Over the hill – Part One

I wrote this for a sermon I preached on 1 Corinthians 15. Death and Resurrection very much on my mind right now.

This is Part One.

OVER THE HILL

Adam was walking steadily uphill, the day bright, the breeze rustling the grasses which lined the path. As he passed a field on his right, he stopped short. Not far off, near a school building, a game of football was taking place. He watched as the boys flowed back and forth up and down the pitch. The strip one of the teams was wearing seemed familiar. And then it dawned on him that he was watching his team from when he was 12 years old. Yes, there he was, dancing round a fullback and sending a shot just past the post. And then in an instant, the players, the goals, the supporters who stood on the touchlines . . . they were all gone.

Adam continued on his way and came upon a busy street full of people. The scene was immediately familiar to him – yes, there was the watch shop where he’d taken his first job. Mr. Judd, the owner, hair wild and disheveled, crouched over the counter, peering down at several timepieces, a monocle squeezed into one eye. Adam moved on, but as he walked, his surroundings began to take on the appearance of a pencil drawing. Slowly, they faded away. He rubbed his eyes and was heartened to discover that the world was still there.

He found himself in a park, where families strolled and fed the ducks. The sun was setting and off in the far corner, he noticed a couple sitting together. His heart warmed as he watched the woman. She was so beautiful back then. The man knelt down and pulled a small box out of his pocket. Adam could hardly bear to watch. He could see beads of sweat forming on the young man’s forehead and when the woman peered down at the open box, she immediately tilted back and howled with laughter. In his rush, he’d left the ring at home and his belovéd, Jane, couldn’t hide her amusement, much to his embarrassment. It was a long time ago, but the memory still stung a little inside.

And so Adam walked, the gradient becoming steeper as he progressed further uphill. His first job, his promotion, his holidays, first house, the time when he’d come home distraught at being fired, he watched each scene and his heart and mind, well, he remembered it all as though it was yesterday.

And then he reached the top of the hill. When he looked back, he remembered well the many things for which he was grateful and all those things which had hurt and wounded him. His life was a mixture of joy and sadness, pain and exhilaration.

Adam knelt and gave thanks for it all. From the top of the hill.

And then he began the descent down the other side. Ahead of him the land was covered in a thin grey mist. He couldn’t see what lay ahead at all. Yet all of a sudden the mist cleared and before him in the far, far distance, an ocean stretched out all the way to the horizon. As he came down the path and strained to see, he made out two people, one his great-aunt, Doris, the other her best friend, Ethel, whom he’d come to know in the care home where she and Doris both lived.

He pulled out some binoculars. Yes, there they were, walking along a cliff arm in arm. Adam had to strain to see them but it wasn’t hard to work out what happened next. One moment they were there, the next they had disappeared over the edge. And then the scene became clearer. Dozens and dozens of elderly people reached the cliff and were taken from sight. On occasion, Adam saw young men and women running down the slope and throwing themselves over the cliff. Such a sight filled him with great sorrow, for such things should never happen.

And then he saw his parents. One after the other, they disappeared from sight and Adam wept for a loss too great to contemplate.

When he looked back, he realized that he could no longer see the gentle slopes of his earlier life. He was over the hill and could no longer see them as he had before. Instead, his attention was captured by the vastness of the ocean before him. It was endless and he began to turn his attention to the space between his footsteps and the cliff which drew him relentlessly towards his fate.

To be continued . . .

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SHORT AND SWEET – 12

Authority.

I have a love/hate relationship with this word. Instinctively I dislike it intensely. I misbehaved at school. Rather a lot. I couldn’t stand being told what to do. I wasn’t disrespectful, but I lived in my own world and authority figures cramped my style.

And yet, the collapse of authority in our society has been a catastrophe. Along with the loss of authority is the loss of deference. Everyone is open to abuse. Even the queen of England is taunted at times. It’s soul-destroying.

We so love democracy that we erroneously believe that everyone’s opinion is equally valid. It isn’t. We may all have opinions but we should respect those who simply know more than we do. Sorry if you thought that simply having an opinion was sufficient to challenge the truly wise in our world.

So I resist authority while simultaneously acknowledging how important it is. It is good to submit to and learn from wise teachers. It is right that we see our own deficiencies, our own ignorance, so that we can grow. Authority figures help us do this.

And of course, most important of all, each day I bow before the Ultimate Authority Figure. I willingly and without resistance, seek to follow the only authority figure who completely warrants my worship and devotion.

Just need to control that ‘naughty boy’ inside, who doesn’t want to do what he’s told!

Have a great day.

Probably a Piece of Sky

PROBABLY A PIECE OF SKY – THE PARADOX OF WORTH

Have you ever completed a thousand piece jigsaw puzzle? You know, a panorama depicting a tranquil agricultural or maritime scene? There’s often a lot of sky, isn’t there? And almost every piece seems to be the same shape. Now imagine your jigsaw covers an entire football pitch. Every piece is a person’s life. Yours included. It’s an ocean scene, with the odd tall ship, the size of say, a ping pong ball, bobbing on the water. The vast majority is sky or sea. The pieces that make up the ships, with their colourful sails and elaborate rigging, are famous people: Leonardo, Winston, Adolf, Teresa, Paul and Caesar. You and I? We’re a piece of sky. Or sea.

The fact is, you’re not particularly special. You thought you were? Well, in reality, you’re not. You probably don’t stand out very much. You’re not the brightest or the prettiest. Nor are you the fattest or the slimmest or the fastest or the funniest. If you had never lived, your non-existence would produce no perceptible effect on the flow of human history. You are no Alexander the Great or Napoleon. You won’t ever lead a nation or paint a masterpiece. You won’t win a Grand Slam in any sport. You won’t cure a disease.

Oh, you think you’re special because God loves you? He does indeed love you very much, and he watches your every move.  Something he does for every one of the approximately 6.9 billion people on this planet. He hears your prayers and the prayers of your neighbour as well as the prayers of billions of other people from all over the world who call upon him. You’re no different to every other person on the earth who speaks to the Creator. You ask. He hears. Where’s the special in that?

When you’re gone, it’s highly unlikely that you will leave a lasting impact. Very few people do. Leonardo da Vinci, Watson and Crick, and Columbus are very rare exceptions. Extremely rare. Thomas Edison may never be forgotten, but he’s one of a very, very small group of people who can actually claim to have altered the course of human history. As for you, you will make millions of choices in your life and though you may consider them important, they will leave behind almost no effect on this world. If human history were a pond, the ripples you’re currently making are well nigh invisible.

Sometimes we console ourselves by telling ourselves that when we influence a child, we can change the course of history. Really? That’s a little grandiose, don’t you think? Entire nations have come and gone, each containing remarkable people raised by other gifted people – many more noteworthy and talented than you – yet they are forgotten. Ninth century Germany? Seventh century Mongolia? Twelfth century Spain. What is the lasting legacy of the thousands of villagers and townsfolk who lived and died in these countries? Regardless of the young lives you may have touched, the fact is, four generations from now, you and I will be little more than a line on a genealogical chart buried in the library or tucked away in a filing cabinet. Or worse. Lost in cyberspace. You are living and will continue to live a quiet life that has little effect beyond your immediate family and friends. Even if you have your 15 minutes of fame one day, by appearing on TV for some reason, you will simply join the millions who have experienced short term attention to drop back into anonymity afterwards. So, outstanding you are not.

But have you noticed something? When you’re working on a huge jigsaw – you know, one with lots of sky and sea – if a piece of sky or sea is missing, it sticks out like a sore thumb. Missing coloured pieces are easy to overlook, but sky and sea? They’re easy to spot. You will always notice a missing piece of sky.

So, you may never be famous, but you are completely unique. You are special beyond words. There is no one like you. No one. You possess a completely unique DNA structure and have done so since you were nothing more than a microscopic dot inside your mother. No one laughs like you, sings like you, cries like you. You are the only one who can run, draw, paint and dance the way you do. No one struts their stuff like you do. Your smile produces a unique effect on those whom you love. No one in your family is like you. Even if you’re an identical twin, your twin isn’t you, and that means you’re not identical at all. You’re unique. You’re the only person to possess the qualities you do. And God has no back up plan, just in case you fail. You are his first and last option for being you. There are no extra “you’s” just waiting for their chance. There is just you, living here, right now. You’re it. You produce a completely unique effect on those around you, something that no one else can produce. 6.9 billion other people currently living have no hope at all of replicating you or impacting the world the way you do.

Furthermore, Christ died for you. To save you. And if there were no other people on the planet, he would have died just for you. Almighty God, who formed the universe in a staggering burst of creative power, gave himself up and died for you. Does that make you special? Actually no. Sorry to disappoint. This is not what makes you special. It’s true that God responds to your most profound needs. For reconciliation. For restoration. But he doesn’t start with you. He starts . . . with himself.

It’s sometimes because we think we’re special that we think God expresses himself first and foremost in response to who we are.  He doesn’t. Whereas we are contingent beings, always responding to our environment and circumstances, God is contingent upon no one and no thing. When he acts, he does so out of the liberty of expressing his nature. And so he chooses to act – when he does act – in accordance with his nature and with one primary goal in focus: To demonstrate the wonders of his glory. He always, always starts with himself, because he is sufficient unto himself. He doesn’t need us at all.

We are gloriously superfluous to God. And that’s a good thing.

It is because we are not necessary that God’s decision to create us is all the more remarkable and all the more praiseworthy. God knew the cost and chose to pay it, because of the overflow of his love. We are the recipients of the extravagant love of God, brought into existence in order for our Creator to exhibit his character and share the wonders of his being. We’re special, then, for two reasons. First, because we’re made in the image of our Creator. We’re like our Father. And second, because we’re given a unique part to play in his big story. It’s the story he’s most interested in. The story is everything to him, because it’s his means of showing us who he is. And only human beings, who are made like him, can take leading roles. The rest of creation has a role, to be sure, but as bit parts compared to the central roles set apart for us. All of us. This is where our specialness is found.

It’s not found in being one of those very rare individuals who has left a lasting legacy, like Henry VIII or Galileo or Jane Austen. Neither is it based upon our appearance, our talents, our possessions, our birth or our connections. It has absolutely nothing to do with self-esteem, as though telling ourselves we’re special makes it so.  It’s based pure and simply upon the unique role we play in God’s story.

And no one can play your part. No one. No one can live your life except you. No one cares for Aunt Betty like you. No one listens to Cheryl at church who tells you about all her woes every Sunday. No one sits at the desk by the window next to Billy in class . . . except you. And no one shares their lunch with him the way you do. Except you. You make a difference in other people’s lives in a completely unique way that no one else can produce. Every choice you make, every move you make is significant, because it’s part of God’s story, and your part is essential to the whole. God chose you to be you, so that in being you, you would do a job that no one else can do. No one else has the relationships you do, and no one can love others the way you do, because no one else is you. God is counting on you to learn and grow and trust him, so that he can become increasingly known to those around you. He is in the process of changing you from being you to being “more you!” Becoming like God’s son is a glorious transformation of your soul into the person you are destined to become in relationship with your God.  Self-realization is the process not of becoming what you want to be, but the person God intends you to become. It starts and ends with the work of God.

When you become “more you,” within God’s story, when you learn to trust that God is changing you within a narrative he’s writing, then you’ll find contentment and peace. For whenever specialness is based on extraordinary human achievement – be it good or evil – it is divorced from its true source. Mother Teresa, Benjamin Franklin and Louis Pasteur aren’t special because we can see their achievements more easily than we see the achievements of others. They’re not special because they’re more gifted, brave or compassionate than others. They’re special for the same reason that we’re all special. They’re part of God’s big story. It’s true that their lives burn more brightly than most, but that doesn’t make them more important. It makes them . . . different. Every life that is lived, the good ones and the bad ones – and bad lives find no exoneration in this truth – form an essential component of the tapestry that makes up human history. There is no choice, no event that is unimportant. It is ALL important, for human lives are God’s means of expressing his character. He creates history, enters it, reveals himself within it, and wastes none of it. That so many human lives appear to be “wasted” is an illusion. We are far too close to the tapestry – indeed we are each one of its threads – to see the magnificent tableau he is creating. And yet it exists and grows day by day as he reveals ever more of himself to humankind. That such a profound truth remains largely a mystery to us should come as no surprise. What is more astonishing is that God should choose to include us in his plan at all, given that we’re rebellious creatures, unworthy of the calling he places on our lives.

So, where do you find your significance? Do you go searching for it in the faces of those you control, influence . . . and even love? Is your importance resting on the shoulders of other people? Or do you find yourself drowning in the multitudes who have gone before, aware that you’re nothing but a blip in the heartbeat of history. Whether you think too much of yourself or conversely, lose yourself in the enormity of time and space, perhaps it’s time for you to gain some perspective. Perhaps it’s time to start living in the paradoxes. So here they are:

You’re not that important. You’re not. You’re desperately important. Yes, you are. You’re just one of millions. You’re one . . . in a million. Everyone is special, which means no one is special. You’re average at most things. Yet you’re the only one who can be you. Which makes you unique.

Get used to it. Your story isn’t that important. It’s essential. To the big story. Critical, because no one else can live it, but not nearly as important as you might think. So you’re big and small. At the same time.

Because the big story, God’s story, is the only story that really counts. Not your story. His story. You’re in it. You play a vital role. But you’re not that important. He is. Your uniqueness stems only from his decision to include you in his story. It begins and ends with him. The Writer has given you a role, but he is the one who takes precedence, and you’ll only appreciate your importance, your significance when you come to see your role within the story He is writing, when you come to terms with the fact that you are probably a piece of sky. And that’s okay. For when you do, you’ll find freedom in the knowledge that significance comes not from standing out, but standing up. Playing your part. Doing your thing. Changing and growing, and helping the story along. In the right direction.

Being part of a picture with an awful lot of sky. And sea.

For the glory of the Writer.

© Richard Collins