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.’