Friday, 30 November 2012

Harry Potter, we need you now!

The Casual Vacancy, the new novel for adults by Harry Potter’s creator J. K. Rowling is until the last few pages a thoroughly dispiriting read. It’s set in the small English town of Pagford, which comprises a middle class area, and the Fields, a sad Council-house ghetto of squalor and despair.
The lives of many of the town-centre characters we meet reveal an absence of grace and love, a selfish small-mindedness, a lack of integrity. The lives of the folk from the Fields are broken by degradation, addiction and abuse.  Pagford is a community affected by what today we describe as character flaws, but which as Libby Purves pointed out in the Times last week Christians used to call sin.
Frankly, Pagford sounds a bit like hell. How different from the Harry Potter books, where Harry and Hermione and Ron battle along with Professor Dumbledore on the side of goodness and light.  There, the distinction between good and evil is, for the most part, clear. In Pagford’s sad Muggle-land such light as there is in peoples’ lives is mixed with darkness. Is the victory of light something we must leave behind us like a book read in childhood? Oh, Harry Potter we need you now!
The only outstanding character in the novel, Barry Fairbrother was born in the Fields but overcame his person difficulties. Though not without flaws, his life is marked by grace, and by a big-hearted optimism. But just three pages in, Barry dies.
Religious faith doesn’t feature highly in the life of Pagford. The vicar of the church of St Michael and All Saints is a shadowy caricature. We hear of no active Christian voice or engagement in the community.
A Sikh family remind us of their conviction that ‘the light of God shines from every soul.’ And in the Church a stained-glass window depicts St Michael with a sword in one hand and scales in the other. ‘A sandaled foot rested on the back of a writhing bat-winged Satan.’
But there is little evidence in Rowling’s pages of the light of God shining from the souls of Pagford, and the defeated figure beneath St Michael’s foot seems still to be active in their lives.
And yet, at the very end of the novel, following two tragic deaths, some of the characters undergo significant change, as though blown on a new course of hope and purpose by some wind of grace. However, other characters remain untouched. And a young woman, in whose life there have always been glimmerings of grace despite her dire circumstances is one of those who doesn’t make it to the end of the book.
How authentic is this change in peoples’ attitudes? Is it merely an author’s sleight of hand, driven by Rowling’s desire for an up-beat ending? Perhaps. But it’s the kind of thing you’d expect in a world where the finger of God’s grace is always present, where God’s awakening whisper assures us that change is possible. Some of us listen and respond, some of us close our ears, and there is always the mystery of those to whom bad things happen even though they long for change.

Rowling tells us that Barry Fairbrother had seen things in someone from the Fields ‘which were invisible to other people’s eyes.’ He had discerned her potential, glimpsed possibilities. God sees in us things which may be invisible to other people. God sees the things we want to hide, which is scary; but God also sees the longings present in our sinful, mixed-up lives, a longing for joy, for grace, for change; and God sees in us a potential which we don’t yet recognise ourselves. 

We may think we have left Harry Potter behind when we turn from the child’s view of reality and embrace the perplexing narrative of adult life, but in fact the whisper of grace is heard there just as clearly, and there we can meet the real Harry Potter, whose victorious foot holds down the ‘bat-winged Satan.’ 

His name is Jesus Christ, who died at the very start of the Christian story but who now lives for ever, brooding lovingly in Spirit over the Pagford of our hearts. 
The Casual Vacancy is not a religious book, nor was it intended to be. But read from a Christian perspective it is a book about the tragedy of life without grace, and the triumph of grace in the lives of those who are open to it. It challenges us to welcome this grace, and then, changed by it, to be ambassadors of grace acting in our communities with Barry Fairbrother hearts, seeing and encouraging potential, urging people to welcome the inner light of a beckoning God, pointing to Jesus Christ as the source of all hope.
(Christian Viepoint column from the Highland News dated 1st November 2012)

Sunday, 25 November 2012

A life in letters: Earache

I remember being treated one afternoon for an ear infection by a doctor at Monklands Hospital at Airdrie. It was at a time in the late 1980s when I was deeply depressed and anxious, and the small physical pain seemed so insignificant in comparison with my greater angst that I almost cancelled the appointment. However, half an hour after work, I was sitting in the hospital corridor, waiting to be called for treatment.  The doctor was so concerned, so gentle as he examined the ear and prescribed treatment. His compassion prompted both gratitude, and melancholy, because it seemed that no concern, no treatment could reach the greater, unspoken pain which hungered for healing.

A life in letters: Hancock, Tony (1924-1968)

Comedian and actor, who had a major success on BBC radio and television in the 1950s with Hancock’s Half Hour. I don’t recall watching Hancock as a child, although I was aware of his name. What I do recall was the mingled delight and shock of watching a boy in our Primary School playground chanting the syllables of the comedian’s name while pointing to the homonyminous parts of his anatomy.

A life in letters: Kennedy, John F. (1917-1963)

The 35th President of the United States, assassinated on 22 November 1963. As an 11-year-old, I was aware of his name and position, but I don’t think anything else connected with his Presidency – even the Cuban Missile Crisis of October 1962 when nuclear war seemed imminent – had  really impacted on me.  Like so many, however, I remember where I was when I heard of his assassination – standing on the hall of our house, welcoming guests my parents had invited for dinner. They’d heard of the events in Dallas on their car radio on the way over, and passed on the news as soon as we opened our front door. 
Two days later, Lee Harvey Oswald, the sniper who assassinated Kennedy ,was himself shot by Jack Ruby, a nightclub owner with links to organised crime, as Oswald was handcuffed and being moved from police headquarters to the county jail. In the playground we enjoyed the rhythm of the words ‘The man who killed the man who killed President Kennedy’, and imagined Ruby himself being shot so that our chant could be extended -  ‘The man who killed the man who killed the man who killed the President’  and so on. 
I built a pagoda-style tower with Lego bricks and dubbed it the President Kennedy Memorial Building, its name written on a card inside an empty plastic Wilkinson Sword razor blade box displayed at the foot of the structure. My first published piece of writing was in the school magazine published in Spring 1964, a report on the proposed demolition of the building some date deep in the 21st century. Later, I read a book club edition of William Manchester’s painstaking recreation of Kennedy’s assassination, The Death of a President, originally published in 1967. It was a disturbing read.

Saturday, 24 November 2012

A life in letters: Warminster Mystery

A book by journalist Arthur Shuttlewood (1920-1996) published in 1968 reporting on the series of alleged sightings of Unidentified Flying Objects in and around Warminster in Wiltshire which began at Christmas 1964. The blurb claimed that ‘The Warminster Mystery is a dramatic unfolding of these sightings, with eyewitness accounts of strange "things" seen by day and night; of bewildering mushrooms of smoke, crescents of fire, weird and disturbing sounds and even accounts of conversations with those from outer space.’  Shuttlewood wrote several books in which he claimed to have had personal contact with aliens intent on preventing the human race from destroying the planet.

I borrowed The Warminster Mystery from the library with enthusiastic anticipation, shortly after it was released, and naively didn’t question the truth of what I read.  I found the theme of alien encounters in Shuttlewood’s work disturbing.  He combined mysticism and pseudo-science, and I was shocked to come across a sentence to the effect that the UFO activity over Warminster was an indication that the return of Jesus Christ was imminent, and specifying the year in which it would happen.  In writing this, I suspect Shuttlewood (who is said to have claimed to have been visited by Jesus Christ)  had in mind the then-popular theory that ‘God is an astronaut’, and that religions are explained by encounters with an alien race. However, I read his words in the context of the Christian teaching about the Rapture and the second coming of Christ with which I was so familiar, and I was smitten with fear as the specified time approached.

Friday, 23 November 2012

Linking two worlds

As Kieran Turner puts it, his new role is to be ‘a link between two worlds.’ The young politics graduate was speaking at Hilton Church last Sunday. For the last couple of years Kieran has worked in the Inverness office of MSPs David Stewart and Rhoda Grant, but on Monday he starts a new job as Glasgow-based Public Policy Officer with a Christian think-tank, the Evangelical Alliance.

Kieran will be a link between the world of Christian faith, and the world of Scottish politics. He will relay to policy-makers the views of evangelical Christians, and help churches engage with politicians locally and nationally.

The day before Kieran spoke at Hilton, a thought-provoking article by Matthew Parris appeared in The Times. The journalist had taken part in a panel discussing proposals for gay marriage. Another panellist was the former Bishop of Rochester, the Rt Rev Dr Michael Nazir-Ali.

According to Matthew, the clergyman’s argument could have been put forward ‘by an unreligious professor of sociology and was apparently based on the social and cultural value of marriage as presently defined.’ Lying unspoken behind the former Bishop’s words, Matthew detected his Christian-based belief that homosexual practice is wrong.
It was, Matthew continued, the same with the recent debate over whether the legal limit for abortion should be reduced from 24 to 12 weeks.  The arguments of some of the participants were, he believed, driven by unspoken religious belief rather than by pure logic.

Matthew Parris believes religious people should be upfront about where their opinions are coming from, as the knowledge that views spring from religious belief can affect how they are received. If an audience knows someone’s advice is ‘faith based’ they ‘might wish to discount it.’
What Matthew doesn’t seem to understand is that the way of living Christians believe God calls us to is not arbitrary or restrictive. It is the lifestyle which best enables us to flourish. And so when thus way of living is put into practice the benefits are evident.

Even Matthew’s unreligious professor of sociology would be able to see and measure the results in people’s lives of conforming to God’s ideal, while not discerning the source of these benefits. So it is perfectly possible for Christians to argue coherently and logically about the benefits of putting Christian values into practice without being explicit about our faith.
However, I am concerned by Matthew’s implication that if we are to be heard on equal terms with others taking part in the debate then we need to set our faith on one side because the presence of faith in our views somehow undermines the validity of what we are saying.

Because for religious people, just as much as for atheists like Matthew or agnostics, our perception of reality is not a bolt-on extra, but is fundamental to our identity. Yes, Matthew, we’re only too happy to come clean about our faith, to be real. But please recognise that our deep Christian, or Muslim or Jewish or Buddhist convictions are as central to our lives as your thoughtful, atheistic position is to you. Please respect us as we respect you.
I’ve just been reading a book called A public faith: how followers of Christ should serve the common good. Its author, Miroslav Volf argues that in a democracy everyone should be entitled to speak out from where they are taking part in debate over the future of society. If as a religious person you are asked to leave your faith perspective at the door, or if when you speak up your point of view leads to what you say being discounted or ignored then it is fundamentally anti-democratic.

Volf’s vision is for people of different faiths and none to be able to take part in debate, both listening and being listened to with respect, in an honest search for the best way ahead for society, in a forum where we ‘argue productively as friends rather than destructively as enemies.’
This, I believe, is the kind of constructive, loving engagement which Kieran Turner will promote as he articulates the views of a significant section of the Scottish Christian community.

It’s not just Kieran who aims to bring two worlds together. All of us face the challenge of being our Christian selves wherever we are, bringing together the world of faith, and the worlds of home, work, school, community. It’s the challenge of speaking with integrity and listening with respect as together we work to bring a flourishing across our nation.
But as Christians we believe that the dimensions we link together are not just the worlds of faith and everyday life, but heaven and earth as with God’s help we seek to reflect into our own dear Scotland the very life of heaven.

(Christian Viewpoint column from the Highland News 25th October 2012)

A life in letters, Vanguard, The

‘We’re going to see the Vanguard!’ my parents announced one morning in August 1960. I was puzzled. My mother’s parents had a Vanguard, one of the range produced at Coventry by the Standard Motor Company from 1947 to 1953. But seeing this familiar car was nothing to make special announcements about. Later that day, somewhere on the shoreline of the Firth of Clyde we saw a rather larger Vanguard – HMS Vanguard, the battleship built during the Second World War and commissioned following the War’s end. In 1947, the vessel took King George VI and his family on the first Royal Tour of South Africa by a reigning monarch. In 1959 it was decided to decommission HMS Vanguard as the costs of maintaining her were too high, and she was towed ignominiously to the breakers’ yard at Faslane on the Firth of Clyde. My parents and I were among those who watched the arrival of the long grey hull, the last of the dreadnoughts.

Wednesday, 21 November 2012

A life in letters: River Clyde

The River Clyde, Scotland’s third-longest river, flowed through the earlier part of my life. As a child, my father lived close to the south Lanarkshire plain across which the river meanders. When I was a kid we’d cross and re-cross its waters on Saturday afternoon drives. Carstairs. Thankerton. Biggar. Afternoon tea at the Wyndales House Hotel.

When I was very young, we lived near the top of a rising avenue in a Glasgow suburb. The Clyde was just a few miles away, and on misty nights I’d lie warm and safe in bed listening as the booming of foghorns on the river reverberated over shrouded rooftops. Sometimes I’d be lullabied by the whine of aero engines at the Rolls Royce plant at Hillington on the south side of the river.

Occasionally we’d drive down grey tenemented streets, and cross the Clyde on the old Whiteinch Ferry (the one called the ‘horse ferry’ to distinguish it from the much smaller passenger ferry.) It was an elaborate cake-stand of an affair, roll-on-roll-off. On girders high above the open vehicle deck where we sat in the car during the brief crossing, was the wheelhouse. The Whiteinch Ferry was withdrawn when the Clyde Tunnel opened in 1963.

One summer when I was in my early teens my father’s colleague Robert Walker rented a house in the Clyde Valley a few miles beneath the Falls of Clyde, its grounds stretching to the riverside. We visited one evening. There were three daughters, a son, and a baby boy. As an outsider welcomed for the evening I glimpsed the tantalising joys of family life. My father, Robert and we kids walked down to the river. A tiny stream spurted busily down a bank into the flowing waters. The Walker kids got their hands dirty, diverting its flow. ‘It might be a sewage burn,’ I said to my father morosely, holding back

Much later we visited the Walkers one Sunday afternoon in their house at Whitecraigs on the outskirts of Glasgow. A couple of the siblings, now teenagers drove into the city centre and took me with them. I remember gliding over the Kingston Bridge, high above the river making its way through the city centre. I envied their independence, their freedom, their self-possession, their ownership of the bright Sunday afternoon city.

My most frequent crossings of the river were made on the long, broad bridge which the trains cross on their way in and out of Central Station. For three years I arrived their daily on my way to Glasgow University.  Nearby, the Clyde is spanned by the bridge at the bottom of Jamaica Street. This was the scene of a crazy, anguished play I wrote while a student, desperate with my burden of religious hypocrisy which no-one would acknowledge.

My play was called Possess it merely, taken from Hamlet’s ‘To be or not to be’ soliloquy:

O God! God! How weary, stale, flat and unprofitable
Seem to me all the uses of this world!
Fie on’t! ah fie! ‘tis an unweeded garden
That grows to seed; things rank and gross in nature
Possess it merely.

It was about a girl in a similar position to myself, seeking to persuade her parents that despite their beliefs to the contrary she was not a Christian. The limited extent of my understanding of human depravity was evident from the fact that the worst thing my character could do to prove she was unregenerate was to get herself pregnant. But her parents regarded their daughter’s pregnancy not as evidence of her lack of true faith, but as an individual moral lapse, and still they refused to believe that she had not taken the crucial step of accepting Christ. Possess it merely ended with the girl flinging herself one night from Jamaica Bridge, and falling down, down into the oily embrace of the River Clyde’s dark waters.

In the 1980s, my parents lived at Crossford in the Clyde Valley not far from Lanark. Occasionally, when I was visiting them, I’d make my way along the river bank above Crossford Bridge. The scene, sunlight shining through the trees and sparkling the gentle current with light, was perfect.  I knew it was beautiful; I could analyse the elements contributing to its beauty, and yet emotionally I remained distant and untouched.

Downstream from Glasgow City Centre, on the south bank of the river is the site now occupied in part by the Science Centre and the BBC and Scottish Television headquarters. This was in 1988, the 120 acre venue for the Glasgow Garden Festival, which was visited by 4.3 million people between April and September that year. There were rides and gardens and entertainment and shops: what I recall most vividly is the wind garden where strangely-shaped objects produced eerie sounds.

I spent a (rather grey) day there sometime over the summer. I was not wildly enthusiastic about going, but I felt I should visit: my parents frequently mentioned their joyous school visit as teenagers to the previous big Glasgow international showcase, the Empire Exhibition held at Bellahouston Park 50 years previously. There was no real sense of connectedness and joy that day as I left the car park beside the Exhibition Centre and crossed the Clyde on the newly-opened pedestrian bridge. But at least I was not alone – I shared the day with my colleague and friend, Fiona Colquhoun.

Another colleague was with me when I caught site of the Clyde far beneath us on a sunny evening in July 1990. We’d flown down to London that morning to an award ceremony at the House of Commons. The Educational Library Service had been shortlisted for a library publicity award sponsored by the Dumfries Library Booksellers T. C. Farries; their local MP Hector Munro had arranged the impressive venue. We tubed into London from Heathrow, met our boss Margaret Sked and her partner at a pub near Whitehall and made for the House through sweltering streets. We didn’t win, but that hardly spoiled the day.  Nearly home, we passed over Hamilton and the river snaking through Strathclyde Park, and swept round over Kirkintilloch before crossing the river again just before touching down. I made it back home in time to catch the end of the First Night of the Proms – the triumphant conclusion of Mahler’s Resurrection Symphony.

Sunday, 18 November 2012

A life in letters: Strength for today, bright hope for tomorrow

Strength for today, and bright hope for tomorrow. A line from the hymn Great is Thy Faithfulness by Thomas Chisholm (1866-1960) Over the last 30 years or so, this line has been a kind of mantra to me which I find myself muttering on bad days when I am feeling low and have no sense of God’s presence. It is an expression of faith – a prayer, I suppose -  that I will be enabled to endure,  that better days will come.  But am I deluding myself? Has it always been like this – a daily struggle to be strong, with hope perpetually deferred? Well no, because in the story of my life over those decades, there have been many positive things – I have married, and had a family; I have a creative and satisfying job;  I have grown personally and have known  insights, wisdom, whispers of grace, moments of sheer joy. I have been given both strength and hope, and for this I am truly thankful. And yet there are still days, when all I can do is to repeat ‘Strength for today and bright hope for tomorrow.’  And I guess such days will always be until we find ourselves in the Dimension Beyond.

Friday, 16 November 2012

Lord, help me to be angry

This week, I have been praying that I may learn how to be angry. 

Recently, my daughter Bethany’s friend Natalie asked me if, should someone do something bad to a friend, I’d be angry. I answered her honestly: ‘I don’t know. I can imagine myself being numb, and deeply sad, but angry? I’m not sure.’
‘Well,’ said Natalie (slightly embarrassed at correcting someone almost four times her age) ‘It’s nice that you don’t get angry, but don’t you think there are some situations where it’s right to be angry?’ And of course, she’s quite correct.
At church last Sunday each verse of one of the songs began ‘Take us.’ In singing, we were inviting God to take us in our imagination to symbolic places which powerfully reflect aspects of Christian faith. Take us, for example, to the river ‘flowing with grace’; take us to heaven itself to hear the cry that ‘mercy has triumphed over judgement.’
It occurred to me that there are journeys God wants to take us on as individuals. Journeys across the street or across the world. Inner journeys, on which we discover more about ourselves and our destinies. Intellectual and spiritual journeys as we explore faith more deeply. Journeys which begin when we say ‘take me’ – with all the reassurance of those words that we do not travel alone. But does God do journeys into anger?
I remembered Ralph McTell’s powerful song Streets of London. The singer addresses someone whose life is basically OK but who has been complaining that they feel lonely and down. ‘Let me take you by the hand and lead you through the streets of London.’ There, they see cameos of desperately sad, impoverished people, ignored and abandoned, the tragic inhabitants of the capital’s streets. ‘I’ll show you something to make you change your mind.’
The response McTell expects from his listener is probably gratitude – gratitude that his or her life is so much better than the lives of those whose living room is a London street. But it seems to me that anger is an equally appropriate response.
Why are people living like this? Why are we, as a society, as religious groups, as individuals not making more of a difference in the lives of those who suffer?
Anger is an appropriate response to so many issues – the futility of war, the destructiveness of terrorism, the pervasiveness of an economic system which treats us simply as producers and consumers, global inequalities, the scandal of malnourished children in the heart of Africa, the misuse of power in high places.
Are we numb and sad, but not angry? Or not yet even sad, because the problems seem too immense for us to grapple with and for sanity’s sake, we’ve shut them out? Do we assume Christians must be gentle, sweet, forgiving, and not knowing what to do with our anger, pretend it doesn’t exist?
Well, gentle Jesus could do anger impressively when necessary – notably in the Temple when he was infuriated that the religious leaders were making a business out of faith. God does wrath impressively too, angry at the bad stuff we do, and the way it messes up our lives and the lives of others.
The anger of God is not that eye-popping, indisciplined, irrational raging springing from lack of self-control (of which, despite what Natalie thinks, I am very occasionally guilty when I’m stressed out.) This destructive raging is the brother of hatred.
The anger we need is focussed, controlled rage which walks hand in hand with love, love for both oppressor and oppressed, love which sees both as victims while not absolving the oppressor from blame. This is the anger which gives us resolve and strength, the imperative to work for change, through serving, not seeking power, through loving, not wielding violence.
And we’ll address not just global issues, but issues in our own communities which leave people wounded, oppressed and heartbroken. And we’ll be aware both of those whose suffering is obvious, and those who know they are fortunate, but feel only emptiness.
I realise that the seeds of everything wrong in the world produce shoots in my own heart. How can I stand up, in anger working for change, without being a hypocrite? Only if daily I am taken to a place where I hear that cry of mercy, forgiveness and healing. Forgiven and healed through the death and life of Jesus Christians want the whole world to find the same mercy and wholeness.
Take me. The God of mercy takes us into the streets our communities, the streets of the world, agents of change announcing in word and action to all who despair ‘Let me show you something to make you change your mind.’
Lord, help me to be angry.

(Christian Viewpoint column from the Highland News 18th October 2012)

Wednesday, 14 November 2012

A life in letters: Around the world submerged

Around the world submerged: The voyage of the Triton, published in 1963 was an account by the vessel’s captain, Edward L. Beach of the first ever submerged circumnavigation of the globe made by the nuclear submarine in early 1960. This was the library book I was reading at the age of fourteen. I vividly remember it lying on the coffee table in the room where I made the most personally harmful mistake of my life and lied when asked ‘Are you a Christian?’

A life in letters: Job, Book of

The book of Job in the Old Testament addresses the question of why good people – like Job himself - face suffering.  In the spring of 1980, a verse from the book had a powerful effect on me. I was suffering from severe anxiety and depression, and was staying for a few days at the building in Glasgow’s Prince Albert Road which had been the Glasgow College of Worldwide Evangelisation Crusade, and was still at that point owned by the Mission.
On the Sunday morning, in bright sunshine, I walked across Kelvingrove Park to the Sandyford Henderson Memorial Church of Scotland with some of the university students who lived at the Mission house, and sat down in the cool interior of the old building. The only thing I remember about the service was a verse from the book of Job in the Bible which the Revd George Philip quoted in a prayer – ‘Though he slay me, yet will I trust in him.’ (Job 13:15) I had never, to my knowledge, heard these words, this naked expression of faith in God no matter what, this apparently insane conviction that despite the incomprehensible darkness and pain all would be well.
The translators differ over whether the words George Philip quoted from the King James version of the Bible are in fact an accurate equivalent of the original Hebrew, but no matter. For me, that morning, they were the words I needed to hear, not just for that day, but for the days to come. I found I could identify both with Job’s sense of alienation and bleak abandonment, and with the faith in which he was able to say, in effect ‘I don’t know what you are doing, God. I don‘t know why your are inflicting this terrible pain on me like a malicious sadist, or at very least sitting back, it seems, a spectator in the arena of my suffering, but I believe. I believe you are love. I believe that somehow in this your love is present. I believe. Whatever happens, I believe.’
And as I gladly took those words ‘though you slay me yet will I trust in you’ and made them my own, I found an oasis of peace at the heart of the storm, where I remained throughout the day. Later, I reflected that those words of Job could so easily have been used by Jesus as he died, absorbing from God’s hand the judgement which the human race deserved. It was because of his perseverance and faith in the goodness of God when it seemed that his father had become his enemy that we, as his followers, can find a secure place, and draw near to the oasis.
That afternoon, back at the college, I sat in the library, much calmer. Out in the porch, venerable retired missionaries sat in the sunlight talking of the Lord’s goodness in their lives, and their level of spirituality seemed so much deeper than mine. And yet I was confident that I could trust God in the darkness, and for then, as for much of my life, that was enough for me.

Tuesday, 13 November 2012

A life in letters: Conversion 2

Until it came to the second Sunday in December in 1973, and the 6.30pm gospel service at Carluke Gospel Hall which we were by then attending. Over the autumn, the tension and despair had heightened. The Winter of Discontent had led to power cuts, the three-day-week, a miasma of crisis. In October there was war in the Middle East. Surely the end of all things was at hand, and still I couldn’t find the door.

The speaker that Sunday evening was one of the local ‘saints’ John McEwan. He read the passage from the Bible he was about to preach on. It was Jesus’ story about a rich man, outside whose house a beggar named Lazarus habitually stationed himself, asking for alms from passers-by. The rich man’s heart, however, was untouched by Lazarus’s need. In time, the beggar died and was taken to heaven, or, as Jesus put it in the symbolism of the period into ‘Abraham’s bosom.’ Later, the rich man also died, and found himself tormented in hell. In anguish, he begged Abraham to send Lazarus across to where he was to place on his tongue a drop of cool water. ‘Not possible,’ said Abraham. ‘No-one can cross from where we are to where you are, or from where you are to where we are.’
‘Well, if that’s not possible,’ implored the once-rich man, ‘then restore Lazarus to life on earth to warn my five brothers about the reality of this place so that they will take heed, and avoid finding themselves here when they die. ‘But your brothers can read the prophets’ warnings about what lies beyond death any time they want,’ Abraham replied. ‘But don’t you see?’ said the once-rich man, ‘They would really believe if someone returned from death and gave them the warning personally.’
 As John McEwan read this story in the old language of the King James Version of the Bible, my eyes and heart raced ahead of him, and I reached the punch-line of the story, which spoke to me powerfully – ‘But Abraham said, “If they won’t listen to Moses and the prophets, they won’t listen if someone rises from the dead.” ‘
In a millisecond, I realised I’d been assuming that because of the spiritual mess I perceived myself to be in, God would have to do something extra, something beyond the ordinary if he were to reach out and rescue this particular lost sheep. But I also recognised that not only had I ‘Moses and the prophets’, in the Old Testament part of the Bible, but I had in my hands the New Testament as well, with its story of Jesus coming among us, and still I was slow to believe. And the accuracy of Abraham’s diagnosis of human nature in the story was proven by the fact that though I not only had the whole Bible, but also evidence that a man (Jesus himself) had been raised from the dead and had returned to tell us about his experience, yet STILL I did not believe. And I saw clearly that what God had done for me was enough to draw even me back to himself.
I can’t think of any purely psychological explanation why this verse should have spoken to me so powerfully while any number of other sermons and Bible readings I had listened to during the dark years had left me superficially anxious, but untouched at a deeper, healing level, and I believed then as I believe now that God himself met me in those words and brought them alive to me.
That evening as usual I helped run the Bible Class after the evening service. With the teenagers who attended, we were working through one of the Bible study courses produced by an organisation called Emmaus – I think it was called Lessons for Christian living.  Among the questions we considered that week there was a comment which went something like this: ‘Perhaps you are not sure that you are a Christian. If this is the case, you can pray now, and ask Jesus to enter your life.’ This simply confirmed to me that God’s invitation was open to me, and that night at home I prayed, and unlike so many of my other Sunday-evening prayers, it seemed that my words were carried upwards into the very heart of God, and I was touched by joy, peace, and hope. But the real change had taken place in the corrugated iron hall in Church Lane when my heart leaped in response to God’s voice: what happened at home later was merely a confirmation.
‘I became a Christian tonight,’ I said, breathlessly, to those who were close to me.
‘Don’t be silly! You’ve been a Christian for years.’
 I turned, and walked slowly away. I felt as though I had taken to share with them my most precious treasure, and it had been dashed out my hands.

A life in letters: Conversion 1

In an evangelical Christian context, the word ‘conversion’ describes the turning from a non-religious or a nominally religious way of life to embrace the Christian faith.  Conversion is another way of describing the radical inner awakening to God which Jesus described as being ‘born again’.
From as far back as I can remember, I was made aware of the need to be ‘born again’ if I was to be sure of reaching heaven.  I have no doubt my parents and Sunday School teachers spoke of the love of God, though I don’t recall this.  But the emphasis was not on loving this great Being in return but upon seeking the change which made you acceptable to God. I think I felt that God would love a reborn me rather than the me I was, and that my security in God’s love depended on my finding and entering the door marked ‘conversion’.
I remember sitting on my mother’s knee in the darkened, fire-lit back room of the house one winter evening when I was very young. I think it was Sunday, and my father was out at the Gospel Meeting. Together we sang the old chorus
In to my heart,
In to my heart,
Come in to my heart, Lord Jesus
Come in today,
Come in to stay.
Come in to my heart, Lord Jesus
I can’t recall how sincere I was in my singing. But certainly I had no sense of encountering God, no sense of joy, of ‘coming home.’  Much later, I would come to realise that the evangelical belief in the need ‘to be saved’ has room both for conversion as a ‘dramatic crisis’ and as a ‘gradual process of opening up to God.’ I would understand that quiet moments of spiritual and mental engagement with God in which the emotions are not necessarily deeply stirred can be as valid as those conversions where there is a burning sense of the divine. But from what I heard as a child, I formed the impression that you could measure the authenticity of your turning to God by the extent to which your heart was invaded by a sense of his love and joy, and this therapeutic drama forever eluded me.
I was confused because though believed the Christian message as it had been taught to me wholly and without reservation, on those occasions when I had sought quietly to respond to God, usually prompted by guilt, the outcome had not been as I had been led to anticipate. There had been no dramatic sense of inner revolution, no overwhelming inrush of God-consciousness, such as the stories of others had led me to expect.  
I remember going home one bright sunny evening after church, and kneeling down desperately at the foot of my bed in the Hunting Macrae tartan kilt they made me wear on Sundays, and calling out ‘God save me!’ and listening to the silence of heaven.  But driven as I was by fear rather than gently summoned by a Father’s voice I could not find that door marked ‘conversion’
I was aware of what was expected of me when an itinerant Irish evangelist, took a series of meetings in Carluke Town Hall early in my teens. Each night my parents and I listened as Eddie Macmaster spoke and sang. I found the interior of the Victorian building, its oak ceiling polished like coffin-wood, ominous.
As we walked home up Mount Stewart Street one evening, my mother said ‘One of these days John’s going to tell us he’s become a Christian.’ I felt the pressure of her expectations, and as I couldn’t deliver this gift to her, failure and inferiority.
There was a crisis when I was around 15. A family friend, only a few years older me asked if I was a Christian. I remember the room we were standing in when she asked the question, and even the title of the library book lying on the table. Was I a Christian? ‘Yes,’ I said, knowing I was lying. That fatal word ‘Yes’ cast a long shadow over the rest of my teenage years and beyond.
The next questions, of course, were ‘When?’ and ‘How?’, and for inspiration in answering them, I simply looked back to the most recent occasion when, impelled by a sermon, I had called out to God to save me, only to be met by heaven’s usual indifference.
The news that I had ‘become a Christian’  was greeted joyfully by my parents. The lie had been told, and there was no turning back. I was baptised (how did that pastor not discern the ambivalence in the heart of that young man attending baptism classes?) and joined Carluke Baptist Church, which we attended at that point.
But I had not, to my knowledge, been saved, and over the next six years I remained tense and miserable, sometimes waking at night with a strange, unsettling anxiety as once again I faced the weekly ordeal of eating bread and drinking wine as I felt unworthily, the Sunday-by-Sunday terror that an angry God might that week lose his patience and strike me dead.
The last resort, I felt, was to admit to my hypocrisy: I was quite certain that if I had the courage to do this, then someone would help me, opening my eyes to whatever it was I was failing to see. I have no idea what the particular catalyst was, but I clearly remember speaking to people close to me, telling them that I was living a lie, that I wasn’t a Christian at all, that I had never really made the decision to accept Christ.  ‘Of course you are a Christian!’ I was told, and when I insisted they added ‘This is just the devil getting at you!’ ‘In any case,’ they added, ‘If you’re not a Christian, you know how to become one.’
The door marked ‘conversion’ seemed even more remote. I think I would have done anything to find God, to breach his wall of silence, but heaven seemed forever closed to me.

Saturday, 10 November 2012

Get real!

My daughter Beth and her friend Sally were highly enthusiastic about Newton Faulkner when I collected them from his gig at the Ironworks last Thursday.

What attracted them was the authenticity of the singer-songwriter’s performance. They contrasted his down-to-earth reality with the artificiality of some other singers, whose performances they feel have been manufactured by the music industry. Their singing lacks conviction, because the songs they have been given to perform don’t spring from personal experience.
In contrast, the girls tell me, Newton Faulkner performs material which comes from the heart. They loved the way he chatted to the audience between songs, explaining how they came to be written.
Those lines in People should smile more which he has been criticised for, for instance - I can't change the world, Cos tryin' to make a difference makes things worse – apparently refer to an occasion when he went to help an elderly, bag-laden lady on an escalator at Gatwick only to be slapped in the face because she thought the dread-locked musician was about to rob her!
It’s not just singers who careers are controlled by pop music entrepreneurs who find it hard to be authentic. Many of us in fact need to do a Newton Faulkner and get real.
Some of us are inauthentic simply because we have never found out who we are. Since childhood, our way of living has been shaped by the expectations of others. We’ve lacked the confidence necessary to explore and lay claim to our true selves.
Some of us are inauthentic because being real would cost us too much. The teenager who wants to be part of the group and so does as the others do even when it’s against her better judgement. The young adult who isn’t brave enough to challenge her family’s views and say what she really thinks. The Christian who fears misunderstanding and rejection if he voices his doubts and questions.
Some of us are inauthentic because we’re trying so hard to be the people we think we ought to be. Someone continues in a career, ignoring the discontent simmering below the surface. Someone continues caring single-handedly for an aged parent without complaint, refusing to acknowledge the rising surge of despair.
Some of us are scared of what we might see if we allow ourselves to be authentic – scared of the thoughts and impulses which haunt us, scared to acknowledge they might be telling us something about ourselves which we need to hear.
Christian faith challenges us to get real. To acknowledge that we are who we are, dark stuff and all, and take ourselves to the God who forgives our failure, and sets us free to live the life he has for us. We will embrace God’s values not because we’re told to, but because we’ve learned that it is in embracing those values that we are freed to be our true selves.
A powerful phrase I came across recently is ‘the unlived life’ – that’s the life we were born to live, God’s dream for us, which we leave unlived if we live inauthentically, not accepting who we truly are. An unlived life is an unspeakable tragedy. And so wearisome. For if we are living inauthentically, we are drawing on our own depleting resources to get through each day; whereas if we embrace reality, we open ourselves to the creative energies of God.
If as Christians we are not making the impact we’d like in sharing our convictions with others, perhaps it’s because though our faith is sincere, we are not yet wholly real, we have not yet made our faith wholly our own. The message of Beth and Sally’s experience last Thursday night is that where there is reality, people notice.
Newton, the girls tell me, has no backing group, and takes the stage alone with just his guitar for company. As authentic Christians living out our faith we know our strengths and our weaknesses: we realise that we need the help of others in singing God’s song. But we can learn from Newton Faulkner’s style – not lording it over his audience, but almost serving them, ensuring they leave with a smile on their faces.
It’s when authenticity is matched by humility and a willingness to serve others that our lives as Christians will have maximum impact. We will discover that (most of the time) trying to make a difference makes things better rather than worse.  We can change the world.
But it’s vital to be real if we are to fulfil our mission as followers of the most authentic man who ever lived, the servant of all. We are overjoyed to be members of his backing group, once twelve strong, now billions strong, as he draws the whole world towards authenticity.
(Christian Viewpoint column from the Highland News, 11th October 2012)

Friday, 9 November 2012

A life in letters: Winter's work

Round about September the leading brethren would begin to talk about the ‘winter’s work’ It always seemed an odd phrase to me, for they were referring to the usual round of activities which ran annually from the autumn until Easter – the Sunday School and youth groups, the Saturday night tea meetings, the weekly woman’s activity. And yet for these men this was work, the vital work of spreading the gospel.

A life in letters: Purvey

In Lanarkshire, the word ‘purvey’ was used when I was young as a noun  to describe the food provided for church events such as Sunday School Soirees. The question ‘Who will we get to do the purvey this year?’ would be asked early in the planning process, the cue for a lively discussion of the merits of local caterers. The purvey would be delivered to the event on large bakers’ trays on which jostled paper bags each containing a biscuit, a piece of cake, a sandwich perhaps, or a scone. Tepid sausage rolls might be in the bags, or on a separate tray. At the appointed time in the course of the event, grace would be said, the trays carried down the aisle and the bags passed along each row until everyone had one. Volunteers carried pots of tea from the steaming kitchen, and the cups lined up at the end of the bookrests on the pews accompanied by sugar and a jug of milk would be filled with hot dark tea. For us kids, there was orange juice.

Sunday, 4 November 2012

A life in letters: Ruskin, John (1819-1900)

I remember discovering a volume of extracts from the writings of the Victorian art critic John Ruskin one day in the mid 1990s. The old volume was in the recycling bin at the Library Support Unit:  my colleagues were discarding it. I fished the book out, and began browsing through it.  I didn’t know anything about Ruskin’s background, or about his slow retreat from orthodox Christianity, but the following episode in his life resonated profoundly with me as I lingered in the chilly garage reading it.

He describes how, one July Sunday in 1858 when he was in Turin he attended a Waldensian chapel in the southern suburbs of the city.

The assembled congregation numbered in all some three or four and twenty, of which fifteen or sixteen were grey-haired women. There solitary and clerkless preacher, a somewhat stunted figure in a black coat, with a cracked voice…put his utmost zeal into a consolatory discourse on the wickedness of the wide world, more especially of the plain of Piedmont and the city of Turin, and on the exclusive favour of God, enjoyed by the between nineteen and twenty-four elect members of his congregation….

Ruskin then walked back into Turin ‘neither cheered nor greatly alarmed by this doctrine,’ and walked into an art gallery ‘where Paul Veronese’s Solomon and the Queen of Sheba ‘glowed in full afternoon light.’

The gallery windows being open, there came in with the warm air, floating swells and falls of military music, from the courtyard before the palace, which seemed to me more devotional, in their perfect art, tune and discipline, than anything I remembered of evangelical hymns. And as the perfect colour and sound gradually asserted their power on me, they seemed finally to fasten in me the old article of Jewish faith, that things done delightfully and rightly were always done by the help and in the Spirit of God.

For Ruskin, this was a moment of insight, in which the rightness of his reflections ‘through many years’ were confirmed. ‘There was no sudden conversion possible to me,’ he writes, ‘either by preacher, picture, or dulcimer. But that day, my evangelical beliefs were put away, to be debated of no more.’

To me, standing in the garage reading Ruskin’s words was a ‘Yes! Moment; - one of those affirming instants when you connect with something which validates your own experience and gives you permission to be. Ruskin’s words confirmed my half-acknowledged recognition that God was much bigger than I had thought, that he was too colourful to be confined in a dull kind of Christian life and practice, that he was present and gloriously alive throughout his vibrant creation.

The Atheist Prayer Experiment

The Atheist Prayer Experiment, which began on 17th September is about half-way through. Justin Brierley, presenter of Premier Christian Radio’s Unbelievable show, has signed up 70 atheists who have committed to praying for a short time each day to see whether, at the end of 40 days, any of them report a sense of encountering God.
It seems a rather daft experiment – someone has suggested that The Script’s Breakeven should be the theme song for the project simply because of its second line ‘Just prayin’ to a god that I don’t believe in.’
In fact, the experiment has been inspired by the work of Oxford University philosopher Tim Mawson. Tim asks us to imagine we hear people claiming that they’ve encountered an old man in a particular dark room  and that their lives have been significantly enhanced through conversations with him. Even if we think there’s only a slim possibility of there being anyone actually in the room, Tim suggests, it would be sensible for us, if we have time available, to go in and call into the darkness ‘Is anyone there?’
Another philosopher, Bertrand Russell was an atheist. He imagined discovering after his death that God existed after all, and asking God why he didn’t give more evidence of his presence. Tim Mawson wonders how Russell would respond if God retorted ‘You didn’t ask!’
So there is a case for saying that atheists who consider there’s even the remotest possibility that God might be there should call out the question sincerely if with great scepticism ‘Is anyone there?’
Tim Mawson’s likening God to an old man in a room reminded me that each of carries with us our own mental picture of God. It could be, for example ‘God the indulgent father’, ‘God the benign, bearded being beyond the clouds’, ‘God the fault-finder whom we can never please no matter how hard we try’ or ‘God the impenetrable silence.’
Our atheist friends insist that since these flawed mental images of God are simply the products of our subconscious the honest, healthy way to live is to discard them. But supposing behind these muddled, inadequate ideas of God there is a being to whom the word ‘God’ properly applies?
After all we carry round with us ideas of what other people are like, but the mental pictures we have of the people closest to us, to say nothing of distant public figures,  is flawed and inaccurate. But the fact that we don’t fully know people as they are doesn’t mean that they don’t exist in all their glorious complexity. So it is with God, we believe as Christians – God exists, vast beyond all our imaginings.
I find prayer really difficult. It’s hard to still the many voices in my mind, the noise and clamour, the impulses which shock me. You feel you must somehow push all this stuff aside, and calm the storm before you can connect with God, and this is hard to do.
Mt friend Iain lent me a fascinating book last week, Primary speech: a psychology of prayer. It contains a powerful insight – that we don’t need to push aside the clamour as we try to pray. Instead we can listen to the voices, the fears, the impulses, the daydreams, asking what they tell us about ourselves, and bringing the self we discover to the God who meets us when we are honest about who we truly are.
It’s as we embrace our mixed-up selves that we find God close. To deny who we are is to hold God at a distance. This is liberating – God meets me right where I am in the middle of my chaotic life. 
But this, in fact is what you’d expect of a God beyond all our imaginings who, in Jesus has come to us in the middle of the chaos of human history, showing us as far as we are able to see what he is like, challenging our flawed images of divine otherness.
Sometimes I get mad with God for being so elusive. Sometimes I get mad with Jesus for making asking for myself and for others sound so easy.  But I have learned from experience that prayer opens your eyes to evidence for existence of the God beyond all imaginings – evidence in creation, in the arts, in the lives and words of others, in the Bible’s awesome story-arc, in the certainty glimpsed periodically through the mist.
And what of all these atheists praying? Well, to pray in a spirit of sincere questioning is itself to draw closer to God. Some of us have found ourselves standing in the dark room, crying out hopefully ‘Is anyone there?’ The door opens, and there stands a figure, bathed in sunlight. There you are!’ he says.
(Christian Viewpoint column from the Highland News, 4th October 2012)

A life in letters

I'm planning in the coming months to post some articles about aspects of my life and faith. The idea is that ultimately they will form a 'dictionary' of my life - hence 'a life in letters.' I guess this is both a family history project and a faith story project. The articles, long and short, will appear as they are written, in no particular order!

A life in letters: Atheism

When I was young, the concept of abandoning belief in God was unthinkable. I remembers as a young teenager visiting the home of a Baptist minister with my parents. The Methodist preacher Dr Leslie Weatherhead had just published his book The Christian Agnostic, and our host was distressed by the very title. To him, in his certainty, the words ‘Christian’ and ‘agnostic’ did not belong together.

The battle I faced as a young person was not over belief in God, but over belief that the God I knew was there would accept me, that I would discover the right hoops to jump through, the correct combination to open the lock. The hoops I kept flinging myself through in desperation did not, as I’d hoped, lead to another dimension. The padlock remained resolutely closed when I selected the number strings which others assured me had worked for them.

And yet the doubts were there. In my twenties, I read Christian books on ‘doubt’ seeking reassurance. But the doubts these books addressed were always the sort of doubts Christians would have, of the ‘How can I be sure that I’m a Christian?’, ‘How do I deal with contradictions in the Bible?’ variety, rather than doubt over the most fundamental issue of all – ‘Is God there?’

My doubts arose from the usual sources – the fact of suffering, an uneasy sense that Christian theodicy was an attempt to cobble together explanations which did not really hold water, the sheer vastness of the universe. If God exists, I reasoned, then God must be immense beyond understanding.  Is it reasonable to think that this immensity would have any concern for one small planet in a backwater galaxy? Isn’t it more likely that God is simply a projection of human longings? And there was my own sense of God’s absence, God’s silences when I  invoked God, deep calling to Deep.

As the years passed, I was initially afraid of falling into atheism. I think it was when I realised that I was free to choose, free to embrace atheism if I felt the evidence led there, that I also became free to find and embrace faith, to know myself loved by the perplexing otherness we call God.

In April 2008, I watched on-line at a talk on ‘Science and the God Delusion’ given by the evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins at Eden Court Theatre in Inverness. I found his arguments against the existence of God cogent and powerful. 

The next day, I took our dog Mollie for a walk across the Islands in the River Ness close to Inverness city centre. It’s an intensely beautiful corner of the city: the Islands are covered with great trees rising beside the river as it purposefully glides down to the Firth.

As Mollie and I crossed the bridge from one island to another, it seemed to me that it would be so easy to believe that there was no God, that it was all, all the stunning beauty of it, an amazing miracle of chance. A miracle more wonderful, more miraculous than the miracle of creation would be.

It as though I was standing in a beckoning doorway, and that just one step would take me in to atheism. On the far of the door lay freedom from all the questions about God and guilt and suffering. 

There was simply a clear focus on courageously living to the full, relishing the flickering beauty of my brief life, seeking to bless others, knowing that tragedy was arbitrary and death was the end.
Ness Islands, Inverness
As I stood there in the sunshine, surrounded by trees in a million shades of green, the river sparkling at my feet beneath a blue spring sky, it seemed that nature had never before had such beauty, such intensity. I remembered the old Christian song
Heaven above is softer hue
Earth around is sweeter green
Something lives in every hue
Christless eyes have never seen

It was as though the journey from belief offered the same initial heightened sensitivities. And yet I stepped back, and did not enter. What made me turn away wasn’t conscience, or fear of change. It was the thought of Easter Sunday, an open tomb, a risen Jesus.  I remembered trhat there is strong evidence to suggest that something decisive happened that particular morning, that death was overcome, that Jesus was alive.

That day on the Ness islands, as Mollie strained at her lead, I chose to continue believing. Perhaps I am wrong. Perhaps, after all, there is no more to the Easter rising than a powerful symbol, perhaps my yearning for God is no more than a construct of my heart. But that day, I committed myself once again to a life shaped by faith in a living Jesus.