19 August 2017

There are changes in the countryside. Some harvesting has taken place – barley has been cut and a contrast created between the golden brown of the earth and the sky blue above. Traprain Law is in the distance standing where it has stood since time immemorial!

Autumn is creeping in at the edges of the parish. Some leaves have turned brown and orange and the brambles are beginning to fruit – tasty, especially before breakfast where recently harvested blackcurrants from the walled garden contrasted tartly with some fresh strawberries.

But I don’t notice everything. Incest in the parish! ‘Did you see the newborn calf in the corner?’ asked the farmer’s wife. I hadn’t seen a thing! ‘Despite our best efforts, the bull impregnated his daughter and produced a son!’

Apparently, the son is doing well but will not be used for breeding. ‘Do bulls not have any morals?’ I asked to much laughter. There doesn’t appear to be ‘A Table of Kindred and Affinity’ for them. But  as for me, my inexpert eye is fooled into overlaying the farmyard with an inappropriate innocence!

18 August 2017

Have you noticed that there is a lot of talk in the Kirk about making disciples. Members are expected to be equipped for this task. And the focus is on gaining recruits, to stymie decline and to enhance statistics. But many of our members do not see their commitment to the Kirk in these terms. We need to ca’ canny.

There may be a danger in trying to direct the work of the church into such a narrow focus. It may have an alienating effect on people who do not see their ministry in terms of making disciples so much as making friends. In making disciples people are being targeted to change their identity. In making a friend, who knows how the relationship will develop.

Alongside this, some people are looking at the Kirk as an organisation which can somehow be managed like a corporate business. If you get the right strategy in place and the right people in leadership positions or the right training for our ministers, things will change! Once again, it encourages us to narrow our focus on what is not an organisation but an organism.

This is the Body of Christ and, as such, has a mysterious dimension to it. There is no way it can be managed like a corporate body. This Body of Christ has an eternal dimension to it and has withstood the test of time. Sometimes popular, sometimes not but always remaining constant in its declaration of  the Easter Gospel, ‘Christ is risen! He is risen indeed! Alleluia!’

17 August 2017

In yesterday’s Herald, the Archbishop of Glasgow, Philip Tartaglia, described Scottish Roman Catholics as ‘wishy-washy’. He was writing this in an essay for the benefit of American Roman Catholics.

He argued that Scottish Roman Catholics should speak more about their beliefs and, in particular, talk more about ‘Jesus winning salvation for the sinful’. He considered this a more effective strategy against increasing secularisation.

Of course, you can still be a good Catholic and not talk about winning souls. For a start, it is not everyone’s ministry to be as evangelical as this. Furthermore, being wishy-washy has its own attractiveness.

For a start, it isn’t divisive – and when we consider Scotland’s historic battle scars which arose from denominational conflict, this is to be commended. Furthermore, having a measure of uncertainty about the things of the faith implies that people are still searching.

In passing, the Archbishop made an interesting comment on the Kirk. He argued that it was a target to secularisation because it had less worshippers in the pews on a Sunday compared to the Roman Catholic Church despite having more adherents.

Paradoxically, this may be our saving grace. Instead of looking at the Church as an organisation with a need to recruit more members, the fact that we have so many adherents within our parishes who are not identified as members, encourages us in two ways.

Firstly, we look beyond what is seen to what is unseen and realise that our corporate ministry is not confined to those whom we can see but to the whole parish. This makes us more inclusive and visionary.

Secondly, it helps us to be careful about alienating those within our parish from the worshipping congregation. If the breadth of the parish is not replicated in the breadth of our hearts then we can only expect to diminish. Our future lies not so much in those who do not belong but in those who belong but are barely recognised!

16 August 2017

We had an Adventure Day for the children yesterday and enjoyed the company of children, teenagers, parents and older members of the congregation all participating in a mixture of crafts, games, baking, preparations for lunch and a two part tale on the DVD.

Three highlights. Firstly, the parachute games, as Mary-Catherine observed, you cannot play with a parachute on your own, you need a crowd! Secondly, the lunch, slicing bread and baking fruit pizzas, nothing finer than all ages breaking bread together!

Thirdly, the DVD. At the heart of it was some lateral thinking which related to the story of David. Everyone thought that you needed a sword to slay the giant but not David. He did some lateral thinking and used his sling. Amazing.

In the DVD, a child was determined to sink a ship which was going to do something barbarous to fellow Christians. It also required some lateral thinking to find a solution to this apparently hopeless situation.

We give up hope when we cannot think of solutions to our problems. But we only have a finite number. Bring God into the equation and anything is possible. It’s only on this frontier where we can do no other than put our trust in God that something unexpected and never foretold will be brought out of his panoply of infinite possibilities!

15 August 2017

The least well paid jobs are often those which are among the most socially valuable – jobs which strive to keep our families and communities together. The consequences of underpaying work which has a high social value is that vacancy rates increase.

We have seen that in teaching and nursing and also in more menial jobs like carers and cleaners. The trouble with these jobs is that everyone thinks they know how to do them. But there’s more to it than meets the eye!

UA Fanthorpe, the poet, got to the heart of this matter when she wrote her poem about Olive. She was a cleaner at a hospital for neuro-psychiatric patients in Bristol when Fanthorpe worked as a clerk. Their first encounter was facilitated by Olive’s hoover which got jammed in her door.

She proved to be a good friend. Generosity was her chief characteristic. She gave Fanthorpe several gifts. Her first was a cup of hot tea left by her telephone every morning. She had noticed that Fanthorpe had no kettle in her office. ‘Not like they nurses,’ she said, ‘Always at the Tetleys.’

But it was her compassionate heart which won me. During her time in the hospital, Fanthorpe observed that although Olive was the cleaner, she had a very compassionate heart and gave the patients an important listening ear. As she said in her own inimitable way:

Yer won’t learn much about patients

From doctors and nurses. Yew as to get to like em.

We’re in there ages doing them toilets. It all adds up.

14 August 2017

The Technology Pilot began yesterday. Members of the congregations at Stenton and Whitekirk led the services there. The sermon had been filmed by my elder son, David and was broadcast in both kirks quite successfully. James photographed the screening in Stenton.

Meanwhile, I took the services at Athelstaneford and Prestonkirk. We celebrated the Sacrament for All Ages at Prestonkirk. Three of our young people sang an arrangement of ‘Amazing Grace’ by Chris Tomlin and Alison played a solo on her bassoon. Wonderful!

It was a day full of change and experiment. When I stood up to begin the service at Athelstaneford, I noticed a poster sitting on the shelf underneath the Communion Table. There was a happy face at the bottom and on top, these words, ‘Do not be afraid!’

13 August 2017

I came across Madame Calment again in a book about Vincent van Gogh. It was all about his life in the yellow house in Arles.

When she was a girl, Madame Calment sold coloured pencils to the artist. She eventually became the oldest woman in the world cycling until she was 100, giving up smoking when she was 117 and dying when she was 123!

What’s your recipe for long life?’ she was inevitably asked. ‘Laughter!’ she replied. And I’m sure she’s right. The ability to laugh, to smile, to remain cheerful even in disappointment and defeat, to develop a sense of humour, a lightness of touch, a joy in living are the best birthday gifts.

What’s your view of the future?’ she was asked. ‘Very brief!’ she joked. So don’t waste it! Make the most of it! Put everything you’ve got into the moment, this day, this week! It may be your last!

12 August 2017

I was called to a Nursing Home recently to see someone who was really ill. I went immediately and forgot to bring my codes with me to open the doors. There was nothing else for it but to ring the bell. No one came. I knocked on the glass. No one stirred.

I repeated myself. A frail, old woman came to my assistance. She tried pulling the door open but it was locked. There was a notice on the door. She read it. ‘Keep the door shut.’ She looked at me in bewilderment, turned her back and disappeared from view.

I continued to ring the bell and to knock. An old man sitting in a wheel chair looked up and began to shout, ‘Help! Help!’ at the top of his voice. No-one came to his assistance. He shouted again. I knocked and rang the bell!

And then the frail old woman appeared with a member of staff. She made her way to the old man who was shouting, ‘Help!’ He pointed to the door. She got the message and I got into the Nursing Home.

I shook their hands in appreciation and made my visit. Twenty-five minutes later, I signed myself out. The old man was still sitting in his chair. When I passed, he gave me the thumbs up! We were a team and instead of being on the receiving end, he gave me a helping hand!

11 August 2017

The flying-trapeze let go of the swing. She was spinning and somersaulting in mid-air. Her partner stretched out his hands to reach her. They missed! She fell! The crowd gasped!

Undaunted, she tried again. The crowd held its corporate breath. She let go of the swing. It was a breath-taking performance. The applause was rapturous!

The razzmatazz had lulled us into thinking that she was immortal. Her mistake illustrated the difficulty of her task and the quality of her subsequent performance. So it is with ours!

We are mortal human beings – unable to perform as well as we would like and as well as we ought. But God gives us a second chance, always a second chance. Can we rise to the occasion? Can we make our mistakes part of the Show?

10 August 2017

In the post yesterday, I received two leaflets from the publisher, Kevin Mayhew. One was all about their ‘Big Summer Sale’ with fifty per cent reductions. The other was entitled, ‘Latest Releases’.

On the front cover, my eye caught this extraordinary phrase, ‘Instant Youth Group’. ‘Now there’s something for every kirk minister – an instant youth group!’ Whilst I was intrigued, I couldn’t help asking myself, ‘Why am I not inclined to buy it?’

Two reasons. The first is the word ‘instant’. Nothing in my ministry has ever been instant. It’s too quick for things to grow naturally. The other is the word ‘bumper’ and the conceit that one book could contain everything required to produce these instantaneous results!

Why should big and fast be the qualifications for creating a youth group. All my youth groups took time to start and to develop. The experience has been salutary and taught me the value of patience.

Something as important as a youth group cannot be created in an instant. Nurturing faith is a long-term commitment as every Christian parent knows. It’s a pity publishers of religious books appear to be no different from their secular counterparts. ‘Now pass me that bumper book of instant jokes!’

9 August 2017

Following the catastrophic fire in Grenfell Tower, the local church and mosque have become more visible to the wider world through their immediate response to the human tragedy which emerged.

The local vicar was quoted as saying that the church didn’t come to the rescue but was able to help so effectively because of the trusting  relationship which it had established over many, many years with the wider community.

In his own blog, Professor Chris Baker, Director of the William Temple Foundation, contrasted the visibility of the local faith communities with the invisibility of local councillors and politicians. He argued that visibility was a necessary constituent of  accountability.

Apparently, one local Methodist minister rediscovered the value of his clerical collar as a means of being identified within the community. People saw it and equated it with his faith community and the Christian principles and values which it called to mind.

When religious people proudly but unassertively wear their badges of office – making themselves publicly accountable to implement the values and ethics of their professional and religious identity – this sends an important message.’ wrote the Professor.

Who knows, there may even come a day in Scotland when it will take courage for a minister or priest to publicly wear their clerical collars because of the antipathy shown towards religion. But for the moment, it remains  a valuable witness to Christ’s gospel of compassion, mercy and hope!

8 August 2017

A quiet conversation by the evening fireside. Mary-Catherine was telling me about someone who had reached the top, found out what it was like and preferred to be somewhere else. I replied foolishly, ‘I have never been to the top!’ To which Mary-Catherine was quick to reply, ‘No! But you have been high and mighty in your pulpit!’ Is this one of the reasons why Roman Catholic priests remain celibate?

7 August 2017

The Post Office has just issued another set of stamps to commemorate the centenary of the First World War. The most unusual photograph is a damaged Bible which belonged to Private Lemuel Thomas Rees. In 1917, he fought in the Battle of Passchendaele.

During the battle, an exploding German shell landed close by. Although Rees was hit, he was saved by the little Bible which he kept in his breast pocket. Was this a miracle, an act of God, some sort of divine intervention in one of the most appalling battles of the War?

I imagine there were many soldiers who carried a Bible in their breast pocket who were not saved in this remarkable way. It probably happened just by chance and he was the beneficiary.

But the presence of the badly damaged Bible has an eloquence all of its own. It says two things. Firstly, Rees was a man of God. Whilst caught up in such unbelievable warfare, he put his trust in God’s Word.

Secondly, the Word of God was heard on the battlefield. Passchendaele was one of the worst battles of the War. The battlefield became a quagmire in which soldiers and horses drowned in mud and poisonous gases were used for the first time!

The wide circulation which these stamps will be given serves as a witness to the soldier’s faith and the part which the Bible played in the War. It brings to the attention of a wider audience, the miracle of God’s Word, God’s presence and God’s Christian soldier!

6 August 2017

Private Harry Patch died on 25 July 2009 aged 111. He was the last surviving soldier from the First World War and was nicknamed ‘The Last Tommy’. A plumber by trade, he fought in the Battle of Passchendaele, a hundred years ago this week.

‘Passchendaele was a disastrous battle,’ he said in 2007, ‘Thousands and thousands of young lives were lost. It makes me angry.’ That year, he had gone back to Ypres to shake the hand of Charles Kuentz, Germany’s last surviving veteran from the First World War.

‘It was emotional.’ said Patch. ‘He is 107. We’ve had 87 years to think what war is. To me, it’s a licence to go out and murder. Why should the British government call me up and take me out to a battlefield to shoot a man I never knew, whose language I couldn’t speak?’

When he came face to face with a German soldier on the battlefield, he thought of Moses and the ten commandments. ‘Thou shalt not kill!’ So he shot the German in the shoulder. He dropped his rifle and ran for his Lewis Gun. Patch shot him again not to kill but to disable.

‘All those lives lost for a war finished over a table.’ he concluded. ‘Now what is the sense in that?’ Is there any sense in it? Passchendaele is remembered for its huge casualties, the drowning of men and horses in mud and the use of poisonous gases. Where has such barbarism led us today? God have mercy upon us!

5 August 2017

On Friday, thirty Norwegians visited Prestonkirk. They all belonged to the same family and had an ancestor in common, Adam Merilees. He was baptised in the kirk in 1731 and emigrated to Norway.

The Group had lunch in the Crown before coming to the kirk. I showed them round and told them our story whilst the Barker Family played bagpipes, bassoon, trombone and piano. Their music was so good it earned them a Norwegian standing ovation.

They, in turn, asked if they could sing? Of course! They all stood up and sang a favourite Norwegian folk song. Gifts were given – Norwegian smoked salmon and chocolates before paying homage to another Merilees, the only one buried in the kirkyard.

Interestingly, the incentive for this huge Norwegian family to come to Prestonkirk was the Sacrament of Baptism. It secures our membership of the Church and our unity with Christians all over the world!  For we are all one in Christ – Presbyterians and Lutherans, Norwegians and Scots!

4 August 2017

A friend has had a serious injury which is taking time to heal. Two surprising things have contributed to the healing process. The first is maggots. They have come in tiny teabags and have been instrumental in eating the dead skin around his wound. The second is honey. The healing properties of Manuka honey are well known. It fights bacteria.

For some reason, there is something very satisfying about the use of these natural things to heal the human body. They are integral parts of the natural world which God has created. After each day, God saw that what he created was good. It was very good. Recovering this goodness is a step closer to the unity of all good things with Christ as head!

3 August 2017

My elder son sent me a link to an article in Tuesday’s Guardian. It concerned seven Roman Catholic seminarians who had been celebrating the ordination of a friend. They entered a pub in Cardiff for a pint.

To their surprise, the bar staff refused to serve them adding the apology, ‘Sorry gents – we don’t do fancy dress or stag dos!’ The seminarians, who were all wearing cassocks, couldn’t convince staff that their clerical garb was genuine.

Their chief concern was, ‘Where are we going to go now to get a pint?’ As they were leaving, the penny dropped and it was apologies all round. The embarrassed staff gave them a free round of drinks!

One of the seven was the Revd. Robert James who was especially honoured. The pub’s most popular beer is ‘The Rev. James’. The spokesperson from the Archdiocese saw the funny side of it all.

Please note – a number of our clergy, including George Stack, the Archbishop of Cardiff, frequent your bar so don’t turf any more out please!’ Maybe drinking in cognito is not such a good idea? Perhaps the Archbishop will be minded to wear his mitre next time round?

2 August 2017

2 August 2017

During my holiday in St. Andrews, I visited one of the local secondhand bookshops. It is always a delight to browse and to discover unexpected treasures like ‘Scottish Social Sketches of the Seventeenth Century’ by RM Fergusson.

I recognised the name instantly. He was one of my predecessors at Logie Kirk. The book was published in 1907 whilst he was minister there and is a first edition. It cost me a handsome twelve pounds!

It brought back endearing memories of my ministry and the welcome introduction which Menzies Fergusson gave me to the parish through his celebrated two volume history. As an amateur historian, whose ministry spanned almost forty years, he was well placed to produce this wonderful work.

In the Preface to this book, he writes, ‘The story of the social conditions, which underlie and determine the actions of statesmen and ecclesiastical leaders, helps more to explain the trend of national development than the mere statement of certain outstanding circumstances, which in themselves may be both picturesque and striking.’

Menzies Fergusson must have been one of the pioneers of today’s interest in social history. He was among the first to open up the minute books of Logie Kirk Session and Dunblane Presbytery to great effect.

In relation to yesterday’s blog, he tells the story of the Revd. George Shaw who was ordained a Presbyterian continued as an Episcopalian but got into difficulties at the Revolution towards the end of the seventeenth century. He was deposed and another ordained in his place. But he continued to minister!

On one occasion, some women rabbled the minister. Finding him in bed, one exclaimed, ‘Get up, sirrah! You lie on a feather bed when my dog Spottie lies on straw!’ What an easy life we have by comparison! Or maybe Spottie Bryce, as she became known thereafter, still abides  in some of our parishes?



1 August 2017

Outside St. Salvator’s Chapel, St. Andrews, there was a series of display panels elucidating the work of undergraduates who participated in the Laidlaw Undergraduate Internship in Research and Leadership 2016.

Some of them were too highly specialist for me to understand but I enjoyed the one by Rory Forbes which was ‘highly commended’. It examined the confessional constituencies of ministers in Restoration Scotland (1660-1688).

Interestingly, the largest percentage of ministers (31%) were those who were Episcopalian and were deprived of their charges in 1688. The second largest percentage (26%) were those who were happy to conform with whatever form of church government prevailed at the time! A bit like the Vicar of Bray!

The third largest percentage (21%) were those who were Presbyterian and were ejected or resigned their charges in 1662! The other two categories were those whose ministries were not challenged during this period and those whose confessional status was unknown.

Forbes concludes that Scotland was deeply divided on confessional grounds but a substantial minority of the clergy did not consider the form of church government to be the most important thing in their ministry. I am sure that this is true today!

What surprised me most of all was the tally of ministers. In his survey, Rory Forbes has considered the confessional status of no less than 2189 ministers over a period of twenty-eight years. And this in a population of one million! Is that one minister for every 457 people? What has happened to our recruitment policy?

31 July 2017

We saw the film ‘Dunkirk’, directed by Christopher Nolan. It was superb. The story is well known but nonetheless moving for all that. The acting is convincing, the drama gripping and the violence restrained.

There are three stories woven together to make the whole. Right at the start of the film, we are told that they each take place in a different time frame – one week, one day and one hour. So events which we saw in consecutive order didn’t quite happen like that.

I loved this aspect of the film because it is how we remember. Our memories aren’t imprisoned in a particular time frame. We often find it difficult to remember when something happened and how long it took to unravel.

Our memories carry an emotional content which transcends time and is as real in the remembering as it was when first experienced. But there is something else about our memories. They are timeless.

The story of Dunkirk lives within our nation’s corporate memory. It carries much emotion. A disastrous defeat could have signalled the beginning of Hitler’s rule but it was transformed into an amazing victory by the courage of many ordinary people in little ships. This victory of little David is timeless because it lives within the heart of God.

30 July 2017

Charlie Gard died on Friday. He was 11 months old and suffering from a rare disease which weakened muscles and damaged the brain. For five months, his parents had fought for him to travel to America to have the chance of some experimental new treatment.

The doctors caring for him at Great Ormond Street Hospital argued that Charlie wouldn’t benefit from this treatment and his life-support machine should be switched off. Charlie’s parents didn’t agree. The impasse was eventually resolved in court.

On the face of it, the parents didn’t win anything. Charlie didn’t get the experimental treatment and their desire for him to die at home was refused. What they did gain was the knowledge that they did all in their power ‘to give him a chance of life’ as his mother said.

It was right that these decisions did not simply belong to the parents. Their perspective was important but it had to be weighed up against the expertise of the medics and the wisdom of the judge. Issues of life and death do not belong to individuals but to the whole community.

However, in their loss, Charlie’s parents have given the community something very important. In their determination to give their son a chance of life, they have affirmed the worth of every human being, the importance of valuing life over death and the power of a love which never ends.

29 July 2017

The Kelpies have come to town! We saw them for ourselves on the Bruce Embankment near the Old Course in St. Andrews. I’m not sure how long they are staying but the local Pipe Band are scheduled to head up a carnival focused on this popular piece of public art.

We have never seen them on the Forth and Clyde Canal at Falkirk save from the car driving along the A9 with 35,000 others at 70 mph. But they have touched the nation and stimulated the corporate imagination.

The maquettes are a tenth of the size of the Kelpies at Falkirk but they are the original artwork. Andy Scott’s art has been transformed by the skilful use of the computer and a company of engineers who were able to work in steel! The science and the engineering is as much to be celebrated as the art.

The Kelpies are mythical Scottish creatures which are found in water, most famously Loch Ness. They are often represented as horses. These ancient myths have the power to transcend contemporary divisions and unite us at least for a day’s carnival!

But there is a deeper attraction – the horse. Andy Scott based his sculpture on two Clydesdales -Duke and Baron. They not only capture the mystery of the kelpie but the strength and nobility of the horse.

They remind me of a line or two in Edwin Muir’s poem, ‘The Horses’. Having been expelled from the farm by the tractor, they now make their return after the nuclear holocaust to recover what the poet calls ‘that long-lost archaic companionship’.

The Kelpies not only unite us together through an ancient myth but also put us in touch with a deeper truth born out of the Creation and celebrated in Eden – the harmony of all created things in the loving purposes of God.

28 July 2017

In the recent edition of the ‘Church Times’, I read an article by Madeleine Davies about the New International Version of the Bible. Apparently, it was first produced in 1978 and ‘is the most widely read Bible translation in contemporary English’.

I was interested because we used the NIV for our ‘Communuity Bible Experience’ and I was struck by how easily the text flowed. It was a very good read. Clearly, the translators try to be faithful not only to the ancient texts but also to the contemporary readership.

Apparently, in 2011 the term ‘deacon’ was applied to Phoebe in Romans 16;1. The Greek is ‘diakonon’ which translates readily into deacon. The NRSV describes Phoebe as a deacon too. Whereas the Jerusalem Bible describes her as a deaconess.

The Good News Bible says that she ‘serves the church’ and the Authorised Version describes her as ‘a servant of the church’. What lies behind the term is service but the difficulty is whether or not Phoebe, as a woman, held a particular office in the early church.

The NIV adds a footnote. ‘Deacon refers to a Christian designated to serve with the overseers/elders of the church in a variety of ways.’ Sitting on the fence hasn’t done the translators much good.

People of different theological opinions have complained that the committee favoured a contrary theological opinion to their own! Isn’t that what the fudging footnote wanted to achieve? But I see in a footnote to my NRSV that an alternative to ‘deacon’ in this context is ‘minister’!

27 July 2017

Tom Turpie has written an essay about the demise of the shrine of St. Andrew whose remains were venerated at St. Andrews’ Cathedral. They included the saint’s kneecap, an upper arm bone, three fingers and a tooth.

I am not sure how they were displayed but, according to Turpie, from the late thirteenth century, their popularity amongst pilgrims began to diminish. Another two and a half centuries were to elapse before the Reformation put an end to pilgrimage of any kind! I was surprised.

The interesting thing about this situation was the determination of the clergy to see if they could re-energise the site. Several strategies were developed – rehousing the remains in a more glorious reliquary, developing relationships with other saints and, of course, papal indulgences.

The lack of interest in the shrine and the loss of income from the pilgrims were as concerning then as the loss of interest in institutional religion and the income from the offering plate are now some seven hundred years later.

Nothing changes – and perhaps the changes which befell the cathedrals in the late thirteenth century were more awesome than the changes which affect us. Two consolations are evident in all of this.

Firstly, it is in the nature of the church to find itself in a situation where it needs to re-invent itself or, more particularly, rediscover what God is calling the church to be in our own day and age.

Secondly, these crises of identity and relevance and the apparent need for modernisation and imagination is not new. Neither is the consoling truth that by God’s grace, the church has always survived these uncomfortable events to proclaim the Easter Gospel in another generation and in another way!

26 July 2017

This was a lovely but quite surprising sight – wildflowers growing in a dazzling display in an unexpected place. Where – the edge of a field, the back garden, a forgotten corner in one of the nearby estates? No – these wildflowers are growing on a roundabout near Dunbar’s ASDA!

I have noticed quite a few of our roundabouts have been planted with wildflowers – red and orange poppies, blue and purple cornflowers, white daisies blowing freely in the breeze and brightening up rather dull corners of the road network.

Unlike the begonias, packed together in the streets to make a more vibrant splash of colour, the wildflowers don’t appear to be prisoners in their beds! However, they have clearly been cultivated to make such a splendid sight. We may regret that our fields no longer support such an array but we congratulate the Council for its initiative.

We may look back to a former day when wildflowers grew wild and there was no prohibition on children picking them, mums displaying them in jam jars, old telephone directories drying and pressing them for albums and cards but we can still enjoy them all the more on roundabouts as on roadsides for they put us in touch with the natural world and the Creator whose bounty is seen in their colourful profusion!

25 July 2017

During the ‘Prayer of Confession’ on Sunday, the minister said something which jarred with me. ‘Those who genuinely confess their sins …’  For me, the difficulty is in the confession, actually acknowledging what I have done wrong. Having faced the reality of my sinfulness in all its humiliating detail, does it mean anything to ask whether or not this confession was genuine?

Adding this extra dimension to our confession creates uncertainty in our heart. Was my confession genuine or not? What test will scrutinise it effectively so that I know? Worse than that, it makes me wonder whether God’s forgiveness is dependent not so much on my confession but on its genuineness whatever that may mean?

It reminded me of the uncertainty which the Revd. John MacLeod Campbell discovered when he was visiting his parishioners in Rhu. They were uncertain about whether or not they were one of the elect. Was there any way of knowing this? It was important if salvation depended upon it. This led him to challenge the theology of limited atonement. As a result, he was deposed by the General Assembly in 1831.

Among the half dozen commissioners who supported him was his aging father, minister at Kilninver. ‘Though his brethren cast him out, his Master whom he serves will not forsake him.’ he said to the Assembly. ‘And while I live I will never be ashamed to be the father of so holy and blameless a son.’ His masterpiece, ‘The Nature of Atonement’ is now considered to be one of Scotland’s greatest contributions to theology.

24 July 2017

Whenever we are in St. Andrews, we invariably pass the gate of St. Mary’s College. We have no cause to enter the gate now but I often did as an undergraduate. The University Library was there as well as the offices of the Divinity Faculty.

It was there that I encountered the reckless medical students, scrambling to gain enough information to pass their exams and eventually diagnose my complaints with half the knowledge they might have had if they had studied harder!

It was there that I encountered the sombre figure of Matthew Black, Professor of New Testament. As a student of Pure Mathematics, I never had reason to speak with him but his robed presence comes alive every time I read his commentary on Romans.

It was there that I went to hear the Revd. Campbell MacLean, minister at Cramond Kirk, give the Warwack Lectures. I was mesmerised by his beautiful use of language and the way he utilised poetry to illustrate his lectures. I have never lost the love of poetry stimulated by his words.

Through the gate, I can envisage many encounters on the way to the library and many conversations on the way out. It was a stimulating place to be. No wonder the text above the gate reads, ‘In principio erat Verbum.’ It’s the first line of St. John’s Gospel, ‘In the beginning was the Word.’

It’s a fitting text for a gateway into a world of words which continues to stimulate, enrich and develop young people today. But it’s also a fitting text for those who simply pass by, a veritable sermon in gold proclaiming the truth of the pre-existent Word, firstborn of creation and of the dead!

23 July 2017

‘The parson exceeds not an hour in preaching, because all ages have thought that a competency.’ I hope the parson whom I go to hear this morning will not exceed fifteen minutes! Times change but what George Herbert says for an hour is good for fifteen minutes or even something less. For he goes on to say:

‘He that profits not in that time will lesse afterwards, the same affection which made him not profit before making him then weary; and so he grows from not relishing to loathing.’ There is no merit in length but in content and discerning the right time for everything is an art which is beautiful.

22 July 2017

In his ‘little book of guidance’, John Pritchard lists some of his answers to the question, ‘Why go to Church?’ One of them is intriguingly headed, ‘Because I might strike lucky.’ What on earth does he mean by this? Simply put, the person who goes to church may be lucky to hear a good sermon!

‘There aren’t many contexts today where you can hear a careful, well informed and imaginative conversation between the wisdom of God in the Bible and the experience of human beings in the world.’ he writes. In my estimation, it is an under-used resource which, in the words of Pritchard, has the potential to enliven and even change a person’s life.

Of course, like any other form of communication, it is a two-way process. The worshipper has to engage with the words of the preacher and discern what is a word from God and what is not. This is work, sometimes hard work, but it may harvest rich fruit. ‘And if it’s not always like that,’ concludes Pritchard, ‘there’s always next week!’

21 July 2017

No one can read the New Testament without recognising the importance of preaching. Jesus explicitly said that the purpose of his ministry was to preach the good news. Examples of sermons preached by Peter and Paul are evident in the text. The young minister, Timothy, is encouraged to preach in and out of season.

Somehow this eluded our Ministries Council when they made the promotional film, ‘Tomorrow’s Calling’. Apparently, it has been viewed by a substantial number of people. I am not sure how effective it has been in nurturing vocations.

However, at no point in this film will you see a minister preaching! How did this happen? Has preaching become unfashionable? Were there no opportunities to film a minister in action? Is it something which belongs more to the inner life than what can be portrayed in outward terms?

It is therefore very refreshing to see that the serialisation of ‘Grantchester’ has not been so negligent of the minister’s office. The Revd. Sydney Chambers is vicar at Grantchester and also an amateur sleuth, befriended by the local Inspector.

Although it is set in the 1950s, it is based on novels written by a former Archbishop of Canterbury’s son, James Runcie, and is permeated with contemporary insight. Having said that, every episode which I have seen ends with the sermon!

Whilst we do not hear the whole piece and the section we do hear often lacks Biblical analysis, it is clearly a preaching of the Word. It always reflects something of what has been happening in the local community and helps to nurture a Christian perspective on real life tragedy. Some inspiration for future promotionals?