Friday, 27 February 2009

An atmosphere of fear

On Wednesday I was at a credit-crunch seminar. No, it was nothing to do with my copious investments (aye, right! as they say), but was designed to help ministers understand the present world of banks and redundancy. We were told how things are in the financial world and how things are likely to be in the near future; not pleasant listening. How can we help? That is the question. People are afraid for their jobs -how many will be made redundant next week? How many businesses will simply disappear because they can no longer keep going? How much further will our investments drop and if we depend on this for our pension, how will we pay the bills?

I was reading a Bible study note this morning on the story of Jesus walking on the water, the version in John's gospel. Elaine Storkey was reflecting on the feelings of the disciples as they struggled across the Sea of Galilee in the boat before Jesus arrived walking on the water. She coined the phrase 'the atmosphere of fear' to describe the way in which they must have felt. Perhaps there was nothing specific on which to put their finger; perhaps they were just uneasy about what would happen next; perhaps they were really terrified that they were about to drown. She even suggested that Jesus' appearing out of the darkness would add to that atmosphere of fear to begin with; was this a ghost?

There are all kinds of things that can create that atmosphere of fear around our lives:
  • the present job situation is a clear example of something that makes people afraid, even if there is no direct threat. No-one is immune. Solicitors, estate-agents, people who work in banks and other financial institutions are the most obvious jobs under threat, but they are not the only ones; how many teachers will the local authorities be able to employ? how do young people, school-leavers and graduates, get a foothold on the job ladder?
  • You don't need to be around Churches for very long to realise that lots of Churches in Scotland are living in fear of their future. I was speaking to someone who is a member of a Methodist Church in Edinburgh; their congregation is about to disappear, merged into one big city congregation based in Central Halls at Tollcross and afraid of what that will mean; he is very unhappy at the prospect. I will spend next Saturday in Fort William, helping a set of Churches in Lochaber face up to the uncertainties and fears of their future.
  • there must be an atmosphere or uncertainty around the City Council in Edinburgh at the moment. Will the trams ever be finished? (Incidentally, who thought it was funny to suggest that we need to keep the tram project 'on track'? Ha, ha!) Some people are finding it hard not to smile from ear to ear, with a sort of 'I-told-you-so' face.
  • Life!

Into that atmosphere of fear, comes what Tom Wright, Bishop of Durham calls the most common command in the bible: "Don't be afraid" How can we not be afraid? Life creates fear in our minds! Jesus tells His disciples not to be afraid, but He gives them one very good reason why they should not be afraid - "I am with you; it's me!" This is not a pious platitude, but for people of faith, this is the other reality of life. Jesus is with us in all our fears, and in all our joys. Jesus' presence helps dispel that atmosphere of fear; His power to sustain, His love to support us - these qualities are at work in us and in our world today.

Friday, 13 February 2009

The winter of our discontent

Winter: you love it and you hate it. The first snowfall of winter has children out sledging and building snowmen, but it tends to bring disruption to roads, airports and train services. The camera comes out to take pictures of the snow because it has a beauty to it, but this week I have also been the target for snowballs as some children waited for the school bus. On Tuesday, I went to Lendrick Muir to lead a seminar on mission with some of the Regional Staff teams and on the way I stopped at Loch Leven to take photos because the loch was frozen over; it was quite a sight to behold, the first time it had been like this since the 1950's apparently; but also this week there were reports of at least one child dying after falling through thin ice on his local pond.

Winter: you love it and you hate it. It is nice to look at, but it can be dark and depressing; if you are old and frail when you can become isolated for the duration of the snow and ice because the wise thing to do is to stay indoors. The sledging and snowballs are fun, but there are people caught on the mountains who die in the cold. Why do Councils grit roads that are dry and on which there is no snow and ice, only later to run out of grit and salt when it really matters?

Lest this become a complaint about the weather (Victor Meldrew, eat your heart out!) let me turn this into a reflection on another idea. I once had a conversation with Jim Graham, who for many years was the pastor of Gold Hill Baptist Church in Chalfont St Peter's and a renowned speaker (and I was at university with his daughter and shared a flat with his son-in-law), in which he introduced me to the notion that Churches go through seasons. There are times when Churches are strong and enthusiastic and everything is growing well (as in summer), and lots of new initiatives are put into place, but there are also times when Churches find life hard, when people grow tired and weary, when they want to shed responsibilities rather than take on new things, when it is time to stop certain activities and when it seems to be enough to keep the ordinary things going.

I wrote something of this in an article in Church News last year, in which I said that I could see signs of this in our Church at that time. Some people wanted to give up doing the jobs they were doing; in Church we're not very good at allowing people to give up without a sense of guilt and failure, but we should be better at it. Why can we not simply let a person retire in peace and with our thanks, without making them feel guilty because we will find it hard to get someone else to do the job? All is not gloom and doom; it wasn't then, it isn't now; there are people taking on new responsibilities and new ideas are being pursued in order to build the Church for the future.

Here are some thoughts:

  • at the St Margaret's Court service on Thursday, the visitors from outside the complex outnumbered the residents by a ratio of 4:1. Is it time to draw a graceful line under this event because it is no longer meeting a need for the place and its people? It worked for a time, but is that time past?

  • Last year, Colin Anderson gave up as our Christian Aid organiser. In the 6 months since then, no-one has volunteered to take it on. Does that mean that we should stop the door-to-door collection? The sponsored walk hasn't happened now for at least 2 years. There is anecdotal evidence to suggest that door-to-door collections for Christian Aid are actually becoming more and more difficult, if not even dangerous! Should we focus our efforts on other things?

Here's a quote from a booklet by Robert Warren, now retired, but once the Church of England's national Officer for Evangelism. The first of his writings that I read was a booklet called Building Missionary Congregations published in 1995 and now out of print. In that booklet he writes: "Such a challenge calls the Church to move out of the guard's van, where we are looking back over the distant and disappearing peaks we have passed (or desperately clutching the brake to slow down the pace of change at every point). We are to get out of the guard's van, recover our nerve and re-discover our true role in the vanguard of society, shaping the new world order in and after the likeness of Christ... through incarnate exposition - both of our words and our lives."

We are meant to be a pilgrim people, but we keep parking up, saying 'here will do just fine!'

Wednesday, 4 February 2009

Polish graffiti

When I was on the 44 bus the other day, I saw some graffiti in Polish on a wall in Dalry Road. At least I took it to be Polish; it was certainly in some East European language. It caught my eye and I reacted in two different ways. My first reaction was horror that this new blank wall had been spoiled by graffiti and that always makes me recoil. The second reaction was different: I was completely taken aback by the fact that it was in Polish. I've known there were Polish people in Edinburgh for ages; you'd need to have been on a desert island for years not to know that, but till now they have not taken to spoiling Edinburgh with graffiti. Mind you, Prague (which I know is not in Poland, but there is an East European connection in my mind!) is one of the places I've visited that is most spoiled by graffiti.

Today, I heard about the extensive vandalism to the new Primary School in Juniper Green. If you haven't heard, you'll find a report in the Evening News of 4th Feb 2009. The school was broken into sometime on Thursday night/Friday morning of last week and an estimated £10,000 worth of damage was done to worktops and sinks, with paint sprayed over the walls. Nothing was stolen, it appears, but this is just another example of wanton damage.

In Hall 2 of the Church buildings, we have on display a set of photographs from last year's summer mission. There is a long, yellow piece of paper with photos on it and captions describing the action. This display always attracts the attention of the children who come into the hall; they see themselves and remember the good times they had during the summer, or they see their friends. Yet, there are people who deliberately pull photos off; the pictures cannot come off on their own, but there are now four missing because someone has picked them off the display. We have them and will replace them, but that is not my point.

How do I react when I see these things?
  • I have to admit that I'm angry. It seems to me that people behave unjustly when they do things like this; some people spoil things for others and have no sense of responsibility or respect. So I am angry when people behave like this. I think I'm justified in being angry because I see that kind of reaction in Jesus when he saw people behave in a similar way in the temple and threw them out.
  • At the same time, I am sad to see such things happen. Graffiti, vandalism, damage are so pointless. They achieve nothing other than spoiling things for others. It saddens me that people think this is a good idea.
  • When people behave in these ways, I am convinced all over again of the need for people to hear the gospel and come to faith in Jesus Christ. Only Jesus can heal people on the inside. We need to tell our grandparents, our parents, our children, our grandchildren, our great grandchildren, our friends the good news of Jesus Christ.

The first lot of Polish graffiti has been cleaned off. They say that the new school will open on time. We have the photos to put back on our display. However, I'd hope and pray that people will learn to behave responsibly, with care and concern for the needs of others, with respect.

Amos, the prophet, saw a great deal of injustice in his world. His hope, prayer, even his dream was put into words: "Let justice roll on like a river, righteousness like an ever-flowing stream!" (Amos 5:24) Perhaps that's not a bad dream for us.