Thursday, 24 December 2020

Still Quarrying 189: Christmas Cancelled?

At this time of year it’s common to hear messages from the churches along the lines of ‘Put Christ Back Into Christmas.’   All very well meaning and I take the point.  The truth though is that He was kind of shoe-horned into it in the first place.  Midwinter festivals stretch back into the mists of time.  It was dark and cold and it was good to gather together to celebrate the light and the warmth generated by close relationships.  The Romans had their Winter Solstice which centred on 25 December.  It was therefore decided by a fourth century Church council that this would be an appropriate day to celebrate the birth of Jesus.  We don’t know exactly when He was born.   Best estimates are it would probably be around August/September.  

It seems that it didn’t  get off to the best of starts.  A prominent Christian leader of the time, Gregory Nanzianzus criticised the ‘feasting to excess, dancing and crowning the doors.’   The latter was probably a hangover from the pagan celebrations when garlands of various kinds were hung on door entrances.  And this is the point.  Too much of the previous pagan traditions were being carried over into the Christian Christmas.   They are still here and have been much deplored by generations of Christians.  But now we are hearing from those who adhere to various pagan religions pointing out that the midwinter festival was theirs in the first place and they have every right to celebrate it according to their ways.   

It’s hard to argue against that.  If the Christian Year has any value it is that at specific times we are called upon to focus on great truths of the faith.  And there is much to occupy our minds at this time of the year as we reflect on the implications of the Incarnation.   Against that some would argue that this should be part of our consciousness if not daily then certainly on a regular basis.  Surely there is a whiff of the ‘man-made’ about it, an artificiality that processes truth rather than acknowledging its dynamism.  

I respect that point of view while adhering to the broad outline of the Christian Year.   Apart from the truth that is central to a Season there is the encouragement of knowing that  universally Christians of all traditions are united in celebrating that truth.  It can also provide a springboard for mission.   So with Christmas I believe that everyone should be free to celebrate it according to their own values and consciences.  This time of the year has always been a mishmash of traditions, legends and myths.   But the story of Jesus’ birth has its own power and to have the opportunity to celebrate this in word, song and image is an opportunity not to be scorned.  

We are inhibited this year in our celebration of the story.   Many church doors will be closed on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day.  Certainly many of us have been working hard to make sure that we will have an online presence.  But there are other positives to consider.  First, Christians of many traditions have seen the restrictions on public worship as an opportunity for more personal engagement with the Word.  Pray for the story to make its impact at a deeper level in our lives.  Second, there is talk of Christmas being cancelled.  Remember that a Christian Christmas has at its centre truths that ‘from all times have firmly stood/And shall from age to age endure.’   Aspects of Christmas celebration can be rubbed out. Some like family gatherings are precious.  But even a pared down Christmas does not affect the truth of Emmanuel - God Is With Us.  

Wednesday, 23 December 2020

Still Quarrying 188: Behind The Mask.

Walking through the village the other day it struck me that I was probably passing people I know but who I didn’t recognise because of their masks.  It’s yet another of those privations we are having to endure in this strange and bewildering time.  Cheerful greetings and words of encouragement are all the more appreciated but can’t be given or received because we are not recognised.  

The psychologists have been telling us for years that we constantly wear masks.  Not the physical kind.  We seek to create an image of ourselves which is a cover for what is actually going in our minds and in our hearts.  For some strange reason I have a memory of a teacher in the course of a lesson saying: ‘You sometimes wonder what is going on behind that sombre face.  Or that smiling face.’  

There was a book of ‘pop-psychology’ back in the 1970s called Why Am I Afraid To Tell You Who I Am?   If nothing else it has a claim to one of the longest book titles!  The main drift of the book is a plea for more honest living, that we should not be afraid to share our vulnerability, our pain, our shame, our anxieties.  All these things are part of our selves and are more ‘real’ than the masks we create to cover it all.  Achievement, success, happiness, strength - these are the things we want people to see.

Fair enough.  But what does this mean in practise?  Sometimes Anne Robinson went a bit too far in The Weakest Link.  She once said to a contestant: ‘I am trying to work out if you are male or female.’  He responded: ‘That’s very personal.  And if I wanted to discuss it, it wouldn’t be with you.’  He made a good point.  It may be that it is not healthy to be masking psychological or spiritual issues that are pressing on us but neither is it healthy to be indiscriminately laying them on anyone who will listen - whether they want to or not.  

It has become fashionable for politicians to appeal to the emotions, to assure us that they ‘feel our pain’.  You wonder if this is another kind of mask.  One early Christian pastor counselled against opening wide ‘the furnace of our hearts’.  This can very easily become another means of self-promotion if not self-indulgence.  

Surely what is needed is the same kind of spiritual equilibrium that is shown by the apostle Paul.  He was open about his experience of deep inner struggle but he also placed his trust in the grace of God which he believed would help him forward to a more integrated life.  He never denied his own vulnerability but nor did he deny the grace that would make him strong in Christ.  Indeed it was that same vulnerability that made him strong.  To paraphrase an old Christian hymn, his vulnerability created room in his heart for Jesus.

That brings us to the unavoidable truth that no matter what masks we wear we are totally exposed before God.  The Psalmist has some breathtaking meditations on that theme:

‘Oh Lord you have searched me and you know me. 

 You know when I sit and when I rise; you perceive my thoughts from afar.

 You discern my going out and my lying down; you are familiar with all my ways.

 Before a word is on my tongue you know it completely, O Lord.’  (Psalm 139: 1-4)

Now that is disturbing - to me anyway.  But I am comforted by the final verse of that psalm:

‘Search me O God and know my heart; test me and know my anxious thoughts.

 See if there is any offensive way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting.’  (vv. 23-24).

We may be unmasked before God but there is a ‘way everlasting’.  Despite our fragility and failure we can go forward with Him in confidence.   The assurance of this is the eternal sign of Jesus who became sin for us, absorbed the judgement of God, made it possible for forgiveness to be received so that we can aspire to that quality of life where what you see is what you get.

Friday, 4 December 2020

Still Quarrying 187: Look Away!

What to make of Psalm 39? 
The one that ends with the prayer:

‘Look away from me, that I may rejoice again

 Before I depart and am no more.’  (verse 13).

The setting is familar enough.  David is going through a time of suffering and he is trying very hard not to complain,  not to protest to God.  ‘I will put a muzzle on my mouth.’  (verse 1)  He is being particularly careful in the presence of ‘the wicked’.  To complain or protest in the presence of unbelievers or the people who are causing his suffering would be a bad witness.  But eventually he can contain himself no longer.  He has to express his pain to God, his displeasure at where he finds himself in this moment.  In His presence he reflects on the brevity of life and its lack of purpose:

‘Man is a mere phantom as he goes to and fro:

 He bustles about, but only in vain;

 He heaps up wealth, not knowing who will get it.’  (verse 6)

There is also an intense awareness of the sin which he believes is at the root of his suffering.  He experiences God’s judgement as a ‘scourge’ and a ‘blow’.  (verse 10).   He is aware that there may be a purpose behind the fall of God’s judgement but enough is enough,  he wants it to end.  Spiritually he feels an ‘alien’ and a ‘stranger’, cut off from God with no expectation of blessing.  

Then comes the prayer that God will ‘look away’ from him and give him some reason to rejoice before his life reaches its end.   It is so different from expressions of hunger and thirst for the reality of God that we find so often in Scripture.  But there is no doubt that there are times when the ancient people of God experienced him as a dark presence with unfathomable purpose.  This usually goes along with an awareness of personal sin and the disruption this brings in our relationship with God.   There will be no peace until this is eased in the blessing of forgiveness.

Actually this is not that far away in Psalm 39.  The fact is that David is praying, his heart is still turned to God, and his desire is for a change in his relationship with God.  No more a man of sin, no more a focus for judgement but someone who once again knows blessing in his life.  The cry for God to ‘Look away’ is for a changed experience of God.  No longer a source of darkness but a source of blessing.  

I wonder if this Psalm was in the mind of Jesus when he was being crucified.  We know that when He experienced the full force of God’s judgement on the sins of the world he cried out in the words of Psalm 22:1:

‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’  

It is as if the Father has departed, as if, to paraphrase the hymn, the Father has turned His face away.  But this is what sin does to us.  It obscures the Father’s face, disrupts our relationship with Him, places us at a distance from Him.  It is our blessing that it was when Jesus passed through this experience he paid the price for our sin and opened up the possibility of forgiveness and renewal.   It was a man who knew about awareness of sin and the blessing of forgiveness who wrote:

‘Christ died for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, to bring you to God.’  (1 Peter 3: 18a.)   

That’s a good verse to reflect upon in Advent.  When the Christian Year was  established Advent was not just a countdown to Christmas.  It was a time to reflect upon personal sin, the judgement of God and the accounting we will all undergo at the future coming of our Lord.  Not exactly ‘Jingle Bells’ is it?  But it has a place not just once or twice in the year but regularly in our walk with God.  It is no bad thing to feel the weight of judgement.  How else can we know the blessing of knowing that the righteous has died for the unrighteous to bring us to God.  

Monday, 30 November 2020

Still Quarrying 186: Advent Hope

 What hope for a nation under the control of an oppressor?

What hope for a pregnant teenager and no one but she knows the father?

What hope for a good man disappointed by his partner’s apparent unfaithfulness?

What hope for parents weeping for children slaughtered by order of a king?  

Lord, your prophet spoke of Immanuel, ‘God Is With Us’.

Not just in days of joy and celebration.


When the atmosphere in a nation turns sour,

When lives are troubled by mistakes made and hard decisions which have to be taken,

When tragedy breaks into quiet and settled lives,

Lord you are with us,

The God revealed in Jesus,

The Jesus of the wilderness temptations under pressure from the subtle and vicious power of Satan.

The Jesus of Gethsemene in torment as he focuses on the ordeal to come.

The Jesus of Calvary brought to the point when he can no longer experience his Father’s presence.

The God revealed in Jesus.

So we can pray confidently tonight that you will be with us and all those going through their worst of times.

In this we place our hope, a hope that in the end will not be denied but will overcome everything that ever made hope seem out of reach, that day when the voice of Jesus will be heard: ‘Now I am making all things new.’

Thursday, 19 November 2020

Still Quarrying 185: Old Friends

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I came across an old newspaper cutting today.  An article I wrote for the 'Yours Faithfully' column of The Milngavie and Bearsden Herald dated August 21, 2009.  The 'old pal of mine' was Eddie McAlpine.  We worked out that we had probably been baptised the same day.  We definitely went through school together.  Each of us was Best Man for the other.  A friend who was more like a brother really. 

The experience in the article is an example of how music or art in general can mirror emotions and show that you are not completely alone.   Anyway, here it is:

'I was wandering around the ‘Fopp’ store on Byres Road recently.  This is always fatal for me, especially my bank balance, so I was trying hard not to see anything that I would want to buy.  But it’s so difficult.  All those CDs and DVDs and books – and at reasonable prices.  I thought I was winning the battle but the music that was being played on the store sound system was beginning to get through to me.  It had an early Dylan, country/folk feel to it.  The lyrics were interesting.  Eventually I gave in and asked the fellow behind the counter: ‘Who’s that you are playing?’  He said: ‘The Felice Brothers.  Great aren’t they?’  


Now I have to admit I had never heard of The Felice Brothers but ‘Fopp’ had won again. I handed over my £9.99p (don’t tell the wife!) and now I am a confirmed Felice Brothers fan.  


The song that made such an impression on me is called ‘Rise And Shine’.  It is the thoughts of someone who is visiting a friend who is desperately ill and though he is beyond response the visitor is trying to maintain a conversation with him.  He speaks of odd things that just pop into his head:


‘I’ll sit on your windowsill and watch the snow.

 I’ll tell you the things that pass below.

 A girl in a coat of feathers

 In a doorway stands

 Holding a rabbit in her hands.’  


And there is a deeply poignant refrain:


‘But we won’t be changed.

 We’ll remain as one.

 Please rise and shine

 Old pal of mine,

 Your day has come.’ 


I found myself in circumstances very like this just about a year ago.  My oldest and closest friend suffered a cardiac arrest while exercising at the gym and lay unconscious  in hospital for five days before he eventually died.  There were times when I was visiting him that I felt this irresistible urge to say: ‘Hey, the joke is over.  It’s time to get up!’  These are the kind of irrational things that pass through your mind at times like that.  You just cannot cope with the reality that is being presented to you.  


I think that’s what ‘Rise And Shine ‘ is all about and while I feel sad when I listen to it,  it is also very comforting and encouraging to know that someone else has gone through a similar experience and is able to express it in words and music.  


This is one of the most precious things about my faith.  From a Christian point of view God is not just a concept or a principle to keep the chattering classes in hot topics for discussion.  God has revealed Himself as a person in the life of Jesus Christ.  A life which was subject to physical pain, emotional turmoil, mental anguish and spiritual dereliction.  So whenever I go through any of these negative experiences I know that my God has gone there before me, He understands how I feel, and is able to give me the resources I need to be strong.  


That was especially important to me when I spoke at my friend’s funeral.  When as boys we played football together, supported the Rangers together and argued about music and politics and anything else we could think to disagree about – did we ever think that the day would come when one would be speaking at the other’s funeral?  And, yes, it was the hardest thing I have ever done.  But I remembered Jesus weeping at the loss of His friend Lazarus even after he had just spoken the greatest words ever: ‘I am the Resurrection and the life.  If anyone has faith in me even though he dies he will come to life.  And no one who is alive in me will ever die.’  I remembered this and while the pain was deep the hope still burned brightly.    


‘But we won’t be changed.

 We’ll remain as one.

 Please rise and shine

 Old pal of mine,

 Your day has come.’ '

Tuesday, 27 October 2020

Still Quarrying 184: 'I See You!'

 My Saturday newspaper had some surprises.  Judi Dench doesn’t like going to the pictures; Anton Du Beke used to be a door to door salesman; and Graeme Spiers.was impressed by Kemar Roofe’s goal against Standard Liege.  That all of this was mined out of a mountain of Covid-19, the America election, the dark side of Holyrood and is now imbedded in my mind is probably not the best reflection on me.   Sometimes the things you remember are more embarrassing than the things you forget.  One night, playing Trivial Pursuit, the question was: ‘Who was on the front page of the Beano in 1974?’  I knew.  I was in there like a Ninja.  

Being kind to myself, maybe I just need a break from this deluge of information that I feel   I need to take in.  And I need someone to be impressed that I have all this knowledge.  ‘You’ll never guess about Judi Dench!’  ‘Did you hear about Anton Du Beke?’   ‘When I read Spiers this morning I thought porcine aviators really did exist.’  Sometimes you need some bubble-gum for your inner being and the opportunity to share it.

And maybe that’s not so daft.  One of my favourite spiritual writers is Eugene Petersen.  He used to speak about ‘the ministry of small talk’, engaging in conversation which might not seem to be earth-shaking but there is an openness to the lives of others and the possibility of connection which might in the end lead to understanding and empathy.  

This is why it will be important for us as the days become colder and the nights draw in to be more open to people we come across in the course of a day.  My newspaper also contained concerns about the effects of Covid-19 on the nation’s mental health.   Surely one way we can help is to recognise one another, to feel we are worthy of someone’s time and shared information, even in the passing and however trivial.  Our daily walk could become an opportunity to assure people that we notice them. 

Apparently when Kamala Harris (Joe Biden’s running-mate) is introduced to someone she does not say ‘Pleased to meet you’ or any of the conventional greetings.  She says: ‘I see you!’  Okay, typical American you may say.   But this can be a brighter and more hopeful Winter if we can see one another as people who need to be recognised and valued in the eyes of others.  Jesus was once in conversation with a young man who disappointed Him but Jesus’ attitude never altered:  ‘Jesus looked at him and loved him.’ (Mark 10: 21).  

When we are open to one another, even in small-talk, love can happen.  

Monday, 5 October 2020

Still Quarrying 183: Hubris

President Trump’s illness has led to a number of discussions on how people in power have coped with illness.   David Owen, former politician and qualified physician,  has written about this in a fascinating book called In Sickness And In Power.  It is a  survey of major politicians who fell ill while in the highest positions of power and how that may have affected their general conduct and decisions.   

The one besetting disorder among people in power, however, appears to be hubris.   I learned about this when I did a course in Greek Civilisation at Uni.  Maybe it doesn’t sound too exciting but it was actually one of the most enjoyable courses I undertook.   Time and again in Greek drama you come across characters who showed excessive pride and defiance in face of the gods,  a state of being which led to their own destruction.  This was hubris.  

It has entered into our language to describe a personality quality of extreme or foolish pride or dangerous over-confidence.  The hubristic person is one who believes himself/herself to be bullet-proof, above the common flow of humanity, with a high destiny which will not be denied.  Owen sees this cap fitting a surprising number of political leaders, some of them within living memory.   

It’s one of the dangers of power.  I’ve often wondered why anyone would want political office with all the pressures that will be acting upon them, especially in this twitterised age when unfavourable judgements can be so immediate and sometimes vitriolic.  But the impulse to make a difference is strong.  The problems seem to arrive when you actually have the power to pursue your dreams.

The first king of Israel is a case in point.   Saul began as ‘an impressive young man without equal among the Israelites’ (1 Samuel 9: 2) and ended, having gone against an express command from God, as a spiritual derelict seeking comfort from a witch.   Lord Acton’s words have become a verbal bludgeon to be wielded against any man or woman who is overreaching themselves: ‘Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely.’

So another reason to hold our political leaders in prayer, perhaps as much in their successes as well in their failures.    Paul enjoins obedience to the governing authorities but that is set alongside his vision for the authorities that they fulfil their God-given role to preserve what is right and just and to hold ‘no terror’ for those in society who are seeking  to do right and live justly.  (Romans 13: 1-5)  There can be no better corrective against the hubris that Owen suggests is a characteristic of political life.  In Paul’s vision no person in authority is a master but a servant.