another place

This photograph is from a random drive through the Kimberley when I was researching my thriller project. The story is so embedded in my imagination now that I can’t look at this without being inside a 4WD coming down that hill at night, the vehicle chasing ant-nest shadows as it bounces and crashes its way along a boggy track.

Storms are about and you can smell mud and see lightning on the horizon. At the foot of the hill is a homestead, which faces onto a greasy clay pan. Beyond that the Styx Gorge awaits: jagged, black as pitch, and the only place to hide.

On the way to the bottom of the ridge, to hoped-for safety, this bruised and hurting little family are at their wit’s end, longing to be out of there, to be together at home again. The young daughter, Oksy, captures what they all feel with her questions and her prayers.

The mother, Mia, holds onto the hope that a higher power of infinite love is somehow at work—even in the midst of their hell. Oksy’s father, Red, sees things differently: they are out to defy a hostile universe, period. S#*! happens, he likes to say. And you have to respect his point of view. He’s no fool—without him Oksy would be dead.

Each has been drawing some kind of strength from their worldview. Oksy, the mysterious strength of the child’s naïve faith: a beautiful trust that somehow good will win-out. Mia, the strength of what has been referred to as stage five faith, which is ‘okay with God’s mystery, unavailability and strangeness.’1 Red draws from his courage and skill as a warrior.

Watching their story unfold and trying to write it down always leads back into my own world. Just now for example, I found out that a beloved friend of our family (Shirley Blake) who has given oceans of grace and strength to us—passed away two days ago.

Shirley was no ordinary woman, she was a Mount Everest in the spiritual world: unknown to many but famous with God. Our family literally ‘rises up and calls her blessed.’ She was, in the double meaning of John’s Gospel, a woman ‘lifted up and glorified,’2 which means she brought joy to many and (like Jesus himself) was to be subjected to awful brutality.

In her case, one ‘crucifixion’ that I am aware of, happened a long time before she actually passed from this earth. Having given many years of her life to loving her neighbours (and their children) with amazing kid’s clubs, stories and laughter, she was well into the second half of her life and had become the beloved ‘Aunty Shirley’ to children all over Broken Hill.

One day a man entered her house and brutally assaulted her. She cried out and no help came. Instead, she was given a vision of Jesus weeping. She explained to us later that somehow she felt (as awful as it was) that Jesus was sharing in the torture together with her. This was hard for me to hear at the time.

The New Testament supports Shirley’s explanation. Jesus shed tears at the death of his good friend Lazarus, for example, but they were not tears of weakness, they were the tears of a man strong enough in his manhood to weep in public. Such weeping gives strength to his followers even two thousand years later. How could that be? How could a weeping and wounded savior give power and grace?

These lines from Edward Shillito’s Jesus of the Scars put us in the picture…

‘The heavens frighten us, they are too calm
In all the universe we have no place.
Our wounds are hurting us, where is the balm?
Lord Jesus, by your scars, we claim your grace.

If, when the doors are shut, you draw near
Only reveal those hands, that side of yours
We know today what wounds are, have no fear
Show us your scars, we know the countersign.

The other gods were strong but you were weak
They rode—you stumbled to a throne
But to our wounds only God’s wounds can speak
And not a god has wounds but you alone.’

Jesus told his followers, ‘As the father has sent me, even so I send you.’3 St. Paul goes on to say that the deal includes sharing ‘in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, that is the church.’4 This is confronting because it suggests that not only was Jesus sharing in Shirley’s sufferings, she was sharing in his and it was for the benefit of her fellow Christians: we know who we are.

Charles Williams elaborates on this when he says that ‘Sometimes, in order for the fire of heaven to fall in one place, an altar must be built in another.’5 Shirley’s altar was certainly that for many: instead of being a place of bitter trauma, it became a treasure chest from which holy fire poured into the souls of others. Thank you Aunty Shirley and thank you God.

‘The way of the Cross’, writes Michael Quoist, ‘winds through our towns and cities, our hospitals and factories, and through our battlefields…It is in front of these new Stations of the Cross that we must stop and meditate and pray to the suffering Christ for strength to love him enough and for strength to act.’6

1 Stages of Faith, James Fowler, 1981, Harper and Row

2 John 8:28 RSV Jesus said, “When you have lifted up the Son of man, then you will
know that I am he, and that I do nothing on my own authority but speak thus as the
Father taught me.

3 John 20:21 RSV

4 Colossians 1:24 ‘Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I
complete what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, that
is, the church.’ RSV

5Letters to Malcolm Ch. 21, Lewis C. S

6 Paths in Spirituality, John Macquarrie, 1992, Morehouse Publishing, 130