Friday, 21 December 2012

Hold On To A Good Thought!

I am sure everyone here today is aware of the events which unfolded at Sandy Hook School in Connecticut and the sorrow that has been brought to so many families in that small town.  It was inevitable that people started to look into the life of the young man who carried out the killings and it has been reported that he spent a lot of time viewing violent video games.  That has started a debate in some newspapers as to whether violent images actually make people more prone to violent conduct.  It is a debate that has been going on for many years, long before there was video technology, and it seems to be very difficult to draw any definite conclusions.  Some years ago I took part in a television discussion where the opinions of two psychologists were given and they were reluctant to  make a link between violent images and behaviour.

What we can say, though, is that violent images do have an impact on us, even if it’s just that we turn away.  They are powerful, they stay with us, they can lead us to doubt the goodness in life.  That raises the issue of how we look after our minds.  We hear a lot about the importance of looking after our bodies through sensible eating and exercise but we also need to be careful what we watch and what we read and what we listen to.  A very early Christian called Paul once wrote a letter to a Christian community and he said:

‘Whatever is true, whatever is noble,  whatever is right, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable - if anything is excellent or praiseworthy - think about such things.‘  (Philippians 4: 8) 

It is here that Mary, the mother of Jesus, can be  a help to us.  She had been through a difficult time.  She had been in the final stages of pregnancy when she had to make that journey from Nazareth to Bethlehem, something like 90 miles, and probably on foot.  Bethlehem was crowded with people, there was no room for her and Joseph to stay anywhere, and she had to give birth in a place that was used to shelter animals, using rags to wrap her baby and a feeding trough to lay him to sleep.  Horrendous conditions but  she had one good thought to hold on to.  She had been told that her baby was very special.  In fact, he was the Son of God and the Shepherds who came to her confirmed that.  They had been visited by angels who told them about the birth of a Saviour, someone who was going to make a huge difference to the whole of humankind.  

And Mary listened to this good news.  She ‘treasured up all these things and pondered them in her heart.’  What that means is that she thought very deeply about her baby and what his birth meant to the world.  I don’t think that she understood everything about him but she knew that something had happened which was going to change things for the better.  She had grown up among a people who believed that one day a special person would be born in their midst and he would be like a light in the darkness - the darkness of sin and suffering and death.  And now she was thinking that her son was that person.  She had that good thought to hold on to.  

And it is a thought we can all hold on to.  There may be a lot going on  that makes us think the world is a very dark place but Christmas tells us about someone who pushed back the darkness.  He cared for people who were sick and had suffered loss; he spoke up for the poor and those who were denied justice; he gave his life for the sake of the whole world; he rose from the dead to show that this life is not all we have; and he promised that the whole of human history is moving towards a great climax when the darkness will be taken out of human experience entirely.  

I believe that when we think about these things, who Jesus was, why he came and what he has promised, it changes us.  No one loved as he loved, no one gave so much, no one can show us a better way to live.  I hope this Christmas you will take time to ponder these things in your heart, allow them to take root and to direct your future.  

Tuesday, 18 December 2012

What If . . .

I always like to have a seasonal book on the go at this time of year but I did not expect this  to be one.  It is set in London December 1952 when the ‘Killer Smog’ as it became known enveloped the city for four days.  It is estimated that around 12,000 people died and thousands more were made ill.  The smog is a sustained presence throughout the novel affecting the lives of all the main characters but it can be seen as symbolic of a far greater  evil which has descended on British society and seeping  into all the major institutions.  

Britain is presented as a satellite state of Nazi Germany having surrendered in 1940 after the disasterous Norwegian campaign.  There has been no invasion but successive governments are firmly under the thumb of Germany and gradually Britain is being moulded according to Nazi values.  There is a Resistance, the figurehead of which is Winston Churchill, constantly on the move to avoid arrest which would certainly lead to his execution.  

There have been a number of novels of the ‘What If . . ‘ variety which have tried to work out what might have happened had Germany prevailed in the Second World War.  The disturbing thing about this novel is that it suggests that the Britain of the 1940s may well have been fertile ground for the growth of Nazism.  There was a nationalism, an imperialism and to some extent an anti-semitism which Nazism could connect with,  and all of this is apart from the spirit of appeasement which existed from different motives.  

The main characters in the novel are all members of the Resistance, drawn in for different reasons and all with their own inner conflicts to resolve.  You really get to know them and while they are not consistently likable you end up caring about them.  The ingenious plot carries them along through many twists and turns to the climax on a Brighton beach.   

It is stunning thriller writing combined with impressive historical research and deserves to be read not just for its entertainment value but for the warnings that are there for all who have eyes to see.  In a lengthy and controversial ‘Historical Note’ Sansom points out that the nationalism which gave Nazism its opportunity is being seen all over Europe.  He writes:

‘ . . . all across Europe, in France, Hungary, Greece, Finland, even Holland, and most worryingly perhaps in Russia, fiercely nationalistic, anti-immigrant, and sometimes openly Fascist nationalist parties are significant forces in politics again.  And the terrible story of Yugoslavia in the 1990s reminds us just how murderous European nationalisms can still become.’  

There are also some harsh words about the SNP which have provoked responses from Scottish writer James Robertson and various people supportive of the SNP.

I would hope that the controversy does not completely obscure what is a stunning achievement by C.J. Sansom.

Tuesday, 11 December 2012

William's Truthful Christmas.

A couple of weeks ago I dug out my CDs of Martin Jarvis reading the ‘William’ stories of Richmal Crompton.  I’ve been listening to them in the car.  They provide a nice audio comfort blanket against these dismal, overcrowded suburban roads. Traffic lights always against you, nerves shattered as another White Van cuts you up.  So let’s get William back on the sound system and listen to Martin, his mastery of every voice and his obvious love for the stories.

I became a William fan when I was about 10, roughly the same age as William has always been since the first book was published in 1922.  I had had enough of Enid Blyton’s posh kids whom I had a suspicion would want nothing to do with me,  so when a pal gave me a loan of ‘Still William’ I was ready to be hooked.  Mind you, I suppose William was posh too.  After all, his family had a maid and a cook but there was enough edginess and rebellion in him for a wee Pollok boy to identify with.  

The stories also extended my vocabulary in a way other children’s books did not.  Richmal Crompton is on record as saying that she did not originally intend the stories to be read by children, and that is reflected in her use of words.  Come in the old, battered family dictionary!  With that at my side I feared no word.  

One of my favourite stories is ‘William’s Truthful Christmas‘ which is to be found in that first book I read.  Martin Jarvis does a brilliant job with this.  It begins with William in church.  He actually enjoys singing the hymns and psalms although those around him would rather he didn’t.

‘Any stone-deaf person could have told when William was singing the hymns and psalms by the expressions of pain on the faces of those around him.  William’s singing was loud and discordant.  It completely drowned the organ and the choir.  Miss Barney, who stood just in front of him, said that it always gave her a headache for the rest of the week.‘    

William, however, had no use for the sermon.  ‘He considered it a waste of time’.  On this particular Sunday he was getting through the sermon by playing with his pet stag-beetle but he was drawn by the vicar’s frequent use of the word ‘Christmas’.   The vicar was calling on his flock to have a truthful Christmas, ‘to cast aside all deceit and hypocrisy and speak the truth one with another’.  William is brought under conviction and decides that this Christmas will be dominated by the practice of truth.  He and his family are to spend Christmas with an elderly aunt and uncle who live quiet lives and have no idea of the mayhem which is about to descend upon them.

On Christmas morning William receives a book of Church History from Aunt Emma and a box containing compasses, a protractor and a set square from Uncle Frederick.   When Aunt Emma asks if he liked the presents he says, ‘No.  I’m not int’rested in Church History an I’ve got something like those at school.  Not that I’d want ‘em if I hadn’t em.’  

This is just the beginning of William’s practice of truth which increasingly offends and infuriates those around him.  The climax comes when Lady Atkinson sweeps into the house.  A large, over-dressed, domineering woman she has come to bestow on Aunt Emma and Uncle Frederick her Christmas gift: a signed photograph of herself.  She says: ‘It’s very good, isn’t it?’  But then she makes the mistake of asking Williams opinion.  Committed to truth William responds: ‘It’s not as fat as you are.’  And undeterred by the howls of horror around him he goes on:

‘It isn’t’s fat as what she is an it’s not got as many little lines on its face as what she has an’ it’s different altogether.  It looks pretty an’ she doesn’t - ‘

The story ends with William totally disillusioned with the truth.  The vicar had said that this could make this Christmas the happiest ever but instead it had made it the worst.  ‘Everyone mad at me all the time.’  Thus his bold declaration with regard to truth: ‘I’ve done with it.  I’m goin’ back to deceit an’ - an ‘ what’s a word beginning with hyp -?’  

William discovered that truth is sometimes unwelcome, disturbing and offensive.  And while we like to keep anything dark and painful out of our Christmas celebrations there is a truth at the heart of Christmas that we might find difficult to face.  The truth is that Christmas is God’s judgement on humankind.  The sin we choose leads us further and further away from God, our commitment to lead better lives gets us nowhere, with all our ingenuity and expertise we still face fundamental issues like war and poverty and injustice.    The truth is we need a Saviour.  To quote Tom Wright:

‘Jesus exploded into the life of ancient Israel, the life of the whole world, not as a teacher of timeless truths, nor as a great moral example, but as the one through whose life, death and resurrection God's rescue operation was put into effect, and the cosmos turned its great corner at last.'

We cannot turn the ‘great corner’ on our own.  We need the One who was ‘Born to raise the sons of earth/Born to give them second birth.’  

Wednesday, 21 November 2012

Christmas Never Goes Away!

The earliest I have seen a Christmas tree was in a shop window around the third week in October.  I shook my head, marveled at Christmas coming earlier and earlier each year, and had a wee grump at materialism etc., etc, etc.  Add to this that there are Christmas shops open all year round offering everything you need to decorate your home and prettify your presents and it seems as if Christmas never really goes away.  Northern Europeans like us  tend to have a problem with this.  Christmas is  bound up with Winter traditions and legends and it’s just not the same unless there is a sharpness in the air, darkness to allow the lights to twinkle and hot chocolate to give us an inner glow.  

And yet what Christians celebrate at Christmas cannot be confined to a few weeks every year.  At the heart of orthodox Christian belief there is this outrageous declaration that at a particular point in human history God actually became a human being.  This was  part of God’s great rescue mission for a cosmos that had become subject to decay and a humanity that had become alienated from Him.  This is not something that can be restricted to an end of the year meditation.  If this is true then in the words of John Betjeman it is the ‘most tremendous tale of all’ and needs to be repeatedly told and constantly meditated upon:

‘The Maker of the stars and sea 
Become a Child on earth for me?’  

I understand why it might not feel right to be singing ‘Hark the herald angels sing’ in the middle of July but when Charles Wesley wrote this great hymn he did not have in his mind people caroling in frosty air.  He was giving Christian people the opportunity to celebrate and proclaim a great truth at the heart of the faith: God’s supreme revelation of Himself and His work to make possible His reconciliation with humankind.  In that sense Christmas should never go away.  The implications are with us every day and once understood and experienced  are a constant blessing.  

Wednesday, 24 October 2012

Preacher, keep yourself from idols - Derek Tidball.

Probably one for the ministers this although it may do people in the pews some good to see that preaching is perhaps more complex than they realized.

The book has been pulled together from a series of lectures given by the author to a theological seminary in the USA.  I certainly heard nothing like this while I was training.  In fact, I heard very little about preaching at all.  So I am glad that some ministers in training have heard these lectures so early in their formation.  

Tidball begins with an examination of ‘idolatry’ and puts forward the idea that while preachers do not construct idols of wood and stone they are prone to more subtler forms of idol worship.  He writes:

‘While no preacher today would bow down to literal images, there are more subtle forms of idolatry that can prove to be temptations.  Messengers of God are particularly vulnerable to the kind of idolatry that is a distortion of what is good.  All Christian leaders are familiar with the way in which their service for God can become the end game of their lives, displacing God himself.  Honesty would compel many of us to admit that at times ‘the work‘ and ‘the ministry‘ are the reason for our existence.  We find our identity in ‘the service‘ we render, rather than any real relationship with the living God.  It is possible to continue to go through the motions of ministry, and even on the surface to be quite effective in ministry, long after the relationship has died.‘      

With this thought Tidball organizes potential idols for preachers under four headings: idols associated with the self, the age, the task and the ministry.  In all of this preachers are called to have a proper perspective on the work never allowing self to become inflated by the temptations of authority and power; never allowing the standards of the age to shape our message; never allowing preaching itself to become our ‘god’; never allowing the ministry to take precedence over the Master.  

A challenging read, folks.  At times I felt I was being opened up and scrutinized under a very bright light but feel I am the better for it.  

Give Peace A Chance.

In the Imperial War Museum in London there is a series of photographic portraits of young men and women who have recently served in Afghanistan or are at present still serving there.  They are all quite striking not least because they are all close-ups of the face with each set of eyes telling their own story.  To the left you see Marine John Beesley from 40 Commando, Royal Marines, who served in Afghanistan in Summer 2010.   The exhibition is a reminder of the uniqueness of each human life, the courage of those whose lives are endangered in the line of duty and the tragedy when a young life with all its possibilities is extinguished.   

It occurred to me as I moved from one portrait to another that this would be a meaningful way to spend part of Remembrance Sunday, just to pause in front of each portrait and to give thanks for each by name and to commend their lives to God.  I came away with a deeper sense of all that is demanded by war and a new, more heartfelt  prayer for peace.

I’ve come a long way from the day when I wrote ‘Give Peace A Chance’ on the front of a school jotter.  It’s all a lot more complicated than that, I tell myself.  And yet . . . surely the plea behind these words rises from a heart that is weary of the cost of war and longs for circumstances where the best in human nature can flourish.  The prophet Isaiah received a vision of a Day when God would settle all disputes between the nations, when swords would be beaten into ploughshares and spears into pruning hooks, when weapons of war would be completely abandoned and no one would see the need even to train for war.  (Isaiah 2: 3-5)

I believe that Day will come when Christ will bring His great plan for the Universe to glorious completion and everything that makes us cry will be flushed out of Creation.  Until that time those who follow Him are called to work and pray for that peace which can only be found in Him and through Him.  I hope that commitment will be renewed in all of us in this season of Remembrance.      

Monday, 22 October 2012

A Mystery Worth Exploring!

A quick visit to London and an opportunity to see Simon Callow at the Playhouse Theatre in ‘The Mystery Of Charles Dickens’.  Essentially he is the Narrator of Dickens’ life but from time to time through quotations from letters, journalism and other sources be becomes the man himself.  Best of all, though, he inhabits characters in the novels, 35 in all.  All the favourites are brought on: Ebenezer Scrooge, Uriah Heep, Mr Bumble, Sam Weller.  However, Callow has said that Mrs Gamp from ‘Martin Chuzzlewit’  is his favourite and it shows.  It’s not only the voice but his face and body transform into the booze-soaked midwife.  Remarkable and very funny.    

Callow is on stage for about ninety minutes with a short break in the middle.  It must be very demanding especially as he gives so much to the performance.  Watching and listening I was reminded of a story told by Donald Coggan in his book ‘The Ministry Of The Word.’

‘The then Archbishop of Canterbury once asked Thomas Betterton (1635-1710) why actors seem to have no difficulty in making an impression on their audiences, while preachers frequently leave them cold.  The famous actor replied: ‘Actors speak of things imaginary as if they were real, while you preachers too often speak of things real as if they were imaginary.’  

It is obvious that Simon Callow has made a profound connection not only with a man he has never met but with characters which have emerged from that man’s imagination.  And he has been blessed with the gift of being able to communicate something of the reality he has gathered.

It is something very like this which is at the heart of Christian devotion.  The centre of our faith is a Person, Jesus Christ, and it is as we connect with the truth of who He is and His teaching and the significance of His death and resurrection that we are transformed and given grace to reflect something of Him in our lives.  This is a mystery but one well worth exploring and proclaiming.  

Wednesday, 10 October 2012

'In A Land Of Myth . . .'

Never a fan of ‘sword and sorcery’, immune to the Tolkien bug, bored with Harry Potter after the third film yet I have awaited this new series of ‘Merlin’ with an excitement quite unbecoming a middle-aged Presbyterian gentleman.  Saturday nights are now worth looking forward to for more than just ‘Match Of The Day.’  From the moment of John Hurt’s majestic intro to whatever cliff-hanger lies at the end, I am enthralled.  

So what is the appeal?  When something which goes so much against the grain is so enjoyable the question is worth asking.  

For a start, I like the strong sense of friendship which runs through the stories.  On the surface Merlin in Prince Arthur’s dogs-body, running errands, preparing food, polishing armour.  What Arthur doesn’t know is that Merlin is a gifted wizard who has been given the task of protecting the young prince from any danger.  The prophecies say that Arthur will one day be a great king and Merlin has a role in bringing that to reality.  The problem for Merlin is that his influence, his crucial role in holding Camelot together must remain hidden. 

The other important friendship is that between Merlin and the Court Physician Gaius played by Richard Wilson, better known as Victor Meldrew.  He has a great knowledge of sorcery and legends and is one of the few people who know of Merlin’s magical gifts.  As Merlin’s mentor he often keeps the young wizard’s sometimes impetuous nature in check.  

Destiny is also a major theme.  All the main characters have their moments of achievement and failure, they make their personal choices for good or ill,  but they are being carried along by a force they have no control over which will lead to the fulfillment of Arthur’s great Kingdom.  Along the way there will be dark forces seeking to prevent this but although they do much harm and leave their mark the great destiny will not be denied.

It looks as if there will be many challenges for Arthur and Merlin in series five and I will be fighting every monster and evil knight along with them.  Apparently, when I was a wee boy watching westerns I used to dress up as a cowboy.  Anyone got some spare armour?  

Thursday, 27 September 2012

Sue Vidits

It was a great sadness for us all to hear of the death of Sue Vidits.  Sue was a member of St Paul’s during the time of her husband George’s assistantship with us and she was a great enrichment to our congregational life.  She was a sensitive listener and possessed a sharp intuition when it came to responding to people in need, gifts which she brought to her work as a nurse.  She was also great fun,  conversation with her was regularly sprinkled with laughter.

Sue had a long struggle with cancer, the challenge of which was always clear to her as a result of her work with cancer patients, but her courage will never be forgotten by those of us who had any contact with her during this time.  This of course was a direct result of her faith which was deeply personal and had at its centre trust in the God who is present and powerful in every circumstance.

It was an inspiration to see this reflected in the Thanksgiving Service at St Andrew’s Kirk, Helensburgh where George is now minister.  The Very Reverend Dr Ivan Patterson, a personal friend of the Vidits‘, spoke of Sue’s lively personality and the impact she had on all of us.  But he emphasised the most important thing about Sue and that was the perspective she had on life which spoke of God’s great purpose of renewal  for the whole universe.  As a believer, Sue now knows the reality of this and enjoys not only rest and peace but the vigour and vitality of renewed body, mind and spirit. 

Those who knew Sue will remember her great enthusiasm for sport of all kinds and so it was no surprise that the text written on the Funeral Order of Service was from 1 Corinthians 9: 25:

‘Everyone who competes in the games goes into strict training.  They do it to get a crown that will not last, but we do it to get a crown that will last forever’.   

Paul says later in the same letter that if it is only for this life we have hope in Christ then we deserve more pity than anyone but ‘Christ has indeed been raised from the dead, the guarantee that all those who sleep in death will also be raised.’  (1 Corinthians 15: 20). 

I am grateful for Sue and all those I have known who have cherished this hope to the end.  

Tuesday, 11 September 2012

The Obsolete Man.

It is interesting how many popular novels, graphic novels and movies see a future where dictatorships have taken over western democracies and implement laws which are said to be influenced by Christian ‘fundamentalism’.  V For Vendetta which started life as a graphic novel and then became a film is an example of this.  The Obsolete Man although dealing with a Western dystopia sees different values at work in shaping society.  This was an episode in the second series of The Twilight Zone originally shown in 1961.  The leading character Romney Wordsworth is played by Burgess Meredith, surely one of the most underrated actors in film history.

In this nightmarish future Wordsworth is standing trial for being a librarian and for believing in God.  After the Chancellor ie. the State prosecutor has ascertained that a librarian has to do with books the following dialogue takes place:

‘Chancellor: Since there are no more books, Mr.Wordsworth, there are no more libraries, and, of course, as it follows, there is very little call for the services of a librarian. Case in point: a minister. A minister would tell us that his function is that of preaching the word of God. And since it follows that since The State has proven that there is no God, that would make the function of a minister quite academic as well....
Wordsworth: There IS a God!!
Chancellor: You are in error, Wordsworth. There is NO GOD!  The STATE HAS PROVEN THAT THERE IS NO GOD!!
Wordsworth: You cannot erase God, with an edict!’
In the end, Wordsworth is pronounced 'obsolete' and found guilty but is given the privilege of choosing his own method of execution.  I will not spoil the ending for those who wish to follow this up.  You can find the whole episode on YouTube, that is if you do not already own the DVD box-set like this sad blogger.  But Wordsworth’s final hour is spent reading aloud some of the great passages of comfort and strength in the Bible.  
It may be unforgivably fogie-ish simply to say that they don’t make them like this anymore.  But can you imagine a modern piece of popular entertainment standing up for books and God and giving us a good man with a love for the Bible?  
The more serious point is that in the early nineteen-sixties the big fear seemed to be that governments could become so powerful that they could control what we read, what we think and,  as Wordsworth would have it,  legislate God out of existence.  Arguably, we are closer to this now than to those modern visions of the future where a loveless, repressive Christianity is in control.  I mean, have you read the papers?  

Monday, 27 August 2012

'The Heaven Is My Throne . . .'

News of Neil Armstrong’s death has brought back memories of the days when I needed heroes and astronauts were the main men.  In the 1960s they were promoted by NASA as the archetypal all-rounders: super-fit, intelligent, brave, happily married, popular with everyone.  And that seemed to me to be the kind of person we should all want to be.  I read about them, collected cuttings, followed the missions and looked forward to the day when the dream would be fulfilled and a man would walk on the moon.  

Imagine my consternation when I realised that I would be on holiday when Apollo 11 touched down on 20 July 1969.  On holiday on a camp-site in Machrihanish with no televisions for miles around.  I had to be content with my radio and occasionally poking my head out of my tent to look at the moon which that night seemed  very clear and big.  

The next day the newspapers were full of it of course.  The headlines and photographs were all pretty similar but there was one cartoon which I have never forgotten.  It showed a huge astronaut seated on the moon with his feet resting on the earth with a huge grin on his face and giving the thumbs-up.  Beneath him were the words: ‘The heaven is my throne, and the earth is my footstool.’  It was cut out and pasted into my scrapbook.  

It was some time later that I realised that these words given to the cartoon astronaut were from the book of Isaiah in the Bible and were actually the words of God.  The message was that with this great achievement man had displaced God at the centre of the Universe.  There was no more need for a Supreme Being when we had supermen walking on the moon.  

Move on to 11 April 1970 when Apollo 13 is launched.  Something went wrong.  An oxygen tank exploded and the planned moon landing was aborted.  Despite great hardship which has been well represented in the movie Apollo 13 the crew were eventually returned safely  to Earth.  I remember the moment the crew stepped out on to the deck of the recovery ship USS Iwo Jima.  They were met by the ship’s chaplain Commander Philip Eldredge Jerauld who offered a prayer of thanksgiving for their safe return. 

It was good to remember this acknowledgement that despite all the breathtaking achievements of humankind there will always be times when we need a strength beyond our own strength and a power we will never be able to demonstrate.  Many astronauts were men of faith were happy to give expression to this great truth.  They also gave thanks that in their explorations they were given opportunities to appreciate more of the heaven that is His throne and the earth that is His footstool.  

Wednesday, 22 August 2012

History People.

It has been said that we understand ourselves better as individuals and as a nation if we have a sense of history.  That was one of the great strengths of Winston Churchill, something that was brought out very strongly in a recent television series on the Churchill family.  Winston, it was said, was a great war leader because he studied the life of his ancestor John Churchill, the seventeenth/eighteenth century soldier and statesman.  From him Winston learned the importance of having clear objectives, taking hard decisions and motivating those under his leadership. 

The television series was presented by the controversial historian David Starkey.  In a newspaper article he wrote prior to its screening he said that the trouble with most modern politicians is that they have no sense of history.  He mentions one honourable exception in the present UK cabinet but even he, according to Starkey, does not seem to be learning the lessons of history. 

It is a problem we have in the Church.  We tend to think of ourselves as cast adrift on a modern sea of troubles, facing hazards never before encountered and which are threatening to overwhelm us.  A close study of the Church in her earliest days, however, will show that her very existence was threatened by a departure from Gospel truth, slack moral standards and a dangerous drift away from a sense of Christian community.  Paul and the other apostles had to work hard to hold things together until a new sense of purpose was established and Jesus’ vision of a world-wide mission could go forward. 

In these troubled times for the Church we need to get back to our sources to discover afresh what was important to those who were closest to Jesus and who made great sacrifices to preach His truth and show His ways to the world.  We are called to engage with our times but never to disparage the lessons we can learn from our ancestors in the Lord who knew what it was to see great days of the Spirit.

Monday, 13 August 2012

Internet Danger!

‘What would we do without it?’ said my brother-in-law recently.  He was talking about the internet.  Like many of us he finds it an invaluable resource for his work and leisure activities.  Compared to some I am a late arrival on the cyber-scene.  I can remember being suspicious of the Internet and very reluctant to start using email.  Now as well as being a emailer I am a blogger, Facebooker, Amazonian and sometime surfer just for fun.     It has all become a part of life.  And that is what is worrying Andrew Keen in The Cult of the Amateur, a very challenging and at times disturbing book. He is described on the blurb as ‘an English digital media entrepreneur and Silicon Valley insider’ and he is convinced, in the words of his sub-title, that ‘blogs, MySpace, YouTube and the rest of today’s user-generated media are killing our culture and economy.’

As Keen sees it the Web 2.0 revolution has created two whipping boys: ‘truth and trust’.  There is a welter of information and opinion online and much of it is not generated by accredited sources.  Wikipedia is a case in point where the identity of ‘volunteer editors’ is not always known.  Says Keen: ‘These citizen editors out-edit other citizen editors in defining, redefining, then redefining truth, sometimes hundreds of times a day.’

The ‘revolution’ has also had a negative impact on employment and the economy.  Newspapers are dying with an inevitable impact on jobs and millions of dollars/pounds are lost through illegal downloading of music and movies.  Paul Simon is quoted as saying: ‘I’m personally against Web 2.0 in the same way I’m personally against my own death.‘  But forget the big names for the moment.  Keen raises concerns which affect the lives of ordinary citizens like you and me.  The internet has increased access to pornography,   gambling has increased, children and young people are more vulnerable to sexual predators.  The most horrifying consequence for some people, however, has been identity theft.  Skilled ‘hackers’ have been able to access credit card and bank accounts to the ruination of unsuspecting victims. 

Keen is convinced that controls are necessary and with this in mind he has praise for Gordon Brown when he was Prime Minister of the UK.  He commissioned Tanya Brown, a clinical psychologist, to produce a report  on child Internet safety.  The result was a 225 page report entitled Safer Children in a Digital World which was published in March 2008.  As far as I can see, the report seeks to make parents and teachers more aware of the dangers of the Internet and to encourage search engines ‘to be more assertive in guiding parents and protecting children.’  Keen applauds the report as representing ‘an appropriately fine balance between the do-nothing libertarianism of Silicon Valley . . . and the equally unacceptable authoritarianism of unelected Internet policy makers in Iran, China and other undemocratic countries.‘   What effect this has had is unclear.  A follow-up report has been commissioned to explore this.  

Whether we agree with Keen or not, he raises issues which all Internet users need to be aware of.  Without a doubt the Internet is an invaluable resource.  I write this on a day when a downloaded ‘app’ (paid for, I may add) has given me access to hundreds of radio stations all over the world.  But we need to be alert to the dangers and this book is a welcome wake-up call.  

Thursday, 5 July 2012

I'm A Bibliomaniac But I Like It (I Think).

A wise man once said to me: ‘The trouble with being a biblio-junkie is that you end up with a lot of junk.’  As I look around my study and the sitting room and the lounge and the bedroom and the garage I can see the truth of this.  For me, every book is a prisoner.  I stand in heart-felt shame before colleagues who have said to me in that infuriatingly comfortable-in-their-own-skin manner: ‘A book never comes into my study without one going out.’  I know this is sensible, admirable, even noble but I just can’t do it.
There is a psychological condition known as ‘bibliomania’, compulsive book buying,  and I have often wondered if I am a suitable case for treatment.   I mean, what is it all about?  Are you building a paper wall against the world?  Do you have a wish to disappear within the covers?  Is this just another symptom of the need to accumulate ‘things’?  I’ll leave that to the psycho-therapists although they would probably run a mile if  they saw me coming.  
The novelist Julian Barnes was writing about this in last Saturday’s Guardian (30/6/12).  It was a comforting read because I am definitely not as bad as he but I recognise some of the tendencies.  With regard to a particularly chronic period of book buying  he writes:  ‘The dividing line between books I liked, books I thought I would like, books I hoped I would like and books I didn’t like now but thought I might at some future date was rarely distinct.‘  
You and me both, Julian.  I mean, you should only buy stuff that you need or will find immediately diverting but when it comes to books, as Burns might say, we ‘tint (our) reason a’ thegether’.   And then you come to that awful moment of insight that surely comes to all biblio-junkies when you realise that in the time left to you in this life you will never read all this stuff that surrounds you.  But  as Julian says: ‘how weird it would be to have around you only as many books as you have time to read in the rest of your life.’  
As for kindles and e-books and all that stuff.  Let’s not go there.  We need the smell, the touch, the sound of a BOOK.  

Tuesday, 26 June 2012

Simply Jesus

It has been called ‘the old, old story’ but Tom Wright shows in this book that it can be retold with a vitality that is a refreshment to mind and spirit.  The full title shows us what he is seeking to achieve: Simply Jesus: Who He was, what he did and why it matters.  
With his grasp of the social, political and religious conditions in first century Palestine, TW shows what it meant for the Son of God to appear in the midst of what was a volatile atmosphere.  And not just to appear in the midst but also to make the startling claim that with His life and ministry the Kingdom of God was breaking in and moving towards a climax which would see the whole of Creation redeemed and renewed.
Of particular interest to me was the chapter ‘At the heart of the storm’ where TW seeks to show how Jesus’ self-understanding and sense of mission would be shaped by the Hebrew Bible, God’s written word.  We are shown how passages in Isaiah, Daniel, Zechariah and the Psalms point to the One who would fulfill the expectations of Israel that one day they would see the power and the glory of God revealed in their midst in a unique way.  
The question of when Jesus became fully aware of himself as the Son of God is one which has exercised Christian minds for millennia.  The role that Scripture had in this is not often emphasised.   
TW places Jesus in His time and suggests how his teaching would have struck his contemporaries but he is also at a stretch to show us why He matters to the twenty-first century.  This is where TW really comes into his own with his description of the Kingdom of God as a present reality made known by the witness of God’s people now and fulfilled at the great climax to human history when heaven and earth come together. 
Recommended for those new to the faith but also for weary pilgrims ‘pressing on’.  

Saturday, 23 June 2012

No Holds Barred.

Now this was a nice Father’s Day present to get from my oldest son.  It’s about a dysfunctional family.  The two brothers don’t get on and for different reasons each are alienated from their father.  They are all involved in the world of Multi Martial Arts which is a no holds barred combat sport, sometimes called ‘cage fighting.’  
The fight scenes are not for the squeamish, much like the real thing, but they function as the physical equivalent of the emotional struggle each of the three main characters have as they strive to resolve their personal conflicts.  Sometimes families can be hard work!  Sometimes we need to step up as ‘warriors‘ to sort things out!  
This was a surprise movie for me.  There is more to it than I expected.  

Monday, 18 June 2012

Definitely Wonderstruck.

Brian Selznick has continued with the format of his brilliant The Invention Of Hugo Cabret  to produce this tale of bereavement, loneliness, friendship and community.  It is all contained in an overarching theme of the connectedness of life which can lead to resolution and contentment.  
It is part written text and graphic novel.  The text tells the story of Ben while the drawings tell an earlier story of Rose.  In the end, the two come together in a poignant and hopeful conclusion.   
Like Hugo Cabret this is marketed as a children’s book but it raises important questions about the things that make up our lives and where we find our ultimate sense of belonging.
Brian Selznick is rapidly becoming one of my favourite contemporary writers.  

'Well, Almost Certainly . . .'

In the sermon that was preached at the service where I was ordained to the Ministry of Word and Sacrament the preacher quoted a friend of his who was involved in full-time work with homeless young people: ‘We give all kinds of noble reasons as to why he are involved in work like this.  But one day we discover the real reason and we don’t tell anybody.’  
Richard Holloway has been looking at his life as a prospective monk, missionary, parish priest and bishop and tells us the real reasons.  To say he is hard on himself is putting it mildly.  It might seem cruelly disparaging to say of anyone involved in ministry that he was in love with the idea of it all, that he enjoyed strutting his stuff on the stage that was provided for him, that it gave him the opportunity to be seen, heard and discussed.  But that is what he says about himself.  Reflecting on his appointment as a bishop in 1986 he writes:
‘Had I really grasped the force of my innate scepticism towards institutions would I still have agreed to became a bishop in 1986?  Probably, but I would have known that it was more vanity and ambition that prompted me than the wisdom of self-knowledge.  To be fair to the person I was then, I did not yet know myself.  We live ourselves forward and understand ourselves backward, but I had not lived long or reflectively enough to know who I was.‘  
This is typical of the backward looking ‘understanding’ in the book and sometimes it is quite breathtaking in its honesty.   It would be easy for someone with my perspective on faith and ministry to take a dim view of all of this and I have heard people question how Richard Holloway ever reached a position of such authority in his Church.  But I am reminded of an article I read some years ago called ‘The Minister’s Call’ by Joel Nederhood.  He is writing from a conservative evangelical position and explores what he calls ‘false forms of the Call’.  He recognises that ‘Certain elements of the ministry as we know know it tend to call into play a variety of motivations that may strongly impel a person to enter this work without his having been authentically called to it.‘  He mentions the lure of being able ‘to speak uninterruptedly for extended periods of time to an audience that feels obligated to give attention to what is being said.’  There is also the status afforded to ministers, although he admits that this is decidedly on the wane, and the access that is given to people’s private lives.  
Nederhood argues that no minister is immune from these and other ‘improper motivations’ and they need to be aware when they begin to take over.  It is for this reason that I am grateful for Richard Holloway’s book which I think is challenging to anyone involved in full-time ministry.  I am sad, though, that at the end we are left with a picture of this talented and thoughtful man without faith and without the hope of eternity.  However, as he writes when  he comes to the end of a glimpse into the future when his children will scatter his ashes over his favourite hills: 
‘And that’ll be that.  Well, almost certainly . . .‘    

Friday, 1 June 2012

The Dictator

I wish I had gone to see Top Cat: The Movie.  Really.

Thursday, 31 May 2012

'Scotland' by Alastair Reid

Came to mind as I looked out the window this morning:


It was a day peculiar to this piece of the planet,
when larks rose on long thin strings of singing
and the air shifted with the shimmer of actual angels.
Greenness entered the body. The grasses
shivered with presences, and sunlight
stayed like a halo on hair and heather and hills.
Walking into town, I saw, in a radiant raincoat,
the woman from the fish-shop. 'What a day it is!'
cried I, like a sunstruck madman.
And what did she have to say for it?
Her brow grew bleak, her ancestors raged in their graves
as she spoke with their ancient misery:
 'We'll pay for it, we'll pay for it, we'll pay for it!'

Tuesday, 29 May 2012

The Wound And The Gift.

Some books just kind of take you over and this was the case with this one.  Totally captivated, I eventually emerged refreshed and challenged.
I started reading George Mackay Brown when I was a student.  I was immediately impressed with the way he used simple language to convey the deepest truths.  The words just seemed to glow as if they had a connection with another world.  It was disappointing, though, to see how negative he was was about Presbyterianism or rather his idea of Presbyterianism.  And I have to confess I did not recognise his over-idealised projection of Roman Catholicism.  But I kept going back for more because the artistic achievement was beyond doubt.
Ron Ferguson has done a great job in seeking to gain a hold on a very complex man and his spiritual journey and in the process conveys something of his own.  He is critical of GMB’s almost willful distortion of Presbyterianism but he understands why he was attracted to the Roman Catholic faith and appreciates why it became such an important resource in the writing.  Ferguson is impressively even-handed in his assessment of both Christian traditions highlighting strengths and weaknesses.
One of the most moving passages in the book describes the funeral service for GMB which was held in St. Magnus’ Cathedral in Orkney where Ferguson was minister.  This would only be the second time a Roman Catholic mass would be celebrated in the Cathedral since the Reformation.  Despite granting permission for this to take place Ferguson is told by Bishop Mario Conti, albeit apologetically, that he will not be offered communion.  The author understands why this must be but writes:
‘Nevertheless, it is hurtful to be excluded from participation in the Eucharist in the cathedral of which I am minister, especially at a service celebrating the life of a friend whose Catholicism was so inclusive.’  
At the service itself Ferguson sees only the Roman Catholics leaving their seats to receive  communion ‘while those who worship each week in St Magnus Cathedral are onlookers.’  He goes on: ‘The pain at the heart of the fractured Christian community is palpable.’  
Throughout the book the author speaks to those who were closest to GMB and allows them to tell their stories but I think what will remain with me is the way the author’s story unfolds.  He has a distinctive voice which comes through and we learn much about his searching and, indeed, yearning.