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Saturday, 21 February 2015

Somewhere, Over the Rainbow

"God said to Noah and to his sons with him, ‘As for me, I am establishing my covenant with you and your descendants after you, and with every living creature that is with you, the birds, the domestic animals, and every animal of the earth with you, as many as came out of the ark. I establish my covenant with you, that never again shall all flesh be cut off by the waters of a flood, and never again shall there be a flood to destroy the earth.’ God said, ‘This is the sign of the covenant that I make between me and you and every living creature that is with you, for all future generations: I have set my bow in the clouds, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between me and the earth. When I bring clouds over the earth and the bow is seen in the clouds, I will remember my covenant that is between me and you and every living creature of all flesh; and the waters shall never again become a flood to destroy all flesh." (Genesis 9.8-17)

Everybody with a smartphone has a nice picture of a rainbow. Here's one, for example. From when I had a job as a stunt double in that film (let the Reader understand).


Whereas this one is a real humdinger of a rainbow. It's lucky Constable had his phone with him when he visited Stonehenge, really. And what were the chances of him arriving in weather like this?

"John Constable Stonehenge".
  Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons
It's a massive, powerful picture. There are human figures in the picture, but they're dwarfed by the stones. The stones themselves - the grandiose wreckage of human endeavour - are in their turn reduced to minor details of the landscape. The thing that dominates this picture - in the same way it does in Turner's more violent, but equally "sublime" landscape - is the sky. And in that brooding, heaving sky, it's the double rainbow that is marked out - its arc falling to ground just behind, or even within, the stones.

It's not a magic thing, a rainbow. You can work it all out beautifully, scientifically and mathematically. You can work out how low the sun has to be before one is observable from the ground. You can generate one for yourself, on a sunny day, with a sprinkler attachment on  a hose pipe. It's all good, scientific, solid, predictable stuff.

But it's a good symbol, nonetheless. I wonder, when that great flood that sparked the legends of all those Floods took place - did the bedraggled survivors, piecing their lives back together, see the rains come storming in, look to the skies, and take comfort? It's a symbol of a covenant as strong as the laws of physics.

It's not the covenants where there's stipulations on both sides that give me hope - they depend too much on me. I love God's one-sided covenants.  The ones where God promises to make Abraham a nation; to write his laws on our hearts. The rainbow stands in the sky, no matter what we do. Be we as kings or as small as the figures in Turner's Stonehenge, the promise still stands. You can turn around, you can look the other way. You can shut the door and refuse to look out. But as Mr Scott would remind us, ye cannae change the laws of physics. If conditions are right, there will be a rainbow in the sky whatever you do about it.

And your rainbow is in a sense a constantly changing thing. You may be in the same place. And the sun is the same, in a relative way. But every moment that you look at a rainbow, the sun is reflecting from (and refracting in) a different set of raindrops. Its constancy is actually the sum total of all its innumerable changes. Maybe that's a symbol in itself. God is ever old and ever new - constantly renewing our world, imagining new things. Our world changes - we grow, grow old and die. Everything is constantly moving, dragged down under the weight of gravity and entropy. And as we change, God moves with us. We are a pilgrim people. Whether spiritually or physically, we have to move. And the sign goes with us - ever changing, yet ever faithful.

Twenty-one Christians are murdered - not executed, which the media seems to think is a stronger word - they're murdered, there is none of the legal justification of an execution - on a Libyan beach, simply for following Jesus. Their murderers make up the excuse that these poor labourers - whose church has existed in North Africa since before Muhammad was born - are "crusaders". But the murderers are right that they are people "of the cross". After all, they've just received their cross. And they are welcomed into paradise by the One who took the Cross before them.

 And where I would want to see bombing raids, a Coptic Christian calls out for God to forgive. God's mercies are new every morning. That bishop understands the logic of an unconditional, universal covenant. Even if you're so far from God that you make up lies to justify murdering innocent people, God's grace is still free and available. The pilgrimage of God's people has gone from Noah's promise, through Abraham, through David and Jesus - and God's free promises are still being offered. The promise doesn't require you to kill infidels, but then nor does it ask you to follow some African Christians in their belief that you should persecute gay people. Nor does it ask you to believe in whichever social rules your own religious body believes in. God's eternal promise just needs you to believe the promise.

The promise says that God will bear with this dirty old world as long as it takes. And I've no idea how long that is. But a one-sided convenant means however far you wander, whatever you do, wherever you go, whatever the world throws at you, God is still bearing with you - ever changing, ever showing new mercy, but ever the same. You can't stop a rainbow and you can't make it stand still, either. All you can do is look and wonder.

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