The Reality we Imagine

Martin Luther King imagined a reality that he never lived to see. It was an impossible dream – more than a little dangerous. Some thought it the delusions of a mad man. Yet he could imagine its reality and he clung to it. He died before other could see it, but it is no longer a dream.

Our imagination is powerful. Many leading sociologists use our ‘social imaginary’ to describe us, rather than our ‘worldview’. I am no sociologist, but I am increasingly convinced by the importance of what we can imagine. Our imagination defines not just who we are, but who we become: an important difference.

Of course, if you begin to imagine impossible things then some might begin to consider you mad. That happened to Jesus, even by his own family, so we’d be in good company. He was imagining a heaven on earth, while the best anyone else could imagine was getting rid of the Roman occupation. No wonder people questioned his sanity. Perhaps I should be worrying more about why I am not accused of being insane. In fact, I am too sane by far, which is the trouble with many of us. We are all too sane. Too rational to imagine more than we can see.

I have been reminded about the importance of this recently through looking into the birth, death and resurrection of Jesus. I had hoped to be stirred by it. Instead, I found it more than a little depressing. It is all true, but it also seems so small and inadequate once placed in its neat little theological boxes. The only description that I have grown to appreciate most wasn’t from any theological work, but, of all things, from a children’s story book. In C.S. Lewis’ “The lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe” he describes the sacrifice at the stone table as a ‘deep magic that goes back before the dawn of time’. I have come to like this, not because of what it says (which is very little), but for what it leaves unsaid. It opens up the mystery to the imagination, and perhaps it is only in my imagination that I can begin to grasp the smallest fragment of the breadth, depth and height, that is the cross.

Now, I am not arguing that we park our minds at the door of the church, there are, regrettably, too many who have already done that – rarely with positive results. However, I do believe that we have allowed ourselves to become too closely entwined with the Enlightenment and its ideals. We have over-thought the gospel and under-imagined it’s power – myself included, if not especially. If we are to begin to impact this world, then perhaps we may need to engage our imaginations and dream big dreams.

Oregon Epiphany

Ken 21 Jul , 2017 0 comments Kingdom Church

Richard Foster, in one of his books, tells this story…

“In the spring of 1978 Carolyn and I drove to the Oregon coast. On the first morning there I got up before the sun, though not before the suns light and I quietly slipped out for an early walk on the beach. Other than the ever present sea gulls, I was quite alone. The tide was out, and the night mist was just beginning to flee from the mornings encroachment. Nearby was a huge monolith well known in the area as Haystack Rock. Nesting atop the rock were squadrons of tufted puffins. With the tide going out, I was able to walk almost completely round the magnificent rock fortress, which rises straight out of the sand. I marvelled at its stubbornness in standing against the unrelenting attack of ocean waves. The sun had broken over the distant mountains. The sheer splendour made me catch my breath. I exclaimed out loud, ‘This is beautiful!’ There was, however, a response, a clear unadorned, frank response. What followed was like an ordinary dialogue between friends and his hard to explain.

“I had come to a cliff overlooking the beach. On top was a forest of hemlock, Sitka spruce and Western cedar. I was admiring one giant cedar especially. Then as I took several steps to the right, I saw what had been hidden from my view by the healthy tree – another extremely large but obviously rotting Western cedar. Some sprouts of green went out on two sides, but it was obviously only a matter of time before the tree died.

“But then the word of the Lord came to me, saying, ‘This is my Church!’ Then for some reason unknown to me, I turned 180 degrees and looked back at Haystack Rock in the distance. The tide had come in by then and the rock was completely surrounded by water, the waves savagely breaking against it. The divine word continued, ‘But this is what my Church is going to be!’ Great hope rose up within me as I stared at this massive icon of strength and endurance.

“Then I was given instructions that I assume was one of the primary reasons for the encounter. It was guidance to pray for the rising of a new generation of leaders – prophets of the apostolic mould – leaders who could once again gather the people of God into communities of radical faithfulness. What do these prophets look like? They come from every class and category of people. Some are educated; others are illiterate or semi-literate. Some come from organised churches and denominations; others come from outside these structures. Some are women; some are men; some are children. To the person they love Jesus with their whole heart. They all evidence the call of God upon their lives and the hand of God upon their ministries. It is of no consequence to them who is up front, who gets the attention, or who is remembered in the annals of history. Few of them, in fact, are known to the custodians of the modern media for they lack those elements necessary to be newsworthy. It is not that they lack impact; it is that the kind of impact is seen as irrelevant. To normal human reckoning they are the little people, but in the kingdom of God they are truly the great ones. They are the spiritual heirs of Deborah and Elijah, of Amos and Jeremiah, of Paul and the daughters of Philip.”

(Foster, R., Prayer, 1992, p259ff. With minor editing and abridgement.)

Mind the Gap

The train pulls in at the station and the announcement is heard: “Mind the gap”. It is an iconic sound of London, a warning that there is a gap between the train and the platform a gap where danger lies.

When I began to boil down my notes I was not sure where it would take me, I just knew it was the next step of my journey. I was not expecting it to converge so quickly. A fog I had been grappling with for years seemed to blow away and I knew where I was heading, reaching its climax in the last three posts. I had only ever meant to tidy up my notes on Genesis 3, but then the story took over and it led me to an uncomfortable place. It brought me to the edge of a gap. Truth must be lived, yet I wasn’t living it. So I found myself hovering at a precipice, until I decided I must follow this path and face the gap that was opening up with increased clarity: as God’s representative on earth, I was lacking, we all are.

Maybe I am idolising the goal and should set my sights lower? But then, if I am called to follow Jesus, I can’t quite imagine him, settled down, living in a mid terrace, doing a 9 to 5. Not the Jesus of the Gospels anyway. It would not be long before the sinners, the prostitutes and the broken beat a path to his door. If I were his neighbour, I’d want to complain to the council. Yet, maybe I am more like Christ than I realise and it is just that the people around me are hard hearted. I can imagine my wife’s response to that. There again, maybe I should just repent of my sloth and rebellion: Dust and ashes, and all that. Yet, is this even a possible goal? So many options. Maybe I just need to see a doctor and get a life.

However, I cannot write a theological narrative and just move on. Theology is nothing unless it means something and this gap must be faced. I must allow myself to be nailed to its uncomfortable truth until it becomes my reality, or until I hear God.

We can look back on history and see that we are not alone in our failure to bear witness to our God of love, yet this is no excuse. It is not an excuse, but perhaps a lesson, a lesson it has taken us nearly two thousand years to learn: We cannot close the gap, for it is not in our power – and never has been. Something the first disciples knew, but somehow never quite passed on. We tried too hard. We shouldn’t have tried at all. The first disciples knew they could not do it. Peter tried, and learned when the cock crowed the third time. Saul tried, and learned on the Damascus road, becoming Paul. All that effort, all that determination, amounts to nothing. And once we know we can do nothing, we release God to do everything. For this is also what the first disciples knew: nothing is impossible, and that one day the church will have made herself ready. A day that is getting closer, for, without doubt, God is today wooing his church back. The hour has not past, and now may even be the time – the time to end the gap.

The Divine Imperative

Imagine: The light is dazzling, slowly your eyes adjust to the brightness and we see a man whose head and hair are white as snow and whose eyes blaze like fire. We hear his voice, and it is like the roar of the ocean and in his right hand he holds the seven stars of the churches. He is Lord of all, yet, when we look towards the earth, we realise that our enemy has not been sitting back, but is sowing lies and discord within the church.

In heaven we see God firmly on the throne, surrounded by heavenly beings pouring forth praise – they have no doubt who reigns. Yet, some things must be allowed to take place; seals that need to be broken which will release long held back disasters: there will be wars, famines and disease. We have sown its seeds and we must reap its harvest. Yet, God has set limits to the sufferings we have sown. Yes there will be times of woe, but we don’t always know when.

Today, we are beguiled by comfort and all appears well. We are warm, well fed and secure. We fail to see those who suffer. Yet, the rules haven’t changed: some do well at the expense of others. All that changes are those who benefit. We enjoy the candy, but fail to see its price. We live in a world where God is dead or no longer relevant, we flounder for meaning and value, where all that remains is the will to power. We build on poor foundations and will find no Utopia at the end of this road. Indeed, all empires come to and end eventually: they carry their own seeds of destruction. But, we are not without hope.

God has not abandoned the world that he loves. He has left his church as witnesses of him. Just as Jesus was sent into the world, so now the church is called to follow. We manifest God to the world and show it God’s love. Or at least, that is the plan. Over the years, we have lost our way and become confused, but God is calling us back to fulfil our destiny: To leave the proud city and come out from Babylon. We leave its perspectives, but we remain at its heart. We know it’s fate is sealed, and yet we stay, showing a God who loves the world more than anyone can imagine and who is the answer to their hearts deepest longing. The world needs our story. We are God’s gift to the world for its redemption. Yet darkness opposes the light and we should not expect to be unopposed. Being a witness could cost us our lives.

As times get darker, it is as though we watch the vast forces of our enemy assemble, like a scene from the Lord of the Rings. We sense a pending battle, whose outcome is uncertain. We await the conflict… only, there isn’t one. The enemy is simply tossed into a lake of fire. For all the hubris, the outcome is not in doubt and we have nothing to fear.

As a church we have our failings, but we are making ourselves ready and will one day fulfil our mission to be witnesses of God and his love. The call goes out to us now, to leave the city and follow the one who is worth following. Fulfilling the divine imperative, we will find our destiny and hearts deepest longing. We will, at last, be a people who begin and end with Jesus.

Wounded

There are few people who do not enjoy the view of a mountain, or feel a sense of awe from an ancient tree. Yet, what is it we are seeing? Wounds. The wounds of the earth as it was formed, one tectonic plate crashing violently into another, rupturing the surface. The wounds of time on the tree, harsh winters, limbs broken then healed over. A scientist might have come up with something better. Nurturing the tree in a laboratory without hardship, without character. God has done a better job.

We struggle with the idea of wounds. When my son was an infant we got together with some friends, praying for his eczema to be healed. He was not healed. My fault, or so I found out later. I never got to find out why, because it was never said to my face, which is probably what hurt the most. On another occasion a visiting speaker prayed for a friend of mine for her diabetes. She was not healed either. It was due to her lack of faith. Apparently. Now don’t get me wrong. I believe that the Kingdom of God is all about wholeness, the blind seeing and the lame walking. If that isn’t happening, then we have misunderstood the Kingdom, yet things are not always that simple.

Brennan Manning was a priest and an alcoholic. He woke up one morning from a drunken stupor, in a ditch, covered in his own vomit. It was at this low point that he realised that God loved him as he was, not as he should be. This sense of God’s love overwhelmed him and became his life’s message. Yet, in his autobiography he admits to never having being healed of his alcoholism, which continued to cause hurt to those around him. It was not the ending I wanted to read. I think too of a friend of mine who, many years ago, also died of alcoholism. He too was not healed. He too left behind him others who had been hurt.

We think that Jesus healed everyone, but, actually, he didn’t. He left Lazarus to die. For sure, he was resurrected a few days later, but, then, isn’t that our hope too?

In the Orthodox Church, they view the story of Adam and Eve differently than we do in the West. Adam and Eve are more like children, young and naive. They make mistakes. This may be disappointing, but it does not take us by surprise. It is part of growing up. Our job as parents is to help our children in that process, and this is close to how the Orthodox Church read this story. For sure, God did not want them to make that mistake, but he was not horrified, or even surprised, when they did. It was all part of their growing up, painful as it would be for them. Painful as it would be for him.

We all carry our wounds. Sometimes of our making, sometimes not. Our society would prefer those wounds would go away, or be hidden. Even in the church we do this. Yet, much of who I am was formed when I was a child, by broken parents in a broken home that leaves its scars. When I became a Christian a lot of things changed, but a lot of things did not. Even today, many of those wounds show. I will probably never be the life of the party. But, what I am learning, is that that it is OK. Not every wound, not every sickness is healed. Sometimes God says, this is one for you to learn to overcome in other ways. Like Jacob, we sometimes need to walk with a limp. But, perhaps, like with the mountains and the trees, it is what gives beauty to our lives.