I’ve decided I’m god.
I look up from my book. My teenage son’s on the sofa, eating corn flakes from a beer mug.
So you’re omniscient then?
What does that mean?
When I was sixteen I knew everything too. I’d rebelled a year or so earlier and told the Sunday School leader I couldn’t teach little ones about Someone-in-the-Sky now I no longer believed in His existence. I’d cried, even as I stood my ground. I loved those kids. There was Loretta, who flung her arms round me every time she saw me. Stephen, who begged to be swung upside down after class. Linda, who pulled faces and made me giggle. I’d never been a calming influence in the Sunday School room. Come to think of it, the other teachers were probably glad to see the back of me.
Back in the here-and-now, and a busy Friday in the Community Café. Phil’s face floats through the crowd as I’m delivering a jacket potato. His hair’s bright pink today, and I stop to compliment him. He seems to be sober as well, which is always a bonus.
Can I borrow a Bible, please?
Of course. There’s one in the church. Turn left out of this door.
I can’t go in there.
I’ve learned not to argue with responses like that.
Hold on a minute.
I want that bit about love. In Corinthians.
He clearly knows what he’s looking for. I find him a Bible and he heads for the garden. I’ve no idea whether we’ll see it again, but whatever happens it’ll be more use to him than it will be gathering dust in an empty building all week. Phil’s one of those people who vanish for months, then appear just as you’re thinking they’ve surely drunk themselves to death this time. He and the Charlies of this world are walking proof of the unpredictability of life, as if the weather on this sceptred isle weren’t sufficient evidence in itself.
Still, in the face of all that points away from it, we yearn for certainty. For permanence. Yesterday, today, for ever, Jesus is the same. If I had a fiver for every time I’ve sung those words I’d be a wealthy woman, and this morning I find myself singing them again. Only this time they’ve been poached and ravaged by a writer of 1980s-style happy-clappy choruses. Oh, I hate it when they change things like that … The preacher today has a sharp suit and impossibly shiny shoes. He doesn’t look the kind of man who’d spend hours polishing, or sound that way from the impressive list of places he’s visited in the past few weeks. I wonder who cleans his shoes for him? His wife? His kids? Or does he just buy a new pair every time they get scuffed or scratched? He’s telling the god-hates-sin-and-Jesus-had-to-die-so-he-could-bear-the-sight-of-us tale. Followed up with god-loves-us-so-we’d-better-get-our-act-together-or-we’ll-end-up-in-hell. I’ve had this sold to me as ‘good news’ for most of my life. Somehow it still feels more like emotional blackmail.
The preacher says god doesn’t change, and here I find myself starting to agree with him. Yet my own concept of god these days is quite different from the Someone-in-the-Sky I rejected forty-seven years ago. I can’t help reflecting on the trouble I’d be in if I’d stuck with the vengeful monster who policed my childhood. He (and it’s always ‘He’ with a capital ‘H’ when it comes vengeful gods) took careful note of my bad thoughts, as well as all those nips of port from the bottle that was unaccountably hidden in the back of my teetotal parents’ larder. He sat up there in the sky, clutching a big stick and gleefully awaiting His opportunity to beat me. Of course, being omniscient He never missed a trick. I’d surely be beyond the reach of redemption these days if I hadn’t let go of Him.
I’m reminded of a sentence from the passage Phil wanted to read. Now we see only a reflection, as in a mirror. Being unchangeable is a dangerous thing in a poorly-grasped concept. My idea of god becomes THE GOD, and GOD doesn’t change, ergo it’s my job to set you straight if you think differently from me. That’s much the way it works, and it’s a shortish hop from there to Westboro Baptist Church. Shorter than you might realise if you’ve never been thrown out of a fundamentalist house church. It’s always seemed odd that we market god as infinite and beyond comprehension, while at the same time cramming her into neat packages of easily-grasped and immutable formulae, to be thrust down the throats of all comers.
Come to think of it, being unchangeable isn’t a great quality in anything or anyone less than infinitely perfect. A little over ten years ago, I left Charlie’s predecessor. After thirty-two years and a little over two months of deeply unhappy marriage I’d woken up and realised no matter what I did, nothing was going to change. I was looking another thirty years as bad as the last in the face. You don’t get that long for murder, a kind friend pointed out. I walked away with all the misplaced bravado of someone who has no idea what she’s getting herself into. I just needed a bit of time to rediscover myself. What was I thinking? For heaven’s sake, I’d done Buddhism when my children were small. I knew about impermanence, yet I’d wholly failed to grasp that the ‘self’ I was expecting to find might be a deal more elusive than I’d imagined. Happily, life saw me coming and took a sledgehammer to what little remained. I’ll always be thankful for that.
From the shiny-shod assurance of the preacher to an article about ancient Chinese philosophy on the Guardian website the penny’s begun to drop. I’m sixty-two years old. I have far less certainty now than I did at half the age. Things I once knew for sure have turned out to be mysteries more complex and wonderful than my wildest dreams. Who’d have thought a disaster could bring so much good? That a woman afraid of her own shadow could begin to be an extrovert? Or that she might discover new ways to relate to her well-worn body this late in life? That she’d start to blog about these things? Blog? What kind of a word is that? In the midst of all this, my long-clutched certainties have crumbled to a puff of dust, and I’ve never been so happy. Change and decay in all around I see. The words of another old hymn, untampered-with by the modernisers this time. They don’t write ’em like that these days, and more’s the pity. Such words are hard to stomach in a world set on certainties, but they’re the naked truth. Nothing is permanent. Nothing’s unchangeable but the infinite. So it’s up to us to learn to ride the waves.