Saturday, November 14, 2009

Remembering...

It can't (or at least it shouldn't) have escaped your attention that November devotes a reasonable amount of time to acts of remembrance:

There is Bonfire Night:

"Remember remember the fifth of November
Gunpowder, treason and plot.
I see no reason why gunpowder, treason
Should ever be forgot..."

Then we have Remembrance Sunday and the armistice; commemorating the sacrifices of those who sacrifice themselves to protect our way of life.

In the United States, there is the festival of Thanksgiving, where time is set aside to recall how the initial English colonists were saved by the kindness of the native tribes from certain death during their first bitter winter in the Americas.

So, naturally with these in mind, particularly Remembrance Sunday, I've been thinking a lot about the importance of remembering things.

More specifically, I've been asking myself which part of remembering is important to us as individuals?

Human beings are sentimental creatures. We paint, we sculpt, we write, we mark, we build and we invent rituals both simplistic and elaborate... all to preserve the memory of things that are important to us.

It's a great strength, but it can just easily be one of our greatest weaknesses.

What do I mean by this?

I will explain but first let me tell you a little story about an oak tree:

It grew local to where I live and was known as the Elephant Oak/Elephant Tree. It took it's name from the unique shape that the roots had formed above ground. It really did look like an elephant. Many generations of children played beneath the bows of that tree, or scaled it's trunk... but eventually, time moved on and the land the tree occupied, was needed to help develop Alcester's new bypass and that the tree would need to be felled.

It was decided that the memory of the tree needed to be preserved and so the local authority decided to remove and varnish a section of trunk... the tree was felled and the trunk segment now sits to this day on top of the bypass bridge nearby to where it once stood.

The reason I told you this story is that the act of preservation is a disgrace to the memory of the tree. If you passed by today, you wouldn't know what the significance of the random wooden object was. It doesn't even look like an elephant anymore... not really. The point I am trying to illustrate is that in seeking to preserve something material of the tree... the very reason the tree was special... has been lost.

This is a microcosm of much larger things.

Earlier in the year, when I travelled to Israel and saw the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, my heart sank... the whole place is encased in shrines and the reason that place is special becomes lost in the regalia (and for that matter, the hysteria). It's quite reassuring that there's a place just down the road that, even if it's claim to historicity is slightly more tenuous, seeks to preserve the memory of what happened in the original Holy Week in a manner that helps people contemplate those events and their relevance both universal and personal.

I was reminded of this several weeks ago when I got caught up in a television debate to do with the celebration of religious festivals being covered on television. The Bishop of Lichfield bless him, argued that Christmas was THE key festival of the year.

I nearly choked on my Shreddies.

As a Christian I believe that Easter is far more important (something I was told once as a boy by Mr Bowen... and knew in my heart was true as soon as I heard it). Christmas is merely the wrapping paper... Easter is the present. Without the need for Easter... there would have been no cause for Christmas. In this instance I can categorically state that the chicken most definitely came before the egg!

You see the danger is, that we can get so caught up in celebrating or remembering an event... that we actually forget what the event commemorates and it becomes meaningless and disrespectful.

In the same debate, a lady vicar spoke of people being disenfranchised with religion.

Do you know something? I thought her choice of words was very interesting and unintentionally ironic.

Why?

Because people do see religion as a franchise... a marketing brand, a spiritual business empire... and they dismiss it without hesitating even for just one moment to dig below the surface and see what is really there.

It's not even with the big festivals either. Sometimes the very way that worship is organised seems to hinder the act of genuine worship itself. We can become so wrapped up in how we do something... that we neglect the God who we worship.

At this time of year, I think a lot about the mantra of the Poppy Appeal:

"Remember the dead, but don't forget the living".

I find that as much as that statement is true about war veterans and serving soldiers, it is equally true about tradition. If we benefit from a certain type of worship, that's great... but we must not forget the living God who inspires us to worship, if it was not for Him... those words and/or tunes would be lifeless and their true meaning lost.

In C.S Lewis' The Last Battle, there is a memorable scene where a group of dwarves are in the presence of Aslan himself... and on the verge of being in the new Narnia... but they sadly are left behind because they are hard hearted... and all that they can see is the inside of a dank stable... and not the wondrous truth that is actually all around them. Being unable to accept the utopian reality presented and freely offered to them, they settle for the dystopian reality they have grown accustomed to.

My heart breaks when I think that the same is true for many today... either through their own unbelief or through a misrepresentation of the Gospel message, there are people in the world today who are settling for the dirty stable when the treasures of heaven are just right in front of them... waiting for their acceptance.

There is gold in them there hills. It's true... I've found it... OK so I've only got a few nuggets... but I'm hungry for more... and the great thing about the treasure to be found in a relationship with God is something that Jesus pointed out:

"Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moth and rust do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also. "
Matthew 6:19-21

The treasure God gives is real... it is imperishable and it is not something that can be stolen away from you.

It's not even something that is intangible that awaits us at the end of time. When God pours out his Spirit, the lost are found, the prisoners are set free, the eyes of the blind are opened, the lame walk and the dead are raised.

I believe it.

But I also believe that many of us who proclaim the Gospel are wary of acknowledging it 's most awesome power to transform lives on a very supernatural level because of our own fears and insecurities.

We are scared to step out of the boat for fear that we will sink and be shown up for charlatans.

We are scared to step out of the boat because if we succeed they will think we are nutjobs.

So all too often the temptation is there to provide people with a spiritual crutch rather than the ability to walk in the light of Christ.

... and i believe they are aware of it.

We need to offer people real food, real treasure.... and that requires us to be transformed first.

There is an old story about the Pope and Thomas Aquinas:

As he was showing Thomas as the glories of the Vatican, the Pope remarked: "We cannot say with Peter of old, silver and gold have I none" Thomas replies: "Nor can we say, "Such as I give to thee: In the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth rise up and walk."

They were both quoting from the book of Acts. One has to wonder if the two viewpoints are interconnected... after all Jesus did say that we cannot serve two masters. The more we focus on money, the harder it becomes to focus on God.

In the Old Testament book of Malachi, God throws down a challenge to his people who have been holding back on him. He urges them to bring the full amount of their tithing into the Temple. This is what he says:

"Test me in this," says the LORD Almighty, "and see if I will not throw open the floodgates of heaven and pour out so much blessing that you will not have room enough for it."

It's like that big scene in Casino Royale. James Bond is playing for big stakes and the only way he can win, is to go all in and risk losing it all. He does so and cleans everybody out.

The promises of God are even greater.... but they require an even greater risk. Lets face it though, the stakes are higher so why shouldn't that be the case with the risk? The kingdom of God can quite literally transform people's lives in this world and the next. The trouble is, to get to the good stuff you have to be prepared to lay it all on the line for God. Let's not deceive ourselves though - the things we play with... money, feelings, relationships, reputation. - they aren't truly ours anyway.

So the question I guess is: when God calls on us to place our poker chips on the table... are we prepared to go all in?

I just want to conclude with what I believe were Christ's words with regard to the matter:

Then he called the crowd to him along with his disciples and said: "If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me and for the gospel will save it. What good is it for a man to gain the whole world, yet forfeit his soul? Or what can a man give in exchange for his soul?
Mark 8:34-37


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