Saturday, 31 August 2013

The languages of God

I met Lorraine Nicholson a couple of weeks ago in Perth. As we chatted over a coffee she told me about her work as an artist, and explained how instinctive art is to her.

‘It’s like a language,’ she said. Art, she feels, was her first language – she remembers expressing herself through art as a very young child before she learned to speak.

I saw the truth of this. Language is about communication, self-disclosure, creative expression. Art is all these things.

I’d known of Lorraine before, having read her book The Journey Home in which she uses her gifts for art and language to chronicle her voyage through depression.

Last week, in an interview in the BBC Radio Scotland series The Day I changed my life Lorraine described her experiences of severe depression over the last 30 years and her journey, by way of four major depressive episodes to a better place.

‘Now,’ Lorraine says, ‘’I’m able to really feel life and live life to the full.’ She has grown ‘into the person I was born to be.’ Now, at the age of 51, she’s an Art College student and a passionate voice speaking both to and on behalf of those who are depressed.

There was not one day of change for Lorraine, but many. ‘It’s lots of tiny little steps that have got me to where I am now.’ She pays tribute to the help of professionals and friends, people who ‘believed in me,’ who ‘held the hope.’ But her own persistent courage and willingness to take the next step is also evident.

Now she sails the ship of her life on the open seas of possibility, relishing the winds of challenge, knowing that there are harbours at hand should she need them. ‘Fill your sails,’ she urges us, ‘and journey with the wind.’

Although Lorraine made no mention of God, what I sensed powerfully as I listened to the interview was that God was in the story of this voyage to wholeness.

I thought of the many, many journeys to wholeness taking place in individual lives and communities. Is God only active when the name of God is mentioned, or is God at work, anonymously, in every story of healing, every story where hope triumphs over despair?

Is there simply a God-given principle of healing which we tap into when we make right choices, but from which God stands distant? Or is God present with all of us who face the choice between good and evil, light and darkness, hope and despair, urging us to make the right choice, strengthening us, giving us hope, whether or not we acknowledge God?

When we dive into ourselves and find inner resources we didn’t know we possessed, are these in fact a self-expression of the God who meets us at the core of our being?

Jesus spoke of a God who is passionately engaged in creation, aware of each bird, each flower, each petal. This is not a distant God, but an engaged God. It would not be at all surprising if this God were with us always, perpetually active, hidden in plain sight, God’s work so commonplace that we are blind to the divine involvement.

The problem with this is that the more you emphasise the presence of God, the more tragedy and pain present a problem. If God is with us so intimately, then why the darkness?

This is one reason why we need to know the Story behind the inner prompting to wholeness. People in different cultures and different times have told their own stories. Christians believe that the deepest and most authentic story is centred in Jesus Christ who came and died, entering with us into the darkness and conquering that darkness.

In Jesus, God suffered with us, to bring the human race back to authenticity, to the liberated life it was born to live, to launch humanity free on life’s ocean, at once harboured and on the high seas, sails filled with the wind of God’s Spirit.

We tend to think God speaks only in words – words in the Bible, words whispered in our hearts. Words are necessary if we are to catch the drift of the Story with any accuracy. But God speaks in a myriad of languages, communicating, self-revealing, revelling in creativity.

God speaks in music and colour, in the sensation of wind on bare skin. God is adept at the language of silence. God is heard in beauty, in poetry, in a friend’s hug, in acts of self-giving love.

At the birth of the church, the apostles spoke, and everyone in their cosmopolitan audience heard what was said in their own language. God speaks the language closest to our hearts and as we listen we are healed.

(Christian Viewpoint column from the Highland News dated 25th July 2013)

Sunday, 25 August 2013

A life in letters: Pedoscope

The pedoscope stood in the corner of the spacious shoe department in one of the Sauchiehall Street stores in Glasgow where I was taken as a child in the 1950s to be equipped with footwear.

The device, which I knew as the ‘foot X-ray machine’ was a stylish box made of highly-polished wood, several feet high. There was a low platform to support you as, having tried on a potentially-suitable pair of shoes, you put the front of your feet into a cavity. Someone pressed a button, and looking through the eye-piece at the top of the box, you could see your bones, and the stitching on the shoes, and wriggle your toes while your parents and the shop assistant who were also able to see assessed how well the shoe fitted.

But although the X-ray tube in the pedoscope was protected by a lead shield, there were concerns that the radiation it emitted could cause damage to bones, skin and bone-marrow – and the shop assistants were particularly vulnerable due to their high rate of exposure. My father was aware of the risks, and there was never any question of my feet being entrusted to the hazardous device. The old method of identifying where in the shoes your toes reached by pressing them with a finger had to suffice.

Apparently around 3000 pedoscopes had been installed in British stores by the 1950s, but they were withdrawn when the dangers they posed to health became incontrovertible.

It says something about my lack of a spirit of adventure and my willingness to conform that I simply accepted I would not see the bones in my feet through the pedoscope.

A life in letters: Notarianni’s

Diagonally across the road junction from the flat my mother grew up in, on the corner of Forrest Street and Motherwell Street in Airdrie there was an ice-cream shop which I believe was still open when I was a child, a purveyor of ice-cream cones, which my grandfather called ‘pokey hats.’  The local wits dubbed the business ‘Snottery Annie’s’ simply I’m sure from their love of language and not through any desire to cast aspersions on the standards if hygiene behind the counter. Notarianni’s premises later became a Chinese Restaurant.

A life in letters: The Keswick Connection

A short play for children which I was asked to write by the Rev John Butler, then General Secretary of Scripture Union in Scotland for a service held at St George’s Tron Church of Scotland in Glasgow in the spring of 1979 to mark the centenary of Scripture Union Bible Reading Notes. The Keswick Connection was produced by Naomi Lidwell.

It told the story of Annie W. Marston, a teenage Sunday School teacher in Keswick in the 1870s who, to encourage the 8-10 year-old girls in her class to read the Bible for themselves, began giving them weekly lists of Bible passages to read on their own each day. The week’s passages would be discussed in class the following Sunday.

Many children began asking for Annie’s lists of readings, and she persuaded the Children’s Special Service Mission (which had been established by Josiah Spiers in 1867) to publish annually from 1st April 1879 a ‘Children’s Scripture Union’ card listing daily Bible readings for children.

A life in letters: Widdop, Walter (1892-1949)

British operatic tenor. When I worked in Carluke Library in the 1970s, the record collection included an LP of Widdop singing songs and arias, re-mastered from old ‘78s. The two tracks I recall are ‘Walter’s Prize Song’ from Die Meistersinger, sung in English (I knew the tune from the Overture but had never before heard the words) and ‘If with all your heart ye truly seek me’ from Mendelssohn’s Elijah. This piece spoke to me powerfully. It begins with a tranquil statement of God’s promise that those who seek will find. There follows a turmoil of anguished longing set in a minor key: ‘Oh that I knew where I might find him that I might even come before His presence.’ These words were mine, this anguish mine. Finally the song segues again to the major, to a healing repetition of God’s assurance: ‘If with all your heart you truly seek me, Ye shall ever surely find me.’ I listened often to Widdop singing this, and the words and the beauty of the music lodged in me. I believe it was more than simply me drawing reassurance from the piece that God was findable: it was as though God came to me in and through the words Walter Widdop sang. And I notice now that adverb ‘ever’ and its relevance, suggesting as it does many seekings, many findings.