Sunday, 10 May 2015

Alchemy: The Transforming God 2

The refiner’s fire
He will sit as a refiner and purifier of silver; he will purify the Levites and refine them like gold and silver. Then the LORD will have men who will bring offerings in righteousness... [Malachi 3.3 NIV]
Remove the dross from the silver, and a silversmith can produce a vessel. [Proverbs 25.4]
1.  We are the stuff of God’s alchemy, the raw material out of which he wants to fashion pure gold, the pure gold of lives lived for him, in him, and through him.
2.  But we know that our stuff – our raw material - is pretty messy, rough, flawed, impure, corrupt. And so God has to set his divine magic to work to refine us and make of us the beautiful things that he has always wanted, not make-up, make-believe or make-over, but re-creation, a new me, washed, purified, reworked. It is most mysterious, most magical, most wonderful, to think that God cares for us enough to want to create us all over again.
3.  And that divine magic involves:
a.  fire
b.  light
c.  words
d.  a reaction
4.  I don’t want to say much about fire today, because that’s the subject of the next Sacred Space evening, on June 14th. But I did have a conversation with our Simeon Centre intern this week about refining. She’s a material scientist, and she told me that if you want to refine a piece of metal, the best way is to heat it slowly along the length of the metal bar, and the impurities are driven to one end and can be cut off. It’s a bit like refining and pruning come together. Heat the metal, drive out the dross and cut it off!
There’s something about the pain and cost of being refined by God’s alchemy here, and Paul puts it well in his Letter to the Romans: We also boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us. [5.3-5] It’s the fire of God’s love that refines us, not the fire of anger!
5.  And so to the next magical element, light. Paul again: Take no part in the unfruitful works of darkness, but instead expose them. For it is shameful even to mention what such people do secretly; but everything exposed by the light becomes visible, 14for everything that becomes visible is light.
If you’ve ever turned a large stone over in the garden, you will have seen ants, or beetles, or other strange creatures of the dark, run for cover. I think Paul has this in mind when he says, Turn the stone of your life over, and shine God’s light on it.
What does that look like in practice? Well, we are very good at wriggling and squirming out of facing the people we really are. We make excuses for our actions readily: I was tired. He started it. It’s the way my parents showed me. I was distracted.
And the magic of God’s alchemy says Step 1: bring the dross of our lives into the light, own it, confess that we have sinned, sometimes tell others, admit that we are at fault [when we are, of course], squirm and wriggle a bit. And then God and me together can do the business.
Step 2: the magic words: I am sorry. Or, on the other side, I forgive you.
Step 3: a reaction takes place. God has magic words of his own. Father forgive them; they do not know what they are doing. And later, after the resurrection, Jesus said to them again, ‘Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.’ When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.’
6.  It’s really all about change. Change hurts. Change is costly. Change is hard. But God has given us a chance for change, a choice to change, and a challenge to think about what might happen if we
a.  chose to accept a bit of fire
b.  chose to lift the lid on the secrets of our hearts
c.  chose to utter the magic words
I will draw this together simply by quoting Corrie ten Boom, whom I return to over and over again when I want to make this point. I know of no one better to illustrate the magic of redeeming love, made possible in Christ.
[Betsie and I had been arrested for concealing Jews in our home during the Nazi occupation of Holland; this man had been a guard at Ravensbruck concentration camp where we were sent.]
“Now he was in front of me, hand thrust out: ‘A fine message, Fräulein! How good it is to know that, as you say, all our sins are at the bottom of the sea!’
“And I, who had spoken so glibly of forgiveness, fumbled in my pocketbook rather than take that hand. He would not remember me, of course—how could he remember one prisoner among those thousands of women?
“But I remembered him and the leather crop swinging from his belt. I was face-to-face with one of my captors and my blood seemed to freeze.
“ ‘You mentioned Ravensbruck in your talk,’ he was saying, ‘I was a guard there.’ No, he did not remember me.
“ ‘But since that time,’ he went on, ‘I have become a Christian. I know that God has forgiven me for the cruel things I did there, but I would like to hear it from your lips as well. Fräulein,’ again the hand came out—’will you forgive me?’
“And I stood there—I whose sins had again and again to be forgiven—and could not forgive. Betsie had died in that place—could he erase her slow terrible death simply for the asking?
“It could not have been many seconds that he stood there—hand held out—but to me it seemed hours as I wrestled with the most difficult thing I had ever had to do.
“For I had to do it—I knew that. The message that God forgives has a prior condition: that we forgive those who have injured us. ‘If you do not forgive men their trespasses,’ Jesus says, ‘neither will your Father in heaven forgive your trespasses.’
“I knew it not only as a commandment of God, but as a daily experience. Since the end of the war I had had a home in Holland for victims of Nazi brutality. Those who were able to forgive their former enemies were able also to return to the outside world and rebuild their lives, no matter what the physical scars. Those who nursed their bitterness remained invalids. It was as simple and as horrible as that.
“And still I stood there with the coldness clutching my heart. But forgiveness is not an emotion—I knew that too. Forgiveness is an act of the will, and the will can function regardless of the temperature of the heart. ‘… Help!’ I prayed silently. ‘I can lift my hand. I can do that much. You supply the feeling.’
“And so woodenly, mechanically, I thrust my hand into the one stretched out to me. And as I did, an incredible thing took place. The current started in my shoulder, raced down my arm, sprang into our joined hands. And then this healing warmth seemed to flood my whole being, bringing tears to my eyes.
“ ‘I forgive you, brother!’ I cried. ‘With all my heart!’
“For a long moment we grasped each other’s hands, the former guard and the former prisoner. I had never known God’s love so intensely, as I did then”

Saturday, 9 May 2015

Alchemy: The Transforming God I

On Saturday 9th May, I spoke at a Quiet Day for the Lordsbridge Team Ministry on Alchemy: The The Transforming God. This is the first of the three talks.
1. The philosopher’s stone
The medieval science of alchemy invested most of its energy in a magical quest for the philosopher’s stone, the mysterious stuff that would turn base metals into gold. It was a quest for wealth, for power, for understanding, for control of a troubling and troublesome world.
In Sacred Space this year, we are celebrating the stuff of life, the stuff of creation: earth, fire, air and water, and we’ll go on doing that for the rest of this year. Focusing on the elements of life got the team thinking about the one who is in charge of the elements: the transforming God.
And so we arrive at our theme for the day: Alchemy: The Transforming God. People’s lives often look like that alchemical quest: for wealth, for power, for understanding, for control. We need to tame our unruly world, our fleeting lives, our turbulent passions. And it’s a failed quest. In trying to tame our world, we end up like the Sorcerer’s Apprentice, who imitates his master’s magic, gets the jug to fill with water and then nearly drowns because he doesn’t know how to get the jug to stop. In desperation he cries out, and the master comes and saves him.
So the first step in this simple reflection is to turn back to God. Stop looking for the philosopher’s stone, stop looking for solutions, and turn to the philosopher himself: Almighty God. You’ve done that, of course, many of you, all your lives, I know. I simply need to say to you: Turn back to God today – it’s our daily task.
Here then are three things to think about, that might help us focus on God himself and turn back:
1.  Our God is a provident God. Providence is not something we think about much these days. We are much more likely to talk about chance, good fortune, serendipity or – at best – God-incidences in our lives. But Christian teaching is that God, who knows all things, cares for all things, and is steering all things, including our lives, towards an end in which he and we will be at rest together.
If I were in college today, I’d have a lot of hands going up saying, but what about Nepal, Syria, refugees in the Mediterranean, Rotherham, and I guess some of you are thinking that it doesn’t always look as if God cares very much. That’s why we try to sort it all out for ourselves, because we sometimes struggle to believe and trust in a God who cares.
That’s why it’s fundamental for us to turn back to God, to the beginning of the story, that God created the world, including us, as part of a plan, that we might be loved by him and love him in return. That’s why we also need to turn back to God in the middle of the story, where it’s all gone horribly wrong, and we see a cluster of crosses on Calvary. Here God declares his intention to recover, restore and redeem us in his providential plan.
And in the confidence of the resurrection, we work at trusting in a God who won’t let us go until all is well, until – as Julian of Norwich says – all manner of things are well, and we finally and forever rest in the loving care of God. We work at hope, at seeing that God is still at work, for us, and not against us. We pray: Lord, I believe; help my unbelief.
2.  Secondly, our God makes beautiful, even magical things. He is a God of awesome wonder, and as we turn to him today, we need to respond with childlike delight, playfulness and amazement. Paul gets close to this when he says in Romans 15 that the Kingdom of God is ‘righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit.’ But let’s use Job to illustrate this. Imagine the master alchemist Almighty God in his laboratory, mixing, stirring, playing, fizz, sparkle and smoke everywhere, and Job says:
‘At this also my heart trembles, and leaps out of its place. Listen, listen to the thunder of his voice and the rumbling that comes from his mouth.
Under the whole heaven he lets it loose, and his lightning to the corners of the earth.
After it his voice roars; he thunders with his majestic voice and he does not restrain the lightnings when his voice is heard.
God thunders wondrously with his voice; he does great things that we cannot comprehend.
For to the snow he says, “Fall on the earth”; and the shower of rain, his heavy shower of rain, serves as a sign on everyone’s hand, so that all whom he has made may know it.
Thus God creates; we wonder and laugh out loud. In our laughter, we turn again to the world as God has made it, and back to God himself.
3.  The last of my three simple calls back to God is a call to respond to the power of God. Simply put, God is who God is; and we are to worship him, in amazement and sometimes in terror. As the children’s song goes, our God really is a great big God, and we should be very afraid.
We are so familiar with the idea of the power of God, and of the Old Testament stories in particular which stress that power, that I’m going to make this point by way of a question. Have you over the years tamed and domesticated your view of God? Is God simply a cosy, reassuring, comfort-blanket kind of God?
It was not so that Francis Thompson, his life ravaged by drugs and alcohol in 1890 experienced God, and wrote about it in his amazing poem The Hound of Heaven:

I fled him, down the nights and down the days;
I fled him, down the arches of the years;
I fled him, down the labyrinthine ways
Of my own mind; and in the mist of tears
I hid from Him, and under running laughter.
Up vistaed hopes I sped;
And shot, precipitated
Adown Titanic glooms of chasmèd fears,
From those strong Feet that followed, followed after.
But with unhurrying chase,
And unperturbed pace,
Deliberate speed, majestic instancy,
They beat – and a Voice beat
More instant than the Feet –

‘All things betray thee, who betrayest Me.’