Only connect

friendship-2156172_1920Amid all the messages and info that daily rain down on us, it’s the personal ones that catch our attention isn’t it? A smile, kind message, happy face emoji… we love those connections. If my heart’s touched, I’m sold. I might even do something in response.

This week I was moved by this kind of connection in the Joseph story – “any dream will do”, amazing technicolor coat guy. In particular, the story’s climax. All there in Genesis. Then a little bizarrely, I spotted a strong connection with the Interstellar film of three years ago, that I saw in the ‘Rewind Wednesday’ strand at Bradford’s Science & Media museum. Yes, connection between a story in an ancient book viewed by some as belonging to the stone age, and a contemporary film exploring mind-boggling dimensions of space, time and relativity. Somewhat unexpected.

But it’s there – the theme of reunion, being re-connected with someone loved but long-lost. In the Joseph story, having been sold as a slave to Egypt by his jealous brothers, separated from them for years – during which after dire setbacks he rises to power – after all this, he sees them again when they seek food in a famine. His instant recognition of them, paralleling their failure to recognise him – and the subsequent tests showing they’ve moved from selfishness to self-sacrifice… all make the moment where his true identity is revealed, and the subsequent reunion – both poignant and powerful.

In ‘Interstellar’, space travel makes separation – of both distance & time – between astronaut Cooper and his two children far vaster. He’d left his young daughter tragically unreconciled to the prospect of his departure, so when a video message reaches him (light years away) showing her, as an adult (aged far faster than him due to relativity effects) trying to communicate with him – it’s inevitably a tear-jerker.

One story set in the ancient middle east, one in the future in deep space – connected by the common theme of reunion between people tied by bonds of kinship and love (though tarnished). Greatest journey of all – the journey of the human heart.

The Joseph story discerns an additional dimension to the course of events – that this joyous reunion, like a rare conjunction of planets, has at a profound level been orchestrated by underlying benevolent wisdom – the guiding hand of God for the purpose of saving lives. There’s an aching beauty in the narrative arc from pain to joy, or indeed in the delicate amalgam between the two… that whispers of a more wondrous reality lying beneath and beyond.

As in our different ways we enjoy our own heart connections… can we also be open to the whisper of the divine longing for the greatest reunion – with my heart and yours?

Mountain film: marvel and challenge

dachstein-3010323_1920This week I saw Mountain at the Leeds International Film festival. It’s a jaw-dropping experience, a portrayal of the ineffable beauty of these towering rock and granite worlds, and of the spectacular physical feats (some) humans attempt – and often pull off – in their quest to master them. Sublime photography, soaring music and a probing narrative – along with some frankly suicidal extreme sport fanatics. Riveting. And poses deeper questions too.

As narrator William Dafoe says, it’s largely since, in the western world at least, our lives have become so confined, circumscribed and (relatively) risk free, that we’ve sought out the untrammeled beauty and danger of wild spaces – mountains being a chief embodiment. Our spirit needs them.

For some, this involves serious daredevilry. “You never feel so alive, knowing that any minute, you could die”, intones the narrator, laconically. Sequences of human aerial manoeuvres in this craggy, vertiginous playground are heart in the mouth stuff. A climber scaling spider-like up invisible rope, or springing across a precipitous drop to grab a ledge with bare hands. Snow-boarder tracing angular poses in dazzling snapshots of mid-air magic. A trio of paraglide skiers skimming snow-clad outcrops with balletic grace, canopies billowing behind, while another flees swift snapping avalanche – in turn pursuing a hit of adrenalin and fear. Maestros of the mountains all.

Such aerial artistry gives way to sobering reflection on the inevitable crowd pull and commercialisation of iconic Everest – “no longer exploring, but queueing”.  But such misgivings are set in the wider panorama of human-mountain history. Mountains occupy ‘deep time’; there before we were dreamt of, they’ll be there when we’re gone – indifferent to us, seeking neither our pleasure nor harm. The tendency to personify them itself intriguing, as is our attraction to such vast venerability, hinting at our oftentimes dimly apprehended sense of eternity.

In contemporary western culture, the ‘awe fix’ people get from such natural marvels is arguably one of the closest things to ‘worship’ – revelling in what is evidently of great worth. Alongside a universal ache for transcendence and ecstasy. Blue Planet II currently on BBC TV induces comparable astonishment. Nature’s spectacles have the merits of being physically tangible, and inviting rather than imposing.

But is nature in itself enough to satisfy the human soul – or does it only take us so far? Faith contends that the reservoir of the human spirit ultimately seeks a yet richer filling. Nature’s beauty and mystery beckon deeper. The brute reality of wind-whipped mountains, treacherous seas and the cold indifferent vastness of space might on their own induce melancholy, or despair. But the revelations of faith whisper this isn’t the whole story, that in the deep heart of things there is intimacy, and I am loved.

A mere three hundred years ago, we’re told, mountains were shunned – a perilous world in an age which had its daily fill of hardship and danger. In our secular age, the interior world and its vistas may be similarly neglected. Though ‘spiritual’ paths of a sort are sometimes ventured upon, vast underlying mysteries of origin, purpose and ultimate Love can easily be ignored or hidden away in boxes dismissively marked ‘religion’ or ‘deity’ – along with the tools of revelation (bible anyone?) afforded for their exploration. The religious believer, in turn, sometimes needs to be challenged to ‘give up the glib’ and embark upon a wilder understanding of the God who underpins nature’s harshness, and its beauty. A film such as this can stir both kinds of hunger.

Grace space

swan-2893562_1920Much theology can look utterly alien to the contemporary western mind. Salvation – what’s that? What do I need to be saved from? And Grace? That’s a nice name. Etc. As I read recently here, ‘in our radically secular society we believe we can not only save ourselves but even invent the meaning of our lives.’ (we think we’re so clever!).

I believe the Reformation’s core rediscovery remains dynamite. Namely, that spiritual freedom, salvation (from slavery to self basically, in all its forms), and fellowship with God are not earned, but gifted. Freely given. Received, not achieved.

The radically distinctive nature of this gospel idea should never be downplayed – unique among world faiths. It’s grace (free unmerited favour) that saves us, and good works flow from this out of gratitude and joy – fruit, not root. But it’s not cheap – the cost was the cross, and remembering this helps me avoid taking it for granted.

Grace stands out too in the everyday workaday world. From climbing the corporate ladder to teen anxiety over peer approval and Instagram likes, the worlds we inhabit our hedged round with conditions and expectations. But grace makes no demands, lays out no conditions – other than my willingness to accept it.

The beauty is, the more fully I embrace it, the better equipped I am to handle these pressures, and even model a different way. No power in the world is more able to effect change, in me and the world around me, than grace – divine love in operation.

Western technological and material achievements can foster an illusion of self-sufficiency. It’s a fleeting mirage. Jesus said to a man whose barns were full, ‘You fool! Tonight your life will be demanded of you…’ Death is the final riposte to all our pretensions of control over our existence.

Though I do have agency, I’m not the captain of my soul – however much I may like the swashbuckling swagger. I’m accountable to a greater Reality. To the proud self-sufficient part of me, grace – which elicits trust and dependence – is offensive. It may take a circuitous trail of circumstances and events to awaken me to my need of it. And amid shifting eddies of distraction and diversion, it takes attentiveness and a certain kind of discipline to hold onto the life raft and not be sucked down into all manner of inner enslavement. But it’s always there, beckoning me back. As the U2 lyric says:

It’s a name for a girl
It’s also a thought that
Changed the world