Themes / Everyday people

An Experience of Resurrection

Jonathan Cornford

Manna Matters August 2021

A few weeks ago I found myself skiing down one of the steeper slopes at Falls Creek, my first time in 25 years. I remember thinking, “Wow, I can’t believe I am doing this”, just before I stacked it, massively and inelegantly. But the whole thing, stack included, was an experience of joy. Despite my reservations about skiing being the recreation of the affluent, it is bloody fun. But the even greater source of joy was the fact that I had been able to take my daughters on this adventure.


Jonathan with daughters Amy and Mhairi, and friend Talitha.

Not so long ago I was convinced I would never ski again – along with many other activities — due to a chronic back problem that seemed to be getting worse. This was a source of multiple griefs for me, keeping from me the activities that bring me joy, from sharing them with my daughters, and frustrating and limiting my work, both at home and for Manna Gum. But in the last few months all that has turned around: I’m chopping wood, playing tennis, climbing and working without discomfort. ‘It’s like a miracle’, Kim said to me. Actually, considering it began just after Easter, it has been something like a resurrection.

The revolution in my life has come through undertaking a course in ‘retraining my brain’. I won’t try and explain it in the short space I have here suffice to say that the course utilises the growing scientific understanding of pain, neuroplasticity, the nervous system and endocrine system. In short, the more we learn, the more we confirm that the mind and body are fully integrated, each powerfully influencing the other: our mental and emotional states play out in our bodies and vice versa. What has perhaps not been properly recognised, though, is that there is a spiritual dimension to all of this.

I realised long ago that my back problems had some sort of relationship to my spiritual and emotional life, but I didn’t know what to do about it. The last seven years I have been in what the psalmists call ‘the Pit’. The dominant life theme for me over this time was seeing, again and again, and with ever deeper clarity, the brokenness of the world. In some ways, this has been central to my work: to try and understand things such as ecological crisis, economic injustice, political corruption and social breakdown, not just separately, but how they relate together. The deeper one looks, the deeper one is gripped by the tragedy of human sin; and it was clear that the tragedy was not just ‘out there’, but also in my own life, in my own repeated failures to love as I have been loved. Everywhere I looked I saw that life was a vale of tears.

I will not resile from either this work or these insights – they are fundamentally necessary for seeing into our condition. They are indeed true, but they are not the whole truth.

I had become trapped in a place of grief and despair and that manifested in chronic back pain. In an almost literal sense, I was embodying the pain of the world. Perhaps, in the mysterious economy of God, this was a necessary experience for me; or perhaps it was merely a product of my own mulishness; or perhaps both, who knows? But by early this year it was no longer tenable: I had come to the end of my tether and something had to give. And it did give.

I can’t fully explain what happened. The ‘brain retraining’ course I mentioned was the occasion for effecting a transformation, but it would have been useless without an underlying shift. For me, that came through Romans 8:

There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set you free from the law of sin and death. […] To set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace. (Rom 8:1-6)

For some reason, although I had been praying for it for seven years, this Easter I had something of a spiritual rebirth, a new touch of the Holy Spirit. For some reason, this Easter the words ‘There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus’ unlocked my sense of being trapped in the tragedy of sin and allowed the Spirit of Life to flow. And with it, my body has begun to flow again in the fearful and wonderful ways in which it was designed.

This life is indeed a vale of tears and we should not try to minimise that reality. But the wonder of Easter is that new life springs even in the midst of despair. As I have been refocussed from the brokenness of things (‘the flesh’) towards the work of the Spirit, I have been reminded that as well as pain, this life is punctuated by beauty and joy that is just as sharp and just as inexpressible. In a world of radical climate change we will need such insights. As we come to terms with a rapidly changing world, spiritual life really matters.