Sunday, 30 December 2012

A life in letters: Holloway, Richard (1934-) 3

All this resonates with me because I too am perplexed by the cruelty and pain in the world and I am also at times – sometimes for many consecutive days – cosncious of God only in his absence.

But there are other times when I have an awareness, a knowledge that God is there. This is not any kind of numinous, obviously spiritual experience, but a sense of certainty, wholeness, and wellbing, much as I suppose Richard Holloway felt when he was prayed over by Graham Pulkingham. At such times words can pour from me, drawn irresistibly upwards.

I have no conscious control of the timing of these seasons of absence and presence. Both come as gifts. All I can say is that it seems to me that it is when I am aware of God’s presence in this way, I am happier, more whole, more generous, more fully me, more completely alive. And so, in the absence, I try to live in the truth of what I have seen in the presence.

However, even at those times of absence I am aware of a flow, when I stop and think and reflect, of creative ideas and solutions to problems. Such insights may not come in the same profusion in the absence as they do in the presence, but their quality is identical.  No doubt these creative insights could be explained purely in term of human psychology, but I believe they are God-prompted.

I guess where Richard and I differ most profoundly is that he sees all religious storytelling as the fruit of human enterprise, whereas while freely acknowledging the human-ness of the Bible, I believe it is perfectly reasonable assuming that God is self-revealing, to detect God’s creative engagement in the writing and editing process, and to conclude that the great metanarrative bears divine fingerprints. I appreciate that I may be searching for evidence to support what I already want to believe, but I simply don’t find convincing attempts to explain much of the gospel material as fables spun by 1st century Christians to authenticate their theological views rather than accounts of historical events. In particular, the resurrection stories strike me as authentic reporting. Believing this, I think it’s legitimate to interpret the absence in the light of the presence rather than the other way round.

I also think it’s important to take into account the experience of our fellow-travellers. It would not be appropriate for us to make the decision to go on the pilgrimage purely because of what others tell us (although it would do us no harm to accompany them on a few stages of their journey with a healthy, questing agnosticism.) But it is utterly relevant for us to hone our understanding of a journey we have already begun by listening to the stories of those we are walking alongside. Some will share their experiences of absence as Richard Holloway does, but others will speak of blessing, frequent joy and a sense of inspirational presence.

And I believe Richard is much too pessimistic in seeing so little of the transforming presence of Jesus in the world. Yes there are the unanswered questions posed by poverty and tragedy. Yes, our struggles to do theodicy don’t totally convince. But I am certain that there is evidence of grace, of the presence of God in God’s creation working in nature, and working in our lives, in our choosings and thinking and dreaming, bringing peace and wholeness and hope, and gifting miracles. I believe God works through us when we are acting intuitively like a Mozart, but that God is no less present when, like Richard Holloway we work with a Salieri’s tireless intentionality for peace and justice.

Christians tells us of lives transformed through faith in Christ, of people set free from addictions and destructive lifestyles. Historians tell us (in reference particularly to the 18th century evangelical revival) of whole communities changed through the re-orientation of values which vital Christian faith gives rise to. The king is on the march, the kingdom is a-building.

Richard Holloway still feels ‘tugged….by the possibility of the transcendent.’ Religion, in his experience shouts loudly to drown its sense of insecurity and strikes you in the face. ‘Yet,’ he says movingly, ‘beneath the shouting and the striking, the whisper can sometimes be heard.’  (p348-9) Or, as he puts it earlier ‘sometimes the absence came without word to me in a showing that did not tell.’ (p336)

And yet he says ‘I don’t expect to meet my maker when I die, but if I do ….’ (p351)  For the reasons I have given, I believe that the story we are in is God-given story, and I believe we can celebrate that story not in the violence and shouting of strident and conflicted Christianity, but in gentleness and whisper. I know I am a man in two minds, and I accept that I may be wrong.

But I do expect to meet my maker when I die, to encounter the whisperer in the unimaginable dimension beyond, the voice heard more clearly than ever. And if I’m wrong, and the story is no more than comforting words woven by humanity?  Well, I would be disappointed to think of things turning out that way. But the story has brought me wholeness and hope. It has the ring of truth, and I committed myself to it, and to the Storyteller in integrity.

Richard Holloway responded quickly to my email. ‘Brotherly hug accepted and returned,’ he typed.

A life in letters: Holloway, Richard (1934-) 2

Besides these experiences of Richard Holloway’s which resonated with me, there were at least a couple of things which I had never before seen so clearly articulated. The first of them was his insight that life is not so much about finding and choosing the path we want to follow, but rather about discovering through our actions and reactions who we are: ‘the way we act does not so much make us as reveal us,’ he says (p349). ‘Roads choose us and what they unfold before us is not the person we want to be, but the person we already are, the person time slowly discloses to us.’ (p11)

Holloway is not saying that we have no freedom of choice, but that ‘the main lines of our personality were cast before we knew it’ (p227) We will only gain true freedom to choose as we accept who we are. This seems to me to be a wise insight, and not incompatible with the Christian call to conversion and change. I cannot change who I am, but I have choices when it comes to living out the consequences of being me. Only when I accept my unique identity, and bring my unique identity to God will I be free to be me.

The second thing I learned from Richard’s book, something I had known instinctively without being fully conscious of it was the distinction between instinctive and intentional goodness.  I have often longed to be one of those people from whom goodness towards others flows with apparently effortless spontaneity in contrast to my laboured attempts to display grace and compassion. And I assumed that if only I could find the key to drawing closer to God, God’s presence in me would ensure that goodness would flow.

As it is as diagnosed by Holloway, my kind of goodness is ‘intentional’ rather than ‘intuitive’ goodness, arising ‘from conscience, not compassion.’ (p127-8) Unlike the ‘intuitively  good, the intentionally good have to work hard at it. And it can show. They may perfect the acts of love but they never learn the dance because they never lose themselves.’

I guess my goodness is intentional rather than intuitive and that I am destined, as Richard puts it, referring to the characters in Peter Schaffer’s play and film Amadeus ‘always to be Salieri, and never Mozart.’ (p128) In other things, in speaking and writing for example, I have my Mozart moments, but in doing good I am, I think, forever Salieri. And that’s OK – what matters is that the goodness is done, as an enormous amount of good was done in Richard Holloway’s various ministries, that it’s done sincerely, if not intuitively. But do I really believe that last sentence, or do I feel that if my goodness were instinctive and intuitive it would achieve so much more?

By the end of Leaving Alexandria Richard Holloway has come to regard religion as ‘a work of the human imagination, a work of art,’ (p343) a consoling fiction which gives us courage to endure. ‘Maybe religion was best understood not as a science that explained why there was suffering, but as a  way of gathering people round the mystery of suffering itself, and sitting with them before it.’ (p224)

He had come to this position through pondering his experiences of the absence of God, and it was these reflections which were, for me, the most fascinating aspect of the book. ‘At the heart of religion’, he believes, ‘lies the presence at once given and denied.’ (p202) He senses this absence experientially – writing of his time at Kelham he says ‘the absence had always been more real to me than the presence’ despite his asking for ‘a sign that [the Holy Spirit] truly was present in the absence’ (p164).

But he is also aware of the absence of God in a tragedy-riven world: ‘My wrestling with my own compulsions, as well as my experience of the tragedies of others, did not demonstrate any discernible improvement in the human condition as a result of the death of Jesus – allegedly decreed by God for our salvation. Except in one way of reading the story.’ (p221)

(What, I wonder, does he mean by that ‘one way of reading the story’?  I suppose he possibly has in mind an ultrafundamentalist reading which sees the world as doomed and god-forsaken, and places much of the emphasis on spiritual salvation rather than including an emphasis on making the world whole.)

For many years, Richard Holloway resolved to live as though Christianity were true while experiencing no corroborative emotions, and seeing no evidence of God’s nearness. He describes this as ‘the ancient game of faith’ in which we say ‘let us suppose that God exists and Jesus is his revealed meaning and life in faith as if it were true.’ (p185). He says ‘I decided to act as though I believed there was a meaning to the universe. And not just any meaning. Love’s meaning.’ (p168) And again he says it is as if ‘the absence hid a presence that was unconditional love.’ (p336) For a considerable part of his life, Christianity for Richard Holloway seems to have expressed itself in this living in faith that God was their without any sense of God’s presence, or perception of God’s activity.

Bur having come to see the great story of the Judeo-Christian metanarrative as masterpiece of human creativity, it seemed to him that the most honest position for him was to simply acknowledge the absence of God and to live with that absence.  ‘It was a relief now,’ he says (p336) ‘to name my belief as an emptiness that I was no longer prepared to fill with words. …. It was the absence of God I wanted to wait upon, and be faithful to.’

A life in letters: Holloway, Richard (1934-) 1

Richard Holloway was born into a working-class family in Alexandra in Dumbartonshire’s Vale of Leven, some twenty miles north of Glasgow in 1934. As a teenager he entered training for the Episcopal priesthood with an Anglican religious order at Kelham House in Nottinghamshire. By the age of 25, he was an Scottish Episcopal clergyman working in the Glasgow slums. Later, he served in Old St Paul’s Church in Edinburgh, in the USA and briefly in Oxford before being appointed Bishop of Edinburgh and Primus of the Scottish Episcopal Church, positions he held from 1986 until his resignation in 2000

Throughout his ministry, Holloway had a questioning, agnostic approach to faith, considering that evangelicals are more certain about theological issues than it is possible for anyone to be. He resigned because of the level of opposition he was facing within the Church due to his support for the recognition of gay partnerships, and his book Godless Morality: Keeping Religion out of Ethics  (1999). In this work he argued that since religious people frequently have profound disagreements over moral and ethical issues even though they are arguing from the same starting-point – the Christian faith – it would surely be more satisfactory to leave God out of the debate and find good human reasons for the moral positions we are advocating.

I read a couple of books  by Richard Holloway in the early 2000s – Doubts and Loves (2001) and Dancing on the Edge (1997), books in which on the basis of his own experiences he explored the theme of the believer’s doubts. I particularly liked Dancing on the edge – the title resonated with me, reminding me of my own occasional epiphanies of clarity and joy among the uncertainties, when the journey’s landscape was instantly transformed and serenity broke through. And yet Holloway’s books did not in the end satisfy me either, because it seemed to me that he questioned and questioned until there was nothing left except questions. Was this really the only way to go? I remember discussing Richard Holloway with one of the elders at Holm Evangelical Church who was particularly supportive of me in my struggles to find a firm place to stand. ‘Do you think he will find himself with God when he dies?’ he asked, testing me. ‘Oh yes,’ I said, for I sensed that despite all his questions this man was a true fellow-traveller, and I recognised that the path I was taking was similar to his. ‘I certainly hope so!’ The sympathetic elder smiled, I think in agreement.

In 2012 Holloway published Leaving Alexandria, in which he charted his entire faith journey. I loved this book, and I emailed Richard, expressing my fellow-feeling and offering him ‘a big brotherly hug’ of empathy.

One reason for my enthusiasm was my discovery of similarities between myself and its author. Like Richard Holloway, I find it almost impossible to throw myself wholeheartedly into anything: part of me remains detached, observing, criticising what I am doing. Holloway refers to a ‘wee man’ perched on his shoulder (p207) and to ‘one me watching the other me’ (p110)  I too have one of those shoulder-perchers.

Like Richard, I find myself able to understand and appreciate all the points of view on many issues, theological and otherwise, and so find it difficult to discern what I myself actually think. Quoting James 1:8 – ‘A double-minded man is unstable in all his ways’, Holloway adds ‘It took me a while to realise that I was double-minded and unstable, if not in all my ways, then certainly in many of my attitudes and opinions.’ (p227) I saw myself in the mirror of these words too.

In the light of my own experiences, it was fascinating to read of Richard’s brief engagement with the charismatic movement in the 1970s, which he thought ‘might be the answer to my own need for direct experience of God.’  (p206)  He travelled to London for a meeting with Graham Pulkingham, the American founder of the Community of Celebration. When Pulkingham prayed with him, he had an experience which could be interpreted as a baptism in the Spirit, accompanied by speaking in tongues. Subsequently, Richard, his family, and his colleagues experimented with living in community at the Old St Paul’s Rectory in Edinburgh.

He was entranced by a poem by D. H. Lawrence which expressed his longing to borne up by the Spirit’s gentle current (p212):

Not I, not I, but the wind that blows through me

A fine wind is blowing the new direction of Time

In due course the tongues grew silent and Richard Holloway concluded that the charismatic experience of Christianity was not for him.

Like Richard, I have come to realise that some questions have no answers, and that all we can therefore do is to live with the lack of answers. We try to theologise, and create watertight explanations for the extensiveness of human suffering, but none of these seems completely convincing to me, and so I park the questions, neither hiding from them, nor letting the absence of answers extinguish my faith. Says Holloway ‘Living with the unanswerable question is the key to our humanity.’ (p196)

(See also the two subsequent posts, Part 1 and Part 2)

Thursday, 27 December 2012

Agents of Grace

A former colleague of mine suffered from Seasonal Affective Disorder – at this time of year she had a bright light panel beside her desk to compensate for the winter’s lack of sunshine.
The other morning, as I woke up one of our daughters at 7am as she’d asked me to, I felt intensely the preciousness of these young women to me, the depth of my love for them. I cherish them, in the phrase which came to mind ‘like the apple of my eye.’
And then I remembered that those words are used in the Bible to describe God’s love for God’s people, for each and every one of us. Each individual is – and therefore I am – as precious (or more precious) to God as our daughters are to me.
But that raises the question ‘Why?’ Why this long season of disorder and sadness? Why a pain-wracked world? What’s God’s love worth? Is it merely words? Is God powerless, or absent, or dead?
This week I read an interview with the notable Scottish artist Joyce Gunn Cairns in which she describes wrestling with this. It was contained in Ron Ferguson’s moving biography of George Mackay Brown, The Wound and the Gift. On the one hand, Joyce Gunn Cairns  says ‘I do feel that I benefit from a benign presence.’ Yet she feels it hard to reconcile ‘that sense of being singled out’ with the reality of living in Edinburgh’s West Pilton surrounded by kids who are messed up by their environment from the day they’re born. (The word she used is stronger than ‘messed’.)
If an all powerful God loves these kids why doesn’t God act? We talk about God giving us freedom of choice, and argue that genuine freedom involves living with the consequences of bad choices. But we’re still uneasy. If God’s heart throbs with a greater love than my love for my daughters then why do we not see more intervention?
The only adequate answer is the death of Jesus on the cross. Jesus was, more than any of us, the ‘apple of God’s eye’, yet God did not spare him. God willingly gave him up to cosmic spiritual anguish  - and Jesus willingly embraced this anguish – in order to transform the world, to bring light and healing, to initiate a new season of grace which will bring sorrow to an end.
But still the questions come. If this is true, why are its results not more evident? Must it always be grace tomorrow, grace in a coming dimension, never grace now, here. Never grace today. But we’re forgetting that the sadness of the season can blind us to the reality of the real presence of grace in the here-and-now, the sprouting mustard seed of change in lives and communities.
And in fact it is the role of Christians as God’s partners to be agents of this grace, agents of light and justice and love. And we are each to do this in our own unique ways – not necessarily by signing up to help in a church programme, though that may be what we’re called to. We are to what we are called to do, whatever it is, to be who we’re called to be.
Joyce Gunn Cairns struggles as I do with questions about faith, and there was a time when she found her vocation as a painter a burden. She recalls praying ‘Please God, if there’s a purpose in what I’m struggling to say, show me a way.’ And she says she has been gifted ‘a level of liberation’ by ‘struggling to honour’ the role she was called to, to walk the beckoning way.
I think it helps us discern who we are and what our role is when we realise that both we, and those we live and work with are each equally precious, cherished by God. And it helps, secondly, to know our failures.
Joyce is aware of her own inner imperfections, and has she says ‘to live with that raw awareness of just how unpleasant a person I am.’ It’s when we have a faith which permits us to view ourselves unflinchingly as we are, and bring our who conflicted selves into the presence of God, into that cherishing love that we experience grace, and become channels of grace to others.
For to stand, in this season of sadness in the light of God’s love is to glimpse, as Joyce Gunn Cairns puts it ‘something that’s holding and binding.’
And as we choose to be the people we are called to be, following the call of our vocation, we will be sparks of light, whispers of grace, sprouting tendrils of mustard seed growth, so that we will be able to say something similar to Joyce Gunn Cairns ‘I’m no angel myself, but some of the things I’ve produced have a touch of the angelic about them.’
(Christian Viewpoint column from the Highland News dated 29th November 2012)

Saturday, 22 December 2012

A life in letters: Fischbacher, Stephen (b1960)

I first heard of Stephen Fischbacher in the late 1990s when our friends Iain and Avril Marr played The Angry Hotel Man song to a church group meeting at their house in Lentram. The song is an extremely amusing take on the nativity. An irascible Bethlehem hotel owner grows increasingly cross as one star-lit night he is repeatedly roused from bed by a perpetual stream of visitors. A young couple, shepherds, wise men (with an anachronistic mode of travel, motor-bike and car), a hubbub of neighbours, and  to crown it all a sleep-banishing clamouring of angels. And yet before dawn, the hotel man’s heart is stilled by wonder.

Born in 1960, Stephen Fischbacher was, like me, brought up in the context of brethrenism. His family was musical, and Stephen played guitar from the age of ten – largely self-taught. After studying theology in Canada, he returned to Scotland to a job as a schools worker with Scripture Union – he brought together a worship group, and joined a folk band.

By the early 1990s, Stephen was a youth and children’s work at St Paul’s and St George’s Episcopal Church in Edinburgh. He began writing songs for his own children, Beth and Brodie and for the children of the church, and in 1995 some of these were released on an album (It’s a noisy world) on which he was accompanied by ‘The P&G Kids’.

After hearing The Angry Hotel Man song, I bought Just imagine, the second album released by Fischbacher which included this song. I loved it. I loved the sheer, quirky exuberance of the music, the warmth and joy which the tracks exuded, and the depth of experience which the writing embodies. Stephen Fischbacher’s first wife Lynda, the mother of his two children, had recently died after a long illness, and as he told Tony Cummings ‘I found both the writing and the recording of the album a lifeline in trying to manage the many extreme emotions I was going through at the time.’

I was particularly touched by the haunting beauty of the title track Just imagine which explores the image of the ‘wood beyond the world’ an accessible place of shelter in a parallel dimension where all is well.

It’s not far away if you’re ready to go
You’ll find it’s a place where things can’t go wrong
There’s a welcome awaiting, it’s where you belong

The wood is the home of the one you seek
Who binds up the broken and strengthens the weak
You can come any time that you’re needing a friend
For this is the place that will never end
Just imagine, the wood beyond the world.

In 2000, a charity, Fischy Music was launched, as Stephen gathered round him a team who began working not just in churches but also in (largely primary) schools.  Fischy Music’s mission is to support ‘the emotional, social and spiritual wellbeing of children and families.’

Stephen writes not just specifically Christian pieces, but songs promoting personal development, wellbeing and emotional resilience. In all my encounters with Fischy Music I have been impressed by the tenderness and robust love with which Stephen and the team engage with children.

Not so very long ago in evangelical circles ministry to children almost invariably focussed on encouraging conversion. I remember an article which appeared in the evangelical monthly Crusade in the summer of 1974 stirred up some controversy by asking whether the correct approach was the traditional one of seeking the conversion of children by focussing on their sinfulness and need to turn to God, or whether children should in fact be encouraged to see God as someone who loves and accepts them, and invites them to respond.

Stephen Fischbacher  to my joy exhibits a gentle reaching out in healing to vulnerable children, and an apparent  conviction that God is present in every movement of love, regardless of the specific beliefs of those through whom it comes. The work of Fischy Music continued to develop throughout the next decade, and new albums were appeared regularly. But Stephen’s work impacted me most around the turn of the millennium.

I arranged for Stephen and a colleague, Suzanne Adams to come to Inverness for a few days in the autumn of 2001 to spend time working in a number of primary schools. And so I found myself sitting in the hall at Holm Primary School one Tuesday afternoon in September, beneath the big bow window which overlooks the peaceful slopes of Craig Dunain.

Stephen and Suzanne led a group of Primary 5 pupils though a series of imaginative songs which emphasised the specialness, the uniqueness of each child.  (‘You are a star! Just the way you are!”)

We discovered shortly afterwards that as we laughed and sang, on the other side of the Atlantic, passenger jets were remorselessly targeted at the Twin Towers.

As they visited other schools later in the week, Stephen and Suzanne were able to bring some healing to children mesmerised by images of destruction, and encouraged them to reflect on their own personal experiences of cruelty.

The kids learned an action song – you can either ‘build up one another, build up your sisters and brothers’ (here you used your fists to represent building a wall, fist upon fist upon fist) or else you can ‘tear down’ those around you (here you grabbed an imaginary sheet of wallpaper above your head with both hands and ripped it to the ground.) On the Thursday lunchtime I walked through the playground at Lochardil Primary School. Several groups of children were building walls with their fists and singing. Why, I wondered, could the world not learn this piece?

The song I appreciated most that week was called When people are cruel and is set to the reflective American tune Streets of Laredo.  Stephen and Suzanne dedicated a performance of it to me at the concert in Inverness Royal Academy on the Friday evening at which, for the first and so far the only time in my life I played air guitar.

It’s a song focussed on the life and death and resurrection of Jesus as he faced ‘the bullies of Calvary.’ And yet he was not daunted because ‘he knew where he came from and where he was going.’

The song’s implication is that precisely because Jesus knew his origin and his destiny we too can know where we are going, and so remain undaunted no matter what.

When people are cruel it makes all the difference
To know where you’re going and where you’ve come from

It was a time in my life when I was just beginning to understand fully where I had come from and to discern where I was heading more clearly through the mist of the future.