4 August 2021

We visited the Falls of Bruar recently and discovered that Rabbie Burns had beaten us to it. He visited in 1787 and immortalised his visit in a poem entitled, ‘The Humble Petition of Bruar Water’. It was written, ‘To the Noble Duke of Athole’.

In it, Burns imaginatively writes as if he is the Bruar Water running down the hillside over the rocks and falls. In it, the Water reports that ‘A poet Burns came by’ and he makes it his boast, ‘I am, altho’ I say’t myself’/ Worth gaun a mile to see’.

We thought so too. The first information board at the start of the mile and half walk up to the falls and back again warns of steep and uneven paths and water ‘deep, cold and fast-flowing, so please do not swim’. We didn’t, of course. But there was a group of wet-suited young people doing a gorge walk.

They were well supervised and clearly enjoying the challenges presented by the gorge and the cliffs and the cold water. It was a welcome sight to see young people exploring this wonderful environment after all the Covid restrictions.

The purpose of the bard’s poem was to invite the fourth Duke of Atholl to plant some trees and shrubs on the banks of the Water. They will attract the birds and the Duke will hear their birdsong. They will provide shelter for the birds nesting and the shepherd resting.

And here, by sweet, endearing stealth,
Shall meet the loving pair,
Despising world with all their wealth,
As empty idle care:
The flowr’s shall vie, in all their charms,
The hour of heav’n to grace;
And birks extend their fragrant arms
To screen the dear embrace.

After Burns died, the Duke planted over 100,000 larches and pines, landscaped the area with paths and decorative bridges in the bard’s memory and earned the nickname ‘Planter John’.  Burns was ahead of his time with his political lobbying, his sensitivity to the natural environment, its conservation and its joy!

3 August 2021

Henry Hepburn was writing about the vilification of teachers on line. Because everyone has been to school and teachers are to be found in every community, people are tempted to think that they are experts in what a teacher should be doing.

According to Hepburn, the problem is to be found in the way people stereotype teachers – the beneficiaries of short working days and long, lazy holidays! In order to counter this, he conducted a survey to find out what people did before they became teachers.

The list is very impressive – an opera singer, a football commentator, a stand-up comedian, a wedding-cake designer, a breastfeeding counsellor, a counterterrorism researcher, a council grass cutter, a sail maker, an audiologist, a cytogeneticist, a Merchant Navy officer, a band manager, a tea lady, a cancer researcher, a travel agent and a coal miner!

He concludes by suggesting that people are drawn into teaching ‘by a desire to contribute to the greater good, to dedicate their skills and experience to improving the prospects of their students.’ And he concludes, ‘In short, they seek fulfilment by bettering the lives of others.’

What a rich tapestry of life is represented by our teaching profession! Is there another which is as representative of our nation? One thing is sure, this variety is not to be found among our elected politicians in either parliament. More’s the pity, we may get more wisdom and common sense  if there were a few more miners, football commentators and tea ladies!

2 August 2021

In our Presbytery Mission Plan, it says reassuringly, ‘Ministers of Word and Sacrament will remain pivotal in any successful mission strategy.’ In addition, ‘Ministers must be provided with the support to fulfil their vows and calling, to celebrate the sacraments, proclaim the good news and provide the functions and offices of ministry ….’

It is further stated that ‘Ministers of Word and Sacrament are called as leaders in contextual mission.’ I am not sure what is meant by contextual mission. Perhaps  the context in which they work is their field of mission i.e. the parish? But it is then suggested that a minister should divide their time between parish ministry and mission.

In the Plan, the example given is 60% mission and 40% parish ministry. How can you divide the work of the minister in this way. If the parish is the context in which the minister  does his work and this is described as contextual mission, what is the point of  differentiating the two?

When you examine the detail of the ‘Five Marks of Mission’, you can see that a minister’s involvement in this work  is no different than his work as a parish minister. Or is this a way of reframing or more likely refocusing what the minister does to fit in with the over-riding concept of mission?

I think the work of a minister cannot easily be divided into categories. Whilst there are specific tasks like baptising a child or taking a school assembly so much of our work cannot be easily categorised. When I am visiting or listening or being with others is this parish ministry or missional activity? If the Spirit is working through what I do, isn’t it both?

There is a caveat to all of this. For the Mission Plan also states, ‘The future shape of the church, the responsibilities and expectations on those in ministries, will be expected to adapt as Fife Presbytery develops new ways of being church.’ Adapting to change is not easy. Whose expectations will be the more persuasive and will they carry penalties?

1 August 2021

The new Mission Plans, which are being drawn up in all the Presbyteries, have at their centre ‘The Five Marks of Mission’. These marks of mission have been accepted by the General Assembly. They are prefaced with this theological statement, ‘The mission of the Church is the mission of Christ.’ Here they are:

i. To proclaim the Good News of the Kingdom

ii. To teach, baptise and nurture new believers.

iii. To respond to human need by loving service

iv. To seek to transform unjust structures of society, to challenge violence of every kind and pursue peace and reconciliation.

v. To strive to safeguard the integrity of creation and sustain and renew the life of the earth.

They are described as ‘the primary guiding principle in developing a Mission Plan’ and are mentioned regularly in the draft Roadmap of the Fife Presbytery. Whilst the Presbytery expects a congregation to evidence and review these marks in any new mission initiative, there is no attempt  to unpack their meaning and embed them into the detail of the  Roadmap!

There are two other things to observe about these five marks of mission. The words ‘success’ and ‘growth’ do not appear anywhere in this list. However, the draft Roadmap talks about a  ‘successful mission strategy’  and celebrating ’the success of the church in the past and the present’, ‘a mission intent on growth and flourishing’ and a Church ‘rooted in mission and focused on growth’.

Examining the five marks of mission carefully, it becomes clear that whilst all of these marks may not be evident in every charge, they are all evident in the Church as a whole. What is it about centring the  Mission Plan on them which will make the outcome any different than what it has been up until now?  Only the Holy Spirit can evidence these marks within the life of the Church.

At the Reformation, our forebears recognised  the life of the ‘true Kirk’ on three marks which they called ‘notes’ in the Scots Confession – the true preaching of the Word of God, the right administration of the sacraments of Christ Jesus and ecclesiastical discipline uprightly ministered. ‘Then wherever these notes are seen and continue for any time, be the number complete or not, there, beyond any doubt, is the true Kirk of Christ, who, according to his promise, is in its midst.’

31 July 2021

The Presbytery of Fife has sent out a roadmap for the creation of a Mission Plan. It is inviting  Kirk Sessions to discuss it and to answer a series of questions on it. It doesn’t make for easy reading. Sometimes the metaphors are mixed and difficult to unravel.

For example, it is stated that ‘A mixed economy of Church should be resourced by a mixed ecology of ministries.’ Clearly, these two images are taken from different worlds. The economy is all about business, success and growth and survival in the market-place.

Ecology is all about biology and sustaining diversity, protecting endangered species, creating an environment where everything has its respected place. So which is it to be? The former has a ruthless reputation. The latter is difficult to achieve without much give and take.

Both images are concerned about growth. The mixed economy is all about what we do to achieve this goal. The mixed ecology has within it a mystery which can only be revealed through discerning patiently and sensitively how to balance one aspect of the environment over against another.

In mapping out our future, two things are important. The first is acknowledging our starting point. All the talk about being successful is difficult to handle when there is so much failure around. It is important to explore a theology of failure for it lies at the heart of the Gospel.

The second is to discern what can be achieved by us and what must be left to God. This discernment is the fruit of our prayer, our dependence on the Holy Spirit and our understanding of what God is actually doing in our midst. The former roots our roadmap in reality. The latter puts us in a right relationship with God.

30 July 2021

Friends gave us a very generous gift on our retirement – afternoon tea at the Colonnades in the Signet Library, Edinburgh. We had booked a table in April 2020 but our plans were stymied by Covid 19. Today’s booking went ahead without a hitch and we relished the freedom and the joy of it!

The Signet Library sits behind the High Kirk of St. Giles not far from the grave of John Knox and the untouched statue of the Merry Monarch – a very contrasting pair. I doubt people are woke enough to remember why Charles II was so merry! And if they do, it hasn’t damaged the statue!

The Signet Library proved to be a very  gracious environment. The impressive pillars, the beautiful wooden bookshelves, the awesome gallery, the mirrored table tops and silver stands, the pleasant piano music all created the perfect ambience for such a civilised culinary experience as afternoon tea.

Mary-Catherine had Ceylon. I had Darjeeling and remembered our days in the Himalayas and other generous gifts of tea which we brought back to Scotland and shared with the congregation at Traprain. The tea was a prelude to four courses with a cold soup  to begin and an even colder sorbet to finish.

Savouries and sweets constituted the middle courses with such delights as pickled cucumber and dill cream cheese sandwiches, sweet pea panna cotta, curried cauliflower and lentil wellington, pina colada delice, pistachio, rose and honey pinwheel … It was enough for lunch and dinner and it all sat very well on my early morning bowl of porridge!

I booked a visit to the National Gallery. But when I saw my ticket was for Trafalgar Square and not the Mound, I realised that my conceit had got the better of me! There was no entry for such a fool and his wife but  no memory space either for we were  lost among the colonnades basking in a  generosity  which was just as beautiful and memorable as the Raeburns we missed!

29 July 2021

There was an interesting article in this week’s issue of  ‘tes scotland’ about the importance of play in the education of children. Apparently, it is on the wane in the classrooms of older children and the opportunities have been further restricted in the playground through a reduction in break-times.

There is evidence to confirm that play improves a child’s skill in language, regulation of their learning, ability to cope with anxiety etc. And far from seeing the life of the playground as a necessary distraction from learning, it should be seen as an extension of the classroom and afforded as much attention in terms of resources and personnel.

In the article, Michael Follett, the founder and director of Outdoor Play and Learning, spoke  about a group of boys  playing in a Bristol playground. They found a red brick. Rubbing it on top of the wall created a red powder. One of them spat in it and formed a paste. Another picked up a grey stone and wondered it if would produce a grey powder.

Having got the red powder and the grey powder, they marked their faces. ‘Now that was like triple-layered recapitulative play because they had discovered paint, body marking and tribes.’ says Follett. It is immediately obvious that scientific endeavour was greatly enhanced in this playful activity.

Yet, when the boys rushed up to the midday assistant to show her what they had done,’ continued Follett, ‘she immediately admonished the group, telling them that ‘bricks are dangerous’. And with that the play and the learning benefits stopped!’

The playground assistant wasn’t imaginative enough to see the benefits of the children’s experiments. Sometimes members of the kirk are the same. They do not see the value in giving children space to enjoy being in the kirk on their own terms without overlaying their experience with a ‘Thou shalt not!’ There is another way – ensuring children enjoy being in  the kirk and  seizing the  opportunity to discover God.

28 July 2021

During my ministry, I organised a huge number of Holiday Clubs for Primary School children. They often attracted a large number of participants and leaders of all ages. It was one of those events which greatly enriched the life of the congregation and brought the summer holidays to an energetic conclusion.

We usually used material produced by Scripture Union. It was always Biblically based with a theme, a catchy  song, a DVD of stories and ideas for games and crafts. Sometimes the Holiday Clubs were educational. There was one featuring the Olympics, another on polar exploration, a third on inventions and a favourite on conservation.

We were able to add to the basic materials and always expanded the educational material. The Clubs featuring the Romans and the Egyptians, the early Christians and the Joseph epic, for example, were ripe for additional resources. And it was all done in a playful way where having fun was the order of the day.

This all came back to me when I read an article written by Professor Lindsay Paterson, Professor of Education Policy at Edinburgh University, lamenting the loss to children’s education caused by the pandemic and the lack of leadership in making amends. Many politicians and educationalists are simply in denial about the damage done.

One of the initiatives which he suggested was the Holiday Club. ‘To be effective,’ he wrote, ‘holiday clubs need a mixture of academic focus and wider activity. Research shows that a planned mixture of formal learning and organised relaxation is highly effective.’

According to the Professor, the best model is one which combines study and play. Although the Holiday Clubs at the kirk emphasised play, there was study too of the Bible and the over-arching theme. I first saw material for these about fifty years ago. Another example of the Church creating an exciting initiative and being ahead of the game!

27 July 2021

Helen Lawrenson sent me a copy of a book of her own poems entitled, ‘Snow Pasture’. The collection celebrates the seasons of the year in images from garden and natural world,  giving birth to the gospel story as it intersects with the changing landscape.

One of the most striking poems was called, ‘Island Church, Torcello’. It was clearly a holiday destination as it is located in the northern end of the Venetian Lagoon. The poet contrasts the surrounding countryside with the inner sanctuary of the church and focuses on a statue of Mary holding the Christchild in her arms.

Out of the green into the gold:
a moment’s darkness in the porch,
and then the whole array of height
and space and beauty works to hold
us still a moment, while the bright
field of gold curves shining round
a stiller figure, richly gowned
in tassel-gilded black, her eyes
wide-gazing with a calm content
down  at the quiet church
and wondering people, while her hands
embrace a lively child with wise
and smiling face. Silent, she stands
above the ones who worship, stare,
or simply wander by – and there,
upon the marble-chequered floor,
the fluffy black-and-orange cat
with children kneeling by. So then
the Christ-child watches lovingly; for,
seeing their caressing way
with her, he knows – whatever they
forget – they will remember that.

This beautiful poem captures a moment of rare simplicity and celebrates the power of the gospel which manifests itself in illuminating the ordinary and accepting that the tangential may lead us further along the path  of faith than self-conscious pedagogy.

26 July 2021

Members of the organisation ‘Black Lives Matter’ were behind the removal for the Edward Colston statue. They had discovered that Edward Colston, a rich businessman and philanthropist, had made his fortune through his investment in slavery.

To that extent, the statue seemed to honour a man who not only benefitted from the abuse of other people but did so even when some of his seventeenth century contemporaries were raising serious questions about slavery.

Then it emerged that there was a story within this story. For Edward Colston died in 1721 but his statue was not put up in central Bristol until 1895, a 174 years later! Why had they taken so  long  to celebrate his endowment of the city.

This is where the statue becomes interesting because it wasn’t Colston that was being celebrated when the statue was unveiled at the end of the nineteenth century but a particular political philosophy encapsulated by his life.

According to one historian, seventeenth century Colston was reinvented in nineteenth century Bristol ‘to combat a rising interest in socialism by glorifying Bristol’s entrepreneurial past’.

From this perspective, Colston became a victim too not only of ‘Black Lives Matter’ but also the anti-socialists. Although statues have no rights, each generation has the right to question them. The answers are unexpected!