Sunday, 1 March 2015

Vulcans, Art and Eternity

"There, beyond the bounds of your weak imagination,
  lie the noble towers of my city, bright and gold".

A Trick of the Tail by Genesis.

The death of Leonard Nimoy this past week amounted to the loss of someone who had become a cultural icon to many of my generation, not only because of his famous depiction of an extremely popular character in the legendary Star Trek, but also for some because of his truly engaging pursuit of the nature of ourselves and reality in various projects he pursued through his work as a photographer.

Being an avid fan of the 60's show and especially the lightning that is encapsulated in the dynamic between the three principal characters, I've often found myself pondering the nature of the more Christ-like aspects of Leonard's most famous on-screen role. Many, of course, make the mistake of seeing Mr Spock in monotone, almost as a machine, but watch an episode like Operation Annihilate, and the relationship between the nature of divinity enfleshed rescuing hopeless humanity becomes starkly apparent. An alien of another realm, coming amongst us as one of us, to guide and counsel and when necessary, lay down his life to save others, is pure gospel.

The story of how Leonard's religious childhood had an immediate impact upon his shaping of aspect's of his screen character are well known, but what is less talked about is how this same source equally impacted upon his art, especially upon his first full-scale work in photography entitled the Shekinah project.
His use here of the feminine form to express something about the divine was always going to controversial, but his understanding that there is, indeed, moments when we encounter this reality in our lives is something that deeply impacted upon his own creativity and life, again tying back to those early experiences of standing before God in his childhood.

In both his acting and his art, then, Leonard Nimoy was someone who was aware that what is truly there - above and beyond us in so many ways - is what truly counts, for it is when such grace settles upon our world in some form, however rare that encounter may be, it transforms the nature of our lives and ourselves, allowing us to catch a glimpse of the true weight and significance of what is happening around us and, on occasion, within us.

Now that all the public tributes have been made and the loss becomes history, I hope that we can reflect on such a pursuit of what counts, and hopefully, come to see that truth fully revealed in the nature and work of Jesus Christ.

As was stated once on the bridge of the Enterprise, "It's not the sun up in the sky - it's the Son of God". That's where the true shekinah is always found.

Sunday, 8 February 2015

Missing what matters (when it really matters)

"But whilst he was still a long way off, his Father saw him, and filled with compassion, ran to him, embraced him, and kissed him"  Luke 15:20.

I was chatting to the postman at work this week, and discovered that he has recently - after many years - been reconciled to his father. He eagerly told me of how his sister had brought it about, facilitating an opportunity for them to initially talk on the phone, and how that one conversation changed everything. He'd learned how he'd been lied to about his father, how that father had, in fact, made huge efforts over the years to reach him and re-connect to him, but how it had all been deflected to ensure that his perception of his father had become warped and misconstrued. He discovered that his dad, who had been quite ill, longed to be reunited with him.

It was wonderful to see the sheer joy in this mans face as he told me of the wonderful day he had then spent with a Father he'd not known, purely because of the lies and deceptions weaved to keep them apart. There was a delightful assurance in his rediscovery of this bond which he had thought would always be lost and equally an eagerness to see it nurtured and given the means to grow, especially to make up for lost time. I rejoiced with him in what had happened.

We so often have the very some circumstances when it comes to our relationship with God.

This past few weeks, I have seen Stephen Fry's anger at God for such a cruel and capricious existence, his cry for justice and his demand that a God who could make such things be de-throned, but this is requiring the God who is truly there to remain silent - incarcerated in the "guilty as charged" manacles of our miss-placed suppositions about Him and the state of  the world.

In Jesus' telling of the story of the Prodigal Son, we see how it's the desire and intention of the sons themselves, not their Father, where the real fault lies. God readily grants what they desire, even though it grieves Him to be separated from them as a result, but His longing is for reconciliation and renewal of what is lost - He is the one who is constantly looking for the first signs of our return, so he can rush out and meet us.

The biggest problem we so often have is the 'god' we create - stern, harsh, judgmental, eager to punish and to exile, but that is the god of our own alienation - we don't want to know someone who totally, deeply, unconditionally loves us - that's beyond the scope of us. Notice the way the prodigal deals with this problem when he realizes he has no choice but to go back home - I'll promise a measure of servitude, and behave accordingly (somewhat like his elder brother, perhaps) - clearly showing how he didn't know how much he was loved. We all do exactly the same - we think we can perhaps merit something by what we say or do, but in truth all we can learn is that, at our deepest point, we are all hungry and in need of something  that what's around us cannot satisfy - a love that will make us truly rich, because it is pure mercy, pure grace that clothes our poverty.

The 'god' that most people say they (might) believe in is distant - in another place, and very remote from the one Jesus tells us is eagerly awaiting our return. Are we prepared to be totally shocked by the warmth, the joy, the richness and the intimacy of His love for us. So often, even as Christians, we seem to head back to the pig sty, but His love is still there - His arms are still open, His delight in us, as His children, never ends.

Like the postman who has re-discovered his dad, we can all do the same, if we look away from our miss-conceptions, and into His reconciling love.

The parable ends with some wonderful words - 'and they began to celebrate'. I like to think that the son who had been so wayward AND the son who thought he'd been so proper (because the Father shows him as well that he's free to revel in his Father's love) both came to realize how stupid they'd been in NOT seeing just how deeply they were truly loved, and that this allowed them to revel and rejoice like they never had before. That's what we all need.

God wants us to come to just such a moment -  to not be bound by fear, or prejudice, or our pasts, but set free, purely and entirely by his love. That is why Jesus came (John 3:16).
That is a reconciliation worth everything, because it means that all of life can then truly become valuable.

Today is the day we can become re-untied to just such a love.

Sunday, 18 January 2015

Breathing Deep

"The Sacraments...are 'big medicine and strong magic'; objective efficacy, which cannot be further analyzed".  C S Lewis: Letters to Malcolm.

In his seeking to clarify aspects of the nature of God's work of grace amongst us, Paul reaches a point where he says that the Lord's ways - His wisdom and knowledge - are realms which truly prove to be unsearchable and inscrutable to us (Romans 11:33). When it comes to such riches as our redemption, we are left truly staggered when we properly comprehend its heights and depths - the one who made all things and who holds them together becoming flesh to hang in crucifixion upon the tree to deliver us from sin and death, it is indeed, as the hymn says 'mystery all'.

There are other 'mysteries' which issue from this same treasury of the Godhead's grace.
Recently, I was attending a study group where the topic of discussion was the Lord's Supper, and the usual Evangelical approach to the matter (the table being a symbolic commemoration of Christ's death) was expressed. I quickly found myself thinking "and...", because whilst I see that as part of what it's about, I don't think it tells the whole story of what goes on.

As the evening progressed, we were invited to discuss the matter in groups, and I found myself somewhat uncomfortable, because the "and' in my head wasn't going away or being addressed. I turned to 1 Corinthians 10 and read verses 1-4, and asked how that slotted into a purely commemorative approach to the supper. Paul tells us here we eat of 'the same spiritual food and drink' as they did in the wilderness - Christ, who was present in their midst as a rock. It's not an easy passage to unpack, but it's clear from the incidents recorded for us in Exodus 17 and Numbers 20 that this 'rock' (which, according to Paul, followed them and would become a name for God) was struck to give them water (something which only needed to be done once - when Moses did this a second time, He was told as a result of doing so that he would not enter the promised land) - so the people were fed by heavenly bread (manna) and waters.

Whilst the essential nature of these gifts to the children of Israel was, as Paul notes, spiritual, their material nature was also quite real - something they could touch, taste and handle - not only in the tabernacle, but in their common life (which, I suspect, says a great deal about the actual value and realm of true holiness), and it was amidst their daily needs that they were to eat and drink of these heavenly gifts.

The question, then, is when it comes to the Lord's Supper (which is where Paul goes in his discussion in 1 Corinthians 10 (- see 16-18), why would we only look upon it as a memorial or  symbolic, or something generally external to our deepest needs - to feed upon the life which comes from the living throne of the Lamb?

God's intention in Eden was not only for us to eat of any tree of the garden, but to surely eat of the fruit of the tree of life, which is why we find this tree and its waters thriving at the very heart of the throne city of the new creation (Revelation 22). Christ invites us to come and drink of these waters to partake of His life (22:17), to invite Him to come and fellowship with us, not only in heavenly places, but here, on earth, in this present world. Surely, as Paul is showing us, this is where we evidence the shocking yet true significance of God with us - that in this world, at this moment, God is amongst us, meeting us through the life given to the world in His incarnation and death, and that truly changes everything.

Sunday, 7 December 2014

Mistaken Identity?

"And yet, to me, what is this quintessence of dust? 
William Shakespeare

In my last entry, I sought to consider the defining reality of our existence - not that we're made of atoms, part of a process or even defined by our genes, but that what presides over everything is the intention of God the Father to convey the nature and delight in His Son throughout all things. This, of course, is an entirely different purpose to the one we conclude from our own objective analysis of the material world (molecules and maths), and yet, inside each of us is a longing for just such an answer (that we truly have real and lasting value), hence our continual love for creative stories and events which dignify the best of our original humanity (love, compassion, integrity, and so on) amidst the most adverse of situations. The gap between these two realms makes sense when we realize that due to a historical event - our severance from Eden - we currently only carry a dim echo of what was lost, but this is enough for us to recognize, beneath our marred selfishness, that something more is meant to be. The issue then becomes how that gap is bridged. 

Some years ago, a book I was reading noted that when you look at all religions and boil them down to their essential truths, there are actually 'very few people left in the room'. There are three. You either believe that God is entirely detached from us (a being that may have started the whole thing going, but hasn't been that interested since), that God is everything (which means we're pretty much stuck with the way things are) or that God is distinct from Creation, yet intimately concerned and involved for its ultimate well-being. Most religion (aside from most Eastern thought, which generally plums for the 2nd option) falls into category one, where what's actually needed is some special manner of enlightenment so we can finally escape the prison of the material (which is usually defined as a mistake - opps, so it all went wrong from the word go) to become something other, but that means that all of this is pretty much pointless (unless you're one of the few enlightened), so that, in truth, amounts to being as helpful as a view which says, in essence, it is all pointless (atheism), because it isn't actually going anywhere. 

The true intention, says Christianity, is for all of creation to become adorned with a nature which genuinely conveys it's true glory (value), because within that perfection, the very nature (character) and beauty of God - the fellowship of the Father and the Son, through the Spirit - will be expressed and enjoyed. The intention of God, then, was for humanity in particular to participate in a life where everything, from the common to the most sublime will reflect something of that splendor, and for us to revel and enjoy this continuously amidst heaven and earth's correspondence. That's why it's through the common things of life - food (bread and wine), nature (water), the body (the Incarnation), words (the scriptures) - that God speaks the deepest to us. His purposes and His nature are woven into the very threads of all that He has made good.

When we gather this season around the story of Christ's coming, around the grape and wheat worked into the elements we use to celebrate that brightest moment in our world's story, then we can lift our eyes and foretaste what is truly the treasure of our existence. We were made to express something of the love and wonder known between our Father and His Son. Our spirits, notes C S Lewis, were made to burn such fuel, and nothing else will truly feed us at our deepest point. History is heading towards a wedding, and we can attend, purely because we are loved by a love that clothes us in ransom, forgiveness and care; that will make us what we are intended to be. 

 Glory to God in the Highest!
A blessed Christmas to us all.

Sunday, 16 November 2014

Before, During and After

And I beheld, and, lo, in the midst of the throne and of the four beasts, and in the midst of the elders, stood a Lamb as it had been slain   Revelation 5:6

It's all a bit of a puzzle, this trying to get an understanding of the universe.
Whether it's wrapping your head around the apparent age (Billions of years) or size (Billions of Galaxies) or complexity of it, or trying to land probes on Mars or Comets to tinker with chemistry sets to get the right reaction for the possible recipe for life, the sheer scope and magnitude of it all makes us, here and now, appear pretty small and perhaps even pointless. Science - at least for some in the field - not only wants to tell us the 'how' these days, but the 'why' as well, and the answer it provides there is essentially, live for the moment, because that's all that's really going on.

It's an answer that seems to be popular everywhere right now. Every time the issue of religion comes up on a public discussion board, you can write down what the general consensus is going to be before you've even looked - science has finished the value of religion (which has only ever given us bad stuff anyway) so away with the hearsay and forward with the facts!

The real world, of course, looks somewhat different. Even if some man-made craft was to gain the correct 'burp' from some space dust, no scientist is able to go back to a primal age and actually show that this was what did the trick here, and even if they could, that still wouldn't undermine the fact, as Fred Hoyle noted (1), that in the first place,  the whole basic structure of things has been jury-rigged for the benefit of life, and someone needed to do that.

It would seem there is indeed method amidst the madness. The question then becomes why.

Science leads us to the realm, as Einstein noted (2), of the conviction of a mind and imagination beyond our own, but we need a different manner of wisdom to see the full signature of the one who heaven's glory is seeking to declare. Revelation about the nature, purpose and character of the God behind the realms we observe has been given in the 'shadowy' words and experiences of the Prophets but fully encountered in the person of Jesus Christ, and this is because all of time and space, matter, energy and order, have been made to express one great truth - the magnitude and splendor of His nature, which is the joy of His Father.

In Revelation 13, John defines Jesus as 'the lamb' with regards to His essential nature, especially revealed in the fact that He is "the Lamb slain from the foundation of the world" (Vs 8). In that oh so deep moment described for us in Genesis 1:1, before the days of creation furnish the heavens and earth with all that is good, before the Lord moves beyond the sinking of the foundations of the earth to stretch out the stars and expanse by His wisdom and understanding, before the void of the deep of the darkness and waters are moulded by the work of His Word and His Spirit, another greater work is seeded into all things - Christ, His begotten Son, will be the very one who gives meaning and order to everything, that all things might truly come to express the beauty and richness of His nature (Colossians 1:17).

It doesn't end there, of course.
There would be a moment, notes John, because of the marring of the cosmos by sin, when heaven and earth would be scoured for one worthy enough to open the scroll of God's purposes, and at first, it appeared that there was none. History equally leaves us devoid of value and meaning when Christ is silenced - we are doomed to merely repeat our fatal errors until we sink, miserable, into death, but the sorrow is broken, for the Lamb appears, and heaven leads all of creation in jubilation over the consequences of this (5:1-14). All things now have their place and their purpose, leading finally to the great moment John unveils at the end of his revelation - all of life will become the new city and culture of the Lamb (22:1).

"Religion"is not what is readily ill-defined. Viable 'religion' is really all about intimacy. The reason we must speak of such a wonder as hearsay is because the alternative is truly shocking - God is with us, and wants us to know His ways and become those adopted into His family.

All of history will one day become 'Christ-shaped' - defined and delighting in the love of the Father through His Son, shared by His Spirit.

It means there's so much more going on than just molecules, and Christ wants to make that real to each of us.

(1)'Would you not say to yourself, "Some super-calculating intellect must have designed the properties of the carbon atom, otherwise the chance of my finding such an atom through the blind forces of nature would be utterly minuscule." Of course you would . . . A common sense interpretation of the facts suggests that a super intellect has 'monkeyed' with physics, as well as with chemistry and biology, and that there are no blind forces worth speaking about in nature. The numbers one calculates from the facts seem to me so overwhelming as to put this conclusion almost beyond question'.

(2)"We are in the position of a little child entering a huge library filled with books in many languages. The child knows someone must have written these books. It does not know how. It does not understand the languages in which they are written. The child dimly suspects a mysterious order in the arrangement of the books but doesn’t know what it is. That, it seems to me, is the attitude of even the most intelligent human being toward God. We see the universe marvelously arranged and obeying certain laws but only dimly understand these laws. Our limited minds grasp the mysterious force that moves the constellations". 

Monday, 20 October 2014

All the world's....

'The world now consumes films, novels, theatre, and television in such quantities and with such ravenous hunger that the story arts have become humanity’s prime source of inspiration, as it seeks to order chaos and gain insight into life. Our appetite for story is a reflection of the profound human need to grasp patterns of living... Story isn’t a flight from reality but a vehicle that carries us on our search for reality, our best effort to make sense out of the anarchy of existence'.
Robert Mckee -Story: Style, Structure, Substance,and the Principles of Screenwriting

It's an amazing time to be living if you love the arts - so many films and books and films of books, and then there's the explosion in the last decade of TV drama. It's estimated you could now spend your entire week just watching all the new material that's being made available in this genre alone.

We love stories, especially those which in some measure marry to our need to find something, often amidst the mundane and the downright troublesome, that gives us at least a hint that there's something worthwhile, even meaningful, going on amidst the madness. As noted above, for most of us, it's become a principal means of making that search.

I've been reflecting some this past week on just how these stories have impacted upon me - from the things I read and saw in my childhood, firing my imagination and leading easily to my passion for science fiction in my teens, as well as more gritty and therefore perhaps  more realistic material in recent times. What links them all, however, is the sense that it's all worthwhile - there's a 'bigger picture' behind all the struggle.

I also went to see Matthew Hurt's play 'The Man Jesus'. Based on an interpretation of the Gospel of Mark (which Hurt believes was written 'decades after the events' themselves), it allows Simon Callow to adapt some of the familiar people in the gospel (Mary, James, John the Baptist, Simon,Judas, Herod and Pilate) into characters identifiable in modern British culture, which, when fused with the politics of the times, gives an immediacy to the material and the reactions of this company to the person of Jesus Himself. Making Jesus someone so real is indeed welcome, and certainly at the heart of Mark's gospel, but the telling premise that Hurt employs informs us where we are going to conclude this new study of this person. For the people who met and knew Him, He can only be an enigma, someone miss-understood (and, in terms of Christianity itself, probably miss-used). Because this Jesus refused the roads of power that most of those encountered in the play have to handle, He can only be, finally, rejected, to become no more than a symbol Himself - a man dying on a cross.

That's, sadly, where our own humanity has to put Him, because if we seek to engage with the clarity that Mark (and the other Gospel writers) actually provide about this story, then we're going to find ourselves facing someone deeply challenging and disturbing (that's where the play does score some points!), and we certainly cannot avoid what that is saying about the 'big picture' regarding who we are and what life is really all about.

Picking up the gospel of Mark itself, what strikes you immediately is how the words of Jesus are sprinkled amidst His actions - miracles in pretty much in every other passage as, after being defined as 'the beloved Son' of God at His baptism (1:11), He focuses entirely on the fact that the Kingdom of God has come amongst us... the man becomes not a symbol, but a vehicle for a greater reality. The impact of this is palpable - crowds so large that being crushed is a real danger rush to Him, and the turning-point truly comes when the Pharisees 'begin to argue with Him' and Jesus begins to speak of His own death and resurrection (8:31).

We can look at Jesus and 'the story' which so clearly is at the heart of who and what He is in any number of ways, but what matters is coming truly to grips with the story and the person found in what's recorded by Mark and the other gospel writers, who are not recording 'tales' generated decades later, but the very record of those, like Peter, who were there at the time and witnessed first-hand what was said and done.

Story, when presented well, puts us squarely before what matters.
Take a look at Mark's record, and see what it means to face the real Jesus.

Sunday, 14 September 2014

All That Counts

"For the creation was subjected to futility" Romans 8:19.
"Wretched man that I am, who will deliver me from this body of death?" Romans 7:24

It's a world of bent and broken promises, where the frustration of 'natural' futility and our own propensity to fail (not only others, but ourselves) encompasses us on all sides as we feel the days passing and our frailty increasing. We may try to 'better ourselves', but we know, beyond the rag-tag attempts to do this, or just to try and enjoy life, the only thing that really matters is a love and affection so deep and rich it embraces all of our motley souls and transports us into a romance that is all-pervasive - that affirms that it is all really worthwhile, and there's real hope about what's to come.

Far above all the wreckage of our moralistic pretensions or external face-saving, God has raised His only Son at the point of total devastation and termination of all we know as life, and it is there, at that very point, on the cross, that God makes all things anew. The motivation, then, for renewal or change no longer becomes how we do/do not feel or what we resolve, but what God has done - the renewal is certain, not because we (by mercy) now can love Him, but because He completely loves us, and it is that alone which makes us rich and makes us new.

The world around us is still broken and bleeding, and because we are, in part, still tethered to all of this, we still know, all too well, the pain and the misery of the gaping wound of what it means to be part of such a world - so often, our days here are marked with that sorrow - but the good news for those who look up to see the work of God's love in His Son is that this is no longer the only reality in this sick and dying place. Amidst all the mess and chaos, there is love, and it's a love deep enough and strong enough to set us free.

Genuine love motivates us to do that which truly shows our affection for the one we cherish, and the frustration we often feel as Christians is because we have known the sweetness of the love that has become ours, but we have, in some respects, become distant to it. We then may try to make our way back by all manner of moral and spiritual contrivances, but the solution is the very same as the first time we encountered such love - to look again to what God has made ours, forever, in His Son... that is our haven of certain peace.

God's love is ours purely because of who He is and what He does. Peace with God and the love and life which flows from this is purely because of this - it is 100% His gift, and all he truly wants of us is to both receive and enjoy the life which comes from Him. The troubles of this world will still snap and press upon us, but He calls us, as His children, to look beyond these, for the love we have encountered is but the first installment of the rich redemption that is drawing closer each day.