Tuesday 3 March 2009

Go on, give up something for Lent: say goodbye to God the cosmic puppeteer

pulling the strings

A guy in the sky pulling the strings and asking for your contributions in return.  A Music Hall act well past its sell-by-date in this digital age. An historical curiosity to psychologists of religious belief. A charming diversion to enthrall young children.

What do you make of this image?

When I saw this enterprising busker I realised that what I was looking at was the parody of God which many atheists delight to mock. I have added in the sky background to make the point. Somehow this picture of God as a man (sic) in the sky pulling the strings is stubbornly entrenched somewhere deep down in what we used to call 'folk religion'. Is this really the default position of our public use of the word 'God'? Is this what the term 'Christianity' brings to mind for the increasingly unchurched majority? Are churches a sideshow from a different age, as relevant to contemporary issues as the posters inside the busker's case advertising the acts at  'The Palace' and 'Coliseum' Music Halls?

If the answer to any or all of these questions is yes then the sooner we talk openly about the images of God which work for us the better.

A God who pulls the strings and is responsible somehow for everything which befalls us lies underneath that most vexed question which is sometimes asked of us: how can you believe in God when....? For the dots substitute cancer, genocide, child abuse, rape, war crimes, car crashes, earthquakes and any number of the calamities and tragedies which regularly beset humanity. If God is the cosmic puppeteer then God is responsible, because God is pulling the strings.

Except that there are no strings attached. We are not puppets. God is not a man with a plan in the sky making us dance to his tune.

Jesus open-handedly portrays a very different picture of God, one which bears no relation to the Emperor in Rome who pulls the strings and wields destruction and mayhem on a whim. The Anglican priest and theologian W.A. Vanstone caught this alternative picture so well in his books 'Love's Endeavour, Love's Expense' and 'The Stature of Waiting'. They were a revelation to me when first I read them. Here God is so vulnerable, love so longing and faithful. No strings, just an eternal yearning deep within the heart of God for our wellbeing. Vanstone's 'Hymn to the Creator' imprints an alternative picture of God in our minds, the crux of which is this beautiful awareness:

Hidden is love's agony, Love's endeavour, love's expense.

Love that gives gives ever more, Gives with zeal, with eager hands, Spares not, keeps not, all outpours, Ventures all, its all expends.

Drained is love in making full; Bound in setting others free; Poor in making many rich; Weak in giving power to be.

Therefore He Who Thee reveals Hangs, O Father, on that Tree Helpless; and the nails and thorns Tell of what Thy love must be.

Thou are God; no monarch Thou Thron'd in easy state to reign; Thou art God, Whose arms of love Aching, spent, the world sustain.

Love's agony. Love's endeavour. Love's expense. No detached God in the sky, the cosmic puppeteer; rather the vulnerable God of love who cradles creation and weeps over its pain, hatred and mess. And who invites us to dance to music of the kingdom, no strings attached. Our response is that of love to love. Like a coin placed in an upturned hat.

Monday 2 March 2009

Take up your cross: a different viewpoint

cross viewpoint

This striking sculpture by the artist Kevin Storch is on the harbourside at Whitby. There it makes a powerful statement about the town and its history. This artwork

"celebrates Whitby's maritime heritage, symbolising the enduring relationship between father and son in seafaring life. It depicts Captain Scoresby and son keeping watch, possibly for whales or ice-bergs, from a crow's nest. The Scoresbys were whaling captains during the Napoleonic era but were also scientists, inventors and explorers of Arctic regions. Captain Scoresby senior’s most notable invention was the barrel Crows Nest in 1807. It gave some protection from the fierce weather to the man positioned on `look out` for whales, icebergs, or a channel through the treacherous ice. It was described as the 'greatest boon of modern times ever given to the Arctic navigator'. "

Some say that Scoresby's inspiration for the Crows Nest was the triple-decker pulpit in St Mary's church on top of the cliff by Whitby Abbey.  If so he would surely have heard the gospel set for next Sunday (8th March, Lent 2B) preached from it.

He called the crowd with his disciples, and said to them, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. (Mark 8:34)

This is not a call to deliberate self-sacrifice, suffering and victimage. It is a call to remain faithful to Jesus come what may, for the sake of his inbreaking kingdom. It is to see the cross as the supreme challenge to and subversion of mechanisms of domination and exploitation, suffering and harm, all of which deny the kingdom of God which Jesus sought to establish. The cross shows the lengths to which love will go for the sake of the beloved.  The worst that Imperial Rome could do to punish Jesus and put a stop to his sedition becomes the symbol through which the vulnerable love of God is disclosed. It is a viewpoint totally at odds with that of the occupying oppressor. Its own most terrible weapon of terror becomes the regime's undoing. A stark symbol of brutality becomes one of  revolutionary love and peace to which violence has no answer.

To see from the viewpoint of the cross is to look out on a world which God cherishes and yearns to transform.  In dark times it is always to be looking towards the dawn and to be on the lookout for signs of the Kingdom. It is to shout out when injustice and wickedness threaten to destroy. It is to see the Way, ahead. With this thought in mind I look at the Scoresby sculpture in a new and challenging light. The Crows nest is now atop the cross at the very point at which the Romans cynically placed the sign which said "King of the Jews". Now the sculpture challenges us to be alert and watchful disciples, active and moving forward as we are empowered by the Spirit. The image conveys something of the dynamism which is entailed in Jesus call to follow.  The image is about being outward looking, engaged and far-sighted.

Taking up our cross is to see the world differently with Jesus and, with unshakeable perseverance, to keep on telling what we see, come what may.