Saturday, 30 November 2013

A God for all seasons

This weekend, we change the clocks. From Sunday it’ll be dark at tea-time. We’re deep into autumn.

My daughter Bethany’s favourite seasons are summer and winter. At least part of the attraction of these seasons to her is the clothes you get to wear – light, colourful gear in the summer, warm, fashionable coats and scarves in the coldest months.

My friend Andrew mentioned watching on YouTube a classical pianist now approaching the end of her career playing the same works she’d performed as a young woman. These earlier performances were also available on YouTube and Andrew noted how little her interpretation of the pieces had changed throughout the turning seasons of her life.

Seasons mean different things to different people. If you’re a gardener or a farmer, each season brings new tasks and opportunities. Many of us relish the distinctive marks of the seasons: the awakening of the earth and new life budding in spring; the sun and warm rain of summer, long evenings, long walks, bees feasting in bright flowerbeds; in autumn, mist, the relief of harvest home, in the woods a million shades of brown; and winter – the sharp chill on your cheeks, the crisp challenge of frosty mornings, the welcome respite when you reach your front door.

And we have learned to view the seasons as symbols of our journey through life – the spring of our birth and our becoming, the summer of work and love and joy, the autumn of our maturity with its fruit of ripening wisdom, and winter – old age, courage, death.

Some of us have learned to see the seasons as mirrors of emotions we pass through. Hope is a springtime, joy a summer, foreboding and fearfulness an autumn, and the emotional deadness when it seems hope will never come again is a long winter season. Sometimes indeed, the seasons trigger negative emotions – as autumn brings melancholy, and a spring whose promise of joy we do not feel deepens our misery.

As Christians too, we pass through seasons of the soul – times of awakening and joy, times when God seems distant, our hearts cold.

Whatever the seasons mean to us, they have lessons for us. The seasons remind us that there is a time for everything in life:  they challenge us to embrace ‘now’, to own the season of life we are passing through, doing, enjoying, taking opportunities while we still can.

They remind us to turn from our busyness and marvel at the beauty and wonder of the natural world. To Christians it expresses God’s creativity, and we thank God with that thankfulness which sets us free as we realise that the God who cares for nature cares much more for humanity.

The seasons remind us to be sensitive to the seasons of life, or the emotional seasons which those around us are passing through, and prompt us to reach out in practical ways to, for example, old people who are loneliness. We walk with one another through the seasons of our years.

And the turning of the seasons reminds those in emotional and spiritual winter, that spring will come again. Some unexpected instant we will detect the smallest bud of life in the deadness of our hearts. And Christian faith gives us hope even in the chill winter of extreme age, when the last leaves have fallen, hope of springtime in a new dimension, and challenges us to be always (as WW1 pastor Woodbine Willie put it) ‘true to Spring.’

The pianist playing the same pieces throughout a long life reminded me of the call to us as Christians to be consistent in all our seasons in letting the music of God’s presence and grace be heard in us.

And yet I was a little surprised at Andrew’s observation that there had been such little change in her performance. For music is more than simply notes, and I’d have thought that as a pianist ages, and brings the experience of her seasons to bear on the piece, understanding more profoundly what the composer meant, so her performance would grow in power and poignancy.

Christianity is about far more than just the ‘notes’ of words and actions. As God’s music is heard in us throughout our lives, throughout the turning seasons I’d have expected people to discern in us a greater awareness of the wonder of God and God’s world, a greater sense of mystery, a deeper perplexity at suffering and evil, a profounder confidence in divine love.

This Sunday, we change the clocks. But we can’t control time, for time is regulated by the heart of God. What we can do is to entrust ourselves, and those we love and our communities to the God of all our seasons who awakens in us a timeless music.

(Christian Viewpoint column from the Highland News dated 24th October 2013)

Thursday, 28 November 2013

A life in letters: Worldliness

As a child and teenager in the 1950s and 60s I was presented by the Christian teaching I received with a choice regarding which of two radically different environments I would inhabit. On the one hand, there was the dimension of faith and certainty and sober, God-focussed living; on the other ‘the world’ – a seductive but ultimately barren environment. This ‘world’ was defined not in physical terms, but as an attitude, a way of thinking and living which excluded God,  explained existence in purely scientific terms, and regarded morality as the fruit of human expediency. The persistent message from parents and church was that ‘worldliness’ – embracing the values of ‘the world’ was at all costs to be avoided.
I understood this to mean that I should squeeze myself into the mould of Christian living as it was modelled by the believers in our circle, and indeed there was nothing I wanted to do more, for it was the only lifestyle I knew or aspired to.
The opposite of worldliness and the goal of our aspirations was ‘godliness’. Christians were to be dedicated to God, and obedient to God. This dedication and obedience should be transparent in our everyday lives, for if our hearts were centred in the divine, then we would avoid both inappropriate and sinful behaviour, and an over-attachment to material possessions. And as St Paul wrote (Philippians 4:9)  ‘whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable – if anything is excellent or praiseworthy – think about such things.’ 
The problem was that since I wasn’t certain what it meant to have your heart so fixed on God that godliness became instinctive, the instruction against worldliness reached me as a list of dos and don’ts. Or it might be more accurate to say that I sought for a list of ‘dos’ and ‘don’ts’ which would help me to avoid worldliness, and I didn’t have far to look. In fact when I was young this list didn’t seem too burdensome, since I was a biddable child not given to pushing too hard against the boundaries, and in any case there were far more ‘dos’ than ‘don’ts’. I happily accepted the few restrictions which were placed on me, happily embraced the role of being an unworldly child.
But I found this increasingly difficult as a teenager.  The certainties of Christian faith eluded me, and consequently I never felt there was any authenticity in my attempts at Christian living. Besides this, due to the sheltered nature of my upbringing, I hadn’t learned the skills to negotiate a relationship with ‘the world’, with new ideas, and with those who didn’t share Christian beliefs.
And so for most of my teen years I felt I belonged neither in ‘the world’ nor in ‘the church’, but hovered in between in angst-ridden uncertainty as I struggled to find an authentic way of living and being.
Relationships were particularly difficulty – I felt I couldn’t relate with honesty to evangelical Christians, because I was ‘not one of them’, or with those I had been taught to perceive as ‘nominal Christians’ and non-believers because I felt awkward and different and felt it was my responsibility to ‘evangelise’. I knew that forming relationships with girls who weren’t Christians was definitely unacceptable. The prime goal of parents in the church was to see their offspring embracing the Christian faith, and then marrying Christian partners.  My understanding of who could be defined as a ‘true Christian’ was very narrow, and this led me to assume that any girl I met out-with the confines of our own kind of church was somehow ‘in the world’. I would be aware of a great gulf fixed between us, and I found it almost impossible to establish a natural, relaxed friendship.
In daily life there were many activities on which absolutely no restrictions were placed on grounds of religious belief.  I am grateful that I was encouraged to read, to develop creative writing, and to cultivate my passion for listening to (most) classical music. But there were things which you simply weren’t allowed to do. Wearing lipstick, drinking alcohol, frequenting pubs and dance halls were all deemed to be forbidden territory by the kind of Christians we associated with – not that I had the remotest inclination to indulge in any of these activities. Listening to pop music – certainly of the pelvis-gyrating, rock-and-roll variety was frowned on, although I was occasionally allowed to submit my name to a request programme on the radio, which presumably played this kind of music.
We didn’t own a TV until after we moved to Carluke in 1962, when one was acquired, justified on educational grounds. As a younger child I had glimpsed The Black and White Minstrel Show in my friend Isobel-from-down-the-road’s front room, and had watched Flowerpot Men and Lassie at the next door neighbour’s. But viewing TV in our house was an unsettling, morally challenging experience. You could watch – but you always had to be prepared to switch off if anything unacceptable came on-screen. Watching with mum and dad was stressful, as you never knew when something might happen which would switch dad into censorship mode.
I was allowed to watch Dixon of Dock Green, and Sherlock Holmes, but never Z Cars or The man from Uncle which they were all talking about in the classroom. But it was a Sherlock Holmes story which exposed me to the most disturbing image I ever saw as a teenager. This particular show concerned a murderer who planned to dispose of his victim’s body by interring it in the same coffin as someone who was being legitimately buried. In the TV adaptation, a camera looked straight down at the lid of the coffin as it was opened, and you were confronted with the wizened body of an old woman. I had never before looked on the face of death, even simulated death, and I was shocked and disturbed. That affected me far more deeply than anything I would have seen the night my father switched off This man Craig.
This was a drama series screened in 1966-67 in which Scottish actor John Cairney starred as Ian Craig, a physics teacher in the fictional Scottish town of Strathaird. Together, my parents and I had watched several episodes of this innocuous show without mishap, but one occasion, the plot involved some teenagers attempting to persuade a mate to share some alcohol with them in a dark lane. This was enough for my father.  He rose to his feet, and turned the television off, even as my mother was protesting ‘But he’s not going to drink it!’
There was no discussion with me about what we were seeing on scene or about whether it reflected the reality of school life as I knew it, no reflection on what lessons could be learned from what we’d been watching, no explanation as to why my father acted as he had. We watched no further episodes of This man Craig, and from that day on I found it almost impossible to sit with my parents in front of a television.
Miss Taylor was considered extremely daring in our days at Allander Hall in Milngavie because she attended Ben Hur. In general, Christians of our sort eschewed cinema attendance. It was felt that much of what was depicted in films was morally questionable, and that if you watched, at the very least your sense of openness to God would be dulled. At worst, you might be tempted and yield to the temptation to model your life on what you saw on the screen rather than on what you read in the Word. To be fair, it was recognised that there might be artistic merit in some films, but one was discouraged from attending even these through the deployment of what was known as ‘the weaker brother’ argument. This was based on the teaching of St Paul, who considered that while in fact 1st century Christians could with impunity eat food which had been offered to pagan gods before going on-sale at the local butchers, in fact it was not always expedient to do so. Your freedom to eat might perplex and damage your more fastidious ‘weaker brother’ (or, presumably ‘weaker sister’) who had a conscientious objection to eating food which had been used in non-Christian religious ceremonies.
In the same way, it was argued, your freedom to judiciously select a film and go to see it at the cinema (as presumably Miss Taylor had done) might unsettle the faith of someone else who conscientiously avoided the movies because they sincerely believed cinema-going was forbidden to Christians. In any case they, seeing you in the queue outside the ABC, and not realising that you were going to watch a particular film which you’d checked out and felt was acceptable, might assume that your cinema attendance granted them the freedom to attend any film they chose. And so they might view something which would damage them by luring them into unacceptable ways of living. There was also, I think, the implication that you, the discerning brother was by definition better equipped to resist whatever temptations might present themselves in the course of viewing a film than was your weaker brother.
As a child, I had absolutely no idea of what the iniquities were which haunted the great screens in the city centre ABCs and Odeons, but I knew that at all costs they were to be avoided. I didn’t realise at the time that what Christians would refuse to watch at the cinema, they would view, avidly and without scruple, on their televisions at home, beyond the watching eyes of both the weaker brothers and the church’s leading brothers who might call them to account.
That was the one merciful loophole in the attitude of the Christians I grew up with to the cinema – it was considered permissible to go to see a film if it could be justified on educational grounds. And so one day in 1967 I found myself travelling with my Latin class to the Cosmo Cinema off Sauchiehall Street in Glasgow to see a filmed version (in English) of the Greek play Oedipus Rex by Sophocles, starring Christopher Plummer. I’m sure Oedipus Rex is a worthy piece of drama, dealing with profound themes, and Plummer was certainly intense and dramatic in his delivery, but all that was beyond me at the age of 15. I found the film incomprehensible and boring, for I couldn’t relate it to my own experience. But what I hadn’t realised was that there was a ‘B’ picture, and we stayed to watch. It was Charade, a 1963 comedy thriller set in Paris, which stars Cary Grant and Audrey Hepburn. I am sure it doesn’t rank among the greatest films ever made, but it was my very first experience of cinema, and it was a revelation to me.
But although you were given the impression that it was easy to differentiate between behaviour appropriate to ‘the world’ and behaviour acceptable among our group of Christians and so it was implied acceptable to God, in fact the distinction frequently wasn’t clear-cut.
What caused me problems, however, were situations where it wasn’t immediately obvious whether a particular course of action was, or was not ‘worldly.’  I would discover to my bewilderment that what I had expected to be considered inappropriate was in fact deemed acceptable by my parents.
When I was ten or eleven they told me early in December that there was to be a special treat round about Christmas. We walked to the Post Office one dark autumn day just before tea, and posted a letter which I was given to understand was in some way connected with the delight to come. One Saturday morning a couple of weeks later they told me the day had come, and unveiled the mystery. ‘We’re going to the circus at the Kelvin Hall!’  I remember the stomach-piercing stab of pain as, utterly confused, I slid off my chair on to the carpet, and took refuge under the table. ‘But Christians don’t go to the circus!’ I protested. ‘Going to the circus is worldly.’
Instead of saying something along the lines of ‘We’re so, so sorry if anything we’ve said or done has given you that impression, but it’s wrong. God is really enthusiastic about circuses. So let’s go along and see what it’s like,’ they took me to the shops and bought me a plastic Airfix station for my electric train set to make up for the disappointment of the treat which wasn’t, and that afternoon there were three empty seats in the Kelvin Hall Arena. This outcome confirmed me in my thinking that I had been right, and that they had been wrong.
And I remember shortly after we acquired our first television my father noticed one Christmas that a film set in Burma, where he had been stationed while doing his National Service in the late 1940s was to be shown, and he turned it on. I was deeply uncomfortable with this – I suppose once again I felt that the secular was bursting out of the cell I had confined it to.  ‘You shouldn’t be watching that, dad,’ I said, with pious indignation. ‘It’s a feature film.’ And then I added ‘It’s not true!’, unaware of the absurdity of this remark coming from someone whose mind thrived in the imaginative environment of fiction.
My father, who had never been to a cinema in his life other than on educational visits while at school, didn’t engage me in discussion over what I had said.  I left the room, and shortly afterwards he turned off the television.
And this confusion could work the other way round as well – with my assuming that something was acceptable, which my parents deemed otherwise. My last embarrassment with my parents over cultural issues took place when I was in my early 20s. Someone I’d met through my involvement with the  Scripture Union organisation had mentioned his enjoyment of some of humourist Gerard Hoffnung’s radio sketches, and seeing that one of them was to be broadcast one evening, I mentioned to mum and dad that they might like to listen to it with me, and turned on the radio  at the appropriate time. I can’t remember much about the content of the sketch, but there must have been something in it which my parents found objectionable. Without, as far as I could see, any eye contact, they rose from their chairs as with one accord, left the room and went off to bed without saying a word, leaving me alone with the radio. What I was listening to suddenly lost all its appeal, and I turned the set off. Nothing was said the next day, or any day afterwards about Gerard Hoffnung. It was my parents’ silence which troubled me most – not their views on Hoffnung’s work, but their choice not to explain to me what they were thinking and why, and their unwillingness to explore my views. Of course I was equally at fault for accepting and not questioning their behaviour.
In time, I learned that you can’t detect the worldliness which destroys spirituality by listing the books you read or the films you watch. I learned that God is bigger than I had imagined, God is active in all creation, constantly prompting, whispering, seeking, nurturing men and women into the way of grace and love. Also I learned that worldliness is bigger than I had imagined – the pervasive spirit which rejects God’s values, a spirit discerned in the poisonous presence of pride, criticism, bitterness, selfishness. I learned that these fruits of darkness were just as evident in many people’s lives within the Christian community as they were in society at large.
My parents could have done so much more to help me form an integrated view of engaging with the world out there, beyond the confines of Christian security, while making yourself at home in a God-focussed dimension. I tried so hard to become what was expected of me, and I failed. Much, much later, I grew to realise that God calls me to be my unique self, and loves my unique self into being through accompanying me on the journey of life, and that love for God, and openness to God is what sets you free to engage fully with life while rejecting the value of worldliness.
I realised that God is not looking for Christians, disengaged as much as possible from society, supporting one another, looking for God to rescue them at the end of time, but for Christians who love the world in all its brokenness, and know the risk and danger of engagement, and yet are driven to be bringers of Christ’s love and grace in art, in culture, in politics, in communities, in the lives of individuals, getting their hands dirty but seeking to keep their hearts pure.
And of course this is something with which, on their clearer-seeing days, my parents would have wholeheartedly agreed.

Wednesday, 27 November 2013

A life in letters: Dempster Enterprises Ltd

An imaginary company I created when I was 12, inspired by the boy heroes of a series of American childrens’ books whose father owned a business named by adding the word Enterprises to his surname. (I think it was Swift Enterprises.)

A spread from the DEL Catalogue
The main focus of Dempster Enterprises Ltd (or DEL as it was known) appears to have been managing the fleet of three toy planes which flew from an airport named (by analogy with the RAF’s practice) DEL Delderton.

But the business developed – a detailed catalogue lists the wide range of products available from DEL, including everything you’d need for space travel. It’s interesting how knowledgable I was about this subject, when the lunar landing was still five years away – I see a (mis-spelled) reference to solar power.

DEL Doctor's Contract
There was also a (less gracefully named) broadcasting subsidiary, Delytelly, which could only be consumed by folk sitting in my bedroom watching the cardboard box in which I’d concealed myself. I remember my parents forming the audience on at least one occasion.

I also recall my father’s willingness to enter into the DEL game in another way. After he had repaired the wheel of one of my aircraft, he was offered (and accepted by initialling the letter of offer) the role of DEL Aircraft Doctor, which I suspect involved keeping in good shape the planes rather than the aircrew.

It seems like an indian summer of childhood before the autumn storms of adolescence.