Friday, 20 December 2013

Grudge Match!

Christmas isn’t Christmas unless I see a good movie and there is one which has been trailed for quite some time which I don’t think I’ll be able to resist.  It’s called ‘Grudge Match’.  It stars Sylvester Stallone and Robert de Niro as two ex-boxers in their late sixties who were once bitter rivals.  At the peak of their careers they faced one another in two bouts with each winning one but they never managed to have that decisive third.  Over thirty years they have never let go their bad feelings about one another and eventually someone has the idea that they should have one last bout which would settle once and for all who was best.  It’s a comedy film and there is no doubt that  there is something funny about two men of advanced years slugging it out in a boxing ring,  no matter how good they may look.    But in reality those kinds of feelings are no laughing matter and can be destructive of lives and communities.

There has recently been a great deal of reflection on the life of Nelson Madela and how he was able to leave behind feelings of revenge, rise above resentment,  and commit his life to building a better future for South Africa.  A future where people were able to cut across racial and ethnic barriers and find a common purpose in working for justice and peace. He once described the day that he was released from prison:

‘As I walked out the door toward the gate that would lead to my freedom, I knew that if I didn’t leave my bitterness and hatred behind I’d still be in prison.’  

Now we might say that our grudges are not going to affect a whole community or nation.  But where there is a build up of those feelings you soon have an atmosphere where revenge is more important than reconciliation and that is a bleak outlook for our society and the world.   This is where the message of Christmas comes in.  

When Jesus was born ‘grudge matches’ were pretty common.  Israel was an occupied country, under the heel of the Roman Empire.  That did not go down well with fiercely nationalistic Jews.  And within the nation of Israel there were racial and religious differences which provoked strong feelings.  It was into this atmosphere that the angels brought a message of peace:

‘Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace to men on whom his favour rests.’  

The purpose of Jesus’ coming was to bring glory to God and peace to the whole of humankind.  His life, death and resurrection would make it possible for people to be close to God, to be at peace with Him.  But the vision went further.   As people’s lives were shaped by this peace barriers that divide and embitter would be brought down.  

One of the most inspiring stories I heard this year was from a Christian relief worker who had just recently returned from the Middle East.  She had been in various countries where Syrians had sought refuge, one of which was Lebanon.  In one town she came across a Syrian family - mother, father and four children - who were living in a derelict building.  They had had a fairly good standard of living in their own country but were now having to live day to day.  Circumstances were made all the more difficult by the attitude of the local Mayor.  He had made a statement to the effect that no Syrian refugees should be given any help.  Apparently, there have been strained relationships between Lebanese and Syrians in the past.

A small Christian congregation was not prepared to accept this, however, and were providing the family with food, clothes and any other items they may need.  This is all the more impressive in that the family are Muslims.  But these are the things that happen when the message of the angels is taken to heart.  There can be peace on earth when people live close to God and commit their lives to His purpose.

Thursday, 5 December 2013


When you receive a phone call from Albert Bogle you never know where it’s going to lead.   He phoned me a couple of weeks ago about an idea he had for a Christmas video which would be put out under the banner of his Sanctus First media group.  I liked the idea and made the mistake of becoming quite excited about it which was the green light for the bold Albert: ‘Would you write the script?’  OK.  That was done fairly quickly and Albert was pleased but then there was another question: ‘Would you take the role of Lord Starburst?’  So not only writing but ‘starring’.  I was being well and truly ‘bogled’.  

The whole experience was a delight.  The concept is taken from ‘The Apprentice’.  Three people are sent out by Lord Starburst to buy a gift for a king and they return with items which are more appropriate than they realise.  We shot scenes in the Barras, the St Mungo Museum, Mappin and Webb, the Glasgow City Chambers and a board room of Ernst and Young.  Along the way we gathered a few people  who were only too glad to join in, so thanks to Wee Jimmy at the Barras, Sonia at the St Mungo Museum and the receptionist at Ernst and Young.  

If you want to see how it all turned out have a click on  The video is called ‘You’ve Nailed it!’  

Wednesday, 20 November 2013

Gifts For A King.

This year has seen the birth of a royal baby.  If you were given the task of finding a gift for him, what do you think would be appropriate?  Certainly he will need all the things that every baby needs.  But if you were to get him something special what would that be?  Most people would probably think of something very expensive or something highly unusual.  That was certainly the case when a group of Babylonian philosopher scientists brought gifts to the infant Jesus.

There is a degree of mystery as to what drove them on the long journey from their homeland to Israel.  It is quite possible that their studies had led them to the Hebrew Scriptures and the great hope of Israel that one day a  King would emerge who would hold the key to all the mysteries of life.  But how did the Magi connect this hope with the unusual cosmic disturbance that occurred on a particular night?  We do not know but the ‘star’ spoke to them of the King’s birth and the need for them to make the journey to honour him. 

They brought gifts.  There is no explanation why they brought gold, frankincense and myrrh.  Perhaps the gospel writer believed that no explanation was needed.  Gold, highly valued, durable, to wish the infant King a long reign.  Frankincense, used in religious ceremonies, to wish the King a close walk with his God.  Myrrh?  This was used to preserve dead bodies.  What has this to do with the freshness and the promise of new life?  Were the Magi given some insight into the nature of this King’s mission?  That his death would be in some way significant?

All we know is that all of the gifts were appropriate.  This King was destined to reign forever and ever.  Of all human beings he was closest to God, indeed God in the flesh.   His death opened the way for humanity to be renewed in body, mind and spirit.  There is a sense in which the gifts told the whole story of the King.  How close are we to that story?     

In T.S. Eliot’s poem Journey Of The Magi they returned to their homeland changed, ‘no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation/With an alien people clutching their gods.’  Will there be a change in us as once again we are brought to the familiar story this Christmas?  The story of a God who became one of us, who lived our life, who died to open up the way for us to be at peace with God, who has risen to assure us that our journey of life will continue beyond death.

Tuesday, 22 October 2013

Remembrance Reflection

I am sure, like me, you have been staggered by the sight of thousands of refugees streaming from Syria to neighbouring countries where they believe they can find some security for the future.  Some of these countries are small and not best able to respond to need on such a large scale.  As often happens, however, at times of great crisis the best in humanity can emerge to bring hope.

I attended a meeting recently organised by Tearfund which was addressed by one of its workers just recently returned from the Middle East.  She had been in various countries where Syrians had sought refuge, one of which was Lebanon.  In one town she came across a Syrian family - mother, father and four children - who were living in a derelict building.  They had had a fairly good standard of living in their own country but were now having to live day to day.  Circumstances were made all the more difficult by the attitude of the local Mayor.  He had made a statement to the effect that no Syrian refugees should be given any help.  Apparently, there have been strained relationships between Lebanese and Syrians in the past.

A small Christian congregation was not prepared to accept this, however, and were providing the family with food, clothes and any other items they may need.  This is all the more impressive in that the family are Muslims.    

In this season of Remembrance when we are conscious of the things which divide humanity and cause hostility we need stories like this which show how barriers can be broken down by compassion.  This was part of Jesus’ ministry as he  responded to those in need without regard for their nationality or religious background.  He rejoiced to see the greatest example of faith in a Roman soldier; he responded to the pleas of a pagan woman for the healing of her daughter; he used the character of a Samaritan, always suspect in the eyes of a Jew, to teach responsibility for anyone bruised and battered by life’s road.  

Jesus has warned us that there would always be ‘wars and rumours of wars’ but he also proclaimed the growth of His Kingdom throughout the earth and that that would be strengthened as we learn to love our God and our neighbour in need.

Monday, 2 September 2013

Dudley D. Watkins

A clear out in the Manse has unearthed two ‘Sparky’ annuals from 1968 and 1969.  All the old favourite characters are there: Pansy Potter, Hungry Horace, The Moonsters etc.  There are, however, one or two surprises.  The 1968 annual has a story, broken up into episodes, entitled ‘David’.  This is the David in the Bible who became the King of Israel.  The 1969 annual has a story entitled ‘The Road To Calvary’ which is about the ministry of Jesus from his baptism to his resurrection.  Both these stories are placed right at the beginning of the annuals.  

It is a measure of how society has changed that it was deemed acceptable to place such material in a children’s annual at that time.  But the esteem in which the artist was held may have a lot to do with it.  Dudley D. Watkins was the foremost comic artist of his day.  It was he who was responsible for ‘The Broons‘ and ‘Oor Wullie‘ along with other classics like ‘Desperate Dan’, ‘Lord Snooty‘ and others too numerous to mention.  He was a Christian, attending a Brethren Assembly in Dundee and contributing work to various Christian publications.  He also liked to give children’s talks which he illustrated on a blackboard.  

It was his ambition to produce an illustrated Bible and it would appear that the two pieces in the ‘Sparky’ annuals were the beginnings of that project.  Sadly, it was never completed.  Dudley D. Watkins died in his home in Broughty Ferry 1969 aged 62.  He suffered a heart attack while working at his drawing board.  

Thursday, 29 August 2013

A People's Story.

For the last few years the Summer months have been an opportunity for me to spend some time on Easdale Island where at least three generations of my father’s family were quarry workers.  (On the left is a picture of a group of quarry workers in nineteenth century Easdale).     I have never gone there without gathering some new information and this year was no exception.  The strange thing is that my father never said very much about his ancestors.   There could be many reasons for that but having checked the records of Inveraray Jail I am assured that there were no major scandals. 

Every family has its story to tell, however, and from what I have gathered the nineteenth century Easdale Buchanans had their days of celebration but also moments of drama and, sadly, times of tragedy.  Babies died, injuries were sustained at the quarry, money was often scarce.  In that they were no different from many other families but it was their own unique experience.   

It was God’s will that all His people would have a story to tell.  Not just about the twists and turns of their personal lives but what He had done for them in calling them to be His people, in liberating them from slavery in Egypt, in staying with them through their years of rebellion and unfaithfulness.  Israel would have a story to tell about her God and there is a constant refrain throughout the Old Testament that it was the responsibility of each generation to pass that story on to the next.  This is the Psalmist: ‘One generation will commend your works to another; they will tell of your mighty acts.’  (Psalm 145: 4)

The Bible is a testimony to the power of words not least the spoken word.  Words strengthen, inspire, empower.  And this was the purpose God had in the telling of His people’s story.  It was not just a way of remembering but a way of experiencing the continuing presence of a loving Heavenly Father. 

I am writing this on 28 August 2013 the 50th. Anniversary of Martin Luther King’s great speech at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, better known as the ‘I Have A Dream’ speech.  These are words which have come down the generations to inspire those who believe that the world doesn’t need to be under the pall of injustice, violence, poverty and greed.  There is a better world not just to dream of but to work for.

The Gospel is a story of hope because it tells us how God through His Son Jesus began a process of renewal at the heart of humankind which will end with the glory of a new heaven and a new earth.  That is worth passing on and may this be at the heart of all our worship and activity in the Church season which lies ahead.  

Friday, 2 August 2013


I once heard the artist Peter Howson say that the most significant artistic development in the twentieth century was the graphic novel.  Whether this is true or not it is certainly the case that comics (which is what we used to call graphic novels) have come a long way in the last fifty or so years.  

One of my primary school teachers whenever she found a comic in your desk would pick it up by the tips of her thumb and forefinger, display it before the class with a look of intense disgust, and then drop it in the bin.  The message was that this object was not just disagreeable it was actually harmful.  The UK parliament of 1955 apparently agreed, to some extent at least.  The Home Secretary of the time, Gwilym Lloyd George, introduced The Children’s and Young Persons (Harmful Publications) Act 1955 in response to concerns expressed by teachers and clergy at the possible effects of horror comics on children.  The real issue was the amount of violence and cruelty and ‘incidents of a repulsive or horrible nature’ which were depicted but it is fair to say that comics in general were not regarded as a good thing.  

Now graphic novels are regularly reviewed in the Guardian and the New York Times, and are written by the likes of Ian Rankin, Denis Mina and Neil Gaiman.  The comic is no longer part of the junk heap of our culture.  Anyone in any doubt about this should read Craig Thompson’s ‘Blankets’.  This is a tour de force of 582 pages which Thompson has drawn as well as scripted.  It is a story of love and its loss and faith and its loss conveyed in a way which would not be possible with words alone.  It manages to be poignant and funny but sometimes disturbing.  This is one of the problems with the graphic novel.  It is capable of dealing with serious, ‘adult‘ issues but anything with pictures is always going to be attractive to children.  As with films, books, TV programs, there are some graphic novels that are decidedly not suitable for children.  But there is no doubt that the genre has produced much to be valued and much that will endure.    

Monday, 24 June 2013

World War Z

Now I wouldn’t normally be drawn to a zombie movie.  Honest.  But this is the Glasgow Zombie Movie , the one where George Square and its environs were used to film scenes of violence, mayhem and panic.  So a bit of a disconnect there, but apparently in the time the film-makers were there millions and millions and millions were poured into the local economy, and locals got to play the part of the zombies.  We’ve heard all the jokes about that so let’s get on with the film.

It’s actually very good.  For some reason, and we are never told why, millions of people have been infected with a virus which is passed on by biting.  They are uncontrollably aggressive and are capable of overcoming the best efforts of armies all over the world.    It largely avoids the ‘yuk’ factor so prominent in most zombie movies and brings a heightened sense of the helplessness of humanity when faced with nature at its most red in tooth and claw.  

At one point a scientist likens nature to a serial killer who has a powerful urge to get caught, and at her strongest sometimes reveals where she is most weak.  Whether this happens, you will have to find out yourself.  

Brad Pitt is great as Gerry Lane, no Man Of Steel, but courageous, sensitive and insightful.  There are no other big name stars but they all work together to produce a tense, quality entertainment.  

Tuesday, 18 June 2013

Man Of Steel

The Glasgow premiere of the first Christopher Reeve ‘Superman’ movie was on a Thursday night in 1978 at the Regal Cinema in Sauchiehall Street.  I was there with my wife of three months.  We cheered - at least I did - when Clark Kent  ripped open his shirt to reveal the famous ‘S’; we chuckled - at least I got the joke - when he decided not to get changed in a perspex telephone booth; and our hearts soared - and I think the ‘we’ is appropriate this time - with John Williams’ majestic music.

And here lies the problem with this attempt to tell the old story in a new way.  It just doesn’t touch you at any level.  It was a good idea to tell something of the Krypton back-story and the circumstances which bring Kal-El to the earth but it goes on too long.  We learn about Clark’s early life in flashback and the problems he had coming to terms with his special powers and his alien identity.  This was promising but we didn’t get enough of it.   What we get more than enough of for the last third of the film are migraine-inducing special effects: buildings imploding and exploding, roads being ploughed up, fearsome weapons bringing death and destruction.  I was glad I went to the 2-D version.   

No cheers, no chuckles, no triumphal chords.  One thing though.  From my first encounter with her in a DC comic I have always thought Lois Lane to be a pain.  Amy Adams has made me think again.  

Friday, 14 June 2013

The Kid With A Bike

Having missed this when it was running in the cinemas I was grateful for the chance to see it on BBC 4 last Sunday.  

It’s a very simple story in many ways about Cyril, a boy in care, and his attempts to connect with his father.  The film opens with Cyril on the phone to his father but continually getting the message that the number has been disconnected.  His father has moved away but not told Cyril or the care authorities.    What’s worse Cyril eventually discovers that his father has sold his precious bike.

When eventually Cyril finds his father working in a restaurant he is told that things have moved on, there has been a new beginning and Cyril should not attempt to contact his father again.  Cyril then turns to a local hairdresser Samantha  who is willing to care for him at the  weekends and later takes him into foster care.  This is done at considerable sacrifice since her boyfriend does not approve and later Cyril tests Samantha to the limit when he becomes involved in a robbery at a local newsagent.  Her perseverance proves to be the turning point in Cyril’s life.  

All through the story the bike is a constant.  It is sold, damaged, stolen, used to lead Cyril astray but in the end it is a symbol of his resilience and his commitment to move on.  

Compassion, redemption, hope.  It’s all there.  And great performances from all involved, especially Thomas Doret as Cyril. 

Saturday, 8 June 2013

In Praise Of Bibliomania!

I have written about this pathological condition before and its problems.  This morning, however, I had cause to bless my compulsive hoarding of books.  A book I had not opened in over a decade and seemed destined for the charity shop gifted me with an insight which has been invaluable for a sermon which will be delivered tomorrow.  I don't know much about Otto Borchert but I am grateful that in 1933 an English translation was made of his work: 'The Original Jesus.'

Make every book a prisoner and in time it will disclose its riches.

Monday, 27 May 2013

Great Gatsby?

Hunter S. Thompson once said that form time to time he would type out the whole of ‘The Great Gatsby’ just to see what it feels like to write the perfect novel.  So how do you film the perfect novel?  There have been four attempts that I know of.   This is only the second that I have seen and with a week’s distance I am still not sure about it.  

I should say that I share Thompson’s admiration for the novel.  It is certainly among my favourites.  Yearning for the unobtainable, unconquerable hope, the collapse of dreams, the triumph of style over substance - these are themes that can connect with people in every age.  

Unfortunately, I think that latter theme could be applied to the movie itself.   It’s obvious from time to time that the same director is in charge who made ‘Moulin Rouge’.  I mean what is the point of having ‘The Great Gatsby’ in 3D?

Leonardo De Caprio is better than Robert Redford in the 1974 version.  We have to remember that beneath the extravagant lifestyle Gatsby was a bootlegger and that wasn’t just about manufacturing and distributing illegal booze.  People died in turf wars and also in the consumption of some pretty dubious brews.  Leonardo brings out the dark side of Gatsby very well.

Friday, 3 May 2013

25th Anniversary.

Any anniversary is a time of thanksgiving.  We think of the years we have been granted and the people who have featured largely.  Over the last twenty-five years many precious relationships have been established, many with people now beyond sight, touch and call but who are still part of my inner landscape.   People who have taught me much about moving with hope through illness and hardship and who faced the final challenge firmly in the faith of Christ.  Thanks be to God for the Faithful Departed!

Many still remain who welcomed me as a relatively inexperienced minister, gave me space to follow my own inner promptings, and were generous in their understanding when things went wrong.  It’s all very well to say ‘we’re only human’ but I have never found it easy to live with any hurt I may have caused.  So I am grateful for the message received from so many that while there may be stumbles along the way we are never entirely finished in the Lord’s service.  Forgiveness and renewal are as much for ministers as anyone. 

When a senior colleague heard that I had been called to St Paul’s in 1988 he said: ‘That’s a great congregation.’  Well, that was an encouragement to me but more than just a trifle intimidating.  What could I bring to ‘a great congregation’?  I’ve learned that we can only bring to the Kingdom what we are gifted to bring and to trust that the Lord knew what He was doing when He called us to a particular area of service.  Spiritual maturity is being content with that. 

Someone once said to me that what was wrong with me was that I was trying too hard to make things happen instead of standing back and getting in touch with what was already happening.  That was a great insight.  Just to take time to see how individual people coped with illness and loss; to see how generous people are with time, talents and money; to see the loving support given to friends and family in times of need; to see ideas emerging for the benefit of disadvantaged people at home and abroad; to see living faith making a difference.    It has all been an enormous privilege.  

So the last twenty-five years have not been about me but a congregation seeking to work out the reality of Christ in its life in sharing the greatest truths anyone has ever stumbled upon and bringing the love of Christ to anyone in need.  That is what made St Paul’s ‘a great congregation’ twenty-five years ago and I have been blessed in seeing that continue until now. 

Constant companions through these years have been my family.  We’ve had more days of celebration than the other sort and I am grateful for that.  It can’t be easy being ‘a son of the Manse’.  It must seem at times as if you are living in a long shadow but Mark, Stephen and Paul have become their own men and I am confident that wherever they are and whatever they do the world will know the difference. 

Of course they would not have been possible without a very special lady who has shared my life for the last thirty-five years.  The Bible speaks of two people becoming ‘one flesh’ in marriage and I believe Gabrielle and I have lived that truth.  No achievements unless she has contributed; no failure but that she has helped pick up the pieces; no hopes for the future that she has not shared.  In many ways that has been the greatest blessing. 

Thank you all for your kindness, patience and support.  And now, the future . . .

Thursday, 28 March 2013

Huggies At Easter!

I don’t know if you have ever found something surprising on your doorstep?

The day before Palm Sunday I opened the front door to find a box of 92 ‘Huggies’ which as you probably know are baby’s nappies.  There was no note to explain who had left them there or why so as you can imagine there was some anxious thought in the Manse as we tried to work it all out. 

It was on the Monday of Holy Week that all was revealed.  A gentleman from another congregation approached me before the service and confessed that he was the leaver of the nappies.  He knew about my connection with the Preshal Trust and thought I might be able to find someone who could put them to good use. 

If only he had left a note in the first place!  But in a sense it was appropriate to have an experience like that at Easter.  That was a time when explanations were needed for strange events.  The friends of Jesus had seen him tortured to death.  They went to His tomb the third day after this to find the stone at the entrance rolled away and the body gone.  They were completely baffled but soon there was an explanation.  An messenger from God was on hand to explain that Jesus had risen from the dead and very soon they would see him. 

This was the best news they could ever have at the time but it is the best news that has ever been received in the history of humankind.  Reflecting on the Resurrection years later the Apostle Paul described it as ‘the guarantee that all those who sleep in death will also be raised.’  The Resurrection of Jesus happened in time and in space and is God’s assurance that death is not the end but a way into a new existence where everything that has ever made us cry is abolished. 

On Palm Sunday I read a letter which many people found profoundly moving.  It was written by a young Iranian pastor named Farshid Fathi imprisoned in Iran for his faith.  He is in the middle a six year sentence but after that the future would still appear to be unclear.  When he heard of the the massacre of children in the Sandy Hook Elementary School he wrote a letter to the stricken parents in which he said:

‘I am sure these high walls cannot stop my prayers for you. Before this tragedy happened, I was thinking about my suffering that I'm going through because of my Lord Jesus Christ, especially being far from my lovely kids. But when I imagine how hard your pain is I forget my sufferings. Because I know by God's grace I will see my kids at the latest in 2017 when I come out from prison. But unfortunately you have to wait a bit longer. So I would like to express my deepest sorrow for your loss.
I believe we will have enough time in heaven with our lovely children forever. There is no gun there, there is no prison, and there is no pain.’
There were strange events on Easter morning but the explanation is the greatest truth we will ever come to know.

Thursday, 14 March 2013

The Fault In Our Stars

What is it like to be 16 and dying of cancer?

John Green explores this question in this sad, funny and challenging novel ‘The Fault In Our Stars’ in which we are drawn into the world of ‘cancer kid’ Hazel Grace Lancaster suffering from thyroidal cancer ‘with mets in my lungs’.  Green was a chaplain in a children’s hospital and was close to young people and their parents as they faced the challenge of terminal illness.  

I made a false start to this book.  I put it down after the first chapter feeling that there might just be too much pain for me to cope with but when I went back to it I was hooked by the ‘voice’ of Hazel.  It is the living voice of a girl caught up in something she cannot control, knowing the anguish her illness is causing her parents, cut off from other young people who are living in the mainstream, finding her friends increasingly among other young cancer sufferers.  At one point she reflects on how she has become distant from her former school friends:

‘ . . . three years removed from proper full-time schoolic exposure to my peers, I felt a certain unbridgeable distance between us.  I think my school friends wanted to help me through my cancer, but they eventually found out that they couldn’t.  For one thing, there was no through.’  

It is while Hazel is attending a Support Group that she meets Augustus Waters.  He is a charismatic young man who has lost a leg through osteosarcoma and soon he and Hazel are mutually captivated.  Augustus habitually carries a packet of cigarettes and will often place one in his mouth without lighting it.  He explains to Hazel:

‘They don’t kill you unless you light them.  And I’ve never lit one.  It’s a metaphor, see: You put the killing thing right between your teeth, but you don’t give it the power to do its killing.‘    

It is this spirit which we see in Augustus and Hazel and in their relationship which drives the book and carries us through their experiences in what Hazel describes at one point as ‘the Republic of Cancervania.’ 

This is one of those books which when I finished it I wanted to start again.  From resisting it at first go I wanted to stay with it - or rather to stay with Hazel.  I don’t know if citizens of the  ‘Republic’ will be helped by this book but they may well find emotions and experiences faithfully reflected.  Someone once said: ‘A blessed companion is a book’.  I feel John Green’s book could be for many in the 'Republic' - or on the periphery - 'a blessed companion.'

Tuesday, 19 February 2013

Single Minded

‘What you get is what is written on the tin.’  That’s a popular phrase that is used to describe a person who has no side, is completely straightforward, is open and honest, whose face will never belie what he really is.  In the wake of the recent horse meat scandal that phrase might need to be revised or even abandoned.  We will be forever reminded that what is written on the tin or the packet is not necessarily what is inside.  

It doesn’t really matter if the meat that shouldn’t have been there is not harmful to anyone.  What was written on the outside did not deliver what was promised.  Mind you, there will always be people for whom the phrase is entirely appropriate.  What you see is what you get - by and large.  It is not given to anyone to be absolutely consistent with everything that is professed and every high aspiration that is pursued.  The apostle James realised that this could be a problem with Christians.  He appeals to the ‘double-minded‘ in the Church:  ‘Come near to God and he will come near to you.  Wash your hands, you sinners and purify your hearts . . .‘  (James 4: 8)  Whom else could he be targeting but those who have a high calling in Christ but are failing to live up to it?  The writing on the tin which hides a different, darker reality.

In this season of Lent the story of Jesus’ temptations is very much to the fore.  Here we see an attempt by the Devil to create a division in Jesus’ soul so that the One who has come to be Savior of the world becomes something less than his calling.  What has been written in the ancient Scriptures of Israel is that He should save the world through His sacrifice and rising again.  What the Devil wants is that He should subtly miss the mark, perhaps doing some good, but ultimately failing to deal with the sin and death which had driven a wedge between God and humankind.  Feeding the hungry, performing spectacular miracles, bringing the political powers of the world under His control.  What could be wrong with this?  But when the hungry are fed they may have no room for God; when people have stopped gaping at one miracle they will not be satisfied until they have seen another and another; and no law has ever ensured trust in God.  

Jesus had to be Himself, completely faithful to His calling.  The core problem of humanity had to be addressed and that required a Suffering Saviour who would pay the price of the world’s sin.  Jesus will never be anything else: ‘For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.’  (Mark 10: 45).  With Jesus what you get is what is written in the Gospels.  Our Christian journey begins in earnest when we accept Him as He is, our Saviour who has promised by Word and Spirit to lead us in His ways and to create a blessed consistency in what we profess and what we are.  That must surely be one of our highest aspirations in the Season of Lent.     

Tuesday, 29 January 2013

Artificial Compassion?

Professor Noel Sharkey is a world authority on robots.  His fascination with what has become known as ‘artificial intelligence’ began in the 1980s and it was a great day for him when eventually he was able to program a robot to walk in a straight line down a corridor.  Things have moved on considerably since then but there are some developments which are causing Professor Sharkey some concern.  In a recent radio interview he spoke about robots being used for elderly care in Japan and more worrying for him drones being used to drop bombs on Afghanistan.  

That robots could be used more and more in warfare and perhaps even develop the ‘intelligence’ which enables them to make life and death decisions is certainly a deeply troubling idea.  This is what we saw in the Terminator movies.  There is no doubt that there is a movement towards this and it is one that Professor Sharkey believes should be halted.  Surely, though, there must also be a concern with regard to the use of robots as carers.  

However sentimental it may sound the weak and the vulnerable need the sound of a human voice and the touch of a human hand.  That you matter to someone is a powerful message to receive.  Think of what it meant to lepers in Jesus’ day to actually have him touch them.  They were a people who had to live apart from the main stream of human society because of their disease.  They have been described as ‘the living dead.’  But Jesus spoke to them, touched them and healed them.  I doubt if I am alone in knowing the difference a kind word and a loving touch can make.  

But there is something else to consider in this.  If we shift our responsibility to care then we are denying ourselves the opportunity to fulfill our humanity.  God has established in Jesus the pattern of a humanity that He wishes for all of us and time and again in the gospels we read of Jesus having ‘compassion’ on troubled people.  This is a word which to some extent has been emptied of its meaning but essentially it means standing alongside people in their pain to the extent that you are actually sharing it.  This is costly in so many ways and it is understandable if we reach out for an alternative or even turn our backs on the suffering.  But Jesus calls us to face the suffering of the world and to respond with compassion and in His life and teaching he shows us how.    

The hero of one of His stories cared for a victim of robbery and violence whose plight other people had ignored.  He treated the victim’s wounds, paid for his board at an inn and pledged more money for his care if it was needed.  He went way beyond what anyone would expect from a total stranger and what a difference his compassion made.   

It is truly amazing to see the advances that have been made in the development of ‘artificial intelligence’ and the benefits that have come to the worlds of medicine, engineering, science and entertainment.   But there can never be ‘artificial compassion.’  That is our gift to give.  

Wednesday, 23 January 2013

Springtime In Our Souls.

Unlike other Christian traditions we Presbyterians are not required to stick rigidly to the Christian Year and yet many of us have found value in observing seasons like Advent and Lent as well as the major seasons of Christmas, Easter and Pentecost.  Our Advent and Lent services in St Paul's have been well supported over the years, giving us an opportunity to reflect on some of the more challenging aspects of our faith.  In the end the whole purpose behind these seasons is that we emerge from them with a firmer grasp of the faith and a deeper commitment to the life of discipleship.

It is not automatic of course.  Mere participation is no assurance that anything will happen in our inner being.  We cannot work up or force a blessing from God just by adhering to certain spiritual practices.  Elizabeth Jennings has a poem called ‘Making A Silence’ in which she reflects that certain silences can be commanded like the silence that is needed for a child to sleep or for a sick person to have rest.  There is also a silence that happens naturally when everyone else is asleep ‘And you can feel the stars/And mercy over the world.’  In the end, though, there is the greatest silence of all:

‘But the greatest one of them all
Is a gift entirely unasked for,
When God is felt deeply within you
With his infinite gracious peace.’  

What she is thinking of here is a silence which cannot be created by us and does not happen naturally but is the work of the Holy Spirit, a gift from God.  That can come to us at anytime, unsought and unanticipated.  People have told me of times when challenging experiences brought them to the very end of themselves and yet they felt a sense of God’s peace at the very core of their being.  It seemed to come as a gift for that moment.  

This does not mean that nothing is demanded of us in the spiritual life.  It is possible for our inner being to be so cluttered with self-centered priorities, deadening routines and pressing duties that we are no longer turned wholeheartedly towards our God.  That’s when we need to consciously create space for God to do a new thing in our lives.  It is His gift to give but we must be eager to receive.  Jesus said: ‘Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened.  For everyone who asks receives; he who seeks finds; and to him who knocks,  the door will be opened.’  (Matthew 7: 7-8)  

Even Jesus needed space for his soul to breathe.  Luke tells us that there came a time in His ministry when there was considerable pressure on Him to preach and to heal but ‘Jesus often withdrew to lonely places and prayed.’  (Luke 5: 15-16).  So we need to find times for prayer, reflection on the Word, and worship with fellow believers in order to keep a tight connection with our God.  I hope the coming season of Lent will bless us in this way and that there may be Springtime in our souls.    

Wednesday, 9 January 2013

Where Are We Now?

It was my eldest son who greeted me with the news that Bowie had just released his first single for ten years.  Now 66 (yesterday was his birthday) there have been some concerns about his health in recent years so it was good to hear that at last something had emerged from the silence.  

The first impression is that he sounds fragile, almost like a sad, old crooner but that tone brilliantly carries the song.  He is revisiting places familiar to him when he spent some time recording in Berlin:  ‘A man lost in time . . . Just walking the dead’.  It is the memories which give rise to the refrain: ‘Where are we now?’  

It is poignant, haunting, strange and the appeal of the refrain is almost heart-breaking but there is a spark of light in the climax:

‘As long as there's sun
As long as there's rain
As long as there's fire
As long as there's me
As long as there's you’

I suppose that is what you have to be content with when you have not been caught up in the hope that Christ brings.  As long as the world keeps turning and we can reach out to one another then that is what matters.  There is something deeply moving about that but I am glad that we have not been left to create our own meaning.  I believe that has been given to us in the life and ministry of Jesus.  He has shown that there is a Deep Story unfolding in human history.  God is working out His purpose which will be seen in a great climax which the followers of Jesus called the New Creation when everything which has ever made us cry will be swallowed up in the love, justice and peace of God.  Men and women can step into that purpose and be part of the New Creation now, living according to the values which will in the end be triumphant.  

‘As long as there’s sun . . . rain . . . fire . . . me . . . you.’  But there is more - thank God.  

Thursday, 3 January 2013

An Unexpected Journey.

Having declared my immunity to the Tolkien bug on more than one occasion I still allowed myself to be conveyed to the cinema to see the first installment of The Hobbit.   I am still not totally enchanted but there is something timeless and appealing about the basic plot.  A very conventional and settled life is suddenly disrupted by a call to go on a journey which will involve personal challenge, perhaps even danger, but in the end there is the promise of great benefit coming to a large number of people - or rather, dwarves, hobbits etc.  

The subtitle of the movie is An Unexpected Journey and when you examine some of the greatest stories of faith you will find that an unexpected journey is involved.  You can start with the ‘spiritual father of us all’, Abraham, probably leading a comfortable life but unexpectedly hearing the voice of God to go on a journey to a  land which will be the base for the descendants of Abraham, destined to become ‘a great nation.’  

There is also Moses, raised as an Egyptian prince yet becoming aware of his Hebrew roots and eventually being called to lead his people on a journey of liberation out of slavery and into the Promised Land.  

In a sense the earliest followers of Jesus were called to a journey.  There is something quite dramatic about the way Jesus seems to break into people’s lives while they are going about their daily business, fishing, collecting taxes, even in the case of the Pharisee Saul on his way to arrest Christians!  He calls them all to follow as He seeks to build His kingdom.

As we face the future together we have to be prepared for The Unexpected Journey, the call to go into an area of service, perhaps previously unknown, but a need is presented and the pressure to meet the challenge is not easily resisted.  It is always daunting but like Abraham, Moses and the early believers we have the promise of God’s presence and His resources as we go forward.  David was asked to go on many unexpected journeys and there were times when he was stretched to the limit but he was still able to say:

You, O Lord, keep my lamp burning;
My God turns my darkness into light.

With your help I can advance against a troop;
With my God I can scale a wall.

Psalm 18: 28-29.

May this God be with you on all your unexpected journeys in 2013 and beyond.