Monday, 24 August 2015

Lit from within

During the summer I visited several cathedrals and greater churches and was struck by the sight of some amazing stained glass windows. From Malvern Priory’s medieval panes to the far more recent east window at Salisbury focussing on prisoners of conscience, the use of glass and light transforms these buildings.  Part of the attraction of stained glass lies in the interplay between its colour; external light and the lighting of the building itself.  So each sighting of the glass is a unique experience shaped by things beyond our control. 

But like all churches, however ancient and beautiful, these buildings are shells.  They point to something beyond themselves.  Their purpose is to feed and develop a Christian community.  Without some spiritual inner-life they’re just buildings about the past.  Despite all their beauty and history unless there is a living presence inside they’re just relics of a former time.

The idea of being truly alive is reflected upon in John 6: 56-69.  Simply keeping our bodies going, sustaining our physical structure, is criticised by Jesus:  “It is the spirit that gives life; the flesh is useless. The words that I have spoken to you are spirit and life.”  Jesus seems to be saying that our physical life is nothing unless we’re lit on the inside by a vibrant faith.  So the idea of physically ingesting that faith in order to be lit by the Spirit was set out by Jesus – although it was clearly shocking news for some of those who followed him.  John tells us that people walked away, unable to accept this teaching.

Sometimes our faith doesn’t feel as if it’s a light inside.  Like stained glass, faith can be both beautiful and fragile.  At Bath Abbey I was moved by the account of the challenge to restore the massive East window after it was blown out by a bomb dropped in World War II.  Members of the Abbey congregation collected up thousands of broken pieces of stained glass and throughout the Second World War these broken glass fragments were kept in sacks.  Can you imagine?  It must have been soul destroying for those who worshipped there.  But those sacks were also a testament of hope that despite a war which had no certain end, people believed that a time would come when the repair would be made.  Most of the experts approached after the war said it couldn’t be done.  The damage was just too much.  But eventually a father and son team took on the work and after the best part of a decade the window was completed.

We all know that faith can be damaged.  There are bombs that are dropped in our own lives and sometimes the aftermath seems impossible.  We simply can’t fit the pieces back together.  We remember the original images, the clear pictures we once saw, but an event has taken that away and it can take many years to piece the bits of faith back together again. And maybe sometimes we need the distance to change an old image for a new one – to fit faith into a new pattern.

The church buildings that fill our country silently tell stories of faith.  Some are admired for how they have survived intact for centuries; others are notable because of what they withstood and how they have changed.  Either way they remind me that our faith doesn’t always need to be expressed in words.  And more than that, the Christian life can’t be truly fulfilled by our own determination or dedication. 

What makes us really alive, what transforms us and reveals our beauty, is a light we can’t manipulate or control.  It comes in its own time and through what we offer it shines a light by which we are transfigured. We are called to be those lit by faith from within – living a life which in spirit and service poses the question to those outside: “what makes this person like this?”  Not perfect, not undamaged, but striving every day – striving with integrity - to reflect in every aspect of their life, the love and colour and splendour of God.

Maggie McLean

Saturday, 1 August 2015


A wealthy ‘hunter’ has succeeded in killing one of Africa’s ‘Big Five’- in this case a photogenic lion and Aslan look-alike, improbably named Cecil. So what? It happens every day – why all the fuss? Well, there were one or two unusual features. Firstly, the weapon used was a crossbow rather than a gun. This was interpreted by the media as a ‘bow and arrow’ hunt which gave the story a romantic twist, subsequently tarnished when it emerged that the initial shot merely wounded the beast which then had to be finished off with a gun some 40 hours later. Secondly, Cecil was part of a 20 year research programme. He was GPS tagged and thus able to report back at regular intervals so that scientists from Oxford University could learn more about him and about his species in general. Finally, he was not ‘hunted’ in the accepted sense of the word – he was lured away from the comparative safety of Zimbabwe’s Hwange National Park onto a neighbouring farm and slaughtered as he incautiously approached a baited vehicle. 

Every now and again, something that happens every day of the week attracts the world’s attention and at present Cecil is doing a grand post-mortem job of questioning the questionable practice of killing animals in the name of sport. The American dentist at the centre of the story is presently hiding from outraged protesters bearing ‘I am Cecil’ placards and threatening revenge. Politicians and celebrities are lining up to speak out about something on which they have hitherto remained silent. The whole issue of ‘trophy hunting’ is under scrutiny. Bravo, Cecil.

According to the Book of Genesis, God’s instruction to his creation is: ‘Be fruitful and multiply, and replenish the earth, and subdue it, and have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that moveth upon the earth.’ We have been pretty good at dominion and have subdued far too many things that moveth even to the point of extinction, whilst forgetting the attendant instruction to ‘replenish’.  We have interpreted ‘subdue’ as getting an arm lock on the earth until it submits.

The conservation movement rejects this policy and most people who visit Africa’s great open spaces are filled with wonder at the diversity of creation and moved to support efforts to maintain and replenish it, as instructed. Those of us from Christ the King who journeyed to Tanzania in 2011 still talk about our vivid recollections of encounters with leopards, cheetahs, elephants, giraffes, lions and many more. I don’t remember any of us ever wanting to reach for a gun. Let’s look again at the ‘dominion’ concept.

Bill Jones