22 September 2020

How do you respond when people say to you on the telephone or the shop, ‘Have a nice day!’ Despite my American connections, I think that’s where the greeting originates. ‘You’re welcome!’ and ‘Have a nice day!’ are all part of the training programme, programming people to be polite!

It is one stage better than people ignoring you or showing no concern for your welfare or enquiring about your health or wishing you all the best for the day that lies ahead. But it lacks spontaneity and originality  and therefore sincerity. Are people really on my side wishing that I will have  a nice  day?

‘Fine day!’ say I. ‘We’ll pay for it yet!’ say they. Is that any better. Stock phrases but a bit more down to earth – and realistic. Having a nice day sounds at best optimistic and at worst bland. And the greeting comes with a caveat.

There are surely some people who are the beneficiaries of this greeting who have just lost their mother after suffering a terminal cancer or whose daughter has gone missing or whose husband has just been made redundant. The greeting trivialises their lives, our life, all life.

When I contacted the Royal Bank of Scotland about a new initiative they had taken, I got a very garrulous Welshman. The first frustration was what the bank had done, the second was that their assistant had not learned the trick of listening. But the third was the worst of all.

At the end of a very frustrating conversation in which I did manage to retain a calm sooch, the Welshman finished off not by saying, ‘Have a nice day!’ which given the above would have been bad enough. Instead, he said, ‘Try and a have a nice day!’ Patronising or what? St. Paul says, ‘Give thanks in all circumstances!’ So I’ll try, maybe!

21 September 2020

Today is the Feast of St. Matthew. He is styled the tax-collector but has become more famous as the author of the first book of the New Testament. However, there is no evidence to suggest that he was the author. Does it matter? We are not drawn to the gospel because of the author but his wonderful introduction to Jesus.

Right at the start, we hear of his birth and the special name he was given, ‘Emmanuel’, which means ‘God with us.’ Right at the end of the gospel the risen Christ speaks to his friends and says, ‘Lo, I am with you always, to the close of the age.’ This God with us enfolds the gospel and promises to be with us now and always.

St. Matthew’s Gospel is the most Jewish of the four. Jesus is the new Moses. He doesn’t climb Mount Sinai to fetch the Ten Commandments but on another mountain, he teaches his friends a new law and gives them eight Beatitudes, disclosing the secret of true happiness.

The Beatitudes are the first of five significant discourses in this gospel. The followers of Jesus are always described as ‘disciples’ which literally means ‘pupils’. Right at the end of the gospel, Jesus makes it clear that we are forever disciples, always learning about ‘the unsearchable riches of Christ’ as St. Paul said.

Blessed are the poor in spirit for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven.’ says the Teacher. ‘Whatever ye do to the least of these my brethren, ye do unto me.’  he says  to challenge our complacency. ‘Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow …’ Or even, ‘You have heard it said … but I say unto you …’ The new law!

Of all the distinctive words we remember from St. Matthew’s Gospel, the comfortable words of Jesus must rate highly. Our gospels and our lives would be the poorer for the lack of them. Is there any more fitting conclusion to a chapter, a blog, a sermon, a day or even a life than this beautiful, unforgettable, comforting invitation:

Come unto me, all ye that labour and are heavy-laden and I will give you rest.
Take my yoke upon you and learn of me;
for I am meek and lowly in heart: and ye shall find rest unto your souls.
For my  yoke is easy and my burden is light.

Thank you, Matthew, for being alone in remembering these moving words of our Teacher, the God with us.

20 September 2020 – Psalm 103

‘Which hat are you wearing just now?’ It’s the kind of question which Edward de Bono raises in his book, ‘Six Thinking Hats’. It’s not only a brief analysis of the different ways of thinking but a strategy to develop clear, imaginative and  powerful thinking.

Wearing the white hat, encourages the reader  to think about the facts. With the black hat, she looks at all the negative things. With the red, it’s the emotional content. Green is thinking creatively and blue hat thinking looks at the overall picture.

With the yellow hat we are encouraged to think positively about the situation under discussion. Yellow is the colour for sunshine, brightness and therefore optimism. What are the benefits? The advantages?  The good points in the plan?

‘Being positive is a choice!’ writes de Bono. ‘We can choose to look at things in a positive way. We can choose to focus on those aspects of a situation that are positive. We can search for benefits!’ What did the Psalmist say? ‘Bless the Lord, O my soul and forget not all his benefits.’

The Psalmist has put on his yellow hat.  ‘Bless the Lord, O my soul, and forget not …’  He lists the good things which God has done. He forgives all my sins. He heals all my diseases.  He keeps me from the grave. He blesses me with love and mercy. He fills my life with good things so that I stay young and strong like an eagle!

‘Do not forget your life is like grass!’ he says.  And it’s  as unimportant as dust, flourishing like a wildflower, here today, gone tomorrow.  Wealth, status and pleasure have no power to dispel the reality of our creaturely impermanence. ‘Sceptre and crown/Must tumble down,/And in the dust be equal made/ With the poor crooked scythe and spade.’

‘Do not forget God’s love lasts forever.’ he says. ‘The Lord works vindication and justice for all who are oppressed.’  He favours the poor, the homeless, the foreigner, the widow and the orphan. ‘The Lord is merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.’   The dimensions of his love are beyond our comprehension.

How high the sky? God’s love is greater. How far East from West? So far has he removed our sins. He desires to forgive and build up.  Not what we deserve but what he gives through the  passion, death and  resurrection of Christ and his gift of eternal life. So put on your yellow hat and sing:

‘Bless the Lord, O my soul, and all that is within me, bless his holy name.
Bless the Lord, O my soul, and forget not all his benefits.’

19 September 2020

In his book, ‘On the Priesthood’, St. John Chrysostom not only celebrates the value of preaching the Word, he also commends the pastoral work of the minister. He focuses on the image of the shepherd caring for his sheep – and he observes the differences.

Whereas shepherds have the power to compel the sheep to submit against their will, the minister would be unwise to follow this lead. ‘It is necessary to make a man better not by force but by persuasion.’ he says.

‘Do you know the power of love?’ he  asks his friend Basil. ‘This, then, the chief of virtues, the talisman of Christ’s disciples, the highest of all spiritual gifts …’ And the foundation stone of the most effective ministry of pastoral care. He makes two important observations.

The first is integrity. Whatever he does in the realm of pastoral care, the minister is bound to be criticised but he must keep his own counsel. ‘And if he happens to visit one of the richer and more influential men more frequently, prompted by some special need for the common good of the church, he wins at once the reputation of a flatterer and a toady.’

The second is balance. The minister can treat his parishioner too harshly. He has to be careful that ‘what is meant to help does not become the occasion of greater loss’. There’s wisdom here which walks a tight-rope. If the parishioner takes offence ‘the vengeance for sins which he commits after such treatment is shared by the surgeon who lances the wound unskilfully’.

18 September 2020

‘Too many buildings, often in the wrong places, designed long ago and ill-suited for today’s need; what is needed is not mere tinkering but a major upheaval.’

Do these words sound familiar? Well, they do not come from Professor Fergusson’s radical action plan presented to the General Assembly in May 2019. There may be similar words written there. But these words were written by the Very Revd. Dr. Andrew Heron and presented to the General Assembly  in 1971!

They constituted part of his closing address  as moderator. His theme was change. His text from a Christmas card  depicting a child singing his own translation of Adeste  Fideles, ‘O come on, all ye faithful!’ This was the time for an urgent re-formation!

The old landmarks of the world were being uprooted and this was a chance for the church to reshape, repattern her worship, change her outlook.’ wrote Harry Donaldson in his summary of that General Assembly event, acknowledging the kirk’s inbuilt resistance to change and its affection for things as they had always been.

It is terrifying that so much of the dynamic today is channelled towards preserving for tomorrow things that died yesterday.’ said Heron almost fifty years ago! ‘Have we the vision, the wisdom, the faith and the courage to play our part in re-forming it?’

Well, half a century later, what do you say? Did Heron’s words and leadership fall like seeds on stony ground? Clearly, they did for we are in just the same situation today as we were fifty years ago! It’s shameful to say the least and all those over fifty bear some responsibility for this state of affairs!

Words have become tiresome! It’s action that is required – and the humble action of those who are willing to let go of treasured possessions and dreams to embrace a future which is not for them but others. ‘O come on all ye faithful.’ said Heron. ‘We dare not be afraid of change. It is a land of promise towards which we are journeying!’

17 September 2020

Harry Donaldson was called to  Ardrishaig Parish Church as minister when I was a teenager. Apart from cricket, his great love was people. Sometimes, he would invite groups of teenage students to the manse during the summer holidays for chat and hospitality. He was deeply interested in us all.

One day when I was crossing the canal bridge, I saw Harry’s car come down the hill. When he saw me,  he slowed down and lowered the driver’s window. He smiled, asked me how I was and said, ‘These leaflets came to the manse. You may find something of interest.’  He handed the leaflets over and drove off.

When I got home, I looked at them more closely. There were two. The first had been prepared by the Overseas Council and was all about working abroad. The second had been prepared by the Education for the Ministry Committee and was all about discerning a call to the ministry.

As it happened, a few years later, I went to Ghana as a missionary teaching mathematics in a secondary school and the following year I began my theological education at New College, Edinburgh to fulfill my training for the ministry of Word and Sacrament.

Almost fifty years later, I look back at Harry’s initiative. What impressed me most about it was that after he handed over the two leaflets, like Naomi in that beautiful book of Ruth, he said no more! His ministry of discernment, grace and gentleness was admirable. A true ministry of the Holy Spirit.

16 September 2020

My old minister, the Revd. Harry Donaldson, was for twenty-five  years  the Scottish Correspondent for the ‘Presbyterian Outlook’. In its own description of itself, it says that the Outlook is ‘serving the Presbyterian Churches US and UP USA’.

Harry was writing his ‘Letter from Scotland’ from 1959-1985, the year he died. His widow gave me the copies which he had kept of his articles. I had never read any of them until recently. They cover a  range of issues spanning a quarter of a century  including annual summaries of the proceedings of the  General Assembly.

Harry was born and bred in Glasgow and never lost his pride in the city. He  had a warm-hearted, pawky sense of humour and a keen  eye for the irregular perspective. On 22 November 1976, he writes about the canonisation of the Blessed John Ogilvie which took place the previous month in St. Peter’s, Rome.

‘Like Will Fyfe,’ writes Donaldson, ‘I belong to Glasgow myself and would define all its people as decent folk; but so far as I am aware,  this is the first of us to be decreed a saint. John Ogilvie was a Jesuit, hanged in Glasgow in the immediate post-Reformation troubles in the year 1615 when he was executed for his beliefs.

It’s so long ago that they can’t blame it on any of Glasgow’s present day population, some of whom are always getting it in the neck as football rowdies or hoodlums of some other modern sort.

I wouldn’t say that Glasgow went cock-a-hoop at all about the event. I wouldn’t say that the canonisation of the Blessed John was regarded as having significance, religious or antiquarian or anything else; but I would put it on record that at long last a Glasgow man has been declared to be a saint. I think it’s not before time.’

15 September 2020

In his classic, ‘On the Priesthood’, St. John Chrysostom describes the priesthood as an honourable office and those who fill it should lead honourable lives. This is no easy matter. ‘He must be dignified yet modest, impressive yet kindly, masterful yet approachable, impartial yet courteous, humble but not servile, vehement yet gentle …’

Can anyone maintain such a balance of virtue without the grace of God?  Clearly, some qualities are more important than others. The first is lack of ambition which is obviously evident in John’s reluctance to accept his vocation and high office.

The second is a temper under control. ‘Do you know that my freedom from this fault is due, not to my innate goodness,’ writes Chrysostom, ‘but to my love of retirement.’ He hasn’t been tested yet!

The third is intelligence. It’s not sufficient to be pious. Obviously. A pious man may have a deep faith but lack the intellectual ability in the pulpit to  withstand the roars of the heretics!

The fourth is foresight – and the wisdom to anticipate what is likely to go wrong. ‘If he studies the difficulties beforehand he will at any rate have the advantage of not being taken by surprise when they crop up.’

The fifth – weapons of steel. ‘Do you have a thick skin?’ an elderly member of one Vacancy Committee asked of me. What are John’s weapons of steel? Intense earnestness and constant sobriety of life.  Sincerity and integrity are the gifts we value today.

14 September 2020

Yesterday, I prepared an audio act of worship for Hope Park and Martyrs Church linked with Strathkinness for the minister who is on holiday. Because the minister couldn’t find a recording of Psalm 103, Colin and I did a duet. The section begins, ‘O thou, my soul, bless God the Lord’ and is sung to the tune ‘Kilmarnock’. You can find it in the Church Hymnary at Hymn 68.

13 September 2020

At our wedding, Mary-Catherine entered the church to a great hymn which is rarely sung now, ‘The God of Abraham praise’. It is full of Old Testament images with  a very Jewish sounding tune, reflecting  Mary-Catherine’s interest in Judaism. ‘Fiddler on the Roof’ is her favourite musical!

The second hymn was a portion of Psalm 103 which was to be found in the ‘Ordination’ section of the Church Hymnary (Third Edition). And the third was the greatest of the three, written in the seventh or eighth century and sung to the tune, ‘Westminster Abbey’, ‘Christ is made the sure foundation’.

It reflected our prayer articulated in our second reading, ‘that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith, as you are being rooted and grounded in love’. This love ‘which surpasses knowledge’  was to be the foundation of our marriage in which we were called to explore together its  ‘breadth and length and height and depth’.

The reading from the gospel was the Beatitudes, the extraordinary recipe which Jesus gave his friends  in  their pursuit of happiness. ‘Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted. Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth…

Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, blessed are the merciful, the pure in heart, the peacemakers, those who are persecuted and reviled. It is quite a list introducing us to a new world whose priorities are quite different from the old and whose values are counter-cultural.

Our marriage was also a vocation for the love which we had been blessed to find in each other’s heart was not to be kept for ourselves but to be shared through a ministry of hospitality, Word and Sacrament, social service, the nurture of two sons and two daughters, the sharing of time, talents, money, homemade puppets  and even old shoes!

Mary-Catherine celebrated this in a piece of tapestry which she made to cover our kneeler. We knelt on it during the service to have our union blessed by the minister. It had four striking symbols – the wheat and the grapes reminding us of the Sacrament, God’s means of grace. And the crown and the cross reminding us of love’s sacrifice and glory.

Unlike couples in the Orthodox Church we were not crowned during the marriage ceremony but the symbolism of this coronation was not lost on us. King and Queen for a day perhaps, but  aspiring to wear not a crown of gold but to see in him who was crowned with thorns,  the opportunity to love and be loved and to grow in  a marriage dedicated to Christ whose crown of thorns bears witness to the sorrow and the  joy of love’s enduring ministry of grace.