A Match Made in Heaven

This week Spurgeon’s Bible College asked me if I could send in an academic CV – I’ve applied to do further studies with them. In the process of doing it I remembered an article I did for a science journal, The Biochemist, in my early days at my last church when my science background was still fresh and recent. They were putting together a themed volume on the topic ‘Faith in Science’ and wanted a scientist who was a practising Christian to offer their opinion. Putting the article together was something I found highly enjoyable and gave me the chance to think deeper on this topic which inevitably is important to me. I have always struggled with being both a Christian and a scientist, not because I found they conflicted, but because I so often found that my friends who were scientists assumed that Christianity contradicted what they held to be true and vice versa, without ever really listening carefully to what was being said.

In writing my attempt to show that they needn’t be seen as contradictory I came across a wonderful illustration which helped me immensely. Imagine you’re watching a cricket match. The game is played by rules which if you watched it long enough you could work out. It makes sense and appears self-contained. Zoom out, if you will, and you’ll discover that there is more going on than meets the eye. Zoom out and you discover that you’re not watching the match ‘in the flesh’ so to speak, but are watching it on a TV set. This means that for you to enjoy it, you require the work of the camera men, producers and directors. In the same way we can see and explain the way the world works by science without reference to God. You can observe and deduce the scientific rules of nature without requiring to put him into the equations you use. But, if you zoom out, you can see God is at work, just as the camera man, producer and directors are, in order to bring that scientific contained world to you. Science doesn’t prescribe how God must work – it describes what he normally does (this incidentally explains miracles as the occasions when he chooses to do things differently). It isn’t a case of either or, but both.

Why am I sharing this now? Not just to encourage us to see science as good and not an enemy as Christians can do, but to encourage us to see God’s work in a much broader way that just religious things. The everyday working of the world we live in from the rain drops that fall, to the joy of a smile, to the sight of the comet currently cruising through the sky can be explained through science and explained through God, but I reckon they are all best enjoyed and appreciated when explained through both.

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There was a Young Monk, Middle-Aged Monk and an Old Monk…

Which one are you?

A few of us attended parts of Holy Trinity Brompton’s Leadership Conference at the start of the week; a great opportunity to worship, be exposed to great teaching and get to talk to Christians from all over the place. It was another reminder about the blessing and privilege of being part of such a large worldwide family. In fact, one of the things we were reminded by Rick Warren (some of you might remember when we did his ‘Purpose Driven Life’ course as a church a few years back) was that Christianity is the world’s largest religion with 2.3 billion adherents!

My favourite speaker was Fr Luigi Gioia, an Italian Benedictine monk, with a wonderfully dry sense of humour and an infectious grin that beamed continuously from his face! His faith, enthusiasm and spirituality were quite inspiring – I’m sure you can think of other like him who exude the Spirit. In conversation with Nicky Gumbel he reflected on his experiences as a monk and talked about what it was like to live in his order and the different personalities and people he found there. One anecdote he shared was that of the difference between young monks, middle-aged monks and old monks. Young monks, he said, look holy, but aren’t holy. Middle-aged monks don’t look holy, and aren’t holy. Elderly monks, however, don’t look holy, but are holy! You might find this something worth reflecting on. What did he mean? It’s all about our security in our friendship with God and each other. To begin with, new monks are keen to be as good as they can, and so although they have a long way to go on their journey with God, they present a holy front to the world. I wonder how many of us do this in our services and around other church folk, feeling that we need to prove ourselves in some way. Middle-aged monks have begun to learn to trust each other and God and be secure in letting others see who they really are, good and bad. Perhaps they have also learnt that it is better to trust God to change us, that to try and do it in our own strength. Finally, elderly monks also feel no need to put on a mask, and have opened themselves to God’s Spirit who over time has worked his transformative work in them.

I am sure I will continue mulling over this anecdote this week as I am sure it has a lot to say to all of us in how we see ourselves and live out our faith, and also how we see and judge each other. One big question arising from it is that of how as a community we can foster such relationships with each other that we can trust each other with our weaknesses and learn to be ourselves, confident that God will continue that good work which he has started in us.

I thank my God every time I remember you. In all my prayers for all of you, I always pray with joy because of your partnership in the gospel from the first day until now, being confident of this, that he who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus. (Phil. 1:3-6)

Church Newsletter article 11th May 2014

God’s Handiwork

God’s Handiwork

As some of you may know, Charlotte is into astronomy and the other year purchased a telescope. Looking through it at the Moon and recently Jupiter and its moons has inspired me as well; seeing these heavenly bodies with such detail for myself was breathtaking. I’ve recently discovered FutureLearn.com, a website that offers free short courses on a whole variety of topics. They’ve just started one on moons and I jumped at the chance to learn more. I never realised there was so much too them. I knew that we have our moon, the Moon, and that other planets had them too, but I had no idea that in our solar system there were over 60 counted so far and increasing! Some of them are vast in size, Ganymede, one of Jupiter’s moons partly made of ice, is bigger than Mercury. Satan’s largest moon, Titan, has rivers leading into lakes on its surface, only they are made of liquid methane rather than water. Jupiter has a moon, Europa, which is slightly smaller than our Moon, and we believe it has ice on it under which could be liquid water. This makes it the most likely candidate out there to contain life in our solar system alongside Earth. Some moons came into being alongside the body they orbit, others are asteroids or comets that have been captured by the body’s gravitational pull as they passed by. Some believe our Moon is the remains of another large body that crashed into the earth in its early days, much of it absorbed into our planet’s core and the rest thrown back out into space. Out of this wreckage, the Moon came together. As you can probably tell, I have found the course totally absorbing and fascinating so far.

As a family last weekend we went to a talk about creatures found in dark remote caves underground, in many ways the other end of the spectrum. The small creatures that survive in these caves are perfectly adapted to their environment and are both bizarre and marvellous in their appearance and nature, often only existing on one single cave on the planet. Again how wonderful is our God that he has brought onto being such a myriad of varied creatures!

For me learning these things and reflecting on them is an act of worship; what does such a vast, magnificent and varied universe containing such diverse and detailed life say about the God behind it? It certainly moves me to awe and worship. The Psalmist says it perfectly, ‘The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands’ (Psalm 19:1)

Church newsletter article 23.03.14

Fire!

I was reading the blog of Sean Preston, an author and game designer, when this entry caught my attention:

A Quiet Hunger: Developing and Maintaining Creative Discipline
“When you first jump into a “thing”, be it badminton or backgammon, track or field, weightlifting or words, it’s often pursued with a righteous passion, a deep hunger that cannot be satisfied. Or so it may appear. Many folks move too fast. They burn out quickly. They find nothing is limitless.
One most cultivate a quiet hunger. A desire to grow and expand one’s horizons in whatever endeavour they pursue. How does one go about this?
It’s no real secret. It’s just that nothing is as easy as it seems. Discipline, regardless of skill or aptitude, is critical. With enough fortitude, a person may progress more than someone with great ideas and lack of desire. The trick is to nurture this. And this requires refining one’s skill set(s) and improving upon one’s work with constancy.”

A number of themes resonated between his experience and the experience of one seeking to live a life of faith. His talk of the early days of a new hobby, or interest, as being a ‘passion’ or a ‘deep hunger’. Those of us who didn’t grow up in Christian families and found faith when we were older, may recognize this sense of obsession. It’s certainly referred to in the Bible where it’s called our ‘first love’ (Rev. 2:4) Over time this can dull, leaving us neither hot nor cold (Rev. 3:15)

There is a sense that this is inevitable. We need to grow up in our relationship with God – like any relationship. Think of those you know who have been married a long time. Most don’t have the going weak at the knees gushing feeling that they first had, but this doesn’t mean that there is no passion. Instead it has matured to what Sean Preston calls a ‘quiet hunger’. We were at a barbeque the other day. When it was first lit the flames flickered encouragingly and the charcoal sparked away, with the resultant smoke following you around the garden no matter where you stood. This fire is not great for cooking though, it is a fickle fire which either burns too fiercely or goes out on a whim. Instead the best thing to do is wait until those first wild flames have burnt down and the coals are glowing white. Then the food will be cooked with an even, ongoing, powerful heat. Not as dramatic perhaps, but far better. This is what we’re looking for in our faith. Not for our fire for God to go from all on to fizzled out, but from that early enthusiastic but erratic fire to something that will burn consistently and effectively.

So how do we cultivate this? Again Sean is spot on. The answer is discipline, the regular discipline of making time to spend time with God in prayer, Bible Study, worship and the deliberate decision to love him and others. It doesn’t happen overnight, but once a consistent habit is formed a powerful hunger and momentum will develop. Of course, the good news is that we aren’t left on our own to do this, but God has given the Spirit, the divine fire, to ignite us and keep us burning.

A Heavenly Perspective

There are many things that need to come together if you want to be a great sportsperson or explorer. You need the right physique for their sphere; the chances that a shortish, skinny guy like me will ever be an international star in a rugby scrum are fairly remote! You need the right skill-set and knowledge. But having the right physique, skill-set and knowledge is not enough, you need to have the right mind-set too. This covers a whole lot of aspects such as commitment, determination, a positive outlook and the ability to keep going in face of setbacks and criticism.

Listening to interviews with those who succeed in this area, there is often talk of visualization. This is often to do with picturing in your imagination your succeeding; crossing the finishing line, lifting the trophy or reaching the pole or mountain top. It’s amazing how this simple sounding tool can make a difference. I know that when I’m out running, picturing myself making a good time or getting to the end, can help keep the pace up and manage when I’m flagging.

As Christians, this is something that we’re called to do as well. We’re called to live our lives like athletes determined to live it as well as we can for God. Paul calls us in 1 Cor. 9:24 to, ‘…Run in such a way as to get the prize.’ The writer to the Hebrews encourages us that we can do this as Jesus has gone before us and shown it can be done, ‘…let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith…’ Hebrews 12:1-2.

We were thinking about this at the mid-week Bible Study this week, considering what it means to live a life of faith. One of the questions challenged us to consider how much of the way we live is determined by the culture of those around us and how much is shaped by our understanding of what God has promised in the Bible. The morning sermon series at the moment is looking at the unfolding story of The Father’s Heart for creation and his promise to put right that which has been spoilt. The Bible tells us that we have a secure position before God through Jesus. We have been adopted as his children and eternal life, our citizenship in his Kingdom, is certain. I wonder, what difference would it make if we were to visualize this destiny on our lives in the here and now as we live out this life for him?

Church Newsletter, 05.05.13

A Guilty Secret

As a Christian leader I have a guilty secret, one that lurks at the back of my mind and occasionally leaps out and challenges me. It’s all to do with a very simple question, but a troublesome one, ‘Are you really a Christian?’ You see, when I became a Christian, my conversion bore little resemblance to the experience many Christians describe as being the one we should go through. As a minister, there is often a progression in my worry from there to the question ‘Are you good enough or qualified to be a Christian Minister?’ If the answer to the first question is shaky, then saying in yes to the second I am on dodgy ground indeed.

My first tack when the questions come is to recognize the nature of the questions; they are not unique to me. Adam and Eve were asked something similar by the serpent in the Garden of Eden, ‘Did God really say…?’ and Jesus was challenged by the Satan during his forty fast in the wilderness, ‘If you are the Son of God…’ in an attempt to provoke Jesus into questioning his status before his heavenly Father.

That aside, what is it about my conversion that troubles me? Often when I hear descriptions of what it means to become a Christian, there is an emphasis on repentance, on being sorry for the wrong that you have done, of feeling remorse and guilt. The thing is, when I became a Christian, I felt no such thing. There were no tears of shame. I did not beat my chest and despair of how sinful I was. All I remember was being intrigued and attracted to the life and teaching of Jesus.

I was reading this week about the Jewish aristocrat and historian Josephus this week, a near contemporary of Jesus. He was sent to quell the riotous behaviour of a bunch of hot headed Jews in Galilee which was threatening to attract retribution from Rome. When he met with the rebel leader he said some very familiar words, `repent and believe in me’, the exact words attributed to Jesus in the Gospels. What did he mean? He was demanding that the rebel gave up his agenda of rebellion and followed Josephus’ agenda instead; this is what the phrase meant at that time. And this is the crux of the Gospel. In it we encounter God’s Son who comes with the agenda of building God’s Kingdom and invites us to be part of that by setting aside our own agendas, our agendas of wealth and power and popularity and self-satisfaction, and take up his. Take up your cross, give up ownership of your life, and follow me. Sometimes I wish it was all about expressing remorse and sorrow, that sounds so much easier…

Church Newsletter Article 24.02.13

Review: The Book of Skulls

The Book of Skulls
The Book of Skulls by Robert Silverberg
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Four American college books set out to discover the truth behind a manuscript that writes of a ‘cult’ that offer immortality. The only catch is to obtain it four must undertake the rituals, one must die and one must take his own life.

I found this a compelling read, if perhaps a little dated in some ways (would you have a gay man and a Jew as two of the characters today, maybe a contemporary politically correct author would chose others to be his awkward outsiders). It is written in alternating voices, moving between the four main students, a well chosen tool which allows you not only to get to know the four characters, but also to have different, even contradictory voices heard. The book raises many questions, as in my mind the best sci-fi should about the value of life and death.

As a Christian I found the concept of death demanded in order to bring life provoked interesting comparisons with my faith, even if there are vast differences between the group depicted here and my beliefs.

Another gem in the SF Masterworks series. Is it science fiction? It’s not set in the future, there are no spaceships or time travel involved, so perhaps not. But it does do what in my mind the best sci-fi is all about, it asks the question what would the effect be of changing something that we currently perceive to be normal. Often an other-world setting is used to help us explore, but here our world is used (although there is certainly something other-worldy about where the four students find themselves).

View all my reviews

Holy Imagination

Notes from a talk I presented this week at a Lenten Lunch on behalf of Churches Together

I wonder, do you remember when under every bridge hid a lurking troll? Do you remember when storks delivered babies? Do you remember when there was a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow? I remember when I was a child, everything was magical. I remember playing on the climbing frame at school. One day I was a rocket man zooming into space, the next day a pirate on the seven seas, every day an adventure, after an adventure, after an adventure. Even a simple walk in the woods was to wander where the goblins lived.

But we’re older now, sadly, and we don’t believe in fairy tales anymore. We’ve crossed many bridges and we’ve never had our ankles grabbed by a snarling beast. We’ve checked under the bed, and there’s nothing there but lost socks and hankies! And although Disney may protest, we’ve learnt that not every story has a happy ending.

But I believe that in growing up, we’ve thrown away the baby with the bathwater. We’ve thrown away the ability to see things unseen, as well as throwing away superstition and fairy tale. Remember Peter Pan?  Remember the scene where Tinkerbell begins to fade. The children ask Peter what’s going on. He explains that Tink’ is dying because somewhere in the world someone has just said they don’t believe in fairies anymore. Dare I say it, there may not be such a thing as fairies, but I wonder if in growing up we’ve left no room for mystery, for wonder and imagination and in doing so, something has gone out, something in us has died.

I want to talk about the art of imagination today. Often the modern world has dismissed imagination – we don’t deal with dreams, we deal with facts and figures, the real world, the world that we can see and touch. But I believe that there is so much more to imagination than playing ‘let’s pretend’. Imagination is the creative art of seeing things that can’t be seen, of seeing the world differently, of understanding things in another way.

Let me give you some examples. I’m a Liverpool Football Club fan – have followed them for most of my life. I was watching the Carling Cup final on Sunday, although with our evening service I had to record half of it. There was a great example of the importance of imagination. Cardiff City had the imagination to believe that although they aren’t a Premier League side that they could match Liverpool, and that imagination gave them the belief and passion to do so. It made a real difference. When Liverpool went behind, they didn’t give up either, but had the imagination to believe that they could still win it, and much to my joy they did.

I’m a Biochemist by training. Often I hear that there is a division between the sciences and arts. Artists are the creative ones whilst scientists deal with what can be observed and proved (running joke at Imperial College where I trained that if you looked up Boring in the Yellow Pages it says see Civil Engineers!) Ask any scientist, however, about this split, and they’ll tell you it’s a load of nonsense. To be a good scientist you need to have imagination, the ability when looking at what you’ve researched to ask if there is a different way of interpreting things to what has been done before. Take Galileo who was able to see beyond accepted facts and say that the Earth circled the Sun rather than the other way around – that was a leap of imagination – or Einstein who came up with theories that turned the way physicists thought the world worked on its head! To be a great scientist, you need to be able to think outside the box as they say.

Another example can be seen in those activists who have given their lives to trying to change the world for the better. One of my heroes is Martin Luther King Jr.; now there was a man with a powerful imagination – the ability to see that the world didn’t have to be the way it was, the ability to see that it could be different and to strive to live up to and create the better world he could see in his imagination.

I have a dream that one day even the state of Mississippi, a state sweltering with the heat of injustice, sweltering with the heat of oppression, will be transformed into an oasis of freedom and justice.

I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the colour of their skin but by the content of their character.

There is imagination powerfully at work, making a real and important difference.

As a Christian, I believe that imagination is a God given gift. The Bible tells us that he made us in his image – as this is written in the context of God creating the world, I believe this means that he made us to be creative like him, to be people of imagination. J.R.R. Tolkien who wrote The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings was a Catholic, and he talked about in his writing being a sub-creator, reflecting the creativity of God as he invented the stories and worlds of his books.

The New Testament book of Hebrews says that faith is an act of imagination, ‘Now faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see…’ (Heb. 11:1)Faith is about seeing this world as God sees it and as God wants to make it, and then, having seen it, working out that vision in how we live.

How do we gain that vision? Through prayer and reflection on the Bible, through reading it and asking God to make it shape our understanding of God, ourselves and the world we live in, to make it inform our imagination. Over Lent we remember Jesus going into the wilderness for 40 days to prepare himself for his work to come. I believe this was his way of putting aside time to enable his imagination to be shaped and nourished in this way.

Another example a ‘holy imagination’ if you like is Abraham in the Old Testament. God spoke to him, gave him a wonderful promise, ‘You’re going to have a land, I’m going to take you to this land, this far place and create from you a vast nation of descendants that will bless the world’. Abraham was an old man when he heard this; he must have thought he was going mad. This couldn’t happen, he was too old, he didn’t know where he was going, none of these things made sense. And yet, he used his holy imagination to see what God’s promise could look like. No doubt that picture fuelled his determination during the lean days, the troublesome days, the days when everything God said seemed like a pack of lies. The days when he didn’t know where he was going he went, because in his mind he could see where he was going to get to. The days when he felt like a stranger in a foreign land, living in a tent, surrounded by people he didn’t know, who didn’t like him, he put up with it because he could see a different scene. He could see not tents filled with strangers, but a holy city with firm foundations filled with his children and their descendents. He could see what was coming, what God had promised and he hung onto that. He had looked ahead and saw what God was going to do, and so lived his life based on that promise.

We might not be Abraham or Jesus, but this kind of imagination can make a difference for us too. Think about the homeless guy selling the Big Issue or the pictures of hungry children on the TV that you’re asked to help or that lonely neighbour? It’s easy isn’t it to get used to this, to become dulled to it. Maybe if you’ve read Jesus saying in the parable of the sheep and goats in Matthew 25 that when you feed the hungry you feed him, when you see these pictures your imagination might kick in and you’ll find yourself seeing them quite differently!

Jesus was a fantastic storyteller. As he taught and told his stories, he painted a picture of a world where everyone was included, where the hungry were fed, where the lonely were befriended, where the sick were healed. He told stories such as the Prodigal Son and the Lost Sheep to communicate the love of God for us and his longing for a relationship with us. A God who was at work restoring his Creation, putting right that which had gone wrong; had been spoilt.

I have a set of blue John Lennon sunglasses at home. When I put them on the world becomes a very strange place! You see it in a very different way! I want to encourage you this Lent to put on the glasses of imagination and see with me a better world, the world as God sees it, and to have the courage to be part of it.