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Saturday, 5 August 2017

The Bee

A few weeks ago, Sarah, my toddler, discovered a dying bee in our garden. The bee's wings had been damaged by the stormy rain of the previous night and so it had resigned itself to crawling across our patio. Sarah was fascinated. We sat together and watched the bee a while. I explained to her what it was and she - delighted with her recent ability to speak and thus to put names to things - happily repeated bee bee bee bee beeeeeee to herself over and over again.

I got bored before she did. 


Close-up of Bee on Purple FlowerThere were things to be done in the house so I headed back inside and insisted that she do the same. As our garden is almost entirely made of concrete, and steps, I don't tend to let Sarah play outside by herself, but I had forgotten to shut the back door and so - unbeknownst to me - she tottered back onto the patio. I returned to the dishes. A few minutes later, I heard bee bee bee bee beeeeeeee being joyfully squealed at the top of her little voice. I hurtled out towards the garden thinking only that Sarah's new bee obsession with going to end in anaphylactic shock. But she was sat perfectly still with the bee cupped in her hand. In fact, she was stroking its tiny, furry little back with her finger. I panicked, launched myself at her, and forced the poor, geriatric bee back onto the patio. Sarah looked up at in mild surprise and confusion and continued to say only bee bee bee bee beeeeeee.  

We sat together a little while longer then, and I tried to see what Sarah saw: not the network of anxious possibilities that adults tend to associate with almost everything, but a thing of wonder, a thing of beauty. This bee was quite the most wonderful thing she had ever encountered. With his battered wings as thin and fragile as perforated clingfilm, zigzagged with black stitches like the veins of a leaf; his strange, shiny, bulbous black eyes, knobbly knee caps and fluffy stripes - this bee was beautiful. This bee had made her day, and in doing so, he was making mine, simply by being himself. 

In The Divine Dance, Richard Rohr writes, "All things give glory to God just by being what they are." His words remind me of Irenaeus's much quoted phrase, "The glory of God is man fully alive." I am not quite sure what either of these men mean, but I think it is something to do with Sarah's bee. The bee - by being a bee - is a testament to the goodness and creative ingenuity of the Creator God. The bee is glorifying God by being itself, by doing the things a bee does. But, there is more. In the wide-eyed glee of being 18 months old, Sarah participates in that glory in a way that I have forgotten how to do. She is more fully alive than I. And not simply because she is younger, but because she has not learned yet how to shut her eyes to wonder. She has not learned yet how to ignore the astounding beauty of the world we live in - and all that lives within it - because other things seem more pressing and important.

In writing about how we reclaim the gift of wonder, Brennan Manning writes, "The spirituality of wonder knows the world is charged with grace, that while sin and war, disease and death are terribly real, God's loving presence and power in our midst are even more real." I do know this. I know it in a theoretical way, but I am forgetful. I forget to see the charge of grace as is electrifies the flat white coffee to my left, and the intricate artistry of the man's tattoos who stands to my right; as it pulses through the smiles of the young couple opposite me, and laces its way through each creative detail of this place that makes it my favourite coffee shop in Liverpool.

Annie Dillard, again speaking from outside the Christian bubble, articulates this more clearly than I can: "We are here to witness creation and to abet it. We are here to notice each thing so that each thing gets noticed. Together we notice not only each mountain shadow and each stone on the beach but, especially, we notice the beautiful faces and complex natures of each other...otherwise creation would be playing to an empty house." 

The house is not empty, but the residents are asleep. We walk through our days in dreary slumber with eyes half shut. We forget to stop and take notice. 

Wake up, sleeper, (Ephesians 5:14, Isaiah 60:1) and remember:

Earth's crammed with heaven, 
And every common bush afire with God, 
But only he who sees takes off his shoes;
The rest sit round and pluck blackberries
And daub their natural faces unaware.
Elizabeth Barrett Browning, "Aurora Leigh"

Monday, 17 July 2017

Wild God

I recently discovered Annie Dillard. She is an astonishing writer: beautiful, raw, powerful; sentences and images that lurk in your head for days. As far as I'm aware, she doesn't believe in Jesus, but she does write some pretty astute commentary on the Christian faith. In one of her non-fiction pieces she concludes that the church doesn't seem to have the "foggiest idea" about the One that they claim to worship. I think this is -sadly - probably true. And I say that as much to critique myself as anyone else. She writes: "It is madness to wear ladies' straw hats and velvet hats to church; we should all be wearing crash helmets. Ushers should issue life preservers and signal flares; they should lash us to our pews. For the sleeping God may wake some day and take offense or the waking God may draw us out to whence we can never return." (The Abundance, p.257)

I don't think Dillard means that we need protection from an angry, lightning-bolt wielding God who might zap us unsuspectingly at any given moment; I think she has simply observed the gap between the the way that God is revealed in the bible - and for her in the wildness of nature - and the way that we tend to bind Him into little churchy boxes that we'd rather not scrutinise too closely, thank you very much. We have sanitised God. We have tamed his wildness to make him more comfortable.* 


But, in doing so, I fear we have made him rather boring.

A few years ago, one of the young people I was mentoring had a lot of questions about faith. As I tried to give her some answers I realised she thought Jesus was boring. And I realised that part of that was probably my fault. We, the church, are notoriously good at misrepresenting Jesus, at taking away his wild beauty, his abounding love and faithfulness, his humour, his bluntness, his fierce concern for social justice. And stripped of all that, we end up with, at best, a rather limp Messiah. At worst, a Messiah who is judgmental, hypocritical and unloving.

This morning, I listened to a sermon where the preacher spoke about the call on the lives of those following Jesus to carry his name, to represent his identity to the world around them. The sermon was based on the part of the Old Testament where God reveals his goodness to Moses by declaring his name, by telling him who he is and what he's like: 


"Then the Lord came down in the cloud and stood there with him and proclaimed his name, the Lord. And he passed in front of Moses, proclaiming, “The Lord, the Lord, the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness, maintaining love to thousands, and forgiving wickedness, rebellion and sin. Yet he does not leave the guilty unpunished; he punishes the children and their children for the sin of the parents to the third and fourth generation.” (Exodus 34:5-7) 

The responsibility of those following God then becomes to correctly represent his character to the communities of which they are part; to show the world what God is like. Thus, the sermon suggested, the importance of the fourth commandment: "Do not misuse the name of the LORD your God," or "Do not take the LORD's name in vain." Not simply avoid cussing or using God's name as a swear word, but don't take God's name upon yourself, don't be known as his follower, if you're going to do a rubbish job of representing who He is. This was Israel's major failing in the Old Testament, and the reason God gives for their exile from the land: instead of showing the surrounding nations how good the name of God was, the people profaned the name of God; they misrepresented him. (Ezekiel 36:20-21) Perhaps this is what Dillard means when she suggests that God will take "offense." God is offended that the behaviour of those who believe in him causes others to believe things about him that aren't true. 

Correctly representing God remains the call of Jesus' followers today, and I worry that we're not doing a very good job. I certainly don't always do a very good job. If to follow God, and represent him, is to display the hallmarks of his name and identity, then I need to ask myself if I am like him, if others around me would see in me what He is like: one who is compassionate, gracious, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness, boundlessly forgiving yet passionately concerned for justice. One who takes risks, who is brave, and honest, who thirsts for adventure, who longs to change the world and is dissatisfied by the status quo. Sometimes. Yes. Perhaps. I certainly pray that this is what people see in me. But sometimes, definitely not. I am not slow to anger. My love is limited - often after just an hour spent with a toddler in the morning. I hold grudges rather than freely forgiving. I resist taking a risk for the sake of someone else if it's too costly for me.

But Jesus trusts in his followers to represent him. He left us the task of showing the world what He is like. And he left his own Spirit within us to transform us into a clearer image of himself (2 Corinthians 3:18) 

And He is wild. Not boring.


* I find it almost impossible to think of the wildness of God without picturing C.S. Lewis' Aslan and remembering that he not a tame lion: "Aslan is a lion- the Lion, the great Lion." "Ooh" said Susan. "I'd thought he was a man. Is he-quite safe? I shall feel rather nervous about meeting a lion"..."Safe?" said Mr Beaver ..."Who said anything about safe? 'Course he isn't safe. But he's good. He's the King, I tell you.” (The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe)

Monday, 6 February 2017

Contentment

The bible is full of the command to celebrate, to praise, to recount and remember all that God has done. I am not very good at this. And more often than not God’s instructions to give joyful thanks feel pretty burdensome, and obligatory. Thanksgiving becomes at best a habit, and at worse a chore. But, God does not desire thanksgiving from His people to booster his ego; thanksgiving is not just another rule to be followed: the art of thanksgiving is His remedy to us. Gratitude is his gift to remedy our natural instinct to complain, to begrudge circumstances, to stare longingly at the grass that we think is greener.

In recent days (and probably weeks) I have felt myself become a bit of a moaner. There is certainly quite a lot to moan about in the world of global politics, and whilst God calls us to lament what is unjust and painful in our broken world and stand alongside those who are wounded by decisions made by the powers that be, moaning is not the same thing. There is a beautiful kind of discontent with the world as is that inspires us to change it; there is an ugly discontent that traps us in own our selfishness. The discontent that resents others’ success and achievements, that criticises but refuses to acknowledge any good, that delights in complaining for the sake of it. It is this discontent that God would save us from.

In the story of Israel, God knows what His people are like. He knows that they will be quick to forget what is good, and what they have got, and even quicker to start complaining. In the account of the Exodus he introduces the Israelites to the ritual of Passover, and calls it a “lasting ordinance.” (Exodus 12:14)  This special meal is not to be just a one off affair but a yearly practice, a way of remembering their incredible rescue from Egypt and God’s goodness towards them. Each year, they are to tell the story. They are to practice remembering; it is remembrance that leads them to thanksgiving: to realising once more the goodness of the God who has redeemed them from slavery.

After their miraculous escape from tyranny and oppression, the Israelites last only three days before the grumbling starts. (Exodus 15:22-27) In the same chapter that recounts the joyful celebrations of God’s rescued people, we get the first incidence of complaint. Israel have a serious short term memory problem. They have just witnessed first-hand the saving power of the God who loves them, but they are already starting to forget what this God is like. They are already starting to forget that he is a provider and a rescuer. They are already starting to doubt his character.

This is the story of the Old Testament. It is the story of the people who God loves and their failure to remember what He is like. Time and time again, God intervenes into the lives of His people. He rescues them and delivers them, he cares for them and provides for them, but time and time again, they forget. In Jeremiah God concludes simply that His people have “forgotten him.” (Jeremiah 2:32) They have made their contentment dependant on circumstances, not on their relationship with the One who loves them.

We live in a culture that specialises in discontentment. Advertising is a successful business because it taps deep down into the desire that we have for more than what we have: a different job, hairstyle, holiday destination, Facebook profile picture, circle of friends, set of achievements, piece of technology. We are masters of dissatisfaction. And thanksgiving is our God-given antidote. When John the Baptist breaks onto the pages of history announcing the imminent arrival of God’s kingdom, he reminds people what life lived with God looks like. He is, in a way, jogging their memories, dusting off the long-lost dreams of a society that is satisfied with life as is because that life is lived with God. “Be content,” he says. Be content with your pay, and your possessions, with what you have. (Luke 3:10-14)

In today’s world, this is radical, counter-cultural advice. And it is the advice that my soul needs this morning. It is the advice that would rescue me from moaning. Today, we are called to recount and remember the goodness of God, to tell one another stories of what God has done, to be actively thankful for all that we have. As my daughter grows up into a world that loves to complain, I long to teach her to be a child who is content. A child who knows how to be thankful, how to rejoice, how to share stories full of gladness and goodness and wonder. And if she is to learn that, then I had better start doing it as well. So, come on Soul, forget not his benefits.  (Psalm 103:2)