Minister’s Blog

18 September 2019

Our project to commission a sculpture for the kirk almost ran aground.  The students didn’t come up with anything which satisfied the Kirk Session. I asked one of our Deputy Session Clerks to provide the elders with felt-tips and paper at our next meeting.

They were invited to break up into groups and I asked them to design a piece of artwork for the kirk. There was much laughter and a lot of fun as they took it in their stride. But out of their imagination a design was produced and used to creative effect in a piece of etched glass designed by Anita Pate.

The symbolism was the dove of peace and woven into the design of doves taking flight were four words – Peace, Shalom, Salam and Shanti. They all meant peace and were used as greetings in  different faith traditions. The first three were for the three Abrahamic religions  – Christianity, Judaism, Islam.

The last was  ‘Shanti’ and  was more controversial. It is used in Bhuddist and Hindu  traditions. The greetings were etched into a window above the main door to the kirk. Whatever else, people of all faiths and none were welcome to enter our kirk and be at peace. When all is said and done,our allegiance to God cannot possibly divide the earth into those who are loved by God and those who are not. For his love is universal.

Minister’s Blog

17 September 2019

In celebrating the bi-centennial of our church building at New Kilpatrick, we commissioned the third year sculpture class at the Glasgow School of Art to produce a piece of art for the church.

There was a lot of interest – and fear too, a fear of the church building. All the entries which we received were conceived outside  the stone church. It had so much visual art in its internationally acclaimed  collection of stained glass that the students were afraid to touch it.

One of the students came up with an ice-sculpture. It was a skull  placed on a cross cut out of the grass in the graveyard. The concept puzzled one member of the congregation.

At the open day, she asked, ‘Will you be making a mould for the skull for it will surely melt in the midday sun?’ The answer was decisive. ‘No!’ said the student. ‘The ice-sculpture is unique just like you!’

Although the visual art which we were trying to stimulate needed to be more permanent than an ice-skull on a bed of grass in the graveyard, I thought she made a very powerful point. Our identity is unique and it is the  more valuable because  it doesn’t last. God understands this.

Minister’s Blog

16 September 2019

The spirit of the gospel is refreshingly found in Robert Louis Stevenson’s  delightful, ‘A Child’s Garden of Verses’ where he illuminates a joy in living in the simplest things – a child on a swing, a journey in a railway carriage, the mystery of my shadow.

Often, in the early morning, I have crossed the white bridge, stopped to take in the Preston Mill and gazed at the Tyne flowing on. The words of the Garden come to mind and celebrate the moment.

On goes the river

And out past the mill,

Away down the valley,

Away down the hill.

Away down the river,

A hundred miles or more,

Other little children

Shall bring my boats ashore.

The beauty of this poem is that it doesn’t espouse isolationism. It is a poem about being connected with others through the creativity of the one who makes a paper boat not for himself to keep but to let go in a joyful trust that it will make others happy.

This is the refreshment of the gospel – a sense of being at peace with the earth, the river and the mill and a natural instinct to reach out to others  in an imaginative way that through our anonymous gift of a paper boat they may find grace and joy!

Minister’s Blog

15 September 2019

We had a wedding in Prestonkirk yesterday. One of the most striking things about it was the arrangement of flowers. There were two vases and they  enclosed  the chancel space where bride and groom made their vows.

The flowers all came from the garden – sweet peas, scabius, daisies, anemones, honey suckle and ivy. Some of the flowers had a rich perfume like the colourful sweet peas. The arrangements were beautifully done with an eloquent simplicity.

They were clearly heartfelt and spoke about a more natural world than is often evident in some of the complex arrangements of bought flowers. Why do we not let the gifts in our garden adorn our worship spaces more often?

‘Consider the lilies of the field,’ says Jesus, ‘how they grow. Not even Solomon in all his glory was arrayed like one of these.’ This is the imagery which Jesus uses to commend a contented spirit.

Their charm lies in their brevity. Perhaps that’s why we see less of them in the kirk. But this evidence of mortality makes them even more endearing. Here today and gone tomorrow. It makes their presence more valuable and their memory more acute.

Minister’s Blog

14 September 2019

There is something rather unattractive about someone who always wants to get their own way. They haven’t learnt the humble art of collaborating with others. There are two important things here.

Firstly, there is the value we place upon other people when we consult with them. It requires the ability to listen and this is a humble art. Secondly, there is the value we place upon the whole group when this act of collaboration leads us to change our own view.

For some, things go smoothly so long as everyone agrees with their  point of view but when it’s challenged they need to exercise the humble arts. This requires the flexibility to change which some cannot do.

Is their reluctance born out of a spoilt childhood, a privileged adulthood, an enlarged  ego, a fear of death, an end to what is familiar, what can be controlled. But this is not the gospel for the gospel is all about dramatic change. Afterall, the last shall be first in God’s Kingdom! So where does that leave you?

Minister’s Blog

13 September 2019

The ministry of friendship is sacramental. I suppose a sacrament is an event in which something very ordinary like water, bread or wine is used to illuminate the extraordinary thing God is doing but which is otherwise hidden from view.

In a similar way, the friendship of ordinary people can be used to illuminate the extraordinary friendship of God  which is hidden from view. ‘No one has greater love than this,’ says Jesus, ‘to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.’ In this way, we catch a glimpse of the friendship which Christ has established with us through his dying upon the cross.

You are my friends if you do what I command you.’ says Jesus. And what is this commandment if not, ‘Love one another as I have loved you!’ If the quality of our love is inspired by him, then our ministry of friendship will effectively illuminate something of his love for us.

Minister’s Blog

12 September 2019

Lincolnshire Fire and Rescue has just abandoned Fireman Sam. He was for many years the county’s mascot but no more. Firefighters and members of the public had complained that it was not an inclusive image.

Two things. Firstly, the term fireman hasn’t been used for decades. The correct term is the non-specific ‘firefighter’. Sam’s gender specific image cannot be the most effective one to attract more women into the service.

Secondly, Fireman Sam has given thirty years’ sterling service. It’s surely time for him to be retired! I am not sure replacing him with the imagery of fire extinguishers is very exciting but a more creative approach needs to be developed.

It’s not only an issue about gender. It is also an issue about contemporary imagery. The truth is that Fireman Sam no longer gives a true account of what firefighters do. It has become old-fashioned and out of date!

It makes me think about the kirk and the  imagery which we use to talk about things – the language of the courts, the size and location of the manse, the middle class committee structure, the focus on words at the expense of emotion …. Time for a change?

Minister’s Blog

11 September 2019

Recently, I bought a delightful book in a second-hand bookshop entitled, ‘A Christmas Sermon’. It was written by Robert Louis Stevenson and is a piercing reflection on life and the art of living.

At one point, he talks about people being dissatisfied with life and argues that it ‘springs in some degree from dullness’. They would rather be doing something consequential and significant instead of recognising the heroic qualities necessary just to live a good life.

‘To be honest, to be kind – to earn a little and to spend a little less, to make, upon the whole, a family happier for his presence, to renounce when that shall be necessary and not be embittered, to keep a few friends … above all, to keep friends with himself – here is a task for all that a man has of fortitude and delicacy.’

Minister’s Blog

10 September 2019

What is a Friend?

It is hard to define.

It can’t be expressed

in word or in rhyme.

And if I was asked,

I would surely contend

that you are my perfect

description of Friend.

These words were handwritten by my senior elder in Forth. The  friendship which Tam was celebrating couldn’t be expressed ‘in word or in rhyme’. It cannot be contained in any combination of words. It defies our attempts at definition. It can only be seen in the heart of the one who is a friend.

This difficulty in defining what constitutes a friend leads us into the heart of the gospel. Jesus says to his disciples just before his parting, ‘I do not call you servants any longer … but I have called you friends.’

And he makes this transformative statement immediately after he has revealed the quality of his love. ‘No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.’  And, of course, these words have been immortalised on every war memorial in the country.

Minister’s Blog

9 September 2019

I love the story of Jeremiah. When the people were attacked by a foreign army, they didn’t know what to do next. People were killed. Their homes were destroyed. The holy temple was ransacked. Some people were taken away as prisoners of war.

What was Jeremiah going to do? Despite all the destruction and devastation, Jeremiah went and bought a field. ‘Why are you doing that, Jeremiah?’ people asked. ‘I cannot sow the field  today but one day I will. The war will be over and I will plough, sow and harvest again.

And the people smiled at his madness but they knew that he was right. When things  go wrong, remember Jeremiah and buy a field. Or do something which will bring people hope that on another day there will be laughter, peace, a time to sow seeds and enjoy the good earth!

Minister’s Blog

8 September 2019

Jesus says to his friends, ‘Let us go somewhere else so that I can preach there also. This is why I have come.’ It’s his vocation to preach and that’s why he came among us. Mine too. The preacher’s vocation is delineated in the Parable of the Sower.

‘Listen! A sower went out to sow.’ That’s all he does. We go out to preach and that’s all we are called to do. A lot of the work is wasted on stone and in thorn. Not everything we do produces a harvest. We are called not to anticipate the end result but to go out and sow.

The most unexpected thing is not that some seed falls o good soil and produces a harvest but that we have nothing to do with it! ‘How does it happen?’ asks the farmer. Jesus says, ‘He knows not how?’ It is the mystery of preaching.

Minister’s Blog

7 September 2019

I like to think that Nicodemus was old too. He came to see Jesus by night because he was afraid. Jesus challenges him. He must declare himself openly with the baptism of John and being born from above. We’re not told whether either was effected in him!

Nevertheless, old Nicodemus exercises a surprising ministry. In his dialogue with Jesus, he brings to birth the most famous text ever articulated. ‘God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son that whosoever believeth in him should not perish but have everlasting life…’

At the end of Christ’s life, Nicodemus exercises a peculiar ministry along with Joseph of Arimathea. He comes not by night but in the light of a dying day with ‘a mixture of myrrh and aloes weighing a hundred pounds’ to remove the body from the cross and prepare it for burial.

The dialogue with Jesus is a prelude to the finest and most persuasive articulation of the gospel of grace. The last rites bring to birth the most tremendous event in the history of the world – the resurrection of Christ!

Oh that we in our old age could be such helpful midwives in the exercise of our ministry even among dead and decaying things!

Minister’s Blog

6 September 2019

As it happened, when Simeon entered the Temple, Mary and Joseph entered too. They had brought the Christchild to be presented. As a young man, I brought four children to the Temple to be baptised. And so I identified with the young parents. Not now! Today, I identify with old Simeon.

As  the representative of the old church and  the old religion, Simeon has the insight to see that something new has been born in the Christchild. Although he doesn’t live to see it materialise, it is sufficient to have caught a glimpse of it.

The new is born out of the old – and will bring change and turmoil. Babies are one thing, crucifixions quite another. If we cannot see the vision or if the vision is going to be fulfilled beyond our time, we can exercise a ministry of letting go.

Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace …’ If we cannot embrace the new we will not inhibit its arrival. In this way, we can become its midwife in our letting go and departing in peace.