Sunday, March 8, 2009

In the beginning ... God

It’s been great talking to 5 year old Murray about today’s baptism – the questioning and the comment keep you on your toes – the theology is quite profound as much in the questioning as in the answering.


A couple of weeks ago I found myself eavesdropping on a wonderful conversation between four 5 or 6 year olds on a school trip to the wonderful Nature in Art gallery at Twigworth.  Adrian Stanley had always wanted me to visit and I got round to going a couple of weeks ago.  He had always waxed eloquent about the opportunity you had to see an Artist in Residence at work in their studio.  I made a bee line for the Artist in Residence’s studio.  As it happened there  were two Bennet’s buses in the car park and a Gloucester Infants school going around the Art Gallery in small groups of four.  One such group were deep in conversation with David Miller about his wonderful paintings of fish.


Their questions were wonderful.  They ranged over the whole process of painting the artist engaged in.  From the underwater photography he did as a diver while wearing a decoy bird on top of his head (is that to trick other people?  they asked.  No, to trick the fish he said in reply)  through the first pencil sketches (is that the same pencils as we use?  Yes, he said.  Ours are shorter, they replied a little indignantly), to the studies that he was in the process of painting in the studio (But there isn’t a pier in the photo!  No, that’s the beauty of being a painter I can put the fish under the pier!  So, you’re tricking people.  No, I’m not tricking people, the artist insisted, there’s one I finished yesterday.  You couldn’t have finished it yesterday, you’re tricking us.  No, I’m not tricking you!  That’s really good.  Do you have to wait until it’s dry before you paint the fish on to the water.  No, it’s called wet on wet painting with oils.  I would wait until it’s dry to do the real detail in a painting) right through to the wonderfully, detailed finished painting of beautiful fish.


Then the final set of questions that caught my attention.  How do you paint the scales?  It has to be said the fish shone and the scales were beautiful in the finished painting. 



“I count them,” David Miller replied.  And then he went on to explain that each fish of the same species has the same number of scales.  “If you are going to paint them, you need to count the scales.  Some artists try to paint a fish without painting the scales and the fish never looks quite right.  You need to count the scales.”


So there you have it.  The secret was out.  Whether any of that group of youngsters, their teacher or I will ever aspire to the heights or is it the depths of painting fish I somehow doubt.  But the six of us have now been let into the secret.  And we know if we are going to have a go we’ll have to count the scales.


It was a wonderful way to spend a very special day.  I was in a mood to celebrate.  It was Darwin’s birthday.


I wanted to turn the conversation to Darwin and the Origin of Species and ask why each species of fish has a particular number of scales.  But it was not for me to join in the conversation – there was already another group of four little ones raring to have a go … and an immensely patient painter all set to answer another set of questions.


The questioning of those four five year olds set me thinking.


He was a painter.  He used photographs but then he went on to paint the fish and the birds he so carefully observed.  It was as if painting gave him a greater freedom.  He could put the fish under the pier.  His painting of the pier was wonderfully accurate.  His painting of the fish was equally so.  But the fish weren’t under the pier in his photo.  They might well have been at some point.  He was able to paint the fish.


Was he ‘tricking’ us?  Or was he presenting the reality of that underwater world with not so much poetic license as artistic license?


What came home to me was the way in which reality can be portrayed not simply by the accuracy of a photographic record, but by the artistry of a painter.


We do the Bible a grave injustice when we read it as if it was written as a 21st century scientific treatise.  The Bible tells me the truth that the world we live in is the world of God’s creation.  It tells me that timeless truth through wonderfully rich poetry and story.


To me that leaps off the page as you read about creation.  There are wonderful rhythms and a beauty of language in Genesis 1 with those sonorous words, In the beginning … the repeated refrain, and God saw that it was good, the rhythm of ‘And there was evening and there was morning, the first day, And there was evening and there was morning the second day.”


This is the stuff of poetry.  And it is not tricking us!  The poetry of Genesis 1 confronts us with the truth that the world we live in is the world of God’s creation.  As it builds to its climax it challenges us to realise that we must look after God’s world.


It is in poetry that the Bible has most to say about creation – Genesis 1 is not the only place that tells us about the creation of the world.  There are great passages in the Psalms and most powerfully of all in the Book of Job that tell of creation.


Take Job 38.  It speaks of God ‘laying foundations’ for the earth, measuring the earth by ‘stretching a line’ upon it.  It speaks of the bases the earth is built on, it speaks of God laying a cornerstone for the earth.  It speaks of the morning stars singing together.  It speaks of the sea being shut in with doors, and then bursting from the womb.  It speaks of clouds as a garment and thick darkness as a swaddling band.


This is not a scientific description of the world, it is powerful poetry at its best.  And it is not tricking us!  The poetry of Job 38 confronts us with the truth that the world we live in is the world of God’s creation and it is awesome and fills us with wonder and awe.


It confronts us with that truth for a particular purpose.


The book of Job is a book that grapples with one of the greatest problems we all face.  It is the problem of undeserved suffering.  Job is perfect and upright – he has done nothing wrong.  And yet everything goes wrong in his life.  He loses his possessions, he loses his family, he loses his health … and he is brought to the pits of despair.


Three friends in turn, and then a fourth try to console him with reasoning and a lot of theology.


But none of their arguments is persuasive at all.


The problem remains.


It seems as if it cannot be resolved.


Job is left desolate and alone.


And in his solitude in the midst of the storm – it is then that he is brought face to face with a power that is greater than anything he can conceive.


Then the Lord answered him out of the whirlwind …


But the voice of God gives Job no answer to his problem.


In a prolonged series of questions that begins at chapter 38 and goes on for four whole chapters Job is confronted with the immensity of God in the wonder of his creation.


Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth?

Who determined its measurements?

On what were its bases sunk or who laid its cornerstone

When the morning stars sang together and all the heavenly beings shouted for joy?

Who shut in the sea with doors when it burst forth from the womb, when I made the clouds its garment and thick darkness its swaddling band?


Job has no answer to the tragedy of his suffering.


Job senses the reality of a God who is greater than anything he can begin to conceive.


And he is filled with awe and wonder … he has moved from philosophising and theologising about God to sense the reality of God.


The book of Job does not come up with answers.   What it does is to show that in the presence of an awesome God it is possible to live with unanswered questions as we sense the immensity of the God who is greater than anything we can begin to imagine.


You could say David Miller had the patience of Job in answering the questions of those five year olds.


Faced with life’s unanswered questions we need not only the patience of Job but his sense of the reality of God.


How can we sense that reality?


Look at the fish and try counting those scales.  Look at the birds of the air.  Go up on the hills.  Go out into the night sky and listen out for the singing of the starts in all their mysterious silence!


But there is one thing more we can do.


We can look to the God who in the beginning created the heavens and the earth and see that this God has become one of us … in Jesus Christ we can see his grace and his glory.  Look not only to the beauty of God’s creation … but look to Jesus.  And what do you see, someone who comes into a hurting world to bring healing.  Who comes into our hearts to bring love.


We are going to take a look at the last week of Jesus’ life in particular as Holy Week unfolds and Easter approaches and each day of Holy Week have the church open in the morning and again in the evening – for quiet reflection.  You can follow that week on our web site as well.  Look at the way God was in Christ as he experienced the suffering of that week, the agony of the cross.  God was in Christ through all that suffering and pain.


In a world that confronts us with so many unanswerable questions sense that Christ is with us in the depths as much as in the heights and find strength in his presence.


Of the little ones parents brought to Jesus, Jesus said, let them come to me.


To each of us weighed down by unanswerable questions this same Jesus says, Come to me all you that labour and are heavy laden and I will give you rest.

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