Out of this world?

Address given at Bishop Wordsworth’s Grammar School – 18 October 2019

Reading – Psalm 8

For the last two weeks I’ve been living and trying to work surrounded by the mess and the noise caused by two electricians – replacing all wiring in our house.
And I would not recommend that experience to anyone!

And so, in the middle of last week, when I had a day off work, I took myself off to the Odeon – largely to get out of the house for a few hours, but also to see if it might give me some ideas for what to you all this morning.
There was a not massive choice of films, midweek, and I ended up going to see “Ad Astra” – a vaguely futuristic film – for which the reviews were mixed: somebody had posted “I still can’t decide whether or not I liked this film” – so my expectations weren’t that high.

Actually, I thought it was fine – and it DID give me something to think about. And just in case any of you might be thinking about going to see – I promise you there will be no “spoilers” this morning – because the line that caught my attention wasn’t even spoken by an actor it was written on the opening frame before the story line even began. “The near future”, it read, “a place of hope and conflict”
Now bear in mind that this was just about the beginning of the Extinction Rebellion protests in London, and that Greta Thunberg had just been giving the UN Leaders a hard time over Climate change.
And bear in mind the fact that today’s assembly comes just as the latest “crunchpoint” in Brexit talks comes into focus – and I thought the twin-themes of “hope and conflict” might be on our minds!

For some people it IS a sign of hope that people are making a stand and bringing climate change to public attention through direct action – and some of those members of the public are thoroughly fed up with the disruption to their daily lives, as we saw yesterday, and THEY are ready to protest about the protesters – there is conflict.

For some people, Brexit offers the hope of a new dawn in our nation’s life – new opportunities for trade – new freedom from the influence of other countries. For some people that same prospect – of life outside the EU – represents a worrying loss of security – financial loss – even loss of influence IN those other countries. And again, the result is conflict – reflecting different visions of the future..
Back to my lonely popcorn fest at the Odeon – and the basic idea of the film was that, when we find ourselves in these messy conflict situations, our natural response is to look “to the stars” (ad astra) – to look for someone or something beyond us to come and sort it out for us.

In the world of politics, we’re told, we live in a new age of strongmen – Putin, Trump and Boris. People seem to want strong leaders who don’t care what other people think of them and will push their own solution forward. And it does seem that, when all is chaos around us, a lot of people will follow leaders like this – no matter what they come out with – simply because they seem “strong”.

That’s not necessarily a good thing!
And I’m not getting into politics here (I know that at least some Y9s can have strong opinions on such things!) – but there is a danger that people with very clear ideas and a strong sense of their own correctness MAY actually not have noticed much outside their own little world of experience – and may not really understand the bigger picture, or the effect their words and actions have on other people, in other parts of the world.

And the basic point of ad astra is that the solution to our own problems – the solution to our worlds problems – is NOT somewhere out there; is not someone out there, but starts with ourselves. Every country, every organisation is made up of individuals – every conflict boils down to individual convictions and individual choices. And the resolution of those conflicts can only come when we learn to trust our own instincts AND to recognise that not everybody sees the world in the same way that we do.

The picture that’s been staring out at you while I’ve been speaking is one of those that prompts a different response from different people.

It is just a collection of stars and planets and space clutter – that we can all see. But some people also see different images within it – the most obvious being a large face.
What you see depends on how your brain works – or possibly on how awake you are after all these words!

Just as in the real world – some people will look out at the universe and see only random events – random things that exist purely by chance; some people will look out at the same things, and recognise patterns and universal laws and a beautiful logic to everything – and some people will see the imprint of God behind all that.
Same world – same universe – same cosmos – different reactions from different people.

And that only becomes a problem – only causes conflict – when we fail to recognise, or respect, those other insights – when we other people’s views as a threat to our own.

There is no magic solution out there – there is a wonderfully chaotic mix of different ideas and experiences around us, that can produce hope just as easily as conflict – that can make our own world that much bigger and more awe-inspiring.

From the Christian tradition that I choose to belong to there is a mantra that says:
“Look up – look out – look within.”
Look up and see the stars and the vastness of the universe, look up at the mountains and the amazingly complex life-systems of our own world;
look around you and listen to what other people are noticing – to what other people are going through in their life;
and notice your own feelings, your own ideas, the things you’re not sure about: what is going on in your head and your heart?
Then piece it all together and see what you get.
The basic instruction in all that is – keep “looking”.

Don’t just accept what you’ve been told is true;
don’t believe every single news feed or post that pops up on your phone;
don’t assume that presidents or prime-ministers or anyone else necessarily see things better than you do;
don’t just listen to the people who agree with you.

Keep searching for truth, when what you see and hear is confusing; keep searching for answers to the problems you recognise; keep searching for the things that you can do to help turn conflict into hope.