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.