Saturday, 3 June 2017

Glimmers of resurrection

I think about those who walk through the darkness of Easter Saturday for days, months, years even. For them the joy of resurrection morning is long delayed.

Rebecca de Saintonge’s powerfully-written and intimate memoir One Yellow Door must be the most challenging book I have read in the last twelve months, the story of a woman who inhabited Easter Saturday for over nine years.

Ms de Saintonge describes her marriage to Jack, an Anglican vicar whose joyful faith rekindled her own, and the closeness of their relationship. ‘He was an extraordinary rock and with him I felt free, but utterly safe.’ 

However, six years on, Jack developed what was eventually diagnosed as Lewy Body Dementia, a particularly cruel condition in which the sufferer does not necessarily lose track of their identity as their brain begins to slowly close down. Rebecca was by Jack’s side throughout his painful journey, determined to care for him, ‘to squeeze out of life all possible joy and delight.’ 

We enter into her anguish as he suffers; into her need to withdraw emotionally from her beloved husband to protect herself as he is changed before her eyes; into the especial sorrow of those brief tantalising glimmers of resurrection when some strong emotion sparked Jack’s brain into life, and briefly he was able to speak, and almost as before. ‘All will be well, sweetheart.’ 

We experience her anger sometimes towards Jack, and sometimes (expressed in startlingly direct language) towards the seemingly cruel God who has abandoned them. ‘God, you have wounded my love.’ Is God in fact as vulnerable as she and Jack? A friend offers her solace by pointing to Jesus on the cross, the God who suffers alongside her, ‘a bloodied, loving, crucified Christ.’

Rebecca de Saintonge challenges us by the depth of her love and commitment to Jack, and by her searing honesty in facing up to the questions at a time when ‘the simple answers and formulae of Christianity’ no longer offer comfort.

Most controversially, One Yellow Door is challenging in the fact that the author found solace in her walk through Easter Saturday with a married man who, father to a boy with autism was no stranger to pain. De Saintonge does not ask for our approval. What she looks for is simply that we do as a couple of her friends in whom she confided failed to do – listen, and perceive.

She describes the confusion of her growing sense that Nick (the name she gives him in the book) was ‘a gift from God’ who sustains her and helps her to cope and be to Jack what he needs. She wrestles with the morality of this, but has an extraordinary experience of Christ’s presence with her. It was ‘not that Christ was condoning my relationship with Nicholas or forbidding my relationship with Nicholas but just that he was with me. There was no judgement, just his presence. He was holding me.’

Ten years after Jack’s death, she writes as though to him: ‘Nicholas saved us both, Jack.’

And finally, One Yellow Road is the story of a faith journey. Rebecca describes her mystical sense of joy and delight as a child. She tells her how her young, free heart became burdened by a false sense of guilt, and by the church’s endless words – rules, ritual, theology.  Heaven was silent, and she grew convinced that there was no God.

Fast forward ten years: Jack’s infectious faith reawakens Rebecca’s sense of the divine.  She has a sense of being ‘utterly loved and accepted’ by God, ‘of being reconnected with the source of all that was creative, and hopeful and restorative. It was healing, unconditional love.’

Once again, a theology grew around that experience, until, faced by Jack’s illness, she realised that theology didn’t hack it, and once again questioned everything. And yet, she is drawn back by ‘this great absence that seemed like a presence’ as poet R. S. Thomas put it.
Rebecca’s story challenges us both to go unafraid on our own journeys if we are called into unexpected paths, and to listen perceptively as others share their stories.

I think Rebecca de Saintonge has experienced the truth a friend shared with her: ‘Even at the very bottom of the barrel, we still stand on holy ground, not abandoned, but held in love.’ 

By the end of the book, she is learning to rest in stillness and openness.

‘I think sometimes, for the smallest moment, I sense, like blind Bartimaeus, the beloved stranger moving towards me in the crowd of the day.’ A glimmer of resurrection, not pointing poignantly to the past, but signposting that future when all will be well. ‘I wait for his touch.’

One Yellow Door by Rebecca de Saintonge is published by Darton, Longman and Todd. ISBN: 9780232532050

(Christian Viewpoint column from the Highland News dated 31st March 2016) 

Friday, 2 June 2017

The self is a lovely place

I’ve been enjoying taking Mollie the dog for walks through the Culduthel and Lochardil woods. I’ve never been a country person, but I’m discovering for the first time the joy (on my calmer days) of pausing to look, listen, touch. Fingering the crumbly bark on an old tree; hearing the cooing of woodpigeons; watching the unborn buds, sheathed still in brown. One day soon, they will explode in tiny eruptions of fresh, vivid green, for we are on the cusp of spring.

It's Easter, when Christians remember Jesus’ journey through death into life. It’s a journey we see nature take each year, and a journey which is reflected in our own experiences.

I’ve been reading a novel by C. S. Lewis, Till we have faces. It’s a re-telling an old myth: the thing which struck me most about it was its title.  An old Queen, on a long quest for truth and justice, realises that for most of her life there have been things, the truest, deep in her heart things, which she has never fully acknowledged or expressed. She realises why the gods have been silent, for in seeking answers from them she has taken refuge behind many masks. And ‘how can they (the gods) meet us face to face till we have faces?’

This Queen thought she was living well and wisely, but in fact her possessiveness was destroying those close to her. Her journey to discovering her true face, her true identity lay through the death experience of facing up to the damage she had done.
In our journeys, there will be ‘death experiences’: times when we feel low, battered and broken, guilty, at an end of ourselves. And it’s only by facing up to these experiences, and acknowledging that we are not so good, or competent, or in control as we had thought that in our brokenness we feel God’s healing smile. ‘Yes!’ we say.  ‘This is the real me, for better or for worse, and I am loved!’

 During these winter of our pain we connect for the first time with who we truly are. Spring comes as we learn to linger under the trees; take time to feel for the first time the texture of the bark. We discover that, perhaps contrary to everything we’d expected, the self is a lovely place.

Some words dropped into my heart this week with healing power. Fiona Smith, the minister at Ness Bank Church in Inverness sent an email advertising that the church will be open each day this week (21st-25th March) between 11am and 3pm. ‘Do you need a space to stop, a time to see beauty, a place to be uplifted?’ asks the flyer. ‘Come for a gentle stroll in a place of serenity. There you will find nourishment for your soul.’ There will be pictures, poems, music, a labyrinth. And ‘a tree to leave your troubles.’

I love these words, which remind us of the graciousness of God who calls us through winter into spring, and speaks to us in all our senses.

I guess that the tree where you can leave your troubles is a symbol of the cross where Jesus died.  We can bring to the tree our troubles, our darkness, our pain. Some we can lay down, knowing that we will never have to carry them again. Others, we still must bear, but they will be lighter now because of the hope we find at the tree. We do not carry them alone.

Because it’s not simply that Jesus’ journey through death into life is an example of our similar journeys.  No, because Christians believe there is an enabling connection between his death and resurrection and our own journeys through darkness into a fuller life. It is because Jesus took that journey that we can find rebirth in a springtime of the soul, and discover the face God has given us.

But is it true that we can only encounter God when we ‘have faces,’ and acknowledge who we are? Well, it’s partly true, for only as our true face becomes known us – as a reflection in a pool gradually comes into focus as the ripples diminish – that we see the Face of God with greater clarity.

But no, God does not wait until we know who we truly are before God will look at us. God is with us through the darkness of our winters. God hands us the mirror of forgiveness in which we see for the first time how lovely we are.

And then, down in the wood of life, we find a tree which must always have been there, but which somehow we hadn’t seen before: tall, with long branches and luxuriant foliage. Beneath his shade, in joy, we take shelter.

(Christian Viewpoint column from the Highland News dated 24th March 2016)

Sunday, 31 July 2016

The road goes ever on

‘You’ve come on Curry Wednesday!’ they tell me when I drop in to the church office for a chat. Simeon Ewing and Fiona Waite have recently joined the youth team at Hilton Church, managed by Youth Pastor Jonathan Fraser.

I’m preparing an article about their work for the church web-site, and we have a wide-ranging conversation about the children and youth activities they’re involved with in church and community. Simeon is the church’s Children’s Worker; Fiona a ‘Ministry Apprentice’ working with young people in the church and in Hilton generally three days a week, while studying at Highland Theological College the other two days.

And Curry Wednesday? Each Wednesday one of the team prepares an Indian meal which the three of them share, as a means of building their working and personal relationships.
I’m always fascinated to hear different people’s experiences of Christianity, and so I asked Fiona and Simeon what faith is like for them.

They spoke about coming to faith. For Fiona, it began when she heard ‘about the Bible in a different way that actually related to my life’ and ‘about having a relationship with God.’ For Simeon there was a particular place and time. At the age of just 4, he tells me, ‘I committed my life to Jesus.’ He’d seen his parent’s faith, and, he says ‘I knew there was some decision I had to make to start the journey myself.’

Both believe that God speaks to them. God is heard in ‘a very strong sense’ or impression that a particular course of action is right; in ‘an inner peace’ about the way ahead; in the awakening within them of words from the Bible; in the advice of others when somehow it makes a home within them; in a sense of ‘conviction’ when a wrong decision has been made.  
Both believe that God is leading them through life, though they admit to taking wrong turnings along the way! This journey has both an outer dimension of work and learning and relationships, and a closely linked inner dimension of developing and maturing faith.

I think all of us as Christians reflecting on our lives will find those elements present: a coming to faith; a sense of God ‘speaking’ (however that works in our experience); and a conviction that God calls us on a journey of being and becoming.

Fiona and Simeon’s words encourage us, but we don’t need to feel we must have exactly the same beliefs or identical experiences as our fellow-Christians – although some Christians give the impression at times that their particular way of believing and experiencing is the only ‘correct’ way, the only way God accepts.

But in fact we all have different personalities, different backgrounds, different experiences of being parented, and we all belong to different traditions within the Christian church. And so our expectations of what encountering God ‘feels like’, and the words and ideas we use to describe our beliefs will be different. We are each unique, and the Father of Jesus comes to each of us in ways utterly appropriate to who we are.

Perhaps we don’t speak often enough in church about the terrain across which the journey leads many of us. We find ourselves reluctantly moving from a place of security in a particular set of long-held beliefs, to a place where we question everything we have ever believed.  Eventually we arrive in a wider place, still rooted in our faith in Christ (in fact more rooted than ever), but comfortable now with unanswered questions. We look across church and world seeing no longer ‘them’ and ‘us’ but increasingly simply ‘us.’

We discover that people in faith traditions outwith Christianity have very similar experiences to ours although they do not share our faith in Jesus Christ. Are these experiences false, or is Jesus bigger than we had ever imagined, connecting deeply with people who do not yet recognise him?

Simeon and Fiona are near the start of their journeys. I am impressed by the authenticity of their faith stories, the reality of their joy. And impressed too by the love which they have for children and young people. ‘I want to tell them God loves them,’ Simeon simply.

I am convinced that love is the most important thing, and that God looks not so much at the specifics of our beliefs, but at how well we reflect the love of Jesus Christ.

We can’t go it alone on this journey, but we support one another as we travel in Love, and into Love. It’s impressive to see the bond which Jonathan and his team have. Curry Wednesday. A kind of eucharist in tikka masala, pilau rice and coffee.  Thank you, Father.

(Christian Viewpoint column from the Highland News dated 17th March 2016)