15 December 2017

Standing on the edge

Psalm 8:3 “ When I consider your heavens….what is man that you are mindful of him?”

God and thinking about Him is out of fashion.  It’s not that most people have thought this through and come to truth as they see it.  It’s just that it’s not fashionable or cool to believe.  Truth is irrelevant.  In one of the Screwtape letters by C S Lewis,  Screwtape, the chief devil, says that he once nearly lost an atheist he had been working on for twenty years when he started to think and look at evidence.  So he suggested to his client, ‘ That’s much too important to tackle at the end of the morning,’  and filled his mind with thoughts of lunch.  Screwtape said, ‘ Once he was in the street below, the battle was won.  A newsboy was shouting the midday paper. A number 73 bus  was going past.  And by the time he had crossed the road I had convinced him that what he needed was a healthy dose of real life to drive all that rubbish away.’  Isn’t that so typical of life today. Some say they are atheists but fill life with rush which keeps thinking at bay and settle for second hand opinions they have not personally examined. Old Screwtape dreads people thinking, for the truth will come out and so he fills heads with trivia and makes it appear that this is real life, and so we don’t  get involved in serious thought.  We squeeze all consideration of ultimate issues out of our minds by the pressure of things we mistakenly, but perhaps willfully, describe as urgent.

However, just a little thought would suggest how important it is to think these big thoughts.  Are we just  waifs and strays thrown about the world by chance?  Are we the flotsam of a world with no tomorrow?  Are we merely the latest development of a mindless process called evolution? Or is there more to the world and to  ourselves?  Have we a future beyond this world?  Dare we hope beyond the grave?  Is there another world beyond this world?  Some of today’s thinkers talk about parallel universes. One thinker postulated a theory whereby it is possible to exist in  two universes at the same time Was that what Jesus was talking about when He spoke of the kingdom of heaven?  Is that what being a citizen of the kingdom of God means? Could this be true?  Could there be another  world beyond this one where our immortal longings are satisfied?  If so, all this has the most extraordinary consequences for us.  Surely it is worth stretching the mind to consider this!   Don’t let old Screwtape distract you from  the search for truth. John  Milton, in his sonnet on his blindness wrote

“When I consider how my life is spent,

Ere half my days in this dark world and wide,

And that one talent which is death to hide,

Lodged with me useless. 

Though my soul more bent,

To serve therewith my maker.

That is contemplation, quiet meditation and consideration, and of all the creatures on this planet, humans seem to be alone capable of contemplation.  Animals seem to be able to live amidst the most inspiring surroundings and their thoughts never rise above their needs and immediate relationships with humans or other animals.  We  seem to be alone in this ability to contemplate, to appreciate beauty, to think abstractly, as it were to stand apart from ourselves and consider ourselves, our origins, our place in the universe, our meaning, purpose and  destiny.

Western philosophy traces its origins to the philosophers who lived in Greece in the fifth and sixth centuries BC. These philosophers contemplated and reflected on life, and were followed by  a great trio whose names stand out in the history of philosophy and thought: Socrates, Plato and Aristotle.  Plato, in particular, has said some pertinent things from which we can draw and benefit.  But, of course, even before his day, probably from the beginning of time, people have contemplated and thought big thoughts.  Undoubtedly, human religious activities in every age, which we today dismiss with the word ‘superstition,’ arise in part from this ability to contemplate and think beyond ourselves.  Often our own world has been the sphere of our meditation.  We look at the things we have made and see  the thinking that has gone into them; we look at the world in which we live  and see the principles by which it works, and we wonder if it too does not have a hand that made it.  We look at the paintings we  have touched with such beauty and we look at the flowers of the field and the landscapes of his world so pleasing to the eye, with beauty implanted on both the smallest and largest scale, and we wonder how could such a thing arise without some great hand fulfilling the commands of a supernatural brain to set it all in place with a majesty that can stretch from horizon to horizon.

It is probably true that nowhere do we contemplate more than when, free from modern light pollution, we stand alone on a clear night and look up into the starry heavens.  It is as though we are standing on the edge, which indeed we are, and are looking out from our little world into the vast expanse of space, just as an island-dweller stands on a jutting foreland and looks out into the immense reaches of the ocean. Even the aggressive atheist Sir Richard Dawkins has confessed to a feeling of awe when confronted by the universe.  Some three thousand years ago one such contemplative man stood on the heights of Jerusalem and looked up into the sky on a clear night. He saw  all the hosts of stars and heavenly bodies and his spirit was moved to contemplation.  He later wrote out his thoughts, ‘ When I consider your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the starts which you have made, what is man that you are mindful of him?’  Of course, today we have space exploration and have placed in space the Hubble Telescope which allows us to peer deeper into the immeasurable depths of the universe, but that hasn’t changed the urge to contemplation and meditation.  It’s only that the edge on which we stand and look out has moved a little.  And, standing on the edge, we continue to do what that ancient philosopher in Jerusalem did and say, ‘ What is man that you are mindful of him?’  In this contemplation today, our minds still turn back to ourselves, standing alone on the edge of our world, looking up and out from our planetary home, and some with steely resolve say that we are alone in a mechanistic universe that just grinds on and on.  They say there is no one out there; we will live and die on this little planet which spawns people and then  grinds them into the dust again.  These lives which are capable of such noble thoughts and deeds and which have hearts  with longings that this world cannot satisfy have no future. ‘This is all there is,’ they say.

But others cannot have that.  Standing on the edge, they look out and then inward and they find immortal longings in the heart.  They have a desire to be loved by someone beyond this world, a desire for a future where all that they have known is not lost forever but is made perfect, a desire that these good and lovely things which they have known only in  part should be known in full: beauty, love, goodness, peace, harmony.  They have a hunger to know, for in  spite of all the advances in knowledge of all kinds, there is so much that still is a mystery.  The circumstances of life also pose so many questions.  He is fortunate who can attribute all life’s ‘slings and arrows’ to circumstance and chance, for then he has no questions to be answered.  Yet, there are so many strange occurrences suggesting otherwise, so that we ask ‘ How did it happen like this?’   And when we reject the random thesis and admit the possibility of order in events, then there are some that make us ask questions and long for a day when we shall know fully and see the details of our life in an eternal context and know why they happened as they did.  ‘What is man’ that ancient philosopher asked and many, standing on the edge, will say that he is a being with eternal longings, longings that cannot be satisfied here or during a lifetime.

Some say that these longings have no reality; we simply project our longings and desires and give them a reality which doesn’t exist.  In  response to a desire, we  invent the idea of God, of heaven, of another world, of perfect beauty, love and goodness, of eternal life  .  These ideas are an attempt on our part to ease our pain, a drug by which to escape from the unpleasant reality of this life.  It’s  a bit like the mirage of an oasis in response to a thirst, a desire projected into a reality which we believe is real but isn’t.  This is the Great Projection Theory and it’s used to deny spiritual realities beyond this world.  Yet, its weakness is to assume that because we long for these things, they do not exist.  Because the man in the desert has a longing for water, does not mean that there is no water there or that because a  woman is  hungry that there is no food.  The weakness of this theory is that it begins by saying that nothing exists just because we have a desire for it, which is true, but ends by saying that  something does not exist, if we have a desire for it which is false.  However, my experience of thirst is an indication of a need for water and my experience of hunger is an indication of a need for food  Might it not be that these immortal longings indicate a need in us and  are hints that there must be a world beyond earth where these things may be satisfied?

Then there’s that man, a man like no other man, who said He had come to us from ‘ out there,’ a man who lived a life apparently without fault, who did supernatural things no one else could do, who said He had come to give us a future, and to lead us out there beyond planet earth to realms of splendour and happiness never known on earth,  a man who died, so He said, in our place to take away our imperfections and who  rose from the dead to give us future hope and who promises to come again and take us with Him into that other world to be with Him forever – the man Jesus.

Some denounce Him, despise Him and reject His claims.  Yet, judge the sources of information about Him by the same critical standards you would apply to any other ancient document and His story still stands up and He must be faced.  We must come to a decision about Him.  He invites everyone who stands on the edge in contemplation to enter another world by faith and, in stepping out, each person must turn from the past, leave the old world behind,  and put complete trust in Him.

So, once again, we stand on the edge and must either stand our ground without him or step out with Him.  Many will not step out and want to stand on firm ground where they take no risk, yet with immortal longings unfulfilled.  And, as the years pass, either those longings die or fill us with desperation and despair.  Yet, many millions over the centuries have taken the risk and stepped out, turning their back on the past, gambling all on him.  They have told us what they found.  They say that their immortal longings  are satisfied in Him.  He gives them experiences of peace and joy they never experienced before and that they have assurances from Him that what they have now is as nothing compared with what they shall experience when with him they step out  from the here into the everywhere, away from this narrow strip of land on which they now stand into that eternal land from where He came to rescue and save all who would come to Him.

Are you standing on the edge, looking up into that jeweled heaven with immortal longings in the soul which nothing on earth has satisfied, not possessions or wealth, not position or status, not achievements or accomplishments, not license, not freedom, not religion or morality.  Put all that together and, as Malcolm Muggeridge so movingly said, it is less than nothing compared with what He gives and it utterly fails to satisfy the immortal longings of the human heart.  Then listen again to that ancient philosopher, for standing on the edge, looking out at that star-spangled ocean that stretches out and ever out, on and ever on forever, he said:

The heavens declare the glory of God

And the earth shows His handiwork.

Day after day they pour forth speech,

Night after night they display knowledge.

They spoke to the immortal longings in his heart.  He stepped out from the edge and he said, ‘ God’s love reaches to the heavens,’ and to those who stand on the edge today he says, ‘ There is no speech or language where their voice is not heard.  Their voice goes out into all the earth, their words to the end of the world.’   Abraham Lincoln, great American President of the past, said,“ I can see how it might be possible for a man to look upon the earth  and be an atheist, but I cannot conceive how  he can look up into the heavens and  say there is no God.”   He heard that voice of which  the ancient philosopher spoke.  Standing on the edge today, do you not hear that same voice speaking in the deep places, deep calling unto deep, and do you not feel those same immortal longings responding in hope of being fulfilled?

He comes to us  about whom it is said, ‘ He was in the beginning with God.  All things were made through Him, without Him was not anything made that was made.  In Him was life and the life was the light of men.   The light shines in the darkness and the darkness has not overcome it…… He was in the world and the world was made by Him and the world did not know Him….The word became flesh and dwelt among us and we have seen His glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth.’  This is the Man who comes to us standing on the edge.  He has come from beyond, into our world to bring into our world and to us the reality of another world after which our hearts yearn.  We can have those immortal longings satisfied by Him, but standing on the edge, we have to step out with Him – and with both feet off the ground.

 Sidlow McFarland