27 January 2021

 The discovery of gravitational waves has revolutionised astronomy overnight! Their discovery has given scientists a new tool with which to explore the darker side of the Universe.  By their very nature, Black Holes cannot be seen. However, the scientists were able to transform the gravitational wave into sound waves and listen to it!

They literally heard something of the interaction of these cosmic phenomena. In the olden days, astronomy was all about looking at the sky with our eye. But that cannot be done with Black Holes. Now we are able to listen to what is happening when enormous Black Holes collide.

This is the new tool which will deepen our understanding of the creation. It doesn’t surprise me that it depends on our ability to listen. Listening to the heartbeat of the Universe is the medium which we develop to enrich and deepen our relationships with others.

You can see it in two special places. The first is prayer. Like the dark side of the Universe, God cannot be seen but he has been detected through his Word, the Word made flesh and the Word contained in Scripture. Our prayer not only depends on our words but listening to the Word of God. God speaks. Often we do not listen!

The second is pastoral care. Good personal relationships are dependent upon our ability to listen to each other. This is a skill which doesn’t always come naturally to us. It requires concentration to understand what people are saying and humility to forego our desire to fill the time with our own thoughts, observations and experiences rather than theirs!

26 January 2021

Lying is not that uncommon. Apparently, men lie more than women. In one survey, it transpired that men told six lies a day whilst women told three. Telling three lies a day amounts to 90 lies a month and 1,100 per year! That’s a lot of fabrication!

Among the more popular lies are things like, ‘I’m fine, nothing’s wrong.’ Or ‘You look great in that dress!’ Or ‘I was stuck in traffic!’ Or ‘I’ll call you right back!’ Or ‘You haven’t changed a bit!’ Or ‘I would never lie to you!’

A lot of our lies are designed to safeguard social equilibrium. Is there any point in moaning about our health? Will people really be sympathetic to our complaints? And if everyone wants to go to McDonalds, what’s the point in being the odd one out?

Imagine if we lived in a world where every time you told a lie, your nose began to grow like Geppetto’s wooden puppet, Pinocchio. Whilst it would be embarrassing, it might help us tune into what we really like and reveal to others our true identity.

Believe it or not, there is a way of telling whether someone is lying or not. It has nothing to do with growing noses but it does have to do with our bodies. Apparently, when we lie to another, we imitate the body language of the one to whom we are telling the lie.

This isn’t  obvious to the naked eye but it can be seen using an accelerometer recording head, chest and wrist movements. According to Sophie van der Zee at Erasmus University, lying requires so much concentration, it’s easier for the body  just to copy what it sees! So beware!

25 January 2021

As a student studying theology at New College, Edinburgh, I was part of a group organising a Burns Supper at the Tinto Hotel  for the Divinity Faculty. It turned out to be a memorable event patronised not only by students but by members of staff who endured all our in-jokes at their expense with admirable good humour.

Of course, this event was not exclusive – as well as students and staff, there were men and women and people of different nationalities all toasting our national Bard. It was a representative celebration of our community life making strong connections with our Scottish culture.

As a minister, I became chaplain to an all male Burns Club which had originally been started by the workforce at the local laundry but had developed over the years into an independent club. It was there that I had the honour of sitting beside my old heidie’s son, John Smith, who had been invited to give the Immortal Memory.

This year, the well-established Burns Clubs have resolved to have their suppers online. Since everyone will be participating in their own homes, it is acknowledged that wives, daughters, mothers and sisters may be in evidence too changing the dynamic of these all male events.

Whilst I think there is no problem in men meeting together in sheds or on the golf course or even in prayer breakfasts, I have always thought it puzzling that a significant part of the Burns Supper is a toast to the lassies but the lassies are  never there to hear it!

The presence of women at these events would surely temper some of the stereotypical and misogynistic things which are sometimes said at  all male events.  More positively, their presence would recalibrate our perspective on Scottish life and culture and release a multitude of new, challenging  and honest insights on the Bard’s relationship with women.

While Europe’s eye is fix’d on mighty things,
The fate of Empires and the fall of Kings;
While quacks of State must each produce his plan,
And even children lisp the Rights of Man;
Amid this mighty fuss just let me mention,
The Rights of Woman merit some attention.

24 January 2021 – St. Mark 1;14-20

Right at the start of  St. Mark’s Gospel, we sense the mystery surrounding the ministry of Jesus and the Kingdom of God. St. Mark writes with remarkable freshness, ‘Now after John was arrested, Jesus came …’ How? From where? Why?  Mark doesn’t  give us a biographical  nor a psychological analysis. He simply says,  ‘Jesus came!’

But in his coming, Jesus excited a response. ‘Follow me!’ he says to the fishermen. ‘And immediately they left their nets …’ How did that happen? Some commentators are tempted to dispel the mystery. They had met before. A relationship had been established. This was a significant development. Nonsense!

St. Mark doesn’t tell us that! He treasures the mystery and celebrates the immediacy of their response.  It is in sharp contrast to the lack of spontaneity and sparkle within the church. The fishermen sense the time is right. And they don’t want to miss the moment. They sensed ‘The Kingdom of God has come near!’

What is even more surprising is their detachment from the world. They leave their nets and their father Zebedee in the boat! Somehow when Jesus came, they developed a different set of priorities. Family ties were loosened. A new family established. And God is at the centre of it all.

It surely involved an enormous risk. As the gospel unfolds, it was a risk which they called into question on several occasions. But, somehow, they didn’t ultimately regret it. Jesus came. They put their trust in him. They sensed ‘The Kingdom of God has come near!’

How near has it to come before we will respond with such immediacy? Isn’t this the key to the gospel and the mission of the church. ‘The kingdom of God has come near.’ says Jesus. It sounds as if it’s pretty close. How close? Where is it exactly? So near and yet so far?

Don’t put your trust in tears nor laughter, possessions nor politics. These things are  very real but they have no lasting power. In your grief, remember the kingdom of God has come near. In the pandemic, remember the kingdom of God has come near. In your politics, remember the kingdom of God has come near.

How near? So near and yet so far? Is it as tantalising as that? Why can’t we pin it down more closely? Why can’t we find a formula to determine its dimensions? Why isn’t there a map to lead us there? For Jesus says, ‘The kingdom of God has come near.’ But how near?

As far as meaning is from speech,
As beauty from a rose,
As far as music is from sound,
As poetry from prose,

As far as art from cleverness,
As painting is from paints,
As far as signs from Sacraments,
As Pharisees from Saints …

As far as love from shining eyes,
As passion from a kiss,
So far is God from God’s green earth,
So far that world from this.’

23 January 2021

Honours and achievements are a mixed blessing. They don’t necessarily bring satisfaction. Even at the highest level, there will always be someone who has achieved more or there will always be some circumstance which comes in to steal our joy.

In his exploration of walking, Erling Kagge writes about walking on the moon. It was a fine achievement and those of us who were around at the time remember it well. The extraordinary footprint left by Neil Armstrong is still there for all to see.  There is no wind on the moon to disturb it.

Second out of the spaceship was Buzz Aldrin. Someone had to be first and someone had to be second. You would think that at this level of achievement and honour, it would be sufficient just to have been there and to have been among the first to set foot on the moon.

‘Aldrin was upset for the rest of his life that Armstrong got to walk on the moon before him.’ writes Kagge. ’In addition, Armstrong was the one who spoke the sentence that the whole world remembers.’ This had a profound effect on Kagge.  ‘Aldrin reminds me that anything, even walking on the mood, can be remembered as a defeat.

There are three problems here. The first is the  individualism which pervades our society. The astronaut was one of three not one apart. The second is the competitiveness which feeds on our materialism. What I have is not worth as much to me unless it is  better than what you have.

The third is  the discontent which is born out of our inability to value things appropriately. A contented spirit is wise enough to see beyond the present moment to that time when all achievement and honour will be forgotten:

And in the dust be equal made

With the poor crooked scythe and spade.

22 January 2021

Steve Bruce has just published a devastating critique on religion and, in particular, the Christian religion in Britain. It is entitled ‘British Gods – Religion in Modern Britain’. You cannot read this book without being chastened into deeper reflection.

Statistically, it is obvious that church-going has been in decline since the middle of the nineteenth century. That’s a hundred and seventy years’ worth of declining attendance at church. This is nearer two centuries than one. It’s a very long time. Bruce sees little potential for reversing this state of affairs.

In an extraordinary final chapter, the sociologist looks at the people who are most likely to be involved in religious activity. They come from five distinct categories:

  1. elderly women
  2. native inhabitants in peripheral rural communities speaking Gaelic or Welsh
  3. migrant Christians e.g. people from Poland
  4. West African Pentecostalists who make up 40% of evangelical Christians
  5. non-Christian migrants – mostly Muslims

Closer examination of these groups reveals two interesting characteristics. They are all socially isolated. And apart from the elderly women, they all speak in languages other than English. How are these groups going to befriend and convert a nation which has turned its back on religion for almost two centuries? It makes you think!

21 January 2021

My mother was always very keen that we should finish well.  Whilst we never got anything for academic achievement, we always got a crunchie for participating in the Primary School Sports Day. At the end of the Sunday School year, there was always a picnic. No Sunday School next day but we always had to go to church to show our gratitude.

In running a race it was neither the winning nor the losing but the participating and the finishing. In joining a Sunday School, it was not the sweets and the treats, the party and the picnic but completing the year with an act of gratitude to God for what had been provided.

It is always very easy to begin something new but it is much harder to finish it and to finish it well. President Trump has made a disappointing conclusion to his term in office. Instead of participating appropriately in the traditions surrounding the inauguration of his successor, he chose to absent himself from these celebrations.

There will be many reasons for this but all of them lead to the same conclusion. He has not finished well. He has revealed his true nature and not revered  the office of the American presidency. He has diminished himself by assuming that his feelings were more important than the office to which he was elected by the American people.

Throughout life, there are lots of occasions where we are called to finish well – relationships, appointments, tasks, jobs, commitments …. Each ending  is a test of our ability to see that the work which we have undertaken is not tarnished by the way we conclude it. Our feelings are of secondary importance to the common good.

Each ending is a preparation for our final ending –  death. For every  ending  is a little death marking a boundary between what we  were and what we are not. Endings are  enhanced by  the grace of humility and the acknowledgment of the truth. We are mortal. Our gifts are of limited value.  Others are there to  take our place.  The world  turns and turns again. God is glorified and we are no more.

20 January 2021

The machine has come into its own during the pandemic. Is it a good thing or is it not? Needs must! We have to accept its place within our stricken environment and rejoice that we have some means of continuing our work, social interaction and Sunday worship.

But it’s certainly not the same. What I remember about the ten lectures I received on computing in the early 1970s was that the machine was constructed on a system which used two numbers zero and one. This is commonly known as the binary system.

The structure is deceptively simple but to what extent has it contributed to the polarisation of our society – leave and remain, yes or no to indyref? In addition, we may well ask to what extent has the increasing influence of the machine contributed to our sense of isolation.

It is clear that the number of people who suffer from loneliness has increased. The incidence of mental illness has increased. The number of people opting for a single lifestyle has increased. So much of our social interaction is conducted via  the machine that even if there is no  correlation, it doesn’t surprise.

Chairing meetings on Zoom is disconcerting. Whilst we are looking at everyone, we cannot look at each other. Whilst we are altogether on one screen, we remain isolated from each other in different rooms. Whilst we can see changing facial reactions, we are denied the knowing glance, the nod of confirmation.

There is no room for subtlety living in a machine. You cannot tune in readily to corporate identity. There isn’t an agreed etiquette.  Now people happily leave meetings to fix themselves a coffee  or walk their dog. In a machine, you can do  all sorts of different things but you cannot touch nor become incarnate like a Word made flesh.

19 January 2021

Do you remember the loaf whose brand name was ‘Hovis’?  The name came from the combination of two Latin words – hominis vis i.e. ‘the strength of man’. Bread has long been considered a staple foodstuff which we could not normally do without.

In the Bible, Jesus likens himself to the bread of life. ‘I am the bread of life,’ he says, ‘Your ancestors ate mana in the wilderness and they died. This is the bread that comes  down from heaven, so that one may eat of it and not die.’ In the Sacrament, Jesus associates himself with the broken bread which gives life to the world.

In this context, the latest news about bread is not so surprising. Scientists  have identified bread as ‘a scaffold for growing cells’. Andrew Pelling, a scientist  at the University of Ottawa, ‘baked bread, removed small portions, sterilised them by soaking them in  alcohol and then seeded them with various cells from mice’.

According to Michael Le Page in a recent issue of New Scientist, Pelling found that Irish soda bread worked best of all! He has already grown human ears using apples as scaffolds. ‘It’s remarkable to me how human and animal cells have this capacity to grow in really odd, artificial environments.’ said the scientist.

Experiments have already taken place using asparagus. Rats ‘whose spinal cords have been completely severed can recover some movement after plant capillaries extracted from asparagus are implanted.’  Apples, asparagus and bread have yet to reveal many secrets with the potential to heal and renew God’s wonderful creation!

18 January 2021

Today  marks the start of the ‘Week of Prayer for Christian Unity’. This year’s theme is ‘Abiding in Christ’ and it is based round a series of reflections on the words of Jesus, ‘Abide in my love and you shall bear much fruit.’

The material has been prepared by a religious community of women at Grandchamp, Switzerland. Their community was established in the thirties by a group of Protestant women longing to rediscover the importance of silence and listening to God’s Word.

It now has fifty sisters following the Benedictine tradition. They are from different generations, traditions, countries and continents so they are aptly placed to encourage us to abide in Christ.

We cannot create unity within the Church, it comes only from our abiding in Christ. This is established through our baptism and our growth in grace. It is as simple and as hard as that!

We need to get back to first principles for we are often waylaid by other considerations – two, in particular. The one is theological. It is good to hold different views but there is no ultimate unity  along this path.

The truth is not to be found in our words for they differ so much. The truth is to be found in him who said, ‘I am the Way, the Truth and the Life’. All our discussion must be tempered by this humble and humbling perspective.

The second is liturgy. Our mode of worship cannot lead us to unity either. Discussion about contemporary or traditional worship, worship in the round or on the internet, is interesting  but who is to say the one is better than the other.

Different people are drawn to worshipping God in different ways and the glory of the Church is its colourful diversity. But this should never be a source of disunity for human structures even liturgical structures cannot unite us. Only Christ can do that!