Friday, 27 September 2013

Love magnified

‘They paraded us like prisoners of war and hurled abuse at us as they led us from one alley to another,’ said Sister Manal, Principal of the Franciscan School at Bani Suef in Egypt. She was describing what happened to herself and two colleagues after the school was destroyed by Islamists last week.

Earlier in the week, hundreds of supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood died in Egypt when security forces stormed the camps occupied by those protesting at the ousting of President Morsi.

Last Saturday morning, I was sitting having coffee at the House of Bruar with my wife and daughters. We were discussing some of the week’s news stories.

I’d been horrified to hear of the death of Daniel Perry, the 17-year-old apprentice mechanic from West Fife who committed suicide after being duped and blackmailed on line. Horrified too by reports of a new insurance scam which the experts are calling ‘flash for cash.’ Criminals flash their lights to let other drivers out at a junction, and then crash into them on purpose, blaming them for the ‘accident’ and making false insurance claims. This apparently is costing £392 million a year, to say nothing of the physical and emotional pain suffered by the victims.

It makes me angry. Angry that wherever you look, lives are being damaged, and God’s creation defiled by the terrible darkness of human cruelty.

Christians believe that these things anger God. However God’s anger is not a wild, frustrated lack of self-control, but a calm, resolute, immense, implacable opposition to acts of darkness. Some may feel that the idea of an angry God is a medieval hangover – but in fact God wouldn’t be much of a God if the divine heart were undisturbed by the daily litany of pain in the news headlines.

There’s been recent debate in the USA regarding the wrath of God. The Presbyterian Church there wants to include in a forthcoming hymn book the well-known modern song In Christ Alone. The hymnal committee were unhappy with one of the lines in this piece, which, describing the death of Jesus on the cross, says that there ‘The wrath of God was satisfied.’ They wanted to replace this with ‘The love of God was magnified,’ but the hymn’s authors refused to permit this change.

According to Mary Louise Bringle, the committee chair, the issue wasn’t with the reference to God’s wrath, but with the idea of ‘satisfaction’ being used to describe the significance of Jesus’s death. But I believe the hymn writers had in mind not a curmudgeonly deity who needs appeased by constant sacrifices. Instead, the scenario runs like this:

God’s wrath is directed against those whose actions proclaim them to be God’s enemies, and yet God loves them with an immense love, grief-stricken by the darkness in them. It is a basic principal that actions have consequences. God cannot simply forgive human beings without the consequences of their choosing darkness being addressed. In Jesus, God bears our punishment for us, so that we can be forgiven and enabled to live light-centred lives. Justice has been done. The Judge has paid the penalty. The prisoner walks free.

That’s the wonder of Christianity – forgiveness comes as the free gift of love. The words Bringle’s committee preferred focussed on God’s love being magnified. It is precisely because in Christ the wrath of God was satisfied that we can begin to see the bigness of God’s love.

We’re rightly appalled by news stories showing what human beings are capable of – but many times daily each of us chooses darkness in small, but not insignificant ways. So each of us must make our way to the cross and find forgiveness and increasing strength to choose light and the assurance that when we love the light and the king of light we need not fear the wrath of God.

And as individuals we will work, not by violence, but through prayer, with courage, in love to bring light into dark places, to bring peace where there is war, looking forward to the day when the glory of the Prince of Peace will radiate through the whole cosmos and darkness will be a fading memory.

As Christians, we celebrate God’s grace and we do this not only by revelling in the wonderful fact that on the cross of Christ ‘The wrath of God was satisfied’ and ‘The love of God was magnified,’ but also by daily actions deep-rooted in grace.

Sister Manal describes how, when she and her colleagues were being dragged around the town they were rescued by a Muslim woman called Saadiyah who invited them into her house. ‘I can protect you,’ she said. ‘My son-in-law is a policemen.’  For wherever there is strife and conflict grace is also found.

(Christian Viewpoint column from the Highland News dated 22nd August 2013)

Friday, 20 September 2013

Defining the miraculous

The Inverness pastor, together with some friends, was quietly praying and distributing leaflets outside a psychic fair. He felt compelled to speak to a woman who was about to go in, a woman he had never met before. He told her he understood she was hoping to receive some help at the fayre with difficulties in her marriage, and that God ‘knew the pain she was going through.’

The woman asked how he knew this. ‘Because God told me,’ he replied, ‘and this is proof that He loves you and wants to help you.’

This is one of many striking stories contained in a book which had its Highland launch on Saturday at the Inverness CLC Bookshop. Its author is Samuel McKibben who has a life-long connection with Apostolic churches, and was formerly pastor of Inverness Christian Fellowship.

The main theme of the book -  The God of the Miraculous - is that it is God’s intention that churches should not merely share a good news message, but demonstrate God’s power to change lives, a power often seen in ‘signs and wonders’ which have no rational explanation.

‘Our Lord,’ the pastor writes, ‘is interested in every part of our living and, if necessary, will do miracles to prove it’ – miracles through which lives will be changed, and faith strengthened.

Pastor McKibben anticipates that Christians will encounter the reality of God’s powerful presence in, for example, receiving the Baptism of the Holy Spirit, from which point God is experienced in our lives in a deeper way; in instinctive knowledge which (as in the words Samuel spoke to the woman outside the psychic fayre) could only have been given supernaturally; and in the gift of ‘tongues’. This refers both to a private supernatural prayer language, and to words spoken in public in an unknown language which bring encouragement when they are interpreted in English by a listener.

It should also be almost commonplace, he argues, for Christians to see healings and miracles taking place, and people delivered from oppression by evil spiritual forces. All this, he explains, is experienced in the context of belief in the biblical God, and in Jesus Christ as Lord.

A significant number of Highland Christians are familiar with such events. Samuel McKibben is known and respected in the community. We believe him absolutely when he claims that his book contains ‘true and accurate reports of what I have seen God do in my lifetime.’

The God of the Miraculous reminds me of books I read half a lifetime ago which kindled in me a hunger for a deeper experience of the miracle-working God. I prayed, and was prayed with that I would receive God’s Holy Spirit, but there was no divine response. What was wrong with me, I wondered?  Didn’t I love God enough?

Over time, I came to realise that God was indeed with me and in me just as God was with and in the ‘charismatic’ Christians whose experiences I sought to share. I realised that rather than seeking some big, new encounter with God, I should rather explore and rejoice in the presence of the Father who was already within me.

I have not experienced miracles or dramatic healings such as Samuel describes (except once when back pain significantly eased following prayer.) But I believe that God has been with me, and that God has not been a sleeping partner.

Like Pastor McKibben, I am familiar with that ‘whisper or thought voice in my head’ which I have learned to acknowledge as a voice from God. Often, though not always, I have the clarity to say with him that I ‘know unswervingly that God is my Father and my friend.’

I believe God has been with me throughout the journey of my life, helping me make choices, giving insights in the fine detail of work, granting me courage to be who I am. God’s peace has expelled demons which though apparently less wild than those Pastor McKibben encounters nevertheless cast a dark shadow of despair.

With Samuel McKibben, I can say ‘What a wonderful Lord, Saviour and Friend we have in Him.’ But I believe this God hovers lovingly over our suffering world, and I do wonder if we can have too narrow a definition of ‘miracle’ which excludes God’s everyday presence in the ordinary.

I do not know why Samuel McKibben and I experience God in different ways. Some say that God stopped working ‘signs and wonders’ when the first Apostles passed away, but this I can’t believe. There is too much evidence to the contrary.

I simply take my stand with Samuel in believing that in the name of Jesus God transforms – whether we encounter this God in the spectacular, or in hiddenness, in gentle whisper.

(Christian Viewpoint column from the Highland News dated 15th August 2013)

Sunday, 15 September 2013

Making the known world new

Making the known world new is a slim, but powerful book of poems and prose reflections by Kenneth Steven, inspired by the garden of his former house in Dunkeld.  The author is a Scottish poet, novelist and writer for children; though his faith is seldom explicit in his writing his entire output is imbued by Christian vision.

Kenneth Steven’s outstanding gifts as a poet are evident in these pages, which include lines like these, about a skyfull of  tumbling swifts -

Little things that have in their wings
A whole flight to Africa

and like the following, which capture in a few words the essence of daybreak after a night of wild wind

The morning after the storm
Was like the day a child wakens after fever

But Steven’s prose is clearly a poet’s prose, deploying powerful images as where he likens a poet’s quest for a perfect lyric to the pearlfishers in Perthshire’s rivers in time past.

We see in poetry and prose his affinity with nature, as he expresses his engagement with the natural world in words which often universalise his experience – such as where he writes about the inevitability of winter, its apparent endlessness, and the certainty of coming spring.

I read this book as Kenneth Steven’s manifesto as a poet. His key idea is that the poet’s task is to open the eyes of readers and listeners to the true glory of the natural world, a glory which many of us have lost sight of through cynicism, busyness, engagement with the virtual rather than with the real or obsession with darkness. Good poems, good writing open our eyes to see things as the truly are, to discern the beauty while not denying the brokenness, to find beauty in the midst of brokenness, signs of spring in a still-wintering world.

Poets should not subvert their mission (as Steven feels some do) by playing intellectual games, but rather seek the power of simplicity. He briefly discusses power and simplicity in poets Robert Burns, Robert Frost, Edwin Muir, Wilfred Owen, George Mackay Brown, but curiously not Gerard Manley Hopkins, with whose intense love of nature one might have expected Kenneth Steven to find affinity.

Kenneth Steven  describes his work with local school children through the Poet-Tree project, helping them reconnect with the natural world around them, encouraging spring’s awakening in wintering imaginations. He is also eloquent about our responsibility to care for the environment. It concerns him that not just politicians of various hues but also some fundamentalist Christians seem to regard the planet as an open treasure-chest to be despoiled. He calls readers back to a biblical vision which sees humanity as the trusted curator of a fragile ecostructure of incredible beauty. There is a responsibility  ‘to be globally aware and locally active.’

I love Kenneth Steven’s description of a printed poem as being like a butterfly pinned like a specimen to the page, which only comes alive when read by the human voice. He has written of finding God in small things – his butterfly image makes me see real butterflies in nature as utterances of the creative voice of a never-silent God.

A wonderful book, then which repays reflective reading, and contains much which lingers long after you have put it down, Each insight is, as Steven puts it ‘a little flicker of light.’  And he reminds us that

spring is the small things
That come from the darkness.

(A review of Making the known world new by Kenneth Steven, Edinburgh, St Andrew Press, 2009, 9780715208823)

Friday, 13 September 2013

A pack to run wth

Crieff Hydro has changed since the day I scurried down its long corridors as a young teenager. As an only child, I relished that evening spent running with a pack of doctors’ kids while our parents attended a conference in the Drawing Room.

My wife Lorna and I stayed at the Hydro last week. It remains child-friendly, but the decor has been transformed. There’s not one swimming-pool but two. The lower slopes of The Knock are now covered with self-catering chalets and a golf course. There are over sixty activities available on site (I misread this as activities for over-60s!) Boredom is not an option.

We visited Innerpeffray Library, out in tranquil countryside. The oldest free public lending library in Scotland it was founded in 1680. It no longer lends books but remains a fascinating historical curiosity. People’s needs for information and intellectual stimulus remain the same, but libraries have moved on.

We also dropped in at the Watermill in Aberfeldy. The watercourse was dry that day, but the old building has found an imaginative new purpose as a coffee shop, gallery and award-winning bookshop.

Everything changes, the transformation driven by the economy, technology, social attitudes, the mere passage of time. That 13-year-old mesmerised by the sound of the thundering pipe organ at Crieff Hydro (still in place) was clearly me, and yet in significant ways, not me.

In a recent interview, Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby praised the way the Monarchy has re-invented itself through a ‘genuine, profoundly thoughtful, extremely humble, determined recognition that the world has changed, and a response to that in all sorts of ways.’ The Royal Family’s ‘basic values haven’t changed,’ said Welby, ‘but they have found a way of re-engaging with people.’

‘It’s genius. Absolute genius,’ he exclaimed. He implied that the Anglican Church must similarly change if is not to be regarded as a historic relic like Innerpeffray Library, change so that it shows its relevance while retaining its values. What Justin Welby says of the Church of England can be applied to a greater or lesser extent to all churches.

In fact, however, churches have been changing, thoughtfully considering how to connect with 21st century people. And many churches are involved in social programmes such as Foodbanks, and the low-interest Credit Unions through which the Archbishop is committed to competing with

But we run into difficulties if think that churches can be transformed in exactly the same way as other organisations. I imagine the Crieff Hydro business model focuses on number of guests, guest satisfaction, profitability, impact on the local economy and quality of life. In contrast, the Church’s ultimate goal is deeper - to encourage people to seek an encounter with God so transformational that it will affect every aspect of their lives.

The driving force behind any church changes aimed at promoting this level of encounter is not a business plan or a Chief Executive’s vision, but the naked power of God. Changes to churches will fail unless in planning them we are dreaming the dreams of God for our specific situation. If our dream is not God’s dream, then while we may have successful social enterprises, like the Watermill at Aberfeldy, the watercourse may be dry, the Spirit of God absent.

And churches must take their cue from God, rather than from society. A business like Crieff Hydro will for the most part respond to people’s expectations of a leisure resort. But churches will lose their purpose if we try to be so inoffensive that we suppress the challenge of Christian values. Churches must not be afraid to take a stand against exploitative business models, against damaging political policies, against changes in moral convictions which undermine communities rather than upbuilding them. But we must distinguish between those issues where the Church has a warning from God for society, and issues where through society God is teaching the Church to examine its traditional views.

What matters fundamentally is the quality of relationship people encounter in church. ‘Where people find a community where they are loved and cared for they find that very attractive,’ says Justin Welby. Is wholeness and freedom to be found in running with this pack in the corridors of God’s house?

It would be crazy for Crieff Hydro to revert to the early 19th century days when people flocked to its rigorous, water-centred therapies. It would be crazy for me to seek to recover my gauche 13-year-old self.

But might the Church find the impetus for the way ahead by revisiting its roots, when people passionate about a new faith and a new Saviour met together fairly informally, carried forward by the thundering dynamic of God’s Spirit, which no water-course can constrain? For the Church, could going back be the way ahead?

(Christian Viewpoint column from the Highland News dated 8th August 2013)