Starlit darkness…

The stars are out.

And Michaela reminded me of a discussion we had a few years ago about the mystery of God. It stemmed from me quoting Gregory of Nyssa, who apparently said something like this-

The move towards God is a journey into Holy darkness.

It really resonated with me- it spoke of the mystery of God, and the presence that we often feel in open spaces. It also spoke to me of a process of unknowing that I was experiencing at the time- a loosening of absolutes and a discovery of faith that is no longer built from stones, but is made up of reflected flecks of light.

The first collection of writing I put together was called ‘Blue Dark‘ because of old Gregory… and because of a lovely poem by our friend Susan.

At the time of our discussion, some of my friends (and Michaela) did not get it. God is LIGHT not darkness they said. Darkness is about fear and loneliness…

Then Michaela had this encounter with starlight.

And, unusually for her, wrote a lovely poem. I thought it time to reproduce it here, along with some photo’s taken this evening…

Starlit darkness

In the darkness
Is a childhood fear
Safe from one streetlight
To the next
Fear locked away
Till I am again
Out alone
No streetlights to rely on

In the darkness
Is no hope
No mystery
At best nothingness
At worst a nightmare
Waiting to happen

But then you talk
Of the starlit darkness
And I remember for a moment
The fear
The quick steps up our hill
Only to stop halfway
Breath taken by the beauty
Eyes lifted heavenward
Thankful for the big sky
Eyes searching something familiar
But yet awesome

No more fear
Only wonder
At the beauty of the darkness
That brings out the stars.

Michaela Goan
December 2007


Happy Birthday Emily!

My lovely daughter is 14.


We had a lovely day- a lazy breakfast, followed by present opening and telephone thanking. Then lunch out, followed by an afternoon of friends and a house full of teenage girls for the evening party.

Emily had a ‘masquerade’ party- everyone wore masks, and played a version of charades called ‘masquerade’. Then they watched a film on the big screen, and shouted and giggled a lot.

Bless them all.

And this prayer becomes ever more urgent, as our kids grow away from us, and into their own future…

Happy birthday Emily. You are special.

From the ferry…

Yesterday we took a trip over the Clyde.

It is a very ordinary trip to us- we do it all the time. We go to the bottom of our drive, turn left and after about 200 yards, there is the terminal.

The rhythm of the ferries in their back and forward battle with the tides is the backdrop to our lives here. The lights pass comfortingly by on wet stormy nights, and on still morning you can hear the safety information announcement clearly floating in the air as we lie in bed, wrapped up warm whilst the commuters head for the city.

Yesterday was ordinary.

But there is beauty in the ordinary.

There are fragments of wonder.


Advent arrives…

So, today is the first day of Advent.

It is also Emily’s birthday! (More on that later!)

As part of my journey through Advent, I am going to use a comic-book-calendar version of the nativity, by the wonderful Si Smith (see here for 40, more of his art.)

The calendar is available for download from Proost- here, along with all sorts of other advent materials. Go on- it’s worth it!

Here is number one, to wet the appetite…

Asylums, churches, and the retreat of the institution…

I was in Lochgilphead today, with a series of meetings- including one at Argyll and Bute hospital. The building dates from 1862, and is one of the very few Victorian ‘lunatic asylums’ still in use today.

Lovely old building it might be, but it is a total anachronism. Built to house hundreds of patients from all over this area, only a handful of the original wards are still open, whilst the cost of maintaining the structure eats away at resources desperately needed by community services more fitted to present day understanding of treatment and support of people experiencing mental ill health. It is hoped that a new purpose built facility will (hopefully) replace it soon…

It stopped raining today, and I decided to take the camera into the woods at lunchtime.

I walked into a forest that until recently was managed by a woodland project run by patients from the hospital. The project has lost it’s funding now, as patient numbers have dwindled, and as segregated projects like this are now regarded as a potential obstacle to recovery, as they are not supportive of integration back into the community.

It was lovely though…

The subject I was chewing on as I walked, was the huge change that this areas has seen. The hospital was built as a means of providing what was regarded as much needed humane treatment of ‘lunatics’ and ‘idiots’. These very terms are now insulting and offensive, but at the time the hospital was progressive, impressive and planned to ‘scientific’ principles.

Even the trees I walked in were planted as a means of sheltering (or perhaps hiding) the hospital.

Evidence of the attempts to use the forest as a resource were everywhere- the notices describing different trees, the carvings, the rough wooden tables- and this…

I think it was built to make the best of a view, but in effect, it stands as a temporary monument to a rather meaningless industry.

A bridge into nowhere.

The people that made it are no longer in the hospital. I hope and pray their lives are rich and meaningful, and that the time spent working in these woods is a happy memory. But the fact is, such forms of occupational therapy are no longer part of common psychiatric practice.

And I thought of that other late Victorian institution that I am so familiar with- the modern protestant church. The buildings that were the places of the Protestant institutions still adorn all of our towns and cities- many are lovely too. Most of them are just as empty as this old hospital.

The parallels are pretty obvious. What both offered was good- perhaps even the best of what was possible in their day. They were raised with such energy and optimism. They changed the landscape of their times.

But as time passed, the rituals and routines that they followed became less and less in tune with the wider world. In some case, it was even toxic– what started off as an enclave of hope, became a backwater, where lives stagnated. Escaping such situations can be so very hard…

And what industry there is continued to look towards the institution. It was contained within the stone walls and the boundary fences.

And bridges were built to nowhere.

There will be a new hospital soon, which will not be perfect- there will be more compromises, more challenges- but we hope that the focus will shift to outside these old stone walls and into our homes and houses- where real lives are situated.

I kind of hope the same for church…


In her beautiful response to this piece, Aileen reminded me of the following verse

But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.”  Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me. That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong.

2 Corinthians 8:8-10

Which set me thinking again.

About the God of all things who seems drawn to humble broken people.

There is a danger that we come to be familiar with a certain kind of weakness, and wear it like a badge- we are after all called into a transformative encounter with the Spirit of God.

But still, we only find this encounter in- weakness. When our own ways of coping run out, and we let go the hunger to possess, to overcome, to self actuate.

Listen to me- like I have got this sorted!

Time for a poem I think…


A bruised reed may not break
But still it withers
So it is that sometimes
I fear these wounds
Are terminal
I grasp for the shreds of my own strength
And hunger for soul shrinking success
That comes and yet is never enough
What is this power
Made perfect
In weakness?
Could it be that the mess of me
Might yet be compost
And seeds you sow
Will grow?

A bit of respite from the storms- Bruce Cockburn…

It has been so wet and wild here all week. Storms and very heavy rain.

I had a wild drive to Lochgilphead today- roads awash, wipers on high speed. The Royal Navy sheltering in Loch Fyne- grey on grey.

In these dark days and long nights, we tend to close down and retire to the fireside with our thoughts. It can be so oppressive.

What we need is something beautiful to light up the soul. So here is a bit more of my favourite musician/poet, singing of a longing for something beyond…

Vodpod videos no longer available.

more about “respite from the storms- Bruce Cockbu…“, posted with vodpod


Mental illness and spirituality…

I had a good chat with our friend Kathryn tonight about spirituality and mental health problems.

Kathryn has been studying with ICC in Glasgow and has a passion for working with people who have problems with mental illness. To this end, with her husband Bobby she has been running a furniture recycling/reallocating project- in her spare time that is, as well as her day job!

She also has this idea for a kind of friendship group where people who have mental health problems (and lets face it, this is many of us at some point in our lives.) This has formed part of her studies, and tonight was a chance for us to talk through some of this stuff- which was great, not just because it was good to see Kathryn again, but also because this subject kind of beats in my heart.

The bias that I feel Jesus had towards the poor and broken, and the hope that we feel for a new way of being- categorised by grace, and radical inclusion, according to the rules of the New Kingdom- these things are all in there for me.

As part of her project, Kathryn asked me to consider some questions- which I found surprisingly hard to answer given that this is an area of constant reflection. In particular she was interested in how church might provide help and assistance to people experiencing mental ill health.

Here are some of the things that I was chewing on-

I want to suggest that all of us are potential sufferers of mental ill health- including many people within church. We too easily start with an ‘I’m OK, you are not OK’ way of thinking- which leads us to believe that we have the answers to other people’s problems. Perhaps in part, we might actually be part of the cause!

We often fail to acknowledge MH difficulties amongst people within church- the stigma is as strong, if not stronger, against mental ill health within church as without- because we add assumptions about spiritual weakness to all the other negative assessments.

Another assumption we tend to make is that our job as Christians is primarily to bring people inside the club by making them realise that they are outside. Our job then easily becomes to invite people into our buildings, and hope they will then become like us. The support available within church for people who have MH problems has often been far from perfect, and very poorly integrated with other community resources.

Christian groups/churches seeking to support and provide care for people experiencing mental ill health easily fall into lots of traps. I would include some of these-
The evangelical trap- Our real (covert) motivation is to convert. Most folk see this coming and run a mile. Some may indeed convert- repeatedly. The difficulty is that conversion does not make the illness go away, and we may find ourselves being dishonest and conditional in the way we offer love and support.
The therapy trap- Christians tend to do bad therapy. Bad therapy often does more damage. It is easy to inadvertently be the ‘expert’ and then let people down when we fail to deliver.
The dependency trap- Sustaining relationships with people who have experienced real damage can be extremely hard. If people find something that is helpful and supportive, it can easily become a full stop. The dependency that begins can be an impossible burden for those running groups also, leading to broken promises and further alienation and rejection.

My strong feeling is that Christians ought to be attracted to failure, rather than being seduced by success.  I also believe that Jesus calls us to the poor in spirit.

But I am not sure that he calls us to ‘rescue’ people- rather that he asks us to practice a form of radical inclusion.

I think too that all streams of ‘therapy’ have a thing at the heart of them- for CBT it is about therapeutic allegiance, for person centred counselling it is ‘unconditional positive regard’ and for psychoanalysis it is ‘transferance’. All these seem to me to carry something of Jesus about then- they are related to LOVE. They are in some senses a Christian heresy.

I wonder whether we might yet work out how better to understand the relationship between Spirituality and mental health problems? Is this something that Emerging Church might yet do better?

To accept that our fallability is not a sign of individual weakness, or spiritual corruption, or demonisation. It is just part of who we are.

Part of what it is to be human. Even extra-human.