Tuesday, 20 July 2010

The mind of Christ

I loved this quotation from the young Henry Manning (later to become the Roman Catholic Cardinal Archbishop of Westminster):

The mind of Christ must be transfused into our own. There must be somewhat of the same intense love of perishing sinners, of the same patient endurance of moral evil, and unwearied striving to bring the impenitent to God: a portion of the same holy boldness and fearless inflexibility of purpose; a measure of that perpetual self-denial and self-sacrifice to the service and glory of His Father: of that acute, affectionate, and universal sympathy with the sick, the suffering, the sinful, and without partaking of their contamination, even with the sinful: and somewhat also of that intuitive penetration of heart and character, which His omniscience apprehended at a glance, but we can gather only by keen observation, strict analysis, and rigid search, under the guidance of the Holy Ghost, into all the depths and windings of our own. What a mission, Brethren, is ours.

(From a sermon on The English Church, its Succession and Witness for Christ quoted in David Newsome, The Convert Cardinals: John Henry Newman and Henry Edward Manning, 1993 pp 90-91)

Anti-climb paint

Seen on the beach front at Hornsea. Is this similar to paint which doesn't drip or run?

What keeps us from climbing?

Summer holiday

We are  just back from a week's holiday in Yorkshire - we stayed in a lakeside lodge at Brandesburton, near Hornsea and Beverley. We had a varied week - one day we visited Hull, and I had a chance to view William Wilberforce's birthplace. Another day we explored Beverley with its beautiful, peaceful Minister. And then on Friday we went to Eden Camp, a former WWII POW camp near Malton which is now a museum of exhibits relating chiefly to civilian life during the War. I was interested in this poster, with its up-front acknowledgement of the existence of God. Perhaps even then it was exceptional to have God acknowledged so directly in a public communication.

Sunday, 4 July 2010

The choice is yours

The direction indicator at Durness. From here, you can go anywhere!

Smoo cave

Just back from a day and a bit at Durness with Lorna, out younger daughter Bethany and one of her friends. We'd intended staying until Monday, but our tent proved unequal to the wild winds and we had to retreat south through the night, avoiding the deer which at places throng the roadside! 

But yesterday we visited the Smoo Cave. Bethany and Natalie were taking with the fact that on the grassy slopes beside the cave mouth lots of people had written their names using stones, and they followed suit. What does that say about our inclination to make our mark? And in there a lesson for us in the fact some people had spelled out their identity using stones pillaged from other people's names? See Bethany and Natalie's names in the image below, just under 'Jolly'

Thursday, 1 July 2010

He kens me

Here's the piece about Andrew Bonar:

‘Mither, he kens me!’ said the child delightedly to her mother. Andrew Bonar had recently – at the end of 1856 – come to be minister of Finnieston Free Church in Glasgow but already he was getting to know the members of his congregation and people in the community.

It’s been claimed that Andrew A. Bonar, (1810-1892) born exactly two centuries ago, was one of Scotland’s Protestant saints. A Free Churchman, he was renowned for his passion for God and his commitment to prayer. A man of joy and love, he was living proof that that the stereotype of Calvinists as miserable, life-denying zealots is wrong.

His diaries focus largely on his developing relationship with God, but in reading them, one of the things I found inspiring was his use of references to everyday things to illuminate his understanding of the spiritual dimension.

For example, writing in March 1847 he recalls walking beside a river and seeing the sky reflected in its smoothly-gliding waters. Discerning signs of God’s activity in our everyday lives, is he says like ‘walking along the bank of a perpetually flowing stream in which we see the reflection of the glorious heavens.’

Things on earth which remind us that God is not inactive – a co-incidence which seems given by him, the beauty of creation, the words from the Bible which come alive in our hearts, the timely challenge of a caring friend – are reflections of another dimension seen in the stream of life.

The day Andrew Bonar learned that his sister Christian had died, 9th August 1862 he was on holiday at Girvan, and could look across the water to the small island of Ailsa Craig. It seemed to him to be ‘a symbol of the “Rock of Ages”, calm, fixed, strong in the midst of changing waters.’ Our lives may be falling part, but God remains – real, holy unchanging, utterly reliable.

‘Coming home through the wood last night,’ he wrote at the Manse of Collace in Perthshire on 21st November 1840 ‘I was refreshed and comforted in looking up to the stars. Ministers, like these stars are sent to give light through the night. We shine on, whether travellers will make use of our light or not.’ In fact, all of us as Christians are God’s stars, sent to bring light and hope into dark places: Bonar’s words challenge us to ask whether, relying on God we are shining as brightly as we possibly can.

‘Why is the fire kindled after going out every morning in my room?’ he mused in January 1844. ‘Just because I like to have its heat,’ he continued. ‘So the Lord daily kindles love to Himself in me just because he never ceases to desire that I should be His.’ We are enabled to respond to God in the first place, and to keep responding to him because he keeps kindling in our hearts the flame of faith and God-focussed love.

Bonar never found it easy to live God’s way. In February 1855 he wrote that his heart was like ‘a bed of hard stones scarcely worn smooth’ by the flowing river of God’s kindness. Bonar’s experience alternated between intense joy at God’s reality – when he lived ‘under the smile’ of God’s love, and a sense of deep personal failure.

We feel uneasily he was often too hard on himself, and yet perhaps it’s only in reflecting on our imperfections that we realise the sheer wonder of God’s acceptance of us. And the more we realise that, the more open we are to submitting the harsh rough edges of our lives to the power of his freely-flowing, life-changing grace.

‘Today,’ Bonar wrote on 28 January 1877 ‘I was like a man standing in full sight of plenty at the door of a well-stocked granary, all of it mine, but I took little of it.’ God offers us, as he did Andrew Bonar, a storehouse full of gifts – life, friendships, food and shelter, acceptance as his children, resources to help us show forth love, joy and peace. How full are our arms as we leave the storehouse?

Andrew Bonar was always conscious that no matter how much of God he understood and experienced, there was always more. ‘All this time,’ he wrote in 1858 ‘I am only at the margin, never getting out into the deep of the great ocean.’

There were times when the spiritual dimension was more real to Bonar than the material. We do not all share his depth of spiritual experience. But we can, all of us, ask God as Bonar did on an other occasion ‘Lord, lead me in, far further in.’ and embark on a voyage across the boundless ocean of the love of this God about whom each of us can say ‘He kens me!’

(My piece from the Highland News dated 26th June 2010)

Monday, 21 June 2010

All about who?

(This Christian Viewpoint column appeared in the Highland News dated 5th June 2010.)

The Duchess of York, Sarah Ferguson went on the Oprah Winfrey show in the States this week to apologise for the recent ‘error of judgement’ uncovered by the News of the World. We woke up a week past on Sunday to the paper’s exclusive revelations. It seems that Fergie promised its investigations editor Mazher Mahmood, posing as a tycoon, to deliver in exchange for cash access to her former husband, Prince Andrew who has wide links with the international business community.

We can only begin to imagine what she must have felt like in the aftermath of the article’s appearance. But a piece on the Duchess in June’s Readers’ Digest reveals that she felt ‘total despair’ as a result of previous criticism from press commentators. She says ‘I went into a church and told the priest I didn’t think I could cope with it.’

Sarah Ferguson’s attempt to benefit personally from her relationship to the Duke has some specific lessons for us as Christians. For which of us can say honestly that we have never sought to make the relationship with God we claim to have work to our advantage?

‘It wouldn’t be about him, it would be about me. I could bring you great business,’ said Fergie to Mahmood, rather ambiguously. The central challenge of Christian faith is to focus all our living on God, and not on ourselves, on ‘him’ rather than on ‘me’. But while we cheerfully commit to this in church, in practical terms we often sideline God, living as thought it was all ‘about me.’

For example, do I entrust myself to God because I have glimpsed the breath-taking wonder of his love for me, or because I want the blessing and security which he promises those who follow him? How much of my motivation in writing this column is to sing God’s song and encourage others to join in, and how much to gain fulfilment and recognition?

When I take part up-front in church, how much of my motivation is to praise God and help others praise him, how much to raise my personal profile? When I help others, am I serving Jesus, or simply fulfilling a deep personal need to be needed?

We criticise Sarah Ferguson’s self-seeking. And yet how many of us, behind the smiles and the spiritual words can say honestly ‘It’s not about me. It’s about him.’

The Duchess claimed to be a gate-keeper, introducing people to the Prince. As Christians, we are called to be gate-keepers, issuing an invitation to people to meet Jesus. The challenge to us is to be faithful in this – not to present the faith in such a light that people think they need to accept our way of doing church and buy into our church culture before Jesus will accept them. We are called to joyfully point people to Jesus in an honest and self-effacing way.

The Duchess claimed that Andrew knew all about her offer to Mahmood – that she was acting, if not in his name then at least with his knowledge. But Andrew later denied this. Similarly, it is possible for those of us who claim to follow Jesus to assure ourselves and others that what we are doing is done in his name and in dependence on him when in fact God is not present in our actions.

Four evenings after Sarah’s fateful dinner with Mahmood in Mosimann’s club in Mayfair, the News of the World hit the streets, the soundtrack of their conversation was on the internet, and words spoken in private were listened to around the world.

On judgement day all secrets will be revealed. Jesus imagined some folk proudly listing on that day the things they’d done in his name and being devastated to hear him say ‘I never knew you. Away from me.’ These folk may have been passionate and zealous, but within them was an absence of love, an absence of obedience to God, an absence of humility and grace. For all their fine words and actions, their’s was a self-driven religion, not a glad entering into God’s song.

If Sarah makes her way once again in despair to that priest, we pray he reminds her that there is a greater news than the News of the World – the news of God’s spiritual kingdom, the news that Jesus is God’s gatekeeper, the news that we need not pay him for access to the Father, since he has already paid the price for our admittance.

The millions who listened to Sarah Ferguson’s confession on American television this Tuesday may be slow to forgive her. But all who approach in a spirit of repentance the paygate Jesus has opened hear the Father’s welcoming voice saying ‘Come on in! You are forgiven!’

Andrew A. Bonar and Jonathan Sacks

Over the last few months, I’ve been reading the Diary of Andrew A. Bonar (1810-1892) the notable Scottish Free Churchman whose bi-centenary is celebrated this year. The resulting Christian Viewpoint column I wrote for the Highland News was a ‘soft’ piece, focussing not so much on Bonar’s theology, as on noting some of the images from everyday life which he used to illuminate the spiritual dimension. I guess for me symbols and imagery have always spoken more powerfully than ideas, I did note in passing however that Bonar’s life which, for all its seriousness seems to have been joy- and love-filled belies the stereotype of Calvinists as stern zealots.

Sometimes the diaries irritated me, and I felt an instant guilt at being irritated by someone who was patently such a godly person. But when you see him worrying that his kids, having innocent fun on holiday, might temporarily take their eyes off God you do feel like telling him to ‘get a life.’ And mixed with his joy in God’s presence were times of utter dejection when he was plagued with a sense of his failure. I guess it is true that the closer to God you are the more you’re aware of your shortcomings. But isn’t it also true that closeness to God is a constant reminder of his grace and acceptance in Christ, so that the mist of dejection at your failure is quickly burned up by the rising sun of his embracing love?

At other times, however, I was deeply blessed by Bonar’s words. I recall particularly a trip to Stirling back in April when I read the Diary for much of the way down from Inverness and then, in the afternoon, sat for an hour on the station in the bright spring sunshine immersed in Bonar as trains came and went. I was flooded with joy and peace and hope and certainty, the whisper of God. Interesting that you can be so blessed through the words of someone with whom there would no doubt be many issues on which you don’t see eye-to-eye.

I realised about ten years ago that I was a ‘complicated evangelical’ when I came to accept that for me, the old ‘evangelical paradigm’ didn’t satisfactorily explain all the issues I had, and that it was OK to embrace a bigger, more scary paradigm which involved living with mystery and unanswered questions and less dogmatism.

But then I read someone like Andrew Bonar, so prayerful, so aware of God – and so convinced that the paradigm of his essentially Calvinist take on truth is substantially accurate, and once again I feel challenges and unsettled. Are folks like Bonar right? Should I turn back to the old evangelical paradigm with its focus more on certainties than on unknowing?

Last Saturday I saw Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks writing, movingly as he often does, in The Times. His subject was his own discovery of God, and he noted though a holy book and a holy land had contributed to his spiritual growth, mostly ‘I found God in people.’ He quotes a story by Jorge Luis Borges in which ‘he imagines someone coming across a stranger who has something about him – an unlikely tenderness, an exaltation – that doesn’t belong, that seems to be a reflection of someone else.’ Borges writes ‘Somewhere in the world there is a man from whom this clarity, this brightness, emanates.’

Says Sacks ‘He searches for this mysterious presence entirely by following his reflection in others. That is how I have searched for God. And that is where I have found Him, in holy people and ordinary people, in lives lifted beyond themselves, in serene grace and holy argument, in acts of quiet courage and improbably recconciliation, in gentle wisdom and soaring imagination, in forgiving eyes and gestures of love.’

As Christians, would we not say that it is from Jesus that ‘this clarity, this brightness, emanates,’ and that we see in one another as Christians glimpses of his radiance? But what do we make of Sack’s assertion that we can catch glimpses of the Source in many good people – by implication of difference faiths and none? Is it true that glimpses of God can be seen in all of us? Are these reflected glories simply residual insights from our source in God, or is God present in the everyday goodnesses of all women and men regardless of their beliefs? And if people have actively sought these goodnesses in dependence on strength from beyond themselves will God reject them because they have not had faith in Christ? And how much do I, who claim to know so much about Christian theology, reflect the Source in my everyday life?

It’s questions like these, which won’t go away, which make me uncomfortable with the austere joy of Bonar’s paradigm, much as I acknowledge his saintliness and outstanding faith.

One image he used (on 28th January 1877) particularly struck me. ‘Today,’ he wrote, ‘I was like a man standing in full sight of plenty at the door of a well-stored granary, all of it mine; but I took little of it.’ It’s true how little we sometimes appreciate and appropriate of God’s goodness to us. But I also thought that that there were things in that granary which Bonar didn’t realise were there perhaps because his theology denied them reality. Bonar hungered for the Holy Spirit and yet he does not seem to have had an insight into the present reality of the gifts of the Spirit which some 20th century Christians were to rediscover. For us, too in the 21st century there will be treasures in that granary which we don’t yet know are there.

Thursday, 10 June 2010

The ideal day

Another tough day at work lies ahead, with problems that I'm not sure how to resolve. An encouragement to think that, if God is truly sovereign, then each day there is an ideal path for me to take, an ideal way for me to live and react, and the challenge of faith is, with God's grace to find and take that path and live that way. In response to this encouragement, I might wonder if it is possibly true, since we bring into each day so much baggage from the past. And yet, if God is truly sovereign, then surely he gives us each morning as a gift, fresh and new, the consequences of our mistakes from the past somehow redeemed and woven into the texture of present possibilities. So today - how close will I come to the ideal? A starting point is to trust that God knows the answers to problems from yesterday - and the answers to today's problems of which I am not yet even aware.

Saturday, 29 May 2010

e4libraries Award

Here I am with Bill Fernie, Chair of the Highland Council's Education Culture and Sport Committee and the certificate of accreditation we received from Book Industry Communication's e4Libraries Project. Highland Libraries is the first Library Service in Scotland to receive this accreditation, which recognises success in implmenting new technologies. See the press release here.

Lessons from Florence Nightingale

Who hasn’t heard of Florence Nightingale, who worked tirelessly to improve conditions at the military hospital at Scutari during the Crimean War? Who hasn’t heard of the quality of personal care she gave the wounded soldiers, and of her legendary evening visits to their bedsides, the ‘Lady with the Lamp’?

This year sees the centenary of Nightingale’s death, and last Wednesday, her birthday, a chapel was dedicated to her at Westminster Abbey. It’s the first time a chapel there has been named after someone not either a member of the royal family or a saint.

In recent weeks, various writers have described Florence Nightingale as a ‘secular saint’. But is that not a contradiction in terms: isn’t a ‘saint’ by definition someone dedicated to God?

If by calling Nightingale a ‘secular saint’ people mean that she was an outstanding person with no Christian faith, then they are wide of the mark. For she was unquestionably a believer. Born in 1820 to affluent parents, she was brought up as an Anglican. She describes being ‘converted’ in her mid-teens, and on 7th February 1837 received what she described as ‘a call to service’ from God.

Nightingale believed that each of us is loved with ‘the infinite love of the most high God.’ Her faith was Jesus-centred - ‘Personal union with Jesus Christ: without this we are nothing,’ she wrote. And she saw herself standing before God after death, ‘utterly dependent on God’s providence alone and not…anything of my own at all.’

Her beliefs were not entirely orthodox – she couldn’t, for example, accept that the love of God would not eventually persuade all his enemies to turn to him, and so did not believe in hell. But there is no questioning the authenticity of her faith.

I suppose by ‘secular saint’ people could mean a Christian who lives out their vocation in the everyday world. This was certainly true of Florence Nightingale, and we can learn from her example. For we all have a ‘vocation’: the word has come to mean simply a ‘job’, but originally it described a call from God to make a difference, to build God’s kingdom. Nightingale’s call took her to Scutari, and motivated her later campaigning from her sickbed to improve the Army Medical Service, and to influence hospital design, public sanitation projects, and the status and training of nurses.

She regarded Christians as ‘fellow workers with God.’ His plan is to bring everything to perfection, and our vocation, as we’d put it today, is to reflect in the present the values of the coming kingdom. Nightingale wrote ‘It is because it is God’s plan to be completed in God’s eternity that I work at all.’

She believed in the need for the Holy Spirit’s presence. ‘O God’, she prayed, ‘Give me Thy Holy Spirit (twenty times a day) to convince me of sin, of righteousness, above all to give me love, a real individual love for everyone.’

Yet she saw working for God as a matter of discovering the rules God has put in place governing all aspects of his creation – including health, sanitation and social welfare – and work along with these laws to bring improvement. In this we feel she was missing something. She regarded God’s laws as unchanging, and did not seem to acknowledge that the God who made the rules might choose to work outside the rules, that the Holy Spirit can work miracles.
She was a saint working in the everyday world. But really, does that make her a secular saint? Wasn’t her whole point that for the saint, nothing in creation is ‘secular’, for God has an interest in it all?

But the words ‘secular saint’ could conceivably refer to someone whose goodness is recognised by people who do not share their faith. This was certainly the case with Florence Nightingale. In this sense, we’re all called to be secular saints, bearing in us the lamp of God’s truth and of God’s healing presence, and bringing others within the circle of its light.

Florence Nightingale once said that the whole of religion was summed up in two four-word phrases from the version of the Bible she used. A boy says to God ‘Here am I, Lord.’ Jesus comforts his disciples by coming to them during a storm and saying ‘Lo it is I.’ And so at the birth of our faith and ever afterwards, Jesus comes to us in our fear, and we respond.

Nightingale wrote that often she would say ‘Here am I, Lord,’ and think she had to do everything herself, forgetting that he journeys with us. And we too forget that the strength of God’s presence comes to us in our weakness, as he says with commanding reassurance ‘Lo it is I.’

(My column in the Highland News, dated 22nd May 2010)