5 December 2020

I was looking through some old photograph albums and discovered some letters which had been sent to me by children. This one came from a pupil at Riverside Primary School. I was one of the school chaplains  when I was minister at Logie Kirk.

I had been invited to the school to talk to a senior class about the work of a minister. A lot of children were unfamiliar with the work of a Minister of Word and Sacrament. Unless you attend church or a youth organisation or experience a baptism, wedding or funeral, it would be at best a grey area.

As I recall, I enjoyed my visit and the children had lots of questions to ask. Their conscientious teacher ensured that they all wrote appropriate letters of thanks styled in a formal way. Nowadays, perhaps it would have come as an e-mail or text message. This one was accompanied by a picture of ‘The Funkey Minister’.

Dear Mr. Scott – Thank you very much for telling us what you do every day. I thought being a minister would be easy but I’m wrong and thank you for the video as well. Wouldn’t it be better if you wore a orange shirt and a blue collar?’

What do you think?

4 December 2020

Erling Kagge has written a book about ‘Walking One Step at a Time’. On one occasion, he was coming out of an hotel in Lake Geneva when he met the British-Egyptian heart surgeon Magdi Habib Yacoub. Like Kagge, he was going for his daily walk. They went together.

The surgeon talked about his 20,000 open-heart surgeries – and one in particular.  He gave a two year old a new heart, disconnected her own heart but left it inside her body. Eight years later, the replacement heart stopped working efficiently.

It was a life or death situation. Yacoub operated. He disconnected the implanted heart and reconnected the girl’s own heart. In the last eight  years it had grown and become healthy within the child’s body. She healed quickly and went on to marry and have children.

When Kagge asked Yacoub, ‘What have you learned from studying thousands of beating human hearts?’ He replied, without much ado, ‘Go for a walk every day.’ And the brilliant heart surgeon added, ‘This advice will never grow outdated!’

3 December 2020

Even in the bleakest scenarios, the gospel brings us hope. This is the predominant theme of Advent. ‘The desert will rejoice,’ says the prophet, ‘and flowers will bloom in the wilderness.’

It’s not what you would expect. There’s no life in the desert, no growth, no future. It’s a bit like the barrenness of our wintry landscape where nothing moves, nothing grows, nothing is achieved.

But ‘Be strong and don’t be afraid!’ is the message the prophet brings. ‘God is coming to your rescue …’  The snow melts. The ice thaws. The desert rejoices. Flowers bloom in the wilderness.

More than that, ‘The blind will be able to see and the deaf will hear. The lame will leap and dance …’ It’s a time of healing and wholeness and new life. It’s what the Bible calls salvation.

When messengers of the imprisoned Baptist ask Jesus, ‘Are you the one who is to come or should we expect another?’ He gives them a surprising answer.

He doesn’t say, ‘I’m the one alright!’ Instead, he asks them a question, ‘What do you hear? What do you see? The blind see. The deaf hear. The lame walk. There is life in wintry, barren landscapes.’

2 December 2020

Returning home from my  morning walk at the back of eight, I could see an old woman ahead of me.  She was wearing  her dressing-gown and had slippers on her feet. She was pulling a brown gardening bin towards the bridge. She was wobbling from side to side.

I speeded up and reached her just as she was about to pull the bin over two steps onto the bridge. ‘Shall I help you?’ I asked. She moved to let me onto the bridge and together we pulled the bin up. ‘I’ll take it over the bridge for you!’ I said.

She had already made the journey with her blue landfill bin and I could see where she had parked it. She was relieved. Letting her grip on the bin go, she said rather unexpectedly, ‘My husband died two weeks ago.’ I was taken aback. ‘I am very sorry to hear that!’ She said no more and made her way back home.

Clearly, it was her husband’s duty to put the bins out. She had been caught unawares. She  had forgotten to do it yesterday. Fearing that she might be late, she dashed out in her dressing-gown and slippers, inadequately dressed for  the freezing weather, painfully clutching her grief as she remembered  her husband’s  duty.

‘My husband died two weeks ago.’  Putting out the dustbin had become a sacrament of her grief, a  cri de coeur rising from the depth of her heart. She regretted his absence and all the little things which he did to  keep the wheels of their domestic life turning.

She reminded me instantly of the poet who wrote about her grief in terms of autumn gardening. She called her poem, ‘Sharing’, and began, ‘Autumn was our time of year/ Working together in the old walled garden/ Not speaking so much as sharing’. It is the little things which touch the heart for they are the things which affirm and enliven and make life worth living from one day to the next:

I was the debris man clearing the way
You turned the dark earth with your spade
Slow and steady knowing your pace
Turned tramp in your awful gardening clothes
Which somehow became dear.

I miss your patient figure
As I harvest alone
Miss the shared silence
And the coming together at day’s end.

1 December 2020

Yesterday, there was a freshly planted notice growing out of the local park. It had been erected by Fife Council to inform us that, ‘Fife Council is proposing to change 10% of the grass cutting programme across Fife.’  It went onto say that the park had ‘the potential for future development as a place with special biodiversity’.

During the first lockdown, the parks were not cut as they had been. Instead of cutting all the grass, much of it was left to grow wild and paths for pedestrians were cut through it. Apart from the obvious disadvantage to children who would  like to play football, it was attractive in its own way.

NatureScot is calling for formal parks in urban areas  to be less manicured and for domestic gardens to have a dedicated area unattended. This would not only benefit wildlife but also contribute to climate change and personal well-being.

Fallen leaves and tree branches could be left lying where they fall,’  said the Chief Executive of NatureScot. ‘Plant clippings could be left in part of your garden that has been left messy to create a wildlife area. Collections of leaves and bark provide shelter for invertebrates which then improve the habitat for birdlife and mammals.’

In the Spring, we dedicated a small part of our garden to creating a miniature wildflower meadow. We scattered some wildflower seed and planted a few things like poppies. It was a modest success. The wildflowers didn’t grow in profusion. The ones which did were delicate and modest.

Many people reconnected with the natural environment during lockdown and recognising the benefits to physical and mental well-being, they want to continue with it. I’m not surprised. The first thing we learn about God is that he is the Creator. The second, his creation is good. The third,  we spoilt it and the fourth, we wait for its redemption.

The world is a garden you made,
and you are the one who planted the seed,
the world is a garden you made,
a life for our food, life for our joy,
life we could kill with our selfish greed.

30 November 2020

On Saturday, we went foraging. It was a beautiful day – dry, sunny and frosty. The air was crisp and clear. We needed greenery for our Advent Ring. In our manse, we had ivy growing on the stone dyke and holly with so many berries the local florist helped himself  to create winter wreaths for the kirkyard.

But in our own house, our holly tree had no red berries and there was no ivy growing up the walls. We have corrected this. We now have two miniature hollies which will produce berries next year and little ivies planted in the garden for next year’s Advent. But this Advent, we needed to go foraging.

Instead of having a ring of holly and ivy fit for the woodland carol of the same name, we decided to forage for hawthorn. We had watched it throughout the seasons of the year and knew where to harvest its berries. We climbed the Pipeland Hill and meandered down to the woodland on either side of the burn.

The hawthorn grew in abundance. The trees were heavy with fruit. We harvested enough for ring and jug. Disappointingly, we found no ivy growing on the trees. Perhaps they were too young? Instead, we discovered trailing, frosted bramble stems and cut some to weave around the ring as hawthorn’s twin.

On the way home, we had the sunset on our right – deep reds and oranges and a full moon on our left shining through wintry trees. At the top of the hill, we had a magnificent view of the St. Andrews’ townscape with its distinctive ecclesiastical landmarks and beyond it  the golden West Sands and the sea.

We were glad to be heading home in the frosty air, satisfied with our foraging and our harvest – red berries celebrating the fruitful earth and the blood of Christ and the hawthorn and bramble both bearing the thorns of a crown which  the Christchild was destined to wear in another season and on another day but foreshadowed tonight on Advent’s ring.  For, as the poet says:

There was no berry on the bramble
only the thorn,
there was no rose, not one petal,
only the bare thorn
the night he was born.

29 November 2020 – Isaiah 64;1-9

‘O that you would tear open the heavens and come down …’ That is our Advent cry for help, our longing for the coming of the Son of God. But will our prayer be answered this Advent? Was it answered last Advent? Was it answered when the lament was first delivered in the days of the prophet?

Moses witnessed the dramatic phenomena of earthquake, wind and fire. Others too but those were the days of that old time religion when God was God, sinners knew their place and there was a miracle round  every corner! Does it happen anymore?

There are two problems with the prayer. To whom would God respond? And if he responded to you, would your cause be justified? What sort of God would make immediate response to your prayer? Is that the kind of God who would tear open the heavens and come down and sort everyone out? Is that the kind of religion we actually espouse?

Some do – but I’m not so sure. And neither was the poet who wrote this powerful lament. For in the fourth verse, he acknowledges that this prayer has not been answered for a long time – if it ever was! ‘From ages past no one has heard, no ear has perceived, no eye has seen any God besides you, who works for those who wait for  him.’

Oh dear! That’s not good news. Waiting! Who wants to wait? It’s not life affirming!  But this is what Advent is all about. ‘Keep alert!’ says one. ‘Keep watch!’ says another. Wait for Christ to come. This waiting is not a passive activity. It’s all about being alert and keeping watch! Jesus says it’s all about doing the work which has been allocated to us.

Amazingly enough, this waiting brings with it the fulfilment of God’s promise. For in this addition to the lament, we discover that far from waiting for God to tear open the heavens, God  comes down and ‘works for those who wait for him’.

There’s much less drama but that’s what God does. God  meets those who do two particular things. Firstly, remember him as we do in every act  of worship.  And gladly do right. There’s much discernment in what it means to do right but loving God and loving our neighbour as yourself is a good beginning.

This prayer is more readily answered than the dramatic crie de coeur, ‘O that you would tear open the heavens and come down!’ But it’s a more authentic religion. It’s all about God’s collaboration with us, working with us, meeting us when we remember him and gladly do right this Advent and for aye!

28 November 2020

The Catholic Church in England and Wales has been chastened by the publication of the report of the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse. It has been highly critical of  its leadership and the tendency of the hierarchy to protect the institution and the abuser  at the expense of the abused.

In the Tablet’s editorial, the editor makes three pertinent distinctions. The first is a distinction between the hierarchy and the Church. The former are not the whole people of God just a small but significant part of it. The rest are described as ‘largely voiceless and powerless’.

The second is the bold distinction between the Roman Catholic Church in England and Wales and the Church of England. The editor observes that there is ‘an extreme structural problem in the modern Catholic Church’. It does not have a synod where the voice of the bishops and clergy is complemented by the voice of the  laity.

The value of this more democratic form of government is that the hierarchy ‘can be called to account, made to explain themselves or challenged for failing to do so’.  The existence of checks and balances, accountability and collegiality leads to greater well-being.

The third is the difference between the sacred and secular world. In the secular world, leaders are expected to take the rap for their  misdemeanours and be sacked if necessary. This has manifestly not been the case in the Church’s recent history.

Whereas ordinary citizens are expected  to be trusted and treated as grown-ups by their elected representatives, in the Church, which retains a feudal outlook, adults are treated like powerless children. There is a lot of anger around which has the potential to reshape and refocus the Church – and thankfully Pope Francis knows it.

27 November 2020

Andrea Bocelli has released a new album entitled ‘Believe’. In a recent interview with Joanna Moorhead, the Italian tenor talked about the importance of music and described it as a ‘universal language that has the strength and ability to affect our consciousness and help make us better people’.

He argued that it has its origin in wonder. It makes us feel  less alone.  It has the power to console and help us grow. It’s like light, he says, ‘It shows  us the way to the joy of living.’ It has a deep spiritual dimension and enables the listener to get in touch with her inner life or as he says  ‘the inner sky we all cherish inside our hearts’.

At Easter, Bocelli performed on his own inside the Duomo di Milano, the cathedral church of the archdiocese of Milan and the largest ecclesiastical building in Italy. Although the cathedral was empty, Bocelli did not feel alone. In the first place, he acknowledged that this was the house of God and his presence was evident in every corner.

Secondly,  millions of people around the world tuned in to his concert and  were all ‘interconnected’. As he said, ‘I merely lent my voice to our universal prayer. Our Christian Easter, with its message of love and redemption, seemed the perfect time to take a moment and remind ourselves that life always triumphs.’

This was a poignant moment given two things. Firstly, Milan was seriously affected at this time by the ravages of the pandemic and secondly, Bocelli has been blind since childhood. His faith was nurtured in his early years  and he was brought closer to music by the organ which was played every week in his village church.

One of the worst features of the pandemic has been our inability to sing in the kirk. It has always been the people’s part ever  since the Reformers rescued it from the professionals and returned it to ordinary worshippers. It celebrates  the emotional heart of our faith and marks out a space in every parish where people gather  to make music together!

Praise him with the timbrel and dance:
praise him with stringed instruments and organs.
Praise him upon the loud cymbals:
praise him upon the high sounding cymbals.
Let everything that hath breath praise the Lord.

26 November 2020

Not so long ago, Dame Esther Rantzen wrote a letter to the Sunday Times. It was in response to a decision made by the council at Elmbridge, Surrey. Apparently, the council had decided to ban a retirement development because it would ‘drain the vitality from the town’.

As you can imagine, Dame Esther wasn’t best pleased with what she described as ageism and argued that far from draining communities of vitality, those who were over sixty-five years old positively added to the quality of life in our communities.

I have found that most older people enjoy shopping in high streets.’ she wrote. ‘They patronise theatres. They love parks and gardens. They are the backbone of local charities and they enjoy fun.’  She went on to suggest that if councils didn’t provide the housing which older people needed, they would become bed-blockers and house-blockers!

She ended her letter with one last hurrah! ‘I wonder whether the Elmbridge councillors would refuse to invite Sir David Attenborough, Sir Michael Palin or the Queen to an event because they would drain it of vitality?’ she asked with an enormous grin!

As it happens, I would not be attracted to live in a retirement development because I think  the best communities are the ones where people of all ages live  next door to each other and enable different age groups to benefit from a deeper understanding of what it means to be human, giving and receiving in equal measure.

Because of this mutual interaction and benefit, I agree wholeheartedly with Dame Esther about the importance of including older people. For many people, growing older is fearful but the best witness to embracing the latter part of our life is to be found in all those who embrace it with dignity, wisdom and joy. And can show us how!