Friday, 31 January 2020

Still Quarrying 103 - Pain.

With everything I have been through since March the one thing I haven’t experienced much is pain.  That is apart from the preparation for the apheresis procedure ie. the harvesting of stem cells.  This involved daily injections of a drug the name of which I have forgotten but which I was warned would cause me some bone pain.   A lady who was in the next bed to me during the harvesting described it as feeling like your bones were about to explode.  It wasn’t quite like that with me but the pain in my upper legs and back caused me a great deal of discomfort.  

This caused my mind to drift back to a sermon I heard many years ago in which the preacher referred to ‘the gift of pain’, a messenger to tell us that something is wrong in our bodies. An article in a recent edition of The New Yorker magazine deals with the phenomenon of people who feel no pain.  That might seem like a good prospect but it has its downside.   One lady, Joanne Cameron, who lives in the North of Scotland is highlighted.  She had no pain in childbirth (which I am told is earnestly to be desired!) and as a child had a fall while roller skating but had no idea she’d broken her arm until her mother noticed it was hanging strangely.  This was treated successfully but things have not worked out so well with others with the same imperviousness to pain.  The article cites another woman who suffered multiple fractures in her youth without noticing them.  Her bones never set properly and she was left with permanent damage.  

So, yes, most of us will go along with the idea of pain as a gift when it flags up something that has gone wrong.  But the preacher didn’t stop there. His text was Joel 2: 25:

‘I will repay you for the years the locusts have eaten - the great locust and the young locust, the other locusts and the locust swarm - my great army that I sent among you.’  

The background to this is a ‘plague’ of locusts which has destroyed crops throughout Israel.  It has become a favourite text for many speaking as it does of restoration and renewal after tragedy.  But the preacher focussed on God’s description of the locusts which had destroyed the crops as ‘my great army that I sent among you.‘   In other words the locust swarm was not ‘just one of those things’, not a quirk of nature, not the work of an implacable fate but quite literally an act of God.  From this the preacher argued that  God has not merely built pain into our bodies as a warning system; nor does  He merely allow pain to exist;  but that He is actually the source of our pain.   

At the time I was startled.  I had been reading a number of books on healing some of which boldly stated that it was not God’s will that anyone should suffer and the rarity of healing in the Church showed a lack a lack of faith in Christians.  One book by Morton T. Kelsey claimed that the Church was under judgement because people were dying who would otherwise have been healed if only we had prayed in faith.  Whatever you make of this it is certainly the case that Christians do not live comfortably with suffering.  We have all struggled to respond when people have cited the amount of suffering in the world as an argument against an omnipotent and loving God.  It surely would not help if these people were exposed to the kind of preaching that spoke of God sending His ‘great army’ amongst us.  

The problem is that this is a vein of thought that you will find throughout the Bible.   Personal suffering and national tragedy are acknowledged as part of human experience and the source of it is God.  He hasn’t just allowed it.  It emerges from His will.  He has sent His ‘great army.‘   Very often this is seen as an act of judgement, as was the case with the locusts, and the purpose behind it was to bring back to God a people who had grown away from Him.   Therefore, His dark side is not so dark because His purpose is good.  His desire is to see His people turn back to Him.   

I can hear voices protest that this is Old Testament stuff which we don’t need to take too seriously.  But it continues in the New Testament.   Another sermon which has stayed in my mind over the years was on John 15: 1-4 where God is pictured as a gardener tending fruit trees.  The preacher emphasized that in order for fruit to grow there has to be pruning.  The gardener has to take his knife and cut away at the branches.  

I had read that passage on so many occasions and indeed preached on it  but the image of God with a pruning knife had escaped me.  But it is there.  And what does it mean for me?   For Paul it meant seeing his ‘thorn in (his) flesh’ as God’s will for him and an opportunity to depend more on His grace and not his own strength. (2 Corinthians 12: 7-10).   For Peter it meant seeing ‘all kinds of trials’ as an opportunity for faith to be tested and found genuine.  (1 Peter 1: 3-9).  For the writer of the Hebrews it meant seeing ‘hardship’ as discipline and a sign of God’s care for His sons and daughters: ‘God disciplines us for our good, that we might share in his holiness.’  (Hebrews 12: 7-13).

However we look at it what we cannot escape is a conviction throughout the Bible that the trials, tribulations and suffering we are called to endure can be seen in a positive light.  The supreme example of this is the crucifixion experience of Jesus where body, mind and spirit were strained to the utmost and yet through His endurance the salvation of humankind was achieved.   It is with this in mind that the writer of Hebrews was moved to write:

‘In bringing many sons to glory, it was fitting that God, for whom and through whom everything exists, should make the author of their salvation perfect through suffering.’  (Hebrews 2: 10).  

This is not to say that Jesus was not ‘perfect’ before His sufferings but as F.F. Bruce has written in his commentary on Hebrews:

‘ . . . the perfect Son of God has become the people’s perfect Saviour, opening up their way to God; and in order to become that, he must endure suffering and death.’  

C.S. Lewis’ The Problem Of Pain begins with a quotation from George Macdonald for whom Lewis had a high regard:

‘The Son of God suffered unto the death, not that men might not suffer, but that their sufferings might be like His.’  

And how can that that be?  Surely in accepting whatever dark shadows fall on our lives as an opportunity to seek God in a more committed way and to celebrate what has been done for us through the suffering of Jesus.   Even when we feel our lives are coming apart it cannot be altered that we are ‘ransomed, healed, restored, forgiven.’  With that light shining in the depths of our being the darkness is not dark.   

Thursday, 23 January 2020

Still Quarrying 102 - Under Pressure.

Therefore, since we have been justified through faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ,  through whom we have gained access by faith into this grace in which we now stand. And we rejoice in the hope of the glory of God.  Not only so, but we also rejoice in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance;  perseverance, character; and character, hope.  And hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured out into our hearts through the Holy Spirit, who has been given to us.  (Romans 5: 1-5)

There is a thread running through Scripture particularly in the New Testament which says that suffering is a positive experience to be celebrated.   In James 1: 2 we find this: ‘Consider it pure joy, my brothers, whenever you face trails of many kinds . . .‘   You will find similar thinking in the writings of Paul and Peter.  This is not to say that suffering is to be courted, that we should deliberately put ourselves in the way of pain or adverse circumstance.  But when it falls to us in the Providence of God to go through a dark and difficult experience we are called to remember that God is not apart from the experience and that this is His time to work in us the qualities of Christ-likeness.  

There was a documentary shown recently on BBC 4 on the artist Peter Howson and his work on a massive painting called ‘Prophecy’.  From staring at a blank canvas to the eventual completion of his vision we saw the artist’s commitment, how he followed the creative urge, how much he gave mentally, physically and spiritually to satisfy that creative urge.  

God is the source of all creativity and it is His urge to create in all His people a reflection of His son Jesus.  Joni Eareckson wrote a song some years ago which had the prayer:  ‘Make me a portrait of Jesus . . .  That is Joni seeking to step into God’s will for her confident that that will is good and loving.  It is His creative urge to make us more like Jesus and a strong thread of thought in Scripture says that for many of us this will involve suffering.   It is one of the most powerful aspect’s of Joni’s ministry that she has accepted this despite her life-long struggle with quadriplegia and more recently cancer.

Paul was someone who knew about a wide range of suffering.  You can read about some of it in 2 Corinthians 11: 23 - 29.   The passage from Romans at the top of this blog speaks about the Christian’s response  to the darkness that falls on our experience.  He writes that suffering is an opportunity to show ‘perseverance’.  The word translated ‘suffering’ from the original Greek means to press something down and was used for the crushing of olives to produce oil and the crushing of grapes to produce wine.  The word translated ‘perseverance’ means ‘living under.‘   Put the two words together and what we see is Paul  sharing a vision of the Christian living under a pressing or a crushing.  If you like, hanging on in the faith that this experience is not apart from God and will be productive.  Oil and wine is the end-product of a crushing.  

Paul takes this further when he writes that this perseverance will produce ‘character’.   Let’s get back to the Greek again.  ‘Character’ is a translation of Greek word which means ‘something that has been tested or approved’.   Paul is looking to the end of a period of pressure/crushing and what we have become.  Hanging on in faith will see us more fit to be representatives of the Kingdom of God, not just fitter for heaven but  fitter to show the qualities of the Kingdom now.  

This is why Paul can speak of the pressed and crushed character producing ‘hope’.   Turning towards God in the midst of our suffering brings the assurance that He is present and He is holding us in His heart.  Romans 8: 28 - 39 assures us that nothing will ever separate us from His love.  Christians have experienced this love as we have grasped that God did not spare His only son to reveal His love for us.  Paul sees this as part of the ministry of the Holy Spirit: ‘God’s love has been poured out into our hearts through the Holy Spirit, who has been given to us.‘  It is the Spirit’s work to remind us of God’s love, to enable us to experience God’s love, even in the midst of our worst of times.   

The darkest day in human history was when the Son of God was stretched out on a cross and tortured to death.  And yet we are encouraged by the apostle John to believe that it was the love of God for humankind that motivated this event: ‘God loved the world so much that he gave his only Son . . . (John 3: 16).   The  darkest day showed the height and the depth of God’s love for us.  If that is the extent of His love for me then it continues through what pressing and crushing may fall to me:

‘There is nothing in all creation that will ever be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.’  (Romans 8: 39).

Thursday, 16 January 2020

Still Quarrying 101 _ Home.

I didn’t do much writing while I was in hospital.  The nausea and fatigue made that very difficult.  (Interestingly, on one of my bad days a doctor told me that  nausea can be worse than pain.)   However, what you will read below was written last Sunday, 12 January, after being told that I would probably be going home in a few days.  

“I think this time has given me a deeper appreciation of ‘home’.  I can’t just recall how it arose but in chatting with one of the nurses I mentioned my study.  She said: ‘It must be great to have a place like that.’  It was a reminder of the privileged life I lead and the joy of having ‘a place like that’  where I can study, meditate, pray and prepare.  

“I remember a friend coming into the study one day and saying: ‘So this is where it all happens.’  I made a joke about all the things that needed to happen urgently like tidying for instance.  But there is a sense in which he was dead right. From the silence of contemplation comes the action that reveals the Kingdom of God.  Moses came down from the mountain and out of the Tent of Meeting to reveal God’s will for His people.  Isaiah came out of the Temple with a vision of his role as a prophet in a nation that needed to change.  Jesus emerged from a forty day period of spiritual conflict in the desert to preach and heal.   From  the isolation of Paul’s prison cells came words that advanced the Gospel in his time and continue to do so.  

“All of this has arisen from a sense of ‘home’ and my appreciation of a particular part of it.   But for a Christian a ‘home’ can be made anywhere because God’s presence and love and power can always be depended upon.  That can happen even in the most desperate circumstances that you would baulk to call ‘home’.    How homely was Flossenberg Concentration Camp to Dietrich Boenhoffer?   Did Watchman Nee’s heart warm to be resident in Tilanqiao Prison in Shanghai for twenty years?   Did Richard Wurmbrand look back with fondness to his long imprisonment and torture in various prisons in Rumania during the Cold War?  Doubtful.  But in each one of those cases and many others like them emerged Christian witness that has inspired and will continue to do so.  These men found God in the worst of places and encouraged others to build the Kingdom where they are.  

“So, home?  At this moment I am not at home because I am not in a particular building with my wife and son and with all the things with which I have formed a connection.  But today, the Lord’s Day, I have experienced a call to make this hospital ward my home, to be content, to engage with my God, to welcome visitors, to be sensitive to any opportunities for witness.  

“I have pushed my table up against the wall, bluetacked a wee cross to the wall, set my Bible on the table and created a corner of the room that feels like home.”  

Thursday, 26 December 2019

Still Quarrying 100 - Here We Go!

Tomorrow I’ll have a Hickman line fitted in preparation for the stem cell transplant which will begin on Sunday.   This is a catheter which will enable the chemotherapy, the stem cells and whatever else may be required to flow more easily into my system.  I’ll be in the Queen Elizabeth Hospital for roughly three weeks.  I’m not sure how this will affect the blog.  My laptop gave up the ghost a long time ago but there may still be a way to keep it up.  Whatever, I’ll still be writing when I feel up to it so it might be a case of after the famine the feast.  

As I have mentioned in previous blogs it will be a demanding experience.  Nausea, fatigue, weight loss and hair loss are guaranteed and care needs to be taken with regard to infection.   I had my hair cropped last Saturday and much appreciated the kindness of all the staff at Taylor Ferguson’s.  I didn’t fancy coming out of the shower one morning looking like the Wolf Man so it’s practically all gone.   I got a bit of a boost when my pal Norman Stone told me I looked a bit like Elvis after his pre-army haircut.   Now that’s the kind of thing you like to hear.  

It has been strange standing outside Christmas but perhaps that has meant more time for reflection.  That has been helped by a novel I have mentioned in a previous blog: God’s Pauper by Nikos Kazantzakis.  It’s an imaginative take on the life of Francis of Assisi and follows his life of discipleship from the moment he felt called to give up his privileged life and serve God by serving those on the margins of society.  This involved following the example of Jesus in His compassion for the poor and outcast.  

Many before and after Francis have been touched by this strong imperative but it has to be remembered that Jesus did not hear this call to sacrificial living at some point in His life on earth.  Philippians 2: 5-11 takes us into the realm of Eternity where the Son of God came to a realisation of what was demanded to be Saviour of the world, that He should become a human being and give His life for the salvation of humankind.   Towards this end He ‘did not consider equality with God something to be grasped’, He did not hold on to His divine privileges but emptied Himself of everything that set Him apart from us, except His sinlessness, so that He would be the One to pay the price of the world’s sin.   

It is such a rich passage of Scripture.  So much could be said about it.  What is weighing most heavily with me at this moment is the thought that ‘loss’ need not be the tragedy we are conditioned to believe it is.  Jesus’ loss was His and the world’s gain.  Many Christian people will tell you that it was in times of loss - bereavement, sickness, unemployment - that they felt most powerfully drawn to Christ and went on to live lives that stand as an inspiration and an encouragement.  We admire people like that who have responded so positively to life’s challenges.  We sometimes forget that followers of Jesus are all called to live through the worst in the presence and power of the Holy Spirit and to trust that God’s plan for our lives is not being denied even by the deepest darkness that may fall upon mind, body or soul.

That is a message that we need to keep firmly in our grasp as we approach another turning of a year.  We have no control over the passage of time but we have the assurance of the One who promises: ‘I will never leave you or forsake you.’  

Sunday, 22 December 2019

Still Quarrying 99 - Light In The Darkness.

Last Christmas one of my sons presented me with a book entitled Hark! The Herald Angels Scream.  It has a rather lurid cover as you can see on the left which is a guide to the contents, a collection of short horror stories all set in or around Christmas.  They all tend to follow a similar path.  The peace, joy and family cosiness that we all aspire to at this time of the year are all disturbed by some ghastly event which usually has a dark supernatural source.  

I can understand why you might want to turn up your nose at this and declare it unnecessarily cynical, mean spirited, even cheap.  But when you read  Jesus’ birth stories as they are written by Matthew and Luke they have a dark side which cannot be denied.  Think about Mary falling pregnant during a period of betrothal when sexual intercourse would not normally take place.  A challenging time for her but also for Joseph who has  to decide if the betrothal will continue.  Then there is the journey from Nazareth to Bethlehem in the later stage of Mary’s pregnancy, a distance of approximately 90 miles - and no little donkey is mentioned.  When they arrive in Bethlehem there is so much pressure on accommodation that the birth of the baby takes place in an outhouse or stable and he is wrapped in rags and laid in an animal’s feeding trough.  

It is some months later that the real horror breaks in when the Magi come on the scene.  Their contact with King Herod and their news that the Messiah has been born results in the deaths of all the baby boys in Bethlehem under the age of two years old.  

Jesus was born in a world where there was significant personal stress, where a nation was under the control of an invading power, where babies were born in squalor, where the slaughter of innocent children was ordered and carried out.   This is a long way from Christmas as we like to think of it but a light shines in the darkness bringing a hope that brings true meaning to our celebrations.   The Christmas hymn reminds us of the love that motivated the Incarnation:

‘Sacred Infant, all Divine,
what a tender love was thine,
thus to come from highest bliss
down to such a world as this.‘  

The world in which Jesus was born was broken and in need of redemption.  It is still the same.  Relationships are put under strain, people are homeless, political oppression causes untold distress, children are born in the worst of circumstances with little hope for the future.  It has been the same in every age but the Gospel tells us that in the midst of the darkness God shone a light with the birth of Jesus.  Here is the assurance of His love for humankind.  He calls us to embrace that love, to show it to those in need and to bring the Kingdom of God closer.   The hymn lampooned by last years Christmas book speaks of the purpose of Jesus’ coming:

‘born to raise the sons of earth,
born to give them second birth.’

It is as we experience the renewal that only His Spirit can bring that we as a people can being hope to our community, our nation and the world.  The angels did not scream on the night that Jesus was born.  They sang a song of hope and assurance:

‘Glory to God in the highest,
and on earth peace to men
on whom his favour rests.  (Luke 2: 14)

In a quiet moment this Christmas focus on these words.  What they tells me is that God believes in us, that His Spirit can dwell within us, that we can live our lives in communion with Him, that we can be the light in a dark world as Jesus envisioned we could be.  He said: ‘You are the light of the world.‘  (Matthew 5: 14)

Saturday, 21 December 2019

Still Quarrying 98 - Hear The Baby Cry!

Years ago someone recommended a book called God’s Pauper by the Greek writer Nikos Kazantzakis.  It is based on the life of Francis of Assisi and possibly owes much to the author’s imagination but the picture of Francis which emerges is very much in tune with what we know about him.  At one point Francis is engaged in a discussion as to which is superior the mind or the heart and he recalls an incident from his childhood:

‘When I was a young student a learned theologian came to Assisi at Christmas time.  He mounted the pulpit at San Ruffino’s and began an oration that lasted for hours and hours, all about the birth of Christ and the salvation of the world and the terrible mystery of the Incarnation.  My mind grew muddy; my head began to reel.  Unable to stand it any longer, I shouted, ‘Master, be still so that we can hear Christ crying in His cradle!‘   When we got back home, my father spanked me, but my mother took me aside secretly and gave me her blessing . . .‘    

The point being that there was much of the preacher’s mind involved in the ‘oration’ and too little of the heart.  Perhaps it could be said that he obviously knew much about Christ but gave no evidence that he actually knew Him.  His words did not convey His presence and the  blessings that flow from His birth, death and resurrection.  

For the first time in the 37 years I have been an ordained minister of the Gospel I will not be preaching this Christmas.  But I will be remembering all my colleagues in many different traditions who will be seeking to unpack in their preaching what the birth of Jesus means for us today.  Far to often in the past I have been carried away with the thought that I need to find some new way of presenting this.  It’s then I remember the advice I received from a retired minister when I was just a baby minister:  ‘Just tell them the story.‘   We forget the power of the story and the monumental truths that are contained therein.  

So all you preachers out there, as someone who will be listening this Christmas,  tell me the story and pray for me and others that we will have a sense of Emmanuel, ‘God With Us’, that we will hear Christ crying in His cradle.

Friday, 20 December 2019

Still Quarrying 97 - Together.

One of the persistent side effects of the treatment I have been receiving has been fatigue.   For some reason it is at its worst at the weekend so attendance at worship has been limited.  That’s why it was so good to have members of the St Paul’s Choir gather in the Manse the other night to sing some favourite Christmas Carols.   The singing was lovely but just as important  was seeing friends again and enjoying a time of fellowship.   One of the problems of being ill over a period of time is that you can get used to being on your own and there can be a drift towards an unhealthy isolation.  You need opportunities to look beyond yourself and engage with others.  But even in days of health and strength we are only fully ourselves when we are in community.

Think of the vision of God that is set before us in Scripture.  The concept of the Trinity is baffling to many but there is little doubt that the earliest Christians experienced God as Father, Son and Holy Spirit.  So within the Godhead there is community, dynamic relationships that together express the Divine to humankind.   It is in those relationships that God is fully Himself.  Created as we are in the image of God we are fully ourselves when we live and work and recreate in relationship to others.

A favourite passage for preachers is Acts 2: 42-47 which deals with the quality of life experienced by the first followers of Jesus:

‘They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. Everyone was filled with awe at the many wonders and signs performed by the apostles.  All the believers were together and had everything in common. They sold property and possessions to give to anyone who had need.  Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people. And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved.’

The key words are: ‘All the believers were together.’  And thereafter the word ‘together’ is repeated twice.   Everything else that marked the Church, the miracles, the powerful preaching, all flowed from this experience of community, the heart of Christian living created by the Holy Spirit.  This  is why it was so important to the Apostle Paul  that anything that threatened the unity of the Church had to be dealt with.  Whether it was conflict over the the Gospel  or a breakdown in personal relationships there had to be a call to reconcile.  This is why the letters were written.  

There has sometimes been a tendency to look at the life of the first followers of Jesus, to recognise that there were disagreements and to take comfort from that.  Why get too upset about fractures in the Church when they have been with us since the beginning?  But it should never be forgotten that Paul and other apostles worked hard to hold the line  with regard to the cardinal truths of the Gospel and also to reconcile those who found themselves at odds with other Christians.   In his letter to the Philippians Paul makes an appeal to two women, Euodia and Syntyche, to resolve their differences. (Philippians 4: 2)   If Christians were faithfully to reflect the being of God to the society in which they bore their witness then there had be be a strong commitment to be ‘together’. 

The story of the shepherds in Luke’s account of the birth of Jesus can take us further along this road.  The angels came to them as a community.  It was as a community that they decided to go to Bethlehem.   They discovered Jesus as a community and as a consequence ‘they spread the word concerning what had been told them about this child.’  (Luke 2: 17)   Whatever else you pray for this Christmas find some room for every congregation in the land that they will know a deeper sense of being together and  more surely committed to spreading the Word and drawing others into that togetherness that only the Spirit can create.  The night before His crucifixion Jesus prayed for the Church:

‘I have given them the glory that you gave me, that they may be one as we are one—  I in them and you in me—so that they may be brought to complete unity. Then the world will know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.‘   (John 17: 22-23)