Faith in the Future: hope

Thinking back over the book “Stranger than we can Imagine”, would I recommend it?
I’m not sure I would – it’s a fascinating look back over the 20th century but it doesn’t leave you with any sense of hope about the 21st-century. And hope, substantial hope in something solid, is what we all really need right now.

The author, John Higgs, acknowledges that an ‘absolute’ to believe in would be ‘brilliant’ but he has nothing to offer or suggest. And we all need to have faith in the future. Having a child is the ultimate expression of hope in the future. To create, to invest or even to plant seeds and grow vegetables is also to express some kind of sense of hope in the future.

I believe that both the reality (current) and the possibility (future) of the kingdom of God is the hope of the world.

As I look around my peers, those sharing roughly the same decade of life was me (I’m in my mid-50s) I see a variety of ways in which they are finding hope. Some friends have been and still are clinging to life itself, having already been struck with life altering or life limiting conditions. Their hope is simply that they will live.

But what about those of us who are rather complacently taking that fact for granted? We still need hope to get us up each day, we need hope to pull ourselves into a future, we need hope that life is worthwhile and meaningful.

Many of my peers are beginning to find that ‘hope’ or reason for existence in the grandchildren which are now coming along. Or they find it in their accumulation of wealth and/or business success. Nothing wrong with either of these two but neither of them are a ‘given’ that can be relied on.

We cannot demand that our children provide us with grandchildren, that is assuming we have even had the gift of children in the first place.  Nor are we all part of “successful” enterprises. I’ve seen so many couples in their 50s or 60s take up a project (usually abroad) where they can see how their time and energy and money have made visible, measurable difference and there’s wrong with that either!

I guess this is all about our human desire to feel like we have left a legacy, made a difference, that our lives have been lived for a purpose.

But what if you are called to bury yourself into what might feel like a deep dark place where nothing seems to grow? Where hopes and dreams become limited? Try dedicating yourself to the needs of a disabled child or a diminishing parent with dementia or even a dwindling congregation for that matter. If that is where you are at, or in some similar situation, then you need to find a better reason for hope than mere prosperity, multitudes of grandchildren or visible signs of significant “success”.

But here is the BIG TRUTH – (forgive the capitals but this is the ‘knockout punch’that most people spend their lives trying to dodge).The BIG TRUTH is that we all need a reason for hope, meaning that gets us out of bed.

All of us need this hope – you may be blessed with a multitude of distractions in the form of children, grandchildren, wealth or successful enterprises but none of these can be relied upon. All of them can bring joy and grief in equal measure.

The truth that gives me hope is that God is present in our world, God knows me, calls me, sees me, created, even me, for a purpose. My contributions to the world particularly when they are part of bringing in the kingdom of God in any way that enriches anyone else are valuable and noted. Knowing this God is what gives me a sense of hope for the future. Deepening my own awareness of the presence of God in our world and working towards our earth becoming more like heaven (‘on earth as it is in heaven’) and less like hell, seeing signs of this kingdom through God’s presence in me and in the world is what gives me hope.

This IS an absolute – it’s called the kingdom of heaven. Jesus repeatedly called it a feast, a banquet, a party, a wedding. It’s an image of joy, community, celebration and belonging.

You are also invited.

Come on in.

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‘Stranger than we can imagine’ – by John Higgs – Book Review

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This is an amazing read!

It leaps from relativity to Cubism to Surrealism, to the optimism in Star Trek and the nihilism in Casablanca. It explains quantum mechanics using a hilarious analogy of Putin punching a kangaroo. From there it goes on to existentialism, individualism and the space race.

Higgs has written a factual book that manages to be a page turner. Don’t simply dip into the chapters you fancy because you’ll miss the thread. He builds up a case which connects all the huge changes of the 20th century to one theme. It’s an intellectual ‘dot to dot’ tour de force. If I’d read this book before I did either of my degrees, it would have helped SO much.

It’s a hugely entertaining read. He draws on seemingly obscure information and you wonder how it could possibly be relevant but watch out because he will circle back to it later.

For anyone my age or above, he is writing about stuff we can actually remember. For anyone younger than me this book is a most accessible and readable account of the 20th century. If the first rule of understanding where you are now is looking back to see how you got here, Higgs traces humanity’s journey through the last 100 years along the paths of science, music, culture, war, and, to some extent, religion.

Which brings me to one of the two ways in which I would dare to criticise this book. Firstly, he gives a great deal of prominence to people who were really very obscure whilst overlooking others who have been massively influential. One of these obscure people is Aleister Crawley whose ‘thelamite’ religion gets a higher profile than I feel it merits – even though he was on the front cover of the Sgt Pepper album and he was included in a list of 100 most influential British people from the 20th century compiled in 2002. I can see why Higgs gives him this profile. Crawley’s religion epitomised all the most negative traits of individualism – his guiding motto was ‘do what thou wilt’ (without the caveat of ‘so long as it doesn’t hurt anybody’). So Higgs is using Crawley as an illustration rather than trying to make a case for his prominence. All the same it’s annoying that he is referred to so frequently whilst far more outstanding examples of humanity are over-looked.

Individualism is one of the very strong themes that run through the book. The other central idea is that the 20th century was the century in which the world either rejected or found inadequate any framework or concept which claimed to give us a fixed place to stand, a way to understand the world or human beings or God or science – he calls this concept an ‘omphalos’ and it might be a belief or an idea, a deity or a scientific theory. But one by one, he charts how the ‘omplaloi’ (plural) fall through the 20th century.

So my second criticism would be that he completely overlooks the huge extraordinary, world changing rise of the Christian faith particularly through such movements as Pentecostalism. None of the positive movements that have streamed out from groups and individuals motivated by faith were noted. As early as the First World War it was the Young Men’s Christian Association (YMCA) who provided compassion ministries on the field of war and rehabilitated 32,000 ex-soldiers into jobs of work after the war.
Ministries such as that of Oxfam arose from the catholic end of the Christian spectrum. No single stream of Christianity holds the corner on compassion.

I feel that this oversight leaves this book completely lacking in hope. Read it and you will find out all sorts of fascinating things you may not have known. I didn’t know that the most eminent researcher behind the American space programme was a bone fide Nazi who had worked in concentration camps. I didn’t know why the Beatles called themselves the Beatles, (in truth I’d never thought about it but suffice to say it’s nothing to do with insects). I didn’t know that the only ‘positive’ element to existentialism would be its emphasis on ‘living in the moment’ (Hmm – that has interesting implications for mindfulness). From the reasons for Kurt Cobain’s suicide to chaos theory and the connection between the growth of corporations and the 14th amendment of the United States Constitution, Higgs makes so much so very, very clear – yes, even quantum mechanics and Schrödinger’s blessed cat which is alive and dead the same time.

But what Higgs doesn’t manage to do is give any sense of hope. He tries. He tries very, very hard in the final chapter which is given over to a consideration of the influence of the Internet: how it has made us all so much more connected, how it has given rise to a greater accountability and transparency. In these he finds reasons for hope: he thinks that the Internet has imposed what he calls a feedback loop on our culture “we are being made to take responsibility for our choices”. Forgive me for sounding cynical, but I really don’t think the Internet has that kind of power. The Internet itself is morally neutral, like money. It can be used for good but it can be used for bad.

It came as a surprise to me that as a culture we are now beyond post-modernism. I’ve probably just been a bit slow to catch up but apparently “the entire edifice of post-modernism” has now been “routinely rejected”, if not by popular culture (of which I am clearly a part) then at least by academia. “Our current ideology” Higgs says, “stresses that of course there is an absolute“. His italics, not mine!

But don’t hold your breath, waiting for him to tell you what that absolute is. “The absolutist approach to the contradictory nature of scientific models is to say that while all those models are indeed flawed, they will be superseded by a grand theory of everything, a wonderful theory that does not contain any paradoxes and which makes sense of everything on every scale.” That such a theory might finally emerge, Higgs admits, is a leap of faith.

But for such a very erudite person, Higgs is peculiarly ill-equipped to make any ‘leap of faith’ and this is why the book leaves a lingering taste of disappointment, hopelessness and even despair. If you are someone with anxieties about the future I would not recommend reading this book.

He demonstrates a complete misunderstanding of the concept of Christian love, discussing it, as he does,  in the chapter on sex therefore equating love with sexuality in a way that totally overlooks the powerful, life transforming, self giving unconditional kind of love expressed by the God Christians believe in. Muddling  ‘Eros’ with ‘Agape’  puts him in academic kindergarten as far as understanding faith is concerned.

Which is a real shame because Christianity is very good at holding onto paradoxes -believing that two opposing things are true at the same time. These are at the heart of our faith: Jesus is “fully human and fully divine” to name but one. I loved his section on quantum mechanics: how subatomic particles can be in more than one place at one time, how they can spin in different directions at the same time, how they can move instantaneously from one place to another without passing through the distance in between and how they can communicate instantaneously over great distances.  But no one who has ever read their Bible should have any problem with any of those things!

Perhaps he should ponder Colossians chapter 1:
“for it was in Him (Christ) that all things were created, in heaven and on earth, things seen and things unseen, whether thrones, dominions, rulers, or authorities; all things were created [planets, stars, neutrons and protons] and exist through him and in and for him. And he himself existed before all things, and in him all things hold together” (v 16 and 17).

If this isn’t a description of an ‘omphalos’, I don’t know what is.  Yes, it takes a leap of faith to accept it but if the alternative is meaninglessness and despair…..?

That Christ is the connection between heaven and earth, that the coming of the kingdom of God ‘on earth as it is in heaven’ is the only reason for hope and that God can be addressed as a loving parent (‘Our Father’ or mother) not simply another version of a feudal ‘Lord’ (which Higgs takes as the reason for the ‘decline’ of Christianity, which, by the way, hasn’t actually declined at all if you take a global view rather than his short-sighted western view) – all these are substantial and in my view trustworthy reasons for hope.

So read this book – but don’t despair! There IS hope, of which I shall shortly say more…

Why Worship Matters

“Let man’s soul be a sphere and then, in this, 

the intelligence that moves, devotion is”

These are lines from a poem by John Donne (1573-1631), hardly contemporary but still wonderfully insightful. We have all sorts of words for worship these days: praise/adoration/contemplation but I think loves this phrase, worship or ‘devotion’ is ‘the intelligence that moves us’.

Worship might also be described as the act of putting ourselves in God’s presence with the express purpose of appreciating ‘him’ or being with ‘him’ (sorry pronouns bother me, God is not him or her, God is just God).

But even the word ‘appreciate’ feels weak – you appreciate your granny when she knits you some socks, you appreciate a friend or neighbour who helps you out with a chore.

To appreciate God is something far stronger than a moderate sense of reasonable gratitude. To really worship is to spend time opening your heart, mind and soul to God’s qualities and attributes, to put yourself consciously in God’s presence and to bend your heart, mind, soul and strength to worship – to acknowledge the superiority and strength of the ‘other’, of God himself.

Donne’s definition of worship has, almost by accident, a surprisingly modern feel. He writes that we, being like spheres are pulled in one direction or another by either external forces: “being by others hurried every day”; or by internal forces: “pleasure or business” whirl our souls.

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These feel like good descriptions of the phenomena that is modern life so often conspiring to keep us from worship.

I say ‘by accident’ because Donne had in mind the idea of the universe being a set of nested spheres the earth at its centre. But even in his day astronomers had begun to notice that planets followed erratic courses and “scarce in a year their natural form obey”.

This image and this phrase reminds me of those whose faith only finds expression at those annual pitstops of Christmas and Easter.

Donne’s image of a sphere makes me think of a set of weighted carpet bowls that my parents used to own. Holding an internal bias, not one of them would ever roll in a straight line. To help them reach their goal you had to remember to roll them with regard to their internal weighting.

All of us have a natural internal bias that rolls us away from God.

It therefore takes conscious effort and a certain degree of discipline to practice what Donne calls ‘devotion’ but there is a rich benefit when we do spend time in worship, adoration, praise or contemplation. As we do so we gather ‘the intelligence that moves us’. Use the word intelligence in the way that you would find it used in spy dramas i.e. ‘information’ and we realise that worshipping God allows us to see the world and ourselves through the lens of knowledge, insight or information about the world’s creator. In essence when we worship we see things as they truly are.

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Take time to worship and you may be surprised that a whole world may be contained in a drop of water.

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Struggling towards the light

I have learnt a spiritual lesson from growing potatoes.  Just when they begin to show little green shoots just above the surface of the soil like this:

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you are supposed to dump another inch or two of soil on top of them!

I was so excited to see these little shoots begin to appear, it felt very counter intuitive to cover them up again just as they’d reached the light, so I consulted my gardening friend Roy.

“Yes” he said, “cover them up as soon as they appear, don’t leave it too long or when you do cover them up you might break the stem”

So having done all that hard work growing, struggling towards the light, along I came with my shovel and drowned them once again in soil.

I was thinking about this process when I woke up this morning.

“It doesn’t seem very fair” I said to God, the poor little plants must feel like they are only just getting somewhere when ‘whoosh, all the lights go out again’.

There was silence from the the divine end of this conversation… he was waiting for the penny to drop.

Finally it did, with a clunk almost loud enough to be heard outside my brain:

It makes them more fruitful – the deeper the soil you bank up the more potatoes you will grow in your pot”.

So if life feels like one step forward and two steps back at the moment, try to remember that when the lights go out and you feel buried in a deep dark hole, you might be growing in a way that will become far more fruitful than you could ever have imagined.

About 18 months ago I found this flower growing straight out of the hard, dry ground on a hillside:

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I took the photo and adopted it as an image of me on my phone screen to remind me that beauty and life can flourish in unexpected places.

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Life is not plain sailing

Life is not plain sailing and I am not a sailor.

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But life is like consenting to a journey in a little sailing boat.

I am not keen on boats in general, little boats in particular: too vulnerable, too open to the elements.

There is only room in this boat (which is my life) for two – one of us is the passenger and one of us is the captain. Knowing who is who and where to sit are the essential basics when it comes to sailing.

I have consented to be the passenger If you don’t believe in God then you believe yourself to be alone in your little boat: good luck to you. However, if you do believe in God but think he’ll tolerate being the passenger: good luck to you.   Bearing in mind his proven ability to walk away on water, conceding the captain’s seat would be wise.

I do not know where we are going, nor do I know how long the journey will be.

I do know that the things that affect our progress are out of my control; the force of the currents under us (culture, economic forces, the state of the world) the strength of the waves around us (the drag and draw of people’s expectations, their hopes and the gravitational pull of their needs, legitimate or not). Nor can I control the energy that fills the sails: sometimes the winds of life’s circumstances leave me battered or extended at full stretch. Sometimes my sail hangs listless as I am becalmed by a dead space of dull routine.

I am often frustrated by what I do not have: I do not have an engine, I do not even have an oar.  I am powerless to drive things forward.

At such times I need to remind myself that I HAVE consented to make this journey and I have consented to be passenger not captain. To turn and see calm eyes fixed on a destination unknown to me, to allow the gentle pressure of a far wiser hand on the tiller, to follow instructions on how to trim or set my sail to either catch or survive the prevailing winds, to learn to lean to one side or the other allowing the boat to rise over the waves rather than sink under them, these are all that I am required to do.

The rest is plain sailing.

A place of ‘holy mystery’

In Luke 7 there are two stories of resurrection. Jesus raises the nearly dead, the centurion’s servant, and the very dead, the son of the widow of Nain.

Immediately after the young man sits up and starts talking there is a moment of stunned silence. Before the expression of noisy opinions or the blustering of the pharisees. Everyone is simply ‘awe-struck’. Eugene Peterson expresses this moment in this way: ‘They all realised they were in a place of holy mystery, that God was at work among them. They were quietly worshipful and then noisily grateful’. 

It was only a moment before the discussion and doubts set in again. No wonder Jesus became weary of them and would later comment (11:29) ‘the mood of this age is all wrong. Everyone is looking for proof, but you’re looking for the wrong kind. All you’re looking for is something to titillate your curiosity, satisfy your lust for miracles’. 

The crowd wanted to be entertained but not changed, be given something to talk about but not be given a mission to live for.

A life-changing encounter with the Holy is always possible and infinitely more likely than we might think. There are two reasons we don’t have such an encounter. The first is that we are so frequently preoccupied about the past or living anxiously in the future that we are rarely present in the present. And if God is anything he is present tense.

In his poem ‘The Bright Field’ R. S. Thomas writes

‘Life is not hurrying

on to a receding future, nor hankering after

an imagined past. It is the turning

aside like Moses to the miracle

of the lit bush’

Are  you rushing along through every day, living with constant noise/music/news/commentary? Without stillness you will miss the holy encounters offered to you: in beauty of nature, the smile of a stranger or the taste of a meal.

The second reason we miss ‘holy moments’ is that before we have even fully allowed us to enter them (or them to enter us) we have begun to rationalise and debate the experience. We worry what might be required of us or what it all means when actually all that God desires is that we live with grateful awareness.

I love the story Pete Greig tells of walking along trying to be conscious of God and sensing God saying to him ‘look at that tree’. He stood stock still in rigid expectation of some great divine revelation, a powerful prophecy…. Nothing happened. Eventually he asked God what it was he wanted to reveal to him through the tree.

‘Gee, Pete, you’re so intense… I just thought it was a nice tree’!

Life can be full of moments of holy mystery and wonder if only we walk around with our eyes open, our spirit’s alert and our sense of humour in tact.