Thursday, 6 August 2015

1952 Vintage

When I was younger and more prone to melancholy I viewed older age with dread, as a grey tail-end of life when you sat in death’s waiting room wondering when your name would be called.

Well, it was my 63rd birthday the other day. I’m growing older myself now, and I’m hugely more positive at the prospect.

John Dempster on the Ness Islands
In recent years, I have learned to accept that I will die, that I am not here forever. On the days when I remember this, I am set free to value the preciousness of each day, each moment, each human contact.

More recently I’ve been learning something new – that older life holds great possibilities. Harriet Mowat, a Highland-based researcher into old age shows in her work the necessity of holding in creative tension both our sense of mortality, and a commitment to live as though life were endless. Aging invites us on a spiritual journey of self-discovery.

I’ve resolved to do this growing old thing as well as I can. Looking back at life’s earlier stages, I realise I didn’t prepare for any of them thoughtfully and intentionally. In consequence I messed up. (But perhaps it’s the end result that counts, not the messiness of the process.)

As a teenager, I struggled with melancholy, and with a related sense of being forever on the outside in the faith community. As young man I wrestled with sadness and anxiety, learning to call these by name, to ‘own’ them; beginning to discern who I am, to accept myself and be myself.

In middle age, I began the journey of marriage and fatherhood. I was able to examine the beliefs I’d received from others, discovering what I truly believe, and living out of those personal convictions. And there was another journey, from jobs where I didn’t feel totally at home to a post which is just right for me; one for which I am just right.

None of this journeying was reflected on or thought through in advance. I simply took the next step, at times in great uncertainty. I am gobsmacked to consider how blessed I have been by God. I am fortunate, and I know it.

But now, for the first time, I am thinking in advance about the stage of life looming ahead – or rather the series of stages which older life brings. So what does ‘aging well’ look like, as we hold in tension mortality and opportunity, denying neither the physical and mental diminishment which old age can bring, nor the possibility it offers?

In the days ahead, I will seek to be more still and reflective, holding more closely to the God I believe has held me through many days when God has seemed distant.

I will seek to face the future with courage and hope, whatever life brings.

I will seek to become more wholly myself, in openness to God. The life-long journey towards self-knowledge continues. The more fully I am my unique self in partnership with God, the happier I am, and the more I am an encouragement to others.

In his book Spirituality an Aging academic Robert Atchley talks of older people becoming ‘elders’ and ‘sages’ in their own communities, bringing the wisdom of years, empathy and discernment. As I move through my 60s, I bring six decades of experience in a changing church and a changing world. I sense an increasing confidence and joy in drawing on that experience and telling it as I see it.

Atchley mentions the tendency of researchers to see life as ‘the hero’s journey.’ Two academics, however (unsurprisingly women) depict life’s growth as not simply a personal journey, but an interconnected web, a quilt sewn by many hands. And it’s true – my growing has been dependent on the growing alongside me of many other who shared their lives with me.

I’ve sometimes arrogantly seen life as a drama to star in. In fact, it is a drama to share in. We need the wisdom of others – especially of our elders and sages.

Robert Atchley notes, almost in an aside, that older people tend to live out their values more fully. Perhaps young people are truer to their passionately-held values than middle-aged people in whose living there is often a mismatch between belief and practice. I love the thought of older Christians living out their values fully, considering materials things of lesser importance, focussing on God, reflecting God’s love and grace. I realise that ultimately it’s not my story, or our story, but God’s story.

We do not deny our mortality. But as Christians we believe we will live beyond death. The specifics are far from clear, but the conviction adds zest and confidence to the last decades of our lives. The journey is ‘To be continued….’

(Christian Viewpoint column from the Highland News, dated 28th May 2015)

Wednesday, 5 August 2015

The Meeting Place

Some of the team at the Culloden Meeting Place with adult learner Allen Rose
I owe my discovery of The Meeting Place to my friend Eric Cairns, the pastor of Christ Church Inverness. Eric chairs the management committee of the charity, which provides IT-based learning opportunities for adults with additional support needs. Clients at The Meeting Place’s centres at Culloden and Nairn learn how to use computers and enrich their lives in so doing, expressing themselves in new ways including through websites, photography and podcasts.

Gill Sutherland and adult learner Lindsay Bochel at the Nairn Meeting Place
The  charity is the dream of energetic visionary Gill Sutherland, who opened the Culloden Centre eight years ago, and its Nairn counterpart last November. The Meeting Place is not a specifically Christian enterprise – for Gill herself, ‘my training is my religion’ - although its supporters include Christians like Eric.

Nairn Meeting Place
I visited both centres last week, met Gill and Jenny Dryburgh who manages the Culloden Meeting Place together with their clients, peer mentors and volunteers. Everyone who comes through the door, it seems, is welcomed, accepted, and loved. ‘We show people how good they are to be with,’ says Gill. Jenny adds ‘We focus not on disabilities, but on abilities.’ There is no pressure – ‘Each person learns at their own pace,’ says Jenny. Clients (about 50 in all at the two locations, ranging in age from 16 to 74) continue to attend for as long as they are benefitting.

There’s also a humility about the project. There’s no demarcation between learners and trainers, rather a recognition that everyone can learn from the fact of being together. ‘Everyone who comes brings something with them,’ Jenny says. ‘We learn together, we learn lots from each other.’

Luke McGovern and Lindsay Bochel at Nairn
Of one of her clients Jenny comments ‘She surprises people all the time.’ But it seems to me that these folk share a willingness to be surprised.

And there’s humour at The Meeting Place – a lightness rather than intense, deadly seriousness. ‘We’re informal but professional,’ Jenny tells me. ‘There’s great craic and a good laugh.’ And there’s determination, on both Gill and Jenny’s account, to do their best for the clients, and to seek funding and partnerships to enable the project to grow, and thereby to enhance the lives of a widening circle of people.

This project and countless others helping to alleviate suffering and support people on their life journeys vividly display qualities which are thoroughly Christian.

Kayleigh Macdonald listerns to her favourite music supported by Jenna Morrison
And this triggers a big God-question for us as believers. When Christians show self-giving love we believe it is an expression of the God, who reaches out in love through us. So the question is this: are people who do not share our faith, but work selflessly for the good of others simply reflecting something of God in their actions while God watches approvingly from the distance? Or is God, all unbeknown to them, as present and active in their work as in the work of believers?

I believe that where love is shown, God is indisputably both present and active. God’s grace is not an impersonal mechanism, a hereditary instinct prompting people of all faiths and none to creative action. Where God’s grace is present, God is present.

Christians believe in a big God. Not a God who shrinks from the darkness of the world, or limits Godself to engagement with those who believe, but a God who is present in dark places, sustaining all of life, weeping with us, rejoicing with us, calling us to move progressively into the light. And in the words of the title of Tolstoy’s famous short story ‘Where love is, there God is also.’

We can learn from The Meeting Place, for there, as we acknowledge with the utmost respect the beliefs and convictions of everyone involved in the project we see what we interpret as yet another example of God at work in God’s world.

But there’s another Meeting Place. It’s called Church, a community where we meet with one another and with God, and determine to make a difference as God’s people in God’s world. There we seek relaxed relationships, acceptance and the love which says ‘We show people how good they are to be with’, and values what each person brings.

There we seek to allow each individual to be the person they are, to progress at their own pace. There we seek a lightness and joy, and the humility to ‘learn together, to learn lots from each other.’ There we seek a willingness to be surprised as we work in partnership with God

God forbid it should ever be the case that we as Christians are so keen to defend our traditions, our church practices, our ways of expressing belief that programmes become more important to us than people. For if we are guilty of this, folk will find more genuine love in society’s ‘Meeting Places’ than they do in church.

(Christian Viewpoint column from the Highland News dated 21st  May 2015)

Monday, 3 August 2015


It’s Mental Health Awareness Week (11th-17th May), an annual initiative raising awareness of mental health and wellbeing issues. There is a constant need to bring into the open, not least among Christians, the invisible severity of mental illness and the pain of those who live with conditions such as depression and schizophrenia.

This year’s Awareness Week however focuses on a positive strategy which can lead to improvements in our mental and often also our physical health - mindfulness. Mindfulness involves creating space to focus on and lose ourselves in the present moment, to still the deep places in us, to observe our thoughts, motives and reactions.

 I have just finished reading an inspiring book - Cry of wonder by the Scottish Jesuit priest Gerard Hughes who died last year aged 91. It’s an old man’s book, a distillation of a lifetime of wisdom. 

Father Hughes’ spirituality centred on the Spiritual exercises of St Ignatius which encourage us to seek out God at the core of our being, and to observe with discernment the impulses we discover there – some prompting love and goodness, others negativism and darkness.

This Ignatian spirituality is firstly a thoroughly Christian take on mindfulness and secondly a description of something I myself have been learning recently.

I have always found it difficult to ‘be still’. There were rare times when a great peace dropped into my heart and mind, and in the resulting stillness it was easy to talk to God. There was a different kind of totally-absorbed focus as I’d sit with a notebook simply listening to the thoughts and ideas rising up in me.

But more recently, I’ve been learning to look inward. The first lesson was to accept what I find there – including the stuff I don’t welcome: negative and destructive thoughts, guilt and other monsters lurking. It’s easy to turn and run, to label these as ‘the enemy.’ But I realised that these ‘enemies within’ are part of me, and that I can come to God as I am, shadow and light, and  in God’s acceptance and love find myself no longer divided but whole. In this sense of acceptance the dark stuff in me loses its power.

The second lesson was that everything in my heart has something to teach me. I’m learning to listen to and question my moods and emotions, my impulses to act or speak, to hope or to despair, seeking to discern which come from and lead to life, which are sourced in darkness and lead to a dying of light. One thought shows me how much I need to be liked; another that I’m striving for personal significant; yet another reveals part of me as selfish and judgemental. And the very fact of discerning the motive enables me to acknowledge and smile at these impulses while leaving them unactioned.

Where do these positive, creative impulses have their source? Am I simply talking to myself, or as St Ignatius and Gerard Hughes assure us, encountering God? I used to think seeking God was a reaching out to the Beyond. Sometimes a Bible verse or a thought from a sermon or a chapter of a book would come alive in me, but these experiences were comparatively rare. It seemed to me that the God out there was awakening these insights in me remotely almost, and I wished God would be more communicative.

Now I realise that when I am still, and breathe slowly, and step out of my current busyness I find within a well of wisdom and creativity, the well of God’s Spirit which irrigates deep places in us, flowing constantly.

These are my experiences on my clearer-seeing days, which Ignatius would call days of ‘consolation’. (There are other days, days of ‘desolation’ when it seems we cannot find the pathway to the well.) This is not a mystical, other-worldly spirituality, but a spirituality for the everyday, a spirituality of encounter with the God who delights to meet us. Having met God in the stillness, we can enter, and seek grace in, and live out of that quiet place even in the thick of our busyness.

One Scottish writer on ‘Christian mindfulness’ (Richard Johnston) addresses on-line the question of whether mindfulness promotes self-focus rather than God-focus. He quotes John Calvin’s conviction that ‘the knowledge of God and that of ourselves are connected. Without knowledge of self there is no knowledge of God. Without knowledge of God there is no knowledge of self.’

Finding the well within is neither an esoteric art to master, nor a special gift for special people. Someone who has never thought about God before can enter the stillness with the same confidence as the most dedicated believer and cry ‘I believe! Show me myself, make me whole.’

(Christian Viewpoint column from the Highland News dated 14th May 2015)