Magic Moments

‘Magic Moments’ sung by Perry Como in 1957 is a song we might associate with Christmas as it was once used to sell ‘Quality Street’ chocolates in Christmas advertisements on British television.

Christmas is a magic moment that we may long to capture. Trees, lights, cards, presents, food, decorations – all geared towards capturing the magic moment of Christmas.

The trouble is maybe we carry a lot of other stuff as well – overloaded – and not with presents. Tired? Troubled? Preoccupied with worries, so that the magic moment of Christmas feels, perhaps – just out of reach…

Part of the problem might well be our upbringing. From an early age we are presented with the idea that Christmas is a time for children. Now don’t get me wrong, I think the wonder and excitement that children bring to Christmas is brilliant, but it is not the whole picture of Christmas, and it reinforces the idea that Christmas is something you grow out of.

I can understand why and that children’s nativity plays cannot contain the complex threads of the original Christmas story. What do I mean? Well, you only have to read the Bible for yourself to get the salient points:

  • Mary is an unmarried, teenage, pregnant mother, engaged to Joseph, who for fear of shame initially considers renouncing her – if he had done so, Mary would surely have been scorned even killed.
  • When Jesus is born there is literally no human place on Earth for him to stay, he sleeps in an animal feeding trough – a manger.
  • At the news of the Magi, King Herod murders young children, not that different from brutal dictatorships to this day. Joseph and Mary, with the infant Jesus, are forced to become refugees.

Christmas is hardly a children’s story!

nativityFor all the right reasons we protect children from the harshness of these details but for all the wrong reasons we forget what Christmas has to say to our adult world as we sentimentalise it. Sadly, that is only too clear when the bad things in life happen: bereavement, illness, redundancy, homelessness, fighting…

I think this is made worse during the Christmas season by the common misunderstanding that we may feel we have to be jolly for a whole month of the year. Do you know how hard it is to be jolly all the time?

I can’t do it!

Have you ever had that experience of groaning when somebody says something like, “Cheer up, it’s Christmas!” Which is perhaps one of the worse things in the world to say to someone when they are down, for whatever reason.

All the anxieties of real life that have no room in our jolly commercial Christmasses but are exactly the reason why God came to us when we think about it:

  • Christmas is God’s love making itself open and vulnerable to us in our troubled world.
  • God makes room for us even when we have no room for Him – just as there was no room at the Inn.
  • Christmas is God’s enormous risk of love, and that is no surprise because at the heart of the story is childbirth – with all the risk, anxiety, and hope that comes with it.

For the writers of the Gospels, Christmas is more than a capturing of childhood wonder, or a season to be artificially jolly – Christmas  is about a future yet to be born.

That is what provides the wonder and the joy. And for those in the nativity who can see that, they discover a magic moment – even though it looks to the rest of the world like just another poor baby whose parents can’t even provide him with a bed for the night.

jurassic-coastThis year I went on a mindfulness course for clergy in Dorset. Mindfulness is a form of ancient meditation increasingly gaining credibility in medical circles. Basically it teaches the art of being in the present moment and seeing everything and everyone potentially as a gift.

In other words, a ‘magic moment’.

Although this might be easy to scoff at, the more I hear on the news of…

  • depression and suicide rates going up
  • domestic arguments and violence increasing over the Christmas season
  • homelessness and mental health issues increasing

…let alone all the other things happening in our world – the more I firmly believe that we need to cultivate the art of discovering ‘magic moments’. We certainly need to do something. Because what we are doing is literally making us ill and killing us, and our world.

For me as a Christian it all begins at Christmas in a manger with a homeless baby and shepherds and magi and angels saying, ‘There…”

“There is a magic moment – see it for all it’s worth – it could just change your life, and help change the world.”

sign-of-christmasHowever much we dress up the nativity with tinsel and fairy lights, we cannot hide the real light that shines from the manger. Magic moments are not just to be discovered in church at Christmas, but in your life in the world – each day.

  • For God loved the world so much that He dwelt among us in human form.
  • His Spirit dwells among us now, and I am sure God provides magic moments for us to discover in the gift of each ordinary day.
  • Just as God did over 2000 years ago in the birth of a child and all that followed from the cradle to the cross, and beyond.

Magic moments – like gifts, inviting us to receive them…

Dead Man Walking: Lazarus Unbound

cross & resurrection

I grew up with David Bowie.

What I mean is, I grew up listening to the music of David Bowie coming from the bedrooms of my older siblings.

Like other popular songwriters, the lyrics of David Bowie permeate the English language. Perhaps the most recent being to ‘Major Tim’ by the media in reference to the British astronaut, Major Tim Peake. Many will know that this nickname refers to ‘Major Tom’ in the lyrics of David Bowie’s classic song, ‘Space Oddity’.

But perhaps David Bowie’s most haunting song was his last, ‘Lazarus’. The song is a moving reflection on death from a performance artist coming to terms with his own.

The name Lazarus is in itself a reference used by artists through the ages to refer to a man who died and was brought back to life by Jesus in the gospel of John 11: 1-44. The name ‘Lazarus’ is forever linked with one who has come back from the dead. It is a strange gospel story at first reading. What does it mean?

First, let me say I think there are often many levels to stories:

  • Have you ever come back to a favourite story and seen something new in it?
  • Not because the story has changed but because you have?

For years I have read this story at only one level. But more recently I have had an epiphany. I now read it at a further level.

We are Lazarus.

We are Lazarus when we hear the voice of the one who calls us from the tomb. This story is the story of our coming to life from death now, not just in a future event. We are to see ourselves in Lazarus, whose name, a shortened form of Eleazar, means “God helps.” He is from a town whose name, Bethany, means “House of Affliction.” So God helps one who suffers from affliction. John’s gospel often uses the physical realm as a metaphorical pointer to the spiritual realm.

I think this story reminds us we can experience death in many ways. We will die physically, but we can also die emotionally, psychologically, relationally, communally, or spiritually. I am often reminded of Miss Havisham in Charles Dickens’ “Great Expectations”, who sat in her ragged wedding dress – grave clothes if you like – amid the cobwebs and the darkness of her home. Miss Havisham was in a ‘tomb’.

The character of Miss Havisham warns us that we all have the potential to create tombs. As individuals we can create them in our homes. Collectively we can create them in other places. Death is more than a physical experience and we use the word to express more than the ending of physical life.

dragonfly

I volunteer for a local schools project called REInspired. A few days ago I was discussing with some primary school children the subject of ‘death’ as a part of the national Religious Education syllabus. We reflected on the story of ‘Waterbugs and Dragonflies’, by Doris Stickney, a story that describes a transformation consequently resulting in a new form of life. We thought for a while what the surface of the water represented in the story and the waves caused when the waterbug breaks through to become a dragonfly.

Grief is sometimes described as being like ‘waves’. And we all need time to grieve. But I am convinced that we are not created to stay in tombs forever – in this life or the next. For Christians that is the simple but powerful message of Easter.

One of the most significant Christian responses that can be shared in this world with other human beings is the response to death. Not in a superficial way but acknowledging all the emotions involved and yet providing a message of something more. This is powerfully conveyed by Sister Helen Prejean in her true story ‘Dead Man Walking’ written in 1993, which subsequently became a film of the same name in 1995 starring Susan Sarandon and Sean Penn. The film not only explores death, but issues of anger, hatred, forgiveness, and redemption. In other words, what does it mean to be human in the face of death?

However, there is another question. Not only what does it mean to be human when encountering death but what does it mean to be human beyond it? From mummification to cryogenics, human beings have sought to defy death through history. Cybernetics now poses the interesting question of whether human consciousness can be transformed into digital data and hence become ‘immortal’?

The ‘mind, body, spirit’ debate continues to remain elusive. An example of this is ‘The God Impulse. Is Religion Hardwired into the Brain?’ published in 2011 and written by professor of neurology, Kevin Nelson, which concludes that spiritual experiences lie somewhere between consciousness and REM sleep. However the book can neither affirm nor deny whether these spiritual experiences are ‘real’. Furthermore, some profound questions arise in other ways:

  • Is there a human soul or are we simply a collection of electric impulses of the brain that may eventually be ‘downloaded’ on to a silicon chip?
  • Is disembodied intelligence classifiable as human?
  • Is immortality the pinnacle of human existence?

The Biblical tradition does not point us toward immortality, which is a Greek philosophical concept in origin. Instead it speaks of life transformed before God, even after death. Resurrection and immortality are not identical.

sol

The gospel story of Lazarus may help us understand the concept of resurrection if we explore the imagery in the story a little further. When Jesus eventually arrives at the tomb in the gospel story he asks, “Where have you laid him?” The crowd reply, “Lord, come and see.” It is hard not to flashback to chapter one of John’s gospel when the would-be disciples were seeking Jesus, asking, “Lord, where are you staying?” And he responds, “Come and see.” Life with God is signified with invitations into the new and unknown.

At the entrance of the tomb Jesus cries out with a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out!” The Greek verb kraugazein’ occurs six times in John’s gospel. It is used four times for the shouts of the crowd to crucify Jesus. The shouts of the crowd bring death to Jesus. But Jesus’ shout brings life to Lazarus – and to us.

A voice calls at the edge of our tombs. We are to substitute our name for that of Lazarus and live – freed from our grave clothes. For what does Jesus say at the end of this story?

“Unbind him and let him go.”

There are many forms of death. I know what it is like to be in the ‘grave’, and maybe you do too. But a voice spoke to me, through differing voices, and in time… I was unbound. For we are created not for death, but for life and to share that life with others, in this world and beyond.

Life unbound – come and see…

What does it mean to be human.com? Bladerunner Replicated

cyberhead_Fotor

‘E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial’ was a huge summer blockbuster in 1982.  I remember seeing it at a packed cinema and yet the world portrayed in it seems to now be of the last century. More disturbing is another film released that year which I remember watching at a virtually empty cinema, that was deemed a box office failure at the time, but whose haunting themes and message only seem to resonate more closely with this new millennium. It is now described as prophetic and a cult classic.

‘Bladerunner’ presents a dystopian nightmare of a not too distant future whose complex themes question our human identity. Paul Sammon in ‘Future Noir: The Making of Bladerunner’ (1996), sums this up well when he says:

“Lurking under the film’s pop visuals and trendy special effects is a subtle, dizzying tangle of deeply felt moral, philosophical, and sociological concerns. Take the film’s title a “Blade Runner” could also be interpreted as someone who scampers along the thin edge of life. Or witness the multiple examples of narrative mirroring (or doubling) throughout. Deckard kills two replicants, two replicants save his life. Deckard finds a reason to live; Batty wants to live. Religious parallels are also rampant: Tyrell is literally the replicant’s God, and Batty, Tyrell’s prodigal son, symbolically pierces his hand with a nail, suggesting crucifixion. Even the film’s horizontal/vertical design scheme makes a statement; Blade Runner’s privileged few live in luxurious towers, literally high above the disenfranchised masses below. All the musings are swept aside, however, by the three, key, simple yet profound questions which constitute the core of the film: Who am I? Why am I here? What does it mean to be human?”

These questions resonate even more clearly in our age of the global community.  We can invent the persona of whoever we want to be, dispose of that identity, and invent another one in a matter of minutes online. We are constantly bombarded with information and an endless horizon of possibilities and yet there are suggestions that we are ‘communicating’ less in relation to social interactions, the irony being that we may feel less connected to other human beings within this digital communications oasis. And a Kierkergaardian existential despair may develop leaving us residing at ‘What does it mean to be human.com?’

Human beings are social animals. However badly we may do it sometimes, we are designed to relate, it is within our DNA. The received Christian view is that we are not complete as human beings within ourselves. The wholeness we seek cannot be filled by technology, drugs, sex, or the ever increasing acquisition of material goods, “Stuffocation”, as James Wallman aptly puts it in his book of the same name. Instead we may have to begin by letting go of that which we seek to grasp. Or to quote the spiritual realisation that the replicant character, Roy Batty, comes to at the end of ‘Bladerunner’, “All these moments will be lost in time…like tears in rain.”

The Bible makes it clear that immortality is not the goal of human existence, instead ‘eternal life’ is, which we can experience in this life. At the heart of eternal life is a relationship and most relationships require what is commonly termed ‘give and take’, perhaps even sacrifice. (John 17:3) The digital age presents us with endless promises of acquisition and yet the human soul seems to become enlarged when we face that which we are prepared to lose. (Matthew 16:25). This spiritual practice is not only common to Christianity but to Buddhism and there are numerous instances where a dialogue has developed on this subject. I think it is no coincidence that there has been a continuing rise of interest within medical, secular, as well as religious circles, in the practice of mindfulness in recent years. Although there may be different conclusions on why this has happened, its popular ascendancy within only a matter of a decade cannot be ignored.

Whatever our religious beliefs or philosophical viewpoints, it seems to be true that the human spirit often grows through a healthy form of materialistic detachment, challenge, even adversity, and not consumerist acquisition. The former gives birth to self-realisation and fulfilment while the latter may feed upon our status anxiety and fear. And what we can discern is that the predictions of ‘Bladerunner’ will always be replicated if we persist in ignoring a very ancient yet modern truth, whatever value system we may profess:

The future is only dark if we have no faith in the dawn…