Saturday, 16 February 2013

Snow vision

Catherine writes....

So, I had a retreat day all lined up; plan in place, where to meet, how to get there, how to pick up kids at appropriate time. Then it snowed, not much, just enough for school to be starting late.

Still, off I trotted in my car on a little adventure in the snow.  The roads had all but cleared – amazingly even the side road tracks (like someone had gone ahead and brushed all the snow away). But the countryside was a blanket of white and the snow was lying heavily on the trees, bowing branches, beautiful.  As I got within a mile of the agreed destination, I came across a barrier, complete with keypad. No problemSnowBlog2. I’d been warned about the barrier, just drive up to it and it will open.. So I did. Twice, slowly. No movement on barrier and no code to get through in my car. I thought it was a little odd, no mention of this in the instructions, no-one around near the barrier to ask, no intercom to get help.... Because of the snow,  I was a little later than expected, so I rang about 20 people to try and see if they were already there, to see if they could help me get past the barrier.

I spoke to lots of answer phone messages......but no luck in speaking to an actual person, so ditched the car (not literally thankfully) and had to walk.  A mile down the road through the snow, finally arriving at the venue. No-one there. I began to think that I had missed something, a text, or voicemail, an email or Facebook message cancelling.... But the roads were clear, there were no problems with the snow and when I rechecked, no messages. Still the countryside was stunning, so I walked back to the car, a little wet, a little surprised, asking ‘Lord what do you want to say through this......’ I loved the trees, took some pics, thought ‘what a beautiful place this is’, sensed God dancing, saying ‘have some fun, enjoy where I have brought you, make fresh tracks in the snow, I have made you for this adventure.  Just follow me......’

It turned out that I’d been missed out of the communication loop, a new plan had been formed because of the perceived problem of the snow. A new venue, revised times and of course, because the plan was to ‘retreat’, all phones and possibilities of contact were off and closed.

As I reflected on this, I began to see a bigger picture. I thought about the barrier in the road, the perceived problem of the snow, other people not following through on the agreed vision. I thought about how easy it is for some to then be left isolated.  I sensed God saying this is how things are, the vision was there, others didn't follow where I could have taken them, didn't step on the adventure, and because they haven't stepped it has created a barrier/difficulties for you who have.   They are man made barriers, I have cleared the way. Don’t be put off from following what I have said – the obstacles might hold you up a little, you might be stopped for a while, but I called you on this adventure and even though it is more difficult than you might have thought, there is a way.

When big vision is communicated typically three groups of people emerge. One group enthusiastically embraces the vision and they are joined by those who, whilst less excited, nevertheless hear God in the vision and step out on the adventure. The second group are those who agree intellectually and seem to buy in to the visiSnowBlog1on, but there is no emotional response, no heartfelt commitment. So when problems, real or perceived arise they are quick to amend the process or the outcome of the vision. Of course the last group are those who are ambivalent or opposed to the vision and who throw up obstacles, hoping to keep the status quo.

In this it is like my trip to the retreat. The plan is agreed, the outcome enthusiastically embraced. Some buy into it fully and are prepared to follow through even when obstacles are raised. Others desire the outcome, but are put off the process when faced with challenge. They change the process or the outcome but forget those who left earlier on the full adventure. In the midst of the change, the early adopters, those who willingly follow the full path risk becoming isolated. Just like me on the retreat. At first, I felt I had missed out, missed out because I had followed where led, had followed the agreed vision. When the vision changed I was left in the lurch. But then God said, ‘don’t be disappointed or feel like you got second best, they missed out on adventures with me and they missed out on you, my beloved child.

The truth is that God loves those who take the full adventure and those who don’t, but when we hold back people get hurt and the full blessing that God intended is reduced. He says ’you must fly where I send, you were built for adventure, whether people follow or not I am with you, and I will prepare the way,  I will clear the path.’

Thursday, 24 January 2013

Elections, Snooker And A Cat

Ooh, my head.... still no result (in the UK general election). Did Labour win? No. Did they lose? No. Did the Tories win? Yes. HAve they formed a government? No. The markets are going crazy – they and most people like the certainty of a simple yes / no, on / off. Turns out that some elections say ‘yes’ and ‘no’ at the same time.

Reminds me of Quantum Mechanics. No, really. In this microscopic world a particle can both be here and not here at the same time. It can have radioactively decayed or have remained stable at the same moment. Things exist as unresolved possibilities – until we try to observe them, at which point they are forced to be one thing or another. Don’t switch off, there’s a bit about cats later on... but first some sport.

In the week when the World Snooker Championship ended (watching it has been banned in many enlightened countries as constituting cruel and unusual punishment), I thought I’d mention Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle. Steve Davis prepares to take a shot (don’t worry, I’ll fast forward) – the cue ball strikes the
red and it moves towards the hole. Will it go in or not? The tension is unbearable... how could we tell without having to wait? Well, to decide, we need to know how fast the ball is travelling and in what direction. To discover this, we could fire some light at the ball and detect where it bounces to. The angle of bounce and the time taken for it to reach the detector can be used to work out the speed and direction of the ball. Except it
doesn’t. The beam of light is a form of energy. When it hits the ball it exerts a small amount of pressure on it, thus changing its speed and direction – the very things you were trying to measure. Of course, in this case it will be a very small amount that makes little practical difference – it’s Steve Davis, he was going to miss anyway. (sorry Steve). But it does establish a principle – the act of measuring something changes what you were measuring.

Now, where’s the cat... put it in this box with a special little device. (Cat lovers may want to skip to the next paragraph). The device is a radiation detector linked to a gas canister. There is a radioactive particle in the box which has a 50% chance of decaying within a fixed period – say an hour. If the detector is triggered by a decaying particle, the gas is released, thus poisoning the cat. (I said you should have skipped to the next
paragraph). Quantum Physics says that at the sub-atomic level, particles (like electrons) behave like waves – with energy, but no specific location. The probability that the particle is actually at some specific place at any time is described by the equation defining the wave. Only when we try to actually observe where it is do we force it to actually be somewhere! Similarly, the probability that the particle has decayed remains just that – a
probability, until we force it to be ‘yes’ or ‘no’ by observing it. You may well say that this is both confusing and academic. But the cat certainly wouldn’t. If the particle decays, the cat is dead. If not, it remains alive. Whilst the particle is a probability wave, it is neither and therefore the cat lives. However, the moment we try to observe whether the cat is alive or dead, we force the probability wave to collapse into a definitive ‘yes’ or
‘no’. The act of observing, the act of knowing, forces the particle to ‘decide’ whether it has decayed or not.

Checking to see if the cat is alive has a 50% chance of causing its death. Observation can seriously damage your health (or that of a cat).

If the whole universe had been observed already, everything would now behave in a deterministic manner – there would be certainty, everything would behave as a ‘proper’ particle with no ambiguity. But we know that there are countless quantum states in the universe - it is filled with this uncertainty. Which means that it is as yet unobserved, as yet undetermined. At the very least, God has created a universe filled with possibilities. He has created it in such a way that as he observes it, such observation does not interfere with the possibilities. His interactions do not collapse possibilities, He has built openness into the very fabric of the universe.

Love does not insist on its own way.

Of course that doesn’t mean that He has no plan, no knowledge, or no means of achieving His goals. It does mean that these are not accomplished in a deterministic framework in which we are simply pawns in a cosmos of certainty.

No cats were harmed in the production of this blog.

Sunday, 6 January 2013

Door knockers, falling and guns

I remember when I was a student (yep, long memory...) up in the wilds of Newcastle. It had snowed and the ground was pretty icy. (It was probably June or July...) I stepped off the pavement to cross the road and slipped. It was one of those slow-motion moments where your brain has more than enough time to process the fact that:  a) you are falling and there is nothing to grab on to, b) you really should have bought those better shoes and c) it’s going to hurt a lot anytime soon. As those thoughts unfurl I’m conscious that my feet have left the ground and that I’m in free-fall backwards.

Then it stopped. A friend with better footwear had stood behind me and caught me. Pushed me upright again. No pain, no predicted trip to A & E, not even the embarrassment of sprawling in the street. Just the amazing relief and euphoria of having escaped what seemed like the inevitable.

Fast forward thirty odd years. Front door is stiff, have to pull on the door knocker to get it closed far enough to lock the door. Been meaning to plane some wood off for a couple of weeks now. Give the knocker a good yank, it comes off in my hand and I go flying backwards. Same time-lapse sequence as before, but this time it’s Janet I’ve flown into and we now both go over backwards – except she is stopped by the hedge, and I am stopped by her. No damage to either of us, no pain, lots of laughter and a Janet shaped dent in the hedge. I put the door knocker back on and a couple of hours later go out to take the dead Christmas Tree to the recycling area in the local park. Try to shut door, won’t, so give big pull on door knocker.... This time there are no arms to stop me, no Janet or hedge to cushion fall. Fortunately the garden is soft after all the rain (remember the hose-pipe ban a few months ago?) and the result is laughter and a sense of my own ridiculousness.

I’ve felt like God reminding me of how God’s grace works. In the early days of faith, despite our unreformed character, we are close to the God we love. Close enough for His “wings” to enfold us and protect us (Ps 91). Even when we place ourselves in danger, He is there, mitigating our folly, standing behind the foolish student with the dodgy shoes, waiting and ready to catch when he inevitably slips and falls... We may have chosen the wrong shoes, but we’re still near enough to be caught...

But so often then, we continue to ignore the warnings. Having been caught and saved we keep presuming that we can go on making foolish, lazy choices. We still don’t buy the right shoes, or having been spared injury by our wife and a hedge, we still don’t sort out the door. In our heart we say “God saved me last time, he loves me, He will save me next time” As Paul puts it  “...we sin all the more that grace might abound...”

We start out close to God’s heart, right by His side. But when we act outside His character, when we ignore the warnings, we move further and further from His heart, further from His side, becoming more distant from His protection. Even then, He does what he can to save, but our distance limits His options. So, when we pull off the door-knocker we go flying, there’s no-one around to catch us, there’s not even someone to act as a cushion. Just the ground. God still loves us, still longs to protect us and we may find that even now, the ground is soft and the only injury is to our pride.

But what if then, I still don’t plane the door, what if I persist even after all this, in my presumption of grace? Well, God’s heart towards me doesn’t change – he still loves me, still yearns to protect. But I have moved myself completely outside of His shelter. My choices remove permission for Him to help. Today, as I close the door, if I haven’t responded to his grace, to the opportunity to change, I can no longer rely on people or soft ground to mitigate my folly.

We see this in the People of Israel. Their calling was to be distinctive, different to the nations around. For generations God warned, cajoled, protected, gave them victory, despite them rejecting His plan for them to be “blessed to be a blessing”. He sent prophets to remind them, He used world events to highlight it, He gave them law and scripture to reveal His love and desire for them. But they would not listen. They grew used to His grace saving them, they relied on it, presumed on it. “We are God’s people, nothing really bad can happen to us.”They continued to make ungodly choices, believing in their pride that God would continue to dig them out of the messes that they got into – that there would never be any real consequence to their choice.

But in their folly they moved themselves further and further from where God was, from where His heart always is. They removed themselves from protection. Ultimately they get what their persistent lifestyle had chosen. God had called them to be distinctive from the other nations, they chose to be the same as the other nations. Eventually, ten out of the twelve tribes get exactly what they had asked for down the generations. They become so like the other nations that they become absorbed into them, becoming lost as a people group to history.

And so to Connecticut. Did God want those kids to die in the school shooting? Was it part of His divine plan? Was it a judgment against something that offended Him? If God is love and love means anything close to what Paul describes in Corinthians, the answer is categorically ‘no’. Why then did He not intervene and prevent it?

Scripture suggests that He longed to. That everything in Him cried out to act. That such things represent the saddest, most heart-breaking moments for a God of love. “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem” cried Jesus “How I longed to gather you into my arms. But you would not let me”. Everything within the Father wanted to intervene as His son was brutally murdered. Everything within the Father wanted to intervene that awful day in Connecticut. But then as now, human choices constrain grace. Eventually, we, and so often, the powerless, face the terrible and tragic consequences of our folly.

Might it be that, at least in part,  the choices made down the generations to uphold the ‘right’ to bear arms, disabled Almighty God from doing what His heart longed to do? Time and again the warning signs and indeed similar tragedies have revealed, what to most of the world is the blindingly obvious, that the availability of guns is a contributing factor. Time and again, pride has blinded (the latest response being to have armed guards in schools as opposed to changing the gun laws), each decision a step moving us out from under His wings....

These aren’t the acts of a wrathful God, they aren’t in some perverse way what God wanted. The awful reality is that we chose a society in which it can happen, then moved out of God’s protection from the folly of that choice.

Nor did God did  have these children killed out of anger or in a fit of wrathful judgement – judgement is not executed on the vulnerable, the helpless, but on those who for generations have had light, had grace but who have squandered it in pride and wilfulness. Ezekiel 33 warns those who could and should have acted but who didn’t that the blood of those who died needlessly will be required of them.

Perhaps in their evangelical zeal, the NRA might want to reflect on that.

And in the meantime, I’ve borrowed an electric plane from my co-blogger.