Tag Archives: wilderness

Magi detail

Magi detail (Photo credit: JoetheLion)

It is now the Eve of Epiphany. The Magi have travelled by camel in a starlit night. As many Christmas cards depict, they arrive on the crest of a hill overlooking Bethlehem and one star dominates the sky. They link the star to where its light tells them they will find the new-born King of the Jews. They wait, they see and they wonder.

The popular astronomer Heather Couper had a series of programmes on BBC Radio about the ancient associations of stars and planets with astrological predictions of the future and has written extensively on her subject [co-author of A History of Astronomy]. She has some speculative comments on the story of the wise men, about the identity of the star and the date it appeared. It’s a fascinating subject and it’s very helpful when experts explain things in a way that laypeople can understand. But despite all we have learned about the origin of the universe, there is still a great deal more we have to find out.

An example of simulated data modelled for the ...

An example of simulated data modelled for the CMS particle detector on the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) at CERN.  (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

There’s been a lot of Big Bang Theory lately, and I don’t mean the festival of the American comedy series lately on E4. The Nobel Prize has been awarded to the English physicist Peter Higgs with the confirmation of the existence of the Higgs’ boson. According to The Guardian (see below), the cosmologist Stephen Hawking made the cryptic comment that physics would have been “far more interesting” if scientists had been unable to find the Higgs boson at the Large Hadron Collider in Cern. This may have been just a piece of Hawking whimsy and while we admire the elegance of Stephen Hawking’s mathematical language, even this wise man cannot explain why we are here at all.

But Hawking said something else that was interesting. He said, “Remember to look up at the stars and not down at your feet. Try to make sense of what you see and hold on to that child-like wonder about what makes the universe exist.”

The Prologue of the Gospel of John tries to take us beyond ‘a history of time’ to the mystery of ‘in the beginning’. The Prologue echoes and continues the Genesis story of creation, and is written in beautiful and puzzling language. It attempts to describe the shattering, time breaking moment in the history of the world when the God of all creation became a human being.

“And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.” [John 1.14]

The Redeemer of the earth entered the world of darkness and became the Light and eventually, in humility, was baptised in the River Jordan.

This fusion of light and water is essential for life on earth. Water interacts with the entire cycle of nature to help things grow and light is essential to photosynthesis, the process behind every growing plant.  We are complex human beings created in the image of God to ‘till and keep’ [Genesis 2.15] the earth, but if God commissioned us to serve nature as God’s qualified and able stewards, then we have failed to live up to our job specification. The problem for us is that some of our Christian forebears developed a train of thought that saw this world as simply instrumental to humankind’s needs and it became the dominant narrative.

Sir Francis Bacon (1561–1626)

Sir Francis Bacon (1561–1626) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

“No item in the physical creation had any purpose save to serve man’s purposes,” said Francis Bacon, the seventeenth century statesman, philosopher and scientist. As humankind imposed its rational standards our rebelliousness grew. At the heart of our self-awareness we love ourselves more than we love God and others, or conversely we think too poorly of ourselves, or we are many shades of grey in between, all the time making ourselves vulnerable, and distancing ourselves from our Creator.

If we loved creation enough to notice the needs of the planet itself, to be aware of its rhythm of life, we would be more likely to live in harmony with God’s gift of creation than try to dominate it. Of course we need an earthly dwelling place, but if we try to geo-engineer the world, we should not be surprised if the world reminds us how elusive and complex the physical world is collectively. Our world is not static, but moves and changes, because otherwise it would not sustain life.

But humankind is overriding the natural rhythm of life. Whilst extreme weather events are, at least in part, a result of climate change, the overwhelming scientific evidence is that human activity is magnifying the effects of climate change. To date the average rise in global temperature has only been 0.8 degrees C above pre-industrial times. Imagine how things might be if average global temperature rose more than 2 degrees C, which is the complacent view about where we are heading in the next few decades.

The Tyndall Centre for Climate Change warns that keeping global warming below 2 degrees C is beyond our grasp and 4 degrees C is challenging. Latest scientific evidence (see below) suggests that by 2100 that figure may be reached and life on earth will indeed be challenging. Unless we understand the size of the problem, it will be too late to develop avoiding action.

What will 2014 hold? If forecasts are correct, then we’ll see more hurricanes, droughts, floods, crop failures, diminished biodiversity, and further drift into our overcrowded cities where desperate people are attempting to escape poverty. Are we heading for a perfect storm where ecological and economic factors collide? As our resource depletion accelerates, perhaps the scarcest commodity of all is hope. What hope can we have for the future of the earth, and in particular our own species?

For there is yet hope. The ethics of hope that will drive the kind of co-operation we need to conserve our world for future generations. But it will be costly. As Chris Polhill of the Iona Community says, [The Heart of Creation: Worship Resources and Reflections on the Environment] “it will require us to grow as disciples, to struggle both within and without, and to seek that transformation that God alone can bring.”

So at this Eve of Epiphany, to celebrate the gift of creation, we need to begin our journey out of the wilderness. And like the journey of the

Scapegoat Wilderness

Scapegoat Wilderness (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

wise men following the Bethlehem star it will not be easy. We shall have to contend with ‘the powers that be’ as the wise men did with King Herod. We will be confronted by authoritative structures that will seek to bend our will, and will be subverted by our natural instincts for affection and esteem making obeisance to the providers of security and survival who will try to enslave us.

But the overarching problem, as the philosopher and novelist Iris Murdoch writes [Existentialists and Mystics: Writings on Philosophy and Literature],  “Love is the extremely difficult realisation that something other than oneself is real.” So the spiritual journey will be quite challenging, but eventually we will come to a fuller understanding and acceptance of our belovedness by God.

When we encounter the presence of God, our lives become en-livened, and I mean this in its original 17th century sense of ‘restored to life’and ‘give life to’. The outward expression of this new life will be the way we will live in the world, through acts of voluntary service to each other and to all living creatures. In this way we become co-creators with God. As Chris Polhill says, “Together we celebrate, and together we become a force for change.”

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January 5, 2014 · 12:01


A pebble offers a narrative framework when we start to think about its story. Having emerged from deep within the earth, where rocks run fluid in conditions of very high temperature or else formed in sedimentary deposits of ancient rivers, lakes and seas, the pebble will have undergone many processes on its way to the object we turn in our hand.

It is humbling to know that it will have been around for aeons before we were born, and will continue in existence for long after we have turned to dust. We bring nothing into the world and we take nothing out of it: rocks may be worn away as we walk our earthly pilgrimage but their endurance is immeasurable greater.

Our relationship to stone emerges in multidimensional readings. Habitation, artefact, sculpture, jewellery. And these in turn break out into a network of relationships to people, to things, and to our natural environment. But we have also learned to apply our technology to crush stone for large scale projects, thus separating us from the natural world in which we live. We need a dialogue with modern science and technology, if we are to have a proper faithful response to the potential harm destructive living brings; and to relearn how to understand and to appreciate our surroundings – to enjoy them, and take simple pleasure in them.

A pebble should indicate something to us about its creator. In its shape, colour, texture and hue we may see something of the beauty of God; unselfconsciously in its tactile nature, we should sense the intimacy of God; perceive by its endurance something of the faithfulness of God; and in its longevity a sense of the eternity of God shining through.

In the first of his 2009 Gifford Lectures, Professor Alister E. McGrath considered Newton’s attention to nature and how it signposted something deeper, lying beyond it. Newton said, “I seem to have been only like a boy playing on the sea-shore, and diverting myself in now and then finding a smoother pebble or a prettier shell than ordinary, whilst the great ocean of truth lay all undiscovered before me.”

He was reflecting that if we just concentrate on the geological features of a pebble or observe the skin of a shell, we may lose sight of the deeper structures and meanings of the world that lie beyond. McGrath said that the pebble and the shell are images of liminality – the awareness of standing on a threshold.

At the Gathering Event, beginning of our Lent Course ‘Driven into the Wilderness, on Sunday 6th March at St Mary’s Carden Place, Aberdeen, we each chose a pebble, which had been gathered with loving care from the River Dee and one of its tributary streams Neil Burn. This will be carried with us as we journey through Lent. It will become a symbol of those important things we discover, or rediscover, about our relationship with all of creation during our Lenten pilgrimage. When we meet again for the Sending Out service at St Ninian’s, Mar Lodge, by Braemar our pebble will be returned to the River Dee as a signal of our intentionality to live more lightly on the earth.

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Green Lent

The wilderness is indifferent to our existence. It is a hostile place, where insects bite, snakes slither, thorn bushes gouge the flesh and wild animals roam. Here life is fragile and the path ahead leads us to the unexpected and the unknown.

Please join the Diocese of Aberdeen and Orkney this Lent on a wilderness journey where all we shall possess is a trust that life is good, that it is worth being alive, even when the going will be painful and harsh. We will have a number of encounters, be fed by ravens, but a moment of deep significance will usher in a radically different understanding of God’s creation.

Following a new path, we will emerge from the wilderness realising that we are being called to change the way we live our lives. From hereon, our life will take on a new direction, with a new sense of purpose beginning, as we seek a deeper meaning in all that we do.


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