Saturday, 24 October 2015

Light in the clearing

I admire my younger daughter Bethany’s committed vegetarianism.

This week, I was reading Pope Francis’ new encyclical, Laudato Si’ (‘Praise be to you my Lord’) on the care of the planet and the interdependent web of creation. The Pope reminds us of the words of St Francis: when we worship, we do so in union with Brother Sun and Sister Moon, Brother Wind, Sister Water, Brother Fire.

The encyclical addresses the ravages of pollution, water shortage, the loss of biodiversity which sees 1000s of species of plants and animals disappearing every year, and the scandal of global inequality. The Pope’s vision is that care for the planet and care for the disadvantaged are two aspects of the one Christian ministry.

He reminds us of the madness of pursuing ever-increasing consumption and economic growth which Earth can’t sustain.

We need an awakening, a breaking-away from the group-think which blinds us to the necessity for urgent action. But often it’s hard in the middle of busy lives to remember the bigger picture.

Which is why Bethany’s vegetarianism inspires me.

On that issue, I don’t think you can make a strong case for vegetarianism from the Bible’s teaching. Christians emphasise the uniqueness of human beings, distinct from animals though part of the one family of living creatures. There seems to be a general biblical understanding that God intends us to be meat-eaters. Jesus ate certainly fish, and probably meat as well.

But you can make a robust defence of vegetarianism on grounds of compassion and kindness to living creatures, and I am drawn to Bethany’s principled stance.

But the Bible doesn’t primarily present theological and ethical ideas – rather it captivates us with story and poem through which we see reality more clearly than in our struggling attempts at doing theology.

This week, a story and a poem have helped me in my reflections, both shared by my friend Iain Macritchie. Iain is a hospital chaplain, Practice Education Lead for Spiritual Care for NHS Scotland and priest at St Andrews Cathedral Inverness.

He told me about his grandfather, a crofter on the Isle of Lewis. This man knew intimately the sheep in his flock, knew them by name, knew the genetic characteristics of each. When he approached the common grazing and called his own sheep, they raised their heads and came to him.

When the time came to kill a sheep for the family table, he would take it apart from the others, and give it a quiet space in the byre. He would feed it well – not just to enrich the meat, but as an expression of gratitude to the beast. When the time came, he would look it in the eye and say in Gaelic, ever so gently ‘Thank you,’ and then quickly take its life.

If we are to eat the flesh of living creatures, then surely this models the respect and gentleness with which we should treat these fellow-members of God’s creation? Today, factory farming methods condemn many beasts to lives of discomfort and misery. How can that sit easily on our consciences as Christians?

And then Iain shared a fine poem he had written, A walk in the woods. (I have posted it here: Like all fine writing it gives to each of us according to what we bring to it.

It’s about reaching a dark place in life, and the slow-awakening realisation that there is purpose, meaning, playfulness and joy; that nothing is wasted, nothing forgotten. Sunlight shafts into the clearing, and finally ‘knowing blazes out and you find yourself lost, and lose yourself found in Love.’

As we struggle to make a difference in the wounded dark forest of our world Love is with us. And Iain has made a difference in the creative act of writing these lines, blessing those of us who read them. He has made a difference by being himself, by doing what comes naturally to him, using the gifts and insights he has been given.

And it is when we do what we do best in all the ordinary conversations and actions of life, as well as our creative interventions that we make a difference. My small voice joins the voices of Papa Francis and Saint Francis and Bethany’s and Iain’s and billions of other voices celebrating God’s gifts and protesting against their misuse, mouthpieces all of us for the one great Love.

We realise as Pope Francis prays that ‘We are profoundly united with every creature as we journey towards your infinite light.’

And we believe that the time will come when, in the walk of creation through the dark thickets of history Iain’s prophetic words will speak of the cosmos of a whole: ‘you find yourself lost and lose yourself found in Love.’

(Christan Viewpoint column from the Highland News dated 1st July 2015)

Praise and lament: a faith story

When 67-year-old rock start Wilko Johnson, former guitarist with Dr Feelgood was told in 2013 he’d pancreatic cancer and had just ten months to live, it transformed his thinking. The musician, who had always been prone to depression, spoke recently of his deeper appreciation of life in the light of the diagnosis. ‘You start to realise the things that really matter, your family and fundamental things.’

In time, the medics discovered his cancer was treatable, and Johnson survived. But once the prospect of death again receded into the impenetrable future, curiously the depression returned.

Another story, this time told by the preacher at church speaking about a psalm (prayer-poem) from the Bible with the theme ‘Praise the Lord!’ He spoke about watching a live recording of a comedy show, during which the floor manager silently displayed signs to the audience prompting their reactions: ‘Laughter’; ‘Applause’.

His point was that the phrase ‘Praise the Lord!’ in the psalm had the force of a command. ‘You will praise the Lord.’

I thought, OK, it’s good to praise God, recognising God’s greatness, wonder, generosity to us. But sometimes Christians come across as dictating how we should be feeling and reacting, as though Jesus were a Dr Feelgood. ‘You will rejoice. You will put your anxiety behind you. You will be full of hope.’ 

This could make me feel a failure as a Christian if I were sad and worrying and struggling:  as if Dr Feelgood was ignoring me, or his healing touch insufficient for the depths of my need.

The following Sunday’s sermon was on another Bible prayer-poem (Psalm 69). The writer pours out his sorrow to God. ‘I am worn out calling for help.’ It’s a sentiment with which many of us will be familiar. And it’s a challenge to us to make a bonfire of those ‘You will be…..’ prompt boards, and make church a safe place where people can express to friends and to God exactly what’s on their hearts.

But what about that call to ‘praise’ God in the previous week’s Psalm? Surely it’s hypocritical to praise God when we feel desolate and abandoned?

The preacher, lay reader Iain Todd told a compelling story of his own time in a dark place. In March 2014 he was taken ill after performing at an Eden Court charity event. Rushed to hospital, he was diagnosed with ‘a perfect storm of heart symptoms.’ Over the next few days he came close to death, and was revived by CPR. Eventually, Iain was put in an induced coma and had a pacemaker fitted. His slow recovery began.

Iain described the sense of peace and God’s presence which he and Fiona his wife felt during the days of crisis. One morning, desperately weak, he called out for help and as he waited for staff to come the words ‘Be still and know that I am God’ sat down in his mind’s front room.

A couple of weeks later, after he was back home the Bible reference Romans 8:18 came forcefully to mind. Neither he, nor Fiona knew what that verse said, but when they read it they saw words about viewing suffering in the context of God’s great plan for the future. These words came to Iain forcefully as words for him that day.

And at a check-up 12 weeks after his operation, doctors found that where there had been massive damage to his heart, now only minor heart wounds remained – a clear sign Iain believes, of divine intervention.  He gives huge thanks to Professor Leslie and his team in Cardiology at Raigmore Hospital for all their help.

The experience has shown Iain what is really important in life, and helped him order his priorities. ‘God is alive and working,’ he says ‘God answers prayer, though not necessarily in the way we expect.’

Iain was able in the pain and darkness to recognise God’s presence, to thank God and even to praise God. Our experiences are all different, but the God who was with Iain in his sorrow is with us in our sorrows.

God speaks to all of us at the times when our life is threatened and vulnerable. I believe God awakened Wilko Johnson to the preciousness and priorities of life following his diagnosis. In Iain’s case the journey he travelled with God in that hospital bed has changed him for ever.

The only prompt board God holds up reads encouragingly ‘Be real!’ It’s good to praise. But it’s vital to be real with God in our times of helplessness and sorrow, and on those desperate days when though we feel utterly abandoned by God our faith nevertheless edges Godwards.

And paradoxically we often find that the more real we are with God, the more real God becomes to us and that from our place of pain, despite ourselves almost, the words of praise well up in our hearts.

(Christian Viewpoint column from the Highland News dated 25th June 2015)

God's glorious, ragbag, mixed-economy church

‘It has taken countless hours of prayer, study, conversation and emotional turmoil to bring me to the place where I am finally ready to call for the full acceptance of Christian gay couples into the Church.’ The words, last week, of a prominent American Christian Tony Campolo signalling his change of heart and mind. A similar announcement followed from a second high-profile US evangelical David Neff, former editor of Christianity Today.

In Scotland, at last month’s General Assembly, the Kirk somewhat incongruously both affirmed its traditional teaching on the issue, and voted to permit churches which are so disposed to call to their pulpits ministers in same-sex partnerships.

To which onlookers might say ‘Why the delay? What’s the problem? As a society we accept gay partnerships and affirm the love shown between gay partners. What’s the problem with these Christians?’

At the heart of the issue is the fact that Christians – all Christians – see God as the highest authority on how to live our lives. God’s directives have a higher call on us than social customs and ideas of what is ‘normal’, a higher call on us even than the law where the two are in conflict.

And all Christians believe that the Bible is ‘God-given’ although understandings of the mechanism by which it was ‘given’ vary.

Christians who oppose gay relationships – upholders of tradition, but including many young Christians – read the Bible’s comments in opposition to homosexual practice, and conclude in all sincerity that gay partnerships are in breach of God’s will for us. Christianity Today last week reminded its readers that 2bn Christians around the world take this line.

Many of these Christians are fine people, compassionate people – they argue that because God opposes gay relationships it is compassionate to warn people against them. And there are many fine, courageous gay people who remain celibate from a sense of loyalty to God, and God’s will as they see it.

But that is only one view. Others, who regard the Bible as the sole authority in matters of faith, study the vocabulary of the anti-homosexuality passages and their cultural context and conclude that they are not referring to gay relationships as we see them today.

Other Christians still believe God also speaks through history and through our prayerful reflection, bringing us back with new eyes to our foundation document, the Bible. They recognise that most gay people do not choose to be gay, and that the same Bible-affirmed qualities of love, support and mutual encouragement are seen in gay as in straight partnerships. They observe the spirituality and God-focussed joy and commitment in Christian gays and conclude that these are not people from whom God has withdrawn the divine smile.

As a young man, I didn’t question the tradition. But by the 1990s, I had a growing sense of compassion for gay people. Christians would say ‘It’s OK to be gay if that’s the way you are. But the practice is wrong.’ But how, I wondered, could you separate physical expression of your sexuality from what at heart you knew yourself to be?

I’m familiar with many of the debates about what the texts do or do not say, the deep traditions and theologies. But for me love lies at the core of Christian faith, and in the very heart of God and I was powerfully drawn to affirm gay people and committed gay relationships.

It is good when Christians have the courage to stand up for what we believe is right even when it costs us dearly. Society is strengthened by strong Christian voices. But some Christians, supporting gay relationships, find that the hardest, most courageous thing is to express that viewpoint within their own churches. It can be as difficult as it is for a gay person to ‘come out’ to their families.

I urge my fellow Christians who take the more traditional view to reflect deeply on the issue; to read the views of those who think differently; to explore the testimonies of gay people who know themselves to be blessed by God; to feel the pain of gay people rejected by churches; to pray for wisdom.

The Church of Scotland has opted for a ‘mixed economy’ in which churches can hold different views.

Sometimes the language of the debate among Christians is hard, judgemental, disrespectful.  Those who stand in a different tradition are at times depicted as being ‘outside’, ‘apostate’, facing God’s wrath.

Sisters and brothers, let us not use such language, for we are all one in Christ Jesus. We have different views on many issues, but we have found that there is room for us all beneath the shelter of God’s love. We are God’s glorious, ragbag, mixed-economy church, loved and blessed every last one of us.

(Christian Viewpoint column from the Highland News dated 18 June 2015)