26 September 2021

Anne Downey’s son committed suicide. He was only eighteen years old and had just begun a course at university. It was the worst possible thing she could imagine. One of the most significant consequences of her tragic bereavement was the rediscovery of her faith.

She was no longer in control of her life. She longed for answers to her questions. She needed strength. At times, God seemed far away. At times, she screamed at him, ‘Why did you take my son away?’ At times, she simply begged for help.

All the time, she was looking for something good to come out of the pain she was experiencing. The most surprising thing of all was not the discovery of answers to unanswerable questions but the realisation of God’s strengthening presence.

‘I know God will give me the strength to live each day as joyfully as I am able, in the absence of the son I loved so dearly.’ she writes at the end of her book, ‘Until that other time in that other place.’  Her courageous account of this search for meaning and her rediscovery of God in this tragedy  was dedicated to mothers who had lost their children.

25 September 2021

Whilst public opinion is moving steadily towards accepting a person’s right to choose the time when they die, the opposite is happening in the animal kingdom. Vets are offering to keep dogs and cats alive literally at all costs whilst their owners are only too happy to keep their pets alive for as long as they can.

Of course a dog has no choice in the matter. It can neither agree to be put down nor to stay alive. Is this an issue? If we consider quality of life to be an important consideration in any act  of euthanasia then who is to say whether a dog’s life has become  sufficiently impaired to be put down or not?

One thing is sure, a dog which loses his sense of smell is certainly not as privileged as one who retains it. For it is clear that dogs explore the world around them through their noses. And if the dog is unable to use their back legs or indeed any of their legs, they will not be able to run around and play with other dogs and human beings.

In examining these two aspects of a dog’s life, we begin to see that there may come a time when we can tentatively say that the dog’s life has been diminished by their disability and deteriorating health. Does this equate to an increase in the dog’s suffering?

If in prolonging a dog’s life, the vet is putting the animal through an operation which induces pain then can we say that the end justifies the means if  the dog’s quality of life has been further impaired? The vet’s bill may increase profit but at what cost? This momentary respite will not alleviate the owner’s agonising uncertainty.

At the heart of this situation are two issues. The first is the acceptance that death is an integral part of life. The second is the understanding that letting go is an integral part of love. Both put value on the memories generated by the dog’s unconditional friendship and enable dog and owner to inhabit a world where life is valued precisely because it does not last!

24 September 2021

When my dad was in the last stages of his dementia, he was confined to bed, lying in a foetal position in the Nursing Home. One night, I sensed that he was in some distress. By this stage, he couldn’t speak. The nurse was called. His distress continued. I decided to stay with him and sat beside him all night.

The nurse was called a second time but his distress was not alleviated. I remember thinking that I could never write that  ‘he died peacefully’ in his death notice because this was anything but peaceful. The next day, the doctor came and confessed that dad’s morphine levels had not been sufficient for his undoubted needs.

The distress vanished and he died peacefully two days later. Although euthanasia was anathema to my dad, this was a passive euthanasia but a necessary part of a dignified and a more trouble-free way to die. He had four dogs who all had to be put down. Dad would have understood this endgame.

Participating in my dad’s final days made me more sympathetic to those who long for a change in the law which permits active euthanasia. There are strong arguments in favour. For as we grow older and our body begins to fail us, there are certain things we would want to control.

The first is the suffering our illness inflicts on those members of the family entrusted with our care. I would not want another to suffer unduly to keep me alive no matter how valiant, beautiful nor saintly this proved to be. The second is the prospect of ending my days in an institution. No matter how caring, it would never replicate my home.

The third is the desire to embrace Death freely not simply as an end to earthly suffering but as an opportunity to open that elusive door between earth and heaven and enter into a fuller, richer life beyond our present existence. Sensing the right time to say farewell is an art and there is  value in being free to determine when to paint this final picture.

23 September 2021

St. Matthew’s Gospel ends with what is commonly described as ‘The Great Commission’. ‘Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you.’

The other gospels have different endings. Although there are two alternative endings to Mark and one of these reflects the  ‘The Great Commission’, the ending accepted by most scholars finishes with the women fleeing from the tomb ‘for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.’

Luke  concludes his Gospel  with the promise of the Holy Spirit, the Ascension of Christ and the instruction that ‘repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed’.  To that extent, the disciples are charged to be ‘witnesses of these things’. The Greek gives us the English word ‘martyr’. We see what lies before them!

John’s Gospel ends with a discussion with Peter and an acknowledgement of John and the revelation that there was much more which could have been included in the Gospel. However, in chapters 15-17, we have what  is sometimes called ‘The Farewell Discourses’. They begin with the washing of feet and end with the prayer for unity.

Three things. The disciples have to testify i.e. bear witness to Jesus.  They have been appointed to go and bear fruit that will last. They are commanded to love one another and through their unity in Christ, ‘the world may believe that you have sent me’ says Jesus.

In both Luke and John, the disciples are charged to be witnesses, revealing the truth in how they live their lives. They have to bear fruit. The fruit of the Spirit is  ‘love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control’. Their missionary endeavour has less to do with doing – making disciples, baptising and teaching – and more about being – being loving! Is it the same commission or is this one greater?

22 September 2021

Forty years ago tonight, I was ordained and inducted into the parish of Forth:St. Paul’s. It was a mining community on the edge of  Lanarkshire, located a thousand feet above sea level between Lanark and West Calder. It was a marvellous beginning. The kirk continues to thrive largely due to its hardworking elders and members.

At twenty-six, it was quite a responsibility to be minister in a parish of four thousand people with a Kirk Session of thirty elders as well as  a Congregational Board. But I wasn’t daunted. I had much to learn and plenty of ideas to share. The people were forgiving and always willing to ‘sing a new song’.

One of my former members, Isa,  is now in her nineties and has corresponded with us regularly  over these forty years. She is the only member in  all four parishes who has sustained such an interest. We still look forward to her encouraging letters. She looked after our children when we needed help and they remember her with much affection.

Towards the end of my ministry at Forth, my hair began to thin. Our friend, Isa, took pity on me and gave me a gift – a bottle of Silvikrin to work a cure. I wasn’t as enthusiastic a recipient as I should have been. I was actually afraid of the product and wrote back:

Thanks for introducing me to Silvikrin.
For thirty-five years, I don’t know where I’ve been.
It’s just the answer for my problem hair –
If I waited much longer, there would be nothing there!
But there’s one thing that worries me about this shampoo
And I’m sure this worry has occurred to you!
If the wheat germ takes root and begins to grow
Instead of a minister, you’ll have a scarecrow!

The parish was great fun but also very hard work. However, it confirmed two things. Fulfilling my vocation is the one thing which makes me feel fully alive. And although I had always wanted to be a maths teacher, the ministry confirmed that it would have been restrictive for I loved working with  people of all ages –  0-103!

Last Christmas, when the people at Forth sent me the video of the children’s Nativity Play, filmed under restrictive lockdown conditions, I marvelled at the fact that these sixteen children were the grandchildren of the young women who had helped sustain and develop my ministry so long ago. I thank God for their faith in me and their humility in accepting my untested ministry. I am, forever grateful for their confidence and love for they gave birth to my ministry!

21 September 2021

Twenty-five years ago today, the Dutch Roman Catholic theologian and teacher of ministers, Henri Nouwen,  died suddenly. He was only sixty-four years old. As a student and a young minister, I read his books with eager anticipation and took many of his insights to heart.

Of all the books he wrote, the one which had the greatest influence on my life was not his celebrated ‘The Wounded Healer’ but ‘The Living Reminder’. As he says, ‘To be a living memory of Jesus Christ … means to reveal the connections between our small sufferings and the great story of God’s suffering in Jesus Christ.’

Two particular insights have nourished my ministry. The first is the  ministry of absence. Sometimes we think that unless we are present with people, we will not be effective ministers. That clearly isn’t the case. Our absence can be very effective.

This isn’t the absence of not having been present but the absence which is created by having been and having gone. The memory of our compassion and our prayer will nourish people long after we have gone. For having reminded them of God, he will fill our absence and minister to their need.

The second is the ministry of story-telling. As a living reminder the minister is called to be prophetic. Like the prophets, he has to confront people with their distorted vision of the Kingdom and inspire them to renew their vision. How can this be done? One way is through story-telling.

One of the remarkable qualities of the story is that it creates space.’ writes Nouwen. ‘We can dwell in a story, walk around, find our own place. The story confronts but does not oppress; the story inspires but does not manipulate. The story invites us to an encounter, a dialogue, a mutual sharing.’

I know this to be true from my own personal experience  and my experience as a minister. This tangential approach is often much more effective – but we cannot always tell how effective. As Nouwen writes,  ‘It seems that we often reveal and communicate to others the life-giving spirit without being aware of it …’

20 September 2021

Since my retirement, I have been doing a lot of preaching. By contrast to my four charges, I have been preaching in kirks where there have been no children present. This has shocked me. When I have spent a lifetime preparing worship for children, it has been a great disappointment to discover that they have vanished from these churches.

But not today! For the first time since my retirement in November 2019, there were children in the kirk. Of course, I wasn’t prepared for this but managed to recall a children’s story suitable for the occasion. I had no visuals to illustrate my tale, just my sheer enthusiasm for the opportunity.

I was preaching at St. Athernase Church, Leuchars where the minister was on holiday. John is just about to retire and I have been invited to be interim-moderator and locum. Not only was there a young couple and their baby and a mother and two daughters but a sizeable congregation.

The church is an ancient foundation. It sports a twelfth century Norman apse and chancel with decorative stone similar to the decorations found in Durham Cathedral. These features have been described authoritatively as of ‘outstanding architectural interest’.

People have been worshipping in the pre-Reformation kirk for some nine hundred years. The history of the parish goes back to the tenth century where it was ministered by the Celtic Culdees. To touch its stone or gaze at its decorations is to be transported back into a centuries old faith which is in itself convincing.

Just by chance, the gospel for the day was taken from St. Mark 9;30-37 which was featured in yesterday’s blog. The sermon was all about the centrality of the child in the revitalisation of our Kirk. Was it a coincidence or a miracle or simply the providence of God who led these three children to our  kirk  to reclaim their rightful place among us?

19 September 2021 – St. Mark 9;30-37

The disciples have been arguing about who among them is the greatest. In order to make his point as effectively as possible, Jesus brings a child into their company and lifts the child up in his arms. ‘Whoever welcomes one such child in my name, welcomes me.’ He says four things.

Firstly, the new world, the world where God is King, is ordered around the child. Here in this drama which is so simply and effectively conceived, we see not in words but in action how the last and the least shall be first! ‘Unless  you change and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.’

Secondly, in centring the argument about status on the child, Jesus introduces us to our own status as children of God. ’I will be your Father,’ quotes St. Paul in his first letter to the Corinthians, ’and you shall be my sons and daughters.’

Thirdly, and most movingly, Christ is incarnate in the welcomed child. When we welcome a child into the kirk, we welcome Christ. Just as when we minister to ‘the least of these my brothers and sisters’ we minister to the hungry, homeless, imprisoned Christ.

Lastly, in centring the way the Kingdom of God is ordered upon the child, Jesus enacts a piece of drama. He has done this before when the disciples didn’t want the mothers to bring their children to him.

He does it again. The drama is imbued with a rare and imaginative simplicity converting words of argument into silent engagement with the heart. What Jesus is doing is encouraging the disciples to come off their high horses and play!

18 September 2021

The large-scale missionary endeavour of the nineteenth century was inspired by what became known as ‘The Great Commission’. This is not a Biblical term. It is not a term which was used by Jesus. It has been superimposed upon the text from St. Matthew 28;18-20.

All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.’

There are three interesting things about this passage. Firstly, the term ‘to make disciples’ appears in St. Matthew’s Gospel three times but it doesn’t appear anywhere else in the New Testament. It is a distinctive feature of Matthew which wasn’t reciprocated in the other three Gospels.

Secondly, Jesus not only gives his friends this commission, he tells them how they should fulfil it. They are to baptize and teach. I think this is the right way round. In our tradition, we baptize infants mostly. They are not able to be taught as such but through their baptism, they become members of the Kirk and so they belong before they believe.

Thirdly, Jesus even gives his friends the content of what they have to teach. As he says, ‘everything that I have commanded you’. The Great Commission may not be a Biblical term but ‘the greatest commandment’ is! ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ is the greatest and first!

The second is like it. ‘You shall love your neighbour as yourself.’  This is the sum and substance of Jesus’ teaching – love of God and love of neighbour. In participating in the ‘Great Commission’ we should examine our motivation clearly and ensure that all our endeavour is built upon the firm foundation of love – nothing more nor less than love.

17 September 2021

The other day, a colleague surprised me by telling me that they hadn’t been called to preach about money. They summarised their position by declaring quite vehemently, ‘I have been called to preach the Gospel.’ The implication being that preaching about money was not fulfilling a vocation to preach the Gospel.

I read somewhere that Jesus talks about money much more than he talks about faith and prayer. In fact, in one analysis of the Gospels, eleven out of forty parables are about money or they  illustrate spiritual truths by using money like the Parable of the Hidden Treasure or the Parable of the Talents.

In his most famous ‘Sermon on the Mount’, Jesus preaches about money on three occasions. On the first, he imagines someone making an offering to God in the Temple. The value he places on his gift is not as important as the value  placed on  personal relationships and, in particular, the reconciliation of those whom he has offended.

On the second, he says famously, ‘Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal …’ If we believe that our life in Christ is eternal then we will not hang on to perishable things no matter how significant they appear to be.

On the third, Jesus says, ‘No one can serve two masters …. You cannot serve God and wealth.’ Money is like a god. People spend their lives longing for it, making more of it, idolising it, worshipping it. The dangers to the spiritual life are evident. We dare not neglect to talk about it. For if we don’t, we will eventually be corrupted by it.

This leads into the most wonderful teaching in the Sermon. ‘Therefore, I tell you, do not worry about your life …’ Putting your trust in God rather than in money leads to peace of mind and an enviable equilibrium where we live one day at a time and realign our thinking to focus on the Kingdom of God.