An A to Z of God
A IS FOR ARK
In the Book of Genesis we quickly see the nature of this relationship when, almost needless to say, things went wrong and the Lord saw that 'every inclination of the thoughts of man's heart was evil all the time'. God's nature and longings are revealed when we read that 'The Lord was grieved that he had made man on the earth, and his heart was filled with pain.' Then we see the pattern that defines our relationship with God. He loves us and has aspirations for us but he is also our judge. He brought the flood yet he provided the mysterious ark to carry Noah and that precious cargo of biodiversity above the tumult. He is both judge and rescuer.
I read in the ark's worm-riddled timbers some other truths. The Creator cherishes his creation; it must have been hard work marshalling all those creatures, but it was God given work and it remains so today. Secondly, the people must have jeered at old Noah and his family for their faith and eccentric ways; we read that he was 'blameless among the people of his time, and he walked with God'. He knew where he was going. And finally, a small vital detail; when all were safely and uncomfortably quartered, still on dry land with the flood waters rising, God 'shut him in'; the ramp was drawn up and the door sealed. God at the centre, not man.
B IS FOR BABEL
The idea that we might all speak the same language is not at all fantastical. Beneath the babble of tongues heard on modern city streets there is a common language organ that allows us to form and use languages. Many programmes, often at odds with each other, but the same operating system. So why this strange story in the Book of Genesis? When men reached that fertile Mesopotamian plain they must have grown fat and arrogant. They said 'Come, let us build ourselves a city with a tower that reaches to heaven so that we may make a name for ourselves and not be scattered.'
Here are the fundamental themes of human nature. Our longing to belong is set against our terror of being scattered. Our intense desire for home never escapes the memory of exile. Building a tower to the sun and becoming god must have seemed an attractive remedy. But I wonder, did the shadow of that tower cast a momentary chill across their souls? Did they know that it was rebellion? For certainly that was how God saw it. The perennial theme of God's sovereign dues defied by man's lust for independence, 'making a name for ourselves'.
God had his own remedy. It might have been a meteorite, but instead he was merciful, another perennial mark of his dealings with man. He merely tinkered with our brains and bewildered us with a babble of tongues scattering us across the face of the earth. However, the consequences are much more than nemesis and confusion. That scattering of tongues and peoples is still in tension with the desire to belong, for purpose. We have a calling. When we reach out and join hands across Babel's blackened plain we find a deeper language and begin to understand the other. Reaching up to God with arms wide open we receive a song in our hearts as deep as eternity.
C is for Curtain
We shouldn't be surprised to find a great deal of curtain hanging prescribed in detail in the Old Testament. Poor old Moses was given a very trying list of things to be included in the building of the tabernacle, a sort of holy tent where God would meet Moses in person, and the high priest would dare to approach on the people's behalf. But curtains are about hiding, covering, privacy, keeping the light out or in, so it sounds at odds with a God who reaches out and calls us to him. The reason is simple and fundamental. God is holy; that means utterly separate and distinct from his creation, and separate from man his wonderful but frail creature. The curtain in the tabernacle that the wandering children of Israel built in the desert ritualised and symbolised this separation.
And so in the great temple in Jerusalem at the time of our Lord, the holy inner room was separatedby a ceiling to floor heavy curtain. Here the high priest could approach God the holy, and through the medium of sacrifices make atonement for his own sin and for those of the people, including even unintentional mistakes. Only through blood could atonement be made. And as the prophets revealed, especially Isaiah, God planned to send a son as the ultimate sacrifice. The writer of the letter to the Hebrews put it thus; he sent “a great high priest for ever” who would enter through the curtain on our behalf reconciling us to God.
Think of the symbolism of the heavy separating curtain. When Jesus died on the cross, an atoning sacrifice once for all reconciling us to a holy God, the temple curtain was torn from top to bottom. The ransom had been paid. No more separation. No more was access to God mediated by a high priest or any priest. We all now have access to God. The richly braided curtain of ritual was torn asunder and the light shines freely into our darkness.
D is for Doubt
Faith that is all certainty would look a little implausible, or at best rather unforgiving. I hate arguing with people about unicorns, because whenever I express friendly scepticism about the milky muzzled unicorn with blazing eyes, they just ask how I can possibly know what exists in the farthest corners of the flat earth. Unbending certainty can be rather unschoolable and impermeable; and that's a shame because there is so much to learn, especially about God.
The idea of a constructive tension between conviction and doubt seems a much more dynamic and fruitful arrangement for ones ideas. Trying to see it from God's point of view, conviction lubricated with doubt and willingness to be surprised, seems more promising for progress, upwards or downwards. Clearly disbelief is a mistake in front of God; when the children of Israel were wandering and grumbling in the desert their disbelief was actually a lack of trust or clear disobedience. Not surprisingly, after all God had done for them getting them out of Egypt, God was not pleased. But doubt as an ingredient of faith, keeping it taunt like a violin string, allows new and growing harmonies to come alive and make us dance.
There is a story in the Gospel of Mark that speaks to us about that tension. A distraught father with a son severely afflicted by a demon comes to Jesus for help. He adds “if you can” to his petition, and Jesus replies “Everything is possible for him who believes”. Then the boy's father cries out in anguish“I do believe; help thou me mine unbelief!”. And so it ended happily; in his right mind the son was returned to his father. Disbelief is a decision, and before the God of all creation it's a disastrous one. However doubt means you are willing to stretch the faith you have, no matter where you start from. I'm sure the new Pope is well acquainted with doubt, but then he is a very godly man.
E is for Eden
The story of our relationship with God began in a garden, and we are told that we shall return to a garden, a new Jerusalem where earth (the universe?) is renewed; a great river will flow out from it, teeming with life, its forested banks heavy with fruit and fragrant with healing leaves. The deepest yearnings of our hearts are satisfied and irrigated when we step into nature's abundance, returning as it where to dreams of Eden. How I love to creep up on the shy grey-blue stock dove and see the glittering green sheen on his neck. We are seldom happier than when tending our gardens. Many of us would rather be in the woods thinking about God than in Church thinking about the woods.
Eden, our protoparadise, tells us about the creator God's unfathomable abundance, generosity, creative brilliance. Scripture says that when God planted this Eden he filled it with trees that were pleasing to the eye and good for food; “a river watering the garden flowed out from Eden”. Why “pleasing to the eye”? Astonishingly God put man in this garden to care for it and to enjoy it. We have a capacity, even a calling, for joy in God's abundance.
Why should this be? Couldn't a mechanistic creator of the universe simply set it ticking .....joylessly? But no; our hearts thrill to echoes of Eden, in our dreams we return to paradise endlessly with joy. God tells us succinctly why through an obscure prophet in the Book of Ecclesiastes; “He has made everything beautiful in its time. He has set eternity in the hearts of man.” We are branded. We belong to God. We, the privileged creature, recognise most deeply the handwork of the God of heaven and earth. But even more than that, he wishes to walk with us in his garden, revealing his works, showing us ourselves, unfolding his plans. We have a homing device to seek Him, the author of brilliant abundance, and the diminished Eden we cherish.
F is for Failure
The human history of failure is gloriously long and sinuous, a double helix river out of Eden where the infernal serpent himself first caused man to doubt God's goodness. Failure is personal and repeated, but the fall, as theologians call it, is seismic and universal in its affect on human kind. Appointed to paradise in a special relationship with our creator, our ancestor was first tempted to doubt God's promises, and then disobey God's law, finally taking pride in his own self-sufficiency. In short, we made ourselves gods in defiance and opposition to the one true God. Blame the serpent, blame each other, or blame the 'fat relentless ego', but basically we let God down. And the consequences, like the exploding universe, go on and on. Put it another way, man's fall has made a separation between us and a holy God who sent us out of paradise.
Yet despite ignominy and shame as Adam and Eve picked their way across those stony slopes east of Eden, God provided them with garments of skins to protect them. As perennial as the cuckoo and the blooming of thistles, God is merciful. Our flawless spiritual DNA was corrupted, yet God ceaselessly loves us and seeks to restore us to himself. Turn back to him and he is ready to pick us up and make us new people. That ancient serpent the devil still hisses doubts about God's promises, bur God stands ever ready with outstretched arms.
If this is all true then as Bob Dylan put it, there is no success like failure. Out of failure, successfully negotiated, comes the bedrock of humility and wisdom. Did Augustine say 'I err therefore I am'? Perhaps he saw the acceptance of weakness as the opportunity for God to make us more fully human. Walking with God is certainly risky, and to be consistently successful surely means you lack the imagination to fail. Will Self said 'Far from failure being no success at all, it is perhaps the only success there is'
G is for Goliath
The defeat of the Philistine giant at the hands of a delinquent youth is a very satisfying story. How we love the fleet of foot chancer David for daring to take on the arrogant Goliath with his 50kg of armour and fearsome spear. We all admire the Pashtun teenager Malala who dared to take on the Taliban in her native Swat valley; she paid a terrible price, almost her life, but she won't be silenced from standing up for the right of girls to have an education. We love the Davids and Malalas for their courage, but we love them more for their absolute certainties, for the calling laid on a life.
God used David to defeat the Philistine, and it would have been more expected if the shepherd boy had been given miraculous strength to wield a mighty sword and cut down the taunting foreigner in a fearsome dual. But no! God used David's experience; he had taken on lions and bears to protect his father's sheep. God used David's skills; that same sling must have felled the darting hare and cautious partridge. But why the 5 smooth pebbles selected from the brook? Was it sensible caution, or even lack of faith? Maybe the stones represent prayer. God give me wisdom, God give me courage, Lord give me strength he prayed and muttered as he crossed the brook in the shadow of the approaching giant!
Let's be clear. For the believer the whole of life is worship; the selection of smooth pebbles, the loving of those dear, the exercise of skills, the slaying of the occasional Goliath. It's life, and it has a spiritual purpose. God's shepherd defied the Philistine; “You come against me with sword and spear, but I come against you in the name of the Lord Almighty.....and the whole earth will know there is a God in Israel!” When Goliath crashed to the ground the Philistines fled. Paul the apostle said of the devil “Resist him and he will flee from you.” This is God's work in us.
H is for Humility
If you can bring yourself to read self-help books, and I can't, it's a pity that you will never find the one all of us would find the most useful Humility and how I Achieved it. Humility remains a great mystery to mankind, although most of us are uncomfortably aware that nemesis follows hubris. When the fox lurking in the cabbage patch flattered Chanticleer into stretching his graceful neck heavenwards to show off his magnificent voice, he found himself in an instant carried off across the field. So I am inclined to pray Oh Lord, give me humility, but not quite yet. It is painful medicine.
But that is a shame because God thinks very highly of humility. Moses, for example, when he runs into a minor revolt is swiftly vindicated by God, and by way of a background note we read that 'Moses was a very humble man, more humble than anyone else on the face of the earth'. How counter-cultural to find that this great prophet excelled in .....humility. Can you excel in humility? Probably only in self-help books, however most of us would recognize that it takes courage to be humble, and with it goes a certain indomitable power.
None of this should surprise us because it is at the very heart of God's nature, and humility is consistently modelled and taught by Jesus Christ in the gospels. The Apostle Paul spells out both the application and the theology in his letter to the Philippians; 'Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit, but in humility consider others better than yourselves.' We should be like Christ, he says, 'who being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant.' The astonishing truth is that the creator of the stars came down to earth to live amongst us in the humblest of circumstances. What binds us together but the bloodied birth in a tavern stable on a starlit night?
I is for Idolatry
Our first idea of idolatry is probably along the lines of Kipling's “wasting Christian kisses on an 'earthen idol's foot”, but it turns out there is much more to idolatry than we might think. The Church is always suspicious of pagan practices creeping into Christian worship, although in the Russian Orthodox world the winter solstice burning of an oak branch, pagan in tradition, is all part of thanking God for the passing of the season, and at Orthodox Christmas there is germinating wheat to remember the Spring. If God is sovereign Creator he can certainly cope with all that. But what he won't accept is the substitution of ourselves where he should be rightly honoured.
Idolatry is essentially an issue of authority and allegiance. To whom or to what do I defer? King Saul certainly got it wrong; after coming to power and defeating Israel's enemies he began to trust in his own illusion of strength. He became arrogant, he rejected God's word, he erected a monument to his own honour. The prophet Samuel delivered a harsh judgement: this was rebellion and 'arrogance like the evil of idolatry'. Lest you think this seems rather harsh on such a perennial feature of the human condition, consider that for the Christian there are undeniable spiritual potencies involved. Demonic power glides beneath our feet as we pause to wonder.
The psalmist refers in the epic historical poem Ps78 to the scandalous rebellion in the desert. After God made streams of water flow from the rock, the people soon asked 'Can God spread a table in the desert?' Like a false compass needle deferring to a lump of rusting iron, our souls swing eagerly and swiftly to false securities. Just let me kiss the feet of gold and success! Better the certainty of things I can put my hands on than the unbearable adventure of faith in an unseen God. As Paul exhorted the Corinthians – and aren't we just like them? - 'flee from idolatry', and drink from the spiritual rock which is Christ.
J is for Justice
When multinationals legally minimise their tax bills to derisory amounts through complex dodging between jurisdictions, the rest of us keenly object, and many of us are prepared to forego a good cup of coffee to say so. Its not just. Burke and many others have pointed out, its not what the law says we may do but what humanity, reason and justice say we ought to do. Whether it is our nature or the way we were nurtured, we all have a keen sense of justice. When justice is denied, people are crushed. Justice, not the market, is the central pillar of civilized society.
None of this is surprising because God, who made us, is essentially a God of justice. He sees everything, yet he loves us. He is both the just judge and the one who longs to show mercy. When the people of Judah had yet again fallen short of what God required, the prophet Isaiah wrote 'Yet the Lord longs to be gracious to you; he rises to show you compassion. For the Lord is a God of justice' (Is30:18). Immediately we will sense a double meaning in the translated word justice; not only does it concern right judgement but also redemption. Justice yet redemption are somehow entwined in the DNA of scripture. All scripture points to this, yet how can it be so?
It is reconciled of course at the cross of Christ. As Isaiah prophesied, the Christ 'was pierced for our transgressions..... and by his wounds we are healed'. The Apostle Paul lays out the legal argument in his letter to the Romans, which changed the life of Luther, and through the Reformation, all of us. 'God presented Christ as a sacrifice of atonement, through faith in his blood. He did this to demonstrate his justice' (Ro3:25). In other words we were the ones deserving punishment but the God of justice laid our wrongs on the Son of God in our place. Thus the God of justice also redeemed us. Not surprisingly God calls on us also to act justly.
K is for Kingdom
The kingdom of heaven is at hand, proclaimed John the Baptist. The King in his kingdom was finally here! A nation with secure borders and unchallenged jurisdiction might scarcely imagine what this would mean for a nation disgraced by exile and vexed by occupation. But the Jews had eagerly anticipated this time over centuries. When we talk of the kingdom we are not talking about a place but a condition; the kingdom of God is a spiritual kingdom for all nations and all times. At Jesus' coming the kingdom of Heaven was immediately manifest in the expulsion of evil spirits, miraculous healing of imprisoned bodies, the feeding of thousands from the loaves held aloft and blessed. King Jesus exercised the authority of his Father, the creator king, who was outside and beyond his creation.
Jesus himself described his kingdom as forcefully advancing. It was a dynamic state. God's royal authority was invading world history with blessing and deliverance. The authorities and princes of this world were being turned out; things were changing and they continue to change but not without a fight. Yet for most of us this is not a battle we see. When we pray Thy Kingdom come, Thy will be done, God continues to invade life around us, yet often in quiet ways that invite our participation. Even if our attempts to do so are sometimes half-baked and halfhearted, God is still able to use us in his kingdom.
Jesus likened the kingdom to yeast that leavens the whole dough, and to a tiny mustard seed that grows to a large plant. He also likened it for us personally to treasure. It is like a refugee, threatened with deportation to a dangerous country, who discovers that she has been given citizenship. Or perhaps you receive back a missing child, a lost treasure, a lost sheep, your lost self. The man who found treasure in his field sold all he had with joy and bought that field. Take hold of the kingdom of God!
L is for Love
Inuits have many words for ice because they have to cope with a lot of it, but in English we seem to make do with one narrow word to express love's great spaciousness, perhaps because there isn't enough of it. Love has the power to send us spinning. Love might drive us to terrible risks. Love is like a sickness in its nagging affliction, or love upends worlds. 'Dear Reader, I married him!' Love has so many faces; the mother's yearning for her child, the father's tears for his son, the grief at losing your parent, the terrible pain when a loved one is hurting. Love is soul, love is will. Love sets your heart thumping, love warms in the company of a dear friend. It comes treading steadily with the dawn as we will ourselves to love the other.
This wonderful and often painful reality has its focus in an extraordinary fact. God has made us in his own image; out of the earth we were made and God breathed his Spirit into us. And God has loved us and continues to love us with a love unreserved and unlimited. Simply and starkly God tells us, as he does through the prophet Jeremiah, “I have loved you with an everlasting love”. He has built us to long for his love and to love him in return. Only that love, that reconstructs and heals from the inside out, makes us fully human.
The strange truth is that to lose yourself in loving and accepting love is to find yourself. Love is both powerful and powerless; only in the precious and often painful gift of forgiveness do we find our own selves again. Love is emotion but it is also an act of will, and we have a pattern to follow in the life of Jesus Christ on earth. We are called to love him because he first loved us. “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind......and love your neighbour as yourself.”
M is for Miracle
Why do we believe in miracles? It seems to be something like the persistent belief in black panthers at large in our landscape. Sightings and stories abound of yellow eyes glowing in the dark yet not a shred of solid evidence has been found. They exist all right, but perhaps only in the dark forests of the mind where we need to believe in the dangers of the wild wood. We also need to believe in miracles; we are hard-wired to see the transcendent, to recognize the hand of God.
Of course miracles are real; an almighty Creator is transcendent over his creation, whether the earth or our minds and bodies. The very nature of an ordered universe strung together with marvellous laws is an ongoing miracle. So why would God override those laws by conducting events called miracles? The strange answer is us. God speaks to us with miracles; he demonstrates his power with signs, he speaks to us with wonders, he mends our faith with tender touches. And that is the word, faith! If miracles are signs and wonders then it is no surprise that they involve our faith, our readiness to accept what God wants to give us. When you catch that flash of kingfisher fire along the river, don't you say in your heart Thank you dear Father!?
But there is something else about miracles. When our Lord raised the loaves at the feeding of the five thousand he blessed the bread, he broke the bread, and he gave it to his disciples. As Matthew tells us 'They all ate and were satisfied, and the disciples picked up 12 basketfuls of broken pieces that were left over'. God blesses but his disciples distribute the blessing. All believers are called to participate in the miracle of God's grace. His power is unlimited but so often he works through the hands of the people of faith, through the touch of those, who like the bread, have been broken and transformed. Miracles continue in our hands, in our minds, in our hearts.
N is for Name
Please, tell me your name. It's as if I reach out to touch you. When we give or receive someone's name, it's a gift. We can use it to bless or we can let it slip from our minds. To know a name and to be able to use it is to form a connection, a bond; it has responsibilities. Sharing names, like shaking hands or kissing a cheek, is a ritual with meaning. Children take family names. Wives may take a husband's name. Kinship and friendship have roots; where is my home and to whom do I belong? Prisoner 24601 in Les Miserable belonged to the state; to strip him of his identity was to make him a non-person. But we know from the story that he was not only a person but a protector to the unnumbered Miserable.
In almost any village war memorial in Germany you will see something never seen in Britain. The list of the fallen will include names without date or place; it simply says Known unto God. That means they were lost on an unnamed steppe or in a trackless forest on the Eastern front. Their deaths were never recorded and their graves are unknown. However it is a wonderful truth that God knows every one of them, and he knew us even before we were knitted in our mothers' wombs. He has our names, and they are invested with all the love of a parent for its child.
God takes names seriously. He asked Adam, the man of the earth, to name the animals. Sarai becomes Sarah, Jacob becomes Israel, Simon became Peter the rock. The good shepherd 'calls his own sheep by name and calls them out'. There is a relationship with God; there is an issue of ownership. When we are dipped in the font or immersed in the river, we are handing ourselves over to a new life; “Theophilus.... I baptise you in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” Jesus says never mind the ups and the inevitable downs of the spiritual struggle, but rather 'Rejoice that your names are written in heaven'!
O is for Outcast
Am I talking about Christ the outcast, the one rejected by man? I think I may be, for indeed Jesus, the Messiah, was rejected by men. He was spurned, turned out, outcast. But actually I primarily had in mind the state of mankind. Man the outcast. Man the exile. Man the one estranged from his fully human self, from his home with God where he belongs. The inevitability of this exile is sometimes called the fall. God's special creatures fell from grace through rebellion in the paradise called Eden. We are outcasts. We are wanderers until we find our home with God.
The pattern of exile and return is so fundamental to the human story that we find it endlessly repeated. We hope for it, even long for it. That's why it is the perennial overture in countless stories. Bathsheba was finally rescued from her vanities by good Gabriel Oak; Tom was reconciled to Maggie in Mill on the Floss; Prue Sarn found comfort in the silence and the sweet smell of apples in her attic, and was finally rescued by the weaver in Precious Bane; the odious and undeserving Toad is rescued from the creatures of the Wild Wood by Badger and Ratty; Beauty kisses the Beast; Cinderella marries the prince. And I would guess that today's fashion for cynicism and denied redemption will not stand the test of time.
Why should outcastness be important? We only have to stand back and look at the pattern of our up and down relationship with God in the bible. Our spiritual story is one of repeated exile and return, slavery and exodus, shame and repentance, fall and redemption. That is because God loves us so much, like the old father in the story of the prodigal son, that he watches and longs for our homecoming. Perhaps it's only when we are down and out that we know the possibility of forgiveness. Christ was both the means and the pattern for our redemption. He was the outcast who can bring us home.
P is for Prophetic
In the film The Matrix we find ourselves imprisoned in a virtual fantasy. It looks like the world we know, but gradually we discover that only digital signals remain; the real world is a destroyed civilization. They were living in a world less than complete. Yet most of us already live in a world that is not quite complete. And what we are missing I shall call the prophetic. The ancients went to the shaman to find it, and today we have other gods, but all of us have aching space for it waiting to be filled.
Putting it another way we live by science and technology but wouldn't survive without poets and dreamers, prophets and priests. We are naturally sceptical yet we long for stories. We doubt everything but hope for miracles. We are determined to stay in this world but brood endlessly about eternity. Are we weak minded creatures who can't cope with our mortality, or are we simply spiritually deafened to the eternal music of time? 'God is spirit, and his worshippers must worship in spirit and truth' said Jesus straightforwardly. And consider your origins, said Dante. We are blind and deaf beasts without the prophetic.
The prophetic is not just sensing God's voice and direction, his invisible hand. It may be powerful and manifest. Think of Ezekiel's encounter in the valley of dry bones. 'I will put breath in you, and you will come to life. Then you will know that I am the Lord.' God breathed his breath into the slain and they rose up on their feet, a vast army. Without God's Spirit we too are dry bones; or we are an army with a spiritual destiny. Every generation longs for a prophetic voice, for eyes to see the hand of the divine. The great affairs of the world are conducted before the sovereign Lord of history, woven with countless prophetic strands, both flashes of brilliance and the weft of workaday wisdom. Pray for the prophetic ear and life without borders.
Q is for Questions
Forgive us but we love to question God. Questions of doubt – are you really there? Questions without answers – why are we apparently alone in our galaxy? Heart breaking questions – why God did you take my child from me? Eternal questions – when will Eden be restored? We ask questions of God, whether in yearning or arrogance, in anger or gratitude. If God has made us for himself and called us to walk with him, then as in all relationships we must and shall ask questions and be prepared to listen for the answers.
The most sustained barrage of questions in scripture comes from Job. God allowed him to be afflicted by Satan in a strange bargain; not surprisingly Job struggled between steadfast faith in a just God and the bleakness of his own torment. 'Why does the Almighty not set times for judgement?....men move boundary stones; they pasture flocks they have stolen. They drive away the donkey of the fatherless; they take the widow's ox in pledge.' At the centre of his own crucible of pain he berates God until finally 'out of the storm' God asks Job the questions. 'Who is this that darkens my counsel with words without knowledge? Brace yourself and I will question you, and you shall answer me.' And the questions begin like a squall raining down on Job until he can only stutter, 'Surely I spoke of things I did not understand, things too wonderful for me to know... My ears had heard of you but now my eyes have seen you.' God is sovereign, and Job repented in dust and ashes.
Ask questions of God, and even like Job rail against God, but we must be prepared to face the questions God asks us. Those questions will be life changing. Try this one from Matthew's gospel, ' What will it profit a man if he gains the whole world and forfeits his own soul?' And I shall turn the question back to front and ask - 'If I will lose my life for Christ's sake, shall I find it?'
R is for Reconciliation
This is perhaps the hardest task known to man. If it was easy the UN would be much smaller, and maybe the world would be less interesting for linguists. Certainly reconciliation is hard enough to be remarkable. Who doesn't remember Nelson Mandela emerging from prison; he and other leaders led reconciliation on a national scale. With Gaza being wrecked by rockets and shells, who wasn't moved to see the mothers of murdered teenagers stand together in common grief, Palestinian and Jew. Reconciliation doesn't overlook injustice or disregard damage, but chooses to step over a quarrel to embrace the other. It does away with enmity.
At the source of conflict are the differences between us. We might define reconciliation as love in diversity. St Paul, who can sound quite cantankerous, spends more words than anyone in scripturetelling us how and why we must follow Jesus' teaching to love one another. In his letter to the Corinthians he goes to lengths to show us that it is God's will for our good that we are diverse and diversely gifted; but we must love in that diversity. 'Faith, hope and love remain; but the greatest of these is love.' Practically that means listening to the other, seeking to understand what the other is.
Above all we need reconciliation between man and God. But in this case the wrong is entirely one sided. We have wronged God by falling short of his requirements; we have quarrelled with our maker who has such great hopes for us. God endlessly sought reconciliation with us, not just stepping over our wrongs but coming right into our world to die on a cross for us. God has come knocking on our door rather than the other way round; all we have to do is open it and accept him. And St Paul also says, 'As the Lord forgave you, you also must forgive others'. To borrow from Justin Welby, God copy-righted reconciliation on the cross and gave us the licence and imperative to operate it.
S is for Speech
'In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.' So famously begins John's Gospel. And the writer to the Hebrews opens thunderously and prophetically 'In the past God spoke to our forefathers through the prophets at many times and in various ways, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son.' God's speech is implanted in our minds and in our very souls. We may choose to be like dumb beasts but his speech is all around us. Indeed the Word, the Logos, is God himself who is the Creator, life-giver, light-maker, vanquisher of darkness, the Saviour. Not only that but the very creation itself is filled with God's streaming shaken-out message; as the psalmist put it, 'The heavens declare the glory of God .....Day after day they pour forth speech'. When the buzzard cries in the winter still and teal tumble down to the water, God's glory, his beautiful speech, echoes in your heart and thrills your very soul.
The language instinct, this language organ, the operating system behind our many and fantastic tongues seems to be unique to Homo sapiens. Somewhere in those African plains our ancestors learnt the potency of language. God moulded us in his own image. We are born to talk, and to listen, to discern patterns, sometimes to be still and wait. The words of a lover come softly. The word of forgiveness may come slowly. Like holding hands, speech travels and joins and rejoices. Just as we are made for relationships, connected by language, so God longs to speak with us, personally and intimately. We speak with God and he speaks to us. Prayer is like walking; it has a rhythm of to and fro, a speaking part and a listening part, a singing and rejoicing, and the silence and the quietness.
If God uniquely speaks, if his very act of creation involved his words, and if we his creatures are crafted for speech, then surely we should rejoice in listening to our maker. And we should have confidence that he in turn rejoices to hear us speak back to him. No need for interpreters, for intermediaries, for rituals, for festivals; God is amongst us and his speech is all around us. It is at the very heart of his creative and loving power. Hear the psalmist again, in Psalm 33, 'By the word of the Lord were the heavens made, the starry hosts by the breath of his mouth. For he spoke, and it came to be.' Observe .....listen .....speak, and know God.
T is for Trinity
We might be highly attracted to someone's appearance but we fall in love with the inner person. More than that, we only truly get to know someone's deeper qualities of loyalty, courage, wisdom when we live or work with them through thick and thin. Well there we see at least 3 different ways of knowing and loving another person; the Trinity is a way of knowing God in his different “persons”. Theologians have discussed the Trinity for two millennia and still find more to say. Some start with the Trinity because from that foundation we build our understanding of God, and others end with the Trinity because it is the mystery that we come closest to last of all.
The medieval master-mason cut a cornerstone for a great cathedral with special care. Upon the three dimensions of his work the majestic structure depends. In theology the Trinity also has practical consequences. The foundations of our understanding of God must tie together. Take creation; God the Father is the living Creator, beyond and sovereign over his creation. Why would you pray if it wasn't so? God is almighty and able to change both the material world and you and me. He didn't just build a clock and abandon it ticking for eternity; he is intimately involved. God the Son, Emmanuel, became man and lived among us, suffered temptation, and was crucified for us. He is the light of the world offering new life and mended relationships. God the Spirit is our indwelling “comforter” and helper, the power of God given to us to do his work on earth.
Jesus tells us at the end of Matthew's gospel 'Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptising them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.' This is one of thoseTriune cornerstones. The Father creates in marvellous diversity, and it is through Christ and by the indwelling Holy Spirit we are able, even called, to enjoy brotherhood and sisterhood with all peoples and nations. Unity in diversity.
U is for Umbilical Cord
Yes, this is strange! In fact it's unique. In all religions man reaches out to God, but in Christ God reached out to man. In my home you might hear Sufi spiritual songs from Pakistan. They are beautiful and haunting, but when you look at the translation, sure enough they are about journeys seeking God and spiritual fulfilment. This is not surprising because God made us to reach out to him; our souls are restless until they find their home in the one who made us. But the astonishing truth is that God took on a human body and dwelt amongst us; the route he took was an umbilical cord in the womb of a young woman from a poor and remote Judean town in the Roman empire. The world was never the same again.
God visited us, living amongst us as a man. He was wholly God and wholly man. The umbilical cord brought the creator of the stars, born of a virgin, to share our hurts and our joys, our triumphs and our pain. We celebrate it every Christmas, and we can't think about it too often or too deeply. It changes everything. On a starlit night, God came amongst us with angelic choir and shepherds from the frosty folds, and no more props for this visitation than 'the heart's wild excess and the wisps of straw'.
The implications for us all and for all history are profound. St John puts it succinctly: 'The Word became flesh and dwelt amongst us .....full of grace and truth'. By making his dwelling amongst us God, full of grace and truth, none the less shared our suffering and temptations; he smarted under injustice and prejudice, he saw into the darkest shameful corners of the human soul. Standing before this God who knows us, we share a common humanity. If Jesus took the humble path and wept for our blindness, how dare we do different? Pope Francis puts it simply: 'The Son of God, by becoming flesh, summoned us to the revolution of tenderness'. Bring on the revolution!
V is for Valued
If we are normal rather than self-delusional we will probably readily admit that we are flawed, feet-of-clayed, a little insecure. A great deal of effort goes into covering over these insecurities or even compensating for them. The thing we hate may be ourselves all along. The irony is that our flaws and feet-of-clayness and all the awkward sticking out bits are the very things that bind us together with our soulmate, our neighbour, our fellow man. The natural mortar of love and forgiveness make us into a strong tower, together. The Highlander Alastair McIntosh in a love song put it more tenderly, 'Our souls were made of stardust, dear, but feet were clad in night'.
Psychoanalysis, by Karl Jung for example, has often seen this mixture as a process in time. We undergo a life journey, often not in step with time. The young leave the home hearth, the familiar haven, to embark on a journey of initiation; they spend some years coming of age, which will involve brokenness and failure, finding their true depths, reaching the bedrock of things they love and believe in. And finally they are ready for return, knowing who they are, and ready for eldership, able to know wisdom.
Father Richard Rohr, a Franciscan, has explored this in his book Falling Upwards. The way upwards is always downwards; by letting go we find true worth. Let me come to the point. The cornerstone of the strong and secure tower of self is knowing that we are valued. For the Christian we must look first to our Lord and maker; he knows us intimately, yet he also loves us. We are valued for who we are; it is all grace. The feet 'clad in night' are the very things God can use. Jesus says in St Luke's gospel 'Consider the ravens ..... how much more valuable you are than birds!' When we know that we are valued, fundamentally and unconditionally, we are capable of loving being loved.
W is for Waver
hen the prophet Elijah finally ran out of patience he confronted the people with a direct challenge which he could just as well be addressing to us today. 'How long will you waver between two opinions? If the Lord is God, follow him; if Baal is God, follow him!' Most of us are natural born waverers; when it comes to life's important decisions, which might not feel urgent at the time, we prefer to waver. It is natural to waver, but its not good once we have had time to think it through. Joshua, facing tough challenges ahead, gathered the people together and said the same thing; 'Then choose for yourselves this day whom you will serve.' Choose God or stick to your idols.
Jesus tells an unsettling parable in St Matthew's gospel. A wealthy host sends out invitations to a wedding feast but the guests can't be bothered to come. So he sends out more invitations to the poor and the dispossessed urging them to share his joy at an important event. No wavering this time; they streamed in. But there was a small mishap. It was the custom for guests to wear a festive garment provided by the host, yet somehow there was one guest who had ignored the custom and was happily helping himself wearing his own garb. A bad mistake for which he was thrown out. The symbolism is important. We are all invited to God's feast, but we accept on God's terms; in effect we are stripped of our own self-righteousness and come attired in God's mercy alone.
This is very counter-cultural. Surely the consumer society has turned us all into gods? We can waver if and whenever we wish can't we? But if, on the contrary, you have set out on the path of faith you cannot afford to waver. Belief requires a decision; unbelief requires a decision. Non-belief, half belief, one-day-might belief are all wobbly waverings. Let's go to the feast and willingly put on the host's garment of grace.
X is for Cross
It is remarkable that the Roman cross, instrument of slow and painful death, became the potent symbol of our faith. We can say much more than that. Just as the big bang lies at the centre of our universe with its ripples still expanding outwards, the cross of Christ lies at the centre of the cosmos. The ripples of this intervention into our world by God the creator are rippling outwards and stir our lives today. It is far from being just a historic event to be viewed in the distant past. Each of us faces the question 'Why and for whom did Christ die?'
Theologians and mystics have wrestled with this question for two millennia. Mention the Reformation and brothers and sisters in faith become oil and water. Many are tempted to put the cross at the centre of our penitence; the cross inspires us to action for God. But scripture's overture is that the God of justice reconciled our guilt by substituting the Son of God in our place on the cross. In other words the cross is all about what God did for us rather than what we can do for God.
The cosmic ripples affect every aspect of our lives today, individually and as a society, yet most disregard this deep wisdom lapping at their feet. If God, at the centre of the universe, died for you and for me, then our lives should be filled and overflowing with gratitude; what a difference the joy of gratitude makes. If God died for us, then should not our own lives be filled with self-respect and humble strength? On the cross God broke down the walls of hostility between us; how dare we rebuild them? Here St Paul makes a cosmic statement in his letter to the Colossians; 'God was pleased ....to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross.' Peace with God, peace with our neighbour, through the cross of Christ.
Y for YHWH
This is a very special word we shall borrow from the Hebrew where vowels are often thought superfluous, unlike in English. We'll pronounce it Yahweh, it is usually translated as Lord, and we must thank Moses for it. In the Book of Exodus Moses meets God in the burning bush when he is told to go back to Egypt and tell Pharaoh to release the children of Israel from slavery. Stalling for time and struggling for excuses he asked God what name he should use when the people demanded to know who had sent him. The magisterial answer was Yahweh, when God said literally “I am who I am ..... I am has sent me to you”. It might also be translated 'I will be as I will be'.
This revelation by God of how he wishes to be called describes in one four letter Hebrew word everything that is dependable, faithful, eternal, sovereign. When he says during this encounter “I will be with you” he is making a promise of his limitless power and enduring presence. When Yahweh, or the Lord, legislates how we should behave in our relationship to our family, our neighbour, the alien, the environment, property, he is asking us to trust him and to be like him. Obedience means we replicate his nature, and we become like him. This call has been too radical for the world to this very day.
Christ pointedly quotes this scripture from Moses when he confronted the Jewish leaders. “Before Abraham was born, I am!” He didn't say 'I was' but 'I am', thus affirming his eternal being and his oneness with the Father. This may sound a bit academic, but when we take his prophetic name of Emmanuel, God with us, and when we remember his promise to us “Surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age”, we can take hold of a solid practical promise. Yahweh, the Lord, Christ our Saviour, is with us and ahead of us and sometimes carrying us, all the way.
Z for Zacchaeus
He was a short, obscure tax collector who had done very well (for himself and his own that is). You would have to imagine him as the most rotten banker with the largest unmerited bonus imaginable, and then learn that he paid no taxes and “lobbied” senior officials for dishonest advantage, to get an idea of how despised Zacchaeus would have been. But this brief walk-on part in St Luke's Gospel is for you and me. But let's hear the story that Luke tells.
Jesus had entered Jericho, a large town with throngs of people, and this Zacchaeus had decided he wanted to see the miracle worker for himself. Being short and unable to see a thing he had run ahead and climbed a tree; for ordinary folk they are always well ahead of you, tax collectors. Our Lord came right to the foot of the tree, looked up and called him by name; yes, he knows you and me too. 'Zacchaeus, come down! I must stay at your house today.' You have to admire his bravado; responding immediately he came down, and welcomed Jesus gladly to his home. But the people of course were affronted; how could the rabbi go to the home of this predatory servant of the Romans?
Something happened to our despised tax collector. It was a stunning conversion. Meeting Jesus transformed him; quick at balancing risks and returns he made a decision about his life, there and then. He publicly promised to give half his estate to the poor, and committed to repaying fourfold anyone he had cheated. Jesus himself gave the verdict to the astonished gathering, guests and critics alike. 'Today salvation has come to this house. ....For the Son of Man came to seek and to save what was lost.' That really is the A to Z and the Alpha and Omega of God. He knows us by name, he loves what he knows, and he has promised to rescue you and me, to seek and to save what was lost.