the freedom and responsibility to act and make choices that have consequence. Is the future simply what we make it ourselves – are we masters of our own destiny? Clearly not, as there are forces beyond our control which have a huge impact on our lives and to which we must respond. So these two are held in tension. God is sovereign, yet we are free. I can’t explain the tension – only live in it.
I suppose I learned more clearly some things about myself of which I was already dimly aware.
The first that I am supremely stubborn and have needed to be to meet the physical challenge of some of what I have done so far. One might describe this more positively and say I am resilient or have a reasonable capacity for endurance, but it amounts to the same trait. The question is: to what is this trait applied. For a good aim, it is resolution and a determined will. For a bad aim, it is pig-headedness, obstinacy and intransigence, even selfishness. The trick is to be able to identify the difference – not something I have managed particularly well at times in my life.
The second is an unusual level of adaptability. I find the great irony of my existence is that those places in which I should feel most at home, for example the legal offices of my past or being in the bosom of a privileged elite, create in me a strong feeling of dislocation, while others which are entirely alien to my background fit me rather well. Yet where there is no immediate good fit, it is not long before I am slurping along with the best of them whatever local dish is on offer, or adapting to changing climates, peoples or living conditions. The downside to this is that there is nowhere I feel entirely settled and at home – the upside that I can pass through change fairly easily. Behind all this is perhaps a search for “another city” – for “another country” – that I haven’t found yet. I think I will never find it this side of death.
Yet despite this endless search, there is a daily finding. The French mathematician Pascal claimed to have experienced certitude – certainty. For him, the certainty of the existence of God. But he also wrote about a twin-pronged mystery: the hiddenness of God on the one hand, and yet, on the other, that in searching, we humans may find Him. For those who do not seek, there is no finding, only hiddenness. Yet, for those who seek, God will reveal Himself. The simple and honest question, “God, are you there?” is a world away from “I don’t see you so you are not there.”
Martin Luther said “All of life is repentance.” I did not understand this when I first heard it early on in my trip. It sounds like he is saying, everything we do is wrong and we have to feel guilty and spend our entire life saying sorry for it. But I think I have grasped what he means by this now. We start life separated from God who made us. Sometimes this separation is so deep we deny He is even there, and we find reasons to say this is so. If the whole tree of humanity is affected by the curse of this separation, the fall, then the act of repentance - which is just turning back to God - is our part in lifting the curse of this separation. If you want to discover the life you were created to live, you need to connect with your Creator. This means one’s entire life becomes about putting it back into the Creator’s hands for His use and purposes. Certainly without doing this, we remain in a state of separation.
I learned on this journey that a daily recommitment to the Lord before I did anything else, invited a clear sense that He was with me all the way. If faith is a living relationship with God, as many define it, I don’t think mine has ever been healthier. Imagine, those who are married, what effect it would have on your marriage if every day you got up and together repeated the vows you had made to one another before an altar, in a registry office, standing on a beach or wherever you tied the knot. These vows would come to define how you relate to one another on a daily basis, rather than being something you once felt and said but which may now be receding into the past.
This daily commitment to God transcends from a bald belief that an all-knowing and eternally present God is somehow always around, into the actual experience that God really is with me. To this extent, I never once felt lonely on this trip. Quite the opposite – during the times when there was not another soul around, these were the times of greatest awareness that I was not alone – these were the times of clearest communication with the living God.
And through these times I came to experience more of what I already knew. That God really is love. That as Creator, the works of His creation are awesome, wonderful and humbling; that as Redeemer, He has demonstrated the full extent of His saving love for the world by passing through death for us; and as the Sanctifier, or Spirit, He cries out through us, overwhelming those who open up to Him with a real sense of His love and His glory.
This may seem high-blown – but I simply report what I experience.
The more this goes on, the greater one’s own love for God becomes. “To know God is to love God” says a 14th century monk! He’s saying, if you don’t love God, it’s because you don’t really know Him. I recall a couple of times, I sat at breakfast at university listening to people tell me my brother Christian was an arrogant so and so. To which the clear answer was always, they simply don’t know him. The world is filled with castigations and slanders on the character of God. But why take a character reference from someone who doesn’t know him? You wouldn’t do it between people, so why with a personal God?
Who do we believe when it comes to God? If the witnesses parade before us, whose word shall we take? We all believe someone. But who? Dawkins? Dickens? Hitchens, Harris? Dostoyevsky? Steinbeck? Chesterton? Pullman or Tolstoy? (These are just some of the people I’ve listened to – you must have your own voices to choose from.)
Well, I claim to know something of Him – not through any merit of mine, simply because He makes himself known to those who seek Him. And that which I know defies description as to His goodness, beauty and love. And for a prolonged period now, I have been waking up every day feeling grateful for every aspect of life – from simply the clothes on my back, the bed I sleep in, the roof over my head and the food in my belly, wherever I may be. If all life is granted to us by an original Creator, then everything in life is a gift. To be grateful for everything good I have in life completes the gift, and creates a joy that is difficult to shift.
Perhaps you could try to imagine being simultaneously miserable or depressed or anxious on the one hand and sincerely grateful on the other. It is not easy to do. Gratitude seems to release joy and overcome sadness and despair. And no wonder – if everything good that comes your way in life you receive as a gift, then mightily happy you would be. The problem is that instead of receiving things as a gift, we treat everything as an entitlement. So what we have, we already expect so it doesn’t make us particularly happy, and we end up focusing our attention and desires on what we don’t have. And end up miserable or frustrated when we don’t get it.
The true marvel, the true joy that comes only from God, is when everything goes against you, when all goes wrong, and you can still remain grateful to God for your mere existence, or that which you do have. When the door is slammed in your face and you’re shut out in the cold, and you still find an irreducible joy in your heart and the ability to praise God, then that really may be the gift of God. This is the constant experience of the saints of days gone by, which earned them the label of “fools” from the world. Yet, why are these fools happy and the rest of us not so?
But what of pain in the world? If God is so good, is the pain in my life a gift from him too? A massive question to which we all want an easy answer. We say: there is pain and suffering in the world so God is either a sadistic tyrant or He doesn’t exist at all. Or we say God is good and all suffering is our own fault, flowing from an abuse of our freewill. Or we say pain is merely an illusion. But this is too simplistic on all sides. What of the suffering (apparently) not caused by human action? Why is suffering in the world laid at the feet of God but he is never credited with its flourishing? Saying pain is just an illusion denies the tragedy of the world’s suffering and removes the impulse to alleviate it.
But if there is an answer to the world’s pain, it must be mysterious – the answer we are offered is not a perfect world now, but the promise of one to come. And in the meantime, we are offered voluntary comradeship and companionship through the pain in the person of Jesus, who Himself suffered. It’s through seeing the reality of His companionship that you might see the true character of God – as His life claims to give flesh to this invisible nature.
The mystery in my mind is the restraint of God. If He could perfect the world, then why not NOW? We clamour for justice in the world, yet we vilify the Judge for exercising his judgment against wickedness. We fear the coming of the judge. And rightly so, since if the world will be set to rights, then we must stand before the judge too. What will be our answer? “It’s not fair”? “Give us another chance”? This is the chance. Life is your chance. You are living in the time of restraint – under God’s grace.
Yet what if there really is no judge? Then for all our clamour, there is and will be no ultimate justice in the world. We may work towards it, but there is nothing so obviously imperfect in this world as human justice. And wickedness exists both inside and outside of the law. The arm of the law may be long in some parts of the world, but nowhere is it long enough to reach beyond death – and so the perpetrators of some of history’s worst crimes rest easy in their graves.
I believe the judge has made Himself known. I believe the Creator has made himself known. And I believe the Saviour has made Himself known. What I see in the world only confirms this. That humans are the glory and shame of the universe. That we have an innate desire for justice, a desire to seek and find the “One” – a true love which we hope will fulfil us; that we raise up a multitude of things that we effectively treat as our gods and give our lives over to, which ultimately let us down.
And onto the stage of human history is cast the man Jesus. His life demands an answer: what of this Jesus? Is His sacrifice the answer to God’s justice? Is it through Him that you may be reconciled to the Creator? Is the curse of death lifted from you because of Him?
Or is it all lies, sophistry and manipulation?
We must all come to a view.
I read somewhere this:
“The chief end of man is to glorify God, and to enjoy Him forever.”
What is abundantly clear to me from my journey, and from my life, is that when I live my life as if this is true, I come fully alive.
As the Psalmist says:
“Delight yourself in the Lord and he shall give you the desires of your heart.”
In this journey, He is doing this. For me, for this time, this life resonates like the striking of a bell. If the bell is to sound His glory, then such is the end of life for me.
In the shopping centres of Xi’an and Beijing, there are many gaudy lights and towering Christmas trees that look hopelessly incongruous and lost, as a sea of thousands of shoppers swells about their feet. These festive symbols have been imported along with the western designer brands of Gucci, Armani, Ralph Lauren and others that fill up the glass palaces. To the Chinese, they are happy to acknowledge a day that is culturally so important to their western friends. They can understand a day that is about buying and giving presents and feasting as a family. But do they understand what this time really represents? Do we understand it anymore?
For all the gifts that are given this Christmas, there is none that surpasses the overwhelming gift that God gave 2,000 years ago. A living person who came into the world. His Son. Himself. Immanuel. God is with us.
Bless the Lord, o you His angels
you mighty ones who do His word,
obeying the voice of His word!
Bless the Lord, all His hosts,
all His ministers, who do His will.
Bless the Lord, all His works,
in all places of His dominion.
Bless the Lord, o my soul!
MERRY CHRISTMAS AND A HAPPY NEW YEAR TO ONE AND ALL!!
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