10 October 2020

On my way home from a walk on the East Sands, I met a fledgling robin sitting on the main road. She was very still. As I approached, she didn’t stir. I bent down to see her. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw her mother fly out of the hedge, rest on the pavement and fly back again.

I stretched out my hand. The robin lifted her leg and placed her claw onto my finger. There was a springiness in the weight of it. She was alive! Having stepped forward, she flew through my legs and settled on the creases of my trouser leg. Mother made a second appearance. Proud of the tiny flight?

The robin was oblivious to the danger she was in. I needed to get her off the road and onto the path by the riverbank. I held out my hand again. She stepped off my trousers to the safety of my hand. I carried her gentle body to the path near the bushes.

The autumn leaves of gold and russet brown provided a soft carpet. And so I left her there and continued my walk home. Her mother  would not be slow to pick up from where I left off.  Reflecting on this tiny, insignificant event  later on, I remembered the weight of the robin’s claw on my finger – and marveled at her trust.

9 October 2020

There is an interesting discussion going on within the Roman Catholic Church in Germany about the ordination of women to the diaconate. The head of the bishops’ conference said discussion was ‘legitimate’ and if a majority within the synod voted in favour, the church could invite the Vatican to introduce it.

As well as raising questions about the value of women’s ordination, two other things are being questioned. The first is the authority of the papacy to decide the outcome of this particular issue by itself. It was Pope John Paul II who declared that the issue had been decided definitively rather than a universal council.

The second is the threat of schism. The possibility that the Roman Catholic Church in Germany may leave the Universal Church has been seriously articulated by some supporters of women’s ordination. Clearly, the former Pope’s declaration  a quarter of a century ago has not been sufficient to close the door on this issue.

More serious is the possibility that more and more women will leave the Church on the back of its failure to recognise their vocations to a diaconal and even  a priestly ministry. As the head of the bishops’ conference said, ‘The Church has lost the working class and has great difficulty in approaching young people today and it was now in danger of losing women.’

It is over fifty years since the Kirk decided to ordain women to the eldership and the ministry. In this and in subsequent controversial decisions like the ordination of gay ministers it has managed to avoid a schism and, more significantly, has been enriched enormously as a consequence of its courageous faith.

8 October 2020

We had been walking along the banks of the River Tay near Balmerino. We had taken the opportunity to look at the ruined abbey and to walk through a nearby forest. We saw a grey squirrel and a pheasant and heard some beautiful birdsong but saw no rabbits, nor deer,  nor any other creature. The silence was profound.

There were berries on the hawthorn, elderflower and rowan. I tasted lots of ripe brambles growing at the side of the road. There were plenty of wildflowers – poppies, violets, cow parsley, campion, cat’s ear ….  There was a carpet of autumn leaves and the dappled sunlight pinpointed the ideal spot for coffee and homemade scones!

Driving home, we passed a wooden bus shelter and saw a bus headed for Dundee. Strangely enough, there was someone sitting in the bus shelter waiting for a bus. On closer inspection, we could see that he was sitting cross-legged on the wooden bench.

‘Wasn’t that Mahatma Gandhi?’ said Mary-Catherine incredulously. Who would have expected to see him sitting cross-legged in a small wooden bus-shelter in the tiny hamlet of Balmerino in Fife. We took a second look, stopped the car and examined the bus shelter more closely.

Sure enough, someone had painted the saintly Indian onto the back wall of the bus-shelter underneath one of his celebrated quotes, ‘Whatever you do will be insignificant, but it is very important that you do it.’ Sometimes we don’t do what we can because we can’t do what we judge significant.

Pride gets in the way. Perhaps if we sat cross-legged in a wooden bus-shelter hidden in the depths of the countryside, we would regain a more saintly perspective and just do what we can do with humility and a spirit of generosity.

7 October 2020

Recently, a member of the church told me about a young person who did some extraordinary fundraising for the Bethany Christian Trust. As a consequence, she and her father were invited to visit the Winter Shelter in Edinburgh.

They met the team who stay overnight at the shelter and the volunteers responsible for providing food. The shelter comprised of forty mattresses on a church hall floor. As you can imagine, the reality of the city’s homelessness  made a profound impact.

The co-ordinator on duty that night told them a salutary tale. A mother and child arrived at the shelter at 3am in the morning looking for beds. Unfortunately, there was no room left. All forty mattresses had been filled and they had reached their maximum number for health and safety regulations.

What were these vulnerable people going to do now. Winter, Christmas, the young Mary and her husband, Joseph arriving in Bethlehem only to discover that there was no room for them at the inn. Instead of being sent to a stable, something interesting happened.

Two homeless men who were awake and alert to the situation got up from their mattresses, gathered  their few possessions together and spontaneously went out into the cold of a bitter winter’s night leaving  their  accommodation in a warm kirk hall for the mother and child! And so the homeless men revealed the face of him who like them  had no place to lay his head!

6 October 2020

When I was minister at Traprain, Whittingehame Kirk hosted an exquisite parish library. It was located in the vestry. The shelves were full of books dating back to the nineteenth century. They constituted the public library for the parish.

The books had all been covered with brown paper and catalogued in an appropriate way. Dampness had got the better of some. It was decided to remove the books from the shelves, attend to the dampness and replace the books without their brown paper covers.

The brown paper had protected the books from being damaged by the sun. When the covers were removed  we were astonished to see how brightly the books appeared on the shelves. It was a complete transformation which made the library even more attractive.

It would make a perfect backdrop to the many Zoom meetings which are taking place between people in their homes. For the Zoom meeting has introduced us to many backdrops – living-room furniture, paintings, family photographs, wall-hangings, office-stationery and, most especially, shelves of books.

Believe it or not, some people are taking steps to carefully curate their shelves for these Zoom meetings. Charity shops have been inundated with people looking for books with colourful bindings to create rainbow shelves. Or white bindings to create a minimalist look. Or books with weathered pages arranged back to front to create a ‘well-read’ image!

It seems paradoxical that in an age where most of our communication is taking place across the internet that it is the traditional book which has been given pride of place in the online setting! As Patrick O’Rourke, American satirist, said, ‘Always read something that will make you look good if you die in the middle of it.’ But, more pertinently,  as Ray Bradbury said, ‘You don’t have to burn books to destroy a culture. Just get people to stop reading them!’

5 October 2020

I was preaching at Tayport this morning. The attendance was very encouraging and despite the face masks, the congregation was attentive and responsive. There was a very good atmosphere in the kirk. People brought gifts for the Foodbank in money and in kind. The wheelbarrow eloquently celebrates it.

The organist is on furlough but her husband played piano. She accompanied him on the violin. They played a harvest hymn, a beautiful English folk tune which several members of the congregation ended up humming surreptitiously under their masks! Two hymns were sourced and played. The music enriched our worship greatly.

At the end of the pews which were not being used by the congregation in order to maintain social distancing, there were A4 sheets of paper with entertaining Biblical explanations as to why these particular pews were not available for the members of the congregation.

  • Reserved for Elijah only.
  • Abraham was 100 years old when Isaac was born … and if he were here today, he still wouldn’t be allowed to sit in this pew.
  • Zacchaeus climbed a sycamore tree to get a better seat. This pew was not it.
  • Jesus sat the 5000 down in rows … but not this one!
  • ‘I have prepared a place for you …’ Just not this pew!

There is something to be said in not only tholing the new restrictions but carrying them lightly. This initiative was very welcome adding a touch of humour to our arrival in the kirk. Reframing the Biblical text in the world of Covid 19 made us smile and think again about the Word of God and its power to enlighten in more ways than one!

4 October 2020

I like the image of the Christian soldier. Although some people no longer consider it to be politically correct. But there are three important things to be said about the image of the Christian soldier.

Firstly, he confronts us with the existence of evil. The Christian soldier is engaged in spiritual warfare. There is greed, injustice, abuse of power. There is evil – and, more importantly, a good fight to be fought.

Secondly, the Christian soldier presents us with an image of courage and perseverance. He is unafraid to stand up for what is right, unafraid to face unexpected difficulties and unfair challenges, unafraid to live and die for Christ!

Thirdly, the Christian soldier is a strikingly vivid Pauline image which can never be erased from the New Testament. ‘Share in suffering like a good soldier of Jesus Christ!’ he writes to Timothy. ‘I have fought the good fight. ‘ he says of himself. ‘Put on God’s armour now!’ he commands the Ephesians.

3 October 2020

In his beautiful essay, entitled, ‘The Manse’, Robert Louis Stevenson recollects his maternal grandfather, the austere, old minister at Colinton Kirk. He recollects his grandfather’s firmness of character but enlivens the portrait with a charming sense of humour.

I must suppose, indeed,’ he writes, ‘that he was fond of preaching sermons, and so am I, though I never heard it maintained that either of us loved to hear them.’

On one occasion in his childhood, Stevenson was summoned to the minister’s study to recite one of the metrical psalms. It was Psalm 121, ‘I to the hills will lift mine eyes’. The young Stevenson imagined he might be rewarded for his pains.

The study was full of exotic paintings from India which  fed the boy’s imagination.  He longed to have one himself. Quaking with fear, the boy completed the recitation and was indeed rewarded but not in the way he expected. As he wrote in his essay:

‘For he took me in his arms and with most unwonted tenderness, and kissed me, and gave me a little kindly sermon for  my psalm; so that for that day, we were clerk and parson.’ It was, as he said, ‘so tender a surprise’ and the memory of this joyful moment lived with him for aye.

2 October 2020

I like the word ‘mystery’ because it is used in the Bible to describe God’s plan which has been revealed in the gospel of Christ. It’s a mystery which was ‘kept secret for long ages’ says St. Paul to the Romans and is described in Ephesians as a plan ‘to gather up all things in Christ’.

Our vocation as Christians, ministers and elders is all bound up in this ‘mystery of God’. In post-Biblical times, the word became associated with the sacraments, ‘the holy mysteries’. We respond to the mystery of God’s calling as we would respond to the sprinkling of water and the breaking of bread.

There is a caveat. In St. Paul’s letter to the Corinthians, he says, ‘If I understand all mysteries … but do not have love, I am nothing’. And so the appropriate context for our exploration of the mystery of God’s call is our love for one another within the body of Christ.

In exploring the mystery of God and his call to service him, two things should characterise our approach. The first is awe. If we believe that God is at work in  our life and the lives of other people, then as soon as we encounter another person, we should acknowledge the presence of God.

The second is humility. There is no human instrument capable of discerning the will of God. All our exploration is an approximation. Sometimes we will get it right, sometimes we will not. We recognise our human limitations in the face of divine initiative.

But the lovely thing about God  is that he works through the ordinary things which fill our days. That’s why the people in India greet each other in a spirit of devotion with hands clasped in prayer, followed by a bow and the greeting, ‘Namaste – I bow to you’. This is holy ground. God is here. His Spirit is with us!

1 October 2020

When God created the earth, he saw that it was good. But the goodness of God was soon spoilt. Ever since the days of Adam and Eve, we have been struggling to recover God’s good earth as it continues to be destroyed by our greed!

The struggle to enjoy the goodness of God is personified in the suffering of the farmer. In the olden days, the Inca farmers used to kill each other to ensure a supply of human blood as sacrificial fertiliser for their potato planting rites.

Nowadays, the sacrifices are different – time, energy, wealth to battle against the things which would destroy the harvest like the Colorado Beetle and the Potato Blight which caused 2 million people to die of starvation in Ireland during the nineteenth century.

As we celebrate the harvest, we realise it’s a sign that the struggle to recover the good earth and to enjoy the goodness of God is worthwhile. At the moment, we can see good and evil, life and death, suffering and celebration in God’s Creation. It’s just like the potato plant itself!

What we eat is simply a swelling in the stems of the plant. Strangely enough, the potato is not the fruit because the fruit of the potato is actually poisonous!

So we wait with the potato plant until the goodness of God brings to fruition a new earth where there’s no poison, no pain no hunger, no thirst, no death and, as the psalmist says, ‘Everything shouts and sings for joy!’