A short history of time?

This is a sermon preached to commemorate the death of Stephen Hawking and based on a reading from the first chapter of Genesis.

As I said in introducing the video we’ve just watched, the death of Stephen Hawking was announced yesterday. He was one of the iconic figures of the late 20th and early 21st century. This was partly because he had an extraordinarily brilliant mind, partly because of his passion to communicate his ideas with the general public and partly because he achieved so much despite the extent of his physical limitations.

In the popular imagination Hawking is linked to the quest for a scientific understanding of the origins of our universe. This probably comes more from his popular writing and his collaborative work than from his most creative individual work which was into our understanding of black holes. There have been remarkable advances in this area over his lifetime of which he was a part. We are now at a situation where the origins of the universe can be explained in terms of the same physical laws that we see operating in both the natural world and the highly artificial extreme environments created within facilities such as the Large Hadron Collider. The theory is, of course, now known as the Big Bang. It tells us that about 14 billion years ago the universe, both time and space, came into existence in an unbelievably immense burst of energy and has been expanding ever since.

Many Christians see this as a threat. Putting it bluntly, it allows the origins of the universe to be explained without any need for God to have been involved in the process at all. But it doesn’t have to be a threat, it can also be regarded as a revelation of how the universe is that needs to be worked into our theology, rather than fought against.

In some ways it is similar to the theory of evolution. This allows the origins of human life to be explained without any need for God to have been involved in that process either. Initially theologians saw that as a threat and fought doggedly against it. Some of course still do, but most mainstream theologians now accepted that man is the product of an evolutionary process and have woven that revelation into their theological thinking.

This process hasn’t been without casualties. Belief in Christianity in the affluent world has been falling dramatically over the last 100 years. There are many reasons for this, but I’m convinced that an important one is that the Church is still regarded as opposed to science. This is partly because there is a section of the contemporary church that is, essentially, opposed to that science, and partly because the section that is more willing to embrace science has not communicated that willingness convincingly. This is quite simply unacceptable to the majority of the educated population who see how successful science has been in explaining the natural world and allowing us to interact with it more constructively (and of course destructively on occasions). If we want a faith that is going to flourish in the affluent educated world in the 21st century then it is going to have to be one that embraces the revelations of science rather than fighting against them.

So how can we embrace the theory of the Big Bang and yet remain true to our faith? How can we both honour the reading we’ve heard from the first chapter of Genesis the morning and accept the insights of modern cosmology? Well the Big Bang theory is less than 50 years old and has only really been accepted universally within science for the last 25 (The name was originally coined as derisory term for such an outrageous theory). Mainstream theology is like a super tanker that takes centuries to alter its course, so it is far too early for there to have been definitive response. This is like other issues I’ve talked about from this pulpit; one in which individual Christians need to arrive at their own understanding  and where we have to acknowledge that different Christians have different opinions. Unlike those other occasions, however, I’m going to offer my own personal opinion this morning in the hope that it may help in others in that process. In offering my opinion, however, I openly acknowledge that other Christians may have different opinions.

To me, this progress in cosmology over the last fifty years confirms the opinions that many Biblical scholars have voiced for over two hundred years, that the account of the creation in Genesis was never intended as a scientific understanding of particular events. It is not a literal account of what happened. The Biblical account of creation was written in what we refer to in other contexts as the Iron Age. The authors can’t possibly have had a sufficient understanding of cosmology to write a scientific account of what happened at the beginning of time.

So what do I believe that first chapter of Genesis is? I believe it is one of the most powerful and significant poems that have ever been written. I believe it is powerful and significant not because it gives insight into how the world came into being but because it gives insight into how the world is today. At first, sight, and particularly if we view the universe through a purely objective scientific lens, our lives appear formless and desolate. It’s as if there is a raging ocean that is engulfed in darkness. For many of us this is an academic exercise but for some, the anxious and depressed, or those facing major challenges in their lives perhaps, this is a vision that tears at the very substance of who they are. At its extreme it is the scream in Edward Munch’s famous picture.

It is only when we acknowledge a sense of purpose in the Universe that it starts to take form and make sense. It is only when we acknowledge that sense of purpose that we start to distinguish between night and day, sun and moon, light and dark. It is only when we acknowledge that sense of purpose that we stand in awe before the wonders of natural world, the profusion of plants and the diversity of animals. It is only when we acknowledge that sense of purpose that we can value the gifts that each and every individual on this planet can offer to enrich our lives.

To me this poem doesn’t say anything about how that sense of purpose came into being (and I’m happy to leave that as one of the great mysteries of human existence) but it does scream from the rooftops that there is no point living, no point in us ever having been created, if we don’t acknowledge that sense of purpose.  Jews and Christians all attribute that that sense of purpose to God and understand that we express that acknowledgement through worship.  The first chapter of the first book of our shared scripture is, to me, a great hymn to God, that which gives our life purpose, and an invitation to all people to join in worshipping that God. It is a poetic statement of what it is that makes our lives worth living.

I thus find the cosmology of Steven Hawking and others liberating. By providing me with an alternative, and to my mind much more plausible, explanation of how the Universe was created, I am freed to appreciate this poem for what it really is, for what it tells us about what it is that makes my life worth living. Having read it in this way I am led to welcome the God into the heart of my life and to bow down before my God in worship.

This is my opinion though, and it is one opinion amongst many. Why don’t you discuss your opinions over a cup of tea of coffee after this service.


Experiencing God through good and bad

Sermon preached on 17th August 2014. There was one Bible reading (Genesis 1:1-9 and 26-31) and another reading from the Guardian newspaper about recent events in Gaza.

I’ve had a fabulous holiday this year and the two parts of my sermon are going to reflect on different aspects of my experience of God during that time.

For the last week my wife, daughter and I stayed in a self-catering cottage in Pembrokeshire. We are into “wild swimming” particularly in lakes and rivers and had found some wonderful places to do this. On the way back we drove over to the Irfon valley in central Wales to a place called Wolf’s Leap which was highly recommended in our guidebook.

It was absolutely incredible. The valley itself is remote and beautiful but the river in its base runs through an extremely narrow gorge down to about shoulder width at times and several metres high. The gorge links a number of broader pools and includes several small waterfalls. It’s possible to swim up sections of the gorge linking these pools and scramble over those waterfalls. It felt like swimming through a sequence of caves. If you are into that sort of think it was absolute heaven – and it was all ours, there was no-one else there.

The first swim was the best because it was all so new. The three of us swam up one part of the gorge, had a natural jacuzzi sitting under one particularly exhilarating waterfall and then came back down to where our bags were. The three of us got out bubbling with delight and shivering with the cold and just couldn’t stop giggling as we huddled together to get warm and eat our lunch. It felt as if that particular moment in that particular place had been created by God just for us.

Except, of course, there are other explanations. The rock of the gorge, so the geologists tell us, was laid down in the Silurian period between 440 and 420 million years ago when the part of the earth’s crust that we now call Europe was south of the equator and beneath the sea. Over time the sediments in that sea settled on the bottom in layers of silt so deep that the lower level got compressed under the immense pressure to form rock. Great convection currents in the molten rock in the earth’s mantle carried the whole tectonic plate to its current position and lifted it out of the ocean. The immense stresses acted on small imperfections within the rock and caused it to crack. Sheets of ice formed on several occasions and scoured the valley we know today and, over an unimaginably long time, the river that formed in the bottom found one of those cracks and scoured it out to form the gorge we can swim in to today. It is quite possible to tell the whole story as a consequence of random and chaotic processes within a framework of physical laws which govern everything in the Universe. There’s no need to mention God at all.

Modern Christians have to balance these two different stories – one written by priests and poets in the Middle East perhaps 4,000 years ago and the other by scientists over the last 100 years or so. There is no consensus within the church as to how these stories should be balanced. Some of you will regard the biblical version as sacrosanct, others will be convinced by the scientists. Many will fall somewhere in between exclusive belief in either. Some perhaps will find it all too much and not think about it at all.

I’m not going to add in my view this morning. This is partly because it is just one opinion where there are too many already but more importantly because I think it is a colossal distraction. Every minute we spend haggling over how we should interpret our experiences theologically is a minute lost to us to simply immerse ourselves in that experience God and to respond to it.

It simply isn’t important to worry about how I came to experience God so clearly at that particular time and that particular place. What is important is to acknowledge that experience and to celebrate and respond to it.

I emphasize the response because I think this is at least as important as the experience. The response to that day in mid-Wales, and many more throughout our lives, is gratitude – simple thanks. We need moments like this to remind us that all we have needed our god has provided. It’s important for us but it is also important for the whole world. Our world is in a mess now largely because we don’t give thanks for the gifts with which we have already been blessed. We are always striving for more –for new clothes, a better holiday a new i-phone. We are striving for these things so hard that we have little time to care for our neighbours. We produce plenty of food to feed the whole planet but don’t because those of us in the rich world demand more than we need.

If only everyone in the world could recognise the presence of God within their lives and be immersed in thankfulness for that experience and satisfaction with the gifts with which they have already been blessed. It is this, surely, for which we pray when we say “thy Kingdom come”.

We’re going to sing our prayers of thanks. I’ve chosen one of those hymn that has particular resonance to me through memory of previous occasions when I’ve sung it. We chose this hymn for our wedding, we sung it at my grandfather’s funeral and, I hope, others will sing some day at my own funeral. All I have needed thy hand has provided – great is thy faithfulness, Lord, unto me.

 Break to sing Great is thy faithfulness

The other experience of God I want to talk about is quite different. I’ve had one of these little boxes (smartphone) for the last two years. I now effectively carry around several national newspapers wherever I go and can read them whenever I want. The day before our trip to the Irfon valley I sat on a Pembrokeshire beach and read the article we’ve just heard.  We’ve heard a lot of reports from the Middle East over the last decade and particularly from Gaza. I’m not sure why this one affected me so much but it left a really empty feeling in the pit of my stomach. Perhaps it was that the acts it reports were so unnecessary whatever the military objectives of Israeli incursions into Gaza. I felt sick and powerless –but this too, I believe, is an experience of God in my life.

Gaza is just as much a part of creation as that valley in mid-Wales. How on earth can we explain that?

Again there are two stories. One is that God is all-knowing and all powerful and that he is in control of the destiny of the world. It may be difficult to see what his or her purposes are in the events we hear reported in the News but that is because we as humans can never see the mind of God. Now we see darkly as in a mirror, then we shall know face to face. I suspect many of us struggle with this much more than the question of how God is present in the experiences of our life but these are really too sides of the same coin.

There is, of course, an alternative explanation which doesn’t involve God at all. We can pick it up with the Jews winning the Palestinian civil war in 1948 and establishing Israel as an independent state. Many Arabs who had been living in the region felt they had to flee to surrounding areas and some have been living as refuges for over 60 years. There are now estimated to be over 4 million of them. Many fled to the Gaza strip a small enclave of Egyptian territory between Israel and the Mediterranean Sea. In the six days war in 1967 Israel invaded Gaza but Egypt closed the border to the south and the refugees have been trapped there ever since. The poverty and desperation led the people of Gaza to rebel politically and militarily. Israel and Egypt have both felt threatened and applied economic sanctions to suppress that threat. This has set up a vicious cycle of growing repression and growing  resentment. The Isreali’s have been so threatened by this that they have felt it necessary to invade three times within the last six years each time bringing even greater devastation to an already desperately poor region of the world.

So again there are two stories. One developed by priests and poets over 4,000 years ago and seeing God as the central player. The other told by historians and sociologists without any reference to God. Again we, as individual, Christians have to balance these two stories because there is no consensus within the wider church as to how they should be balanced.

But again I am not sure that the theological niceties are all that important. Every minute we spend arguing about God’s role in all this is a minute when we are distracted from what is important – our experience of God and our response to it.

I suspect our experience of God is clear and common to us all. It involves experiences of grief, sorrow, anger, desperation and powerlessness, but what about response? What can we do?

I don’t often cite conservative peers in my sermons but Baroness Warsi responded. It’s clear to me that, despite being a Muslim, her experience of God through these terrible stories was the same as ours. As a member of the government she clearly argued passionately that something must be done and when the rest of the government decided otherwise she resigned. If we remonstrate too strongly with our friends in Israel we will lose what influence we have, they argued. If that influence is too weak to prevent the massacre of 1,500 innocent people then can it be worth having?, she replied.

But of course most of us have no place in the government and can’t respond in this way. What can we do? Zoe was asked to read this morning because she did something. She wrote an e-mail to the stewards last Monday expressing her horror in what was going on in Gaza and Iraq and suggesting a retiring collection for the people of that region after the service today. Many of you may already have responded to the news stories through giving through a variety of channels already and we give thanks for that.

I also feel that we can respond by praying for the poor and oppressed and broadcasting those prayers to the whole of society. So often the political authorities focus on the agenda of the rich and powerful. They can look after themselves, what we really need is an agenda focussing on the needs of the poor and impotent. Every morning as I climb the stairs at work I am confronted by a poster with the words of an Auschwitz survivor:

We must take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented. (Elie Weissel).

It is through prayer that Christians can break that silence.

Creator God – a hymn

This is a hymn I wrote while living in Melbourne when three churches were struggling around the issues about whether and how to unite. There was a tremendous mix of ideas and emotions that this stirred up and the congregations, at times, found the stuggle to come to terms with these almost overwhelming. This hymn was written shortly after a particularly difficult meeting of representatives of all three congregations.

Creator God, forever creating,
Changing our lives, re-creating us still,
May we accept the challenge you offer,
To live our whole lives in response to your will.

We offer you our different opinions,
Listening to all who want to be heard,
Help us to learn that in talking with others,
We may be hearing your guiding word.

Some here are hurting, some here excited,
Others are absent, but present in prayer,
Free us to look for what you want for us,
Keep us united by our love and care.

Honour our memories of friends we have buried;
Hopeful young couples joined in this place;
New birth baptised in life-giving water,
Mourning and joy transformed by your grace.

Help us to deal with large sums of money,
Balancing our needs with those of the poor.
Give us a vision of your love in action,
Planning our buildings so we can love more.

So bless these buildings, so bless your people,
So bless our thinking led by your love
May we create a church for our children,
Worthy of you, God, creator above.

Tune: Bunessan (Morning has broken)

Note: I don’t really believe in a “creator above” and have had several attempts at re-writing the last verse but have never achieved anything that I think matches what I’ve already written. I’d be happy to have suggestions.