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.’