Wednesday, February 22, 2006

The Sound of Sheer Silence

The Prophet Elijah's experience at the mountain cave marks both the low point and the high point of his career. [1]
He had made a habit of upsetting the king of Israel. The king's name was Ahab, and the Bible says that – like his father, Omri – he did evil in the sight of the Lord; never more so than when he made an advantageous marriage to Jezebel, the daughter of the King of Sidon, a woman who was a devout worshipper of the storm god Baal.
The Bible says that Jezebel led Ahab astray, encouraging him to throw his weight about and behave unjustly, as well as to worship her favourite god. Most people in Israel went along with this, but not Elijah. He felt that the one true God was calling him to denounce Ahab and Jezebel. Unfortunately for him, Jezebel was a gutsy opponent. She threatened to have him put to death, and Elijah knew she meant it. So he fled into the desert, and ended up hiding in a cave. That was the low point of his career.
So what about the high point? Elijah had got himself into a dangerous contest with four-hundred-and-fifty followers of the god Baal. He had challenged them to get their god – who was the god of thunder and lightning – to set light to a sacrifice without any fire. They had chanted, and danced and slashed themselves with knives, vainly hope that the god Baal would hear their prayers and rise to the challenge. But, of course, nothing happened.
Then it had been Elijah's turn. For good measure he had poured twelve jars of water over his sacrifice, and then he had simply prayed to God to let it be known that he was for real. Suddenly, from out of nowhere, a bolt of lightning had descended from heaven, and burnt up not only the sacrifice but also the altar stones. It had been a fantastic moment, a moment of triumph. A huge crowd of Israelites had watched the contest and, when they saw the lightning consume the sacrifice, they seized the followers of Baal and helped Elijah to slaughter them. Not one escaped.
There's little doubt that Elijah intended this brutal act to be the high watermark of his career – the start of a new era in the history of Israel when people would at last begin to fear and serve the one true God. But he had made a huge miscalculation.
He had imagined that the true God could be identified with the savage justice of people like suicide bombers, or torturers or witch-hunters, people who are so sure of the absolute rightness of their cause that they believe it justifies every kind of cruelty and viciousness. Yet that's not the case. When they realised the enormity of what they had done, the mob who had helped Elijah murder his opponents melted away, and he was left alone to face the wrath of Queen Jezebel, who – quite rightly on this occasion – sentenced him to death for his crimes. If Elijah had expected God to intervene to save him again, he was quickly disabused of that idea. Success turned to ashes as he was overcome with fear and fled into the desert to cower in a lonely cave.
This is where we find Elijah at the beginning of this week's Bible reading – feeling very much alone in a world where loyalty to the one true God seemed to be a thing of the past. 'I alone am left,' he says, 'And they are seeking my life, to take it away.'
I guess we can all empathise with Elijah. There are times when we, too, can feel that following the one true God is a lonely path. The ethos and the values of our times can seem very alien to the ethos and values of Jesus Christ. Often – as his followers – we can easily feel as though we belong to a minority of one in the places where we live, or work, or meet. Our hard work for the Gospel can sometimes seem to be bearing scarcely any fruit. Even the things which we think we have achieved for God, the success stories, the little victories, can soon seem to turn sour or fade away.
Yet, it is at just this kind of low point that Elijah actually experiences the true spiritual highlight of his life – the moment when he comes face to face with the living God.
He hears a hurricane splitting the rocks as it howls through the desert canyons and he hurries to the mouth of the cave, expecting to meet the God who had answered his prayers with thunder and lightning. But God is not in the hurricane. And then the earth shakes beneath his feet, but God is not in the earthquake. Finally, fire sweeps through the desert, burning up the bushes and dry grasses like so much kindling, but God is not in the roaring energy and fierce intensity of the fire, either.
What was Elijah to think? Here he was in desperate need of God's power and strength. He needed comfort and consolation. He needed inspiration. He needed re-energising. He needed empowering. He needed something dynamic and awe-inspiring to happen. He needed to feel the Spirit moving and working in his life. But, instead, all he got was the sound of sheer silence. It could have been the final anti-climax, but instead it was in the deafening silence that Elijah encountered God and found a new direction and a new purpose for his life.
Someone once said that being confirmed is a bit like Elijah's encounter with God. If we come expecting the earth to move, or tongues of living flame to descend upon us, or a whirlwind to sweep through our lives, we shall be disappointed. We shall be like the old story of the colony of bats which had infested a church for years on end. They were a terrible nuisance but it was against the law to do anything to get rid of them, until the vicar had a brilliant idea. He got the bishop to confirm them, and they were all so disappointed by the experience that they were never seen in church again.
If only the bats had read this story and realised that God does not meet us in the kind of fireworks and pyrotechnics that Elijah had used in his contest with the followers of Baal. God meets us and surrounds us, and fills and inspires us, in the sound of sheer silence.
That is not to say, of course, that the kind of in-filling by God's spirit which comes with the sound of silence is empty or ineffective. Elijah emerged from his encounter with the silent God to become the greatest prophet of Israel after Moses. He is one of only five people in the Bible who is supposed to be able to walk through, or over, water without getting wet, and one of only two people in the Bible who is said not to to have died but to have been translated straight into the presence of God at the end of his life. [2]
I guess that story, like so many of the stories about Elijah, contains a great deal more legend than fact. And, like so many of the stories about him, wind and fire are part of the narrative once again, as they surround Elijah and carry him up to heaven. How interesting, then, that his most meaningful encounter with God was one where these things were strangely absent.
Elisha, the Prophet's disciple, gets to inherit Elijah's mantle – to continue God's work in Israel – and we, too, can inherit the mantle of Elijah. Like Elijah and the disciples, we shall find that doing the will of God is not all beer and skittles. Part of what it means to inherit their mantle is going through times when we may feel very much alone in a world where other people do not seem to share our values, or having to confront suffering and setbacks, or coping with the consequences of mistakes and errors of judgement. But there's a good side to inheriting the mantle of Elijah. We, too, can encounter God, not just in the sound of sheer silence, of course, but also in Jesus.
Like Elisha before them, Peter, James and John get to experience something very special, something out of this world – a kind of vision in which God allows them to see the continuity between great figures of the past like Moses and Elijah, and the ministry of Jesus. Yet, no sooner do they think that they have glimpsed and heard this truth, than it's gone. They look around, and all they see is Jesus, not dazzling white any more, not surrounded by the heroes of the past, but just back to his normal self. This is where God is to be found.
I think the message of Elijah's encounters with God, and the disciples' experience on the mountain top, is that God is more likely to be found in ordinary, mundane experiences than in extraordinary ones. It is in the sheer sound of silence, or when we look round and things are only the way they normally are, that God is most real to us. It is then that God encounters us – in the people we meet, in the things that happen every day and in the times of stillness when we can just sit and be.
[1] 1 Kings 19:9-13
[2] 2 Kings 2:7-14
[3] Mark 9:2-10

Wednesday, February 15, 2006

Making The Desert Bloom

The temptation to wallow in nostalgia and tradition, to long for 'the good old days', is not a new one. The Prophet Isaiah had to warn the Jewish people, in exile in Babylon, not to remember the former things or consider the things of old. [1] The Prophet did not mean, of course, that it is wrong to value our past, but he did want his listeners to understand that God's focus is on looking forward. God draws us into the future. God never holds us back. 'I am about to do a new thing,' says God. 'Do you not perceive it?'
In the prophecy God tells the Jewish people, 'I give water in the wilderness and rivers in the desert.' For a long time Christians in Beeston Hill felt, increasingly, that they were in a wilderness place, a place where it was hard for their witness to make a difference and for faith to take root. Yet miracles can only happen in difficult circumstances. There is no such thing as an ordinary miracle! It is in the wilderness that God can be seen to give water and to make rivers flow.
God chooses not to remember the times when we have become disillusioned, when our faith has been lacking, when we have failed to believe that the impossible can happen. Instead, God longs to reward us when we wake up to the possibilities, and recognise that flowers can still bloom, in the desert.
Years ago, Lloyds TSB sponsored a series of adverts in which it told the world that it was 'The Bank which likes to say 'Yes!' It was a campaign that fell rather flat, of course, when a very average kind of customer complained to one of the consumer programmes on TV that the Bank had repeatedly said 'No!' to all their requests.
St Paul reminds his readers in Corinth that there is nothing hesitating or vacillating about the nature of GOD'S love. [2] God in Jesus always says 'Yes!' In placing Trinity Church in the midst of a vibrant Muslim community, we believe that God wasn't saying 'Yes and No' to how we should relate to our neighbours. We weren't getting an AMBER light from the Gospel, but a GREEN light, an emphatic 'Yes!'
That's why, in the face of the controversy about cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad and the decision to acquit the BNP leaders at their trial in Leeds, Christians in Beeston felt it was important to be seen standing side by side with our Muslim neighbours outside one of the local mosques. It's why, despite the latest media 'revelations' about things that an imam and other local Muslims are alleged to have said in private, when they thought that no one was eavesdropping, we shall continue to say 'Yes' to our neighbours and not 'No'. And it's why we continue to believe their word if they say that they have been misrepresented. We want to affirm them if we can can, to echo our Saviour in saying 'Yes'.
Of course, I wouldn't want to pretend that it is easy to look forward and focus on the future, or to help miracles blossom in the desert. On the contrary, though miracles do happen, and though the future does belong to God, these things are often rather different from what we had hoped or expected them to be. The future we get, and the rivers we are given, are not the fulfilment of our wildest dreams, they are what it is in God's gift to offer us.
[1] Isaiah 43.18—25
[2] 2 Corinthians 1.18—22

Saturday, February 04, 2006

A Clash of Civilisations?

The last few days have been marked by a so-called clash of civilisations, not just in Britain, or even in Europe, but across the world.
On the one side are ranged the so-called forces of secular liberalism – people who believe so passionately in free speech that they insist on the right to insult other people and offend their most cherished beliefs, for no other reason than to show that there aren't any no-go areas in Western culture.
On the other side, are ranged those people who feel that freedom of speech goes too far when people are using it simply to wound others or cause trouble and division. For the most part these are people of faith – Christians upset by the portrayal of Jesus in 'Jerry Springer The Opera' and Muslims upset by the cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad published in European newspapers and shown fleetingly on British television.
The forces of secular liberalism seem to have the upper hand in the UK just now. Only a few days ago they formed an unholy alliance with some Christian groups, who were worried about possible curbs on their right to proclaim the Gospel message, in order to defeat a new law which would have banned people from using abusive and insulting language about another faith and its followers.
Why evangelists would want to use abusive and insulting language, and why they think it would help them to convert the followers of another faith if they did, is a mystery to me. However, members of the BNP are fond of using abusive and insulting language about Muslims and the law would have prevented them from doing so. It would also have prevented fanatics of all kinds from abusing and insulting one another, like the young men who marched through London on Friday carrying placards calling for Europe to be attacked by Al Qaeda and for the cartoonist who caricatured the Prophet Muhammad to have his head cut off.
The jury which acquitted Nick Griffin and Mark Collett on charges of using words intended to stir up racial hatred were apparently persuaded by legal arguments that Muslims are not a race and therefore aren't protected by the law. The BNP leaders' acquittal certainly preserves freedom of speech, but it makes a law against religious hatred seem all the more necessary. Christians who opposed it need, in my view, to think long and hard about the verdict and what it means for British society.
Of course, the controversy about the cartoons which caricatured the Prophet Muhammad plays right into the hands of the BNP. It allows them to portray Muslims as intolerant and humourless and to argue that there is indeed a clash of civilisations between Muslim and Western society.
For secularists, the real clash of civilisations is not just between Islam and the West, it's between people of faith and everyone else, or, at least, it's a confrontation between people who do not believe that religion should be protected from ridicule and those religious believers who think their most cherished beliefs should be safeguarded by the law.
The cartoonist, and the newspapers which published his work, seem to have been driven by an urge to prove that religion and free speech are irreconcilable. Their argument seems to be that people should be free to say whatever they like even when it's disrespectful and offensive to religious faith. They don't seem to have any other motive. The cartoons aren't particularly funny, and most of them don't seem to make any particular point, except to break a taboo.
They were only drawn because a children's writer in Denmark couldn't find any artists who were prepared to illustrate a book about the Prophet Muhammad, and so a Danish newspaper issued a challenge. It said it would publish pictures of the Prophet if any artist dared to draw some. And the other newspapers, which have published the pictures since, seem to have done so for exactly the same reason – just to show that they could.
Another cartoonist said that offending religious fanatics is part of his job description. He had, he said, drawn pictures of the Ku Klux Klan which offended Christian extremists. But he seemed to overlook the fact that members of the Klan – like Members of the BNP – misuse Christianity simply to defend racism and actually offend a great many Christians in the process, whereas even moderate Muslims have been offended by the cartoons of the Prophet, though they wouldn't want to do anything extreme about it to punish the cartoonist. All they want is an apology.
It's very interesting that the Foreign Secretary, Jack Straw, has condemned the newspapers which published the cartoons. But it's also worth noting that no one from the Government was prepared to condemn 'Jerry Springer The Opera', even though it was just as offensive to many Christians.
I heard the producer of 'Jerry Springer The Opera' talking on the radio last week. Funnily enough, he said he thought that publishing the cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad was wrong because there was no history of caricaturing faith in Islam. 'If I can borrow an idea from commerce, Muslims have been more protective of their brand,' he said, whereas Christians had forfeited the right to complain about how Jesus is depicted when the Vatican started selling snow domes with Jesus in them! It's a matter of opinion. Personally I felt that the offence given by some of the lyrics in 'Jerry Springer The Opera' went way beyond bad taste or tackiness.
This week's Old Testament reading [1] has a lot to say to us about our situation. It too features a kind of clash of civilisations. The Arameans, who lived in modern day Syria, were at loggerheads with Israel. The conflict was not just about power and land, but also about religion.
It takes great courage for everyone in the story to set aside their prejudices. The servant girl, who had been kidnapped by the Aramean soldiers, could have nursed a grudge against her master and taken secret pleasure in his sufferings. Instead, she tells his wife about Elisha, the prophet of the one true God, who can channel God's power to make him well. Naaman and the Aramean king could have refused to believe that anything good might come out of Israel. Instead, Naaman is sent with valuable gifts and letters of introduction, to seek help from Aram's traditional enemies. Elisha, for his part, could have refused to heal someone who had done his country so much harm, and Naaman's servants could have shared his disgust about bathing in the tiny River Jordan. But, instead, all the people in the story set aside their differences to work together for good and Naaman ends up as a faithful worshipper of God, determined to offer no more sacrifices to any false gods.
If it was possible for Naaman, his wife's servant girl and the prophet Elisha to cross the boundaries of faith and prejudice which separated them, how much easier must it be for modern day Christians and Muslims to stand alongside one another – despite our very real differences – in the struggle against militant secularism and fanaticism! Freedom of speech is a very valuable right which we certainly don't want to surrender, but that freedom shouldn't be used to insult other people for no good reason or to oppress and threaten them. Neither the BNP, nor the hot-heads parading through London with their offensive placards about chopping off people's heads, should be allowed to abuse free speech. But at the same time, it can't be right for freedom of expression to be used to ridicule or belittle the beliefs of Christians and Muslims just for a few cheap laughs. Honest criticism is one thing, but causing offence for its own sake is another. As the chief rabbi Dr Jonathan Sacks said, freedom – and the responsibility to use it wisely and compassionately – go hand in hand.
[1] 2 Kings 5.1-17