Saturday, 26 October 2013

The tapestry of time

The Great Tapestry of Scotland, now going on tour following its launch at the Scottish Parliament is an ambitious project inspired by novelist Alexander McCall Smith. It tells the story of Scotland in 160 panels, freeze-framing key scenes from history. 

In a Scotland which often seems divided the project has brought people together. 1000 stitchers aged from 4 to 94 spent 50,000 hours creating these panels, from designs by artist Andrew Crummy.

The 160 scenes and themes depicted were chosen, after widespread consultation, by historian Alistair Moffat. He had a difficult task. You could argue that the Highlands are under-represented, although there is a magnificent panel stitched in Caithness depicting a local school classroom in 1851.

And though the Christian faith, which did so much to shape our nation is well-represented in the earlier panels – which include among other Christian topics Saints Columba and Ninian, the great Abbeys, the Reformation – the last specifically Christian-themed panel recalls the birth of the Free Church of Scotland in 1843.

Perhaps this is symptomatic of the undervaluing in contemporary Scotland of religious faith.  There should have been at least one panel representing Christian faith in the 20th century – perhaps centred on the Iona Community, the Billy Graham mission to Glasgow in 1955 or Pope John-Paul II’s visit to Scotland in 1982, all hugely influential.

I love the thought of 1000 people across the country busily stitching over the last year – it reminds me that each one of us, in all we say and do and are – is stitching the story of our nation.

And the Tapestry project reminds me of how memory works. We look back over our lives, and consciously or not, choose what to remember. We freeze-frame events, moments which we think define us, and have made us what we are.

These panels from the tapestry of memory include not just the good times. For just as the Great Tapestry includes the darkness of Flodden and the Glencoe Massacre, so we recall the times when things went wrong, when we messed up, when bad stuff was done to us. Some of us linger in front of these distressing panels, obsessively stitching and re-stitching.

Christians believe that as we review the tapestry of memory, the God who has been invisibly present in each panel stands with us. God reminds us of panels we have forgotten to display. God offers us forgiveness for our failures. God sets us free from the compelling power of the darker panels, helping us to see them in context.

Alexander McCall Smith says of the Great Tapestry project: ‘Colour and friendship and art are what we need when times are hard. And the other ingredient, of course, is love.’ He reports that ‘all of these have been invested in this tapestry in large measure, and have worked exactly the miracle that we thought they would.’

But when it comes to living the future which will in time give birth to new panels of tapestry, people of faith insist that the presence of God is also necessary. Even the best of us know our own failures, our own proneness to pride and selfishness, our sense of impotence in the face of the despair and bleakness which characterise the lives of so many Scots. We need in Scotland a deeper miracle if we are each to weave consistently yarns with the colours of love, joy and hope.

Christians believe that God’s knowledge of past and future is like a long gallery of tapestry panels. We cannot yet see the content of panels depicting the future, but the last tapestry is already visible. It depicts a city beside a river, in which consistently there is colour, friendship, art and love, where dreams of peace and wholeness are fulfilled.

And in pride of place in the very centre of God’s gallery is a tapestry depicting the miracle which makes the last frame possible. It shows a figure, hanging in agony from a crude wooden structure. Near it, the same man stands in bright sunlight before a cold, dark cave, his face and hands raised heavenwards.

The Great Tapestry is a wonderful, joyous project to be celebrated. Even where not made explicit, God was present in the events of every single panel. But inevitable, the project puts its own ‘spin’ on Scottish identity. What I wonder, would have filled the panels if the God who sees all things as they are had been selecting their contents?

The purpose of the Tapestry, says McCall Smith is ‘to bring pleasure’ to ‘many thousands of people.’ When we stitch our tomorrows with threads of realism, love, hope and faith we not only bring pleasure to one another but to the God whom we are helping to weave the tapestry of time.

(Christian Viewpoint column from the Highland News dated 19th September 2013)

Saturday, 19 October 2013

The Kirking of the Council

On Sunday I was at the Kirking of the Council. This colourful annual event, with a 400-year-old history, involves city councillors, officials and members of the community attending a service at the Old High Church in Inverness.

The event has been criticised in the past by those who argue that religious faith should be a purely private issue, divorced from public life. But in fact Sunday’s service was a very legitimate recognition by the Council that believers in God form a significant section of the community and a willingness to take Christians (and by implication the members of other faith communities) seriously.

The service gave Christians an opportunity to pray publicly for the councillors whose presence signified the Council’s appreciation of the role played by Christians in enriching the quality of life in Inverness.

To me, looking through the lens of faith, this bringing together of Church and Council was a reminder that elected members and officials are ultimately to be seen as a gift from God to us – fallible people like us all, but with a willingness to serve the community.

It also reminded me that Christians, and all people of faith, believe that nothing we do is hidden the God to whom each of us is accountable. Whatever our role in society – whoever elects us, or manages us, or works in partnership with us, whoever we serve or are answerable to our primary accountability in everything is to God.

And it reminded me that we are all equal in God’s sight. The pews on Sunday were packed with community leaders, folk with no highfalutin role, school kids, all of our lives a mixture of light and shadow, all of us equal in the presence of a God who cherishes us. And cherishes the whole community, especially those whose brokenness, failure and despair have pushed them to the edge, those who might have felt excluded by the pomp in Church Street on Sunday.

And our God-focussed presence there on Sunday reminded me that God’s help is available to each of us. Last week a colleague mentioned a book he was reading, with a startling title - Reading the Bible with the damned – a book about the power encountering the Bible has in the lives of those who judge themselves to be helpless, excluded, ‘damned.’

My colleague explained ‘They’d come across, say, the first verses in the Bible where God’s creative Spirit brings order out of chaos, and they’d ask “Can this God bring order out of my chaos?”’

The message of Christianity is that out of the chaos of dysfunctional lives, families, communities, God brings wholeness and healing. I believe God’s healing work carried out not simply through Christian and other faith groups but through everyday friendship and neighbourliness, and through Councils and charities and local agencies. The whisper of God is everywhere present, even when its source is not acknowledged.

The expectation of the National Secular Society that my faith should be excluded from my engagement in the community is untenable, since it is based on a fundamental misunderstanding of faith.

If I am, say, a Christian, a Muslim or a Jew, my faith defines who I am. Underpinning my knowledge, experience, training, professionalism is a faith which can’t be restricted to part of my life but shapes all my living, all my decisions.

The Rev Peter Nimmo mentioned in her sermon the I have a dream speech by Martin Luther King, a man whose political vision was given substance and empowered by his underpinning faith.

As Christians, we have a dream which we believe is God’s dream. It is a dream of a society where all are equal, where each seeks the good of others, where all have what they need and no-one has too much, a society where individual difference and uniqueness is celebrated, where everyone can flourish, using their gifts for the common good, a grace-prompted society of justice, peace and love.

God’s dreams always come true, and Christians believe that this dream will be a reality in the fullness of time. For the moment, we throw everything we’ve got into realising the dream as fully as possible in our communities in partnership with all men and women of good will.

The sermon on Sunday was about Pontius Pilate, sitting in judgement on Jesus. Pilate believed Jesus was innocent: would he release him, or go the way of political expediency and compromise? There are times, whatever our community role when we face situations where we must either run with the dream, regardless of the personal cost, or fatally compromise.

I trust that we came out of church into the sunlight on Sunday morning with a renewed sense of commitment to work for the flourishing of everyone within our city.

(Christian Viewpoint column from the Highland News dated 12th September 2013)

Sunday, 13 October 2013

Teach me who I am

Jonathan Fraser, the Youth Minister was leading the service at Hilton Church in Inverness the other Sunday. The worship was led by a talented youth band, and there was lots of input from young people.

The service reviewed highlights of the church’s youth activities over the past twelve months, including the weekly Nite Life sessions, the visit Jonathan and some of the young people made to the Oban area supporting kids’ activities at local churches, and a summer trip to work with children in Romania.

There were vivid memories: of friendships formed in Romania, of watching a vivid sunset off the island of Luing, of a late evening trip in a small ferry, the night pitch-black apart from a million pinpricks of starlight.

One of our daughters has a tee-shirt proclaiming ‘No one can teach me who I am.’ It’s an uncompromising manifesto of individualism and desire for self-determination, an expression of resistance to people who think they know the kind of people we should be.

Some folk think Christians try to teach young people to be something they are not, by imposing on them an outmoded, disproven religion and nurturing in them a false sense of identity centred on an imaginary God.

This is not what I saw at church that Sunday morning. And in fact the whole service belied the words on the tee shirt as it reminded me how much we benefit from journeying with others, how much we benefit from openness to an anything but imaginary God, who knows better than anyone who we are.

Jonathan described asking a young person to give a talk during the Oban visit, someone who’d never done anything quite like it before and didn’t know where to begin. When she asked Jonathan for help, he simply said ‘Go and read your Bible and ask God to show you what you should say.’ She did this, and found some words becoming fresh and relevant, and she knew exactly what she had to say.

How different this approach is from imposing faith. It is instead a matter of modelling faith, trusting God, and encouraging a young person to take a risk in dependence on God, and grow in the process.

Jonathan also described chilling on a veranda with the Romania team members shortly before their return home, and asking them ‘How is it with your souls?’ It sounds impossibly cheesy, and it says much for the quality of Jonathan’s relationship with them that he got away with it.

The young people spoke freely, sharing, praying, growing together, learning from the experience of others and open to discerning insights from others. There was a sense that God was ‘doing things.’  I find it easier to say ‘God is active throughout the cosmos, active in the sunset and the star-carpeted sky’ than to say ‘God is concerned enough to be active in my small life.’

Yet hearing the reports from Romania you get the impression of people mutually enriching one another’s lives in the company of an active God.

Jonathan asked another young person, Fiona Waite, to speak that Sunday morning. Her initial reaction was to decline – she had not, she told Jonathan, felt particularly close to God in recent weeks. Somehow, though, she wasn’t comfortable with her decision. Ideas which insisted on being heard formed in her mind, and a short talk took shape. At 11.20pm on the Saturday night she contacted Jonathan. ‘Could I speak after all? I want to talk about Jesus.’

The next morning she spoke powerfully about her realisation that Jesus was her friend and her resolve to be a friend to God showing the same costly commitment which God brought to friendship with her.

It was quite obvious that Fiona was not saying what she thought we expected to hear. Rather with complete authenticity she spoke out thoughts she had been given. And as she spoke many of us, old and young learned, and were helped on our daily journey to be our true selves and so fulfil our potential.

I may say ‘No one can teach me who I am,’ but even while saying it I may be unquestioningly heeding my own damaged view of myself, strident voices in our culture,  powerful self-destructive impulses, and all the other rubbish which clogs up the quiet inner spring, the well of true selfhood.

I believe I can only drink from that well with the help of others and above all with the help of God who is the great Lake from which the spring within us flows.

The humble way, the better way is to say to our God, to our friends, perhaps even to our enemies ‘Will you please help me learn, today, how to know and to be my unique self.’

(Christian Viewpoint column from the Highland News dated 5th September 2013)

Margin and exile

A sermon preached at Hilton Church, Inverness on 13th October 2013

Lectionary readings: Jeremiah 29:1, 4-7; Luke 17:11-19

A bit of history to start with. We’ll be familiar with the background to the reading from Jeremiah after Jonathan Fraser’s sermon last week. The Jewish people had come under the rule of the Chaldean Empire, led by King Nebuchadnezzar, but they resisted. Many of the Jews were sent into exile in the Chaldean capital Babylon in 597BC, and more followed them into exile 10 years later after Jerusalem was destroyed by the Chaldeans.

The passage Jonathan spoke from last Sunday was addressed to the Jews remaining in their desolate city – you remember Jonathan spoke powerfully and movingly about the challenge to find hope, to be hope, to be a flourishing among the ashes.

Today’s passage is aimed at those Jews who had been sent miles from home – to Babylon.  What message from God can Jeremiah give to help them in their anguish?

Well, it wasn’t the message they wanted – other, less discerning prophets were telling the Jews that it would all be over soon. You’ll soon be home in Jerusalem. It will be as it was. The war will be over by Christmas.

But Jeremiah had a clear sense from God that the Jews would remain in Babylon for several decades, and he had the courage and strength to articulate this, and to guide the people in the way they should live in the light of this. It wasn’t until the Chaldeans were defeated by Cyrus the Persian in 539BC that the exiles were liberated.

An important point to make is that in these verses Jeremiah is addressing the nation, the people as a group, and so the direct lessons we can learn from the passage apply to us as a Christian church. But I think we can also read these verses as an encouragement to us as individual Christians.

Then the New Testament reading is a familiar one – about Jesus, on the border between Galilee and Samaria being met by ten men with leprosy who responded in faith, and were healed.

What’s the lesson from these passages for us today? I believe they speak to us as individuals and as a group if we sense that we are in some way in exile, as was the experience of the ancient Jews, or feel that we are marginalised, on the edge as was the experience of those people with leprosy.

In exile

In what ways can we sense ourselves to be ‘in exile’?

The first thing to say is that the message of the Bible is that our fundamental state as human beings is one of exile – symbolised by Adam and Eve who were exiled from the garden, exiled from intimacy with God because of the choice they made. As humans we are all in some way exiled from God. We are out of the element we were created to thrive in, the element of God. And so, on our clearer seeing days, when we are being completely honest, we may feel that we are not in the country we were made for.

But then some of us today may feel literally in exile. 
  • Perhaps home is somewhere else, and we don’t really feel we belong in Inverness
  • Perhaps home was a relationship with someone who has passed away, and we feel desolate, in a strange country
  • Perhaps home was some golden time in the past as we remember it which we have never been able to recover
  • Perhaps home is some goal which we have set ourselves but which we have never reached
  • Perhaps home is the person I was before some major life event
And perhaps some of us feel in exile in a spiritual sense
  • Perhaps the beliefs which once comforted us, no longer have the same effect
  • Perhaps the God we once experienced close to us seems distant, and the things which have happened have led us to question his goodness.
This must have been the experience of the Jewish people. Jeremiah in the verses we read addressed ‘the captives he [that’s God] had sent into exile.’ They had been warned that God’s judgement would come on their nation, and yet the reality and the pain and the intensity of it devastated them. The spiritual exile was perhaps a greater burden than the physical and material dislocation.

We too know the anguish when bad things happen, when we have been seeking God and seeking to love God and yet some tragedy strikes. Why? Where are you God? Was my trust in you a delusion?

And we too know the times when we’ve messed up real bad, and we feel that nothing can undo what we have done, and we call out to God, but our hearts are leaden, and the door of heaven closed.

Last Saturday, my wife and daughter and I, plus Mollie the dog, went for a walk along Rosemarkie beach. And we saw an interesting thing there. A short flight of concrete steps, leading nowhere. At one point, the steps had taken you to a higher level of the beach, but the sea had eroded this low dune, and the steps were left, a relic of the past, stopping in mid-air.

I wonder if that is a symbol for some of us, of ideas and beliefs – whether Christian or otherwise – which once worked for us, but which no longer seem to lead us to higher ground, and we feel exiled, we feel that a door has closed.

On the margin

We all know something of the experience of exile, but many of us also know what it is to be marginalised, on the edge.
  • We may feel that in our society the Church, or the Christian community is marginalised, and not recognised as a key force for good in Scotland
  • Or perhaps we feel personally marginalised, not accepted, not one of the group. It could be because of some physical or mental health issue, like depression or schizophrenia. It could be because of a disability, or because of our sexuality. It could be that in some way I am just ‘different’ and made to feel (or think I’m made to feel) that I don’t belong.  It could be that I feel forever on the edge in church because I don’t experience God in the same way as others seem to.
So, many of us in exile or on the margin. And our passages today give us enormous encouragement. The key thing is simply this

God is with us in exile, on the margins.

You remember the Psalm Jonathan quoted last week?

Beside the rivers of Babylon, we sat and wept
as we thought of Jerusalem. ….

How can we sing the songs of the Lord
while in a pagan land. (Psalm 137:1, 4)

We’re used to the idea of the ubiquity of God. But I think the Middle East community at that time was used to the concept of each nation having its own gods. The Jews may have known in theory that YHWH was the one great God, but nevertheless they knew that the special place for meeting and worshipping YHWH was in Jerusalem, and now (after 587BC) the Temple was destroyed. Was their greatest exile from a God left behind in Jerusalem?

But they discovered that God was with them in exile. God had sent them into exile. God was accessible to them in exile. God would sustain them through exile. God would bring them out of exile

It’s the same with those folk with leprosy. On the edge, driven to the margins because of fear of the infectiousness of their disease. But God is there. They meet Jesus. He is not afraid to spend time with them. He heals them.

And this is the key message for all of us today, if we are feeling marginalised, or in exile for any of the reasons we have thought about – God is with us. God joins us on the margins, God joins us in exile – that’s the whole wonder of incarnation.

And if we realise that our sense of exile arises from the fact that we have never encountered God, then God calls us home today. We do not minimise the holiness of God when we describe him as a yearning Father, watching for those who have exiled themselves from the Father’s House to come home. God speaks to us in our exile, calling us home.

But perhaps our sense of exile and marginalisation arise, not from the fact that we don’t love God, but despite the fact that we love God and long for God. God is with us in our exile, in our marginalisation.

Jesus sent the people with leprosy to the priests – I think the idea is that the priests would examine you, see that the signs of leprosy had gone, and welcome you back into the community. By heading off for the local synagogue the ten were exercising faith, showing that they trusted that Jesus would heal them, even although he had only spoken.

Come to the foot of those concrete steps, the ones you think don’t led anywhere. Walk up them, one at a time, and as you go they may lead you into a new dimension, a new way of seeing.

Sometimes the journey we are called to go on is a long one, sometimes the steps go on and on. I remember sitting in a doctor’s surgery perhaps 30 years ago, a believer, but burdened with anxiety and depression, without a sense of my true identity. And Dr Duthie said ‘Often people in your situation when they get older find a real peace and equilibrium.’ Or words to that effect.  He was a kind man. But I sat and thought ‘Yeah, right.’  and the future seemed forever. But now I have reached a place where I know who I am, blessed and loved by God, still struggling with emotions at times, but so very happy to be me, and with a realisation that through the very fact of journeying I have been set free.

No quick fixes

The Jews in Jeremiah’s time were looking for a quick fix. But Judaism, and Christianity are not about quick fixes. They are rather about trusting God, trusting the divine timing, and living for God.

And so Jeremiah gives the Jews guidance for living in exile, guidance which challenges us as we face our individual experiences of exile, and challenges us in our experience as a Christian Church – in exile in a fallen world from the perfected dimension which we will eventually inhabit.

1.Be realistic, but don’t despair

Don’t despair. Don’t sink into depression and inactivity. The fact that God has sent you into exile reminds you that God is active, that God will bring you out of exile. Don’t be focussed on a quick fix so that you give up on life, perpetually disappointed.

2.Love life

‘Build homes, and plan to stay. Plant gardens, and eat the fruit they produce. Marry and have children. Then find spouses for them so that you may have many grandchildren. Multiply! Do not dwindle away!’ (Jeremiah 29:5-6)

Some Christians shake their heads glumly over the condition of the world, and focus on rescue at the end of time. But Jeremiah urges us to love life, to love what’s beautiful and good and true, to be creative, to seek joy even among the sorrow.

Some of your experiences of exile and marginalisation may be so profound, that you find it hard even to begin to love life. And yet I believe that, in even the deepest pain, we hear whispers of grace urging us in our sorrow, in our marginalisation, to choose life.  God says ‘I know your pain. I am with you in your pain. Choose life, choose joy in this ever so small way. Choose life at this instant in time. Leave the next instant, the next hour, the next day, to me.’

May we be a people who choose life, whatever that means for us as individuals.

3 Engage with the community

‘And work for the peace and prosperity of the city where I sent you into exile. Pray to the Lord for it, for its welfare will determine your welfare’ (Jeremiah 29:7)

Here the challenge is to make a difference to society. We can apply it to the city of Inverness, to any community where we live, to Scotland, to the United Kingdom. We are called, as God’s exiled community, to weep over tragedy as Jesus wept over Jerusalem, to pray for our communities, to get alongside people in our daily work, in the Light House, in Street Pastors, in Highland Foodbank, in collaboration with other Christians, in engaging in clubs and societies and politics to make a difference in the name of the God who calls exiles home.

The Bible makes clear that this is our role as Christians. Jeremiah reminds us that it is also in our own interests, because our welfare is tied up in the welfare of our society. Some Christians think nothing about advocating the rape of the world’s resources because the end is nigh so what does it matter.

We may be in exile here, but for now this beautiful, fragile planet is our home, our lives are lived in fragile communities and nations where light and darkness jostle together and we are called to be people of the light. We will be thrice blessed in doing this: blessed in the sheer joy of doing it; blessed by the Father for having done it; blessed as the results of our work improve the quality of civic life.

What does that mean for my future, for my daily living? And again, what of those who are experiencing some deep, painful exile? What can I do to engage? There may be a neighbour I can help, there may someone in the same hospital ward as me whom I can encourage by a word. Exile and marginalisation takes us to places where, on a given day, we are the only voice God has. It doesn’t matter if we are only able to engage in a small way. What matters is that we do engage.

4 Gratitude

So, the ten folk with leprosy were healed. They would all be ecstatic, as a new future opened in front of them at the head of the steps of faith, a future in which marginalisation would be history. But just one came back to say thank you – and he was the outsider, the man from Samaria.

What have we thought about today? The God who is with us in exile. The God who in Jesus entered into exile with us. The God who sustains us, gives us vision and hope.

We don’t always feel like thanking God, but we learn that sincere gratitude to God even in deep darkness brings a whisper of healing.

5. Hope

It’s outside today’s passage, but it’s relevant. A verse which reminds us that our futures are in God’s hands. A verse which today we can apply to the Church in exile as it anticipates a welcome to the Jerusalem of God:

‘”For I know the plans I have for you,” says the Lord. “They are plans for good and not for disaster, to give you a future and a hope.”’  (Jeremiah 29:11)

Since God is with us, there is always hope.


Thinking about this, I wondered about those of us who this morning don’t feel marginalised, or in exile, but who are quite happy.  Great! And great to remember that God is with us too.

But I think there’s a sense in which when life is going well, we are in danger of losing sight of the reality of God. We can marginalise God. We can exile the reality of God from our everyday life, though we may still acknowledge God’s name.

Can I read you a passage from a novel which really struck me. Speaking, or rather writing in a letter is a woman called Molly who is struggling with faith issues:

I have always had many more questions than answers. My life began to change when my first child was born. I saw it as ineffable, full of mystery and wonder. It had more to do with meaning and purpose, less so with biology or theology. All the ‘God talk’ just seemed so cheap after my living, breathing daughter was placed in my arms.

I wonder if in our daily lives, undisturbed by exile or marginalisation, the God talk can become cheap, and superficial? But God is with us, not just as a spiritual presence, but God in God’s world, God crying out to us through the beauty of creation, God giving us each new-born baby, a ubiquitous God. God is much bigger than our God-talk.

And I remembered Francis Thompson’s lovely poem The Kingdom of God about the presence of God in the world, a presence which we so often miss because of our routine busyness. Until, that is, the time of crisis, the time of exile and marginalisation. Says Thompson:

But (when so sad thou canst not sadder)
Cry; - and upon thy so sore loss
Shall shine the traffic of Jacob’s ladder
Pitched betwixt Heaven and Charing Cross

Yea, in the night, my Soul, my daughter,
Cry, - clinging Heaven by the hems;
And lo, Christ walking on the water
Not of Gennesareth, but Thames.

Can we, in our pain, in the tough reality of our lives with all our questioning, see Jacob’s ladder as it were pitched between heaven and the Hilton Community Centre, or Falcon Square, or in the Light House. And in the Christ who walked on the waters of the Sea of Galilee as real in our community as if his feet touched the rivers of the Ness, or the Moray Firth? God is with us.

To use Thompson’s poetic language, perhaps as, whatever our experience this morning, we walk up those steps of faith we will see them extending upwards, and heaven coming down to meet us.