It’s six months since my daughter died, during which these blogs have often been about her. I felt that these meditations were not private, but belonged in the community of faithful and questioning people. Now I am editing them, with some additions into a form that might be suitable for publication.

So once again I’m making a new start with this blog. It was originally intended to show that Jesus was just as “extreme” towards British or American values as any jihadist, only more fruitfully.

I think that has stayed with me. Most of my certainties about God are under question, as I continue to mourn and struggle to find any acceptable way of thinking about God. I want to be faithful to this questioning, which for the moment will continue privately.

On the other hand, I am fairly sure what I know about Jesus.

1. Jesus is against Trump, Putin and Orban. Why these, rather than Boris, Xi, Bolsonaro, Modi and the rest? Because in their different ways they have tried – and partially succeeded – in co-opting “Jesus” to their cause. Putin via his nauseating patronage of the Orthodox Church, Orban by his explicit attempt to create a Christian Hungary, and Trump with his encouragement of right-wing Christianity as his key supporters in the USA. Their use of Jesus is public, as is their corruption of branches of the Christian Church. Jesus did not support any of the Jewish political groups of his time, but was public about the demands of The Messiah King, that nations would be judged by what they did or failed to do, for the hungry and thirsty, for the stranger, for the sick, for the prisoners, for the destitute. This is stated quite clearly, that what they do or fail to do for these least important of Jesus brothers and sisters will be taken personally by The King, so much so that those who fail this test, regardless of their faith, will have their asses fried along with Satan and his troops. Amen. So listen up, Donald, Vladimir and Viktor, get your fireproof boxers ready, the Lord is waiting. But at least you won’t be alone, in the company of the millions of “Christians” who have supported you.

2. Of course all applies to every nation and person and those who think they meet the meet the King’s requirement, like me, should look at it pretty carefully, and ask what what we have actually done as opposed to what we have said. Jesus offers no forgiveness for those who choose to remain in sin. For all his reputation as a merciful saviour, all the most terrible judgements on those who pretend to have faith, come from him: “Not those who say Lord, Lord, but those who do the will of my father.” Jesus was not very religious, and was utterly unimpressed by piety.

3. As I say, I am not very sure about God at present, and therefore not too sure about the meaning of Jesus’ threats: just who will tend those toasty fires is a mystery. Another mystery is exactly how such threats match up with Jesus’ command to love enemies, and indeed his own prayer for the forgiveness of his crucifiers. I guess it’s obvious: there cannot be forgiveness of those who don’t want it. “The Reign of God has arrived; change your hearts; and trust in the joyful message.” Those who recognise the King and change their hearts, are invited to trust the joyful message of forgiveness, love and transformation. But for those who are blind to King Jesus, and who refuse to change, how can their be any forgiveness? God’s love is offered but they have rejected it. The offer is for all, but the enjoyment of God’s love is for those who accept it, even if they have been enemies of God and his children. In a word, this is to say that Jesus offered only love. He did not use any kind of force to make people go his way, but only tried to persuade them by word and action. Love is terrible because it leaves the decision with the beloved person.

4. But clearly enough, Jesus would tell me that I have to love Donald and the rest. Probably this rules out any glee about Jesus’ judgement upon them. So if I want to applaud while their fat sizzles, I cannot claim to belong to Jesus. Now that’s a bit awkward. And it doesn’t just apply to my enemies’ ultimate fate; it has to start now. “Love your enemies, pray for your persecutors”. Could I get off with praying that their asses get fried? Probably not. The command also means that in a political area polluted with all forms of bad- mouthing, God’s people should speak peacefully but definitely in the name of the real Jesus.

5. All this sounds a bit extreme to me.

Our daughter Eleanor died 21/04/ 2020

M:

You turned to me from looking at the summit view:

In a cloudless sky the sun without mercy

Seized in its light the sharp mountains

The dusty plain and the far sea.

We set out serenaded by cowbells

Eased ourselves above the flowers and bushes

Struggled over bare rock ridges

With sheer slabs where I needed your shooshes

To let you make your own away to the top.

I was elated, but in your smile was knowledge

That this was as good as it would get, you were unwell

And wouldn’t recover no matter the courage

With which you’d face going down. You were asking

Me to recognise this truth and hold it

In my heart, and not to hurt you with false hope.

Suddenly I was aware how cold it

Gets up there and failed your honesty thinking,

“I want to keep you as you are.”

But now at last I come to say goodbye

Most near, most dear, most loved, and most far.

Our daughter Eleanor died 21/04/ 2020

Me: No sooner have you told me that you were inaccessible than you reveal yourself in events far and near…..

E+: We want you to listen to us…

M: And who are you?

E+: We are what Eleanor and others have become, a shared life which you cannot conceive.

M: Eleanor is no more?

E+: Not at all. She is alive forever as part of us.

M: But she can’t speak?

E+: She will not speak as if this change had not happened. We are also God, sharing God’s splendour and suffering. Utterly remote from the world we are part of God’s love for it and presence in it. And in you.

M: In me?

E+: Yes. You are aware of this but mistake it as appearances of your daughter. The truth is stranger than you imagine. Your mind is so attuned to her that you are quick to spot any presence that includes her, and you address only her. But we are more than her and she is more than her former self.

M: And her precious human memory of moments and days in this world, that’s gone?

E+: I am more than my former self, not less, so of course I can remember all we shared in that life. And I can use your language of I and you when I speak, although I also know a better one. As I kept reminding you, all that has passed between us since I died is touched by your imagination, which is vivid but inadequate. There’s truth in what you’ve written, but in a disguised form. Think of these conversations as parables rather than descriptions.

M: So we’re back to the first question I asked: where will we meet?

E+: When you know us in yourself, in other lives, or in the physical universe, as we share in the work of perfection. These things will happen, but you cannot make them happen, nor can you know more of our lives than that.

M: That’s it?

E+: No, you can hope one day to be with us, when everything will be clear. So move on, get on with life, focus on mum, who has done without all this fussing and just grieved. Do good, work for justice, climb the hills, be grateful, love God.

M: Right! I can hear a tone that encourages me to obey. So I will move on. You were the greatest gift to your mum and me, and the greatest loss. But now I can say goodbye, until I come to you, if that happens.

E+: Or maybe sooner, if we come to you. And don’t waste your time looking for us; but if you do, remember my word to you:

M: What word?

E+: Piss off, Dad.

Our daughter Eleanor died 21/ 04/2020

M:

Forgive and in forgiveness please forget

The times that I neglected you

To focus on the love of God (my version)

And made you ask if I’d rejected you.

Forgive and in forgiveness please forget

My lack of praise for things

Well-done by you, my failure to provide

Encouragement to let your virtues sing.

.

Forgive and in forgiveness please forget

I did not set a good example

With booze but by my habit made it seem ok

One’s use of it be more than ample.

.

Forgive and in forgiveness please forget

My sometimes bitter fury

When you fouled up, my lack of sympathy,

My need to be both judge and jury.

.

Forgive and in forgiveness please remember

My inept love of you, and fear

You might be taken from me, child who was never

And will be never, less than dear.

Eleanor our daughter died 21/04/2020

This is not fake news, it’s my witness and my testimony

My scientific evidence, my affidavit:

When Donald Trump came out of hospital and saluted

Announcing to the nation he was macho-fit

I saw you meet him in the White House hallway

Guide him with your strong black fingers

To a comfortable sofa to get his breath back

Then throw him a disruptive zinger:

“You’ve always been so worried about the size of your willy.”

Yes, it was an elegant black lady

But definitely you, your voice, your wit, your sad

Compassion as you made the

President see himself for once without fear. I was

Applauding you by name, El! El!

Last week, I’d just parked the car in the driveway

When my nose caught the pungent smell

Of the three dogs, one old, one young, one lame

All rescued by the polish woman

Who lives nearby. As I sat on the stone wall

To greet them – I swear this is another true one –

I saw my arms were your arms, open to them

my hands your hands tickling their floppy

Ears, my mind your mind comprehending

Their dogliness. Nothing could stop me

Looking over my shoulder to catch your eye,

Breaking the spell. And yet I knew my daughter

As certainly as from the shore I know

The presence of a porpoise in the water

By its back. I cannot make this happen,

Nor anticipate it in the flow

Of time, but am grateful and acknowledge

A quiet way of saying hello.

Our daughter Eleanor died on 21/04/ 2020

M:

There’s still a can of diet coke in the fridge which you must have put there. I notice it every time I open the fridge, reminding me of your absence, and, also however, of your presence. I haven’t been able to throw it out, because it’s a remnant, an enduring fragment, of you.

– by the way, I’m assuming you’re not wanting to speak, but if you do, just interrupt me. I’ll be delighted –

Just this morning I was tidying a shelf in the cupboard where I keep my climbing gear, and a newish glove fell down. When I picked it up I recognised it as your Christmas present to me, last year. It’s a proper climbing glove marketed by Rab, the well-known outdoor clothing firm. It is of course, made in China. But I noticed another more surprising fact about it: it contains “non-textile parts of animal origin”. I guess you didn’t notice this, as you normally worked very hard to exclude any clothing that used animals. Or maybe you thought it was OK for me because I’m more careless, although I agree with your principle?

In any case I probably won’t use them much as they share with many other smart gloves the infuriating fault that when wet you can’t get your hands out of the glove without getting the lining as well. If this happens on a mountain, in the cold, it can be dangerous as well as fiddly. But they are of course a remnant of you, a reminder of the care you took over all sorts of occasions, festivals, birthdays, anniversaries, life-events, and not just for family but for friends as well. You spent time, and money of which you had little, trying to make your gifts appropriate and intimate. To this end also, you bought greeting cards whenever you could, especially ones that chimed with your own indecorous humour. I’m sure that years into the future I and many others will still be coming across the lively tokens of your love.

I think these gifts mattered to you because the relationships mattered, but due to your illness you worried that you might not have been able to maintain the best courtesies of friendship. Maybe you’d been out of touch, hadn’t been fit to keep an appointment, not replied to an email. You wanted therefore to re-assure your dear ones that you did value them. Perhaps also you wanted them/us to reassure you that you were valued. I hope we all did so.

As you see, I’m still talking to you, rather than about you. I hope that wherever you are, this is not noted to your discredit. “Well, Eleanor Jane, some of your earthlings are still mumbling away as if you’re in the next room. Primitive, really.”

So, honest, yes, I know there’s no social medium between me and you, but I still trust that in the unity of the One Love, it is possible to give and receive. Or is that wishful thinking?

M:

I take it you’re still not speaking…………….

Yes, I know you told me that my imagination of you was moved by a reluctance to accept your death, and I have accepted that. Still I wonder if my imagination was 100% wrong, particularly as the command to move on was issued in your voice. Perhaps I imagined that as well?

Still, I’ll do as I’ve been told, and write about memories rather than imaginations.

It was after I had officiated at the funeral of a teenager, Greig Stewart, who died from a drug overdose, that I suggested we might establish a group for young people involved in using illegal drugs. I was then the parish minister of Douglas housing estate in Dundee, where the drug trade was a big problem. When I said “we” I meant that I would provide institutional support while you provided adult friendship. In this way The Greig Stewart Experience came into being as a registered charity, and you became the inventor of a range of new experiences for young people that might lead them to safer ways of being themselves.

The name Greig Stewart was successful in attracting initial interest from young people, but providing activities that held the group together was entirely your doing. They could tell that you weren’t a conventional church or community youth leader: you were on their side, as someone who had made her own mistakes, and was still coping with her own problems. You had a great and intelligent sympathy for people in trouble, which they sensed without feeling pitied or patronised.

That’s not to say that you didn’t have good professional skills also:

*you learned names quickly and never forgot them

*you were good at persuading people who could unlock resources for group activity to do so

*You could imagine what sorts of activity would appeal to the group from art exhibitions to army assault courses

*when the group misbehaved you accepted public blame on their behalf

*You knew that conversation with members of the group was more valuable than any activity and always seized the opportunity for it.

The group existed for two years, during which young people came to love you, and you them. They had many new experiences which helped them grow, while articulating their hurts, needs, fears and hopes. Out of the thirty odd people involved in the group, one died, but others moved on to new stages of their lives in education or work.

You also were ready to move on.

I have seen many church and community projects in the course of my ministries, but I never seen anything approaching GSE in honesty, risk-taking and love-sharing. I think that I may not have made this clear to you at the time. I hope that you know it now.

Jeanette, Greig Stewart’s mother, appreciated what you were trying to do. She has had so many illnesses I always expect her to have died, yet the other day, there she was at Sainsbury’s, asking warmly for my lovely daughter. You couldn’t help her son, but she was happy to have permitted his name to be used for something special.

Eleanor our daughter died 21/04/2020

Barn

It is one of those autumn days where the dull light

Lets everything stand out as it is;

From the late forget-me-nots across the red ploughed

Field to the farmhouse, the eye misses

Nothing and enjoys the lot. I say hello and again hello

To Romanian fruit-pickers passing

Then hear a bird call whee-oo, and again whee-oo;

From elder scrub or long grass it sings

As if hoping for reply, but there is none. I’ve been

Listening so intently, I step in a puddle

Off -balance squelching the brown water over

My legs and I guess the mud will

Not easily be deleted from my socks.

Whee-oo it calls from a new location,

Nearer me, and I wait companionably

With my invisible musician

For a responding phrase, but no, only the yelp

Of the buzzard circling the acres

Provokes an alarm from sparrows then silence.

I tell my bird to hide from the breaker

Of necks, as I turn past the brick battlement

Of a mighty barn. Whee-oo it sings, I reckon

Close by, and whee-oo (oh yes) another voice resounds.

But how will it tell an answer from an echo?

The Insufficiency of Revelation

The absence of God

While the scriptures often admit that God is not doing his job, they nearly always return to praising his timely help:

God is our refuge and our strength

A very present help in time of trouble

Yes, but they also admit that there are more troubles than there should be, and that sometimes God seems to be off duty for a long time. And if the experience of God’s prophets is anything to go by, we might say that God is a very absent help in time of trouble, which sounds blasphemous but no more than the words of Jesus, “ My God, why have you abandoned me?” which are of course a quotation from Psalm 22.

Because the absence of God is so seldom explicit in the Bible, the reader can easily ignore it. So, in the good news of Jesus’ resurrection, it’s easy to forget his abandonment, easy indeed to turn an instrument of Roman brutality into a device of salvation. To his credit, St. Paul never pretends that the cross is comfortable: “we are crucified with Messiah,” “if we share his sufferings, we shall also share his splendour.” Even Paul, however, is shy of mentioning the absence of God.

Some theologians will object that what I am talking about is the absence of a humanly- constructed deity who does what people want. Any time I hear that stuff I want to face them with the words of Jean Barr whose teenaged daughter died of cancer, “ Honest, I didnae expect a miracle, but I did hope he might be near tae me and even more tae wee Julie, but I’m telling you, there wisnae a whisper.” That’s a more faithful witness that all the hallelujah gang claiming special intervention. Tell it to Jean Barr is my response.

In fact, once we start to admit the absences of God, we realise how many pious stories, prayers and strategies are simply ways of evading this truth. People are trained to “feel the presence” because, left to themselves, they would report honestly that God’s not usually around.

The great teacher of the absence of God is the 20th century German pastor and martyr, Dietrich Bonhoeffer.

“God is teaching us that we must live as humans who can get on very well without God. The God who is with us is the God who abandons us. The God who makes us live in this world without using God as a working hypothesis is the God before whom we stand. Before God and with God we live without God. God allows himself to be edged out of the world and on to the cross. God is weak and powerless in the world, and that is exactly the only way in which he can be with us and help us.”(Letters and Papers from Prison)

The wonder and courage of that utterance has been with me ever since I first read it 60 years ago, informing my discipleship and ministry. More lately since the death of my daughter another teaching of Bonhoeffer has become real to me:

“There is nothing that can replace the absence of a dear one, and we should not even try to do so. One must simply hold out and endure it. At first that seems hard but it is also a great comfort, for to the extent that the emptiness remains unfilled, we remain connected to the other person through it. It is wrong to say God fills the emptiness. God in no way fills it, but leaves it precisely unfilled, and so helps us preserve the relationship even at the cost of pain.” (Letters and Papers)

In spite of all I have said above, when my daughter died, I looked for comfort and found it in the sense that she was alive in the resurrection life. I imagined her in that life still communicating with me. I felt a gap and filled it with my child’s life in God. I realise that this was an unfaithful way of trying to smuggle her back into the world. Being faithful to her means making sure that the gap is kept unfilled. The dear one who is with me is the one who abandons me. Sure, like Dante or C S Lewis I am allowed to make up stories of resurrection life, but it must be clear that they are stories which point towards what cannot be known.

I should also probably abandon my fantasies of resurrection life for the vivid and painful memories of her life before death, for if she is indeed alive with God, she is not here. Perhaps there is a way of telling true stories about that life, as Dante has done, but then the storyteller must respect the gap and the mystery.

God helps me in two ways: firstly by being absent and leaving me to cope, for this is human stuff and God respects the capacity of his children to deal with what is theirs; secondly however, God is available to me as the word made flesh, in the weakness of Jesus and his church, and of those through whom his spirit speaks and acts. The bible, the congregation, the presence of my wife, are effective transmitters of the care of the present/ absent God.

The edge

Our daughter Eleanor died 21/04/2020

M:

Suddenly it seemed you were telling me to piss off

And let you be dead; then you went incommunicado

Like a disconnected phone, leaving me

Still trying your number, too sad to

Stop. Now I question all our contact since your death:

Was our dialogue my own invention only

And you, my dear, a character in a play

Designed to make me feel less lonely?

I knew the words were mine yet hoped I’d heard them

Spoken from the other bank of the river.

It was too easy, I guess I hadn’t reckoned

With the cold wind that makes me shiver

To be a walker on this edge from which so easily

We fall to nothingness. Do something, God,

I shout, prove yourself, for if there’s no

Resurrection, you don’t exist. What sod

Could make a world like this without a heaven

For millions whose lives are only pain? “Facts,

You must start with the facts, the facts are friendly,

Even when they show the odds are stacked

Against you, they also bring your hope of healing.”

So let me accept that you are my late

Daughter, and say a true goodbye and weep

And learn how to be quiet, and to wait.