Sunday, 30 March 2014

Christ the midwife

Soaps and TV dramas often deal with big issues. Frequently, these issues are explored in the context of a secular, rather than a faith-based take on life – as was the case with the recent suicide of Hayley Cropper in Coronation Street after she learned she had inoperable cancer, and her subsequent Humanist funeral.

But one current show is centred on Christian conviction, and respectfully depicts how faith plays out in everyday life. It is arguably the most persuasive religious programme currently being aired. It’s Call the Midwife.

This drama, based on the autobiographical books by Jennifer Worth is set in Poplar in East London in 1959. I was 7 that year, and this gives the show added resonance for me. The period is painstakingly recreated. Characters watch The Lone Ranger. A young midwife, Jenny Lee joins the small team who provide midwifery services to Poplar, led by a community of Anglican nuns under Jenny Agutter’s wise Sister Julienne.

The show addresses social issues, developments in health-care, and everyday births in a deprived community. There is gentle humour. But above all, it is a celebration of life, of womanhood, of hope and grace in dark places, of the wisdom which comes with age.

Faith is presented as utterly normal. The nuns’ work in the community is centred in their regular prayers in the chapel. When Miranda Hart’s character, midwife ‘Chummy’ Browne is accepted as a short-term missionary in Africa, seeing this as God’s call to her, she is affirmed in this.

One episode earlier this month was, outstanding. It addressed within its well-structured, beautifully-photographed 60-minute span a number of issues. Fear and overcoming fear: both the Jewish mother Mrs Rubin who hasn’t left the house for 12 years, and Sister Winifred, afraid of the responsibility of delivering a baby and unable to enter into the mother’s joy, find freedom.

Infertility: Shelagh Turner, the doctor’s wife who has learned that she is infertile following TB learns to accept that this is ‘the end of the road, not the end of the world.’  Friendship: in deep crisis Jenny Lee says to fellow-midwife Cynthia ‘I need you to help me.’ Cynthia replies ‘I’m right by your side,’ and somehow it seems authentic, not remotely twee. Tragedy: the unexpected death of a key character.

New life: the joy of birth, with the hope it brings. As the much older Jenny, voiced at the start of each episode by Vanessa Redgrave said in an earlier series: ‘Birth was and will always be the most commonplace of miracles, and event at once familiar and phenomenal, timeless and immediate, and event …. briefly making angels of us all.’

All of this is seen through the lens of faith. Mrs Rubin’s escape from the ghetto with her daughter Leah is seen as a ‘miracle’, although there was tragedy in that many of her family perished. Sister Winifred, left to deliver Leah’s baby by herself prays and in praying is given strength to a welcome a new child into ‘a family filled with love.’

The show poses the big question. Shelagh wonders if her infertility is a judgement – has she wanted too much? ‘Do not even begin to think of your childlessness as punishment,’ Sister Julienne counsels. ‘I will not allow it.’

Following the tragic death, Shelagh says ‘Somewhere else a decision was made that no amount of prayer will change,’ voicing belief in a God who is in control, whose ways we do not understand. Sister Julienne, taking a slightly different line, insists ‘God isn’t in the event. He is in the responses to the event, in the love that is shown and the care that is given.’

This is faith in real life, struggling with questions in the darkness. And the show assured us of the undergirding security of God’s love. The nuns chanted in hope ‘In the time of my trouble incline Thine ear unto me.’ And Shelagh’s choir sang Mozart’s profoundly beautiful Ave Verum Corpus at the funeral, reminding us of Christ’s death which gives birth to hope, indeed confidence that death is not the end.

And so in our pain we can, as Mrs Rubin with wisdom birthed through anguish, insisted ‘keep living until you are alive again.’

It’s been said that Jennifer Worth’s book show that though she was not a believer on her arrival in Poplar, ‘things begin to stir as a result of what she witnesses.’

TV drama does not often bear witness to the lives of the many of us in Scotland who believe in God, entrust ourselves to Christ, and seek to live out our faith in the community, who see with us in joy and tragedy, with us in every flowering of grace and love the patient self-sacrificial presence of Christ the Midwife.

(Christian Viewpoint column from the Highland News dated 20th February 2014)

Friday, 21 March 2014

Faith and public life in Scotland

There’s been much debate over the last two weeks about secularisation in Scotland – the attempt by some to remove religious faith from public life. The debate centred on a submission made jointly to the Scottish Parliament by the Church and Society Council of the Church of Scotland, and the Humanist Society Scotland. It asked that Religious Observance in schools, rather than being an act of worship by any one faith should be a ‘Time for Reflection’ in which the whole school can take part regardless of the beliefs held by individual pupils.

When I was a child, the impression I formed was of a sharp divide between the fairly conservative church I was brought up in, and everyone else – including Christians who had not quite grasped the truth as we had. Later I came to see the arrogance of this, and to recognise that God loves and blesses people from the whole range of Christian traditions.

Later still I realised that while seeking God and worshipping Jesus are particular gateways to joy and a sense of God’s reality, God is active throughout creation, speaking to each of us. We are all, people of religious faith, and people with faith that there is nothing beyond the material dimension, on a common path seeking meaning and purpose, truth and good ways of being.

This is what the joint statement of Church and Humanist Society meant when it referred to both groups seeking ‘a common ground on which they can journey together.’

In the course of a stinging criticism of the Church of Scotland, Dundee Free Church minister David Robertson scorned the idea of ‘journeying’ with non-believer, quoting words from the first part of the Bible ‘except two agree how can they walk together.’

Well, I believe that in Jesus God was uniquely present with us, that Jesus is Lord, that his death brings forgiveness, power and purpose. But I also know that my understanding of what this means is limited, that I have more questions than answers, that the existence of God can never be definitively proved. And so I feel at one with good-hearted people of other faiths and none, listening to them, evaluating their experiences, respecting their convictions as I trust that they will respect mine. It seems very much like journeying together.

With regard to school assemblies. In schools, children are learning how to live constructively in diverse communities. We can’t expect representatives of one group – be it a Church of Scotland minister or a humanist celebrant – to be the lead voice at all assemblies. The Head Teacher, taking into account the texture of the local community, invites appropriate visitors to lead reflections which help children develop spiritually, understand and respect people of different faiths rather than regarding them as enemies, and explore common goals.

There are many values which all people of good-will espouse – love, friendship, respect, integrity, justice, hope – and school assemblies are fulfilling their purposes if children are encouraged to seek these. Christians in school should be free to share their conviction that Jesus is the ultimate source of all these things, an inspiration and a source of strength.

It saddens me that some Christians regard as the enemy people of other faiths and none, and even other Christians.

Among much else, David Robertson is concerned about ministers being asked to assent to school equal opportunities policies before working with pupils. Mr Robertson fears that the intention is to ban from schools pastors whose views are not ‘politically correct.’ And indeed it would be a scandal were this the case.

But surely what’s meant is that folk leading assemblies accept that all children, whatever their background are valuable, that all good-hearted views, whether you agree with them or not, should be listened to and respected.

It seems to me that some of us need to grasp the equality which the gospel brings. We are all God’s beloved people; we all seek meaning; love is fundamental, including love for those with whom we profoundly disagree: this means accepting as fully Christian those whose honest reflection has led them to a more liberal or conservative Christianity than ours.

Professor Donald Macleod warns that if religion is driven ‘entirely from the public square’ there will be in public life no room for ‘loyalty to a higher power.’ With the greatest respect, I disagree. There would still be loyalty to God in the heart of every believer who seeks to further God’s values in their daily work. There would still be loyalty to God, albeit unacknowledged, in the decision of every good-hearted worker who chooses the way of integrity and grace. And this is no small thing.

The Spirit of Christ breathes over our nation, calling each one of us to a better way.

(Christian Viewpoint column from the Highland News dated 13th February 2014)

Saturday, 15 March 2014

Christ known in us

‘Reaching out with hope,’ a recent BBC Alba programme investigated three Scottish churches which, at a time when in general church attendance is in decline, are bucking the trend through innovative engagement with their local communities.

The churches featured were the East Church of Scotland in Inverness, Kilmallie Free Church in Lochaber, and Niddrie Community Church in Edinburgh, but their activities are typical of what’s being done in many churches across the country as people discover new ways – or more accurately rediscover forgotten ways – of being church.

These changes were neatly symbolised by Chris Macrae, minister at Kilmallie, as he contrasted the new church building with its predecessor. The 1960s building had opaque windows so that worshippers couldn’t see out, and passers-by certainly couldn’t see in.  The new structure has large windows enabling those outside to view the welcoming interior, and those inside to reflect on God in the context of Lochaber’s natural beauty.

Clearly a church which doesn’t turn its back on God’s everyday, down-to-earth gifts when it focusses on God, a church open to, and part of its local community.

Chris’s wife Anna said of the work they are doing ‘People see the church in a new light. They see it as a place where they can get support and fellowship, and witness God’s love.’

In the programme we saw love being shown in the name of Jesus to parents and toddlers, school kids and teenagers, senior citizens, and to folk with mental health issues, folk struggling with alcoholism and other additions, folk with chronically dysfunctional lives.

It’s a love which must often persevere. As Derek Morrison, who works with the East Church on the Raigmore Estate and serves as chaplain at Beechwood House and Cale House in Inverness put it ‘You’ve got to stay with guys when they fall. It’s about unconditional love, not judgement.’

We watched as this love showed people in crisis that change was possible, helped them confront the need for change in their lives, and pointed to the power of God in Jesus as the source of change.

In reaching out, these Christians are convinced of the truth which they have already experienced in their own lives – that the gospel preached from the pulpit delivers power in dark places, that Jesus is transformational.

‘Coming to know God is an amazing experience,’ said Lachie Macinnes of Kilmallie who previously wrestled with alcoholism.

Some other thoughts about the programme:

  • Mez McConnell, pastor of the Niddrie church mentioned the need for a church to show genuine commitment to its community. You must show, he said that you’re ‘there for good, not just promoting your agenda.’ (Note the double meaning on those words ‘there for good.’) It seems to me that this is a hard thing – not connecting with your community to give yourself a good feeling, or to grow your church by making converts, but simply to show God’s love, glad when people respond to the gospel because you truly believe its truth and power, but loving no less those who don’t respond.
  • The main focus of the programme was on those struggling with major issues. But creative churches find ways of engaging with the whole community. The love of God is for all of us, no matter how ‘together’ our lives may we. The gospel calls every one of us to seek God, and to find transformation in responding to God.
  • One of the volunteers on an East Church project commented that she’d come to Raigmore feeling tired after a day’s work. I wondered if she realised that she was just as much part of God’s mission in her workplace as she was on the Estate. For wherever we find ourselves we are called to show love, wisdom, courage, a passion for justice. The church is people, and the church penetrates the whole of society as we live for God in every aspect of our lives.
  • ‘God is still working in Scotland,’ said Chris. And Derek commented ‘Nothing happens unless we do it. We’ve got to be out there. We’ve got to be with the people. That’s where God blesses.’ You might get the impression from this of a God who helicopters in when God’s people get active. I believe it’s true that each day each of us is given possibilities to embrace and run with. But it’s also true that God is engaged in people’s lives long before we meet them. For God is always active, and invites our co-operation in making the world a better place.

‘We want everyone to know Jesus,’ says Anna Macrae. Christians believe we know Jesus as we encounter the transforming Spirit of Christ.’ But there is another sense in which Jesus is known - through our moment-by-moment acts of love and compassion.

(Christian Viewpoint column from the Highland News dated 6th February 2014)

Saturday, 8 March 2014

The ubiquity of God

The Channel 4 documentary series 24 hours in A&E follows the cases of patients admitted to the A&E Department of a London hospital.

In last week’s episode someone commented that in a strange sense those who pass through suffering are enriched because, having experienced the fragility and uncertainty of life, they value it all the more.

Before Christmas, I wrote about the mini-stroke (Transient Ischaemic Attack) I suffered in November and my immediate reactions to it. A T.I.A. is not necessarily serious in itself, but has serious implications, indicating a risk of full-blown stroke or heart attack. I was immediately prescribed medication to reduce these risks.

It’s one thing to observe from the outside that people living with ill-health sometimes learn to value life more deeply, another to be able to affirm from the inside that this is true. But in my brush with my own mortality I have seen something of this.

After the T.I.A. I was left (as are some but not all mini-stroke patients) with a feeling of exhaustion and general debility. My brain was tired; there were free-floating head pains. After two weeks off work I felt a little better. Waking was no longer a return to the struggle I’d escaped at bed-time.

Over the next few weeks, periods of wellness alternated with days of weariness. I was learning to take each day as it came – be it good or bad – to be inwardly open to God, to seek to live to the full, savouring the gifts of family, friends, beauty, good things, accepting that one day I will die.

I was also learning only to do what needs to be done on a given day. I saw as never before the folly of squeezing each day full of busyness under the illusion that being busy today will clear the way for unbusy days in the future, the lie which holds so many of us in thrall to endless activity.

Over the last couple of weeks I’ve had much more energy, a renewed sense of wellness and well-being, and a great thankfulness to God for the many good things in my life. Why me? Why have I been so blessed?

In last week’s 24 hours in A&E there was no mention of religious faith. But there were plenty of questions which religion addresses. ‘It can happen to any of us,’ someone said, which begs the questions ‘Why does bad stuff happen to him, and not to me?’ The young doctor told us she hoped the outcome of people’s visits to A&E wasn’t pre-ordained – she wanted assurance that her best efforts could actually make a difference in life and death situations. And she admitted to being superstitious – in A&E things come in 3s and 7s, she said. 3 heart attacks, 7 strokes…..

These are religious questions. Why does bad stuff happen? Is everything random, or is there purpose in what happens? Are we merely cogs in the machinery of blind fate, or do our choices make a difference?

When bad things happen, we want to understand what has caused them, seeking the security of believing that it’s not all random, that there is some logical reason. Such an explanation somehow helps us feel less vulnerable.

But this begs another question. Is religion itself nothing more than the ultimate fruit of our desire to impose meaning on randomness? Wouldn’t the truly courageous thing be to accept that all is random, and to choose love and joy defiantly in the face of this terrible uncertainty?

Well, you can’t prove God’s existence. You can’t prove beyond all doubt the uniqueness of Jesus (though strong evidence points that way.) Ultimately it is a question of faith. Faith that despite appearances to the contrary God is with us in the randomness, that the words of Jesus have living power, inviting us to faith in him, to ‘come and see.’

So where was the uncredited God in King’s College A&E? God was there in the courage and hope and resolve of the patients, in the empathy of those close to them, in the skill and compassion of the NHS staff. Because God is with us we can make a difference.

The danger of speaking of the ubiquity of God – that God is everywhere, always – is that it can reduce God to the commonplace. But down the centuries religious people, certainly Christians have turned this on its head: because God is everywhere present, the ordinary is holy. Wherever we are, the holy God is in that place, though we may not know it yet.

Moment by moment, in suffering or in joy, we encounter the love of God which is, as Melvyn Matthews has written ‘broad as beach and meadow, wide as the wind and an eternal home.’

(Christian Viewpoint column from the Highland News dated 30th January 2014)