Monday, April 20, 2009

Just an ordinary girl

She was just an ordinary girl. In many ways her life was unremarkable. No-one has written great volumes about her life, what she did, who she married, and what she achieved. In fact very few people know her real name - Gherardini – but everyone recognizes her.

She lived a long time ago, at a time of change and development in the history of the world. Perhaps she reflected on life and occasionally her face would brighten with an enigmatic smile.

Yet her name is known by everyone, and everyone knows her. Her image is drawn on canvass and hangs in the Louvre museum in Paris. There, amidst the great masterpieces by Van Gogh, Rodin, the great Impressionists – each of which is worth millions of dollars, all of them bigger and grander – there hangs one picture which stands metaphorically above all the others.

It is the one around which the crowds gather, it is the pinnacle of the multi-million dollar collection; it is the only one in its own protective casing – it is, of course, the portrait by Leonardo Da Vinci of the Mona Lisa.

She lived an unremarkable life, coming from a middle class background, but her personality and image were captured by the hands of the Master. He transformed her portrait into the most famous painting in the world. She was in fact Lisa Gherardini, the wife of wealthy Florentine businessman Francesco del Giocondo.

One writer says “The Mona Lisa is widely considered the greatest portrait of all time. It appears in countless advertisements, has inspired poetry, sculpture, forgeries, and theft. But seriously, why? The painting is small, only 30 x 21 inches, the colour is sombre, the background seems desolate and eerie, and the subject isn’t anyone historically significant.”

And yet … she is significant.

She is significant because the great artist captured her portrait. He gave meaning to her life for the rest of the world to see. Her enigmatic smile, the gaze of her eyes and her face present an image we cannot forget. Somehow the more we look at her the more we see. And yet the more see the more enigmatic she seems.

Our lives may seem ordinary, and perhaps insignificant, but in the hands of the Master they can become lives of great significance. God, the creator, the master artist and painter can form and shape your life and mine into a portrait of great significance. He will take the various aspects of our lives, and use them to paint a wonderful portrait.

There's a God-shaped hole in all of us. And God can turn our ordinary life into something extraordinary, a significant life.

Monday, April 6, 2009

The flaming tar barrels of Ottery

On bonfire night, November 5, 2007, we went to the delightful English village of Ottery St. Mary, just a few miles from Exeter. It was, as you might imagine, a quaint, rural, conservative and picturesque village in the English countryside, with its narrow streets, old buildings, charming pubs and thatched roof cottages. All this is as you might expect it to be, except for the annual running of the tar barrels. What I am about to describe is far more dangerous than I can put into words.

Every year in this part of Olde England they hold an annual bonfire, fireworks and carnival, the central event of which is the flaming tar barrels race. To be precise, during the preceding year, empty wooden beer barrels are lined with tar, and then filled with combustible materials. On the night these are then ignited at various intervals. Throughout the evening of November 5th chosen contestants run through the crowded streets with lit tar barrels on the back of their neck. The runners have Hessian gloves and some padding under their clothes, but flames leap out to a height of one metre or more. At the start of the race the flames leap out sideways, but as the barrel itself gets consumed the runner carries the barrel in an upright position. The objective is to carry the barrel until it has completely burned through to pieces of burning embers.

The crowds line the narrow streets and the flames get uncomfortably close to the crowds of tightly packed spectators. (For those of you with any health and safety training this is far worse than you can imagine). The possibility of people getting hurt is significant. (There were reports of 39 injuries on the night, but not necessarily due to tar barrels). To make matters worse, when the flames die down, an accelerant is added to reignite the mini-furnace in the barrel, as it is passed, shoulder to shoulder to the next runner. Each race finishes when the barrel is fully consumed.

There are tar barrel races for men, women, teenagers, and wait for it, … children. The only difference with the children’s races, are that the barrels are smaller and not so heavy.

As I reflected on this evening, God seemed to be saying something. The tar barrels experience challenged my presumptions and assumptions about what is appropriate and possible. It was certainly a high risk event. It was dangerous. And perhaps it emphasized that the line between being courageous and being foolish is a very thin one indeed. And yet, given that there were some precautions, that it had been done before, and that everyone was aware of the obvious dangers, it was quite exciting, but it was far from safe.

It seems to me that church has become “safe”. My assumptions and presumptions about how we “do” church, and indeed how we “be” church are shaped and moulded by a lifetime of learning that “this is the way we do things”. In other words, we have become unwilling to take risks – albeit faith-filled, calculated risks, based on an understanding of who God is. I think it’s time for church to become dangerous, and for us to challenge some of the accepted assumptions and presumptions about being the people of God in the 21st century.