Minister’s Blog

22 February 2019

Whilst studying an old stone tablet containing a mathematics lesson for some Iraqi children around 1500BC, Ernst Weidner alerted the world of mathematics to the possibility that the Pythagorean Theorem was well known a millennium before Pythagoras.

Unfortunately, when he was studying the tablet in 1916, part of it was missing. It wasn’t discovered until the 1980s. At that time, Christopher Walker was looking through the vast supply of stone fragments in the British Museum.

Quite by chance, he discovered the piece of stone which was missing from Weidner’s mathematics lesson. On it was direct evidence that the Pythagorean Theorem was known to the people of Iraq around 1500BC! But it took 3,500 years to declare it to the world!

Minister’s Blog

21 February 2019

Pythagoras was a Greek mathematician living around 500BC. He is credited with what has become known as ‘The Pythagorean Theorem’. This gives us a fundamental property of a right-angled triangle.

Essentially, when we square the length of the hypotenuse, we discover that it is the sum of the squares of the lengths of the two other sides. In this, Pythagoras effectively transformed space into numbers!

Not so long ago, it was revealed that Pythagoras was not the first to discover this. It was known by the Babylonians a thousand  years before! Having said that, the Iraqis may have forgotten it by the time of Pythagoras.

I hope not because it made me wonder whether Jesus knew about the Pythagorean Theorem? Remember his forebears were exiled in Babylon in the sixth century. If the mathematics of right angled triangles was still taught, did the exiles carry it back to Jerusalem?

Minister’s Blog

20 February 2019

Seneca, a Roman philosopher living at the time of Christ, wrote an essay entitled, ‘On the Shortness of Life’. Length of days does not matter. What does matter is the  wisdom with which we fill our days. In this extract, Seneca counsels us to value our time because it is in limited supply.

‘You live as if you were destined to live forever, no thought of your frailty ever enters your head, of how much time has already gone by you take no heed. You squander time as if you drew from a full and abundant supply, though all the while that day which you bestow on some person or thing is perhaps your last.’ 

Minister’s Blog

19 February 2019

‘Having good thoughts really does improve your health’ said the headline in my daily newspaper. I was keen to read more. The research comes from a study undertaken by the universities of Oxford and Exeter.

The crucial aspect of their study focuses on the body’s threat response  which can damage the immune system. Being compassionate towards ourselves switches off the threat response which places the body in a state of well-being.

‘By switching off our threat response, we boost our immune system and give us the best chance of healing.’ said one of the researchers. And this can only be good for a person’s physical and mental health.

Thinking good thoughts is a constituent part of the Gospel, beautifully articulated by St. Paul when he wrote his Epistle of Joy whilst imprisoned in Rome for his allegiance to Christ. The letter was written to the church at Philippi.

‘Whatsoever things are true, whatsoever things are honest, whatsoever things are just, whatsoever things are lovely, whatsoever things  are of good report; if there be any virtue and if there be any praise, think on these things.’

Think on these things! It’s the wisdom of two millennia which is now being affirmed by a more scientific enquiry. But it stands to reason that filling our minds with kind and beautiful thoughts can only do us good. It is the Word of God!

Minister’s Blog

18 February 2019

Last month, a volunteer working for the Scottish Stained Glass  Trust asked to visit Prestonkirk and Stenton to take photographs of the stained glass. Whilst he was there, he took over 800 raw images!

He wrote to tell me that he had taken 230 images of the large five light window in the chancel at Stenton. He likes to take images at different exposure settings so that he can choose the best for the record.

This magnificent window was by CE Kempe. Apparently, it is a fine example of his early work. The photographer could tell me this because it contains his three wheatsheaf shield in the bottom left hand corner.

This means that the window was made before 1895. Thereafter, the stained-glass artist used the more common single wheatsheaf as his logo. He is going to send us some examples of the sixty or so images he will retain.

In passing, he wrote, ‘It was a pleasure to visit and make photo-records of such well- maintained and obviously well-supported churches, with polished brasses, not a speck of dust to be seen, even leaflets lined up like guardsmen on parade ….’


17 February 2019

How many hymns do you know which employ scientific imagery. We may think initially of Psalm 8 which  was written three thousand years ago, ‘When I consider thy heavens, the work of thy fingers, the moon and the stars, which thou hast ordained; what is man, that thou art mindful of him? and the son of man, that thou visitest him?

Then there’s Joseph Addison’s famous, ‘The spacious firmament on high, with all the blue ethereal sky’. But what others come to mind? There is one from the twentieth century in our hymnary.  It was written Albert Bayly and begins, ‘Great God of every shining constellation’.  It talks about ‘the atom’s hidden forces’ and describes God as ‘True Life, awaking life in cell and tissue’. There aren’t many like it. Why not?

Two reasons. The first is that the scientific and poetic minds are considered to be different. People say that  different sides of the brain are  being exercised in these two spheres of thinking. The result is unchallenged compartmentalisation.

The second is that scientific  language is not so readily embraced either in poetic forms nor in devotional metaphors.  Sometimes it appears to alienate us from God, our traditions and our comfortable symbolism. ‘God of concrete, God of steel’ etc.

But the paucity of hymns celebrating the scientific age and, more particularly, the work of God within scientific discoveries only emphasises the foolish division between faith and science and reinforces the view that the Church is out of touch with our contemporary world.

Minister’s Blog

16 February 2019

For the past four years, the Wood Foundation has been sponsoring an initiative in the Primary Schools across eight local authorities ‘to improve the confidence, skills and science support networks for primary teachers.’

The researchers evaluating this Raise Project discovered that the children thoroughly enjoyed the classroom experiments. There was a strong indication that the children would enjoy being involved in science when they left school.

However, there were three inhibiting factors. The first was the negative attitude towards science at home. The second was the lack of confidence amongst teachers. The third was the invisibility of people working in  scientific jobs.

In other words, if the children never see nor know a scientist within their own community and therefore have no role model, how will they be able to see themselves working in such an alien sphere of employment?

It seems very odd that in a century which has seen so much scientific  advancement, the teaching of science and the opportunities which it affords should not be encouraging more science and more scientists within our society.

Minister’s Blog

15 February 2019

In his book, ‘Levels of Life’, Julian Barnes introduces us to Felix Tournachon, one of the first balloonists. He was affectionately known by the nickname, Nadar. ‘His gusts of energy and flames of hair seemed enough to lift a balloon into the air by themselves.’ he says of the eccentric.

Interestingly, he was also interested in photography and gained a reputation as a very skilled maker of  photographic portraits. But Barnes informs us that Nadar brought these two disparate interests together.

He was the first person to take his camera into the balloon, build a dark room in its basket, prepare the plates whilst the balloon was in the sky and take a photograph of the earth from the air. No one had ever thought of it before!

It’s common place for us. We take our i-phones everywhere and photograph everything and anything, the mundane as well as the unexpected, the boring details of our eating and drinking and the fantastic sights we see on our travels.

But Nadar was the first – and initially he had little success. He persevered and managed to reproduce a faint image – two pigeons on  a farm roof, a stationary cart,  a man looking up at the balloon!

No one else had ever been able to capture a view of the earth from this perspective. Barnes sees in it a coming together of two things – truth as in the photographic picture and magic as in the adventure of ballooning high above the earth. For him ‘Love is the meeting point of truth and magic.’  

Minister’s Blog

14 February 2019

Recently, I was on holiday for the weekend and found myself browsing in a delightful bookshop in the Borders. I hadn’t intended to buy anything but I couldn’t resist what was described as a book of ‘Scottish poems for growing older’.

It was edited by Lizzie McGregor and had a forward by Sally Magnusson. For the rest of the day, Mary-Catherine’s peace was regularly interrupted with quotations from this rich and illuminating text. One was simply called, ‘Watching the Telly with You’.

It surprised me that what Roald Dahl and the Oompah Loompahs considered to be a means of rotting the brain, should confirm the value of a companionship enriched by the years and the pleasure of simply  being together. It was written by Diana Hendry.

We could go to Paris of course

but not so often. And it might not be quite

as cosy as the sofa, the fire, our slippers,

the zapper. Sometimes mid-morning

I think about it, hankering a little like

the lovelorn do, for that evening lull,

front door locked, feet up, snugged up,

loved up and watching the telly with you.

Happy Valentine’s Day!

Minister’s Blog

13 February 2019

In his essay on King James 1, Thomas Cogswell emphasises the king’s theological prowess and his enjoyment of theological debate. As King of Scotland, he listened to two sermons every Sunday and was well able to understand, criticise and interrupt!

At the Union of the Crowns, the king moved south and befriended the bishops. He debated with them and sometimes sent for them to comfort him in some personal agony. Preferment was bestowed by the king on good preachers.

Sometimes he would meet with preachers prior to the delivery of their sermon to discuss what they were going to say. He had a phrase for this activity. It was called ‘tuning the pulpit’. Whilst preachers may not be happy about this kind of  interference, it is a happy image.

For it looks at the pulpit and the preacher within as a musical instrument. Like all musical instruments, sometimes it needs tuning. Some tune the pulpit through study and prayer and much reflection on the pastoral care of the people within their charge.

The Lutherans regularly tune their pulpits with a crucifix hung on a pillar opposite the preacher lest he forget his purpose. But whether it’s tuned by study, prayer, a king’s  theological mind or a crucifix, it should always be tuned for love and the love song which has its origin in God.

Minister’s Blog

12 February 2019

At J-Team the children were thinking about worry. In discussion, they worried about the dark, the future, being alone and so on. This led into an animation about Jesus and his teaching about worry. Before that, the children made four paper dolls holding hands.

It’s an old paper craft which was almost second nature to us at Primary School – fold the paper in half, fold each side into the centre, fold into a quarter, draw a picture of a person and cut it out! Not so easy for them!

On each of the four people, they had to draw a different expression – happy, sad, surprised and worried. Never was such a simple activity enjoyed so much! The facial expressions and the colour schemes are all different. The figures are all unique.

Sometimes we are wont to think that children do not worry or should not worry or  have no reason to worry. The truth is that we all worry. It’s a natural emotion. Having said that, we need to learn strategies to cope with it.

Jesus provides that. Just look at the birds and the flowers. They don’t worry about food or clothing and yet God provides all that they need. The splendour of the king could never match them! If God cares for them, will he not care for us too? Simple, really?

Minister’s Blog

11  February 2019

When my dad died in 2010, he had been in a Nursing Home for eleven months. His personal effects had diminished enormously. What remained from the family home was stored in our attic waiting for my brother to decide what he wanted.

He died before a decision was made and I have had little reason to consider what was left of his life and our family home. Recently, I began to sort it all out. It was a fascinating experience reliving my childhood.

There is an old tape recorder with a box of spools. I am singing treble in one of them. Three violins which my dad played all his life enlivening many a kirk soiree and Gaelic Choir ceilidh with his generous fiddle music.

And what’s this? A bag of cutlery and table linen – beautifully embroidered napkins and bone-handled knives and forks. The cutlery for fish are very distinctive and the old spoon which was used in the sugar bowl now looks like a miniature shovel.

An inconspicuous cardboard box yields an unexpected secret. The contents belonged to my mother. One who had a habit of giving her possessions away has carefully preserved a boxful of clothes.

Two white dresses – the one for her engagement and the other for her wedding day. There is a silver handbag and matching shoes, a veil carefully wrapped up in tissue paper and a silver cardboard horseshoe wrapped in a sachet of moth powder.

Her wedding day was clearly a very important event in her life for memories have been lovingly treasured in this box of clothes. She always used to say to us, ‘You were born in love’. What better gift can we give a child than this thoughtful affirmation of love?

Minister’s Blog

10  February 2019

In Isaiah, we see that  the God of Israel has entered our humanity and likened his love for his own people as a love of Bridegroom for Bride. ‘As the bridegroom rejoices over the bride, so shall your God rejoice over you.’

The bride is described as ‘a crown of beauty in the hand of the Lord’ – something  rare and beautiful, something to be treasured and admired, something which adds sparkle to life and living and the world around.

God gives his bride a new name. ‘You shall be called, ‘My Delight is in Her’’.  What a fancy name but this is how God looks upon his bride and understands her whole being. She is delightful. Despite her wayward ways, she is a delight to him.

This is love’s power. It does not focus on human frailty and characteristic foibles, it loves for no other reason than love’s sake. He cannot help loving his bride for despite everything that happens, she is and always will be a delight to him.

Minister’s Blog

9  February 2019

So much of our world and our experience is inexplicable. Although we live in a world where science is the predominant intellectual force and commands so much respect, it does not hold the answers to so many important questions.

In a special edition of ‘Scientific American’, I read an article about the spectral gap. This is the amount of energy required to move a material from one state into another e.g. ice into water and so on.

Three mathematicians recently proved that it will never be possible to determine whether all materials have a spectral gap or not. What this implies is that there may be other big scientific questions which will  be proved to be undecidable.

In other words, whilst our scientific understanding of the Universe will continue to grow so will our acknowledgement that certain scientific questions will never ever be answered. And, what’s more, we can prove that we will never discover the answers!

This fascinating result has a bearing on the miracles of Jesus not least the  resurrection! How did this happen? Is it like the spectral gap question? Can it ever be proved? Is it something which one day will be proved to be  undecidable?

Minister’s Blog

8  February 2019

I am very careful with my backdoor key. I keep it my pocket and at night I carefully lay it on the table beside the bed. So it was a surprise to me to lose my key. I searched everywhere and couldn’t find it despite the finitude of space!

I got another and was even more careful about this one. Strangely enough, it vanished too. Whilst there has been no other evidence to suggest that I may be dementing, I thought it very odd that my careful routines had been breached so easily.

I began to think there was a pattern to these losses. It had never happened before – and now it had happened twice. An alternative routine had somehow been developed which had circumvented my awareness. I waited.

When Colin broke his ankle, I visited him in Leeds. Sitting on a comfortable chair in his living-room, I felt my key sliding out of my pocket! A near miss – but it set me thinking. What if this had been happening at home? Perhaps my key had fallen out of my pocket and down the side of the chair.

When I followed up this detective work, not only did I find three backdoor keys but also a pen, a comb and a fifty-pence piece! They had all slipped out of my pocket, fallen down the side of the chair and into the wooden structure which was sealed off with sacking.

Although it took time, I was thrilled. I had found my lost keys. The loss did not imply the onset of dementia. A pattern of loss had been created and made worse by my recent loss of weight and loosely fitting clothes!

Minister’s Blog

7 February 2019

John Burningham died last month. We knew him through his work as a children’s author and illustrator. His work was widely acclaimed and he was awarded many glittering prizes not only here but in many parts of the world.

There was an unattributed obituary in the Herald. I discovered that he had been married to Helen Oxenbury with whom he collaborated. She described her husband as ‘a gargantuan character’ and paid tribute to his skill and insight.

She concluded, ‘I don’t know what I would have done if I hadn’t met John. He’s guided me, influenced me and inspired me my entire life.’ Is there a finer tribute than this? O that we could inspire others and literally fill them with the spirit to enjoy life in all its fullness.

Minister’s Blog

6 February 2019

Last week, a minister called Classic FM with a request. He was phoning from a Nursing Home in the south of England. He had just taken a midwinter service. However, the falling snow prevented him from travelling thirty miles south to take another.

He knew that the residents would be waiting for his arrival. Interestingly,  the service was always prefaced by some music from Classic FM. A member of staff ensured that it was broadcast through the television.

Because he couldn’t get there, the minister thoughtfully told the presenter about the residents waiting in the Nursing Home and asked for a piece of Mozart to be dedicated to them.

And so he remembered them. In his wintry absence, he had connected with them through the music of Classic FM. They were not forgotten but remembered by a nation and that special communion facilitated by minister and people was restored.

Minister’s Blog

5  February 2019

Standing on the metal bridge at 7-30 in the morning, I saw a little dipper dancing on a stone. He was singing. But to whom? I looked up and around at the trees and the dawning sky but saw nothing else.

I walked on but stopped short. I should take a photograph of the little bird. When I went back I could see that the sing song  dipper had been joined by his mate, charmed no doubt by his early morning singing! Now they were dancing together!

And I saw  that autumn’s windfall of apples which had lain on the grass by the Knowes field all through December had now vanished. And there were no red berries on the hawthorn bushes. Jessie struck eight and she was crystal clear.

The hare was running across the frosted field under the fading crescent moon  and there was much crackling at the side of the road as the frosted leaves magnified the sound of birds and other creatures moving in the undergrowth, hidden from view. Magical moments, confirming the value of life and living even in the winter!

Minister’s Blog

4 February 2019

O wert thou in the cauld blast,

On yonder lea, on yonder lea,

My plaidie to the angry airt,

I’d shelter thee, I’d shelter thee;

Or did Misfortune’s bitter storms

Around thee blaw, around thee blaw,

Thy bield should be my bosom,

To share it a’, to share it a’.

Robert Burns has chosen to use some wintry imagery in this love poem. For the cold wintry weather forms the perfect foil to illuminate the warmth of love and the contrast between death and intimations of new life.

And so the poet offers his sweetheart room under his plaidie and a shelter from the wintry storm  not built with  wood and stone but simply his bosom where she may rest her head  through  the worst of winter’s cauld blasts!

His little poem brings these striking images together – the barrenness of winter and the fruitfulness of love, the shelter built with physical materials and the protection which love can afford in a warm embrace.

Minister’s Blog

3 February 2019

Having written the blog and transformed the words onto these irregular polygons, I had to decide how to present this visually in a single piece. A box with thirty-one polygons inside circles would be a bit boring. A straight line would be worse. What about a spiral?

Spirals appear naturally in the world and can be seen in spiral galaxies, weather patterns, shells and staircases. The movement of a snail creates a spiral pattern and the tendrils of plants form spirals too. It is to be found in mathematics and it is always beautiful to look at.

I decided to create my spiral using coloured card stuck onto a black background. The photograph, which is still a work in progress, shows God in the centre of the spiral and the irregular polygons spiralling outwards ever approximating but never reaching the eternal.

Minister’s Blog

2 February 2019

When I was on study leave last October, I was exploring infinity in mathematics and theology, hoping to find some common ground which would lead to a deeper understanding of God. One of my  starting points was the circle.

It has no beginning and no end and so it shapes the wedding ring which celebrates a love which is eternal. One way of looking at the circle is to see it as a polygon with an infinite number of sides.

If you look at a circle and draw a hexagon inside and then a septagon and then an octagon and so on, you can see that the polygon is approximating to the circle more and more. This was what I needed for my ‘Fun a Day Dundee’.

I decided to write my blog inside a polygon with the same number of sides as the day of the month. So for 3 January, I used a triangle. For 4 January, I used a square. For 5 January, I used a pentagon and so on. For 31 January, I used an irregular polygon with 31 sides!

For 1 January, I used a dot and for 2 January, I used a straight line. The dot was in the middle of my first word GOD and the straight line connects ‘Thank’ with ‘you’. In this way, I was able to visualise the blogging for the first two days of the month.

Minister’s Blog

1 February 2019

In January, I decided to write my daily blog in a different way. I began in a minimalist fashion by using one word for the first day of January increasing this to two words for the second and so on until I had written thirty-one words for the last day of the month.

I did this because I was persuaded to participate in a community arts project called ‘Fun a Day Dundee’.  It encourages people to do something creative every day in January and gives them a chance to exhibit their work once the month is over.

The challenge was not simply to come up with an idea but to transform the idea into something artistic which would have a visual impact on the viewer. As one who was creating in words this was a bigger challenge than writing a smaller blog every day!

Minister’s Blog

31 January 2019

Ending  is  beginning by another name for in conclusion there is the potential for  change like the ugly chrysalis and the beautiful butterfly and old Simeon standing at  February’s  door departing in peace.