Wednesday, 30 December 2015

Seekers After Truth.

The New Year is traditionally a time when we remember the Magi who journeyed from the East to pay tribute to the newly born Jesus.  They were late arrivals in Bethlehem having travelled a great distance, probably from Babylonia.  It is something of a mystery as to what exactly set them on their way.  We are told that they saw a star when it rose in the East and they connected this with the birth of ‘the king of the Jews’.  Something about this star spoke to expectations they had that one day a significant figure would be born in the land of the Jews. 

It is doubtful if they would have made the journey to pay tribute to a foreign king unless they were convinced that this particular king would give them some insight into the great mysteries of life.  Magi were scholars who studied science, philosophy and religion.  Sometimes this led them into areas that today we would call the ‘occult’ but at their best these men were honest seekers after truth.  It is possible that copies or fragments of the Hebrew Scriptures had come to their hands and they were familiar with the expectation that one day a special person would emerge from the nation of Israel who would offer hope not just for this life but also the life to come.  Then they saw the star and it touched something profound within them.  Joseph Ratzinger wrote this:

‘All kinds of factors could have combined to generate the idea that the language of the star contained a message of hope.  But none of this would have prompted people to set off on a journey, unless they were people of unrest, people of hope, people on the lookout for the true star of salvation.’ 

A colleague recently said to me that he is convinced that there are many people in our country who are interested in Jesus but who just do not see the point of the Church.  This is not new.  There will always be ‘people of unrest, people of hope, people on the lookout for the true star of salvation.‘   That is the way we are made.  Our hearts are restless until they find their rest in God.  And the Church has a point for it is within the community of faith that the story of Jesus is told, that His significance is drawn out, that the hope He brings for this life and the next is emphasized, that His love is demonstrated for those who need Him most. 

Another year is just around the corner.  Let us never lose this vision of Whose we are and Whom we serve.  Not just for our own sake but for the honest seekers after truth who God is seeking to gather into His purpose.  

Tuesday, 22 December 2015

The Great Project.

Address at Douglas Academy Christmas Service: 22/12/15.

The new Star Wars movie is called ‘The Force Awakens’.  I haven’t seen it yet but there was an Imax screening last Wednesday at the Science Centre  and my son was there.  He bought his ticket sometime in October about five minutes after they went on sale.   And for all that time he lived with all the hype, the promise that this was going to be the greatest cinematic experience of his life. The verdict was it was pretty close.  Everything that was promised was delivered.

It’s great when things work out like that.  There are few things worse than living with a promise not delivered, especially when it touches the more serious side of life.  For instance there is a Christian minister who was recently in prison in Iran.  His name is Farshid Fathi.  He hasn’t done anything that we would regard as criminal.  It’s just that certain Christian activities are unlawful in Iran and regarded as a threat to the state.  He was arrested on Boxing Day 2010 and sentenced to 6 years.  There was good news, however, in July of this year when he was promised early release and was given a date, 10 December this year.  But that day came and went and he was still in prison.    It must be so hard living with a promise of freedom that has not been delivered.  Thankfully I just heard last night that he has been released, hopefully free to join his wife and family in Canada.  

Christmas is about the most important promise ever made and how that was delivered.  God promised the ancient people of Israel that a special person would be born in their midst who would be the most important person ever.  He would not only make an impact on Israel but on the whole world.  His coming would be like a light shining in the darkness.  

When he came, though, he wasn’t quite what was expected.  He was born in an ordinary family and worked as a village carpenter.  Things changed when he became a traveling preacher.  He spoke about God and how people could get close to Him.  He spoke about hope for this life if people could learn to put others first.  He spoke about the renewal that God was seeking to bring to the whole earth.  

It wasn’t the most spectacular life on the face of it but after he had been nailed to a cross and rose from the dead it was as if a force awakened that changed the whole face of human history.  He had promised that the Spirit of God would come and live in all his followers.  He had promised that a day would come when his love and justice and peace would triumph over the darkness in human experience.  

I call this God’s Great Project.  It is sometimes hard to believe that it is going forward when you see the cruelty and injustice that bites into people’s experience.  The world can be a dark place.  But one of Jesus’ followers once wrote: ‘The light shines in the darkness and the darkness has never overcome it.’  I believe we can go forward with that great hope in our hearts.    

Wednesday, 18 November 2015

Blowing The Embers

Last year the historian Simon Schama gave a talk about his most recent book which was a history of the Jewish people.  He shared his conviction that anti-semitism was on the increase.  He memorably described it a ‘a gathering, hideous drum-roll.’  The reasons for this are complex but he mentioned the contribution that religious extremism played, something that many historians had failed to foresee.  He cited the eminent historian, Eric Hobsbawm.  Schama heard him give a lecture sometime in the 1960s in which he cast a rather gloomy eye on the future but stated confidently: ‘At least we don’t have to be worried about religious extremism.’  Yet it is this which is casting a shadow over many lives at this moment in time.  

This is not to hold Hobsbawn and others up to ridicule.  Those with the surest grasp of human history could not have predicted the events that have caused so much pain recently in France and other parts of the world.   Human wisdom, however, is limited.  Many predictions concerning the future have been realized and celebrated but there is much that that has been unexpected and horrifying.  

Christians find the horrors of human experience as unsettling as anyone.  Jesus himself stood before the tomb of a friend and was deeply disturbed.  Yet we still speak of hope.  Joseph Conrad once wrote of a great European city as ‘a cruel devourer of the world’s light’.  There are movements amongst us that could be described in this way but still we proclaim the hope established by the Apostle John: ‘The light shines through the darkness, and the darkness can never extinguish it.‘   Jesus showed a way to live that challenges the darkness but in His death and resurrection He showed that the days of darkness are numbered.  As He stood before his disciples as the Risen Lord He showed them their destiny.  He was the first-born of a new humanity which would inhabit a new creation with the darkness of sin and death flushed out forever.   The Apostle Paul saw human history moving towards that great climax.  Now it is as if creation is in the throes of child-birth but the day has been appointed for the new creation to be revealed.  

It is with this faith that we go forward and not as a people passively waiting for everything to work out as promised.  We are called to live now as it will be then.  We are called to be a people who show the world what the Kingdom will be when it comes.  We are called to stand against the devourers of the light with the love of Christ which alone can radically transform priorities, attitudes, relationships and breathe decisively on the embers of hope.  

I saw this in practice in the words of the French journalist Antoine Leiris whose wife was killed in the attack on the Bataclan theatre:

‘On Friday night you stole the life of an exceptional being, the love of my life, the mother of my son, but you won't have my hatred.
I don't know who you are and I don't want to know - you are dead souls. If this God for which you kill indiscriminately made us in his own image, every bullet in the body of my wife will have been a wound in his heart.
So no, I don't give you the gift of hating you. You are asking for it but responding to hatred with anger would be giving in to the same ignorance that made you what you are. You want me to be afraid, to view my fellow countrymen with mistrust, to sacrifice my freedom for security. You have lost.
I saw her this morning. Finally, after many nights and days of waiting. She was just as beautiful as when she left on Friday night, just as beautiful as when I fell hopelessly in love over 12 years ago.
Of course I'm devastated with grief, I admit this small victory, but it will be short-lived. I know she will accompany us every day and that we will find ourselves in this paradise of free souls to which you'll never have access.
We are two, my son and I, but we are stronger than all the armies of the world. I don't have any more time to devote to you, I have to join Melvil who is waking up from his nap. He is barely 17-months-old. He will eat his meals as usual, and then we are going to play as usual, and for his whole life this little boy will threaten you by being happy and free. Because no, you will not have his hatred either. ‘
The Season approaches when we remember the birth of our Saviour Jesus.  The ancient people of Israel were encouraged to think of the Messiah as the Prince of Peace.  Let everything within us focus on the truths concerning Him that will bring us peace as individuals and enable us to be that light of the world that He has called us to be.  

Thursday, 27 August 2015

Witness To The Resurrection.

I once heard the American ‘humourist’ Joe Queenan commenting on funerals in his own country:

‘Funerals have become a cabaret.  There is no recognition that someone has died.  Eight or nine friends get up and tell jokes and talk about your golf game.’ 

I’ve never actually attended a funeral like that but I think I know what he means.  No one wants a funeral to be unduly morbid and a burden to those who attend but neither should it swing too much in the other direction.   Someone has died and that has had painful consequences in a family and in a circle of friendship.  That should be recognised.   I am grateful, however, that as a Christian pastor I can hold alongside that the hope that Jesus’ resurrection has brought to the world.   No matter how often I recite these words of Jesus they are always powerfully felt:

 "Do not let your hearts be troubled. Trust in God; trust also in me. In my Father's house are many rooms; if it were not so, I would have told you. I am going there to prepare a place for you.”

It was encouraging to hear that this hope was emphasized in the recent funeral of Cilla Black. Yes there were the funny stories that you might expect but there was also a powerful witness from Sir Cliff Richard.  A troubled man these days but he shared his own faith and with great conviction sang a song of Christian hope.  I had never heard it before but it speaks of God’s faithfulness to his people through all the dark experiences of life and  through death itself:

‘I see your wounded hands, I touch your side
With thorns upon your brow you bled and died
But there's an empty tomb, and love for all who come
And give their hearts to You, the faithful One.’

I often reflect on the great privilege of conducting funerals for people who were greatly loved by those who were closest to them, but even more being able to bring to their moment of heartache the promises of Jesus that can never fail.   I cannot think of anything better than standing in the tradition of the earliest believers who regarded themselves as ‘witnesses to the Resurrection.’     

Tuesday, 28 July 2015

Holiday Shadow

Port de Pollenca in Mallorca is a very pleasant place to have a holiday.   It is geared for families, provides a variety of outdoor activities, and there are plenty of places to shop and eat and drink. 

There is also something of a celebrity appeal.  You can stay in a hotel once frequented by Agatha Christie; you can eat in Bradley Wiggins’ favourite restaurant in the presence of two of his bikes and a selection of his jerseys; and at certain times it is possible to look out to sea and catch sight of the holiday flotilla of King Juan Carlos. 

Usually, the only time you are ever aware of the Guardia Civil, the local police, is when there is a traffic problem of some kind.   So when you are having a coffee in a sea-front cafĂ© and four members of the GC stroll by carrying automatic rifles it comes as something of a shock.   Then we remembered that it was a week to the day since 38 tourists were murdered on a beach in Tunisia.  Perhaps this was an attempt to provide some assurance to the tourists in Port De Pollenca but to some extent it was a shadow falling over the brightness and colour of that late morning.  The memory of those scenes was vivid.  Violence and death breaking into the lives of people like us seeking relaxation and renewal in the sun. 

The apostle Paul had experiences like this.  In one of his letters he speaks of the disasters and cruelty he has had to cope with in his work as a Christian missionary.  Not only has there been shipwrecks, prison and hunger.   He has also been flogged, stoned, and preyed upon by bandits and other men of violence, people who seem to emerge from the darkness of human experience bringing pain and suffering.

Despite all of this Paul kept going.  He believed that while the darkness seemed to be in the ascendant a light had arisen which offered hope to humankind.  The Son of God had come to the world and not only preached the love of God but showed this love in the midst of pain and tragedy and loss.   And with his death and resurrection Jesus had given notice that the days of the darkness were numbered.  The Kingdom of God was advancing and a time had been appointed when everything that has ever made us cry would be overwhelmed by the love and the justice of God. 

The apostle John had a vision of this described in the Book of Revelation.   He saw a New Creation where death, mourning, and pain had no place, the climax of God’s great plan of renewal.  But like Paul, John realised the great need for followers of Jesus to live now as people of the Kingdom.  As we work for justice and peace in our own time we point forward to the time of their triumph under Christ.   

Monday, 25 May 2015



He told us to stay in Jerusalem until the power came.
It wasn’t bad, the waiting.
We had one another, meeting for prayer.
There was business, the gap Judas left.
But still . . .

When it did, it was like nothing we imagined.
Together for worship.
The space was transformed,
Filled with Jesus.
And we were transformed,
Filled with Jesus.

Speaking in languages never learned,
The work was clear.
Jesus not just for us, not just for Israel.
‘You will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria,
And to the ends of the earth.’

The world was waiting.  

Thursday, 23 April 2015

Who Governs?

A Very British Coup was a television drama that made a big impact in the late 1980s.  It told the story of Harry Perkins MP, a former steel worker from Sheffield, who becomes Prime Minister in a socialist government.  His radical policies are generally popular with the country at large but he is constantly frustrated by unsympathetic civil servants, smeared by an influential media mogul and undermined by governments of other countries.   Eventually forces opposed to Perkins come together in a bloodless coup to have him removed from office. 

It   was first-class drama with the late Ray McAnally excelling as Harry Perkins.  It raised a serious question, however, which is still being asked and ought to be of concern to us all: who governs Britain?  Is it our elected representatives or is it people we have never heard of who are in the background but press the buttons and pull the levers of power? 

Contributions to that debate are still flowing from the pens of political and social commentators and rightly so.  Whatever conclusions Christian people might come to we must always hold the perspective of the Scriptures on political power.   Psalm 2 presents a picture of a God who is above political machination but is ultimately in control of the flow of human history.  The Apostle Paul is clear that political authority is part of God’s plan for the stability of the nations.  Jesus boldly proclaimed to Pilate that he would have no power if it were not given ‘from above.’ 

It is a great encouragement for us to know that whatever plans emerge from political manifestoes there is a Deep Story unfolding.   Jesus would call it the building of God’s Kingdom, the transformation of the whole of God’s Creation, restoring it to that state where suffering and injustice and death have no place.  In the meantime, certain individuals are entrusted with the welfare of the nations.  They are given power ‘from above’ and are responsible to God for the exercise of that power.   In the end, the big question will be how close a government has been to the Deep Story. 

This is why we are commanded in Scripture to pray for those in authority.   Paul writes:

‘I urge, then, first of all, that requests, prayers, intercession and thanksgiving be made for everyone - for kings and all those in authority, that we may live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness.  (1 Timothy 2: 1-2)’ 

Not that we are to endorse everything a government stands for but that a vision of the Kingdom might be kept before all those in authority along with an awareness of their awesome responsibility.   

Wednesday, 25 March 2015

Easter Fragrance.

I caught the Great British Bake off on television the other night – quite by accident you understand.   It was the Easter Masterclass with Mary Berry and Paul Hollywood showing us how we can have a more calorific Easter.  It was Paul’s task to bake the ultimate hot cross buns and I must say they looked quite delicious. 

While he was kneading away at his dough, Paul recalled the days when his father’s bakery turned out thousands of hot cross buns every Easter.   And he had ways of making sure everyone know they were on the go.  He would mix in some bun essence with a pail of water and then wash the floor of the shop.  Everyone who came in was wrapped in the fragrance of the hot cross buns.  Even more craftily, he placed a capful of bun essence above the extractor fan so that the fragrance would flow out from the shop to hook unsuspecting passersby.  

That’s how to pack them in and ship out thousands of hot cross buns!

The Apostle Paul writes of Christians as a fragrance that leads people to  knowledge of Christ.  (2 Corinthians 2: 12-17)  He is realistic enough to know that not everyone will be captivated but to many the Gospel we share and the values we embrace will be ‘the fragrance of life’.  That is what it means to live the Easter faith.  There is too much in the world that gives off the stench of death, the materialism, the violence, the injustice.  Those who have been touched by the story of Christ and live by His ways can show a better way leading to renewal, the fragrance of life that flows from self-sacrifice, compassion and truth.  

Mr Hollywood’s bakery poured out a fragrance that drew people in to taste and see.  An Easter people, pouring out the fragrance of Christ, brings the hope of life to the world.  

Thursday, 19 February 2015

Renewal Promised!

The other day I passed a flowerbed at Milngavie Town Hall.  It has been prepared by Milngavie In Bloom and has a notice that says: ‘Please keep off the garden.  Tulips and daffodils are planted and will soon be appearing.’  It was a cold day, cloudy, and threatening rain so to see that promise was really quite heartening.  To know that very soon there would be a display of life and colour.  Amazing too to think that a promise like that could be made, that we can have faith in the cycle of the seasons and the renewing power of creation. 

Perhaps we do not go in for Lent to the same extent as other Christian traditions but there can never be any harm in reminding ourselves that often the life of faith can be challenging and demanding of all our resources.  We may not be in the position of many Christians in the Middle East and some parts of Africa who are daily in fear of their lives but there are times when we have difficulty making sense of dark and difficult experiences that have fallen to us.

In this we are in good company.  The apostle Paul once wrote that life can sometimes be like seeing ‘a poor reflection in a mirror’, hard to work out.  But Paul was in the grip of a promise that God’s renewing purpose would never be denied by the worst of circumstances.   Some of his most challenging words are in 2 Corinthians 4: 16-17:

‘Therefore we do not lose heart. Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day. For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all.  So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen. For what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal.’

I have often thought about these words and their implications for believers.  We are being invited to see our ‘troubles’ from the perspective of eternity, a time beyond this life when we will see that no matter what was happening to us and how badly we were troubled, God was still working in our lives to take forward his good purpose for us.  The key to Paul’s faith was that quite simply he knew his God.  He once wrote: ‘I know whom I have believed.’   He was convinced that the God ‘who did not spare his own Son for us all’ had nothing but a good and loving purpose in the lives of those he loved.    

My hope for these weeks leading to Easter is that as a people we will know our God better through our reflection on His promises which alone can sustain us through the challenges that fall to us.  

Wednesday, 21 January 2015

It Ain't Persecution!

There are times when it is just one thing after another.  Before Christmas our minds were full of a tragedy in the centre of Glasgow and now we are living with the echoes of the terrorist attacks in Paris.  We all know what it is like to be going about our business in a city centre without a thought for our personal safety so events like these touch us at a personal level. 

Ignatius Kaigama offers us some perspective, however.   He is a Roman Catholic Archbishop in Nigeria where Boko Haram have killed thousands of people and rendered many homeless.  He has commended the spirit of Paris with thousands turning out in support of the victims and to affirm their commitment to freedom of speech.   Nevertheless he has challenged the West, not least its leaders, to show that same kind of spirit when attacks happen in Nigeria, in Niger or in Cameroun. 

Perhaps, looking at the West, the Archbishop would agree with the poet’s observation that we cannot bear too much reality.  The scale of the carnage in places like Nigeria is just too much for our minds to process.  But it is there and people who share our faith are being called to persevere in the midst of it all.  And that is a wake-up call for people like me.   From time to time I have felt that orthodox Christians are being sidelined in Western society and sometimes even pressurised to conform to mainstream thought on a number of issues.  But what is this in comparison to the suffering inflicted on Christians of all traditions in parts of Africa and the Middle East? 

The Anglican Archbishop of York, John Sentamu was interviewed recently and it was put to him that some Christians in the UK are currently feeling persecuted because their views have been marginalised by mainstream society.  He replied:

‘Well I lived in Uganda during the time of Idi Amin . . . and our Archbishop was murdered by Idi Amin.  I had to get out of Uganda because I had opposed Amin on a number of things which I didn’t think were ethically right  . . . I know what persecution looks like.  What is happening at the moment in (the UK), it ain’t persecution. 

The coming season of Lent reminds us that Christian discipleship is challenging but we still have freedom to express our views in various ways, to engage in works of service and also to share our faith.    None of this should ever be taken for granted but approached prayerfully and used responsibly and respectfully.  

Monday, 19 January 2015

A Beautiful Symphony.

No one could fail to be moved by the amazing scenes in Paris as tens of thousands of people, including many world leaders, expressed their solidarity with the victims of the terrorist attack on Charlie Ebdo.  It seemed to be one of those moments when people  of all political and religious persuasions were united in a common concern for freedom of speech.  And yet it wasn’t long before other other voices began to be heard.  One Muslim woman said that she deplored the Charlie Ebdo murders but she was nonetheless deeply offended by the way her faith had been insulted by the magazine.   ‘For that reason’, she said: ‘I am not Charlie.’  Other Muslims took a similar line, especially when the cover of first edition of Charlie Ebdo after the murders carried a cartoon of the prophet Mohammed.   Some seemed to think this was a missed opportunity.  The vast majority of Muslims were horrified by the attacks and wanted to be part of the general condemnation but were  alienated by this lack of consideration for their beliefs. 

Then there was a voice from Africa.  Archbishop Ignatius Kaigama of Nigeria pointed out that Boko Haram has killed thousands of people in his country with many more displaced and with an uncertain future.  He commended the spirit of Paris but appealed for that same spirit to be spread around when attacks happen in Nigeria, in Niger or in Cameroun.  On his Facebook page, Hollywood actor Boris Kodjoe congratulated the world leaders for taking part in the Paris march and asked “can somebody tell me why nobody is marching for those [Nigerian] victims? Any world leaders planning a trip to Lagos or Abuja this week? Too Busy? Bad flight connections?”

It all comes together to emphasise that on political and moral issues it is almost impossible to find consensus.  Something that seems straightforward to me is problematic to someone else.  I am writing this on 19 January, Martin Luther King Day.  Today he is generally regarded as a great champion of human rights but there was significant opposition to his drive to secure equality for the African-American community in the United States.  To some people, many in high places, he was a threat to a status quo that suited them very well. 

This does not mean that we should hold back on the issues that are important to us.  In the end, however, we have to find a way to live together, in disagreement perhaps, but without threats to life and liberty, and sensitive to the feelings of others.  The Apostle Paul once wrote:

Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit, but in humility consider others better than yourselves.  Each of you should look not only to your own interests, but also to the interests of others.’

If I am to put this into practise then it means an openness to others, no matter where they are coming from politically or spiritually, in the hope that in mutual understanding and respect we can live in peace.   To quote Martin Luther King: ‘With this faith we will be able to transform the jangling discords of our nation into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood.’

Saturday, 17 January 2015

Grit For The Road!

It took Gabrielle four hours to get home from Braehead yesterday.  We were keeping in touch by phone and she thought it might be a good idea if I gritted the hill leading up to the Manse in case she failed at the last slope.  There is a grit bin in Grange Road opposite the Manse.  So here we go!  Heavy work it was but on the way up the lady did not falter.

Maybe the work of the Church is to grit the road for our fellow travellers on life’s journey.  Sharing the truths that enable them to have a firm footing in this life and the next.