29 March 2020 –  St. John 11;1-45

Today the Revised  Common Lectionary has a long reading from the Gospel of John. It’s that wonderful tale about the raising of Lazarus. He was a friend of Jesus. He had two sisters, Mary and Martha. Their home was in Bethany and provided an hospitable haven for Jesus throughout his ministry.

When Jesus arrives at Bethany, the sisters are true to form.  As soon as Martha heard that Jesus was coming, she ran out to meet him and was well rewarded with a promise fully articulated in the Resurrection. ‘I am the resurrection and the Life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live.’ But Mary sat still in the house.

Two  things about Jesus. Firstly, he did not go to visit the sisters as soon as he heard that Lazarus was ill. He stayed where he was for another two days. ‘Lord, if you had been here my brother would not have died.’ says Martha alluding to his delay. Sometimes our actions at the time of illness and death can be misconstrued. Like Jesus, we must be true to ourselves. Everyone grieves differently.

Secondly, the focus of the tale is rightly placed on the miracle of resurrection. But as well as seeing an intimation of his divinity, we also see a very revealing intimation of Christ’s humanity. Right at the heart of this gospel is the shortest verse in the BIble, ‘Jesus wept.’ It is very moving to see in one who had the power to raise Lazarus from the dead, an emotional sharing in the grief of his friends.

Of course, Lazarus, having been raised from the dead, did not live forever. He died a second time. His resurrection is a sign of the Kingdom where the blind see, the lame walk and the dead are raised to new life. It is a foretaste of what is to come on Easter Day and in eternity.

As we continue our journey, we scan the landscape for these signs of eternity. Like Jesus, we are on the road. We hear the good and the bad and we respond to each as best we can. Others may judge our responses unfairly but they do not stand in our shoes. We do our best. Nothing more, nothing less assured that in eternity ‘all will be well, all manner of things will be well’.

28 March 2020

I read a wonderful interview with the German theologian, Jurgen  Moltman, in a recent edition of ‘The Tablet’. The diligent among us read his books as students in the 1970s. Today he is a remarkable 93 year old. Although he sits to lecture now, he has a brain which is still as sharp as a tack.

Talking about the apocalyptic consequences of climate change, he said very wisely, ‘If we know that we will not survive, we will do nothing. If we know we will, we won’t do anything either. Only if the future is open to both possibilities, we can do what is necessary.’

It’s for good reason that we do not know  what the future will bring. How we would love to know if we are going to survive into our nineties or if our children are going to prosper   or if peace will come to the Middle East or if we will escape the worst of the coronavirus. But we don’t.

And so we live in this tension of not knowing what the future holds but knowing enough to do something in the present to shape how the future will unfold. If we didn’t live in this tension, we would not strive for a happier day, a kindlier disposition, a world free of disease. Living on the knife  edge between  past and future brings out the best in us all.

Later on in the interview, he told us about his life as a prisoner-of-war in the Ayrshire mining village of New Cumnock where ‘we were treated by people there with such a profound hospitality and solidarity it made us into human beings again.’

Looking beyond the present is important not to encourage apathy but to do in the present what it takes to build a more hopeful future like the miners in New Cumnock. They saw a better world ahead which was not divided by race nor soiled by nationalism and their hearts were enlarged to see German POWs as part of this redeemed humanity.

27 March 2020

I am confident that the coronavirus lockdown is going to be beneficial not only in saving life but in rejuvenating lives. Already the Kirk is benefitting from enterprising ministers and office-bearers  posting  services on their websites  and even live streaming worship on a Sunday morning.

While this is a good initiative and follows on from work we did in my last charge, there is something to be said for families intentionally gathering together around a kitchen table or in the living-room or even out in the garden to worship together on Sunday morning.

This would carry with it an authenticity which would draw the participants closer to God. This is the bottom line, worshipping God – acknowledging his presence,  enjoying his company, listening and speaking and learning together from his Word. Minutes in God’s presence is enough to savour something of heaven on earth.

Light a candle. Take time to do this. If children are present encourage them to prepare the candle and light it. The lit flame immediately catches our attention. Savour the moment and let it be filled with God’s Spirit. Break the silence with simple words, ‘Jesus says, ‘I am the Light of the World.’ Everyone can say these words in turn.

Singing doesn’t need to be accompanied. Enjoy your favourites. You get to choose and not the minister or organist. Words are available on the internet. Choose a reading. You can get some help from the Revised  Common Lectionary. Google this and find Sunday’s readings. One is enough. The Gospel this week  is from St. John 11.

This is the magnificent tale of Jesus’ friend, Lazarus. It not only has the miraculous resurrection, a foretaste of what is to come on Easter Day but the grief of his sisters, Mary and Martha and, of course, Jesus. The shortest verse in the Bible is right here. ‘Jesus wept.’ It’s very touching.

Talk about the miracle and  celebrate it by thinking about these Easter themes. If children are around, look at different crosses. Make a Garden Tomb. Think about new life. Make something new. And when you pray, use simple words, ‘You are wonderful, Lord …’ or  ‘I am sorry, Lord…’ or ‘Please help …. or ‘Thank you, Lord …’  Say the Lord’s Prayer together and at the end bless each other in the prayer of Aaron which is 3,000 years old:

The Lord bless us and keep us.
The Lord make his face to shine upon us
and be gracious unto us.
The Lord lift up his countenance upon us
and give us peace.

26 March 2020

I am glad that we are still allowed to go outside for exercise. I have continued to go out walking in the early morning. There are no more people on the East Sands than before.  However, the other day, there were not only the runners and the dog walkers but two others playing in the rolling waves.

The first was a woman who wasn’t swimming in the water but kneeling on the shore playing with the waves as they came towards her, raising her up from the sand. The second was a surfer. He was quite far out. It was difficult to see him behind the waves when he was paddling  out to sea.

But when he stood up on the surf board and found his form on the crest of a wave, he was a very distinctive sight transforming the  choppy  seascape into a theatre. It seemed to me that he surfed across the wave in one direction and turned in the other. He was very skilful but inevitably it couldn’t last. He fell into the water.

I say fall but nothing could be further from the truth. On one occasion, he appeared to somersault backwards into the sea. On another, he  tried to regain his balance by lifting his right leg into the air. It worked momentarily but then he disappeared under the waves.

In one he was like a gymnast. In another, a ballet dancer. In a third, he was clearly an acrobat. He was never defeated by his apparent failure. His resilience took him back onto the board and with an arm raised up into the sky, he brought the early morning world to life in a piece of graceful artistry, affirming  us all  and putting  Covid 19 firmly in its place!

25 March 2020

Alex Salmond, former First Minister, was accused by several women of sexual harassment, assault and attempted rape. The court heard their evidence and the jury found him not guilty on all charges but one. An accusation of attempted rape was found not proven.

Lady Dorrian, the High Court Judge, made an interesting point in her summing up. She told the jury that in Scots law  an alleged crime had to be corroborated by two witnesses. However, if the charges from different victims follow a similar pattern, this would constitute corroboration according to the Moorov Doctrine.

It was a powerful point but clearly didn’t sway the jury. The defence won the case by making a distinction between inappropriate behaviour and an act of criminality. This distinction opened up a chasm between  the morality of a former day and the 2020s!

With the #Me Too Campaign, people have become more sensitive  to what is not only inappropriate behaviour between men and women in the workplace  but unacceptable. The alpha males who came to maturity in the 1970s and who never changed their sexist attitudes find a line of defence in being a victim of  times past or perhaps a political conspiracy!

Although the attitudes of  men towards women in the 1970s may be described as sexist today, they were no more legitimate  then than they are now. As a student in the 1970s, I remember  a member of the academic staff who couldn’t take his hands off the female students. We didn’t consider the misbehaviour of a married man in a position of power to be acceptable then either!

A criminal act is surely an act which causes another person harm. The point of the trial was to ascertain whether  the accusations against Salmond were true and as a consequence harmful. The defence didn’t deny the emerging pattern of behaviour.  The women in the witness box were clearly harmed.  Despite a female judge and a majority of women on the jury, the unacceptable mores of a bygone age  with  its imbalance of power between the sexes  prevailed!

24 March 2020

We’re eating strawberries from Morocco. I eat them not because I like the taste but because they are nutritious. Nothing can beat the flavour of home-grown Scottish strawberries but, of course, their season is so short! As a child, there were no Moroccan strawberries in Ardrishaig.

Because of  Covid 19, the supermarkets are telling us that they are going to reduce the number of items on their shelves and, in particular, restrict the choice which shoppers have for each item on their list. This makes me rejoice and I secretly hope this state of affairs will prevail when the crisis is over.

Having too much choice and being able to get things when we want them like strawberries in March lie at the heart of our discontent and stimulate greed within us. The empty shelves and the stockpiling are a condemnation of both. We want what we want and we want it now!

This is unbliblical. When the Hebrews were wandering through the wilderness, there wasn’t much food. God sent manna from heaven.  Everyone was instructed to take what they needed but  no more. If they tried to stockpile it, the manna would breed worms overnight and become foul in the morning! This was their judgement.

‘Give us this day our daily bread.’ we pray with Jesus.  There are two important aspects to this. Firstly, it is bread for the day like the manna of yore not for the day after nor the next week.  Secondly, it is not my bread but our bread. Just like the manna it was given for the benefit of the whole community.

Self-isolation should not have the effect of making us focus on ourselves. Rather it should be both a sacrifice made for the common good and an opportunity to re-evaluate our  current  way of life that we may find contentment in bread sufficient for the day and remember  its sacramental value as the body of Christ given for the salvation of the whole world.

23 March 2020

Yesterday, we were blessed to have our younger son with us. He’s home just now because the arts have shut down. He played  hymns for our morning service. Mary-Catherine chose the first, ‘Lord of all hopefulness’ with its helpful line, ‘Lord of all gentleness, Lord of all calm,/ whose voice is contentment, whose presence is balm’.

I chose the last, ‘Longing for light’ for the gospel reading focused on Jesus, the Light of the World. The Psalm for the day was the twenty-third, ‘The Lord’s my Shepherd’.  We sang it to Wiltshire. We read the lections from the Common Lectionary and read prayers from our Book of Common Order.

The latter two united us with the Church throughout the world for many others would have read the same passages and whilst the Book of Common Order is more widely used for what we call the ordinances of religion, it does keep us in touch with a Kirk tradition dating back to John Knox and his famous liturgy.

We held our service in the sun porch. Although the temperature was low, the sun poured through the glass gloriously. The porch has the effect of making us believe  we are sitting in the garden and throughout the service we were enfolded by birdsong. What an inspiring choir for a congregation of three!

At the end of the service, we watched a female blackbird bathing in the birdbath. No-one could have enjoyed her bath so much. The water came splashing out furiously  as she flapped her wings. The splashing was followed by stillness and instead of bathing in  water, she rested, head aloft, bathing in the light of the sun.

We were not the only ones watching. A male blackbird was observing  from on high. We knew he was not an erstwhile King David spying on Uriah’s Bathsheba for he was her mate. Once the bath was vacant, he took his chance but  with much less water and not as much fuss. And so ended the lesson in stillness and joy!

22 March 2020 – Mothering Sunday

My father died ten years ago and my mother twenty.  Hardly a day passes when I don’t think of them. My mother had a very special characteristic – her intuition. It manifested itself in all sorts of ways but one very beneficial to all the family – her ability to know exactly what to give another as a birthday or Christmas gift.

I have many but three in particular. The first is a rose. It plays a prominent part in  a little tapestry of flowers. Tapestry was a hobby which she found therapeutic. The rose reminds me of love. It has a beautiful fragrance and she loved perfume. But there are thorns. My mother’s life was not without its suffering relieved a little  by the tapestry rose.

The second is a book,  a 1963 Christmas present. It’s called ‘The Way, the Truth and the Life’. It is full of Bible stories, beautifully illustrated in full colour by the American artist Ralph Pallen Coleman. This is what attracted my brother and I to the book. We loved the pictures. My Jesus is here  as well as my Abraham and my Pontius Pilate.

The text was skillfully written by Professor Willie Barclay and the book was packaged in a cardboard box with a plastic cover. It  was kept in a special place. We could access it anytime. But it was always put back in its packaging. In this, my mother nurtured  reverence for the text and an understanding that this was a holy book.

The third are the letters – letters I wrote her when I was away at school and letters she wrote me. Hers were very special. They always ended in the same way. After the closing greeting, she  wrote the cryptic code, M1V11. What was this mystery?

It was a Scriptural text, St. Mark 1;11, ‘This is my beloved Son in whom I am well pleased.’ God’s words to Jesus at his baptism. And now my mother’s words to me when I was far from home. In this she not only put  a value on my life but gently drew me closer to that other Mother who says to us all on Mothering Sunday:

Even if a mother should forget her child, I will never forget you.
I have written your name on the palms of my hands.

21 March 2020

Yesterday marked the Spring Equinox. It’s one of two days in the year when the hours of light equal the hours of darkness.  It is an important turning point. From now on, there will be more light in the day than darkness. It is a hopeful sign.

The weather made it a worthwhile celebration. Although there was early morning frost and a cool breeze, the sun shone brilliantly for most of the day. The garden has responded to this natural phenomenon. It is visibly coming back to life – the growing grass, the blossom on the cherry, the upright yellow daffodils.

The birds appear to be oblivious to the national lockdown,  meeting  together on tree and birdtable. Some are gathering grasses for  nest-building. Blackbirds are mating. The robin sits still on top of a wooden post, oblivious to my presence. I am drawn into his stillness until a breeze from behind rustles his feathers. He looks round and is off!

The transformation of the earth is seen as an image of the new life which God effects in our lives. He is like the Spring rains which nourish growth even in the desert. ‘The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad, the desert shall rejoice and blossom; like the crocus it shall blossom abundantly.’

Later on,  the prophet expands on God’s transforming power when he says that ‘the eyes of the blind shall be opened and the ears of the deaf unstopped; then the lame shall leap like a deer and the tongue of the speechless sing for joy.’  This is a gospel of healing and wholeness.

And to those of a fearful heart, the prophet is encouraged to say, ‘Be strong, do not fear!’  Easier said than done especially when our daily routines are being dismantled, our community life fragmented  and the consequences of Covid 19 an uncertainty for most of us.  Be strong, do not fear.  Why? Well,  Isaiah says, ‘Here is your God. He will come and save you!’

20 March 2020

Just before we left the Parish of Traprain, the Sunday School at Prestonkirk gave us two straw hats for the garden and some seeds to plant. Today was the first day we were able to wear the hats  in the garden. Whilst it had been frosty in the morning, by the afternoon the sun was shining beautifully.

I managed to plant the herb boxes. Among my treasures was the hyssop plant. The Psalmist sings, ‘Purge me with hyssop and I shall be clean.’  The hyssop plant is sufficiently bushy to act as a brush. The image of purification and cleansing is immediate.

Hyssop appears in the New Testament too. When Jesus was hanging on the cross, he said, ‘I thirst.’ In response to this intimation of his humanity, he was offered some sour wine on a branch of hyssop. It was after he received the hyssop’s gift that ‘he bowed his head and gave up his spirit’.

Hyssop has several other uses both in the kitchen and in the infirmary. It can be used as an antiseptic. More significantly, it is able to relieve coughing and, amazingly, it can be used as an expectorant. It loosens mucus, clears congestion and makes it easier for people to breathe! It doesn’t appear to be a friend of Covid 19!