Halfway through sanding down a table today I stop and ask myself: what am I doing? The surface of the table is Olympic-ringed with stains of coffee mugs; someone spilled red wine across it once; the sun has bleached it in patches. Lockdown life, I thought I might take the table back to its pristine state. But now I’m not so sure.
The stains and marks and dents tell the table’s story. What if someone decided to take the equivalent of a sander to me? I’m covered in ‘stains’. That tattoo on my foot I had done with a girlfriend in a grotty parlour under Kensington Market. A mark on my leg where I cut myself clambering over park railings on firework night in order to avoid paying at the gates.
Or the old scar on my thumb where my brother cut me – accidentally – with a fish gutting knife we found on a beach in Brittany. The scar, the tattoo, the gouge to my shin (and the rest I haven’t told you about): I wouldn’t want to lose any of them. They tell part of my story.
Our bodies are most tender where they’ve been broken, damaged, scarred. The tenderness is important. These are places on our bodies of which we might be embarrassed or ashamed. But they are our ‘thin’ places, signs of our vulnerability, our weakness and our whims. And so far I’ve only mentioned physical damage; unlike tables, we have invisible wounds too.
God knows where we are damaged and scarred: all our hearts are open, all our desires known, and no secrets are hidden from Him. And it’s through these thin and tender and secret places that we are called most powerfully.
The sacrifice acceptable to God is a broken spirit;Psalm 51:17
a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.
Like scars, like damage, discipleship is impressed on us and leaves its mark. A disciple is a learner, a pupil. And learning sometimes has to be done the hard way. I don’t think I’d be a priest if it weren’t for the hard way, for certain chapters in the story of my life. And these chapters don’t always look like conversion experiences; often they look like disasters, setbacks, griefs. In my own case, some were visited upon me, others I visited upon myself. Both kinds are painful, both valuable, all reminders. I’m learning, I’m a disciple.
Previously, I’ve used the metaphor of a nightclub in relation to our coming out of lockdown. We may be able re-enter freedom if we abide by certain club rules. Fair enough. But discipleship is different. We becomes members of Christ not by hiding our flaws and getting everything right, or even by following rules by rote, but by bearing our crosses for Him who bore His for us.
Jesus said, ‘Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. I have come to call not the righteous but sinners to repentance.’Luke 5:31-32
Would those of you who have no need of a physician, those of you without scars and hurts and regrets please step forward…
No, I didn’t think so. We’re all scarred. And from the start. Our first experience of the world is being cut. What would you think if I suggested we could accurately calculate the number of disciples, count the number of God’s children in the world by counting human beings with belly buttons?
Today in the Church calendar we commemorate Julian of Norwich, in my view one of the greatest visionaries and theologians that ever lived. She recognised, as very few do, the deep relationship between damage, discipleship, and loving deity:
We need to fall. For if we did not fall, we should not know how feeble and how wretched we are in ourselves; nor should we know so fully our maker’s marvellous love; for we shall see truly in heaven without end that we have sinned grievously in this life and – in spite of this – we shall see his love for us remains intact, and we were never of any less value in his sight. And through this experience of failure we shall have a great and marvellous knowledge of love in God without end.Julian of Norwich, Revelations of Divine Love, Long Text, 61
Which leaves me with a dilemma. What am I to do with this table? The answer – as so often – lies in a favourite children’s book. When the brand new Velveteen Rabbit wants to know what it means to be ‘real’, she turns for advice to the wise Skin Horse.
Real isn’t how you are made,’ said the Skin Horse. ‘It’s a thing that happens to you. When a child loves you for a long, long time, not just to play with, but REALLY loves you, then you become Real.’Margery Williams, The Velveteen Rabbit
‘Does it hurt?’ asked the Rabbit.
‘Sometimes,’ said the Skin Horse, ‘but when you’re Real you don’t mind being hurt. Generally, by the time you’re real, most of your hair has been loved off, and your eyes drop out and you get loose in the joints and very shabby. But these things don’t matter at all, because then – you’re Real.
We are real, not by being made but by being loved, despite of our failings and flaws. And part of loving and being loved means getting hurt, getting scarred.
The table stays stained.
God bless you all,
A familiar tune to a song you all know. The words, unsung here, go like this:
Through many dangers, toils and snares
We have already come
T'was Grace that brought us safe thus far
And Grace will lead us home
And Grace will lead us home
Dangers, toils and snares all leave scars. This song has personal associations for me. A deep, precious scar.
God without end
unto whom all hearts are open wounds,
you know our secret scars and stains,
and love us marvellously all the same:
may we meet our salvation in your love,
find our strength in your grace,
and live our life in His death and resurrection,
your Son, our Lord Jesus Christ,
in Whom all things are loved into being.