Monday, 27 August 2007

The Puzzling Imperative

"An artist explores enlightenment through the natural world.
Unfortunately, the nature, the material of us is often dismissed as ungodly. It's an old concept in our culture that the material world is the work of the devil and to be seeking after God, you have to dismiss this. I think the opposite is really true. The material world is really something both sacred and spiritual, and the artist, if he rejects that, is being driven by cultural forces that are making a mistake. We explore the spiritual through the material".

Artist Roger Dean.

I came across an intriguing entry on another blog* site yesterday.
A couple of friends were enjoying a bike ride and after stopping off for lunch in a diner, they visited an art gallery. One of them became fascinated by the craftsmanship of a large bronze on display (way beyond his budget!), and as the friends left the gallery, the visit began a discussion about what exactly caused us to create the kind of works they had admired.

Why is it that we share a universal 'impulse' to create art that expresses our thoughts and feelings, our relish and delight in the natural world? From a naturalistic (utilitarian) perspective, it is something of a puzzle, but perhaps there is an alternative approach. In the 1960's, Dr Josef Pieper noted in one of his works that "culture depends for its very existence on leisure, and leisure, in its turn, is not possible unless it has durable and consequently a living link with the 'cultus' - with divine worship" (Leisure - the Basis of Culture). That perspective has often caused me to stop and think , not just about recreation in general, but about the role of art - both in our creation and our enjoyment of it - because we are often making a basic statement - the material (the moment, the experience, the aesthetics) matters.

The Genesis account of creation tells us that on the seventh day, God actually took 'time out' to make that same statement; to look at the created order and be 'refreshed' by His own work. The moment was so good that God 'hallowed' it - literally made it 'holy' (set apart to Him), and the day itself actually became a 'type' of something that was to come. That pleasure in the visual and tactile beauty of the world is given to our parents. Adam is called on to 'name' (understand) the animal world and to tend a garden in Eden. The role of Man and Woman was woven with immediate and enduring artistry - a 'hands on' relationship to spirituality. The 'ache' that this imperative creates (as touched on by Solomon - Ecclesiastes 3:11), amplified by all that is naturally enchanting around us, often finds a moment of clarity when we view the beauty of the human form, or a sunset, or a work of art - it points us to worship.

Beyond days scarred by pain and death, that first 'sabbath' still whispers something vital -
the physical order does not find its resolve in the primal moments of origin, or in a paradise that was lost, or in the world as we now see it, or our current mortality. There is a new 'day' to dawn, when we will see a perfection, a fusion between desire, expression and divinity that will truly refresh and renew existence at the deepest level. The artist who fashioned us has deemed it, that all our truest longings may find an extraordinary realization.

Something to think about, next time you admire a work of art....

(*Reference to Barry A's entry, 'Musings on the Creative Impulse' on the Uncommon Descent blog page = ).

Sunday, 26 August 2007

What the world needs now...

"I sat alone in the dark one night, tuning in by remote,
I found a preacher who spoke of the light, but there was sawdust in his throat,
He'd show me the way, according to him, in return for my personal cheque,
I flipped the channel back to CNN and lit another cigarette.

I take my chances - forgiveness doesn't come with a debt".

Mary Chapin-Carpenter.

Life can so often seem to be about people and circumstances short-changing us. Like the unfortunate couple played by Tom Hanks & Shelley Long in Spielberg's brilliant movie, The Money Pit, we can often find all manner of disappointments and trials because we were promised a golden egg and ended up with a sour lemon! The same, of course, is true when it comes to religion. Everywhere we turn these days, there is a plethora of self-help mentors evoking some alternative 'wisdom' or higher 'understanding' for our predicament - all you need to do is sign up, dig deep (into yourself and... usually your wallet) and a remedy will come...sometime (reminds me of the line in the Money Pit - 'how long till you'll be finished?...'two weeks').

God never leaves us to our own devices. As the one who made us, He knows both the limitations and the pitfalls of schemes by which we are seeking to make our own way out of the hole (including those which like to deny that the 'hole' exists in the first place!). Whilst religion in general is essentially 'self-help', Jesus Christ is the one who comes and says that no self rescue is possible. Looking at the people of His own day who were so burdened under an overwhelming array of rules, Jesus tells them to come to Him, to abandon their self-help, and find true rest in the mercy and care of God.

There is a great deal of 'ego-soothing' religion around, much of it under the guise of Christianity, but God wants us to die to such foolhardy aspirations so we can find real life in Him.

It's time to trade up the tatters of our own self righteousness, which blinds us to our true poverty, so that we might gain a treasure of true freedom we could never purchase ourselves.
Suddenly, the 'two weeks' will be up, and life, whatever our circumstances, will be marked by the richest gift - peace with God.

Friday, 24 August 2007

Forging Eternity

"If I have not established my covenant with the day and the night, with the fixed order of heaven and earth, then I will reject the offspring of Jacob and David, my servant,
and I will not choose one of his offspring to rule over the children of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.
I will indeed restore their fortunes and have mercy upon them". Jeremiah 33:25 & 26.

I have always been astounded by the majesty of the world around us. It has never been difficult, on a clear moonlit night, to stand beneath the canopy of the billions of stars and affirm that the heavens indeed declare the glory of God and reveal His handiwork (Psalm 19). Is it any wonder that a man like Albert Einstein could say concerning nature: "The human mind is not capable of grasping the Universe. We are like a little child entering a huge library...The child knows that someone must have written these books... and notes a definite plan in the arrangement of those books--a mysterious order which it does not fully comprehend, but dimly suspects".

The Apostle Paul, touching on David's confession, informs us that this 'voice', which has gone out to the whole earth, is cardinal to our hearing and our trusting in the message of Christ (Romans 10:17,18). The handiwork of God, evidenced both in creation and redemption, 'speaks' in a comprehensive fashion of the action of God in time and space. This fusion, whilst explicitly unveiled in the Incarnation and the era since this, is implicitly woven into God's message to us through the ages (shown, for example, in God's promise to Jeremiah). Whilst we may not understand the full extent of these great deeds (life at present can only furnish a foretaste of what is coming), we can, perhaps, glimpse into the activity and intention of Father, Son and Spirit.

When a forge is seeking to produce a viable tool - a sword, perhaps - the elements resourced for this purpose are fused together through a process of pressure and purification that allows the desired end to become real. Metal is heated so that it can become 'plastic' to be folded, many times over, to produce a blade of strength and precision, and the same is no doubt true amidst God's redemptive work amidst creation. The wonder which shall emerge - heaven and earth that has known the love of God not only in its formation, but in its rescue from death - will no doubt permeate and season every aspect of eternal life - it will mark all that will be with a love, like the universe itself, which is astonishing and profound.

When we begin to grasp the height, the depth, of this marvel, it will certainly lead us to express the manner of adoration evidenced in the Psalms - the Lord has indeed conveyed both wonder and mercy.

Tuesday, 21 August 2007

What We're Looking For?

"What if I stake everything I am on a dream, and it's counterfeit?"
Natasha Bedingfield - from the song, Pirate Bones.

What would it be like to live in a world where everyone you ever met was a friend, where you could enjoy all the astonishing wonders of the natural world without any fear of pain or suffering, and where that world was adorned with a symmetry and entirely gratifying fellowship that would never tarnish or age? I think that's part of the reason behind why Jesus began His three years with the disciples by taking them to a feast (John 2). It's so easy for us to forget that the very first miracle that Jesus performed was not a physical healing or a stilling of the storm - it was to provide the best wine at a wedding.

I often wonder how much of our prescribed spirituality would have stood up to the 'test' of the wedding of Cana? A celebration of this nature powerfully affirms the fact that true godliness is in fact essentially bound up with the goodness of creation itself, not cut off from it.

That is the true tragedy of the world we now inhabit. The legacy of the Eden exodus is an order lacerated by alienation - torn from God, from ourselves, from each other, and from a genuine relationship to creation, but the Cana feast crushes that division. God is with us, there, in the very midst of our joys and pains, allowing us to taste of a vintage that makes us thirsty for the wonder that is to come.

When we speak of God being in Christ, reconciling this world to Himself, we need to understand that that is something we can know now, in all of our living. Creation itself is yearning for that resurrection morning when that truth will be fully expressed through the body of Christ, so begin to see, as is often the case in the Psalms, the weave of Creation and Redemption in all that is here. When we taste of that wine, we will escape the mirage of life without God.

Monday, 20 August 2007

Living in the Real World

"I am not someone with amazing faith or a praiseworthy character,
but I share a confidence with every regenerate Christian that has received from heaven 'every spiritual blessing in Christ'.
I am simultaneously at peace with God because of Christ's imputed righteousness,
and at war with myself because of His imparted righteousness.
I am not a successful runner, but by God's grace, I am looking to Jesus,
the author of this work, and the one who will bring it to completion".

Slightly paraphrased from 'Christ the Lord' by Michael Horton.

I often think that the most dangerous thing about Christianity is the person it wants to make us see - the real Jesus Christ.
"Religion" (and that terms covers a lot of ground) can leave us feeling pretty comfortable with ourselves - our credo (beliefs), our praxis (pious deeds), can easily create the illusion that all is well with our souls - that's pretty much the result of our exodus in the garden..if we have 'covered' ourselves appropriately, we think, everything is OK, but try that charade before someone who really knows you - who came from heaven to earth to not only expose the fallacy of such religion, but to bring humanity life as it was meant to be.

One of my favorite passages in the Gospels is after the resurrection, when some of the disciples are once more on the sea of Galilee fishing (John 21). Jesus walks onto the beach and invites them to join Him for breakfast. As they ate together, Jesus begins to share with them about what's important - our love for Him and for each other. What is so key about this passage is that the Lord comes into the most common things of life, and when we meet Him there, it is the most striking, life-changing thing, for we realize that He is indeed Lord of all.

So often 'religious' activity and duty is marked by something so clear - there is a focus upon us (what we could/should/would do) and Jesus becomes a footnote to that.
Paul teaches us that all of our life, our meaning, our value here and now, is concluded in the one who was the fullness of the Godhead in bodily form - our partaking of and our sharing of Him is what matters. Like the disciples who sat at His feet at breakfast, let all of our lives be seasoned with that same beautiful glory - the person of Jesus Christ.

Friday, 17 August 2007

The Order of the Universe

"It's marvelous, though, to see many of you here tonight...absolutely marvelous...
I know that many of you come here again and again to watch this final end of everything,
and then return home to your own raise families, strive for better societies,
fight terrible really gives one hope for the future of all life-kind...
Except, of course, we know it hasn't got one!"

Max Quadrapleen - The Restaurant at the End of the Universe.

There are some things in life that bring a great deal of joy, and reading Douglas Adams' "The Hitch-Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy" was certainly one of these. I still recall the literal 'pain' of trying to read this on a packed commuter train in London for the first time and 'muffling' myself from laughing out - it was, and still is, that funny.

Adam's writes from an atheistic perspective, and the quote above beautifully defines the logical conclusion of that view - the universe is meaningless. Every moment in time from the 'big bang' onwards - every thought or deed or wonder...they are all essentially pointless. Naturally speaking, there's a lot going for that view. Entropy towers above everything - decay appears to be the over-riding constant that marks all, so is Adam's right? Is the universe, our very existence, just a cosmic 'blip' with no meaning beyond the here and now?
The good news is that, even from a scientific perspective, the answer appears to be no.

Discoveries in the realms of physics - generally defined as the 'Anthropic Principal' and in Micro Biology - examined through the theory of Irreducible Complexity - are clearly hinting that nothing is here by chance. To quote from another apt Science Fiction writer's character, Jubal Cain, "The universe was often a silly place at best but the least likely explanation for it was the 'non-explanation' of random chance; the conceit that some things which 'just happened' to be atoms 'just happened' to get together in certain ways which 'just happened' to look like consistent laws and that some configurations 'just happened' to posses self awareness...
No, he couldn't swallow the 'just happened' theory, popular though it was amongst those who called themselves scientists. Random chance was not a sufficient cause for the universe - random chance was not sufficient to explain random chance! The pot could not hold itself.
Religion may well be right". (Robert Heinlein - "Stranger in a Strange Land").

In his message to the Philosophers of his day at Mars Hill in Athens, Paul tells us that the true basis of our lives is the One in whom we live and have our being, the maker and sustainer of all things. That One is revealed in Jesus Christ. If that is truly the case, then our current journey makes everything we do and come to know of very great value.
The universe has a purpose, and we can know something of that through a very real, historical revelation...

Thursday, 16 August 2007

The Hounds of Love

"That which I greatly feared had at last come upon me.
In the Trinity term of 1929 I gave in, and admitted that God was God,
and knelt and prayed....
The words 'compel them to come in' have been so abused by wicked men
that we shudder at them, but properly understood, they touch the depths of divine mercy.

The hardness of God is kinder than the softness of men,
and His compulsion is our liberation".
C S Lewis - Surprised by Joy.

We all have them - those days when we have to face some truth, however strange, surprising or painful, that we know is going to change our lives forever.

As you get older, there seem to be more of them (or at least, they hit closer to home) - people and places change, and the face you used to look at happily every morning has certainly gained a few more 'character features' the last few years (!), but perhaps the biggest impact of these things is what occurs inwardly - how our view of life and the world 'shifts' accordingly.

The Genesis record tells us that the general framework of life as we now know it changed on a particular day, when Creation became marked by a human rebellion, and, as a result tainted by death, futility and decay. That is bad enough, but the 'shift' that occurred in the human condition was total.

Instead of reveling in the glory of their natural form and grace, humanity had now rushed headlong into a culture of shameful hiding and denial. Denuded of their true life, man and woman would quickly seek to mask their evil - the blame should be placed elsewhere!

We could spend time looking at this in depth (perhaps we will - in a later blog), but what marks this event is something far more vital - the pursuit of God.

Rather than leave us to our own impoverished devices, God seeks and finds us, and requires us to face up to the realities of our choices and actions, and for very good reason. Only when you have properly diagnosed the disease can you treat it with the cure.

The process of change that occurred in the life of C S Lewis was slow and gradual - a thought here, a phrase there - but "a conviction was growing in him that the spirit exists and that we come into contact with this through our inner sense - aesthetics, astonishment, marvel in beauty - those 'glimpses' which call us to deeply look beyond the moment to something behind the moment" (Finding the Landlord by Kathryn Lindskoog). Finally, through the accumulation of such moments of awareness, the 'hound of heaven', as Lewis wrote himself, tracked him down.

The message of faith is that there is a need to discover the God who once walked the garden with men (who is still looking for us!) - that every aspect of life is woven with something deeper: a God who is speaking to us - and what a message!

The aim and intent of all that we are and that surrounds us is not temporal, but eternal! It is this world that God is reconciling to Himself through Christ - this is the place where 'eternity' - at least for us - begins, and will continue...How much of our spirituality stems from there?

Perhaps, when we look in the mirror tomorrow, we could spend a moment reflecting on those truths. That might put a smile on that 'seasoned' face...!

Wednesday, 15 August 2007

Faith's Feast Table

"Everyone who thirsts, come to the waters,
You who have no money, buy and eat,
Come, buy milk and wine, without money and without cost...
Listen carefully to me, and eat what is good,
and delight yourself in abundance". Isaiah 55:1 & 2.

It's real interesting trying to do this for the first time...sitting in front of a blank page and pondering what would be good to say, where you about that line from that song, or a scene from a show. There's a great deal to say in this world of ours, but I think I need to start as I mean to go on - finding ways and means by which I can share something of the wonder of the life that is ours because of something amazing - the goodness of God.

Every time you encounter friendship, or gaze upon beauty, or deeply sense awe, or glow through intimacy, you glimpse something of that gift, but it's a joy that is fully brought into focus through the marvel of faith.

Faith is not some slick, TV preachers gimmick or 'inner' new age fabrication. Real faith is a trust that recognizes the security of God's promises and deeds, made evident in Jesus Christ, which does not seek to add to or curtail that gift in any way, but confidently builds upon this literally life-changing reality.
Faith then, is all about God making right a race of people who have messed up big time - giving them new life through nothing but His mercy, reaching out to this world by His love.

Does that all sound straightforward enough - something you've heard a few times, no doubt, in books or sermons? So why start here?

We live at a time when faith has become stigmatized. Rationalists tell us it's unnecessary in our modernal age - a 'god' who made us and who determines life is as viable as the tooth fairy; and then there all kinds of 'believers' who want us to manufacture 'faith' from ourselves for ourselves - to make us (and sometimes them) healthier and wealthier, but genuine faith is a much deeper, disturbing thing.

The faith from God leads us to the edge of what we are - to know the pain, the anguish, the horror of being a rebel - and there it causes us to look beyond ourselves, beyond any thought of self-confidence, into the character and astounding works of God - our Creator, our Saviour. It allows us to step into the abyss of mystery and encounter that reality which is so deep, so real, that all of life becomes lived and understood from a view nurtured before the first star was born that insures all existence will encounter a glory that faith allows us to begin to understand.

Faith brings us to a point of intimacy with the One - Father, Son and Spirit, who once stood amidst the new order of creation and jointly made a creature to reflect His image. In that profound moment is the blueprint of the ages to come - God, working through His image-bearer in creation, to eternally express the wonder and glory of the relationship that exists within the Godhead.

That sounds like a pretty amazing place to start (and finish!), so let's pull up a chair, open a bottle of good wine and pass around the snacks, and let's share about that.

To end with a quote from a song - it really makes me wonder...