Wednesday, 24 December 2008

Merry Christmas Everyone

It's Christmas Eve in the manse. That usually means frantic activity, but this week has actually been quite calm and composed. I still have one sermon to write (Sunday comes along in a few days!), and some presents to wrap, but that apart, the preparation is done. All that remains is to conduct the services that are to come.

There have been lots of highlights already in Christmas events:
  • I was invited to the School nativity plays, one done by primary 2 children and the other by the Nursery; both were brilliantly done, both told the story and both had songs in them that also told us what the story meant and who Jesus was and is; they were made for me by the King in the nursery event who left wearing his crown upside down, the innkeepeer turning his lamp upside down to see how it worked and Mary and Joseph putting the presents in the manger, suffocating Jesus under the weight of the gold!!!
  • The Primary School Service was held in the Church last Friday - it was packed; there were no seats left with the number of parents and others who came to join us.
  • Our Kids Church and Youth Group Nativity play on Sunday - "We were young once" was fantastic; we have a small number of children around on Sundays, but they were brilliant in all that they did. Equally brilliant was the fact that we had so many families in Church with young children; we even had two 2-year old boys running up and down the aisle during the service. That hasn't happened for a while; are we seeing a new generation of families coming to be part of our Church? We really hope so!
  • Finally, on Sunday evening we had a very different event, our lessons and carols service. The Choir had 5 pieces to sing for us, as well as the usual list of readings and an odd sketch that lifted the lid on Christmas in a different way. The Choir sang beautifully; the power and harmony of their singing was a joy to hear, even for my untrained ear.

In the few weeks before Christmas, I sit down with my calendar and plan out all of the services, which carols we will sing, which readings we will have, so that there is some kind of balance across the whole season. I try to find themes for these services that will all reflect the nature of the event as well as something insightful to say. Jim Philip, once minister of Holyrood Abbey Church in the city used to say that it was much more important to find something true to say rather than to find something new; of course, he is absolutely right. Mind you, I love trying to find ways that are both new and true!

This morning, we were trying to imagine what it would be like for someone to hear these stories and readings for the first time, but we couldn't do it; these things have been so much part of our lives since we were young. Nonetheless, it is my prayer that there will be people hearing these things for the first time and that as they hear these stories, the God of whom the stories speak will be at work in their hearts and minds to persuade them of something true about Jesus.

The eternal God who stands at the beginning of history, who stands at the root of the universe, once came into our world to save us. Jesus came into our world to be the light of the world, to give us life in all its fullnes, to take away our sins and bring us to God. At Christmas we celebrate the coming of Jesus into the world. Don't lose sight of that truth today.

Hark! the herald angels sing,
‘Glory to the new-born King,
Peace on earth, and mercy mild,
God and sinners reconciled!’
Joyful, all ye nations, rise,
Join the triumph of the skies,
With the angelic host proclaim,
‘Christ is born in Bethlehem’.
Hark! the herald angels sing,
‘Glory to the new-born King.’

Friday, 12 December 2008

Watch your tongue!

It's a stupid thing to say! Watch your tongue? You need to be a contortionist or look in the mirror to watch your tongue! Bite your tongue? Ouch!

I was at Currie High School on Monday evening. We had tickets for Back to the Eighties, this year's school Christmas show. The story line wasn't the most complicated plot ever to be devised, but more of an excuse to join up as many Eighties' songs as you could fit into 2 hours and a bit. It was performed with great enthusiasm and gusto. More than 50 pupils, ably aided and abetted by a few teachers, performed the show, ran the sound and lighting, sold the programmes and so on.

Thursday and Friday saw me visit the Primary School and the School Nursery for Nativity Plays. The Primary 2 classes performed Born in the Barn with a wonderful enthusiasm and sense of fun and the Nursery were just themselves, charming the socks off their parents. One of the kings left with his crown upside down; the innkeeper was trying to take the lantern to bits to see how it worked; and Mary and Joseph put the presents from the wise men into the manger and crushed the Baby!

All credit to two groups of people who are much-maligned at times - young people and school teachers. We write off our young people so easily, effectively tarring everyone with the brush of bad publicity that comes from the small minority of young people whose stories hit the news headlines for all the wrong reasons. We criticise our school teachers for producing the same young people! Yet, every time I visit school, which is always for an hour at the most, I'm glad that I can leave after an hour. I could not do their job and I have enormous respect for those who do what I know I could not do.

There is a prayer that comes from Native American culture that goes something like this: "Do not criticise your brother till you have walked a mile in his moccasins." It is easy to have a view or an opinion about all kinds of things without really knowing what we're talking about and once it has been said, it cannot be unsaid. Little wonder James describes the tongue as "a fire" and "a restless evil." No wonder we were advised to watch it or bite it!

A dying man invited his friend to come to visit him. He knew that he was dying, but he had something that he needed to say. When his friend came to the house, he gave him a feather pillow and asked him to empty it all over the floor. His friend thought this a very strange request, but to honour the dying man's wish he complied. Once the feathers were all over the floor, his friend said "now pick up all these feathers for me!" His friend said "That's not possible; I can't pick them all up; there are too many and they are well-scattered." The man said "But that's what you did to me; you criticised me needlessly to my friends when you spoke things about me that were not true; you took away my good name and reputation and once you did that it could not be given back to me."

Christians are supposed to be caring people, but I am constantly amazed at the thoughtless and hurtful things that Christians will say to one another and to other people. It can never be unsaid; once it is out, it out for good. You may have an opinion, but think carefully before you express it and to whom you express it. You may criticise if you are so moved, but before you criticise someone, walk a mile in their moccasins; look at life from where they sit.

Watch your tongue and bite it - you can't do them both at the same time, can you?

Friday, 28 November 2008

Just People

Just People - that's the title of a course that has been co-produced by Tearfund and a group called Livability , a Christian social care group based in England. Together they have produced this course to help Churches discover what their community needs and how to go about meeting these needs. It might be something we will have a closer look at in 2009.

I love the title because it can be taken in 2 ways. First of all, it can be taken to mean the kind of people that we are, that we are just people. It comes from a key verse in the Old Testament book of the prophet Micah: the prophet sees the people being very good at worship, thousands of services are being held in their 'Church' every year and lots of sacrifices and offerings are being made; but something is still not quite right. He tells the people that there are three qualities that God wants to see in His people: "To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God." (Micah 6:8)

If the Six O'Clock News or The Scotsman are to be believed we are all very concerned about our savings, our pensions and how much difference a reduction of 2½% in VAT will make to our lives. Did you know that 10 days ago we 'celebrated' World Toilet Day? No, it wasn't an excuse to spend the day on the toilet and stay at home from work, though judging by the bugs going around some of you may have done just that. No, this was a day created to raise awareness across the world that some 2.5 billion people don't have a proper toilet. For some, that means they are more prone to disease and some 5000 people a day die because of water-borne diseases; for others, especially women, they have to use places that expose them to great danger. For Christians to act justly is to be concerned for people like these, not to neglect our own financial perils, but to put them into some kind of world-wide context.

There are people nearer to home who are treated unfairly, who are victims of discrimination, who are abused and oppressed. Do we give any impression of being concerned for these people or do we leave it simply to 'political types' to get involved in STOPTHETRAFFIK campaigns and the like?

The second way of reading 'Just People' is that this is just about people. I wonder how much paper is produced by our congregation that is designed to keep the structures of Church alive. I know that we need structures and committees; we can't do without them. I know we have traditions and ways of doing things that go back a long while, but in the end the Church is people and is about people loving God and loving one another.

We have had, in Church over the last few weeks, a few young families, people who are new to the community and who have come to our Church for the first time. How well are our Church services geared for them? Do we expect a young mother to hold her child and a hymn-book at the same time, or do we simply expect that she takes the child to creche? What happens if the child won;'t settle on his own with strangers? Do we simply expect a young mum to sit in the creche with her son till the end of the service and hear very little of it? Or do we think seriously about extending the sound system into the creche room and projecting hymn words on the screens so that she can hold her child and sing at the same time? On the other hand, do we expect an elderly person who has poor eyesight simply to see something on the screen a long way off? Church is about people of all kinds and all stages and making life easier for all of these will mean different things; there is no one way that will answer this question for everyone.

If we are a Church that is centred on Christ and on people then, our concern must never be 'it's always been done that way' at all costs. Our concern must be 'how can we help all of the people to love God and walk humbly with God?

Just people - there are two huge challenges in these 2 simple words. The first is about the kind of person I am and the second is in the kind of Church we are. What does it mean for you to be a just person? How can we be a Church that focuses on helping people love God?

Answers on a postcard please...

Friday, 14 November 2008

All about Children

It's Children in Need day. I'm sure lots of people think that, in a civilised and sophisticated society like ours the need for a charity fundraising event for children should be a thing of the past. Then we read about Baby P, in Haringey, a 17 month old child who died after the most horrific abuse by those who were supposed to be looking after him. Then we read the court account of the ordeal of Shannon Matthews went missing in February as a ruse by her mother to make money; the 9-year old was found hidden in the base of the bed and by all accounts spent the time chained up.

Imagine a child...
􀂄 who knows and cares that Jesus is present with him/her and will never forsake him/her – even when the pain of life never fully goes away
􀂄 who finds that hope and the kingdom of God are not mere concepts but acts of love by those who gather her into a place of protection away from fear, war, exploitation and abuse
􀂄 with special educational needs who encounters Jesus’ unconditional love and responds with smiles and noises of joy - and becomes a worship-leader in a church
􀂄 who in spite of being mutilated by culture, religion or neglect realises that she, a girl child, has been created in the image of God – and gains hope
􀂄 who shunned by school and community because of HIV/AIDS finds Jesus’ love through the pastor walking him safely to school each day
􀂄 who has something of the Scriptures in a format that will assist her to encounter Jesus
􀂄 who although half-naked and very hungry, sleeps peacefully and safely in the shelter provided by the church
􀂄 whose regular prayer partners include adults and together they share their concerns
􀂄 who finds that Jesus can help him/her understand the difference between sinning and being sinned against, and that both of these are wrapped with healing grace and constant love
􀂄 who finds a home with God’s people: a place where (s)he wants to be and a people (s)he trusts
􀂄 who is sharing this relationship with Jesus with his/her peers and family
􀂄 whose parents are the first to introduce Jesus to her and accompany her on a journey of discovering Jesus
􀂄 who experiences with the Church what it means to know Jesus and have life in all its fullness.

These words come from a paper produced in 2004 by the Lausanne Committee for World Evangelization. I find them an enormous challenge, but I want to say a huge 'Amen' to all of these aspirations. Here are three more sets of hopes and aspirations:

Imagine a church that …
􀂄 commits the necessary resources to reach children, 30 percent of the world’s population
􀂄 builds a ‘good news’ relationship with every child in their community
􀂄 believes that, like the biblical child Samuel, children can have a voice in their congregation
􀂄 allows children to be in the midst of its teaching, worship, evangelism and discipleship.

Imagine a world where children are …
􀂄 able to be safe, be cared for and live in hope
􀂄 given many opportunities to know and respond to the love of Jesus Christ
􀂄 encouraged to bring hope, healing, comfort and Jesus to one another
􀂄 able to be discipled no matter how diverse their family or faith background.

Imagine families that …
􀂄 move beyond healthy nurture into their God-ordained role as spiritual caregivers
􀂄 are empowered to be the models of Christian values in their communities
􀂄 are equipped to create spiritual traditions in the home.

The Bible and Christian tradition gives children a value; they are part of the kingdom of God, they are to be loved and cared for. However, that same bible and tradition has taught that they are not always to be pandered to and allowed to rule the lives of adults every moment of every day, but we also need to have our children grow up with a respect for others, for other children and for the adults who also inhabit their world.

As in so many things, there is a balance to be found; this week's stories show what happens when the balance tilts in the wrong direction.

Friday, 31 October 2008

Confront your prejudices

On Tuesday, I spent 2 hours at Heriot-Watt University, and on Friday, another hour and a half. The University is looking for a new chaplain and as part of the Chaplaincy Council, I have a place in the group given the task of considering the applications and then, later, conducting the interviews. A lot of people applied for the job! It took a while to sift through these applications. I came to that task, as anyone would, with a notion of what I think the chaplain should look like, but there were all sorts of applications that challenged these preconceived ideas and made me question whether these preconceived ideas were more than that. Was I prejudiced in favour of certain kinds of people or against others? I can't tell you what these were in detail because the process is still on going, but suffice so say there were questions about gender, nationality, and religious affiliation.

Then along came the debate about Jonathon Ross and Russell Brand. Now, I admit a prejudice - I find it very hard to be in the presence of arrogant people! They make me feel as if I'm small and don't count and I find that hard to take. I have been 'in conversation' with people who are looking round the room to see who else they can talk to; who might be more important for them to speak to and their eyes are not on me, but their attention is elsewhere. To me that smacks of arrogance. I might be well out of order, but Ross and Brand strike me as being arrogant men, who think that they are untouchable and who, for that moment at least, thought they could get away with the most outrageous abuse of a young woman. Part of me smiles, because they have been humbled!

Prejudices are attitudes that make us treat certain kinds of people differently just because they are a certain kind of person. Women have been on the receiving end of so much prejudice and we like to think that it has gone, but has it really? There are still places where women are treated as second-class citizens. There are still people who subscribe to the 'children should be seen and not heard' school of thought; there are people who say that 'we want children to be part of Church, but we don't want the disruption they bring with them!'

At the Kirk Session conference at the beginning of October, we discussed the 7 marks of the healthy Church, as described by Robert Warren. One of these marks is 'makes room for all', an inclusive Church. One group of elders, discussing this, made a very perceptive comment: 'although we are good at welcoming people, we need to learn how to accept people who are different.'

Prejudices are shaped by all kinds of forces: by our upbringing, by our circumstances and so on. Yet, every person you will ever meet, no matter who that person is, no matter what that person is, has been created by God, equally and without distinction, having the same dignity, in the same image of God. The Bible challenges us to treat every person that we meet in exactly the same way, with the same love and acceptance. (James 2:1-13)

A man sat under a tree. His name was Nathaniel. He said to Philip: "Nazareth! Can anything good come from Nazareth?" Some people say the same today about the Church of Scotland, or about people aged 12-16, or about old people, or about Glasgow!

What are your prejudices? How will you change?

Friday, 24 October 2008

The road to Corrie Fee

We went to visit that well-known Scotsman, Angus Glen! Well, Glendoll, actually! We were on holiday in Kirriemuir for a few days last week and on Tuesday decided to go exploring! There is a car park at the end of the road; you have to pay £1.50 to help pay for its upkeep. It was a sunny day, if breezy and bitterly cold in the wind. There are 5 tracks to walk from the Glendoll car park and we chose the green track - it leads to the Corrie Fee Nature reserve and 'breathtaking views' of the Corrie.

The road was a forest track. Almost all of the time, we were walking through the forest. (How many trees have been planted in Scotland in the last 50 years - answers on a postcard please!) It was quite gentle to begin with and gradually got steeper. Then we had another choice: the blue route had been the same as the green route, till about two-thirds of the way up, then it went off to the right and along the side of the river. We decided to stick with the green route and keep going up. Then the road became a narrow path through the trees, still climbing up into the hills; was there no end to these trees?

Finally, we came to the fence; there was a gate and a stile; on the other side of the fence, no more trees and we could see Corrie Fee. It is indeed a breathtaking view. It would have been even more breathtaking if the sun had shone constantly and not been clouded over, but you can't have it all ways in Scotland in October! We sat for a while and admired the view; we took some photographs to celebrate our achievement. (OK, it is not Everest, but you don't have to climb Everest to be an achiever!)

Then we turned to come back down the hill. All of a sudden walking became easy. We could stride out confidently and strongly because now we were going downhill; what had seemed to take hours (it didn't really; it just seemed that way) on the way up, took a matter of minutes on the way down. Perhaps it was the thought of a Forfar bridie for lunch at the bottom that spurred us on. We enjoyed our walk on Tuesday; it was cold, but we left Glendoll with a sense of achievement and a need for a hot cup of coffee at the Glen Clova Hotel.

Why am I telling you this story? Our perspective on life changes with our circumstances, but God surrounds us everywhere. Go to read Psalm 139, especially verses 7-12. Michael Wilcock in his book gives this section of the psalm the title How God surrounds me. The answer? Everywhere! No matter our circumstances, no matter our perspective on life, God is with us.

Happy climbing!

Friday, 17 October 2008

Reference Points

A small coffee table sat just inside the door. There is a flower arrangement on the table, yellow, red, blue flowers. Around the flowers sat 4 police helmets and a white police hat; on the floor, 3 more helmets. This is the picture that sticks in my mind from Kevin's funeral yesterday, a 45-year old policeman who died in a car accident last week. The helmets belonged to the policemen who carried his coffin.

These are the hardest events of all in which to be a minister. There are no words to say that can change the circumstances for his family, or his friends. Their sadness was tangible. The Superintendent who paid tribute to Kevin was in tears as he spoke.

The notion that seemed to me helpful and useful for the occasion was that of 'reference points'. We need to have some fixed points on our horizon that enable us to deal with situations like these; points of faith or understanding that don't change, but that help us put our situations into a bigger perspective. There were two reference points for me yesterday: the first is that Jesus died and rose again, a young man who died before His time in some people's eyes, but in His own eyes the time was just right. His death and resurrection throws a different light onto our notion of death. The second reference point was the endless love of God for us, a love that never ends and from which nothing can separate us; just in case that sounds trite and easy, we also remembered that this love was tested in the white heat of the cross!

There are other reference points:
  • when thinking about Church, the key reference point for me is that Church has to be for everyone, accessible for everyone, of all ages and stages in our community.
  • the credit crunch and all this talk about money that we've lost as share prices have crashed has to be seen in the light of the strong things that Jesus said about money and its hold over us.
  • some of us work long hours and inevitably other parts of life are affected by that; family, church, leisure - it is important to have some kind of reference point that makes us consider, over and over again, where our priorities lie and what is ultimately important.
Every map has a North point on it somewhere. You may not be heading north; you may be heading in a totally different direction, but North is (almost) always at the top. You may, of course, be one of these people who needs to turn the map around so that the map is facing in the same direction as you are heading. Nonetheless, the North point is always there and everything else takes its direction from it. A reference point is like the North point on a map. You don't always refer to it, but everything else is measured by it.

We may not talk about our reference points very much, but our whole life is measured from them. Our whole life is shaped by our own personal reference points: our faith, our family, our job, our attitudes - they are all in there somewhere; these are the points by which we have to measure all that we are and do.

By the way, the two reference points from yesterday - that Jesus died and rose again and the endless love of God - are for every life at every stage on the journey.

Friday, 3 October 2008

Trams, Trams, Trams

I'm really glad that I wasn't in Princes St on Wednesday! I'm even more grateful that I was not on a bus trying to get somewhere on the other side of Princes St. By all accounts, it was mayhem, chaos, gridlock! The question I keep hearing people ask is this: will it be worth it? Will the trams be worth all the chaos that we're having to endure?

Then yesterday, something else new was announced: all children aged 5-7 will be given free school meals. This is the latest initiative of the Scottish Government to try to improve the health of the Scottish people. It all sounds grand and I'm not getting involved in party politics here, but it was also said that there will be no new money to meet this initiative, but councils will have to implement it out of their existing money.

Today, I read the first newsletter from the Church of Scotland's Church and Society Council. They want to hear the views of people like you and me on 4 issues that will be debated at the 2009 General Assembly. I have a problem - the questions! On Alcohol, drugs and addiction the first question is this "Should people in Scotland drink less?" and the second one is no better "Should alcohol cost more?" There are simple answers to these questions and it would be easy to answer them in that way; they are open to a straightforward 'yes' or 'no' - end of story!

There is a section entitled Ethics of Defence and the second question there is "Are we justified in spending the equivalent of building and running 1000 schools for the next 20 years on Trident nuclear weapons, which will probably never be used?" That question has the expected answer written all the way through it! That's not my point, though!

My point is this: it is easy to make pronouncement and even decisions without have thought the consequences through. It is easy to say 'every child should have a free meal at school' and very few people will quibble with that; most people see the value in giving children good, nutritious food; most people will not disagree with getting something for nothing! But someone has to pay for it; education budgets across the country are cash-strapped at present; young teachers are finding it hard to get jobs because Councils have no money to employ them and this will surely only make matters worse. Free school meals makes a good political headline, but what will the reality be?

The Trams make a good headline and look attractive in the video that I've seen several times on television. They seem a good way of getting quickly from one side of the city to another when they are up and running. However, did we expect the degree of disruption that the work is causing? Were we warned? Will it be worth it?

It is easy for people to tell me 'The Church should be doing...' and run off a long list of new initiatives that Juniper Green Church should be pursuing; the list of new initiatives is presented as being the way forward and without these, the Church will not be here in the future. It's so easy to make these grand pronouncements but implementing them can be a whole different matter. Time, energy, people are all required for new things; the willingness to change is a big ask for some people because they just don't like it.

What new thing would you like us to do? What will it cost in money, time, energy, people? Then tell me!
Don't stop generating new ideas! Then we really are dead! But consider this - will you be prepared to be the answer to your own prayers?

Friday, 26 September 2008

Kingdom people!

I've just spent the afternoon with 25 very noisy children. They are full of energy, full of fun, but sometimes they go just a bit too far, as children are wont to do. It was a Rock Solid afternoon. We played football; we tried to play Chinese whispers; we got them to draw a self-portrait; we are teaching them about prayer. The focus of the afternoon was a DVD story about David and how he was chosen to be king, that God looked at his heart rather than the outside. (You can read the story for yourself in 1 Samuel 16; it is a fascinating story!) We talked about being special in God's eyes and that it is important to be the right kind of people on the inside.

Some of these children come to our Church on a Sunday as well. Some go to other Churches in the city. Some don't go to any Church at all. Very few people have started coming to our Church as a result of Rock Solid. So what are we achieving?

At the very least, we are giving these children a positive memory of Church. That might seem to be a very low aim, but in today's Scotland, that in itself is important. So many people have a very low opinion of the Church, a poor view, that to give a new generation of Scots a positive memory of Church is a good thing.

We are also introducing the children to people of faith. We have told them stories of Jesus in the past and this term it is the story of David and his faith that they are hearing. For some of them, this is the only place where that will happen. They also rub up against people of faith when they meet us; something of who and what we are will inevitably rub off on them, though how that works is impossible to analyse.

Rock Solid is exciting for all kinds of reasons. It is good fun (most of the time) to have these energetic, enthusiastic children around. God is at work in the lives of these children in ways that we cannot yet see and can only begin to imagine. It is a new kind of Church for children, allowing them to discover for themselves something of God in a different kind of setting.

Here's the crunch though and this is the huge challenge for us, of which Rock Solid is but one example. Are we people whose values are centred on Church and its success or are we people who see kingdom values? As Church people, we will measure success by the number of people who come to our church as a result of our activities; as kingdom people, we will rejoice that God is at work and His grace is touching people's lives.

Howard Snyder is an American theologian working in Canada; he wrote this in 1983: "Kingdom people seek first the Kingdom of God and its justice; church people often put church work above concerns of justice, mercy and truth. Church people think about how to get people into the church; Kingdom people think about how to get the church into the world. Church people worry that the world might change the church; Kingdom people work to see the Church change the world."

Are you a church person or a kingdom person? I want to be a kingdom person and am getting there, but it is very hard to shake off the church person in me! And I wish I had the energy of the children...!

Friday, 19 September 2008

Where's the good news?

I've been longing for some good news this week. My laptop crashed on Sunday afternoon and refused to start up again - had to go and buy a new one! The village shop announced that it will close after the papers are sold on Sunday afternoon - I will have to walk further for my paper in the morning, or worse take the car to Colinton!! There is a rat in our garden and the family of, what we thought were mice, now appear to be baby rats! Then, there's HBOS & there would have been a time when that just passed my by since I'm not a shareholder; my money's there, but safe; but now I have a family member whose job is on a shaky nail! And so it goes on...

What have you had to deal with this week? Come back and tell me that some of these concerns are trivial (I will insist that you exclude Sara's job from that; that's far from a trivial thing for anyone!) because you are facing bigger issues: someone has died, someone is in hospital, someone is in need; someone has moved into care; someone has other needs. I will agree with you.

My point is this: how do we deal with bad news? Have you noticed that it is like Lothian Buses at the moment; bad news never comes alone; there always seems to be 3 or 4 of them at a time. There are several reactions:
  • we can pretend it hasn't happened and avoid talking about it - that's never a very good strategy; it didn't seem to do the ostrich very much good to sink its head in the sand;
  • we can blame God for it all, as if it is all His fault - there is a Gary Larson cartoon from the Far Side books that shows God's finger over the smite button as a man walks under the piano; I find it funny because I don't believe God is like that.
  • we can become depressed and angry as if we are being singled out for bad treatment from the 'source of all bad news' whatever that may be, taking it all personally; that is an understandable reaction when there are 3 or 4 bits at a time; we can deal with these things much more easily if there were only 1 of them.
Sometimes, however, the deep theological perspective on life is that 'life stinks'. God is not to blame; we are not the target, but life just stinks. We can become angry about it; not a bad thing at times just to vent your anger and let off steam as long as you don't become violent.

I was at a meeting in the Church Offices this morning and the convenor of the group read from the prologue to John's gospel in the version called The Message. It says there, of Jesus, that "the Word became flesh and blood and moved into the neighbourhood." (John 1:14) OK, it is a bit American, but I think that brings something to this debate. When Jesus came, God moved into my neighbourhood! If that means anything, it means this: God knows the bad news as well as the good; God knows our frustrations and anger and understands our feelings and sympathises with us; God understands when we vent that anger at Him and doesn't condemn us for it; God knows our fears and anxieties and offers us grace to help us.

Good news: there were visitors in Church last Sunday who thought the experience was great; someone offered to change their diary to accommodate a meeting I was trying to organise!!

Friday, 12 September 2008

Being comfortable!

On Tuesday evening I was in Greenside Church. I was there for a meeting of Edinburgh Presbytery because Andrew Anderson, the most gracious minister of Greenside is Moderator of Presbytery for this year. The building is on Royal Terrace and the congregation is based in and around the top of Leith Walk and the Calton Hill area of town. Andrew told us a little of Greenside's past, especially its connection with the Stevenson family who built lighthouses and Robert Louis who wrote books.

The building is different from ours in a host of ways: the pews are laid out differently, the gallery is probably bigger, the halls are downstairs. The way they do things is different: part of the meeting was a communion service and it was done differently from the way we celebrate communion in Juniper Green. Andrew's style of ministry, whilst holding to many of the principles I hold dear, is different from mine.

Do you go to Church when you're on holiday? You should, because it does you good. Variety is the spice of life, after all.

Visiting other Churches can do one of two things: either, it will convince you that the way your own church does things is far better than anything you see anywhere else, or you will leave thinking 'why can we not do that too?' There are dangers in both attitudes: if we are convinced that we are the best, there is a huge risk of becoming complacent, thinking that we have nothing to learn from anyone, and that we have no room for improvement! Simply not true! On the other hand, there is an equally huge risk that we become dissatisfied and disillusioned with our Church because we are not doing things in the way we see other churches do them.

We can be like that as individuals as well. The whole advertising industry is built around making us feel dissatisfied with the way we look or the things we possess. Being dissatisfied, we want to look like the model and the clothes she wears, or we want to have the newest car or latest gadget to keep up to date.

A few years ago, I developed the phrase with one of our students on a training placement: 'be comfortable in your own skin'. In other words, be yourself, but be the best that you can be. Ministry students don't come to Juniper Green to be made into clones of Jim Dewar, but to learn to be the best they can be for themselves. Every Church has its own unique history that has shaped it into the church it now is; every church has its own unique community to serve, its unique opportunities and challenges. Every one of us is unique, with a unique experience of life and faith, with our own skills and abilities, with our individual phobias and anxieties.

We cannot wish that our Church were like the other church we have just visited; we cannot go through life wishing that we were George Clooney or Gwynneth Paltrow. We have to learn from other churches and other people, taking some of the best from other places and people and learning from them, but not then going through life permanently disillusioned with Church or permanently dissatisfied with yourself.

What we can do is make sure that our Church is the best that we can be, in our place, meeting our challenges in the best way, and most of all in the way that God wants. We can make sure that we are the best people that we can be, not longing to be someone else, but the best 'me' I can be as a disciple of Jesus Christ.

That's enough to be going on with!

Friday, 29 August 2008

The Glue that holds us together

My study leave has been fascinating; I have read so much that has stimulated my mind but I will not give it to you all at once! I have been working in the quiet studious atmosphere of the National Library of Scotland on George IV Bridge, a bit of a retreat into an ivory tower for two weeks. The 'glue-question' was prompted by something I read.

What is the glue that holds us together? 'Mothers' was the immediate answer that Jean gave me and I suppose for many families that is true! Mothers, so often, are the hub through whom the family news travels; mothers keep in contact when families are spread much more than anyone else.

We could ask that question about the community we live in: what holds our community together? A hundred years ago the glue holding the village of Juniper Green together would be the fact that everybody knew everybody else. Last year, the village came together around the JG300 celebrations. Is there any kind of glue holding the community together in Baberton Mains? Not living there, I'm not aware of anything, other than the little pockets of friendships and relationships between neighbours.

What about society in general? A hundred years ago, British society was held together by a common Christian story. Most people knew the Bible's story. There was a Christian heritage that the nation held as important and most people shared, even if they didn't profess a faith of their own. This heritage gave a set of values and standards that was almost universally accepted as good and as the basis and foundation of British society.

We now live in a pluralist society. That simply means that there is now a number of sets of values and standards, not just one. Different groups of people hold by different values. We can no longer argue that one set is right and wrong because we are told that 'what is good for you is not good for me'. As a result there is no glue holding society together and my fear for the future of Britain is that society continues to disintegrate in a welter of confusion, violence and fear.

What about Church? What is the glue that holds us together? We might see ourselves as a random collection of individuals who happen to believe similar things and who happen to live in the same place and so happen to worship together once a week, on a Sunday. That's not a very strong glue!

On the other hand, we could be a group of people who have a real sense of shared purpose. We could be a group of people who really do have a sense of shared faith, that we do believe the same things. We could be a people whose passion is to share our faith with others, to see other people come to believe these things too. I believe that the best thing the Church can do for the nation is make sure that our glue works.

What do we need to do to make that happen in a stronger and stronger way?

Thursday, 7 August 2008

The Post-Office-less community

The village Post Office is closed. It all happened last week. Juniper Green Post Office was open one day and the next there was a sign on the counter telling us that it was closed and we should go to Currie! Will the shop be next? Apparently it will close in 4 weeks time. There are plans afoot for the site. Where will I go for my morning paper when the shop closes? Will someone other bright entrepreneur begin to sell newspapers?

For me, this is not so much of a problem. I can climb into my car and go to Currie Post Office or Colinton or Wester Hailes. I can walk to Currie or Colinton for my paper (I might be exhausted at the end, but some might argue it would do me good!) but there are people in Juniper Green and Baberton who depend on the community having a Post Office and a shop nearby. They don't have a car; they can't get on the bus; they can make it to Juniper Green but they could not get to the more distant places!

I read somewhere that there are 2,500 Post Offices earmarked for closure (I assume that that is a UK-wide figure) and that in the last year some 1,400 pubs have also closed, largely due to the smoking ban. Many of these post offices and pubs would be in small communities, places where it is hard to make these enterprises succeed. What impact do these closures have om community life? There is something true about not knowing what you've got till its gone! Take away the Post Office and the pub as community meeting places and something is lost from the heart of the community. How many people are out and about in Juniper Green simply because they visit the Post Office and the shop (and the pub)? There are people whose only conversation is with someone they meet on the way to the shop for their paper; for people like that the danger is that they become more and more isolated at home.

What does Church do about this? We could complain about the loss of the Post Office but from what I understand that would be fruitless. There is another challenge here for Church - how do we make sure that Church is a meeting place for people in the community? The article I read about Post Offices and Pubs then lambasted the Church of Scotland for taking churches away from small rural communities too. How can we make sure Church is at the heart of community life? How can we persuade people that Church is at the heart of the life of our community? In some very obvious ways, Church can never replace the Post Office or the shop, or the pub, but how can we serve the community best? How can we be and remain a meeting place, a place at the heart of our community?

Thursday, 31 July 2008

An Entertaining Church?

It's Tuesday evening; the cinema is almost packed; most of the people there are women, with a few men. For some of those who are there, this is not their first time; they have been before and have come back for more! What is it? Mama Mia of course!

The critics slated the film and especially Meryl Streep for playing the lead. "What on earth was she doing in a film like this? Surely she would not like this in her portfolio of serious work!" But most of the critics missed the point: Mama Mia is simply good fun and the cast obviously had good fun making it; they are having a ball! If you can get past Pierce Brosnan's singing (and there were some audience members who didn't care about his singing; they just drooled over him every time he appeared on screen!) then this film is simply good fun. The only problem is - the songs get into your head and stay there for days!

"People today go to church to be entertained, and the cinema to be challenged." I found this quote a while back; it has been said by a number of people, in a variety of ways, this one attributed to Gerald Coates, a leader of the New Church movement in England and a regular radio contributor. No-one would be challenged by Mama Mia; it's just not that kind of film. There is, however, this criticism of Church. "Church services are boring!" is a criticism we hear so often. What does that ciriticism suggest? That Church should be entertaining? Someone came late to our Church one Sunday and was in the vestiuble during the children's address; it made him glad to hear people laughing in Church because he had been brought up to a very different attitude to Church!

Why do you come to Church? To be entertained by the fun part of the children's talk? To be entertained by the music, the singing of the choir or the music of our organist and young people? To be entertained by the visual images on the screen at the beginning of the sermon? Or do you come to Church to be challenged by the Word of God?

All that we do in Church - music, singing, verbal and visual presentation - should be first class, the very best. It often is! We should also be able to use humour as part of that; humour can help us understand and grasp a profound message. I spoke at the welcome social for Lezley Kennedy at Currie last week and tried to be light-hearted and funny then; I'm not sure that that would work on a Sunday morning; it might well detract from the thing of first importance which is the challenge of the Word.

I was spotted at Mama Mia! There was a whole row of people from Juniper Green sitting behind us. One suggested that Tuesday evening might have an impact on Sunday morning's service - what can she mean?

Friday, 25 July 2008

Who'd be a leader?

How does Gordon Brown feel this morning? He's had this ambition for years to become Prime Minister because he wants to make a difference, yet in the year since he took office very little has gone right for him. Will Glasgow East be the last straw? Probably not, but he must see his world collapse around him.

What about Rowan Williams? Are Church leaders supposed to be ambitious? In some ways, it's OK; I've certainly known people in the Church of Scotland whose ambition to be in high Church circles has been obvious. I've no way of knowing whether Rowan Williams had ambitions to be Archbishop of Canterbury, but he's there; he's the leader of the Anglican Church across the world. How does he feel today with the prospect of the Anglican Church splitting massively? It's not his fault, but it is happening on his watch!

There are some people in the Church who think leadership is a great thing, because you get to be 'at the front'. That's where they want to be because people will look up to them and they want to be looked up to! That's their ambition! There is no doubt that being at the front is a great adrenalin rush - how must Barak Obama have loved being the centre of attention for 200,000 Germans in Berlin yesterday!

Christian leadership has another model, though. The model for Christian leaders has to be Jesus; the symbols of leadership as modelled by Jesus are the basin and the towel. Leadership modelled by Jesus is about service to others, caring for the needs of others. That service comes in all kinds of forms - for some it is a calling to be a preacher, a Church leader full-time; for others it is giving some of your time and energy to serve Christ and His Church in other ways.

It doesn't matter the way in which we lead, or the kind of leadeship we offer, it always costs. There is always a cost. Your great ideas are discarded by your group; the ideas you do put into practice don't work; you've done this for 30 years and struggle to find new energy to keep going; the people with whom you work are really awkward and hard to get on with. There is always a cost.

But, those whom God calls He also equips. We need to pray for Gordon Brown and Rowan Williams, for everyone you know who is a leader in Church or society; pray for energy, strength, wisdom, stickability. Good leaders are valuable beyond price; we need to value them, support them, above all pray for them.