I had a dream the other night which made me wonder, on waking, how I would live my life if I knew my time here was limited. I got up and looked out the back door and saw that the water on the harbour was shimmering silver blue in the early morning light. I tried to take a photo of it but the camera couldn’t do it justice. It caught the dewy leaves on the kauri tree at the bottom of the garden, and the warm depth of the golden early light, but it couldn’t catch the water. Depending on which setting I tried, the water was either just a pale hint of something grey in the background of the photo, or else it faded into nothing at all. I realised right then, standing outside in my pyjamas, that I had a choice. I could either live my life in the foreground, in the shallows, in the safe places, like the view the camera could see. Or I could stretch out and live my whole life, the one that reached out far beyond the space that was right in front of me.
There’s a humility that comes with desperation for the truth. It’s a brokenness that’s not really broken at all. It comes to us when we take a very raw, very honest appraisal of our life and the circumstances surrounding it, and no matter how complicated it seems or how vulnerable that makes us, it’s actually entirely sane. It’s a view like looking down at our life from a very high place and seeing the breadth and the depth of it, and realising that there is so much more to life than our temporary hurts or doubts or needs. Realising that our lives are about so much more than our comfort, or our perceived safety, or our being understood. Our real lives are about this burning sense we have somewhere within us of what it means to be us, and the responsibility we all have as uniquely created beings not to squander this incredible thing that it is to be ourselves.
I’ll tell you this. I know without a doubt that we are all created. I also know that we all belong to each other, all of us. I believe that our creator can be known as God, but that not all of our ideas about God are helpful or true. I believe that God (adjusted understanding) is available to all of us, regardless of where we are or what we believe. And I think that Jesus Christ was the best representation we have of that unknowable and yet knowable God. I don’t say that to marginalise any faith that does not approach Jesus in the same way I do, only to state what I believe to be true, and which I bear witness to in my own life.
I think Jung was the first to use the expression “Christ-consciousness” in regards to an intuitive understanding about the uniqueness of Christ that exists in the world and is not restricted by boundaries of faith or religion, nor found only in the company of those who would call themselves “Christians.” This Christ-consciousness is an intuitive response to Jesus that would be witnessed to, I believe, by millions of people. Whether we think of him as prophet, universal teacher, good person, or the incarnation of God, a huge number of us agree on one thing; he was not an ordinary person, and there is much we can learn from his life.
I was brought up to be a Christian. This meant a whole lot of things, including that I understood on an intellectual level that Jesus Christ was my example of how to be human. This in itself is a powerful thing. We have the legacy of many men and women the world over who gave us much because they followed the example of Jesus. Some of them were Christians, Mother Teresa being one of many, and others were not, like Gandhi. For many of these people, their Christ-consciousness deepened and became more than just intellectual. Their knowings about Jesus shifted to the area we might call the heart, or the spirit. They came to understand, mysterious as it is, that Jesus can be “known” in the present tense.
My understanding of Christ deepened from the intellectual to the spiritual gradually, as I grew up surrounded by the stories of Jesus in the Gospels. The Jesus who took pity on the old woman bent over by crookedness in her spine; the Jesus who called children to him and showered affection on them; the Jesus who healed the leper and set him free from life as a perpetual outcast, was the Jesus I came to know and love. And not love in a rosy sort of Disney kind of way, like I might have said “I love chocolate,” but a love that came from somewhere so deep I could barely recognise its source. A love that welled up out of a genuine, almost inexpressible gratitude for what I knew I had been given. For in all of those stories I saw myself. I was crooked and I had been made straight. I was diseased, and I was made whole, I was rejected, and in Jesus I knew I was found.
I went to the sixth form ball with a guy that worked at the same supermarket as I did. It was the Thursday night shift, 5-9pm. I was a checkout operator and he was a packer, and if he was assigned to pack at my checkout he would tease me and make jokes all night. I’d spend the whole shift laughing, and my till was always out. We didn’t see each other outside of work, but when it came to finding a partner for the ball I didn’t have many options, and truth be told, I liked him. My mother sewed me a blue wool crepe shift dress. I wore it with my hair in a sort of beehive, looking like a re-incarnation of her in the sixties. I mostly had a good time, and my supermarket friend and I kind of made out in the back of the taxi on the way home. We had a running joke about living up north somewhere and having babies, but really we were the most unlikely and unsuitable couple. We could have been plain old friends, I suppose, if that had occurred to me. But I was far too insecure to figure that one out for a long time.
The day after the ball was a Sunday, and on that Sunday evening, in a black tub filled with warm water on the stage of the school hall my church met in, I was baptised. There’s a photo of me in my wide tortoise-shell glasses and my uneven, ringleted fringe, with a smile beaming from my face just as I was about to be dipped under. I remember it clearly. “It was the happiest day of my life,” I said to someone a few days later. “I feel like I’ve been smiling all week.” At sixteen I was insecure and confused about a whole lot of things, but I wasn’t insecure about Jesus. Jesus was the most real, most dependable thing I knew, and getting baptised was a natural thing for me to do. It was purely symbolic, and in a sense, completely immaterial to the daily goings on of my teenaged life, but it meant the world to me. I was making an inner truth known externally. And as theologian Paul Tillich has expressed, I was participating in a symbol which pointed to something beyond itself, which, in the moment I sank under those tepid waters, drove the infinite towards the finite, and the finite towards the infinite.
There was no brainwashing involved. No coercion of any sort. Not from the church, nor it’s leaders, nor from my mother. Not explicitly or implicitly. In that moment, wet and grinning from ear to ear, with an other-worldly shine in my eyes, I was my own woman. I was doing something entirely for myself. And that, you might understand, was a miracle.
I’ve changed a lot since that day more than twenty years ago, and my understandings about God have shifted and re-arranged themselves countless times over. But when it comes down to it, the essence of what I believed then is the essence of what I believe now. God is, and God is available to be known, and Jesus is one of our surest pathways towards that knowing.
The view out over the harbour early that morning last week was beautiful. The grass was wet with dew, as were the leaves on the hedge in front of the house. Beyond it, slightly hazy in the barely risen sun, was the water like a strip of pale silvery-blue glass. I stood at the back door looking out at that exquisite water which I could see with my own eyes, but which I couldn’t record or reproduce, or even explain in a way that would do it justice, and I thought about my life, my real life, the one I’ve been writing about finding. I’ve had a nagging sense for a long time that my real life was “out there” somewhere, waiting for me, glinting with possibility and yet so far away, so illusory and hard to define. I’ve tried to capture it through others, I’ve wanted other people to tell me what it was and how to get it. I’ve used other people like the lens of a camera, trying to see myself through their eyes.
But they can’t see what I see. They can’t see how far into the distance the horizon stretches, nor how hopeful or blue the water is. They can’t see the almost imperceptible line where the harbour meets the shore on the other side, and they can’t see the buildings in the city beyond, square windows of light through to the other side of the world.
I don’t want to stay in the foreground of my life. I can see that water so shiny and blue it makes my heart ache, and I can’t imagine living my whole life without venturing out into it. I’m writing these words today because I realised, standing outside that morning, that I’ve been living half my life. I’ve been living the life that other people could see, the life that other people approved of. I’ve spent thirty-eight years defining myself by comparison. It’s time to put down the camera, and open up my eyes.