GOD AND WEAK TEA
“I don't believe that God loves me,” a man said to me once. “It’s not that I think it’s too good to be true. I believe it’s too corny to be true.” He added that much of what is said about love (of any kind) is equally corny: sentimental and self-indulgent. Love is stronger than death, I quoted rashly. “Not the kind you people talk about,” he said. “That’s no stronger than weak tea!”
I had a week in which to think about weak tea, then I happened to meet him again. “How can you spend so much time listening to the stories of other people’s worthless lives?” he demanded. “Have you no life of your own? Take my advice: give it up!”
His barren landscape reminds me, when I think of it, of a chilly poem in which Thomas Hardy imagines God thinking back on the earth, “cold as lunar land and sea,” now that all life on it has become extinct, and thinking it was all a mistake.
That I made Earth, and life, and man
It still repenteth me!
It was all a regrettable mistake made long ago, but at least it’s over now. Brrr!
We, I, have made the Christian faith sound corny. How did we do it? We told people “a little bit” about religion, recommending that they spend “a moment or two” now and then saying a wee prayer or doing little things for the neighbour. Can we imagine St John telling us to love one another a little, or St Paul asking us to have a little bit of faith in the cross of Christ?
What can we Christians say to one another about our faith? If we say nothing we are afraid it might go unheard in the clamour of other voices; if we shout about it people will mark us out as crazy and listen to nothing we say; and anyway, who are we to shout, painfully conscious as we are of our own shallowness? So we passed it around like a plate of biscuits, humbly, apologetically. But soon we found out that most people weren’t interested. Then, perhaps in disgust at ourselves, or in anger, we became right-wing – brazen, ‘in yer face’. After biscuits this held some attraction: it was coarse bread and black sugarless tea just like during the war when everything was real I tell you.
Could it be that we have a model that no longer works? We imagine a large crowd (who are they?) listening while one person (a man, of course) speaks: the model is Paul, the apostle to the Gentiles. Thousands are joining themselves to the faith, the crowds are on the way in.... But today it is reversed: the crowds are on the way out, having found nothing to detain them. We became used to numerical strength and to what we considered success: millions of docile laity, “children,” observing all the rules that the clergy made for them. Even today, many are still counting heads: more than a billion, they say. Christendom. But success can never again be as clear as arithmetic. Even in the flush of success Paul was able to say, “It is when I am weak that I am strong.” The Gospel can never be preached except from a humble and helpless position. What looks like failure now may well be a lot better than what we called success before.
I think of the spiritual world, “cold as lunar land and sea,” that many people have to live in. “Other people’s worthless lives,” was the chilling phrase the man used. How is the heart closed to love, and how is it opened? Does anyone understand the mystery of it? Love is not made credible by words, nor even by deeds if these are impersonal. The Word became flesh: not organisation, not parish, not magisterium, not dogma...not these but human flesh. Without warm human contact between people there is only lunar landscape. And we cannot be warm without being vulnerable and receptive, in other words, powerless. And that we are now. We just haven’t become quite used to it yet.
Love is stronger than death, I was foolish enough to quote to the man who didn't hold for love. There is nothing stronger than death, except God. Strength that is not God’s kind of strength, weakness that is not God’s kind of weakness – both visible in the cross of Christ – are not stronger than death. In this age of general meltdown (the man was right) they are no stronger than weak tea.