A Hand In The Dark

“Sorry for your troubles”, they said, one by one, to the smiling lady who offered each one of them a cup of tea. But through her smile, her words were desperate: “To lose one son was bad enough, but at least we knew that was an accident…”

The second son was lying in the front room, pale and cold. The coffin was padded, unlike the rocks where he’d been found at the bottom of a cliff. There was no note. No reason. No signs and signals, even after every memory of every person was turned over in the search. There was just this pale face in the front room, this politely smiling mother, and these cups of tea.

There were eight of us who came up from the south coast to participate in this sunlit scene in the hills of Cavan. Four hours on the road each way made for a long day, but we had to be there. The man lying in the front room had been one of our sports club’s strongest leaders, and had been involved with several other community groups as well. He had done so much for us, and for so many others, perhaps partly because he hated to see anyone else have to go to any trouble. It struck me ironic that here was his family and us and all these neighbours and friends and associates, all going to so much trouble – all because the man who didn’t want to trouble anyone had troubles he didn’t want to trouble anyone with.

I’ll never know what pushed my friend over the edge, but I do know this: I know that hopelessness can be well hidden. It can be hidden under smiles, hidden under chats and cups of tea and friendly complaints about the weather. It can even be hidden under fame and fortune, as we’ve seen in several tragedies in the news recently. But hiding and trying to keep our heads above these feelings on our own is extremely dangerous. If you’re drowning, you won’t be saved by clinging tighter to yourself. The answer simply isn’t in us. We need help. We need someone to reach out to us with a hope that is bigger than we are.

It turns out, fame and fortune are too flimsy to hold us. Weekend bashes with the besties are too temporary to help. Promotions and romance and fast cars and laughing children don’t keep us safe. We need someone with stronger arms. Someone who can reach out to us and pick up all of our troubles and darkness and hopelessness and rebellion and wrong and evil and sin and die under the weight of it and rise again with the indestructible power of a hope that claims victory even over the darkness of death itself. This is the hope we need, and these are the nail-scarred hands that Jesus reaches out to us in our trouble and despair.

Falling into these hands won’t make every storm end, but it will give us Someone solid to cling to while we wait for the dawn, even if the night is long. I’ve never faced the level of desperation that made my friend choose to jump, but I have lived in smaller pits that still took a long time to climb out of. I’ve been in the shadows long enough to know that easy answers won’t do. Eyes that are accustomed to the dark are still blind if you turn the light on too fast. Broken legs that are set still need time to be nursed. Desperate hearts that find hope still need time to heal. But as we learn to lean on the hands that hold us, we’ll find that Jesus’ invitation is true:

“Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest.”

What’s New About New Ireland?

Hello! My name is Seth, and I live on the south coast of the Republic of Ireland. Ever since I was a child I have found that writing is the best way for me to collect my thoughts and process what I see and experience, so I’ve done a lot of it. I find that the world is a bottomless depth of wonder and intrigue, and this blog is a small attempt to scratch my way under the surface. So welcome to my new blog. These days, new things are usually considered to be the best things, so this might be the best blog you’ll read today. Anyway, it will almost certainly be the newest. And speaking of new-ness, you’ve probably heard more than a few people saying that the recent referendum landslide in favour of legalising abortion is proof that we are living in a New Ireland. No one denies it.

So what is new about New Ireland? First and foremost, New Ireland is Not Catholic. Except when she is.

According to exit polls, 74% of those who voted in the referendum described themselves as Catholic, although it’s obvious that a large percentage of these voted against Church teaching. This reflects the reality that although a strong majority of the Irish population is happy to participate in the rituals that have shaped Irish life for centuries, these rituals actually mask the real change in Ireland, which is not so much in Church participation as it is in Church authority. The change there has been drastic: the Church that used to have unquestioned authority over the halls of Irish power now has trouble asserting meaningful influence over the hearths of Irish homes. There are reasons for this, of course. The Church has shown Ireland that even those who dedicate their lives to God are not immune to the corrupting influence of power. Her power was shockingly abused by some of her leaders, and the Irish people rebelled in what our Taoiseach has called “a quiet revolution”. Although the majority of individuals in Ireland are still Catholic, the nation as a whole has set a new course. Ireland may be hung over on religion, but she is not listening to the Church anymore. New Ireland is not Catholic.

But defining things only by what they are Not isn’t enough. A black hole isn’t a planet, but it would help us more if we could figure out what it Is. New Ireland isn’t Catholic, but what Is it? Just like a black hole, it’s hard to say. So far, New Ireland seems determined to be as European as possible, substituting the goals and morality of Brussels in place of the hypocrisy she saw in Rome, and media presenters in place of the priests who used to teach her how to live. But New Ireland is still just that: New. New-ness comes with the smell of progress, by the simple virtue of being different from the broken past. But once the New has established herself firmly, her flaws will also become apparent, and it may turn out that they are not so very different from those of the broken past.

What was it, after all, that caused the fall of the Catholic Church’s power over Ireland? At the heart of it, there were selfish people, using power for selfish purposes. Will New Ireland be free from this? Don’t hold your breath. Examples already abound of bankers, politicians, and private citizens using whatever power they have for themselves alone. The question is: What can be done about it?

Old Ireland tried to cure selfishness by teaching people a system of rules to encourage them to submit themselves to God and sacrifice themselves for others – but the rules were not enough to stop some of her teachers from abusing the submission of others for their own selfish goals. In the end, we saw that rules alone couldn’t cure us. So New Ireland proposes a new and radically different solution. In fact, New Ireland completely re-frames the question: what if selfishness wasn’t the problem after all? What if the real problem was all the self-restrictive rules and talk about self-sacrifice, which made it impossible for the self to flourish freely? New Ireland proposes a new definition of the problem: we are suppressing ourselves. And so New Ireland proposes a new solution: the absolute freedom of self.

Who can argue with freedom?

Self-determination sounds incredibly liberating. The problem, of course, is that when we celebrate Self above all things, we end up selfish. If our personal freedom to make personal choices for our personal good is the ultimate goal of all things, than what is left to motivate us to give up any of these rights for the sake of the people around us? We find ourselves, in fact, right back at the very problem we were trying so hard to run away from: we become selfish people doing selfish things.

What we need is not more restrictive rules that try to mold the self from the outside. We’ve seen already that this doesn’t actually change our selfish hearts, it just makes us hypocrites.

What we need is not to liberate ourselves from all restrictive rules so that we can mold the world to suit ourselves. This will only make selfishness easier to act out, and harder for anyone to question.

What we desperately need is an entirely new self. There’s a reason Jesus said “You must be born again”. He knew that no external system, and no amount of external freedom, could cure us of our passionate, relentless, and yet ultimately self-destructive self-focus. His solution was the most radical of all: he gave up his own self entirely – even to death – to buy us the cure for our selfishness. He offers us an entirely new identity. An identity that places incalculable value on each individual self, while simultaneously re-focusing our eyes on Someone much bigger (and far more satisfying) than our tiny selves. Can we humble ourselves enough to stop staring at ourselves and start looking up? If we do, we’ll find that Jesus’ paradox is true:

“Whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will save it.”