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).
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”
Have you ever doubted whether God exists or whether the gospels are true and accurate? Have you ever felt that no-one else shares your dilemma? Well take heart, it is natural and you are not alone.
In the gospel of John (Chapter 20; 1-18), we have the account of when the tomb of Jesus is found to be empty. Now bear in mind, that Jesus had told those around Him repeatedly that He will die but then on the third day He will rise again. In fact there are three accounts of how Jesus made this claim in three successive chapters of Mark (Chapters 8-10). But yet, when Mary arrives at the tomb to find it empty, her response is to say “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we don’t know where they have put Him”. It doesn’t even occur to her that he has been raised from the dead. Despite the months and years of teaching from Jesus, when Mary comes face-to-face with the truth, she literally cannot believe it.
We all share that same inability as Mary did, because faith is impossible without supernatural intervention. Faith is a gift from God.
Mary is running around frantically and she doesn’t have the faith to see what is in front of her. Even when Jesus is standing before her she mistakes Him for the gardener. But then Jesus intervenes, He reveals himself to Mary by calling her by name. It is through the intervention of the living God that her faith is restored.
Recommended Prayer: ask Jesus to reveal Himself to you, to bless you with a true and unshakeable faith in Him, to bless you with the eyes to see and the ears to hear Him.
At the end of Tolkien’s trilogy Lord of the Rings, Samwise Gamgee wakes up after having been rescued from the fires of Mount Doom to find Gandalf standing at the end of his bed. He says “Gandalf, I thought you were dead. But then I thought I was dead. Is everything sad going to come untrue?”
Tolkien’s tale is a vivid parable of our story because according to the bible the answer to the question of Samwise Gamgee is “Yes!” We too have been saved from the fires of Mount Doom and in the end everything sad will indeed come untrue.
The bible tells us that when Christ returns, we are not taken out into heaven but heaven will come down to earth and everything will be made new (Rev 21:5). Everything will be restored to how it was when it was first made and that includes creation and it includes us. Just reflect on what that will be like. Think of the most amazing landscape you have ever witnessed and think of it on the day it was first created. Then picture yourself there. Not the man that you are today but your true-self, fully restored. No worries, no broken relationships, no fear, no suffering.
I have to admit that I rarely reflect on this promise it almost feels too glorious to conceive of in this broken world. But I also know, deep in my soul, I yearn for it.
“God set eternity in the heart of man”. Ecclesiastes 3:11
Now watch the following clip from The Return of the King when Frodo wakes up to find that everything sad has come untrue.
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.