The mystery of everything

The Mystery of Everything & The Magic of Stuff’ – Genesis 1:1-14

Christ Church Highbury, February 18th 2018

[Each year, Christ Church chooses a Lent course that is followed in home groups & in Sunday’s sermons. This year we used The Mystery of Everything, a course by Hilary Brand based upon the film The Theory of Everything. We use the course in our home groups and Sunday sermons – this was the first week of that series.]

The ‘mystery of everything’ is potentially quite an undertaking for just 6 weeks, but it’s broken down into five themes of mystery:

  • Our origins
  • Suffering
  • God’s care for us
  • Wisdom
  • Weakness
  • The cross

It acknowledges that faith requires us to engage in mystery. We never reach a point in our relationship with God where we know all the answers. No human in the history of creation has come close to fully comprehending the mystery of God, although many have tried!

The problem is that this doesn’t sit well with our human instinct of curiosity – we’d rather know the theory behind everything, rather than having to settle for a mystery. We seek answers to questions; we are created with an innate desire for knowledge within us. I’m not sure we ever fully depart from that phase all small children go through where every other question is “But why….???”

And, over centuries, humanity has tried to establish the answers to our questions. This course explores some of these questions, doing so through the story of someone who attempted to find answers in science: Stephen Hawking, and the film based upon his earlier career, The Theory of Everything.

Stephen Hawking is arguably one of the greatest scientists the UK has ever produced. His book A Brief History of Time, published in 1988 as an introduction to his work and ideas for the masses, sold over 10 million copies in 20 years. It’s been published in 35 languages and is one of the bestselling science books ever published. Covering topics such as the Big Bang and Black Holes, for many people it’s been their main introduction to some of the ‘big’ questions around our origin and how our world works.

Modern culture has a tendency of viewing science and faith as an either/or situation. Can you believe in Genesis and the Big Bang? Hasn’t modern science disproved monotheistic views of how the world came into being?

The Mystery of Origin

“In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. Now the earth was formless and empty, darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters.” 

The most we are told about HOW God created the world is that his Spirit hovers above all, and that at his command, light, sky, land, and all that grows & lives on earth. The intricacies of exactly how this all came to pass, and a precise time frame is not part of Genesis’ opening chapters.

It’s generally understood that this account was written by Moses, in around 1445 BC. It is certainly not an eye witness account! There are also widely understood to be two creation narratives, this in chapter 1 and then a further narrative in chapter 2. They are complementary rather than contradictory, providing God’s people with an understanding of his centrality in their world.

God’s creation is shrouded in mystery, and the more that we have learnt of the world through scientific exploration, the more questions have been raised. Some would argue that theories such as the Big Bang and Evolution are indicative of Genesis being wrong. That there is no God, or that creation couldn’t have taken place in the way Genesis accounts for.

I don’t know where you stand on these questions. I am categorically not a scientist! It was not my strongest subject at school, and I don’t really have the greatest of interests in it – certainly not to the extent that I would buy A Brief History of Time and read it for fun! But I am a historian and theologian. I am interested in why and how things happened. I’m fascinated by the way in which our world has grown, changed and evolved. And obviously, I believe that God is in the centre of it all.

My father has a scientific background – he was part-way through a science degree when he realised he was being called to ordained ministry. As a result, growing up, religion and science were not regarded as an either/or – they were compatible rather than being mutually exclusive. I learned about evolution at school, but was shocked to discover that there were Christians who didn’t believe in the scientific theory because it was at odds with Genesis. Aged 9, I was rather hasty in my dismissal of these Christians (probably to my parents’ great amusement), but it resulted in a long conversation with my father about how to reconcile the two arguments with each other. As an adult, I still hold a similar view – that I can see God at work in these scientific ideas, and I don’t consider them to undermine my faith and beliefs.

There isn’t time to go deeply into the debate of which creation ‘story’ or theory is correct, or grounded in the most evidence. I’m sure many of you will have your own opinions on this. What we should not do is dismiss scientific discoveries and research as attacks upon God’s autonomy – because although there are atheist scientists, there are many who have a belief in God’s work in creation too.

I love this story about one of Einstein’s classes:

A class of students were saying they had decided there was no God. Einstein asked them how much of all the knowledge in the world they had among themselves collectively, as a class. The students discussed it for a while and decided they had 5% of all human knowledge among themselves. Einstein thought their estimate was a little generous, but he replied: “Is it possible God exists in the 95% you don’t know?”

Even within science, there is still mystery…

When we read the creation narrative set out in Genesis as readers dwelling in the 21st century, we do so in our specific time and culture. We bring to our reading myriad questions that would not have crossed the minds of those hearing Moses’ account centuries ago. But we see God at work at the beginning of time, just as we see God at work in the world in which we live today.

A sense of awe:

In the mystery of creation is a sense of awe. As we ponder these questions of how, when and why, we are struck by the majesty of what God has done and is doing. Where do we find that sense of awe at God’s creation in our lives?

There has been more than one depiction of Stephen Hawking’s life over the years. Just a couple of years before The Theory of Everything came out, the BBC made a film of his life starring Benedict Cumberbatch. I happen to be more of a Cumberbatch fan than an Eddie Redmayne one, and in this drama was a scene between Hawkings and Jane – who he later married – where they lie together in a garden, gazing at the stars. As they do so, Stephen attempts to explain some of his ideas about black holes and the universe – very romantic!

But as I was re-reading Genesis, I was struck that I have a similar response to the stars. Not a scientific weighing up of possibilities, but a sense of awe at the vastness of God’s creation. Living in London, it’s not something I get to do every day – but I think of when I’m on holiday in rural France, sitting outside late at night, looking up at a sky that seems so huge and full of infinite possibilities. That the stars I’m looking up at began burning bright centuries ago. That people I care for far away can look up at the same stars. That, these lights in the sky were created at God’s command…

This sermon was preached just a few weeks before Stephen Hawking died. In the days following his death, many tributes appeared that included some of his work on stars. (Credit.)

As I look back on my life I can think of plenty of other moments where I’ve felt a similar sense of awe:

  • Holding a newborn baby & marvelling at this tiny, perfect creature who’ll grow up to be someone.
  • Watching a child do something for the first time.
  • Standing in the waves of the Pacific Ocean, overcome by the vastness of water.
  • Catching sight of a beautiful sunrise or sunset.

I could go on, and I’m sure you would all have plenty of moments to add to that list. I would encourage you to find time to think about those that have come into your mind. Thank God for his creation, and for the way in which it has reminded you of his presence.

Perhaps you have questions? Lent can be a time in which you choose to intentionally engage in the mysteries of our faith and our world – through a lent course, through conversation with others, or through intentionally finding out more about an area you’re curious about.

Despite all our questions and wondering, in the midst of the mystery of everything, there is one certainty: God is at work – yesterday, today, and forever.

The year a Gilmore Girl inspired my Lenten fast

It started with an armchair. A gorgeous armchair that I had spotted a year ago, but didn’t buy immediately – which was lucky, as it went on special offer during February. As of a couple of weeks ago, I now have an awesome reading corner in my lounge:

Ikea’s Strandmon armchair & footstool. (As the chair was on offer, obviously it made sense to buy the footstool too…)

The first book I read in my new, fabulously comfortable, reading nook was no weighty theology tome. Nor was it a classic novel, worthy of awards. Nope. It was a celebrity autobiography – star of Gilmore Girls, Lauren Graham’ Talking As Fast As I Can, to be specific. It’s not at all trashy (and includes a diary of the Gilmore revival, a must for all GG fans), but nonetheless I was surprised when something Lauren mentioned provided a seed of an idea that has blossomed into my Lenten challenge for 2017…

One chapter of the book chronicles Lauren’s efforts to write and her determination to get some discipline into her routine. A friend suggested to her the ‘kitchen timer technique’ – otherwise known as Pomodoro. It’s pretty simple (although the explanation goes on for several pages): turn everything distracting off; set a timer; write or journal until it goes off; and repeat. In fact, this wasn’t my first encounter with Pomodoro – regular alarms and noises go off in the Matryoshka Haus office, indicating the passing of time for our resident graphic designer.

It’s a useful tactic to have in one’s arsenal. I’ve been trying to get more disciplined in my writing this year, so it was something to file away. Then I thought about my reading corner, and the pile of worthy books I currently have sitting in my office at church, desperately needing to be read. And I put a few things together. What better way to mark Lent than by ploughing through my To Be Read theology pile?

So, here’s the plan: I pledge to spend half an hour a day in my armchair, reading theology. There’ll be a notebook, a pencil and a timer and an ambition for quality rather than quantity. Read, ponder, wonder – any of those are fine. The important thing is making the time. (Ideally this will happen after my morning prayer on the balcony slot, but that might be too ambitious for mornings when I also need to be at morning prayer at 9am.)

Grateful to my favourite inhabitant of St Denis des Murs for the London Tube themed notebook!

My first book is Rowan Williams’ Being Disciples, which everyone says is simply marvellous. Plus, I’ve committed to read it with one of my oldest friends, so I need to get a wriggle on. Next? Who knows – I need to have a search through my shelves and see what takes my fancy. I’ve recently acquired a stash of feminist theology and missiology thanks to my Mum having a clear out, so some of that needs to be included too. [The ABC’s Dethroning Mammon will be read in regular work time – we’re using it for our Lent series, so it’s an essential – before anyone suggests it.]

Hopefully, my Lenten pledge will turn into a regular habit. I’ve gotten out of the habit of reading theology regularly since I left college. (In part, thanks to my tutor actually telling me that I should take a break for a while because I’d been working so hard.) I’ve read it for research work (when I get paid to read), but the books that come out that everyone says I should read? Not so much.

Here’s to Ash Wednesday, and all that Lent will bring!

Ashed

This morning, I did an exceptionally British and Anglican thing:
I was 3 minutes late for the Ash Wednesday service I’d planned to go to, so I didn’t go in – just in case I looked foolish.

(My flatmate got up an hour earlier than usual and was in the shower when I got up. Then a lost tourist asked me for directions…)

Utterly ridiculous, but in retrospect, a good thing.

For one week only, Wednesday was a study day, not a working day, and I’d decided to make the most of it by attending an Ash Wednesday service at a church I’d never been to before. [Also, my church doesn’t have one, but I’m rather fond of the tradition. This would be yet another example of my excellent, high church Methodist upbringing…]

Having missed the 8.30am eucharist with ash at St James’s Piccadilly, I decided to stick around in the area and get on with my work until the 1.05pm service. As a direct result of this decision, I had a very productive 3-4hours of studying (Amos and Hosea essay notes are very, very nearly done) in a lovely Starbucks and the giant Waterstones (always good to have a change of scenery in between books), knowing that I had a set end time. After all, I didn’t want to be late again.

It was a good decision. No, an excellent one. I was at a table studying far earlier than I would have been at home (8.40am); I didn’t get distracted by household chores; and most importantly, I didn’t give up on my plan to get ashed.

AshedBrilliantly, I’d taken this before I realised that #ashtagselfie had become a thing this year.

For the unfamiliar, as a way of marking the start of Lent, on Ash Wednesday, the previous year’s palm crosses are burnt, mixed with oil and used to make a cross on the foreheads of those at the service – known as the ‘imposition of the ashes’. As the ashes are imposed, the following words are spoken:

“Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.
Turn away from sin and be faithful to Christ.”

No, it’s not the cheeriest bit of liturgy, but it’s important. As we all know, life isn’t all joy and laughter. We get things wrong; stuff goes badly; we don’t understand why – we are dust and to dust we shall return… Lent is a season of remembering this; of being penitent of our sins; and remembering the importance of Christ’s death and resurrection.

A lot of Christians get a little over excited about Lent. Social media becomes full of people declaring what they’re giving up (especially if they’re fasting social media itself, I’ve ranted about that one before); what books they’re going to be reading; or what good deeds they’re going to be taking on. I sometimes wonder if we make too much noise about it – after all, isn’t our fasting meant to be done in humbleness? Or perhaps it’s just many people’s way of being accountable and marking Lent in solidarity with others?

Lent has been a long time in coming this year (hello, Easter on almost the latest date it can be in the year…) so we’ve had plenty of time to work out our plan for it. So, as a means of staying accountable, here’s mine:

  • Read the Archbishop of Canterbury’s Lent book. Obviously, this decision was in no way influenced by the fact that the author of the book (Graham Tomlin, Dean of St Mellitus College) gave me a signed copy back in December…
  • Give up chocolate. I’ve NEVER done this for Lent before (I gave up meat for years, chocolate always seemed too obvious) and I know it’s the archetypal Lenten fast, but I suddenly decided yesterday that it would be a good thing. Partly because it’s a go-to comfort when I probably ought to be praying; but also because I’m preaching on fasting in a few week’s time and I figured I ought to practice what I preach – literally.

As a season, it’s a pretty important time for me. Academic deadlines are looming (two big pieces before March is out); decisions need to be made regarding curacies (this may be the root of my current emotional connection to chocolate); and by the end of Lent there will only be a few short weeks left of Vicar School. I get the feeling that Lent 2014 is going to be a time of preparation in several, rather important, ways!

Lent, lent, lent, lent, lent

I think it starts around the same time that Cadbury Creme Eggs appear upon supermarket shelves. It’s occasional at first, but by the end of January, or early February, it’s a veritable avalanche.

I talk of course of the onset of lent – which we are celebrating/commemorating today. (Can you ‘celebrate’ Ash Wednesday? It’s categorically not a feast day.) My Twitter feed has talked of little else than lent books, giving ups, taking ons and social media absences for weeks. [You might be thinking I need to follow different people. You might be right.] People are going veggie, giving up booze, abstaining from tweeting, reading wholesome spiritual tomes, not buying things or eating out…as usual, it’s enormously varied.

Lent, Dave Walker styleLent, Dave Walker style.

Back in my youth, I used to be quite good at the lent thing. Several years of vegetarian lents have created an adult who rarely eats meat (I’m a flexitarian these days); once I gave up fizzy drinks (no idea how this was a big deal – we rarely had them in the house!); I’ve certainly never given up alcohol or chocolate. To be honest, I’m a bigger fan of taking something on for lent. After all, Jesus may have fasted in the wilderness, but he also took on the challenge to live in the desert in the first place…

However, I struggled to think of something. It’s a little like my antipathy towards new year’s resolutions. Why now? Why just for 6 weeks? But, over the weekend, a challenge fell into my lap and I’m seizing it with both hands. I’m retreating.

Well, not literally. At vicar school, there’s an annual retreat weekend (last year I went up north for ‘finger painting with God’ and created what everyone else decided was a golden boob). This year, I opted for a ‘retreat in daily  life’ instead of a weekend away, and this takes place over lent. Initially, at our induction on Saturday, I was hugely dubious; but yesterday I met my spiritual director for the period and she’s super lovely and encouraging. We’ve worked out what my pattern of prayer will be and I’ll meet with her regularly to see how it’s going.

The basis for my pattern – or what will form the morning bit of it at least – is Sacred Space, a website run by Jesuits. I discovered it a couple of months ago, courtesy of a seminar at a vicar weekend, and it’s been brilliant. One of it’s key elements is colloquy – conversation – with Jesus, as if he’s sat next to you on the sofa. [Amusingly, when I told my vicar about the conversation aspect, he asked “who with?”, I replied “Jesus!” and he looked relieved – I then asked if he’d imagined there was a phone number you could ring in order to speak to a Jesuit. Though I rather like that idea!] Obviously, there’s some Bible reading too as well as an evening reflection upon the day.

Given that I’m a trainee vicar, a routine of daily prayer might not seem like much of a challenge. After all (as one friend takes peculiar joy in reminding me frequently), once ordained we’re obliged to say the Daily Office daily. (The clue’s in the name.) However, it’s immensely challenging to find a pattern that works, stick to it, and stay accountable during the process. So personally, I think this is a pretty good lenten activity and I’m genuinely looking forward to seeing how it goes – particularly as this year’s lent will be rather more interesting than other years.

But that, quite literally, is a story for tomorrow…

Twittering religiously

Research published today by Tearfund shows the ways in which people are communicating their faith via social media. Of those surveyed, 74% had welcomed ‘the opportunity to reveal their faith on digital platforms’ and nearly half had used Facebook (specifically) as a forum for sharing prayer requests. An average of 80% of respondents (across the age-groups who responded) also said that Facebook and Twitter inspired them to pray for others and specific situations.

It’s a relatively small (212) and self-selecting (the survey was advertised via social networks) sample, but it does show that social media is having an impact upon the way in which people live out their faith online and offline. Two days into Lent, this is a particularly relevant survey given the number of people who have decided to give up social networking for the duration.

It’s not something I particularly agree with – partly because of the results of this survey. Sure, if social networking is distracting you from working, studying or living in the ‘real world’ to the point of unhealthiness, then create boundaries, but will a 40 day fast really change your long-term attitude? But what about the role it has in our spiritual lives? Nurturing relationships; being challenged; asking and receiving prayer; staying up to date with international situations; learning new things – all of this now happens via social networks. Vicky Beeching spoke my mind on this subject in a blogpost yesterday entitled: Why I disagree with giving up social media for Lent’.

One of the things I’m becoming increasingly passionate about is the importance of churches and Christians using social media effectively. (Actually, I’m passionate about everyone using it effectively, it’s just that most of the time I’m talking about this within church-y circles. Most of what follows will apply to the rest of the world too.) I don’t simply mean in a marketing sense, but primarily in a building community way. I’d almost go as far as to say that a Facebook/Twitter presence is as essential to a church as a decent website is.

So I thought now might be a good time to share a few tips for individuals and groups on why they should care about their social media presence – and why, possibly, they should join Twitter. [Disclaimer: I am a massive Twitter fan. It isn’t everybody’s cup of tea, but it is worth a go – honest!]

1. Cross-platform consolidation
Let’s start with something that sounds pretentious, but is actually very sensible. If you’re a church/organisation, then create social media presences that work well together. Just like an individual might have Facebook, Twitter and a blog, so might a church have a Facebook page, Twitter feed and website. Make sure that you put the same information through all of them. You may think it’s pointless because it’s the same audience, but it’s not and the information can be used in different ways on each. On Twitter, for example, a church member might choose to retweet a church announcement so their followers can hear about it – something that’s harder to do with a Facebook status.
NB: If you’re going to do an auto-feed from one platform to another, make sure you do it from Twitter to Facebook, not the other way round. Feeding Facebook to Twitter doesn’t always work, because if the update exceeds 140 characters, you’ll be directed to a Facebook page – fine if you have a Facebook account, rubbish if you don’t. 

2. Save time by setting up auto-updates
There’s plenty of ways of doing this – some Twitter apps enable scheduled posting, so you can decide when you want something to go out. This means you can set things up even if you’re going to be on holiday, so Sunday services announcements can still go out, even if you’re not online one week. Our church’s website automatically sends out a tweet whenever new sermon audio is uploaded. [If you’re wondering about what a church Twitter account could post, the themes of Sunday talks and links to their audio would be a really good place to start.] Other platforms, like Flickr, will auto-Tweet whenever you add new content too.

3. Have a small team of people with access to your social media accounts
It’s kind of a simple rule of delegation really, but also means that it’s all dependent upon one person being at everything and online all the time. Mobile devices are particularly useful for this as it’s much easier to switch between Twitter accounts on an iPhone than on a computer (I currently have 4, this may be excessive…). This can also work by an individual person following lots of church people on Twitter, and being on the ball enough to re-tweet their stuff when relevant. You can also add specific accounts – so I now have a student Twitter in addition to the main church one and we complement each other, re-tweeting as appropriate.

4. Keep things private when they need to be private
The Tearfund research emphasises the ways in which Christians use social media for prayer requests. Some people are happy to share via very public forums like Twitter or Facebook, but others might want a safer space in which to do this. A church Facebook Page might work for certain things, but a closed group might be more appropriate for others – this worked brilliantly with my student group last year and I’ve just set up something similar for this year’s. I also belong to a brilliant women’s prayer group on Facebook which has become a place for sharing some really tough stuff, but also for reading truly inspiring stories. Having said that, it’s astonishing just how quickly a prayer request can get round the Twitter community – truly stunning and a really valuable asset of that network.

5. Use hashtags
This may sound solely Twitter related, but it’s not. For those not in the know, a hashtag is a way of grouping together tweets – placing ‘#’ before something on Twitter turns it into a hyperlink through which you can see all other tweets mentioning the same thing. For example, the Greenbelt festival usually goes with #gb12 (or whatever year it happens to be). This is useful for several reasons:

  • It can create a buzz for an event and help people see who else is there and what’s going on.
  • It enables people to bring together all the tweets from one event and store them for posterity.
  • It can be used to create ‘Twitter falls’ in other places. The Methodist Conference used this to startlingly good effect in 2011. Any tweets containing the hashtag #methconf were displayed on the conference’s main website, alongside the live video feed and papers – meaning that people could join in conversations in real time. [See, it’s not just for Twitter!]
6. Follow what you’re interested in and share what others might like
Treat your organisation like an individual (or, if you’re an individual – be individual!). Follow what you’re interested in – people, places, groups – and share what grabs your attention if you think it might benefit others. For example, social media has been a great place in the last few days to share what people are doing for Lent – I’ve discovered 24-7’s prayer spaces; Tearfund’s carbon fast; Christian Aid’s Count Your Blessings and myriad other initiatives via the people I follow and have passed them on in turn. If you have a church account, follow your members and engage with their lives (within suitable boundaries, obviously), but aim to inspire them too. With my student Twitter account I have two weekly aims – firstly, to keep student Twitterers informed on what we’re up to and share our doings; and secondly, to share at least one inspiring thought from our gatherings. The latter is something that often gets picked up by the people who follow us, so in turn (hopefully) inspires others.

I could talk for hours about the joys of social media and there’s plenty more to say on this subject, but I think this will do for now. In fact, friends have started booking me for personal social media surgeries, which I’m more than happy to do (though I apologise to those sat near me on Eurostar when the woman sat next to me grilled me about Twitter from London to Lille…). It’s well worth investing the time and effort – honest!