19 February 2020

We have enjoyed the white  snowdrop and the yellow aconite. We have seen some blue scilla on the banks of the Kinnessburn.  But yesterday, I saw the perennial reminder of my childhood wandering through the woodlands around Ardrishaig where I grew up, the common primrose.

They were  seen unexpectedly on the high embankment above the East Sands at St. Andrews. Unlike the snowdrop, you don’t seem to see the first primrose. They grow in community, little families all neatly and beautifully dressed for Spring and the promise of  new life in the risen Christ!

Apparently, it is Monty Don’s favourite flower.  ‘No other plant so perfectly celebrates the coming of spring or does it with such gentle charm and beauty.’  he says. Although we have primula growing in the garden in several  vivid colours, nothing compares with the watery,  yellow of the naturally grown primrose.

Her  humility is seen in her muted dress and in the places where she chooses to make her home – the inaccessible embankment, the hidden woodland, the edge of a far away field, damp and shaded. We may learn a great deal about Christian discipleship from such a modest but inspiring friend,  celebrated beautifully by John Clare:

Welcome, pale primrose, starting up between

Dead matted leaves of ash and oak that strew

The every lawn, the wood and spinney through,

Mid creeping moss and ivy’s darker green;

How much thy presence beautifes the ground,

How sweet thy modest unaffected pride

Glows on the sunny bank and wood’s warm side.

18 February 2020

Hardly a day passes but we hear of another example of racism within one of our communities so it’s heartening to read about the  work being done in the Highlands. It was brought to light recently in a report to the Council’s ‘Health, Social Care and Wellbeing Committee’.

It concerned the resettlement of twenty-three Syrian refugees within the Council area. Communities had welcomed families, provided the most appropriate clothing and food and helped with transport and social integration.

Businesses have employed a number of refugees and some have moved on to further and higher education and all are learning English.’ wrote a reporter in The Times. ‘Young people in schools have been outstanding ambassadors for the programme.’

Being a good neighbour is not something which is often reported publicly. On the one hand, it is not noteworthy because it should be second nature in a civilised society. On the other, it is often hidden in spontaneous and unassuming things like lending a hand, showing the way, making space and establishing friendships.

But, for all that, it fulfils the second part of the Golden Rule to do unto others as we would have them do unto us! It doesn’t take much to see the wisdom of such a rule nor does it take much imagination to see how giving and receiving can be such a blessing to each of us.

17 February 2020

I noticed that the Church of England Synod was due to consider ‘reform of priestly formation, greater investment in youth workers and recognition of midweek activities including work in schools ..’ This was inspired by a recent statistical analysis on young people participating in the life of the church.

Apparently, 38%  of congregations have no children aged 0 to 16 and two-thirds have five or fewer. In response to this, Professor Pete Ward, Professor of Practical Theology at Durham University, suggested that clergy should spend two days a week on such work.

‘It is ecclesially and missionally absurd to argue clergy have no calling to children and youth.’  said the Professor. They clearly do and have done ever since the baby was laid in a manger and Jesus took little children up in his arms much to the displeasure of his disciples.

When I was training to be a minister, we had to study ‘Practice and Procedure in the Church of Scotland’ edited by James T Cox. I never forgot what was written there about the minister’s responsibility. He quotes an act from the 1931 General Assembly.

‘The minister being in charge of the instruction of the young  is the head of the Sunday School, even where, as is common, another person acts as superintendent.’ And goes on to say, ‘For those more advanced there should also be a Bible class or classes under the charge of the minister or other qualified persons appointed by him’.

No-one has ever told me that this is no longer the case! But it is clear that ministers who have many other responsibilities no longer consider this one of their remits. Where  there are people qualified to undertake the work this may be acceptable but when the work is not being done, there can be no hiding place!

16 February 2020

In a recent issue of the Church Times, the editor highlights a piece written by Robert Becher and included in a United Reformed Church ‘booklet of stories and reflections for use on Racial Sunday’. They contain challenging words about what it means to encounter  another person as one would encounter Christ. In all our chat about extending invitations and welcoming the stranger, we haven’t begun to plummet the depths of what Christ would have us do and say and be.

You have all been invited at this time to this place

We don’t just want an invitation: We want to be welcomed.

You are all offered a warm welcome to this place

We don’t just want a welcome: We want to have a voice.

You are all welcome and this is a place for listening.

We don’t just want a voice: We want to be heard.

You are all welcome here, and your story will be heard

We don’t only want to be heard: We want to be believed.

You are welcome to this place where no truth is denied

We don’t only want to be believed: We want to be trusted.

You are welcome to this place where your words are accepted

We don’t only want to be trusted: We want to be loved.

You are welcome to this place where God’s love embraces all

We don’t only want to be loved: We want to know we belong.

Whoever belongs to God, belongs among us, for we are one in Christ.

15 February 2020

Walking through woodland on the banks of the Kinnessburn at the break of day, I heard a bird singing. I looked around but couldn’t see her. The song was loud, clear and confident. I looked up and there she was, right above my head singing her five part melody for all she was worth. It was  the song thrush.

One of the joys of  walking. There are many and benefits too – clarity of mind, mental well-being, physical strength and a treasury of memories which help to sustain us at other times. At the unexpected hour, we remember the song thrush and her five part song, singing confidently in the tree above.

Wordsworth lived in a day when walking was much more common and more universally embraced. He composed much of his poetry on hill and dale and some people say that his poetry embraces the rhythm of the walker. In one of his poems, he returns to the banks of the Wye near Tintern Abbey. He has been here before and it was a memorable experience.

Two blessings have ensued. The first is the rich treasury of sustaining memories. He recognises from past experience that ‘in this moment there is life and food/ For future years’. The natural environment is for him ‘The anchor of my purest thoughts, the nurse/ The guide, the guardian of my heart, and soul/ Of all my moral being.’

The second is the quality of life  which these memories have inspired. His life has been restored and enriched by this treasury. They ‘have no slight or trivial influence/ On that best portion of a good man’s life,/ His little, nameless, unremembered acts/ Of kindness and of love.’ Can it be true that walking sustains us when our spirits are low and inspires us to be kind!

14 February 2020

I don’t think St. Valentine is commemorated in Church Calendars anymore. Since the Reformation, saints’ days have been largely ignored in the Kirk. Perhaps St. Andrew’s Day is an exception albeit overshadowed by the political discussion about Scottish  identity and independence.

Valentine for all the hagiography that surrounds him is celebrated not as a Christian feast but as a celebration of love. If our world ever needed an opportunity to do this it would be today. For the love of a Valentine is in stark contrast with the hatred which stirs in the darkest corners of the earth.

Victor Hugo’s amazing tale, ‘Les Miserables’, celebrates the power of love to forgive and to redeem. This is a profoundly Christian theme which is beautifully articulated by the anti-hero, Jean Valjean, at the end of Schonberg’s musical.

Take my hand, and lead me to salvation.

Take my love, for love is everlasting.

And remember, the truth that once was spoken:

To love another person is to see the face of God ….

These sentiments have their origin in the first letter of John. It’s the famous passage where we are taught that ‘God is love.’ But there’s more to it than that. By the way we live our lives, we have the opportunity to reveal the face of God to others. ‘No one has ever seen God.’ says St. John. ‘If we love one another, God lives in us and his love is perfected in us.’

13 February 2020

One conservative Roman Catholic priest was writing about the liturgy and criticising its reduction to entertainment. He reckoned that the reason for this was the change in the liturgical position of the priest whilst celebrating the Sacrament.

Prior to Vatican II, the priest celebrated mass with his back to the congregation. His face was unseen. He retained an enviable anonymity. He could have been anyone. In this situation, the priest had little scope to become an entertainer – the Latin liturgy and the concealed persona made sure of that.

The Reformers faced the people in the celebration of the Sacrament. The identity of the minister was seen. This was a meal in which individual persons including the minister participated. The foci  of the meal were the bread and wine and the words which Christ associated with them.

It may not  match the spectacle of the Roman Catholic Latin Rite but there is drama in any re-enactment of the Last Supper. To what extent is this entertainment? There is a script, dramatic action, audience participation, awesome silence all of which hold the people’s attention.

At its root, the word ‘entertain’ comes from two Latin words – a preposition meaning ‘among or together’ and a verb meaning ‘to hold’. To entertain is to hold together. This is certainly what the words and actions of the Sacrament do. They hold us together – our attention, our person and our corporate identity.

Entertainment distracts us from the daily routine. It binds an audience together in some enjoyable activity. It brings with it happiness and joy.  Whilst it can be abused, it is essential that the actor, the entertainer, the minister and the priest routinely forget themselves and let the entertainment work its cure!

12 February 2020

We are fascinated by cause and effect. If I throw a stone at the greenhouse, I can predict that a glass pane will be broken. However, if I see that a glass pane in my greenhouse is broken, it is not so straightforward to work out how it happened. It could have been the result of a thrown stone but there are other explanations.

This is what makes the solving of murder mysteries both intriguing and frustrating. In the Agatha Christie model, we are led to think one series of events leads  to the murder whereas the detective reveals it is quite another. Thinking from cause to effect is much easier than doing the reverse.

In the world of the very small, a particle may move through two gates at the same time in such a way that it is impossible to tell which gate it went through first. Because causality has to do with time, scientists are beginning to think that cause and effect may be reversed! And  both scenarios can take place at the same time!

It is because we think in terms of cause and effect that time plays such a big role in our lives. But if cause and effect could just as easily be reversed, what happens to time. Going forwards is just the same as going backwards!

What would this have to say about the miracles in the Gospel and, in particular,  the resurrection. We think  about the resurrection as the result of some cause. God raised Jesus from the dead. If quantum physics is more real than what we know in our daily lives, looking  backwards from the resurrection will be straightforward.

It will reveal how the resurrection body materialised from the crucified Christ  in the tomb. In this quantum world, there is no time. What the resurrection teaches us is that the risen Christ transcends time. One day, we will transcend it too.

11 February 2020

Recently, we saw the widely acclaimed film, ‘What a Beautiful Day in the Neighbourhood’ starring Tom Hanks as Mister Rogers, the famous American children’s television star who wrote, edited and hosted a programme for pre-school children called, ‘Mr. Rogers’ Neighbourhood’. It ran for thirty-three years!

Two things surprised me about Fred Rogers. Firstly, he went into television because he hated it! But, ‘I thought there’s some way of using this fabulous instrument to nurture those who would watch and listen.’ He certainly found ways of focusing on the emotional and physical needs of children and didn’t shy away from difficult subjects like divorce and death.

Secondly, Fred Rogers was a Presbyterian minister, ordained in 1963.  But he didn’t talk about his faith on the children’s programmes. What was important to him was the power of teaching children through example. And that’s true for us too. It is how we live our lives which has the most powerful effect on others. It’s didn’t mean that Rogers was a saint. In the film, his wife told us he had a temper.

One of the characters on the show was Francois Clemmons, the African American singer. For twenty-five years he played the part of Officer Clemmons, the neighbourhood policeman. He was the first African American to have a recurring role on a television programme for children. As such, he was a beloved neighbour to Mr. Rogers and a respected member of the neighbourhood.

In 1969, they participated in a joint footbath. It became a famous image of inclusion in a world where neighbourhoods were characterised by racial segregation. In this simple but powerful visual act of unity, they fulfilled the sentiments of Rogers’ famous song and unpacked what it means to answer the  lawyer’s questions in Jesus’ famous parable and ‘Go and do likewise.’

So let’s make the most of this beautiful day
Since we’re together, we might as well say
Would you be mine?
Could you be mine?
Won’t you be my neighbour?

10 February 2020

Greta  Thunberg, the seventeen year old Swedish school-girl, has managed to inspire people of all ages to think again about Climate Change and our corporate and individual responsibility to do something about it. Politicians queue to be photographed with her and her peers find their voices in the public forum.

Green groups are looking for their own Gretas to spearhead their campaigns. They have not been disappointed. Young people have a winning charm and a fearless presentation. Greta has been a good exemplar. But can she be cloned in any meaningful way?

Bella Lack is an English seventeen year old  who has been speaking out against the illegal trade in wildlife and the foolishness of looking for a British Greta or a New York Greta or whatever. She argues that this way of thinking is flawed. ‘It’s putting the focus on people.’ she argues.

‘We need to transform the way we think and act towards  the natural world.’  she continues, wisely getting to the heart of the matter, resisting personalising campaigns, valuing a more collaborative and ultimately sustaining approach which puts the focus not on young celebrities but old, apocalyptic issues of fearful urgency.