Fundamental Change

Wednesday night Alex’s open stage moved to the south end of the city for a one-off event at A.J.’s new Second Cup location on the corner of Ellerslie Road and 111 Street. That’s my neighbourhood – a two minute drive from the church – and it was nice to welcome all the performers to the area!
Rob Heath sang his song ‘Dragonfly’ and introduced it with a personal story. He said that in everyone’s life there is a defining moment – one that sets the course of the rest of their life – and in his case it was when, as a young man, he gave up doing drugs. He was into some pretty hard stuff and, by his own admission, headed for a future either in jail or in an early grave – until one morning he just woke up and decided that no, he didn’t want his life to be all about that kind of thing. And so he chose to quit, and that choice has been the decisive factor for the rest of his life.
The song ‘Dragonfly’ is about that sort of experience. The change a dragonfly experiences when it moves form the larval state, spreads its wings and takes to the sky, becomes a metaphor for the change a human being goes through when we leave behind a lesser way of life and take to our own personal skies. For Rob, that change was clearly not only life-changing but also life-saving. So, no doubt, it is for many others as well.
As I was listening to Rob explain what the song was all about, I reflected that I sometimes give people far too little credit for being able to understand metaphor. Take Jesus’ statement that ‘no one can see the Kingdom of God without being born again’. Detach yourself from the unfortunate and well-publicised antics of TV evangelists who have shown by their actions that the change in their lives isn’t as fundamental as they claimed. Forget (if any of my readers actually remember!) old theological debates about whether ‘new birth’ happened automatically at (predominantly infant) baptism, or whether some further conversion experience was necessary. Forget all that and come to the metaphor with fresh eyes, and it becomes obvious that what Jesus is talking about is fundamental, life-defining change – what Rob called the ‘defining moment’ in a person’s life. That change is too radical to be contained in either what is often a conventional religious ritual (baptism) or the simple act of just praying a prayer accepting Jesus as one’s ‘personal Lord and Saviour’. It is not just life-changing but also, in a fundamental sense, life-defining.
On March 5th 1972, at the age of thirteen, I sat on my bed in my room and prayed a simple prayer giving my life to Jesus. It seemed a very minor occurrence in the life of one who was after all a child of the vicarage, brought up in the church, baptised as a child and presumably one who had an inside track when it came to religion. And yet, when I look back now, I can’t deny that it was a life-defining moment. Before then, although I was a regular Sunday churchgoer, my ‘religion’ was purely superficial and conventional; I had not met God in any personal way. But on that night Something from Somewhere else invaded my life. I must have meant what I said, or (more importantly) God must have meant what he said, because in a very quiet way, for the first time in my life, I did meet God that night. From that moment on, the passion to know God and to follow Jesus became the central story of my life.
When I was in England last month my friend Mark Barnes wore a tee-shirt given to him by his daughter Komi with the words ‘I AM FROM SPACE’ on the front. A highly appropriate tee-shirt, in my view, because, in the nicest possible sense, Mark does sometimes act as if he’s from Somewhere Else! We all know people like that, people whose behaviour is somehow different from the conventional folks around them, people who march to the beat of a different drummer. They really do seem as if they’re from somewhere else!
The Greek phrase in the Gospel of John that we customarily translate ‘born again’ can also mean ‘born from above’ – born, in other words, from Somewhere Else. There is no right or wrong way to translate it; in Greek, it can mean either ‘born again’ or ‘born from above’ (or, perhaps, both), and I’m grateful for this double meaning. ‘Born from above’ is another way of describing the fundamental change Jesus is talking about; it’s meant to lead to the sort of life that can no longer be adequately explained by the outward circumstances of one’s birth. I’m not only from here, you see; I’m from Somewhere Else. Furthermore, that Somewhere Else is quietly colonising Down Here; there are more and more of us around, and our goal is that our life together will gradually change things so that life ‘down here’ reflects more closely the dream of the One who made it.
Because, you see, the life of the world has also had its defining moment. As I mentioned, my own defining moment seems rather low key, but it has affected absolutely everything that followed. The world’s defining moment looked rather low-key on the outside, too – the life and death of a Galilean carpenter and Jewish messianic pretender who was put firmly in his place – with nails – by the powers that be of Rome and Judea. Hanging up on the cross, he looked pretty foolish to the Jews who were used to talking about God’s mighty acts (which, by definition, didn’t include getting so badly defeated), and pretty weak to the Romans (who were used to celebrating the great victories of their armies against people like him).
But the defining moment happened quietly, some time between nightfall on the day after his death, and daybreak the next morning. His followers who came to the tomb the next day found it empty, and as one scenario after another played itself out before their disbelieving eyes over the next few days, they gradually came to the amazed conclusion that he had defeated death by the power of God and was in fact alive forever. And this changed everything: it meant that he was right in what he claimed, it meant that death was no longer a fearsome enemy, and it meant that the call to people to give him their allegiance had to be sounded to the ends of the earth. And sound it they did, giving birth to a movement that outlasted the mighty Roman empire and continues to exercise its (admittedly far less than perfect) influence on the world two thousand years later.
The powers that be have tried (often successfully) to tame that movement down through the centuries, muting things like its call to love your enemies and avoid the accumulation of possessions and give one’s ultimate allegiance to God before all human pretenders. Followers of Jesus have become simply ‘religious’ people rather than the committed revolutionaries he clearly had in mind when he challenged them to put his revolution ahead of even the most fundamental family ties and to be willing to lay down their lives for the kingdom he was proclaiming. For a church – or for individuals in it – to grasp again the revolutionary nature of Jesus’ challenge, and to begin again, by the power of God, to live their lives accordingly, would be another defining moment. And that defining moment is not optional. Jesus said to a committed conventional religious man, Nicodemus, ‘you must be born again’. Not, ‘I’d like to suggest that you consider this option’. No; the world is too far gone for the luxury of that sort of leisurely talk over coffee at Starbucks. It’s a matter of urgency. Wars tear us apart across racial and political lines. Children are torn from their families and taught to be soldiers before they are even in their teens. In urban ghettos drug dealers prey on the young and destroy their lives for profit; families are torn apart by infidelity and violence and the grinding treadmill of contemporary busy-ness; people across the globe live in poverty and destitution while others contemplate whether it’s going to be an iced cappuccino or a fat-free latte today – and so it goes on. Something is wrong, something needs to change. If it doesn’t, the consequences are too frightening to contemplate.
Christianity teaches that this change begins with individuals. As each of us lets go of our own personal agenda and turns to God, the God who Jesus revealed to us, for the inspiration and energy to be what we can’t be by ourselves, we are touched by something from somewhere else. Bruce Cockburn wrote about it once in a spiritual song:
Somebody touched me, making everything new;
Somebody touched me, I didn’t know what to do.
Burned through my life like a bolt from the blue –
Somebody touched me; I knew it was you.
If you have once felt that touch, you are spoiled for everything else for the rest of your life. You can never be satisfied with any of the cheap imitations pedaled by religious hucksters or the pain-relieving materialist fixes distributed by marketeers desperate to stop people catching on to the fact that, since all the things they already own haven’t made them happy, it’s a bit illogical to believe that more of the same will do the trick! Once having glimpsed the reality of God, you can never be satisfied with anything less than a life lived in growing relationship with him. That’s what Christianity is meant to be all about; it does indeed make everything new, and once it touches you, you can never really be the same again.

Winter in Madrid

I’m a sucker for historical novels and also a big C.J. Sansom fan, so it’s a mystery to me why I’ve waited so long to read Winter in Madrid. I suppose I found it difficult to imagine that the man who had so masterfully recreated the world of Tudor politics in the Shardlake series – and obviously spent so much time on reading and research doing it – could do the same thing as convincingly in an entirely different world four hundred years later. But he has done it, there’s no doubt about it.

This book has been described by some reviewers as ‘action-packed’; I’m not quite sure where that description came from. This is no Tom Clancy or Clive Cussler novel; it’s a subtle, beautiful and horrifying story about wartime Spain, with a clever plot (including a sting in the tail) believable character development, intelligent dialogue, and just enough interesting back-story to give depth to the narrative without derailing it.

The basic premise is well-described in the blurb on the back of the book:

1940: after the Spanish Civil War, Madrid lies ruined, its people starving, as Germany continues its relentless March through Europe. Britain now stands alone, while General Franco considers whether to abandon neutrality and enter the war.

Into this uncertain world comes Harry Brett, a traumatized veteran of Dunkirk turned reluctant spy for the British Secret Service. Sent to gain the confidence of old schoolfriend Sandy Forsyth, now a shady Madrid businessman, Harry finds himself involved in a dangerous game – and surrounded by memories.

Meanwhile, Sandy’s girlfriend, ex-Red Cross nurse Barbara Clare, is engaged on her own secret mission – to find her former lover, Bernie Piper, a passionate Communist in the International Brigades who vanished on the bloody battlefields of the Jarama.

No spoilers here; if you want to find out what happens, read the book! And I do recommend that you read it. If you have already enjoyed Sansom’s Matthew Shardlake series you will be surprised and delighted to find that he can turn to another time and place to paint just as convincing a picture and tell just as compelling a story. And if you’ve never tried Sansom before, this book would not be a bad place to start.