Sunday, 30 November 2014

A credit to God

Last Sunday we heard at church from some young people who had been to a Christian event called Soul Survivor over the summer. Attending the event had been a significant spiritual experience, when they’d felt closer to God than ever before.

That got me thinking about teenagers and faith. I had lunch last Thursday with my old school-friend Colin.  We shared memories and discussed my rather tough experience of church as a 1960s teenager.  I know I’d have found it hard to cope with the fairly intense immersion in spirituality which is Soul Survivor. I’m sure there are still young people who, like me, need a different kind of nurturing.

An article by Jon Nielson, an American Youth Pastor has been circulating on social media. Nielson looks at why some young people remain involved in church in their 20s while others quit. What they have in common, he concludes in his thoughtful piece 3 Common traits of youth who don’t leave the church is that they are ‘converted’ – they have taken a decisive turn to God, that as teenagers they were not just entertained in church but equipped to pass on the gospel, and that their parents, in an environment of tough love showed deep love for Jesus and preached the gospel.

Here’s the fruit of my reflections. Conversion can be a single, decisive turning point. But it’s just as likely to be a slow process of opening up to God over the years. There will be many times when we turn away, many times when we turn back. And what of the child who has always believed, and sought Jesus as a friend? To be told that there is need for a decisive conversion can be woundingly confusing. It seems to me that great sensitivity is called for in discerning where a particular young person is at on their journey.

I believe we must also realise that because we are all different, our relating to God – and our experience of God will vary.  Some respond to the passion of Soul Survivor, others find nurture in quiet reflectiveness. And just to add to the complexity, people from different background use different words to describe the identical experience.

I just wonder if Jon Nielson’s approach tends to create spiritual clones, rather than helping unique individuals to find the ways of living and expressing faith which are right for them. There are many ways of serving God besides church leadership, many ways of making known the wonders of God. We must be prepared for our young people to take unexpected byways.

I think we need to encourage young people to question what they are taught, to believe not simply because they are told to believe, but because they’ve thought things through and reached a personal conviction. When I was young, I believed that the interpretations of the Bible I heard at church were unquestionably correct and that to doubt was a sin.

Things are better now – I love the story I heard this week about a teenager whose family were close to a gay couple in whose lives he had seen both love and sincere Christian faith. When he was told at church that homosexual relationships were immoral, he left shaking his head and concluded ‘The minister must have got it wrong.’

We damage ourselves when we’re unable to find hospitable space where we can bring our questions out in the open. We grow when we acknowledge and befriend our questions, and work through them, and reshape our understanding accordingly.

It seems as though Jon Nielson expects Christian parents to be identical in their approach to living out their faith and expressing their love for God when again, we are all different. And I believe our lives encourage others to the extent that we are real, letting God be seen in our unique selves on our unique journeys. This means being open as appropriate about our failures and the unanswered questions we live with.

Over lunch, Colin and I chatted about the consequences of strict religious backgrounds. Some simply walk away from the faith, as Colin’s mum did as a teenager. Some conform and buy into the package as sincerely as they can. ‘But there’s a third way.’ Colin said, ‘Continue in faith while facing the questions and embracing the mysteries. And it seems to me that this is what you have done.’

I emphasise that it’s not a better way, not a more difficult way, nor again an easier way. It is simply the way I have been called to.

‘I think you’re a credit to your parents,’ Colin concluded. His words gladdened me. And whatever our route to becoming our unique, God-birthed selves, our lives as we travel will be a credit to God.

(Christian Viewpoint column from the Highland News dated 4th September 2014)

Speak Lord

Last week, I attended a humanist funeral. The celebrant reminded us that we would be focussing on the human without reference to religious or spiritual beliefs.  

Reflecting the memories of those who knew and loved the person who had died she paid moving tribute to him. She reflected that the world was changed through his life in countless interactions with others across eight decades. For him, the circle of life had reached its conclusion, yet he would live on in the memories of those who knew and loved him. We bade him goodbye, with thankfulness for his life.

Reflecting on this afterwards, I found myself thinking ‘I could do that!’ I imagined myself inhabiting a story of humanity which sees this life as all there is. It’s a story encouraging us to seek courage, goodness and love in an achingly beautiful, tragic world, to reach out in support of those who are weak and struggling, to face with resolve a death which is final. I imagined myself leading that funeral, bringing comfort and courage to the mourners.

And then I stopped short, surprised how easy it was to think myself into a way of viewing reality so very different from the story which guides my life. And then I wondered – does it matter which story we choose to live by as long as we inhabit it honestly and it helps us to ride the surf of life with courage and humanity?

But I realised that if God exists, then it does matter which story we commit to. And then I wondered what I might say to humanist friends to explain why I take my stand in the religious, and specifically in the Christian story.

I could point to the work of those scientists and philosophers who argue, as Roger Scruton did recently at the Edinburgh Book Festival that science is only one way of looking at reality. ‘The world,’ he said, ‘can be understood completely in another way which also has its truths which are not translatable into the truths of science.’ The world, Scruton insisted is a sacred place, touched by the presence of God.

Or I could point my humanist friends to books arguing that it is not irrational to believe in God and the uniqueness of Jesus, and to biographies of people who have moved from atheism to belief. I could even tell the story of my own faith, wavering but persistent. 

Yet I know you can’t prove God’s existence.

I had a sore head the evening of the funeral – perhaps due to the stuffiness of my office. I still had a splitting headache the next morning, and felt heavy and mentally sluggish. I was a little concerned, remembering my mini-stroke last November. Once again, I was confronted with the fragility of life, and with my own mortality.

‘Please help me, Father God,’ I said and that day a calm tide of peace swept over me, a deep appreciation of life, and that resolve to live ‘in the day’ which is always strongest when I remember how tenuous our hold on life is.

And that reminded me what I would say to my humanist friends. Simply ‘Listen!’

I believe there’s a voice speaking deep in our deepest selves. It’s a voice which calls us to beauty and goodness, to love. It calls us to become the people we were meant to be. It inspires creativity and wholeness. It’s a voice which if we listen, will draw us beyond ourselves. I believe the God who is present in the world is present in us. Our deepest self is a sacred place. The voice is the voice of God.

There’s a young boy in a Bible story who repeatedly hears a voice calling him. He assumes it is a human voice, until he’s advised to respond ‘Speak Lord, I’m listening!’

We explain the voice which whispers in our hearts as simply the voice of our own depths. Sometimes we act on it, while not acknowledging its source. Sometimes we drown it out with a Babylon of other voices, but the voice is not stilled.

Can evolution explain joy or wonder or music or love?

The voice calls us to a new story, not one of our own weaving, but God’s story, a story which does not end when the waves erase our footsteps on the beach. 

‘Speak Lord, I’m listening.’

(Christian Viewpoint column from the Highland News dated 28th August 2014)

The Love which makes us one

Convert, pay a protection tax, or face death. This was the ultimatum given to Christians and members of other minority groups in Mosul and Qaraqosh in Iraq over the last fortnight by the radical Sunni Muslim group ISIS. There is ‘no place for Christians in an Islamic state’, they were told. Most fled – there were several hundred thousand Christians and members of the Yazidi faith among the 1.2 million people who have been displaced by the Iraqi conflict.
And this nightmare is not limited to Iraq. In Northern Nigeria, 650,000 people have been forced to flee by Boko Haram. And it’s reported that the many Christians among the 275 girls abducted by them earlier in the year were compelled to convert to Islam.

Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby comments ‘With the world’s attention on the plight of those in Iraq we must not forget that this is part of an evil pattern around the world where Christians and other minorities are being killed and persecuted.’

My first instinct is to pray for empathy – to be able to enter imaginatively into the experience of people facing this kind of suffering – and then to ask what I can do – by praying, supporting relief and human rights agencies, and calling for our government to take appropriate action.

But the events in Nigeria and Iraq also underline how precious is the relative freedom we enjoy in Scotland to believe and to worship in line with our true convictions. This is a precious gift for which I am truly grateful.

I’m also conscious that we can’t define Islam in terms of its most radical exponents, ISIS (‘The Islamic State’) and Boko Haram and other groups who insist on an absolutely literal interpretation of the Qur’an. There is a long history of Muslim states interpreting the Qur’an in such a way as to allow peaceful co-existence with other faiths. And I’m moved by stories of Muslims in Iraq risking their lives to help Christian neighbours.

‘She is keeping us alive,’ Lara from Qaraqosh told The Times last Friday, speaking of a Muslim friend. Lara and her family are in hiding, not having escaped in time.

But that phrase ‘convert or die’ has been uppermost in my mind. The stark choice facing our Christian brothers and sisters in Iraq prompts me to ask ‘How valuable is my faith to me?’ Would I be prepared to turn my back on home and possessions rather than compromise? Syrian Orthodox priest Father Matthew al-Banna says of his church that he had not heard of any Christians who had chosen to convert.

Is my faith in Jesus Christ so central to my identity that I will sacrifice anything, my life included before I will renounce it? And if not, should it be?

And a related question: ‘How genuine is my faith?’ No-one says to us ‘convert or die,’ and yet our culture while generally happy with faith as a quirky, peripheral element in our lives, grows uncomfortable when it touches and shapes all of our living. Are we unconsciously undergoing a slow, imperceptible conversion at the end of which we live most of our lives as virtual atheists, side-lining God?

And how do we react to news of others, like those schoolgirls in Nigeria who have been forcibly converted, and may be struggling with guilt and sorrow to keep the flame of the old faith alive in their hearts while outwardly conforming to Islam? We must not judge, for we do not know what it was like for them, and we do not know if we would have acted differently. We love them, as the God who knows their hearts loves them, and we pray for them.

Christian faith aims to draw people to Jesus Christ, to the God who loves them. It’s a faith which invites conversion – a turning round, and letting the new embrace you. Christians have been known to use fear and emotional manipulation to draw people to faith. Sometimes, with lurid imagery of hell, the message has been ‘convert or die.’

But people come to deep, joyous faith when they are drawn by an irresistible, forgiving love, not driven by fear or eloquence or sword. As Christians we are called to express God’s love in all our words, actions and relationships. This divine love is everywhere present: over the last week, it has been nowhere more visible than in the actions of courageous Muslims like Lara’s neighbour.

Our hearts break as we reflect on the global extent of human suffering. How much we need, all of humanity, to encounter and experience God’s loving reality. How much we need, all of humanity, to be converted and keep on being converted in response to the humbling, liberating Love which makes us all one.

(Christian Viewpoint column from the Highland News dated 21st August 2014)