Thursday, August 23, 2018

What the mountain isn't

In my previous post, I reflected on what it means to throw a mountain into the sea. I have been thinking about that ever since, and want to continue that exploration, and in particular to question and revise something I wrote then, the idea that the mountain creates firm ground on which to stand.

In the Bible, mountains stand for encounters with God. But the encounters themselves are anything but solid. Moses meets with God in cloud and thick darkness, from which lightning flashes. Elijah finds himself on a mountain shaken by rock-splitting wind, earthquake, and fire, before encountering God in the sound of sheer silence. Jesus’ disciples find themselves caught up in a cloud so filled with light as to be blinding. The point is not the solidity of the mountain, but the mystery of God’s presence, at once revealed and hidden, utterly disorienting and life-reorienting. We walk by faith, not by sight. True, ‘the Lord is my rock’ becomes perhaps the foremost insight of David; but even this is shaped in the context of his being on the run for his life, reduced to hiding in caves.

Human beings have an overwhelming urge for solidity. We need to know where we stand. We need to construct a world that is predictable. The thing is, the world is not predictable, in that sense. The control we crave is an illusion. Our lives are complex and fragile, within a greater mystery that extends far beyond the grasp of our imagination.

Solidity has its place, of course; but it also has its limits. Without solidity, your home would not stand; but in an earthquake, solidity is your enemy: it will kill you; if you can’t get out, your best bet for survival is to stand in the doorframe, the aperture. Or, to consider things from another perspective, solidity gives us ice; but ice is not better than water, or steam; it has its place, within something bigger.

The faith that throws the mountain of our encounter with God into the sea of chaos does not (necessarily) establish a firm place to stand but aligns us again with a covenant-partner in whom we may discover that mystery is greater than chaos (which may, indeed, be counterfeit mystery).

Matthew 14:22-33 records Jesus walking on the sea. Mark and John also record this (Luke does not) but Matthew alone records Peter walking on the sea. This is regularly held up as the benchmark of faith. In fact, it is the opposite.

Jesus, we are told, made his disciples get in to the boat and go ahead of him to the other side of the sea. This carries some force. It is both an instruction and a command. And it will turn out to be demanding, due to a strong wind being against them. During the night, Jesus, who had gone up the mountain to pray, came to them walking on the water. The disciples were terrified, believing it to be a phantom. Jesus speaks to reassure them: ‘take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.’

Peter does not take this to heart. Instead, he questions Jesus: ‘Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.’ Jesus said, ‘Come.’ But this is not an instruction; it is a concession, a concession made to Peter’s doubt and lack of faith, as Jesus makes clear when they are back in the boat.

Peter, the everyman, finds himself in the boat, pitched from side-to-side by the rolling waves, desperate for solid ground. From his perspective — however counter-intuitive it might be — if this really is Jesus and not a phantom then the sea is, in this moment, more solid than the boat. Peter puts more faith in the apparent solidity of the water than in Jesus’ instruction to those in the boat to not be afraid, and his earlier, unrevoked, ongoing instruction to them to get into the boat and go on to the other side.

We desperately want to be in control, and when the familiar is buffeted enough — when the fisherman has had enough of the boat — we call out for God to intervene on our terms. And sometimes God is gracious enough to do just that, and to catch us when we fall. But it is not the firmness of the mountain that holds us, it is the hand of God.

Not for the last time, Peter is a deserter. And yet he will learn to live as the rock (Petros), the one who is present to God even when being present to God means to be in the dark, even when it means to be bound and taken places against his will, even unto death.

Long before Peter, Noah discovered that the mountain does not provide solid ground until (long) after the flood has subsided. Further back still, the Spirit of God brooded over the waters, as a dove awaiting a place to land. But the boat will reach the shore, the ark come to rest on the mountain, the world will unfold in all its complexity. The mountain is our touchstone, but God alone is our hope.

Tuesday, August 14, 2018

Of break-ins and break-throughs

We had a wonderful time at New Wine United (2018, Week 2) last week. These summer gatherings are a happy place for me, somewhere where many of my worlds (places we have lived and friendships we have made over the past quarter of a century) collide in creative ways. We loved listening to dear friends share what they had learned from God. We loved singing songs of worship written in our own days, in the context of our own lives. We got home on Sunday night, and I went in to work on Monday morning expecting to catch up with news, to work through emails and laundry…but instead we had to deal with the aftermath of a break-in to the Minster in the early hours of that morning: two broken windows; two shattered doors; a ladder, giving access to the bells, ripped from the ringing-chamber wall; desk-drawers and filing-cabinets forced open, and paperwork strewn all over the floor. A lot of damage, a huge amount of mess – shards of glass everywhere – and nothing taken: the intruder, arrested on site by the police, was almost certainly only after money, and found none.

Welcome home!

It is one thing to meet with God with thousands of other people who have come away on pilgrimage together for that very purpose, and another to meet with God in the come-down.

That is where moving mountains comes in. Jesus spoke about it, and we sing about it, but my sense is that we often think of the mountains as the obstacles we face and seek the faith to overcome. That’s a powerful image, but it is one that comes from The Lord of the Rings, not the Bible. Jesus makes a wholly other point.

In the Bible, mountains are most often places where God is encountered – and more than that, of encountering the God who rescues his people from slavery. (Sometimes smaller mountains represent surrounding nations over which God reigns from Mount Zion, raising his own people above them – which is an extension of the same imagery.) Moses receives his call to set his people free at a mountain, and later God descends on the mountain to call the people into covenant relationship with the God who rescued them from slavery in Egypt. Elijah meets God on the (same) mountain, dejected and resigned and about to be re-commissioned into God’s plans to deliver his people from evil. Peter, James and John are caught up in a profound religious experience on the mountaintop, a vision of Jesus talking with Moses and Elijah, receiving instruction for his own mission to bring freedom to captives.

In Matthew 17, Jesus descends from the mount of the Transfiguration – this profound encounter where the voice of God speaks directly to his disciples – and is met by a desperate father whose son is afflicted by a demon. Jesus delivers the child of that oppression, and when asked about this by his disciples responds that dogged, mustard-seed faith can tell a mountain to move from here to there, and it will. In other words, the kind of faith that has an impact on the world appropriates the experience of encountering God – as liberator – and brings that with us into the place where that experience is currently absent but required.

In Luke 17, Jesus says something similar but dissimilar, about faith uprooting a tree and planting it in the sea. In the Bible, the sea often symbolises chaos that opposes God – with God regularly defeating the sea by parting it or walking on it – or (related) barriers that would prevent God’s people from entering into the fullness of freedom. The context in Luke 17 is forgiveness, with the sea representing the chaos that division results in, and a tree being the focal-point for both repentance (seeking forgiveness and reconciliation) and forgiveness (extended, in order that reconciliation might be experienced). The cross, in the Gospels, and the tree of life in the Revelation of John, would be such trees.

In Mark 11, Jesus brings together the mountain and the sea, telling his disciples that faith can move this mountain (the this is important) into the sea. The context is that Jesus has come to Jerusalem for the final time: within a week, he will be crucified. Staying with friends in Bethany, on the Mount of Olives across the valley from Jerusalem, he looks across at the temple mount, synonymous with God’s presence, and speaks of the need to move this mountain into the sea. The conversation is prompted by Jesus cursing a fig tree – a symbol of God’s people – for not bearing fruit when he came to it. The wider context is full of warnings that if the people do not receive him, it will be too late: the temple will be destroyed. The people as a nation do not repent, and in AD70 the Roman army would destroy the temple, as Jesus had foreseen. The point Jesus makes about throwing the mountain into the sea is that there is no advantage in having a place of encountering God if you cannot bring that to bear in the face of chaos – creating firm ground on which to stand. Indeed, if we do not do this, we will ultimately lose the experience of encounter we had previously known.

What, then, has this to do with break-ins and break-throughs?

We need the mountain-top experiences, but we need to keep proclaiming the God who sets us free in the dark valleys.

Faith does not guarantee problem-free lives, but the promise of a covenant-partner who stands with us in the challenges we face, bringing to bear the resources at his disposal.

If we do not exercise this faith, circumstances will sweep it away from us.

My immediate response to the break-in was not to bless the intruder. My immediate response was not charitable. The temptation was to give free rein to anger, to vengeance, to discouragement – and so to find myself taken captive by these intruders.

To be honest, yesterday, in the moment, I could not throw the mountain of my week at New Wine United into the sea of shattered glass and splintered wood and scattered paper. But today I could. Today, I could ask God to show mercy on the intruder – and on me. Today, I could call out to God to come and set me free, that I might bring the goodness of the kingdom of heaven to bear in the mess.

That is what it looks like to move mountains, to throw them into the sea. Even to hope for repentance, forgiveness, reconciliation and restoration.

Update: now read part 2