What are we to make of the extravagance and abundance of creation? What does it tell us about the artist that created it? Or to put it differently, what does it tell us about the character of Jesus, for He is the author of creation; “Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made.” John 1:3.
If I was to choose a single word to express what creation tells us about Jesus I would say; “generous”. Creation is a gift of staggering abundance and variety it could almost be described as wasteful.
Every year, without exception over the millennia, we are blessed with autumn colours. Colours often so rich that it takes us by surprise. Every year, without fail, someone will say “the autumn colours are amazing this year”. I am not sure they are but rather they never fail to make us wonder anew at their beauty.
But what is most amazing about autumn colour is the abundance of it. All across the world leaves turn shades of yellow, orange, and red then they fall to the ground and rot away. Thousands of unique pieces of art on every tree, the majority of which will never be seen by man but the trees will still display their glory. Or perhaps I should say the trees display “His” glory.
Hoar frost is another example. On cold and humid nights ice crystals will cover the landscape. Beautiful crystals, all totally unique. Creating a blanket of jewels. But then the sun comes up and they melt away in an instant.
Morning dew is another. Perfect little droplets of water caught in between leaves and moss, reflecting light and watering the flora. But as the day warms up the dew simply evaporates. It is abundance on a cosmic scale that only God could conceive of. Annie Dillard put it beautifully when she said;
“The world is fairly studded and strewn with pennies cast broadside by a generous hand”
But there is also something utterly unique in the generosity of Jesus. And that is that it is totally free from hidden agenda or personal gain. He gives generously, extravagantly so, but yet He is not doing so to gain our approval or our acceptance or out of a need for our love and admiration. And that is unique.
I say it is unique because I don’t believe our generosity is ever completely free from hidden agenda. The brokenness within us is forever striving for recognition and validation and it can be very subtle at times. Giving money away to a charity we have just heard about is generous for sure but it always comes with a warm glow of satisfaction. We do it, perhaps only in some small way, because it makes us feel better and feel like we are doing enough. Or helping a friend in distress is kind and generous but there is also a part of us that does it because we want to be liked. Our generosity is motivated, at least in part, out of need.
But Jesus has no such need. He is not in need of validation in the way that we are for He knows He is utterly adored by His heavenly Father. And so He gives freely.
He is Generous yet Free.
The Bible is a mixture of the ordinary and the extraordinary. It marries the natural with the supernatural and Jesus is a prime example. In the final few chapters of each gospel we have the account of the resurrection of Jesus. It is a fitting example of how the gospel writers style combines common occurrences with the atypical and ‘unbelievable’ event of a resurrection.
Scholars explain that the gospel writers were using a journalistic style, reporting their accounts with all the detail regardless of whether it seems relevant.
In John, we are given details about the quantities of myrrh and aloes used to anoint the body (75lbs), the methodology for wrapping the linen and we are told the burial ground is somewhere nobody has previously been laid. These are standard facts that do not seem important to the overall narrative, but they add credence from an eye-witness relaying the story as it unfolded.
When Mary Magdalene reports to the disciples the tomb is empty John describes how he outran Peter to the tomb. Possibly a detail he wanted people to know to share his athletic prowess but more likely just the truth as he remembered it. They are the kind of details that you might add in a police report but not in an elaborate fantasy story.
If you or I were creating a resurrection story you wouldn’t add these ‘irrelevancies’, rather you would report the headlines. For me, these stories are first-hand accounts of people vividly remembering the details, the facts.
If the disciples were fabricating a story they would surely have given Jesus a glorious and transcendent return yet the reality was something only Jesus could have fashioned. Only the real Jesus with his humility and kingdom perspective would return as he did.
Jesus first appears to Mary Magdalene, not in a blaze of glory but subtly. She mistakes him for a humble gardener. We are in a context of women having limited rights and Mary Magdalene is renowned for having suffered from demonisation. Culturally she was a nobody, an embarrassment, the least. Yet Jesus reveals the greatest miracle ever to her. He does not see her as lowly, he knows the real her. In fact, He relates to her personally and calls her by name “Mary” to actually reveal he was not a gardener but the risen Christ. No fictional writer would have chosen a woman as a key witness because to do so at the time would discredit the story. A woman, particularly one with her history, would not have been accepted as a legitimate witness at the time.
Jesus next reveals himself to two close followers, again subtly. A seven mile walk where neither realise who he is! It only took Mary one word! He uses the journey to disciple them and challenge their unbelief. In his big reveal he is not bragging of his conquest over death but rather personally teaching his followers before disappearing before the fanfare.
The gospels are full of such seemingly curious occurrences, but that is what makes the unbelievable believable. Because one would never make it up that way.
Jesus did and does unbelievable miracles yet he lived within the natural orders of the world. He is not bound by them but so often he adhered to them. I am utterly convinced that the resurrection did happen. Part of the compelling evidence, for me, is just how believable so much of the text is surrounding these extraordinary claims.
Alive and Dangerous will be looking in much greater detail at Jesus and how he spans the believable and the unbelievable in November. Click Here for more info.
Whilst much of the world are happy to accept that Jesus was fully human and reject His audacious claim to be divine, much of Christian culture accepts His divinity but ignores His humanity. It as if we feel it is more appropriate to simply revere Him as a God because to think of Him as a man is dishonouring in some way. Perhaps we also find it more comfortable to sustain a faith based on following rules and establishing routines rather than engage with an unpredictable and piercingly bright personality. Such perceptions are reinforced by the pictures that fill our minds of paintings we have seen of Jesus as an austere and aloof man. Paintings that do not make Him seem particularly human and certainly don’t convey much of a personality. The result is a tragic irony; Jesus came to reveal to us the true character of God (Hebrews 1:1-3) but we largely fail to consider the character and personality of Jesus, despite the many stories we have as evidence.
Let’s consider the question of whether Jesus laughed. It seems an interesting and insightful question to consider but in reality it is an absurd question that we should instantly know the answer to, if we knew His personality. Of course He laughed!
Laughter is the natural human response to Joy, which according to Galatians (5:22-23), is one of the fruits of the spirit. His spirit. It is also said that “the Joy of the Lord is your strength” (Nehemiah 8:10), which is hardly much comfort if the Lord himself is not joyful.
It is also very telling to consider how we imagine His demeanour in the gospel accounts that we are familiar with. The wedding feast at Cana for example. Wedding feasts were week long affairs attended by the whole community as a celebration of the health and cohesion that marriages bring to the community. Jesus, by all accounts loved such occasions, gaining him a reputation as a glutton and a drunkard (Matt 11:19). Do we think of Him sitting on the outskirts of the celebration looking on with judgement at the sight of the community feasting and drinking? Or, do we think of Him reclining at the table with friends, enjoying the fine wine that He had miraculously provided late into the night, perhaps even with a friend leaning against His chest as John did at the last supper? And what of His reaction when the host realises that it isn’t just any wine, but the finest of wines? Do we think of Him like a priest holding the communion cup out for us or might He have given a wry smile and a wink of delight towards the host?
Laughing with friends is a God given pleasure, one that Jesus will know better than anyone. As Chesterton put it, Jesus was “more Human than Humanity”. Imagine the joy at surprising your closest friends with a BBQ of fresh fish on the beach shortly after defeating death and rescuing the world. The joy and laughter must have been unbounded. Belly laughs that make you gasp for breath, faces aching from broad smiles and tears tumbling down your cheeks.
I don’t just believe that Jesus laughed, I believe He laughed whole-heartedly.
My son Reuben has a habit of asking fascinating questions that shake me out of my religion and reveal to me how much my thinking and behaving has become shaped by the world around me, by the culture and beliefs of our time. I suspect it is God’s way of reminding me of where I should be putting my hope. Not in the small day to day pleasures like a cool beer in the evening or of some night time “cuddles” with my wife (as great as such things are) but in the hope of what is yet to come.
As I was putting Reuben to bed one night and he asked me “Daddy, what animal would you most like to ride?”. What a great question. It didn’t take me long to think of my answer; “a gorilla” I responded. “I would like to ride a rhino” he continued.
I was reflecting on his question the next day and where the desire to ride an animal came from. Reuben loves animals but I think his desire goes deeper than simple fascination. Perhaps I had become blinded to a deeper truth about what is yet to come.
Our view of life after death is often terribly weak and in many cases quite depressing. Even for those of us that believe in Christian salvation. We often think of the “second coming” as a cataclysmic destruction of the earth in which everything is burnt up including our bodies, leaving our souls to float up into the sky where we will then rest for eternity. Of course, such a view also means that animals are not part of the after-life because they would be destroyed along with the earth. But not so.
According to the writers of the new testament, through His life, death, resurrection and ascension, Jesus has set in motion a new creation which continues into eternity. Eternity meaning “unending”. It is a continuation which will include a future time when He returns and heaven and earth will fully come together once more, restoring the earth to how it should be (Rev 21). Why would the restoration of the earth not include animals? That would be unthinkable.
What’s more, the prophet Isiah foretold a time when “The wolf will romp with the lamb, the leopard sleep with the kid……. The nursing child will crawl over rattlesnake dens, the toddler stick his hand down the hole of a serpent.” (Isiah 11). I have had a tendency to dismiss such verses as mere imagery as opposed to a clear description of what is yet to come but the more I soak in the promise of a new creation the more I feel that my dismissal comes from a lack of hope and a poor imagination.
George Whitfield once commented in a sermon how creation seems to know that we have a “quarrel with their master”. Animals bark, growl and squawk at us, birds flee and leopards hide. They seem to know that we have rebelled against the Creator, that we currently no longer fully reflect His glory. But if we are to believe the new testament writers then that will not always be the case, a time will come when we do reflect His glory once more and we will be unified with the rest of creation in a way that we can only long for presently.
In the Weight of Glory, C.S. Lewis describes how we have a longing to interact more closely with nature; “We do not want to merely “see” beauty -- though, God knows, even that is bounty enough. We want something else which can hardly be put into words–to be united with the beauty we see, to pass into it, to receive it into ourselves, to bathe in it, to become part of it.”
Such desires are stirred when we watch fantasy films like the Chronicles of Narnia or Lord of the Rings. Stories with talking animals and trees which we are able to interact with in a way that is unreal to us at present. But maybe that is because our imaginations are just too weak. Maybe such films are giving us a glimpse of what is yet to come. May be one day we really will ride rhinos.
My choice of a gorilla to ride was an easy one. When I was young my answer to the question “what do you want to be when you grow up” was always “a gorilla keeper”. I was fascinated by the creatures and wanted to interact with them and be closer to them. I had forgotten that desire until Reuben asked the question of me. But perhaps my longing is revealing a deeper reality of what awaits us. Perhaps my heart was longing for something that should be true today and will one day be true once more when everything is put right.
Check out the following film of a man going to see some Gorilla’s in the wild that he once cared for. I found it incredibly moving to see how they remembered him after many years and how he and his wife were accepted by them. It feels me with excitement to think it is a taste of what is yet to come. It sure beats thoughts of an eternal church service in the sky!
It was a battle which spanned many months and a battle in which I was determined to be victorious. It started with a series of irritating phone calls to our landline. The first of which was from a man claiming to be from BT informing me that “you have a problem with your internet connection, sir”. Now there was something clearly odd about this assertion. Firstly, BT wasn’t our internet provider and, secondly, we had no problems with our internet. Now I could have simply hung up the call but irritated by the intrusion into my day I decided to challenge. I asked the man his name, to which he replied; “David Parker”. It was the far-eastern accent with which ‘David Parker’ spoke that convinced me that the call was really an attempt to gain access to my computer. I called BT who confirmed that it was a bogus call and my resolve to win the battle was stiffened.
What followed over the proceeding months were a series of daily phone calls to our land line claiming a variety of fictitious issues. Each and every day I went into battle. I tried numerous different tactics from reasoning to shouting but none had the desired effect of stopping the calls from coming.
I was incensed by the daily intrusion and the unethical nature of the calls. Out of principle I felt I was right to fight the battle, but alas, I was not winning the war. The phone calls kept coming and the only fruit of my battles was a deepening frustration.
Then one morning I was working from home and the land line rang. I picked it up anticipating the characteristic 5 second pause before the voice on the other end spoke. I was right, there was silence, followed by a man asking to speak with me with the same heavy accent. The anger in me started to rise once more.
But I hadn’t anticipated what followed. The man said; “My name is David Parker, I am calling from the Ministry of Defence”. Brilliant. I had to laugh. Clearly, ‘David Parker’, of far-eastern decent, was no longer working for BT but the Ministry of Defence and was obviously keen to renew his acquaintance with me!
In that instant I was reminded of the larger story and that my multi-month battle was in fact a very small story in comparison. With a playful prod God had shown me that I had become consumed by a battle that simple wasn’t worth fighting. For there is a much larger story going on around us which we can either have a role within or ignore in pursuit of much smaller stories like the one I was living.
There is a larger story of good versus evil which is the back drop to all our lives. It is a story of a loving Father who sent His son to rescue us so that we could know Him intimately and be set free from all that we are held captive by. It is a story with an enemy whose mission is to thwart the plan of God to know us intimately.
It is also a story in which we are invited, nay commanded, to participate in. God does not act alone but honours us with the privilege of participating in this epic story. There is no limit to the role we can play, from making disciples (Matt 28:19), resisting the devil (John 4:7) or healing the sick and casting out demons (Matt 10:8). Whatever the specifics of our role might be, one thing is for sure…..God intends us to play a part in the larger story.
In the film Dead Poets Society there is a brilliant scene in which Robin Williams is trying to awaken the hearts of his pupils to the larger story around them. Awaken them to a world of beauty and love. He quotes a poem from Walt Whitman in which the poet struggles with the meaning of life but then concludes; “the powerful play goes on and you may contribute a verse”.
There is a “powerful play” unfolding around us and the only question is whether we chose to “contribute a verse” or live in a play of far less significance……whether that be fighting scam phone calls, keeping the house tidy or complaining about potholes in the road. But whilst we may be consumed by smaller stories the powerful play goes on.
What will your verse be?
I was upstairs in my bedroom attempting to pray when my attention was caught by the laughter of my children downstairs. The sound immediately compelled me to thank God for the wonder of laughter. The spontaneous and often uncontrollable expression of joy when something affects our hearts and makes us feel joyful. To hear the laughter of my children is one of my favourite sounds in the world, it is the sound of joy and freedom, perhaps the perfect expression of how we feel when His Kingdom comes fully and everything is restored to how it should be. For “Joy is the serious business of heaven” as C.S. Lewis put it.
But then it got me thinking about how we are to make sense of laughter if, as many people will contest, we are nothing more than sophisticated animals whose feelings are the result of mere chemical reactions. It is the view point that denies the existence of God, or a spiritual realm and a spiritual element in us. A spiritual core which is the centre of who we really are and the centre of our will, desires and deepest commitments. Or as the bible puts it our ‘heart’.
The same question can be asked of anything that is beautiful. Just yesterday I spent the afternoon wandering in a beech forest carpeted with bluebells. I was drawn there to take photographs but after a period of searching for an image to take I felt compelled to simply sit down and soak it in. The spring air was warm, the new spring leaves a bright green, the dappled light shimmered as the trees moved in the wind, the scent of the bluebells delicate and the bird song a constant chorus neither distractingly loud nor too quiet. It felt transcendent.
Beauty can come in many forms. We can be deeply moved by a great piece of music, or great work or art, or a story of pain and suffering. Such moments can lead even a secular person to use the term “spiritual” to explain the reaction. Leonard Bernstein once admitted that when he heard great music he sensed “Heaven”. He said “Beethoven has the real goods, the stuff from Heaven, the power to make you feel at the finish: something is right in the world. There is something that checks throughout, the follows its own law consistently: something we can trust, that will never let us down”.
But if we do not believe that we have a spiritual ‘heart’ then what are we to make of our reactions to beauty? That they are nothing more than a series of reactions in our brain that helped our forebears stay alive and that have been passed down to us in our genes? Alas, if such a secular view is true then all that is beautiful in this world is but an illusion. If we have been swept up by the joy or a glorious sunset or reduced to tears by the ending of a great film, it will tear the moment from us to think that our reaction is simply a chemical reaction that helped our ancestors find food or escape predators.
To think of ourselves without a ‘heart’, a heart which is sensitive to the abundant beauty of God’s creation, is to see the world in black and white.
If the power of beauty only makes sense when we accept we have a ‘heart’ then what of love? Can the type of love that compels us to the extremes of self-sacrifice be nothing more than our bodies natural ability to survive and thrive? I think not. Anyone that has suffered a broken heart will testify that there are no medical remedies, no treatments that can alleviate the symptoms. For the ‘heart’ is the very core of who we are.
As I sat alone in the forest with my senses full of the beauty of creation, the sight, smells and sounds, there felt no other appropriate response than to thank God. For I believe such moments feel transcendent because they are transcendent. The experience is the response of our hearts to the living God. For our hearts are the meeting place between us and God and the movements of our hearts are often reactions to the presence of His beauty. It is one of the ways in which He communicates with us.
I may not have taken any photographs that I was especially excited about yesterday, but I did return home content and feeling a little more restored in some way.
I have been a Christian for many years but I have always found prayer difficult. It often feels like a mechanical process that I step through; thank you Father for X, sorry for Y and please help me with Z. More often than not the process is interrupted with various trivial matters when my mind drifts back towards the insurance policy that needs renewing or the back door that is in desperate need of a lick of paint and rarely do I feel like this process is deep communion with a living God.
But then recently I came across the following quote from Theophan “To pray is to descend with the mind into the heart, and there to stand before the face of the Lord, ever present, all seeing within you”.
Of course! The heart is where the communication with God takes place, not in the mind, the mind is merely there to translate and interpret what the heart is experiencing. For the heart is where He dwells within us, when we accept Him in faith (Ephesians 3:17). As John Eldredge wrote in Waking the Dead; “When we set out to hear God's voice, we do not listen as though it will come from somewhere above us or in the room around us. It comes to us from within, from the heart, the dwelling place of God.”
I not only find these explanations helpful but also extremely encouraging. I have often felt a fraud as a Christian because my mechanical prayer life left me feeling like I was merely talking to myself. Sub-consciously I had concluded that I was not “hearing from God”. But that is not the case. I just wasn’t allowing my mind to descend into the heart to interpret what He has been saying to me.
I am not saying that we shouldn’t have a way of praying to God that can feel routine and mechanical at times, rather we should also seek to listen for the ways in which He speaks within us. Such as the surfacing of a painful memory, the raising of desire to pursue a new adventure, the sudden feeling of anger towards an injustice or the feeling of compassion towards someone in need. Then there are the more subtle “gentle whispers” that convict us of our false self, or of a sin to be repented of or perhaps a sense of something to be avoided.
But we must be careful for there is an awful lot going on within our hearts. The voice of God within us is competing for our attention with many other voices. The numerous and subtle lies of the enemy for one. Then there is the world around us, constantly trying to pull on our “heart strings” whether that be the advertisers seeking our money, our boss seeking our time or the brokenness of those around us that we care about. That is why we must descend into the heart with an alert mind and a mind that is tethered to His word.
“Devote yourselves to prayer with an alert mind and a thankful heart” (Colossians 4:2, NLT).
A few weeks ago we had the privilege of leading a group of men into the heart of the Lake District on a wild camping adventure. It turned out to be more of an adventure than some of us had anticipated and left me with two revealing observations.
My first observation related a question which we posed at the beginning of the weekend of; “what does the beauty of creation say about the personality of the artist that created it?” On the first day we started walking under clear blue skies as we climbed up high onto the peaks of Grey Knotts, Brandreth, Green Gable and finally Great Gable, where we were blessed with a 360 deg view of the Scarfell range, the lakes of Buttermere, Crummock and Ennerdale and also the western seashore of Cumbria. It was breath-taking. By contrast, the weather conditions on the second day were much more changeable with the second night spent on the summit of Glaramara being battered by strong winds and torrential rain. None of the party experienced a good nights’ sleep with three tents flooded during the night and with the strong winds thundering around us all night. It was powerful.
So in answer to the question of what the surrounding scenery says about the personality of the artist that created it and given the extremes we experienced in just two days my answer is that………… He is beautiful yet powerful, glorious yet dangerous.
My second observation from the weekend was how much I enjoyed being in a group of men on a journey together. Most men in our modern society live quite isolated lives with busyness and family commitments leaving little time to invest in key relationships. Men also aren’t as naturally relational as women and we generally need an activity or an adventure to bind us together. As David Murrow said “women bond face to face but men bond side to side”. Nothing bonds a group of men together like a shared adventure.
It was wonderful to observe how men supported and encouraged each other throughout the weekend, both physically, by carrying each-others packs at times but also spiritually as men shared their stories with one another. The challenge of the adventure was made lighter by the ongoing banter and teasing along with the sharing of amusing stories of failures past. It all added to the sense of comradery and the anticipation of a shared adventure. I found it quite profound, almost mythic, to be in this group of men all journeying towards the same destination, with their minds set like flint, determined to finish well.
Often I have found that when something feels profound it is because it is reminding us of a desire that is set deep within us because it is God’s design for man. Many of the great stories that men love have a core of men on a mission together; Maximus and his band of gladiators, Frodo and his eclectic group of warriors, Captain Miller and his men fighting to save Private Ryan or William Wallace and his band of fellow brave-hearts. We love these stories because it is what we are also created for. Men need a group of Godly men around them, to walk with, to fight for, to challenge and to love. It was also true of Jesus, who undertook His mission with a group of twelve men alongside Him and with an inner group of three closer comrades (Peter, James and John).
“As iron sharpens iron, so one man sharpens another” (Proverbs 27:17).
It had been an intense fews days with a small group of men from all over the world and our time together was drawing to a close. I was sat in the log cabin at Bear Trap ranch, nestled in the foothills of the Rockies, awaiting for the final session to begin.
Over the next hour or so, each of the sages who had been walking with us during the weekend shared their final thoughts and advice. It was an amazingly rich time with powerful words being spoken over us, and then Bart Hanson shared to close the session and the words he spoke I can only describe as piercing. His advice boiled down to these two simple words - RISK LOVE.
Those words have stuck with me, challenged, unsettled, confused and re-orientated me. I have felt frustration, anger, sadness as I have wrestled what that means for me, but overall I have found joy, freedom and hope.
Take some time, unplug, put down the phone, switch off the TV - get out away from the matrix for a while and ask the Father what risking love would look like in your life. Let those words bypass your mind and sink into your heart.
Nelson Mandela was one of the most influential and widely respected men of the last 100 years. He was a strong and courageous man who fought for the freedom of his people who were oppressed by the leaders of his time. It was a fight that would cost him 27 years in prison. During his trial in 1964 Mandela gave a now famous 3-hour speech about his ideal of freedom and democracy for all, which he concluded with the words “It is an ideal which I hope to live for and to achieve. But if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.”
Mandela was a rebel and outlaw, who actively opposed those in power. He was revered by many but also despised and hunted by those that sought to contain him. There was no middle ground for those around Mandela at the time, they were either drawn to his strong leadership or they feared and hated him because of his message of freedom and justice. Mandela defied a kingdom, was wrongly accused but through his suffering he won the freedom of his people.
But despite the fierceness with which he approached his oppressors he did not abuse his power when he was ultimately elected President. There was no retaliation. He ruled with a message of forgiveness, peace and love. Battle and rebellion was not his aim but it was necessary to achieve the aim of peace and freedom.
Mandela wasn’t perfect but what he stood for and what he achieved has many parallels with the life of Jesus. It is no wonder that Mandela is so universally admired and respected. For the things we admire in Nelson Mandela should serve as a reminder of the Man that defied a kingdom, fought for our freedom and was prepared to die to achieve it. Jesus.
Recommended viewing; watch the trailer of the film “Mandela; Long walk to Freedom”
Grid Ref is intended to help re-orientate men along the narrow path and are a mixture of personal testimonies and reflections from the A&D Team.