Category Archives: Faith

‘The Great Divorce’ between Heaven and Hell – Looking at C. S. Lewis’ fantastic book.

ghosts 1 copyHell is a state of mind – Ye never said a truer word. And every state of mind, left to itself, every shutting up of the creature within the dungeon of its own mind – is, in the end, Hell. But Heaven is not a state of mind. Heaven is reality itself. All that is fully real is Heavenly. For all that can be shaken will be shaken and only the unshakeable remains. – C. S. Lewis ‘The Great Divorce’

We make a choice. Every day we make a choice between living in Heaven (or as Jesus put it – ‘The Kingdom of Heaven’) and Hell. I’ve begun to realise this more and more recently. There have been a number of problems, some small, some a bit bigger, coming my way. Every time it seems I could consider myself ‘hard done by’ or that life is unfair. Or I can take a deep breath, relax and thank God for the blessings I have. Generally, of course, I do both. I’m very far from saintly so I often have to go through the ‘Its unfair’ stage before seeing things in the proper light.

In ‘The Great Divorce’ C. S. Lewis illustrates this conflict in two ways: The first is by making the physical substance of Heaven very different from Hell. The second is by a series of conversations in which visitors from Hell talk to the inhabitants of Heaven. I like the way that Lewis mixes the social, spiritual and physical. The visitors arrive from Hell on a flying bus. They are an odd, argumentative crowd, all except our hero, Jack, who seems fairly normal. When they arrive in Heaven they find themselves in a world which looks like a beautiful natural landscape but everything is as hard and strong as diamonds. Even walking on the grass in this world is painful. They themselves are ghostly phantoms, almost without substance.

A word of warning here. Lewis says in his introduction:

I beg readers to remember that this is a fantasy. It has of course – or I intended it to have – a moral. But… the last thing I wish is to arouse factual curiosity about the details of the after-world.

Yet there is an underlying truth in this strange, hard world. There are a number of clues in the Gospels that suggest the substance of Heaven is not the same as that of Earth. After his death Jesus appears to his friends:

jesusthomasdoubt1

Eight days later, his disciples were again in the room. This time Thomas was with them. Jesus came through the locked doors, stood among them, and said, “Peace to you.”

Then he focused his attention on Thomas. “Take your finger and examine my hands. Take your hand and stick it in my side. Don’t be unbelieving, believe.” – John 20: 26-27 (Message translation)

Jesus is the same yet clearly different. He can go through locked doors. He can do normal things while still having the mortal wounds inflicted on him during his crucifixion. Many Christians (including myself) experience the physical world in unexpected ways. This can be an awareness of the presence and power of the Holy spirit but it can also mean seeing and hearing things that come from God and are not simply ‘natural’. This is often glossed over in the Church in the UK but it seems important to acknowledge and celebrate this. We are physical creatures. If the Kingdom of Heaven is only an idea in our mind it will never truly be real.

But the main part of the book is a series of conversations. I certainly can’t do justice to all of them in this blog post but I’d like to look at a few of them:

Jack, as he is walking around this diamond hard country, comes across a man with a ‘hard-bitten’ look leaning against the tree and smoking a cigar. He is one of those people, and we have all met them, who know that everything is run by a sort of faceless management and it is their job to sort things out. He is considering whether to stay in Heaven or go back on the bus back to Hell.

‘What would you like to do if you had your choice?’ I asked.
‘There you go!’ Said the Ghost with a certain triumph.’Asking me to make a plan. It’s up to the Management to find something that doesn’t bore us, isn’t it? It’s their job. Why should we do it for them? That’s just where the parsons and moralists have got the thing upside down. They keep asking us to alter ourselves. But if the people who run the show are so clever and powerful, why don’t they find something to suit their public. All this poppycock about growing harder so that the grass doesn’t hurt our feet.’

(In the story the ghosts are assured that as they continue in the heavenly country and think less of themselves they will harden and solidify.)
The hard-bitten ghost has a very modern counterpart. The sort of person who believes that everything is someone else’s fault. Usually a sort of faceless ‘Them’. So their lives are spent in a sort of disdainful superiority where they feel that, if only they were listened to, if only the people in charge would do what they say then everything would be fine. But this assumes that there is ‘someone in charge’ and, if there is, they are able to do what these people want.

I watched a TV program recently where the leader of one of our political parties was answering questions from an audience in their teens and twenties. The party leader kept his composure remarkably well throughout as the teenagers kept on saying that there ‘was no one like them in Parliament’ and they were not going to vote as ‘they were not represented’. Finally, a very articulate young woman of 15 or 16, put this point and the party leader turned to her and said ‘Why don’t you go into politics? Then there would be someone just like you in power?’. She was a bit taken aback. It hadn’t occurred to her that she should actually do something herself. I hope she does.

Jack overhears another conversation between one of the bright people and a ghost. The ghost is a mother who had lost her son. Her only concern, her only thought, is to see him again, to ‘have’ him. She asks the bright person: ‘When am I going to be allowed to see him?’ But he explains:

‘There is no question of being allowed, Pam. As soon as it is possible for him to see you, of course he will. You need to be thickened up a bit.’

‘How?’ said the Ghost. The monosyllable was hard and a little threatening.

‘I’m afraid the first step is a hard one,’ said the Spirit. ‘But after that you’ll go on like a house on fire. You will become solid enough for Michael to perceive you when you learn to want Someone Else beside Michael. I don’t say “more than Michael”, not as a beginning. That will come later. It’s only a little germ of a desire for God that we need to start the process’

Of course, Pam is not convinced. But it does make sense. Without God it is easy to make idols of the people we love. We try to make them fit the empty place in ourselves that only God can fit, demand more than any human being can give. Being a mother is hard and confusing and it is easy to think that we should get something back from those we gave so much to. But that is not the way it works. I have found that my faith in God has allowed me to let go of my children as they have grown up and still love them. A gift indeed. As Lewis says:

‘Pam, Pam – no natural feelings are high or low, holy or unholy in themselves. They are all holy when God’s hand is on the rein. They all go bad when they set up on their own and make themselves into false gods’

The final conversation I want to look at in this post is that of a ‘liberal’ bishop who has cast off even the doctrine of the Resurrection in his search for ‘honesty’. In his biography of C.S. Lewis Alister McGrath identifies this as a ‘Cultural stereotype of his day’. I agree. ‘The Great Divorce’ was written during the 2nd World War and published in 1946. I don’t think you would find any clergy in today’s church who do not believe in the Resurrection of Jesus Christ. Yet there are plenty of people (and I know a few of them) who have reasoned themselves out of faith altogether. Indeed I did this myself in my teens. It took me more than 20 years to find my way back.
The conversation is between two colleagues in the Church. It goes on for a number of pages because the ghost visitor from Hell keeps on trying to evade the point and change the subject. Finally, Dick, the Bright person, asks:

‘Do you really think there are no sins of intellect?’

The ghost asserts that he was honest and ‘brave’ to follow his ‘Critical faculties’ to their obvious conclusion, even though they only brought him fame and promotion. Dick continues:

Let us be frank. Our opinions were not honestly come by. We simply found ourselves in contact with a certain current of ideas and plunged into it because it seemed modern and successful. At College, you know, we just started automatically writing the kind of things that won applause. When, in our whole lives, did we honestly face, in solitude, the one question on which all turned: whether after all the Supernatural might not in fact occur? when did we put up one moment’s real resistance to the loss of our faith?’

‘If this is meant to be a sketch of the genesis of liberal theology in general, I reply that it is a mere libel. Do you suggest that men like…’

‘I have nothing to do with any generality. Nor with any man but you and me. Oh, as you love your soul, remember. You know that you and I were playing with loaded dice. We didn’t want the other to be true. We were afraid of crude Salvationism, afraid of a breach with the spirit of the age, afraid of ridicule, afraid(above all) of real spiritual fears and hopes.

The truth is, there are two ways faith in God can start. For a few lucky souls it starts with an experience of the supernatural so powerful and profound that they have no way of denying it. But for most of us it starts with learning something. Maybe hearing someone talk or reading the bible. And then we have to start to believe in the supernatural nature of God before we can experience it. Some of the most powerful experiences of God have been when I have ‘gone forward’ for prayer during a service. It is as though I need to take a step towards God before he will give me His Grace.

Dick, and the ghost he is talking to, started in the same place. They both started with being clever and modern, but ended up in very different places. There are still a lot of clever, modern people about. People who see religion as a ‘cultural construct’ or a ‘crutch’ for people who can’t cope with life. I don’t think it is impossible to be intelligent and a true Christian. I have listened to Oxford Professors who are passionate about their faith and truly believe in the supernatural power of God. But when that intelligence becomes an end in itself, that is where the danger lies.

This is already quite a long post but I want to end with a question: Is ‘The Great Divorce’ a book about what happens after we die or before? Well, as ever, Lewis himself answers this question:

This is what mortals misunderstand. They say of some temporal suffering. “No future bliss can make up for it”, not knowing that Heaven, once attained, will work backwards and turn even that agony into a glory. And of some sinful pleasure they say “Let me have but this and I’ll take the consequences”: little dreaming how damnation will spread back into their past and contaminate the pleasure of sin. Both processes begin even before death. The good man’s past begins to change so that his forgiven sins and remembered sorrows take on the quality of Heaven: the bad man’s past already conforms to his badness and is filled only with dreariness. And that is why, at the end of all things, when the sun rises here and the twilight turns to blackness down there, the Blessed will say “We have never lived anywhere except Heaven,” and the Lost, “We were always in Hell.” and both will speak truly.

Reading Suggestions

First I would like to recommend reading ‘The Great Divorce’ itself. It is not a long book (146 pages) and has so much depth that it will repay any effort.
If you are interested in C. S. Lewis’ life, Alister McGrath’s biography ‘C. S. Lewis, A Life’ is well worth reading.

A few thoughts about swimming in the sea

Light on SeaSummer this year seemed to go on a long time. But, about a month ago we felt it would be the last warm weekend so we (me, my daughter Lucy and my husband) packed the car and headed down to the coast. I love being near the sea but I especially love being in it. I love the light bouncing off the waves and the feeling of being supported in the water. The picture above is from that day and it was very calm but even on a day like this there is a slight sense of danger. There was a strong ebb tide which was pulling Lucy away from the coast. With a few strong strokes she came back in again but I am always aware of the possible dangers.

For me the sea is like a living parable. It is so deep, so full of life, so strong. Like God it is constantly changing, like Him it is always there. Of course the parable is not perfect. We should let the currents of God’s spirit take us where He wants us to go, not swim against them.

Flying fishI did this picture on holiday in the summer. I felt very free and light and this is the feeling of being in the waves with the sunlight sparkling through. It was done with hot wax sprayed on with a hair dryer. The wax goes everywhere and is pretty hard to control.

Many of the stories in the Gospels (and in Acts) are set in or around water. Even though the apostles were experienced boatmen they were not always in control either. Storms came up and the fish headed for the other side of the sea. A few years ago I swam across St Paul’s Bay in Malta (on a calm morning, not in a storm) and it felt really special to make that connection with the story in Acts.

The Jews had a good sense of the connection between the physical and spiritual that maybe we have lost. Not everyone can swim well but most of us can walk or run. Maybe we need to take God out of church sometimes and feel the wind on our faces.

A highly improbable universe. Notes from the Book club.

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning.  Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made.  In him was life, and that life was the light of all mankind.  The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.

The true light that gives light to everyone was coming into the world. He was in the world, and though the world was made through him, the world did not recognise him. He came to that which was his own, but his own did not receive him.  Yet to all who did receive him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God –  children born not of natural descent, nor of human decision or a husband’s will, but born of God.

The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.

(John 1:1-5, 9-14)

Imagine a chilly desert night. Jesus and His friends gathered around a fire. One of them leans back, looks up at the stars and says: ‘Tell us how it all started Rabbi’. So Jesus starts ‘In the beginning…’ and they all settle back to hear the familiar story. But instead of the story they all know He begins to talk about a word, an idea, being the start of it all and He himself is the Word, and caused all things to be made. Not the normal story of animals, plants and people but a universe born out of an idea and a person.

He wouldn’t have got it out in one go. There would have been questions, lots of them. But through it all John sat quietly, listening, his poet’s brain working out how to write the conversation down.

To me, it makes perfect sense. If God needed to create a universe with living breathing creatures that could be his children; if He wanted His own son to become a living breathing human being and be with these creatures then this would be the way to do it. The purpose was there right from the start. It is the most human purpose of all, to create a family.

God's Undertaker bookOur book for this week was ‘God’s Undertaker: Has Science Buried God?’ by John Lennox. The answer to the question is no, but more than that, it seems that science is revealing God, bit by bit. This can be a bit unnerving for the scientists involved. Here are some quotes from the book:

The remarkable picture that is gradually emerging from modern physics and cosmology is one of a universe whose fundamental forces are amazingly, intricately, and delicately balanced or ‘fine tuned’ in order for the universe to sustain life. Recent research has shown that many of the fundamental constants of nature, from the energy levels in the carbon atom to the rate at which the universe is expanding, have just the right values for life to exist. Change any of them, just a little, and the universe would become hostile to life and incapable of supporting it.

Theoretical physicist Paul Davies tells us that, if the ratio of the nuclear strong force to the electromagnetic force had been different by 1 part in 10 to the power of 16 (10 with 16 zeros after it), no starts could have formed.

The distance from the earth to the sun must be just right. Too near and water would evaporate, too far and the earth would be too cold for life… Astrophysicist Hugh Ross lists many such parameters that have to be fine tuned for life to be possible, and makes a rough but conservative calculation that the chance of one such planet existing in the universe is about 1 in 10 to the power of 30.

We were much taken by the sheer improbability of the universe. This does seem to show a real intelligence in its design.  And this does not mean that we need to find the ‘gaps’ in science to make God real (I am in debt to Wendy for pointing out my tendency to fall into the ‘God of the Gaps’ error). For instance there is currently almost no evidence for how individual species get started. The fossil records do not show a gradual change between one species and another. What they actually show is new species coming into being very suddenly and then staying the same for millions of years. They then die out and are replaced by other species.

Once we know this it is tempting to say ‘Oh, that means God steps in and miraculously creates new species’. Well that could be the case or it could be that there is a scientific and physical explanation for how this happens. Evolutionary biology has only been studied for about 150 years and there must be a lot left to learn. The truth is we do not need to find holes in scientific knowledge to reveal God’s work. Science itself will provide this evidence.

Before we ended the discussion we went onto the whole idea of life as information. This can be a difficult idea to grasp and I will admit that, as a computer programmer, I have a bit of an advantage here. Sometimes I sit next to the people using the computer system I look after. They are entering data onto a screen much as they would fill in a paper form. To them the form they are entering the invoice data into has an almost physical form. But I know that what they see is actually constructed from written lines of code. These are broken down by the operating system (I am simplifying a lot here but you get the idea) into machine code which is ones and zeros and this is then used to display the screen the users see. So, the whole system barely has any physical form at all, it is almost all information.  But a single cell within the human body makes my computer system look like an abacus:

Each cell has, curled up within it, about 2 metres of DNA with 7 billon bits of information. The information in the DNA is used to create proteins, the simplest of which have about 100 amino acids. Each protein must be perfect and precise otherwise our bodies will not work properly and all of this is happening every moment of every day without us even being aware of it. Although DNA itself seems to stay the same the information it expresses does not as bits of it can be turned off and on.

This is all wonderful but the question that no-one can answer is ‘How did life start?’ Lennox makes a good case that the only way life could have started is by an ‘Input of information’, that something (or someone) must have got it started. Dawkins himself makes a good case for this when he says:

It is grindingly, creakingly, crashingly obvious that, if Darwinism were really a theory of chance, it couldn’t work. You don’t need to be a mathematician or physicist to calculate that an eye or a haemoglobin molecule would take from here to infinity to self-assemble by sheer higgledy-piggledy luck.

Before I finish this post I’m going to go back to Jesus and His friends sitting under the desert stars. We have become used to the idea that the natural and supernatural are separate, that stuff happening in the world around us is caused by one or the other but not both. But the ancient Jews did not see things that way. For them, there was no dividing line. I think we need to recapture that, to see everything as God’s work. I love science. I love what it tells me about the world we live in but it is all God’s world.

 

 

Berlin – A family pilgrimage

I don’t know what I expected. This photo seems to capture something of what I found. Berlin was a strange mixture of old and new. New images and lights on old style buildings. But nothing really old. In London there are little Tudor alleyways next to brand new office blocks. Here, everything has been built (or re-built) since 1945. And its very quiet with lots of electric trams and bicycles. We stayed in a little hotel in the East side of the city. Several people I had spoken to in England had warned me that it would be grim but it wasn’t. In the 25 years since the wall came down the city has been transformed. The old buildings, built by the GDR in the 50s, are still there but painted and with new windows. At street level they are full of cafes and boutiques.

Elias Sachs GraveOn the first morning we visited the Jewish Cemetery at Weissensee. This is the grave of my Great-Great Grandfather and mother, Elias and Flora Sachs. He was born 1829 near Katowice in (what is now) Poland. After running a successful metal processing plant the family moved to Berlin where he retired to help bring up his children (according to my Dad, he wasn’t very good at it).

After looking at the grave and discussing how we could keep it in better condition we wandered through the cemetery. Two things struck me: One was how many other Sachs graves there were, the other was that the cemetery was completely intact. It was a bus ride out of central Berlin but, unlike everything else, it was completely undamaged. Grand monuments had been placed next to modest grave stones; some of them quite old. There were some new graves as well, but these all seemed to be in this century.

Me and my Dad started talking about Jewish history in Germany. He is a keen amateur historian and has co-authored a book called ‘German Family Snapshots’. On the way back to the bus stop he talked about various members of the family. Some of these had been quite prominent members of German society, some had lived quiet respectable lives. Some had died peacefully, others had their lives ended or disrupted by the Holocaust.

When I was in Oxford last year I met a Church of England Vicar. He seemed much engaged with the problem of suffering, especially on a mass scale. ‘How do we deal with this as Christians?’ He asked. My answer, then and now, was ‘One life at a time.’ Each person who died in the Holocaust lived a life. Each person who survived it, but was forced into exile, lived a life. Those lives may have been shorter than they should have been or lived far from home but they were all important to God. Each one of those people felt love, pain, sorrow and joy. We can remember and celebrate this as well as the millions of other German people whose lives were ended or changed by the war.

AlexanderplatzLater that day we relaxed in these deckchairs in the Alexanderplatz, sipped iced coffee and chatted. With the brightly coloured trams and blue sky it felt like being in a picture postcard.

So, what have I brought back from Berlin? I feel rather proud. Proud to have our Jewish connection with this great city. Follow another branch of my family and you find James Simon (My Great-great Grandfather’s cousin). He was a great benefactor to the city. This notice is next to a park named after him. James Simon noticeBut I also feel proud of my German heritage. Berlin is a brave, amazing place, a huge project to bring together East and West. It is a city being created and built in a way I’ve never seen before. It didn’t have to be done and it may still fail but I’m glad that the German people have decided to do it.

It has taken some time to get to Berlin. There were many times in the last few years when it could have happened. But it felt like the right time and I was able to come with my husband and children (aged 15 and 20, so not really children any more) as well as my Dad. What also feels right is that we are all Christians. The circle has turned and we have come back to God. A different faith but the same God.

Why bother with Apologetics? A short very personal answer

A few months ago a friend of mine asked a question I struggled to answer. The question was ‘Why bother with Apologetics?’ . My answer is in this post.

On Saturday morning I had an hour to kill in Guildford. So I spent it walking around Stoke Park and considering how to make Christian Apologetics real to my readers. I also spent time looking at the park, the trees, the people walking and running on the grass and the Cathedral on the hill in the distance. Then I thought about the way I see the world. Full of meaning and promise. Full of pattern and the joy of God’s creation around us. I love science so my view includes that too.

Then I thought – How would a true atheist see this scene? Very differently I think. In the pictures below I’ve tried to capture this.

Stoke park 1

Every year the BBC puts on a series of Christmas lectures aimed at young people interested in science. In one of these Richard Dawkins said the following:

The universe is nothing but a collection of atoms in motion, human beings are simply machines for propagating DNA, and the propagation of DNA is a self sustaining process. It is every living object’s sole reason for living.

And that is it really. We live, apparently, in a world stripped of meaning. The grass, so carefully mowed to a huge lawn, is no more than self replicating small plants. The trees are just large plants which have a utility of keeping oxygen in our atmosphere. The cathedral is a completely pointless building built by delusional human beings who choose to believe in an imaginary ‘Sky God’.

And what about the young woman walking across the grass? I don’t know who she is or why she was there but Francis Crick (one of the discoverers of DNA) has something to say to her:

You, your joys and your sorrows, your memories and ambitions, your sense of personal identity and free will, are in fact no more than the behaviour of a vast assembly of nerve cells and their associated molecules.

Which is pretty bleak. But I can hear my friend saying: ‘Does it really matter what a few academic scientists say?’. I’ll come back to that. But first I want to present the picture again.Stoke park 2

Its the same scene but understood completely differently. The trees are still using photosynthesis to survive and produce oxygen but they also create amazing patterns of light and colour, each one perfect and unique.

The young woman walking across the park still has DNA (which she may or may not use to replicate in other human beings), her brain is still made of nerve cells but she is able to grow and change and become so much more than just a human animal.

And the whole morning was so perfect: cool, bright and peaceful. There were quite a lot of people in the park: walking, running, chatting. It was as though God had packaged the whole thing up and offered it as a gift, perfect at that moment.

Before I get back to my friend’s question I want to talk about the Cathedral. I have to admit I knew very little about Guildford Cathedral before I wrote this post but I did a bit of research and discovered its remarkable history. The building was started in 1936 but was interrupted by the war. After the war there was very little money to complete it so a campaign was started to buy a brick. Each brick cost 2s 6d (12 1/2pence) and 200,000 of these were bought by all sorts of people, including the Queen but also including people who had very little to spare. The church was finally finished in 1961 and is a vibrant and living part of the community.

So, why does it matter when a group of Atheist academics declare that God doesn’t exist? It matters because it has become part of our culture here in the UK. Every culture has a source of information that people go to for their views on the world. In this country a large part of that role is taken up by TV stations but especially the BBC. I cannot remember ever seeing a program on the BBC that shows modern Christianity in a realistic, positive light. The only regular Christian program is ‘Songs of Praise’ which shows a soft focus, artificial image of Church which would certainly not tempt me to go. This leads to some curious ideas. Matthew Parris in the Times (25th June 2014) declared:

Most modern Christians and Jews, we surmised, don’t really believe their religions

As though this was the most self evident truth, not even worth discussing (this was especially unsettling as Matthew Parris is a writer I generally read and admire)

So we have a generation, with no church background, who are being told that faith in God is either an effect of belonging to a cultural minority or a kind of weak delusion that no sensible person should contemplate. Of course, thank God, there are some people, like myself and many of my family and friends, who manage to break through this barrier but many do not. And what are they left with? At best a faith in family and friends (which is not a bad thing, but can other human beings bear that weight alone?) or a muddled ideal of ‘self realisation’, or they are left with the first picture: that there is only matter, only ‘stuff’ and nothing else.

I’ve quoted a lot of people who don’t believe in Jesus but I want to wrap up with the immortal (well they have lasted almost 2,000 years without loosing any of their potency) words of St Paul:

 We don’t yet see things clearly. We’re squinting in a fog, peering through a mist. But it won’t be long before the weather clears and the sun shines bright! We’ll see it all then, see it all as clearly as God sees us, knowing him directly just as he knows us!

But for right now, until that completeness, we have three things to do to lead us toward that consummation: Trust steadily in God, hope unswervingly, love extravagantly. And the best of the three is love.

1 Corinthians 13: 12-13

In a world without God there is not a lot of trust in anything. The faith my parents had in progress and technology has proved a dead end. Nothing has sprung up to take its place.

Hope is too often replaced with the contents of a bottle or a packet of pills. Hope dies early in many people’s lives, once the first dream bubble has burst.

And love. We all, Christians and non-Christians, need to love and be loved. But the difference is that we know we are loved by God and that makes it easier to love other people. We can love them as the frail, imperfect human beings that they (and we) are, without expecting them to make our own life perfect.

So: Why bother with Apologetics? The Greek word ‘Apologia’ means defence and we need to learn to defend our faith against the attacks on it. We are not alone and, in academic circles, it seems the tide is turning against the New Atheist thinking. But it is a battle that will not be won until ordinary people know they are truly free to come and learn about Jesus.

Sources:

The atheist quotes are taken from:

God’s Undertaker. Has science buried God? by John C Lennox. This is a brilliant book defending Christianity against the New Atheist, scientific thinking.

The Bible quote is from ‘The Message’ version translated by Eugene H. Peterson

If you are interested in a more theological defence against New Atheism then I would recommend:

The Dawkins letters – by David Robertson. He explains why he wrote this book in this short video

 

 

Garden door

 “I see what you’ve done. Now see what I’ve done. I’ve opened a door before you that no one can slam shut. You don’t have much strength, I know that; you used what you had to keep my Word. You didn’t deny me when times were rough.

 “And watch as I take those who call themselves true believers but are nothing of the kind, pretenders whose true membership is in the club of Satan—watch as I strip off their pretensions and they’re forced to acknowledge it’s you that I’ve loved.

 “Because you kept my Word in passionate patience, I’ll keep you safe in the time of testing that will be here soon, and all over the earth, every man, woman, and child put to the test.

 “I’m on my way; I’ll be there soon. Keep a tight grip on what you have so no one distracts you and steals your crown.

Revelation 3: 8-11

When we are children we often have comforting images we return to again and again. In my case one of these images was a door in a wall. Through this door was a garden and if I could only find it then I could go through this door and enter the garden where nothing bad could happen. Of course, as I grew up this image became tinged with sadness. In the godless world I lived in then, this door could never exist.

Before I started the book club I spoke to a number of (adult) people about their favourite books. This book, The Last Battle, by C. S. Lewis came up again and again. Having read it again, I wonder if it is that image of a door into a perfect world that means so much to so many people. Yet it is a world full of paradoxes. The first is that you must step into the darkness to find the light. Lewis describes the moment Tirian (the Narnian King) steps over the threshold into the stable. He expects to find a dark place inhabited by Tash, the dark god. Instead:

For a moment or two Tirian did not know where he was or even who he was. Then he steadied himself, blinked and looked around. It was not dark inside the Stable, as he had expected. He was in strong light: that was why he was blinking.

In the bright world Tash is there. But he only wants to overcome the Calormene leader, who has summoned him. Soon, Tirian sees another sight.

Seven Kings and Queens stood before him, all with crowns on their heads and all in glittering clothes, but the Kings wore fine mail as well and had their swords drawn in their hands.

These people are the humans who have made their way into Narnia from our own world. But there is one missing…

The rest of the book is really an allegory or fable. Is it of Heaven? Is it of a New Earth, renewed in the image of Heaven? I don’t know and I’m not sure it really matters. Maybe we could go one step further and say it is a picture of the Kingdom of God here, now, on Earth, in our own lives and hearts.

SusanpevensieBut, Tirian asks: ‘Where is Queen Susan?’

“My sister Susan,” answered Peter shortly and gravely, “is no longer a friend of Narnia.”

“Yes,” said Eustace, “and whenever you’ve tried to get her to come and talk about Narnia or do anything about Narnia, she says ‘What wonderful memories you have! Fancy your still thinking about all those funny games we used to play when we were children.'”

“Oh, Susan!” said Jill. “She’s interested in nothing nowadays except nylons and lipstick and invitations. She always was a jolly sight too keen on being grown up.”

So Susan is excluded from the New Narnia. And what is her terrible crime? She is the sceptic, the one who embraces the ‘real’ world. She has forgotten the wonder of the walk through the snowy forest and the awe of meeting Aslan. The everyday god of social acceptance has become more important. What she no longer believes in she cannot have.

But the next thing the Narnians find is that some people have arrived the New Narnia who don’t believe in Aslan. They find the dwarves sitting in a circle, unable to see the beautiful land and only seeing the dark and smelly stable. Even Aslan cannot help them. He gives them fine food and it tastes like raw turnips. Fine wine tastes like smelly water;

But very soon every Dwarf began suspecting that every other dwarf had found something nicer than he had, and they started grabbing and snatching, and went to quarrelling, till in a few minutes there was a free fight and all the good food was smeared on their faces and clothes or trodden under foot.

But when at last they sat down to nurse their black eyes and their bleeding noses, they all said: “Well, at any rate there’s no Humbug here. We haven’t let anyone take us in. The Dwarfs are for the Dwarfs.”

“You see,” said Aslan. “They will not let us help them. They have chosen cunning instead of belief. Their prison is in their own minds, yet they are in that prison; and so afraid of being taken in that they cannot be taken out. But come, children. I have other work to do.”

The problem is that the Dwarfs have been taken in. Night after night they had bowed down to a donkey in a lion skin. They had been told this was Aslan and, for a while, had believed it. They had done what this false god had asked them to do. So, when he was shown to be a fraud. They refused to believe in anything except themselves and, perhaps, each other.

In our godless world this is what we call ‘growing up’. In the last ten years or so I’ve met a lot of teenagers. They all believe in something. It may be a boy band or a football team. It could be their own dreams or ambitions. Yet all of these things will fail. The boy band or football team will, after all, be just young men who can falter. Even if the dreams are realised they will not change who we are, or chase the shadows away. So these youngsters will leave behind the gods that failed them, get a job and a mortgage and just well, carry on.

Before we reach the end I want to look at another character in this story. The Last Battle was published in 1956. To modern minds it has some very non-PC characteristics. One of these is that the baddies (called Calormenes) are clearly of middle Eastern origin. They are quite bloodthirsty and have an unpleasant, devil like, god. But Lewis makes the point that, even in such a rotten barrel, there will be one or two good apples. Emeth resolves to walk into the stable to find his god ‘to look apon the face of Tash though he should slay me’. But once he walks through the door he finds himself in the wide, beautiful, New Narnia and comes face to face with Aslan.

“Then I fell at his feet and thought, Surely this is the hour of death, for the Lion (who is worthy of all honour) will know that I have served Tash all my days and not him. Nevertheless, it is better to see the Lion and die than to be Tisroc of the world and live and not to have seen him. But the Glorious One bent down his golden head and touched my forehead with his tongue and said, ‘Son, thou art welcome.’ But I said, ‘Alas Lord, I am no son of thine but the servant of Tash.’ He answered, ‘Child, All the service thou has done to Tash, I account as service done to me.’…

But I also said (for the truth constrained me), ‘Yet I have been seeking Tash all my days.’ ‘Beloved,’ said the Glorious One, ‘Unless thy desire had been for me thou woudst not have sought so long and so truly. For all find what they truly seek.’

So Emeth the Calormene joins all the other humans, talking animals and other creatures as they go ‘further up and further in’. They go through another door into an even wider and more beautiful place. But I won’t tell you how it ends, you will have to read the story yourself.

New Wine 2014

I promised to write a post every day but with so much to do and so little internet access it hasn’t happened. So, what is my experience so far? We have about 8,000 Christians here, what are they thinking, what are they doing?

First, there seems to be a new confidence I haven’t felt before. The Church in the UK is tiny compared with many places in the world but we are so strong. Many of the talks we have been to have been brimming with confidence. Confidence that the country is full of dysfunction and unhappiness and Jesus does have the answer. Confidence that the atheist experiment has failed and people are looking for spiritual answers to the problems in their lives.

I went to a talk yesterday by one of my personal heroes, Shaun Lambert. Shaun is the Vicar of a church in Stanmore, North London. He spoke on the topic of Christian Mindfulness. This is a way of being mindful of ourselves, mindful of the world and (last but, of course not least) mindful of God. This sort of practise, involving meditation and self help can seem self indulgent to many Christians but, if we are going to be a healthy church, we need to be full of emotionally healthy people.

And it is a chance to reconnect with God and with other people. To re-commit to many things in my own life, including writing this blog. Some of the people I went on pilgrimage with are here, its been great to spend time with them and with other people from our church.

A new pilgrimage – Friday

Packing

There are all sorts of pilgrimages we can make. The last one involved a lot of walking. This one involves packing tents, sleeping bags, pillows and getting in the car down to a vast campsite in Somerset. Its two years since we have been to New Wine. How do I feel? Excited, a bit worried (that we won’t have everything). It feels like, as a family, we are a real team this year with the kids doing their bit and really helping. I’m going to have to keep this short as I haven’t packed any books, washing stuff or anything. But, I’m going to make a promise. That I will blog every day we are there. Even if it is only a picture sent from my phone. See you there.

 

God on Mute – Pete Greig

The Big Hovercraft Monster

Hovercraft

One of my earliest memories is being taken to see a hovercraft take off. I was about five and this was new to the Isle of Wight, where we lived. We stood on the tarmac with this big rubbery thing in front of us. Then, without any warning it exploded into life, became twice as big and began to move. The noise was deafening. My most vivid memory of this event is holding on to my Daddy’s hand. All I could think was: ‘If I hold on really tight then nothing bad can happen, he will look after me.’

Sometimes I think of this event when I am worried about something. I think: ‘If I just hold onto God really tight then nothing really bad can happen to me,’ and most of the time this is true.

God on Mute is about the times when God does not protect us from the Big Hovercraft Monster.

Pete and Sammy

Pete Greig is the founder of the 24/7 prayer movement. He is currently ‘Director of Prayer’ at Holy Trinity Brompton Church in London. He is also a local boy who grew up and went to school in Reigate, where I have lived most of my adult life. I like to think this is significant, that people who grow up in this town have something special about them wherever they end up (but I could be just kidding myself).

Pete is married to Sammy and they have two sons: Hudson and Daniel. This is significant as the book centres around an event that happened soon after Daniel was born. Chapter 1 starts:

“Wake up!’ she gasped. ‘Something’s wrong.’ Sammy’s whispers buffeted me out of a deep sleep, and I began mumbling and fumbling like a drunk, flailing frantically for the bedside lamp. Squinting in its light, I stared instinctively towards the old Moses basket beside the bed, but seven-week-old Daniel was soundly asleep, his lips pouting softly for his mother’s milk.

‘It’s my leg.’ Sammy’s voice bristled with fear. ‘I can’t feel it. It won’t move…’ Sammy, pale as the moon, was sitting upright in bed, clutching her thigh. Then, suddenly… the fingers of her right hand began to curl into an old lady’s fist. Her wrist twisted to a 90-degree angle. She let out a gasp – a yelp – of pain as shuddering spasms began to tremble up her arm.

The seizure continued and, once in hospital, they discovered that Sammy had a large brain tumour. She was operated on and the tumour removed but it left her with serious and ongoing epilepsy which continues to this day. This book is not about coming to terms with this illness, with accepting it, because who could accept such a thing? It is about why God does not answer the prayers to heal Sammy, not just Pete’s own prayers but those of many, many other people has well.

Pray like Jesus?

praying hands

 Then Jesus went with them to a garden called Gethsemane and told his disciples, “Stay here while I go over there and pray.” Taking along Peter and the two sons of Zebedee, he plunged into an agonizing sorrow. Then he said, “This sorry is crushing my life out. Stay here and keep vigil with me.”

Going a little ahead, he fell on his face, praying, “My Father, if there is any way, get me out of this. But please, not what I want. You, what do You want?”

Matthew 26: 36-39 (MSG)

At the core of the story of Jesus is a choice. We sometimes forget that He was a man. And, as a man he had two privileges. The first was ask God for whatever He needed, not with the certainty that the prayer would be answered but with the certainty He would be heard. The second was free will. He could have walked away. And with the God given knowledge of what was about to happen that would have been easier than for most of us. But He chose to do His father’s will. He chose to die on the cross.

Jesus is kinder to us than He was to himself. We don’t normally see the disaster coming. And even once it has happened we are somehow protected. Greig puts it like this:

I was lonelier than I had ever been before; yet strangely, I was also becoming aware of a kind of inner warmth. It was the comfort of huddling into a thick coat with deep pockets on a bitterly cold night. Doctors would probably call it shock, but to me it felt a lot like the presence of God.

This is an enormously thoughtful book. My only criticism of it would be that the title is misleading. It is not really about God being Mute. It about our requests not being answered. This is not unreasonable given what Jesus Said:

“Don’t bargain with God. Be direct. Ask for what you need. This isn’t a cat-and-mouse, hide-and-seek game we’re in. If your child asks for bread, do you trick him with sawdust? If he asks for fish, do you scare him with a live snake on his plate? As bad as you are, you wouldn’t think of such a thing. You’re at least decent to your own children. So don’t you think the God who conceived you in love will be even better?

Matthew 7: 6-8

But, just as a good parent would not give their children everything they ask for, we should not expect God to do the same. Of course, sometimes God does give us what we ask for, either in a natural or supernatural way but Jesus promised that God would be better than a good parent. He would know what we need. Grieg comes up with a number of reasons why prayers are not answered. If you have not read this book (or if, like me, your memory is less than perfect!) I think it is worth listing some of  them with comments.

Reason 1: Common Sense. Some prayers are not answered because they are just plain stupid. This isn’t always obvious at the time. Greig mentions praying for a petrol (filling) station to appear where there was not one before. This is clearly stupid but I have prayed for things that only seem to be stupid in hindsight. Often when we are anxious or worried we will ask for things which are clearly not what we need.

Reason 2: Contradiction. Examples of this are: praying for certain weather patterns; praying for ‘your’ team to win the match; praying for a parking space. This doesn’t mean we shouldn’t pray for these things, just understand that God sees the bigger picture.

Reason 3: The Laws of Nature. Greig quotes C. S. Lewis:

That God can and does, on occasions, modify the behaviour of matter and produce what we call miracles is part of Christian faith; but the very conception of a common, and therefore stable, world demands that these occasions should be extremely rare.

Summer FlowersAs we discover more and more about the natural world it is clear that it is a world finely tuned to support life and, therefore, us. If the laws of nature were continually subverted then we would be in danger of destroying this balance. But it also seems to be stranger and more beautiful than we previously imagined it could be. I sometimes wonder if we really, really want to disrupt the intricate dance that God has created for us to live in?

Reason 4: Life is tough. It is sometimes really tough. I know many people who are facing huge problems in their lives. Yet even when our lives are fairly OK we can find ourselves praying for ‘solutions’ to our problems. Greig says:

One of the problems, ironically, can be prayer. In prayer we set our hopes high and call it faith. We pray for the perfect spouse, healthy children, successful careers and serene families. We don’t just wish for these things but actually train ourselves to expect them! We fear the worst if we should ever lower our sights. Yet this is false faith. The apostle Paul longed not just ‘to know Christ and the power of his resurrection,’ but also ‘ the fellowship of sharing in his sufferings’ (Phil 3:10). The Christian witness and our ultimate hope, is not merely a miraculous succession of miraculous escapes from all human affliction. Rather, it is the joy of a deepening relationship with the ‘man of sorrows familiar with suffering’ (Isa. 53:3) who loves us and lives in us.

Reason 5: Doctrine. Greig describes a lady he knew called Margaret who was dying, painfully, of throat Cancer. Many people would tell her how brave she was, how difficult her life was. So she wrote her response on a piece of paper:

This is not the worst thing to ever happen! Cancer is so limited. It cannot cripple love, shatter hope, corrode faith, eat away peace, destroy confidence, kill friendship, shut out memories, silence courage, quench the Sprit or lesson the power of Jesus.

And that is it. I sometimes turn the whole thing around and ask people to imagine someone who has never suffered. We all know such people, usually young, often spoiled and shallow. Would we really want to be such a person?

Reason 6: God’s Best. Sometimes God doesn’t answer our prayers because he has something better for us. I was raised to be ambitious. When I became a Christian, about 6 years into my career in IT I used to pray for recognition and promotion. My prayers were rarely answered but I’m really quite glad. Having a less glittering career meant I could focus on the technical aspects of IT. It also meant that could be a mother, a wife and a friend. If my prayers then had been answered it might have been difficult to take the time off I’ve had now and write this blog.

Sometimes God wants us to have something even better than we ask for.

Reason 7: Motive. Greig says:

Jesus never actually promised to answer our prayers unconditionally. It is God’s prayers in our mouths that are guaranteed to work. The apostle John puts it like this: ‘This is the confidence we have in approaching God: that if we ask anything according to his will, he hears us. And we know that he hears us – whatever we ask – we know that we have what we asked of him’ (1 John 5 14-15, emphasis added). It is when we pray ‘according to his will’ that God hears and acts, which means that miracles happen only when our prayers harmonize with God’s broad desires for our lives.

Reason 8: Relationship. We all have our favourite bible characters. Mine is definitely Simon Peter. I love that bold impulsiveness, the argumentative streak. Like, him I love being on, or in the sea (although I have never tried to walk on top of it, wouldn’t that be great!). But he definitely did not have an easy time. It is almost impossible to imagine how he would have felt after Jesus was crucified. Not only had he lost his best friend, his teacher in the most horrific circumstances, but had betrayed His trust at a time when he was needed most. But Jesus never wanted to give his disciples an easy time. What He needed from Peter was to forge a relationship so strong that it would enable him to start the Church. Jesus needed Peter to know that He was with him every step of the way.

Finally

There is lots more in this book. For instance, I’ve missed out a whole section on spiritual warfare which is well worth reading. But one phrase keeps on popping up in my mind. It is from Love Wins: ‘Does God get what God wants?’ and the answer is Yes. He wants us to be better than we are, to be more like him. He wants us to have rich and fruitful lives, even if it means we don’t get what we want. And, above all He wants us to know him.

I said before that I didn’t like the title of this book. Because God is never mute. He is speaking through nature, through other people and through scripture. Sometimes, he speaks directly to us but however He is speaking all we have to do is learn to listen.

Liberal Democrats Do God

Now don’t get me wrong, I’ve always been a dutiful citizen. From that first time proudly walking out the school gates to the latest European Elections I have always voted. And I even go to hear the candidates speak so I can decide who to vote for. But, between elections it didn’t have much impact on my life. Until last year…

Politics came crashing into our lives last year when our son, William, stood in the council elections. Suddenly, we were Liberals: putting leaflets through doors, going to the count in the local sports hall. He was the youngest candidate standing anywhere so he had quite a lot of press attention. I remember getting him up at 6am to do a radio interview (on the phone, in his dressing gown, sitting on the sofa). Even as parents it was quite an intense experience. He came a good second and, after saying ‘Well done’ to him, I went to congratulate the winning candidate. ‘Oh thank you, Monica,’ she said and gave me a big hug. Well Reigate is a bit like that.

Liberal Democrats Do GodWhen this book was published it caused a mild media flurry. The title is based on the famous comment from Alistair Campbell following an interview with Tony Blair that ‘We don’t do God’. It is encouraging that many politicians (including our current Prime Minister) are prepared now to publically declare their faith and the effect it has on their life. My feeling is that the attempt (by the ‘New Atheists’ and others) in the late 20th century to ‘Kill off God’ may have had quite the opposite effect. It has encouraged people from all walks of life to be honest about their faith in a way that has not been possible for some time.

Although this is quite a short book there is a lot in it and my choice of what to comment on is entirely personal. My focus is more on the Church than on the world of politics and I suspect that everyone reading it will have different things they feel are important. Each section is written by a prominent Liberal Democrat politician and the range of issues is enormous. I’m going to start with Sir Andrew Stunell:

Three reasons to Thank God – and not the usual ones

While I was reading this a tune kept on turning round and round in my head. Most of my generation will know this tune. The words are:

God is working his purpose out as year succeeds to year,
God is working his purpose out and the time is drawing near;
Nearer and nearer draws the time, the time that shall surely be,
When the Earth shall be filled with the glory of God as the waters cover the sea.

Because the sense of this short essay is that God is working his purpose out. Maybe not in the way we would expect. Possibly not in the way that many Christians would want but it is happening. Sir Andrew’s first thankyou is:

Let’s start by thanking God that we live in a secular and pluralist society.

Within a few hundred years of Jesus’ death on earth attempts were being made to control and manage the Christian faith. This reached its peak in the late middle ages but, even by the year 1800, it was still impossible, in the UK,  for anyone who did not belong to the Church of England to enter parliament, get a University degree or hold public office. Of course, you also had to be a man and of reasonable personal wealth to do most of these things. Even those following other flavours of Christianity such as Baptists or Catholics were excluded. As Sir Andrew says: ‘We have never been all one great big happy Christian family’.

This level of control had some unexpected consequences. One of these was to force Jews and non-conformist Christians into other areas of public life, such as banking and manufacturing. But a less positive effect was to weaken the Church in this country, to the point where going to a church service was not seen as a act of faith at all, but merely ‘doing the right thing’.

The second ‘Thankyou’ is:

Lets thank God that the Holy Spirit has been at work through the ages

He continues:

… the Holy Spirit didn’t stop work when the Book of Revelation was sealed. Not according to scripture itself, and not according to the subsequent evidence – of which Wilberforce’s successful crusade (against slavery) is a landmark piece…

Stunell mentions a whole list of things that have improved in our society: Slavery, women’s rights, care for the disabled, relaxation of dress codes, but I would like to highlight another improvement in our society and in our churches that we now take for granted.

A friend of mine was divorced about 40 years ago. Added to the pain of ending her unsuccessful marriage was a virtual exclusion from her normal society. The church she belonged to was unwelcoming and certainly offered no help. All her friendships and clubs depended on her being part of a couple. We have come a long way since then. Churches offer ‘Divorce and separation’ courses and actively welcome divorced people and remarried couples. People generally are more relaxed and accepting of divorce and its consequences. The failure of a marriage will always be painful and difficult but at least the people involved can now start again much more easily.

Which brings us to the third ‘Thank you’:

Let’s thank God that he has yet more truth to break forth from his Word

In ten years time Christians will look back at the fuss we made about Gay marriage and wonder what it was all about. We will wonder how we could not have opened our church doors and our hearts to those who had struggled to find their place in society; who were, after all, our neighbours. We will wonder how we could have denied the love of God to so many people. Not just our gay neighbours but all the non-gay people who could not accept a church that seemed to pass judgement on people just because of who they were.

I’m with Andrew Stunell on this. He says:

In this generation it is rights for gay people that seem so hard to acknowledge and so readily denied.

In contrast to that, in all my years as an MP and a councillor I have never once had a letter from any Christian asking me to make committing adultery a criminal offence, or to introduce a law to stop adulterers adopting children, or prevent them from teaching children or repeal the Civil Marriage Act that permits them to remarry, or to require them to have medical treatment to prevent a recurrence of their sexual behaviour. I have had all of those things recommended to me about gay people. That is despite the fact that adultery is unambiguously condemned in Scripture in a way that goes far beyond the somewhat iffy references dredged up about gay behaviour. It unambiguously causes far more harm to far more children than gay behaviour, and is unambiguously very much more damaging and destabilising to families, and of course the institution of marriage, and society at large. Just ask any MP about their Child Support caseload.

In my opinion, things are about to change. The silence from the leadership of the Church of England is deafening on this subject. The dam will burst from the top. But it may take a change to the structure of the Church to achieve this. Which brings us to Lord Tyler’s essay on:

Faith, Society and the State

He says:

 My plea would be for more consistency and more transparency. Treat our fellow citizens as grown-ups, by acknowledging that we are now a multi-faith nation with strong intra-faith links at all levels of society. If that means disestablishment for those of us who live in England, so be it. If that means that King Charles III decides to call himself “Defender of the Faiths”, well why not?

I understand that since the Swedish Church was disestablished in 2001 it has gone from strength to strength, with new commitment to its mission and increasing membership. I have no reason to believe that the English sky would fall in, any more then it did in Wales.

I think we, as Christians, need to reclaim the debate on disestablishment of the Church of England . I was cooking macaroni cheese on Friday and pondering how to make the separation of the Church and State seem at all relevant when I heard a rather sad little story on the BBC News about bats. The journalist was talking to a Church warden from a church in Norfolk. More than 300 bats were roosting in his church. As they are protected he was unable to get rid of them. He described putting down sheets every night and coming in every morning to find them soaked in urine and dotted with poo. The stink was putting people off coming to church at all! What was not mentioned was that he was unable to just close down the church building and set up in a school hall (or other practical venue). Of course not, the parish church is the parish church.

This little story seemed to show in miniature many of the problems with the Church of England: Ancient, impractical buildings, inflexible structures that do not allow change, an insistence to be a ‘special case’ and often outside the law. Lord Tyler says:

Above all, I hope to those of us who remain Anglicans can soon find a way to return to Christ’s own teaching and stop agonising over the dated views of my namesake Paul of Tarsus… Sorting out a speedy way to implement the clear majority view of the Church that the “Stained glass ceiling” of women priests is ludicrous, and offends all our Christian instincts would be an excellent first step in this direction.

I am an Anglican. In many ways the Church of England is stronger than ever. Those who belong to this organisation are really committed to both the Church and to God. There are very few ‘Pew Fillers’ any more. And in Justin Welby we have a really remarkable leader. But, to fulfil our potential we need to break the shackles from the state and stand free.