Saturday, 17 May 2014

Singing when the evening comes

A new day begins. It’s ‘time to sing Your song again.’ ‘Whatever may pass and whatever lies before me, Let me be singing when the evening comes.’ I find these lines from a Christian song by Matt Redman very moving.

At one level, they work for me as a morning prayer, as I look at the day ahead. I may not know what it will bring in the way of joys, challenges or hardships. Or perhaps I do know, and it’s going to be a tough day – an interview, a hospital appointment, a court hearing.

‘Let me be singing when the evening comes. Father God, be with me throughout this day. Help me in all circumstances to live, and act, and speak as Jesus would do. Help me to be courageous and open and honest and loving. Help me to make wise choices. May I be able to say in fifteen hours’ time that today I have lived your way.’

What do I mean by ‘singing’? Not actual singing (although for some of us it may include this), but living according to the score which God has written in our hearts, the score whose  notes are virtues such as love, grace, compassion, discernment, integrity.

I’ve been reading a biography of the 17th century poet George Herbert who ended his days as an Anglican priest. It’s called Music at Midnight. The title comes from a story about Herbert told in a biography published in 1670.

One day Herbert was walking from his Bemerton parish to nearby Salisbury to make music with some friends. On the way he came across a poor man, and his even poorer horse, which had collapsed under its load. Herbert stopped to help, assisting the traveller to unload, and then reload his horse once it was on its feet again, and giving him money to buy refreshments for himself and the animal. He then went on his way, but not before telling the man he had helped ‘that if he loved himself, he would be merciful to his beast.’

When Herbert, normally so smartly dressed, arrived in Salisbury with his clothes muddy and dishevelled, his friends asked what had happened. When he explained, someone retorted that what he’d done had been beneath him. To which Herbert replied that he would have had a bad conscience had he done nothing, and furthermore ‘that the thought of what he had done would prove music to him at midnight.’ And he added ‘I would not willingly pass one day of my life without comforting a sad soul, or showing mercy; and I praise God for the occasion.’

What did he mean by ‘music at midnight’? Was it his sense of joy at the end of the day because he had served God humbly? I suspect he could only enjoy making music outwardly with his Salisbury friends when he was prepared to let the music of love sing in his heart.

Or by ‘midnight’ did he have in mind old age, the approach of death, and accompanying soul-searching about how he had lived his life? And would the accumulated acts of his kindness be music to him then, a reminder that he had loved as Jesus called him to love, thereby proving the genuineness of his faith?

‘Let me be singing when the evening comes.’ At a deeper level, these words work for me as a prayer for the final stages of life. May I never stop singing, regardless of anything I may have to endure, regardless of the fact that I may no longer seem to have a role in the drama of life. Even if dementia steals myself from me may there still, somewhere deep, be snatches of the great song.

If we want to be singing when evening comes, we must let the song fill us now, and moment by moment throughout the day and through all our days. May our attitudes, words and actions by choreographed by the music of love.

But what if evening comes – the end of a day, or the end of a life, and there are only tears, not song?

As we stand flogging the poor beast of our faith, someone stands beside us. It is Jesus, who arrived in the Salisbury of heaven wounded and dishevelled, his heart bursting with song. As we watch our faith struggling to its feet, the Jesus puts on his own shoulders the load we have made it bear, and says ‘If you love yourself, be merciful to your faith, treat it gently.’

And in his presence we hear the music once again, and he reminds us that it is not in the end we who sing, but God who sings in us.

‘Let me be singing when the evening comes.’

(Christian Viewpoint from the Highland News dated 10th April 2014)

Unity in Christ

I have a hunch that one of the ways churches are changing is in becoming more open to members holding a range of different views.

One Inverness church hosts group sessions for discussion of controversial issues such as the relationship between science and the Bible’s creation stories, attitudes to folk who are gay and Christian perspectives on crime and punishment. It seems to me that diversity of opinion is expected, even encouraged.

Flashback to early June 1980. I’ve finished my final day working as a Bookshop Manager with Scripture Union in Glasgow, and I’ve made my last use of staff discount to buy a huge pile of books. I struggle out, laden with two bags packed with theology.

I thought, in my youthful naivety that theology, at least in the evangelical tradition was all wrapped up and finalised. I figured that in my hands I carried all the theology I would ever need.

I was dimly aware of other theologies besides the evangelical, but regarded them as deeply suspect. When someone heard a sermon, the question was often asked ‘Was he sound?’ (it was always a ‘he’ of course) meaning ‘did he not deviate from evangelical truth?’ I’m sure similar attitudes towards evangelicals were held in churches of a more liberal persuasion.

The keepers of truth in the churches I knew were elders and  ministers, and respected writers and speakers – fine men such as Martyn Lloyd-Jones, John Stott, Jim Packer and the American Billy Graham (men who in fact had themselves differed over some pretty fundamental issues.)

Over the years, I grew increasingly uncomfortable because I sensed, rightly or wrongly, that conformity in belief was expected – indeed that conformity in belief was one of the things church was about – but found it increasingly difficult to conscientiously conform.

There are still, no doubt, some churches where conformity of this sort is expected, but I keep hearing of others, new and old, which are much more relaxed about diversity of belief.

The other Sunday I heard someone in church outline a deeply-felt and well-argued case against the Assisted Suicide Bill, currently before the Scottish Parliament. He said ‘I know some people will disagree with me, and I respect that.’

‘I respect that.’ I like it! Perhaps there were churches like that when I was young, churches where you were given permission to disagree, to argue a case based on your understanding of the Bible and Christian tradition, and the convictions of your own heart. But not many.

And so I rejoice in today’s openness to diversity. I have learned that theology is not a science, not a clinical analysis of biblical data. A personal theology is a living thing, growing as a result of encounter with God in the context of living. I love the poet Christian Wiman’s comment that ‘if you believe at 50 what you believed at fifteen, then you have not lived – or have denied the reality of your life.’

And all theology is a living, growing thing as over the centuries the Church encounters God in the context of history.

Asking a friend about diversity of belief in his Inverness house church, I said ‘What holds your church together?’ ‘The fact that Jesus Christ is Lord,’ he replied.

And this, it seems to me, is what lies at the centre of any church, a conviction that Jesus Christ is Lord (different people will understand this in different ways) - and not just a conviction, but an encounter, be it ever so fragile, with the living Jesus, so that his love flows through us.

For all his intellectual gifts, St Paul did not say ‘I know what I have believed’ (though of course he did know this) but ‘I know whom I have believed.’

It is engagement with Jesus, resulting in love, which builds the church, not conformity to certain beliefs. And I believe Jesus was will say to us not ‘How right were your beliefs as you struggled to understand what ultimately lies beyond understanding,’ but ‘How well did you love, how graciously did you express your views, how merciful were you?’ and the most searching question ‘Did you love me? For whoever loves and follows me is my true child.’

Many of us at some point in our lives, and some of us throughout our lives feel comfortable in accepting the beliefs we have drawn from our parents or learned from others, and that’s fine, but for the many of us who struggle and question we need a church which performs the function which A.S.J Tessimond describes in his poem Not love perhaps. He highlights ‘a need for inns on roads, islands in seas. Halts for discoveries to be shared. Maps checked, notes compared.’ Blessed are they who find such churches.

(Christian Viewpoint column from the Highland News dated 3rd April 2014)

Follow, follow.....

The pews were a little emptier a couple of Sundays ago as 8000 people travelled south for Inverness Caledonian Thistle’s heroic performance against Aberdeen in the Scottish League Cup final,

Throughout the day, Christian friends posted messages on Facebook about their sense of community, and their joy even in defeat – didn’t the boys do well!

I did hear of some comments back in Inverness churches about the commitment of those who, lured by the Celtic Park event, had absented themselves from worship.

Certainly, attending football on Sunday does rather go against traditional Highland ideas about the sanctity of the first day of the week. ‘Remember to observe the Sabbath day by keeping it holy,’ says one of those ’10 commandments’ which Jews and Christians believe are timeless instructions given for the good of God-focussed communities.

But the ‘Sabbath’ in the first part of the Bible was Saturday. Are we right to apply that commandment to Sunday, the Christian ‘special day’? Many Christians see the ‘sabbath’, the ‘day of rest’ as a symbol of the freedom which we have as God’s people. We realise we don’t need to struggle and strive to make ourselves good enough for God, because God accepts us because of what Jesus has done for us.

The whole of life is therefore a kind of ‘sabbath’, when we entrust ourselves to God. And so the commandment applies to all of life – live constantly in the presence of God, at peace and secure in God.

Unusually for his time, David Livingstone did not keep Sunday as a different kind of day, thinking always of the miles he would not travel if he took one day in seven off. Another take on the Sabbath commandment is as a reminder of the need for rhythms of work and rest. If, as Livingstone often was, we are too task-driven, we lose the freedom of resting in God, for we need space, for refreshment, and for fun too.

I’m pretty sure my Christian friends who were at the big match would see it as a God-given, therapeutic break from routine.

A work colleague was there. ‘Pure people’s theatre!’ she exclaimed glowingly on Monday morning. If some people see football as community drama, others regard it as community religion.

Some of the key aspects of supporting a team: a sense of community with fellow fans; a sense of personal identity which you take into all situations – ‘I’m a Caley Thistle supporter!’; a commitment, bordering on devotion, to following the team; a shared celebration of achievement – the cheering on the terraces; a shared sense of mission – to win the match, to lift the cup, to top the league; a sense that the team represent the supporters – each step, each header, each attempt at goal, each breath taken on our behalf.

These are experiences to which all of us are drawn as human beings, and Christians believe that their ultimate expression is found in Christian faith, where God is the ultimate goal; Jesus the representative who on our behalf faced down darkness by allowing it to embrace him; and the Holy Spirit the builder of community, who gives identity, prompts team working, breathes a powerful joy through us on the terraces of life, and inspires us as we work and struggle together to shine light in dark places.

Looking at the similarities between football and faith, many Christians warn us wisely of the danger of losing sight of Father, Son and Spirit and seeking identity, fulfilment and community through football, or the many other good-in-themselves, or not so good-in-themselves activities which can become for us a poor, substitute religion.

But it’s also true that to find the joy of community by throwing ourselves into something good like football at its best is to be nudged a little towards the God who is the giver of all good things wherever they are found, and who whispers through them ‘There is more, I promise you, there is more!’

And all this challenges us as Christians. Is there a problem if we are more enthusiastic about Caley Thistle than about God? Are we enjoying the liberation and rest of entrusting ourselves to God’s care? Are we learning to discern beyond all good things the God who sees and rejoices in our happiness, but calls us to that deep, timeless joy which both sets us free to enjoy more lasting happiness, and upholds us when our hearts are torn apart?

That Sunday, it seemed most of Inverness was supporting ICT. Which gives pause for thought. Do we love God, not only when things are going well, but in the hard, dark times of struggle? And when we fail do we, as Caley Thistle are doing, lift our eyes and welcome the next challenge?

(Christian Viewpoint column from the Highland News dated 27th March 2014)

The invisible church

New research reveals that 44% of the population of the Highlands and Islands consider themselves to be Christians, but never attend church. The authoritative, on-going research project, led by Steve Aisthorpe, the Church of Scotland’s Mission Development Worker (North) further reveals that of these Christians out-with the visible church, the great majority formerly attended church, in some cases for over 20 years.

Just as in a church congregation, the extent to which faith affects daily lives varies in this huge ‘invisible church’ community, but many remain deeply committed. Though they may be disappointed with church, 72% are not disappointed with God.

These are stunning figures. We are told we are living in a secular society, yet adding together those who attend church and those who don’t, over half of us have a Christian allegiance.

The research also challenges churches. We believe that a church is a God-inspired community where Christians can be nurtured, challenged, supported and inspired to change the world. What’s going wrong that so many of us opt out of the visible church?

35% of those surveyed said that the left church ‘due to changes within me.’ It’s this group I most empathise with. For many years I tried hard to engage with churches, but didn’t feel I belonged. I did not have the spiritual experiences I was led to believe were normal. I didn’t sense that honest, deep and disturbing questions about faith and the Bible were encouraged. ‘You’re not a liberal?’ a pastor asked me, anxiously.

Songs and hymns did not touch or engage me, although I assented to the words; sermons rarely captured my imagination or addressed my heart. An introvert in an environment where extrovert seemed to be the norm, I found refuge, nurture and nourishment alone in a quiet corner with a book.

I used busyness in church as a way of seeking meaning and significance. I ran church bookstalls. I accepted leadership roles, ‘helping my friends do church’ as I put it, while increasingly realising that my heart was not in it.

Eventually I faced the fact that I simply wasn’t being true to myself. It was time to ‘get real,’ to ‘come out’ as our gay friends put it, to admit that I’m me, and don’t fit into a traditional church structure. In ‘getting real’ I found a great freedom.

That’s my story. Every Christian who doesn’t attend church will have their own. Is this withdrawal from church a symptom of excessive 21st century individualism and distrust of institutions? Surely the heart of Christian faith is the fact that in Christ we are set free to be our authentic selves? Have church leaders sometimes, in all innocence, sought to make clones of themselves rather than assisting people in their journey of becoming?

Steve Aisthorpe’s non-judgemental report highlights the need for change – in the culture of individual churches, in the range and styles of church available.  It emphasises the pastoral responsibility of churches to care, to journey with people, to model divine love to those who are disappointed with God but cling to faith.

For in fact, whether we belong to a visible church, all Christian believers are part of the one great community of God’s people.

While finding church difficult, I was blessed throughout my journey not just by books, but by the love of people who cared about me. Today I deeply appreciate friends who love me, whom I can bounce ideas off and be accountable to. ‘Thanks for giving me permission to be me,’ I said to a friend the other week. ‘You don’t need my permission,’ he responded. And yet his acceptance of the real me as it slowly emerges gives me confidence to spread my butterfly wings.

Having withdrawn from church, I now find myself re-engaging. I attend Hilton Church in Inverness, and am blessed through being part of it although, still needing space, I am not deeply involved.

The other Sunday Duncan Macpherson the minister reminded us that as Christians, no matter how strong or how weak our faith, no matter how much we struggle, our fundamental identity lies in our being God’s beloved children. I love that gracious inclusivity in which you sense the divine love which embraces us all on our journeying.

At lunchtimes, I sometimes pop across to Inverness Cathedral. At the Ask Wednesday service, the Provost, Alex Gordon made the sign of the cross on our foreheads, repeating over each of us in soft, gentle, wistful syllables ‘From dust you came and to dust you shall return.’ It was somehow affirming.

This journey, from dust to dust is the journey we are all on, and as Steve Aisthorpe reminds us, we need to find ways of being to our fellow-travellers what they need us to be.

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