It’s nearly time for the twenty sixth Conference of the Parties (COP26) to begin in Glasgow- just over a week to go until the start of the biggest international meeting ever held in the UK, and, regardless of number of attendees, certainly the most important meeting of world leaders to take place in our generation. What time is it? It is decision time. And it is reality time. Either there will be substantial and effective plans from each country’s leadership- the Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) to reducing emissions driving our climate chaos- or there won’t. And the sum of all these individual commitments either will or will not add up to the collective difference that we have to make as one human race to recover our collective community to a state of sustainability. I’ve written much in this blog over the last 18 months about vision, co-creation and dreams that point to God’s very good ultimate future that could be seen in part in our here and now- in our community of people and planet. Perhaps you’ve been a friendly reader, or maybe a critical one. However, right now, the average global temperature is rising significantly, and though there are even some scientists I thought I could respect who still choose to argue about what ought to be uncontested facts, there will be as much use in arguing with thermometers as humble King Canute was said to prove on an English beach as the tide and waves came rolling towards him. It doesn’t matter what kings might decree, or knaves declare they do not believe. Apocryphal as Huntingdon’s story undoubtedly is, there’s never been much arguing with the tides. The Dutch have been best at it, while downstream from where Cnut the Great perhaps stood at Thorney Island, Westminster (in London) we now have a barrier in the Thames to keep the high water back. But there won’t be any arguing with rising global sea level. Soon enough, our Thames barrier won’t be big enough to keep the salt water out of the City of London. “By 2050, over 570 low-lying coastal cities will face projected sea level rise by at least 0,5 meters. This puts over 800 million people at risk from the impacts of rising seas and storm surges.”1
It has long appeared to be the case that the actions of generations of kings, princes, slaves and peoples of all positions in society may well have profound effects upon one another, but not much on the environment in which we all live. This impression is simply not true.2 Though the population has been much smaller than current levels, woodland cover in Britain fell from around 75% about 4000 years ago to an all-time low of 5% in 1905, and most of this loss was before the Industrial Revolution. Many other historic examples of human impacts on environment and climate could be collated, where the fall of complete civilisations has been the inevitable result of our overreaching exploitation of the natural systems on which we depend. But now there are 7 902 132 110+ (says World Population meter, as I write) of us, which collectively is causing a crisis of near-apocalyptic proportions, and time is not on our side.
Make no mistake, if there are indeed some 2 380 000 000+ Christians in the world today, then there is much that we followers of Jesus can do- should do. Must do. In any economic system, that’s a lot of spending power, a lot of influence, and a great deal of responsibility. Today, I am simply applying our shared spiritual values to prayer. Each of us must consider our contribution in ‘practical’ terms, our lifestyle choices at home, in transport and energy use, our consumption of all kinds. But if I am persuading you that there could be a richness in the Christian world view that adds significantly to potential solutions to the crisis in our Commons, then we should also explore what vital contribution prayer might bring to our toolbox of actions.
In advance of COP26 a small band of Christians convened ‘Climate Intercessors’ to address this most urgent priority, including Eden Vigil, YWAM England and Tearfund. In turning to prayer, Christians are not claiming that action is not required. ‘I will show you my faith by my actions’, says the Apostle James (James 2:18). But the claim we are somewhat persuaded of is that by turning to God first in prayer, this will engage the agency of heaven and also shape the actions we ourselves go on to do, and the spirit in which we do those actions. If we are to encourage one another, and all the more as we see the Day approaching (Hebrews 10:25) the Spirit we are filled with will make all the difference- how we speak, the love we show, the grace we extend to one another. We do not claim a monopoly on the truth of what must be done to rescue our world, but those truths must best be spoken in love, and it is this that is in such short supply. Most of all we are keeping covenant with our God, the Creator, who promises to be with us and amongst us when we join together in prayer. And to hear us. And to answer!
This is strategic. The focus of this prayer initiative is on the conference and its aims and objective, and most of all, its outcomes. Many issues interrelate with these priorities, but we want to lift this conference to the Lord of the Cosmos and hear what the Spirit of God would do with us in answering the prayers of the world for urgent rescue. Here is the summary version of the COP26 programme: from https://ukcop26.org/the-conference/presidency-programme/
The Climate Intercessors team have responded to this agenda by suggesting that the (approximately) five main conference areas are supported by ten strategic prayer requests. This has been a corporate exercise, shared between the leaders of various organisations that have partnered to lead this vision, and also inviting contributions from anyone who attends the monthly prayer meetings or posts via the website. Speaking personally, I have been massively encouraged to join across a virtual e-link with my brothers and sisters in the USA and Canada, Europe and Singapore at different times, to hear their testimony and championing of the needs of local communities that they are giving their lives to. We have learned to pray into the COP programme, asking for exactly what it asks for. We are learning how to pray into these aims from God’s point of view- in partnership with God’s Spirit. What a privilege to co-create the future with God, for this is His invitation!
My approach is to ask what the biblical perspectives could include that pertain to praying ‘Christianly’ about these matters, and this is what I would like to share with you here. As the final ten strategic requests are collated by Climate Intercessors, you may find these reflections of help when engaging prayerfully with the practical issues.
We pray that people everywhere take notice of what is happening around us, in weather events and other consequences of climate-impacting pollution, and that their eyes are opened because, collectively, we are proving slow to see. God please give us discernment to understand what we do at home affects things far away and everywhere. Just as CFCs from our broken fridges or sprayed aerosols rose invisibly to the sky, the consequences were seen far away over the Antarctic as a hole in the UV-filtering ozone layer. This problem was understood and acted on successfully. Now our collective carbon emissions and methane production is causing increasing loss of Arctic sea ice and distant mountain glaciers- too far from our gaze, even the reach of our news media. Yet our acts of collective destruction do not demonstrate that we do not really belong in this Good Earth that God has made and placed us in. The ‘prophet’ Jonah (he didn’t want to be a prophet at the start of his story!) tried to ignore, deny and literally run away from God’s call to be a voice of warning and a prophet of repenting action in the foreign land of Nineveh. He ended up in the sea, and yet God did not allow him to drown and die. Rather, the text says that God provided a ‘great fish’ to swallow Jonah and thus give him pause for thought, even for prayer. You will perhaps know the foreshadowing of the work of Christ in this episode of Jonah’s journey, but as well as that I suggest that God uses His created world to ‘keep us in the loop,’ because spiritual priorities include ‘practical’ matters in this world. The book of Jonah concludes with God’s assurance that he cares about both human inhabitants and also the many animals that live at the city- though they were clearly farmed for people’s food. Therefore, the climate crisis should not be read as Creation ‘spitting us out’ but rather that God will deploy its networks to mitigate our excesses, keeping us connected within it.
For all countries, and especially for those who have caused and are now causing the greatest damage, that all the warnings will be taken seriously- the warnings of our joint experience, of the IPCC reports, and from all who are suffering and protesting. The Egyptian Pharaoh of Genesis was awakened by a doubled dream that warned him of an approaching disaster of supply, of disruption to sustainability. After due consultation and testing, Pharaoh gave Joseph leadership and full authority, with signet ring, court robes and a gold chain, to implement his co-created plan of preparation and rescue. Such divinely inspired dreams passed to the role of prophets like Agabus in the early Church3. Much ink has been spilt to caution Christian folk from misunderstanding the role of prophecy in our day, and with much wisdom, no doubt. Yet Agabus spoke, and it is recorded, that God still gives insights into concrete events that are about to take place in history, including those that pertain to basic and general human survival, just like Pharaoh’s dreams in Genesis. God does have a special role for his people to play in bridging heaven and earth, even in the courts of those far from the good news of Jesus Christ. We pray therefore that Naaman’s servant girl will be heeded by all the ‘powerful’ leaders of the nations today (2 Kings 5 tells of the foreign leader, Naaman the Syrian, who sought healing from the God of Israel) and that these leaders will even come to value the very dirt on which we stand (2 Kings 5:17).
That all ‘Pharaohs‘ will act proportionately to the present crisis; that global leaders will not be ‘Nebuchadnezzars‘ who hear the warning of the Watcher but simply ignore it. There will and must be a plan, and God would make this with us. We can seek God for wisdom on behalf of our leaders who may not themselves ask for it. God makes His first creation as a temple for his Presence with us, in which ha’adam works in Shalom peace; God gave a full plan for the Ark of rescue in judgement to the silently attentive and persistently obedient Noah. In the inhospitable wilderness God gave plans for a Tabernacle to Moses, and anointed skilled technicians to build it. At Jerusalem, where David prayed to build a House for the Almighty, God answered with plans, first of preparation and then instructions for his son Solomon, who built according to the pattern. God met with God’s people in all these times and places, and they lived! These foreshadowings point to the Body model of Paul’s letter to the Ephesians, of which we are now all living stones, joined spiritually to our Head, joined relationally to one another and joined organically to the World- fully Incarnated! God would be in this co-created Plan with us- not at all distant- for the True God is not the far away god of Deism.
4. Many Christian folk see a foretelling of the Father of Lies in the Garden of Eden in the character of the serpent, and there is some accuracy in this. Though in some ways it is also accurate to say that we have left Eden, the first place of shared fellowship with God, God’s people and God’s creation, nevertheless this world is still an Eden for us all. And there are certainly many liars amongst us, and we all struggle to know the truth, and to tell it accurately. We pray therefore that the liars in our Garden will be seen for what they are, and that their various appeals to what we would see and taste and think (4 Gen 3:6) will be understood as a matter of our spirits being vulnerable and open to deception. Further, we pray that spiritual powers that inspire such lies will be exposed and dealt with in God’s grace.
5. The fifth prayer prompt mentions our recognising and being part of ‘ the community of creation.’ This is a positive motivation- it must also be coupled with a willingness to expose the great injuries done to both community and environment. These two are, in any case, never really separate. The great prophet Elijah grappled with many spiritual and political challenges in his life ministry, and very near its conclusion is an episode that speaks to our current priorities. The very judged but not yet fallen toxic partnership of King Ahab and Queen Jezebel is described at 1 Kings 215 in the episode of Naboth’s vineyard. Verses 25 and 26 of this passage observe that Ahab did many other egregious acts of evil in Israel, but this one story stands for them all. It perhaps takes some effort of imagination5b to perceive that this is a study in the breakdown of the biblical vision for the proper relations between leaders and people, people and land, and the whole network that makes up community living. The wickedness of Ahab and his wife are not prevented- this is a hard fact to accept. Naboth, the humble and obedient member of the community of God is bullied but resists, and then is framed and murdered in a shameless act that makes a mockery of the principles of justice. Only then are we told that God is watching and that He speaks to his prophet. Even then, judgement is only spoken but not yet followed through. Such divine patience underlines our agency and responsibility before God, rather than exposing any lack of compassion or ability on God’s part. All this is the very antithesis of Jesus’ instruction to pray simply, ‘Give us this day our daily bread.’ How much is enough anyway? There is no specified quantity, but ‘daily bread’ is a sufficient guideline. The particular vineyard that Ahab was jealous for was not only a part of the land portion of Naboth’s family, it was a sign of the blessed life of the family of God, and a sign of the joy of abundance that God does indeed allow in this world. It was not a resource to be bought and sold but an inheritance gift from God through the present to the future, and to all generations. In Buber’s terms, not an ‘it’ but a ‘thou’. We read that on leaving his ark, Noah planted a vineyard and then overindulged in the wine he produced from it; a great stress on family and society followed. What is a gift for joy can so easily become the fuel of excess. And so it has been since the Victorian development of steam and the subsequent drilling and pumping of billions of barrels of oil. It is no small thing that BP, Shell and Equinor have been prevented from exerting influence as sponsors at COP26.6 Without being personal about the company directors or employees, Ahabs and Jezebels are not welcome here, and the judgement of the hour is finally being heard. Love for nature and community must also come with teeth. We urgently need to throw out the old economics and shift paradigms to an economy that rightly values Creation, which is why Sir Partha Dasgupta’s report to the UK government is so important.7and8
6. The sixth prayer point concerns our young people. As I welcome children back to school post-pandemic, it is very clear that there is a general sense of trepidation amongst our youth. What sort of future do they have to look forward to? Many perils and challenges could be expected. How long will the COVID19 pandemic last, with its knock on effects on education and child development? What of the economic situation and the prospects for jobs and housing? No challenge can be isolated: and perhaps the answers to these and others lie in a ‘Green Recovery.’ The scope for spiritually inspired co-creation is phenomenal, I think, and we can take a lesson from the exile of the Israelites to Babylon. The nation appears destroyed, its survivors sequestered into an oppressive empire that might seem to have its boot on the necks of the next generation of the Jews. Yet this is not at all how the picture is given in the book of Daniel. In exile, God gave extraordinary opportunity to Daniel and his peers to find a hope and future of cocreation even under this occupying and all-absorbing empire. Against all expectations, these youngsters Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah (aka Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego), along with Daniel, discover that God makes a way for them inside the system to be a generation of integrity, vision and cultural transformation. The whole testimony of the book of Daniel is that whatever chaos may be unleashed around us, even for the vulnerable young people of today, God first gives hope and then substance to that hope. May it be so now Lord!
7 The final prayer point published in advance is for God’s blessing and Presence in the city of Glasgow,; the name means ‘Dear Green Place.’ As the final days count down, this hope for blessing is being challenged by intentions for strike action in the city, and piles of uncollected rubbish on the streets. It is no idle matter to seek God’s blessing at a place of negotiation over such controversial matters as involved in the climate crisis; especially with some arguing that there is no crisis at all. Does the geographic location of this conference really matter from a spiritual perspective? Do I, your God, have need of an earthly House? G-d once asked, but then God came to the Temple anyway. We certainly want God to be especially Present in Glasgow, and our God is certainly big enough to take on all opposition and to be victorious over all obstacles. We certainly pray for justice for bin men9, that their valuable work is properly recognised, and for wider peace in civil society. I am considering the victory of the Philistines over Israel that resulted in the capture of the ark of the covenant (1 Samuel 4) which was then carried away to the town of Ashdod. As Robert Alter and the English Standard Version make plain, though the unfaithful Israelites deserved to go into exile, Godself goes in their place. We read that the Ark was placed in the temple of Dagon, but the next morning the statue of the idol was found collapsed in front of it. The Philistine priests set their Dagon up again, but the next day it was back on the floor with its head and hands broken off! None of this is meant to refer to Glasgow, but there will be idolatrous influences that we pray God works actively to bring down to dust- literally, to disarm them! No blessing came to the Philistines: wherever the ark was carried, there was fearful judgement, but after it was sent back to Israel, in 2 Samuel 6:11 we see that the household of Obed-Edom was blessed simply because the Ark was there. Such we pray for Glasgow itself. So I happily affirm that the principle of Incarnation can extend to God’s blessing of the places where God’s co-creative work is being done.
What suggestions would I make for the remaining three prayer prompts, to complete the set of ten? What do you think of these:
Suggestion 8: The brief was that we seek God regarding aspects of COP26, its programme and people. I am happy with this: but to pray ‘in the Spirit’ must surely mean that we are open to ‘seeing from God’s point of view.’ Now we can only know anything of God’s Point of View if God reveals it to us. Which is why scripture is a necessary guide, and I think we must take a lead from Nehemiah chapter 1.
O Lord God of heaven, the great and awesome God who keeps covenant and steadfast love with those who love him and keep his commandments, 6 let your ear be attentive and your eyes open, to hear the prayer of your servant that I now pray before you day and night for the people of Israel your servants, confessing the sins of the people of Israel, which we have sinned against you. Even I and my father’s house have sinned. 7 We have acted very corruptly against you and have not kept the commandments, the statutes, and the rules that you commanded your servant Moses.
The chapter begins with research, which is a parallel to the IPCC reports that lay out in great depth and detail what the state of our atmosphere and climate is in. This is the business of science. But Nehemiah also reaches out to God with a spirit committed to the principle of repentance. Our political discourse is sullied by words of regret- that this or that tragedy has befallen certain parts of the community on the watch of this or that minister- but without accepting personal responsibility. I believe that Nehemiah gets results in his efforts to partner with God in co-creation because he does two things at the start: he puts his own life and reputation on the line, AND he aligns with those who went before him, owning their sins and failures as his own. He explicitly repents on behalf of those who may or may not have done so themselves. God says this is necessary: He covenants with Abraham in Gen 22 because of this step of willingness to sacrifice. Galatians 3 makes it clear that the Incarnation-Salvation project hinges on this self-identification. So too we may find breakthrough in the heavenlies by owning what we corporately have done to the climate, and what we have left undone in not fixing it up to now.
I repeat what I said before: the Disciple’s Prayer that Jesus gave us (Matt 6, Luke 11), that begins ‘Give us this Day our daily bread’ continues, ‘…and forgive us our sins…’ for taking from our brother and also for taking from our brother and sister Nature, or, as Francis of Assisi10 would have it:
Praised be You, my Lord, through Brothers Wind and Air, And fair and stormy, all weather’s moods, by which You cherish all that You have made.
Praised be You my Lord through Sister Water, So useful, humble, precious and pure.
Praised be You my Lord through Brother Fire, through whom You light the night and he is beautiful and playful and robust and strong.
Praised be You my Lord through our Sister, Mother Earth who sustains and governs us, producing varied fruits with coloured flowers and herbs. Praise be You my Lord through those who grant pardon for love of You and bear sickness and trial.
This is therefore a claim that we must pray for the Church, for God will surely recognise that we are an agent in this crisis, and must feature in a proper prayer programme, even if this does not fit neatly into the framework of the COP programme.
Suggestion 9: There are many people and interests that will not be represented at the COP26 negotiations, but God wills that their voices are heard directly. They may be represented in some way by others, and some may be in the streets and parks of Glasgow outside the fences, protesting and holding vigil for some worth aspect of this cause. God knows about off-site protests: I think we can bracket all these together under the heading of Luke 18 and the Parable of the Persistent Widow, Jesus commends to us the attitude of this powerless woman, who has no recourse to a husband or any man who can speak and gain influence on her behalf. Her approach is artless and blunt, even perhaps irreverent. The judge is openly godless in his commitments, using the law only as a means of making his living, and careless of duty or social responsibility. But God is watching over all this, and implies in this parable that if we play our proper part in partnership with God, then God will see to it that, eventually, justice is not subverted or hijacked by the violence that oppresses many around the world in our time- not least the indigenous peoples whose resources are under such sustained assault. Notice that this depends on us, or, as the champion of liberation in South Africa, Desmond Tutu puts it, God believes in us.
Suggestion 10: We do pray that God is present in the public meetings, in the sessions on days 1 and 2 when the world leaders convene, where their words and the words of their speechwriters are trotted out for scrutiny by delegates and the world’s media and the commentariat. Yet we know that the success of these talks and negotiations depends on everyone being in the room. Will everyone be in the room? Even if Putin, Morrison and Xi do show up, will they be present? Actually committed to the cause??
This need not be a problem. If Xi Jinping stays at home in China with his Communist Party friends, God can get to him there. Daniel 5 describes how Belshazzar is holding a private party for his committed friends and hangers-on. He is nevertheless very aware of the wider agenda, the global political realities- the fact that he is trying to hide. Why else does he bring out the golden vessels looted from the Jerusalem temple? And then God writes on his wall- God is not above expressing Godself as a graffiti artist, and then Belshazzar is brought up short. He is now very definitely present and in the moment, and Daniel is summoned to bring God’s now and rhema word. So we can pray confidently that God will find all those whose attention is needed in this moment, wherever they may conceal themselves, and that God will speak clearly through His people in mercy and judgement, and taking care of His servants as He does so. God’s shalom on those who are in the circle of the leaders of China and Russia, or wherever else God has His ‘Daniels’ who would speak truth to power even at great personal risk.
A few days ago we watched ‘I am Greta’, the 2010 BBC documentary film following Greta Thunberg and her father as she set off from Sweden around the world to be given audience by the great and the good of international politics. Much is made of the fact that she meets President Macron of France before she has been given any recognition back in her home country. It has ever been thus. ‘Can anything good come from Nazareth?’ Later we share her frustration as she notices that so many leaders don’t back up their apparent agreement that there should be change with concrete decisions to make the necessary changes happen.
How many of these meetings with the so-called influential people who lead governments and intergovernmental organisations were really worthwhile? How would anyone be able to tell? ‘God only knows’, you might say irreverently, with a shrug of resignation. But that begs the question. God does indeed know, and more that God lets on. Because there is another meeting in the middle of this documentary that most watchers will not have the faintest idea about. At one of the international conferences, Greta is filmed sharing a selfie photo with a gentleman who grabs an opportunity to say ‘Hello!’ As they pose together this unnamed ‘passer by’ explains that his 16 year old daughter too is ‘quite the activist.’ What we do not get to hear on film is that this is one of the members of the Christian Climate Observers Program, and I daresay that the film producers did not know this either when they selected clips to stitch together in this presentation. But here we can see, right in the middle of this landmark film, that God has His servants front and centre of the action, yet probably unseen by most.
So I close by observing that the prayers we are joining in praying over COP26 are not at all impersonal prayers, as though it did not matter who was praying them. God wants to hear from you, and me. ‘For the Lord God does nothing without revealing his secret to his servants the prophets.’ (Amos 3:7 ESV). He intends for us, personally, to be fully involved as co-creating partners with God in making everything New.
Starting in Glasgow.
Perhaps you and I will meet in a Climate Intercessors webmeet. I hope so.
On behalf of the Climate Intercessors leadership, from the website:
We would also appreciate prayers for those Climate Intercessors leaders and their programs or organizations which will also be at COP26 in Glasgow. Please pray for Laura, Jack, Samuel, Ben, Lowell, the Christian Climate Observers Program (CCOP), A Rocha International, Tearfund, and YWAM. Please pray for wisdom and discernment, faithfulness, stamina, safety and health. Thank you!
climateintercessors.org 10 prayers for COP26
The full list of prayers has now been published, and you can see it on their website, and download a 4 page pdf for printing from here:
You can draw your own conclusions about how my suggestions compare with those on the final document.
We began considering Henry of Huntingdon’s fanciful account of King Canute, who has been so often misrepresented as an arrogant monarch, full of hubris, while the more modest attitude described in the earlier telling is typically lost – modesty does not make much of a headline. Wiser heads would observe that it is not Canute we should be shouting down, but his would-be courtiers, flattering him with superhuman powers he could not possibly possess. But in the biblical worldview, even this is short of the true mark. Look at what the Lord God tells Ezekiel He is actually looking for in the community of faith:
29 The people of the land have practiced extortion and committed robbery. They have oppressed the poor and needy, and have extorted from the sojourner without justice. 30 And I sought for a man among them who should build up the wall and stand in the breach before me for the land, that I should not destroy it, but I found none. 31 Therefore I have poured out my indignation upon them.
To be one who stands in a breach in a defensive line- that is the stuff of heroism, is it not? But what is the adversary in this fight? It is the Lord! What foolishness is this- to expect to stand in the way of God’s divine advance, in bringing righteous and warranted judgement on an uncompassionate, unjust and actively wicked people. Look at this! Such is precisely what God is dreaming of: a single Noah, a solitary Abraham, just one Deborah can be the saving of an apostate and undeserving community. It only takes one Son of Man to command the wind and waves, and that presumably might even include turning the tide. It would be hubris if the idea came from us, but God commands us as He commanded Ezekiel. What a relief it is to know that there are now many faithful intercessors building and standing just as God demanded of Ezekiel! And so God’s indignation can be turned away!!
2 Woodland colonised Britain around 10,000 years ago, following the last glaciation, reaching a natural equilibrium between 7,000 and 5,000 years ago (Godwin, 1975; Peterken, 1993). During this peak period the ‘wildwood’ is thought to have covered around 75% of the landscape (Peterken, 1993). Britain was not one huge forest: ‘British ancient forests were patchy’ https://nerc.ukri.org/planetearth/stories/608/ While ‘only’ 6% of the UK is built on, very little of the environment has been unmanaged, with a great loss of biodiversity as a result. https://www.sheffield.ac.uk/news/nr/land-cover-atlas-uk-1.744440 See final graph of ‘Long term woodland coverage in England’ at https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/science-environment-41551296 showing a doubling of tree cover from 1905 to the present day, though Forestry Commission pine monoculture does not count as a substitute for a ‘natural’ ie diverse ecosystem. Such nuance is insignificant compared with current deforestation considered globally: https://ourworldindata.org/deforestation
As we met to pray this week, the media news was full of the sudden change of political fortunes in Afghanistan, displacing the plethora of accounts of fires, smoke and flooding from the days before1, although further forest blazes broke out in the south of France, where double-jabbed Brits had driven to enjoy their summer camping. This briefly grabbed back a few column inches. The ‘story’ seen through the news lens seemed more that the holiday makers had been rudely interrupted in their merrymaking, rather than that forests in the only remaining country on the north coast of the Mediterranean that were not on fire last week had finally succumbed to the flames. There are a few forests on the North African coast too. Apparently their local authorities do not see fit to mention climate change, so the fires breaking out in Algeria are even being blamed on arson, where ‘suspects’ are then lynched, by suspicious locals or even by terrorist groups. How tragic that some folk who came to help put out the fires are viewed with hot-headed suspicion and become the targets of fatal violence.1b
One of the criteria for setting our prayer agenda is drawn from Col 4:2; praying with watchfulness, which echoes the watching which God gave to humans to do in the garden [Gen 2:15 to till and watch…]. However, where should we be looking? Some say3 that the object of our attention should be only on ‘spiritual’ things, and being attentive to the state of our own hearts before God. Well and good; the problem here is in the ‘only’. Certainly we seek to prioritise the voice of the Spirit, and concur that if our spiritual health before the Lord is sound, then through our activated faith with Jesus, any obstacle can be overcome in partnership with God. But we are convinced that our daily work is worship, and that work happens in this world, which is where Jesus’ kingdom is coming. So while God’s Word and Voice must certainly be given priority, we watch for what is in Creation that we can partner with God in attending to in prayer and in daily work that He will then judge to be ‘good’.
The US and then, inevitably, the UK, decided to withdraw their military interventions from Afghanistan- the collective stomach for continued maintenance of the troubled peace was exhausted, apparently. What will happen next? Might the swift takeover by the Taliban lead to a sudden about-face by Western powers, with renewed bloodshed, or might the mere threat of such action lead to subtler outcomes? In spite of the results of this embarrassing failure of intelligence and hasty abandonment by the previous western alliance, might new power relations be exerted in the Middle East which generate completely unpredicted outcomes, even to the transformation of human rights concerns more widely in the region?
As these event occupy TV screens in Europe and America, as that is where editorial attention is focused, in Haiti, a decade after the last devastating earthquake that killed 200 000, a new 7.2 scale quake has now accounted for 2000 known deaths and multiplied destruction.4 Half a million children are without homes and a tropical storm arrives as families sleep outside without shelter. Leadership is in further crisis in the country following the assassination of President Jovenel Moïse just a month ago. What news reports do emerge from such places typically include a focus on the destruction of religious buildings4 and the laments of those who belong to those communities. Is this motivated by the desire of TV editors for dramatic pictures, or is there something more cynical behind this particular focus?
Perhaps you will agree that there are resonances between all this and the conclusion of the account of Jesus’ earthly life in Israel in Matthew’s gospel, from chapters 23 to 25. We have recorded a remarkable set of thoughts that look beyond the coming events of the personal trial and crucifixion- Jesus speaks as King over All even as he is about to offer himself as the unique Passover Lamb. He looks past these immediate concerns, vital as they are, to speak of two Ends, we now understand:- the mortal end for the community of faith that Jesus foresaw would develop from the germ of the disciple-apostles, in what is prophesied of the clash of kingdoms and especially the destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans and the ensuing diaspora of the Jewish people. Fused with this is the further End of All things, related specifically to the Second and Final Coming back of God’s Anointed Saviour and Lord. In this melding of prophesying of the near and far-off future, two truths are asserted: you don’t know when the End will be, for only God the Father will determine this. And yet both sorts of End will surely arrive- the end of your lives, which in many cases, though doubtless not all, will be in times of great troubles and even persecutions, and then also the ultimate End, when Christ will return in glory for Judgement. In both cases, Jesus is addressing us as disciples with regard to ultimate concerns; God’s Kingdom and our place in His eternal Triumph! The purpose of this prophesying is related to these concerns, and not to the specific events of human history that transpire long after the first century AD. It is simply a truism to say that history- the Present become past- has Trouble in it. Jesus makes the following plain to us: even for people of true faith, life will never be straightforward, and yet even in the face of continued challenges, sometimes of the most acute and perilous sorts, meaningful discipleship will always be possible, in a mode that often transforms the world God gifted to us for the better, and that generates the fruitful creativity of God’s Kingdom Come.
Matthew 2337 “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often would I have gathered your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing! 38 See, your house is left to you desolate. 39 For I tell you, you will not see me again, until you say, ‘Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.’”
Where is Jesus’ attention at the introduction of this prelude to the account of his trials and crucifixion? On Jerusalem, the central focus of YHWH God’s earthly attention through the Old Testament testimony of God’s dealings with humankind. On the city, the centre of social and business economy. On Israel’s capital, the place where trading and temple are cheek by jowl, the historic focal point of God’s partnership with the children of Abraham since Melchizedek and through the kingship of Saul and David and all the rest. Here still, at the moment of climax in YHWH God’s covenant dealings with humankind, is the Divine attention in the Holy of Holies and throughout God’s Holy City. Furthermore, Jesus prophesies that this is the place from which a crucial invitation to God must be uttered in unison – until then, God tarries. Remarkably indeed, we are here told that in God’s perspective, the Centre holds.
24 Jesus left the temple and was going away, when his disciples came to point out to him the buildings of the temple. 2 But he answered them, “You see all these, do you not? Truly, I say to you, there will not be left here one stone upon another that will not be thrown down.”
Anticipating the deliberate destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans, and including the final demolition of Herod’s Temple [the ‘Second’ temple rebuilt after the exile in 516 BC and lasting until 70 AD] Jesus takes issue with what his disciples are looking at, that is, what they are seeing when they look at the impressive temple complex. He engages their spiritual intelligence through a cryptic comment, asserting that it will all fall– but how? And what meaning should be drawn from this conclusion? We should not expect to be seers of the specific and detailed events of the future, but a co-creation mindset can include way of seeing the future through a kingdom-of-God lens, which shapes our evaluation of what is fixed and what is subject to change, and what therefore is really of value.
While God’s attention will remain on the city, the place of work and history future being made, this will not continue in the same terms as with God’s covenant Nation alone. The significance of the Temple is about to come to a close, as Jesus Himself becomes the final High Priest, offering himself as Paschal Lamb. So the temple of his body will be broken and fall into the ground, we now understand, and what is raised up is the New Creation Body of the Church, of which High Priest Christ is the Head, and we all, the fellowship of faith, are joined together to become the many-membered Body of the same Christ, yet spread abroad in every city and nation. The ‘mother hen’ Spirit is well able to keep us gathered in this way. The initial horror of the fall of the Temple in Jerusalem, and the mockery of its continuing demise beneath the Dome of the Rock and the Al Aqsa mosque continues to vex the Jewish inhabitants of Jerusalem, yet their demolition by the earthquakes of AD746 and 1033 should continue to remind them that the long term future holds a different promise. We should not think that Jesus takes any pleasure in such disaster and destruction, or in the fatalities that result, but this is the perspective of the God of the new wineskin and new wine, the God of New Creation: unless a grain of wheat fall to the ground and die, he once said, it abides alone. Death can be a baptism into a different future.
3 As he sat on the Mount of Olives, the disciples came to him privately, saying, “Tell us, when will these things be, and what will be the sign of your coming and of the end of the age?” 4 And Jesus answered them, “See that no one leads you astray. 5 For many will come in my name, saying, ‘I am the Christ,’ and they will lead many astray. 6 And you will hear of wars and rumours of wars. See that you are not alarmed, for this must take place, but the end is not yet. 7 For nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom, and there will be famines and earthquakes in various places. 8 All these are but the beginning of the birth pains.
Just as we hear Jesus continuing to speak of Jerusalem in significant terms, so also we note that the disciples make their Lord their special focus of attention. In this separate and intimate meeting- such special privilege!- Jesus reciprocates with a personal and wide ranging intelligence briefing that speaks as much today- to us and our children – as it did then. It is impossible to tell exactly what speaks to then and what to now, and I think this is deliberate. There is a general and yet insightful portrayal of what the life of discipleship will always be like- very much in the world, with its tribulations and crises, and yet capable of being -indeed mandated to be ‘not of this world’, that is, above it. The ‘cloud of witnesses’ is both above and also within God’s creation, and thus the world is watered and nurtured.
Can we see what is in this ‘intelligence briefing’? There are seven ‘alert levels’, if you will, of which the first is the most urgent.
Misleading claims of those who claim to be Jesus, that is, to speak on His behalf, to speak as Him. This is of the highest priority- we must continue to know Him, not merely to know about Him.
rumours of wars
nation rising against nation
kingdoms rising against kingdoms
And no, this list is not exclusive or exhaustive, but as we see even this week, such events and happenstances have the capacity to dominate our attention, to demand our focus, and to undo our equilibrium which must only be centred on Him. The Centre must hold. But the focus Jesus is commending is not the centre and nothing else– it is the centre, in which all else can be held within God’s providence, and from which compassion can reach out even to that which is rotten, in agony, even dying.
9 “Then they will deliver you up to tribulation and put you to death, and you will be hated by all nations for my name’s sake. 10 And then many will fall away[a] and betray one another and hate one another. 11 And many false prophets will arise and lead many astray. 12 And because lawlessness will be increased, the love of many will grow cold. 13 But the one who endures to the end will be saved. 14 And this gospel of the kingdom will be proclaimed throughout the whole world as a testimony to all nations, and then the end will come.
We see in Jesus’ example that some who come to serve and love in God’s Name are reviled and persecuted. A servant is not greater than his master, and this world can refuse love with thoughtless cruelty. But note this- Jesus reassures his followers that their endurance is possible and meaningful before he states that the final triumph of the gospel good news of God and His kingdom is assured. In this we are assured that we are not merely servants, but esteemed forever friends, even in the most extreme of circumstances, if we persevere. Just as we have learned that we can only understand God’s Good News message by beholding it in the person of Jesus Christ, the priority of our Lord’s points in this passage show that we are each as important to Him as the gospel message itself. His missionaries may give their lives in persecution, but that does not make them disposable goods in God’s eternal economy.
15 “So when you see the abomination of desolation spoken of by the prophet Daniel, standing in the holy place (let the reader understand), 16 then let those who are in Judea flee to the mountains. 17 Let the one who is on the housetop not go down to take what is in his house, 18 and let the one who is in the field not turn back to take his cloak. 19 And alas for women who are pregnant and for those who are nursing infants in those days! 20 Pray that your flight may not be in winter or on a Sabbath. 21 For then there will be great tribulation, such as has not been from the beginning of the world until now, no, and never will be. 22 And if those days had not been cut short, no human being would be saved. But for the sake of the elect those days will be cut short. 23 Then if anyone says to you, ‘Look, here is the Christ!’ or ‘There he is!’ do not believe it. 24 For false christs and false prophets will arise and perform great signs and wonders, so as to lead astray, if possible, even the elect. 25 See, I have told you beforehand. 26 So, if they say to you, ‘Look, he is in the wilderness,’ do not go out. If they say, ‘Look, he is in the inner rooms,’ do not believe it. 27 For as the lightning comes from the east and shines as far as the west, so will be the coming of the Son of Man. 28 Wherever the corpse is, there the vultures will gather.
I simply note the following in regard of this discussion: when the ultimate testing and peril come, even when the ‘present’ is brought to great strain, and each of us is under the greatest duress, Jesus assumes that we will be engaged in the economy of life in the same human terms as ever. Some are at work in their houses, doing family business, while others are out ‘in the fields’, whether literally or metaphorically. There are ‘inner rooms’ which we might imagine to be offices and places of significant business, while beyond the realms of general human habitation there is wilderness. So in sum, it is assumed that God’s people are engaged in life and work in God’s world, and Jesus is with us there, everywhere, for that is where salt and light ought to be. That is how we answer the question, ‘What would Jesus do?’
Again, to repeat, the life and identity and integrity of each of God’s saints is acknowledged and affirmed. Salvation in God is not general and impersonal, but He will see us and see us through to the End, even as He saw Hagar in the desert, with her child.
It is fashionable to note the various minorities of people in our society who have been overlooked, or whose interests might be forgotten in the commerce of so-called modern culture. This is an excellent thing. God has been taking care of the easily forgotten and the vulnerable for much longer than we have, as Jesus notes the special concern that is needed in crisis for pregnant or nursing mothers. In this way Jesus acknowledges the whole human life cycle, which hinges on this most vulnerable stage, where each and every one of us is utterly dependent for our origin and infant development on our mothers, and then many others too. We all ought to have been counted as part of a ‘vulnerable group’ and therefore relying on others for our survival at some point, even if we think we are strong now, as individuals, and Jesus speaks here to remind us not to forget it. What is more, and this is a further exciting affirmation of the key role of prayer in God’s kingdom economy, Jesus plainly asserts that we can engage with God in prayer partnership even with regard to when the final and ultimate tribulation comes to our communities. Even God’s great wrapping-up plan for History is apparently open to prayerful negotiation! In this, God cares about the weak and the weakest, and we have a part to play in this.
It is said that it takes a village to raise a child. What if that village has the Church within it?
29 “Immediately after the tribulation of those days the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will fall from heaven, and the powers of the heavens will be shaken. 30 Then will appear in heaven the sign of the Son of Man, and then all the tribes of the earth will mourn, and they will see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of heaven with power and great glory. 31 And he will send out his angels with a loud trumpet call, and they will gather his elect from the four winds, from one end of heaven to the other.
In forthright terms, we are told that God’s worldview completely trumps all others. The present is going to end as God determines, and God will determine the New Future that will follow. Just as there is pain in childbirth, new life is released and born into being through that pain, and the pain is real but passing. The great works of God’s first creation in Genesis are each checked off and decreated- the lights which stood as signs are no longer required, because the Great Light is now plainly revealed, lightning and shaking and the very deliberate announcement of the End- but not for us. Just as the ‘sign’ of the Son of Man (Jesus’ adopted name from the testimony of Daniel the prophet) is seen more prominently than the signs that are to pass, so God’s elect are gathered. For us, those who persevere in faith with Jesus, this End is not the general End of oblivion, but a Great Meeting, in which all else is negotiable, except the ultimate intention of God in Christ that we will be With Him, One.
32 “From the fig tree learn its lesson: as soon as its branch becomes tender and puts out its leaves, you know that summer is near. 33 So also, when you see all these things, you know that he is near, at the very gates. 34 Truly, I say to you, this generation will not pass away until all these things take place. 35 Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.
Our partnership with God in creating the future includes being observant about these serious circumstances of world affairs. To be sure, we cannot know that any particular set of disasters that we observe are the specific signs of the final End- Jesus makes that very plain. And yet we are to be constantly expectant of the Good in the End, just as Jesus had earlier approached a particular fig tree by the roadside, expecting to find flowers that had developed into fruit, though discovering that it was ‘not yet’. Just as the Sabbath speaks of Creation-yet-to-be-completed, so the birth pains of our present are in some way a sign of the New Creation that is coming. Contrasting with the uncertainly of exactly when God’s planned transformation takes place is the certainty of God’s Words, which are, above all, God’s Logos Words to us. In the metaphor of birth pains, Jesus extends the feminine sensibilities and aspects of God’s creative involvement in this world- in maintaining the processes of life and also in New Creation. What do birth pains tell the woman? The baby is coming, and she will be the child’s mother. Yet these contractive pains can come early, somewhat randomly, in the general period before the child is delivered, and this is the powerful mystery of the metaphor. In each generation there can be a genuine experience of birth pains, yet the actual End is in fact still afar off. But it is still coming!
36 “But concerning that day and hour no one knows, not even the angels of heaven, nor the Son,[b] but the Father only. 37 For as were the days of Noah, so will be the coming of the Son of Man. 38 For as in those days before the flood they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, until the day when Noah entered the ark, 39 and they were unaware until the flood came and swept them all away, so will be the coming of the Son of Man. 40 Then two men will be in the field; one will be taken and one left. 41 Two women will be grinding at the mill; one will be taken and one left. 42 Therefore, stay awake, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming. 43 But know this, that if the master of the house had known in what part of the night the thief was coming, he would have stayed awake and would not have let his house be broken into. 44 Therefore you also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an hour you do not expect.
Jesus draws a stark contrast between people amongst whom Noah silently built the ark, according to God’s instructions over a long century, the product of his studied and energetic labour, and the folk surrounding him, whose priorities are summed up in three activities: eating, drinking and marrying. There is nothing wrong with these expressions of the joys of God’s created life for human creatures. But in Jesus’ description we get the sense that these people were consumed with their pleasures, their own priorities, having a perspective on the world that all would continue in constancy and stability. It is really this thoughtlessness that God’s judgment comes to, and perhaps this is the very word that is timely for our friends today who rail against COVID precautions and/or ‘climate alarmism’. The tone changes from v40, though now without any sense that these hard working people are indulging themselves inappropriately. Jesus message is that we should aim to live in this naturally bounded world, yet with another eye fixed on the final purpose of God, as the Parable of the Dragnet spells out for us.
Here is where the faith message of Christ melds with the original mandate for work: like Adam and Eve, we are to be continually watchful in the world, regarding its inanimate resources, its creatures, and also the complexities of the vast human society that has recently exploded within it. Paying attention to all this, we have good works to do. These are profoundly informed by the values of the gospel of Christ, whom we meet as the Logos of God. He is watching over His Word, and will see that it comes to pass. We are to watch with God, and then act accordingly with the power that our human agency gives to us. We have sufficient freedom to do what is right.
As these passages continue, we are left in no doubt that the setting for God’s people in God’s world is properly understood to be work, rather than taking our ease, and not so much ‘meeting in church,’ because work was the gift of God to us even from the ‘pre-Fall’ garden.
45 “Who then is the faithful and wise servant,[or bondservant] whom his master has set over his household, to give them their food at the proper time? 46 Blessed is that [bond]servant whom his master will find so doing when he comes. 47 Truly, I say to you, he will set him over all his possessions. 48 But if that wicked [bond]servant says to himself, ‘My master is delayed,’ 49 and begins to beat his fellow [bond]servants and eats and drinks with drunkards, 50 the master of that [bond]servant will come on a day when he does not expect him and at an hour he does not know 51 and will cut him in pieces and put him with the hypocrites. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.
We know that for Jesus, His ‘spiritual’ business in the false trials and His crucifixion will follow these words; in what Jesus says here, that work is implied. Once it is done, what is left to do? Just as in the garden in Genesis, God puts his people in charge, ‘over his household’ to manage and steward it on His behalf, doing as He would have done, being the living image and likeness of God in His Creation temple. This is a wholehearted intention, for at the end, God says He will give us charge over ‘all His possessions’! This co-creative partnership is no game, no temporary pretence before the final reality is manifest by some sovereign work of God completely beyond our agency. For sure, God will sovereignly and gloriously create the transition, to all things being New. But don’t expect to be putting your feet up afterwards.
I find it instructive that there is ambiguity in the translation of ‘servant.’ How much is voluntary and how much obligation? What is constrained, and in what are we free? Reflecting on the interchangeable use of servant and bondservant suggests this sense of tension, between following God’s divine and sovereign instructions for our lives, and the pleasant space within boundaries in which we can express our gifts and individuality, even as we attend to the same mission of the Kingdom of Christ and His Lordship.
Is ‘doing Church’ important? Well of course it is, but just as Jesus directed the [Jewish] disciples attention away from the stones of the Jerusalem city temple, so our attention should be directed away from the exterior trappings of ‘church’ to the transcending reality- we are the Church, and where the Church (ekklesia) is in the world, there is Christ doing what He sees His Father doing. Check the words of God in Christ to the seven churches in Asia to see the importance of Christian community rooted in the wider yet local community.
What does it mean when the delegated master is given charge of the household? This is not maintenance of the estate, of the building, of the trivial affairs of the absent owner separated from the community. The master of the household is firstly in charge of the feeding of the household- that’s the people in it! God wills that we are less concerned for stuff and more for society, though society needs a certain amount of stuff, and that must surely be managed too. There is a difference between use and indulgence, as Jesus explains. We must not give into people’s uncontrolled desires, because today some even want to set fire to the house.
There are more facets to the creative tension of free agency and obligation in this account. From 24:43 to the conclusion of chapter 25 we discover four pictures of delegated responsibility:
Matthew 24:43 The master of the house. This is an ambiguous title, either for the owner of a household, or for the chief manager who has been put in charge. It should make no difference, for the wise manager ought to do exactly as if they were its owner. Note that we must not assume this ‘master’ is the same as the servants in 24:46, which comes straight afterwards. So these variations should make it easy for us to understand that God is encouraging us to consider and reflect on what it means to live with watchfulness as widely as possible.
25:1- 13 The Ten Young women. They are neither owners nor stewards, but they are members of the community who are both invited and expected to attend the wedding festivities of a particularly important couple.
25:14-30 The servants of the man who went on a long journey. They are assigned variable portions of resource- life is really like that- and in God’s world, there is still the expectation of just and equal reward in value. God should be trusted both to act justly and to respect our differences.
25:31-46 The ‘sheep‘ who prove to have been those who did what Jesus would do, each individually and out of the public gaze, usually without media attention, so naturally overflowing from their spiritual lives that they are themselves surprised to realise that what kindnesses they showed to their fellow creatures is counted as high worship of God.
25 “Then the kingdom of heaven will be like ten virgins who took their lamps[torches] and went to meet the bridegroom.[and the bride]2 Five of them were foolish, and five were wise. 3 For when the foolish took their lamps, they took no oil with them, 4 but the wise took flasks of oil with their lamps. 5 As the bridegroom was delayed, they all became drowsy and slept. 6 But at midnight there was a cry, ‘Here is the bridegroom! Come out to meet him.’ 7 Then all those virgins rose and trimmed their lamps. 8 And the foolish said to the wise, ‘Give us some of your oil, for our lamps are going out.’ 9 But the wise answered, saying, ‘Since there will not be enough for us and for you, go rather to the dealers and buy for yourselves.’ 10 And while they were going to buy, the bridegroom came, and those who were ready went in with him to the marriage feast, and the door was shut. 11 Afterward the other virgins came also, saying, ‘Lord, lord, open to us.’ 12 But he answered, ‘Truly, I say to you, I do not know you.’ 13 Watch therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour.
The account of Jesus’ words to his disciples given by Matthew takes another diverse turn with this depiction of the local cultural preparations for a wedding. I expect that big events might have a tendency to happen late. Long journeys on foot or even with animals are not trivial, which we forget in our age of cars. So with the arrangements for a wedding, and the need to take care with the preparation of special clothing and uncommon quantities of food, folk are likely to turn up late. No particular reason to blame brides. Maybe Jesus foresees this unfortunate habit- he blames the groom! (at least that’s how most versions translate it). While the groom or couple might be late, Jesus makes his point by impressing that it is the guests who must be ready, and its the young women of the community who we are brought to consider. Girls particularly love a wedding, I believe. Much energy and motivation is released in all the anticipation, all the chatter, all the doings that must be done. A great deal of human creativity is released when there is a wedding in the community. Art, flowers, music and dancing, cooking and serving. Hair, dressing up, general laughing and giggling. Just as Jesus said; eating, drinking and marrying. This is a wonderful thing. But it is not the general business of marrying that Jesus is now referring to- it is THE marriage, His own marriage to His Body, to us. It is God in Christ who is the Groom, and this most fabulous event is certainly to take place- BUT will we be being ready? I love how it is the young girls that Jesus uses in this story to address all of us regarding the serious business of planning and preparation. Is this a group of people you would place such trust in? Perhaps you can’t relate so much to the metaphors of managers and bondservants. Perhaps, as a woman, you agree that the metaphor of preparations for the wedding is easier to relate to. Now as both a married man and a father, it certainly does speak to me. The scripture is multidimensional and very inclusive. It is inclusive of wider human experience and expression- in considering our final End, there is still ample room for culture and art and all things joyful. A relative of mine has a sign in their kitchen. ‘If there is no wine in heaven, I’m not going.’ Judging by Jesus’ first miracle at the wedding in Cana, I don’t think that will be a problem.
We need to exercise some imagination in reading this text, as most of us have never used an oil lamp, relying completely on ever-present electricity. We mustn’t stretch the metaphor either- shouldn’t the well supplied young women (‘virgins’) share their oil with the others? That misses the point. The oil supply is a metaphor for our state of preparedness for God’s glorious and awesome Return. You have to do that yourself. Sure, I can encourage you, but you must listen and agree and then do your own planning and preparing- tilling and watching, if you will. We can pray together too, but you’ll need to commit to meeting up. Go ahead- make that plan!
14 “For it will be like a man going on a journey, who called his servants[bondservants] and entrusted to them his property. 15 To one he gave five talents,to another two, to another one [i.e. about twenty years’ wages for a labourer], to each according to his ability. Then he went away. 16 He who had received the five talents went at once and traded with them, and he made five talents more. 17 So also he who had the two talents made two talents more. 18 But he who had received the one talent went and dug in the ground and hid his master’s money. 19 Now after a long time the master of those [bond]servants came and settled accounts with them. 20 And he who had received the five talents came forward, bringing five talents more, saying, ‘Master, you delivered to me five talents; here, I have made five talents more.’ 21 His master said to him, ‘Well done, good and faithful servant.[e] You have been faithful over a little; I will set you over much. Enter into the joy of your master.’ 22 And he also who had the two talents came forward, saying, ‘Master, you delivered to me two talents; here, I have made two talents more.’ 23 His master said to him, ‘Well done, good and faithful servant. You have been faithful over a little; I will set you over much. Enter into the joy of your master.’ 24 He also who had received the one talent came forward, saying, ‘Master, I knew you to be a hard man, reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you scattered no seed, 25 so I was afraid, and I went and hid your talent in the ground. Here, you have what is yours.’ 26 But his master answered him, ‘You wicked and slothful servant! You knew that I reap where I have not sown and gather where I scattered no seed? 27 Then you ought to have invested my money with the bankers, and at my coming I should have received what was my own with interest. 28 So take the talent from him and give it to him who has the ten talents. 29 For to everyone who has will more be given, and he will have an abundance. But from the one who has not, even what he has will be taken away. 30 And cast the worthless servant into the outer darkness. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’
Perhaps you are quite familiar with these words, as the Parable of the Talents is commonly known. I wonder if you agree that reading it as part of the two chapter discourse Jesus has with his disciples, then and now, extends your perspective. In brief, here is what strikes me. Once again, we are in the field of everyday life and business, in the marketplace, in the community. God’s household is outside as well as inside. There is an extraordinary level of trust and delegation from God (the travelling Master) and his selected servants. In the story, everyone gets a trust, and its a whole lifetime’s worth of property, investment, what you will. In short, what they are given is their lives. A happy accident in English means that many read ‘talent’ and hear the noun for our personal gifts and capabilities, rather than a large unit of money. Headteachers giving school assemblies like to make that deliberate mis-step to make a worthwhile and entirely valid point. We are not ‘in [the] church [building]’: we are in the world. And the share for each servant is absolutely not equal and it absolutely doesn’t matter. Every faithful servant who ‘invests’ the master’s trust is rewarded equally with ‘a share of their Master’s happiness.’ The last time I checked, money doesn’t buy joy or happiness, so that’s a very meaningful reward. It is deeply personal and intimate, for here is reward for the religion that God truly esteems.
The foil to the life work of the faithful is the fear of the servant who does not trust honestly in his master, and so does not put his single talent of money to work. The man does know know Him. This is the tragedy. Ironically, the Jewish Rabbi Jesus suggests such a one should break the Torah law and place the talent with worldly bankers for interest. The point really is who our trust is in- so even as we work in the World, our watching eye is on the true Master of the World, who is surely coming to seek account from us, each one, face to face. As the conclusion makes plain, the servants are working energetically within the current economy of the world, but perhaps expecting an accounting according to God’s higher and eternal economy. God will be reading from a different balance sheet.
There are two versions of this parable, and in case you need reminding that the whole section began with Jesus’ focus on Jerusalem, the city of cities in this world, go see Luke 19:11-27 to see what reward is given by the Master to each of his servants. I am astonished that this conclusion has not attracted more attention 6 in the past- perhaps it is a sign of the power of the lie that God is not interested in our daily work, or what goes on in the city, but only what happens ‘in church’. Or perhaps leaders who were jealous with their own power fear what would happen if the full truth of God’s trust in each of us were better comprehended, so have concealed this truth. If so, they fear rightly.
31 “When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on his glorious throne. 32 Before him will be gathered all the nations, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. 33 And he will place the sheep on his right, but the goats on the left. 34 Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. 35 For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, 36 I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me.’ 37 Then the righteous will answer him, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink? 38 And when did we see you a stranger and welcome you, or naked and clothe you? 39 And when did we see you sick or in prison and visit you?’ 40 And the King will answer them, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers,[and sisters] you did it to me.’
It is surely important to pay attention to fellowship in the family of God. I am much the richer for it, and am looking forward to the coming season of renewed community life as the easing of COVID restrictions continues. ‘Do not give up the habit of meeting together’, exhorts the writer to the Hebrews (10:25), and with good reason. This is taken as read by Jesus: what he really wants to say is on a simpler, practical and thus profoundly spiritual plane. Food, drink, clothing, human warmth and welcome, alertness to sickness and imprisonment- these are the practical concerns that God is looking towards, and though it may be a shock and a surprise to many of us, so should we be. Given the anticipated violence and destruction in Jerusalem, coupled with the final erasure of Israel at Masada by the Romans, and the subsequent diaspora of Jews and Christians, this makes sense. But don’t stop there. Surely we will always have opportunity to respond to immediate needs of those who befall these trials of life unexpectedly, through persecution or disaster, whether, say, in terms of job loss or illness, or larger scale issues like a pandemic. “You will always have the poor with you.”
Surely there is more for us to attend to, to anticipate, to plan for our ministering. Why might the food supply be restricted in coming years, and for particular people? Will there be a clean water supply in every place? How is clothing produced – is it just and sustainable? Why might people move from place to place, becoming refugees in the world, simply separated from home? What are the reasons that people fall into sicknesses- what are the contributing factors, the consequences, and the repercussions? All this is surely the management business of God’s living-and-praying-with-watchfulness people. For me, what is the role of a would-be theologian and teacher in all these things? What even are the reasons that the innocent might find themselves on the wrong side of the law, or why might the guilty be unjustly punished? Human rights abuses were not so-called in the Bible, but we can see them clearly now, and we may even be looking through God’s eyes. Surely we do these things first for those who are God’s people, but Jesus’ Samaritan parable taught us that there is no-one who is not a neighbour.
41 “Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. 42 For I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me no drink, 43 I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not clothe me, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.’ 44 Then they also will answer, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not minister to you?’ 45 Then he will answer them, saying, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.’ 46 And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.”
The conclusion to Jesus’ description of the final reckoning is truly the completion of the circle which begins at Genesis 2:15, ‘The Lord God placed the ha’adam in the garden, to till and watch over it.’ And then Yahweh left them there, to see what they would make of it, coming back to fellowship at the cool of the Day. When we are busy in the garden, are we constantly thinking of what the Creator of that garden would have done with it, moment by moment? To be honest, probably not. We just get on with it, though such a thought might come to mind from time to time. This is as it should be, if the gardeners are truly ‘in the image and likeness’ of the One who made both garden and gardeners. A good gardener attends to the seasons and the changes in the plants and their interactions – watching with acute attention to the opportunities and demands of the ecosystem, weighing up potential possibilities and consequences of the myriad choices that could be made, and then at once doing. The work of tilling the soil and tending to the plants and their fruit, the care and preparations that are required, season by season; these are all constant in the garden, and the gardener can get rather lost in it all! And so it proves to be with the watching and tilling of the saints in God’s world: the faithful watchers of God prove to be so attentive to the real needs of their neighbours that they have stopped giving account to Who may be watching them. We may be surrounded by CCTV in our modern towns and cities, but most law abiding folk are no longer self-conscious about them. Not that the grainy black and white videos tell the whole story of course, but God has us all on 24-7-365 CCTV (aka ‘Heavens Above’ Angel-Cam) and knows why we are doing what we do. The God who sees sparrows fall also sees each bottle of water, though a glass of water freshly drawn from the tap should be more sustainable, more just, and more appropriate to stewarding God’s world.
Too many sparrows have fallen from the skies through my lifetime, though I see a few more have returned to my own garden during the recent lockdowns. I let a few trees grow up too, which has provided them with more habitat. My friends in Kenya are sometimes obliged to spend on expensive bottled water since cholera is never far away, and as they generally wear second hand clothes transferred from Europe’s charity markets, this tends to undermine local clothing production. There and everywhere there is strife in the community, tribalism and party political squabbling, and then persecutions of various kinds. Bad leaders thrive through support from the powerful, while good leaders are unjustly blamed for complex consequences of the little good they seek to do. A teacher can help in understanding, in showing how the economy of the world operates at the moment, and suggesting how it might be transformed. How might we stop the forests burning? Where would it be best to plant new trees? How can we constructively interact with the water cycle in our area for the good of people and planet? Where should richer countries intervene with military might in the affairs of other countries, and to what end, and for how long? Which Afghan nationals should be rescued from their homeland and given safe passage to our country, at least for a season, or permanently? At the time of recording the words of Jesus and Peter and Paul and the rest, this scope of influence was beyond imagination. But not any more.
In God’s ultimate economy, His throne is at its centre, and the lives of the living saints are God’s means for holding all these concerns [and more: you know what they are!] in both prayer and action- with our whole lives- to the One at the Centre, who is already making all things New. Through our faithful stewardship, the centre can yet hold. If we hope for the reward of ruling cities in the Parable of the Minas (Luke 19)6, then our watching and doing need to expand to a larger scale than hitherto. If God is to return to find His people praying with impact in His world such that it has not been allowed to fall into fire and destruction, because God’s people are being truly salty, the our prayers must reach a greater scope than hitherto. It is time such prayer spread like wildfire, for there is growing chaos, and then soon He will be at the Gate.
You may think that I am ignoring questions regarding the justice of God. I will simply say this. If God’s people, who are addressed directly by all these words of Jesus in the first instance, woke up to the realisation of the responsibilities that we are thus charged with, individually and collectively, then perhaps the world at large might stand a chance of being able to hear the call of the God Who made them, and see the Way home. Let’s defer discussion of the justice of God’s judgements until after that. There may yet be sense in the Ending.
Turning and turning in the widening gyre The falcon cannot hear the falconer; Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold; Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world, The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere The ceremony of innocence is drowned; The best lack all conviction, while the worst Are full of passionate intensity.
Surely some revelation is at hand; Surely the Second Coming is at hand. The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi Troubles my sight: somewhere in sands of the desert A shape with lion body and the head of a man, A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun, Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it Reel shadows of the indignant desert birds. The darkness drops again; but now I know That twenty centuries of stony sleep Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle, And what rough beast, its hour come round at last, Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?
The news in 2021 is a litany of disasters. Forest fires on the North American continent under ‘heat domes’ from western Canada to California, incinerating whole communities. Towns and villages suffer sudden ‘unpreparable’ floods in Europe, from Germany to Belgium, and now in London, where a month’s worth of rain fell all at once blocking roads and transforming tube stations into swimming pools. Though you didn’t know that both Copernicus Sentinel satellites surveyed land surface temperatures on June 20th across Arctic Siberia finding the ground temperature at Verkhojansk to be 48C. Or that Somalia, Ghana, Chad, Uganda and Nigeria have all been hit by flooding in June and July, following the vast locust swarms which plagued east Africa in earlier months, ravaging food supplies. The headline international news did report that an entire year’s worth of rain fell in Henan province in China all in just three days. We will remember that September 2019 to March 2020 saw the worst ever bush fires across Australia. Meanwhile, the Amazon rainforest is continuously burning because Jair Bolsonaro’s government says its OK to turn one of the principal biodiversity hotspots and lungs of the planet into more substrate for utterly unsustainable agribusiness.
For those of us fortunate not to find our houses sinking in the melting permafrost, our livelihoods disappearing in flood or fire, basements filling with water or houses demolished by the ‘unpredictable’ arrival of mud and rocks, there is still COVID. On July 7th 2021 WHO announced that the reported death toll has passed 4 million.
What sort of response would qualify as being theologically responsible? It is easy to reach for hyperbole and, indeed, apocalyptic language in such circumstances. When our collective house is burning down, that is surely justified. ‘Apocalypse’ in biblical terms does not mean the big bad stuff that happens, but, as Bart Ehrman puts it, ‘A vision of heavenly secrets that can make sense of earthly realities’, such as found in the Book of Revelation (or ‘The Apocalypse of St John, RSV) (Italics my emphasis). In particular, I find it interesting to note that the imagery of the four horsemen of the apocalypse in Revelation 6 is rather ambiguous, and so also inevitably are the interpretations that have followed this first century prophecy of the End of All Things. What John wrote was itself not original, drawing inspiration from the Jewish prophets Zechariah and Ezekiel, who each described the horsemen in different terms, but crucially, Christian commentators through the centuries following St John of Revelation couldn’t decide if the rider of the white horse was with the good guys or the bad guys. The four dread foals are released, you may recall, by the action of the Lamb of God who opens the first of the seals of a scroll seen in John’s heavenly vision. Which agencies are supposed to be at work here, I wonder? Are the references meant to be definitive? Possibly not.
Following Biden’s arrival in the White House, and the rejoining of the Paris Climate agreements by the USA, there is a bit less arguing about whether something should be done, and a renewed focus on what should be done, and by when. I will confess here to grimly welcoming the recent news of fires and flood, with their deadly consequences, for the reason that I hope that these ghastly events ‘at home’ in the US, Canada, Europe and China will finally concentrate minds in government and the places where, apparently, money talks loudest. Vast hectares of trees planted in the US to offset past and current carbon costs in business have now gone up in smoke, while London’s Thames Barrier could not protect the underground transport system from flash flooding. The damage done to coral reefs in the distant oceans has not commanded attention in the capitals of the G20, but the wailing of voters and jittery corporate investors might yet have the desired effect.
Not that its worked out this way in Russia or Brazil, where ‘the system’ has been sequestered by pseudo-elected leaders perhaps better described as totalitarian dictators, supported by oppressive networks of billionaire oligarchs whose business is, so often, in making piles of money from the pillage of the resources of our single shared planet. The Chinese Communist Party is trebling down on its efforts to exclude western influence from the internal affairs of their country, to the extent of undermining foreign investments in China to avoid regulatory scrutiny, and by ejecting BBC journalists who might suggest to their citizens that the Henan floods, to pick the most recent example, might actually be the result of global climate change rather than unfortunate and random fluctuations in the climate. No ‘schoolgirls on climate strike’ in Shanghai, thank you very much.
Then there is the fine democratic example of Australia, where a democratically elected government is in full climate change denial even after the country has literally gone up in smoke. How much more iron ore can be blasted from the culturally sensitive lands of the pre-Captain Cook Land Down Under? How much more coal can be sold to the Chinese who, for the moment at least, are making steel and cement at such a prodigious rate?
Some of us met to pray this month, and it had been decided that the leaders of Australia, Russia, China and Brazil should benefit from our special and prayerful attention. There are now (as of Thursday 22nd July) under 100 days to the global climate summit ‘COP26’ in Glasgow this November. I will reserve comment on the UK and our own government for another post, though you may have noted Boris bumping elbows with Scott Morrison (heading gallery).
What might we co-create with God in prayer regarding the leaders of these four nations?
Let’s consider the case of the exiles of Judah in Babylon in the sixth century BC. Daniel and his three friends- probably many others as well- have been trained and deployed in high office in the capital and in connected places of influence. This is not God’s people living according to God’s ways and instructions in God’s promised homeland. Yet these young people are still God’s people who can find how to live in God’s ways- difficult though that may prove- and can demonstrate that what is not their homeland is still part of the world that the true God made and has plans for. Daniel is a son of Abraham, who has indeed been exiled from the land of the first Promise, and yet is now at home within the scope of a larger Promise. We find testimony that there is a tightrope-wide tolerance for Daniel and his faith in Babylon, on which he is seen to teeter-totter his way along, day by day, even decade by decade, until one king passes to another*. So Daniel establishes a principle for believers in God’s world: we need not await the full rule of God in the world before we can act as those who ‘tend and watch over it’ (Gen 2:15 ESV). We certainly should not despair of God’s co-creation of righteousness and justice with us as His people just because the godless presently have so much of the world under their control.
Let’s look at this one chapter in some detail to see what lessons and possibilities might emerge:
4 King Nebuchadnezzar to all peoples, nations, and languages, that dwell in all the earth: Peace be multiplied to you! 2 It has seemed good to me to show the signs and wonders that the Most High God has done for me.
3 How great are his signs, how mighty his wonders! His kingdom is an everlasting kingdom, and his dominion endures from generation to generation.
4 [b] I, Nebuchadnezzar, was at ease in my house and prospering in my palace. 5 I saw a dream that made me afraid. As I lay in bed the fancies and the visions of my head alarmed me. 6 So I made a decree that all the wise men of Babylon should be brought before me, that they might make known to me the interpretation of the dream. 7 Then the magicians, the enchanters, the Chaldeans, and the astrologers came in, and I told them the dream, but they could not make known to me its interpretation. 8 At last Daniel came in before me—he who was named Belteshazzar after the name of my god, and in whom is the Spirit of the holy God—and I told him the dream, saying, 9 “O Belteshazzar, chief of the magicians, because I know that the Spirit of the holy God is in you and that no mystery is too difficult for you, tell me the visions of my dream that I saw and their interpretation. 10 The visions of my head as I lay in bed were these: I saw, and behold, a tree in the midst of the earth, and its height was great. 11 The tree grew and became strong, and its top reached to heaven, and it was visible to the end of the whole earth. 12 Its leaves were beautiful and its fruit abundant, and in it was food for all. The beasts of the field found shade under it, and the birds of the heavens lived in its branches, and all flesh was fed from it.
13 “I saw in the visions of my head as I lay in bed, and behold, a watcher, a holy one, came down from heaven. 14 He proclaimed aloud and said thus: ‘Chop down the tree and lop off its branches, strip off its leaves and scatter its fruit. Let the beasts flee from under it and the birds from its branches. 15 But leave the stump of its roots in the earth, bound with a band of iron and bronze, amid the tender grass of the field. Let him be wet with the dew of heaven. Let his portion be with the beasts in the grass of the earth. 16 Let his mind be changed from a man’s, and let a beast’s mind be given to him; and let seven periods of time pass over him. 17 The sentence is by the decree of the watchers, the decision by the word of the holy ones, to the end that the living may know that the Most High rules the kingdom of men and gives it to whom he will and sets over it the lowliest of men.’ 18 This dream I, King Nebuchadnezzar, saw. And you, O Belteshazzar, tell me the interpretation, because all the wise men of my kingdom are not able to make known to me the interpretation, but you are able, for the Spirit of the holy God is in you.”
All too often it seems that our leaders, even ones who rise from common stock, end up in isolated bubbles, possessed by terrible delusions of their own grandeur. At moments of crisis and disaster this comes into public view, as their ghosted speeches and miniscule actions have us collectively wondering aloud, ‘Can’t they see what must be done? What on earth are they thinking? What kinds of monsters have we elected?’ Nebuchadnezzar is credited with writing his own speech as recorded here in Daniel 4, with his personal prayer thrown in for good measure. What sort of experiences have wrought such profound changes in this great dictator, that he now speaks with such transparent self-awareness? How exactly have his eyes been opened? Perhaps there are secrets here for us to apply to our present near-apocalypse predicaments.
Nebuchadnezzar shares his first person diary report. In it we can see that none other than the Most High God Himself has been the prime Agent in rectifying Nebuchadnezzar’s entire world view. This is a significant contribution to the insights afforded in scripture for what a ‘biblical world view’ consists in, especially in regard to the place of all human leaders under God, and of their place and responsibilities regarding all creatures on earth. It also suggests that however entrenched human earthly leaders may appear to be, and however godless their regimes, that there is scope for radical transformation of both leader and government.
The chapter begins with a new and unabashed acknowledgement of the true God of the cosmos by the non-covenant king Nebuchadnezzar, the previously unquestioned ruler of the Judahite exiles in Babylon. He confesses the sense of ease that his privilege enabled, summing up his ability to do whatever he likes with the riches of the entire empire in this pithy phrase: ‘I was … prospering in my palace.’ Unless invited, no one would have questioned the king’s will: they could only expect an immediate and sticky end! Professors of the ancient Near Eastern cultures tell us that kings like Nebuchadnezzar would have believed in his own god as one local god/ one of the gods of his homeland, who was the superior rival to the gods of neighbouring lands. He now realises that whatever divinities there may be, there is One of particular note, whom he names as the ‘Most High God’. As for himself, Nebuchadnezzar acknowledges that he can no longer behave like a god over the country, thus redefining what it means to be a king. He addresses the whole world to speak peace under heaven, which suggests positive implications for the future of the exiles presently held in benign captivity.
In the worst case scenarios, which as I described above may well be what we are facing in the world today, there is one last line of defence of justice in God’s cosmos, and that is Godself. Nebuchadnezzar, apparently impregnable in his rule, is nevertheless not isolated from the voice of the Almighty. If no one else has the opportunity or courage to speak truth to power, God can certainly do so. What might influence the timing of such an intervention? We should inquire of the Lord on this matter.
The king is at his ultimate ease, and then out of nowhere he is troubled by dreams, fancies and visions. What are the means by which the wetware of our creaturely brains are accessed by the Spirit of the Cosmos? Christian folk who are expert in the matters of quantum physics and/or neuroscience have spilt some ink in this regard over the few decades we have known anything of both disciplines of study, and have reached two conclusions: we don’t know enough about the workings of the human mind to say very much at all about how our thoughts are nevertheless both free and meaningful, and secondly, that what we do know presents no obstacle at all to the proposition that we can have a communicative relationship with the Divine. God created, say the theologians, ex nihilo, so it should not surprise us that He yet speaks from the void.
As with Joseph who was summonsed by Pharaoh in Egypt long before, Daniel is brought to the king’s audience chamber as the last possible interpreter of this heaven sent vision. Whatever God has to say directly to the self-styled and would-be ruler of the earth, God does not deliver alone, but opens the king’s will and enables His human creature to perform the role of priest to the pagan king. God’s word, will and way will be facilitated in human terms, for this is God’s creation ordinance.
Nebuchadnezzar describes the vision he has been dwelling on in his mind to Daniel, and it is a picture of cosmic dimensions. Babylon is fabled for its hanging gardens, one of the original Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, no doubt replete with plants of every kind that could be collected as far as the empire had extended, though not as complete as we can enjoy today at Kew Gardens, in London. In a royal garden that has been planted by generations of kings, there will be mature trees, but this ‘fancy’ exceeds any that grows even now at Kew or Wakehurst Place or Bedgebury, arboreal collections all found just a few miles from my home in the South East of England, thanks to the Victorian globe trotting plant collectors who stocked these sites that are now living museums of the world’s trees. Wakehurst is home to the largest growing ‘Christmas tree’ in England, a 35m giant redwood, though the UK’s tallest is a 44m native Beech tree on a private estate in West Sussex. However, the vision given to the king is of a great tree that reaches from earth to heaven (recalling the Tower of Babel in Genesis 11:1-9) which forms the habitat and food supply for all manner of creatures. Animals find shade under it, birds nest in it, and as any ecologist will tell you, even a single tree can be the home for many hundreds of species and myriad individuals. This tree in Nebuchadnezzar’s mind is another version of the royal garden planted in Genesis 2, and the vision is immodest in its assertion: the Watcher from heaven addresses the tree, and Daniel explains- it represents you, O king!
In this iteration of the familiar garden trope, the king himself is depicted as the mighty Tree of Life, combining two messages: affirmation that it is the proper place of the ruler to shoulder responsibility for the supply of all the needs of humans and all creatures in the land. Quite properly, in this sense: everything depends on him- he is the vital connection between the needs of community and creatures on earth with heavenly supply and sustenance from above. And interwoven with this truth is also the judgement of God on Nebuchadnezzar’s hubris- he has not acknowledged that the God of Creation is the absolute and ultimate source of the riches that he sequesters from the resources of empire and the labour of all its citizens.
The Jewish scriptures are a rich ground of prophetic judgments, but not many are delivered in person by the man of God direct to the ear of the one being given his ‘unsatisfactory’ school report. How is Daniel to go about this? It is not uncommon to hear modern day Christian folk getting carried away with their denouncements of ungodliness, though it is absolutely right that we call out the injustices and cruelties meted out by the influential on the vulnerable. Too few seem aware of Jude’s instructions for spiritual warfare in Jude v9: even fallen spiritual personalities are not to be slandered, purely out of respect for Godself. We can almost hear Daniel’s heart beating out of his chest as the realisation of what he is being asked to say to Great Nebuchadnezzar dawns on him in full-orbed intensity.
19 Then Daniel, whose name was Belteshazzar, was dismayed for a while, and his thoughts alarmed him. The king answered and said, “Belteshazzar, let not the dream or the interpretation alarm you.” Belteshazzar answered and said, “My lord, may the dream be for those who hate you and its interpretation for your enemies! 20 The tree you saw, which grew and became strong, so that its top reached to heaven, and it was visible to the end of the whole earth, 21 whose leaves were beautiful and its fruit abundant, and in which was food for all, under which beasts of the field found shade, and in whose branches the birds of the heavens lived— 22 it is you, O king, who have grown and become strong. Your greatness has grown and reaches to heaven, and your dominion to the ends of the earth. 23 And because the king saw a watcher, a holy one, coming down from heaven and saying, ‘Chop down the tree and destroy it, but leave the stump of its roots in the earth, bound with a band of iron and bronze, in the tender grass of the field, and let him be wet with the dew of heaven, and let his portion be with the beasts of the field, till seven periods of time pass over him,’ 24 this is the interpretation, O king: It is a decree of the Most High, which has come upon my lord the king, 25 that you shall be driven from among men, and your dwelling shall be with the beasts of the field. You shall be made to eat grass like an ox, and you shall be wet with the dew of heaven, and seven periods of time shall pass over you, till you know that the Most High rules the kingdom of men and gives it to whom he will. 26 And as it was commanded to leave the stump of the roots of the tree, your kingdom shall be confirmed for you from the time that you know that Heaven rules. 27 Therefore, O king, let my counsel be acceptable to you: break off your sins by practicing righteousness, and your iniquities by showing mercy to the oppressed, that there may perhaps be a lengthening of your prosperity.”
Nebuchadnezzar is doubtless quite smart enough to know that any serious interpretation of this vision is going to involve a bluntly confrontational message, and he encourages Daniel not to hold back. Daniel manages to compose himself and finds a form of words to address the king with sufficient dignity as well as doing justice to the sobering word from heaven’s messenger. How extraordinary that God’s message of judgement is not simply, ‘You have been tried and found wanting; your reign and life are now over!’ That will come to another king on another day in this book. Nor even, ‘You have been tried and found wanting, so now your rule is at an end- it will pass to another while you depart in ignominy.’ Despite that Nebuchadnezzar has no part in the covenant of the lineage of Israel, God does through Daniel what Jeremiah instructed the exiles: He brings peace and prosperity to the land in which God’s people are found, without distinction. What does this look like? It means that God’s desire is to redeem Nebuchadnezzar, even to do righteousness and mercy in that land through him! It means that God is bringing the measuring rod of righteousness as revealed in part to Israel even to the nation of Babylon. It means that God in interested in the character and fruitfulness of the pagan king as ruler of that country. As with any of the other sons of God, discipline is the constant companion to those who would grow in character. To lead the king in the way of chastening, the following steps are announced:
Ultimate pruning- all limbs and leaves removed, denoting Nebuchadnezzar’s removal from the kingship and all its privileges and responsibilities.
Destruction and binding of the tree stump in two kinds of metal, signalling the ultimate winnowing of this king who nurtured an arrogant image of his own status and significance. This is an appraisal and judgement of Nebuchadnezzar personally, and yet…
The bound stump is not dead; what is more, it is mysteriously nurtured amongst the tender grass, as a newly sprouted seedling in the open space in which it first germinated many years previously. The plant, which is the king, is neither dead, nor is it finally removed from relationship from other human creatures in the world. And, as the metaphorical imagery shifts…
‘Let him be wet with the dew of heaven,’ says the Watcher in the vision, recalling the way in which Genesis describes the Edenic water cycle, before the beginning of rain, when water condensed from the air in each daily cycle, thus watering each plant and tree with its necessary aqueous nutriment.
As for food, it will be the same as the beasts. This continues to acknowledge Nebuchadnezzar’s physical, biological nature, which as Genesis told us, is one with the biological organisms, and yet is dramatically reduced from the luxuries of creative diets and cookery that he would have been accustomed to. [Note that the tree-man metaphor is stretched to breaking point now, as the man needs food, while a tree makes its own by photosynthesis. This is entirely acceptable prophetic storytelling, which does not transgress modern scientific boundaries with any harm to the meaning.]
This verdict and sentence is not at all permanent- it is a time limited judgement, for ‘seven periods of time’. What mysteries are hidden in the Genesis account of the creation week? What exactly is the nature of the completing seventh Day, before it becomes known as ‘Sabbath’? Some wonder whether it makes sense to talk of the eighth Day in the Genesis context. While a day is a unit of time in which we can accomplish significant things, some tasks are larger and require more sustained attention. Nebuchadnezzar is to leave the company of human beings temporarily, for a kind of week of spiritual time, but at the completion of this season, there is a healing, with hope for reconciliation, for that is what the completion of a week by Sabbath promises. And then, in the grace of God, it may even be possible to start again. What does the grace of God mean? Even that the kingship will be kept on hold- things can be put right and go back to the way they were. Such are the extraordinary dimensions of God’s redemption- far beyond all we can think or imagine, as another bible author later puts it. Right now, there are several things it would be good to see put back to the way they were.
There is then a massive gap in the narrative. We are left to speculate entirely on what happens next- immediately next, that is. What does Nebuchadnezzar say? How is Daniel treated? What is the effect of this revelation on king and kingdom? In the short term, we do not know, for nothing is said. What we do know is that the man of God has carried out his joint-working with God – earth and heaven have worked prophetically together, and the earthly ruler has been told in plain terms what the Truth is. God put the ha’adam (humankind) into the Garden ‘to till and watch over it’, as Claus Westermann translated Gen 2:15, and so Daniel has been anointed as joint watcher with The Watcher from heaven. Both man and divine Speaker have uttered the word for this time to the earthly ruler, in concert and in harmony. What will this double spoken Word accomplish? In the field of garden metaphors, we have to wait and see, for these things take time. Nebuchadnezzar still has free will, even in this season of divine confrontation. And his response is all that the rest of this episode has to record. We will hear no more of Daniel’s involvement in this narrative, which we can take as a comfort in this respect: while God clearly does look for our partnership in watching and doing, we can expect that God will continue His sovereign action at significant scale and with precision of timing that are, well, Divine! And Nebuchadnezzar will come to say this himself.
28 All this came upon King Nebuchadnezzar. 29 At the end of twelve months he was walking on the roof of the royal palace of Babylon, 30 and the king answered and said, “Is not this great Babylon, which I have built by my mighty power as a royal residence and for the glory of my majesty?” 31 While the words were still in the king’s mouth, there fell a voice from heaven, “O King Nebuchadnezzar, to you it is spoken: The kingdom has departed from you, 32 and you shall be driven from among men, and your dwelling shall be with the beasts of the field. And you shall be made to eat grass like an ox, and seven periods of time shall pass over you, until you know that the Most High rules the kingdom of men and gives it to whom he will.” 33 Immediately the word was fulfilled against Nebuchadnezzar. He was driven from among men and ate grass like an ox, and his body was wet with the dew of heaven till his hair grew as long as eagles’ feathers, and his nails were like birds’ claws.
King ‘Neb’ isn’t content with his ornate throne or the sycophantic attentions of his attendants. He’s on the roof of his great palace, as near to the heavens as he can climb, and in a futile attempt at avoiding any embarrassing contradictions, he is talking to himself. Most of us comfort ourselves with similar intentions, but Neb has been served notice, and God is listening very attentively. Were the king to be feeling pleased with himself on account of the efficiency of his rule, his attention to the needs of the peoples under his influence, and especially the directives that Daniel gave him personally exactly twelve months previously, then there might not have been cause for alarm. Might we speculate that Nebuchadnezzar took Daniel’s counsel seriously at first, perhaps making radical changes to plans and procedures in the kingdom? Might there have been a change of heart in regard of the weak and oppressed amongst his citizenry, at all levels of society. Many a leader has stood up at such moments and declared their intentions to adopt a more inclusive and generous attitude, turning their attentions to service of their community. But after the ink dried on the newspapers, or should I say, the cuneiform tablets baked solid under the Middle Eastern sun, these trumpeted intentions can drift all too easily, as entrenched and powerful interests have their subtle influence behind closed doors. Whatever leadership is about, it pivots crucially on unswerving long-term commitment to the primary mission, and God made it abundantly clear to Neb what this mission should consist in. In what terms does the meditative Neb now address himself? 1: The power he has exerted in creating a palatial home for himself, and; 2, his own personal glory. If we were to define the ambitions that constitute hubris- arrogance that challenges the nature and status of the Deity- then Neb’s words hit the target dead centre.
In his first letter to Timothy, St Paul commends the saints of God to attend to prayer for all leaders that we can live quiet and peaceful lives in godliness (worship) and reverence (gravity) [1 Timothy 2:2]. The emphasis here needs to be on our work as worship and adopting a sober minded attitude, rather than on quietness and peace, I think. Which is how leaders should really behave, treating human beings as the creatures of dignity that God made us to be, treating God’s world with similar respect, and handling time and opportunity wisely. All these messages come through in the testimony of Nebuchadnezzar. Paul did not suggest to Timothy, or at any other time, that we should ask God to remove deficient leaders, and that is not what God does with Nebuchadnezzar in this case. The mission field has been Nebuchadnezzar’s mind, pure and simple. The word of God came to him with divine imperative and in partnership with examples of human integrity, but he refused this reasoning, and so his human mind is taken from him for a season. William Blake’s evocative picture gives some insight into what this purgatorial experience could have been like. But then, most wonderfully, Neb’s reason is returned to him. What might be suggested here in the ways of God as He stoops to our creaturely level to beckon us toward heaven’s Light? It must remain a mystery.
34 At the end of the days I, Nebuchadnezzar, lifted my eyes to heaven, and my reason returned to me, and I blessed the Most High, and praised and honoured him who lives forever,
for his dominion is an everlasting dominion, and his kingdom endures from generation to generation; 35 all the inhabitants of the earth are accounted as nothing, and he does according to his will among the host of heaven and among the inhabitants of the earth; and none can stay his hand or say to him, “What have you done?”
36 At the same time my reason returned to me, and for the glory of my kingdom, my majesty and splendour returned to me. My counsellors and my lords sought me, and I was established in my kingdom, and still more greatness was added to me. 37 Now I, Nebuchadnezzar, praise and extol and honour the King of heaven, for all his works are right and his ways are just; and those who walk in pride he is able to humble.
Daniel 4 ESV
Again, we are only given a partial view of the outcomes. What might be implied by Nebuchadnezzar’s confession that he ‘honoured’ God? Does this point to an inward religious observance, where the secular has been divided from and relegated beneath the spiritual? Frankly, we cannot tell, but the point is moot for us. If we and our leaders are to come to our collective senses in this most urgent season, our honouring must be practical and very much orientated to the implications of what we say we believe; the implications of our faith in the One Whom we confess.
Babylon, and certainly its king, have had a Great Reset. The prophetic message of Daniel leaves us to speculate on what the effect of all this on the king, his court, country and empire, and for the Judahite exiles. Not merely the questions we have posed but many others unspoken remain unanswered, and perhaps that is the nature of apocalyptic prophecy. Heaven holds a store of answers to matters that may not yet have transpired on earth. In our ecological and environmental crisis, it is surely the truth that the heavenly Watchers address all of us in the privileged West, where so many of us are, frankly, at ease, and prospering in our homes, blessed with technologies for life and leisure beyond the dreams and fancies of the ancients. At the scale of population as it now stands on our earth, these habits are no longer sustainable or just, and change is needed. Indeed, urgent pruning. It is a commonplace in scriptural commentary to observe that ‘one stands for many’, though it may be a shock to discover that this message addressed all of us as much as for Vladamir Putin, Jair Bolsonaro, Scott Morrison or Xi Jinping.
Such are the truths and revelations that emerge when a biblical narrative has reached its climax and conclusion. The whole account of Nebuchadnezzar’s ‘comeuppance’ with Almighty God, YHWH of Daniel and Judah of Israel serves to show us that God is willing and able to bring leaders and those with the greatest power to account, and, most mercifully, not to treat them as they deserve at the first count. This king discovers that God is God of Justice and of Grace, of Judgement and of Mercy. And because Neb has told us his story in retrospect, we see other aspects of his rectified worldview. At the start, when Nebuchadnezzar summoned his trained servant Daniel, we were reminded that Daniel was renamed Belteshazzar, which is a direct reference to the god Bel, ‘my God’, says Neb, to begin with. We never hear Daniel voice his disapproval at this. Furthermore, Neb calls on his proven wise servant, saying that he knows ‘the spirit of the holy gods is in you.’ This is how most English texts give the translation, and doubtless this is appropriate to the original sense. Daniel does not get to protest about this gross heresy either. But a footnote in the ESV makes clear that an alternative rendition is also accurate, and that is the one I have given in the quotations above. With hindsight, Neb now recognises that he understands Daniel’s God better now, by personal experience, and he also understands that Daniel is a man, a fellow creature, who nevertheless has a particular relationship with the Most High God whom he has just had such profound dealings with. So it is accurate and appropriate to say that Neb now understands the meaning of the translation as I have given it: Daniel is sought for his wisdom because in him is The Spirit of the Holy God. This stems from the radical commitment Daniel shows as a man of complete spiritual integrity. In the prophecy of his own exile, Nebuchadnezzar receives the simple grace of daily dew from the sky, while Daniel remains, as Psalm 1 puts it, a Tree planted by streams of Water… whatever he does prospers.
It is surely the business of God’s own present day prophets to consider what the divine Watcher has to say to all, leaders and laity, CEOs and citizens, presidents and peasants alike. This is what coppicing does, for while some stalks grew up to grasp more sunlight, and so grew taller, overshadowing their neighbours, when the chainsaw comes, they are all cut down to the ground, and start again. When the new stems grow together in the next season, they more or less keep pace with each other, and all gain sufficient water and light. In our new ways of doing things, we will need such lessons to apply to the continued growth and prosperity of a global population of seven billions. This will require the concerted efforts of many minds, the collective exercise of reason, and also the fruit of the infilling Spirit of the Holy God. May we join together to pray in this regard.
What lessons emerge from our study of Daniel chapter four? The God of Creation finished His first work in the figurative Creation Week of Genesis 1, and then passed over significant responsibility for ongoing creation of the future in ‘working and watching’ to us, specially called ‘human becomings.’ Initially this work of naming and tending applies within the bounds of a royal garden in Eden, where creature and Creator continue in daily fellowship, encompassing reflection on the ongoing work as well as their intimate relationship. But beyond Eden- the whole world is the LORD’s and everything in it, so Daniel works through every obstacle to find the means to thrive as a co-creator of a better future for his own people and even for the people amongst whom they are exiled. Despite that the might of the Babylonians overshadows their entire lives- Daniel’s name and the identity of his God are alike trashed and squeezed into an idolatrous mould by Nebuchadnezzar- Daniel proves that Yahweh God will come to fellowship with him in this exilic wilderness. And the wild-ness can be tamed, together. This is absolutely not an equal task. But the partnership is real, and God decrees that it is crucially so: co-working is part of Creation, as a Creation Ordinance, for God determines it to be so. It remains God’s Good Purpose. Make no mistake, God made and maintains the cosmos, in every respect- the span of space and every particle filling it, and the moments in which it exists. I cannot tell you where God’s creation ends and God’s providence begins. Yet when God speaks in judgement directly to Nebuchadnezzar, this is not a complete work of God. There is a crucial partnership role for His creature, His faithful bond-friend Daniel, whose real name He knows (Daniel, which means ‘Judge of God’, or better, ‘God-is-Judge’!) Inevitably, the king seeks out Daniel, in whom is the Spirit of the Holy God, who speaks in human terms to complement what the divine Watcher speaks in divine terms, and so the judgement and ultimatum are brought into being. In time. The seed of the Word is allowed to grow. Daniel’s work in this season is done.
We are given privileged insight into what happens next. What was at first co-created between YHWH God and covenant son Daniel is then completed by God alone, in God’s own sovereign will and power. Even as the God-bestowed freedom of his humanity has been respected, divine judgement finally comes to Nebuchadnezzar and the kingship of Babylon, a living enlivening judgement which is mysteriously carried forward to completion by God. Who can say what literal events transpired, as described in this exotic narrative? The important claim is that God can, whatever we may think, and even more importantly, that God will do as God pleases with us, but God has determined to only do so with us. Neb was not living as a partner with the True God, but Daniel was- he was the co-creator who God partnered with to tend the plants and creatures God has instantiated. Thus Neb is brought, by the grace of God facilitated by the co-working of Daniel, into a greater human fulness, and the kingdom of Babylon is touched with the reality of the kingdom of heaven.
In the beginning, God created… and then we are brought to the opportunity to co-create with God. Without our partnership, there is no immediate answer to the growing ills of the world. But more of us are discovering God’s intent to bring us into intimate involvement with making a better future, a Good future, through co-working with the God whom we know in Jesus Christ. ‘No longer do I call you slaves, because the slave does not know what his master is doing. But I have called you friends, because everything that I have heard from my Father I have revealed to you.’ For sure, the challenges we now face are beyond any one of us, and probably beyond us collectively as well. But not if we allow that ‘us’ includes God. Jesus continued, ‘You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you that you should go and bear fruit, and your fruit should remain, in order that whatever you ask the Father in my name he will give you.’ We can draw nearer to God to enter this partnership, and trust that what God starts with us, God will certainly finish.
As I conclude this article at the start of August 2021, there are reports of larger than usual summer wildfires breaking out around the Mediterranean, in Greece, Rhodes, Italy and Sardinia, and now in Spain. The earliest reports were from Turkey, where one hundred wildfires were burning across the country by 1st August. Apparently the Turkish government is repeating rumours that some fires had been started deliberately, rather than by lightning or other natural causes. Which is rather to miss the point. The ‘house’ that we have built for ourselves turns out to be flammable, and through a mixture of sins of omission and commission, fire is now breaking out all over. The responsible way forward, as God’s people in God’s world, is not the black and white of political struggle between opposing factions orientated to earthly power and influence. It is good to ‘speak truth to power’, be that the principled stand of a striking schoolgirl on the pavement at her nation’s parliament, or an underdog politician calling out the egregious excesses of a ruling dictator. But God has taken Daniel on a deeper journey in God’s Spirit, that opens living channels of communication between earth and heaven, initiates a dialogue of prayer into the heavenlies over globally significant situations, and directs his Spirit-filled life into counsel and watchful insight at crucial seasons of change, even, at divinely appointed moments, into the most secret and senior offices of state and power. The invitation implicit in this scripture is that God intends for us to be there too.
Jair Bolsonaro 22 11 2018 CC BY NC 2.0 Jeso Carneiro; AustralianPMScottMorrisonPMJohnson14062021 CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 Tim Hammond; President Xi Jinping of China Kigali, 23 July 2018 CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 Paul Kagame; vladimir-putin-president-of-russia-2374090 pixabay 17 11 2016 Joenomias
“The world is at a perilous point in this pandemic. We have just passed the tragic milestone of 4 million recorded #COVID19 deaths, which likely underestimates the overall toll”-@DrTedros— World Health Organization (WHO) (@WHO) July 7, 2021
FIRE pexels-izaac-elms-8722621 LIGHTNING Guy Corbishley FOSSIL FUEL INDUSTRY pexels-pixabay-257703 DEAD CORAL REEF pexels-jeremy-bishop-2397651
https://www.ft.com/content/3f89c759-eb9a-4dfb-b768-d4af1ec5aa23 “We’ve bought forest offsets that are now burning,” Elizabeth Willmott, Microsoft’s carbon programme manager, told attendees at an event hosted by Carbon180, a non-profit organisation that focuses on carbon removal. The tech giant was assessing how the disaster might affect how it buys offsets in future, Willmott said at the Carbon180 event. “We don’t want this to force us to pull out of investing in nature-based solutions,” she said. Instead, buyers must “get really smart about what the risks are”. The offset programmes carry a “buffer” of credits that are not sold to any companies but are available to cover any shortfalls resulting from problems with a project. The Colville project has generated more than 14m credits since 2016, about 5m of which have been used by buyers, according to data compiled by the Berkeley Carbon Trading Project.
If ‘Daniel’ is understood to be one literal character all the way through the book, then he served five different kings in exile: Nebuchadnezzar, Evil-merodach, Belshazzar, Darius, and Cyrus. As we reflect on the behind the scenes role of our avowed Christian Queen Elizabeth II, Daniel shows it is possible for just one of ‘God’s servants’ to exert multigenerational influence in the corridors of power.
‘No longer do I call you slaves, because the slave does not know what his master is doing. But I have called you friends, because everything that I have heard from my Father I have revealed to you.’ John 14:15 Lexham English Bible. And verse 16 following.
Under the heading, “Everyday Justice: Life-Changing Advocacy,” Matt Jolley at the London Institute for Contemporary Christianity writes, 1
Blessed are those whose help is the God of Jacob, whose hope is in the LORD their God.
He is the Maker of heaven and earth, the sea, and everything in them – he remains faithful for ever. He upholds the cause of the oppressed and gives food to the hungry. The LORD sets prisoners free, the LORD gives sight to the blind, the LORD lifts up those who are bowed down, the LORD loves the righteous. The LORD watches over the foreigner and sustains the fatherless and the widow, but he frustrates the ways of the wicked.
The LORD reigns for ever, your God, O Zion, for all generations.
Praise the LORD.
I know that the LORD secures justice for the poor and upholds the cause of the needy. Surely the righteous will praise your name, and the upright will live in your presence.
With reference to these scripture passages, Matt writes:
‘Early on in the pandemic, Madonna infamously referred to COVID-19 as a ‘great equaliser’.
The fact that she said it from a bath full of rose petals was just one reason to call her statement into question. Such ‘equalisers’ don’t really exist. Dig a little deeper and you’ll almost always find that the rich, powerful, and privileged will have an easier time of it.
Black and South Asian people have been hit hardest by Coronavirus, white-collar workers have continued working from home whilst other sectors have been decimated, and rich nations are experiencing a vaccine-fuelled recovery whilst the global majority continue to struggle.
The Bible is no stranger to such inequality. Righteousness is fundamentally relational, but because of sin these relationships are damaged – we turn away from God and in on ourselves, leading to greed and oppression. Fallen people then form broken structures, leading to institutional injustice.
Imagine a 400-metre race where some competitors had a massive head start. It wouldn’t be fair for the whole field to start at the same time. In the same way, where inequality exists it’s insufficient simply to treat everyone the same and assume it’ll all work out. We need to address inequality and the systems that cause it.
And we have a God who cares especially for the poor. Psalms such as the ones cited above show what John Stott calls ‘a God who desires justice and asks us, as his people… to champion the cause of the poor and the powerless’.
But who are the powerless? Scripture consistently refers to the widow, the fatherless, and the foreigner. Equivalents today might include the child in social care, the homeless man, the asylum seeker, the trauma survivor, the lonely elderly woman. God’s priority is to ‘secure justice’ for those on the margins, and we’re called to join this work.
So, practically, how do we use our everyday lives to undo inequality? One way is through advocacy, partnering with God to restore social structures and empower the disadvantaged. Not ignoring or abandoning our privilege, but stewarding it lovingly on behalf of others.
This might look like listening and learning to find out where inequality exists on our frontlines. It might involve our jobs, working for justice as well as for profit. It might mean signing petitions, or ‘upholding the cause’ of the voiceless in everyday conversations with friends, families, or neighbours. As we advocate for the marginalised, may our lives reflect God’s priorities.
Matt Jolley Editor, Word for the Week
How might you advocate for ‘the poor and powerless’ on your frontlines this week? Join the conversation in the comments below.
In reflecting on injustice and unrighteousness in life, Matt invokes the metaphor of a race, in which some ‘competitors’ in fact have a structural and therefore unfair advantage. It’s a reasonable metaphor, and Madonna’s ‘thoughts from the bath’ fittingly illustrate it. Perhaps we can move on by recalling this:
An exhausted Jonny Brownlee is helped over the finish line by his brother Alistair who gives up the chance to win the race in a dramatic end to the World Triathlon Series in Cozumel, Mexico, on Sunday.
Alistair switched his self-identity from ‘competitor’ to ‘sacrificial and loving brother’ because he recognised two things: (i) that Jonny is his brother, whose self-dignity allows him to ‘run his own race’ with independence, but also (ii) that Jonny was suffering such that his health was in question. Alistair changed his ‘rules of life’ to promote brotherhood above winning, not to leave the race but so that they finished the race together. So ‘advocating for the poor and powerless’ on our ‘frontlines’ requires us to evaluate our identification of our fellow humans as sibling life travellers, and also to evaluate the (Matt switches metaphors here) race/ warfare we are engaged in. Apostle Paul himself used the race metaphor in 1 Cor 9 in a particular way:
In Paul’s usage, this ‘race’ is only applicable to me. The other ‘competitors’ are not my brethren or ‘not yet believers.’ You have your own race to run, in Paul’s 1 Cor 9 deployment of the metaphor. [Paul mixes metaphors as well- first running, then boxing!] But traditionally we’ve read this poorly. We should bring other modes of thought to this picture; collective and community-oriented thinking. I have to admit that my efforts to ‘run’ well depend on supporting and partnering with others. We also get to determine what the race/war actually is; the ‘rules’ or ‘terms of engagement’. A socially just life and socially just mission are such that ‘the winner’ is corporate, not individual, where we have corporately agreed on worthy goals and just means of engagement, and where the dignity of individual endeavour is balanced with community solidarity. As I look at 1 Cor 9 now, I see the collective ‘Church at Work’ crossing the finishing line as a body, the Body of Christ, and so we receive that winners wreath together. So the Head, Christ, gets the glory, as its His graces that enable this miracle of internal transformation and corporate unity.
Image: Sum_of_Marc on Flickr. The Brownlee Brothers. The Men’s Triathlon at the London 2012 Olympic Games. The Olympic Triathlon took place at Hyde Park on Tuesday 7th August. 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)
If Genesis is indeed the opening statement of the inspired Word of God, then it seems God doesn’t have a very high view of women. If the portrayal of women in Genesis is really not much different to that of contemporary Ancient Near Eastern texts with which it shares its textual origins, then, it is claimed, we ought to rule it out as having anything constructive to say about the identity and roles of women in society today. If this ‘book of beginnings’ is the foundational basis of God’s dealings with God’s creatures and God’s chosen people, then it is plain to many readers and commentators that God Himself- yes, very much Himself- is a patently biased Creator, who has favourites in regard to gender, not to mention race. Some favourites become such apparently at random, while others are favoured purely because they are fortunate to have the characteristics of one type of biological identity rather than another. Both categories smack of injustice, and in sum, God is exposed as being as misogynistic and patriarchal as the flawed and therefore ‘sinful’ men that He all at once choses and blesses with His favours, whether the characters who dominate the text, or those whose privilege enabled them to be the authors and redactors of it.
Such are the pejorative assertions that Genesis is a culturally flawed and irrevocably compromised basis for gender-inclusive spirituality and should be rejected as a sound basis for the formation of humans as females, bearing only the toxic fruit of patriarchal oppression. God, if He is to be named and respected at all, is thus best understood to be more the God of man than as the God of woman, or as God of humanity, if you insist. And that makes Him a lesser god. Or, quite likely, a god made by men, in their image and likeness.
This brief article seeks to rebut this kind of popular historical judgement in an academic tone. I will present reflections on some key observations about most of the principal female characters in Genesis in order to show that Genesis does indeed offer resources to perceive the ‘good’ creation of women by the Creator. It is doubtless true that there was significant energy in the cultural biases of ancient societies that could properly be described as both patriarchal and misogynistic, and this is reflected in complex ways in the biblical texts, and specifically within Genesis. Humankind is depicted as falling short of God’s righteous expectations from near the outset, while the symptoms of the complex of broken relationships includes a fundamental breakdown between the genders. But crucially, does that mean that the relationship between God and women is really any different to that between God and men? Are women second class citizens of earth and heaven? Historically, this has been the implied claim, and for their part, theologians have often dodged this point, and since they have more often than not been men, that rather adds to the general sense of suspicion.
In the first place, the criticism takes root in a faulty hermeneutic, which naively &/or deliberately fails to admit that just because the biblical texts originate in part in the history of flawed humanity, considered as a whole, that a priori disqualifies a theologically conscious reading that allows the Spirit of God to breathe divine life into what could be reduced to base clay, but in fact, in the grace of God, speaks life. It is a faith step to read the Scripture as the Word of God, and this is indeed the path I invite you to take with me.
The following examples are featured in the chronological order in which they appear in the Genesis text. Let’s watch to see if there might be layers of messaging in that sequencing as well.
In creation, God separates and divides. In one of several climaxes in Gen 1-2, God makes the woman the focus of the first bringing back together. Beyond God’s judgements of ‘good’ and ‘very good,’ when God brings the woman to the man who is awakened from his reproductive operation, Adam speaks ecstatically on his own and God’s behalf. The woman is not the missing piece of Adam (existing in God’s creation only to complete him, as man); rather, she the one in whom God’s whole creation, in which God is incarnate, is brought to its completion in relationality. This is the third climax of creation, the first being the creation of ‘adamah in God’s image and likeness on the sixth day [where ‘adamah is not to be misconstrued as merely male Adam, but as ‘male and female’ together] while the second climax is the ‘now but not yet’ seventh holy day on which God rested, pointing into the eternity hereafter of Creation. So in terms of the sequencing of the Genesis narrative, the third climax is the ultimate one, and we should infer what God is thus announcing regarding the significance of the woman, Eve, in that regard.
Following the complex differentiation of Eve from Adam in the opening two chapters, the subsequent chapters 4-11 generally make the male character in each generation stand for all family members, mentioning few others than the inheriting son in whom the blood line continues. This need not be read as bias, as sexism, as weak or strong endorsement of patriarchy over matriarchy. Just as with interpretation of the fossil record, absence of evidence is not the same as evidence of absence. The biblical alternative to the Sumerian King Lists in the early genealogies makes a theological point of egalitarianism that need not also be read as endorsing the primacy of male over female. Noah’s wife is not named, but then again, up to the time that the Ark is grounded on Ararat, Noah does not speak. We must be careful not to fall into eisegesis in our analysis of what the text does and also does not devote words to communicating with us.
As I explain elsewhere in this blog1, and at length, though Sarai is not separately or individually called in Genesis 12- only her husband is- we see her bloodline is noted in the Gen 11 genealogy (Gen 11:29-31). Later on, however, God comes to call Sarah specifically as an individual, as an agent, as the Mother of Promise, in Genesis 18. (This follows God’s renaming of both Abram as Abraham and Sarai as Sarah in Genesis 17.) As a sign of humanity and creaturely breathing, both Abram and Sarai are heard laughing by the LORD, which shared sign of personhood is within the generous bounds of the imaging of the divinity. Sarai’s laughter is heard in the divine court even from the secret place of her tent (Gen 18:12-15).
We might characterise Hagar as a lower-class woman, a servant (as is Rebekah’s nurse in a later chapter) who we might not expect to gain God’s attention in the account constrained by patriarchal priorities. She is a foreigner, the female Egyptian servant of another woman; merely an employee- who is not even introduced as a spiritual refugee or ‘convert’. Hagar is an ‘extra’ in a period of history where God is forming His nation, as distinct from all the other unchosen nations. The patriarchal focus is very much elsewhere, it might be proposed. Yet God sees her, Hagar, as a person who is respected and valued, spoken to and spoken with, valued by God even when she is not valued by her community, such that though she is abandoned as a flawed woman by her mistress and master, God oversees this breakdown and rescues both Hagar and her beloved child. The various types of divine and angelic encounter that are visited on the patriarchs are lavished on Hagar, and in her hours of greatest need. Not only are her womanly tears seen and reported, her heart’s prayer is also heard, and so she comes to name the Divinity, ‘The God Who sees me’, though she is given no part in the bloodline of the children of Promise. Nevertheless, God gives her child Ishmael a destiny, and we see the origin of a religious tradition in this- for better or for worse- in the long run; God does not exercise the simplistic favouritism that the critics allege. Not only does Hagar qualify the interchange with Sarah as a ‘pass’ for the Bechdel-Wallace test2, she also features as a significant female character who is NOT in the bloodline of the Israelites-in-formation, whose son Ishmael is now known as the progenitor of extant Arab nations and also of Islam as a rival religion to Judaism and Christianity. God’s promise of a destiny for Ishmael is not only made to Abraham, who intercedes for his first son, but also to Hagar directly (Gen 21:18). God is immediately making good on His promise (Gen 12) that all nations will be blessed through Abram, and does so ‘personally’ for Hagar whom He has determined to take sole responsibility for (Gen 21:12).
Sarah the Matriarch
We might be suspicious of the omission of Sarah from the Akedah (Gen 22) which is then followed by her immediate death, but this is also a lowest denominator reading. Again, we must focus our attention first on what the text does tell us. It is Sarah, not Abraham, that is given the lions’ share of attention in burial in the extended account of the whole of Gen 23. The burial ground that Sarah is the first to occupy is later populated by the key patriarchs, first Abraham, Isaac (Gen 35:29), and later with Jacob being brought specially by Joseph all the way from Egypt to the same resting place (49:29). As if to say, the many patriarchs may seem to be prioritised in this life, perhaps so; but God promises a recalibration in what follows, not so much in the grave, but rather beyond it! Thus, you will note, listening carefully what I am saying: Sarah has not become important in this chapter because she is dead, silent, and is reduced to a blank shroud on which the agendas of others (aka men) can be written over her identity without objection. That is the hermeneutic of suspicion. No! Just as in the closing verse of the book of Genesis, what the Genesis Author whispers here is that Sarah’s life story is not over. She will live again, and Sarah will speak for herself.
Further to my comments about the gradual and specific inclusion of Sarah in God’s purposes for the married couple sent from Babylonia (Abram AND Sarai), in Genesis 24 the woman Rebekah is specifically chosen and called by God, just as was Abram; she is negotiated over by adults, mostly men, though her mother is also twice mentioned and honoured with gifts. Yet Rebekah is given the final say about her choice about whether to leave and when to leave her family. On arrival at Isaac’s tent, she asks the first question and then determines her own greeting for her husband-to-be. We are then told that Isaac ‘loved’ her, elevating her as a person in his estimation, not merely characterising her as a source of biological heirs. Commentators do generally note other features of Rebekah’s story that qualify her as an agent, so I will not repeat them here.
Leah is not allowed to be overlooked as a woman who can be a wife, mother and part of the lineage and ancestry of heaven- a hope and a future, as Jeremiah puts it- just because the young Jacob doesn’t think she is as desirable as her sister, whom he really wants to marry. Leah’s children which result from her inclusion in God’s purposes, as well as those of her preferred sister Rachel, make up the emergent twelve tribes, indeed, form their majority. The resolution of the question of polygamy- the supposed right of a man to multiple wives / concubines- is not seen in Genesis, and remains a debatable matter right up to the NT letters.
Rachel (Gen 31: 33-35) is portrayed as a woman who exercises her agency against the control of her father. The Genesis account even notes her appeal to menstruation as part of her creative and crafty manipulation of her father and her agency in her future in community. The wives of Jacob are not to be categorised with the animals that were the original bargaining chips between son-in-law and father-in-law, (Jacob and Laban), though the biological realities of their nature as women and (potential) mothers are not denied. We are enfleshed persons, and scripture always admits to the childbearing potential of women, even though they are often/ usually barren in the early scriptural narratives. In this regard, we might say that God insists that when we see the matriarchs in scripture, we look up, to the One who bestows the gift of children, to repeat with Eve, “I have gotten a man with the help of the Lord.” (Gen 4:1) When a man takes a wife, he does not take home an automatic baby making machine. This is a theological lesson, not a biological one.
Dinah (the last child and only daughter of Leah) is the first subject of Genesis 34. The account says very little about Dinah in terms of her agency, though that is how the account begins:
Gen 34 Now Dinah, the daughter Leah had borne to Jacob, went out to visit the women of the land.2 When Shechem son of Hamor the Hivite, the ruler of that area, saw her, he took her and raped her. 3 His heart was drawn to Dinah daughter of Jacob; he loved the young woman and spoke tenderly to her. 4 And Shechem said to his father Hamor, “Get me this girl as my wife.”
All we are told about Dinah, on her own account, is that she went out of the household and set out on relational business of her own choosing, in expectation of safety. She wasn’t seeking the company of boys or men, but that was what befell her. Most if not all women will today recognise this reality. A woman going out into the world so often means going out into a world in which male agency is oppressive toward female agency, in ever so subtle ways, or worse. There is confrontation and imposition, in terms which resonate with Eve’s three fold encounter at the tree in Gen 2, and which recall the lust of the sons of God in Gen 6:2. But God does not intervene for Dinah as He did in Gen 6:3. Shechem has his wicked way with Dinah, and the rest of the chapter is a complex interplay of relationship and community politics which does business with Dinah’s sexuality and future, all in terms completely disconnected from her agency, entirely dictated by various men without any reference to her or indeed to any other women. We hear no more about her agency. After the bloodbath which follows the squabbling and scheming of all the brothers and fathers, we read just once more of Dinah:
26 They put Hamor and his son Shechem to the sword and took Dinah from Shechem’s house and left.
Dinah is, we might think, treated rather as an object, though perhaps this is little different to the way in which Abram rescues Lot and his household from the warring kings in Gen 14:14. This really is the low point in the whole Genesis account, where female identity, agency, and especially where female sexuality are all in flux, in debate, and in acute peril. This is not simply as a reflection of the peril to the bloodline of the patriarchs, as the theologians so often characterise it. That is to repeat the error, conceding ground to critical feminists without justification. For sure, there is not resolution in this episode. But what might we hear God saying to us all here? Rather like the account of Judges, we are given a God’s eye view of the dimensions and ramifications of sin, that so often starts in the male gaze, in male desire, in the violence that is done in the name of community and justified on the grounds of male power and right to ownership. In the clash of cultures, even the religious symbolism of circumcision features in the chaos. Yet as we survey the whole tragic vista of Genesis 34, we might see a #MeToo episode, where God exercises Divine right to call out what has happened to Dinah in terms that highlights the roles and responsibilities of all the abusers, who may well all be male. God sees Dinah, and all the women of the community, and what is done to them. In this text God seeks to ensure that we see them too.
This insight is developed in Gen 38, where Tamar is subjected to a different kind of abuse in her community, where it is implied that Judah considers that she is in some way connected with the death of his sons (cf Ruth 1), despite the fact that we are told quite bluntly that it was in fact God who judged them. Judah, however, is blind in the fog of his own imagination, sending her away back to her original family as a hopeless widow, refusing to give his third son as her husband, according to prevailing cultural traditions. Her life has been spent on men’s priorities, but there is no gratitude. Her future is denied by Judah’s refusal to continue in covenant commitment. Tamar takes the initiative and exercises agency with Judah, who falls into her trap: she negotiates, and decisively concludes the sexual agreement on her terms, in contrast to the assault on Dinah. The conclusion to Dinah’s abuse was determined by men, but Tamar is vindicated by the invisible work of God in Judah’s conscience and also later in God’s blessing of her twin sons, thus included in the Israelite descent.
Tamar and ‘Mrs Potiphar’
In the Judah and Joseph cycle of the account of the sons of Jacob/Israel, we should reflect that Tamar and ‘Mrs Potiphar’ are given respect as human agents before and under God, whether within or beyond the boundaries of ‘God’s chosen people’, and that the agency they exercise is admitted by the accounts to reach across the division of right and wrong even in regard of their sexual behaviour. God and the community of God’s people are seen to come to treat Tamar as a respectable and respected woman, despite our knowledge of the full range of behaviours she exercises, as does Judah. And Mrs Potiphar is offered dignity by the same standards by the Hebrew slave Joseph, so we see her choices are those of an ethically informed and agentially competent person, not merely a creature driven by biological instinct. [Judah belatedly came to the same realisation.] In the Genesis cycle, these two characters are portrayed in terms that pass the spirit of the Bechdel-Wallace test with flying colours. ‘Mrs P’, as I refer to her, is not named in the text: she is ‘his master’s wife’ (39:7), and I hold that is a deliberate feature of the narrative and indicative of her character, rather than an oversight. Both women are noticed, heard, understood, and though not necessarily [completely] believed, are connected with the whole of their respective communities. In the context, they cannot speak directly to each other, but a lifeway dialogue is implied between them.
Joseph, like Abram and Sarai, is given an Egyptian woman to give him a family life. In this case, the Egyptian, the daughter of the priest of On is personally named, Asenath (Genesis 41:45), and the children they bring up together are later adopted into Israel at patriarch Jacob’s instruction. This Egyptian woman, initially the gift of Pharaoh to Joseph, is therefore adopted into the bloodline of Israel, emphasising God’s inclusive attitude displayed in His relationship with Hagar. We can surmise from Joseph’s behaviour in Potiphar’s household how well he will treat his own wife.
[My thesis is that Joseph is, in a very significant way, a fulfilment of what God intended Adam to be at the beginning. You might inquire as to what Asenath’s place in this interpretation might be. Notwithstanding what I have said above, I do not see her as a direct foil to Eve. Rather, Joseph, as one representative character in Genesis, stands as one individual who represents what any one of us can be as co-creators in God’s image in God’s world. This is an abstracted view, not constrained by the biological and relational realities of Joseph as a family man at the conclusion of the account of the family of Jacob/Israel, the third great patriarch.]
Surveying these characters, we can see that the Genesis text gives ample insight into the ramifications of human sinfulness in the whole of human society, the symptoms of which are as clear in the people-of-God-in-formation as they are anywhere else. Many of the most obvious symptoms of the sinfulness of individuals and communities are evident in the relationships between men and women, especially in the unequal exercise of power between them. Some of that inequality is evident in the form of the texts that have come to us as ‘The Book of Genesis’, (eg men get more column inches than women) but that does not mean that we should identify such features as being the last or even first word of God with regard to God’s intent. Some of God’s Word is God telling us about ourselves; truth-telling, rather than truth-forming. And if we will allow the truth to be spoken in love, if we will but hear the Truth being spoken in love to us even today, from the far distant past, in what may seem a foreign language, then we might diffuse many of the modern misunderstandings and correct some blatantly anachronistic readings. Genesis is not, we might say, setting out to address our modern concerns of gender identity and relationships in culturally current terms. I do nevertheless claim that the numerous examples above provide ample resources for addressing our modern concerns, if we will but read them carefully, attending to the part they play in the headline agenda of salvation history of which the whole Bible speaks. Genesis does not present the last word on any subject, by very definition. We may discern the planting of many different seeds in God’s redemption plan, and some show more development than others by the close of the Genesis account. I suggest that God’s word and indeed Godself have been too often misjudged and stereotyped in regard to the image and dignity of women in Genesis, as girls, as women, whose sexuality and sexual behaviour is acknowledged in the same terms as men, as wives, though not as accessories to men, as (would-be) mothers, and finally accorded dignity in death. And I highlight the examples of Sarah, Rebekah and Hagar who must be recognised as the equals of Abraham or any of the male characters in terms of their complete engagement as spiritual agents with the Divinity, YHWH the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. I have briefly shown for these three women the text shows that God co-creates a reciprocal relationship with them as individuals whose feminine nature is acknowledged- implicitly and explicitly in their dealings with God and community. Their feminine nature is accepted and celebrated as a diversifying aspect of their complete humanity. So a more careful re-reading will enable us all to escape the effects of myriad historical misrepresentations and blatant lies and even enable us to recreate ways of living together as a whole and healthy community which can celebrate who and what we are, jointly co-created and co-creating in the image and likeness of God. Such co-creation will benefit from responsible theological reflection and leadership. In closing, I suggest that Genesis exhibits in plain view the basis of a ‘first wave’ feminism that did not await a recent post-Christian invention, though this truth may have been suppressed.
Now the serpent was more crafty than any other beast of the field that the Lord God had made. He said to the woman, “Did God actually say…?”
ref 2 ‘The Bechdel test, also known as the Bechdel–Wallace test, is a measure of the representation of women in fiction. It asks whether a work features at least two women who talk to each other about something other than a man. The requirement that the two women must be named is sometimes added.’ Wikipedia Please note I am not endorsing the Bechdel-Wallace test as an authoritative basis for judging the portrayal of women in Genesis, but simply noting it as a point of topical discussion. See https://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/womens-blog/2016/aug/20/why-the-bechdel-test-doesnt-always-work for a thoughtful commentary in current Arts and Entertainment.
The first anniversary of George Floyd’s passing is on Tuesday 25th May. In this chapter length article, I reflect on the lessons we might draw from the Genesis account of Cain, Abel and Lamech and the tragic events in Minneapolis a year ago. The biblical account also makes passing comment about the progress of civilisation and leaves some clues about law and order in society, which I consider in regard to current developments in space exploration and the US presidency.
Genesis 4 Now Adam knew Eve his wife, and she conceived and bore Cain, saying, “I have gotten[a] a man with the help of the Lord.” 2 And again, she bore his brother Abel. Now Abel was a keeper of sheep, and Cain a worker of the ground. 3 In the course of time Cain brought to the Lord an offering of the fruit of the ground, 4 and Abel also brought of the firstborn of his flock and of their fat portions. And the Lord had regard for Abel and his offering, 5 but for Cain and his offering he had no regard. So Cain was very angry, and his face fell. 6 The Lord said to Cain, “Why are you angry, and why has your face fallen? 7 If you do well, will you not be accepted?[b] And if you do not do well, sin is crouching at the door. Its desire is contrary to[c] you, but you must rule over it.”
8 Cain spoke to Abel his brother.[d] And when they were in the field, Cain rose up against his brother Abel and killed him. 9 Then the Lord said to Cain, “Where is Abel your brother?” He said, “I do not know; am I my brother’s keeper?” 10 And the Lord said, “What have you done? The voice of your brother’s blood is crying to me from the ground. 11 And now you are cursed from the ground, which has opened its mouth to receive your brother’s blood from your hand. 12 When you work the ground, it shall no longer yield to you its strength. You shall be a fugitive and a wanderer on the earth.” 13 Cain said to the Lord, “My punishment is greater than I can bear.[e]14 Behold, you have driven me today away from the ground, and from your face I shall be hidden. I shall be a fugitive and a wanderer on the earth, and whoever finds me will kill me.” 15 Then the Lord said to him, “Not so! If anyone kills Cain, vengeance shall be taken on him sevenfold.” And the Lord put a mark on Cain, lest any who found him should attack him. 16 Then Cain went away from the presence of the Lord and settled in the land of Nod,[f] east of Eden.
17 Cain knew his wife, and she conceived and bore Enoch. When he built a city, he called the name of the city after the name of his son, Enoch. 18 To Enoch was born Irad, and Irad fathered Mehujael, and Mehujael fathered Methushael, and Methushael fathered Lamech. 19 And Lamech took two wives. The name of the one was Adah, and the name of the other Zillah. 20 Adah bore Jabal; he was the father of those who dwell in tents and have livestock. 21 His brother’s name was Jubal; he was the father of all those who play the lyre and pipe. 22 Zillah also bore Tubal-cain; he was the forger of all instruments of bronze and iron. The sister of Tubal-cain was Naamah.
23 Lamech said to his wives:
“Adah and Zillah, hear my voice; you wives of Lamech, listen to what I say: I have killed a man for wounding me, a young man for striking me. 24 If Cain’s revenge is sevenfold, then Lamech’s is seventy-sevenfold.”
25 And Adam knew his wife again, and she bore a son and called his name Seth, for she said, “God has appointed[g] for me another offspring instead of Abel, for Cain killed him.” 26 To Seth also a son was born, and he called his name Enosh. At that time people began to call upon the name of the Lord.
Genesis 4 ESV. Genesis 4:1 Cain sounds like the Hebew for gotten ESV Gen 4:2 Lit. Breath or Nothing NKJV Gen 4:16 Nod means wandering
What exactly is the nature of the tree of knowledge of good and evil? There are many enduring mysteries in the Bible, most especially in the opening chapters of Genesis, and this is one of the juiciest. There are plenty of things we do know, because we are rather good at finding things out, but a whole bunch more that we still do not, and that is very good for our humility. There are certain important things that we can only know if God tells us about them. What is exciting about Genesis is that God does tell us, which is what theologians mean by revelation. We don’t need to study stories about feral children for long to know that we rely on our parents and community to bring us into the world. Our communities are as much a womb as our mothers were. And Genesis speaks to us on God’s behalf, to provide an environment to nurture the eternal in us.
As Adam and Eve discovered, we know that God was very serious when he told our first parents not to do something. The wonderful thing about having parents is that they can teach us things- what to do, and especially what not to do. Learn from our mistakes. We can’t make you behave- in fact we have to admit that we can’t control you at all! When you are older, we might eventually stop telling you what to do, but at least we can keep reminding you about what not to do. You want to be your own man, your own woman? Well and good, for you are indeed formed in God’s own image and likeness, and sent out into God’s good world to be a very fruitful seed and to multiply life and good works – forty, sixty, one hundred-fold. But also know this. Death was a fact of life before we came along, and the inescapable lesson of Cain was that having freedom means that you can also sow death.
Might this all suggest that the quality of knowledge of this very particular tree in God’s garden is not so much in the fruit of the tree itself but in God’s words to His children about it? The kind of knowledge that our elders offer to us as the fruit of lived experience- the ever-sharp taste of memory, of life lived in freedom which goes somewhat according to the way they intended, yet not quite. And that ‘not quite’ is painful and has unintended consequences in the lives of the community. Sinful consequences. Looking back, it is often easier to be clear about what we wish we had not done- because we find we are challenged to take responsibility for what we started: what we set in train, as an inescapable chain of cause and effect that began with us. With me.
If only Cain had listened to his parents.
What might Adam and Eve had to say to Cain and Abel, their first children? That must have been an awkward conversation. ‘Listen lads- we stuffed up. We’re out of Eden now- we can’t help that. But there is value in going on with life. God is still with us. That has to be a reliable foundation for hope. And whatever you do, take His word seriously.’
Look at these two boys. Chapter 4 introduces us the results of Adam ‘knowing’ Eve: Cain, whose name many of the versions tell us in a footnote sounds like the Hebrew for ‘gotten,’ so the American English is quite informative in this regard. Cain is at once the possession of his mother- a name evoking the universal image of a mother cradling her child- and a gift, a specific and personal gift of God. Which is also what we commonly hold on to before the little mite has done anything good or bad. Commentary on ‘Abel’ is less common, and we may be brought up short to find the alternative renditions as ‘breath’ or ‘nothing,’ in the NKJV. Remember that God breathed into Adam, creating his life from clay, and this breath will return to God at death, leaving only dust. So together, the boys are ‘sons of their father’, and ‘sons of their Father.’
Genesis 4 verses 2 and 3 transport us to a world within the worlds of the text. Cain discovers that he is different. Different to his brother Abel. There are different ways to make one’s journey on in life, even while being in community, in the same family. Cain discovers what we all know; that life is unfair. We don’t always get what we hope for, even what we think we deserve for our honest hard work. The text puts it like this. The two brothers bring an offering of their best work to God’s altar. I expect they put fire to the portions, and they turned to ash and smoke. How did Cain know that his offering was not accepted by the Lord? Did the smoke go sideways instead of rising upwards? Or was the fire somehow prematurely snuffed out? I don’t know, but Cain knew that his offering was not regarded. As he looked across, he saw that his brother’s offering was accepted. In that instant, wild and unruly thoughts formed in his mind.
In the previous chapter, it took the whisperings of the serpent to set off the internal dialogue in Eve’s mind, which ends with her ‘seeing’ what was good and pleasing and desirable. But there is no whisperer to blame this time. Cain sees what he chooses to see, and he comes to know what he decides is the case. In Genesis 3, the couple wait until judgement comes to them. In Genesis 4, Cain takes charge of judging the situation for himself. “It’s not fair.”
In the garden, the couple are left to discover the consequences of their collective choice, until God comes to search for them in the cool of the day. For Cain, there is unexpected grace. Well, that’s what grace is. Unexpected! Though the humans have been banished from the garden, God’s voice comes immediately to Cain more clearly than the conviction of his own conscience. God speaks to Cain in straightforward terms, just as parents should, making complicated things simpler, giving life wisdom with urgency and clarity. Just as in Genesis 3, Cain discovers that there is something outside of himself that is opposed to wisdom, and is opposed to him. But this is not what is important, so much as who ought to be in charge. Our feelings and emotional responses may seem inevitable, but God leaves Cain without excuse. Sin may well be crouching at your doorway with ill intent- what mysteries are yet hinted at here? But the choice is yours. God tells Cain that he can rule over his decision. Being out of Eden is not the issue. My parents’ failures are not the issue. The reality of unfairness in life is not the issue. Freedom still applies. Your emotions may be running ahead of you, but the decision is still to be made, and you are the ruler of that decision. You must- God speaks in the imperative! – must rule over it. Or as the American Standard and Amplified versions translate it, ‘you must master it.’ Now this is wisdom, informed by God’s direct revelation. We may not understand the forces arrayed against us, from without and within, but at this juncture God still assures Cain of the potential to be ruler and master of his own decision. What tragedy follows. Cain has the roads of right and wrong illuminated before him, and the offer of the Divine Companion to assist him, but he turns from God’s inviting hand and shuts down the dialogue. He becomes a tyrant: taking mastery of his own mind and becoming ruler of his own actions. He makes himself the judge of God’s personal words of warning and wisdom. His father had been given charge of the field – to till and watch there. Cain goes to the field to create murder. ‘So you want a blood sacrifice do you? My grain offering isn’t good enough? Well that can be arranged.’ Cain rose up against his brother Abel and killed him. His response to inequality is to blot out the other- even his own brother. This is no solution. The God who put ‘adamah in charge of His garden knows what is in His soil. Spilt blood can be seen from the farthest distance, even from the heavens above.
The scripture does not tell us how Cain did the murderous deed. The disadvantage of creating pictures to tell the biblical stories to the illiterate is that the artist has to imagine certain details that are hidden, and perhaps diverts attention away from what is revealed. In an ivory tablet from Salerno cathedral, made around 1084AD, Cain is depicted pinning Abel’s body down with his foot, with both hands around his brother’s neck, strangling him. As his oxygen supply is cut off, we see Abel looking back to the event that apparently led to his demise at the hands of his brother. Even making an acceptable offering to God seems not to have been sufficient to protect him from ultimate harm. Life really is not fair.
The scriptures have provided us with great gifts of divine revelation. Warnings about the nature of knowing good and evil that are inseparable from the profound truth of knowing God personally and literally, and divine affirmation of the reality of personal freedom, moral choice and responsibility. Now then, about responsibility. There is no time for Cain to hide in the bushes. ‘Adam, where are you?’ becomes, ‘Cain, where is your brother?’ As I may have said more than once myself, denial of knowledge can be attempted as a strategy to avoid responsibility. ‘I don’t know!’ says Cain to God. Then he gives away more than he intends. ‘Am I my brother’s keeper?’ As if the suggestion that the divine dominion mandate was only to ‘work and keep’ (ESV) the ground of the garden, but not his brother also. ‘I only have to keep charge of the ground that produces grain- that’s what my father said you told us to do. Nothing about watching out for people. Each person looks after themselves- its none of my business what he does or where he goes.’
Methinks he protests too much.2
We would not tell the rest of the story this way. God does indeed pronounce a curse on Cain, but it is Cain himself who first says to God that ‘from your face I shall be hidden.’ Cain pronounces judgement on himself: here still is the sufficiently vertical plumb line of conscience. It is Cain who ‘went away from the presence of the Lord and settled in the land of Nod, east of Eden.’ And once again, the gift of the life of God in human beings continues in grace, for Cain ‘knew his wife’ and a new community is formed. Cain’s own mother Eve speaks out what he would not admit or take responsibility for, naming her third son Seth, ‘appointed,’ after Abel, ‘for Cain killed him.’ It is the mournful cry of all mothers, lamenting the destruction wrought in the world by one woman’s son on another, while holding onto their dream of a better future that, somehow, perhaps, God has planned.
History has repeated itself again and again. We are told that no one listens to that either.
I was born in August 1968, four months after the assassination of Dr Martin Luther King on April 4 in Memphis, Tennessee. While I was kicking about in nappies, the space race was in full swing. As Apollo 8 returned from the first circumnavigation of the moon, bearing a photograph of the luminous blue dot of Earth hanging alone in the blackness of space, the US media commentator Walter Cronkite reflected, ‘A year of trouble and turbulence, anger and assassination, is now coming to an end in incandescent triumph.’ Just another year later in July of 1969, Apollo 11’s ‘Eagle’ lander touched down, then relaunched and successfully returned the first two men to walk in the dust of the moon, leaving two sets of footprints, the American flag, and several kilos of space junk. The memorial plaque they delivered reads, ‘We came in peace for all mankind.’
It was impossible to know whether Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin might be exposed to some virus or bring some infection back to Earth from the moon, so while President Nixon was very keen to be seen as close to the returning adventurers, he was obliged to greet and congratulate them from outside the mobile quarantine facility the three astronauts were transported in after being plucked out of the sea. As it turned out, there was no cause for alarm, so that part of the routine was cut for Apollo 12, which flew the round trip without a hitch in November of the same year.
While the race to the moon, announced by J F Kennedy at the start of the decade, on 25th May 1961, began as a crude political race between rivals – the Communist Soviets versus the underdog Americans- the Apollo programme had morphed into a full blown scientific, technological and commercial endeavour. The next mission was Apollo number 13 of 20, but, for the media, the novelty was wearing off, and regular shows were filling television screens around the world, until shortly after Commander Fred Haise called back to Houston from about half way to the moon to say that ‘we’ve had a problem.’ An electrical component manufactured two years earlier had malfunctioned when stirring the main oxygen fuel tank, though fortunately, by a quirk of design, there was nothing else nearby to ignite, so the three crew survived the explosion. Back on Earth in their training camp, NASA astronaut Ken Mattingly did not have German measles, and he helped his former crewmates work up the rescue procedure that would get their crippled spaceship back to earth. Restarting the flight computer after shutting it down to conserve battery power was a particular challenge. Although not landing on the moon shortened the overall mission time, there was insufficient oxygen to sustain the three crew in the command module. They adapted the ‘scrubbers’ which remove carbon dioxide from the cabin to avoid all being suffocated before getting home, which required several metres of duct tape, plastic bags and even the cover of their flight manual.
Of course, I was not old enough to know any of this at the time. As a 12 year old boy, I compiled a paper project on the space programmes of the USA, USSR and even the UK, but my sources of information did not include any film footage. My maiden Aunt Betty shared her collection of Time LIFE magazines from the era of the moon landings, which printed the enthralling photographs from the lunar missions, while also reporting on the multiple tragic fatalities in the Kennedy family in the USA at the same time. I was aware of the violence and protests against apartheid in South Africa as I got older, but I remained largely ignorant of the systemic inter-racial tensions in the USA that culminated in the cowardly shooting of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King until many years later- really past the date I left school, I think, and only then did I come to appreciate the significance of King’s leadership in the struggle for racial equality. I certainly understood that the legacy of segregation of blacks from whites was the reason that the US space programme placed white men in the glamorous seats inside the rockets and control rooms. My understanding has become deeper over the years as black life stories and perspectives have been listened to and broadcast- indeed, in as much as I have made the effort to find out what their perspectives are.
It is rather easy to reduce the key messages in Genesis 4 to simplistic statements about jealousy and fratricide. ‘What a bad boy that Cain was! Its no wonder no mother gives that name any more.’ We must not misunderstand what the text is telling us about ourselves. The wrong question to ask is, ‘Am I Cain or am I Abel?’ We are all Cain, and God is certainly speaking to all of us, if we will listen. It is also true that we are all Abel- or at least could be. But just as a key lesson of Genesis 3 is that we are Adam and Eve, and that God comes chasing after us despite breaking our vertical relationship, so the paramount lesson of Genesis 4 is that we are Cain and we have broken relationship with our brothers and sisters. Yet our horizontal relations are not to be considered independently of God. Genesis 4 says this in several ways, and here are just two. Both brothers are making offerings to God. Secondly, the chapter is concluded with the statement, ‘At that time people began to call upon the name of the Lord.’ (4:26 ESV) Some say that Genesis 4 is a lament over the ghastly decline of the state of humanity, but this diagnosis must be countered by hope, which God sustains and even Eve gives voice to, the mother of both murdered son and murdering son.
We have a choice about what we will say; what we will confess, what we will speak into being. Our parenting is tested by the failures of our children. Our identity as children is tested by our responses to our own failures, and especially those of our own parents, for they are not perfect either. Did I need to say that? Yes, I do, for silence can so easily give place for condemnation. Through our next words we set out boundaries for the future; through our words we affirm the space in which we will reorient ourselves, horizontally and vertically and in time. And if we will speak words that engender conversation, and give names to what hope can lie ahead in God’s grace, through repentance and forgiveness, then we can be co-creators of community. Through our words we can master ourselves and empower one another to corporate mastery.
This opportunity was grasped by President Kennedy the very day after the assassination of Dr King, when he kept his appointment at the Cleveland City Club on April 5th 1968.
For there is another kind of violence, slower but just as deadly, destructive as the shot or the bomb in the night. This is the violence of institutions; indifference and inaction and slow decay. This is the violence that afflicts the poor, that poisons relations between men because their skin has different colors. This is a slow destruction of a child by hunger, and schools without books and homes without heat in the winter.
This is the breaking of a man’s spirit by denying him the chance to stand as a father and as a man among other men. And this too afflicts us all. I have not come here to propose a set of specific remedies nor is there a single set. For a broad and adequate outline we know what must be done. When you teach a man to hate and fear his brother, when you teach that he is a lesser man because of his color or his beliefs or the policies he pursues, when you teach that those who differ from you threaten your freedom or your job or your family, then you also learn to confront others not as fellow citizens but as enemies – to be met not with cooperation but with conquest, to be subjugated and mastered.
We learn, at the last, to look at our brothers as aliens, men with whom we share a city, but not a community, men bound to us in common dwelling, but not in common effort. We learn to share only a common fear – only a common desire to retreat from each other – only a common impulse to meet disagreement with force. For all this there are no final answers.
Yet we know what we must do. It is to achieve true justice among our fellow citizens. The question is now what programs we should seek to enact. The question is whether we can find in our own midst and in our own hearts that leadership of human purpose that will recognize the terrible truths of our existence.
We must admit the vanity of our false distinctions among men and learn to find our own advancement in the search for the advancement of all. We must admit in ourselves that our own children’s future cannot be built on the misfortunes of others. We must recognize that this short life can neither be ennobled or enriched by hatred or revenge.
6 President John F Kennedy at the Cleveland City Club on April 5th 1968.
Not only does Genesis 4 weave a strand of hope into the accounts of Cain and Lamech and the destruction they bring to community and all of God’s creation project, it also subtly outlines the landscape for the development of civilisations. The children of Cain and Lamech are those who go on to build cities or to dwell in tents. Verses 21 and 22 tell us about the invention and development of musical instruments- the technology of the arts, while others develop ‘instruments’ of bronze and iron. The cultural language of Genesis and the Old Testament as a whole is that of the Late Bronze Age, and we now understand much more about the spectacular flowering of civilisation in and beyond the ancient Near East in the millennia before Christ. The production of bronze was no parochial matter- the tin for this alloy was sourced along trade routes from what is now Afghanistan, while copper was mined in Crete in quantity and traded via ships across the Mediterranean to meet the tin in smelting and forging. If musical instruments were made, then so were weapons and tools of all kinds. These little verses, as so often in the biblical texts, are subtle signposts with momentous implications.
[7Top left] Sons of Zeus, Apollo with his lyre and Dionysus with his pipe, engaged in a ‘Battle of the Bands.’ Yet in Gen 4:22, the Jubal is the father of those who play both lyre and pipe. [Right] So-called ‘Standard of Ur’ at the British Museum. This reconstruction of the ‘Standard of Ur’ shows the occupations and technologies of war on one face (TOP THREE ROWS notably including several of its crushed and trampled victims), and those of peace on the other, include a musician with a stringed instrument. (LOWER THREE ROWS) (By contrast, Gen 4:21-22 does not distinguish the uses of the items made of bronze and iron.) One hypothesis is that this so-called ‘Standard’ was instead the decorated sounding box of a musical instrument. [Lower left] Enlargement of musician with lyre.
If it is possible to fashion a bronze tube into a musical pipe or a trumpet, then it’s an inevitable sequence of steps to intricate tools and weapons, and then to guns and projectiles. And once the chemistry of forging can develop into the chemistry of portable fuels, then the fuel can be put inside the metal tube and BOOM- we’ve got rockets! Well, there were a few failed ‘booms’ and blasts before the rockets went anywhere, but the progress from air ships to aeroplanes to supersonic flight to earth orbiting rockets was accomplished in just over half a century. But this narrative of science and technology is a different one to that of Genesis 4, which takes it as read that fire is a key development in human technology, but does not draw attention to it. The two brothers each make a burnt offering; that assumes knowledge of fire. Cain’s descendants advance from bronze to iron technology; that implies the profound control of fire in combination with materials with sufficient insight that will lead, by routes of enquiry of varying fruitfulness, to our technological present which includes a new age of space travel driven by private enterprise as well as national governments. Yet Genesis is silent regarding political and governmental institutions, which lie entirely in the realm of human freedom. Not all human institutions are equally likely to facilitate and protect such freedom, however. Perhaps Lamech recognises this, so he tries to multiply the protection that God gave to his forefather Cain through his own invocation of extrajudicial vengeance.
The Genesis text elegantly sews together the various aspects of developing civilisation, even in so few words. Both arts and sciences are interwoven with the allusions to geographical variety of community and the continuing accounts of individual life histories. Music is mentioned before technology- or are these categories really separate in the view of the biblical authors? Whatever the answer to that question, archaeology certainly evidences that both are evident in all human cultures, and there is a creative synergy between them.
Whatever the long-term benefits of the extended Apollo programme might have been, once the USA had beaten the Russians to the moon, who then gave up their own ambitions to carry out a manned landing, the astronomical cost to the American taxpayer became the focus of attention. In particular, this was becoming a social justice question as well as an economic one. As we read, JFK was highly sympathetic to the protests led by MLK and community leaders around the US, and some say this was why Kennedy was assassinated. His successors at the White House were less biddable, but there are other means of marshalling political pressure. Lyric writers create ways of saying things in public that it is hard to get into newspapers. By the late 60s, the upcoming jazz and soul poet Gil Scott-Heron was writing street poetry which boldly critiqued environmental, military and capitalist issues. He also took on structural racism. Here are the lyrics he wrote in 1969 for his debut album ‘Small Talk at 125th and Lenox,’ which complained that swathes of the black community had little to celebrate in this decade of technological conquest that sent white American test pilots to the moon, but without tangible benefit for blacks in the US as a whole.
A rat done bit my sister Nell. (with Whitey on the moon) Her face and arms began to swell. (and Whitey’s on the moon)
I can’t pay no doctor bill. (but Whitey’s on the moon) Ten years from now I’ll be payin’ still. (while Whitey’s on the moon)
The man jus’ upped my rent las’ night. (’cause Whitey’s on the moon) No hot water, no toilets, no lights. (but Whitey’s on the moon)
I wonder why he’s uppi’ me? (’cause Whitey’s on the moon?) I was already payin’ ‘im fifty a week. (with Whitey on the moon) Taxes takin’ my whole damn check, Junkies makin’ me a nervous wreck, The price of food is goin’ up, An’ as if all that shit wasn’t enough
A rat done bit my sister Nell. (with Whitey on the moon) Her face an’ arm began to swell. (but Whitey’s on the moon)
Was all that money I made las’ year (for Whitey on the moon?) How come there ain’t no money here? (Hm! Whitey’s on the moon) Y’know I jus’ ’bout had my fill (of Whitey on the moon) I think I’ll sen’ these doctor bills, Airmail special (to Whitey on the moon)
As is well documented, the Apollo programme did not exert special control over the narratives told by their crew. The live broadcasts from space, and the earth-bound interviews before and after their spectacular trips, permitted agency to the astronauts to select and package their own scripts. The Apollo 8 crew chose to open a Bible to select the reading from Genesis 1, while no one dreamt of telling Neil Armstrong what to say when he stepped out onto the lunar surface. However, the American education system became far more prescriptive. The wall of separation between church and state, followed more recently by the prohibition of prayer in schools meant that the study of literature remained as the major plinth on which moral standards and ethical analysis of community life could be appraised. Onto this podium was thrust Harper Lee, and her singular lifetime contribution, ‘To kill a mockingbird’ which has been held in the inky and dirt-stained hands of generations of American school children. It also reached the canon of my secondary school reading experience.
In her fictionalised and foundational tale of the American community in formation, Harper Lee sets up a meeting, as it were, in a field outside of Eden, of two children with The Parent. If momentarily concerned that Atticus, the lawyer and father figure, speaks in a stereotypical dominating and privileged male voice, then we should be reassured that it is Miss Lee who puts all the words into his mouth. You may recall that Atticus is with his children Jem and Scout, discussing the recent conviction of Tom Robinson, the black man scapegoated as the attacker of a white woman. Jem is appalled at the injustice that he has witnessed, despite his father’s best efforts to reason that Tom is innocent. Their conversation unfolds- edgy, shocking and honest as their intimate familiarity enables each to respond with agency and insight as the two children discover the realities of injustice in the world made and being made by their forebears and elders. Let’s join them and listen in.
Jem says to his father
‘Then go up to Montgomery and change the law.’
‘You’d be surprised how hard that’d be. I won’t live to see the law changed, and if your live to see it you’ll be an old man.’
This was not good enough for Jem. ‘No sir, they oughta do away with juries. He wasn’t guilty in the first place and they said he was.’
‘If you had been on that jury, son, and eleven other boys like you, Tom would be a free man,’ said Atticus. ‘So far nothing in your life has interfered with your reasoning process. Those are twelve reasonable men in everyday life, Tom’ jury, but you saw something come between them and reason. You saw the same thing that night in front of the jail. When that crew went away, they didn’t go as reasonable men, they went because we were there. There’s something in our world that makes men lose their heads- they couldn’t be fair if they tried. In our courts, when it’s a white man’s word against a black man’s, the white man always wins. They’re ugly, but those are the facts of life.’
‘Doesn’t make it right,’ said Jem stolidly. He beat his fist softly on his knee. ‘You just can’t convict a man on evidence like that- you can’t.’
‘You couldn’t, but they could and did. The older you grow the more of it you’ll see. The one place where a man ought to get a square deal is in a court-room, be he any colour of the rainbow, but people have a way of carrying their resentments right into a jury box. As you grow older, you’ll see white men cheat black men every day of your life, but let me tell you something and don’t you forget it- whenever a white man does that to a black man, no matter who he is, how rich he is, or how fine a family he comes from, that white man is trash.’
Atticus was speaking so quietly his last word crashed on our ears. I looked up, and his face was vehement. ‘There’s nothing more sickening to me than a low-grade white man who’ll take advantage of a Negro’s ignorance. Don’t fool yourselves- it’s all adding up, and one of these days were going to pay the bill for it. I hope it’s not in your children’s time.’
Harper Lee, To Kill a Mockingbird. 10
In the scripture, God opens the pages of our collective history and shows us who we have been; what we have done, both as individuals and as society through history- at least, the books are opened just enough for us to see the horror. Back on November 22nd 1963, Abraham Zapruder was filming the President’s motorcade passing through Dealey Plaza in Dallas, and so happened to capture the moment that John Kennedy was shot, though not the face of the shooter. Now we have social media to make many more of us joint witnesses with God when human blood is spilt. Anywhere in the world that the camera goes, there we too can be, alongside the one filming, alongside the person being filmed. Following the completed trial of Derek Chauvin, we now know that we stand on the sidewalk with 17 year old Darnella Frazier as she filmed and published full and true testimony of the gross injustice done to George Floyd in the name of the Police Department. We have now heard from their superiors that Chauvin and his colleagues were not following their proper training in their persistent actions, or in their persistent inaction. As Harper Lee put it, ‘something in our world made these men lose their heads,’ and our horror is complete as a child films murder in Minneapolis.
If we were indifferent beforehand, now we are shaken to the core. God’s response is more grace, coupled with justice, though not yet of the final or ultimate kind, so change is possible- perhaps even forgiveness and redemption. The way forward is not clear, but God clearly heard the voice of Abel’s spilt blood in the field, and repeats it back to us. I can stand up with Tony Clark and say George’s name. I can give my breath to the truth, that black lives matter because they are the lives of my sisters and brothers. To whom am I speaking? I’m not sure, though I know that all heaven is listening, and that counts for something. As we all speak the truth in love together, we can yet see to it that every man, including every black man, gets a square deal in court and in every field and city. If I stand with my black brother and sister, perhaps they will come to believe that the way of violent protest and conflagration is not the way to peace and community reconciliation. What sort of fire would God’s Spirit have us light?
For a few days prior to the tragic events in Minneapolis, the story of the resumption of manned rocket launches from US soil since the Shuttle was retired had been gathering pace. Following an abort three days earlier, the first crewed launch of Elon Musk’s manned Falcon 9 rocket took place on May 30th, with a ‘Dragon’ capsule carrying two men to the International Space station to join the Russians already in residence there. Until Space X developed this private launch technology, NASA had been paying handsomely for a lift on the Russian’s fourth generation Soyuz MS rocket to get to the ISS. About $80 million a seat, I hear.
There is a visceral elementality to rockets, and especially the launching of this pillar of flame ever upwards into the darkening blue sky. I can imagine that I know what this is like inside the capsule, lying back helplessly as the engines beneath roar into life powered by the chemical reaction 518 500kg of purified kerosene and liquid oxygen. I expect I would be holding my breath, though that would be utterly futile if the controlled combustion tipped over into an explosion. Of course, I don’t know really, but I can reflect on the science and something of its meaning for us all. We do share an ambition to rise from the ground, to go upwards, and to do so requires that we take a little bit of Earth with us- a capsule, a little bit of Home. In every living cell of my body, enzymes and mitochondria are processing the fuel I have eaten, mostly glucose, combining it in a long series of elegantly regulated biochemical reactions with the oxygen gas that I have inhaled, to release energy in an almost invisible and barely detectable manner. Lift your palms and hold them just a centimetre or two (an inch!) away from your face, and you will detect the heat which spills out of our bodies. Such is a sign that the provisions I bought from the convenience store is now fuelling my life, and this continues all the time I keep breathing. What a fragile adventure this life is, which we all share in common. We biologists talk about ‘burning up food’ when explaining respiration to our students, but this is a metaphorical fire. Control is everything, and our metabolism gives us a wonderful mastery of the ways our bodies grow, move and develop. What is more, we fit into the ecosystems of the planet that takes the invisible carbon dioxide molecules we then exhale, recycling this photosynthetically to regenerate new food materials and oxygen once more. So there is the potential for us to tread lightly as we live, leaving the world more or less as we found it.
The rocket privateers have not quite reached the same levels of sustainability just yet, but it has been a wonder to see how this generation of rockets can now reliably launch, sending their payloads into orbit, while the boosters with their engines land again safely to be reconditioned and reused. The black and white rocket that pushed Hurley and Behnken up into the sky from the same launchpad that sent twelve men to the moon a generation before is powered by nine state of the art Merlin engines. At ignition, a high-pressure stream of RP1 low sulphur rocket fuel is pressurised and mixed into a spray with chilly liquid oxygen before the expanding jet of plasma flame thrusts the whole kit and kaboodle into the blue yonder, barely avoiding shaking everything above it to bits as it punches a hole in the atmosphere, reaching ten times the speed of sound.16 The first stage burnt up its fuel in 158 seconds- there is a pause for a breath in the cockpit at the first stage separates and flies (!) back to the ground. Eight seconds later, the second stage bursts into life and continues its climb beyond the atmosphere for another seven minutes. There is no oxygen here- the fire is only possible because both fuel and oxidiser have been brought along in the huge tanks within the flimsy skin of the rocket.
The exact time taken to reach orbit varies very slightly, though the basic fact remains- either you get to space in around 8.5 minutes, or you don’t get there at all. There is a narrow range of values to stick in the equations to escape the Earth’s gravity and reach orbit- too slow and you run out of fuel. Whatever the size of payload, you must get to 17500 mph, ‘escape velocity’ its called, and so there is only a little variation that can be tolerated. All the key factors must be coordinated and optimised to make this perilous journey possible. Minor deviations must be corrected quickly, and that means teamwork as well as precision engineering.
You may be anticipating the contrast that I am going to draw. We are still utterly shocked and appalled and in grief, and the passing of a year has not yet facilitated the transformations that we continue to hope for. So I choose to add my voice in telling the story of my brother George and in some of my own words, as well as I can. I intend to speak the truth, even in love, as I have hope that doing so may supply my contribution to help us to take mastery of our collective future.
Officer Chauvin and his three colleagues were called to the Cup Foods convenience store on the 25th of May last year, apparently over a question of a fake banknote being used to purchase cigarettes. The decisions they then made were out of all proportion to this complaint. In circumstances complicated by the all too frequently repeated claims of ‘failure to cooperate’ and ‘resisting arrest’, the officers together pushed George Floyd down onto the ground in the street, his face pushed down into the tar under their combined body weight. Having restrained him completely and applying handcuffs, Derek Chauvin continued to kneel on George’s back and neck, while the others looked on without comment. According to corroborated medical testimony after the event, this unauthorised means of restraint not only had the effect of preventing movement, but it also pressurised Floyd’s chest cavity with such force that one lung remained permanently deflated. What air supply he had left was progressively reduced as the pressure was maintained- initially he could be heard protesting ‘I can’t breathe’ but as his oxygen store was exhausted, even the body camera/microphone of the officers could not pick up what George tried to say. With teamwork and responsible implementation of standard police training, we are told, the alarm signs could have been acted on, and ultimate disaster averted. But we now understand what the community in America has come to dread. Chauvin and his colleagues had lost their heads. The smoke went sideways, or something, and Chauvin could now only see what he had decided to see, and now all four officers were no longer servants of community law and order, but became self-appointed tyrants; judge, jury and executioners. Sin desired to have them all, and now we see Derek crouching on George’s neck for ever and a day. At the time this was reported, we were told this was 8 minutes and 46 seconds. In court it was established from the police bodycam record that in fact Chauvin deprived Floyd of oxygen over nine minutes and 29 seconds.
According to the NASA press kit17 for CRS6 which sent the Dragon capsule to orbit on the way to the ISS, the combined flight time for the first and second stages of the Falcon 9 rocket was expected to be nine minutes and thirty seven seconds from launch to Earth orbit. Subtracting the eight seconds for first stage separation gives a total burn time of nine minutes and twenty nine seconds.
9 min 29s. The time it takes a two-stage rocket to actively launch two men into orbit beyond the boundaries of our common God-given home.
9 min 29s. The time it took for one man to deliberately squeeze out the breath of life bestowed by God from his brother.
It is true that there have been many black astronauts in the space shuttle programme, and on 15th November 2020, Victor Glover and a Japanese astronaut were part of the first manned Space X crew to go to the ISS from American soil. Nevertheless, there is still a long way to go before the diversity of our communities is fully reflected in such activities, and in society more generally. I can’t help thinking that if Gil Scott-Heron were still alive, he would say that precious little has changed since he penned ‘Whitey on the Moon’ in 1968. You will excuse me if I suggest the following supplementary verses to his lyrics, giving voice to some of the other symptoms of racial oppression in the US that have been reported here in Britain.
‘2020 Whitey’s on Space Station’
My name is George-now I can’t breathe (but Whitey’s on Space Station) I’m goin’ now, don’t lay a wreath (while Whitey’s on Space Station)
NYPD’s wearin’ army kit (while Whitey’s in his suit) He’s tazin’ me, I’m gettin’ hit! (but Whitey’s looking cute)
The virus come- I lost Mcjob (but Whitey’s on the Station) I call for help, now I’m ‘in a mob’ (Whitey’s payin’ no attention)
They’re shootin’ me- I just went runnin’ (while Whitey’s on the Station) Should I have seen that coming? If my brother’s on the Station?
I wonder why she’s uppi’ me White lady in the park I’m speaking up for wildlife here ‘cos this earth is Noah’s Ark
Is it my place to speak for others, for people and communities who are different to me, whose experiences are different to mine, whose pain is not my pain? Have I any business in seeking to tell others’ stories with my words? I think that Genesis 4 makes it plain that God does call us to exactly this. Cain is called to account for his relationship with his brother and with God all at once and in the same breath. God initiates this conversation, as we have already seen. God says that we are made as one race, and yet we are different. That is what we see in the sons of Eve and the sons of Lamech. If we try to dodge the question, God comes back to us to challenge us to find out how to ‘keep’ not only the land and sea but also our brothers and sisters. If Cain refuses to speak on his brother’s behalf, then God speaks as He certainly hears the blood speak from the ground. And then God partners with others who speak up for justice so that the community can go forward- which is what Eve does. Should I speak? Yes, though my voice is not privileged above another’s voice. I can use my voice to echo and reinforce the call for justice and peace as others cry out- and in our partnership wrongs can be put right and all will be ennobled and enriched.
The language of division and the urge to violence are intoxicating and corrosive. Cain banishes himself from God’s Presence into the east: fast forward five generations and Lamech is lamenting the consequences of murder. The threat of multiplied vengeance is the only prescription he can imagine. The use of rap by Gil Scott-Heron as a poetry of socio-political protest has been developed by Hip Hop musicians in recent decades, and some of these artists are now crossing into the wider political arena, especially as part of #BLM. They have discovered that at this critical time, they can speak with authority to those who respect them, yet feel ignored by the oppressive system. In speaking, they can facilitate agency, and build bridges to others with whom there has not been common cause, but now reciprocate the desire and determination to do so.
As violence began to rise in Minneapolis and Atlanta after George Floyd was killed, Michael ‘Killer Mike’ Render joined Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms and Atlanta-native rapper T.I. in a press conference on May 29th addressing the protests in response to the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery. He wore a T shirt which read ‘Kill your masters’ clarifying that he meant at the voting booth, standing before the cameras to say,
…I don’t want to be here. But, I’m responsible to be here because it wasn’t just Doctor King and people dressed nicely who marched and protested to progress this city and so many other cities. It was people like my grandmother, people like my aunts and uncles, who are members of the SCLC and NAACP.
So, I’m duty bound to be here to simply say that it is your duty not to burn your own house down for anger with an enemy. It is your duty to fortify your own house so that you may be a house of refuge in times of organization. Now is the time to plot, plan, strategize, organize, and mobilize. It is time to beat up prosecutors you don’t like at the voting booth. It is time to hold mayoral offices accountable, chiefs and deputy chiefs.
I’m mad as hell. I woke up wanting to see the world burn down yesterday because I’m tired of seeing black men die. He casually put his knee on a human being’s neck for nine minutes as he died like a zebra in the clutch of a lion’s jaw. And, we watch it like murder porn over and over again. That’s why children are burning [businesses] to the ground. They don’t know what else to do.
It is the responsibility of us to make this better right now. We don’t want to see one officer charged. We want to see four officers prosecuted and sentenced. We don’t want to see Targets burning. We want to see the system that sets up for systemic racism burnt to the ground.
As I sit here in Georgia, home of Stephens, Georgia, former vice president of the Confederacy … White man said that fundamental law stated that whites were naturally the superior race, and the Confederacy was built on a Cornerstone. It’s called a Cornerstone Speech. Look it up. The Cornerstone Speech, that blacks would be always be subordinate … That officer believed that speech because he killed that man like an animal.
This city’s cut different. In this city, you can find over 50 restaurants owned by black women. I didn’t say minority, and I didn’t say women of color. So, after you burn down your own home, what do you have left but char and ash?
I’m glad they only destroyed some brick and mortar, and they didn’t rip a father from a son. They didn’t rip a son from a mother like the policeman did. When a man yells for his mother in duress and pain and she’s dead, he is essentially yelling, “Please, God. Don’t let it happen to me.” We watched that.
I don’t have any good advice. What I can tell you is that if you sit in your homes tonight instead of burning your home to the ground, you will have time to properly plot, plan, strategize, and organize and mobilize in an effective way.
Two of the most effective ways is first taking your butt to the computer and making sure you fill out your Census so that people know who you are and where you are. The next thing is making sure you exercise your political bully power and going to local elections and beating up the politicians that you don’t like. I want you to go home. I want you to talk to ten of your friends. I want you guys to come up with real solutions. I would like for the Atlanta city police department to bring back the community review board, one that Alice Johnson was formerly under, under Chief Turner. We need a review board here because we need to get ahead of it before an officer does some stupid shit. We need to get ahead of it.
We don’t need a dumb-ass president repeating what segregation has said. “If you start looting, we start shooting.” But, the problem is, some officers black, and some people going to shoot back. And, that’s not good for our community, either.
I love and respect you all. I hope that we find a way out of it because I don’t have the answers, but I do know we must plot. We must plan. We must strategize, organize, and mobilize.
A year on, especially through the continuing challenges of the global pandemic, it is becoming possible to forget how entrenched the challenges are for my American friends, and how these challenges are not much addressed by the verdict of one court or the sentencing of one ex-policeman. Nor is it at all mended by the change of presidency. As some repeat, Trump is and was a symptom, not the cause. Many millions voted for Trump, and even voted for him the last time: 74,222,958 million, to be exact, which is more than have ever voted for any other presidential candidate, save Joe Biden. However the malaise that is signified by Donald Trump is to be mended, it is not simply by the removal of a statue from a plinth, or even a figure from an Oval Office desk.
Author and journalist Ta Nehisi Coates, son of a former Black Panther, writing in The Atlantic back in October 2017 put his finger on something of what it is about whiteness that endures in the shadows of culture in America, and more widely, no doubt:
It is insufficient to state the obvious of Donald Trump: that he is a white man who would not be president were it not for this fact. With one immediate exception, Trump’s predecessors made their way to high office through the passive power of whiteness—that bloody heirloom which cannot ensure mastery of all events but can conjure a tailwind for most of them. Land theft and human plunder cleared the grounds for Trump’s forefathers and barred others from it. Once upon the field, these men became soldiers, statesmen, and scholars; held court in Paris; presided at Princeton; advanced into the Wilderness and then into the White House. Their individual triumphs made this exclusive party seem above America’s founding sins, and it was forgotten that the former was in fact bound to the latter, that all their victories had transpired on cleared grounds. No such elegant detachment can be attributed to Donald Trump—a president who, more than any other, has made the awful inheritance explicit.
I do not claim to know what was in President Trump’s mind when he gave instructions for the road across from Lafayette Square to be cleared from protestors, or to have discernment of what his motives were when being photographed while solemnly holding a Revised Standard Version of the Bible aloft. One politician who accompanied Trump from the White House said afterwards that he actually didn’t know where they were all going, and imagined they were going to the site of a toilet building that had been damaged in the earlier unrest, during which fire had also been set to St John’s Episcopal church. Media crew were still able to film the scene as heavily uniformed police in gas masks moved out across ‘H’ street NW, the colonnade and steeple of St John’s rising like a multistage rocket behind them, beckoning our gaze upward to the ever-watching heaven. As the smoke from flash grenades and the last of the tear gas dispersed, Trump picked out his position in front of the church notice board. He awkwardly held the thick bible this way and that, finally judging that a vertical position over his right shoulder gave the most presidential impression. The television camera zoomed in and a female reporter called out a question to the President, ‘Is that your Bible?’ As I watched, it seemed to me that Donald Trump suddenly found himself in the witness stand which he had so strenuously avoided during the bungled impeachment hearings; then, to his own surprise, he replied to the question, promptly and with unexpected reverence, ‘It is a Bible.’ Rarely has this POTUS spoken with such regard to both syntax and clarity of meaning. It is said that a picture speaks more than a thousand words. At this moment, the words trumped the pictures, as he quietly confessed, “I am not the keeper of this Bible.”
I’ve heard a report22 that some Christian supporters of Mr Trump expressed their approval when they saw the live media footage, exclaiming excitedly, ‘He’s doing a Jericho walk!’ Surely it should take more than a journey across ‘H’ street NW to qualify as a ‘Jericho walk’? In Joshua 6:2, Israel is led by Joshua in obedience to God’s specific instruction that they should put themselves in harm’s way, walking around the foreign city in silence, with fully robed priests and the ark of the covenant, in full view and exposed to the insults-or worse- of the residents of the fortress city. The Israelites certainly did not have the benefit of salvoes of tear gas to quell muttered mockery from the fortified walls of the city. If there is such a thing as a ‘Jericho Walk’, it is not a dance in which one imitates moves from a ‘Tik Tok’ video. It was only by the obedient shout of faith that their breath was released and their voices ultimately raised on the seventh day. They would win the day by nothing other than their obedience to the word of the God who knows them. In Acts 19:14, seven sons of Sceva attempt to exercise deliverance power by invoking the names of Saint Paul and Jesus of Nazareth, like a magic incantation, but discover all too late that they have no spiritual authority of their own. The demonic personalities send them packing in a riot of violence, because, in the final reckoning, heaven does not know them. Neither are their names given in the text- only that their father was ‘Sceva’. Once, being in the family of the Jewish High priest was some qualification for victory at Jericho, but no longer; nor is holding up a Bible in order to admire its cover. Being known by Jesus, whom Paul preached- that is how the walls of our hearts have come down, and how our motives might be conformed more closely to those of Jesus of Nazareth- the real Jesus who shows what love really looks and acts like. None of us were or are beyond the reach of such love- even Rahab the prostitute was known by name and spared from the rout of Jericho. Love that, above all, embraces those who seem in some way or another different from us- and yet, in the final judgement, are really the same. If we will accept it, God’s love will regard and accept us all and lift us up. Such is God’s love that is prepared to speak my name. Yes, Jesus loves me, for my Bible tells me so.
Now I give breath to what I know: George is my brother, and yes, I am my brother’s keeper.
The words and symbols of Genesis have resonated in cultures across the world since they were inscribed in scripture: wherever they are told, reminding us, telling us, confronting us with everlasting truths that are being retold in this latest chapter of today’s news of humanly created tragedies.
On June 17th 2020, Philonise Floyd, brother of George Floyd, addressed24 the “Urgent debate on systemic racism and police brutality in the United States,” requested by the Africa Group of the Human Rights Council at the United Nations by recorded video message. Like this photograph taken from low earth orbit; as another photograph taken on the return trip of Apollo 8 from the moon, he addresses us all who have heard and seen these things.
“You watched my brother die. That could have been me,” Philonise said. “I am my brother’s keeper. You in the United Nations are your brothers’ and sisters’ keepers in America, and you have the power to help us get justice for my brother George Floyd. I am asking you to help him. I am asking you to help me. I am asking you to help us – Black people in America.”
As we have persevered through this year since the death of George Floyd, and the few short weeks since Derek Chauvin’s conviction for George’s murder, I see how Philonise Floyd has absorbed the account of Cain and Abel and made it for us another story of Two Brothers, in which the surviving brother gives the lesson. Such was John F. Kennedy’s request in 1968: Philonise indeed stands as a father and as a man among other men. This son and brother can now become a father to us all, if we are willing to interpret his plea that way.
I am not asking for myself. I am asking for my brother.
(c) Stephen Thompson 2021
Cain and Abel, ivory panel from the cathedral of Salerno, ca. 1084. 10 x 22 cm. Louvre, Department of Decorative Arts, Richelieu, first floor, room 2, case 13 OA 4052 Jastro. Public domain.
Officer Chauvez kneeling on George Floyd BING Free to share and use tesnimnews 1 6 20
george-floyd-onyx-truth BING Free to share and use 1 6 20 Tony L. Clark holds a photo of George Floyd outside the Cup Food convenience store, Thursday, May 28, 2020, in Minneapolis. Floyd, a handcuffed black man, died Monday in police custody near the convenience store. (Jerry Holt/Star Tribune via AP)https://www.onyxtruth.com/2020/05/31/george-floyd-talked-about-black-on-black-crime/
https://www.nasa.gov/sites/default/files/files/SpaceX_NASA_CRS-6_PressKit-2.pdf page 6 Nine minutes and 29 seconds: This is the length of time prosecutors said Chauvin knelt on Floyd’s neck. It was often repeated in court and has become a symbolic number for activists, a rallying cry that is chanted at protests. An initial complaint against former officer Chauvin by the Hennepin County Attorney’s office counted eight minutes and 46 seconds. But during the trial, prosecutors pointed to police body camera footage to argue the actual time Floyd spent under Chauvin’s knee was significantly longer.
‘Happy Earth Day 2021!’ Is that an appropriate thing to say? I suppose there is some good news we can point to. Mr Joe Biden is now in the White House as US President, rather than that other bloke, and the first speaker at Biden’s two day summit of global leaders on the Climate Emergency is our very own Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who says that this is a very important meeting. Its not about ‘bunny hugging’, or any other trivial fun one might have at a child’s party. Its now time for leaders to lead and generally behave as grown-ups should. If we don’t add globally collective ‘decisive’ action to just talking about the problem, each future ‘Earth Day’ will essentially be a count down to climate oblivion, as average global temperature continues to rise beyond any hope of rescue.
The list of things we should be doing differently should be as memorable as the things the five little pigs do when parents count children’s toes. “This little piggy went to market, this little piggy stayed at home. This little piggy had roast beef, this little piggy had none. And this little piggy went ‘Wee, wee, weeeeeeee!’ all the way home.” And then we tickle them and they squeal like piglets and maybe we stop when they tell us to.
There are many ways of counting how many things we need to stop doing badly, and start doing differently to avert climate catastrophe. We’ve done pretty well in the UK at reducing one of the key drivers of climate change by decarbonising our energy production. In May 2019 our National Grid managed to generate electricity for the entire country without using any coal for a week. In 2020 we managed a clear run of 55 days until the wind speed fell temporarily in August – the huge Drax station was turned on again until the wind picked up once more.1 Significant restructuring of the whole energy production system will be required to cut carbon emissions ever more drastically and very permanently, including a move to local energy production and temporary energy storage.
So that’s number one. Here’s some more that you can count off with me on your fingers.
Number two: We need to change our transport choices, reducing individual use of high carbon journeys in our petrol and diesel burning cars in favour of clean electric and public transport solutions.
Number three: Our homes and most other buildings are not heat efficient. We need a massive retrofitting programme to insulate our dwellings, curb heat wastage and switch to energy efficient versions of everything. This can work with locally facilitated collective programmes of insulation and energy sharing.
Number four: In common with the other organisms on our planet, we must eat. But the way we do agriculture has got to change, as the intensive and over-technical system we have arrived at in the cause of economic efficiency is costing us the earth. Literally. Science has given us many wonderful things, including fertiliser and pesticides and aeroplanes, with which we import green beans and roses from Kenya. Now Kenyans don’t have enough water to grow their own food – I know this, because I’ve been, and yes, I did fly there, and home again. The wooden market stalls in the villages display modest quantities of ground maize flour, green kales, rosy red tomatoes and a few tiny sun-dried fish they call Omena. The only place there is beef is in the city shops.
And number five? That will be the right sorts of jobs. Obviously there have to be jobs and an economy- all very necessary, but what sort of economy, and so what sorts of jobs? As we know through the pandemic, when some people can’t go to work anymore, that is devastating for everyone, sooner or later. So we have to recreate our economies and create new ways of doing business and employing people. That would be a ‘Green Deal’ that includes everyone. We need grown up solutions for this entire network of big grown-up problems and challenges.
We will only be able to invent and implement such radical shifts in behaviour by reaching for radical paradigms– different modes of thinking about how to live in this world of which we are part. We are both very small– one individual can make very little difference to most things in the world, as a rule- and yet we are also very big. 2The collective impact of our singular species- the human race- on Planet Earth over the last century and a half, and especially the last half century, has been massive. Is it possible that something as very old and traditional as the Bible could offer us thinking tools for such a paradigm shift? Might the Bible speak from a worldview that effectively encompasses the scale of humans as individuals and as a group, including the full range of our interactions with one another and our planetary habitat? I think it does. This is a big claim: I am not at all the first to make it. Nor do I consider it straightforward to establish, because we must avoid all manner of anachronisms, deliberate stereotypes and innocent misconceptions if this claim is to be made good. We need to consider what the Bible is for, the voice and registers in which it speaks, and the purposes for which it is composed – thus a grasp of all these factors will enable us to read it in a manner pertinent and relevant to our current agenda.
To briefly sketch out an exposition of this thesis, I am going to touch on three scriptural sources that I suggest offer insights from which we can triangulate an outline map of the world view of the Bible. Please write back to me to let me know how accurate or persuasive you think this is.
26 Then God said, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness. And let them have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over the livestock and over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.”
27 So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.
28 And God blessed them. And God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it, and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over every living thing that moves on the earth.” 29 And God said, “Behold, I have given you every plant yielding seed that is on the face of all the earth, and every tree with seed in its fruit. You shall have them for food. 30 And to every beast of the earth and to every bird of the heavens and to everything that creeps on the earth, everything that has the breath of life, I have given every green plant for food.” And it was so. 31 And God saw everything that he had made, and behold, it was very good.
Genesis 1:26-31 ESV
Even a six verse extract of Genesis chapter one can be misread if we aren’t familiar with the context, so read the whole thing if you need to. Now please, we’re not reading a science textbook. That’s really not a criticism of Genesis! But we must avoid the category error. Science is not the sole and supreme mode of knowledge. Indeed, a hundred years and more ago, Theology was described as the ‘Queen of the Sciences,’ which is to say, the second-best way possible to know about what is worth knowing. The best way of all, of course, would be a personal audience with God, but that could be problematic too, as I need things explaining in words I understand. What Genesis 1 does say to us is what God’s relationship is with God’s creation, and who and what we are within it. What it does address is some misconceptions that were around at the time of composition, and its these that get corrected. But the agenda of science didn’t exist then, so it shouldn’t be considered to be in the frame of view. I will mention some scientific concepts in passing, but if you think there’s a clash, don’t be alarmed, because that’s an artefact of one modern reading frame.
God gets rather a lot done on Day 6. Humans are created on the same day as most of the rest of what biologists now call the Animal Kingdom, emphasising that we are very similar, and yet different, as we do have our own special mention. First the animals are blessed, and then so are we. At the conclusion of all God’s making, the green plants are gifted to the animals and the people for food. Similar and connected in the same (ecological) network. A ‘Theology of the Commons’, we might say.
Why ‘similar and different’ all at once? Perhaps because it was common amongst the cultures of the ancient Near East to have a blatant ‘class’ system: kings and important people, who had delusions of deity, on the one hand, and the majority riff raff on the other. And then perhaps slaves as well- third class! Another idea popularised in their myths was that humans were a by product of the origins of everything important, i.e. the gods and their favourites and all the important stuff they got up to, fighting mostly, but once that was over, they needed someone to take care of the menial chores. So that’s where people came in. ‘You’re lucky to be here, as you get to look after us and do as you’re told! And keep your voices down, while you are about it.’ Adding insult to injury, the important royalty type folk actually considered themselves more or less as gods and goddesses, very obviously lording it over everyone else. Being associated with deities as a special favour is a convenient way of keeping everyone else in their place- places very much over there.
Genesis chapter one redraws this oppressive worldview, revealing most wonderfully what the True God really thinks about us and everything else, positioning us at a viewpoint which we can all enjoy because it is an expression of the grace of God. This cosmological vista is a description of principles, opening our vision to significant things which we could never see or measure with our own senses, however technologically enhanced they may have become in our day.
We’re not just lucky to be here, a random product of a cosmos that didn’t mean to make us. Rather, we are the deliberate free creation of the Loving God who is supremely capable of actually making what He sets out to make, fully accurate in every realised intention- its good; and then approved ofin full through explicit blessing.
Obviously we are part of creation, contiguous with everything else, and sharing in the common material being of the animate and inanimate. But matter is not grubby dirty dirt. God made it through a dignified creative process, and works it ‘hands on’ into us as a particular sign of intimate creativity. All the organisms are the product of the same respectful process of creation: there are no afterthoughts or left-overs. (If there is any reference to fighting at all, its been quietly dealt with in Gen 1:2) As an antidote to anyone’s overinflated ego, everything is blessed- everything is good, and everything together is very good. We’re all in it together!
In one sense, we share the principle of life with the other living things, though here the scripture overrules our modern category. ‘The breath of life’ is sustained in animals and people by the gift of food supplied by the plants God has made. This really is a gift- God specifically says so. Its not just taken– taken for granted, as we might say. Even this relationship is spelt out. So in Genesis, the life of plants is not of the same order as that of animals or people, and this realisation is perhaps acknowledged by this gifting. We are all close and made of exactly the same stuff as inanimate matter- a principle not fully appreciated by science for a long time- and yet there is difference decreed by God, within a framework of gift and blessing, not random or arbitrary favouritism, or the result of exploitation or oppression, or dictatorial whimsy.
But God is not done. The ancients were kind of right- there is a special bunch, but not at all in the way they were tempted to think. God comes straight out with it: You humans are all like me- like ‘us‘. Its hard to pin down what God is like, obviously. English versions keep saying ‘He’ about God, which is inadequate. The Hebrew has this ‘Like us’ construction, awkwardly translated into English, giving this sense that the ONE God of Israel is complicated, or ineffable, as theologians say (Dictionary: too great or extreme to be expressed or described in words.) But whatever God is like, God says we are too. Yet we are not gods. Whatever this paradox is saying that is useful, we quickly see sense in the explanation God gives: ‘You go and do what I would do. The land, animals and fish, birds and plants, and earth and everything I have made- YOU go and be in charge of it.’
Now we crash into one of those big stereotypes- what exactly does ruling and subduing and all that dominion stuff mean? Well, its not as bad as has been made out by many. It does not mean that we can trawl the ocean bottom for fish until the stocks are depleted and the reefs destroyed. It doesn’t mean turning the fields to monoculture maintained by pesticides which drives birds from their habitats. It doesn’t mean digging up the coal and drilling for oil to drive a billion internal combustion engines until a billion years of sequestered carbon has been returned to the atmosphere in just a century, or to manufacture untold quantities of plastic which once discarded after one use collects in oceanic gyres, before crumbling into microscopic pieces and being absorbed by whatever life remains in the poisoned oceans on this lonely blue planet. Isn’t it obvious? Shouldn’t it be obvious? How could we not think that all that went before in the Genesis passage which was a corrective to the oppressive myths of Israel’s neighbours three or more thousand years ago shouldn’t also stand as a corrective to the selfishness and exploitation that has exploded as a cultural cancer in the collective human mind over recent decades? Whatever the inspiration for the accumulated and presently increasing oppression of the planet and all life on earth may have been, it did not come from a faithful reading of the first chapter of Genesis, whatever biased critics may claim. Recall the care, dignity and respect with which God’s actions of creation are described. Recall that God charges the humans, collectively: ‘Do what I would do.’ Are these the sorts of actions that God would have acted if God had carried on working after the creation week, instead of leaving it all to us? Of course not.
About half way through the library of books we call ‘Bible’- that’s what it means- we get to another stand out creative episode. Isaiah was one of many prophets who spoke God’s words in God’s stead- sometimes quoting the Almighty, sometimes adapting or recreating YHWH’s meaning, and sometimes speaking with delegated authority. This is part of the shared work of dominion in God’s image, doing what God would do, and on His sanctioned behalf. God’s good creation project has been assailed from within by rebellion, but God has not given up on it, or given up on His esteemed and selected partners. In words that we humans can just about understand, God is still revealing that He is creating solutions to the problems we have made- most pointedly, the problem of us.
10 “For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven and do not return there but water the earth, making it bring forth and sprout, giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater, 11 so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and shall succeed in the thing for which I sent it.
12 “For you shall go out in joy and be led forth in peace; the mountains and the hills before you shall break forth into singing, and all the trees of the field shall clap their hands. 13 Instead of the thorn shall come up the cypress; instead of the brier shall come up the myrtle; and it shall make a name for the Lord, an everlasting sign that shall not be cut off.”
Isaiah 55: 10-13
Just as in Genesis 1, God is speaking, and God’s word is irresistibly effective. I want to draw your attention to one detail in this reprise and development of the opening Genesis scenes. The effects of sin on creation in Genesis chapter 3 verses 17 and 18, mysteriously described in terms of the land bearing thorns and thistles, are now to be reversed. At God’s sovereign Word, ‘instead’ of thorn and brier there will grow the cypress and myrtle. Nothing at all remarkable about that, we might think. Sounds like the entirely regular language of landscape gardening. But I think there is more going on in the language of Isaiah than is generally recognised. In verse 12, we read, ‘The mountains… shall break forth into singing, and all the trees of the field shall clap their hands.’ This is not poetry in the mode of G Manley Hopkins or T S Eliot, who were unashamedly inspired by the expression of Hebrew scripture, without a doubt. But this is not the same thing at all as what we now call poetry, where simile and metaphor are deployed with a knowing wink to our modern appreciation for what the make up of the world is ‘really’ like. If we enquire of the modern poet as to the cause and precise sounds made by ‘clapping trees,’ we are cautioned with an appeal to poetic licence. 3 I think this is a mistake. The ancients would have recognised our current descriptions of poetic language- with variations. I am sure that is true. But I think God is revealing something deeper that is veiled behind such poetry. In a seamless robe, this text melds what we know to be the regular cycle of water, as rain and snow and so on, the seasonal flux of seedtime and harvest, and also with the extra–ordinary interjections to all that we think of as ‘normality’ that are brought about by the Rhema Word of Yahweh God. The consequences of the judgements of God in Genesis 3 would continue were it not for the prophetic word brought by Isaiah: the wild-thistles-to-majestic-cypress imagery is more than mere gardening. While in verse 12 it becomes clear that both human language and the full spectrum of our natural experience do not stretch far enough to adequately convey the depths of the divine underpinnings of what we habitually categorise as Nature. Singing hills? Clapping trees? This imagery is hinting heavily at mode of responsiveness of the creation to its Creator beyond its conventional qualities. When the relationship between God’s humans and the God who imaged them is mended, the rest of the non-human creation will have something to sing about, says Isaiah.
If this is too colourful for you, remember the words of Jesus in red in the New Testament.
Balaam would not disagree. Nor would his donkey.
Am I guilty of unwarranted exaggeration? Well, let’s see what St Paul has to say.
19 For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God. 20 For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of him who subjected it, in hope 21 that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to corruption and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. 22 For we know that the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now. 23 And not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies.
Romans 8:22 ESV
These remarks in the Letter to the Romans have withstood the increasing assault of modern rationalism, now for over two millennia. Whatever Paul is up to in this passage, this text is neither poetry, nor prophecy. More like cold-blooded theological journalism. Its up to us as individuals to decide how to respond to the challenges that Paul and the other apostles put to us in their letters in the name of the God and Father of the one they call the Lord Jesus Christ. But I think it is inevitable that we have to conclude that Paul was very serious in his use of terminology when he wrote this paragraph. He insists that we understand the priority of God, and the way that Jesus Christ has been elevated to the highest position of esteem and glory in and over God’s created cosmos. At the start of the book, Paul makes clear that all created things are utterly subservient to the true Creator God, revealed according to the Jewish scriptures, and in the person of Jesus, who Paul met on the road to Damascus in most spectacular fashion. In Acts 17:22ff we hear Paul gently but firmly correcting the Athenian Gentiles, reasoning that neither created things nor objects made by men could rival the Divine Person of YHWH God, incarnate as the Messiah Jesus.
So while the scriptures taken as a whole are really only clear and insistent on a limited number of key claims, mostly about the revelation of God in human history, undertaken at God’s own sovereign initiative, inviting us to respond to His mercy and grace in Jesus Christ to come back to full relationship with God, there are enough clues and hints that there is more to the characteristics of the created environment of which we are also part than is understood in the worldview of our modern world, shaped in large part by science and technology. These ‘hints and clues’ are not just peripheral details that we can allow to fade into the background of our understanding: they are vital ingredients in a worldview fundamentally contrasting with the one we are now familiar with.
Please let me emphasise: I am not speaking here about what lessons we can learn from creation itself about God- about spiritual matters, questions of transcendence, about how and why the world is this way, issues beyond the strict boundaries of the sciences. Our study here is about the internal worldview of the Bible, and what that has to say about creation. To illustrate that difference, let’s see what Alister McGrath has to say in his introductory text on Christian theology:
Christian orthodoxy holds that we cannot claim much about the importance of nature, or the ‘created order’ for telling us about who God is– we can only really know God through God’s self-revelation in Jesus and in Scripture. There is no significant role for so-called ‘Natural Theology.’ But McGrath is happy to say that we can hear Creation speaking to us, functioning as a clear signpost, with a distinct message that makes sense in human terms about God. Yet there are further ‘intimations’ as I have outlined, not functioning as a direct witness, but nevertheless holding that the Creation itself has surprising agency in the biblical worldview.
What then might Christians have to say about our relationship with this Earth which is our only physical home in God’s cosmos? How do we calibrate our response to the climate emergency in the light of biblical revelation?
On one hand, I think we ought to be cautious. The escalating ecological catastrophe is now progressing at a great remove from the events and testimony of the Bible, including the New Testament, in which Paul, James, Peter and also Jesus speak in the text with the expectation of the impending resolution of human history. For the lives of those around at the time, that was accurate enough. But the ‘groaning’ of creation was to do with the burden of human sin, which need not be thought of as having increased or decreased in significance in God’s sight in the centuries that have elapsed since then.
How is it that climate change has now reached the scale of a planet threatening emergency? Simply for this reason: human beings went forth and multiplied, now exponentially so over the last couple of centuries, and especially in my lifetime. There are now more people on the planet than the total of the number of people who have ever lived in human history prior to my birth. This population growth results from our technological facility that allowed us to exploit the resources we use to collectively feed, cloth, house and generally keep ourselves comfortable. For too many, these comforts are not measured in sufficiency- not in what we could reasonably claim to need, but in our wants, which prove insatiable, resulting in the vast overindulgence of the few at the expense of the many, and now very much at the expense of the planet itself.
Are these sins greater than the offenses committed in earlier eras? This is a nonsense question: the matter of our broken relationship with God, our broken relationships with each other, and with the world God put in our collective care is one of kind, not of degree. ‘We were dead (spiritually speaking)’, says Paul in his letter to the Ephesians. You can’t be any more dead than dead. So I do not consider the ‘groaning’ that Paul refers to in Romans 8 to be any worse now than it was when he wrote these words.
And yet- on the other hand…
It must surely be that the stench of our collective actions in this generation is very great in God’s nostrils, and we ought to be highly exercised about that. God went down to Sodom, says Genesis 18:21, to check out whether the ‘outcry’ about what was going on was accurate. God must surely be nearby to us in this most dire and grave of situations.
And is it at this time that we find that the magnitude of the trouble we have caused to God’s Earth is now beyond our scope and responsibility to address, even less to mend? Will the scale of the apocalypse that we have brought on ourselves and this good world that God made and gifted into our care now make a mockery of the hopes once placed in us, hopes now dashed and exposed in their naiveté? I do not think so. What we now face, individually and collectively, is a challenge of cosmic proportions. It will take a response on a scale that many would admit requires divine intervention. It is the claim of the scriptures from Genesis, Isaiah, Romans and throughout the Bible that the people of God in formation, the very Body of Christ, are in fact the imagers of God at God’s will and behest; we are indeed viceregents of the Divine and God’s representatives on earth, and since the giving of the Holy Spirit to the redeemed People of God, God is now Present with us even as we find ourselves here at this moment- when we can pray,
Your kingdom come! Your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.
Never has the earth needed this prayer, and its hasty answer. If we are prepared to agree together to be content simply with daily bread, then we can expect this prayer to be answered in the grace of God. Its answer will be found in the transformation of the ways in which we live collectively on this planet we have been gifted, as outlined in the five points I described at the start. I daresay that prayer will be vital to achieving these transformations.
Maggie Shipstead says something similar in her interview with Helen Brown on her forthcoming novel about travel, ‘Great Circle’:
As we end our call, I push Shipstead for a line that will make sense of her brilliant book. But she doesn’t want to play. “It’s a book about questions more than answers,” she says. “People want to know what I’m trying to say. But it’s a story I made up while thinking about freedom and scale. A human life is incredibly tiny and incredibly huge depending on what you set it against. I don’t think about readers when I’m writing, because that is paralysing.” She pauses. “But maybe I’d like them to think about what they’d have to sacrifice to be free.” Accessed at https://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/books/features/maggie-shipstead-interview-great-circle-b1840137.html on 3 May 2021 The ‘paralysis’ Shipstead speaks of may well apply to authors of fiction- but for theologians, the daunting responsibility of speaking to others must be faced head on.
They say that you can’t choose your family. This ‘wise saying’ suggests many facets of insight, one of which is to imply that it is practical as well as possible to choose your friends. I am not sure the difference between family and friends is so clear, at least not in the Church. We might think that we have chosen to befriend certain folk who we think will be more comfortable to get along with. “Those are the ones I want to be friends with!” But as time goes by, we discover that our new friends have now become our brothers and sisters, and what’s more have started behaving in ways we don’t approve of; and saying things that we don’t much like. I introduced this piece as an Easter reflection– which is to say that when I look in the mirror, I may well notice that there are some things about me I don’t much like either.
So it might be best to start again, which is what the traditional Church calendar is good for- encouraging us to go over it again each year. ‘See if you understand it better this time.’ The Church is really born at Easter, we are told, so Easter is the genesis of the Church Age. That’s why we don’t have a ‘Creation festival’ in the calendar, looking back to Genesis 1&2. Christmas sends us the Incarnate Jesus, again and again: Immanuel, God is with us Again! While Easter is our collective Birthday. Though the circumstances are not at all like a regular party.
We need to exert effort in mind and imagination to revisit familiar places in the Church calendar. I do like a ripened cheese, but if left in the fridge for too long, it eventually loses its appeal. An old house can be a homely house, until you try to pass through a doorway and get a face full of cobwebs. My birth family stayed away from ‘Church’ through my upbringing because they found the fustiness overwhelming. I was intrigued by a brief foray to Sunday School as a young boy, and the irregular visit of the local vicar to my school, but that was it- an infrequent visitation with a very unfashionable almost-forgotten relative in need of a liberal aerosol spray of ‘Alpine Fresh’.
The good thing about elderly relatives is that they are still alive. Where there is life, there is hope! Though a very modern Protestant, I chose to work in the local Catholic community for much of my teaching career; a very deliberate choice. I watched with close interest to see how their community life was framed by the more valued aspects of their tradition, while visibly adorned with rosary and crucifix. Their extensive liturgy encapsulates so much deep reflection, distilled and honed as each sentence has emerged from generations of meditation. I happily follow the text along under my breath, pausing only on the odd occasion to skip a bit I don’t witness to.
Frankly, I am often more comfortable with this sort of theological editing than I am in the company of some of my closer friends who seem to value spontaneity rather more highly than is good for us. My crowd says that its all about life, and being real; being in the now with God in His Spirit. Which is obviously what Jesus is in favour of. He raised the dead to life and spoke the living words of God for today. He did not send his disciples to tend tombs. In fact, he forbade it. But in our enthusiasm for spontaneous life and following the Spirit, our ‘spiritual chatter’ can be like so many bubbles, an insubstantial froth that does not convey, even in human words, very much of the glory of God.
Let the words of my mouth, and the meditation of my heart, be acceptable in thy sight, O LORD, my strength, and my redeemer.
Even before a word is on my tongue, behold, O LORD, you know it altogether.
Psalm 19:14; Psalm 139:4
The truth is, we have minds that very much like to wander. All over the place. So when we come to pray- shall I sit? Shall I stand? Oh, first I need to… We need an abundance of discipline, especially self-discipline, and that is what schools and services and much spiritual stuff is trying to give us: frameworks of life, disciplined tracks to be trained in so we can be in shape for the daily race. For my Catholic friends, a crucifix is just that- a gym session for the inner heart. As you know, not every gym membership is used to its best effect.
Christianity has been thoroughly absorbed into our social history and culture, particularly in the West, beyond our ability to determine the boundaries of its influence. That’s certainly the perspective I had as a child. ‘Where is God in all this now?’ I asked myself through my formative years. My testimony is that God has breathed fresh air into my understanding- into me, not only through those who first witnessed to me as a young person, but also though fellowship and networking with Christians of other flavours, some with very different habits. The illumination of the Spirit comes to us from the strangest of sources, if only we have eyes to see.
Those who discipled me had little time for the architectural trappings of Christian tradition. “The Church is the people, not the building!” we like to cry together. Focus on the wrong thing, we are warned, and what is really important becomes blurred. True enough. Yet when I meet my fellow Christian folk who are alive to the Spirit of God and commune in a community building parts of which may date back a thousand years or so, they bring a vital connection to the generations of lives that were lived in that place in the light of the gospel that is not quite so evident in my hired sports hall or school. Too much of our so-called modern culture has turned its back on everything prior to the transistor and the jet plane. So many of my charismatic friends seem to think in the same way, noting only two dates of significance in their histories, (i) the first Pentecost, and (ii) a Holy Spirit revival in nineteen sixty something.
So much of value is missed in between. Take this stained glass window (above). This piece of physical and functional art speaks life to me in its depiction of this Easter episode. Less stylised than most, and not particularly formal in its design, it nevertheless stands in the long tradition of reflection on the stations of the cross and all the events of Holy Week. We are drawn into this group, transported to the dusky moment that these burly figures are manhandling Jesus’ dead body into the family tomb belonging to Joseph of Arimathea. They have all taken their turns, I sense; the one holding the torch aloft is leaning tiredly against the stones, while another is now kneeling, as all he can do is pray after his earlier stint at carrying the corpse. While one is straining forward with his back to us, the living face we see most clearly is earnestly focused on the tomb doorway, ensuring that the corporeal remains of Jesus are safely delivered to their resting place with proper dignity. Yet this sombre panorama is shot through with light, beyond the power of the flame above their heads. The light that transfuses this picture illuminates both Jesus’ body and his carriers with an aura of hope. The picture is framed to quietly draw our attention to the spear hole in Jesus’ torso. Incarnation, crucifixion and expectation of resurrection are fused in the glassy image. ‘He was wounded for our transgressions…by His stripes we are healed’, whispers Isaiah through the long reach of time [Is 53:5]. ‘Lord, I am not worthy to receive you, but only say the word, and I shall be healed.’ Which is what that Catholic Mass used to say, until they updated it. How very modern!
We don’t do stained glass these days, as we now have movies to tell stories for us. There have been many attempts over the recent years of screen and TV history to transfer the gospel accounts to screen. It may be very stereotypical to lump them together thus: a procession of bearded figures sporting miles of nightdress fabric and every model of leather sandal known to man, while the lines of umpteen parables are rehearsed as a cure for insomnia. This description cannot apply to the 2004 ‘The Passion of the Christ,’ personally funded and directed by Mel Gibson and colleagues. We watched this again as a family one evening last week, and no one fell asleep. As I’ve said, there is value to be gleaned in listening to others, to seeing things from their perspectives, in making the effort to look past their failings and weaknesses to distil what is distinctive and significant. I agree with critics that discern a degree of exaggeration in anti-Pharisaism in the portrayal of the Jewish priests in the film. But we misunderstand the gospel account if we do not realise that everyone has it in for Jesus one way or another- even his chosen friends abandon him at the crucial moment that they might have stood in solidarity with him, and the film shows this clearly enough.
The violence is also exaggerated, I daresay, though I wouldn’t really want to have to evidence that opinion. It is a directorial decision to emphasise the physical reality of the crucifixion for modern audiences inured to unrealistic big screen violence. The claim being made is that the Spirit overcomes the flesh, which is the biblical claim, so I am content. God in Christ overcomes sin that has had its full work in humanity, in me, and so portraying his scourging and crucifixion in this manner is not inappropriate. We cannot see the spiritual price that Jesus pays for us, so the physical pains stand proxy for that in this cinematic retelling. I am content. There are a number of artistic/ directorial variations to the gospel accounts which draw us into the ‘now’ of those timeless events on the Via Delorosa, powerfully including the way Simon of Cyrene is brought closer to carry the cross alongside Jesus, rather than independently from him. Simon, and we, are brought together to share in Jesus’ sufferings.
At this watching, there is one scene that I found to be shot through with particular light, yet it too is a figment of the imagination of later saints, not at all part of the gospel accounts. We are shown Jesus’ mother Mary and Mary Magdalene frustrated in their efforts to get close to Jesus on his journey from Pilate’s court to Golgotha. For Gibson, a Catholic, the relationship between Mary and Jesus is of particular significance, so it is not surprising that further emphasis is brought to this, even in addition to the particular episode close to the foot of the cross with John the disciple, which is recorded at John 19:26. Frankly, I love what Gibson does here. And it is much more than simply an affirmation of the significance of Mary as the mother of the Christ, a headline feature of Catholic dogma. Mary succeeds in getting close to her son Jesus, to reassure him, to touch him as a mother, as she touched him intimately as the one who birthed and suckled him as a baby, who schooled him and watched him grow as a boy and man. From before Augustine of Hippo, way back in the fifth-sixth centuries, Mary has been known in the ancient Church as the Theotokos, “the one who gives birth to God.” This is an alternative rendition of the Incarnation: Christ is both fully God and fully man, so must have a human mother. God’s will is to choose her, but Mary has to be a consciously willing partner to this creation of God as man in God’s world, else it is meaningless. So Mary understands and agrees with Angel Gabriel and the Holy Spirit to what God intends to bring about through her physical partnership. In the Christmas account we are told that Mary treasured these things in her heart [Luke 2:19]. She knows more about what is going on, because she is an agent in it, and she anticipates what will come about. Yet the film takes this even further, drawing in the words of the apostle John in Revelation about God’s final intention to remake Creation: to bring this era of creation to climax through the other side of judgement to New Creation. As Mary cradles her fallen son’s face- the One she knows is more than her son, he looks gratefully back, returning her love in this extraordinary moment, summing up their unique relationship and speaking as God to her about the future they are making together:
11 And he said, “Go out and stand on the mount before the Lord.” And behold, the Lord passed by, and a great and strong wind tore the mountains and broke in pieces the rocks before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind. And after the wind an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake. 12 And after the earthquake a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire. And after the fire the sound of a low whisper.[or a sound, a thin silence.] 13 And when Elijah heard it, he wrapped his face in his cloak and went out and stood at the entrance of the cave. And behold, there came a voice to him and said, “What are you doing here, Elijah?” 14 He said, “I have been very jealous for the Lord, the God of hosts. For the people of Israel have forsaken your covenant, thrown down your altars, and killed your prophets with the sword, and I, even I only, am left, and they seek my life, to take it away.” 15 And the Lord said to him, “Go, return on your way to the wilderness of Damascus. And when you arrive, you shall anoint Hazael to be king over Syria. 16 And Jehu the son of Nimshi you shall anoint to be king over Israel, and Elisha the son of Shaphat of Abel-meholah you shall anoint to be prophet in your place. 17 And the one who escapes from the sword of Hazael shall Jehu put to death, and the one who escapes from the sword of Jehu shall Elisha put to death. 18 Yet I will leave seven thousand in Israel, all the knees that have not bowed to Baal, and every mouth that has not kissed him.”
1 Kings 19: 11-18 ESV
The rolling news media showed us huge fires in California and even more massive conflagrations of forests- well, of everything– in Australia in very recent months; I assume you know this. Now we hear there is severe flooding in some of the same neighbourhoods where the recently vanished vegetation used to retain water in the soil, adding further destruction. Disasters on an ever-increasing scale are occurring with rising regularity, in places on the planet that are not used to being seen on the TV for these sorts of reasons. “That stuff only happens in Africa,” they said. More and more folk that have been accustomed to living in a picture postcard environment are finding their creature comforts severely curtailed.
We know a lot more about our world and where it is in the big scheme of things than the writers of 1&2 Kings did. We now call that sort of knowledge ‘science’ and ‘geology’ and ‘meteorology.’ We can also make machines to take cameras into space and capture rather nice photos of what’s out there. And ‘selfies’ of our beautiful planet. We can now appreciate how our planet relies completely on a tiny fraction of the massive energy output of the sun to drive the water cycle and photosynthesis and, well, all the life we know of. The Sun is a mind-bogglingly enormous ball of gas collapsing under its own gravity and exploding by a nuclear fusion reaction all at once. That makes it nice and shiny and VERY HOT. Walk outside on any day without cloud cover and even in the UK you can feel the heat reaching your skin directly from 96 million miles away. That’s such a considerable distance it takes light eight minutes to get here.
This rather splendid poster transports us to a vantage point outside the limits of the solar system as understood in the early 1900s. Neptune was officially discovered in 1846, though Galileo had in fact seen it through his telescope in 1612. He mistakenly classified that particular dot of light as a star in his notebook. If he had kept focused on it for a few more nights, he might have reached even more radical worldview-changing conclusions than the ones that got him into trouble with Pope Urban VIII.
Could there be life anywhere else in our solar system? There was a great deal of public speculation about that question even before 1900, but as the scale diagram above hints at, its a really really long way from the Sun to Neptune. It took a while to realise that the intensity of sunlight reaching a planet significantly determines whether life could be sustained there. Too far from the sun means not enough heat, while too close means too much. So it turns out that there is a narrow band of tolerance for a planet to safely harbour life based on liquid water. This band is shown in blue in the diagram below.
Remember Goldilocks? An early version of the fairy tale featured an ‘antisocial’ old woman who was kicked out of house and home by her family: she rocks up in the woods looking for someone else’s stuff to ‘borrow’, conveniently finding the three bears have just popped out while their breakfast porridge cools down. There were too many awkward social justice and colonial issues in that version- it quickly got changed to be more ‘child-friendly,’ with an innocent and vulnerable girl now seeking shelter in the forest, and so Providence smiles on her. She is simply clumsy, so while furniture is broken, various bowls of porridge are sampled, and bed sheets ruffled, we are amused rather than outraged. We are comforted by the idea that our own preferences can be satisfied in finding a bowl of porridge that is neither too hot nor too cold; its ‘just right’, even generously provided by a reluctantly tolerant neighbour.
Our Earth boasts a great number of ‘Goldilocks’ features, but this idea also applies on a galactic scale, as shown by the following graphic. Planets suitable for life to evolve and develop won’t be found around many of the billions of stars in the Milky Way- too close to the galactic centre means very frequent gamma ray bursts from closely packed and short lived stars. DNA could not survive intact for long enough. Yet stellar explosions are absolutely necessary to generate all the elements heavier than hydrogen and helium. The outer rim of a galaxy doesn’t produce enough of these elements for life, or even for rocky planets with a liquid core. A lot of heat is needed to cook the bears’ porridge, but then it must be left to cool before trying to eat it. In the same way, several rounds of stellar evolution were required to brew up the molecular kit for our construction- both of planet and people, but the hottest and most dramatic of those remains unseen in the long distant past.
A hot liquid core is vital for our Earth, as it drives tectonism to cycle life-sustaining minerals in the planetary crust, while also generating a magnetic field to shelter our atmosphere and any nascent life from cosmic radiation. Mars used to have such a liquid core, but as that planet is much smaller than our Earth, it has cooled and (probably) solidified, thus loosing its protective field and then nearly all its atmosphere. NASA rover ‘Perseverance’ has just landed there, surely finding what can, at best, only be evidence of extinct simple life forms. Yet Mars lies just beyond the ‘habitable zone’ in the diagram we saw earlier, which is not usually pointed out.
Our night sky is not as star spangled as the photo above. It might seem boring in this part of the galaxy, but that’s really a good thing. Especially in the centre of galaxies, many stars have exploded, collapsed and coalesced , forming ‘black holes’, fearsome wells of gravity which consume everything within their reach without hope of escape. There is likely a supermassive black hole at the centre of most galaxies; a not-at-all desirable neighbour.
I expect you are familiar with another curious feature of our Earth, which is its 23.5 degree axial tilt. This remains fixed though our annual orbit, so the heat from the Sun is spread far more widely and predictably over the surface, giving us the cycle of seasons, thus extending the habitable areas of the planet very considerably. In so many ways then, we find that the ‘temperature’ here on Earth is ‘just right.’ Until we significantly raised the level of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere from the Industrial Revolution to the present day.
After the astronomy lesson, its now time for big geology. I’ve hinted at some of this already, but even if this is familiar to you, please pause with me to reflect on how MINDBLOWING this is. We build things out of stones because they stay the same shape. We dig foundations for our buildings because rocks don’t move. Tiny earthquakes do happen in my neighbourhood near London- we heard that some chimney pots fell nearby in Folkestone when there was a rare and brief tremor. There have been much more serious earthquakes in far away places, including Iran and Japan in just the last few weeks. Such events are concentrated along particular lines on the Earth’s surface- and so are the 500 or so volcanoes that have been active within recorded human history. When people are living adjacent to where an earthquake strikes or volcano erupts, the consequences are often catastrophic. But at our short lived and brief human scale, we’ve been oblivious to the deeper and much larger reality. An imaginative chap called Alfred Wegener suggested in print in 1912 that the well-known fact that the shape of the continents match like a jigsaw is because they’ve were joined up and then moved apart; albeit really slowly. He got laughed at for 18 years and then he died. The mockers kept laughing for another two decades. Now we teach school children, in a very matter-of-fact manner, that the continents float around on soft rock as the liquid mantle moves around underneath them, carrying these platforms of solid rock around like boats on flood water. At maybe 8cm per year. So 180 million years ago, this is what part of the atlas looked like:
We really shouldn’t be glib about this. Our everyday experience of what rock is like does not equip us to understand what rock is actually capable of. The more science we learn, the more often I get this feeling- that reality is really stranger than fiction! The fluid mechanics of tectonic drift are not yet fully understood, but good science is like that. Any current big theory is a ‘best fit’ with a great deal of different sorts of evidence contributing to it, so we can proceed with growing confidence, despite knowing that the scientific account is not by any means complete. There is room for awe in this sort of science- the attitude that combines rational satisfaction with having discovered what is going on and how it is happening- with wonder at the extraordinary things that we have partial insight into. I mean they are extraordinary because they are different in kind to what we learn from our small-scale human experience. Rock is hard: try falling on one! But squeezed deep under the crust, and heated by radioactive decay from the liquid core: there it is transformed into a material on which lumps of continent, thousands of miles across, and hundreds deep can move. As my students say far too often, ‘That’s weird.’ I agree with them! Iceland enlarges by splitting through the middle and adding new lava between the plates moving away from each other, eastward and westward. This phenomenon also underlines the scope of deep geological time. The Atlantic is a big ocean. The breakup of Gondwanaland began a long time ago. Do the division calculation, and you find that moving 2.6 centimetres a year stretches out the Atlantic from Senegal in Africa to the Bahamas on the other side of the ocean in 180 million years. Wegener’s imaginative leap remains one of extraordinary intellectual courage, while the sceptical opposition of the orthodox continues to warrant respect. Nevertheless, the evidence continued to accumulate, and Wegener has been proved right, though long after his death. Now, in geology, as well as in astronomy, we teach that the earth does indeed move.
Though our scripture passage begins with a wind, I’ve come to it now, because wind, like tectonics, is also a function of the uneven distribution of heat. More of the sun’s energy is absorbed by the atmosphere in one place than another, so that bit warms and becomes less dense. That region of air rises, as nearby cooler and denser air pushes down and across, displacing the warmer air upwards- and now you’ve got wind! This very simple physics results in enormous weather. Over the oceans, certain large areas of water are warmer than others, so the area of atmosphere above them that gets heated gets bigger, and much more water evaporates and collects in the sky, and BOOM, you’ve got a hurricane. In recent years we’ve started naming these, as climate change has created more such systems, with greater regularity. The Caribbean and Florida coast are assaulted by storms of increasing severity each summer, and more remnants reach the UK with significant impacts. We heard about even more devastating tropical cyclones in the Pacific, such as typhoon ‘Yolanda/Haiyan’ that hit the Philippines in 2013. Some 6300 souls were lost there.
Which way these storms move, and so who exactly is impacted by them, is a much more complex affair. Despite the fact that our atmosphere is only about 60 miles thick, and you need an oxygen mask on Everest, which is 3 miles in altitude, like an international jet plane, the air does not all mix up randomly or equally. Its in layers, and high above the cloud layers are circulating currents snaking around the globe as it spins. UK forecasters frequently explain to us that their weather predictions also depend on the changing direction of the ‘jet stream,’ which none of us can see. Alfred Wegener was mainly a weather scientist- a meteorologist- and this was another major discovery he made significant contributions to.
If we venture out away from our Earth, there is even bigger weather to be found. Next to the picture of Hurricane Florence above is a fabulous shot of Jupiter, a planet so large that it is bigger than all the rest of the solar system put together, apart from the Sun. At Jupiter’s north pole you can see its own aurora, generated by the stupendous magnetic field of this gas giant planet, and beneath it, the Great Red Spot, a permanent anticyclone weather system that is one and a third times the diameter of planet Earth, with permanent winds of some 400km/h (270mph).
According to the poster of the solar system above, between us and Jupiter are a few asteroids and Mars, and that appears to be it. If your spacecraft blows up, no-one will hear a sound, as there is no air to transmit it. No wind.
Space is a vacuum, pretty much, with perhaps four hydrogen molecules per cubic meter- that’s not even ‘thin.’ But following Alfred Wegener, we’ve learned to observe at different scales, and since we orbit a star, the story isn’t over yet. As hydrogen is transmuted into helium, there is a wind of sorts thrown off from the Sun, mostly up and down, fortunately. But some comes sideways towards us- a plasma of separated protons and electrons and helium nuclei (alpha particles). There aren’t many of them, but as their energy is considerable, they are a real hazard. Our moon has no protection, but Earth’s liquid core generates a handy magnetic field to deflect most of the rays/particles around us, away into the dark, inky blackness of space. At the poles the magnetic field lines come down towards the ground, and so do just some of the cosmic rays, giving us the most beautiful aurora borealis at northern latitudes. Even here, however, the high energy bombardment is largely neutralised before all of Earth’s lifeforms, including humans, are exposed to unsustainable levels of gene-disrupting and cancer-inducing rays. Below is a photo out the window of the International Space Station, also showing meteors burning up in the atmosphere. What a fantastic sight! Such beauty results from our being successfully protected from certain destruction.
As the graphic shows, the solar wind spreads out through the whole system until it bumps into the collective ‘wind’ of the rest of the galaxy, made of mostly the same things. There are yet some further mysteries in the cosmic radiation, which new measurements from 2017 are starting to quantify.
As I have described the phenomena of fire and earthquakes and winds on earth and far beyond, I think we are drawn to a marvellous conclusion. As we find ourselves suspended in motion in the universe; though surrounded by a number of significant hazards, we discover that our place in the cosmos is nevertheless remarkably convenient. Some of the planetary ‘chairs’ are not at all suitable for us to sit on- but one is! Some of the ‘porridge’ is very hot- far too hot to handle. Some is frozen solid! But one bowl is just right. It can be very windy, or more often, there’s no air at all that is suitable. But we find ourselves at home, in a sheltered place to sleep soundly. We’d better be looking after it.
Our perspectives on our place in our environment are now quite different to that presented in 1 Kings 19. I wonder if you are reconsidering your own viewpoint on the cosmos as you absorb these paragraphs. As I read 1 Kings 19:11-12, I realise that the idea of highlighting wind or fire or earthquake as signs of divine Presence stands in contrast to the worldview of science and technology that I am employed to promote as a teacher of teenagers. Maybe we are not so objective as that. If confronted with these experiences, we so-called ‘modern thinking folk’ could more readily admit to considering both our own mortality and whether Someone is attracting our attention. I am not claiming that I understand exactly how the ancient Hebrews viewed them at their time of writing, though I am speculating that mention of wind and earthquake and fire is an allusion to a pre-scientific classification of matter. Are these somewhat equivalent to earth, air and fire later proposed as basic elements or building blocks of the world by Empedocles in Greece in the 5th century BC? If so, then why is water not mentioned? Two thoughts occur to me. The first is that God has promised Noah that He will not destroy the earth by means of water, so God will not be seen to toy with this earnest assurance. The second is that just previously in 1 Kings 18, we see that God used Elijah to purposely control the water cycle, initially suspending the seasonal cycle of rain, and then very deliberately and precisely overseeing its return. So -quite extraordinarily- we see that Elijah is working in active partnership with Jehovah God directing one of the elemental forces of nature. Israel’s neighbours were not clear about God’s nature and identity. Could humans confuse ‘God’ with the source of rain? Ahab and/or Jezebel may have thought in that way. Elijah has already shown us the answer, very unambiguously.
But what about the rest of the forces of nature? Might there be divinity somehow tied up with the material of the land, the motions of the air, or the powers of fire? These pagan or pantheistic beliefs are refuted by the scripture, but rather than give a blank ‘No,’ Elijah’s covenant God gives him and us an object lesson in each case, to ensure that we are completely clear about the reality. God wants us to understand. God is the power behind the phenomenon of wind, to be sure, but the wind is not Godself. Even the most fixed and firm part of our world, the ground under our feet, can sometimes be moved. So rather than trust in that, whether it was thought a pagan divinity or not, the phenomenon of earthquakes must rather point us to trust the God who actually makes the ground of all things. Perhaps there were those of Israel’s neighbours who might deify fire, which was part of the challenge to the prophets of Baal in the showdown with Elijah. Although Elijah’s God is “the God who answers by fire,” that does not mean that He is ‘in’ the fire.
Additionally there is a simpler answer: the artful mechanics of story telling. As in Exodus, where God brought ten plagues of judgement against the Egyptian pantheon, all the multiple deities of the Canaanites are summed up for us here in classic literary fashion: three stand for all, just like the bears in the forest. Which ever option you consider identified in this pithy rule of three– God is not there in person. The real God, the One worthy of the Name, is gloriously beyond mere matter.
As archaeologists continue to uncover and assemble historical evidence from ancient Near Eastern civilisations, a long list of Canaanite deities is emerging from the detritus of decay. Are any of them more likely targets to be held up to ridicule and judgement by Elijah’s God? I’ve picked a few significant candidates. Their ‘king of the gods’ was Ba’al Hadad, which translates as ‘master of thunder’, also god of storms, thunder, lightning and air. Dagon, god of crop fertility and grain, was supposed to be father of Ba’al Hadad. Melqart, ‘king of the city’, was specifically the god of Tyre, as well as the underworld and cycle of vegetation. Moloch and his wife Ishat were probably spoken of as god and goddess of fire by Jezebel and her priests. I suggest that these examples meet the criteria.
Whichever opposing pantheon we might think of, Elijah’s God has the same answer. They will pass. The wind will drop. The earthquake will cease. The fire will burn out. And the conceits of our civilisations will also crumble into dust, their clamouring voices stilled into silence. If, by some happenstance, their remains do last a little longer in the dust to be discovered and cleverly deciphered in our time, we will see their claims to greatness revealed in truth for what they are. Thin; barely distinguishable from nothing.
1 Kings 19 transports us to the mountain top with Elijah, who emerges from his rock hole after the spectacular displays have passed. Via the revelatory marvels of CCTV (‘Cave-circuit TeleVision’) we are invited to join with him in his encounter with the True God. That’s what prophets are for, after all- to show us God’s way.
At the mouth of the mountain cave, we are brought together and all treated equally. Whether we consider ourselves ‘modern’ materialists, who think that all meaning is ultimately reduced to the characteristics of the ingredients of a periodic table, or polytheists, whose various deities are assigned to selected natural phenomena, or pantheists who locate deity generally in nature, this text addresses us all collectively: the One True God YHWH transcends all and everything.
Yahweh comes to us!
God is ‘in’ each of these phenomena, inasmuch as God is their actual first cause and upholding providence, but God also chooses to reveal Godself at our human scale and to protect and respect us as His esteemed creatures. I wonder if we each might we see with Elijah that God intends us to beequals-of-a-kind? This is a bold claim, I hope you appreciate, which can only be possible because of the grace of God.
Did you consider Elijah’s response in the text we began with? Once he has obediently left his cave lodgings on the mountain, to stand before the LORD, the most spectacular and fearsome phenomena occur before him. We are left to guess at the detail, but I think this much is easy. Elijah does not stay ‘standing’ for very long. After wind and earthquake and fire have passed, he went out and stood at the entrance of the cave. We were not told directly, but it’s pretty obvious that he was hiding. But don’t misunderstand Elijah. This was hiding inspired by wisdom: my flesh will not stand this hurricane, or the tremors which followed or the firestorm which came afterward. Just as we find that our life on God’s created Earth is generally a place of ‘just rightness,’ so the Lord ensures that even this procession of power is within the bounds of what Elijah can bear- at least if he is back inside the cave!
What a stunning series of sights! Today you can immediately call up video footage of hurricanes in the Bahamas, sudden earthquakes caught on municipal cameras in Japan, or a firestorm in the Californian forest with the electronic device you are using to read this blog. Any one of these would be a rare and once in a lifetime experience before the recent development of film and recording technologies: you’d had to have been there. Hollywood blockbusters exaggerate these spectacular sights even further with CGI, such that most real life is made to look less impressive than their cinematic fantasies. Though Elijah wisely returns to shelter inside his cave, all the action is happening right before him, and he takes all these highly exceptional events completely in his stride. He is watching out for the Presence of the LORD in each phenomenon – and is paying close enough attention to be able to discern that his God was not there. After the third act has passed, the prophet of God comes out to the cave mouth, confident of his being before his God. I think this is extraordinary. Would I have been so confident? Would you?
The air beyond the cave mouth was filled with blinding dust and the clash and clatter of ever larger rocks picked up and thrown together by the gale; this cacophony passed into the full-on shaking and trembling of the ground surrounding him- the whole cave was moving! Then the heat of the firestorm, with its own wind and roaring: a close curtain of fire rippling like the surface of the sun, its radiation trapping Elijah in his rocky pressure cooker.
Wouldn’t we have been quaking in our boots, shaking with fear and exhaustion- emotionally and psychologically spent after enduring such a fearsome display of natural wonders? How can we tell that Elijah was not so affected? Do you know what Elijah says before this scene? Look at the earlier verses in 1 Kings 19 and see what he says to the LORD:
9 There he came to a cave and lodged in it. And behold, the word of the Lord came to him, and he said to him, “What are you doing here, Elijah?” 10 He said, “I have been very jealous for the Lord, the God of hosts. For the people of Israel have forsaken your covenant, thrown down your altars, and killed your prophets with the sword, and I, even I only, am left, and they seek my life, to take it away.”
1 Kings 19:9-10
Now see what he says afterwards. God repeats His question to Elijah:
And after the fire the sound of a low whisper.[or a sound, a thin silence.] 13 And when Elijah heard it, he wrapped his face in his cloak and went out and stood at the entrance of the cave. And behold, there came a voice to him and said, “What are you doing here, Elijah?” 14 He said, “I have been very jealous for the Lord, the God of hosts. For the people of Israel have forsaken your covenant, thrown down your altars, and killed your prophets with the sword, and I, even I only, am left, and they seek my life, to take it away.”
1 Kings 19:12-14
I think that my second answer would have been different. Whatever was bothering me beforehand would have faded into insignificance. I would have completely forgotten my earlier worries and concerns. At my best, I would like to dream that I would have been overcome with gratitude for both my survival and for being treated to such a stunning display. I’d like to think I’d be overcome with awe at my God and even full of praise and thanksgiving. I would have embarrassed myself as I would not have been able to come up with adequate words to say so! If an authority figure were to repeat a question to me, I’d be wondering if my first answer was somehow inadequate. Not so for Elijah. His response is identical. Following this unparalleled display of God’s creative and providential capacity, right under his very human nose- from his grandstand view from a seat for one- Elijah the prophet of God is simply assured in his human response to his God, who is affirmed to be who Elijah knows Him to be. He knows that his life is potentially on the line, but he is resolved not to be intimidated by the threats of men and women, even of Jezebel and Ahab. Why would he be, as the very forces of nature have been released and at once constrained on his account?
Where then is God? Not in fire or quaking or wind, we have learned, but now heard against the silence. Something like whispered words invite Elijah forward from his cave where he has been taking shelter from the overwhelming energy of the elements in procession outside. The Word is Presence! A still small voice: God’s self-declaring revelation then comes in clear and simple words that can be uttered and imitated exactly by a child. Human words with meaning that can be reliably preserved for us as inky black marks on a page or screen. Elijah comes out- a little tentatively I think, with his face concealed – for he is expecting the Glory Of The Lord, and hears God’s Words that are just right. The LORD is in God’s words to Elijah.
To what effect? Is Elijah’s insistent prayerful complaint about apostate leadership to be resolved, and if so, how? YHWH God’s considered answer is to appoint better leaders, and to create of them a functional community. With teeth. Take note: the nature of the environment is no obstacle to the success of this strategy. If God sends us, expect that empty wilderness could be the route. ‘Go, return on your way to the wilderness of Damascus. And when you arrive, you shall anoint Hazael to be king over Syria.’ More surprises! The first new leader Elijah is sent to appoint is not a member of the covenant people of Israel. God’s plan begins with the others, the Gentiles. Anoint as king Hazael of a not-my-covenant land! His name, Hazael, means to see, or El/God has seen. Elijah may have expected that his current trouble with Jezebel the Canaanite queen of Ahab might result in God’s blessing being kept ‘in house’ at least for a while, but no! God’s Way Forward is WAY BIGGER than we expect. God goes on to speak of new leadership in Israel: ‘And Jehu the son of Nimshi you shall anoint to be king over Israel.‘ Does not God’s ordering of the next part of the coming into being of God’s people in God’s world show that He is very serious about His Genesis 12 covenant promise to Abram?
The way the LORD instructs Elijah is so matter-of-fact. “However serious the situation looks, and you are right, Elijah, it is serious: You share my concerns, and we’ve got this.” Surely the lesson of ‘Hazael’ is that God sees all leaders in all places and times, whether in a palace, an office or even a cave. [If we jump forward to 2 Kings 8:7-15 we understand that this ‘seeing’ is the key point. Hazael is not going to act as a ‘good’ man, and the prophet of God weeps as he discerns what wickedness Hazael will eventually commit. So I think God gives Elijah a principle here in 1 Kings 19, analogous to Paul’s instruction to Timothy to pray for kings and those in authority in 1 Tim 2:2. I do not believe that God simply endorses wicked leaders. Such questions of human freedom under God are subjects for another day.]
We’re not done. Elijah is concerned that the line of prophets ends with him. ‘…and Elisha the son of Shaphat of Abel-meholah you shall anoint to be prophet in your place.’ As if to say, ‘You think its all over? Not at all! Your mantle will also pass over in my order to the next generation, just as I determine.’
How will all this work? Not only does God direct Elijah to anoint and institute the next generation of kings in and beyond Israel, He shows him how these institutions will have their force and effectiveness. ‘And the one who escapes from the sword of Hazael shall Jehu put to death, and the one who escapes from the sword of Jehu shall Elisha put to death.’ The leaders God gives authority to can be tremendously effective- from the smallest detail of administration to the ultimate sanction and judgement- and especially when they act in concert. While Hazael king of Syria is highlighted first, the king of Israel will back him up– another prophetic move of God’s Kingdom Come!! The kingship of Israel is itself to be backed up by the priest-kings who are the Prophets, who speak and act directly in God’s Name, not man’s. Yahweh’s full leadership plan is more than adequate to deal with all Jezebelsand Ahabs and their violent doings in the community of humanity. Is God waiting for us to do Elijah’s kind of business with Him? I think so.
This chapter takes us with Elijah on a journey to contrast the ultimately inadequate views of the world that pay attention to the surfaces of things, that seek to imbue meaning in the power of elemental phenomena or our own conceptions of spirituality- even that we might reject spirituality altogether to embrace materialism- with God’s real invitation to receive the gift of God’s world for us all to come into fully functional relationship with God, with God’s creation, and with each other. The focus of this relationship is not merely in the matter of managerial stewardship of energy and materials and the flux between them all. Rather, God has a bigger vision for an ethical quality in all these relationships that enables a mode of growth and thriving beyond material limits. Elijah is an exemplar for us, though not the final word. How else could Elisha be cheeky enough to seek a double portion of his master’s spirit? (2 Kings 2:9) How else can ‘the increase of His Government and Peace be without end’? (Is 9:7)
Where is God? He is not so much ‘in’ wind, earth or fire, as disparate elements, as God is Present in the whole of His good world- in Elijah’s day already, not only in but beyond Israel, His land and chosen people. God bestowed a mantle on Elijah that was beyond earthly kingship, though it surely supported that. The nature of being God’s co-worker is that supernatural things can be brought about naturally, in partnership with the One who both creates from nothing and providentially upholds divine laws of the cycles and changes of nature. There is a sacred distance between Creator and creation: the Lord passed by… but He was not in… and thus we see transcendence and immanence in tension. By extension, God is ‘in’ Elijah by His anointing, and yet Elijah has agency to act freely as a human creature.
As we follow Elijah’s story onwards, we see that the dimensions of his influence continue to expand because God is working in covenant partnership with His creature. Might we share in this vision? Of course! That is the plain meaning of this concluding detail: ‘Yet I will leave seven thousand in Israel, all the knees that have not bowed to Baal, and every mouth that has not kissed him.’ “I am the only one of your prophets left!” Elijah had complained, with great certainty. If we listen carefully in the thin silence we might hear two sounds. The voice of God speaking quietly with His servants, and God’s laughter. Might we despair that the power of our love for God in the world is limited compared with the powers of the elements, or the violence of monarchs and their military forces? God alerts us to His transcendent perspective: His victory is summed up in our pure kiss of worship.
Elsewhere in this blog I am exploring what the characteristics of being a co-creator with God might be. Part of my intention is to discover the fruitfulness of dialogue between Christian theology and science. So having explored the nature of God’s created universe in the terms of the text of 1 Kings, and considered how this Earth in this Solar System in this particular galaxy at this time makes it ‘just right’ for us to be here, I want to appraise what the future might look like- the future of our cosmic environment.
Perhaps the most decisive piece of evidence that convinced geologists to repent of their mockery of Alfred Wegener is the pattern of magnetic field lines hard-baked into the under sea rocks either side of the world’s mid-ocean spreading ridges. This proof of the vast scale movement of the continents results from another phenomenon of the core, namely the irregular reversal of the whole magnetic field of the planet. This flip-flopping is what was recorded each time new molten rock emerged at the surface, preserving a record of the orientation of the field at that point in geological time. There are a lot of flipflops recorded, because the field has reversed many times over many millions of years. In 2018 a book by Alanna Mitchell drew attention to the fact that our electronic and satellite technology is known to be vulnerable to the radiation that will reach the ground at higher intensities if our field flips any time soon. Which it might well do, as the last few reversals occurred at something like 250 000 year intervals, and its been three times as long as that since we last had a major reversal. The security of our interlinked power supply networks is an engineering challenge to add to the existing vulnerabilities of our energy supplies to geopolitical stresses. Should we therefore be less confident that conditions on Earth are ‘just right’ for life after all then? No, for two reasons. The anxieties for life itself have been overstated. There are no mass extinction events correlated with field reversals. Secondly, even with a weakened field, our atmosphere will still protect living things. Additionally, we continue to be very lax in our behaviour as a species, pouring huge quantities of mutagens into our environment. We ought to be much more bothered about our self-inflicted threats to our own lives and the thriving of the biosphere as a whole.
Just as the history of the Earth over deep time has further implications for the wellbeing of living things here, so does the life history of our own star, the Sun. Asteroid dating confirms that the Earth accreted from swirling dust and rock 4.54 billion years ago, about the same time as the Sun coalesced from the recycled remains of previous exploded stars. Such long periods of time are required for life to evolve. It took a while for things to get going. We humans have only been here a little while, and that is very definitively a convenient consequence of this timing. The porridge has cooled down just enough. Its all good for a long time yet. Our Sun is slowly working its way through its supply of hydrogen gas at 600 million tons a second. That’s the mass of the Earth every 70 000 years. Nothing much will change for a couple more billion years, by which point I’ll have retired and completely used up my pension. Then the sun will expand rather a lot, getting bigger and bigger as its gravity reduces, consuming Mercury and Venus and then us. Then it’ll go POP. So we’ve got plenty of time to follow Space X and launch whatever vehicles we fancy into space and get the heaven out of here. We haven’t developed much of the science and technology required to build and fly safe interstellar space colonies- we will have to take all the Goldilocks features with us. Not to worry. The Sun is our more or less friendly neighbour for a long while yet.
If we look even further afield, not just beyond our solar system but out beyond the Milky Way galaxy, we will find that our nearest galactic neighbour, Andromeda, is on a collision course with us- the whole Milky Way! At 70 miles per second. There’s a nice animation of this for you in the references below. Which means that our Sun will have consumed the Earth before the galaxies merge. I’m told that the probability of any stars actually colliding when galaxies collide is pretty low, but since we are here to do science AND theology, at some point we need to recognise that God said that He would end it all in order to bring New Creation. How and when that will happen I’m not going to speculate. As Elijah’s story makes plain, sometimes God does intervene to rectify the great ills in the world, and sometimes He does not. In any case, He charges each of us with great and serious responsibilities. I hope I have also inspired you to appreciate that there is much more of a partnership on offer than most of us have been taught or dared to dream.
In brief, we find that our place in God’s cosmos is going to carry on being very comfortable for a very long time yet. Recorded history is little more than 10 000 years, and right now its looking pretty dodgy for the next 100 years. We’ve burnt too much coal and oil and gas and cut down too many trees. How much oil are we still getting through? 100 million barrels of oil a day, apparently, and we may well have no more than 10 years to arrest run away global heating. Our oceans have already become an unseemly soup of plastics and toxins that are imperilling our collective survival. Never mind a few spats over trawling rights after Brexit. When John the Baptist and Jesus were seen in Galilee, baptising fishermen, some wondered whether Elijah had returned, as Malachi prophesied (Mal 4:5-6, John 1:19, Matt 11:14, and elsewhere.) We certainly need the Elijah kind of prophetic voice in our world, doing business with God in His world, supporting kings and all those in authority in prayer and action, especially in responding to the Climate Crisis. Might you be one of the next 7000?
Now I shall be blunt- excuse me if this is currently more awkward for you. As you know very well, we humans are mortal and spiritual beings. We can and will die in the short term compared to most of what we have just rehearsed. So what do we learn?
In the final analysis, it would be a mistake to claim that our being in God’s world is completely safe. Goldilocks found a warm bowl of porridge to eat up, a convenient chair to sit on, and a comfy bed to sleep in mostly because someone else had recently cooked and dished up, and then left a range of ‘gifts’ at just the ‘right time’ for her arrival. Entirely unintentionally, says the fairy story, because the bears had simply stepped out for a brief socially isolated forest walk. Whereas God has completely intentionally gifted us with a feast of life opportunities by His Providential Design. And he comes close by, hoping that we will respond with humility and a little courage to greet Him. Our life here and now is only a short season, but God has even better things to come.
I’ve said this already, and now I will whisper it quietly again against the silence. We are enjoyed the gifts of God’s created world, finding that it has so many ‘just right’ features. But little girls and old ladies all- every one of us- must now shoulder our responsibilities to make our own homes, grow our food and heat our own porridge, creating lives which are corporately sustainable and characterised by sharing and caring. On the scale of the whole planet. Planet A. Its the only one we’ve got. Some of us have taken much more than we need, so others cannot find just enough.
Elijah learnt constancy with Yahweh, the covenant God, and at the last his confidence in God was vindicated. At the end of his life’s ministry, as we see it recorded at 2 Kings 2:3–9, Elijah does not share the general destiny of man, to be buried in a hole in the earth. Rather, he spectacularly rises through the air on a fire chariot our God sends to carry him up and beyond Elisha’s sight, who catches sight of him as he does, and carries on in the Way with YHWH. With his God, Elijah transcends all the elements- represented in these chapters by water, air, earth and fire. Such a man is this intercessor, anointer of kings and prophets: mighty prophet, Elijah, the priest-king co-creator of Yahweh.
‘Ye olde periodic table’ is A JOKE! Go read about Dmitri Mendeleev who was the Russian chemical genius who actually ‘invented’ the ‘Periodic Table of the Elements’ if you don’t know/ remember your science lessons. His ‘periodic law’ enabled the PREDICTION of the existence of the ninety-odd elements that the universe is actually made from. (Apologies if the unreferenced image is your work- I cannot find an attribution to this VERY MODERN creation.) [Why ‘ninety-odd’? See Helmenstine, Anne Marie, Ph.D. “List of Naturally Occurring Elements.” ThoughtCo, Aug. 26, 2020, thoughtco.com/how-many-elements-found-in-nature-606635. So its 94/98 elements at the moment, and 118 in total, including the ones we’ve made in nuclear reactors to date.]
Six tips for starting your day as a co-creator with God.
I have a hunch the the Bible has nearly all the best advice for starting your day- yes, Today, Now, THIS DAY! Readers of this blog will know that the web is awash with advice, especially the easily packaged kind that fits a catchy format: ‘Ten tips for health social relationships.’ ‘Maximise your potential in life!’ ’17 Ways You Can Be A Better Person Than You Were Yesterday’ Seventeen?! That’s not so catchy- surely they could have put in three more to round it off to twenty. Or maybe you’re intrigued by the odd number and so want to check it out. I learned two things when I glanced over some of those sites. One is that much of the advice is the same, and presented in a rather trite way. I know- folk often complain that ‘common sense’ isn’t half as common as it ought to be, so now I’m being hard to please. The second is that the value of the advice may be somewhat compromised. The author is seeking my attention- to get me to listen to them, to click their buttons, to subscribe to their channel, and buy their app/ book/ commit to supporting their career. They may have fantastic things to pass on, but can I really trust what they are saying- can I trust them?
The Christian disciple discovers the need to be discerning. Yes folk, there’s a spiritual gift for that. (Free download at 1 Corinthians 12:10 https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=1%20Corinthians%2012:10&version=ESV. Check it out!!) Much of that common sense advice I read is actually really good and we’d all be smart to adopt more of it. That’s not ‘being conformed to this world’- that’s wisdom! But at the same time, ‘Broad is the way that leads to destruction…’ The thing about wisdom is that if you haven’t already got it in abundance- who has??- you’re not quite sure what it is. I don’t think it’s just me. I need help.
“Beware blind guides!”
When we get to the end of the road of life, how much of that ‘good advice’ will prove to have been really valuable? What are the long term effects of following the seventeen tips? I put it to you that behind the advice are assumptions about what we could be as human beings, and what purposes we might be here for. We need to evaluate the motives of the would-be motivator. Best of all, we need a reliable guide. That’s someone who knows the whole journey, thoroughly explored the territory, and thrives in Life– they are so much more than a survivor of their experiences. Who could that be, and where is their website?!
This week I listened to a guy called Pete who claims to have widely researched the things that high performing people do in their mornings- how they start their day1– and distilled his insights down into six simple statements. That’s what academics call a meta-analysis; a study of existing studies. One study, one claim, one researcher could be wrong, even downright deceiving, but an overview of many studies on the same thing should iron out such pitfalls. But the researcher doing the meta-analysis also needs to be checked out. I couldn’t help thinking that much of what Pete had to say sounded familiar because it’s in the Bible, and for all I know about Pete right now, perhaps that’s no accident.
First off, I note there are six things in his list, which is a format he repeats in his coaching. My very first post in this blog was a product of morning prayer where a sister made reference to the Genesis days of creation. This speaks both of our sustained efforts during the week, and also crucially recognises the vital place of Rest; the Seventh Day, when God rested- and if you don’t get that is a big hint, let me spell it out for you. God’s Work in making God’s Cosmos has a built-in space for ‘not work’. Work is good and work is a gift; and it isn’t everything. Rest is supposed to be part of the repeating pattern of our lives. Let me say it again: God didn’t say He worked for a week of seven days and then finished everything and stopped working, as Almighty omnipotent God obviously could have done. Rather, Genesis sets out a repeating pattern for us, of working and resting, which is prophetic: there is more in God’s planning than just the work of this life. God’s rest is part of every week, and that is pointing forwards to something. Even in creation, God’s cosmos is pregnant with further potential.
So what did Pete claim to have distilled from his research of proven practice? Here’s his list, and just like a preacher’s sermon, it comes in an acronym: ‘SAVERS’.
All very reasonable, yes? My advice to us all is to check these out for their quality and reliability, and I’m suggesting that if we find evidence of application of these exercises in scripture, worked out in the context of a holistic scriptural worldview, then we can be more confident that these tips are well-motivated and compatible with eternal values. They will be worth doing. Remember, we are looking for depth, a sense of what really matters for our development; to set us up for the day so the world becomes different in a good way because we were in it. There’s nothing at all controversial in this list, I think we can agree. Make no mistake. Common wisdom can still be priceless wisdom. I’ve called myself a ‘common or garden theologian’- see my second post where I explain how our ‘common’ should be very much esteemed.
Silence. This may seem to be hard, or less of a challenge right now, depending on your family and living arrangements. We are at different stages of life. But more significant than changing external challenges is our internal dialogue. We can allow other voices into our heads -unhelpfully so. Indeed, some find that they wake up with a crowd of thoughts clamouring for attention, an ever-present flock of noisy seagulls. Just because the business of the new day is important, just because we want to care about stuff that needs fixing, just because… No! Stop! Not now, not just yet.
“Be still, my soul: the Lord is on thy side…” began Katharina von Schlegel in her hymn inspired by the words of Psalm 46;
Be still, and know that I am God: I will be exalted among the heathen, I will be exalted in the earth.
Psalm 46: 10
The I AM is our first realisation. ‘In-beginning-God’ is a slightly better way to read Genesis 1:1a and this is to be our first breath of consciousness each day. There is a big pause at that colon of punctuation in Ps46. God also sees the big sheet of paper of a potential ‘to do’ list’: even God puts that on hold! ‘I will do this and that- the ungodly and all their rubbish, the earth and all that I will decide to do there,’ God says, ‘but it’ll all wait.’ Be still. Be. Still. What the online coaches don’t get quite so right is the fellowship that we are invited into in this waiting and stillness. This is not to be an empty stillness- we are not alone in the non-cosmos before creation. We are in God’s cosmos with God, Who is close by, and He tells us not to be empty in silence but full of knowledge of our covenant God.
Still in mind, still in body, still in thoughts, in all our meditation, in our internal dialogue. At the glorious moment of revelation, “My Lord and my God!” cried the believing disciple.
…but they who wait for the LORD shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings like eagles; they shall run and not be weary; they shall walk and not faint.
Isaiah 40:31 ESV
We are seated with Christ, we are told in Ephesians, in high heavenly places. Isaiah is seeing something of that, I think. Have you seen film of the view that condors and eagles enjoy as they soar the thermals above their mountainous habitats? All sounds of the hustle and bustle down on the ground are forgotten: just the sound of the wind moving by as the bird senses swirling currents, adjusting its feathers to glide without its own effort where the atmosphere flows. Indeed, the more accurately the bird follows the current, the less sound there will be. Sustained in silence. All at once: sitting still; soaring in the heavens.
Affirmation. Once we find our centring in our relationship with God, each of us individually, we are then well-placed to open our mouths and start to speak. What will we speak about? Our needs and wants? Better is possible. Our personal aims and priorities? There’s a time coming for that. The trouble with modern houses is that the foundations are only substantial enough to support the initial design. If you then want to extend your property, you’re stuck, because the foundations are limiting. What does Gen 1:1 tell us about God’s intentions? He created ‘heavens-and-earth’: that’s the complete and total vision from the outset. All of life will be possible; the potential for as-yet-unrealised life in spectacular diversity, even things that are not specifically mentioned in the creation chapters. Advanced planning permissions built in! One of the attractive points that wiser mentors like Pete make here is that there is no value in affirming lies about yourself just because you want them to be true. “I am rich OR I am famous OR I’ve won the TV competition!” Taking up the cross of Christ is death to such fancies. And that is what the words of Deuteronomy say to us: God has affirmed his options before His people, and we do well to align ourselves with Him, to affirm His will. Then we can find a place for affirmation of our ambitions in the fertile soil of His larger purpose.
“I call heaven and earth to witness against you today, that I have set before you life and death, blessing and curse. Therefore choose life, that you and your offspring may live, loving the LORD your God, obeying his voice and holding fast to him, for he is your life and length of days, that you may dwell in the land that the LORD swore to your fathers, to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob, to give them.”
‘Seek first His Kingdom and His righteousness,’ says Jesus, ‘and all these things will be given to you as well.’ There is sword as well as Spirit in all these words, and though it is necessary to allow God to surgically remove certain hinderances from my life, once I have allowed God’s pruning through repentance, I find that ‘the boundary lines have fallen for me in pleasant places.’ (Psalm 16:6a)
“My God, you have given me Life! I choose You, and I choose Your Life. Thank you for establishing Your Kingdom; I seek Your Kingdom today, and through faith in Jesus receive Your righteousness. I revel in Your boundaries, that set in Your cosmos an expanse of freedom in which to create today with You.” Such prayerful affirmation is therefore grounded on the true foundation of Godself and God’s revealed intentions. We are encouraged to exercise ambitious responsibility for our own lives and for the impact that our lives can have on the communities in which we live and work; even for the whole world.
Visualisation. Following the silence, when we prioritise who we are, and even more importantly, ‘whose‘ we are, we can daily affirm the big vision we are living and working towards. Aim for the stars! Some people can make achieving big things look easy. That may well also be a lie, since their lives are far from ours and so we don’t really know them. We just don’t see the hard work. But the bar for success is going up all the time, so if we want to achieve greatness in life in some way or another, we all have to up our game. Elite performers in sport and the Arts talk about nurturing a mindset in which they visualise what they are going to do before they attempt it, and they actively rehearse this as they commence their next attempt. This is in addition to all of the actual gym work and training and rehearsal and sweat that everyone does just to get onto the stage, onto the track, into the race as a competitor. Those are absolutely necessary and there are no substitutes for all that. Who knows what percentage difference that visualisation makes to the winning performance? But the biblical testimony corroborates the claim- this is a sound principle.
I rejoiced in the Lord greatly that now at length you have revived your concern for me. You were indeed concerned for me, but you had no opportunity. Not that I am speaking of being in need, for I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content. I know how to be brought low, and I know how to abound. In any and every circumstance, I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need.13I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.
I’ll guarantee that there are people reading this who are very familiar with verse 13, but were not expecting me to give the preceding lines as well. As I say, its a great principle, though the way the Spirit of God sometimes invites us to apply it will be pretty demanding. I’m not sure how many of the life-coach manuals will include Jesus’ pep talk on taking up one’s cross daily and following after Him. A friend recently told me that his grandmother had an addition to our Lord’s instruction, once rebuking him thus: “Carry your cross, don’t drag it.” That is the visualisation of a seasoned disciple!
What the motivational manual is missing is partnership, and I don’t mean human teamwork here. I’ll come back to that. Rather, I mean the teamwork that God invites you into with Godself. If this is a surprise to you, you may be new here: please explore the rest of my blog, and hang around while I keep reflecting on Abram and Sarai and Joseph and all the rest. God could do it all without us. OR God could leave us to it. Neither are His selected method. He invites us into a partnership of co-creation, just because He wants to. How this works varies in Genesis and with Elijah and Ruth and Eve and Adam… and with you and me. But this is what the word of prophecy is about. And words of knowledge and discerning of spirits. Joseph’s story starts with two dreams. It doesn’t say where they came from, but by the end of the very long Genesis account, God has been found out! Right here I’m simply going to say that how all these things work is complex and creative. There is no simple recipe in any of these means, as in, “God says that x is going to happen, so now sit by and watch it happen.” That wouldn’t be a co-creative partnership of agents – even vastly unequal agents as we are- that would be a computer program. No, all these means of visualisation are inclusive of our agency. And the prayer our Lord taught us is the most spectacular example of this. ‘Pray in this manner: “Your Kingdom come, Your will be done!” ‘ If we don’t visualise and so pray, then it can’t happen- because God has ordained it in this manner.
Exercise. Now I’m not going to mess you about here. I can spin a yarn, as my readers will know, but I’m not going to do that now- teasing out some obscure passage to justify a point. Instead, I’ll say this: There is lots of good advice that isn’t in the Bible, and that doesn’t stop it being wisdom or valuable or world changing in a “very good” way. Wisdom that is compatible with ‘spiritual’ wisdom is still spiritual. As one brother puts it, ‘Everything is spiritual,’ even for the Christian. Including science and sport and working out. Far too many of us now lead highly sedentary lives that are bad for our bodies. My gut does not believe there will be jam tomorrow, so extra jam today becomes fat by tomorrow- unless I work it off with some extra miles. Scripture takes it for granted that we will use our God-given bodies for work. ‘If a man doesn’t work, he shall not eat,’ says Paul, in one of his rare lines that does not require theological explanation. We can now write the manual on why gluttony is not fitting for a ‘temple of the Holy Spirit’ (which is how Paul refers to the physical body of a Christian person in 1 Corinthians 6:19). Our growingly technologically-transformed lifestyles, lately doubled-down with uninterrupted working from home online, require us to take responsibility for what goes into our mouths, the daily exercise we attend to, and our overall attention to the health of our bodies, which benefit from the ever-more progressively advanced medical expertise known in human history. ‘To him who has been given much, much will be required.’ Pete recommends a seven minute, full body workout for all the office desk jockeys out there, as a non-negotiable part of his six part daily preparation for high performance. This is no ‘quack’ prescription! Indeed, I suggest that this truth demands as much repentance and ‘turning around the other way’ in our lives as any of our other common failings.
Reading. Oh wow. What a key ingredient this is! Our researcher-coach Pete puts it powerfully when he observes that we are only ever one book away from competence in any area of life we seek to excel at, both in business and our personal lives. Yet so many of us don’t commit even ten minutes a day to benefit from such insights. I have to testify that no other activity has had as much impact on my progress and personal development as reading, starting as a young person. Through reading we can come into deep and profound connection with experts who we will never meet, gaining priceless insights from their detailed reflections. You may think this obvious, but for too many Christians, there is an opportunity being missed here. The denominational divisions in the body of Christ are common knowledge, and while the choices that led to schism may lie generations in the past, we each stand to gain much by finding out what others think- what their distinctives are, which convictions they are committed to- what their stories are. Too many people of faith would be embarrassed to admit that, in truth, they follow the teaching of cults that forbid their members from reading anything other than the recommended writings of their core teachers and leaders. In our more sober moments- perhaps in some public context- we happily concede that we fully expect all Christian people to be united in God’s will in heaven in the hereafter. But this does not translate into an active engagement with folk who think and live out their faith differently today. Once again I emphasise that I have been encouraged to grow in more radical and impacting ways through my engagement with sources well beyond the typical limits of the reading list of my local circle and denomination. As a would-be theologian, that has included engaging with a wide range of saints and authors across the ages- and what a delight that has been! I now see how tragic our present state of small-mindedness is. Our personal discipleship is severely inhibited, and, inevitably, so is our influence in society as witnesses to New Creation Life in Jesus Christ.
[I must acknowledge that since YOU are reading this now, it is likely that I am now ‘preaching to the choir’ somewhat. Nevertheless, let’s reflect on how wide our (virtual) bookshelf is right now. Is this blog amongst the further places you’ve been from ‘home’? If it is, let me encourage you onwards to more distant lands and the friends that you can make there.]
The Word of God is described by Paul as having the same effect on our minds as taking a bath: washing of water by the word (Eph 5:26). It has become customary to apply this metaphor rather literally in this regard- all you need is the Bible. No need to consult commentaries, reference books or the opinions of theologians. Just read the Biblical scripture by itself and trust that God will teach us directly, illuminating and revealing truth to us personally and completely by God’s Spirit. I am happy to testify that this is, sometimes, even often; wonderfully! – my own experience. But as the poverty of attitude and narrow wisdom of this practice dawned on me some years ago, I can only urge my readers here to entertain this hypothesis- other experienced commentators from across the ages of the Church could offer a small dose of soap to your bathing water. Then the efficacy of our learning can be increased. I don’t want to say that these writers add to God’s revelation, but they certainly help me to appreciate what God has put in plain sight, but that may nevertheless remained concealed from my view, perhaps due to secrets of ancient grammar and context. There is a double-think practiced in many local churches: it is accepted that the preacher should consult a reference book, but the congregation is subtly discouraged from doing so.
Our engagement with the Bible needs to be much more multifaceted as a general rule. I was amazed to hear from a senior Catholic sister that she had only been permitted to read the Bible, and in English, rather than to hear it read in Mass in Latin, after the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965). This certainly opened my eyes to the freedoms that Protestants have enjoyed in regard to personal scripture reading. But I wonder if her envy was somewhat misplaced, as our knowledge of the scripture, and our study of the deeper truths that we need wise assistance to understand, have generally been given so little attention.
Again, we Christians are too suspicious of our brethren. I quoted a brother a couple of paragraphs ago, but did not name him. I was afraid that you might judge what he said because of what else you might have heard about him. The list of ‘fallen’ leaders is growing rapidly at the moment, not to mention those who have fallen out of favour because of the allegiances they have developed during their lives, and so trespassing across our theological red lines. Yesterday’s fêted spiritual guide has become today’s pariah- ‘pariah’ was the name for a certain low caste Indian- a so-called ‘untouchable’. Jesus kept company with unconverted sinners, and notwithstanding our divine calling to holiness, Jesus continues to keep company with converted sinners. Some of what I say is deficient. Will you be wise enough to extend grace to me, and listen to what you hear God saying through me, despite my rank faults?
In brief, a similar point could further be made about our engagement with subjects beyond the traditional borders of Christian thinking. How can we bring a convincing apologetics and witness to aspects of modern life, such as in science and medicine, if we do not engage with writing and thought in these disciplines? A sermon should not be preached from the Daily Mail, but that doesn’t mean we don’t take notice of what is being said in newspapers, bring our Bibles alongside, and seek to apply the mind of Christ in us to what we find in society and culture.
Scribing is a pretentious word for ‘writing’ that completes the acronym SAVERS– Pete’s sixth recommendation for a would-be high performer starting their day. He’s not just talking about writing in general. Specifically, this is about a strategy for growing my effectiveness today. Chances are, since you are reading this, you know how to be busy- you are busy. You know what a ‘to do’ list is, and some idea about aims and objectives. But these are abstracted, impersonal things. Pete claims, though I’ve not seen his sources, that research shows that five minutes spent on structured reflective statements like these make a significant difference:
Three things I’m grateful for today.
And then the three most important things to do to make today a great day. What shall I attempt that will make the most difference?
There you go. Try it now. Then get a notebook, a journal, an app if you must, and keep doing it.
Do you see how this structure translates the abstracted and impersonal into the very personal. This isn’t Pete’s tip for high achievement; its a tip for high achievers. It’s you and me that will, or won’t, make the difference in our work today. The attitude of gratitude picks up the threads of all that is there already, what’s in my past, what has been given to me, and orients me forwards. Gratitude is the powerful antidote we need to combat complaining, fault-finding and one-upmanship.
Opening the psalms, we find:
15 I will tell people how good you are. I will tell about all the times you saved me— too many times to count. 16 I will tell about your greatness, my Lord God. I will talk only about you and your goodness. 17 God, you have taught me since I was a young boy. And to this day I have told people about the wonderful things you do.
Psalm 71: 15-15 Easy to read version.
There’s at least three concrete reasons for gratitude right there.
And perhaps three goals as well.
Is it me, or does the gratitude segue seamlessly into significant determination for action? We’ll all just have to try it and find out. I think Pete is right- I’m calling it. Focus on why my life is already amazing, rather than complaining, and test out the hypothesis that what we focus on becomes our reality.
I really appreciate how Pete concluded his workshop. We are desperate for quick results, he said, but listen. In looking back on a long journey of growth through adversity, no-one regrets a part of it, because, in hindsight, they are richer because of every lesson learnt. Sure- avoid downright stupidity if possible. But be at peace with the process; live and then work with urgency but not anxiety. I think St Paul would concur:
4 Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, rejoice. 5 Let your reasonableness be known to everyone. The Lord is at hand; 6 do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. 7 And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.
Philippians 4:4-6 ESV
Beginning the next day in meditative silence and stillness with God.
In addition to our personal prayerful grounding in God, affirm aloud with God who we find we are made to become in partnership in God’s Kingdom, declaring how our mission is a contribution to showing the Glory of God in this world.
Developing spiritual ‘dreams and visions’ inspired and blessed in God into visualisations of our service and daily work.
If significant exercise is not a part of your day at some other time, or perhaps even if it is, build in an early concentrated session to wake up and tune up your whole physiology.
A wider commitment to reading – our Bibles certainly- and so much more in addition, opens us to the parallel lives of saints and sinners from whom we can learn and benefit so much. In particular, we should repent of the false mindset that it is somehow spiritual to detach our working minds from our believing hearts. If you are a parent, ensure you model this with your children!
Aside from whatever else you write, make a point of scribing each day about what provokes you to gratitude- we so need to practise this!- and focus our ‘to do’ lists onto just (three) clincher outcomes. Three things to attempt that will have us shouting ‘Very good!’ at the end of the day.
I’ve tried to guide us through this process of assessing the worthiness of the common sense Pete drew out from his research. He has many more podcasts and tutorials, which I have not listened to. I can see this six point lesson is not meant to be comprehensive. But I’m going to say it here in my reflection. There’s something missing, and I promised it to you near the beginning. As a Christian, I am responsible, by myself, before God, for many things, and I can succeed in my today without anyone else being involved. Its just me and God, so I can’t blame anyone for my failures. But this ‘truth’ only applies up to a point. I can draw my salary on it, most of the time. I am a school teacher, most of the time, so ‘up to a point’ arrives pretty quickly in my working day! So I want to say here that teamworking needs to be a key part of our mindset as we tackle Pete’s prep track each day. How am I grateful for my co-workers, my students…? Am I ready to affirm them as I affirm myself? Can we visualise our success together?
And in the Church, this is multiplied a hundred times over. We have a idol in the midst- the idol of the individual ‘saint’. Yes, we Protestant folk who apparently were so zealous for God that we cheered as statues and icons were erased from church buildings have replaced the smashed up marble and whitewashed walls with … ourselves! ‘Its all about me,’ we whisper beneath our breath, hoping not to be caught out.
Paul taught us a different lesson about what happened when Jesus left his disciples to continue the work of announcing the biggest project in the history of the cosmos, the Kingdom of God:
11 And [Jesus] gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds[c] and teachers,[d]12 to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, 13 until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, …
Ephesians 4:11-13 ESV The paragraph is very long, from v8 to 16. See the full sense there!
This is teamwork taken to a whole new level. Even if I am reading these tips with regard to my personal business venture, I am challenged to take account of this mindset. If what I am doing- my missioning- is truly compatible with the priorities of the Kingdom of God, then I am challenged to embrace this perspective. On their side, we need to show church leaders that there are ministers of Christ ‘out there’ in the marketplace, and all are to be brought together into functional unity.
Thanks Pete for your valuable analysis and practical encouragements. I have benefitted from your ‘reorientation’ and can now go back out into God’s garden, at peace in the knowledge of His constant partnership with me. I understand that my ‘gardening’ will be even more effective when I draw others closer to me- I admit I can’t really succeed by myself!- and share my skills and gifts with them as we work in the world alongside one another.
1. Have an uplifting alarm clock sound 2. Don’t pick up the phone—until late 3. Get a little workout in 4. Eat something good! 5. Take a second to breathe. 6. If you have pets, play with them! 7. Download a quote/affirmation of the day app 8. Ask yourself how you can make the most out of the day 9. Read a good book or article 10. Focus more on things that make you happy 11. Show off those pearly whites and smile!