of the Malvern Hills
I BELIEVE, THEREFORE I AM
(With apologies to Rene Descartes)
“I believe in the sun
Even when it is not shining,
And I believe in love
Even when there is no-one there,
And I believe in God
Even when He is silent.”
These are the words of a poem found on the wall of a cellar written by a Jew in the Cologne concentration camp during the 2nd World War. The building is now a museum and you can go down into the cellars where the prisoners were kept as they awaited interrogation and execution. The writings on the wall were made using anything from iron nails to lipstick. The guards did not try to stop them. The circumstances under which the prisoners lived challenge our comprehension to its limits. We struggle to imagine being in such darkness that we can see no sunshine, no hope of a future, completely under the control of people to whom we have no value, no importance, no relevance. Yet in the words of the poem we discern a ray of light, a thin shaft of faith. A faith held in impossible circumstances. It is a faith not just in the existence of God but a faith trusting in the nature of God, love. Those who go swimming do so because they believe that they can float on the water and are prepared to trust in that belief by taking their feet off the bottom. We may not experience such a depth of despair like that of the Jewish prisoners in the Cologne Concentration camp, but we may well have our own prison walls of hopelessness and helplessness. There are a vast number of reasons for any of us to feel that we have lost all that makes life worth living and want to give up. It can happen to us whatever age we are and whatever our circumstances. Young people today have a wonderful range of opportunities, far more than any previous generation. Their horizons extend far and wide. Almost anything is possible. They are only limited by their own capabilities.
Yet more die today from suicide than from cancer, heart disease, AIDS, birth defects, stroke, pneumonia or lung disease combined. There is no single cause attributed to this but amongst the reasons given are social isolation and poverty. After an accident or a terrorist attack we are told of those who have suffered “life-changing” injuries. In other words they have lost a capability that they will never recover. Such an occurrence can happen to us at any time of our life. Melanie Reid writes for a Sunday newspaper. She had a horse riding accident when she was 53 and broke her neck and her back. She now is a tetraplegic. Divorce, redundancy, business failure, old age, these are just a few other causes of “life-changing” experiences that can make us feel that the sun will never shine again. As winter approaches and the hours of daylight get fewer, the darkness presses in on us and we see little of the sun yet we believe it is still there. The world of nature seems to reflect the times when we feel an inner darkness and we echo the words of Christina Rossetti in her poem.
“The first spring day”:
“I wonder if the springtide of this year
Will bring another Spring both lost and dear;
If heart and spirit will find out their Spring,
Or if the world alone will bud and sing:
Sing, hope, to me;
Sweet notes, my hope, soft notes for memory.”
But just as we can find the natural world empathising with the way we sometimes feel so it can present us with a way of looking at our life that offers us a way forward through the darkness. Each spring our churchyard is a glorious show of snowdrops. It is said that they we planted in memory of a child that died. But during the summertime they completely disappeared. We have walked over their beds. The mower has repeatedly cut back their blanket of grass. Now they no longer have the comfort of its homely buzz above their sleeping forms. It’s hard to believe that they will ever again force their way up through the black earth to wave their tiny petals at the springtime sun. Yet they do. Jesus said “If you had faith no larger than a mustard seed, you could tell this mountain to move from here to there. And it would. Everything would be possible for you.” (Matthew Ch 17 vs. 20, 21). The faith of the Jew who wrote on the wall of their prison cell was probably no bigger than that of a seed of mustard. It didn’t change their circumstances. It didn’t release them from their captivity. It brought about no change to their destiny. But it set them free. They no longer faced an insurmountable mountain that towered above them and blocked out the sun. Their words, which came out of the darkness of their prison, have been a source of strength and inspiration to millions of people. Perhaps this coming winter you will be able to make the words of the poem of the Jewish prisoner your own. Maybe it will present you with an opportunity for gathering and strengthening the mustard seed of faith. Then you will enjoy a springtime when a tiny piece of light and hope will force its way upwards through the darkness against all odds. “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.” (John Ch 1 vs. 5)
TRANSFORMATIONS; GREAT & SMALL
As a Christian and a scientist (the conjunctive phrase “and a” is important here to avoid any denominational misunderstanding!) it seems to me that transformation lies at the heart of everything. It might be considered to start with the “Big Bang” when an infinitely small, infinitely dense speck of matter/energy, referred to by cosmologists as a singularity, was transformed in milliseconds into the enormity of the early universe (given that astonishing concept I wonder why so many scientists and others balk at - “In the beginning God created heaven and earth“). It continues throughout the evolution of stars, planets, continents, life and mankind, to the moment we depart this Earth for the most glorious transformation of all – “the Lord Jesus Christ will change our lowly bodies to be like his glorious body” - Phil 3 v 17.
Underlying all this is the fact that although things may appear to have been destroyed or lost they never actually disappear they are merely transformed into something else. This principle is stated in the First Law of Thermodynamics – energy can neither be created nor destroyed – it simply reappears in another form. When you turn on your torch the chemical energy in the battery drains away, but it is not lost. It has been transformed into the electromagnetic energy which we call light. The same principle applies to chemistry - matter cannot be created or destroyed in a chemical reaction. Thus sodium, a highly unstable metal, and chlorine, a poisonous gas, when combined are transformed into that most benign substance essential to human life, namely common salt. The sodium and the chlorine are still there – they have just been transformed into a new association of atoms. I might have been tempted here to draw an analogy about the benefits of cooperation compared with separatism but that argument has already been lost.
Nonetheless, new elements are constantly being created in the heart of stars by the process of nuclear fusion building up heavier and heavier elements by adding protons and neutrons, starting with the simplest and lightest element hydrogen, at the start of the chain, right up to heavy elements like iron, lead and uranium. Here on Earth the transformation runs in the opposite direction during radioactive decay. For example, uranium decays slowly by emitting some of the protons and neutrons in its nucleus until it forms a stable isotope of lead. This is of particular interest to geologists because once the rate of decay or half-life of uranium is known it is possible to calculate the absolute age of the rock or mineral containing it. In 1650 Bishop James Ussher calculated that the world was created on Sunday 23rd October 4004 BC based on his reading of biblical genealogy However, whilst we cannot match Ussher’s precision of the exact day, radiometric dating has transformed our understanding of the Earth’s age which is now calculated to be some 4.5 billion years. This in turn has transformed our understanding of many previously inexplicable or misunderstood natural phenomena.
This preamble on transformations in the field of science leads me to a personal transformation. Since moving to our new home earlier this year my cancer, which for over 13 years has been held at bay by the grace of God and NHS expertise, has been diagnosed as terminal. The plans Gina and I had have certainly been transformed, but not in a wholly negative way. Our appreciation of what really matters in life has become sharply focused – love of family, friends and neighbours, a shared meal, joy in the beauty and wonder of creation and, perhaps most of all, gratitude for the countless blessings we have received at the hands of the Lord for more than seven decades. Amongst these is a sense of humour. We joke that the Lord has put me on his shortlist but hasn’t yet given me a date for the interview. Meanwhile we cautiously hope that before that date there may still be one more snowdrop season – that exquisite virginal harbinger of the transition from winter to spring. “Nevertheless, not my will but thine be done” (Luke 22 v 42) .