Saturday, 22 February 2014

Wonderful welcoming God

Last week a fascinating, candid film on BBC4 took an inside look at the Salvation Army’s national training college in London. It followed some trainee officers – including Nick and Shelley Ward who now lead the Salvation Army in Thurso – through a year of their course.

The film showed the Army’s impressive, non-judgemental compassion as the cadets spent time on the streets of London, interacting with people in need, listening sensitively to workers in a lap-dancing club, an empathic presence.

We learned that some of the trainees had their own personal struggles - with bad stuff in the past or with doubt in the present – but were learning to ‘serve out of their weakness so that it becomes a strength’ as a senior officer put it.

We also learned something of the doctrinal beliefs of the Army, especially their attitude to what happens after death. ‘Those who believe in Jesus go to heaven and those who don’t believe go to hell. And they’re eternally damned forever’ as one officer put it uncompromisingly.

One of the TV critics described that Salvation Army as we saw it in the film as being rather ‘like a loving and dysfunctional family where doubt is the accepted partner of belief and compassion triumphs over dogma.’ You could, I think, almost hear him saying ‘If only we could have the compassion without the doctrine.’

It reminded me of George Herbert, the great old poet of divine love who got cross with the complex ideas of theologians, and focussed instead on the simple teaching of Jesus, ‘those beams of truth’ – ‘Love God and love your neighbour. Watch and pray. Do as you would be done unto.’  And receive Christ in the bread and wine.

Many folk – and some of us Christians in our more doubting moments – would go further these days, and ask ‘Do we need religion? Surely love is the power which changes relationships and can change the world if we’ll only let it.’

But on our clearer-seeing days Christians make bold to believe that love is not an abstract force, but a person, for God is love. And this love has chosen to reveal itself to us in Jesus.

That’s why George Herbert, in rejecting dry theology is nourished by faith in a God who is there, whose love we can respond to, and a Jesus who served out of his weakness so that it might become a strength, dying and rising from death to offer the whole world healing and freedom.

When it comes to what happens when we die, many Christians, like that Salvation Army officer are convinced that only by specific, personal faith in Jesus can we enter the place of light and joy after we die. After all, didn’t St Paul describe the way to salvation in these words: ‘If you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.’

That’s why Darron Boulton in the film was so distressed – the gran who had rescued him and his brother from a dysfunctional household and shown them boundless love died without ever having expressed faith in Christ. ‘The thought of my beautiful grandma not being in heaven horrifies me,’ he said.

But many other Christians, myself included, worry about this. Didn’t Jesus talk about people embracing light through the choices they make – to serve, to love? We believe some people choose hell by rejecting every whisper of goodness and grace. But what about those who don’t hear about Jesus, or have a distorted picture of him, or follow another faith - good people though flawed like us all - who listen and respond to those whispers?

Does God love people less than we do?  Surely God cares even more for Darron’s gran than Darron does himself.

We are often so quick to make judgement as to who is ‘in’ or ‘out.’ Can’t we trust God, who knows all our hearts, who sees and encourages each flicker of love in us to judge fairly in the light of our responses to those ‘beams of truth’?

I like to think that in God’s perfect new world, when the wonder of Jesus’ work in healing a broken universe and broken lives will be fully seen, that there will be far, far more people in God’s kingdom than we had  ever imagined.

George Herbert’s most famous poem is about a Love which bids us welcome even though we are ‘guilty of dust and sin.’ Whatever our circumstances, the Love who is God reaches out to us in the name of Jesus. Daily, all of us in the sometimes dysfunctional Christian family, regardless of our disagreements, encourage ourselves and others to respond to this wonderful, welcoming God.

(Christian Viewpoint column from the Highland News dated 16th January 2014)

Saturday, 15 February 2014

A life in letters: Wishaw

The town in Lanarkshire, about five miles from my home-town of Carluke, where I attended secondary school. Most of my memories of the town relate to my time at Wishaw High (1964-1970), but I was familiar with it as a younger child.

Coming on the bus from Carluke, as I did every morning, you passed Waterloo Cross, at the time controlled by traffic light, kept straight ahead, and then went down the gentle gradient to the Barr’s Irn Bru works at the corner of Stewarton Street and Greenhead Road.

One afternoon, having been home at lunchtime and returning to school for an afternoon exam, I saw something just past Waterloo Cross which disturbed me deeply. There was a pub on the corner, but at the time I think it was closed for refurbishment.  A car was parked on the broad pavement outside, and a man was approaching it with difficulty from the recessed door of the building. He walked awkwardly, as though in pain.  That was all, and yet the sight filled me with a sick apprehension which says more about me than what I saw.

I knew that the man probably had some disability. But I think my fear was that he was desperate to relieve himself, and had been trying without success in the shelter of the pub door. His contorted walking was caused by the pain of extreme urgency. I found it hard to concentrate on the exam that afternoon.

The bus continued straight ahead at the Irn Bru works, up the hill past my friend Jim McGonigle’s house to the top cross, where I usually got off. Near the cross was Mr Archibald the dentist’s, where I had my first tooth removed, and the clinic which I had to attend one day for an injection, having missed the NHS team who had been vaccinating at the school. My register teacher had told me about this clinic appointment, and I planned to go along without mentioning it to my parents. Somehow, I was embarrassed when they, having been notified of my forthcoming vaccination by letter, asked me about it.

Downhill from the top cross, to the left was Caledonian Road, which always held a certain enticement because I believed it was the location of the pub where my classmate Yvonne M. Davis’s dad was the landlord. Turn right at the cross, and you were in Kirk Road, where there was the cinema (I listened with interest to accounts of evenings spent in the back row of this alluring flea-pit), the offices of the Wishaw Press, who produced our annual Wishaw High School magazine The Octagon, and further along Wishaw Swimming Pool (where I used to go for a hot dog and a fizzy drink on Wednesdays when the cafĂ© was open, and where P.E. teacher Jock Bonomy tried to get me to launch out at the deep end during a swimming lesson, and seemed unnecessarily disdainful when I lacked the courage to comply.)

Also in Kirk Road was the shop where in my early teens I saw in the window a china dog ornament, and thought it would be an ideal present for our dog-loving friends Margaret and Norman McGrail. I went in and enquired the price.  They were asking more than I had expected, more than I had with me at the time. Could they keep it for me, I asked – I’d come back with the correct money. They did, and a few days later I returned and purchased this fragile gift, somehow managing to get it home in one piece in my schoolbag. As I anticipated, Margaret and Norman were delighted with it.

Hurrying to school in the morning, I’d continue on foot along Main Street, turning right into Kenilworth Avenue (a number of the streets in the area are called after Scottish Border locations associated with Sir Walter Scott and his novels.) Kenilworth Avenue was bounded on either side by wooded areas, in the heart of one of which stood the public library which I frequently visited at lunchtime. It had one of those enormous Victorian reading rooms with broad, sturdy tables, chairs, and newspapers to read which attracted people with no-where better to be.

Further along, Kenilworth Avenue broadened out into a circle on to which the back entrance of the school opened – there, in my 6th year, I used to meet my driving instructor for lessons after school. I remember once coming out on to Kenilworth Avenue, and seeing a car from ‘my’ driving school with a different instructor from usual sitting in the passenger seat. I hesitated approaching it for about twenty minutes, expecting ‘my’ instructor to arrive in another car, before timidly I approached the vehicle, timidly tapped on the window, and asked the instructor if he was waiting for me. He was less than pleased at the delay.

Just inside the black slatted school gates was the spot where I was walking out of the school at lunchtime when big snowflakes were falling and landing on my spectacles and the ground was covered with snow. Yvonne M. Davis comes in the gate with some other girls. Later, I write her a very poor poem beginning ‘It blizzarded. You gaped.’

On the other side of Mail Street from Kenilworth Avenue was Hill Street which led down to the station through which my train passed on my way to and from university in Glasgow. We’d watch our former classmate George Barr blowing his whistle and marshalling passengers on the platform.

Before you reached the Station, you passed the Post Office. When I was in 6th year a teacher asked a friend of mine (in all seriousness, I think) to post a potted plant for him. We inexpertly wrapped it up in see-through plastic, attached an address label to it, and joined the queue at the Post Office. The clerk pointed out what should have been abundantly obvious to us, that the plant was seriously under-wrapped. We returned to school, wrapped it more durably in cardboard and brown paper, carefully marked it ‘this way up’, and this time succeeded in getting it past the gatekeeper into the care of the Royal Mail.

Continuing along the Main Street from Kenilworth Avenue, you passed Baird’s Department Store on your right, and the Wimpy Bar on your left, in both of which I lunched. The Old Parish Church, location of special school events was on your right, as, further down the hill, was the post box from where one year I tremblingly despatched a Valentine Card to Lesley B.M. Jesson.

Opposite the end of Dryburgh Road there was, in the early 1960s, a small privately-owned bookshop which belonged to a woman whom my parents knew, and I was taken there while still in Primary School to spend a book token. I bought a one-volume encyclopaedia with lots of text, and grey photos which seemed old-fashioned even then. The one I remember most vividly was of an old man (or so he seemed) called Robert H. Goddard standing beside an incredibly flimsy looking rocket. Goddard (1882-1945) is credited with designing and building the first liquid-fuelled rocket, and given that he was in his early sixties when he died, I must have grossly over-estimated his age.

Dryburgh Road itself led to the school, and also to Belhaven Park, where occasionally there were semi-pre-planned fights between pupils from Wishaw High and St Aidan’s schools, which I carefully avoided. There was a public toilet in the park, and I remember once defecating there as a young teenager not because I particularly needed to, but curiously because (though I couldn’t have put it in these terms at the time) there was some kind of erotic thrill in relieving myself in a slightly risky environment.

On Main Street, just beneath Dryburgh Road, was the sports shop my parents took me to when I was about 11 to buy roller skates. The other kids on the street where roller-skating freely, and mum and dad very kindly thought I might like a pair as well. I was dubious, but went along with the plan. I wore them a few times, shuffling along disconsolately holding on to walls, fences and lamp-posts, unable to let myself go, to entrust myself to balance and momentum, guilty that I wasn’t using what had been kindly bought for me.

After the garage at the bottom cross, Main Street veers to the left, and heads out of the town centre towards Motherwell. The buses we caught to travel home (the 241 service) came up from Motherwell, and you could catch them at various places – one at the bottom cross near the sports shop, one outside the Old Parish Church, one at the top cross. But the more stops the bus had passed in Wishaw before reaching the stop you’d chosen the fuller it would be, and the less chance you’d have of getting on. So sometimes a few of us would plunge out of school the moment the bell rang at 3.55pm, hare along Dryburgh Road, down Main Street to the bottom cross, and then pound along Glasgow Road to the bus stop just beyond Cleland Street, where we’d wait for the first bus to arrive which would be almost empty.

I remember the distinctive smell of those buses, of diesel and upholstery, and smoke wafting down from the ‘upper saloon’ and the conductor standing on the open platform. I remember some of us besieging a bus at the top cross, homeward-bound. It was one of the then innovate vehicles with opening doors at the front. The conductress is trying to get all Wishaw High School pupils to go upstairs rather than into the non-smoking lower deck. She stands fiercely blocking the way, her hands grasping the metal poles on each side of her. I wriggle under her arm into the lower saloon. She remonstrates with me.  ‘I have a right to enter,’ I proclaim, nervousness making me pompous.  She remonstrates further. ‘I will fight you to the House of Lords’ I continued. She accepts defeat. Poor woman!

Other significant locations in Wishaw were the Driving Test Centre, a pre-fabricated building where I reported when (successfully) sitting my driving test, as did my mother (also successful) some time afterwards, and the big house further up Kirk Road which I remember visiting with my parents when I was about 11. It was home to a family who had recently lost a husband and father, and the knowledge of this weighed on me throughout the visit. I remember they had a full set of the Encyclopaedia Britannica with a cupboard to itself, which impressed as did the full-size, stand-up fridge in the kitchen, like the ones I’d seen advertised in National Geographic. The father’s name was Guy, and when playing with the kids, I said spontaneously in conversation something like ‘You guys’ and felt immediately that I had desecrated something sacred, and was stricken with guilt.

Friday, 14 February 2014

The Selfless Giant

Giants! Over the holidays there was a picture in the press of Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby with the cast of Jack and the Beanstalk which he and his family had just enjoyed at a theatre in Kent.

Jack, of course, was a giant-killer, and Justin Welby will be aware of the traditional Christian concept of overcoming dragons such as pride, greed and injustice in our personal lives and in society.

Last week I went to see The Selfish Giant at Eden Court. This stunning film, directed by Clio Barnard is inspired by an Oscar Wilde fable about a giant who drives from his extensive garden the children who have found delight in playing there in his absence. He builds a high wall to exclude them, but he suffers as much as the children as inside the wall it is forever hail-battered winter, never gentle spring.

Barnard’s film is only tenuously connected with this original. It tells a dark story, set on the edge of Bradford about two 13-year-old boys, Arbor and Swifty, excluded from school, with chaotic homes and dysfunctional fathers. They meet Kitten, a fearsome scrapyard owner who is involved in illegal on-road horse and buggy racing. Kitten both gives them opportunity, and exploits them.

Who, we wonder, is the giant in the film? Kitten, in his high-fenced scrapyard? Arbor, whose obsession with finding ever more scrap to sell leads to tragedy? Or a whole political system which excludes the vulnerable and under-privilege and offers them (at least as Clio Barnard portrays it) little support.

The film prompts questions. What are the selfish giants in our lives, in our political, economic and commercial structures? Am I a selfish giant in my relationships with family, friends, neighbours, colleagues?

Oscar Wilde’s fable is at heart Christian. The children find their way back into the garden through a hole in the wall and climb the trees, their joy awakening the wintering branches which erupt into blossom. His heart melting, the giant helps a small boy into a tree at the bottom of the orchard, and at his touch its branches awaken too. The giant demolishes the wall, and his garden becomes a paradise of joy.

In the story’s rather sentimental ending when the giant is very old, the small boy returns, his hands and feet bearing the marks of Christ’s crucifixion, and welcomes the giant into the paradise beyond death. Wilde’s fable deals with redemption through Christ’s sacrifice, with a love whose wounds brings home the excluded.

Clio Barnard’s film takes a non-religious perspective and invites us to consider if redemption is possible in a culture when many have ceased to believe in God.

There are redemptive moment of light in the film: long, still pauses for breath when Barnard focuses on the beauty of the sky, the fields at the city’s back door, the pylons wreathed in mist; the healing relationship between Swifty, and later Arbor, and Diesel the horse, whose calm eyes are big, trusting, unblinking; the close bond between the two boys, brilliantly conveyed by the young actors; the love of mothers struggling in impossible circumstances.

There are these glimmers of redemption, but is the light is powerful enough to overcome such great darkness?

Some selfish giants must be overcome; others have hearts which can melt and heal. But there are still other giants, giants in goodness who inspire us.

One such giant is Pope Francis, whose recent ‘exhortation’ The Joy of the Gospel I have been reading. Pope Francis is no stranger to darkness and hardship, but he believes in a God who is active in the world, present in the darkness, reaching out in every moment of redemption whether or not we acknowledge it.

‘Every human being,’ he insists, ‘is the object of God’s infinite tenderness, and he himself is present in their lives.’ He says ‘The resurrection is already secretly woven into the fabric of history for Jesus did not rise in vain.’ The light and hope which break upon us in darkness are fruits of the presence of the living Jesus.

We fully enter into that resurrection when, as Pope Francis says ‘we take a step towards Jesus’ and ‘realise that he is already there, waiting for us with open arms.’

As Christians, we are called upon to be a redemptive presence in dark place. In the Pope’s view the church should be ‘bruised, hurting and dirty because it has been out in the street.’ ‘Arm in arm with others,’ he says, ‘we are committed to building a new world.’ Christians are light-bearers, giant-slayers, sustained by Jesus the Selfless Giant.

Says Francis, in words which resonate powerfully with Oscar Wilde’s story: ‘We achieve fulfilment when we break down walls and our heart is filled with faces and names.’

(Christian Viewpoint column from the Highland News dated 9th January 2014)