Saturday, 27 April 2013

Seeking to experience the Resurrection

The first Easter Sunday. Jesus standing in the resurrection garden bathed in soft, early-morning sunlight. Alive.
I believe it was a physical resurrection. The records seem to me to be written in the language not of myth, but of history. If the many, many Christians who believe that Jesus literally returned to life are correct, then there are important implications for our faith.

This week, I’ve been reading Ron Ferguson’s biography of the famous 20th century Scottish Christian George Macleod, who founded the Iona Community.

70 years ago, in April 1933 Macleod, then minister of Govan Old Parish Church attended an early-morning Easter day service in the Russian Orthodox Church in Jerusalem, and his life was transformed.
In the course of the service, the priests dramatically enacted the wonder of the resurrection. ‘For sheer worship, I have never seen anything like it,’ Macleod wrote later. In that church, he saw in a new way that God is active not just in the lives of individuals, but in the whole of creation – spiritual, social, material – and that the church is God’s agent of change.
‘The Gospel of service’ – Christian activism - was no longer enough for Macleod. ‘We too must learn putting first things first – contemplation – God-consciousness,’ and seeking times ‘when the calendar becomes meaningless and Calvary eternal.’
I don’t know what George Macleod’s precise understanding of the resurrection was. But for me, my faith that there is hope not just for our souls, but for our bodies, our institutions and national structures, our planet, our universe is strengthened by the conviction that Jesus rose from death physically. The salvation Christ offers us is holistic, both spiritual and physical.
George Macleod had lived through, and, not yet the pacifist he would become, fought in World War I. Following that conflict, there was a longing to ensure that the sacrifice of so many lives had not been wasted, and that a better, fairer, kinder British society could be forged. Somehow, it didn’t happen.
‘No political party seems adequate in itself,’ Macleod wrote in a pastoral letter later in 1933, in words which seem startlingly contemporary. ‘It is hard nowadays to find anyone with a passionate faith in any one of them.’
Recently our daughter Bethany and I went to Eden Court to see Spirit of ’45, Ken Loach’s new documentary about the Labour Government’s vision after 1945. There was in that decade the same passion to ensure that those who had fought for freedom in World War II would in the peace find freedom from poverty and inequality. Many good things were achieved, but in the longer term the vision was not fully realised due to human and corporate failure.

Must we forever find ourselves mired in economic and political crisis, with frightened, uncertain politicians trying to sound confident? The reason we don’t trust politicians said Macleod in his 1933 letter is ‘because we know in our hearts that the real problem is moral rather than political.’ And for this reason many of our dreams turn to dust.
Last Thursday, Justin Welby was enthroned as the new Archbishop of Canterbury. He claimed at the ceremony that over the last 1000 years the country has thrived at those times when it has most fully ‘sought to recognise that Jesus is the Son of God; by the ordering of its society, by its laws, by its sense of community.’
When we do this, he says, and I agree with him, ‘we make space for our own courage to be liberated, for God to act among us, and for human beings to flourish.’

This Easter four words came to mind from the old hymn describing Jesus dead in the darkness of Easter Saturday, ‘Waiting the coming day.’ In one sense these words point to a future when all will be made new, when all will be well.
But in another sense, to George Macleod, and Justin Welby and to all Christians – the day has come. Dawn broke that first Easter morning something like 1986 years ago. The sacrifice of Jesus was not in vain.
Easter gives us a vision of the living Jesus, eternally alive in body and spirit, his reality both a sign of God’s transforming power, and the source through which we encounter it. And so without being simplistic, it is true to claim that change and redemption is possible, for the most broken individual, for the most broken society.

Because the day has come, we can experience Easter personally, as a neighbourhood, as a nation, as a global community if individually or collectively we turn round in the darkness of whatever tomb we find ourselves occupying, and discover that the stone has been rolled away. We walk forward and take tentative steps into the afternoon sunshine.
(Christian Viewpoint column from the Highland News dated 28th March 2013)

A life in letters: O love that will not let me go

A hymn by Church of Scotland minister George Matheson (1842-1906) which meant a great deal to me when I was struggling with sadness in the 1980s.

Matheson’s eyesight had been poor from early childhood. He lost his sight completely while studying for the ministry and as a result his fiancée broke off their engagement.  With the help of his sisters who read to him and tutored him George Matheson completed his theological studies despite his blindness, and served as minister first at Innellan on the Clyde Estuary, and then at St Bernard’s Church, Edinburgh.

Matheson left as description of how he came to write the hymn:

My hymn was composed in the manse of Innellan on the evening of June 6, 1882. I was at that time alone. It was the day of my sister’s marriage, and the rest of my family were staying overnight in Glasgow. Something had happened to me which was known only to myself, and which caused me the most severe mental suffering.

The hymn, he continues ‘was the fruit of that suffering’, although he does not disclose the nature of his pain. The four stanzas were written quickly, with a sense of their givenness. ‘All the other verses I have written are manufactured articles; this came like a dayspring from on high.’

O love that will not let me go is a personal affirmation of the unshakability of God’s love, and a personal response to it in that yielding, or surrender to God which, on my clearer-seeing days, I realise leads to the flowering of the Christian’s true identity:

O light that followest all my way,
I yield my flickering torch to thee,
My heart restores its borrowed ray,
That in thy sunshine’s blaze its day
May brighter, fairer be.

The line of the hymn which most spoke to me, years ago, was ‘O Joy that seekest me through pain.’

I think the line has two levels of meaning. The Joy which is God seeks to penetrate our pain, so that we catch glimpses of Joy, just as you see the sun’s bright circle through a swirling mist before a denser fog hides it once again.

But the words also suggest that pain can be a vehicle through which God comes to us, as if our hurt and depression sweep aside all the things which distance us from God. The beauty of the rainbow is seen only during, or immediately after the storm. This can be true in Christian experience, though it is not invariably true.

I’m not sure if the words of this line themselves brought Joy to me, but they certainly brought comfort and a fragile conviction that Joy was indeed still out there, and that once again Joy would come to me, like ‘a dayspring from on high.’

Tuesday, 23 April 2013

A life in letters: Toilet man

One of our best family holidays was in 2005, when we spent the best part of a summer fortnight in our new Vango tent on the Glororum Caravan Park at Bamburgh in Northumbria. We explored Alnwick Castle and Gardens, including the magical tree house, we ‘window-shopped till we dropped’ at Newcastle’s Metro Centre, we crossed the causeway to Lindisfarne. I teased the girls about the Grey Starling for which Bamburgh was famous.

It was our first and only family tent holiday, and even though the weather was coolish, something about the experience stilled and calmed me, as we sat reading in the gas lamplight in the gathering dusk, and later lay in our sleeping bags listening to the laughter and chat of neighbouring campers which seemed so close, slowly dying out as they too drifted off to bed.

I remember the afternoon we came back to find the inside of the canvas alive with minute beasties which, when we sought her advice in panic, the lady at the site office told us unconcernedly came from a nearby cornfield which was being harvested.

Regularly, sometime after midnight, our younger daughter Bethany, who was 9, would need to go to the loo. She would reach a hand urgently through the canvas door of the pod where Lorna and I were sleeping and shake my shoulder or my face and ask me to accompany her to the toilet block. I’d drag myself out of the sleeping back, find my shoes and anorak in the darkness, and unzip the tent.

Bethany and I would make our way together along the sparingly-lit tarmac. As night followed night, she got into the habit, when she needed to waken me, of hissing ‘Toilet man!’

For some reason it seemed to be, and not just in the sweetness of nostalgia, that these brief nightly trips were among the most precious experiences of parenthood, and I savoured every second of them. Hand in hand, we’d walk in sleepy silence through the small-hours chill in the hush that wrapped the campsite in sleep. We could hear the roar of waves breaking on the distant shingle and see the warmly-floodlit façade of Bamburgh Castle across the fields. I would nip into the Gents, and then wait outside the toilet block while my daughter did her business, and then we’d go back to the tent. Bethany and her dad. Together, and, it seemed to me, profoundly at one.

We’d climb back into our sleeping bags on wobbly inflatable mattresses. Silence. Until the next time. ‘Toilet man!’

Monday, 22 April 2013

A life in letters: Agarol

A laxative used by my parents when I was a child. (To me, a gentler alternative called Figeen was administered on a spoon, brown and sweet, when it was required.) I remember the Agarol bottle with its white screw cap, its label half scratched off. When I went to nursery school in the building with the green door in the lane running parallel to Maxwell Avenue I would take the bottle with me, filled with milk in the kitchen by my mum. Sometimes when snack-time came, the cap was too firmly tightened for my fingers to open, and I’d have to seek help. What I took along to eat, I can’t remember, but the word ‘Agarol’ had a certain intriguing mystique to a four-year-old, so I have never forgotten that bottle.