Sunday, 31 March 2019

Still Quarrying 24 - Resurrection.

I’m told that today sees the start of British Summer Time - and I saw my first butterfly.   Not being too well versed in lepidoptery I can’t tell you what kind it was but it looked quite stunning.  

It’s not hard to appreciate why the butterfly was readily adopted by the Church as a symbol of the resurrection.  Beginning as rather unprepossessing caterpillars they shuffle off a rough and wrinkled exterior to emerge as one of nature’s most lively and colourful creatures.  Our resurrection bodies can be seen in the same way.  In death we leave behind the weakness and limitations of mortality and, as Paul would say, clothe ourselves with immortality.  (1 Corinthians 15: 54)   

In a day like today, warm and bright, I once stood at an open grave with the loved ones of a faithful Christian witness.  Before the coffin was lowered a butterfly flew out of the grave.  Some might say that from that moment any words were unnecessary but for me this was a confirmation of the words of Jesus, the greatest promise ever heard by human ears:  ‘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 and has faith in me will ever die.’  (John 11: 25-26).  

Years ago I was given a gift of the Worship Book of the Presbyterian Church USA.  On reading the contents pages I was a bit perplexed not to find any services for funerals.  Then it clicked.  They were listed under ‘Witness To The Resurrection.‘  With the many options open to people with regard to funerals and the pressures on the Church to fall into line with expectations I hope we will never lose sight of that aspiration, to bear witness to the hope of resurrection which can only be found in Jesus.    

Saturday, 30 March 2019

Still Quarrying 23 - Keep In Step!

It was good to get back into the gym yesterday.   So far I have managed to avoid some of the more unpleasant side effects of the chemotherapy but the tiredness has sometimes been extreme.  A five minute walk has been a challenge.  This week though I had a break from the chemotherapy and thought I might risk extending myself a wee bit.  The advice has been that I should try to keep up exercise but to try and avoid the ‘eye popping stuff‘ (Consultant’s words)  that I used to do.  

So it was down to the Kumafit gym in Milngavie.  Perhaps not too many people know about it.  It’s tucked away in a side street just off Stewart Street in Milngavie but it’s probably the smartest gym in the area.  Fraser Drake is the man in charge.  We go back a long way.  He was a great help when I was clawing my way back to fitness when I was first diagnosed and it has been good to see him doing so well with his own business.    

The idea was that I would hit the bag, six rounds of three minutes, forty-five seconds rest in between.  It wasn’t easy and the Big Man had to bark at me a few times when he detected some slacking.  But I got there and it felt good.  The legendary American football coach Vincent Lombardi once said: 

I firmly believe that any man's finest hour, the greatest fulfillment of all that he holds dear, is that moment when he has worked his heart out in a good cause and lies exhausted on the field of battle - victorious.’

Got that right Vinnie boy!  

What about boxing though?   I can honestly say that my gloves have never made contact with any sentient being.  People sometimes ask who I am thinking about when I pound the bag.  That’s another matter.  But I have never boxed for real.  Nevertheless I have always admired boxers.  Their physical fitness is extraordinary and perhaps more than in any other sport their psychological toughness is exceptional.   I was convinced of that many years ago after reading Jose Torres’ book about Muhammad Ali Sting Like A Bee.  In addition to his athletic prowess Ali knew how to get under the skin of his opponents and ‘psyche them out.’  

It’s the boxing that is the problem.  Two men/women facing one another in combat each seeking to dominate the other and if possible render the other incapable of continuing.  It is hard to justify.  But despite the opposition to it and the occasional tragedy in the ring  boxing continues.  Orson Welles’ comment about bullfighting comes to mind: ‘indefensible but irresistible.‘      

It has a long history of course.  There is a famous statue called The Boxer of Quirinal  (on the left) which goes back to the First Century BC.  The curly beard and hair suggest he is Greek.  Each ‘glove’ called a caestus includes a metal piece over the knuckles which could cause considerable damage.   The anguished look on the boxer’s face along with the scarring point to his being on the end of some heavy duty clouts.  

It was a boxer like this that Paul had in mind when he wrote these words to the Church in Corinth:

Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one gets the prize? Run in such a way as to get the prize.  Everyone who competes in the games goes into strict training. They do it to get a crown that will not last, but we do it to get a crown that will last forever.  Therefore I do not run like someone running aimlessly; I do not fight like a boxer beating the air.  No, I strike a blow to my body and make it my slave so that after I have preached to others, I myself will not be disqualified for the prize.’  (1 Corinthians 9: 24-27)

Sport was a major part of Corinthian culture.  The Isthmian Games held there were second only to the Olympics in their importance and popularity.  So Paul knew he was on a winner in using athletic imagery in relation to the Christian life.  He sees himself as a boxer, not shadow boxing but entirely focussed on his opponent.  And that is himself: ‘I strike a blow to my body and make it my slave so that after I have preached to others, I myself will not be disqualified for the prize.’  

Paul was conscious of the battle going on within himself, the fallen human nature that was seeking to bring him down and the Holy Spirit seeking to raise him up to Christ-likeness: 

 ‘So I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh.  For the flesh desires what is contrary to the Spirit, and the Spirit what is contrary to the flesh. They are in conflict with each other, so that you are not to do whatever you want.’  (Galatians 5: 16-17)

To paraphrase Vincent Lombardi, this is the cause for which we are called to work our hearts out.  To realise that God’s plan for our lives is to establish us in Christ-likeness and to resist every dark impulse that would run counter to this.  As Paul writes: ‘Let us keep in step with the Spirit.’  (Galatians 5: 25).  

Friday, 29 March 2019

Still Quarrying 22 - Let It Grow!

In the aftermath of May Nicholson’s death so many words of appreciation have been said about her gift for compassion and her ability to make an impression on an audience.  My mind keeps going back to the beginning of Preshal.  May often told the story of the kettle and the toaster in a room in a Linthouse church.  From that beginning Preshal has grown with custom built premises and a nationwide reputation.   It’s not hard to make a connection with Jesus’ teaching about the Kingdom of God being like the mustard seed, the smallest of all the seeds and yet it grows into a plant under which the birds can shelter.  (Mark 4: 30-32).

I’ve often heard this used to justify the idea that ‘small is beautiful‘ and that we shouldn’t get too worked up about falling numbers in the Church.   But the parable speaks of growth, an eventual impact way beyond the small beginning.  It is inspiring to think of the beginning of Preshal but would we want to stay with the kettle and the toaster?  It is a characteristic of the Kingdom that it grows.  

Years ago a senior minister told me of a meeting he attended where it was stated that the essence of the Church is unity,  to which he responded: ‘Rubbish!  The essence of the Church is mission!‘  It is hard to disagree with this.  I always think it is supreme evidence of God’s grace that despite the fractured state of the world-wide Church men and women still find Christ within different traditions.  This would suggest that the priority of the Holy Spirit is leading men and women to faith in Christ rather than effecting organic union.  

This impulse to share the Gospel and to see the Kingdom grow was strong in the apostle Paul even when he was in prison.  You would think that being banged up was the single most disadvantage to a man who wanted to be ranging over the Roman Empire with his soul-saving message.  But when he wrote to the Christians in Philippi he told them that his imprisonment had ‘really served to advance the gospel’.  (Philippians 1: 12)  Why?  Well, the palace guard and everyone else in the prison had become aware of the reason for his captivity, that he was ‘in chains for Christ’.  Even in prison the mission went forward.  Paul was expecting to see the Kingdom grow.  

When I was in Stevenston a minister friend of mine was in Crosshouse hospital receiving treatment for cancer.  It was debilitating but it didn’t stop him wandering round the ward when he could chatting to other patients and seeking to encourage them.  The impulse that drove Paul was in that man.  The smallest seed can bring growth.  The few words, the simple act of kindness can advance the Kingdom.  

Before His return to the Father Jesus said to His disciples:  ‘Go and make disciples of all nations . . . ‘  (Matthew 28: 19)  That is the Big Story to which all our work, however small, contributes.  

Thursday, 28 March 2019

Still Quarrying 21 - May Nicholson.

It’s strange how things sometimes fall.  Yesterday morning I was writing about Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s confidence in the face of death and  by mid-afternoon I was hearing about the death of my pal May Nicholson.  She had been in indifferent health for a while following a recurrence of the cancer she had to deal with some years ago.  She was admitted to hospital last week with an infection and yesterday afternoon surrounded by her family she peacefully passed into the presence of the Lord in whom she placed her trust for this life and the next.  

May was the co-founder of the Preshal Trust in Govan.   ‘Preshal’ is the Gaelic word for ‘precious’ and the aim of the Trust is to lead everyone who comes through its doors to feel that they are precious in the eyes of God.  As it says on the website: 

‘In a friendly, caring, loving and supportive way Preshal seeks to tackle, head-on, the problem of social exclusion in the Linthouse area of Glasgow. This problem is manifested in poverty, alcohol and drug addiction, low literacy and numeracy levels, depression and low self-esteem.’

May herself knew what it was like to be on the margins having experienced alcohol addiction along with its many associated problems.  She was able therefore to bring such empathy to her work at Preshal that the troubled were convinced that she was on their side.  Not that she ever wanted anyone to think that she herself was the answer to their problems.  Her profound personal encounter with the Risen Lord and the renewing power of His Spirit had turned her life around completely and it was to Him that she directed all those going through their worst of times.  

My first contact with May was when she and Catherine Graham, Duchess of Montrose, spoke at a joint Guild meeting in St Paul’s.  I knew nothing about the Preshal Trust at this point but was totally captivated by May’s story not to mention the way she told it.  Let’s just say her style and delivery was a bit different from that of the Duchess.  It was obvious, however, how close the pair were and they provided and unforgettable evening for all those who attended.  

May and I got chatting afterwards and there was that special experience when souls touch.    From there I made frequent visits to the Trust and then came the day when May phoned to ask if I would come on to the Board of Trustees.  She said: ‘We need to get some young blood involved.‘  Well I was fifty-something at the time but I wasn’t going to argue.  She knew how to draw you in!   It was an exciting time.  The Preshal premises was little more than a glorified portacabin and the plans were afoot to have a specially designed building established on the site.  As happens with such projects there were ups and downs but eventually the present building in Aboukir Street emerged and continues to realise the original vision.  

One of my earliest experiences at Preshal sums up everything that May stood for and strived for in her Christian witness.  It was the first time I attended the Sunday Evening worship.  During one of the worship songs the door opened and a young woman came in.  She was obviously in some distress.  Dirty, disheveled, tear-stained.  May immediately moved towards her, covered her in a huge hug and led her to a seat.  The pause button was pressed on the worship while we heard her story.   She had come to Preshal some months before struggling with heroin addiction and with May’s help had been making good progress.  She then dropped off the radar and there were reports that she had been drawn back in to the old ways.  It had been two months since there was any contact but here she was and no need to think she was anything other than precious in the sight of God and accepted by His people.    

That’s just one of the many people who will be remembering May with thanksgiving today.  For all that she was, for all that she gave, for all that she showed of the love of Christ in her life.  One of May’s favourite verses of Scripture is in the prophet Joel where God promises his people: ‘I will repay you for the years the locusts have eaten.’  (Joel 2: 25)  She had cause to regret those years in many ways but she was grateful that God had given her the opportunity to emerge from addiction and brokenness to be a witness to the renewing power of His Holy Spirit.   That same Spirit was with her in the hospital ward yesterday and has taken her to that place Jesus has promised to all those who love him.  The place where there is no more disease, no more pain, no more sin, no more tears.  The place where she will fully realise how ‘preshal’ she is in the eyes of the Heavenly Father.  

Wednesday, 27 March 2019

Still Quarrying 20 - Living Word

One of my favourite haunts in my student days was Voltaire and Rousseau, the second-hand bookshop in Otago Lane.  Many a treasure was unearthed there that helped me along with an essay and sometimes there were unforgettable encounters.  One Friday afternoon I found myself sharing browsing space with the Rev Ian Paisley.  

I still drop in from time to time.  There is a large theological section and there is usually something useful to be found.  About ten years ago I was browsing and realised that there were piles of books that had belonged to someone I knew.  His name was inscribed on the fly leaves.  We had trained for the ministry at the same time, sharing many of the same courses, although I didn’t have much contact with him otherwise.  He had a number of health issues which affected his studies and stayed with him after graduation.  His time in the ministry had been challenging on a number of levels and eventually his health problems overwhelmed him.  He had died while in his early fifties.  He was a single man so someone must have been given the task of settling his affairs which involved clearing out his study.  

What I found particularly moving was the presence of his Bible among all the other stuff.  It was well-worn.  I don’t think there was a page that wasn’t read, where truth was quarried, where vision was sought, where peace was craved.   It was sad to think that there was no one who wanted to keep it and here it was priced £4. 50p.  I was tempted to buy it but in the end thought it best to give thanks that this was such a well-worked Bible and that what it promised had now been realised in this man’s life.  

That was a comfort and an inspiration.  On the face of it this man’s life could be described as troubled and unfulfilled but he knew the Word, he knew the power of the Word to the end, and he was now enjoying the place Jesus has promised to all those who love Him.  In a sermon Dietrich Bonhoeffer preached in the early 1930s he said:

‘No one has yet believed in God and the kingdom of God, no one has yet heard about the realm of the resurrected and not been homesick from that hour, waiting and looking forward joyfully to being released from bodily existence . . . life only really begins when it ends here on earth . . . all that is here is only the prologue before the curtain goes up - that is for young and old alike to think about.  Why are we so afraid when we think about death?‘  

It was this faith that enabled Bonhoeffer to approach his execution with an astonishing calm born of a faith that had been fed by intense meditation on God’s Written Word.  The Camp doctor at Flossenburg concentration camp saw him in his last minutes kneeling in prayer in his cell.  Years later he wrote:

‘I was most deeply moved by the way this lovable man prayed so devout and so certain that God heard his prayer . . . In the almost fifty years that I worked as a doctor, I have hardly ever seen a man die so entirely submissive to the will of God.’  

Bonhoeffer was confident in the God who was revealed in His Word.  I like to think that that same confidence burned brightly in the inner life of my colleague whose Bible was consigned to a dusty book shop but in his worst of times imparted truths that spoke of renewal in the Eternal Kingdom.  

Tuesday, 26 March 2019

Still Quarrying 19 - Handle With Care!

One of the blessings of this time has been speaking to people who have gone through the same or similar treatment and hearing how they coped.  Tips on diet, exercise and rest have been gratefully received.  One or two people have come in with recommendations of a homeopathic nature.  One lady, not a member of any of my congregations, told me that her dog had been cured of lung cancer by eating a mixture of sliced ginger, green tea and manuka honey.  When I explained that I was not allowed to drink green tea or take vitamin C supplements because they could block the action of the chemotherapy she was astonished.  How could these things provided by nature be anything but good?  

I have an open mind about the effectiveness of herbal and homeopathic remedies.  Research has shown that some of them can be helpful to cancer sufferers.  There was a time when Church of England clergy were trained in the use of herbs to ease the discomfort of sick parishioners.  We have to remember, however, that not everything that is natural is good.  We are part of a fallen creation where the bad is as much part of everything as the good and there are things that need to be handled with care.  

You don’t hear much about Lillian Board these days.  She was a British athlete who won a silver medal in the 400 metres at the Mexico Olympics in 1968 and two gold medals at the 1969 European Championships in Athens.  In 1970 she was diagnosed with colorectal cancer and within months she was dead.  As part of her response to the diagnosis she had travelled to the Ringberg Cancer Clinic in Germany where she was treated by Dr Josef Issels who eschewed mainstream treatments in favour of  strict diet and herbal drinks.   As an infection prevention measure Lillian had her tonsils and two front teeth removed.   Her condition worsened and she was eventually moved to a hospital in Munich where she died.

There may be other stories to be told in support of similar treatments but I remember a conversation I had with an oncologist some years ago.  I had been visiting someone in the Beatson, at that time located at the Western Infirmary, and we fell into conversation about cancer care.  The subject of alternative therapies came up.  She said: ‘If people want to go to a clinic to eat carrots and it is helpful to them then fair enough.  Our response will always be chemical.’  

This is where I find myself, receiving a chemical treatment which has been shown to be effective in pushing back what I call the ‘bad stuff’ in my blood.  I see it as part of the response we are called to make to everything in life that runs counter to the values of the Kingdom of God where health and wholeness will be part of the common experience of humankind.  Those who come through cancer treatment whether by chemical or alternative means are receiving a foretaste of the promise that in the end every tear will be wiped away and death will be no more, neither shall there be mourning or crying or pain any more for the old order of things has passed away.  (Revelation 21: 4)

Monday, 25 March 2019

Still Quarrying 18 - The Mighty And The Almighty.

Apart from any political considerations I have some sympathy for Theresa May.   Much has been said about her stubbornness, her inability to listen and her general frostiness of demeanor.   All of this may be true but I’ve often wondered what it must be like for her as a ‘Remainer’ to wake up every morning knowing that here was another day in which she will be dealing with issues around Brexit.   She didn’t want it but now she has a duty to see it through.  More than anything else it is that sense of duty that seems to motivate her.

Concerns have been expressed about her mental and physical resilience.  Notoriously private about her personal life she has however been quite open about her health problem.  She suffers from Type 1 Diabetes which involves four daily injections of insulin and constant vigilance with regard to diet.  She has insisted in interviews that none of this need stand in the way of a wholehearted engagement with her work and enjoyment of leisure pursuits which often includes vigorous walking up mountains.  

She has begun to seem more fragile in recent days with the loss of her voice and a general air of harassment.   The Sunday Times yesterday reported a ‘cabinet minister’ as saying: ‘Her judgement has started to go haywire.‘   And further: ‘Officials in parliament were so concerned about May’s welfare they drew up a protocol to extract her from the Commons if she collapsed at the dispatch box.’  

She is not the first politician having to cope with ill-health while being in high office.  David Owen, the former leader of the SDP and a doctor, has written a book entitled In Sickness And In Power.  It is a study of illness in heads of government over the last 100 years and includes David Lloyd George, Adolf Hitler, Winston Churchill, Anthony Eden, Ronald Reagan and Tony Blair.   What is of particular interest to Owen are those who were not obviously ill and who actually seemed to function very well but who developed what he calls a ‘hubris syndrome’.   This is when someone becomes excessively self-confident and contemptuous of advice that runs counter to what they believe.  

This is probably one of the great temptations of power and the rock on which many formidable political careers have perished in democratic societies.  We should remember this when we obey the New Testament injunction to pray for those in authority over us, that they are conscious of their limitations and acknowledge that over them stands a Higher Authority to whom they will give an account of their stewardship of power.  In this respect I find Angela Merkel a refreshing presence on the global political stage.  She is one of many people in Nick Spencer’s book called The Mighty And The Almighty: How Political Leaders Do God.  Mention is made of an address she gave in 2010 to the Ecumenical Church Congress in Munich where she said:

‘ . . . here in Germany it’s very clear that we came to our values system through Christianity.  That means we know that freedom does not mean freedom from something, but it means freedom given by God through His Creation to commit oneself to help others and stand up for causes.  This may be the most important source of social cohesion.’  

This is quite a radical statement in that it recognises that the survival of a modern secular state depends on values which flow from Almighty God.   Later in the midst of controversy over the influence of Islam in Germany she made the point to her party that Germany suffered not from ‘too much Islam’ but ‘too little Christianity’.  She went on to say that there were too few discussions about the Christian view of mankind and that more public discussion was needed ‘about the values that guide us (and) about our Judeo-Christian tradition.’

Spencer comments that sentiments like these mark Merkel out as a leader.  ‘After all, such sentiments would be impossible in France and improbable in the UK.’  

We seem to have come a long way from how political leaders cope with ill-health but if we take up David Owen’s point that one of the biggest problems of ‘disease’ in politicians goes deeper than physical well-being then we are still on track.  Remember he writes of the ‘hubris syndrome’, excessive self-confidence, contempt of any advice.   This is actually a spiritual problem.  The same attitude that led Nebuchadnezzer to set up his golden statue and demand that it be worshipped.  (Daniel 3)  It is encouraging therefore to know that there are politicians who recognise their own fragility and point to Almighty God as the ultimate source of truth, justice and love.  

Politics can be divisive, people are defined on where they stand on a single issue, delight is taken in the misfortunes of others, relationships are fractured in disagreement.    In the end, however, it is in the political arena that decisions can be taken on behalf of the poor and marginalised in society, where freedom of expression is guarded, where visions of greater social cohesion can emerge.  So our prayers for our leaders should not be half-hearted or merely motivated by a sense of duty.  Pray that among the  ‘mighty’ throughout the world there will be increasing acknowledgement of the ‘Almighty’.  

Sunday, 24 March 2019

Still Quarrying 17 - Worship.

I’m in the midst of Eric Metaxas’ biography of Dietrich Bonhoeffer.  Most of what I know about Bonhoeffer concerns the years when he was bearing a courageous witness against the Nazi regime in Germany so it has been fascinating learning more about his early life and how his faith developed.  Church going did not feature prominently in his upbringing although his mother set a standard of personal piety which he always appreciated.   Even when he began to study theology public worship was not high on his list of priorities.  That changed when he went to Union Theological Seminary in New York.  He was not greatly impressed with the liberal theological emphasis at Union.  Metaxas describes it as theological ‘skim milk’.   He found something more substantial and satisfying in the social work assignment he undertook.  This was in the Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem.  

The minister at Abyssinian was Dr Adam Clayton Powell Snr, the son of slaves, who ‘combined the fire of a revivalist preacher with great intellect and social vision’.   Metaxas writes: ‘For the first time Bonhoeffer saw the gospel preached and lived out in obedience to God’s commands.’  He was captivated, never missed Sunday worship and eventually became involved in the young peoples teaching program.  All the evidence would suggest that Bonhoeffer underwent a conversion experience at this time.  

What I find impressive is the role that worship played in this.  By no means an exercise in self-indulgence, a ‘holy huddle’, a retreat from the world, but a witness to the presence of the Living God in the midst of a community and an opportunity to connect with His truth in the reading and preaching of the Scriptures.  Bonhoeffer had no great reason to expect much from Abyssinian but he was led into an experience which was to shape the rest of his life.  A bit like the man who comes in off the streets of Corinth without any understanding of the Gospel but in the worship of God’s people is convinced and falls down and worships God saying: ‘God is really among you.’  (1 Corinthians 14: 24-25)  

Often when public worship is mentioned in the gospels it is a time when things happen.  In the first chapter of Mark Jesus is preaching in the synagogue and people are ‘amazed at his teaching.’  The reason?  He teaches as one who has ‘authority’.  It seems that He is speaking with the very voice of God.  That does not go well, however, with a man present who is ‘possessed by and evil spirit’ who cries out against Jesus.  As a result of this protest
from the pit the man is cleansed by the words of Jesus: ‘Be quiet!  Come out of him!‘   

This is a vision of worship we can take to ourselves.  A time when we can anticipate the voice of God speaking through the reading and preaching of the Scriptures.  A time when  personal issues come to the surface.  A time when the Holy Spirit cleanses and renews.   A time when men and women become convinced that Jesus is Lord.  

I’m praying that on this Lord’s Day this vision of worship will be realised throughout the land as it was for a young German pastor in the 1930s who would later hold nothing back in his commitment to the truth he had found in Christ.  

Saturday, 23 March 2019

Still Quarrying 16 - Power Of Promise.

A week without chemotherapy has meant a rise in energy level so it was good to get out yesterday.  We went the Kelvingrove Art Gallery to see the 12 drawings of Leonardo da Vinci.  (That's him on the left). Five hundred years old they are and yet they look as if they have just been produced.  Anatomical studies are precise and one is assured remarkably accurate.  Figures leap out in their vitality and freshness, especially the rather grotesque study of gypsies robbing an unsuspecting traveller.  

I have found this to be the case with much art of a former age.  I will never forget the first time I saw a Van Gogh original.  My interest in Van Gogh goes back to first year at secondary school.  I was never much cop at art but I had a teacher who was a big Van Gogh fan and there were post cards and posters all round his room.  I’m not absolutely sure what drew me to Van Gogh.  Certainly the figures had a cartoonish quality which I could relate to and his colours seemed to explode from the page.  It all seemed to demand my attention.  In later years I would hear someone use all of this to argue that Van Gogh was ‘dubious art’.  All I knew was that this was the first time paintings had had such an immediate effect on me.  

By the time I got to fifth year in school Van Gogh had become one of the most popular and recognisable of artists.  Many a bedroom had a ‘Starry Night’ or ‘Sunflowers’ poster and Don Maclean was singing his moving ‘Vincent’.  ‘I could have told you Vincent/This world was never meant for one as beautiful as you.’  

I was in my late forties before I saw the originals in the Musee D’Orsay in Paris.  As with the Leonardo drawings it was the freshness of the work that amazed me.  It would not have been hard to believe that these were straight off the artist’s easel.  It was hard to tear myself away not least from the ‘Self Portrait’, Vincent looking stern and stoic against a background of swirling patterns which many take to be symbolic of his state of mind.  But it is the eyes that hold you.  How could anyone create something so vital and penetrating out of paint on canvas?  Simon Schama had a television series called Power Of Art which later became a fascinating book.  I knew the power that day.  

Jeremiah felt that way when he remembered his God and his ‘compassions’, the ways that God had revealed His love for His people.  Calamity had come upon the nation which the prophet felt very deeply at a personal level.  He says:

‘I remember my affliction and my wandering, the bitterness and the gall.  I well remember them, and my soul is downcast within me.’  (Lamentations 3: 19-20)

But then he remembers:

‘Yet this I call to mind and therefore I have hope:  Because of the LORD’s great love we are not consumed, for his compassions never fail.  They are new every morning; great is your faithfulness.  I say to myself, “The LORD is my portion; therefore I will wait for him.” The LORD is good to those whose hope is in him, to the one who seeks him;  it is good to wait quietly for the salvation of the LORD.‘   (Lamentations 3: 21-24)

The prophet stands before the reality of God, all that He  is, all that He has done for His people, all that reveals His love for His people.  It is not a distant memory, not merely a tradition passed on, but ‘new every morning.’ It is possible for him to experience the power of God in the midst of his affliction.   

This is a challenge to me.  Yesterday I experienced the power of art as I did all those years ago in the Musee D’Orsay.  It was immediate, arresting, enriching.  It is not inconceivable that the great Creator is seeking to grasp me in the same way through His Word.  Although let’s be honest, it doesn’t always happen even when we focus on the great promises.  Too often the words seem to slide over the brain without any deep impact.  But in the end that is up to God.  Neither time given or concentration intensified can guarantee the experience we crave.  That would mean God can be manipulated.  We need to tread the same path as the prophet.  It’s not that he is immediately caught up in some wave of spiritual ecstasy.  He remembers the Lord’s great love and faithfulness as it has been revealed to His people and he comes to the place where he can say: ‘The Lord is my portion; therefore I will wait for him.’  

This is often where we find ourselves but we wait with confidence in the God who has revealed Hi love for us in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus.  The compassions of this God will never fail.    

Friday, 22 March 2019

Still Quarrying 15 - 'What's It All About?'

I have a signed copy of Lance Armstrong’s book It’s Not About The Bike: My Journey Back To Life.  It tells the story of how a cycling career of outstanding promise was interrupted in 1996 when, aged 25, he was diagnosed with stage three testicular cancer which subsequently spread to his abdomen, lungs and brain.   The Consultant in charge of his treatment considered that there was very little chance of recovery.   But by February 1997, after gruelling chemotherapy and surgery, Armstrong was declared cancer-free.  Thereafter began a spectacular comeback which would include 7 Tour de France wins.  

Armstrong’s story was one of the most inspirational in sporting history and he became a popular motivational speaker at various conferences.   He had a cameo appearance in the movie Dodgeball shaming a star dodgeball player who was contemplating quitting on the day of a big game.  ‘What are you dying from that’s keeping you from the game?‘   It was known for preacher’s to use his story in their preaching.  I remember children’s talks and school assemblies where I waxed eloquent about Lance Armstrong and the example he was of perseverance, inner strength, hope in the face of disaster.  

But there were these unsettling rumblings about doping.  Armstrong consistently denied that he had ever used performance enhancing drugs but the allegations would not go away and in 2012 the United States Anti-Doping Agency concluded that Armstrong had used performance enhancing drugs over the course of his career.  Furthermore, he was named as the ringleader of "the most sophisticated, professionalized and successful doping program that sport has ever seen."  As a consequence he was stripped of all his achievements from August 1998.

Armstrong later confessed that some of the allegations were true and that if he had his life to live over he would probably do it all again.  

So what is the message of Lance Armstrong’s life?

First of all,  we should be careful of placing people on a pedestal.  It is an uncomfortable place to be and there is only one way off and that is down.  How many times has someone been lifted high as the epitome of everything that is good in humanity only for something to be revealed that places them in a totally different light?  The truth is that we are all broken people in need of a Saviour and while the lives of others can be inspirational there is always the possibility of disappointment.  

That Armstrong’s fall from grace happened after his experience with cancer should give us pause.  This is represented in his book in the familiar terms of an epic battle which he won.  He undeniably showed enormous resources of courage and perseverance as he hung in with the treatment.  But that in itself did not bring about a healing that goes a lot deeper and would have led him in a different path than the one that brought shame and infamy.  Even with cancer there is a more urgent issue to address, where do I stand with Christ?  

That brings me to the most disturbing passage in his book.  Armstrong takes us to the night before he underwent brain surgery and how he contemplated the prospect of death:

‘I asked myself what I believed.  I had never prayed a lot.  I hoped hard, I wished hard, but I didn’t pray.  I had developed a certain distrust of organised religion growing up, but I felt I had the capacity to be a spiritual person, and to hold some fervent beliefs.  Quire simply, I believed I had a responsibility to be a good person, and that meant fair, honest, hardworking and honourable . . . At the end of the day, if there was indeed some Body or presence standing there to judge me, I hoped I would be judged on whether I had lived a true life, not whether I believed in a certain book, or whether I had been baptized.  If there was indeed a God at the end of my days, I hoped he didn’t say, “But you were never a Christian, so you’re going the other way from heaven.” If so, I was going to reply, “You know what?  You’re right.  Fine.”  

Setting aside the caricature of God and the superficial notion of judgement, what we have here is someone so confident of his own goodness that he can shrug off any objective assessment of his life, even when it comes from God.   As things worked out, his own goodness was not something Armstrong could depend upon in this life, never mind the next.  It’s the same for us all.   Paul celebrates ‘the righteousness from God‘ and how it comes to us ‘through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe.‘  (Romans 3: 22)  He points us to the Cross where it was made possible for us to stand in the righteousness of God: ‘God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.‘  (2 Corinthians 5: 21)   When I read this I am often moved to say: ‘That’s some swap!  Give me your sin and I’ll give you my righteousness!‘  God has made it possible for us to stand with confidence before Him not trusting in our own righteousness but in what has been provided for us through the death of Jesus.  

It’s not about the bike?  In the end it’s not even about us but where we find our salvation.        

Thursday, 21 March 2019

Still Quarrying 15 'Don't Waste It!'

John Piper is a pastor and author who has established a world wide ministry in his Desiring God Ministries.  At the heart of all his writings and teaching is the conviction that ‘God is most glorified in us when we are most satisfied in Him.‘   He sets a high bar with regard to Christian discipleship and as a result not everyone feels able to embrace his thoughts wholeheartedly.  It comes as no surprise, then, that when he came to deal with his own experience of cancer he meets it head on.  The night before he underwent surgery for prostate cancer he laid down some words which later became a booklet entitled: Don’t Waste Your Cancer.  It  consists of eleven statements beginning with the words: ‘We waste our cancer if . . .’  

I confess I was taken aback by the title alone.  It seemed crass, a bit too much ‘in your face’.  As a result, when I came to quote something from it in a sermon I said that it came from a booklet entitled Do Not Waste Your Illness.  Pathetic, I know.  I just felt the original might be too much for people to take.  Being honest, it was too much for me to take.  I mean, cancer!  Your worst nightmare become real.  How can there possibly be any opportunity for this to take a positive turn?  I could not imagine sitting with a cancer victim and seeking to explore with them how to make the best of this opportunity!  

This is where we need people like John Piper.  We may not agree with everything he teaches but he raises issues which eventually we bump up against as we seek to be faithful in the Christian life.  His second statement in the booklet is a case in point:

‘We waste our cancer if we do not believe it is designed for us by God.‘  

Woow boy.  Where are we going with this?  

‘It will not do to say that God only uses  our cancer but does not design it.  What God permits, he permits for a reason.  And that reason is his design.  If God foresees molecular developments becoming cancer, he can stop it, or not.  If he does not, he has a purpose.  Since he is infinitely wise, it is right to call this purpose a design.’  

This is hard for anyone to read and yet it places us on a theological hook on which we constantly wriggle.  The least we can say is that our God, all-loving, all-knowing, all-powerful permits suffering in the lives of his people.  If, however, he permits suffering having within Himself the attributes to alleviate suffering then He is ultimately responsible.  God is allowing Fergus Buchanan to suffer cancer.  When you set it down like that it is shocking.  But can I honestly avoid it?  

Piper takes it further.  It’s not just that God allows it.  It is part of His ‘design’.  Before the universe was formed God saw Fergus with cancer and it was part of His good and loving purpose for this man.  Be clear, we are not talking about making the most of a bad deal.  It has been dealt by God and therefore it has a purpose and that purpose must therefore be good.  

The Biblical mindset has no problem with this:

Naomi: ‘Don’t call me Naomi . . . Call me Mara because the Almighty has made my life very bitter.’ (Ruth 1: 20)

Job: ‘All was well with me, but he shattered me; he seized me by the neck and crushed me.  He has made me his target.’  (Job 16: 12)

The Psalmist: ‘Remove your scourge from me; I am overcome by the blow of your hand.’  (Psalm 39: 10)

Ah but this is the Old Testament isn’t it?  Okay catch this:

Paul: ‘Our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all.’  (2 Corinthians 4: 17) 

Jesus: ‘He cuts off every branch in me that bears no fruit, while every branch that does bear fruit he prunes so that it will be even more fruitful.’  (John 15: 2)   (How does that grab you?  God standing over your life with a pruning knife!)  

The common thread through all of this is the realisation that dawns later if not sooner that God’s good and loving purpose is not denied by the shadows that fall on our path.  In fact they are part of that purpose.  How can I live with this?  By this thought.  He has shown His love for me in the death of Jesus.  This never failed to amaze Paul: 

‘You see, at just the right time, when we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly. Very rarely will anyone die for a righteous person, though for a good person someone might possibly dare to die. But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.’  (Romans 5: 6-8)

I need to marinate my soul in this truth which in the end is the only truth that matters.  God counts me  worthy of the death of His Son.  ‘Amazing love!  How can it be that thou my God shouldst die for me! . . . In vain the first-born seraph tries to sound the depths of love divine.’  This must be at the heart of true Christian discipleship, seeking to sound those depths, and in doing so being convinced that the Father who gave us His Son will never cause his child a needless tear.  

Wednesday, 20 March 2019

Still Quarrying 14 - Happiness.

Ken Dodd sang about it:

‘Happiness, happiness, the greatest gift that I posses
I thank the Lord I've been blessed
With more than my share of happiness.’  

And today is the International Day of Happiness!  Since 2013 March 20th has been set aside by the United Nations for all member states to recognise that the pursuit of happiness is a fundamental human goal and to celebrate every effort to bring happiness to people through education, sustainable development and poverty eradication.   Why the  date?  This was suggested by the prime mover of the Day of Happiness, the UN special advisor Jayme Illien.  March 20th is the March equinox, ‘a universal phenomenon felt simultaneously by all of humankind, and which occurs the moment when the plane of Earth’s equator passes through the center of the Sun’s disk.‘  (Wikipedia).    

A few years ago the UN Secretary Ban Ki Moon called upon all human beings to ‘dedicate our efforts to filling the world with happiness.‘   It would be churlish not to associate ourselves with such a positive and life-affirming aspiration but as in all things I sense my faith bringing some perspective to the whole concept of ‘happiness’.  

I have attended meetings with a friend and colleague who when he is asked if he is happy with a particular decision that has been taken will often reply: ‘I am not here to be happy!  I am here to serve.’  I quoted this once in a sermon and a few people thought I was  suggesting there was something wrong with being happy.  (Lord, set the angels to guard that space between my mouth and people’s ears!)  The point is that sometimes in the Christian life personal happiness has to be set aside to realise the priority which is to serve our Lord.  I doubt if Dietrich Boenhoffer was happy in Flossenberg Concentration Camp but he served.  I doubt if Martin Luther King was happy leading a civil rights march in Selma Alabama but he served.  I doubt if Mother Theresa was always happy dealing with the poverty she encountered in Calcutta but she served.  

For the Christian happiness has to go deeper than the inner satisfaction we experience when things are going well.  Health, wealth, achievement, important relationships can all be taken away and where then is our happiness?  The experience of the apostles was  that everything that made life easier and bearable could be taken away but still there could be joy in what they knew to be true concerning Jesus and joy in being faithful to Him.  

When Paul wrote to the Christians in Thessalonika he said: ‘Be joyful always . . . ‘  Yes, he said ‘always’.  (1 Thessalonians 5: 16)  Unrealistic?  Well, if that means working it up, forcing a smile unconnected to my heart, then that gets us nowhere.  What Paul has in mind is an inner life that is focussed on the things that come to us through our faith in Jesus: the promise of His presence in every circumstance, forgiveness through His death on the Cross, the gift of the Holy Spirit as our constant assurance, the reality of the Eternal Kingdom and our place in it.   These are things that can never be taken away by even the worst of circumstances, the ‘solid joys and lasting treasure‘  celebrated by John Newton.  

Paul did not call the Thessalonians to an attitude he was not prepared to adopt.  In Philippi he and Silas were stripped, beaten, flogged, imprisoned, their feet fastened into stocks.  I doubt if they were happy.  But around midnight the other prisoners heard something new in that place.  It was the sound of these Christian men praying and singing hymns to God.  Happy?  No.  Joyful, yes.  And continuing to be witnesses to what they had experienced in Christ.  (Acts 16: 22-28) 
I recently fell into conversation with a man who was behind the counter in a charity shop.  He asked what I did for a living.  When I told him he said: ‘Ah a sour-faced Presbyterian.’  It was one of those half-joking, half-serious comments which I didn’t take too much to heart.  I mean, me?  Sour-faced?  Well, maybe sometimes but at this moment my prayer is that my inner life is kept sweet with the knowledge of all that God has done for me in Christ.  


Tuesday, 19 March 2019

Still Quarrying 13.

Until now I haven’t had much experience of medication.  Headaches, indigestion, skin rashes have all been largely dealt with by over the counter products.  Now I am on a daily regimen of six different drugs including an anti-coagulant which I have to inject.  This is apart from the chemotherapy.  It takes a bit of organisation and there are inevitably times when the routine slips.  That’s when you appreciate having someone to remind you and if necessary to give you a nudge.  I often look around me in the waiting room at the Beatson and see frail, exhausted people and wonder how they manage to cope with their particular treatment program.  I can only pray that they have the same support as I have.  

Accepting your dependance on others is part of the cancer experience.  Quite simply no one could get through this on their own.  Apart from the skills and wisdom of the medical people there are so many practical needs that have to be met.  It is not advisable for me to drive at present so lifts to the Beatson have to be organised and friends have not been slow to step up.  Part of you feels a bit vulnerable.  Needing to be lifted and laid like this is not the way you like to think of yourself.  But there comes a time when you have to acknowledge and accept dependance.  And Jesus encourages us to embrace this wholeheartedly.  In John 21: 18-19 he sees the vulnerability of old age as being a metaphor for faithful Christian discipleship.  Jesus said to Peter:

 ‘Very truly I tell you, when you were younger you dressed yourself and went where you wanted; but when you are old you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will dress you and lead you where you do not want to go.”  Jesus said this to indicate the kind of death by which Peter would glorify God. Then he said to him, “Follow me!”’

Jesus making it clear that there will be times when Christian witness will emerge not from strength but from weakness, not from the best laid plans but the twists and turns of circumstance, not from the way we like to think of ourselves but the way we are.  In the end Jesus was taken, made subject to the hatred of  men, but establishing a pattern of service at the heart of Christian witness and it involves vulnerability.  Learning to place your life in the hands of God might not be all sunshine and rainbows, as Peter would discover,  but in the service of Jesus what we lose is our gain.   I think it was Dietrich Boenhoffer who said that when Christ bids a man follow he bids him come and die.  The default position of the disciple is to live according to the will of God, trusting in His good and loving purpose,  no matter the cost.  

Monday, 18 March 2019

Still Quarrying 12- Champion's Story.

This time might just be an opportunity to weed out books I don’t need.  That will be difficult.  As far as I am concerned every book is a prisoner.  Marie Kondo says unless you get a flash of joy when you handle something then you should get rid of it.  What if every book gives you that?  Yes it’s that bad.  I’m sure a psychologist would regard me as a suitable case for treatment.  Now and again, however, you might call to mind something you haven’t thought of for a while tucked away in a seldom disturbed corner of the study.  I don’t know when I last took out Champion’s Story but in its day it was a high profile cancer story with the best of endings.

Bob Champion was one of Britain’s top five jump jockey’s when, in July 1979, he discovered he had cancer in two parts of his body.  A particularly demanding course of treatment began that placed considerable pressure on all his resources and led to days of weakness and despair.  He came through and eventually rode Aldaniti to triumph in the 1981 Grand National.  As the strap line on the book says, it is the story of ‘A Great Human Triumph’.  It later became an inspiring movie with John Hurt in the lead role.   I think maybe that was a groundbreaker.  I can’t remember a mainstream movie prior to that which told a cancer story.  

Looking at my copy of the book I see I’ve marked off some passages.  One concerns the time when Bob was so debilitated and discouraged he wanted to stop the chemotherapy.  He is allowed to wander around the hospital to think things through and finds himself in the children’s ward.  He speaks to some of the patients, some as young as three years old, bald from the effects of chemotherapy:

‘It was a very important lesson in my life.  There was I moaning and groaning at the nurses and everyone, thinking only of myself, and downstairs those poor little kids were going through the same thing without complaining.  Seeing them was a turning point for me.  If they could take the treatment then so could I.’  

Another passage takes us forward to the successful end of the treatment.  Bob returns to the ward where he went through his worst of times:

‘I realise why the others don’t want to go back and I don’t blame them at all.  But I know how much it would have helped if I had seen an example to encourage me.  When you are lying there being sick every five minutes, fearing the worst, it must be a tremendous tonic to see someone who had come through it all looking well and healthy again.  I know it would have made a big difference  to me especially at the times I was close to giving up.’  

What we are dealing with here is the potential of lived experience to make a difference to others.  I remember visiting a lady in hospital who was to undergo an MRI scan.  She was very anxious about it since she had a tendency to claustrophobia.   I told her about my mother who had recently gone through this and managed to cope.   Later with the experience behind her the lady told me that everything had gone well.  She said: ‘I just kept remembering your mother.’  Knowing that someone had been there before her and come through had made a difference.  

I have to say that in the number of MRIs I have had in the last few years my mother is never far from my mind.  But there is Someone else whose presence I can realise.  Whoever wrote the Letter to the Hebrews was deep with the Spirit.  When he says ‘We do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathise with our weaknesses’ he may not have had MRIs, cancer or chemotherapy in mind but he speaks of our ‘weaknesses’, the things that make us feel less ourselves, that threaten to bring us to the end of ourselves.  For the High Priest has been there, completely exhausted, to the extinguishing of life itself.  So at the throne of grace we can receive everything that is needed for our worst of times.  (Hebrews 4: 15-16)  

I am grateful for people like Bob Champion who stand as an example of what can be endured and overcome at a human level.  But how much more encouraging to know that I have a God who is Emmanuel, ‘God With Us.‘    

Sunday, 17 March 2019

Still Quarrying 11 - 'Of Gods And Men.'

It lay for months cellophane wrapped on a pile of DVDs.  Maybe I just wasn’t in the mood for it.  The story of a group of French Cistercian monks in a mountainous region in Algeria becoming the victims of Islamist extremism.  I cracked it open yesterday however and felt that it was just waiting its moment.  It’s called Of God’s And Men and it’s a true story.   Slow paced, without spectacle, no incidental music and yet it leaves a lasting impression.  

The monks have been quietly serving a community, providing medical aid, living peaceably with local Muslims, studying and praying, when the shadow of Islamist terrorism falls upon them.  Their community is immediately under stress.  Almost paralysed with anxiety and doubt the monks have to make a decision to continue their work or return to France.  Opinion is divided and several seem to be on the verge of psychological breakdown.   Outside the community the pressure builds from local politicians and the military to abandon the work.    

Interspersed with scenes of personal anguish and intense discussion are times of worship when white-clad and still the monks sing together and pray.  An undercurrent of peace in the maelstrom of emotion.  In one scene the sound of a military helicopter intrudes on their worship and they stand as one, hands on shoulders, continuing their worship, bound together in their commitment to honour God above all.  

It is out of this fellowship in the Spirit that the resolution forms to stay as a witness to the love of Christ and if necessary to pay the ultimate price.  The test comes and it is hard to watch but you cannot escape the sense of fulfillment at the end of the struggle and the agony.  And not just for them.  When stories like this are told they have an impact.  

More than anything it is the worship that stays with me.  Under all kinds of pressure they continued and from this they gathered their strength.  I am constantly drawn back to Acts 1, the beginning of the community life of the Church, and reminded that before there was the outpouring of the Spirit and the powerful preaching and the miraculous healing there was a small group of people praying.  (Acts 1: 14)  From this there sprung that movement of people that was said to be turning the world upside down.  This is the end of our worship.  The hymns, prayers, preaching moving us to an engagement with Almighty God.  The cry in Psalm 42: ‘My soul thirsts for God, for the living God.  When can I go and meet with God?’  should never be far from our lips.  When our hearts are set in this way we can connect with the reality and the purpose of God, not just as satisfied individuals but as a people caught up in the divine surge towards the New Creation.  

I feel a bit like the Psalmist this morning as he remembers the days when he would lead the worship of God’s people ‘with shouts of joy and thanksgiving.’  I can’t be there and yes I am ‘downcast’ at the thought.  But I think of those who are there and pray that they have engaged with God this morning and that that will make a difference to our community and our nation and the world.  As for me, it is as it was for the Psalmist: ‘By day the Lord directs his love, at night his song is with me - a prayer to the God of my life.’  (Psalm 42: 8)

Saturday, 16 March 2019

Still Quarrying 10 - Crash!

Stories of an individual’s struggle against life’s challenges have become very popular in modern culture.  Sometimes dismissed as ‘Misery Memoirs’ they can undoubtedly bring some encouragement to those who are struggling with memories of abuse, present experience of illness or the constant grind of drug addiction.  Any indication that the sharp edges of human experience can be smoothed down and lived with are to be welcomed.  The problem is that for those on the outside there can develop an unhealthy interest in the dark side of life.  Someone has referred to this kind of book as ‘Misery Porn’.  I remember back in the day how avidly young Christians would devour books of former drug addicts who were wonderfully converted but who went into great detail about their former sordid lives.  I came to think that the attraction was was not all to do with the happy end.  

I never intended that this blog should become a Misery Memoir.  It helps me to feel more like myself if I am still quarrying and seeking to share what I am still gathering from God’s truth.  But days like today can be hard.  I realised more fully this week that any idea I had of continuing to work while undergoing this treatment was ridiculous naivety.  The problem is not the cancer but the cure - or rather the containment.  So far I have managed to avoid many of the unpleasant side effects I was told to expect.  No nausea, hair loss, stomach cramps, the list is endless.  It’s the tiredness that is the real challenge.  This is where vanity comes in but dragging this body on a short five minute walk that used to do three hard one hour sessions in the gym every week is hard to take.  

This is where the application of Christian truth can become a sheer act of will.  I have read Philippians 4: 11-13 constantly over the years.  I have meditated upon these words.  I have preached out of these words.  Now they have to kick in:

‘.... for I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances. I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want.  I can do all this through him who gives me strength.’

Paul says ‘I have learned . . .’  I have wanted to reflect Christ in my life but have not taken into account the means whereby His qualities might come to the fore.  I have to learn to be content with the circumstances presented to me knowing that this is part of God’s good and loving plan for me.  The call to be ‘content’ is not self-help advice.  It is a call to stand on the eternal truths that cannot be changed by circumstance and bring a strength that is beyond my own resources.  What are these truths?  Well, let’s start with the heart of the Gospel.  God thinks me worthy of the death of His Son.  That’s how He loves each one of us.  No wonder Paul could say that nothing will ever separate us from this love!  It’s the love that promises His presence in every circumstance, brings us forgiveness, the promise of union with the Father, the assurance of a place in the Eternal Kingdom.  Learn these things!  Learn their power!  The things that can never be changed.  

I wish I did not have to go through this time.  But if it means that I emerge with a fuller appreciation of the things that really matter, then perhaps with Paul ‘I will boast of the things that show my weakness.’  (2 Corinthians 11: 30.) 

Friday, 15 March 2019

Still Quarrying 9 - Buzzing With Hope!

It is not easy to be speaking about hope today.  49 people murdered and 20 seriously injured after two mosque shootings in Christchurch New Zealand - of all places.  When that is the first news you hear on switching on your radio it casts a shadow on the day. It also raises awareness of other atrocities going on across the globe which have dropped out of the news and are not receiving as much attention.   Humankind’s capacity for evil is powerful.  Sociologists, psychologists, philosophers, psychiatrists will continue to explore and seek to explain and it is right that they do so.  Eventually, however, they must come up against the unwelcome truth that humankind is a fallen species with a tendency to do the wrong thing, even to choose evil, and is in need of an influence outside itself to redeem and renew.  

It is no wonder that much contemporary fiction and cinema looks to the future with foreboding and dread.  Cormac McCarthy’s The Road sees a future where ecological disaster has rendered the civilised world barren and devoid of any technological comfort blanket.  Communities are fractured and people prey on one another in order to survive.  The worst of times does not bring out the best in people.  It’s one of those books I am glad to have read.  I admire McCarthy.  But I would find it hard to read that book again.  

Years ago a friend asked me if there were any contemporary authors who could be described as ‘optimistic’.  At that time, the late seventies, Saul Bellow was deemed to have a sunnier outlook than many but I really had to think about that.  Most of what was popular at the time seemed to reflect Henry David Thoreau’s view that ‘the mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.’  Not that I think we should distance ourselves from that.  That is a reflection of humankind without God and it is good to be in touch with it.  It is where we begin with humankind.  Alone without God and without hope.

Now and again there are glimmers.  It’s a while since I read Douglas Coupland’s Life After God but I remember the final impact very well.  Throughout the book he teases the reader that he has a secret which he will share in due course.  In the second last page he comes out with it:

‘Now - here is my secret:
I tell it to you with an openness of heart that I doubt I shall ever achieve again, so I pray that you are in a quiet room as you hear these words.  My secret is that I need God - that I am sick and can no longer make it alone.  I need God to help me give, because I no longer seem to be capable of giving; to help me to be kind, as I no longer seem capable of kindness; to help me love as I seem beyond being able to love.’  

I am not sure where this has led Douglas Coupland but it is significant that a life lived in ‘quiet desperation’ is looking beyond itself for fulfilment.  

One of the blessings of this present time for me personally is that I still have concentration to read.  As the day goes on things become a bit more difficult as the various medications kick in but it’s been good to catch up with some of the ‘trending’ stuff.  The History Of Bees  by the Norwegian author Maja Lunde is one for your list.  It is a novel that works on three different time lines in three different places: England 1851, United States 2007 and China 2098.  It can be read as three stories about families.  Parents expectations clash with children’s aspirations or lack of them, the effects of unforeseen disasters, the pain of lost dreams.  Bees are the big unifying theme and how three families were dependent on them for wellbeing and indeed survival.  The China sequences give a horrifying picture of a world without bees and the steps that have to be taken to artificially pollinate fruit trees  and crops.  

The three families live painful and apparently insignificant lives but in the end it is shown that they are part of a movement of connecting circumstances spanning the centuries that lead to an immense good for the whole planet.  In my experience it’s not often you get this kind of Big Story ( ‘metanarrative’ in today’s jargon) in modern fiction.  God is not explicitly mentioned except in a narrow, restrictive way in the England 1851 sequences but the vision of human history carrying a purpose which individual people may be unaware of but to which they contribute fits very well into a Christian perspective.  Paul speaks of life being like puzzling reflections in a mirror but the time will come when all will be made plain.  I love the idea of the small people in the story in their painful lives being made aware in the end of their contribution to an immense good.  

This is not to diminish the importance of recognizing the brutalizing effects of life for so many people and I have always distanced myself from the response of ‘pie in the sky when you die.’  But as we engage with the shadows that fall on human experience we also point to the light that is promised with the onward movement of our God, surging towards the New Heaven and the New Earth.  We are part of His Story.  

The Norwegian monk Eric Varden shares his spiritual journey in The Shattering Of Loneliness.  It is a quirky story in which many elements played a part to bring him to Christ.  One was listening to the music of Gustave Mahler:

‘I was alert to a palpable communion with mankind, which I saw before me as a suffering mass overshadowed by death.  Not to avert my gaze was a duty, I was sure: I had to have decency to see.  But a voice said within me: ‘not in vain’.  Mahler let me sense that one can face life without yielding to despondency or madness, since the anguish of the world is embraced by an infinite benevolence investing it with purpose.  Having encountered - recalled - this benevolence, I recognized it as a personal presence.  I wanted to pursue it, learn its name, discern its features.’  

From this Varden moved on to explore the Scriptures more deeply but his experience is at one with that of the poet and hymn writer William Cowper  who endured great personal suffering throughout his life:

God moves in a mysterious way, 
his wonders to perform; 
he plants his footsteps in the sea, 
and rides upon the storm.

Deep in unfathomable mines 
of never-failing skill 
he treasures up his bright designs, 
and works his sovereign will.

 You fearful saints, fresh courage take; 
the clouds you so much dread 
are big with mercy, and shall break 
in blessings on your head.

Judge not the Lord by feeble sense 
but trust him for his grace; 
behind a frowning providence 
he hides a smiling face.

Blind unbelief is sure to err, 
and scan his work in vain,
God is his own interpreter,
and he will make it plain.

We’ve come a long way from the bees but their story shows that even as we look forward to the renewal of the cosmos a foretaste can be experienced now bringing evidence of the ‘infinite benevolence‘ in which we are embraced.  In Steven Spielberg’s Ready Player One, another glimpse of a world in need of renewal, a character reflecting on how things have turned out is heard to say: ‘People stopped trying to fix problems and just tried to outlive them.‘   God is moving to fix everything and is calling men and women to get involved in the Great Project which will end when a Voice is heard: “I am making everything new!’  (Revelation 21: 5)

Thursday, 14 March 2019

Still Quarrying 8: The Gospel On Steroids.

I am having a surprisingly bright start to the day at present.  I think that’s down to the steroids I am having to take as part of the treatment.  They were a big factor in the Consultant’s insistence that I had to be off during this time.  I’ll never forget what he said: ‘Steroids have a tendency to make you a bit manic.  We can’t have you standing up in your pulpit and saying outrageous things.’  I had to laugh.  The St Paul’s congregation have  been well used to that over the last 31 years!  But he was making a serious point that I had to take on board.

Mind you the Gospel is an outrageous thing.  Think about it.  The death of one man has paid the price of the world’s sin; his resurrection from the dead is the only guarantee of life beyond death; upon him depends our quality of life now and our security in the life to come.  Outrageous - if we stick to it.  The pressure to let it go and make it less outrageous and less offensive has been there from the beginning.  Paul’s letters and those of the other apostles would not have been written unless there was a real and present danger that the core message was under threat of at least dilution or at worst obliteration.  And not from outside pressure but from within the Church.  

C.S. Lewis once wrote of ‘Christianity and water’, a version of Christianity when the message is watered down to make it more acceptable to the world at large.  I have sometimes referred to this as cappuccino Christianity, all froth and no substance.  No death to deal with my sin.  No hope of resurrection.  No purpose in suffering. No promise of a New Heaven and a New Earth.  Nothing to distinguish the message from any other of the myriad items on offer in the ever proliferating spiritual market place.  

During the Mission and Discipleship Report at last year’s General Assembly the matter of ministry recruitment was raised.  When it came time for questions an Elder from West Kilbride raised a recent report that a Church of Scotland Minister had stated publicly that to believe that Jesus died for our sins was ‘ghastly theology’.  Her question: ‘Are we so desperate for Ministers that we no longer require them to believe the Gospel?’  

I did not envy the Convener’s task in responding to that in an Assembly that does not merely differ in opinion but is divided in opinion.  But the point was well made.  

An early influence on my Christian development was a book by Os Guinness called The Dust Of Death.  I see from my inscription that it was bought in July 1974.  I admired the way Guinness connected with contemporary culture and addressed the challenges it posed to orthodox Christianity.  Also his use of modern literature and music to illustrate various themes was impressive.  He quotes in full a poem written by Adrian Mitchell who he describes as a frustrated atheist.  It is called ‘The Liberal Christ Gives An Interview.’  

I would have walked on the water
But I wasn’t fully insured
And the BMA sent a writ my way
With the very first leper I cured.

I would’ve preached a golden sermon
But I didn’t like the look of the Mount
And I would’ve fed fifty thousand
But the Press wasn’t there to count.

And the businessmen in the temple
Had a team of coppers on the door
And if I’d spent a year in the desert
I’d have lost my pension for sure.

I would’ve turned the water into wine
But they weren’t giving licenses
And I would have died and been crucified
But like – you know how it is.

I’m going to shave off my beard
And cut my hair
Buy myself some bullet-proof
I’m the Liberal Christ
And I’ve got no blood to spare.

It’s what happens when we put Jesus through the sieve of what we find acceptable.  What we are left with is merely a reflection of ourselves and our own particular needs.  I think I read somewhere that this is idolatry.  

Phew, I’m really cooking this morning.  But remember I’m on steroids . . .