Sunday, 7 February 2016

Beyond the sunset

A couple of dozen folk of all ages walk in a straggling group down the field of wheat, funnelling into the lane at the bottom on their way to church. What struck me was the sombreness of their clothing – all blacks and browns – in contrast to the rich colour of the countryside and the vividness of the sky.

It’s a scene from the film of Lewis Grassic Gibbon’s Sunset Song. The dark clothing seemed life-denying, a symbol of organised religion as it is depicted in both book and film.

Sunset Song  tells the story of Chris Guthrie, a young woman in Kinraddie, a crofting community in the Mearns, south of Aberdeen. Chris comes of age in the second decade of the 20th century, her dreams shattered by the Great War. It’s a deep book, with a unique singing style, a passionate anti-war novel which explores Scottish identity, mourns the departure of an ancient way of life and concludes with a vision of a better future.

At one point in the novel Chris thinks that the Scots were never truly ‘religious’. ‘They never believed. It’s just been a place to collect and argue, the kirk, and criticise God.’

Whatever the author’s personal experience of religion, he portrays it in the novel as toxic. The Kinraddie minister is a hypocrite and a serial philanderer. Chris’s father John Guthrie beats his adult son for using the word ‘Jehovah’ inappropriately. He believes that the members of his family are his to do with as he pleases, and uses the theology of God’s will to justify his own lack of restraint which leads to his wife Jean’s repeated pregnancies. ‘The Lord’s my shepherd’, he sings blithely in the film, yet this deeply conflicted man shows little sign of following where the shepherd leads.

And yet there is grace in Sunset Song. Grace in the compassionate, if irascible, atheist Long Rob; grace in the kindly Christian socialism of Chae Strachan who has the ‘Blesseds’ from Matthew’s gospel on his parlour wall; grace, repeatedly, in the life of Chris herself as for example her active concern for those whom others ridicule as pro-German.

There is a yearning for meaning in the book, in deep-thinking Chris especially. Chris realises how fleeting our lives are. We live and love and wrestle with the land, and then we go to the place of the dead, and are quickly forgotten here. She resolves to live to the full in the spring of her life as Rob encourages her. ‘Sing it and cherish it; ‘twill never come again.’ Chris concludes that only the land of the Mearns, the land of Scotland endures, though constantly changing. Everything else perishes.

Hers is a Scotland where people are asking deep questions, seeking glimpses of something bigger than the physical world, and glimpsing grace in one another’s lives. Yet it’s a Scotland where religion is shrivelled and shrunken, destroying and binding rather that bringing freedom and life.

The Sunset Song novel ends with a vision. The new minister, Robert Colquhoun preaches at the dedication of the Kinraddie war memorial about a hope for the future. In the uneasy post-war world, ‘there shines a greater hope of a newer world – a world of justice, equality and peace.

It’s a world which the novel’s author hoped would come through socialism and communism, and though these experiments have failed since Sunset Song appeared in 1932, it’s a world for which we still are longing.

We too may find ourselves looking back to some Golden Age, and forward to a transformed future. This week, in Advent, I remembered that before Christ came the Jews looked back to a Golden Age when David and Solomon reigned, and forward to the future the prophet’s dreamed of, while for the present there was war and rumour of war, and an element of toxic religion.

There’s a story in Luke’s gospel of Simeon, an old man who’d had a promise from God decades before that he would not die until he saw the beginning of the future. The 8-day-old Jesus is placed in his arms. ‘My eyes have seen your salvation,’ Simeon says to God.

And a preacher in Sunset Song speaks of ‘the rising of Christ, a pin-prick of cosmic light far off in Palestine which will yet shine on all the world.’

Sunset Song warns us of the danger of domesticating God and dimishing our faith until we are shallower and less fulfilled than people of no faith.

We worship a big God of mystery and transcendence, a God who endures when the land passes, a God whose breath holds the world in place. A God who is in all beauty, all longing, all love. A God who promises a better world, who calls us through prayer and politics and poetry and compassion to help redeem the world.

A God who gives us a sign in the coming of Jesus that the future is beginning. Christ is the spring of life, the assurance that our lives will endure. This is breathtaking in its immensity – and this is the Christian gospel.

The Bible verse quoted on the Kinraddie war memorial promises that those who overcome will be given ‘the morning star.’ At times of war and trauma it may seem that a black, anguished sunset closes the day of our hope. But look – on the horizon! – the morning star. Day is coming.

And look! Down the wheat field of history people are dancing on their way to God’s house, their clothing a rainbow of glory.

(Christian Viewpoint column from the Highland News dated 17th December 2015)

Christ our koselig

I’ve been reading Lewis Grassic Gibbon’s novel Sunset Song prior to going to see the film. It follows the cycle of the seasons in Kinraddie, a fictional community south of Aberdeen in the first two decades of the 20th century - ploughing, seed-time, harvest, winter.

‘What’s your favourite season?’ said my daughter Bethany recently. I shared a memory with her of the time I went to St Andrews as a young man, a member of a Scripture Union summer mission team, working with holidaying children. It was the first time in my life I had felt included by a group of people my own age.

I remember one Friday, in late-evening twilight, walking with a couple of others beside the sea south east of the Maiden Rock as the waves fingered the shoreline and a chilly breeze blew off the water. It occurred to me how melancholy the place might have appeared, but I sensed only the beauty and peacefulness of it due to the sense of belonging which companionship brought me.

For some of us – perhaps for all of us at some times in our lives – how we experience things out-with ourselves depends on our inner mood.

Those of us who are naturally depressive may feel saddened by every one of the seasons, either because they contrast so markedly with our emotions (the joy and life of spring and summer at variance with our dejection) or because they emphasise and underline our mood (the dying and chill of autumn and winter reinforces our melancholy.)

Our dog Mollie - enjoying Koselig
My personal challenge at this time of year is to find a way of entering into the joy of winter. Our friends in Northern Europe have a strategy for making the most of cold, dark days.  For the Norwegians, it’s the quest for koselig – used both as noun and verb. The word has a root meaning of ‘cosiness’ but round it has gathered a cluster of meaning – warmth, joy, companionship, security.

Winter in the Scandinavian countries is for some a time to chill with family and close friends, sharing long, thoughtful meals with good crack in warm rooms, and, outside, to enjoy the exhilarating beauty of cold landscapes, frozen lakes.

It seems rather idealistic – how do those who are short of money, or bereaved, of elderly find their way to koselig?

But there’s a lesson for us. The central scene of Sunset Song, the wedding of Chris Guthrie and Ewan Tavendale takes place in a snowstorm at Hogmanay, when the inhabitants of Kilraddie congregate at the croft of Blaewearie to celebrate and find koselig in a meal and a ceilidh which lasts till midnight.

But the trouble is that we are often too busy to make space for koselig. Just as we want fresh fruit in the supermarkets all year round, so it seems we want every season to be harvest, and work ceaselessly to be productive – at work, at home, even in church.

We forget that our souls, too, have their seasons. That there can be no harvest without fallow times, without seasons of ploughing and sowing. There is a time to be busy, a time to rest, a time to think and reflect, a time for koselig. A time to draw near to God, and to heal our souls at the warmth of God’s fire.

Let’s seek this winter, whether we are introverts or extroverts, whether we’re naturally sunny or depressive, let’s seek an inclusive koselig, one in which we do not forget those for whom winter is the hardest time. Let’s rejoice together in the gift of the season!

But if I’m one of those people whose view of reality is coloured by mood, how can I welcome winter? Something deeper than simply the discovery of friendship gave me that gift of wholeness beside the Maiden Rock.

A preacher in Sunset Song looked back across centuries of Kinraddie seasons. ‘He told of the rising of Christ, a pin-prick of the cosmic light far off in Palestine, the light that crept and wavered and did not die, the light that would yet shine as the sun over all the world, not least the howes and hills of Scotland.’

Jesus Christ walked the rhythm of the seasons in Galilee, walked fearlessly through the seed-time of death and the harvest of resurrection, so that we can embrace and live and relish each of the seasons throughout the year, and each of the long seasons our life takes us through.

The reason I sensed the shorelines peace at St Andrews, the fundamental reason for all my joy and delight is that I have found, as we can all find, security and identity in Christ. And so, Bethany, an honest answer – any season where I sense Christ’s koselig is my favourite!

(Christian Viewpoint column from the Highland News dated 10th December 2015)

A way back from the dark side

There’s great anticipation over the release, later this month, of The Force Awakens, the latest instalment of the sci-fi movie saga Star Wars. Like the previous films in the series, it will no doubt centre on a mammoth conflict between good and evil. The darkness will not win.

Perhaps this Christmas watching the film will offer some respite from a reality confronting us in news and social media which leaves us wondering if darkness is in the ascendant.

George Lucas is said to have launched the Star Wars series to encourage young Americans to seek a moral basis for their lives at a time when many were deserting organised religion. He is quoted as saying ‘All I was trying to say, in a very simple and straightforward way, is that there is a God and there is a good and bad side.’

The existence of a spiritual dimension is central to the Star Wars universe, though young Luke Skywalker took so long to come to terms with this. Characters are faced with choosing between living in the light, and going ‘over to the dark side.’ There is much evidence of self-sacrificial love in the films – so much so that someone has described the franchise as ‘a riveting melodrama of redemption by love.’

And then there’s ‘The Force’, which is at times described in similar terms to those Christians use to describe the creative presence of God. ‘It surrounds us, it penetrates us, it binds the galaxy together,’ says Obi-Wan Kenobi. In other descriptions, ‘The Force’ sounds more like our human creative energies which we can choose to deploy in the service of light, or of darkness.

There was controversy last week over the Church of England’s attempt to have an advert screened in cinemas before the Star Wars movie – a simple, 56-second recital of the Lord’s Prayer by many different people in varied circumstances. The Digital Cinema Media advertising agency refused to handle it, which is fair enough, given that their policy is to exclude political and religious advertising.

The Lord’s Prayer focuses on a ‘holy’ God, pure and powerful beyond our understanding. It asks that God’s will may be done ‘on earth as it is in heaven’ – and we know God wills justice and peace, love, grace, fairness. The prayer expresses thankfulness to God for the good things we enjoy daily; it asks that we may be able both to offer forgiveness to others, and to receive forgiveness from those we have wounded, and above all from God. It asks God to protect us from evil.

Isn’t this a snapshot of the world we long for, a vision of a society where love invades and annihilates darkness?

But even though the ad will not be seen in cinemas, God’s voice will be heard there. For God is always speaking in a myriad of whispers and nudges in all our circumstances. And God speaks in stories and novels, in music and in poems - and in movies, including Star Wars, prompting us to long for a better society and a better way of being, inviting us to enter a great cosmic story, a ‘drama of redemption by love’ more gripping than anything on a silver screen.

Religious people are most unlikely to be offended by the Lord’s Prayer – most could say ‘Yes!’ to it. It’s in other people it gives rise to disquiet. In part because, like young Luke Skywalker, they don’t see life in spiritual terms. But also because religion seems to be characterised by conflicting beliefs and philosophies, by control and manipulation. ‘I’m right, you’re wrong’; ‘We’re in, you’re out.’

But in fact, much of the religion which troubles us is religion which has gone over to the dark side. Faith, ultimately, is not about dogma or philosophy but about encounter with the God whom we are taught to call ‘Father’, by the Jesus Christ whose dying and return to life had inter-galactic implications, taking a light-sabre to the heart of death itself.

The Father of the Lord’s Prayer calls us to embrace not a dying vision from the past, but a massive cosmos-changing view of a better world and a better future, where still free to choose, we will have wisdom to choose God’s will.

The new film is The Force Awakens. Well, God never sleeps, so God never has to awaken. But ‘God awakens’ – awakening us, one by one; drawing us into relationship with God; equipping us with the piercing sabre of justice and love; empowering us to stand firm for light; showing us that there is a way back from the dark side – for broken individuals, communities, institutions, for the whole world.

For when we gladly embrace the divine love, so the kingdom comes, in us, and through us.

(Christian Viewpoint from the Highland News dated 3rd December 2015)