Tuesday, 23 December 2014

Glasgow Christmas 2014.

I am writing this on the day after the bin lorry tragedy in Queen St, Glasgow.   At this point the extent of the injuries sustained and the total number of lives lost has not been established.  Information is only slowly building up although we have some idea of the pain and sense of loss being experienced by many families. 

The inevitable regret is being expressed that this has happened in a season of joy and celebration and fun.  One cannot argue, however, that the right decision has been taken to switch off the lights in George Square and to silence the traditional music.  One young woman interviewed today for television has said: ‘You feel bad about celebrating Christmas.’ 

This won’t be the first Christmas where I have felt exactly like that.  My first Christmas in St Paul’s in 1988 fell under the shadow of the Lockerbie bombing and the loss of 259 lives.  If the celebrations were inevitably muted that year I remember thinking that this particular tragedy forced us back on the central meaning of Christmas.   Matthew links the birth of Jesus with an ancient prophecy that said: “The virgin will be with child and will give birth to a son and they will call him Immanuel” – which means,  “God with us.”  (Matthew 1: 22-23).  

This did not mean joy and celebration for those directly involved in the birth of Jesus.  For Joseph and Mary there were difficult decisions to be made; there was a journey to be made from Nazareth to Bethlehem with Mary well on in her pregnancy; there was no comfortable place for Mary to give birth. 

Later, King Herod was disturbed at the news of the birth of the Messiah.  He tried to use the Magi to ascertain the exact place where Jesus was so that he could eliminate this threat to his power and authority.  When that didn’t work he ordered the killing of every baby boy in Bethlehem 2 years old and under. 

But still the message persisted: ‘God with us.’  Not just in the days of joy and celebration and fun and achievement but even in the darkest of days.   God was still present and working in the anxious thoughts of Mary and Joseph, in the hardship they both experienced, in the anger and violence of a paranoid king.  No one feels the challenge of that thought more than I but this is where the Word of God brings me time and again.   Christianity is not in the end a feel-good religion so much as a reality-grounded faith in a God who is working out His good and loving purpose in the midst of human suffering and tragedy.   The birth of His Son was a dark time for many people but that birth was the hope of humankind.  The death of His Son was the darkest moment in human history but through that death came the possibility of forgiveness and renewal for men and women and the hope of life beyond death.  This revelation of God in the midst of humanity led Paul the Apostle to say: ‘There is nothing in all creation that will ever be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.’

We feel the darkness of Christmas 2014 in Glasgow but yet one more ancient witness needs to be heard.  John the Apostle, perhaps the closest to Jesus and the most discerning wrote:

‘The light shines in the darkness, but the darkness has never overcome it.’  (John 1: 5)

Friday, 19 December 2014


The talk for the Christmas Service at Douglas Academy:

During the Second World War much of  British intelligence work was centered on a place called Bletchley Park.  One of the most important people there was a man called Alan Turing.  He was among the foremost Mathematicians of his day and an expert code-breaker.  He eventually developed a machine that was a forerunner of present day computers that was able to decode messages coming out of Germany.  Many people believe that this shortened the war and saved millions of lives.  

A film has been made of Alan Turing’s work called ‘The Imitation Game.’  It doesn’t hold back on the man.  Despite his genius he wasn’t the easiest person to get on with.  He found personal relationships difficult and very often came over as rude, abrasive and offensive.  His personal appearance didn’t inspire confidence.  I actually knew a person who worked at Bletchley Park and she told me that it wasn’t uncommon for Alan Turing to come to work in his pyjamas.  But beneath all of this was this powerful brain that was able to achieve great things for the benefit others.  There’s a line that is repeated throughout the film: ‘Sometimes it is the people no one imagines anything of who do the things no one can imagine.’

That made me think of a number of people I have known but in particular a lad who was in my class at school.  He wasn’t an Alan Turing but I think it is fair to say no one imagined much of him.  He had a serious weight problem, he found it impossible to participate in any sports, and academically he was never among the high-fliers.  He left school early without many qualifications and I lost touch with him.  But Facebook can be a wonderful thing and not long ago we made contact again.  And he had a great story to tell.  After school he went from one job to another until he found work in a Care Home.  That made him think about nursing as a career, so he improved his qualifications, and now he is a Lecturer in an English University.  Not only that he has had stints in universities throughout the world sharing his wisdom and experience.  ‘Sometimes it is the people no one imagines anything of who do the things no one can imagine.’

That truth lies at the heart of Christmas.  The Magi came to Jerusalem to find a king.  Instead they found a displaced family living in humble circumstances in Bethlehem.  A family which was so poor that the mother had to wrap her baby in rags when he was born and use an animal’s feeding trough for a cradle.  But this wasn’t the whole story.  ‘Sometimes it is the people no one imagines anything of who do the things no one can imagine.’  This was the Son of God who would grow to be the most important person in human history.  The hymn says ‘Lo!  within a manger lies/He who built the starry skies.’  

Alan Turing saved lives.  My old school pal has had a big impact on the lives of others.  But this baby has opened up a better way for us to live in this life and given us hope for the life to come.  

Tuesday, 16 December 2014

Advent Fasting.

I’ve always struggled to be convinced of the spiritual benefits of fasting but John Piper’s meditation on the gifts of the Magi is helpful:
‘The gifts are intensifiers of desire for Christ himself in much the same way that fasting is. When you give a gift to Christ like this, it’s a way of saying something like this:
The joy that I pursue is not the hope of getting rich with things from you. I have not come to you for your things but for yourself. And this desire I now intensify and demonstrate by giving up things in the hope of enjoying you more, not the things. 
By giving to you what you do not need and what I might enjoy, I am saying more earnestly and more authentically, “You are my treasure, not these things.”

I think that’s what it means to worship God with gifts of gold and frankincense and myrrh.’

Saturday, 26 April 2014


Jesus’ disciples often listened to Him.   A disciple by definition is one who listens.  People often came to Jesus for healing but equally they came to listen (Luke 19: 47-48).  They didn’t always hear him, of course, in the sense that they embraced and acted upon everything He said.   But Jesus always emphasised the importance of listening.  He once said: ‘Consider carefully how you listen’  (Luke 8: 18).  It was Jesus aim that the hearing of His message would make a difference.  A disciple was not just one who listened but one who listened with the intention of putting into practise what he/she heard.  So the sting in the tail of one of his most revered stories, the Good Samaritan, is not just that we ‘get it’ but that we ‘go and do likewise’ (Luke 10: 37). 

All of this comes to mind in the aftermath of ministry of Rev Willie Black during Holy Week in Milngavie.  It’s not often that I get the opportunity to take in so much ‘live’ preaching, not to mention preaching so closely connected to the Written Word and delivered with such conviction and personal warmth.  It might be possible to leave it at that, to have it as an inspiring memory to return to from time to time.  But the quality of listening that Jesus required from His disciples must leave me with the question: ‘What now?’  Is this a shallow planting?  Joyfully received but short lived?  Is this a planting amid the weeds of my personal priorities amongst which the Word has no chance?  Or will the seed grow to produce an abundant crop?  Will there be a going to do likewise? 

The years have not taken away my conviction that growth in Christian faith and character is inextricably bound up with our connection to the living Word.  Not long after my Induction to my first charge a senior colleague wrote to me and made this point.  He told me that he had seen so many men’s ministries and lives being ‘evacuated of any message because they had become levered away from the Word.’  

I am always struck by the fact that in the days following His resurrection Jesus continued to teach His disciples (Acts 1: 3).   May His presence be with us to guide us whenever we open the Word as individuals or as a community of faith.  

Friday, 18 April 2014


Someone remarked to me the other day that the daffodils are particularly splendid this year.

One of my abiding memories of daffodils is from the time when I regularly preached at the Holy Week services in Croftfoot Parish Church.  I was making my way there when I had to stop at the traffic lights close to the Victorian Infirmary.  Among the people waiting to cross was a young man holding the hand of a wee girl who must have been about four years of age.  She had a mass of brown curls and  her free hand was holding a huge bunch of blazing yellow daffodils.  I wondered who would be getting them.  Mum?  Granny?  An artist friend of mine once told me that yellow is a ‘brave’ colour.  Even now I find myself hoping that this gift made a difference. 

Thursday, 17 April 2014

A Fresh Start

The writer Jasper Rees was driving one day and listening to the radio.  On came a piece of music that he knew very well but hadn’t heard for some time.  It featured the french horn which he used to play but hadn’t touched for many years.  Something happened while he listened.  As often happens with music he was moved in a deep place and later he wiped the dust off his french horn and began playing again.  Like many people before him he learned that it is never to late to start again.  

This time of year is often seen as nature making a fresh start.  Spring is traditionally thought of as a time when the earth comes to life again with more colour, more warmth and more light.  The poets have seen in this signs of hope for the world.  If nature can make a fresh start then perhaps people can too.  Mistakes are made, faults persist, but perhaps this can be put behind us and a new beginning made.  

It was the promise of this which drew many people to Jesus.  It didn’t matter where people stood in the eyes of the world, he gave them hope that things could change.  Whatever people had done, whatever their inner darkness, Jesus made them feel they mattered, that God’s love was going out to them, and that motivated them towards change.  

This work of renewal was such a big part of Jesus’ ministry that even on the cross it persisted.  One of the men who was crucified with with him wanted an assurance that there was hope even for him beyond death.  Jesus gave him that: ‘Today you will be with me in paradise.’  Even when Jesus himself was suffering his heart was going out to someone in need and even if that man would not enjoy a fresh start in this life there was still paradise. 

This hope is at the heart of the Easter message and it is my privilege to have seen it making an impact on people’s lives.  In my association with the Preshal Trust in Govan I have met so many people whose lives were coming apart through addiction to drugs or alcohol.  The promises of Jesus has given them the strength to make a fresh start and to go into the future with new values, new priorities and new expectations.  

The Easter message assures us that that the Christ who made a difference two thousand years ago is present still to open up the possibility of a fresh start to the whole of humankind.  

Tuesday, 15 April 2014


This is the new video from Sanctuary First.  Set in a future where gatherings are strictly limited and seeking to influence people towards belief in God is forbidden, we hear of Josh Emmanuel who not only speaks about God but in a mysterious way seems to reveal God.  As a result he has attracted a small but faithful following.  

The result of this is his arrest and subsequent execution.  Three days later the cabinet in the prison morgue is opened and his body has disappeared.  An urgent investigation is set into motion with an unexpected ending.  

Throughout the video we never actually see Josh Emmanuel.  Christ figures have dominated art for generations but there has always been a problem about depicting Christ in films.  Directors either go for the ethereal as with Max von Sydow or the down to earth bruiser like Willem Dafoe but very few get it right.  Probably still the best is Pasolini’s The Gospel According to St Matthew with Enrique Irazoqui, an unknown Spanish student, taking on the role.  His rather fragile appearance belied an inner strength which dominates the film. 

The problem is we do not know how Jesus looked.  I was led to think about this recently by a comment made by Donald Macleod in his excellent new book Christ Crucified: Understanding the Atonement.  Speaking of the worldly and spiritual pressures acting on Jesus throughout his ministry the Professor says: ‘they clearly took their toll, even of his physical appearance: so much so that he could be taken for a fifty-year old (John 8: 57) when he was scarcely thirty.’  The Scripture reference is to the religious establishment’s reaction to Jesus’ claim to have a unique relationship with the Heavenly Father and that Abraham ‘rejoiced at the thought of seeing my day; he saw it and was glad.’  They respond: ‘You are not yet fifty years old and you have seen Abraham.’  

It is a verse I have often read and but have never take it to mean what the Professor suggests.  I am still not convinced but when you think of Jesus’ earthly life, especially as it is summarised in Understanding The Atonement (pp. 17-18) it makes some kind of sense.  

If you wish to see Missing click on www.sanctuaryfirst.org.uk/video/watch/missing

Tuesday, 25 March 2014

Spring Power, Easter Promise.

I’ve always loved this time of year.  After the darkness and the cold of  Winter it is good to hear the birdsong, see new colour in the gardens, enjoy the longer day and see new life in the fields.  Spring is the season of new possibilities, new strength, new vision.   Philip Larkin has a poem called ‘The Trees’ in which he sees Spring as a time of new beginnings.  This only comes, however, through struggle.   The buds have been forced open, the trees are leaved again, but only after the ‘death’ of  Winter.   But from this, come May the trees will stand as a testimony that even through the struggle and the ‘death’ there can be a new beginning:

‘Yet still the unresting castles thresh
In fullgrown thickness every May.
Last year is dead, they seem to say,
Begin afresh, afresh, afresh.’ 

The season makes its impact on the poet’s heart, speaking to him of the hope that life can begin again.  It is a reminder to us that in the season of Spring we celebrate Easter and the events that have made it possible for humankind to begin again.  We remember the struggle of Jesus’ life as he identified fully with our human condition.  We remember his death that absorbed the judgement of God on the sin of the world and made forgiveness possible.  We remember his rising that points forward to a renewal of body, mind and soul at that time when all things will be made new. 

In Spring we have more than the power of nature to speak to us of better days ahead, we have the story of Jesus and its power.   It brings us the assurance that our God is with us through all our days of struggle and grief.   It brings us the assurance that we can emerge from the worst of our failures knowing that we have been forgiven.  It brings us the hope that despite the crushing darkness that is often our human experience God has fixed a time when the buds of renewal will come to full bloom and there will be a new creation for his renewed people to enjoy.   

The apostle John had a glimpse of this in these startling visions in the Book of Revelation:

‘He will wipe away every tear from their eyes and death shall be no more.
 Neither shall there be mourning or crying or pain any more for the former things have passed away.’  (Revelation 21: 4)

Enjoy the wonders of Spring but more so enjoy the promises of Easter.