Friday, 18 December 2009

A Merry Christmas to all our readers!

I've spent the week doing Christmas things; here are some highlights.

Monday night was spent at Currie High School watching Ebenezer, a musical version of the story of Scrooge. It was an excellent production, with lots of children taking part, lots of enthusiasm and talent and a very good story. You know the end of the story in the original Dickens "it was always said of him, that he knew how to keep Christmas well..."

On Tuesday morning, I had my annual visit to the Open Door Cafe, the Church mother and toddler group. I'm too young to be Santa, so I go to be his little helper and hand out the presents which the mums put in the sack for their children. It's great to be there and chat over a cup of coffee. One little girl, when it was her turn to come for her present, just stood there, not sure what to make of the man in the strange tie and bright red hat!

Wednesday was nativity day, 2 of them in the Primary school. The first was acted out by the Nursery and the lead part was delivered with great energy by the little girl playing the Whoops-a-daisy angel. The second was performed by primaries 1-3 and was fantastically well put together and acted out. My toes were under threat, sitting in the front row, from a very enthusiastic lamb, hopping about and we took our hats off to the P1 boy who just sang his heart out, even if completely out of tune!

Thursday was the Guild of Friendship Lessons and Carols service, with carols to sing (though I had no singing voice on Thursday!) and Bible readings and a little poetry. The ladies thoroughly enjoyed their afternoon and each brought a present for the sack so that everyone had something to take home with them; what a great way of showing a sense of belonging together and support for one another.

In the midst of all of this, I was sharing the lead in an assembly at Currie High School for the whole of first and second years, some 360 children, hearing what Christmas is all about; they might not all understand and fewer will believe, perhaps, but they have all heard the gospel.

This is just fantastic; and there's more to come; Church nativity play on Sunday morning; lessons and carols in the evening, with a little bit of a surprise that I've prepared; and on it goes. What a great chance to meet and talk to people and build relationships; what a great opportunity to tell lots of people the story of Jesus.

Just make sure that you find some space to remember Jesus: "To us a child is born..."

Friday, 4 December 2009

I wouldn't start from here!

You know the old joke: the visitor to Dublin is lost. He is trying to find his way to Croke Park for the rugby match, but can't see it anywhere. So he stops someone in the street and says "can you tell me how to find Croke Park?" Famously, the local worthy replies "Oh, if I was going to Croke Park, I wouldn't start from here!"

What are your hopes and aspirations for life? We all have them and some are more ambitious than others; some of us perhaps long to have a particular job, all we've ever really wanted to do, but have not achieved that yet. Others' ambitions are for your family or for other personal goals and targets that you want achieve in life. Some have hopes and aspirations for Church life and anyone who is in Church leadership of any kind should have hopes and aspirations for Church life.

No matter how high and grand your ambitions are for yourself, for others, for Church, here is the very simple thought behind this blog today. We have to start where we are. That might be stating the obvious and if you're going away shaking your head, disappointed that there's nothing more profound than that, sorry! But the truth is, we need to start where we are. It's no use wishing that we could start somewhere else; it's no use wishing that somehow we could turn the clock back to the way life was before, or turn the clock forward a few months to have another starting place because we are faced with some hard choices now.

We have to start where we are. That means we start to fulfil our ambitions in the circumstances in which we find ourselves today; that we make choices and decisions in these present circumstances; that we work with the skills and talents and abilities that we now have, even if we want to learn new ones in the future; that we make the best use of our present resources rather than wishing we were millionaires!

In developing Church life, we have to fulfil our hopes and aspirations from where we are on Dec 4th 2009. The challenge for us is to make the best use of the resources (people, finance and building) that we have and make choices and decisions based on this starting point.

Where these choices and decisions will lead you, will lead us as Church, I don't know, but God will guide you and will honour these steps we make in faith.

Friday, 27 November 2009

what would you miss?

It's strange, having been writing this blog now for over a year, to see what makes you comment. There are some subjects that I tackle that I think are bound to arouse comment from you, dear readers, but then there's nothing; not a squeak; silence! Other times, I think that what I've written might be fairly ordinary and bland and, lo and behold, you are roused to take to the computer keyboard. What will today be like?

A few weeks ago I went to Perth to meet a consultant (no, nothing medical). He is a business consultant who has been employed by the Church's Mission and Discipleship Council to do a stringent review of their work. I was identified as a 'non-user', someone who had never used the services of the regional development team, or any of their material. They wanted to know why!

The consultant had a whole list of questions to ask; there were two of us in the room with him and we tried to answer his questions as well as we could. His last question sticks in my mind: 'If the Mission and Discipleship Council disappeared tomorrow, would you notice?' Sadly for them, the answer we both gave was a resounding 'No!'

That set me thinking: in Church, what would you miss if it wasn't there?
  • the building? we're very attached to our church buildings; this is the place where we meet God, where we've worshipped for generations, our parents and grandparents before us; we can't worship God without a building, surely!
  • the minister? we know he's not perfect; his sermons are far too long; we sometimes don't understand what he's on about; why does he have to initiate so many changes? But we can't do without him or someone like him.
  • the organ? the organist? what an instrument! It gives a great sound, especially when so well played! How can we sing properly without an organ; it's been there for generations.
  • the hymnbook? Singing has to be done to the book, surely! How can we worship without a hymnbook; it just won't work!
  • Something else?

What would you miss? Use your imagination; what, if it disappeared tomorrow, would you really miss about Church life?

Friday, 13 November 2009

Community rules OK!

This week coming up sees the first meeting of the new Juniper Green Community Council, some 302 years to the day after the first record of Juniper Green in the records of Colinton Kirk Session. The new council will deal with the communities of Juniper Green and Baberton Mains and will provide a forum for issues affecting our communities to be aired and dealt with. Enough people volunteered their time and energy to make the Council viable, though not enough to make an election necessary. The Council needs the support of all who live in the area; its greatest challenge might be to inspire people to be interested and involved.

I had a conversation yesterday with a couple who live in another part of the city, nearer the centre, in one of these new developments full of flats. They have friends who live here and often come out to walk on the Water of Leith walkway. Their impression of Juniper Green is of a place that has a sense of community, much more so than the place where they stay. They are impressed by that.

Our parish includes two communities, the village of Juniper Green and the housing estate of Baberton Mains; these are two very different kinds of community; as Church for these communities, we need to understand each of them, respect each and work hard to be church for each of them.

By no means the only measure of a community, but one of the most obvious differences between Juniper Green and Baberton Mains, is meeting places. Juniper Green is full of meeting places: people meet in the shops, the hairdressers, even the pubs and in these meeting places relationships are formed or nurtured and fostered. The Church and the village hall would fall into these categories as well, as meeting places for people to talk and interact. Community needs meeting places!

By contrast, Baberton Mains has no meeting places; well, perhaps not strictly true, since the school probably bridges the two communities and has one foot in Baberton Mains. That apart, there are no shops, no pubs, no meeting places of any kind for chance, casual encounters. Two weeks ago, I had someone to visit at the bottom of the estate and walked down; it was mid-morning and in a 12-minute walk I met 4 people, 2 of whom were postmen! Most people had gone to work, perhaps or the shops; there are not many casual encounters. This is not the fault of the people who live in Baberton Mains; blame the people who planned and built the estate.

However, if community is important for people, how do we create these meeting places? How do we create them within the Church, for the benefit of the people of the Church? How do we tap into them in our community? How do we help create them when none exist?

Friday, 16 October 2009

A fine line!

I had the curious experience last week of a title for a sermon that confused people! For the evening service I gave my sermon the title "Just relax! It's fine!" I did it deliberately. I wanted to find something that summed up Amos 6, but that also made people think! It was quoted back to me before the morning service as apiece of advice when I was feeling nervous, being taken at face value. Someone else came along wondering what it was all about, intrigued by the title.

"Just relax. It's fine!" On the face of it, this is an expression of peace and confidence. "Everything will turn out well; God is in His heaven and all's well with the world. Don't worry!" How good it is to have that kind of confidence in God, to be able to trust Him implicitly with every aspect of life and faith, to trust Him to be at work in His Church and for Him to have His people in His hands for our safety and well-being. I know lots of people for whom that kind of confidence is a pipe-dream, but were they to find it, what peace it would bring to their lives!

In fact, that's not what Amos 6 is about; so that's not what the sermon was about. Amos 6 is all about complacency; it is about a people who were relaxed and living a life of luxury for themselves while the poor are being down-trodden; their worship is a cause of sin; their attitudes are full of injustice; God has sent His prophet to call them to repentance and they are ignoring him, because everything is fine! Just relax; there's no need to repent! That's quite a different attitude. This is no longer a trusting confidence in God, but a blind ignoring of God and His Word.

How fine is the line between these two very different attitudes. There is not a million miles between these two contrasting views of life and faith; yet in reality they are poles apart.

When I came to Juniper Green some nine years ago, lots of people told me how great this congregation is. Despite all the history of conflict, there were people who recognised that the congregation had achieved a lot and had an enormous amount going for it. Last week , at the Kirk Session meeting, the elders heard from a number of groups doing children's work and other kids of service and they were all saying the same thing - we need more people to help with our work, new people who are willing to take on new responsibilities. There is a fine line between celebrating good things with glad confidence and then finding ourselves in a pickle of bother.

As a church, we can't sit back and bask in past glories; we have to keep pressing on for the future, so that the light of Christ continues to burn. I met someone at a wedding recently who is an elder in a Church in the city whose minister has just retired. She felt this was the death knell for their church because they would never find another minister in the current climate. She's not altogether right, but for the first time, she and her fellow-elders in a big, prosperous, comfortable Church had been shaken out of, perhaps, a sense of complacency.

"One thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus." (Philippians 3:13,14)

Apply that to your life; apply that to your Church.

Friday, 9 October 2009

Be kinder than necessary!

The title of today's blog comes from Scripture Union's Word Live website; I use this website for my daily Bible reading at the moment; there are some written pieces, as you might expect, but also some pictures and audio clips, as well as worship songs to help us reflect on the bible passage that we've read. (

Over the last three weeks, the main UK political parties have held their party conferences, all of them aware that before the next one there will be a General Election. (The SNP conference will be held in the next two weeks, I would imagine!) So, if you've been paying attention, you might have formed an opinion, or judgement, on the relative merits of each party leader, the three main candidates for the job of Prime Minister; they are all hoping that you and I will be kind to them and vote for their party when the General Election comes around. They expect that people will make judgements about them and that they will even feature on the front pages of the newspapers and the editorial columns; indeed there are some politicians, you feel, would be disappointed not to be on the front pages.

We also make similar judgements about other people, one another. I'm constantly amazed at how scathing Christians can be of one another and how disbelieving. We form judgements of one another without really knowing all of the facts. So this quote: "Be kinder than necessary" and it goes on "for everyone is fighting some kind of battle!"

We can be very critical of people who don't come to Church as often as they once did, but do we know the struggles of their lives? Or of people who drift away from the faith and blame them for their backsliding, but do we ever stop to try to find out the reason for their drift? What struggles are they facing? You might take time to look at the comments on my last blog and see one reaction to what I said then; it might be sad and depressing to think that Christians behave in that way, but it is surely true. The General Assembly of 2008 commended a huge report on Conflict in the Church; some scoffed and said surely that's not real; but it is all too real, I'm sad to say.

The natural human instinct in our relationships with other people is the Old Testament version: "an eye for an eye" - getting our own back! Again the Word Live website: "an eye for an eye and the whole world goes blind!"

"Be kinder than necessary" is not the way any bible text expresses our relationships with other people, but it surely captures the essence of the command to "love your neighbour as yourself". We're very good doing what is just necessary and no more.

So next time you are about to be critical of someone:
  • a politician, a city councillor, a member of the proposed new community council - an ordinary person like you trying to do their job to the best of their ability.
  • a leader of the Church, minister or elder - an ordinary person, whom God has called to be your leader and who is trying be what God wants him or her to be, to the best of his or her ability.
  • a Church court (Kirk Session, presbytery, General Assembly) - made up of ordinary people like you and me, wrestling with big issues, trying to decide to the best of their ability.

Then "be kinder than necessary for everyone is fighting some kind of battle" of which you probably know nothing!

Friday, 25 September 2009

The spider's web - your network?

Saturday morning two weeks ago, I took the photo that is here. It was just inside my gate, attached to the gate and the hedge. The sun was shining through it and, well, we cheated a little by spraying it with water to make it more photogenic; you can see it better. What I hadn't realised till I started snapping away, was that the spider was in the middle of the web, having its breakfast. It's a very clever piece of construction, a spider's web; it looks so fine and fragile, as if it would be blown away by the softest zephyr, but its actually tough stuff; how many connections are there on this web? I haven't counted them, but it must be a big number. Every joint is a connection that goes in 4 directions and the joint at the bottom left of the web is connected, even remotely, to the joint at the top right.

There are all kinds of ways in which we could develop this idea, but here are 2 thoughts. First of all, we are all part of a network of other people; in fact there is a network of which we are at the centre. There are people that we know from a whole lot of different contexts: family members, friends, people at work, former school mates, people we know from Church, the people we live beside, people we meet at the school gate when collecting our children or grandchildren; and others. These people form the spider's web of which we are the centre and every person we know forms a connecting point; they may not know each other, but they connect through you. The mission challenge we face as Christians is to allow the gospel to flow along these connections, so that the people we know, from wherever we know them, find out something of Jesus from us. So often, Christians have kept their Christian network separate from all the other parts of the web, for fear that these others would contaminate our faith, but by being separate, we have prevented the flow of the gospel outwards along these connections to the other parts of our network of connections.

Secondly, I have been challenged of late to see Church more like this. People often say to me that my life must be an endless round of meetings and to some extent it is. The word 'meeting' has got so much baggage associated with it, as if these are events we have to attend and they are boring! In actual fact, a meeting is just that, a coming together of people, meeting in one place for a purpose. Church Wednesday has been running now for 3 weeks (see the website for details) and we now have a meeting for prayer and another for Bible Study; using the same idea, but twisting it slightly, we have had 15 or 16 people coming together in one place to pray together and slightly more coming to meet together to study the Bible together. These are opportunities for people to meet in the same place at the same time, to do the same thing and I hope that you can see how different my second description of these events is from simply describing it as a 'meeting' that I have to attend.

Every time the Church meets, we are a network of people coming together for a common purpose. Some examples:

  • A Kirk Session meeting - a group of people who come together to exercise leadership on behalf of the whole Church.

  • A service of worship - the place where the Church of all ages comes together to worship God by singing together, praying together, listening together for God's word.

  • A meeting of the Guild of Friendship (or any other group within the Church) - a coming together of a particular network of people who share a common interest and who want to spend time together.

Our task is to strengthen the networks of which we are a part, to treat other people (the connections) with respect and love, and to let the gospel of God's grace in Jesus flow along these connections to encourage the Christians and to expose our non-Christian friends to Jesus.

I have found this notion has almost transformed the way that I view my diary; I'm trying to remember that every entry there is an encounter in which God can be at work and in which His grace can touch me or someone else. Try it; see how you get on with your network.

Friday, 4 September 2009

We have a choice!

Have you been following the controversy created by STV? I know, there are probably several controversies created by STV, but the one I mean is this: Scottish Television has chosen to opt out of ITV1 schedules for lots of popular drama programmes. Are you a fan of The Bill? You now have to watch it on ITV4 at 11pm on Monday night because STV refuses to show it at its normal broadcast slot on ITV1. We are denied Lewis, Midsomer Murders, Kingdom and any number of other drama programmes in favour of ... Well, they say, in favour of new Scottish drama, but the reality is, in favour of old repeats and well-worn movies and documentaries. We are denied the choice!
The residents of Juniper Green and Baberton Mains are about to be given the choice - who will represent us on a brand new Community Council. There is a process already in motion to find names and nominations of people who would be willing to stand for election to the Community Council, so that we can take more of an interest our community affairs. I, for one, would hope that this new initiative will not founder for lack of support! You have the choice, now; don't lose it.
Over the next year we will be able to listen to our eminent parliamentarians at Holyrood discussing whether we should be given the choice in a referendum about independence. There are options: will it be a straight 'yes' or 'no' to independence; or will it be a multi-option vote and you can tick your preference; or will the question be so obscure that you're not entirely sure what you're voting for? Knowing government, the last is the most likely. You will be given a choice of some description.
We make choices every day: will I use the bus or the car today? Which will be more convenient? Will we have sausages or mince for tea? Most of the choices we make are not life-changing choices; they merely affect how our life will be today. Yet, we exercise choices time and time again.
Church is full of choices. Look at the comments made on my blog a couple of weeks ago and you will see that some people prefer one kind of option in worship and someone else says something else. It's not always possible to accommodate both options in one event. So we try to provide options, choices. The evening service provides an opportunity for worship that is different from the morning service; some like it, others don't; most have never tried it! Church Wednesday is an opportunity for people to pray together and study the Bible together - this is not about ticking a box to say 'we have this in our programme', but is about giving people a significant opportunity to grow in faith and to get to know other people better. Some will love it and enjoy it; others will not, I suspect; but it will be a shame if you write it off without trying it!
Moses once faced his people with a huge choice: would they love God and follow His ways, or would they ignore God and go their own way? This is a life-changing choice.
"Now choose life, so that you and your children may live and that you may love the LORD your God, listen to his voice, and hold fast to him. For the LORD is your life." (Deuteronomy 30:19,20)

Friday, 28 August 2009

They, you or we?

Hands up those who're glad they were not in Kenny MacAskill's shoes last week? I'm certainly glad that I didn't have to make the decision about Abdel Basset al-Megrahi and Gordon Brown demonstrated his desire to keep the decision at arm's length from his desk. 'They' made that decision; it was someone else's responsibility.

Who decided that trams would be a good idea for Edinburgh? Again, we pass the buck; it was 'their' decisions and we're not even sure at times who 'they' are. All we know is that it was not our decision and is we had been in charge it would have been done differently!

Who got us into the financial mess that the world is in? We point the finger at some faceless group of individuals and blame them for the choices they made that put us into the situation in which we now find ourselves.

The people of Kilmarnock are pointing the finger at the moment at the management of Diageo for 'their' decision to remove funding from the Johnnie Walker plant in the town, except they know where to go to stick the blame.

But this becomes personal - it is 'your' decision. If you were given the chance to talk to Kenny MacAskill about his last week, we would talk to him about 'your' decision and if we think he was wrong, that becomes an accusation. "Why did you make your decision?" We know where the blame/responsibility lies and we make it obvious. It is not our responsibility, but we blame you for the way in which you exercised yours!

"We" is a group word. It says something about shared responsibility. The people of Juniper Green and Baberton Mains will have the opportunity, in the next few weeks, to exercise something of that shared responsibility for our community with the proposal to form a community council. It would be a real shame if this were to founder for a lack of support, that we are not prepared to take on some responsibility for our community.

"They", "You" or "we"? All of these are found in Church. There are lots of people who blame 'the Church' for things they don't like in the Church - it is 'their' fault, but they are never quite sure who 'they' are. I've had people talk to me about things in church and say 'you' did this or that and for them it is my responsibility or fault. The Church is meant to be a community of people who belong together and who share some sense of responsibility for the health and well-being of the Church - for church like that, the best word to use is "we".

"We" is a word that suggests we are in this together, that we share the responsibility for Church or the community, or the world. 'They' passes the buck; 'you' makes it an accusation; 'we' speaks of community and togetherness and shared responsibility. I know which I prefer!

Friday, 14 August 2009

Showstoppers - the blog!

Ooh! Ouch! It's Friday afternoon at the end of mission week. My legs are just about giving up after running about all week.

We've had a great week; here are some of the highlights:
  • 48 children altogether have passed through our doors, most of them with us every day of the week.
  • 30 children came to the parents' night and brought their parents along to watch and take part.
  • A team of 3o people from the Church, some of them teenagers, some slightly older, have been in the hall from 9am till 12 noon every day, Monday to Friday, to make Showstoppers work. Some are old hands at this, having been part of the team for a few years now, but for others this was an entirely new experience and they have all been brilliant.
  • We have told the children the stories of creation, David and Goliath, Daniel, the birth of Jesus and His death and resurrection: they have watched the stories on DVD and have taken home something each day to work on as a reminder of the story.
  • We did some new things this year: the children had to build a tower with 20 plastic cups - how high could they go and still have a structure that stood up and 13 was the record; as a team challenge, we had each team draw a cartoon story-board of the story of Daniel and some of the art-work was first class - there were some brilliant lions.
  • We learned some new songs that will become part of our repertoire for future use.

All in all it was a high-energy week and one that everyone thoroughly enjoyed.

We will never really know the impact of something like this. Immediately, the children had a fun week and so they go away seeing that Church is fun! They heard some fantastic Bible stories and we hope they remember them. But beyond that, we will never know what impact our work has had; we sow seeds in the hope and confidence that God will make these seeds grow into lasting fruit of faith and Christian character. Continue to water these seeds with your praying.

Here's my hope: "As the rain and the snow come down from heaven, and do not return to it without watering the earth and making it bud and flourish, so that it yields seed for the sower and bread for the eater, so is my word that goes out from my mouth: It will not return to me empty, but will accomplish what I desire and achieve the purpose for which I sent it. " (Isaiah 55:10,11)

Power and responsibility

Tram alert!! I'm going back to the trams for a moment. There's a newspaper report today that hints at the possibility of yet more delays because one of the companies wants to renegotiate their deal. The track-laying company seems to want more money to finish the job because they think they have the Council over a barrel. It may or may not be the case, but here is a business trying to use its muscle to get its own way at the expense of others, trying to use the power it thinks it has to its own advantage.

I heard a story recently (a true story) of a minister new to his or her charge, a first charge, and at some point in the first couple of weeks there was a conversation with the Session Clerk which went something like this. Session Clerk: "as long as you do what you are told, you'll be fine; but step out of line ...." The rest is not recorded and neither is the minister's reply, but the impression is clear. "Do what I tell you and you'll be fine; cross me and I'll make your life a misery!" Needless to say, the minister was advised to resist such an abuse of power.

On another scale altogether, the world has had to sit back and watch as Robert Mugabe has abused his political power time and time again. He has amassed a huge personal fortune that is probably squirrelled away in a Swiss bank while his people in Zimbabwe have grown poorer and poorer; inflation reached a massive 2 million per cent at some point last year; the people were suffering from a cholera epidemic because the water supply is needing huge investment; the elections were far from fairly conducted so that Mugabe could hold on to power.

These are obvious abuses of power; there are far more subtle ways of abusing power, either at home or in church or in other groups. we co-operate only as long as we get our own way; we make it clear what we want and will find only that option acceptable.

The other side of power is responsibility. None of the people in these examples would seem to have any sense of responsibility for their situations. Christians should live with a sense of responsibility:
  • for the world, to pray and work for its salvation and for the growth of God's kingdom,
  • for other people, to love and care for others,
  • for the Church, to seek its best rather than simply to get our own way,
  • for our family and people we love the best, people whom so often we take for granted,
  • for our own sense of well-being.

We have to work out for ourselves in which order we put these responsibilities; Jesus lived with all of these and more; He is our model-citizen!

Friday, 31 July 2009

We have no time to stand and stare!

"What is this life if full of care,
We have no time to stand and stare?"

The opening lines of a poem called Leisure by William Henry Davies. It is a bit of the idyllic rural life; the reader is urged to stand and stare at the countryside to appreciate its beauty and that's not always easy for the confirmed city-dweller. Walk along the Water of Leith and appreciate the beauty of the green space!

But there are other ways of standing and staring at important things that we tend to forget.

What about the quality of our relationships? We all meet so many people who are rushing from one thing to the next that we forget to develop and nurture the quality of our relationships with other people. The activities in which we are engaged are all probably good and laudable, but where is the time to stop and appreciate the people closest too us, rather than take them for granted.

What about our faith? When do we take time to stand and stare at God, if you see what I mean. Bible reading and prayer (if we do them at all) are often rushed, a minute before hurrying out of the door to work. Church is, even for committed Christians, sidelined in the midst of a whole range of other activities. How do we create space in a Church service simply to 'stand and stare', to be quiet and take time to be amazed all over again at God?

Jesus told us that there are two important principles never to be lost: love God and love other people. Take time this weekend to foster both of these; it will be up to you how you do it; ideas on a postcard... or the comments page...

Friday, 24 July 2009

Bibles, Bibles, Bibles!

The Gallery of Modern Art in Glasgow has an exhibition running that invites people to scrawl messages on the pages of the Bible. It is an exhibition about injustice and exclusion and encourages people who consider themselves excluded by the Churches or by Bible teaching to get their own back by writing angry and anti-Christian messages on the open pages of a bible. Needless to say, Christian groups are outraged. The reporter from Reporting Scotland last night asked the director of the gallery if they would have done this to the Koran; his answer was less than direct!

Over the weekend, we have also witnessed the first ferry to sail to and from Stornoway on a Sunday. For some, this was a great victory over the power of the Church to subdue the people and so Sunday is liberated from the constraints of Christian teaching. For others, this is the end of a honourable tradition of obedience to the commands of God and the Sabbath will never be the same again. Jean and I spent a Sunday in Lewis when we were on holiday: on a sunny summer Sunday, there was just nobody about; there were no children playing in the garden; the swings were padlocked and the play-areas closed for the day. I leave you to decide which of the two 'victories' you might support.

These two stories are linked in my mind because they make me think about my attitude to the bible. I love it; its teaching has changed my life; its teaching should shape my life more than it does, but that's my fault, not the fault of the Bible. I love to preach its 'unsearchable riches' because the message of the Bible brings freedom and salvation, brings liberty and fullness of life to human hearts. It bothers me that only 1 in 10 Christians in Scotland can make the time to read the Bible on a regular basis. How can we be the people God wants us to be unless we read our Bible?

But, the bible also bothers me. It bothers me because it is always asking me questions that I don't find easy to answer. It tells me that there are certain ways of living that are good and right and I would agree with that, but then it challenges me to consider those who are excluded and who are victims of injustice in the society of which I am a part. It tells me, that as a Christian, there are certain things I should hold dear and should be priorities, such as worship on Sunday, but then it shows me the figure of Jesus challenging the rules and regulations of the Pharisees, telling me that "the Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath. So the Son of Man is Lord even of the Sabbath." (Mark 2:27,28)

A wise professor was addressing a group of students who were keen to have him get involved in this kind of debate about the Bible. One of the students said to him, "tell us, professor; where do you stand on the Bible?" He looked at the group and said, quite quietly, "I do not stand on the Bible; I sit under it!" That's not just a seat for theology professors; that's a seat for every Christian, to sit under the teaching of the Bible.

This year sees the bicentenary of the Scottish Bible Society. As part of their celebrations, there is a special appeal to raise money for Bibles for Brazil. Some of what we hear and read in Scotland might make us cynical about the Bible, because of the tensions and debates it causes. Yet, let's never forget, this is the book that contains the words of life for us; this is the book, whose messages changes people's lives; this is the book that shows us what God is like and what he has done for us in Jesus.

If it is not your regular habit to read the Bible, I urge you to begin; if it is your regular habit already, then I urge you to make sure that you take to heart what you read. 1 in 10 Christians in Scotland read the bible regularly; the other 9 have a Bible on the shelf gathering dust. What is your Bible doing?

Friday, 12 June 2009

Risk Taking

In 2007, Simon Hoggart and Emily Marks wrote a book called Don't tell Mum - Hair-raising messages from Gap-year travellers. Amazon's website describes it thus: "where once the news of narrowly surviving a bus crash on the dirt-roads of India, waking up to gunfire in Honduras or fending off marriage proposals from complete strangers would have made it home only on the back of a slow-moving battered postcard, these days those tantalising details and terrible mistakes are now recorded immediately and distributed liberally for every friend and family member to wince at." Isn't e-mail wonderful! Are text messages grand!

This is simply the 20-something version of the child climbing a tree. What does a parent do? On the one hand, climbing a tree is an exciting thing to do when you're 5 or 6 or 7 years of age. But, parents also know that children can fall out of trees and seriously damage themselves. So do you stop the child climbing the tree and deny them a new, exciting experience of life? or do you let them climb the tree, running the risk that they might fall and hurt themselves? Of such dilemmas is parenthood made!

Don't Tell Mum is made up of messages from people travelling the world and contacting people at home. "I'm just about to go bungee-jumping off the highest bridge I've ever seen, but don't tell mum because she'll worry!" And dad won't!!!

Some people are averse to taking risks; they simply want life to be safe and predictable because they take some peace and security from that. We live in a culture that tries to avoid risk as much as possible; before teachers can take their class on a trip they have to complete a risk assessment to make sure that this trip is as safe as it can be and that any risk to the children is minimal and manageable. There is a whole industry set up now to work with businesses to help them analyse the risk of certain actions or the risk of failing to do certain things. We try to manage risk as much as we can.

One thing is true: we will never avoid taking risks. Crossing the street is taking a risk! Tony Blair, as he was coming to the end of his time as Prime Minister, said that as he looked back over his occupation of Number 10, that he wished he had taken more risks because then he might have achieved more.

  • Last week, we were told that the Church census that we did in March revealed that an average of just over 9,000 people in Edinburgh were in Church of Scotland congregations for worship. That is 2% of the city's population. We have been watching these statistics decline for 10 years and have done nothing about them. Now, it is time to waken up. We no lonoger have 20 years to turn the Church aorund; if we don't take some risks now, at least half of the congregations in the city won't be here in 20 years time!
  • I am part of an on-going discussion about the future mission of the Church in Scotland and how we continue to provide ministry for every community in the country at at time when the financial resources available are diminishing.
  • The same survey in March told us that 50% of our membership in Juniper Green in over 60 years of age.

It seems to me that we have two choices: we can sit back and watch as the Church fades away into the distance and dies; or we can take some risks.

What risks must we take that will allow us to build a healthy and strong church for the future? I seriously hope that we will not be looking back in 10 years time saying, 'if only we had taken the risk in 2009... but we were too scared!'

What constitutes the "tree-climbing school" of church leadership?

Friday, 5 June 2009

Inertia rules OK?

Inertia - Why is it that things don't move?! We see it everywhere.

In Parliament there is widespread agreement that the expenses structure has to change. Gordon Brown even appeared on YouTube to tell us that things must change (Do you think he has ever watched anything on YouTube?) All of the parties agree that things can't go on as they are; the way in which MP's claim expenses has to change and they have told us that over and over again in the last three months. Now, having such a consensus, why has nothing been done? Why has it not changed yet? I accept that they need to get it right and to make the wrong changes could leave us with a damaging legacy, but it appears that nothing is happening at all to change things now.

I am Interim Moderator at St John's Oxgangs; Gillean Maclean left to go to become minister of a charge in Arran last September and I conducted my first Kirk Session meeting there 2 days after her induction. Presbytery then decided that the congregation had no independent future and the Deployment of resources committee was set to examine all of the other options. From that day (September 22nd) to this, we are no nearer a solution. Inertia is not quite the right word here, because there has been some action, but not much and very little of it has been productive or quick! The congregation is hurting and is left wondering what will happen next and, most of all, why no-one is coming to tell them anything.

I found this clipping a long time ago in Minister's Forum a Church of Scotland publication for ministers:
A Mission station in Central Africa had suffered from a native uprising. Buildings were destroyed and school and church were burned. The missionaries felt that they ought to inform headquarters as soon as possible, so a telegram was sent to "121." (shows the age of the story!) It read "Native rebellion. Church destroyed. School destroyed. Work at a standstill." However being good Presbyterians they thought the should add a word to show that they were not totally down-hearted. So they added two words: "God reigns." However, in the course of transmission an extra "s" crept into the last word and when the telegram arrived in Edinburgh it read "God resigns" The good folk in Edinburgh took it at its face value and decided to make an appropriate reply, and did so in the following words: "Our thoughts and prayers are with you. We regret the decision of God. However, committee will carry on."

God has not resigned or gone away; God is still at work in people's lives. That is why we have seen, over the last few months, a steady stream of new people appearing in our morning services. God is not a God of inertia but a God who is constantly doing new things. Our lives are changed, our needs are met, other people see Jesus in us and hear about Jesus from us - so God is at work in our world.

Sadly, His people are not always the same. So often, in Church, inertia sets in! There are all sorts of plans we make and promises, but nothing happens. Someone suggested to me that there is an attitude in Churches that thinks "We've had a meeting about this; we've decided to do x,y and z; that's it dealt with" without realising that we then need to go away to do x,y and z. Deciding to do it is not enough; we actually need to achieve it!

Rant over, I'm just off to do x,y and z!

Friday, 29 May 2009


On the big issue of the week for the Church of Scotland? I can say nothing here because this is a public site and someone might read it!!! The General Assembly has issued a decree banning any comment on the big issue of the week and if anyone does make public comment, we are open to discipline by the courts of the Church. It seems like a huge own goal - the atheists are free to lay into the Church and tell the world what a shower of numpties we are and no-one can reply. The papers are free to scare-monger and tell the world that a whole pile of people are about to leave to join the Free Church and we can't reply! So if you're expecting me to make some comment about this big issue, I'm afraid you'll be disappointed. It will take 2 years!

What will the Church be like in 2 years time?

Here's a more serious question and much more positive and perhaps even more important one: what would you like Church to be in ten years time? Don't tell me that you don't have a view; I won't believe you. Everyone involved with Church at some level or another will have some kind of view, even if it is a quite simple one. What would you like Church to be in ten years time? Click on the 'comment' at the bottom of the page, write your comment in the box and then choose one of the four options under the box to identify yourself; the third or fourth are the easiest. Tell me what you would like Church to be in 2019.

Here's the thing: what decisions do we need to make now to make your hope or dream come true? Whatever you would like Church to be in ten years, there are decisions and choices that we need to make now in order for that to come true. That question is not so easy to answer, is it! Good leadership is about asking these questions and helping us to find an answer to them. It will be no use in ten years' time, when Church has not developed in the way we had hoped, then saying 'if only in 2009 we had...'. It will be too late by then.

'If only...' - I came across these words the other day in another context. Some young people were reacting to a particularly traumatic situation about which I can't really be specific here, but they were saying 'if only we had done... if only we had said....' then the situation might never have developed in the tragic way that it did. It is so easy to carry these words around in your heart for the rest of your life, and lots of people do; we call it guilt! The glory of the gospel is that at its heart is talk of forgiveness and not just talk, but reality. God forgives us our sins, our faults, our 'if only's' and He does so because His Son died on a cross 2000 years ago.

I hope that the General Assembly of 2011 does not begin by saying 'if only we had... in 2009!' I hope that in 2019 we are not sayiong 'if only we had... in 2009!' I hope you are not going through life saying 'if only I had....' or 'if only I hadn't...'

I can say nothing now about the first.
I can urge you to pray and work to make the second happen.
I can tell you about the forgiveness of God for all of us in Christ in the gospel.

Friday, 22 May 2009


The word that has been rolling around in my mind this week is 'aspire' (& not 'aspire' on top of the Church roof - sorry, bad joke; think about it!!) We have hopes and aspirations of all kinds, but let me tell you about one story of aspiring that bothers me; I don't know the answer.

I was approached a while ago by a young couple who had just had their first baby. They want the baby baptised. I spoke to them about what baptism meant and told them that they needed to think about Church membership because the Church says that one parent must be a member of the Church so that a child can be baptised. They are happy to engage with that discussion; they have been reading Luke's gospel and have been working their way through the basic Christian material that I give to all new members, showing real signs of engaging with all of this. They aspire to become part of the Church for themselves and to have their child baptised and I want to do all that I can to help them meet that aspiration.

But there is a barrier. One of these two young adults tells me that working life makes Sunday worship difficult. Regular days off are Monday and Wednesday. Sunday is usually a working day. How do we as Church help this family to fulfil their aspirations? They know that they have a responsibility to do what they can, but what should Church do to meet people like this? The people about whom I write are not alone in this dilemma.

Do we as Church simply say "we meet on Sundays; there is no other option!" Or do we work out some way of allowing people to worship and nurture faith at other times?

Our midweek activities at the moment tend to be discussion groups or prayer times, or directed at specific age or gender groups like the Guild of Friendship or Rock Solid.

There are clear signs that the Spirit is at work in our community, creating these aspirations and desires among a number of people, including young adults. Church must never become the barrier, preventing these young people from fulfilling their aspirations, but the answers and solutions might well be very different from traditional Church.

What is more important? Do we think that people should have the chance to nurture faith and discover Jesus and worship and pray at some time and in some way? Or do we think that if people can't do Sundays, they can't be involved?

I'm not suggesting that we reduce the standards, if that is the way to put it. There are people who think that we should baptise babies regardless of their parents' profession of faith and commitment; I don't think like that, but I do see the logic behind asking parents to make a commitment to Church of their own when they are aspiring to make that commitment for their children.

I don't know what you aspire to be or to do; I hope that if you have spiritual aspirations that the Church is helping you to fulfil them; how can we do that for this young couple and others like them?

Friday, 15 May 2009

Expenses and other issues

Sorry, no matter how much I want to avoid it, I can't. The whole week has been dominated by the row over MPs' expenses. What a mess! Mind you, the one word we can't use to describe their behaviour is 'illegal' - there has been (it would seem) no law broken! What we can say is that the laws and rules need changing. I've heard so many sensible ideas and some stupid ones - the latest stupid idea at lunchtime was to send in the army, some kind of military coup! Someone else suggested we have MPs stay in some kind of super apartment block, guarded by the army, presumably to make sure they stayed in at night!

We live in a culture where these issues are coming under much more scrutiny. I was introducing an item as Edinburgh Presbytery last week that will instruct ministers to submit our car log books for inspection. I have kept a log book for years, but it has never been looked at until now. Last year's General Assembly instructed Presbyteries to do this piece of work, for fear of the more rigorous scrutiny of the Revenue! We are more likely to discover ministers who have not claimed as much as they were entitled to, but there are some already in a flap because their log book is not up-to-date enough.

Most of you will have worked with some kind of appraisal system. You will have had someone to whom you are (or will have been) answerable and your performance in a task will have been appraised and you will have had to read the report. That may have influenced the prospects of promotion or even finding a job, or keeping your job. I don't. No-one comes to me to appraise my performance in any of the tasks of ministry in which I am engaged. The Church has toyed with some kind of appraisal, but until now it has always been self-appraisal or self-reflection rather than being done by a third party. This has meant that some congregations have suffered for years under people who really were not up to the job.

There are some Churches that make their members accountable to one another and do this in a big way. They structure themselves in such a way as to give their leadership a very real and direct oversight of the quality of Christian life and discipleship of their members. Our Church culture or our national culture hasn't warmed to that idea very much and so people are often allowed to drift with no mechanism to help them and in the end the only action we take is to remove them from membership because they have drifted so far away from Church that we have lost track of them altogether. That can't be the best way, surely!

I have a friend who, when he went to be the minister of his present charge, arranged interviews with all of the members in his vestry. He asked them 3 questions: How did you become a Christian? What has God been teaching you recently? What gifts do you have to give to the life of the congregation? It was not universally popular in Glasgow; it would not always be popular in Edinburgh either, but why should we be afraid of these questions and someone asking these questions of us?

Presbytery is inspecting log books so that ministers will be better prepared if the Revenue comes calling; perhaps if the Church asked these questions of us, we would be better prepared when our non-Christian friends asked us to give a reason for the hope that is in us!

Friday, 8 May 2009

How many names do you know?

Last week, I had a conversation which began: "how is your daughter?" Two things happened: first of all, I said "Which one? I have two dauighters?" and at the same time, my second reaction was to think "I don't remember having aconversation with you about my family!" The reply to my question came: "the daughter who has a boyfriend called..." It all fell into place: I had not had a conversation with Robin about my family; he has two brothers who had met my daughter and who know her boyfriend's family. Scotland, and especially the church community in Scotland, is just like a small village.

But, let me ask you this, and I'll come back to it in a moment - how many names of people who go to your church do you know?

Last year, I came across the original version of six degrees of separation. Let me quote it:
"American sociologist Stanley Milgram devised a way to test the theory (that any one person is connected to any other person on the planet through a chain of acquaintances)... He randomly selected people in the mid-West (of the USA) to send packages to a stranger located in Massachusetts. The senders knew the recipient's name, occupation, and general location but not the specific address. They were instructed to send the package to a person they knew on a first-name basis who they thought was most likely, out of all their friends, to know the target personally. That person would do the same, and so on, until the package was personally delivered to its target recipient. Although the participants expected the chain to include at least a hundred intermediaries" to get the package delivered, it averaged only six. Hence the popular phrase "Six degrees of separation"." (Quoted in The Forgotten Ways by Alan Hirsch p.212)

This suggests a kind of interconnectedness. Certainly, you don't need to be involved in Church for very long to meet people who know people whom you know!

However, I come back to my question - how many people do you know by name in your Church? On average, on a Sunday morning we in Junipe Green have about 180 people in our building for worship. We all have our own little group of friends and we sit beside them and talk to them and have coffee with them afterwards. But there are people we never meet; we may see them, but we don't even know their name. There are people who come to our church at the moment and I feel as if I'm the only person who knows their name!

In January 2001, we had our first Open House at the Manse on the first Sunday in the year. I can't remember now who told me this, but that became the occasion for 2 people who had both been members of Juniper Green Church for 25 years to talk to each other for the first time!

Knowing people by name means that they matter to us. If they are just 'the young people' or 'the old people' we do them a huge disservice, but in a group our size it takes a deliberate effort to make these connections. This is becoming more and more important, since the kind of community we live in sees people less and less connected with their neighbours. Church may soon be one of the few places where people meet with one another in a face-to-face way.

Church needs to be a community in which:
  • we meet together for worship
  • we know each other by name
  • we know each other's stories of life and faith
  • we eat together and meet for social events
  • we learn together from the bible
  • we pray together
  • we care for each other when people are in need.

What do we need to do to become a community like that?

How many people do you know by name? The answer to that question will show you just how far we have to go!

Friday, 1 May 2009

Looking back?

On Tuesday and Wednesday of this week I was in Sutherland and Caithness. I am a member of a Special Commission set up by the 2008 General Assembly to consider the Third Declaratory Article. This is the part of the Church of Scotland's constitution which commits the Church to deliver the ordinances of religion and carry out ministry in every part of the country. The Commission is set up to see if we can still make that commitment and what it means to the Church if we say that we can.

Anyway, we decided to make some field visits and in March we visited Glasgow and this week we visited Sutherland and Caithness, 2 counties on the geographical fringes of Scotland where the Church is struggling to find ministers willing to serve. Caithness has 11 charges, where ministers can serve, plus a community minister post; there are 3 of these charges filled. Has God stopped calling people to these places and communities? Or are people deaf to His call?

Wednesday was a strange morning! I spent 17 years as a minister in Caithness; our children were all born there and grew up there. We left in July 2000 to come to Juniper Green. I've only been back in the county a couple of times since we left, this being the third. I met some people that I've not seen since I left and I was visiting places I knew well, though not the part of Caithness in which I was the minister. It felt strange to be back. I have no desire to go back; the road north hasn't changed very much; it still takes 6 hours to drive; I was glad to be back home on Wednesday evening.

We have a funny attitude to the past at times. I know people, even Christians, who want to live in the past. Their past experience of Church was very positive so they want to keep hold of that for as long as possible and live in that past experience; so Churches are not allowed to change anything. We have all heard the cry 'It's aye been done that way! Let's live in the past.' There are others who want to write off the past: it's old, so it must be got rid of! There are churches who refuse to sing anything that is older than 6 months; every hymn or song has to be new & constantly changing; the past is a real foreign country.

I enjoyed much of my ministry in Caithness, although I came to the point where I was glad to leave behind the stresses and strains it caused me. I'm glad when the people I knew there come to visit us here. But I won't live in the past and pretend it was some rural idyll to be hankered after. Some commission members thought that going to rural Scotland would be wonderful and quiet; they left with a different view, now aware of the distances involved in travelling between Churches and the huge areas to be covered by one person.

As Christians we honour the past: our faith is based on historic events that took place once for all time in a specific historical time and place; our churches today are what they are because of previous generations faithful witness. But we press on to the future, to grow as Christians and to build the Church today that will leave a legacy for tomorrow. It seems to me that is a biblical way of looking at time, history, our past, present and future.

Friday, 24 April 2009

What is the big issue?

I had an e-mail yesterday from a journalist working for The Sunday Times. She was doing a confidential poll of Church of Scotland ministers asking if I support the appointment of Scott Rennie as minister of Queen's Cross Church in Aberdeen. I've never met Scott Rennie, as far as I know, but his story hit the headlines in January when Aberdeen Presbytery agreed to his appointment, knowing that he will live with his male partner in the Manse. Others objected to the appointment of an openly homosexual minister and the matter will be resolved at the General Assembly in May. I said that I did not support the appointment. Her reply asked 'Will you leave the Church if he is appointed?' to which I said 'No; there is more to the Christian faith, more to my ministry and the mission of the Church that sexual ethics!' Am I right?

Today's newspapers tell the story of Carrie Prejean; she is Miss California who was taking part in the Miss USA beauty contest. (Please don't attack me for beauty contests; I'm only telling you the story; it doesn't mean I support them!) She was asked, by the host of the show, whether she supported the state of Vermont's move to legalise same-sex marriage. She is reported to have said: "in my country, and in my family, I think I believe that marriage should be between a man and a woman. No offence to anybody out there, but that's how I was raised." She came second in the contest and afterwards said "after I'd answered the question, I knew that I was not going to win because of my answer. I don't take back what I said." She said she "had spoken from my heart, from my beliefs and for my God. It's not about being politically correct. For me, it's about being biblically correct."

There is no doubt that this issue makes great newspaper headlines. No matter the outcome of the debate at the General Assembly, the newspapers and other media will make great play of the Church's decision. It will be splashed all over front pages, no matter the way in which commissioners vote. Our Session Clerk will be among them. Pray for him and the 800 others as they try to make up their minds on the basis of what they hear.

If you want to discuss and debate the issue, we will be looking at same-sex relationships in our Issues series on June 10th.

My reaction: this is not the biggest issue facing the Church today. Am I right? What do you think is the biggest issue?

It seems to me much more important for us to be telling people in our community about Jesus Christ. I spent the first part of this morning in Currie High School with 360 first and second year pupils; I was leading an Assembly on Easter. I told them about Jesus, His cross and resurrection and that Jesus said "This is the very best way to love. Put your life on the line for your friends." (John 15:13 The Message) They listened avidly; you could hear a pin drop for 15 minutes as they simply listened to the gospel and me telling them what I believe.

I won't leave the Church of Scotland if Scott Rennie's appointment is upheld. I will be sad because I think that goes against the Bible's view of humanity. Jim Philip used to say, about issues such as these, that he would only leave the Church of Scotland if the Church pushed him out. Wise words.

God has called me to tell people about Jesus, to persuade them to believe; for me that is the biggest issue!

Wednesday, 8 April 2009

Special people and Holy Week

I want to tell you about Sharon. I've never met her, but I heard a little about her last week when I was in Glasgow. Sharon grew up in Ruchazie, one of Glasgow's Priority Areas on the periphery of the city. She has been through all kinds of experiences in her life that most of us can only imagine. Sharon came into contact with the Church in Ruchazie and then later when they were looking for someone to take on a little bit of work with some children's groups and young people, Sharon got the job. It was 5 hours per week, and it was paid. When Sharon got her first pay packet she left the building dancing; she was walking taller; she went to get her hair done; she felt a thousand times better about herself because of what she now had - a sense of worth and value.

What her pay-packet did for Sharon, the gospel can do for everyone.

There is another view. Lots of groups will tell us that feeling and being special is all about asserting ourselves. People have to empower themselves in order to achieve something and so find their self-esteem and specialness by their achievements. Much of this is tied up with our human rights and standing up for ourselves. We have to kick off the oppression of those who would bully us and tread us down. That's one model!

Here's another model. We are special for 2 reasons according to the Bible. First of all, we are special simply because we are human; human beings are made with the image of God as part of who and what we are; so we have a unique dignity and meaning and purpose that is inherent and is God-given; nothing can take that away from us; it is ours; it is who we are. (Have a look at Psalm 8!) Secondly, Christians are described as God's children, His sons and daughters, and there is no greater privilege than that; again this is part of the package of being Christian; it is who we are as Christians and because we are children, we are loved by our Father (God) and our elder brother (Jesus).

Being special people is not something that we assert for ourselves or achieve at the expense of others; this comes as God's gift to us by grace. Grace is a strange word: it is a girl's name; it is a prayer we sometimes say at mealtimes; but most of all, it describes the way in which we are loved. Grace tells us that we are loved when we don't deserve to be loved; grace tells us that God loves us, even when we have not loved Him; grace tells us that God gives us great riches not because we have earned them, but simply because He wants to give them.

Holy Week is a bit of a roller-coaster of emotions for the Christian. It begins with the exuberance of Palm Sunday, the reflection and anticipation of the Last Supper, the blackness of the cross and Jesus God-forsakenness there, and then, finally, the joy of Easter Sunday when we celebrate the risen, alive Christ! Easter should give us a spring in our step (sorry, bad pun!); it is Easter that makes us special people; Easter shows us just how much God really loves us, you, even me! He loves us enough to give us His Son.

I found this 30 years ago in a book called Knowing God by Jim Packer: "Do I know my own real identity? My own real destiny? I am a child of God. God is my Father; heaven is my home; every day is one day nearer. My Saviour is my brother; every Christian is my brother and sister too. Say it over and over to yourself first thing in the morning, last thing at night, as you wait for the bus, any time when your mind is free..." (page 256)

This is who we are. We are special people. Walk with a spring in your step; dance if you like; get your hair done too! Here is our sense of worth and value

Wednesday, 25 March 2009


Today I'm using the shredder. In fact, I'm writing the blog while the machine is recovering so that I can fill yet another bag with shredded paper. There is something therapeutic about shredding things, getting rid of rubbish and tidying up! It's a bit like pruning bushes in the garden - there is a sense of satisfaction! What does that say about my character? Don't answer that! Annie Lennox and Eva Cassidy playing on the PC in the background - what a way to spend an afternoon!

Maybe Lent is a good time to shred!

There has been a sort of corporate shredding going on in our society of late. The whole economic crisis has challenged our sense of value. As a culture, we have valued wealth, possessions and prosperity. These have been our gods, the values we have idolised. Those who are wealthy and prosperous - these are the people to whom we have looked up; we have wanted them to be our leaders and role models. But a bubble has burst! Mind, we have gone too far in some respects - no matter how foolish he has been, we go too far when Fred Goodwin's children are not safe at school and his house is vandalised.

Shredding is a very negative action. All I'm doing is getting rid of stuff. All I'm doing is emptying a box so that it can get filled up with the next lot of stuff to be shredded.

Maybe Lent is a good time to shred! In the time before Easter, some Christian traditions have taken time to contemplate their weaknesses and sins, so that we have a better appreciation of what Jesus did on the cross. "The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise." (Psalm 51:17) One thing is certainly true of all of us: we have things about us as people, attitudes, habits, actions that need to be shredded, put off, consigned to the bin. These are the attitudes of which we are not proud, the words we regret, the actions we wish we had never done, the things over which we wish we could turn the clock back! We all have them. Shred them.

What to put in their place? Learn to be like Christ! "Clothe yourselves with the Lord Jesus Christ." (Romans 13:14) Jesus teaches us a whole new world-view, a positive set of values and attitudes; copy Him! Don't let people persuade you that Christianity is simply about what you're not allowed to do! Jesus gives us a whole new set of values and a whole new way to live.

Happy shredding!

Friday, 27 February 2009

An atmosphere of fear

On Wednesday I was at a credit-crunch seminar. No, it was nothing to do with my copious investments (aye, right! as they say), but was designed to help ministers understand the present world of banks and redundancy. We were told how things are in the financial world and how things are likely to be in the near future; not pleasant listening. How can we help? That is the question. People are afraid for their jobs -how many will be made redundant next week? How many businesses will simply disappear because they can no longer keep going? How much further will our investments drop and if we depend on this for our pension, how will we pay the bills?

I was reading a Bible study note this morning on the story of Jesus walking on the water, the version in John's gospel. Elaine Storkey was reflecting on the feelings of the disciples as they struggled across the Sea of Galilee in the boat before Jesus arrived walking on the water. She coined the phrase 'the atmosphere of fear' to describe the way in which they must have felt. Perhaps there was nothing specific on which to put their finger; perhaps they were just uneasy about what would happen next; perhaps they were really terrified that they were about to drown. She even suggested that Jesus' appearing out of the darkness would add to that atmosphere of fear to begin with; was this a ghost?

There are all kinds of things that can create that atmosphere of fear around our lives:
  • the present job situation is a clear example of something that makes people afraid, even if there is no direct threat. No-one is immune. Solicitors, estate-agents, people who work in banks and other financial institutions are the most obvious jobs under threat, but they are not the only ones; how many teachers will the local authorities be able to employ? how do young people, school-leavers and graduates, get a foothold on the job ladder?
  • You don't need to be around Churches for very long to realise that lots of Churches in Scotland are living in fear of their future. I was speaking to someone who is a member of a Methodist Church in Edinburgh; their congregation is about to disappear, merged into one big city congregation based in Central Halls at Tollcross and afraid of what that will mean; he is very unhappy at the prospect. I will spend next Saturday in Fort William, helping a set of Churches in Lochaber face up to the uncertainties and fears of their future.
  • there must be an atmosphere or uncertainty around the City Council in Edinburgh at the moment. Will the trams ever be finished? (Incidentally, who thought it was funny to suggest that we need to keep the tram project 'on track'? Ha, ha!) Some people are finding it hard not to smile from ear to ear, with a sort of 'I-told-you-so' face.
  • Life!

Into that atmosphere of fear, comes what Tom Wright, Bishop of Durham calls the most common command in the bible: "Don't be afraid" How can we not be afraid? Life creates fear in our minds! Jesus tells His disciples not to be afraid, but He gives them one very good reason why they should not be afraid - "I am with you; it's me!" This is not a pious platitude, but for people of faith, this is the other reality of life. Jesus is with us in all our fears, and in all our joys. Jesus' presence helps dispel that atmosphere of fear; His power to sustain, His love to support us - these qualities are at work in us and in our world today.

Friday, 13 February 2009

The winter of our discontent

Winter: you love it and you hate it. The first snowfall of winter has children out sledging and building snowmen, but it tends to bring disruption to roads, airports and train services. The camera comes out to take pictures of the snow because it has a beauty to it, but this week I have also been the target for snowballs as some children waited for the school bus. On Tuesday, I went to Lendrick Muir to lead a seminar on mission with some of the Regional Staff teams and on the way I stopped at Loch Leven to take photos because the loch was frozen over; it was quite a sight to behold, the first time it had been like this since the 1950's apparently; but also this week there were reports of at least one child dying after falling through thin ice on his local pond.

Winter: you love it and you hate it. It is nice to look at, but it can be dark and depressing; if you are old and frail when you can become isolated for the duration of the snow and ice because the wise thing to do is to stay indoors. The sledging and snowballs are fun, but there are people caught on the mountains who die in the cold. Why do Councils grit roads that are dry and on which there is no snow and ice, only later to run out of grit and salt when it really matters?

Lest this become a complaint about the weather (Victor Meldrew, eat your heart out!) let me turn this into a reflection on another idea. I once had a conversation with Jim Graham, who for many years was the pastor of Gold Hill Baptist Church in Chalfont St Peter's and a renowned speaker (and I was at university with his daughter and shared a flat with his son-in-law), in which he introduced me to the notion that Churches go through seasons. There are times when Churches are strong and enthusiastic and everything is growing well (as in summer), and lots of new initiatives are put into place, but there are also times when Churches find life hard, when people grow tired and weary, when they want to shed responsibilities rather than take on new things, when it is time to stop certain activities and when it seems to be enough to keep the ordinary things going.

I wrote something of this in an article in Church News last year, in which I said that I could see signs of this in our Church at that time. Some people wanted to give up doing the jobs they were doing; in Church we're not very good at allowing people to give up without a sense of guilt and failure, but we should be better at it. Why can we not simply let a person retire in peace and with our thanks, without making them feel guilty because we will find it hard to get someone else to do the job? All is not gloom and doom; it wasn't then, it isn't now; there are people taking on new responsibilities and new ideas are being pursued in order to build the Church for the future.

Here are some thoughts:

  • at the St Margaret's Court service on Thursday, the visitors from outside the complex outnumbered the residents by a ratio of 4:1. Is it time to draw a graceful line under this event because it is no longer meeting a need for the place and its people? It worked for a time, but is that time past?

  • Last year, Colin Anderson gave up as our Christian Aid organiser. In the 6 months since then, no-one has volunteered to take it on. Does that mean that we should stop the door-to-door collection? The sponsored walk hasn't happened now for at least 2 years. There is anecdotal evidence to suggest that door-to-door collections for Christian Aid are actually becoming more and more difficult, if not even dangerous! Should we focus our efforts on other things?

Here's a quote from a booklet by Robert Warren, now retired, but once the Church of England's national Officer for Evangelism. The first of his writings that I read was a booklet called Building Missionary Congregations published in 1995 and now out of print. In that booklet he writes: "Such a challenge calls the Church to move out of the guard's van, where we are looking back over the distant and disappearing peaks we have passed (or desperately clutching the brake to slow down the pace of change at every point). We are to get out of the guard's van, recover our nerve and re-discover our true role in the vanguard of society, shaping the new world order in and after the likeness of Christ... through incarnate exposition - both of our words and our lives."

We are meant to be a pilgrim people, but we keep parking up, saying 'here will do just fine!'

Wednesday, 4 February 2009

Polish graffiti

When I was on the 44 bus the other day, I saw some graffiti in Polish on a wall in Dalry Road. At least I took it to be Polish; it was certainly in some East European language. It caught my eye and I reacted in two different ways. My first reaction was horror that this new blank wall had been spoiled by graffiti and that always makes me recoil. The second reaction was different: I was completely taken aback by the fact that it was in Polish. I've known there were Polish people in Edinburgh for ages; you'd need to have been on a desert island for years not to know that, but till now they have not taken to spoiling Edinburgh with graffiti. Mind you, Prague (which I know is not in Poland, but there is an East European connection in my mind!) is one of the places I've visited that is most spoiled by graffiti.

Today, I heard about the extensive vandalism to the new Primary School in Juniper Green. If you haven't heard, you'll find a report in the Evening News of 4th Feb 2009. The school was broken into sometime on Thursday night/Friday morning of last week and an estimated £10,000 worth of damage was done to worktops and sinks, with paint sprayed over the walls. Nothing was stolen, it appears, but this is just another example of wanton damage.

In Hall 2 of the Church buildings, we have on display a set of photographs from last year's summer mission. There is a long, yellow piece of paper with photos on it and captions describing the action. This display always attracts the attention of the children who come into the hall; they see themselves and remember the good times they had during the summer, or they see their friends. Yet, there are people who deliberately pull photos off; the pictures cannot come off on their own, but there are now four missing because someone has picked them off the display. We have them and will replace them, but that is not my point.

How do I react when I see these things?
  • I have to admit that I'm angry. It seems to me that people behave unjustly when they do things like this; some people spoil things for others and have no sense of responsibility or respect. So I am angry when people behave like this. I think I'm justified in being angry because I see that kind of reaction in Jesus when he saw people behave in a similar way in the temple and threw them out.
  • At the same time, I am sad to see such things happen. Graffiti, vandalism, damage are so pointless. They achieve nothing other than spoiling things for others. It saddens me that people think this is a good idea.
  • When people behave in these ways, I am convinced all over again of the need for people to hear the gospel and come to faith in Jesus Christ. Only Jesus can heal people on the inside. We need to tell our grandparents, our parents, our children, our grandchildren, our great grandchildren, our friends the good news of Jesus Christ.

The first lot of Polish graffiti has been cleaned off. They say that the new school will open on time. We have the photos to put back on our display. However, I'd hope and pray that people will learn to behave responsibly, with care and concern for the needs of others, with respect.

Amos, the prophet, saw a great deal of injustice in his world. His hope, prayer, even his dream was put into words: "Let justice roll on like a river, righteousness like an ever-flowing stream!" (Amos 5:24) Perhaps that's not a bad dream for us.

Friday, 23 January 2009

An Obama free zone? Change is coming!

I did think about trying to make this an Obama-free zone; but I couldn't resist! I found the whole inauguration event on Tuesday quite magnetic, as did millions of other people across the world. The hope and expectation on his shoulders is quite astonishing, something that I have never come across before in any politician. One only hopes that there is no backlash of disappointment when he doesn't quite match up to these expectations and doesn't quite achieve all that he sets out to achieve.

Abraham Lincoln's name has cropped up a few times this week. Every leaders should remember one famous saying attributed to him, but often mis-quoted, even by me! He is quoted as saying: "You can fool some of the people all of the time, and all of the people some of the time, but you can not fool all of the people all of the time." Most people quote that by replacing 'fool' with 'please'. Good leaders are not trying to fool anyone, but many leaders go about their business, especially those who are elected, knowing that they need to please the people who voted them into office.

Leaders need to go about their business, openly, honestly and humbly, trying to be themselves and to make decisions by the principles that had them elected in the first place; the people who are looking for leadership need to be willing to let their leaders be themselves and accept that they are making decisions and choices in the best way they see fit, as well as playing their part in making the changes work.

Change is inevitable. Already President Obama has made changes to the way in which the prisoners at Guantanamo Bay are treated and to the way the government goes about its business in Washington. One thing is certain: more change is on the way.

I could say the same about the Church. Peter Macdonald is the minister of St George's West Church in Shandwick Place and is also the convener of Edinburgh Presbytery's Deployment of Resources Committee, the group tasked with planning for the Church of the future in the city. Peter spoke to Presbytery in November about the state of the Church in the city; you can find the whole text of his speech on the Edinburgh Presbytery Website, follow the link below:

The main implication of what Peter said that change is inevitable and that no congregation is immune for the wind of change. At present, the future of St John's Oxgangs, where I am Interim Moderator, is being debated and there is no guarantee that this congregation will be allowed to call a new minister of their own in the current climate.

We can have one of two attitudes to change: we can fear it and run from it as far and as fast as we can and for a long time that has been the church's first reaction; 'let's leave things the way they are and have always been'. Or we can embrace change positively, recognizing that it can be good when done properly, seeing change as an opportunity to plan for the future and to shape the future of the Church and the church of the future.

There will be some who will not like the changes President Obama makes, but I think he will only make changes when they are necessary and when they make life better. That has to be the way in which we look to the future.

Friday, 16 January 2009

What's in a name?

I spent most of Wednesday as part of a group called the Nomination Committee. This is a Church of Scotland Committee that recommends appointments to the other Councils and Committees of the Church. There are two good things about being part of the Nomination Committee: 1)it only meets once in the year, for one day; 2)if I am a member of this committee then I can't be a member of any other Church committee.

The preparation work for the committee is a list of names. Each year, a certain number of people retire from membership of the Church Councils and need to be replaced. It is our task to find these replacements and to do so in a way that is balanced and fair, so you can't just nominate all your friends (actually they wouldn't be your friends for very long if you kept adding their names to these lists!!)

I know some of the names; in fact some of the people whose names were on my lists I have known for a long time; that may or may not count in their favour. Many of the names, I had heard, but have never met the people, so couldn't tell you anything about them; that means I have to rely on other people's judgement as to their suitability for the jobs we were considering.

The great thing about names is that each one represents a story. I am constantly meeting people who introduce themselves to me on the phone or who come to something I'm arranging, to a church service or children's club and they tell me their name (then I have to work hard to remember the name) and then begin to tell me their story. It will be a unique story, full of joys and delights perhaps, and also full of pressures and difficulties; sometimes it is a story that leaves me humble as I begin to see some of the hardships people, even children, have to overcome in order to make their way in the world.

Colin Sinclair, the minister of Palmerston Place is the convener of the Nomination Committee and in beginning the meeting, Colin joked about reading all of the 9 chapters at the beginning of 1 Chronicles. For those of you who don't know, these chapters are a series of lists of names, family trees, generation after generation, with nothing to break the pattern. You won't have heard these chapters read very often in Church. Eric Alexander, sometime minister of St George's Tron Church in Glasgow, once said of these chapters that "every name is a footstep in God's plan" and, of course, he is absolutely right.

When you meet someone for the first time, and they introduce themselves to you, how well do you listen? Can you remember the name they tell you? Or does it just go in one ear and out the other? I have been in conversations lately where the person speaking to me has been looking through me and past me to see who else is in the room, who might be more worthy of his time, who might be more important for him to talk to. You can imagine how that made me feel, that although I was in conversation, I was clearly being ignored.

If every name in the people of God is a footstep in God's plan to bless the world, then we should make sure that we treat our fellow-Christians as if they are the most important person in the world while we converse. If every name in the people of God is a footstep in God's plan to bless the world, then we should make every effort to get to know these names. There are new people who have come to our Church in the last few weeks: have you noticed? Have you made the effort to speak to them? Have you asked them their names? Do it soon!