This post is something of departure. It has nothing to do with history and is very personal. I am writing it because I made a promise over the last week or so. This is part of the fulfilment of that promise.
I won’t go into too much detail, but my son has been quite unwell for 11 years now. He had a brain tumour and seven spinal tumours aged 7. He had surgery, radiotherapy and chemotherapy. He has lived with the consequences of these things for a decade, but he has lived. He is at college now. My believe in God and His power to affect our lives has always been with me, a part of who I am. Eleven years ago it was put to the test, and it did not wither. It blossomed.
Having just spent a week in hospital with suspected viral meningitis, he is now on the mend. When he had three seizures in as many hours, my first instinct was panic, but it was closely followed by one to pray. Utterly desperate prayer, but I needed to pray.
The absolutely amazing doctors and nurses sprang into action all about. I was lost on a tiny, dark, island of helplessness. I could do nothing. I was unable to contribute anything to his physical care. That’s a horrible feeling, but then I began to pray. Just as I had hit the emergency button to call for help from the medics who poured into the room, I hit the emergency button in my soul and called upon more help. And I believe that too poured into the room.
I called our friends. No. Friends simply doesn’t do these two amazing people justice. They know who they are, but I don’t know a word to sufficiently describe what they mean to us. They prayed, and they asked others in their church for prayers too. This may be lost on some people, it was not on us.
My faith is strong. I feel it challenged too often for my liking, but it’s not about my liking. I’m weak enough to find doubt hammering at my faith like a wrecking ball sometimes. But my faith is stronger than any doubt, stronger than me, and it does not fall. Without it, I don’t know what the last decade would have been like, but I believe it would have been even worse than it was. I believe that God saved my son. I do not seek to demean or belittle the incredible work of the surgeons, doctors and nurses who treated him. I simply see God’s hand in their work. Mankind is obsessed with understanding every single detail of our world. We never will. It is in that percentage we cannot explain or quantify, however small it is and however it diminishes, that I believe God is.
I am surrounded by heroes. I think I am the extraordinary one for being ordinary. Doctors and nurses spring into action to fix the physical. Family, the best friends a man could hope for, and the community of a church who don’t really know us, but open their hearts and give their prayers for my son, heal every bit as much as the medicine and the care that surrounds him in the hospital. The two are never at odds in my mind. They complement each other perfectly.
My son never complains. He never refuses a treatment, however often and however unpleasant. He is beyond brave, he is beyond strong. He is a hero who approaches life with a joy and enthusiasm that defies the challenges it constantly levels at him.
My other children are a forgotten brand of hero. They keep life going. Their presence and love is nourishment and comfort. Their steadfast strength, care for their brother and ability to cope astounds me. They are the rock upon which I face a tidal wave, certain it cannot reach me. They have been deeply scared by all that has happened, those most terrible of scars that no one can see, but they remain perfect and precious. Their contribution is no less than the doctors and nurses who treat him. A cheeky message from a sibling is a morsel of normality when there is nothing familiar to reach for, a torch grasped by desperately seeking fingers in the terrifying darkness.
People are heroes. God is their superpower. You don’t have to believe that for it to be true. My faith doesn’t need validation or approval from anyone but God. Yet I know plenty will think it folly to believe in such things in this modern age of science and medicine, engineering and progress. There often seems to be a choice between God and the modern world, as though He has no place in it, as though He has to justify our belief in Him. Why can’t the two go hand in hand? Faith is an old fashioned concept, out of time. This couldn’t be father from the truth.
All of this leads me to ask a question: What is faith in the 21st century? For me, it’s personal, but defines the person people know me as. I don’t want to bash anyone with faith. It’s the wheels that keep me moving, not the bright paintwork. If you don’t see it, it doesn’t mean it isn’t there. My faith steers me and the way I live my life is the demonstration of my faith. Ministry is important, vital even, but there is more than one way to achieve it.
I want people to think of faith as a soft cushion when life is uncomfortable. It’s jelly and ice cream when you’re feeling unwell. It is the reason I am. It is the reason I do. It is the reason I am thankful, because I do not see God at work when things go wrong, I see Him at work in how thinks turn out. My wife always says that all prayers are answered. The answer just isn’t always yes. That is when faith is hardest to have, when it is tested the most, and when it is most needed. I can’t explain why bad things happen. No one can. For every one that it is tempting to think God should have stopped, I wonder how many He did prevent without anyone even knowing. Who thanks Him for those?
Faith is different to religion. Religion is the group expression of faith, regulated by carefully structured and often fiercely guarded doctrine. Church is an amazing place, but I don’t buy any of the denominational doctrine. I know plenty do, and I respect that. I believe God can hear you, however you speak to Him and wherever you do it. I don’t believe there is a wrong way to worship Him. Worshipping Him is always right. I am often dismayed that doing the same thing in a different way can be a cause for argument and war. Jonathan Swift had it right in Gulliver’s Travels. It’s really like an argument over which end of an egg you should crack. It simply doesn’t matter. You still get egg. The furious argument is wholly manufactured. By whom, when, why and how are all forgotten. Just the argument remains, now self nourishing, set in perpetual motion, and deemed essential in spite of no one knowing why it should be necessary. However you name God, and however you worship Him, it only matters that you do so. This is the bridge that we should build to connect us, not the armed roadblock to be thrown up to keep us separate and desperate when neither are required. Faith should unify the world. Religion instead all too often divides it. We, as human beings, have focussed on, and continue to focus every day upon our differences, and ignore what draws us together.
I have no issue with people of different colour to me, different religion, different sexuality, different political views. I have no issue with these things because that would be to focus on what makes us different. The point many will make is that religious texts order us to despise these differences. Nonsense. Can you really say that you believe in a hateful, spiteful God? I fear Him, of course I do, but I have faith that he will love me as long as I am trying to do right. He doesn’t see success or failure, He sees your intentions. That is what exists only between you and God. And between every other person around you and God. That unites us. It is not my place, nor is it yours, to judge. That power and right is reserved for God. I will not spend my life determining who I am better than, who I am more entitled to God’s love than. That is between them and God. What is between me and God is the way I live my life. Do I choose to live it in hate and judgement, or in love and acceptance, deferring to God that which is His anyway?
I heard a sermon once that I found incredible in its simplicity. The Old Testament speaks of an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth. It excuses, perhaps even encourages, vengeance to a level equal to the hurt inflicted upon us. Or does it? It is equally possible that this was the enforcement of a limit upon revenge rather than an encouragement to it. You may take an eye for an eye, but no more. The limit was required to prevent spirals of vengeance running out of control rather than to encourage the seeking of retribution. It was hope, that one day such a limit would no longer be required because there would be no hate. We still have that hope. It is a mark of human interpretation that we choose to see entitlement to bloody, gory revenge rather than a limitation upon it born of hope.
What is faith in the 21st century? It’s precisely what it was in every other century. It is belief in love over hate. It is hope in the victory of what connects us over what divides us. It is comfort in a hard world. As we push ever forward, what are we trying to reach? Truth? Knowledge? Power? Are we not reaching for God, even if we have forgotten that is what we are doing?
I believe in the power of prayer. I know what God can do. I pray. Because I am human, I worry that it isn’t enough. But I have faith and support. That, to me, is religion.