30 June 2020

Mary-Catherine has just added the last touches to our living-room – a new,  handmade quilt. She has called it ‘Sea-Saw’. We can see the sea and much else besides. Like the see-saw in the playpark, the quilt invites us to rise and fall in our exploration of the artwork and like the see-saw it is something to be done together.

Do you think it’s too playful for the living-room?’ asked the quilter. Not at all. This is its charm for it weaves a magic, challenging  the formality of sofa, book-case and chest of drawers! It invites us to open our hearts to the warmth of the sun, the freedom of the beach, the joy of an adventure with boat, kite and hot air balloon.

Can you see the shells sown into the quilt? And how many buttons from Duttons in York can you count? Can you spot our house number and the four children? Can you identify and name them? They’ve grown up now!  And what about the detailed embroidery and the unexpected cat  in the bottom right hand corner?

The wall-hanging is not only playful, it is full of memories. Mary-Catherine loves beach houses and the flying geese.  That’s what you call the pattern of triangles bordering the quilt. The big boat is  Lindisfarne, the wee one is Mayflower. The sign post takes you to favourite places in St. Andrews. Woven throughout is some Masefield:

I must go down to the sea again, to the lonely sea and the sky
And all I ask is a tall ship and a star to sail her by.

The vibrant colours make an immediate and lasting impact. The rainbow pales in comparison. God’s multi-coloured love is celebrated here  amongst so  many individual pieces of fabric,  patiently sewn together over the past seven years. It has been a labour and a celebration of love!

There are two surprises. The kites have a life of their own. No-one is holding their strings nor restricting their freedom. They are simply allowed to be. The Social Work Department was blessed with such an attitude, valuing the person above all else.  And not only is the sun shining but also the moon.

There is a point in the day and at particular times of the year when the two are seen in the sky together but the one dominates the day, the other the night. In this quilt time stands still, the harvest of play.  Sun and moon together, night and day, dreams and memories, work and play are all held together in unity.

This is where God is to be found. His kingdom holds surprising things together – the last is first, the human and the divine are one, heaven is revealed on earth.  St Paul says, ‘In Christ, all things hold together.’  This is the fulfilment of God’s promise, the place of equilibrium and unity celebrated  in the sea-saw!

29 June 2020

Recently, the riverbank has been viewed arithmetically. There has been a daily roll call of the ducks, the coots and their young. Nature is bountiful. Two ducks had twelve ducklings. But now they have two each. A coot had four. Now she has one.

Nature is not only bountiful but jealous of its time and place. Thyme seeds were planted indoors and transferred to a raised bed. Whereas cabbage, carrots, lettuce and Brussels sprouts were growing stronger by the day, thyme took its time. It didn’t like the rich soil and prospers in poverty.

The wildflower meadow was frustrating. The grasses grew. There were daisies and clover but what has happened to the poppies and where’s all the colour? There wasn’t going to be an instant show  just for my benefit. Time was of the essence.

Planting some alyssum and lobelia in two of the borders reminded me of our days in Forth. We planted the blue and white bedding plants in the grounds of the new manse. This year, the bride had come out in all her glory but where was the groom. Lobelia was very reluctant to  put on his blue tuxedo and come to kiss his bride!

God has ordered the universe. There is a time for everything. There is no advantage in forcing God’s hand. We are called to exercise a ministry of patience and humility. We wait and let nature reveal her secrets in her own time. We observe the pattern of her growth and learn how love keeps time with God.

‘He has made everything beautiful in its time.’  says Ecclesiastes, the Preacher. But is that true for the ducks and the coots. What grace and humility is observed on the riverbank. For we are not disturbed by their mourning. What grief lies hidden in their hearts, I do not know. But their resilience and equanimity puts us in touch with  the peace of God.

28 June 2020 – Genesis 22;1-14

When we were in Amsterdam, we visited the Rembrandt Hus where I bought an etching of Rembrandt’s version of ‘Abraham’s Sacrifice’. Isaac is bent over his father’s knee. Abraham has his sword ready to plunge into his son. His hand covers his son’s eyes. Abraham doesn’t look at him. His son doesn’t rebel. Why not?

Neither Abraham nor Isaac ask questions. Abraham doesn’t question God and Isaac doesn’t question his father! The only way out is for Abraham to stand up to God or Isaac to stand up to his father. But they don’t.  An angel stands behind Abraham and lays his hand on his wrist to wrest it away.

There is something dangerous about a religion which doesn’t invite questions. A loving parent has a duty to ask God  about the murder of his son. We need to sharpen our critical awareness even in the presence of God. But there is another danger,  religious obedience devoid of emotion.

Having said that, our version of the  tale is framed in a particular way. It begins, ‘After these things, God tested Abraham.’  It is  a test about letting go and trusting God the more? Instead of trying to force God’s hand and hasten the fulfilment of his promise, God wants us to sacrifice the very things which we hold dear in order to trust him more.

Haven’t you found this to be true? If we try to control events and people, we not only lose our inner peace and waste our energy on fruitless activity, we also do not enjoy the outcome of this contrived stratagem because of the continued responsibility we have for it!

However, if we let go our control and let God work things out in his own way and in his own time, things turn out even better than we expect. Our detachment from the fulfilment of God’s promise secures our peace of mind and the joy of discovering the love of God in the most surprising people and places!

This is how things are meant to be. For embedded into the fabric of creation is the sacrifice of Christ upon the cross, the ultimate letting go of self in order that God’s promise may be fulfilled in his time and in ways that only he could imagine.

And if St. Paul is right, and we see the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ then the reality of all things, no, the eternal reality of all created things is to be found in sacrifice, the sacrifice of God!

27 June 2020

The sun has brought its own rewards – and hazards. 500,000 people descended on Dorset. Many of them were making their way to the beach at Bournemouth. Social distancing didn’t stand a chance. The crowded beach spoke for itself.

One woman from Birmingham was interviewed about her visit. Whilst she felt uncomfortable about being there, she added, ‘You’ve got to understand, after three months of lockdown in the city centre, even seeing the sea is worth it.’

When the guidelines concerning the lockdown were very clear, people in general did not infringe them. Those in prominent positions who did were punished.  But now that the guidelines are more dependent on personal discernment, people have thrown caution and common sense to the wind and become less responsible.

You can see why some people are attracted to a religion in which personal freedom is curtailed by the imposition of law. Their righteousness is confirmed by their obedience to these clear guidelines. But this doesn’t take us to the heart of the gospel which is enfolded in grace.

The grace of God gives us the freedom  to live our lives responsibly. And if we don’t, grace provides  a place where we may seek God’s forgiveness and begin again. And so St. Paul asks this rhetorical question, ‘Should we continue in sin in order that grace may abound?’

Of course not. The grace of God is seen in the death and resurrection of Christ. Those who die to sin and  live in Christ  will be able ‘to walk in newness of life’. It is the love of God which inspires us to exercise restraint, resist temptation and live responsibly. A clear conscience and an unburdened heart are welcome rewards.

26 June 2020

Horace was one of the greatest Roman poets. He was born in 65BC and died in 8BC so he preceded the birth of Christianity. Interestingly, his father was a slave whose freedom was characterised by the purchase of a small estate. The Latin poet was educated in Rome and Athens and served under Brutus following Caesar’s assassination.

He is remembered as the author of the timely piece of wisdom, ‘Carpe Diem!’ Seize the day! Make the most of your opportunities! Don’t procrastinate! Our days are numbered. Time is limited. It is a gift which should be spent wisely and not squandered away!

In one of his other odes, he talks about how to ‘live a better life’. His secret is summed up in the line, ‘Whoever loves the Golden Mean lives free …’ This is the middle way between two extremes – sailing in the deepest seas and hugging the shoreline too tightly or  living in a hovel and  a house built of marble!

The heart prepared for well and ill will learn
To hope in danger, and, in good times, fear.
For Jupiter, who freezes up the year
With winter, still can turn

The world to spring …

Jesus got the measure of this wisdom when he said, ‘God makes his sun to rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous.’  The good and the bad befall us all regardless of our character. We need to learn to accept this and find a way of embracing the Golden Mean.

Courage and wisdom surely help in facing life’s misfortune. But one thing is sure. In the order of night and day, sunshine always follows rain. And Horace puts it beautifully when he suggests that life is not always hard. Sometimes Apollo ‘puts aside his ire as he strings/ His lyre, not his bow.’

25 June 2020

In ‘The Book of Common Prayer’, the Church of England describes the marriage service as ‘The Solemnization of Matrimony’. Even if you didn’t understand the words, you feel that this is an event of great significance. It centres on a promise made by bride and groom:

‘I .. take  thee … to my wedded wife, to have and to hold from this day forward, for better for worse, for richer for poorer, in sickness and in health, to love and to cherish, till death us to part, according to God’s holy ordinance; and thereto I plight thee my troth.’

And what does it mean to plight someone your troth. The latter is truth or loyalty or faithfulness.  The former has to do with giving a pledge or a promise or a solemn undertaking. In other words, the conclusion could be written, ‘I promise that I will be true.’

Nancy and Eric made this promise eighty years ago. Despite lock down, they were able to celebrate this remarkable wedding anniversary with appropriate social distancing in their garden. A choir sang. Friends clapped. Their son sat with them.

The minister said, ‘Faith is part of the fabric of their existence.’ And Nancy said, ‘Eric’s always been very kind. We’ve had our ups and downs but we do still love each other very much.’ Together their ages come to one hundred and ninety-seven.

Oak is the traditional gift for this anniversary. An oak bench has been placed in the church yard. In the words of Isaiah, we could call them ‘oaks of righteousness’. They have been true to the words of their promise and like the oak, they have stood their ground  together with strength and beauty  ‘come wind, come weather’.

24 June 2020

Our official church hymnaries have been very ecumenical. The hymns not only come from different periods in the life of the Church but also from different branches. We sing hymns from the first to the twenty-first century and hymns  whose authors were  Protestants, Catholics and Orthodox Christians.

In the fourth edition, we are invited to sing an African-American Spiritual, ‘Were you there when they crucified my Lord?’ We have often sung it on Good Friday for the suffering of Christ is most powerfully reflected in the cruel and humiliating suffering of the African-American slaves.

On the other hand, ‘Swing low, sweet chariot’ is not included in our hymnary but it is very familiar. The imagery is twofold. There is the obvious imagery of a life awaiting us in heaven where our suffering will be no more and the less obvious imagery of freedom from the barbarity of slavery which the authors were experiencing and exposing.

For some reason, this has become an anthem for the England rugby team. They have been encouraged to think about the appropriateness of singing it at rugby matches. Apparently, a large number of the fans who sing it do not know its origins. If it is to be sung at all, this must change.

Just as our spiritual life can be powerfully enriched by singing an African-American Spiritual, so it can also be enriched by singing the song  of another who captained a notorious slave ship and subjected the slaves to unbelievable levels of inhumane conditions and behaviour.

Through his conversion to Christianity, John Newton became a minister in the Church of England and an abolitionist, dying just after the abolition of the slave trade in 1807. His popular song  resonates within us  because the geography of the human heart is remarkably similar. We are all enslaved by sin and long for the  amazing grace which can save the captain of a slave ship, a murderous racist and me.

Amazing grace! how sweet the sound
That saved a wretch like me!
I once was lost, but now am found,
was blind, but now I see.

 

23  June 2020

Almost thirty years ago, two Australians, David and Jenny Gilpin founded what became an evangelical megachurch called Hope City in various parts of  England. According to Shanti Das, a correspondent with the Times, they described themselves as a  ‘contemporary, vibrant, Christian church’ that ‘loves people’.

It turned out that this was only partially true. The founders have just been forced to resign because they were racists. In particular, they were keen to attract white worshippers at the expense of black and all on the back of attracting people who would make generous donations to sustain the church’s £7.1M annual income.

One example of their racism will suffice. According to Das, two employees, who ran the church’s social media pages, said they were ordered to post fewer photos of black worshippers on Instagram. Apparently, the Gilpins said, ‘From here on, for every picture of a black person, there should be two of white people.’

When St. Paul was writing to the church at Galatia, he made this remarkable observation, ‘There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.’ Those who were slaves were considered to be no different than those who were free.

This was true not through the law of the land but through their baptism into Christ. This is the source of our unity for in this Sacrament we all become brothers and sisters. Our status changes.  This doesn’t happen because a law has been passed. It happens because love transforms our hearts.

Evangelical leaders know their Scripture very well. It used to be  the chief characteristic of that tradition. Quoting Biblical texts was a frustrating preoccupation. So if they knew this text why were they blind to its multi-coloured beauty? But, more importantly,  what texts have made us blind to the abundant life which Christ promises?

22 June 2020

The lock down has had an interesting effect upon Roman Catholics. Many have missed the Sacrament. Spiritual communion during online celebrations of the Mass have not been fulfilling. They have emphasised the passive participation of the people and the male-orientated leadership of the Church.

What struck me most of all was the discovery that this predicament has encouraged some Catholics to ask questions about the centrality of the Eucharist in their prayer life. It has been suggested that this goes right back to the days when Catholicism was outlawed and receiving the Sacrament was very precious indeed.

Daniel McCarthy, a liturgist in the Pontifical University of Sant’ Anselmo in Rome, takes a very Protestant view of the church building. Thinking about a church as a sacred building is problematic. ‘A building is called a ‘church’ by association with the church as community gathered inside.’ he says.

Of the problems surrounding the celebration of the Eucharist, he says, ‘Had we developed the celebration of the liturgy of the hours more fully, then people at home could actually celebrate liturgy and all this fuss about spiritual communion would be obviated.’  

At the time of the Reformation, the Church of England went down this route. Both Matins and Evensong are derived from the Liturgy of the Hours. This is not what happened in the Kirk. Although the Reformers were keen to facilitate a more regular celebration of the Sacrament, there were problems.

Among them was the shortage of ordained ministers. So instead of a Eucharistic service taking place every Sunday in parish churches, it was foreshortened. The Liturgy of the Word which precedes the Liturgy of the Sacrament was used and developed into what is sometimes called ‘our hymn sandwich’.

This has been a blessing to us for it brought the reading and the preaching of the Word into sharper focus. Whilst it emphasised the cerebral over the emotional, it educated, challenged, inspired the people and kept them in close contact not with a monastic office but the Eucharistic Liturgy of which it was a constituent part.

21 June 2020 – Genesis 21;1-21

On Father’s Day, I am Father Abraham, a split personality. In one part, there is faithfulness. In another, faithlessness.   Father Abraham  is well remembered for his dramatic act of faith. On the back of God’s promise of a son, Abraham ‘set out, not knowing where he was going’ according to the commentary in Hebrews.

But how long can you wait for a promise to be fulfilled? Sarah and Abraham waited over ten years and still no son! Abraham was 86. And now they were tempted to do something about it. There was only one way to force the fulfilment of God’s promise and that was through Sarah’s slave, Hagar, the Egyptian.

A son is born to Abraham. He is called Ishmael. But Sarah remains barren and the promise was to be fulfilled in her. Thirteen years later, a quarter of a century after the promise was first made, Sarah gives birth to one named, Isaac. Father Abraham is now a centenarian!

The outcome is a disaster for this dysfunctional family. On the day Isaac is weaned, Sarah persuades Abraham to send Hagar and Ishmael into the desert. He does. But God’s providential hand is written into the script of his faithlessness. This young man of mixed race will become the head of a nation too!

Like Father Abraham, I have been faithless in waiting for the fulfilment of God’s promises. ‘My peace I give you not as the world giveth, give I unto you …’ For when my father had dementia, I tried to force God’s hand in my desire to find an harmonious solution to our changed family circumstances.

Trying to work out a solution for his care, I sought a charge near his home then near his childhood home. Dad was having none of it. In the end, I let go and decided to wait on God. Eventually, Dad was admitted to a Nursing Home. Almost a year later, I received a call to Traprain in East Lothian.

I resolved to accept it realising that it would mean a very long round trip every week to visit. Dad was at peace about the move.  ‘How long have you been at New Kilpatrick?’  he  asked. ‘Eleven and a half years.’ I  replied, ‘I think it’s time for a change.’  he concluded.

But three weeks before my induction, dad died. The chapter was complete – a new chapter of my life was beginning. My father had let me go! Everything had been resolved not in my time for I had tried to force God’s hand but  in God’s time! It was dad who was faithful Father Abraham and on Father’s Day, I will never forget it.