Saturday, 9 January 2016

Tempest and after

Seven years after she founded the nurses’ training school in Brussels, the clouds of war gathered over Europe. And yet she did not seek safety in her native England. When the German army marched into the Belgian capital on 20 August 1913, she stood watching among the ‘sullen and silent’ citizens.

Just over a year later, a German chaplain, Pastor Le Seur sits with her in her cell in the St Gilles Prison. ‘Can I not show you some kindness? Please do not see in me now the German, but only the servant of our Lord.’

The next morning, 12th October 1915, she was executed at dawn for helping Allied soldiers escape to neutral Holland. Pastor Le Seur prayed with her before the shots rang out.

And so died, at the age of 49, Edith Cavell.

Pastor and condemned woman, united by their faith in the same Lord. It underlines the blasphemous obscenity of war: each side Christian, each side mercilessly killing the other’s youth.

Edith Cavell was a vicar’s daughter, born in Swardeston, near Norwich. She worked first as a governess (including a spell with an affluent Brussel’s family) before training as a nurse. In 1907 she was invited to establish a pioneering training school for nurses in Belgium where she showed herself to be a skilful teacher, administrator and carer.

Many of us today are aware of gathering clouds of international tension. We feel threatened by global economic collapse, intractable political problems, and the possibility of nuclear conflict in the Middle East. Some Christians with a particular view of Bible prophecy saw last week’s ‘blood moon’ as a sign of impending calamity.

In these fraught times, Edith Cavell reminds us that there have been many crises in the past, when some Christians have felt that the end must surely be near, and were mistaken. But she also teaches us how to live in difficult times.

She told her nurses that they must treat friend and foe alike. But she also became involved in an underground network helping allied soldiers (her ‘lost children’, she called them) to escape over the Dutch border from where some made their way back to the trenches via England. She was arrested in August 2015, tried as a ring-leader of the network, and sentenced to death.

We have an insight into her inner life because she regularly read The Imitation of Christ, a 15th-century devotional book by Thomas à Kempis and marked passages of particularly significance to her. She was a woman who sought to be an imitator of Christ.

Like Christ, she found the mission she had glimpsed when she was younger: ‘someday, somehow I am going to do something useful.’ Like Christ she loved and served others: ‘I have loved you all, much more than you can know,’ she wrote to her nurses from her cell.

Like Christ she did what was right even when it brought her into conflict with the authorities. Like Christ, she faced death with faith: on the night before her execution she marked a passage from à Kempis – ‘There is none to help me, none to deliver and save me but Thou, O Lord God my Saviour.’

‘I die for God and my country,’ she declared the next morning, facing her executioners. But why? Why does God not save her? Why is she felled by those merciless guns?

I think in times of chaos we often look for ‘top down’ intervention by God, something dramatic, unmistakable. But often God works from the bottom up. Movements begin with people on the ground, perhaps simultaneously in different parts of the world who have a vision that the wind is changing direction and run with it, even at great cost.

Cavell Gardens in Inverness
Often God’s change comes as people on the ground are changed and seek to be imitators of Christ, working out what that means at the heart of their ordinary lives. We fear economic collapse, the failure of power and fuel supplies, empty shelves in the shops, and we fear desperation and anarchy. What would it mean in those scenarios to be imitators of Christ, agents of change?

Thomas à Kempis sought to imitate Christ by turning from the world. Edith Cavell turned inwards and reflected on her soul and her God, but she also reached out, engaging in love with a chaotic world, and seeking to save some, and in this her imitation of Christ was more rounded than his.

For Jesus’ mission was one of bottom-up change. The shoots of new life sprang from the darkness of an empty grave, and began a spiritual movement which will continue until that day when wars cease.

Wrote  à Kempis ‘After winter followeth summer, after night the day returneth, and after a tempest a great calm.’

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

Freedom's kiss

Recently it’s been cold, cold, very cold,’ performance poet El Gruer intones in a poem recently posted on YouTube, An open letter to the government, an open heart to refugees. There’s an arresting poignancy in her voice; the space between words is as important as the words themselves. ‘The weather of our hearts has been dismal,’ she continues, ‘because it took the body of a young child to break the ice.’ (She was referring to the discovery of a child's body found face-down on a Turkish beach on 2nd September, on of a group of 12 Syrian migrants who drowned in an attempt to reach the Greek island of Kos.)

The young poet, originally from Inverness, aims to ‘take poetry into places where poetry doesn’t normally go’, performing in pubs, clubs, churches, homes, festivals. Like all her work, this latest poem displays both compassion for those who suffer, and hope. ‘There are many of us that want to bring rest to your distress, to learn your names and to give you an address.’

Compassion and hope are key themes in El’s recently-published first collection of poems The paper sky which combines serious subject matter with clever word-play, and a lightness of touch. She has an ability to empathise with people who are suffering, letting their voices be heard speaking out their pain, and thus giving birth to compassion in us.

Through El’s words we experience struggles with addiction; the pain of still-birth, miscarriage and the loss of a young child; the consequences of childhood trauma; the terrible sadness of seeing a beloved mother ‘camouflaged’ by dementia.

It sounds grim, and it is indeed painful to be confronted with the reality of other people’s pain. But, taken as a whole The paper sky is a book of hope. El has said that she aims ‘not to rant and rave about the issues of the day,’ but would rather ‘focus on nurturing words that will save.’ She has also told us ‘I believe in the power of brokenness. When we cry out, God meets us.’

In the very act of articulating our need we are met by God. The paper sky is not an explicitly religious book, and yet you sense that God is forever present. Thus the addict discovers that ‘freedom’s a kiss’; the girl with autism realises that she is ‘a work of art’; the woman burdened by distressing family circumstance and by world news ‘followed Google Maps to St Peter’s’ where, singing as the tears fell ‘in worship I raised my hand.’

I particularly appreciated the poem Trafficked. It begins with the insight ‘what people do is not so far apart from the condition of their hearts.’ It follows that people who cage, damage, enslave, hurt other people are those who have themselves been caged, damaged, enslaved, hurt. It then reflects that those who have been loved, honoured, healed, redeemed are best equipped to show love and honour to others, to heal and to redeem.

Trafficked then highlights a strange anomaly: that those who damage others are much more committed in their doing of damage than those who release others in their bringing of freedom. But ‘Freedom needs to be more than a word.’ And so this powerful poem ends with the plea that we who are free, must free others.

The poem reminded me of Jesus Christ. Wholly free, and secure in the Father’s love, Jesus is able, and proactively willing to free us wholly.

El Gruer has said  ‘Every piece I write is immersed in prayer before-hand,’ and it seems to me that there is another poetry which she aims to take into places where it isn’t normally welcomed – the poetry of Christian faith, so often dismissed as irrelevant, yesterday’s news. El speaks out this poetry with conviction: not a performance this, but an expression of who she is.

Another poem I loved was one of the specifically Christian ones, Sunday School. The speaker remembers her five-year-old self hearing the name ‘Jesus’ in Sunday School. That word ‘Jesus’ resonated in her, and, glimpsing the reality behind those two syllables she felt like running to Jesus across sunlit fields, gathering flower for him as she went.

But instead, she had to sit cross-legged in a dismal hall, patient listening rewarded by juice in a tawdry polystyrene cup. What an indictment of us as Christians, I thought, taking something beyond wonder and presenting it in a drab, unimaginative context. But then I reflected – isn’t the poem really saying that the power of Jesus is such that he meets us in the drab ordinariness of our lives, and sets us free? Can diluted juice in a polystyrene cup become a Eucharist?

The key thought lying behind El Gruer’s work is this. The ice in our hearts is broken by a son, dead not on a Mediterranean beach, but on a cross near Jerusalem; and by the same son alive on that resurrection Sunday when the poetry of God burst free.

The Paper Sky by El Gruer is published by Canterbury Press. ISBN 9781848257672.
(Christian Viewpoint column from the Highland News dated 1st October 2015)

In the river; on the ball

Now I follow the results of another team besides Inverness Caley Thistle. Seoul E-land, based in the South Korean capital is near the top of the K League (2nd division) and hopes to win promotion by the end of the season in November.

My friend Brian Irvine, the former Aberdeen and Scotland football star has given up his Inverness-based job, and gone to Seoul to work with E-land until the end of the season.  He’s supporting the coach, fellow-Scot Martin Rennie, and acting as informal chaplain to a squad which includes several Christians.

Brian is not receiving a salary for this work, though his expenses are met, and there is no guarantee of a job next season. But after two shorter visits to Seoul earlier in the year, he became convinced that God was calling him to work with the team there and, as he puts it, ‘when God calls I must obey.’

‘How can you be sure?’ we might react. ‘Is this some kind of mid-life crisis?’ To which Brian points to his growing sense of the ‘rightness’ of going to South Korea. He speaks of ‘green lights lining up’ as circumstances beckoned him forwards. And this was confirmed on his arrival:  the club director told him he’d been invited back because of the ‘strong sense of the Lord’s presence’ when he was last with the team back in May.

What was a challenge to Brian was also a challenge to his family, who have let him go with their blessing to the other side of the world.

But can we be sure that an idea has come from God? For me, some possibilities present themselves with a heady clamour and excitement, but ultimately seem hollow and unrooted. Others open up gently, but with a sense of inevitability, accompanied by energy and life. These are the possibilities I suspect are God-given.

Brian is part of Hilton Church in Inverness, and he’s been keeping us up to date with his schedule on the church blog. He’s talked about coaching and scouting; time spent chilling with the team talking about football, and life and God; visits to crowded Korean churches.

Seoul E-land reserve team match
He has shared some of the lessons he’s learned. He’s come to recognise that ‘each day brings new challenge in the Lord.’ I like it! How do I view a new day? As a wearisome repeat of yesterday? Or as a God-given gift, 24 hours of possibility. Each day invites us to embrace it with joy, to live it with courage, giving and receiving love. Again, it’s about living out of the river of life within us, rather than the stagnant waters of routine.

Secondly, Brian has spoken of his need, away beyond his comfort-zone of being sustained by God, and this inspires those of us who feel it so hard to embrace each day with joy. Brian quotes St Paul – ‘I can do all things through him who strengthens me.’ It’s alright to feel vulnerable and fragile, even in the macho world of soccer, for in acknowledging our sense of vulnerability we are opening our hearts to the God who comes to us in that life-giving river.

Brian’s also been encouraged by another visitor working with Seoul E-land – Dr Aaron Treadway who heads up Ambassadors Football, a US-based organisation which aims ‘to communicate the good news of Jesus to all people through football.’

I used to be suspicious of what was known as ‘sports evangelism.’ (Evangelism simply means sharing the good news of a God who loves us boundlessly.) I was suspicious because I’d got the impression that people regarded evangelism as a project, and saw football (or any other shared interest) as a pretext to draw near to people and so convert them.

I was wrong. The truth, in most cases, is thankfully different. We are all passionate about the things we’ve been given to do – in Brian’s case, football; in mine writing – which flow from that river within. God is in the writing! God is in the football. God shares our passions.

Others who share your passion should see an attractiveness in your life as a Christian, and when you talk about the deep things within you, your focus will be on God. And so they will come to realise that the river of life within them too has God as its source, and is wider and deeper than they had ever imagined.

It must be a temptation for a former international player like Brian to feel that the glory days have departed. As Christians, we believe that the glory days lie ahead, when God makes all things new.  But not just that: for these are the glory days, days when, secure in God’s love we entrust ourselves to the living waters.

(Christian Viewpoint column from the Highland News dated 24th September 2015)