Living in the question

'. . . the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer.' RAINER MARIA RILKE Letters to a Young Poet

Sunday, 29 July 2012

Beauty in Brokenness?


I wonder how many of you spent some time on Friday evening watching the opening ceremony of the Olympics.   

You may not have watched it all – it was a very long evening of viewing – but you may have watched some of it.  It was in all senses of the word a spectacular event.  Danny Boyle – local man from Radcliffe, Bury - certainly did good.  For me it was the music that I found brilliant, especially the use of voices without music - that opening version of Jerusalem sung by a young boy soprano – well it sent shivvers tingling down my spine.  For my colleague Danny Crosby what stood out for him was another simple human voice, right in the middle of the ceremony. It began in the transitional moment just before the parade of the nations. Emeli Sande, sang beautifully and movingly the classic hymn and great sporting anthem “Abide With Me”, accompanied by a dance troop and under a beautiful orange light. This was a tribute to the victims of the London 7/7 terror attacks, which took place the day after Britain had won the 2012 Olympic bid.


As the historical tableau unfolded itself, each scene more and more spectacular than the preceding one I found my mind wandering off into thinking about all those people who are not able to sit in the comfort of a home and watch this event.  Not by choice but by circumstance. It is always the same for me when I find myself watching something grand, or attending some event such as a wedding where people seem to only be able to enjoy themselves by the spending of large amounts of money.  It is the same feeling I get at Christmas when everything is about the material and less about the spiritual. A part of me wants to shout out and ask what about those who haven’t got all this or access to all this affluence.  And I am not thinking about those in other poorer countries but the people here in this country, this town even – in this wonderful England that we saw portrayed so splendidly in that ritual on Friday evening.

A few weeks ago Helen came to me with the song that the choir sang for us this morning.  I took the words home to read and I found a recording on the internet and it was beautiful. Whether performed by Graham Kendrick, who wrote it, accompanied by his acoustic guitar or by a church choir and organ - the song sounded really special.
The first two verses in particular stood out . . .

Beauty for brokenness
Hope for despair
Lord, in your suffering
This is our prayer
Bread for the children
Justice, joy, peace
Sunrise to sunset
Your kingdom increase!

Shelter for fragile lives
Cures for their ills
Work for the craftsman
Trade for their skills
Land for the dispossessed
Rights for the weak
Voices to plead the cause
Of those who can't speak

It has seemed over the last few weeks that these words have taken on more and more meaning.  Particularly as glitches in computer programmes have caused serious errors in banking circles.   The blog by Jill Segger   (
highlighted how something like that can be catastrophic for families or individuals who are teetering on the edge of poverty.  I was able to shrug it off the fact that I could not use my cash card for a few days, but what if I wasn’t in a position to do that.  What would I have done or been able to do?  When my card failed as I tried to buy petrol on the way down to Oxford one of my passengers stepped in and saved my day.  But what if there was no one there with me to do that?

Earlier this month at the writing workshop I attend we discussed the question of homelessness.  Two people from the team who work with Petrus – a charity that supports homeless people in Rochdale - spoke to us about their work.  For 40 years Petrus has provided help for those who have slipped out of the system and at the moment they help support 60 or more people in 7 houses and yet it is not enough to meet the demand.  And this service is in danger because of the huge cuts there have been since the present government removed funding saying we should be able to rely on ‘the big society’.  How can we provide ‘shelter for fragile lives’ as more and more people find themselves closer and closer to the brink of poverty as Jill Segger pointed out.

At the writing workshop I was reminded of the Ralph McTell song, ‘The Streets of London’, which he was renowned for in the 70’s.   


I remember it because I went to London to watch Ralph McTell at a recording for ‘In Concert’ in 1974.  I was accompanying a group of children from the school where I was teaching.  As we queued to go in, five of us were selected to sit on the stage for the recording.  So if you ever see a recording of ‘Ralph McTell In Concert’  then there I am sitting in front of a backdrop that shows scenes of the homeless.  I can never hear the song without remembering those larger than life images portrayed on the set.

The Chorus:

So how can you tell me you're lonely
And say for you that the sun don't shine?
Let me take you by the hand and lead you through the streets of London
I'll show you something to make you change your mind

Indicates that the song is really about loneliness and yet the second verse has always remained the most vivid image for me.

Have you seen the old girl
Who walks the streets of London
Dirt in her hair and her clothes in rags?
She's no time for talking
She just keeps right on walking
Carrying her home in two carrier bags

Can you imagine what it might be like to have nothing except what you can carry in these? 


What chance that someone who has so little could have seen that spectacular opening celebration on Friday evening?  More likely they would have been walking the streets looking for somewhere to sleep for the night.  Or, maybe scavenging in bins for scraps of food to eat; or sitting on the street begging for money which in all likelihood would be spent on cheap alcohol in an attempt to block out the desperation of their situation.  No there is not much chance is there, and if they had would they have felt that there was anything worth celebrating?

My favourite poet, Rainer Maria Rilke wrote in his Sonnets to Orpheus II, 19

Gold leads a pampered life, protected by banks,
on intimate terms with the best people.
The homeless beggar is no more than a lost coin
fallen behind the bookcase or in the dustpile under the bed.

In the finest shops, money is right at home,
loving to parade itself in flowers, silk and furs.
He, the silent one, stands outside this display.
Money, near him, stops breathing.

How does his outstretched hand ever close at night?
Fate, each morning, picks it up again,
holds it out there, naked and raw.

In order to grasp what his life is like,
to see it and cherish it, you would need a song,
a song only a god could bear to hear.

I am not sure how I can reconcile all this, or what I can do, if anything, to alleviate some of this poverty, this suffering, this tremendous problem for so many. I do give food to food banks, I do answer pleas from charities such as Petrus as much as I can.  But I think one of the main things I can do is make sure that I notice - and that ‘I see’, that I remember when I am enjoying the luxury of watching the spectacular on the TV that not everyone is as fortunate as you or me.

I can also hold them in my hearts and in my prayers and hope that I can find some beauty in their brokenness; and that I can find a way to put in to action in some way the sentiments of Graham Kendrick’s song
When he says:

God of the poor,
friend of the weak,
give us compassion we pray
melt our cold hearts
let tears fall like rain
Come, change our love
from a spark to a flame

Come, change our love
from a spark to a flame

 So may it be.    Amen       


Monday, 9 July 2012

God in the Chaos?

Adapted from my service on Sunday 8th July


How the Higgs boson explains our universe

Spiral galaxy in Pisces constellation

By supposing that empty space is not empty at all, but rather it is crammed full of Higgs bosons, it becomes possible for particles to acquire mass. Photograph: Alamy


I am sure that none of us can have failed to catch the news this week about the discovery of the Higgs Boson particle and have heard headlines such as:

‘The Higgs boson is another nail in the coffin of religion'

Strange that it should occur this week when I had already determined to focus on a God/science argument in my service. Of course the reason for that had nothing to do with Higgs boson or Cern but rather the fascinating lecture I attended at Oxford given by the scientist Paul Ewart.  Paul spoke about ‘Chaos and the Character of God’.  And just as the discovery of Higgs boson makes us look to the subject of creation so too did Paul.

As a species we are unique in the fact that we are constantly searching for answers to the question of our existence.  Nearly all religions contain myths and stories that explain what was here before we existed and indeed how here came to exist at all.  If you look in this wonderful book you will find many different stories to explain creation.  

 How the World Began: Creation in Myths and Legends
 Although not all of them start from a dark, mysterious, nothing – many of them do and many of them have one God or force creating the human beings that eventually evolved into us.

But Paul’s talk grabbed my imagination because he spoke about the
unpredictable and the chaotic nature of existence.  All too often we see order in things and will often search for pattern even when there is none.  Even the Higgs Boson scientists refer to the wonderful symmetry that is involved.

I wonder why we are so obsessed with pattern and I decided that
basically it is because, as a species, we find it very difficult to behave randomly. Randomness suggests chaos and we do like order.  You only have to observe young children playing with toys and you will notice how they like to put them in order from a very early age and they will spend hours arranging and rearranging things into patterns and orders that please them.  This carries on into adulthood and we just have to look around our homes to see how much we crave order and not chaos.

Have you ever tried to do something randomly?  It is almost impossible.  Just try  and create a random pattern . . . . . . . . .  oops - if it has pattern it is not random!!!

Even Symmetry has its own problems.  If we were to see someone with a truly symmetrical face we would not be comfortable with it - we might even suspect it belongs to a robot.  We need the not quite level eyes, a spot on the side of the cheek.  It is not by chance . . . . . .   oops there I go again . . . . . .  that in certain periods of time people would paint a beauty spot on the cheek.

And yet we crave order, not chaos.

Chaos can be described as a state that arises by chance in such a way that we can’t tell what comes next – it is unpredictable.

To us chance is when something might be going on but we don’t know.
Within religions there are those who believe that God is in control but there are those to, and we woukld probably be among them, who believe that there are things that are even unpredictable to God in other words unknown to God – that God doesn’t know.

If we look around the natural world we see evidence of randomness everywhere – look at pebbles, moss, water, flames, clouds etc.   Well if the nature of God can be perceived by what has been created then maybe there is not that order we seem to credit our ‘God’ with.  For if God was a god of order then there must be order in the world.  And yet our world is becoming more and more disordered and we don’t seem to be able to do anything about it.  We just have to look at the changes in our weather over the years, and the large number of natural disasters that have occurred recently.  Society too is presenting us with more and more instances of disorder as we look at recent riots and even the actions of members of our government or of the commercial world.  Dare I mention bankers!!

As we encounter more and more disorder the idea of a personal God becomes harder and harder to believe.  One of my opening sentences from Einstein was: “The idea of a personal God is quite alien to me and seems even naive.”

The more we recognise the randomness of things then that makes it harder for us to believe in an interventional deity.
If we are to believe Darwin then evolution is determined by random mutations.  The study of Atomic physics gives us quantum theory which explores the random nature of the matter that forms the universe.

All of this only proves that chance is real, that it exists.
I wonder how many of you take part in the lottery, or if not now then maybe you have once when it first started but have since seen the light and no longer waste your money in that way.

There is a lovely story of the Rabbi who prays each week to God to let him win the lottery, and each week he is disappointed and in his prayers he remonstrates with God.  “God you’ve let me down again,  I still haven’t won the lottery.”  This went on for months, or even years until God finally in exasperation replies to the Rabbi – “Isaac the least you could do is meet me half way and buy a ticket.”

Chance is real – but it holds different meanings for different people.

For the Atheist : Chance means no purpose, and therefore No God according to Richard Dawkins.
For those who believe in intelligent design such as William Dembski: Chance means there is no design, therefore no God.
For theologians such as John Calvin – chance means God is not sovereign.

So chance presents us with a challenge.  I know some of you are familiar with Rabbi Harold Kushner who wrote the book ‘When bad things happen to Good people’ – he basically says – stuff happens and if we are to believe that God does not have a hand in it then God is not omnipotent.

“If God is not responsible for bad then neither can he be credited with Good” – Yitzchok Kichner

Where does all this leave us with God and the question of chaos or chance.

Maybe it is chaos that makes things happen – for even in the bible there is the recognition that chaos was/is part of God’s creation.  Genesis 1:2 tells us:

The earth was without form and void, and darkness was over the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God was hovering over the face of the waters.

So God uses chaos as part of the creative process.

And suppose that Creation, the process of replacing chaos with order, were still going on. What would that mean?
It may be that Einstein and the Book of Genesis are right. A system left to itself may evolve in the direction of randomness. On the other hand, our world may not be a system left to itself. There may in fact be a creative impulse acting on it, the Spirit of God hovering over the dark waters, operating over the course of millennia to bring order out of chaos…
Or it may be that God finished his work of creating eons ago, and left the rest to us.  

After Paul Ewarts's talk I came away with this thought:

Ours is not a rational universe. Because of this we crave rationality.  We invent formulae to explain and rationalise the universe forgetting that most formulae will at some point contain irrational numbers which will cause the break down of the patterns they are meant to describe.  that breakdown will occur sometime if not now and it may be way into the future.  My father was a systems analyst and back in the 1970's he searched computer programs to find the point when they might break down, finding anomalies that would occur up to thirty or so years into the future.

Nothing is simple, nothing is ordered without there first being chaos.

Maybe that brings us neatly back to the Higgs Boson particle which with all its supposed symmetry is surrounded by the idea of chaos and chance.

Jeff Forshaw concluded his article with this:
“So what happens next? What can we look forward to in the coming months and years? As it stands, the discovery of a Higgs boson is only the beginning. Attention will immediately shift to studying the particle in detail. To produce a Higgs particle, the Large Hadron Collider smashes protons together about a billion times every second, producing something like one Higgs particle every 10bn collisions. Almost as soon as it is created the Higgs undergoes a radioactive decay into other particles and these are what the giant detectors see. Sometimes a dying Higgs converts into a pair of photons (particles of light), other times it converts into a pair of quarks and so on. We want to know not only how often Higgs particles are created but also how often they convert into the different types of particle. The data from Cern is quite consistent with the plain vanilla Higgs particle predicted in the simplest model but there are already hints that things may not be so straightforward and that really whets the appetite for the future.”

And does it mean there is another nail in the coffin of religion.  Well I would say no – what it does mean is that we stop; and redefine; and maybe look at the Divine in a new light.  And if the Higgs Boson begins to answer the question of ‘How’ the universe began, then maybe the question we should really be asking is ‘Why’ and perhaps it is in that question that we shall continue to find God.
    So May It Be. Amen