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.  

Saturday, 3 October 2020

Still Quarrying 182: Hot Topic!

Waiting patiently outside the newsagent this morning, a man already inside points to a newspaper headline which says: ‘Trump Dumped’.  He loudly appeals to no one in particular: ‘Please tell me he is dead!’  

Later I open the paper of my choice and discover a review of the latest Rebus novel by Ian Rankin.  It’s called A Song For Dark Times.  The reviewer is fulsome in his praise for the remarkable way that Rankin can sustain the quality of his prose after 30 plus novels and is particularly taken by the timely title.  This is a novel that captures the spirit of the age where everyone is ‘bitter and pointing the finger at the person they think is to blame for their misfortune.’  That is a direct quote from the book.  

My mind drifted to the man in the newsagent.  I really didn’t need to hear that first thing in the morning but then I wonder if that same bitterness of spirit and knee-jerk condemnation has not sometimes inhabited my inner being.  ‘We all want somebody to blame.‘ ‘Everybody has to have somebody to look down on.’  ‘Before you abuse, criticise and accuse/Walk a mile in my shoes’.  Words I have picked up from songs through the years.   We all know the problem but are not very successful at working it out of our system.

Which brings me to Margaret Ferrier.  I am cautious about wandering into a political maelstrom, especially these days when there is a bitterness in political life that I can never recall in my experience.  A journalist friend has characterised it as ‘shrieking and finger pointing.’   And people definitely go off you if you don’t chime with their political views.    That’s why my tongue has endured a pounding in the past.  I’ve had to bite so hard in order to maintain reasonable relationships with certain people.  

Also I have never believed that a parish minister’s views on political matters are necessarily worth a hill of beans, to paraphrase Humphrey Bogart.   Unless that is moral or spiritual values are at stake.  And there is something to be said about this present hot topic which is still burning away in the media.  

The first thing to be said is that it is indeed beyond comprehension that a MP should behave in the way of Margaret Ferrier.  In the wake of the revelations we have heard of the sacrifices people have made in order to stay on the right side of government laws and guidelines laid down in response to the pandemic.  Personal and family lives have been disrupted almost beyond endurance therefore it is not good to see political leaders acting, as someone has said, as if they are bullet-proof.  The public is right to be shocked, disappointed and to give vent to their disapproval.  

Sometimes, however, when a public figure goes down the kicking is relentless to the point that I begin to feel uncomfortable.  My disapproval of Ms. Ferrier’s actions are now a matter of record but I do not like to think of myself as having been caught up in a pack mentality which will not be satisfied until the victim has been torn to shreds.  Think about this.  If I was Ms. Ferrier’s minister, what would you expect me to do?  There was a report last night of a colleague of hers who ‘couldn’t bear to talk to her on the phone.’   What would you think of a minister who had that attitude to a member, even if they had committed a criminal act?  But never mind minsters.  Is that that the correct response for any Christian?  

The thing is, Christian love is no easy option.  Space and time don’t allow me to unpack it in a way that is totally satisfying.  But Christian love does not call upon us to like everyone and to endorse all their actions.  What is does demand is that despite what people think and do we will not wish the worst for them.  And sometimes when we make that decision, and it is a decision, we might find we understand them better and maybe even begin to like them.  All I know of Ms. Ferrier is what I have seen and heard in the last 48 hours.  But if I was her minister I would be on the phone.  The last thing I wish for anyone is that whatever circumstances have brought them low they have no hope in Christ.  

That brings me to the fundamental need of politicians and any other members of our fallen race.  They need a Saviour.  The moral and spiritual atmosphere of Scotland and the UK in general does not demand a great deal from politicians.  There are no accepted standards of personal morality. They do not need to be paragons of virtue.  The nation it seems does not demand it.  Everything depends on how politicians present themselves.  There is plenty of evidence that able and sometimes outstanding politicians never reached the heights because they ‘did not look the part.’   Maybe it’s time for us all to grow up a bit.  It doesn’t matter how smooth the rhetoric, how folksy the style, how effective the impact on the public’s emotions, politicians are sons of Adam and daughters of Eve.  They share our fallen nature and therefore stand in need of a Saviour. 

You know, having held up that man in the newsagent as an example of somewhere I do not want to go spiritually I have not prayed for him.  See how it works?  Not happy with ‘shrieking and finger pointing’ I have been taken up by the same unhealthy draft that chills the inner being.  It’s easier to point the finger than to offer your heart for cleansing.  

Friday, 2 October 2020

Still Quarrying 181: Truth Will Out!

In the course of one of his missionary journeys  Paul was given the opportunity to address the governing body of Athens, the Areopagus.  It was a largely receptive audience.  According to Luke, Athenians were always interested to hear the ‘latest ideas.’  (Acts 17: 21).   It is a fascinating address.  Conscious of his audience Paul makes no appeal  to the Hebrew Scriptures and Jesus fulfilment of the ancient prophecies as he would have done in a synagogue.  His way into the Athenian mind is to acknowledge their religious sensibilities and then to proclaim that God has been revealed to humankind in the person of Jesus.  He takes the vague Athenian belief in God and gives it focus in Jesus.  

At one point, referring to God’s presence in their midst he says: 

“”For in him we live and move and have our being”.  As one of your own poets have said, ‘We are his offspring.’’ (Acts 17: 28).  

I have always been struck by this.  Paul using pagan poets to illuminate an aspect of God’s being and our relationship with Him.  It’s as if he is saying: ‘You have come across truths about my God without realising it.’   It’s the same for twenty-first century people.  We can rub up against Biblical truth in the most unexpected places.  

Take the historian and broadcaster Neil Oliver, for instance.  He has a column in the Sunday Times.  Normally it is interesting, sometimes entertaining, but not exactly earth-shaking.   He did cause a bit of a stushie a couple of weeks back, however, when he addressed the business of mask wearing.  He highlighted the carelessness that has taken hold of the population and how ‘individuality’ is at the root of the problem.  He tries very hard not to be too censorious and is at pains to emphasise that not everyone is guilty but eventually he says: 

‘Human nature, of the stubborn sort that just won’t be told, pushes like grass through tarmac, like tree against barbed wire.  The tighter the bindings, the more human nature will defy them.’  

The subtitle of his piece (which he may or may not have composed) is: 

‘Human nature is the biggest barrier to keeping Covid at bay.’  

This reminded me of a story at the beginning of the Bible about a humankind that enjoyed many blessings with a harmonious environment, abundant provision, peace in relationships and with God.  They were given an instruction.  They were forbidden to eat the fruit of a particular tree.  What happened?  That human nature Neil was on about pushed and strained against a restriction which was for the good of humankind, the fruit was eaten, and shadows fell on the environment and on human experience.  From then on this tendency to turn away from God and everything that is good in His eyes became part of humankind’s spiritual DNA.  ‘Doing our own thing’ is a more powerful impulse than living in harmony with God and His good and loving purpose.

The rest of the Bible is honest, sometimes frighteningly so, in depicting how often this tendency in human nature dominates and opens the door to disaster.  One book shows how far the fall away from God has moved in incidents of betrayal, greed and savagery in the nation of Israel.  There are times of spiritual renewal but all too soon the darkness invades again.  The book ends with the comment:

‘In those days Israel had no king; everyone did as he saw fit.’  (Judges 21: 25)

In subsequent books of the Bible prophets are sent to expose the brokenness in human nature but returns to God and His ways are never sustained.  Those with spiritual insight looked longingly on the promises which indicated that one day this struggle against the brokenness within would be over.  One prophet was given a message from God to share with a people in exile from Israel:

‘For I will take you out of the nations; I will gather you from all the countries and bring you back into your own land.  I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you will be clean; I will cleanse you from all your impurities and from all your idols.  I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit in you and move you to follow my decrees and be careful to keep my laws.’  (Ezekiel 36: 24-27)

The followers of Jesus believed that this promise was fulfilled in Him, that His death paid the price for their sin, that His resurrection showed God’s plan of renewal for their lives, that His Spirit was their possession who kept them close to Him and moved them to live in the ways of God.  Jesus was the decisive halt against the fall away from God and His ways.  Those who were close to Jesus had a way of dealing with the impulses of their broken human nature.  

Think of Paul.  He looked within himself and saw a conflict going on between the Holy Spirit and his ‘sinful nature’.  The Spirit was working to raise him to the pattern of Jesus’ life but the ‘sinful nature’ was working to drag him down to his own ways.   Paul includes himself when he makes this call to ancient Christians:

‘Let us keep in step with the Spirit.’  (Galatians 5: 5-26)

We may have come a long way from Neil Oliver - but not that much.  Without meditating on Scripture, listening to a preacher or reading a blog, he has come up against the core problem of humankind.  What Paul would describe as knowing the good he should do but finding something within himself that prevents him from doing it!   (Romans 7: 19-20)  ‘I know I should wear a mask, practise social distancing, cancel that journey but . . .’  

God has ways of making His truth known but not always through the familiar channels.   Through a newspaper article we have been confronted with a truth about ourselves.  It’s a pity that it didn’t go further to show the way out of our brokenness.   Paul discovered that in Jesus.  Eugene Petersen’s paraphrase of Romans 7: 21-27 is helpful:

‘I’ve tried everything and nothing helps.  I’m at the end of my rope.  Is there no one who can do anything for me?  Isn’t that the real question?

‘The answer, thank God, is that Jesus Christ can and does.  He acted to set things right in this life of contradictions where I want to serve God with all my heart and mind, but am pulled by the influence of sin to do something different.’  

Monday, 7 September 2020

Still Quarrying 180: Head Done In!

I listen to a man on the wireless this morning clearly and calmly arguing the case that lockdown strategy has been catastrophic to societies all over the world.  I listen to Jason Leitch, our National Clinical Director, saying that the anti-lockdown protests seen over the weekend have been ‘deeply irresponsible.’  I know in whose slipstream I am following.  But this is another example of how these Covid-19 days can do your head in.  (Not the most decorous turn of phrase perhaps but sometimes it’s the indecorous that does the job.)

There are so many facts and figures as well as opinions that cut across official government lines much to the delight of conspiracy theorists.  But at that level where simmers common sense it doesn’t seem inappropriate in face of this pandemic to be wearing masks and observing social distance.  I had an uncomfortable part of a railway journey in February 2019.  Just before my treatment was to begin I took the opportunity to go to Cheltenham to see the family.  Gabrielle was following later.  From Glasgow Central to Carlisle I found myself sitting beside a young woman who coughed every twenty minutes.   I was later given a row by both wife and a Beatson nurse.  ‘Why didn’t you change your seat?’   With a dodgy immune system even then and if I had picked up something my treatment might have been postponed.   If I ever get back on a train I will undoubtedly be a masked man.

The point being that we are susceptible to bugs anyway.  How much more when there is a highly contagious and dangerous bug out there.   So I will listen to the anti-lockdown folk but I will be following Dr. Leitch.

The head is more more severely done in, however, when we consider the powers that shut down businesses and restrict visitors to our homes.  By no means is it suggested that governments take these powers lightly.  And when guidelines are issued or laws passed it is a huge matter for people either to ignore or work against them.  You can feel Jason Leitch’s frustration when he says of the ant-lockdown protestors:  

"I honestly do not understand it . . . do they think we're making it up? 194 countries are making up a viral pandemic.
"I would love to have not lived through the last six months, both in my job and what we have had to do to our country and many others.
"I think it is deeply irresponsible.”

I suppose what is worrying many people is that for the first time in living memory they have seen freedoms curtailed by government.  The reasons for this may be well-meaning but the fact that it can be done in respect of the whole population has produced psychological tremors.  Schools and churches closed.  Entertainment restricted to the couch.  Work and travel shut down.  No visits to care homes and hospitals to visit loved ones.  You can add your own experiences to the list.  At the turn of the year it would have appeared to be yet another outlandish plot in a dystopian movie.  

But this is where we are.  There are still restrictions and the future is uncertain.    Which gives me all the more reason to go with the apostolic injunction to pray for all those in government.  That they will have the welfare of the nation at heart undistorted by political aspiration.  That no decisions will affect personal freedom unnecessarily.  That they will be guided by the best science.  That they will be sustained in body, mind and spirit.  

I think it was Winston Churchill who said that democracy is not perfect but think of the alternatives.   We have had a glimpse of the extreme measures governments can take for our good.  The overarching prayer is that it stays that way.  

Saturday, 29 August 2020

Still Quarrying 179: Lockdown Yearning.

There was a phone-in on the wireless the other day.  The theme was: ‘Is there anything about the lockdown you miss?’ One wag texted: ‘Social distancing!  People washing their hands!  Suits me.’   At least I think he had his tongue in his cheek.  But there is no doubt that there is a stream of lockdown yearning flowing through the land at present.  People recalling the quietness, the purity of the air, the lack of social pressure.  Of course that has to be set beside lives lost to the virus, personal finances stretched to the limit, anxiety over future employment, carers having to cope with relatives suffering from Alzheimer’s and mental health disorders.  I’m sure you could add more to that list.  It’s good that we can take positives out of challenging circumstances but we shouldn’t get too carried away.  Covid-19 has had a devastating effect on many lives and communities and the way forward will be hard.   

One of the worst legacies of Covid-19 is the lingering effect of social distancing.  At a time when community rebuilding will be of greatest importance we still give people a body-swerve when out walking and are anxious about gathering together under once familiar roofs.   When shielding was eased for me and I was able to step out beyond the garden gate one of the heart-lightening moments was when people would give me a cheerful ‘Good morning!’  Perhaps. it wasn't much but in that there was a sense of being in this together and getting through.  Maybe it’s my imagination but I think that has diminished to some extent.  People walking, jogging, cycling seem more interested in the middle-distance or their iPods than anyone coming towards them.  

That sense of reaching out to one another even in a limited way is one lockdown experience that we can carry forward.  These last eight months have left a mark on our lives as individuals but it is as a people with shared experience that we can face the challenge of rebuilding communities and nations.  From the beginning it was emphasised to Christians that they were not to see themselves as individuals satisfying themselves from some deep spiritual source.  They were part of a community which God was seeking to build as a foretaste of the renewed community which was His ultimate plan for humankind.  When the apostle John was given a vision of this renewed humanity it was contained within ‘the Holy City, the New Jerusalem’ in which there would be no more suffering or death.  All things would be made new.  (Revelation 21: 1-4) It is the image of the city that is striking.  A place where there is community, wisdom, healing, comfort.   The apostles grasped this image and challenged the Church to make known the city of God now.  

Monday, 10 August 2020

Still Quarrying 178: Someone To Blame.

There were some great gigs in the Glasgow City Halls in the seventies.  One stand out memory for me was a support act, a girl from Northern Ireland called Gillian MacPherson.  With just a guitar for accompaniment she sang deeply felt songs from her own life’s experience.  One in particular drew an extended  ovation.  It was about Belfast then in the teeth of the ‘troubles’ called They All Want Somebody To Blame.  I’ve never forgotten the chorus:

‘Who was to blame for the smoke and the flame?
 They all want somebody to blame.
 History and fame
 Every city cries the same,
                                                     They keep looking for someone to blame.’

Gillian was in touch with one of the dark tendencies that we all share and one we have to guard against especially in times of crisis.  In days of old when the crops failed, when the cows gave little milk, when the hens ceased to lay, yes, and when there was sickness in the community - solitary old women who were sometimes heard to talk to their cats were denounced as witches and the cause of all the trouble.

It’s called scapegoating, referring to the Hebrew ritual on the Day of Atonement.  The High Priest would lay his hands on a goat and pray on to it the sins of the people.  It would then be sent out into the wilderness symbolically carrying the sins.  It was a powerful symbol of God providing a distance between the sinner and the sin.   This is probably what the Psalmist has in mind when he writes:

‘As far as the east is from the west,
 So far has he removed our transgressions from us.’  (Psalm 103: 12)

The problem with scapegoating as it has developed in societies is that the element of forgiveness has been excised and certain individuals or groups as stuck with the sin that others perceive in them.  Furthermore their sin can be held responsible for whatever difficulties a particular community or society is having to face.  

When the present pandemic kicked in there was talk of older people being careless and not willing to face up to the seriousness of the challenge we were facing.  Then it was the young people meeting together in parks, holding parties, thinking they were bullet-proof.  Recently, particular fury has been vented against a group of eight footballers from Aberdeen FC who in the present ‘spike’ in Aberdeen visited a city centre pub.  Two of them have subsequently been diagnosed with the virus and the others are in isolation.  Apologies have been issued on the club’s Twitter feed and individual players have done the same.  

I don’t know all the circumstances but the least that can be said is that they acted irresponsibly and quite possibly have put other people at risk.  The fact that they are in the public eye, recognisable and admired, raises the question of their sense of responsibility.  They should also have been aware that footballers have long been an easy target for moral outrage, widely resented as having too much time on their hands, too much money and all this with not too much between their ears.   That stereotype, largely unfair and inaccurate, is very strong in the public mind especially among those who know nothing about football.  

In the end two of the Aberdeen men have the virus, the rest are in isolation and they will carry the memory of their time in the national spotlight  for the rest of their lives.  I can just hear the chants of opposing fans.  So may I make an immodest proposal that in the midst of all of this prayers might be said that the infected might be restored to health, that the isolated will be kept safe, and that they will all emerge as wiser men.  I seem to remember Jesus saying that it is spiritually ruinous to think ourselves morally superior to anyone else.   That came home to me some years ago when I felt particularly strongly about a certain individual and his opinions and being pole-axed by a thought: ‘Have you ever prayed for him?’   That doesn’t mean that we hold back when faced with values and actions that run counter to those of the Kingdom but it does prevent a sourness of spirit that fastens on someone to blame.