Wednesday, 29 July 2015

At the very centre of the village

The other Sunday two teenagers, Hannah Whillis and Adam Blaikie joined Hilton Church in Inverness: baptised there as babies, they were now professing personal faith. In preparation the church’s excellent youth minister Jonathan Fraser led them through not a dry course in the implications of church membership, but what he called an ‘apprenticeship’ in following Jesus.

Adam Blaikie and Hannah Whillis

They committed over a ten week period to pray and study with Jonathan, and to get involved practically in acts of mercy, compassion, devotion, justice and worship: for example they helped at Highland Foodbank; talked about their faith with friends; Hannah wrote to prisoners; they both mentored Christians younger than themselves. At the end of the process, they had, Jonathan said, a template for following Jesus throughout the rest of their lives.

This month sees the 70th anniversary of the execution in a German prison camp of 39-year-old pastor and theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who resisted the Nazis, helped form a Nazi-free breakaway church, served as a double agent, and (though initially a pacifist) was implicated in plots to assassinate Hitler. He also wrote deep, searching theology, including The Cost of Discipleship, a challenge to follow Jesus in difficult times.

His life reminds us that walking the road of discipleship as Adam and Hannah are doing calls for discernment. The German people in general embraced Hitler as the saviour who would restore their nation after the catastrophe of World War I and the ensuring Depression. Some Christians saw him as a God-given deliverer. One pastor allegedly said ‘Christ is come to us through Adolf Hitler.’

But from the very first, just after Hitler was appointed Chancellor in 1933, Bonhoeffer spoke of the danger of a Feuhrer (leader) becoming a verfeuhrer (mis-leader). And yet in time the Lutheran Church to which Bonhoeffer belonged was taken over by Nazi sympathisers.

We protest that we wouldn’t have been so short-sighted. The sober truth is that most of us would. And so we must reflect on the leaders and ideas we set store by as Christians.

It’s easy in our fear to brush aside all new things, and cling to what we think we know. To do this is to risk rejecting Christ as he comes to us in new ideas and new perspectives. But it’s easy too to deludedly follow a verfeuhrer, welcoming ideas and embracing visionaries as coming from Christ when in fact he disowns them.

I’m concerned this election time at the bitterness of some social media posts about the campaign which latch on to certain leaders as saviours, and demonise the rest. Ultimately, only the grace of Christ can change the spirit of a nation. The most powerful among us are as children, confused and perplexed.

Bonhoeffer recognised that there were good people on both sides of the debate in German and in his book Ethics he writes to those perplexed about the ideas they should run with that ‘if a man asks humbly, God will give him certain knowledge of his will.’ (For all his clarity of thought he was a man of his time when it came to non-inclusive language!)

Discipleship, according to Bonhoeffer also requires engagement in all the areas Jonathan led Hannah and Adam through. And the extent of our obedience to God is a measure of the genuineness of our faith – ‘only he who is obedient believes’; ‘Christianity without discipleship is always Christianity without Christ.’

Faith must express itself, Bonhoeffer argues. If our faith is real we will not be content to corral it in our hearts and minds while the rest of our living is indistinguishable from those around us.

‘The church stands, not on the boundaries where human powers give out, but in the middle of the village.’ Not a last resort we turn to when we’ve run out of ideas, but in the very centre of the community modelling new ways of thinking and acting. In foodbanks and prisons and market squares, not just comforting victims of injustice and violence, but driving ‘a spoke into the wheel’ of unjust systems.

Speaking personally, the word ‘discipleship’ makes me cringe because of memories of books and courses and hoops to jump through. But the idea of loving, responding to, saying ‘Yes’ to Jesus and thus making my part of the world a better place: this, I gladly embrace.

Adam and Hannah are walking into an ever-changing future, but discipleship remains the same: openness to the living Jesus, God-given discernment, engagement with the world. Bonhoeffer warns humourously:  ‘I fear that Christians who stand on earth on only one leg will stand in heaven on one leg too.’  Those who will embrace the world to come with the most joy are those who have, in this dimension, been at the very centre of the village.

(Christian Viewpoint column from the Highland News dated 16th April 2015)

Tuesday, 28 July 2015

An honest faith

In a recent Sunday Times article, ‘Unhappy clappy’ journalist Christina Patterson described her experiences as a young woman in UK evangelical churches at the ‘charismatic’ end of the spectrum in the late 1970s and early ‘80s. 
Ms Patterson is now an atheist, as she made clear in a talk given last year, ‘What I have learned from religion.’ She now feels that the evangelical culture she inhabited from the age of 14 – 24 damaged her’ it ‘wrecked my youth’. She speaks of her ‘escape from it.’ What can we, as Christians, learn from what Christina Patterson shares?

Her experience underlines how open teenagers are to a clear and challengingly presented belief-system which seems to provide answers to tough questions, gives community and purpose, and encourages passionate engagement. It’s this teenage open-ness which inspires Muslim young people to align themselves with ISIS.

Awareness of the vulnerability of teenagers will prompt us to extreme honesty in sharing our faith with them. We must tell it as it is; we must be real about our own religious experiences.

We will, be careful of the language we use. ‘The Lord told me,’ some of us announce. Ms Patterson says of a friend ‘Like every Christian I knew, she seemed to be much better at hearing God’s voice than me.’

But what do we mean when we say God has spoken? Very, very few of us have heard a physically audible voice. We believe we are hearing God when Bible verse or some phrase we’ve heard somehow ‘awakens’ in us; when a thought rises up from somewhere deep in us; or when a new idea comes bringing energy with it; when one of the silent voices which are forever dialoguing in our head speaks with convincing authority.

We’ve learned that there is often a mysterious givenness about these things. Why do we not share that mystery rather than confidently and unhelpfully saying ‘The Lord told me?’ Sometimes we say these words because we feel it’s expected of us, or to try to convince ourselves, or to win the approval of those we respect. Our lack of honesty makes others despair as they are made to feel their poor spirituality falls far short of ours.

We need to acknowledge that we are all different. Christina Patterson mentions that genetic and cultural influences predispose some of us towards religion, and that certain forms of epilepsy give rise to profound religious experiences. She’s right – and yet we often imply that our religious experiences should match those of a St Paul, a St John or some other famous believer. How wrong! We all experience God in different ways and to different degrees.

And we are on a journey. Often, these journeys lead from a conservative, somewhat fundamentalist position to a more liberal one; for some, the journey leads in the other direction.  Ms Patterson had issues with passages in the Bible which seemed offensive to her. People need to be encouraged to own and explore these questions, to pray and wrestle with them, to incorporate them into their faith and so to move forward.

We need to achieve a balance between belief and action. Ms Patterson has written approvingly of the traditional Church of England, rather vague in its beliefs, but warm, generous, loving. The sincerity of our beliefs is measured by the love they give rise to. How much time do we spend tinkering with theological systems, devoid of love?

Christina Patterson remained as long as she did in evangelical circles because of supernatural expressions of faith – healings, ‘words of knowledge’ when she was told things about herself which no-one else could have known. Surely, the faith which give rise to this must be true? But later in life, she experimented with Reiki and found that whispering secret words brought healing in that context too.

Her conclusion? ‘Weird stuff happens.’ You can’t base any system or worldview on unexplicable happenings. 

Ultimately Ms Patterson turned her back on a God she’d ‘come to hate.’ She’d been seriously ill. Friends prayed for her. God was silent.

We must acknowledge mystery. To acknowledge that gifts very similar to the Christian charismatic gifts are seen in very different contexts. To acknowledge that God is at times silent, apparently inactive. On the day of his crucifixion Jesus kept the faith despite imponderable mysteries.

I wonder if Christina Patterson’s journey would have been different if she’d been shown just a little more sensitivity?

Christina might argue that I’m sidestepping the problems and rendering faith meaningless by talking up the mystery of God. But it’s not all mystery. In Jesus Mystery came among us with a human face. Jesus challenges us to entrust ourselves to the Mystery, and thus on our clearer-seeing days discover that God is our Father.

(Christian Viewpoint column from the Highland News dated 9th April 2015)

Monday, 27 July 2015

Thine be the glory

A friend of mine has a 50th birthday on Sunday, Easter Sunday. I remember the Easter she was born in 1965. I was 13, and at a Scripture Union camp at Meigle in Perthshire. One of my most powerful memories of that week is of singing daily the hymn ‘Thine be the glory, risen conquering Son.’ I was stirred both by the words and George Frederick Handel’s confident melody.

I got to thinking of the significance of each 50 year period to the Jewish people in the Bible. Every 7 years their fields were to lie fallow to let the earth recuperate. Each 50th year was to be a ‘Year of Jubilee’. Not only would there be no cultivation, but outstanding debts would be cancelled, people who’d being working as servants to pay off debts would be liberated and could return to their folks, and all land ownership would revert to the families to whom it originally belonged. You can imagine how many would long for the liberation which Jubilee promised.

This radical way of doing economics was based on principles of equality, fair provision for everyone’s needs, keeping family groups together, and above all on reliance upon God.

Regrettably, there is no evidence that the God-given wisdom of Jubilee was ever put into practice in full. Instead it came to be seen as a vision of a future golden age of transformation, true freedom, and new beginnings.

Enter Jesus, who implied that he had come to begin making this vision of Jubilee a reality, not one year in 50, but forever, and to ensure that Jubilee would fully come.

As Christians, we realise on our clearer-seeing days that Jesus Christ brings us a personal Jubilee – forgiveness, inner freedom, spiritual homecoming, and a consciousness that we can rely on God. And so wee seek on our better days to live out the joy of Jubilee in our churches, and we work and pray to see the spirit of Jubilee seasoning a world where slavery, economic inequalities and debt are crippling realities.

But Jubilee still awaits a future fulfilment, when in God’s time Jubilee will come for the whole world. And there’s the thing. Jubilee is a powerful symbol. Christians are familiar with symbols – the cross, the fish, the bread, the wine. And both our theological ideas, and the words we use to talk about God are symbols, pointing beyond themselves to the great Mystery who is God. Symbols have power, and contemplating them moves us in the same way as some of us are moved by listening to music or drinking in art.

But sometimes we wonder whether in fact there is anything behind the symbols, or whether they simply inspire and console us by drawing out our inner strength and resilience. It’s possible, as the old communion hymn puts it ‘to see the signs but see not him’. Can it be, we ask in our lower moments, that the reason he is invisible to us is that the symbols are all there is?

Which is why the life of Jesus, and especially Easter is so important. Something happened that first Easter Sunday, something decisive and world-changing. Jesus, who claimed he’d come to show us the face of the Mystery, died. And yet, within weeks, his fearful, heartbroken followers had become bold proclaimers of a new Gospel, a Gospel of personal and cosmic Jubilee, convinced that Jesus had risen from the grave.

The implications of this, we believe, are profound. Jesus is not simply an inspiring symbol of fully-evolved humanity. Easter is not a simply symbol of our longing for new awakening. Jesus and the events of Easter are the evidence we long for that all the other symbols are not empty, that there is a loving being behind the universe drawing us, and it from darkness into light.

Because of Jesus, and the events to Easter we enjoy now those glimpses of personal Jubilee, and are confident (on the clearer-seeing days) that Jubilee will surely come.

To me, it’s deeply significant that someone should have their 50th birthday on Easter Sunday, the day God’s Jubilee began. To enter Jubilee, Jesus taught, is to be re-born.

‘Thine be the glory, risen conquering Son’ I sang at Meigle in 1965, the boy who cheated at the camp quiz, and lay in bed scared to death by the leaders’ ghost stories, and looked with awe at the future Scottish evangelist Bill Gilvear (who joined the camp after returning from harrowing experiences as a missionary in Africa,) and was stirred by words about the Jesus who was risen then, and is risen still.

At Easter we see more clearly not just the signs, but the one behind them. ‘No more we doubt thee, glorious Prince of life.’

(Christian Viewpoint column from the Highland News dated 2nd April 2015)