22 August 2019
When I was training for the ministry, I took a summer job on the bin lorry. This was in the days before recycling, plastic bags and bins on wheels. Instead, there were heavy metal bins which had to be hoisted energetically onto the shoulder and into the lorry!
It was undoubtedly hard work but the banter was cheerful, forthright and perceptive. It contrasted with my weekend employment preaching in the local parish church. The two jobs made an interesting marriage – the one firmly rooted to the earth, the other stepping up to heaven!
This all came back to me when I read about Colin Morrison who empties the bins on the islands of Mull and Iona. He has become a sensation on the internet through the stunning photographs which he takes on his i-phone whilst driving his bin lorry across the islands.
There seemed to be an implication in the report that it was surprising that a man who worked on a bin lorry should be a gifted photographer. Perhaps some people thought a young man who preached in the kirk would not be found on a bin lorry?
For me, the surprise is not in Colin Morrison’s occupation but in the popularity of the landscapes which he has posted on the net revealing a longing within us for the natural environment, the tranquillity of sea, snow and hill, the contentment of one who has found beauty through emptying bins.
21 August 2019
In contrast to the uncertainty which prevails in our political and ecclesiastical life and the despondency which it generates, it was a pleasant distraction to read about the funniest joke told at the Edinburgh Fringe.
Apparently, a panel of judges scours the shows and makes notes of possible winners. They are then presented to a random sample of some 2,000 people before the winner is announced. This year, it was awarded to a Swedish comic called Olaf Falafel.
‘I keep randomly shouting out ‘Broccoli’ and ‘Cauliflower’ – I think I might have Florets!’ Some of the previous year’s winners were listed in the Herald. ‘I’m not a fan of the new pound coin, but then again, I hate all change.’
I especially liked the challenge to upper middle class privilege and entitlement which was evident in the joke that gained tenth place. ‘I’ve got an Eton-themed Advent calendar, where all the doors are opened for me by my dad’s contacts.’
He may not have written too many jokes but King Solomon got to the heart of the matter when he gave us the proverb, ‘A merry heart doeth good like a medicine: but a broken spirit drieth the bones.’ (Proverbs 17;22) Science now confirms it so welcome the clowns!
20 August 2019
There is so much inhumanity in our world – unkindness, brutality, aggression, violence. We sometimes forget that life is too short to poison it in this way.
I am reminded of a diary entry written by the Scottish poet, William Soutar, four years after he became bed-ridden in Perth:
‘Under the necessity of daily death, we become more sensitive to the need for human tenderness. When our earthly sojourn is relatively short what greater folly than to aggravate the miseries of man by our modicum of inhumanity.’
19 August 2019
There is a mystery about God’s choice seen so clearly in choosing the Jews and not the Scots to be the instruments of his salvation. But why are some people chosen and not others for particular tasks and even for greatness.
It can engender jealousy as was evident with Moses and his sister, Miriam. She is the one who saved her wee brother’s life when she brought a princess and a mother together when her baby brother was discovered in the papyrus basket in the Nile.
She grew up to become the first prophetess in the Bible. Her wisdom is evident on the banks of the Nile but also on the banks of the Red Sea. With tambourine in hand, she led the women in this song, ‘Sing to the Lord for he has triumphed gloriously.’
When her brother grew up to be chosen as the leader of the people, she became jealous. ‘Has the Lord spoken only through Moses?’ she asks. ‘Has he not spoken through us also?’ The consequences were serious.
Miriam is struck down with leprosy – and the long journey to freedom is halted until Moses prays for his big sister’s healing. Jealousy does that. It disturbs a family or a community. It halts its growth. It holds it back from journeying on to the Promised Land.
18 August 2019
I remember once being very disappointed in a set of important exams. After they were over, some friends invited me out for a meal. It was obvious from their generous response that they appreciated my disappointment and the warmth of their affection certainly alleviated it. There was no hint from them that I deserved it even if I did.
What was important to them was me and they wanted to confirm how much I meant to them. As one of them wrote later, ‘I’m sure this is of greater importance than any distinction that can be put on paper!’ And isn’t this right? Our disappointment isn’t half as bad when it’s sustained by the gentle affection of God’s messengers. They put everything into perspective and reveal the grace of God.
17 August 2019
A year after my granny died, I was accepted as a candidate for the ministry. Two years before, I had told no-one about a growing sense of vocation. When I visited my granny she asked me what I was going to do with my life.
I paused. She looked at me and said, ‘Are you going to become a …’ Instead of finishing the question, she took her well-worn cook’s hand and made the sign of a clerical collar round her neck. I smiled. I didn’t say a word – and neither did she.
There was no need. Somehow she had discerned my secret and respected the fragility of my vocation. God was at work here – but it was all as tentative as a baby in a papyrus basket sailing down the river or a child laid in a manger because there was no room in the inn!
16 August 2019
In my Chambers Dictionary, destiny is defined as ‘the purpose or end to which any person or thing is appointed’. I noticed it comes from a Latin verb meaning ‘to stand’. It has this idea of immovability.
No matter what happens, nothing will change the purpose for which a particular person has been appointed. If God has destined someone for a purpose, there is nothing we can do to prevent that purpose from being fulfilled. Sometimes we can accept it. Sometimes we can’t.
The trouble with destiny is the choice, God’s choice. He chose the Jews and not the Scots to be his people. He chose Jesus and not Caesar to be his Son. He chose water and not milk to be the element whereby our entry into the church is effected.
But why didn’t he choose me? I’m sure we’ve asked that question when an opportunity eludes us! Of course, there’s no peace in the question. If it’s God’s choice, we can do nothing about it but accept it and search for the good in it!
15 August 2019
On Tuesday, we had an Adventure Day for Primary School children on the theme, ‘Miracle Maker’. It focused on two aspects of Jesus, his miracles and the miracle of the resurrection including the call of the disciples and the great commission.
We had a great team of children, teenagers and adults participating in the event. The story-telling was done through the beautifully animated film, ‘The Miracle Maker’ with charming characterisation and engaging story-telling.
We all made lunch together – making and baking tomato spirals and adding celery and carrot sticks, cocktail tomatoes and crisps. A fruit salad was prepared by the children and accompanied by ice cream.
We used the Stables for the craft work – doves, symbol of peace and celebrating the work of the Spirit in the healing miracles and decorating flower pots, filling them up with soil and planting the tiniest of parsley seeds.
We watched the video in the kirk and Aimee, one of our teenagers, led the aerobics or as we called it, ‘The Miraculous Movements’. And we played with the parachute and had relay races in the Glebe Field in pleasant summer sunshine.
The children were fantastic – participating with enthusiasm in all the activities, laughing, listening, sharing and caring, winning, losing and enjoying the moment. A grandparent wrote to give us ‘huge thanks’ describing the event as ‘a wonderful, busy, active, happy and loving day!’ Come to think of it, there was a lot of love in the day!
14 August 2019
Roy Hattersley was paying tribute to the late John Smith and argued that the United Kingdom would have been a much different place if he had lived to be Prime Minister instead of Tony Blair and his New Labour.
Smith’s father was my headmaster at Ardrishaig Primary School. We called him ‘Hairy’ because he was balding. His son was older than I and so we never met until I sat beside him at a Burns Supper in Stirling. He gave the immortal memory and I the vote of thanks!
When I took a group of young people to Iona in the nineties, we visited his grave. Although it is situated among the Scottish kings, it is simple and sincere. A large stone lies flat on the ground. It could have been picked up off the beach.
The name and dates were engraved in gold letters and underneath, a simple quotation from Alexander Pope. ‘An honest man’s the noblest work of God.’ Honesty, integrity, truth – what else is worth the struggle? Nothing is more lasting.
13 August 2019
Recently, the Assistant Commissioner at Scotland Yard who is responsible for counter-terror policing, made an astonishing observation. Apparently, 70-80% of those who are arrested for terrorist related offences were either born or raised in the United Kingdom!
Neil Basu was making the point that whilst his officers were good at stopping attacks and locking terrorists up, their work alone wasn’t sufficient to combat the continuing and serious threat from terrorism.
He highlighted three things that needed to be done by the rest of us – improve community cohesion, social mobility and education. If so many terrorist attacks are being committed by people within our own communities we have got to ask, ‘Why?’ and ‘What can we do about it?’
We must begin where we are and nurture good relationships between neighbours, provide opportunities for different groups to meet, share meals and get to know each other and ensure our education system doesn’t discriminate but enables everyone to flourish!
12 August 2019
I see the staff at Norwich Cathedral have been criticised for constructing a full sized Helter Skelter in the cathedral. It belongs to Henry Chipperfield and it took four people two days to construct it.
It was made in 1946 and looks beautiful as it stretches fifty-five feet up into the medieval roof space where participants can view the celebrated roof bosses and catch a breath-taking glimpse of the grandeur of the building from a normally inaccessible location.
One of the critics quoted in the press complained that the Dean and Chapter were ‘poisoning the medicine a church offers by installing a fairground ride’. Clearly, he hadn’t read his Bible recently.
For it was King Solomon who declared in his book of Proverbs that ‘a merry heart doth good like a medicine: but a broken spirit drieth the bones’. From the YouTube video which I saw, it was obvious that the experience was making a lot of merry hearts!
Three things should be remembered. It is a temporary installation. It challenges the stereotype of Christians being killjoys. And it provides an opportunity to open up the cathedral to people who would normally be inhibited by the cultural barriers which our churches seem to create.
Even if I disagreed with the above, I would still support the Dean in undertaking such an imaginative initiative because adults can be unkind in their criticism of children and create barriers towards greater participation.
With 20% of our churches reporting that they have no children in their congregations, this is a serious matter. Not only does it expose our failure to keep baptismal promises but also to follow the example of Jesus who says, ‘Let the little children come to me. Do not hinder them!’
11 August 2019
Doug Marr made an interesting observation in a column entitled, ‘The real Brexit problem? We have the wrong kind of MP.’ In a nutshell, he argued that ‘the modern political dynamic is not serving but self-serving’.
One of the problems which he identifies is what we might call the professionalisation of the politician. A familiar pattern has emerged – university degree, experience as a councillor, aide to a politician etc. In this way, he says, ‘Politics becomes an end in itself.’
In a former day, there were more MPs who had done manual labour and fewer who had previous political experience. Instead, they had been involved in some aspect of service to the wider community and brought a broader perspective than finance and the law.
Like Marr, I think the whole concept of service has become unfashionable. This is not only skewing the national perspective and affecting the health and well-being of our communities, it is creating a culture which is not conducive to the gospel.
Right at the heart of Christ’s message is a willingness to kneel down, tie a towel around your waist and wash feet! The wonderful thing about this concept is that everyone can do it. But, in fact, it’s often less well-educated people who minister in this way. More’s the pity!
10 August 2019
In yesterday’s Herald, Professor Ken Brown of the University of Glasgow, was raising concerns about the future of research in mathematics in Scotland. He made two significant points.
Firstly, there has been a fall in the number of PhD students in mathematics. Although Scotland is still producing ground-breaking research and there is no shortage of students keen to do it, there is little funding allocated to this area of academic life.
Secondly, the criteria for funding is not conducive to mathematics. It is the Professor’s view that governments are under pressure ‘to support research that shows an economic benefit in the very short term’. And this doesn’t work well for mathematics.
The mathematics which Einstein required to reveal his theory of relativity was actually discovered in the mid-nineteenth century but its usefulness was not discovered until the second decade of the twentieth!
Ideas need time to germinate. Creativity cannot be forced. Relationships develop over years. Confidence needs to grow. Usefulness cannot always be measured in the short-term. It’s only with age and experience that we value the work of parents, teachers, colleagues and friends.
‘Except a grain of wheat fall into the earth and die …’ The gospel is built upon the usefulness of self-forgetfulness and even death. Are these implausible outcomes likely to inspire governments to invest large-scale funding? What use the Church?
9 August 2019
Like many other nine year olds, I saw the first episode of Dr. Who in 1963. My enthusiasm waned when I grew up a little more but I still remember the thrill of seeing the daleks in action. They were personified in our playground games. We even spoke like them.
The other day, I was interested to see that TV Years had conducted a survey of its readership to discover the greatest sci-fi television moment of all time. Amazingly enough, it turned out to be the debut of the daleks in Dr. Who in 1963.
They were scary creatures but, of course, they had their limitations. They couldn’t cope with stairs and different levels but that didn’t temper our fear. We were envious when we heard that someone had actually been able to buy a dalek!
Time travel didn’t introduce us to black holes but it did help us to understand an historical timeline. The paradox of the tardis which was small on the outside but large on the inside helped us to anticipate the magic beyond our first impressions.
Our imagination was stimulated. Science was celebrated. Playground games were transformed. It was no longer cowboys and Indians or fighting the jerries but travelling into space, reaching for the stars and eventually landing on the moon!
8 August 2019
In our secular world where
God is not considered, two things happen. We do not view people as made in the
image of God. This has something to do with equality but more importantly
Equality is important but
it is bound up with law and definition and rights and wrongs. Sacredness is
much more difficult to define. We have to aspire to a deeper understanding
because it is all about holiness, the character of God.
But it is this quality
which inspires us to see other people as made in the likeness of God and
therefore carrying something of God within them. This inspires more than
equality for it is born not out of law but out of love.
The second thing which
happens when we remove God from the centre of our universe is that our horizons
are limited to the earth. Heaven doesn’t have a place within our thinking.
The value and the purpose
of our work and actions are not seen from this infinite perspective and so our
lives are dominated by the immediate, the temporal and the short-term interests
of ourselves, our family or our nation.
Heaven restores the importance and the significance of living in such a way that as Jesus says we are rich towards God, storing up treasures in heaven and celebrating the very things which death can never destroy!
7 August 2019
Last year, I did some study
on the boundary between mathematics and theology. I was looking at infinity and
what it said about God. I came across a medieval churchman called Nicholas of
Cusa. He became a cardinal, the pope’s right hand man.
In his writing, he employed
mathematics to deepen his understanding of God. This year, I am looking at how
he used the mathematics and what it says about God and our means of approaching
Nicholas was born in 1401
and Copernicus was born in 1473. So the younger man was writing almost a
hundred years after Cusa’s birth. It was Copernicus who challenged the standard
view that the earth was the centre of the universe.
However, two hundred years
before Galileo’s house arrest for declaring his support of Copernicus, Nicholas
was writing about the centre of the universe too. But he did not agree with the
church nor with Copernicus. For he argued that neither the earth nor the sun
was the centre of the universe.
In fact, the universe had
no centre and, of course, this is the contemporary scientific view. But for
Cusa, the centre of the universe was God and not only that, God was its
circumference. In other words, it was God who marked the boundaries of what the
scientists now say is an expanding universe.
What Cusa does in his
writing is to restore God to his rightful place in the creation. This is
precisely where the secular world, our nation and the international community
have all gone astray! As a result, our thinking and our living is impaired and diminished but for how long?