Search results for 'hear oh israel'

Why Morgan Freeman is Not God

7 Sep

Last week at church I learned that Morgan Freeman is not God. This probably doesn’t come as a great surprise unless you have genuine problems distinguishing between films and real life, or you subscribe to the conspiracy theory that Morgan Freeman playing God in the Almighty films is actually a clever double bluff.

The point the preacher was making, in fact, wasn’t so much that Morgan Freeman isn’t God as that God isn’t Morgan Freeman. By that I mean that God isn’t some wise, kind twinkly-eyed man who keeps a fatherly eye on us and gets in touch from time to time to give some sage advice and gentle encouragement. And that might come as a surprise. That’s not to say that God isn’t wise, or kind, or interested in our lives. The problem with the Morgan Freeman view of God isn’t that it’s inaccurate in details; it’s that it suffers from a staggering lack of scale.

It’s this same problem with scale that’s at the heart of people finding the idea of God creating the world laughable. There seems to be this idea that the universe is the ultimate reality, brought into existence (probably) by the Big Bang, and within it there are a group of credulous people who believe that their particular planet, or solar system or galaxy, were made by a divine being that internet atheists so charmingly call the Sky Fairy. That does sound silly, but that’s not what anyone’s seriously proposing.

Instead, try to get your head around a being who created not a planet or a solar system, but time, space, energy, matter, the lot. The one who brought into being all the laws of physics that supposedly make his existence redundant as an explanation of how we got here. The true ultimate reality who not only created everything the exists, but who is the source of all existence, upholds and maintains everything we know (and plenty we don’t) by pure will, and could wink it all out of existence on a moment if he so chose. You probably can’t get your head around that fully. People spend lifetimes pondering the implications of it. But the mere attempt gives you a fair inkling of what the preacher meant by “God is not Morgan Freeman”.

I’m always baffled by people (and I’ve met a lot of them) who believe there is “a god” but don’t feel the need to look into it any further, as if the existence of a creator to whom they may one day have to answer isn’t relevant to them. I’m not one for climbing mountains just because they’re there (not ones that require oxygen or special equipment anyway) but if you really believed there was an all-powerful being with the answers to life and who, rumour has it, is so interested in our lives that he came to live with us and die for us, how, how could you just leave it as merely an interesting fact, like the capital of Peru or the etymology of “treacle” (which is fascinating, by the way)?

In a rather nice bit of dovetailing, this week’s sermon was on how God should be at the centre of every part of our lives, not just a special religious section. It was based on a part of the Bible sometimes known the Shema:

“Hear oh Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one.” The passage continues: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength.” The preacher last week also quoted the Shema but, rather impressively, he was able to recite it in Hebrew. Jesus quoted this verse, along with another, “Love your neighbour as yourself”, when he was asked which commandment was the most important. His response was that all the commandments in the Bible follow from these two. Again, you could spend a lifetime of theological study working through the implications of that, but for today, let’s just take it as read.

The point the minister was making today was that Christianity is not just about a fuzzy feeling of “Jesus in my heart”, and nor is it a thing you do on Sunday if you have nothing better to do. Instead, loving God and loving other people should be at the heart of everything we do, say, think and are. As the song says, “that’s how deep it goes, if it’s real“.

I was once in a church service where there was an incidence of heckling. This is rare in church, so it sticks in my mind. A lady stood up and said, quite sincerely, that she believed that God just wants us to be happy. I remember thinking, “No, he doesn’t just want us to be happy. He wants so much more than that for us.” Holiness, for example. Salvation. To be fully known. Love. Joy. Peace. The whole shebang. Once again, it’s not an error in detail, it’s a failure of scale.

It’s sometimes tempting to make up the attributes of God we would like, as if he were a fictional character (played by Morgan Freeman, say). You know the kind of thing: “I can’t believe in a god who would X”; “My god would never Y”; or “God just wants us to be happy (regardless of what questionable things we may wish to do in the pursuit of happiness)”. Fine if you’re making up a character for a film, not so fine if you’re talking about the one and only pre-eminent being who can neither be deleted nor altered to fit in with someone’s dearly-held mental picture. You can get to know what God is like. You can accept what you find, or wrestle with it, or refuse to believe altogether, but you can’t seriously expect reality itself to conform to how you would prefer it to be.

The minister today asked, if you’re keeping God at arm’s length, what kind of god is it you’re keeping at arm’s length? Because the God on whom your every breath depends can’t be kept in his place or just brought in in scenes 6 and 31 for dramatic effect. His place is absolute sovereignty. He is in every scene. He wrote the film. So if the God you believe in can be portrayed even remotely accurately by a twinkly-eyed actor with a gravelly voice, you might want to take a few steps back, and get a better sense of scale.

Note 1: My church puts sermons online, so if you would like to listen to the originals, rather than just reading my musings on them, you can find them here. (31st August and 7th September 2014)

Note 2: Will Self wrote a short story called “Scale” all about losing his sense of scale. It was my first introduction to Will Self, who is an excellent writer, but it is not in any way related to this blog post.

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The Stay-at-Home Missionary

28 Feb

It’s not often that I am moved to blog about a sermon I hear at church (though it does occasionally happen). Today we had a visiting speaker, Aaron Elder (who, despite his name, was almost unbearably young), and some of the things he said particularly struck me. That makes it sound as if our regular pastor’s sermons are not striking, which is unfair. They are often excellent, usually challenging, and if they suffer from using the phrase “what would it look like” more often than is warranted by normal use of the English language, well, so do Aaron’s. But maybe I was just ready to hear what Aaron had to say today – or, more accurately, what God had to say through him, because in any really good sermon the mouthpiece fades into the background.

Anyway, Aaron’s sermon was mainly about missionaries, and how we are all supposed to be missionaries. He dropped in some quotes by big hitters (he was almost apologetic by the time he invoked Kierkegaard; I was ready to cheer) and one of them was from Charles Spurgeon:

Every Christian is either a missionary or an imposter.

Of course this is hardly a new concept. I’ve heard any number of times the idea that we can’t all go abroad to be missionaries, but we can and should all spread God’s message of love where we are. I probably have a slightly different angle on this from most people, having been a missionary abroad; when asked what our mental picture of a missionary is (as a precursor to telling us we’re all missionaries), I think about my former friends and colleagues – although I have to admit that this image fights for space with the stereotypical image of a middle-aged woman in sensible clothes and besandaled socks.)

Anyway, when we were all being encouraged to think of where our ‘mission field’ is, I was, not for the first time, thinking “I don’t have any colleagues. I don’t have many friends, and many of the ones I do have are overseas.  I see my neighbours rarely. I don’t have a mission field.” Most people have to deal with a lot of people every day, whether they want to or not, but my work is just me and a computer, and that’s the way I like it. Even when I’m interpreting Albanian, I’m only supposed to be a human version of Google Translate (albeit a more accurate one); I’m not allowed to interject my own thoughts, any more than a Babel fish does.

However, while I indulged in this none-too-positive thinking, God* suddenly drew my attention to the fact that in a few weeks I’ll be speaking to over 200 people about St Patrick. In the week of St Patrick’s Day I’m visiting a school, talking to the whole of S1. Then I’m giving a talk on “Who was the real St Patrick?” at Govanhill Neighbourhood Centre the same week, on Friday 18th March. Neither of these talks are going to be evangelistic – I’m not luring people in and then preaching hellfire and damnation. But I will be speaking about another missionary, good old Pat, and mentioning why he went off to serve the Irish – which was of course because of his belief in God, and that God had sent him.** So while I may not have colleagues, or even many friends (don’t shed any tears, I do have some, and they are lovely!), I have a remarkably privileged opportunity that most people don’t get. Of course, I’ve also got my books, read even by people I’ve never met (so I’m told), so there’s a lovely, arm’s-length mission field – a Christian introvert‘s dream 😉

Where am I going with this? Nowhere really, except to observe that sometimes things can become new and fresh even when we’ve heard them a hundred time, and that perhaps even I have a mission field, even if it is limited in time, or extended in virtual distance.

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*How do I know / why do I think it was God? It’s hard to be 100% sure when it comes to divine communications, but they do happen (if you’re a Christian), and they come in a number of different forms, from the unsettlingly supernatural to the surprisingly mundane. In this case, while mundane, the subject came to my mind unbidden, and in a completely different light from how I had seen it before, while I was in a prayerful, open attitude. That doesn’t prove anything, but I just thought I would explain since “God spoke to me” can be a rather confusing and ambiguous statement for the uninitiated.

** In his case it was a vivid dream in which he received a letter from the Irish – a little closer to the supernatural end of the scale.