9 February 2020

Starting from the point of view that human same-sex attraction is an evolutionary paradox, Andrew Barron, a neuroethologist, argues that this is only true if we look at the population as divided into two groups – people who are exclusively straight and people who are exclusively gay.

Every study into human sexuality confirms that people are on a spectrum. A majority identify as exclusively straight, a minority identify as exclusively gay and the rest are somewhere in the middle. As Barron says, this means that ‘we should be asking how variation in sexuality evolved, not just how same-sex attraction has evolved’.

The same is true for tallness or intelligence. People are on a spectrum. In addition, other areas of our life could be viewed in a similar light. For example, mental health. Perhaps were are too clinical in our diagnoses. Perhaps mental health is spectral too.

And what about race? Given that the whole human race may have evolved  from the African continent, isn’t it nearer the truth to consider that race is on a spectrum too and far from trying to separate human beings into different racial compartments, we should acknowledge that we are all too closely related to be too different!

And what about the spectrum of faith. We do have people who identify very strongly with a particular faith and there are others at the opposite end of the spectrum who deny the truth of any faith. And most of us are probably somewhere in the middle of the spectrum torn between, ‘Jesus is Lord!’ and ‘Where is God?’

8 February 2020

There is growing concern about the coronavirus which has spread from China into twenty-three other countries.  Only one death has occurred outside China but inside the number is growing. Among the hundreds who have died, the most shocking was Dr. Li.

He worked in the emergency department at Wuhan Central Hospital. On 30 December he alerted former classmates on social media to the existence of a deadly virus. As a consequence, he was interrogated by police in the middle of the night and forced to sign a reprimand for making untrue statements.

He returned to work but succumbed to the virus whilst treating one of his patients who was diagnosed with it. He was treated in his own hospital but died on Thursday night. He leaves behind a wife and child and many tributes to his social conscience.

Before he was diagnosed with the virus, he said, ‘There should have been more openness and transparency.’  This is now widely acknowledged by the Chinese government  which is struggling to contain the crisis and its international reputation.

It takes courage to take up the mantel of a whistleblower reporting colleagues who are indulging in illegal or immoral activities. Autocratic governments and hierarchical institutions like hospitals make it more difficult as we have seen recently in the case of Ian Paterson, rogue breast surgeon.

Those who are leaders in hierarchical institutions and businesses should heed the advice which St. Benedict gave to those appointed abbot in the sixth century. In adopting a collaborative approach to the governance of the monastery, St Benedict makes a very important point in his famous Rule.

‘As often as any important business has to be done in the monastery, let the abbot call together the whole community ..’  and he continues. ‘Now the reason why we have said that all should be called to council, is that God often reveals what is better to the younger.’  Perhaps even a junior doctor or a nurse!

7 February 2020

In 1976, I was teaching mathematics in Navrongo Secondary School, Ghana. The young people were educated in English but the language which was spoken locally was called Kassem. It was a small language spoken by people within a five mile radius of the school.

Whilst I was there, I met a couple who were working for the Wycliffe Bible Translators. They were translating the Bible into Kassem. The work continues. According to their website, 1 in 5 people are still waiting for the Bible to be translated into their own language!

The Translators took their name from  the English ecclesiastic, John Wycliffe. He famously translated the New Testament from the  Latin Vulgate into Middle English. His followers added the Old Testament. He was vociferous in his condemnation of corruption in the Church and the abuse of power. This didn’t go down well.

He died in 1384 following a stroke. His memory continued to cause dissension. His followers were persecuted mercilessly. In 1415, he was declared a heretic. In 1428, Wycliffe’s bones were exhumed, forty-four years after his death, and burned. His ashes were thrown into the River Swift.

Writing about it almost four  hundred years later, William Wordsworth makes an eloquent point. He considers the journey which the ashes make from the Swift to the Avon and on to the Severn and from there into the narrow seas and on into the main Ocean.

And as his ashes were carried to the four corners of the earth by Nature’s laws, it is also true that ‘the bold Teacher’s Doctrine, sanctified/ By truth, shall spread, throughout the world dispersed’. And six hundred years after his death, this prophecy continued to be fulfilled as  in Navrongo, West Africa!

6 February 2020

Towards the end of last year, the Revd. Richard Coles, former pop star and radio personality, was grief-stricken. His civil partner died. Recently, he wrote about his grief and how he benefited from the offers of help which other people afforded him.

They swept the drive, set up a dog-walking rota, took him in for Christmas, organised the services in the church etc. He  found he couldn’t face conflict. He stopped participating in social media. He  postponed difficult conversations.

‘Please be gentle with yourself.’ he says to those who are  bereaved. ‘Please, be gentle on others. Don’t forget that the dithering person in front of you in the queue for the hospital car park machine may be having the worst day of his life.’

5 February 2020

Before I studied theology,  I read some of the books by CS Lewis. In  ‘The Problem of Pain’, I remember being struck by his explanation of the positive benefits of pain. If we didn’t experience any pain, we would not be alerted to the things that were  going wrong in our body.

A degree of pain is tolerable and some have a higher threshold than others. But acute pain and chronic pain are intolerable. Lewis’ argument is no longer convincing in these fairly common scenarios. Painkillers may not always be effective and certainly not all the time.

Recently, National Geographic devoted thirty pages to exploring pain and, in particular, how we experience it and reduce it. They made startling discoveries. A person’s pain can vary even when the injuries are similar. Pain can be generated ‘in the absence of a triggering injury’. Sadness can ‘dial up pain’. Expectations shape it.

Experimentation with the use of virtual reality disclosed that it can help reduce acute pain. Why? Perhaps it provides a means of relaxing the body, a distraction from the pain or ensuring an alteration in a person’s mood. This is all very hopeful.

In the Bible it is clear that pain is not part of God’s Kingdom. Jesus is a healer. In the new world of Revelation, there will be no more pain. Despite this backdrop,  the Christian is not exempt from pain. The Psalmist reassures us that God will be with us as we walk through the valley of the shadow of death.

Three important things emerge. Christ suffered and we are encouraged to see our suffering as a participation in his. Our experience of pain has the potential to develop compassion and be a comfort to others.  Perseverance is a Christian virtue and we are called to run the race with perseverance, keeping our eye fixed on Jesus.

4 February 2020

Interestingly, Candlemas provided us with a palindrome. Its date may be written as 02/02/2020. This is the same sequence of numbers if you write it down from the end to the beginning. Apparently, in any millennium, there are more palindromic dates in the earlier centuries!

Our elder daughter’s name is a palindrome, Anna. And there are many palindromic words in English like madam, civic, radar, racecar etc. Clever people have made up palindromic sentences like ‘Was it a car or a cat I saw.’ This can be read forwards or backwards.

‘Do geese see God?’ I’m not sure but in the Greek Byzantine Church, there was a famous palindrome written around baptismal fonts. Whereas Scottish fonts had the familiar words of Jesus, ‘Suffer the little children …’ They had ‘Wash sins, not only face.’ which in Greek forms a palindrome.

In mathematics, if you take a number which is not a palindrome, it is almost certain that the number will become a palindrome by reversing it and adding the two together and if this is not a palindrome repeating this algorithm will eventually transform your initial number into one.

A Lychrel number is one for which this doesn’t happen. To date, no Lychrel numbers have been found. Mathematicians  suspect that 196 is one but it has yet to be proved! Try it and see. It’s almost as difficult as solving the philosophical question about geese seeing God.

By the way, Lychrel is not a palindrome but an anagram. Can you work it out? The mathematician who created this empty set of numbers named them after his girlfriend! If you can’t get it, have some salami! But as for me, I feel a touch palindromic, ‘Go hang a salami, I’m a lasagna hog!’

3 February 2020

There are some things which money cannot buy although, in this case, it came cheap at the price – £2-99 for a booklet measuring no more than 4”x6”. It was a ‘Pocket Walking Guide’  for Fife including St. Andrews and the Lomond Hills.

Recently, we did the walk from Wormit to Balmerino along the banks of the Tay, passing by the ruined remains of the former railway bridge and the touching monument to those who drowned in the disaster. Most of them were young.

Snowdrops and aconites, birdsong and young trees bursting out of their plastic protectors, a farmer ploughing on the side of a hill, the return journey with stunning views of the Tay, Dundee  and the railway bridge, the old telephone box which houses an emergency defibrillator  and the peace of Balmerino.

Its ruined abbey surprises not that there is enough of it to stir the imagination and what there is has been protected by wooden fences because it is  dangerous but there’s an old Spanish Chestnut which was planted around the time of the Reformation and a large wooden cross marking the burial place of the abbey’s foundress.

Queen Ermengarde was the wife of William the Lion, whose standard bore the Lion Rampant. Their grandson was Alexander III who famously died tragically when his horse lost its footing in the dark on the way to celebrate his wife’s birthday at Kinghorn. His successor was Margaret, Maid of Norway. Stories etched in the mind since childhood.

The Maid  was seven years old when she sailed from her home in Norway to take up the crown and died in Orkney aged seven! She was Ermengarde’s great, great, grand-daughter. What followed was instability, the Battle of Stirling Bridge, Bannockburn and the famous Treaty of Arbroath whose septcentennial is this year! It was Ermengarde’s grandson who founded Arbroath Abbey where Scotland’s status as an  independent nation  was declared!

2 February 2020 – Candlemas

The snowdrops in our garden are growing in profusion alongside the winter jasmine and the winter honey-suckle which as well as its creamy flower smells beautifully. In the woodland above the Kinnessburn, there are snowdrops too accompanied  by the yellow aconite.

But today, we think about the snowdrop which is also called the Candlemas Bell, presumably because they are very much  in full bloom on Candlemas. In his book of Sonnets, Wordsworth writes about the snowdrop. He notices her head, bent to the ground ‘as if fearful to offend,/ Like an unbidden guest.’

The flower is a reminder of those old age pensioners, Simeon and Anna, the quiet in the land, humble servants of God patiently waiting for the coming of Christ. And he comes. On Candlemas, he enters the temple in his mother’s arms and is  blessed by Simeon. ‘Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace …’

In another sonnet, Wordsworth writes to a friend ‘in her seventieth year’  and compares her to the snowdrop. She has ‘a saintly mind, a blanched unwithered cheek, temples fringed with locks of gleaming white and a head that droops because the soul is meek’.

Thee with the welcome Snowdrop I compare;

That child of winter, prompting thoughts that climb

From desolation toward the genial prime …’

The darkness and desolation of the wintry landscape is transformed by the snowdrop’s arrival. And when his spirits are low, Wordsworth is equally inspired by one in her seventieth year who raises his spirits by her goodness and grace to a more cheerful, vigorous and creative work.

People in the winter of their lives have the power to inspire like Simeon and Anna, unbidden guests at the birth of the Christchild but harbingers of hope like the Candlemas Bell, ‘venturous  harbinger of Spring’, as the poet says,  ‘pensive monitor of fleeting years

1 February 2020

There  has been  controversy in the Vatican. Benedict, the Pope Emeritus, is now 93 and a strong advocate of the celibate priesthood. He was invited to make a contribution to a book by the  African, Cardinal Sarah underpinning the importance of the Church’s position.

The issue has become more sensitive recently since Pope Francis was asked to consider ordaining married men to supplement a dramatic shortage of priests in the Amazon. He has not ruled on this issue but it’s not without precedent.

Married Anglican priests, who defected when they lost the argument about the ordination of women,  have been ordained  in the Catholic Church. This is just one category among several others which illustrate how much the exception makes the rule.

Unfortunately, the former Pope’s essay has been construed not only  as bad manners  since it was part of his own retirement package to remain silent but also as an inappropriate attempt on the Cardinal’s part to put an unwitting but influential ally on the front line!

Needless to say, Pope Francis has said nothing. However, he recently laid  down some guidelines for church leaders in retirement. They must devise a ‘new plan of life, marked as much as possible by austerity, humility, prayers of intercession, time dedicated to reading and willingness to provide simple pastoral services’.

It is good advice – and advice which I have been happy to follow. It has been a liberation being able to read much more than I ever did in the parish and to be offered the opportunity to preach in various churches and do some pastoral work in one of our parishes on the banks of the silvery Tay.

31 January 2020

I got caught unexpectedly by the radio announcer introducing a programme about William Wordsworth. It is the 250th anniversary of his birth. I was entranced. The pages of his poetry book were opened wide at a very long autobiographical poem called ‘The Prelude’ which was about his youth.

The first thing I did after this magical twenty minutes was to look out my ‘Poetical Works of Wordsworth’. It’s an old,  second hand copy with small type. It belonged to the father of one of my Session Clerks. He became a reader in the Scottish Episcopal Church.

Having read the first lines of ‘The Prelude’, my eye began looking further afield. I chanced upon a collection of Sonnets. One had the curious title, ‘Upon the Sight of a  Beautiful Picture’. Underneath, there was the legend, ‘Painted by Sir G.H. Beaumont, Bart.’

The painting no longer exists except in the poet’s vivid imagination – the glorious shape of the cloud, the bright sunbeams, the Bark upon the glassy flood, the travellers lost within the shady wood all kept firmly in place by the ‘subtle power’ of Art which he describes as ‘soul-soothing’.

The artist was a friend of the poet’s.  Wordsworth and his family stayed in one of his houses for eight months as his guest!  He celebrates all that he has captured in his painting and describes the  Art accomplishing  its goal   ‘with ambition modest yet sublime’.

He has given the poet a wonderful gift. ‘To one brief moment caught from fleeting time,’ he says, ‘The appropriate calm of blest eternity.’ This piece of art has invited him to savour the moment, to recall his mortality and to enjoy the peace which is the ultimate gift of our eternity.