Saturday, 23 August 2014

Grace abounding

I was amazed to discover from David Adam’s new book just how many of us are plagued by intrusive thoughts. The man who couldn’t stop is a study of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder written by someone who knows the subject from the inside. A large percentage of us apparently have thoughts of throwing ourselves off a high building, or grabbing cash from the open till at the supermarket check-out, or crashing the car into a concrete bridge on the motorway. Bewildered, we keep quiet about these unwelcome impulses.

To someone with obsessive tendencies, intrusive thoughts can be a hellish torture, and sometimes religious faith far from bringing comfort makes things worse.

The sermon at church on Sunday was on the words of the passionate St Paul who knew both religious ecstasy and deep soul-searching. Scrutinising his heart, he is aware of his sinful tendencies, and exclaims in despair ‘O what a miserable person I am!’ 

Now there is a time for a realistic acknowledgement of our frailties and moral failings, but the obsessive Christian tends to obsess about his shortcomings. Intrusive thoughts confirm his settled conviction that he is a thoroughly bad person. He fears what he may have done and dreads what he might do. Surely, he reasons in despair, he can never be good enough for God?

I have personal experience of intrusive thinking - in particular back in the 1980s. I’d see a knife in the kitchen and would be afraid I might stab someone. A piece of rope in the road whispered that I could use it to end my life.

But as David Adam reminds us the very fact that thoughts like these abhor and horrify us shows that they do not express our true longings, and that we are most unlikely to act upon them. But the knowledge of this doesn’t diminish the terror they create.

Many Christians have shared stories of their struggle with obsessive thoughts. John Bunyan, the 17th century writerr suffered much thought-inflicted anguish, and wrote ‘Sometimes when I have been preaching I have been violently assaulted with thoughts of blasphemy and strongly tempted to speak the words with my mouth before the congregation.’ I know from personal experience exactly what he is describing.

I am now in a much, much better place than I was in the 1980s. Medication has helped, and I think is crucial for me. I had no formal therapy but through reading and thinking and talking with caring friends I think I walked the path on which Cognitive Behavioural Therapists now accompany their clients. CBT helps us understand the negative thinking which we mistakenly believe tells us the truth about ourselves and the world, and helps us discover – and releases us into - new ways of thinking and of seeing reality.

I used to regard intrusive thoughts as foul invaders, keeping me from God and from peace, to be resisted at all costs. But I have come to realise that the way to healing involves acknowledging that these thoughts do come from me, though they are not the whole truth about me and do not define me. Accepting that I am as I am is difficult but once I realise God accepts me as I am, such self-acceptance brings freedom.

Step by painful step we learn not to let the old ways of thinking think us, but to allow the story God tells to transform our thinking, a story of love coming among us as the Father in Jesus’ story ran to embrace his conflicted returning son. Who will rescue me? mused St Paul before exclaiming ‘Thank God the answer is in Jesus Christ our Lord.’

This is the answer John Bunyan found, the ‘grace abounding’ which reached him in his pain.  The same grace reaches out to us in our brokenness. Grace comes to us in the love of friends, the skill of therapists, the chemistry of medication, the integrity of those who show us the love of God. And the insistent clamour of intrusive thoughts grows still, grace whispers within us.

We all need this grace. I loved former Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan William’s article in last week’s New Statesman. This fine, wise, godly Christian described how he begins each day spending half an hour in silent meditation repeating the Jesus Prayer ‘Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God have mercy upon me, a sinner.’ Not a ritual seeking to control obsession this, but a repeated pattern of response to the God whom Rowan meets in the still centre of his being, a place where God delights to be present.

If you are a fellow traveller struggling with obsessive thoughts, I wish you well. The God of grace journeys with us.

(Christian Viewpoint  column from the Highland News dated 17th July 2014)

I am a Christian

‘I am a Christian, and I will remain a Christian.’ With these brave words, Meriam Ibrahim responded to the Sudanese court which had given her three days to embrace Islam and thereby save her life.

The recent case raised international outrage. Meriam’s absent father is a Muslim, but she was brought up as a Christian by her mother, and married another Christian, Daniel Wani. Nevertheless, under the Sharia law in force in Sudan, she was deemed as the child of a Muslim man to be Muslim, and as such her marriage to a Christian was not recognised. She was therefore sentenced to public flogging for adultery, and execution for apostasy – deferred for 2 years until her new baby, born in prison while Meriam was still shackled has been weaned.

Pressure from around the world has led to her release, and as I write it’s hoped that the family will be allowed to emigrate to the USA where Daniel Wani has citizenship.

The details of this story capture our imagination because of the poignant details, but it’s just one of many stories from countries in north Africa, and the Middle and Far East of Christians facing fear and abominable treatment for no other reason than the faith they hold.

Meriam was invited to save herself by surrendering her Christian faith. It’s nothing new for people to be faced with such a choice. When I was young, the stories I heard were prompted not by a radical Islamic legal system, but by Communism: Christians in the Soviet bloc could be imprisoned or marginalised because of their refusal to renounce God.

In both cases, a particular ideology – radicalised religion or an atheistic world-view tells you how you should be, and threatens consequences if you refuse to conform.

We are grateful for our freedom in Scotland to be Christian. Yet it seems to me that this country also has a pervading ideology in which the majority of folk who express views in public are rooted. It’s the view that belief in God is an eccentricity, a minority quirk, the last vestige of an outmoded way of being, to be tolerated in people’s personal lives, but largely excluded from public life.

It’s a view of Scotland which is utterly false: 54% of us claim to be Christians, to say nothing of the adherents of other faiths. We too face a challenge – not from secret police or radical clerics, but from the deceptively reasonable voice of those who tell us it’s better to stay quiet.

I wonder what the difference is between ideology and religion? I think religion becomes ideology when it seeks to control people, to deny them their God-given freedom, to demonise opponents, to silence awkward questions; when it becomes a belief system where love is trumped by rules, where there is only black and white, no grey.

I remember as a teenager, unsure whether I believed or not, imagining myself at a church service when the secret police storm the building, gather the frightened congregation together, and invite anyone who is not a Christian to leave before the rest are shot. Melodramatically, I saw myself, despite my lack of faith, remaining with the others as the steel barrels were raised in our faces simply because I couldn’t imagine any existence apart from the secure community of believers.

At that age, I think I  mistakenly saw Christianity not as the liberating faith it is, but as an ideology, giving rules for living, a deep suspicion of those not ‘one of us’, an uncompromising sense of moral absolutes. My journey has been one from Christianity as an ideology to Christianity as something real and living, with colour and joy and humble celebration, where lots of things are much less clear than they were, but where God whispers often.

Meriam did not compromise: ‘I am a Christian.’ It’s possible, of course, to outwardly conform, while nurturing the flame of faith within you, and we must not judge those who take this course. But it is hard to nurture faith when our lives are marching to an alien drumbeat. Faith thrives when it speaks out in integrity through all our living.

We need Meriam-like courage to say in grace and love when challenged ‘I am a Christian,’ taking our stand alongside those who suffer, feeling their pain, agonising, campaigning, praying, encouraging our Muslim friends who abhor the violence not to be silent, seeing both the bigness of evil, and the power of the living, creative Jesus.

The same Jesus who grieved to see in the temple religion used as a route to self-enrichment grieves in us to see religion in the precious house of God’s world made a weapon of control rather than a flowering of love, robust freedom and righteousness.

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

The great storm is over

‘From the place where we are right, flowers will never grow in the spring.’ This line from a poem by Jewish writer Yehuda Amichai was quoted last week on Radio 4’s Thought for the day. The context was the heart-breaking conflict between Sunni and Shiite Moslems in Iraq, divided by political and religious differences. When we think we are right and everyone else is wrong Spring never comes, never mind flowers.

The other poem which spoke to me this week was a folk lyric by Bob Franke, Alleluiah, the great storm is over. A mother comforts her daughter as a storm batters their house, singing of a greater storm and the one who speaks it into silence. ‘Hush, little baby, a story I’ll tell of a love which had vanquished the powers of hell.’

We see the many contemporary expressions of the Great Storm, situations where it seems that ‘the powers of hell’ are let loose among us. Franke’s song brings context and comfort.

But we all have a tendency to believe ‘I’m right!’ and to belittle or demonise those who hold different view. We see it in our own relationships, in politics, between religious groups, even within churches. ‘I’m right! You’re wrong.’

As Amichai writes ‘the place where we are right is hard and trampled like a yard.’ When we think we’re right, there’s a lack of sensitivity in us: we shut ourselves off from alternative voices, and from the hearts of those around us. Our apparent confidence that we have the truth may mask a deep insecurity. There is no real communication, only silence in the place ‘where the ruined house once stood.’

Yet there are surely things about which we can say with conviction ‘This is right’? When, for example, we are choosing the way of goodness, integrity, courage and love, or seeking peace while opposing darkness, or creating calm places where folk can find shelter? And what about our faith, as Christians, in Jesus, the one whose sacrificial love we believe has ‘vanquished the powers of hell’?

Can we say believe we are right in the choices we are making and in entrusting ourselves to this Jesus while at the same time avoiding the destructive ‘I’m right!’ spirit which destroys both ourselves and others?

Yehuda Amichai holds out hope to his readers. ‘Doubts and loves dig up the world,’ he writes, softening hard hearts, breaking down barriers. Is there a way of believing we are right, while at the same time listening open-heartedly to others, accepting the limits of our understanding, acknowledging that reality is much bigger than we can ever imagine and even admitting that we may be wrong?  This kind of openness, says Amichai awakens whispers in the place where once stood the ruined house.

I think we are progressing as Christians when we are able to say not ‘I am right! I hold the truth,’ but rather ‘the truth holds me.’ This understanding that we are sustained by a truth far bigger than we can comprehend fills us with humility, gratitude and love.

As Christians we believe Truth has a name - the name ‘Jesus.’  We believe that insofar as any of us, regardless of our religion or spiritual beliefs, seeks goodness and peace we have caught a glimpse of Jesus, heard his whisper.

The Great Storm of opposition to goodness and peace has raged through history; it rages today in many parts of the world, including Syria and Iraq; it rages in the hearts of some in our communities; and if we are honest there are times when it rages within us.

Bob Franke’s song looks forward to a future when the Great Storm is finally over, when there will be healing and joy, freedom and peace, and ‘laughter in the house where the mourners had been.’ It’s a vision of the kingdom of heaven on earth, a future beyond the end of all things when the Great Storm will finally be stilled by the voice of Jesus.

‘The little lame children will dance and sing,’ sings the mother – a poignant line, for we’ve been told her restless baby is lame. But this reminds that in the coming kingdom whatever our particular issues are will be fully addressed.

But in the meantime, Jesus stills the storm in our lives, in our communities and in our world wherever people are open to love. Thus the mother sings ‘Hush little baby, let go of your fears.’ And thus when we experience the post-storm peace Jesus brings, a foretaste of the kingdom’s fullness we can honestly sing the refrain ‘Alleluiah, the great storm is over.’

And one day, what we now hear whispered will be proclaimed from the rooftops. The ruined house will be rebuilt. The party will begin.

(Christian Viewpoint column from the Highland News dated 26th June 2014)

Vanished poets

‘My private modern life has gone to waste,’ wrote Rosemary Tonks, and, in another poem ‘Ah to desire a certain way of life and then to gain it! What a mockery, what absolute misery.’

Rosemary Tonks, who died recently aged 85 was memorable described in a BBC radio feature as ‘the poet who vanished.’ Born in 1929, the precocious young writer married young, and lived abroad with her husband in India, Pakistan and Paris before settling in London.

In her 30s she wrote six novels, and edgy, distinctively-voiced poems about city life in the hedonistic 1960s. Even then, however, she seems to have questioned the validity of the values embraced by her circle of literary friends.

Rosemary Tonks turned her back on Christianity after the death in 1968 of her mother, whom she felt had been failed in her last days by the Church. There followed what Tonks described as ‘ten long years searching for God’ when she explored and rejected in turn a range of spiritual beliefs.

In 1977 as she gradually recovered her sight after an operation to repair detached retinas in both eyes, the first book she read was the New Testament where she found the spiritual truth she had been searching for. She was baptised in the River Jordan in 1982, the day before her 53rd birthday. It was, she said, her ‘second birth.’

Already she had turned her back on her former life, rejecting her writing as a ‘waste’, breaking off contact with people she had known. Effectively, she ‘vanished’.

Little is known about her subsequent decades, but I find her story intriguing.

I love that picture of her struggling to read the Bible as her eyesight was gradually restored, her spiritual perception awakening as her physical vision healed.

She faced up to the inadequacy of her existing values. She knew both the exhilaration of achieving her goals, and the unexpected dejection of finding in the achievement ‘a mockery…absolute misery.’ As Jesus said ‘What good will it be for someone to gain the whole world yet forfeit their soul?’

And so she took the courageous step of turning from everything she had considered significant and choosing instead the way of quiet faith. Some of us, rather than being led through faith to embrace new values, are tempted to use religion as a means of achieving the same old goals of power and wealth and position with a fa├žade of holiness.

As Christians, we are challenged to set our hearts against ‘worldliness’ – godless, self-focussed values. I wonder, however, if Rosemary Tonks’ apparent withdrawal from life shows a misunderstanding of worldliness? Most Christians sense a call to live out alternative values at the heart of life in a messy world, rather than fleeing from it. Even contemplatives hold in their hearts the world they pray for.

If Tonks continued writing (and those of us who write, write because we must) she published nothing. We can’t judge her choices, but feel a certain sorrow that she didn’t use her powerful, God-given talent to share with us highlights from her journey into a new country.

The vanished poet’s most controversial act was what she called ‘the burning of some idols’ – the destruction of some priceless oriental artefacts she had inherited from an aunt in  the belief that they were in some way associated with malign spiritual forces. To some people, this seems like madness, and yet people whom I trust speak convincingly of encounters with the demonic.

Be that as it may, ‘the burning of the idols’ is a powerful, challenging symbol for us. St Paul wrote ‘I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus as Lord. I consider them garbage.’ Do we, as Christians, seek to have everything else and faith as well? Or are we edging towards the clarity of vision of a St Paul and perhaps a Rosemary Tonks, and realising that Jesus Christ is the one big thing?

Rosemary Tonks’ approach to dealing with the past was to live as though it didn’t exist. As Neil Astley put it in The Guardian she ‘obliterated the person she had been.’ It is generally healthier not to shut ourselves off from what we have been and done, but to acknowledge our past, to live as we are, an amalgam of success and failure, sadness and joy. For as Christians, our past is not obliterated but redeemed. The way of Christ is a mode of living which brings not mockery and misery but affirmation and joy.

Perhaps at some point in the past the poet in us vanished. But as we read, wounded eyes opening, we hear the song singing in us once again, not diminished by the pain of our failures, but somehow deepened, enriched.

(Christian Viewpoint column from the Highland News dated 19th June 2014)