Practical Dreamers
"The past is a foreign country"
Donald Phillipps

"The new glory of this Temple is going to surpass the old," says Yahweh Sabaoth,
"and in this place I will give peace …" – Haggai 2:9

Many years ago I became a member of a monthly book club called the Readers’ Union – for a low cost you received your twelve books chosen by a panel of specialists, I suppose – you had no choice.

In that way I came to read my first ‘adult’ book, The Go Between, by L.P.Hartley, in which was a sentence that has become part of the language: ‘The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there.’

One of the more memorable claims made by President Bush, during the campaign,  was that even with the intelligence now gained since the invasion of Iraq earlier in the year he would still do it all over again.

It is a waste of time now to wish that wiser counsel had prevailed in the first place – what is now known, with the advantage of hindsight, doesn’t alter in the least the terrible tragedy in that deeply divided country.

What we do with our past is the issue I want to share with you.

Let’s go back a long way – over 3000 years in fact – for our starting-point.

Somewhere about then a disorderly rabble of former Egyptian slaves were on their way to freedom, according to stories handed down over many generations and finally written into the record, say about 500 years later.

Their leader, Moses, claimed to be speaking for God when he told them they had been specially chosen by that god, whose name they didn’t even know, to make a journey to a promised land, which was to be their land.  The journey took a generation or more to complete, and when they finally reached their destination it took a lot of time, trouble and bloodshed to become the masters of their inheritance.

To achieve that goal the disorderly rabble, temporarily gave up their internal feuding, and chose a king, who would unite the country, their promised land, against would-be aggressors.

This history we learnt as children, and these stories we know well enough, and yet with our greater knowledge of the history of those times, we are surprisingly childlike in our acceptance of myth rather than fact.

Israel, as an independent, autonomous kingdom, lasted just two lifetimes - those of David and Solomon.  When the latter died the kingdom was divided, and it really never ever became an independent free state again.  The dream should have been finally shattered when Israel and Judah, the two kingdoms, were overrun, defeated in battle, the Temple destroyed, and the people taken off into slavery in Babylon in large numbers.

But it was kept alive – in fact, it was the dream that enabled the Babylonian slaves to survive – and it was prophets like Haggai, living towards the end of the 6th century BC, who turned the dream into a plan of campaign.  It’s not often that we have the opportunity to study the words of Haggai – assuming you can find them in the first place – but he was part of that slave community returning home after 70 years and more in exile.  And his words are all about restoration – bringing back the glories of the past - in fact, with the promise of the Lord of Hosts, building an even more splendid future on the foundations of the past.  Let’s simply recall that it didn’t turn out like that – there was no new kingdom – what was set up in its place was a mere shadow of what their myths, rather than historical fact, proclaimed.

By keeping their heads down they eked out an existence, dependent on the goodwill of powerful neighbours – until the time of Alexander the Great when they were reoccupied and absorbed into a gentile empire.  And when the heathen king, Antiochus, had done his worst, there occurred a brave but finally tragic rebellion, after which they simply changed one dictator for another, the Roman Caesar.  Yet the dream persisted – now of a messiah who would cleanse God’s chosen people and their Promised Land – and when the Messiah came they did not know it, or recognise him, for he was no warrior king.

There were terrorists in those days, too, so Rome thought, and they were so inconvenient, so aggressive, so unreasonable, that Rome lost patience, and utterly destroyed Jerusalem and the rebuilt Temple.  For a few hundred years a faithful remnant survived here and there in their own land, but as the power and the political influence of the new Christian religion flourished these faithful Jews became a persecuted minority.

They were dispersed again, from Portugal to the edges of the East, and life was hard, and their treatment often brutal at the hands of Christians who claimed they had murdered their unrecognised Messiah.  It took well over a thousand years for some of them to regain any semblance of official recognition and protection, and to this day, even in our own country, so far away, there are those who still persecute Jews.

Yet the dream persisted, and it is not much less than one hundred years ago that a Polish Jew with such a vision, Chaim Weizmann, succeeded in convincing some Western leaders that there was justice in the dream.  And so the state of Israel was born, in violence, in 1948 – and its continuing existence over the subsequent half century has been marred by almost ceaseless warfare.

I dare suggest it is the continuing existence of Israel, and the seemingly uncritical support for it by the United States, that lies at the heart of the vicious confrontation between Islamic fundamentalism and Western culture.

Martin Luther King dreamed of a just world and a peaceful society.  Did the 2000 year-old dream of the Jew in exile contemplate such a world, or, just possibly, did it not take that larger world into account?  If they hoped to establish a new land, and recreate an ancient order, then the past they saw in their dreams was indeed a foreign country, and it may not belong in this modern world.

But what is this thing we call the ‘modern world’ – is it a new creation – does it owe nothing to the past – what is the place of history and tradition in evolving human society?

I wondered about taking my text from the Book of Revelation: ‘Then the One sitting on the throne spoke "Now I am making the whole of creation new" he said. "Write this: that what I am saying is sure and will come true."’  The difficulty with this verse, however encouraging and inspiring it has been for generations of Christians, is that it is about a radically different world – with God present in a city the like of which has never been seen before.

Despite the claims of kings and presidents, and their minions, God is not automatically on the side of the ruler – there is no divine right of kings - God is not necessarily present in our world in such flawed instruments.  Let’s not imagine that the modern world is, somehow, nearer the dream of the writer of the Book of Revelation.  Claims that this leader or that is God’s appointee I want to call blasphemy.  No, the modern world, this world of ours, is altogether too like the old world which, we are thankful, is past and gone.

Do you read Gordon Parry’s Memory Lane – this week’s title was ‘Simple, organised and disciplined’ conjuring up childhood memories, of porridge for breakfast, and being safe walking alone to school.  I like to recall my childhood, too, but I don’t want to bring back that world – when I was five Nazi Germany was re-arming – when I was eight the world was at war.

So for what do we dream, if, as I believe, it is an equal impiety to pray that God will come and take over.  When God has shown us, in Jesus of Nazareth, the way, the truth, and the life what else do we need? 

If the way has been mapped out, where are the charts?  Not, I would assert, through a literal reading of scripture – there is such a great temptation to use the bible as if it contained within it a blue-print for the modern world.

There is a very significant moment in the early ministry of Jesus, when, according to Luke, a lawyer tried to catch him out by asking him what he needed to do to inherit eternal life.  Jesus’ answer might well be a question we all should face – he asked the lawyer what was written in scripture, but then added a most significant second question: "How do you understand what is written there?"

The words haven’t been written as an infallible guide – we should never put the Bible to the test in this way – it’s how we understand it that matters.  But the story of the past, written in countless books, some infinitely more inspired than others, is a record of repeated human failure, as it is of human hope, human endurance, and human achievement.  The world of the future, of the tomorrow into which we inexorably move, is our world – as will be the day after that - each new day is the goal of our dreams.

The dream of the Christian is founded on the person of Jesus – and on a belief that, as the hymn says, he ‘leads us through no darker rooms than he has gone before.’  It is Jesus, the Christ, who out of that foreign country, the past, where they do things differently, comes into our present, and leads us into an unimaginable future – surely that is our hope and his promise.

The English poet of the mid-20th century, Wystan Auden, has a poem that imaginatively captures the excitement of the world towards which Jesus leads – his dream, and ours – and it is this world:

He is the Way.
Follow him through the Land of Unlikeness;
You will see rare beasts,
   and have unique adventures.

A future not ruled by tradition, and yet sensitive to the lessons of history – creating ever greater things out of its rubble, while discovering there priceless gems.

He is the Truth.
Seek him in the Kingdom of Anxiety;
You will come to a great city   
   that has expected your return for years.

The future is part of the continuum of toil, of trial and error, of ignorance and folly, but for all its cares and futility, it is the place where humans discover themselves - and you will always be with people just like yourself.

He is the Life.
Love him in the World of the Flesh;
And at your marriage
   all its occasions shall dance for joy.

I think Auden reminds us that God, on finishing the labour of creation, said ‘it was good’ – humanity, creatures of flesh and blood, are part of that ‘goodness’ – we are loved as we are, and as we are we may love God.

The past is a foreign country, where they do things differently.  Much as I love the study of history the past is not my world – it belongs to those who then lived – it is my concern, and I hope yours, to get to know them better.

Our dream, then, cannot be, as I sense was/is the case for many devout Jews and Christians, to recreate the past – our use of scripture is not to find an old way of being faithful.

That wasn’t Christ’s way.

The cross is not so much a judgement on human sinfulness, as a door to a transformed future – and he holds it open.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

Donald Phillipps was addressing
Mornington and Glenaven congregations
in November 2004


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