Sunday, 31 July 2016

The road goes ever on

‘You’ve come on Curry Wednesday!’ they tell me when I drop in to the church office for a chat. Simeon Ewing and Fiona Waite have recently joined the youth team at Hilton Church, managed by Youth Pastor Jonathan Fraser.

I’m preparing an article about their work for the church web-site, and we have a wide-ranging conversation about the children and youth activities they’re involved with in church and community. Simeon is the church’s Children’s Worker; Fiona a ‘Ministry Apprentice’ working with young people in the church and in Hilton generally three days a week, while studying at Highland Theological College the other two days.

And Curry Wednesday? Each Wednesday one of the team prepares an Indian meal which the three of them share, as a means of building their working and personal relationships.
I’m always fascinated to hear different people’s experiences of Christianity, and so I asked Fiona and Simeon what faith is like for them.

They spoke about coming to faith. For Fiona, it began when she heard ‘about the Bible in a different way that actually related to my life’ and ‘about having a relationship with God.’ For Simeon there was a particular place and time. At the age of just 4, he tells me, ‘I committed my life to Jesus.’ He’d seen his parent’s faith, and, he says ‘I knew there was some decision I had to make to start the journey myself.’

Both believe that God speaks to them. God is heard in ‘a very strong sense’ or impression that a particular course of action is right; in ‘an inner peace’ about the way ahead; in the awakening within them of words from the Bible; in the advice of others when somehow it makes a home within them; in a sense of ‘conviction’ when a wrong decision has been made.  
Both believe that God is leading them through life, though they admit to taking wrong turnings along the way! This journey has both an outer dimension of work and learning and relationships, and a closely linked inner dimension of developing and maturing faith.

I think all of us as Christians reflecting on our lives will find those elements present: a coming to faith; a sense of God ‘speaking’ (however that works in our experience); and a conviction that God calls us on a journey of being and becoming.

Fiona and Simeon’s words encourage us, but we don’t need to feel we must have exactly the same beliefs or identical experiences as our fellow-Christians – although some Christians give the impression at times that their particular way of believing and experiencing is the only ‘correct’ way, the only way God accepts.

But in fact we all have different personalities, different backgrounds, different experiences of being parented, and we all belong to different traditions within the Christian church. And so our expectations of what encountering God ‘feels like’, and the words and ideas we use to describe our beliefs will be different. We are each unique, and the Father of Jesus comes to each of us in ways utterly appropriate to who we are.

Perhaps we don’t speak often enough in church about the terrain across which the journey leads many of us. We find ourselves reluctantly moving from a place of security in a particular set of long-held beliefs, to a place where we question everything we have ever believed.  Eventually we arrive in a wider place, still rooted in our faith in Christ (in fact more rooted than ever), but comfortable now with unanswered questions. We look across church and world seeing no longer ‘them’ and ‘us’ but increasingly simply ‘us.’

We discover that people in faith traditions outwith Christianity have very similar experiences to ours although they do not share our faith in Jesus Christ. Are these experiences false, or is Jesus bigger than we had ever imagined, connecting deeply with people who do not yet recognise him?

Simeon and Fiona are near the start of their journeys. I am impressed by the authenticity of their faith stories, the reality of their joy. And impressed too by the love which they have for children and young people. ‘I want to tell them God loves them,’ Simeon simply.

I am convinced that love is the most important thing, and that God looks not so much at the specifics of our beliefs, but at how well we reflect the love of Jesus Christ.

We can’t go it alone on this journey, but we support one another as we travel in Love, and into Love. It’s impressive to see the bond which Jonathan and his team have. Curry Wednesday. A kind of eucharist in tikka masala, pilau rice and coffee.  Thank you, Father.

(Christian Viewpoint column from the Highland News dated 17th March 2016)

Saturday, 30 July 2016

The glory ungreyed

The other day, someone told me she had an Oculus Rift. I was just about to commiserate with her over what sounded like a painful eye condition when she went on to explain that the Rift is in fact a sophisticated new virtual reality device produced by a Facebook-owned company.

The Rift is more beguiling than any similar product. It has the potential to let you watch movies as though you were in the heart of the action; experience the adrenalin rush as you soar high with Superman; share with friends on the other side of the world as though you were all in the same room.

‘The magic of presence changes everything,’ says the promotional slogan on the Oculus web site. I am sure future versions of the Rift will be more discreet, but at present it’s a black box (albeit elegantly engineered) covering the upper part of the face. And this is disturbing. It seems wrong, somehow, to be so immersed in another reality that you are oblivious to your surroundings.

And yet, should I be disturbed? After all, we disengage from reality in many other ways. We day-dream. We succumb to that busy-ness which has us focussing always not on what we’re doing now, but on the next thing on the list. We close our hearts to things (some of them in our own lives) which we simply don’t want, or can’t bear to see. And of course, we lose ourselves in books and movies.

All these ways of escaping reality! Are some more valid than others? I have found the escapism offered by books therapeutic at times when, though crippled by anxiety, I’ve still been able to find some peace in reading. Thank you, James Herriot. Thank you Anthony Trollope for those massive novels. Thank you, Daniel Defoe – I will never forget that long afternoon in the bottom bunk at Nethy Bridge with Robinson Crusoe.

I think the helpful escapes are those which prepare us to live better in the real world when we return to it. Unhelpful escapes return us to reality even more alienated than before.

Virtual Reality expert Jaron Lanier claims that ‘the most amazing moment of virtual reality is when you leave it, not when you’re in it.’ It returns you to the real world with open eyes, he implies.

Christianity and other faiths insist that the present moment is the best place to be – in the fullest and deepest sense of ‘to be.’

Thich Nhat Hanh has said ‘Our true home is the present moment, the miracle is not to walk on water. The miracle is to walk on the green earth in the present moment.’ We are most fully alive when we are alert to the now.

Some people, hearing my concerns about virtual reality, would retort ‘But don’t Christians live in a virtual reality?  Isn’t the Bible an Oculus Rift sweeping you into delusional dreams about God and Jesus Christ and a better place to come?

I acknowledge that faith can become a way of shutting ourselves off from everyday life, living in an artificial bubble awaiting the coming of the King. But this disconnect between faith and life is not helpful.

I also suggest that it is quite legitimate for Christians to take shelter periodically from the pressures of the everyday – in times of retreat, for example – but this withdrawal is to enable us be more fully and joyously present when we return.

But faith doesn’t mean jumping between the reality of spirit and the reality of everyday. Christian faith means viewing the one reality through different eyes. We see not simply the physical and material; we see the world as God’s world and the beauty of the green, green grass as an ever-given gift.

We are alive to suffering in the world, and we understand the pain God feels, and see God in the eyes of those who suffer. Our hope and joy comes not from living in a virtual world, but in embracing life in this world and discerning many signs of God’s life-transforming touch, believing that in the end all will be well.

In fact, people of faith would argue that it’s when we look at the world and see only the material that we have an Oculus Rift to our eyes. Coming to faith is not about putting on a virtual reality device, but about taking off the shades which have greyed out the glory.

In this 'amazing moment of homecoming' - a timeless moment - we discover that the magic of presence does indeed change everything. For we are present to ourselves, present to others, present to the world, present to God's love as seen in Jesus. And the greatest wonder is that we find God present to us.

(Christian Viewpoint column from the Highland News dated 10th March 2016)

Friday, 29 July 2016

Wetback Church

‘A person who thinks only about building walls and not building bridges is not Christian,’ Pope Francis told journalists on the flight back from his recent visit to Mexico. He was criticising Donald Trump who claims that, if elected American President, he would build an $8 billion wall along the border between the US and Mexico to stop the flow of illegal immigrants, or ‘wetbacks’ as they are disparagingly known.

Some Christians were quick to defend the would-be occupant of the White House, such as the Orthodox priest who said that the Republican candidate’s faith is genuine, and that he had sought a blessing from him ‘in sincerity and humility.’

It’s not for any of us, even a Pope, to judge what goes on in someone else’s heart. But how we live, what we say, the decisions we make – all these reveal the nature of our beliefs. And the Pope is right to say that building barriers, keeping people at arms’ length is ‘not the gospel’ which instead centres on the breaking-down of walls, the healing of relationships.

US pastor Robert Jeffress entered the debate on Trump’s behalf, claiming that while it’s the role of the church to show compassion, the responsibility of government is to maintain order and protect citizens.  But surely the revolutionary Christian understanding of grace is for the benefit of society as a whole?

All this is relevant to the intense debate which David Cameron kick-started a couple of Saturdays ago over the UK’s referendum on membership of the European Union. Between now and 23rd June, we’ll hear endless arguments from people on both sides of the issue, who in their attempts to persuade us will invoke our desire for freedom, peace and security, personal prosperity and the economic flourishing of the country.

It’s difficult to discern where the truth lies when so much of what we hear is biased and self-serving. But what Pope Francis said of Donald Trump gives us a foundational principle to help us in our decision about Europe. Building barriers is ‘not the gospel.’

As a Christian, I believe in the breaking down of walls; in co-operation with others; in sharing responsibility for the problems facing our part of the world. I am under no illusion that this is easy, or that the EU is not desperately flawed, but a vote to remain ‘in’ seems the right choice.

But of course our tendency to build barriers is not limited to international relations. We are builders of walls in everyday life – and even in church - as we seek power and a sense of security. We pigeon-hole people as ‘in’ or ‘out’; ‘good’ or ‘bad’; ‘one of us’ or ‘one of them.’ But as Christians we are called to break down the barriers, to be vulnerable, to embrace the stranger.

And you can see where that leads us. Pope Francis says Donald Trump is ‘not Christian’ meaning that in his words if not in his heart he is suggesting Trump is ‘not one of us.’ But Trump is one of us, as he struggles either to listen to or to ignore the small voice of God which shows us the emptiness of our ego-led dreams and calls us to experience and share the Father’s unconditional love.

We must not put Donald Trump ‘outside the camp’ but rather pray for him that he may be transformed by grace. We must seek within what Father Greg Boyle in his book Tattoos on the heart calls ‘a spacious and undefended heart which finds room for everything you are and carves space for everybody else.’

Trump responded to the Pope’s remarks by saying that Francis had an ‘awfully big wall’ himself at the Vatican. To which a priest retorted that that wall had an ‘awfully big gate.’ It may seem to us that the way to God’s kingdom is blocked by awfully big walls – but are those walls in fact created by our own doubt and guilt and shame? The good news is that there is an awfully big door in those walls through which love pours endlessly.

Father Greg Boyle

Father Boyle’s book describes his work as a priest in deprived, violent communities in Los Angeles where the population is almost entirely of Latin American origin. The Dolores Mission Church welcomes everyone, and breaks down the barriers between rival gang members.

Boyle describes a time, back in the 1980s, when he allowed illegal immigrants from Mexico and Central America to sleep in the church. Someone, opposed to this, spray-painted the words ‘Wetback Church’ on the steps outside.  Father Greg’s first instinct was to remove these words until someone pointed out that they were a badge of honour. That’s what we are! Wetback church. Outcasts welcome. No walls, no barriers. Love without frontiers.

(Christian Viewpoint column from the Highland News dated 3rd March 2016)