Advent 11: Genesis 1 Isaiah 1:18 Psalm 51:1-10

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Its an emotional day for me today. 21 years ago today my Dad, Michael or Mick as everyone called him, died suddenly at the age of just 44. He was one of the friendliest, most outgoing, generous, caring and all round lovely guys you could ever meet. That’s not just the rose tinted glasses you always wear when looking back on someone who died young talking, but what anyone who knew him thought about him; the standing room only at Maidstone Crematorium for his funeral testifies to it as well.

I am now 41, meaning that it’s been over half my life since he died and I’ve had pretty much my whole adult life without him there to guide me.

I haven’t, however, been without any guidance. I’ve been able to turn to someone who has experienced everything; creation, destruction, joy, sorrow, life, death, freedom and suffering. He has taught, guided, celebrated, punished, and mourned with people since the beginning of time.

I try to follow what he teaches me, but I’m always getting it wrong. The thing is, I know that he’ll pick me up, clean me off and set me on my way again. I know he loves me, unconditionally, and will forgive my faults and failings because of this. Just like my Dad always did.

God is not a substitute for my Dad. He is so different to that. However, when I look at him acting like this towards me I can see why Jesus referred to him as “Father”; someone who is there to bring us up to be the best person we can be.

A year, nearly to the day, after Dad died, I became a father myself. My daughter turns 20 next week and its my intention to be here for her longer than my Dad was able to be. But he still influences me in how I am as a parent as well as how I relate to my Father in heaven. I always knew my Dad would be there for me and I know that God will be too.

(In loving memory of Michael Jalland: 21 January 1949 – 11 December 1993.)

Bad caretakers

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This World is beautiful. I mean, not just quite pretty, but absolutely mind-blowingly, outstandingly, breathtakingly, stunningly beautiful to the extent that, sometimes, all you can do is stand and stare in sheer awe.

I took the photograph above on the Isle of Arran, just off the west coast of Scotland. It’s an island which has been given the moniker of “Scotland in miniature”, mainly because it has flat(ish) rolling fields in the south and rocky mountains in the north, caused by it lying on the Highland fault line which runs through the mainland. It is home to beautiful trees, wild flowers, seals, deer, red squirrel, golden eagle and so many other flora and fauna that you could spend weeks looking at it.

I only spent one day on the island, but also visited the Isles of Bute and Greater Cumbrae, as well as several west coast towns in mainland Scotland, all with their own unique character and quirks. That was just five days in a very small area of a very small country on a planet containing over 300 countries and 7 billion people. From the Himalayas to the Grand Canon, the desolation of Antarctica to the crowded Amazon, there is so much beauty and wonder on this Earth that you could live for over 100 years and still only be able to experience a fraction of it.

Sadly, there is one blot on God’s amazing creation. One factor bringing destruction, desolation, pollution, division, pain and death.

Human beings.

I recently read this post about the awful situations in places such as Mosul, Israel/Palestine and Ukraine. Places where those kids in the school playground who fought every lunchtime, using the excuse “but he started it” have failed to progress from their childhoods, but now have control of media and military and are dragging as many innocent bystanders into their fights as possible, with painful, deadly consequences. Humanity is forgotten and old, man-made artificial divides and selfish motivations become the important things.

Nations and businesses are built on the backs of the poor and disenfranchised. The Earth’s resources are stripped bare in the search for money and power. Natural habitats are destroyed and animals are forced into endangerment and extinction due to the greed of those who then destroy economies, tearing lives apart, pushing the poor further into poverty, seeing the vulnerable blamed whilst those responsible and in charge get off scot free. We accept and encourage hatred of the poorest and most vulnerable, but accept the myth that the rich can’t be punished for fear that they’ll all pick up their ball and run away.

Our atmosphere is being poisoned by burning fossil fuels and belching noxious gases into it in the name of progress, yet we let ourselves be taken in by journalists and politicians who have vested interests in big industry telling us that man-made climate change is a myth. Even if we believe that it isn’t, we sleepwalk towards destruction through apathy, laziness, materialism and greed.

Animals are raised in the harshest and most desperate of conditions in order to feed the richest for as little money as possible. Cattle, fowl and others crammed into barns with no room to move or lay down so that as much food can be produced as possible in as little time as possible and for as much profit as possible. A miserable existence, whose only relief is the violent death which will come at an abattoir.

“Then God said, “Let us make human beings in our image, to be like us. They will reign over the fish in the sea, the birds in the sky, the livestock, all the wild animals on the earth, and the small animals that scurry along the ground.” So God created human beings in his own image. In the image of God he created them; male and female he created them. Then God blessed them and said, “Be fruitful and multiply. Fill the earth and govern it. Reign over the fish in the sea, the birds in the sky, and all the animals that scurry along the ground.” Then God said, “Look! I have given you every seed-bearing plant throughout the earth and all the fruit trees for your food. And I have given every green plant as food for all the wild animals, the birds in the sky, and the small animals that scurry along the ground—everything that has life.” And that is what happened. Then God looked over all he had made, and he saw that it was very good! And evening passed and morning came, marking the sixth day.” (Genesis 1:26-31 NLT)

The part of God’s creation made in his image, the part made to reign over the Earth and all of its animals and plants, is the part which is destroying it. I don’t subscribe to the view that the creation story in Genesis is a literal account, but I do believe that it is an accurate portrayal of God’s purpose for humanity on Earth. We are his gardeners, curators, groundskeepers and caretakers. We have dominion, as some translations put it, over the Earth, but that comes with a responsibility. A responsibility of care and of love for all of God’s creation, not just those in which we have a vested interest. We have neglected that responsibility, either directly or indirectly. Most of us don’t cause this destruction and hatred, but we stand idly by and allow it to happen. We encourage it. We get sucked in by it. We live our lives expecting and wanting it.

The thing is, it’s become so difficult to know what to do about it. I’m not going to give you an answer, because I don’t have one. However, at the very least we need to stand up to hatred, speak out against injustice and the destruction of our planet, seek ethically produced food and clothes.

And pray. Pray for change, for forgiveness, for strength, for guidance. We live in a world which has turned it’s back on God, especially many of those claiming to fight in his name. So much has replaced God in people’s lives; money, power, fame, belongings, sex and, yes, religion.

We need God and the peace he brings, rather than the wars that many think he wants.

We need God and the guidance he gives, not the selfish desires of man which many think will set you free.

We need God and the grace that he gives, because we don’t deserve him. But he still wants us to return to him and be the custodians we were created to be.

We need God.

Is this the real life, or is this just fantasy?

In February 2013 the second series of Charlie Brooker’s excellent dystopic, technology based series, Black Mirror, kicked off with the story Be Right Back. In it, a young woman called Martha (Hayley Atwell), whose boyfriend, Ash (Domhnall Gleeson) has recently died, finds out about a new technology designed to help people reconnect with deceased loved ones. By allowing a company access to Ash’s whole online presence, they can build a picture of his personality, memories, beliefs etc which enable her to speak to ‘Ash’ online.

This is so convincing for her that, after uploading recordings of his voice, she is able to have phone conversations with this virtual Ash. It eventually progresses to a lifelike Ash robot, uploaded with his ‘personality’ which comes to live with her.

Here, the problems started, as it became clear that ‘Ash’ has no emotions, unless Martha tells him to display them. He won’t argue, disagree or debate anything with her. He is ultimately nothing more than a very clever robot. He is not Ash, no matter how convincing some of the superficial elements were.

And how could he be? He was simply an amalgamation of things Ash had posted on various social media sites, not the whole person. There was no way he could be a replacement for the real Ash, or even that realistic in the long run.

I, and many others, will have thought about this drama when journalist Simon Ricketts posted this on Twitter.

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If you go to the Eterni.Me site it asks you,

” What if your children or grand children would know more about you and your life? What if they would be more like you, think more like you?

What if all the important events, adventures and thoughts in your life would be accessible to future generations, who never met the real you?

And what if, more than that, they could really interact with your memories, as if they were talking to you in person?

Eterni.me collects almost everything that you create during your lifetime, and processes this huge amount of information using complex Artificial Intelligence algorithms.

Then it generates a virtual YOU, an avatar that emulates your personality and can interact with, and offer information and advice to your family and friends after you pass away.

It’s like a Skype chat from the past.”

All under the streamline “Simply become immortal”.

Really?!

It isn’t the only website out there offering this, but it was the one which grabbed my attention. Especially as it is so close to the initial premise of Be Right Back. Ok, we’re not at the stage of phone conversations or life-like robot versions of our departed loved ones, but it the similarities between what Eterni.Me is offering and Martha’s original web chats with ‘Ash’ are uncanny.

I can see the attraction. Grief and loss are two of the hardest emotions to deal with, as anyone who has been through them (including most people reading this) will tell you. Pain, anger, denial, despair, depression are all natural parts of the grieving process. It’s a horrible time which almost everyone will experience at some stage in their life and all those who do will look back on with immense sadness.

You do, however, get to look back on it. At some stage the grieving slows, then ceases and the process of living starts up again. One thing never leaves you, though. The void that person, and all you would have experienced with them, leaves in your life.

When I was 20, my Dad, Michael, died very suddenly. He was only 44 years old. He never met my wife or any of my children (my daughter was born a year, almost to the day, after he died). I never had him around during any of my adult years. I missed his advice and guidance on being a father and a husband (he was fantastic on both counts). I missed out on sharing my joys, pains, celebrations and everything else with him. As did my Mum and sister. I would give anything to have him back.

That is what Eterni.Me is trading on. The millions of us who would give anything to have a certain person back again. The chance to hear from them, their advice, humour, views, almost their voice again. Introduce your children, spouse, grand children to them. A chance to have them back again.

Here’s the thing, though. My Dad died before the internet age, so I couldn’t do this with him even if I wanted to. But I wouldn’t want to. It wouldn’t be my Dad. No amount of Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, YouTube, blog, Reddit or any other online activity can make the person. It’s simply a snapshot, a glimpse into what the person was like. Very often it’s simply a glimpse at the person that you want to present to the world, rather than the person inside.

No amount of uploads would ever give me back my Dad’s sense of humour. It would never give me the little words of wisdom he would give me. I’d never get a moment like that burst of sheer joy when I passed my driving test. I’d never feel his love.

The same goes for all of us. We are more than words, thoughts, reactions, jokes, remarks and the like, we don’t just have a mind. We have a heart. We have a soul. We all have that divine, God given breath of life which makes each of us a unique, remarkable, beautiful, unpredictable being. That can’t be replicated and spat out using “Artificial intelligence algorithms”.

“Then God said,

“Let us make mankind in our image, in our likeness, so that they may rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky, over the livestock and all the wild animals, and over all the creatures that move along the ground.”

So God created mankind in his own image,
in the image of God he created them;
male and female he created them.”
(Genesis 1:26-27 NIV)

We are made in God’s image, not the image of ones and zeros. We are made in the divine image, not an electronic one.

Nothing can get back a person once lost, no matter how much we wish and pray that we could. Death and loss are a valuable, though painful, part of life. We learn from it. We draw closer to others from it. We suffer from it, yes, but from that suffering we can draw strength. Not everyone manages it and, certainly, everyone would rather we didn’t go through it at all, but we can come through it as stronger people.

Death is an integral part of life. Life is, after Jesus, the greatest gift God has given to us. We can’t replace it with websites. If we try, we may fail to appreciate all of its wonders while we still have it.