Wednesday 29 January 2014

Tunnel Vision

We were thinking about Jesus the Light of the World in Sunday's talk, and riffed for a bit on the theme of the following quote from C S Lewis:

I believe in Christianity as I believe that the sun has risen: not only because I see it, but because by it I see everything else...

So we thought about how we perceive our own lives and the world we live in, in the light of that sunrise. How do we explain anything? By fitting what we are trying to account for into the larger context of what we believe we already know. We explain our neighbour's odd actions in the light of what we already believe about their behaviour... Economists seek to understand the crash of 2008 in their economic terms… Evolutionary biologists will try to explain economics and other human activities in evolutionary terms, while psychologists will tell us that actually it's all psychological. For them, their particular disciplines form the larger context which validates their explanations of the world.

This causes a problem for atheistic and secularising understandings of the universe. God by definition will always be the largest possible frame of reference. God is therefore always going to be the ultimate context for any phenomena we are trying to explain. This doesn't necessarily prove that God is real, of course, but it does have some very interesting outcomes…

Above all it enables us to see life whole. Do you ever feel that people who try to force their views of the world on the public, a minority of them with a lot of ranting, are suffering from tunnel vision? All they can see is what falls within the parameters of their own discipline, and everything else that goes to make up the vast and complex world we live in must be cut down to fit.

It's very interesting for example to see the takes of Richard Dawkins and Brian Cox on ethics. Prof RD, an evolutionary biologist, says ethics are just human adaptations for survival, and Prof BC, a physicist, says that we don't need ethics when physics can tell us what we ought to do. In neither case do ethics have any intrinsic validity – they've been cut down to fit.

So instead of a vast sea of knowledge we have ended up with a lot of puddles which don't connect with each other. As a society, we are suffering from tunnel vision! We don't have a connected up vision of the world, or of our own part in it. We are in fact disintegrating in terms of our collective culture, because we can no longer see the world whole.

Now the interesting thing is, there's another bit of scientific explanation currently under construction called "the Theory of Everything." This represents huge efforts by the cleverest minds in the world to give a fuller account of the workings of the universe. Apparently there are four different forces that make the universe work: gravity, electro-magnetic radiation, and the two nuclear forces, strong and weak. "Now," say the cosmologists, "If only we could produce a theory that brings together all four of these forces, we would have the secrets of the universe cracked." Why? Because a theory that explains lots of things is far more powerful than one that explains only a few things.

Hold on to that last thought… "a theory that explains lots of things…"  The Theory of Everything has produced some bafflingly complex maths describing string and membrane structures with up to 16 different dimensions, some of them curled up inside themselves and only fractions of a nanometre long, and mostly completely undetectable. It seems to fall foul of the dictum that a simple and direct explanation is to be preferred over one that demands complex inventions. But it's all worth it for the cosmologists because of the power of a unified explanation – far more powerful than lots of separate theories that each can only explain a few things…

And the trouble is of course that, for a theory of everything, there's an awful lot left out. What about beauty? Where does that fit in? What about justice? What about love? We're doing all this theorising using our reason – but where does that come from? Only the world of physics has been allowed in. The worlds we live in, with our ethical, aesthetic, rational and relational selves, have been cut out. Disintegration again.

But by now we who are Christians are jumping up and down shouting, "We've already got a theory of everything!" And this time it really is everything, not just a selection of the suitable bits. We live in a real universe, explorable by reason and science, because it's the creation of God. We see its beauty because He is a beautiful God. We long for justice to come to it because He is a just and ethical God. So our lives can be lived whole through our relationship with God. Our perspectives become unifying instead of disintegrated. We swim in an ocean rather than splashing about in the puddles.

We can look at a bird singing in a tree on so many levels. We analyse its biology, we rejoice gratefully in its beauty, we respond morally to preserve it and its environment from our era's insane destructiveness, and we perceive ourselves together with it as part of a web of life created in relationship by a God of love. So we're starting to recover from tunnel vision and to see life whole. We no longer have to compartmentalise our rational, aesthetic, ethical and relational selves.

To do this properly we need our relationship with God restored from its current brokenness. That's another story, about Jesus the light of the world, and needs to go in another post. In the meantime let's take a fresh look at our Theory of Everything, where everything really does mean Everything, and remember: a theory that explains lots of things is more powerful than a theory that only explains a few things…

Monday 20 January 2014

Week of Prayer for Christian Unity 18-25 January

It was a joy to be at Wraysbury Baptist Church on Sunday morning, while the Reverend Carolyn swapped and came to St Andrew's. We both preached on Unity, following John chapter 17 verses 20-26, where Jesus prays that all his people will be one. After the terrible history of religious conflict which has so undermined our response to his orders, Carolyn and I could not think of a better way to celebrate the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity. The Baptists were very very welcoming and I know Carolyn was also made very welcome at St Andrew's.

So here's what I told the Baptists about Unity on Sunday. References are to that passage from John 17:

There was this lorry driver. He's got a load of 500 penguins to take to the zoo in a refrigerated lorry. But, as he is driving along, his lorry breaks down. It's a really hot day, and he's getting more and more worried about these poor penguins sweltering in the heat.

After a couple of hours, the breakdown truck still hasn't come, so he waves another lorry down. He offers the driver £500 to get the penguins to the zoo.

Finally the breakdown team arrive, fix his lorry and off he goes. As he arrives in town he sees the second lorry driver crossing the road – and there are the 500 penguins walking in single file behind him.

The first lorry driver jumps out of his lorry and shouts, "What's going on? I gave you £500 to take these penguins to the zoo!"

The second lorry driver answers, "I did take them to the zoo. And we still had some money left - so now we're going to the cinema."

Well sometimes we don't find it very easy to follow instructions, do we? Jesus commanded us to love each other. How have we done on that instruction? Jesus prayed, on the night of the last supper, his last desperate prayer for the people he was going to leave behind. And his prayer was that we would all be one.

We've done a terrible job, haven't we? That's how the world would know that God sent Jesus. He prayed, "May they be brought to complete unity to let the world know that you sent me." So why does our world increasingly not know that Jesus is God's appointed Saviour and Lord? Could it be because of our disunity?

Now I think we Anglicans have some apologising to do on this matter.
·        to Non-Conformist Christians: we persecuted your Puritan forbears and flung them into jail. For centuries we banned you from public office and would not even allow you to vote. Even today we think "The Church" means the C of E. And we have deprived ourselves by doing it. We have shut ourselves off from your freedom in Christ, your lively faith, your reverence for Scripture, your passion for God. Please forgive us.
·        Roman Catholics: we did all the same things that we did to non-conformists but went even further. We hunted you down, persecuted and even sometimes killed you. We also impoverished ourselves by shutting out your ancient wisdom and deep sources of reflection on walking with Christ. Please forgive us.

As so often, it's the institution that has got things wrong and needs to repent. We create structures of power and authority which the ambitious then use to manipulate others.

But the amazing thing is that we have far more in common than separates us. There is a bond that unites all true Christians, and it is the threefold bond of the Trinity:
·        We are all children of one heavenly Father – we are brothers and sisters. God only has one family and everybody who is born of God is part of that family.
·        We are all followers of the same Master and Saviour, Jesus. We are all saved in the same way, by the cross and resurrection of Jesus, and we are all taking our orders from the same person.
·        We have all received the same Holy Spirit. That is such a deep bond, isn't it? God's own presence, deeper than the ocean, living in you, living in me. Have you ever had that experience when you meet someone who is a perfect stranger, who comes from a very different background, and yet there is this powerful connection because you are both Christians? The same presence lives in each of you.

The One God is Father, Son and Holy Spirit. That's why Jesus in our reading prays that we may be one even as the Father and the Son are One. The unity of God himself, three persons who are One God, is supposed to be reflected in the way we treat each other…

The good news is that we retain our individuality. If we think being one means we have all our individuality taken away and pretend our variety isn't there, that's not Christianity. Buddhism would say we become one by merging everything together – "the dewdrop slips into the shining sea." Secularism would say, become one by pretending we're all the same – because they have no concept of a spiritual equality which embraces and transcends our vast physical, intellectual and ethnic differences. We are all equally loved, whether we are princes or paupers or professors or plumbers, whether we are from Poland or Pakistan or Potter's Bar.

Christians are one, not because we're the same, but because we are part of a larger whole. The biblical picture of unity is a body made up of many parts. Every part is wonderfully, wildly individual – the eye and the ear, the lungs and the liver, the head and the heart. It's amazing! The whole body is impoverished when our individuality is suppressed, because it is our individuality that makes up our contribution to the life of the whole.

So I am delighted to be swapping churches with the Reverend Carolyn today. It's not because I want to be a Baptist, or to make all the Baptists into Anglicans. It's because we belong together as the body of Christ, here in Wraysbury, with all our variety. There will be many more opportunities to work as one, such as the Lent course and the Procession of Witness on Good Friday.

Jesus prayed, "May they be brought to complete unity to let the world know that you sent me." May we see that happen in Wraysbury.

Sunday 12 January 2014

Operation Restoration

It was a real privilege to be at church this morning at Horton and Wraysbury. We had two special guests, Roger and Isha Hulford, who head up Operation Restoration in Santa Cruz, Bolivia. This is an outreach to the street kids of the city - thousands of young people end up living on the streets there, with no social security to provide for them. Most of them are deeply scarred by abuse, rejection and the other horrific experiences that drove them there. In order to survive they resort to all sorts of hard stuff - glue sniffing, drugs, prostitution, criminality...

Until Operation Restoration comes along! They have teams operating on the streets (and under the streets, under bridges and in culverts and drainage sewers where they can hide from the authorities and the public) who offer basic medical and dental care.

But it is with those kids who choose to come into Operation Restoration's residential homes that the real turnaround happens. They get their childhood back, a chance to just be themselves, play and have fun. They learn to work together for the good of all. They learn trades that will lead to jobs in the future. They are given an education - some have graduated from university and one has even gone to a seminary and is training to be a church pastor. Young people who had no hope are turned into the leaders of tomorrow.

Most of all, they learn that they are loved. This work is deeply underpinned by Christian values: Jesus said, "I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full" (John chapter 10 verse 10). Roger and Isha make no bones about it: it is the power of Christ that transforms broken lives, He is an expert in it. It is made plain to the children who join them that they will be entering a Christian community.

Many people had a difficult journey to get to church today, through those terrible Wraysbury floods that have been making national news. But I think we all agreed that it was well worth it, to meet such amazing people as Roger and Isha and to find out about such an amazing work. We felt both privileged and humbled: we all go through hard times but compared to what some of these kids have been through, we hardly know we're born.

So I promised to put a link to Operation Restoration's website, so that people who were there could find out more and people who couldn't make it wouldn't miss out - and here it is:

Here too is a picture of Roger and Isha. I've included our youngest son Ben, on left, and his friend Kathryn, on right, because they both did a gap year in Santa Cruz with Operation Restoration and they were so keen to see their friends again.

I think everyone who meets Roger and Isha has got to be impressed - though they would hate me to say so because they are such humble people. They have done such amazing things for God and have risen to daunting challenges with incredible faith. Yet they will tell you that their sacrifices have been modest compared with the joy of seeing young lives transformed. They spoke of the heartache that comes with unconditional love: inevitably not all the kids make it because the pull of the streets is so strong... They told us that everything came through the grace and love of God. And they reminded us that we are all called by God to whatever it is that He has for us and challenged us to re-ignite our passion for Him.

Thank you Roger and Isha for inspiring us today. Roger ans Isha were here, partly because they are Londoners and need to get home to see friends and family: but also to try and raise awareness and raise funds to keep Operation Restoration going. If anyone would like to support this wonderful, life-transforming work in the longer term, please see their website which will give you information how you can do so. Just go back to the link above.

Colin x x

Friday 10 January 2014

Books and Blogs

I've just decided to start an extra blog  to go with this one, with book reviews in it.

Some years ago I asked my last Diocese to send me a curate (trainee clergy who come to work with the vicar are called curates). The new person in charge of the curates replied by asking when I last read a book - and my mind went completely blank, as it does on these sort of occasions. The only one I could think of was the Bible, as I'm sure you will be glad to hear. I was asked, quite rightly, how could I expect to take part in the education of a colleague if I am not engaged in learning myself?

Anyway, somehow I blagged my way through - just as well because Liz has been a fabulous colleague! But from then on I've tried to keep up with my reading, making sure I get into a worthwhile book from time to time. They might be Christian books, academic books, history or fiction. I've also written up my thoughts briefly on each one. And now I've decided to publish my ramblings in a blog.

I realise a blog full of book reviews won't be everyone's cup of tea. A bit academic perhaps... Some people will love that sort of thing and others will not. So it seemed best to keep it separate from this blog - but linked, if I can master the technology. So I've set up a new blog which you should be able to find on this link:

My first book review is of Francis Spufford's Unapologetic - why despite everything Christianity can still make surprising emotional sense. I think it's a fabulous book, if a bit in your face at times. It's because I feel more people should be aware of this book that I decided to start the Book Reviews blog.

So have a look at my first effort and I hope you enjoy it!

Colin x x