I’ve started writing again. Not just here (after a four-year hiatus!) but also I’ve picked up a little fantasy story I wrote some years ago, reread it, and loved it so much I decided to expand it. I want to know more about these people. More about how their relationships developed and the world in which they live. I want to know what happens next!
This has been a great start to 2019. Last year wasn’t actually that great. It certainly had some highlights (mostly family events) but it also had some of the severest challenges I’ve ever faced. But today… well, my kids noticed the difference. Their grumpy and mostly morose dad was outgoing again. I enjoyed myself at a party with friends. When it was time to sit down and write again, I actually had to stand up first and jump up and down with excitement. Literally. Jump. Up. And. Down. Repeatedly.
I’m teasing myself right now, by writing this before I return to my unfolding cast of characters. Oh, the anticipation! Not only do I get to find out more about them, not only do I get to see them responding to new challenges and situations, not only do I see them grow and change and develop in all sorts of ways, but I get to make it all happen!!!!
Besides being an occasional writer, I’m a bit of a computer game player. I like games with a ‘world creation’ aspect to them, or a strong element of story-telling. I can spend hours playing in Minecraft, or journeying in Skyrim. But you know what? I get all those thrills and more when I tell the story myself. When I build the story out of my very own words.
JRR Tolkien has always fascinated me, because of his talent for world creation, but it wasn’t until a little over a decade ago, when I wrote my masters thesis on his theological thought, that I was able to listen to what he had to say about the business of fantasy writing. He believed firmly that the writing of fantasy stories was a deeply godly endeavor and that it provided for the human soul in several different ways; read his essay “On Fairy Stories” for all the detail. But one point I want to make here; he believed that we are creators of alternate worlds because we are made in the image of the maker. We can’t help but want to create worlds since the world-creator made us to be like Himself – and in fact calls us to join with him in the business of creating, sustaining, and redeeming the world in every possible way.
And you know what? Picking up a pen (or opening a word-processor document) might just be one way of doing that.
Good news for the creative soul!
I was watching the moon being hidden from sight last night during the eclipse – when it was suddenly hidden from sight! By clouds. I had been expecting a smooth transition that I could photograph bit by bit and then a gradual re-emergence (you can see the little I did get here) but instead, I only saw half the show, and then it was curtains. No more eclipse for the rest of the night, no photos of a ‘blood moon’ and nothing to do about it but go to bed.
It was a great reminder that we don’t actually have a remote control for life. I may be able to browse dozens of TV channels, hundreds of DVDs, and millions of web pages, but I only have one life. And it isn’t entirely in my control. Events that I think are going to go one way may well go differently! I may think that I can see everything in order, only to discover that the curtains are pulled on life half-way through. I’m glad I got the photos I did. But real life is about so much more than a photographic record.
When we have taken teams to India, I’ve insisted (especially on our second trip) that most people keep their cameras away most of the time; we had one photographer (Lynette) and her photos would be our official record and everyone could have them – and great photos they are, too. The reason for this insistence is that it is too easy to put a screen between ourselves and life – check out this commentary: – if you’ll excuse the irony that, once again, it’s on a screen. We have become so tied into our media that we frequently cease to be present in the real world around us. We are… remote, and that helps us to feel that we are in control. But we are meant to be present. And when we are, we discover that we are not in control; we are dependent. Dependent upon the weather, upon the world around us, upon our upbringing and inheritance, upon the treasures that have been stored in our hearts, and upon the generosity of others. Most especially, dependent upon God. As the song says, “Be still and Know that I am God…”
Many commentators have said that the prime sin – the one from which all others spring – is our refusal to let God be God, and the way in which we wilfully put ourselves, other people, and myriads of ‘things’ into that gap. In a word, Idolatry. In the modern world, we have an idolatry of self. We expect to be God in our own lives. To have complete control, and to be able to do it …remotely. But in Jesus Christ, God confounds our mistaken view of Godliness. Jesus is not distant and controlling; he relinquished control, became subject to all that troubles humanity – even death – so that he could be present to us. That’s Godliness. Present. NOT in control. But trusting. Even unto death.
Dare we put aside our remote controls, be they cameras or cars, cash, or cocaine, careers or caring for others, and be truly present to one another so that we can also be present to God? And perhaps we will find (again, as the old song says) that if we ‘draw near to him, he’ll draw near to us…’ and we will see by his light exactly how silly our little idolatries really are – and
how awesome and extravagant is his Grace.
how awesome and extravagant is his Grace.
So I do digital photography. And when I started it was with a ‘point-and-click’ fujifilm. Which was cool, and it had a lot of scene-settings (snow, beach, landscape, portrait, etc) that I used, and I loved it. I learned to compose my subject in the frame, and how to use the light in the scene. Then I got my first DSLR (actually my only DSLR, but I’m scheming an upgrade) and once again, it had all the same settings – and then some. I learned about shutter priority mode, and aperture priority mode (which meant learning what apertures and shutters do) and programmed modes aaaand …manual.
That was a big, scary step. Going from pre-set modes to manual, and having to take responsibility for exposure, and depth of field, and focus. But it also (after some photographic fumbles) marked the transition to much better and more interesting images. The old automatic presets worked in some situations – but not in many others. But by first noticing that my camera had more settings on it than I was using, and by reading the manual, and by asking experienced photographers who were further along the track than me, and by joining a community of photographers who could encourage me and give me feedback, and by getting out there and doing it I have got so much more out of my camera!
It’s like that with God, too. When I was first introduced to the possibility of knowing God, it was through religion. Religion provided me with the automatic settings I needed to be able to focus on the point of it all – God! Through religion I learned the basic disciplines of focusing and framing my life in the light of Jesus Christ.
But religion is limited. It’s a series of presets. It’s all automatic, and it doesn’t actually work in every situation. God calls us to more. The apostle Paul said that the Jewish Law was like the servant whose job it was to take the child to lessons and bring him (it was only boys who had lessons back then) safely back home again. The job of the old religion is to get us to where we can learn what we need to know, so we can grow up into our responsibilities and privileges as citizens of God’s kingdom – and as children of God (Galatians 3:23-26).
Jesus coming changed everything. He said very clearly that nothing of the old law would pass away as long as earth endured. But he was also very clear that the role of the law had changed. The servant who used to take the child to lessons still has a role to play in the family even after the child has grown. When the child has grown, the servant is subject to the child, not vice versa. And it’s the same with the Law. Jesus said, “The sabbath was made for people, people weren’t made for the sabbath.” Sabbath-keeping, circumcision and a kosher diet were the essential markers of law-abiding religious people in Jesus’ day. All these were explicitly set aside by Jesus himself and his apostles after him. Not because they were wrong or bad, but because God’s children were learning to live in a new way; not according to the automatic presets of the old religion, but according to the more nuanced, person-focused way of Jesus; the way of Love.
As followers of Jesus we must move beyond religion and into relationships. It’s not enough to stick with the presets. There is more. It’s not about making great photographic images; it’s about being conformed to His image – the person of God’s own son, Jesus Christ. This isn’t something that is achieved through the cookie-cutter processes of religion, but by the manual settings – the ‘made-by-hand’ individualised attention of someone who loves us and calls us to live within and live out of that love.
It’s harder work, taking photographs in manual. I need more people in my life to help me do it well, and I have to work much more carefully with the people around me to get the images I want. I have to give each situation more thought, and it takes a lot more practice than the old preset automatic mode. But it’s infinitely more satisfying. Come and try it.
Something gentle and true…
But when I became that man the hope said Don’t be afraid. So I unprayed the sinner’s prayer, trusting the truest salvation lies in losing oneself to this world that is too much,
filled with the laughter of summer children backlit by our gorgeous dying sun.
Colossians 1:11- 14
I saw the old fisherman again as I sped to my first appointment of the day.
He was standing as always, dressed in a battered green jumper and grey shorts, bushy eyebrows peering from beneath a terry towelling hat, and rod pointing to some place between the horizon and the heights of heaven.
“Keep your eyes on the road!” squawked the parrot beside me.
“Lucky beggar,” I grumped to myself as I negotiated the next curve of the coastal highway. “Nice for some.” And then carried on to do business as best I could in the more isolated settlements of the north. It wasn’t a bad day, and it wasn’t good. I probably paid my way. But not much more than that. Maybe a little less. “Awk! Loser!” squawked the parrot.
Driving home at the end of the day, I saw the fisherman again – in a different spot now. Read the rest of this entry »
This is from my weekly church newsletter, sent yesterday…
Tomorrow is ANZAC day, and we remember those who have served our nation in the armed services. Regardless of what we think about war and peace, and whether it is ever ok for Christians to take up arms, I believe it is right to respect those who, in good conscience, put their lives on the line for the sake of their nation. Having said that, I also know that most young people who enter the armed services have far less altruistic motives in doing so, and the reality of life in the services is usually a long way from saintly. So let’s remember that there have been occasions in which our nations young people have found themselves called upon to make supreme sacrifices – and many of them have responded with what can only be described as heroism. And let’s also reflect upon what we actually mean by heroism…
I wrote here about how our normal human fascination with power for its own sake leads us to cast our heroes in the shape of Superman, who, for all his moral qualities, is ultimately described as ‘super’ simply because of his physical power. In other words, because he’s the biggest boy in the playground. If there is no God, or if the gods are those of the pagans, then that is not only normal, but right. Nietzsche’s logic on this point is fairly compelling – though it drove him to despair. BUT believing in the God of the scriptures is to encounter a God who moderated the law of the jungle – from “If you injure me, I will kill you!” (Lamech – Genesis 4:24) to “An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth – and no more than that!” (Exodus 21:24) and then the radical teaching of Jesus in Matthew 5:38-40, directly contradicting this older law with his command to “turn the other cheek.” And then there was Jesus’ own demonstration of this different way of living; living without retaliation. Though, as he said, he could have called down “twelve legions of angels” in his defence, he was more concerned that his followers should do no violence, telling Peter to “put up your sword – those who live by the sword, die by the sword.” (Matt 26:52-53) Jesus submitted to extraordinary indignities for the sake of God’s mission – our salvation. And his life was consistent with his own teaching; he breathed forgiveness for his enemies in his dying moments.
This is not the heroic superman of our culture. He does not overcome violence with more violence, but with self-sacrifice. He trusts God to hold him, even in death, and to bring goodness out of the cruelty and senselessness of the cross. How often are we willing to trust God for justice? How often are we prepared for him to offer mercy to those who harm us – or even to offer that mercy ourselves, in his name? How often are we willing to let go of revenge – even just the satisfaction of being proved right. Paul teaches us that “we proclaim Christ – and him crucified; a scandal to the Jews and foolishness to the gentiles.” (1 Cor 1:23). So it is today, too. Jesus, and his apparent ‘failure’ as messiah doesn’t look attractive to a world that worships technology and wealth and health and power. But those who enjoy these things know also that none of these things satisfies. Many are actually willing, in their quiet moments, to consider the claims of the crucified to offer a better way. We can make him available to them, not by trying to be as powerful, and wealthy, and slick as the world around us, but by living fully in the Spirit of the Jesus we follow. We can make Jesus known to our friends and neighbours by following him more nearly, loving him more dearly, and seeing him more clearly, day by day. We can make Jesus known by knowing him better ourselves. That won’t happen if we attach ourselves to the blinding, soul-sapping idols of the world.
Tomorrow we remember those who have fallen for our sake. Many of them would say to us that the hero they most tried to be like was the one who laid down his life for his friends. Not necessarily the fastest marksman or the hardest fighter. Let us remember them with honour, and let us remember – and love – our Risen Lord with great glory.