28 May 2020

Thomas a Kempis has an extraordinary chapter in ‘The Imitation of Christ’. It is entitled, ‘A Meditation on Death’ and should be compulsory reading for anyone who aspires to live  the Christian life and, in particular, those who would exercise leadership within the church whether as minister or elder.

If you are not ready to die today, will tomorrow find you better prepared?’ Many people live in denial about their own death. They think that they will go on forever and that their influence on family, work and world will be undiminished. But death is a leveller. The world forgets everyone with few exceptions.

You should order your every deed and thought, as though today were the day of your death.’  Our human predicament adds urgency to the present moment. We should make the most of it. And we should live it in such a way that when we are gone, the world will continue to turn with an even more graceful orbit as if we had never lived.

He sees no special virtue in living a long life arguing that it often adds to our sinfulness rather than increasing our virtue. ‘Few are made better by sickness and those who make frequent pilgrimages seldom acquire holiness by so doing.’  Why bargain with God for more life if it only means a life full of self and devoid of self-reflection!

Keep yourself a stranger and pilgrim upon the earth … Keep your heart free and lifted up to God, for here you have no abiding city.’  Shun adulation and honour. Focus on God and not the world. Cultivate a measure of detachment from status and wealth. They are transient. Care for the things of God. They are eternal!

27 May 2020

Stephen Bullivant is a theologian and sociologist. He has done a study on the falling attendances at Sunday Mass in the Roman Catholic Church. He was reflecting on how the pandemic and, in particular, the lock down of churches would affect future attendances. His analysis wasn’t encouraging.

He considered three things. Firstly, the age profile of worshipers is high. Death by natural causes and by the coronavirus will be higher in this category. Secondly, the number of immigrants coming into the country is likely to slow down both as a result of our relationship with the EU and travel restrictions caused by Covid 19.

Thirdly, breaking the habit of attending Sunday worship is likely to have a bearing on some people. It is very easy for people to stop attending church. After a while, you no longer miss it and postpone a return from one Sunday to the next and before you know it, you have grown into a lapsed member.

Immigration is a much larger factor in Roman Catholic statistics. This century has seen  mass figures inflated by the influx of Eastern Europeans and the establishment of Polish services etc. This hasn’t affected our attendances in the same way.

However, the other two factors are very pertinent. And there is a fourth. Some people will not be inclined to return to the kirk at least until there is a vaccine for fear of contracting the disease. Funding will be affected and this will fast forward the crisis. Covid 19 has exercised a prophetic ministry!

The writing has been on the wall for some time and office-bearers have been living in denial. Change is no longer a luxury. The pastoral care of older people and the nurture of young people are our priorities. The internet can help both but it requires an investment of money to produce material of quality which will attract and sustain.

Far from being a hindrance, aging office-bearers have the opportunity to forget themselves and let go of the status quo. They need to become midwives bringing to birth not their vision but the vision of our younger members. This midwifery requires humility, patience and wisdom, all inspired by a love of God!

26 May 2020

Simone Weil begins her essay on education in schools with this startling assertion. ‘The key to a Christian conception of studies is the realisation that prayer consists of attention. It is the orientation of all the attention of which the soul is capable toward God.’

What startles us is the unexpected connection which Weil makes between school studies on the one hand and prayer on the other. We don’t naturally think of school and prayer in the same breath. In our world, chaplains hardly ever pray in the environment of the school.

The two are connected by the word ‘attention’. She argues that although the attention required to pursue an education is on a lower level than the attention required to pray, the one enables the student to become fitter for the other.

If we have no aptitude or natural taste for geometry,’ she writes, ‘this does not mean that our faculty for attention will not be developed by wrestling with a problem or studying a theorem. On the contrary it is almost an advantage.’

She goes on to argue that remaining attentive to the academic task in hand will reward a student on the spiritual plane whether they are successful in the solution of their geometrical problem or not. Furthermore, the insights gained from the attentive struggle will redound in mysterious ways.

She views education as a pursuit of the truth. What is of ultimate value is not the solution but the pursuit. The connection for us is with the truth and it is Jesus who says, ‘I am the Truth.’ Nurturing attentiveness has spiritual benefits ‘quite apart from any particular religious belief’ she says!

25 May 2020

One of the outcomes of the national lockdown has been the adventurous way ministers, priests and worship leaders have taken to the internet to provide alternative acts of worship for their congregations – and others bereft of their local parish churches.

There has been a lot of boasting about increased  attendances and talk about a future for the virtual church in contrast to  the people of God gathered together physically around the Word and the Holy Table.  Some have claimed it is a no-brainer for the growth of the church!  But all is not as it seems.

The Rev. Dr. Mark Hart did some analysis on his Easter services. Last year, the six Easter services attracted 577 worshippers. This year, the four online services had a virtual congregation exceeding 6,000. So far so good. But what do these numbers really mean?

Digging deeper into the figures, the minister looked at the average viewing times. For services that lasted twenty-five minutes, the average viewing time was one minute! That is surely enough time to stick your head around the kirk door, view the flower arrangement, listen to the opening bars of the organist’s voluntary  and vanish!

It  is good that those who are unable to attend worship through infirmity, frailty or other difficulties are able to listen in to the morning service. But nothing online can replicate the importance of making the church visible within its local community. It is a political action  of enormous significance which requires courage, discipline and faith, witnessed spectacularly by the feisty, old women in the Stalinist Orthodox Church.

24 May 2020 – Acts 1;1-11

In the letter to the Hebrews, Christ is described as the High Priest, Pontifex Maximus. Pontifex comes from the Latin word for a bridge. He is a bridge-builder. But his bridge-building is the fruit of  ‘prayers and supplications’ and also ‘loud cries and tears’.

It is the work of the cross, prayers in the garden and the consequences of his sacrifice which effect the bridge-building. On Ascension Sunday, we remember that he is no longer in the garden, on the cross, sealed in the tomb nor present in the Upper Room but at the right hand of God!

In the Ascension we celebrate the bridge-building of the risen Christ who connects earth to heaven and according to St. Paul is not only at the right hand of God but intercedes for us. Now we know that neither life nor death nor any other creature ‘shall be able to separate us from the love of God which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.’

Christ’s ascended ministry is one of prayer – opening the gate of heaven, creating a bridge between earth and heaven and sharing the love of God not only with us and those who share our beliefs but with our friends and our enemies and even those who espouse no belief whatsoever.

In Prestonkirk, there is a beautiful stained glass window dedicated to the kirk’s patronal saint, Baldred of the Bass. Far above him at the top of the window, you can see the ascended Christ shining in glory. But the artist has represented him in such a way that he is  still bearing  the wounds of crucifixion in hands and feet!

He is and forever will be the One who shares the suffering of the world for He bears and will always bear the wounds of man’s inhumanity within his hands and feet! And as such, he is supremely the pontifex, the bridge-builder because he knows what it’s like to suffer for love’s sake.

But we dare not gaze into the glass too long for as the disciples discovered when they saw Jesus disappear from view, questions need to be answered. ‘Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up towards heaven?’ asked the two angels. Why indeed?

What did they hope to achieve gazing up to heaven or into stained glass? Wasn’t it time to get back to the city to share  the good news about a love which cannot be destroyed by hardship, illness, famine, pandemic or sword. So stop looking up! Look down and out. The love is God’s and the things which last for aye!

23 May 2020

‘By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down, yea, we wept, when we remembered Zion. We hanged our harps upon the willows in the midst thereof.’ sang the captives when they were taken into captivity in Babylon after the fall of Jerusalem.

Sing to us one of the songs of Zion.’ they asked wanting the captives to lay down their mournful disposition and sing. ‘How shall we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land?’ They are longing to return to Jerusalem and, in particular to the worship of God in the Temple.

Many of us feel the same way – and some have made protest about not being able to return to their churches, the ancient stone, hallowed by centuries of praise and prayer, preaching and the reading of the Word. But our sense of deprivation  is of momentary significance.

The captives were domiciled in Babylon against their will for over half a century! How does that compare to a ten week national lock down? There is no comparison. So we should take heart and nurture resilience and discover the benefits of this opportunity to fast from our usual diet of corporate worship.

We should not be quick  to replicate it. Instead, we should strive  to discover something new within our own hearts and family life. Fasting is good for body and soul. It nurtures self-discipline, a deeper appreciation of life, an entry into the world of the spirit  and an unexpected awareness of God who comes  to us whenever we call in our impoverishment.

22 May 2020

Glorious sunshine on the East Sands. A couple of young women were sitting cross-legged on the wall. They were facing each other, chatting without distraction. In between there was a home-baked loaf – fruit perhaps or ginger or maybe even banana. One of the young women held an uncut slice between her fingers as she continued to chat,  waving it around gently  as an offering, savouring the moment for as long as it could last. She was loved.

Another couple pushed a pram and walked a dog on the sand. She sprinted off to the far end of the beach. He pushed the pram, threw a ball to the dog. She returned. He sprinted off and so the cycle continued until the workout was complete. The baby slept. The circle of love,  a marriage of  equality, transforming duty into a moment of vitality and creativity.

We had each done our share of raking out the moss, blistering hard work. I mixed  the soil and the sand and scattered it on the bare patches in the front lawn. Mary-Catherine sowed the grass-seed. Watering followed. The evening sun was warm and inviting. ‘Let’s go and hear the lark sing!’ We have heard it before on the Pipeland Walk.

As we climbed the hill, we were not disappointed.  Others were availing themselves of this joy. The song of the lark was free but it couldn’t be guaranteed. We may hope to hear it but we cannot demand it. This is not  Nature’s way nor God’s. We have to wait. It is always worth it to be enveloped in such heavenly music. Vaughan Williams eat your heart out!  Nothing can compare with the rich, loving, unexpected  harmonies of our God?

21 May 2020

One of the best things about our sun porch Sunday service is the opportunity to sing hymns. Colin is staying with us at the moment and, of course, he plays the piano. I think this is what I love most about worshiping God – the music, the words, the emotional connections, the benefit to physical and mental health and the experience of singing together with others.

We sang three hymns. The first was ‘For the beauty of the earth’. I had hoped for some sunshine but my prayer wasn’t answered. Fortunately, it was dry but cloudy. Out of nine lock down services, it has only rained once. It makes me think that we have missed a golden opportunity to have services with social distancing outside! We are too pessimistic about the Scottish weather.

The second was Psalm 23, ‘The Lord’s my Shepherd’. This was Mary-Catherine’s special request. She wanted us to sing it to the beautiful, ‘Brother James’s  Air’. As a child, she sang this as an anthem in the church choir. She belonged to a church which was appropriately dedicated to the Good Shepherd.

The third was ‘I the Lord of sea and sky’. We often sang it  at our family communions as an alternative to the well-loved ‘Ye gates lift up your heads on high’ with its memorable lines:

Finest bread I will provide till their hearts be satisfied.
I will give my life to them. Whom shall I send?

As it happened, I forgot to photocopy the chorus for Colin. He didn’t tell me but played it by ear with an arresting and memorable  accompaniment!

Each hymn came with its own memory. The first was no exception with its ‘joy of human love … friends on earth and friends above’. We have just celebrated the twentieth anniversary of my mother’s death. It seems like yesterday. This isn’t surprising for in love, time is meaningless. This is certainly true in God’s eternity – and out of it according to the  scientists! Deo gratias!

20 May 2020

Some people involved in the education of our children are worried that it will be impossible to create teaching environments where children can fulfill  a policy of social distancing. Part of the problem is the philosophy of contemporary education where children are encouraged to collaborate with each other and move  around the classroom freely.

One possible solution would be a return to the early-sixties where the classroom was laid out in a completely different way. The children all had individual desks and they were set up in rows. There was no collaboration. We used to deliberately hide our work from fellow classmates! Social distancing would be easy here.

Whereas the contemporary classroom encourages children to take responsibility for their own learning and to work in groups with other children, my Primary School classroom inhibited this. It encouraged self-discipline, obedience,  learning by rote and example.

There were some advantages. We memorised the times tables and the contents of Schonell’s spelling book. We were good at computation and parsing sentences, even working out adverbial clauses and identifying subjunctives.

However, we missed the opportunity to ask questions and to pursue our own answers, to decide for ourselves what and how we were  going to learn, to work in teams and develop an appreciation of the gifts of others, to eschew competition in favour of co-operation.

Would such an experiment work? Would it be advisable? Some retired teachers might be keen to make a return to the classroom! But I would miss the colour and the vitality, the energy and the enterprise, the imagination and the stimulation of the contemporary Primary School. But combining the lessons we learned about self-discipline and obedience  may bring to birth something new and, if not that, more outdoor education which I suspect will be  a missed opportunity!

19 May 2020

One of the disappointing things which happened as a consequence of the coronavirus was the postponement of a concert given by St. Andrews Chorus and Dundee Choral Union in the Caird Hall in April. Audience figures were projected to be in excess of a thousand.

We were going to sing Verdi’s ‘Requiem’ and had been practising since January. Fortunately, the concert was rescheduled for November. Recently, we heard that a further postponement was necessary to protect the health of the choir. It is now planned for April 2021!

Although it makes sense for this to happen, it was another sign that our present predicament is more serious than we ever imagined. And it makes me wonder whether we will ever return to the freedom we enjoyed not so long ago? It’s now becoming a fast receding memory!

Recently, I saw a  photograph of an outfit being made for future music events – an astronaut type suit in fluorescent colours and headgear like those flying the Apollo machines. It reminded me of 1970s sci-fi TV  where the sterile future was marked by protective clothing and a distinct loss of intimacy.

Is the world reorienting itself for  this and if so will we get used to the gear and the fear? How the Church  will have to change with no handshaking at the kirk door, no loaf nor common cup for the Sacrament, no comforting gestures at funerals, no gloveless hands at baptisms, no kissing at weddings. Heaven forbid! Is that possible?

In this nationally imposed imprisonment where we retreat into self-preservation, God will become an ever closer companion. He is always with us and within us, behind us and before us and he has promised that if we love him, he will come and make his home within us. No house looks more fair than the one blessed by the God who comes to wait upon us,  to break bread and to wash our feet without fear or favour!