Holding together difference

DSCN0619 Today my sons and I went into the Forest.  More particularly the “Secret Forest”, a small corner of the Forest of Dean.  Like most “forest” in England, this isn’t a continuous forest at all, although it does have a larger continuous area than many “forests”.  The Secret Forest is a small corner of the forest that contains a number of deep mini-valleys through which you can walk with a replica Iron Age village in the middle.  It means that for a small fee you can get to the type of landscape which is in many parts of the Forest of Dean, but which you would usually have to walk a way to get to – so ideal for small feet.

I love the drive out to the Forest. It comes with a stack of memories of youth weekends away, of minibuses crammed full of people and kit – on benches facing each other with a pile of kit down the middle and not a seatbelt in sight.  Of corners taken at speed, and loud singing to pass the time in a bus without CD or tape (remember them?) player.  Of arriving to a cold, slightly damp cottage, throwing kit down in the living room, and gathering by the fire in the dinning room for soup and garlic bread.  This would be followed by a talk introducing the theme of the weekend away. Remarkably I still remember what the verses of the first weekend I went on were: “Be careful how you live – not as unwise, but as wise, making the most of every opportunity because the days are evil” – in general “be careful how you live” probably captures the practical emphasis of most of the weekends.  Games and conversation would follow, and then bed – 8 or so to  a room, DSCN0632with 4 or so double mattresses laid out on boards.  Eventually sleep would come – although I do remember conversations late into the night.  The next day tea would be served, followed by a cooked breakfast and another talk.  Then we’d make up lunches and dive into the minibus, and head for part of the Forest, always accompanied by a trusty rugby ball which would be kicked around the group.  Pot holes would be crawled through, rock faces climbed, mud slopes slid down and suspension bridges bounced over.  Covered in mud we’d arrive at a local swimming pool to clean off, and then head back to the Cottage for chilli and an evening talk.  Sunday morning might well be off to a local church, followed by lunch, a walk through a disused railway tunnel and back to Guildford for the evening.

So I love introducing my sons  to the same rocks and trees, and I hope too that the lessons I learnt in those weekends have helped shape me into one who can be a good father to them.  I love too the memories of the talks and conversations from those weekends away.  I loved the way that leaders and “lads” discussed together, and that differences between leaders could be heard and seen, and yet a deep rooted friendship also shown.

It makes me think of how as Christians we can hold together differences of emphasis and voice.  I’m thinking about this also because I’m reading the “minor” prophets (the book of the 12) for my OT reading at the moment. I finished Hosea and Joel, and I’m now reading Amos.  What strikes me about this is the differencesDSCN0633 between them.  Hosea is based around the image of adultery.  Sin is faithlessness – and the main problem is Israel’s love for idols. The book contains many references to God’s love for Israel, and compassion for them.  Sometimes God seems torn between compassion and judgement.  Amos seem, so far, quite different.  God is judge, of the nations around, and of Israel.  The message is that sin is about injustice and lawbreaking, and God’s judgment will come.

This difference seems to be paralleled in the church today.  The two children’s bibles we use most have this sort of difference of emphasis.  One is based around the love-faithlessness imagery, the other around God as King, and sin as breaking his laws.  Sometimes we go to great lengths to persuade people that the system we have chosen captures God best.  That everything should be seen through the lense of God’s love as Trinity, or through the bible as being all about God’s people in God’s place under God’s rule.

I think we do need people who will try to present God’s truth as systematically and coherantly as is possible – but I also think we always need to be aware that God is above and beyond understanding, and that aspects of Truth about God may well look contradictory to us, but need to both  be emphasised.  That’s why we have the Bible as a story – not a systematic textbook. DSCN0634

So I’m happy to use both children’s bibles, because at different times our boys will need to know different aspects of truth about God.  And as (very) different individuals they will need to hear those things in different ways.  Which is why I want them to get into the whole Bible, and get to grips with it’s wonderful diversity of presentation and content.  To know that it does contain different  perspectives, and yet serves a fundamental unity.

Which picture here after all is truer representation of the Forest of Dean?  Is it about roots? Or trees? Or people? Or a bigger landscape of farm and wood, town and village? All are true.  A picture of a skyscraper would be false – it has nothing to do with the forest, but all of the pictures in this post capture a true aspect.  As I read Amos next to Hosea (actually Amos next to Joel, next to Hosea, and Amos before Obadiah) I can see that though describing the same God, and the same problems, there is a difference of approach and perspective.  Different  times, different groups need differing emphasis, and they also need to hold the differing emphasis as part of one whole.

I love the attitude of Charles Simeon (19th Century Vicar in Cambridge) whose understanding of how Scripture operates in this regard of apparent contradiction, and therefore what his response as a preacher should be is summed up in the following quote:

“As wheels in a complicated machine may move in opposite directions and yet subserve one common end, so may truths apparently opposite be perfectly reconcilable with each other, and equally subserve the purposes of God in the accomplishment of man’s salvation… …it is an invariable rule with him to endeavour to give to every portion of the word of God its full and proper force, without considering one moment what scheme it favours, or which system it is likely to advance.”

So I worry when people advance the latest great idea they have heard as if it is the answer to the churches problem, the concept that everyone else needs to grasp and read everything else through.  Chances are that it may well be a great help – but it might well also need another idea to hold with it if it isn’t going to become a distortion.  The best way to grasp this is to keep in relationship and friendship with those whose perspective is different.  If iron is going  to have any chance of sharpening iron it has to come into contact.   That is also the best way to filter out the ideas and concepts that are completely false and that need to be weeded out.

That discussion and difference  around a central unity based on a shared love for Jesus and devotion to him is the legacy of those weekends in the Forest as a teenager – and so the rocks, and the trees and the woods all remind me of that reality.  This hymn by John Mason reminds of God’s unfathomable greatness and prays for us to be able praise rightly.

How shall I sing that Majesty
Which angels do admire?
Let dust in dust and silence lie;
Sing, sing, ye heavenly choir.
Thousands of thousands stand around
Thy throne, O God most high;
Ten thousand times ten thousand sound
Thy praise; but who am I?

Thy brightness unto them appears,
Whilst I Thy footsteps trace;
A sound of God comes to my ears,
But they behold Thy face.
They sing because Thou art their Sun;
Lord, send a beam on me;
For where heaven is but once begun
There alleluias be.

Enlighten with faith’s light my heart,
Inflame it with love’s fire;
Then shall I sing and bear a part
With that celestial choir.
I shall, I fear, be dark and cold,
With all my fire and light;
Yet when Thou dost accept their gold,
Lord, treasure up my mite.

How great a being, Lord, is Thine,
Which doth all beings keep!
Thy knowledge is the only line
To sound so vast a deep.
Thou art a sea without a shore,
A sun without a sphere;
Thy time is now and evermore,
Thy place is everywhere.


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