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.

Our daughter Eleanor died 21/04/2020

Statue of Bud Neill characters in Glasgow

E:

I am not alive as I have been imagined.

When Bud Neill invented his characters Rank Bajin

And Lobey Dosser he never thought they really existed;

But when you imagine me alive in heaven you’ve twisted

Memories together with theology to make me as real as

Donald Trump or Boris Johnson or the wee lass

Who tends the early morning till at Tesco’s, who are in

The world and make a difference to it. Not me. No sin

or grace of mine makes anything worse or better.

I am not alive as I have been. I am neither giver nor getter,

Lover nor hater. The particulars of my character are scattered

With the ashes of my body, becoming part perhaps

Of some other assemblage of life, which will itself collapse

Into dissolution also. Death is the mother of beauty, the glory

Of life is its balance on the edge of nothingness, my story

Has a beginning and an end; surely it’s good after

All the fights to say R.I.P.? And if there were laughter

Too, and beauty, to say Well Done? But the griever

Wants to continue what has finished, and becomes a deceiver

If he thinks the phantoms of his grief are real. Leave me!

I am not. The pronoun that named the beautiful bundle

Of molecules that was me, applies to nothing now. Wonder

At its loveliness, mourn its fragility, but let it, as it must,

Go and cease to be, like all the productions of dust.

The tree on Rannoch Moor

Our daughter Eleanor died on 21st April of this year

Me: Of course we’d been on holiday without you before, but not without you being on this earth. We’re in Ballachulish where the only good day saw me on the first summit of Beinn a Bheithir, lacking the strength to go any further. If you’d been with me, I might have refused to admit I was knackered and maybe gone on.

El: Considering how often in recent years I’ve had to admit my weakness, that would’ve been daft. But big boys have their pride.

M: We’ve seen so many of your West Highland landmarks in the last week: the Cafe at Tyndrum, the track to Inveroran, the tree growing through the rock on Rannoch Moor, the Kingshouse Hotel, Buachaille Etive Mor, the Horse Riding School at Glen Creran. We even stopped at the Wide-Mouthed Frog Cafe. It’s been a bit of a pilgrimage really.

E: Are you blaming me for being dead?

M: No, certainly not. Yet I remember that you did say often enough that you wanted to die. I suppose I saw that as drama, as a provocation. But maybe it was your real wish?

E: You know as well as I do how hard it is to be sure of your real wish. But I don’t think I was grandstanding. It was more…..more factual: I was an addict who couldn’t or didn’t want to give up her addiction, which did such damage that my body was packing up on me. And I was in constant pain from osteoporosis and stomach ulcers, that the thought of an end to it all was quite attractive.

M: And as I understand, you thought heaven was a fairy tale, so really you were looking forward to nothingness?

E: When you’re in constant pain, nothingness can seem very attractive, but truthfully I thought God might have something better in store for me. I wasn’t suicidal, however. I knew you had to wait your turn.

M: Pain is strange. It tells a body – of a woman, a bird, a tree- “this is harmful, don’t do it,” and yet many joyful achievements in sport, the arts, giving birth, struggling for justice, involve pain.

E: The suffering teaches us compassion and the painful achievement teaches us fortitude. Both have their counterparts here. Although we have no suffering of our own, we suffer out of compassion with the worlds; and we have opportunities to grow which still require fortitude. For example, I am still learning to be myself without booze.

M: We are still learning to be ourselves without you. Although often, like in this holiday, you are never far away.

E: I am infinitely far away, like God, and therefore able to be near.

M: Can I ask you a question?

E: You can ask…

M: A minute a go you said, “worlds, plural, compassion for the worlds.” Was that telling me something that human beings don’t know?

E: You’ve asked yours, now here’s mine: in whose imagination is this conversation taking place?

M: Mine, you mean..

E: Whatever I am, I’m not a source of supernatural knowledge; but I’m not just an absence either.

M: What then?

E: The presence of love.

Ballachulish

Ballachulish on the West coast of Scotland, in the old territory of Lochaber, is not known for its dry climate; there is often rain falling, persistently. The temperature is usually mild, the nearness of the sea loch, Loch Linnhe moderating the fierce winters which clothe the mountains in snow and ice. This leads to an extraordinary cover of vegetation in spite of the acidity of the soil. Trees are abundant in and around the village, and are beginning to repossess the mountains, while wild flowers blossom in all types of land, even for example in the gravel of the hill tracks.

The people who live and work here, some native, some in-comers from other parts of the UK and Europe, think the village is beautiful, and have approved their council decorating it with flower tubs. They are quiet people, but ready to converse and full of mischief. Not many of them are rich, and the poorest, such as single mothers, are known and supported.

This is not my village or culture, I am an urban beast, but it is one of the places where I feel strongly my love of my native land. It is the only land I know well enough to love, so I make no comparisons with other lands and their peoples: this, in all its variety and with all its peculiarities, including Ballachulish, is my land. I recognise that its socially responsable nationalism, although not my favourite politics, is a reasonable democratic balance of the interests of my fellow Scots.

I don’t really like patriotism, but I’m happy to lay claim to a Scottish matriotism, which reacts with rage to most English patriotic nonsense, especially “ Land of hope and glory,” as if any decent nation would want to rule over others.

There’s not much love of country in the New Testament, albeit plenty in the Old. Jesus shows his love for Jerusalem by weeping over it, “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, how often I have wanted to gather you as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, but you would not.” Jesus’ love for his people’s holy city is no slight to any other city; it’s the one he knew well. But he was able to accept that his city and nation were under the control of a foreign empire, against which he forbad armed resistance.

My instinct is opposed to that of Jesus in this particular: if any empire invades my country I want to oppose it with whatever force I possess. If the soldier of a foreign power marches through Ballachulish without respect for the democratic rights of its people, I want to kill him. I want to take to the hills I know and love with others in resistance against any invader.

Jesus in the other hand was able to appreciate the virtues of a Roman centurion, and to devise a peaceful response to being forced to carry a soldier’s pack. He commanded love for enemies. but he maintained his own freedom to proclaim the empire of God and to act according to its laws. That’s what got him killled.

The Prophet Muhammed, peace upon him, believed that the justice of Allah had to be established on earth, by all forms of jihad including violence if necessary. Vicious and cowardly distortions of jihad should not blind is to its obvious merits. Our police work by Muslim rather than Christian principles and are none the worse for that.

I am comforted by Jesus’ love of country and impressed that he could refuse violence in its defence. In faith I would obey him, but I wonder if he was right.

The New Testament has almost nothing helpful to say about sex, other than Jesus’ quotation from Genesis, about the man leaving his parental home to be united with his wife, and the two becoming one flesh. St Paul focuses so much on avoiding sexual sins that he never gets round to the good things. Fortunately the Old Testament is sane, recognising the delight of sexual love as well as its pitfalls. But the centre of biblical witness to sexual love is a book which is hardly ever read in church for fear of embarrassment, namely The Song of Songs, called in my Boy’s Brigade bible the Song of Solomon. This wrong title (there are certainly two speakers in the Song, a woman and a man) is typical of the dishonesty of both church and synagogue, which have insisted that these sexy lyrics express the mutual love of God and his people. This metaphorical sexuality set off a whole genre of Christian art and literature culminating in Bernini’s orgasmic statue of St Theresa. If handled delicately, as in George Herbert’s “Love bade me welcome,” it can be touching, but there’s not much of it I would miss if it were destroyed, and moreover, it perpetuates a wrong interpretation of the Song of Songs.

It is a difficult book to read as it consists of speeches by two characters and a chorus, but doesn’t tell which character is speaking. Many modern bible have designated them for the reader, but different bibles do so differently. Still it’s possible to enjoy the frank sexuality of these exchanges, and realise that, although doubtless the main characters love each other, it’s sexual love, making love, which is portrayed and celebrated, in which the woman is as desirous as the man, and often takes the lead. A wealth of images from nature, animals, birds, flowers, mountains, and so on, are used to depict the lovers’ bodies and embraces. Unlike modern novels which tell you exactly what’s happening, these poems leave you guessing and imagining which is more sexy.

So what is to be concluded from the presence of this book in the Bible?

1. The bible sees women as powerful people in their own right. This is true of both testaments. Yes, they depict a patriarchal society, but there are many stories in which women are the leading figures, and many phrases in which their female dignity is upheld. This book shows the woman as an equal partner in sexual love.

2. Sexual love is depicted partly as an intoxication with the partner’s body. Clearly this text depicts male-female sex, but it can be appreciated by people of any sexual preference. Moral approval or disapproval are irrelevant in the poems. A powerful and beautiful thing is happening. Sexual love may need moral guidance, but the morals need to do justice to the thing itself. Modern amoralities and older puritanism alike fall short in this respect.

3. This depiction of sexual love is almost a commentary on Genesis 1, 2. In sex the separated bits of the original dust-creature make a real effort to get back together again, to become one flesh. This humorous and sensual teaching is a particular gift of male/female sexuality to the understanding of human beings. Because we see the worth of other sexualities does not mean we should neglect the male/female tradition with its special insights.

4. The poems show that the sexual relationship as beautiful without compromising its fierce desires. D H Lawrence among others wrote and argued for a culture in which the beauty of sexual love could be celebrated. All this is a thousand miles from the soft-porn constantly used in our media to sell commodities. The timidity of Christian churches with regard to sex, has left the field to exploiters and abusers.

5. All of the above are reasons why the book has been neglected by the Christian tradition. The absence of sexuality in the thought, worship and work of the churches may explain the absence of young people.

Eleanor Mair 1/9/71 – 21/4/2020

Me:

You got birthday cards from Jules and Duncan, I doubt

I’ll get any when I’m dead, seeing I get none

When alive, so you should feel honoured

If in that strange place to which you’ve gone

Worldly love still counts. Jesus said there were no

Marriages in heaven, warning us that

Heaven isn’t a detached villa in the sky

Or even an economical council flat.

So no families there, for “they shall be like angels.”

Thinking of you as an angel makes me snigger,

but I hope you can still feel our our affection.

The miracle of your new life is a trigger

For memories of that other miracle, your birth.

I intended to be with your mum in labour

But tough nurses shoo’d me out from most of it

Then let me back in for maybe

The last ten minutes before they dragged you

Red and screaming into the air,

Scary small mammal person needing

arms and milk and many years of care,

A being like no other in whose genesis

We had shared. I vowed then I’d protect you

From the filthy world and even from my filthy

Self: whatever fate threw at you, I’d deflect to

Give you the best chance. I failed, overestimating

My wisdom and my love, minimising

My faults, so now this anniversary

Cannot be a simple nice thing

Since filled with yearning for the birthday girl

No longer here, but shining in the ranks

Of (really?) angels. With Duncan and with Jules

We remember you and give thanks.