29 June 2022

The sun shone. It reminded me of my O-Level French exam where we were encouraged to regurgitate phrases we had carefully swatted up for our essay question. ‘Le soleil brillait,’ I remembered, ‘et les oiseaux chantait dans les arbres.’ Everything was beautiful in that well-ordered French world.

I counted the eggs in our nest box. There were four. Sage, who has been broody for the past three weeks, stopped laying but not yesterday  nor today! There were four eggs. And the hens are getting old. I cut the grass and gave them a treat – a few handfuls of grass cuttings. Small pleasures. If only we could be as content.

I picked some of our strawberries. Whilst there was fruit last year, we were advised not to touch it for the sake of subsequent years. It is a useful spiritual discipline which we don’t always adhere to. We would rather have now than wait for next year.

But it was worth it. Whilst I was expecting the strawberries to be sweet, they were not but they weren’t bitter either. They were strawberry – and what a taste. It blew my mind, literally. The taste was all encompassing. From then on, we  ate them as a delicacy, one at a time with sufficient periods  between to savour and enjoy.

Carrots and beetroots had a very shooglie start. Only a handful of seeds germinated. I added more. Now there was such a profusion of sprouting seeds that I had to divide them up. Two full boxes. Let’s see if my luck continues to harvest time.

I laughed at Roger McGough. He has a poem, ‘Alphabet Soup’. It doesn’t have garden vegetables but  twenty-six lines starting with a different letter of the alphabet. Garlic-scented perfume at only £5 a bottle. Not to be sniffed at.  Italics, so lazy they can’t be bothered to stand up straight. Mirrors are good at faces but terrible at names. Yo-yos in dusty cupboards discuss life’s ups and downs.’  And to finish, an important truth for the all our days, ‘Lips that love to smile live longest!’

28 June 2022

‘Income has gone down,’ said the Treasurer, ‘but the income from weddings has gone up!’ This was a cause for celebration –  more people getting married, well, more likely, money in the kitty to replenish lost income from falling membership and probably attendance.

Unlike the Church of England, wedding fees are set locally in the Church of Scotland. Some have very modest charges but kirks with an ancient heritage or  a stunning location often charge much more. Some kirks are charging in excess of £500. And that’s what the Church of England is charging for every marriage in any of their churches.

Some Anglican vicars are challenging this situation and bringing their concern to the General Synod.  The current fee structure is economically unjust, putting church weddings beyond the reach of the poorest in society.’ said the Revd. Dr. Tom Woolford.

He goes on to suggest that there was a correlation between the rising level of Church of England wedding fees and the sharp decline in the number of couples getting married in church especially in poorer areas. Marriage is in decline anyway. If this correlation does exist then it needs addressing.

Only one of my four charges  did not have any fees for any service which took place in the kirk and that was New Kilpatrick. It was certainly the wealthiest of the four and could carry any expenses incurred. But what a joy for the minister to tell anyone and everyone, ‘There is no charge!’

In my last congregation, I was given discretionary powers. Whilst not affording me the same freedom as New Kilpatrick, I greatly appreciated what the Kirk Session at Traprain agreed. I did not abuse these powers but I did use them on several occasions, mostly to reduce rather than to remove the fees.

In no way should a congregation be aspiring to balance its books by charging exorbitant fees for weddings. It is shameful that young couples should carry the burden of our faithlessness. A serious  stewardship campaign should right this wrong. For we have to ask, ‘What price a spiritual service?’  It is priceless. I wish the Anglican rebels success!

27 June 2022

In the stilling of the storm, the disciples ask a question. ‘Who then is this that even the wind and the sea obey him?’ It’s the most fundamental question in the Christian faith. ‘Who then is this?’ It relates directly to Christ and his identity.

‘Who then is this?’ we ask as we read about the stilling of the storm and see the blind man healed. ‘Who then is this?’ we ask as we listen to the wise teaching enfolded in that most famous Sermon on the Mount.

‘Who then is this?’ we ask as we gaze on the wounded Christ, crowned with thorns, robed in purple, mocked by soldiers, priests and people, crucified with nails, pierced by spear … Who then is this?

This is the one who teaches us that adversity is part of life. St. Paul confirms it. For him it is certainly part of the Christian life and doesn’t have any foundation in the indifference of God. Many afflictions befell Paul but he was not defeated.

This is the paradox of the Gospel. In adverse conditions like the storm, we are able to proclaim its power. For when we are at the limit of our capabilities, we have to acknowledge and call upon the strength of God.

This is contrary to the ways of the world. Look at the contrasts Paul makes between sorrowful (in the world’s eyes) and yet always rejoicing (in the life of the Spirit), poor (in the world’s eyes) but making many rich (in the gifts of the Spirit).

26 June 2022

Over my forty year ministry, my work in schools changed. In the Primary School, I was able to pray with the children until the millennium when more questions were asked about children’s freedom not to pray etc. At that point, I did two things. The first was with the prayer. The second was not.

If I had a prayer, I would preface it with, ‘I am going to read this prayer. If you want to pray it with me that is fine. If you would like to listen to the prayer and think of the words that is fine too. In this way, the prayer could be spoken and everyone could be included.

More often than not, I didn’t have a prayer. After my address and perhaps a song, I invited the children to participate in what I called a period of ‘Silence and Stillness’. They became quiet and stilled their bodies. I reflected briefly on the point of my address and punctuated it with silence.

It seemed to me important that children should be encouraged to sit still, to be quiet and  reflect on what had been said. It wasn’t prayer but it was a prelude to prayer. Even after a lifetime of prayer, I still find the discipline of silence and stillness difficult. But it is a necessary prerequisite for prayer.

In all my work with children, I have tried hard not to proselytise them  nor to oblige  them to absorb the faith but to be themselves and to offer them the opportunity to wonder. For I believe that this is the easiest and swiftest route into the Spirit of God.

But there’s something else. Wonder bears fruit in three things – silence, stillness and, most excitingly, curiosity. The experience often stirs within us a question, a desire to know more, a curiosity with our environment. A secret has been revealed what other hidden secrets await disclosure?

25 June 2022

My mother was a voracious reader. She read anything and everything. Among her favourite books was historical fiction. Her interest in history was passed on to my brother and me. As children, we benefitted from Marion Campbell’s study of the ancient stones in Mid-Argyll and on Sunday afternoons drove round to see them all.

A summer holiday in car and caravan was devoted to touring the West and East coast in pursuit of family graves and houses. ‘It’s important to know your roots,’ she would say, ‘where you came from.’ And unlike many children, she told us all about the Holocaust.

I grew up attending the War Memorial on Remembrance Sunday and had a real sense that history was important.  Of course, it is integral to the Christian faith. Jesus was an independently verifiable historical person. God was integrally involved in human history. The Church has a past spanning two thousand years.

Although we learnt the great tales of Scottish History at Primary School and endless dates and battles in Secondary School, there was a significant omission – the examination of contemporary sources. I picked up on this when I studied theology and wish I had been exposed to it much earlier.

The verification of sources and the examination of biases are vital if history is going to be recorded as accurately as possible. It will always be an approximation to what actually happened and will be refined and sometimes debunked by future generations. This is good.

So it is alarming that President Putin continues to rewrite his nation’s history vis a vis Ukraine even denying  the existence of a separate state. Sir David Cannadine, eminent historian, commented recently, ‘This is very bad history made up and invoked to justify very bad ends and it reminds us all too vividly and tragically that bad history can do terrible damage and harm.’

If ever we needed encouragement to retain the place of History in the school curriculum this is it. The Scottish Government needs to take note of this too. The simplistic notion that everything in Scotland is good and everything in England is bad is not good history either. As Cannadine says, ‘More than ever we need good history to drive out bad history!’

24 June 2022

More news from Erella. She writes about her friend, Jaber who lives with his family in a cave at Khalat A-Dab’a. It is one of a number of villages destined for dispossession. As his family grew, Jaber built a house  to supplement his cave dwelling. It was demolished by the Israelis.

He rebuilt it. It was demolished. He rebuilt it. It was … Five times, he rebuilt his house. ‘What keeps you from getting angry?’ asked Erella. ‘I tell myself that this is what occupation is like.’ he answered with a smile. He refuses to become a victim.

‘I shall not fall into their trap. They want me to be miserable enough not to care anymore, and hate and seek revenge. I will not give them this gift.’ he said. Three days later, Erella says, a settler broke his nose with brass knuckles while he was held down on the ground by two soldiers.

Jaber’s wife has just had twins. They now have five boys. They are all living within their small cave. Jaber is not going to rebuild the house because the Israeli government is going to dispossess him. Instead, he intends to dig another cave beside the one where he lives.

This involves hiring a digger and, of course, purchasing fuel. The cost of this enterprise is 20.000 shekels which is almost £5,000. Erella who has a very big heart has resolved to ask her friends and supporters to raise the money to help Jaber extend his dwelling place.

The Israelis have not only demolished buildings but also trees. Walking around the village with Jaber, Erella wrote, ‘With such compassion his hands had caressed the pomegranates that had been uprooted from mother earth, and wilted. Suddenly he stopped, bent down, pointed to a tiny green shoot that had made its way among the rubble, smiled and said: “This sprout is za’atar (a herb), insisting on living.”’

23 June 2022

Throughout my ministry, I never gave up on the concept of all age worship. The primary focus was encouraging families and, in particular, young people to worship God in an appropriate environment. This took many shapes and forms.

The harvest of this work is two-fold. Firstly, in encouraging young people to come to the kirk, it is inevitable that their parents and grandparents come too especially when they have a part to play in what is going on. Secondly, and more interestingly, it is the case that when you work with young people, older people are happy to join in!

Recently, I read Dr. Liam Fraser’s book, ‘Mission in Contemporary Scotland’. He devotes a significant chapter to ‘Evangelism’. Here he does a critique on fresh expressions of church. They are initiatives developed expressly to encourage the unchurched to participate in the life of the Church.

Given that the culture of a traditional act of worship is alien to people who have had little or, more likely, no experience of worshipping in a church building, these fresh expressions  are deliberately different in style, concept and content.

From the data available,’ writes Fraser, ‘the most effective form of fresh expression would appear to be those aimed at young families, exemplified by Messy Church and similar initiatives.’ It appears to be the only initiative which attracts a goodly number of unchurched rather than de-churched people.

Most significantly, these initiatives only resulted in substantial growth when they developed into stand-alone churches. This is the intention. Many churches use Messy Church as a substitute for Sunday School and are critical when families don’t join mainstream church but that is not the point. It is a parallel church which needs to develop freely and graciously in its own way!

22 June 2022

What do Scotland, Ukraine and Russia all have in common? They all live under the patronage of St. Andrew. He is their patron saint. Of course, those Scots who live in St. Andrews are especially privileged since it was here that St. Rule landed with Andrew’s  bones. At least that is one of the stories!

In those days, the community huddled together on the sea coast was called Kilrymont. Today, St. Rule’s Tower is a reminder of St.  Rule and the bones of St. Andrew. The Tower stretches 33 metres into the air and provides commanding views of the town and seascape.

Nearby, some fishermen still ply their trade following in the footsteps of our patron saint. He may not have been catching lobster but he knew the rigours of life on the sea. His brother became pre-eminent as the first leader of the Church but it was the more humble Andrew who introduced him to Jesus.

Interestingly, the Scottish Government website makes no reference to the discipleship of Andrew, his friendship with Jesus nor his sanctity. Nor does it explain the cross of St. Andrew which is the pre-eminent symbol of Scottish identity and, of course, a powerful symbol of Andrew’s courage and faith.

Despite the secularisation of the nation, is there any wisdom in airbrushing our Christian past  from the contemporary landscape. What are we left with? Our Scottish Government is keen not to offend people of different race, sexuality, gender etc. but is indifferent to the  Christian faith and in denial of  the heritage which has shaped our national identity for it was first referenced in a declaration sent to the Pope from Arbroath!

21 June 2022

In the Parable of the Prodigal Son, when the younger son effectively says, ‘I wish you were dead, old man!’ the father doesn’t argue with him. He lets him go. He gives him what will be rightfully his and doesn’t deprive him of his inheritance. He carries the pain of this rejection silently.

But when his younger son comes to his senses and returns home, his father doesn’t hesitate to reach out to the boy. He runs towards him, puts his arms around him and kisses him.

In a similar way, the father reaches out to the elder son who is aggrieved by the generosity of his father’s welcome to his younger brother. Whereas he wanted his father dead, the older brother was dead to his father.

‘Listen! For all these years I have been working like a slave for you and I have never disobeyed your command.’ What a shock! The father who didn’t allow his younger son to take upon himself the persona of a slave is now faced with  his enslaved elder son?

Of course, the elder son thought that love is something which you can earn. He did so much for his father and he isn’t getting what he deserves. To make matters worse, his brother is getting what he doesn’t deserve.

That’s true! But that’s what love is all about. We don’t deserve it. People simply give it. And the father’s love is big enough for both sons. And it’s free enough to let the elder son go too. For how long will he have to carry  the pain of this rejection?

20 June 2022

Both the Church of Scotland and the Roman Catholic Church have voiced their opposition to assisted suicide. Whilst  the right to choose is a powerful argument in a world where the individual predominates over  the community, it is not the whole story. There are some theological principles worth exploring.

Firstly, we have been created by God. Life is not so much a gift but a trust. We are called to make the most of it and to use it ‘to glorify God and enjoy him forever’. He has determined the time of birth – and the time of death. From this perspective do we have the right to determine the time of death? If we do, does it mean that someone else has an obligation to fulfil it?

Secondly, we have not only been created by God, we have been made in His image. There is something Godlike to be found in everyone. Our lives are holy. The sanctity of life not only applies to the young, the beautiful, the able-bodied. It extends to everyone not least those who are mentally and physically disabled, the chronically and terminally ill. In his infinite wisdom, ‘God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong.’

Thirdly, God so loved the world that he sent his only-begotten Son. In taking upon himself the garment of our frail humanity, God illuminated the hidden glory of life and death and the life everlasting. ‘I have come in order that you might have life – life in all its fullness.’ says Jesus. St. John calls this eternal life – a sharing in the life of God here and now as well as a life which continues beyond death.

Fourthly, we love one another as Christ loves us. This is what gives life its meaning, its value, its point and purpose. But loving others is an imprecise art. There are no formulae. St. Paul discerned this when he wrote, on the one hand, ‘Bear one another’s burdens.’ Show compassion and go out of your way to help. But, on the other hand, ‘Carry your own load.’ Don’t depend on others unnecessarily. Face life courageously.

Herein lies the most important insight for living within a community. How do we know when to bear another’s burden and when to carry our own load? It’s going to be different for you and me and different today than it was yesterday. It requires wisdom, sensitivity, compassion and grace. And it requires these things in different measure for different situations.