Monday, 16 November 2015

Despite everything

Julie Nicholson, a vicar in Bristol lost her 24-year-old elder daughter Jenny in the 2005 London bombings. The story of that loss hit our screens earlier this month in Song for Jenny, a drama based on Nicholson’s book of the same name with which the BBC marked the 10th anniversary of 7/7.

Emily Watson as Julie Nicholson in 'A song for Jenny'
Both book and drama are intensely moving, charting a courageous, determined woman’s journey through the alien landscape of grief, the journey of all parents in mourning. We glimpse Julie’s visceral pain at the loss of her daughter; her sense of having failed Jenny by not protecting her; her need to know every detail of Jenny’s last moments. She stands on the platform at Edgware Road underground station, staring down the tunnel to the point where, 10 seconds from the station, Jenny died. It is forever a sacred place.

The story is a study of one particular Christian under immense pressure. I admire Julie Nicholson’s candid honesty. She is honest about her faith, her sense of God as mystery, her relentless questioning. She describes herself as ‘a woolly liberal with a catholic heart,’ adding ‘I [do] not have an evangelical mind.’

‘Surround this child with Your love, protect her from evil,’ they’d prayed at Jenny’s christening. Where was this supposedly protecting God in the Edgware Road tunnel?  Of this Julie is certain: Jenny’s death was not ‘fate’ or ‘destiny’ but the consequences of a bomber’s evil delusions.

Julie is honest about her instinct in the days following Jenny’s death to step aside from the role of vicar, and from any sense of obligation to think or act in a certain way as a Christian so that she can simply be a grieving mother, mourning a lost child.

She’s honest about her inability to forgive, uncertain whether it is a mother’s place to forgive a daughter’s killing. She told an interviewer ‘I will leave potential forgiveness for whatever is after this life. I will leave that in God’s hands.’ In the meantime, she resolves not to hate Mohammed Siddique Khan, and in that resolve, finds a certain release.

Julie admits that at times her mourning was so intense that she excluded her other children, Lizzie and Tom, and her then husband Greg.

And Julie is honest, finally, in her later decision to resign from the ministry.  She feels too emotional, too raw to lead the Eucharist and conduct funerals, weddings, baptisms. And she would find it difficult to say the words of ‘peace and reconciliation’ with complete integrity.

I so admire this woman’s openness and lack of pretence. Her story is a powerful reminder that it’s OK for us Christians to be real, whatever our feelings or lack of feelings. OK to mourn, to rage, to question, to struggle with forgiveness.

The book also demonstrates how other Christians can help or hinder us as we travel through mourning. There’s the young clergyman in the stiflingly hot hospital, clutching a sandwich. Though unsure what to say babbles inconsequentially rather than keeping silent. Another vicar in the same place busies himself providing cold drinks. ‘That’s my kind of chaplain,’ says Julie.

There was the man who said of Jenny ‘Jesus will be looking after her?’ ‘Well, why wasn’t he looking after her there, in the tunnel?’ Julie raged inwardly.

Other Christians simply stood with the family in their pain. Their former vicar whispered down the phone ‘Dear Jenny, dear Jenny.’ An elderly priest at St Paul’s listened and empathised, promising to pray for Jenny and the Nicholsons every day for the rest of his life.

Jenny drew comfort from music and poetry, and from Job in the Bible who ‘seems to get to the heart of suffering and despair.’ I’m impressed by her book’s portrayal of the love for one another of the members of her extended family. She’s encouraged by a quote from Kevin Crossley-Holland which she and Jenny had enjoyed: ‘I want everyone to know we all need each other and each one of us makes a difference.’

This is where God is most visible in this story, sustaining not in theology and statements of faith, but in whispers, in the love of family and the love of strangers.

At one point Julie says ‘I think there is no such thing as normality. It’s just a mask behind which people conceal their sorrow.’ At another she quotes Etty Hillesum, who found God amid the horror of Auschwitz: ‘Despite everything life is full of beauty and meaning.’

Both statements are true, I believe. God is not just ‘out there’, but sits with us like that priest at St Paul’s, breathing life into us. And so we do not utterly despair, but come to glimpse the beauty which beckons us forward in hope, though through tears.

(Christian Viewpoint column from the Highland News dated 15th July 2015)

Tuesday, 10 November 2015

Ministering in weakness: the power of story

In a recent sermon our minister, Rev Duncan Macpherson of Hilton Church Inverness described a recent experience of burnout, and his gratitude to God for rescuing him when he was in a pit, sprachling about in the mud and mire.’

He was preaching on Psalm 40 – a testimony from many centuries ago of God’s rescuing intervention. Using the words of the Psalm, Duncan says that God ‘set my feet on a rock and gave me a firm place to stand.’

He described the extreme tiredness which crept over him in August 2012, a tiredness which neither holiday nor rest could lift. Unable to sleep, battling constant exhaustion, barely able to walk. It seemed his ministry might be over. ‘Is there a way through this, or am I destined to stay in this pit of exhaustion and tiredness for ever?’

He described the agonised questioning (‘Where is God in this?); the anger he felt at himself and others; the self-reproach.

And he told us how, like the author of the Psalm, he grew aware that God was with him as he slowly journeyed back to health, and realised that the richest treasures are often found in life’s dark places.

To stand up and be as real and vulnerable as Duncan was as he described this painful journey takes both bravery and humility. Duncan shared as he did for two reasons. Firstly, to encourage those of us who are currently struggling in dark places (and which of us is immune from times of darkness?): we are not alone; God is with us in our pain, and therefore, hope remains.

And secondly, to demonstrate that there is unique power in a personal story, honestly shared in spoken or written words or in whatever ways of sharing come naturally to us.  Psalm 40 has blessed and encouraged God’s friends across the centuries. Today our stories bless and encourage those around us. As Henri Nouwen put it ‘we minister above all with our weakness.’

The better we know and understand the true significance of our stories, the more real and therefore powerful our sharing becomes. Gaining this discernment is harder than it seems. We re-shape our personal stories as we get older, to present ourselves in ways we are comfortable with.  But which version of is truest?

And some of us tell, and try to live out of stories which are not genuinely ‘us’. I may model my life on what I believe others expect of me; what I think I ‘ought’ to be; what I assume the false hard-taskmaster image of God I carry in my heart demands of me.

I suspect Duncan’s telling of his story would have been very different before his Psalm 40 experience – he mentioned his lack of awareness of what an over-busy life was doing to him, hinting that he was blind to powerful drives hounding him to self-destruction.

Before I can tell my story authentically I need to hear that story. I discover my identity and my story as I listen to my deepest self. For there, beneath all the storms of guilt and delusion whispers the voice saying ‘This is who you are! This is the path I have for you to follow.’

And once I have heard that voice - I believe it’s the voice of God -  I realise I’m free to choose to be who I am called to be; to choose the story I am called to live. And it’s not easy for some of us to choose – the dark place can become so familiar that the freedom on offer seems risky and scary.

Duncan chose freedom: adopting a less pressured lifestyle; concentrating on things he alone can do, and leaving the rest to others,; drawing inspiration daily from other struggling pilgrims in the Psalms.

It’s important not just to discern and then to share our own stories, but to listen to other people’s stories as we’d like them to listen to ours – non-judgementally;  open and attentive. Some will speak of finding God in the darkness, other of feeling abandoned by God and of abandoning faith in return.

And we listen, and we wait, as a faithful friend listened to and waited with Duncan during his months of darkness, and as Duncan now makes space to journey with others.

All our stories are provisional, and will be fully understood only when we meet the great Storyteller in another place.

Duncan's conclusion had authenticity and power because of what we'd heard earlier. This was not a theoretical statement of belied, but a dsipatch from the front line. 'I can stand here this morning and say 'God is good.' We worship the God who hears our cries, who lifts us up, who gives us a new song to sing. 

(Christian Viewpoint column from the Highland News dated 8th July 2015)

Monday, 2 November 2015

Sharing faith stories

When I was young, we were encouraged to tell our ‘testimonies’ – our personal stories of how we came to faith.  I wanted to have faith in God and in Christ, yet I felt nothing I did could bring me near God. But I did prepare a testimony, the kind of story I knew folk wanted to hear from me, which I typed up and kept folded inside my Bible for those occasions when a ‘testimony’ was called for. But it was inauthentic, a lie.

What is a ‘faith story’?

I've been thinking about what a ‘faith story’ is, and what I have learned about faith stories since my teenage struggles. I think the term can refer at one extreme to the story of our whole lives, and on the other, to the story of today. It can refer to a single incident, or to a whole series of events.

My first thought was that a faith story is different from an autobiography. A faith story focusses on the aspects of life affected by your faith, and your sense of God’s presence with you, while autobiography records the whole of your life. But then I realised, of course, that on your clearer-seeing days, when faith is central to all your living, you’ll realise that your autobiography – the whole of it – is a faith story, for there is no part of life in which God is not present.

Who should we share our faith stories with?

Who should we share our faith stories with? I suppose with anyone we meet whom we feel drawn to share with, and certainly with our close friends in a spirit of openness and fellowship. But the two most important audiences for our stories are God, and ourselves. I think it’s important to talk through our stories in God’s presence – what’s our own deepest reaction to what we are saying, and what do we sense God’s reaction is to the story of our day, or the story of our lives as we prayerfully replay them?  And maybe God’s reaction and my own deepest reaction are one and the same, because God teaches me deep within if I have got the storytelling wrong.

We can listen out for God responding in two ways: as we retell the day’s events, God draws near us, encouraging us, forgiving us, gently rebuking us, filling us with hope. But God also points out where we are getting the story wrong. Perhaps in our storytelling we are trying to justify ourselves,  but hear that inner whisper confirming what we’ve secretly suspected, that we’ve messed up again. Or perhaps I have seen myself as having failed in some situation and am beating myself up about it, and God says ‘It’s OK. You’ve got the story wrong there. It really is OK. You did the best you could.’

When it comes to the ‘big story’ of our lives as a whole, I have found myself revising it as I have grown older and wiser. As I used to tell it, there was much emphasis on the restrictions of a fairly austere religious upbringing; the effect on my of scary things said from the pulpit; the lack of understanding and life-affirming empathy from those close to me. But now, while in no way denying the pain I suffered, I have recognised that my reactions were partly due to my own personality, and that the people who hurt me were simply acting in the way they thought was right, and that some of them carried their own wounds. And so the earlier part of my story now has the same facts, but a more forgiving gloss on those.

I’m conscious that I can tell stories in such a way that I’m kept stuck in a negative place of self-justification and bitterness. That’s why it is so crucial that we tell our stories first to God, before we share them with anyone else, and do so listeningly, open to God, bringing our stories into the spotlight of God’s forgiving grace.  For some of us though, at certain difficult times in our lives, that telling of our stories in God’s presence is best shared with someone we trust implicitly, because in our sadness and our mental pain our view of God may be so distorted that God seems simply to feed back to us the negative thoughts we have about ourselves. A discerning ‘someone’ can help us listen for the true voice of God, still beneath the clamour of our souls, saying ‘I love you. I can heal and restore you, and redeem your story.’

A unique story – and a unique identity

In my experience, there’s a close connection between discovering ‘who I am’ as a unique, God-loved individual and my faith story. Through the circumstances of my life, both the struggles and the joy, the layers of false selves have been peeled increasingly away until now, on my clearer seeing days (and there are still days of bleakness and struggle), I know who I am; I know I am what I am through the grace and love of the Father who has made me, and I operate with joy out of the centre of that God-given identity. My faith story is a story of being led by God to discover my authentic self, and to rejoice in that. The final babushka in the set of Russian dolls is smiling.

Unhelpful motives in storytelling

Our God-breathed discernment as we reflect on our stories prayerfully will help us detect whether our storytelling is in any way driven or skewed by unhelpful motives. Of course none of our storytelling is pure and perfect. Here are some negative things to look out for, and to work on as we all must work on them!

I should not tell my story in order to boost my ego, or to win praise or admiration from others. Rather I should tell my story in love, out of a heart secure in God.

I should not tell the story I think people expect to hear from me because I want to feel included. Rather I should seek to tell my faith story authentically, from the knowledge that God includes me and that that, ultimately is all that matters.

I should not tell my story competitively, to suggest that I have been more blessed than another, or that my life before coming to faith was more messed up than another. Rather, I should tell my story so that the grace of the God who redeems all our stories is to the forefront.

I should not tell my story to present myself as something I am not. God knows me and loves me as I am, God knows the beginning and end of my journey, and it is as I tell my story as it is that God speaks in it to others.

I should not tell my story ‘in order to convert people.’  It is not a tool to be used, it is a sharing of self in personal conversation between fellow human beings exchanging their stories. It is enough simply to share sincerely.

I should not tell my story as a way of keeping other people at a distance because I am afraid to hear their authentic stories.

Listening to other people’s stories

There are things we need to remember as listeners to other people’s faith stories. We should seek prayerful discernment in listening (although I find the presence of someone in front of me makes it hard to listen to the deep place within which is the place of prayer.) We should listen with humility, love and a willingness to learn and consider how the story we are hearing might help shape our own story. But we should also remember that each of us have our own unique stories – because ours is different in some way from the person speaking, we need not feel threatened by the differences if we know ourselves centred in God’s love. And in listening we need to remember that the words people use might not carry for them the same meaning as they have for us – we will ask questions, and clarify to ensure that we are hearing correctly. For example when someone says ‘The Lord told me…’ what exactly do they mean?  What does ‘hearing from God’ look like in their lives?

God speaks our stories

All this assumes that as Christians telling our stories, we have a sense of God ‘speaking’ within us, which might seem disconcerting to some people. A few Christians tell us that at times they have heard God speak with an audible voice; other Christians are convinced that God only speaks through the words of the Bible, and that all we need to hear from God is there.

My own experience is that certain words, or phrases, or thoughts come live in my mind and heart in an inescapable way. These may include words or ideas or symbols from the Bible, but they are not limited to those. For instance the other Sunday walking down the Inverness Islands with the dog, I met a friend who told me that she’d left the house that afternoon because ‘I want to be where the leaves are falling’, and that phrase wouldn’t leave me – I ended up writing a blog post on ‘wanting to be at the sharp end, wanting to be where God’s action is.’ And I believe that these thoughts which come with such clarity and energy are whispers of God to me.

Of course there are other dark thoughts, and strident thoughts of what I could do or achieve. But these produce on the one hand fear, and on the other hand a sense of emotional draining. Only the small voice comes with the energy to accomplish that which it inspires me to.

To say all this is simply to record my own experience, not to say that this is how it is, or should be you others. But I do believe that God has a way of getting through to us, and communicating to us what we need to hear.  I have known many periods when God has seemed totally absent, but I have come to learn (and remember on my clearer-seeing days) that God reaches out to us in our sense of God’s absence, saying to us ‘I know you long for me, but I need to show you that I am much bigger than any ideas, or experiences, or theologies you may have. I am present with you even in your sense of abandonment.’

I suspect that even someone who up until now has had no religious faith will, on considering the possibility that God (not a bolt-on comforter which religious people bolt on to otherwise indistinguishable lives, but the God who dances in every atom, every molecule, every breath) is real will detect looking back over their lives many promptings towards goodness and life and joy which are the call-sign on the great Storyteller.

The Lord is my shepherd

For a long time, I struggled with talking about ‘the Lord.’ It was easy to talk about ‘God’, but there was a heaviness in me when I tried to say ‘the Lord.’ This really troubled me, but I think the problem may have been a symptom of my past, where people I knew talked freely, and it seemed to me glibly about ‘the Lord’, their words accentuating my sense of despair and distance from God. But now I am learning to say ‘the Lord’ much more freely, and to see this Lord as a character in my story – or rather to see myself as a beloved character in his great drama.