Dec 242013
 

The ‘tradition’ in one of my church’s has been to have a Christingle service on Christmas Eve. I’ve nothing against them, but I wanted to do something different this year. Relying on last year’s example of a good number of visitors, I decided that I was going to have a nativity play – where (almost) everyone got a part.

So, we had loads of props and dressing-up stuff, and even those who didn’t get that into things were expected to join in the heavenly choir of angels shouting ‘Hallelujah’ at appropriate points, or providing animal noises for the stable. It was first come, first served for the main parts, but there was the possibility to be part of the group of shepherds, or join the angelic ranks.

In the end, most folk participated to some degree. It was all a bit chaotic as I tried to narrate and provide some scene-setting direction to those about to have speaking parts.

It was all a bit of a laugh, with the Christmas story being told through song, readings, and the nativity scenes.

But the main point was that everyone had an opportunity to join in, and it was this point I made when I summed it up. Christmas is an invitation to participation – through God’s ‘participation’ in our life through the incarnation. We could sit back and be passive spectators, ooh-ing and aah-ing at the cute presentations, but Christmas is a call to become involved; to be part of the good news story.

I hope everyone who came along ‘got’ that tonight, even in the messiness of it all (and there’s a message there too, I suspect).

I hope that you too will be blessed this Christmas, and that you get that bit more involved with God, as he calls us to participate in the ongoing story of his love come to us at Christmas.

Sep 202013
 

“In the beginning, when God created…”

The opening verses/chapters of Genesis are almost guaranteed to excite debate. Whether it is science v. creationism, or poetry v. history, interpreting the opening part of Genesis seems to cause splits between Christians and atheists, and Christians and other Christians.

Creationism (and its associated ‘young earth’ and ‘seven literal days’ doctrines) has hit the headlines for all the wrong reasons (actually, maybe for all the right reasons) in recent weeks here in Scotland. A Christian group, working in primary school chaplaincy, were handing out creationist literature to the pupils, even the very youngest. Chaplaincy is a privileged position in schools. Chaplains are allowed in only at the invitation of the Head Teacher. It is clearly understood that proselytising is not acceptable, although that is not to say that we cannot share an understanding of our Christian faith. Handing out faith tracts which represent a fairly marginal position to children who do not have the critical faculties to assess it is, I would suggest, an abuse of that privilege.

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Sep 202013
 

This is just a short post to re-establish my blogging habit.

I had intended starting to blog again a while ago but struggled to work out what to write about, and what direction to take this blog. I’ve previously used it to reflect on ministry, but that’s perhaps a bit too close to home now that I have responsibility for two congregations and two parishes. There’s only so much you can say without it getting very personal, very quickly.

However, I was cycling with a friend recently and I was saying that the one thing I really miss from my period of supervision is the opportunity to chew the fat on theological issues. I’m a (not so) closet academic. Not that I’d ever want to teach/lecture, but in the sense that I enjoy exploring theology in a more academic, almost detached manner. Coming back to parish work always keeps that well-grounded though, but it’s too easy to get caught up in just ‘doing’ and not take a step back to ask ‘why?’ every now and again.

Student placement and probation reports encouraged us to think theologically in our reflections on ministry. But I want to do more than just that. We don’t stop learning, and theology, albeit that it flows like treacle at times, also doesn’t stand still. I want to get my brain working again  and discuss the ‘angels on pinheads’ stuff as well as the genuinely challenging theological issues.

Given that it’s not going to be done on a Sunday morning in a sermon, or at a Bible study group, I need to find other outlets. Online discussions are useful, but, ultimately, get messy and unfulfilling. Nevertheless, blogging is a useful outlet for brain-dumping, and sorting through thoughts and ideas, so this is a re-start to blogging again.

As always, the primary purpose is for my own benefit, sorting through thoughts and ideas. But if I can be presumptuous enough to expect some people to read what I’m writing, then you are welcome to contribute your thoughts.

So, write then!

Apr 152012
 

Not quite sure what that title will do to my search rankings, and it’s maybe just as well I don’t have any ads on the blog. Perhaps I should explain though.

Marrying my brother-in-law was one of a number of recent ‘firsts’. And, of course, I mean that it was the first wedding ceremony I officiated at. No pressure of course: first time officiating, in front of family, lots of overseas guests, in the Signet Library, seriously ‘mega’ do, Saturday of the Easter weekend (so nothing else to do anyway).

It was a great day, and there was something special about it being a family affair. It certainly wasn’t the case though of there being less pressure because it was family – if anything it was even greater. But as my first time officiating it was good to know that being family was all in the mix of making the day particularly memorable for all concerned.

But I was also able to look on the event with a ‘critical’ eye and have a few things mentally tucked away for future weddings. Little things like: make sure the pianist has all the music they need. Singing the Aaronic blessing unaccompanied, and with so few knowing it, was probably not a blessing on the hearers. Also, make sure the pianist (who was very, very good actually) is familiar with the hymns. Played too slowly, and in ‘piano-bar’ style doesn’t really work for hymns. And another: when you’re doing the ‘stole thing’ (thanks so much, Will and Kate), wrapping it around held hands, make sure that ‘leg’ is long enough to start with so that you don’t have to haul more stole round. There are plenty more tucked away in my head, but I’ll save my blushes.

Regardless, it all went well overall, and much of the nitpicking is me doing that over-analytical thing I do. One more though – I’ll not be rushing to book a wedding on Easter Saturday again though. By Sunday I was somewhat frazzled.

Another first?

Maundy Thursday was my first communion with my new charge. It wasn’t the ‘formal’ Sunday one I had thought would be my first, and so it was very different to what I had anticipated. On Maundy Thursday, one of my congregations has a meal moving into communion. Everyone sits around tables set up in the (relatively open) chancel area. There are a few hymns, a prayer and readings. Then there is a simple supper, at the end of which the sacrament begins.

It’s a very good way of telling the story of the Last Supper, and allows it to be very symbolic, with more than just the words telling the story effectively. In fact, the ‘narrative’ can be pared down significantly, without losing any of the story, which has, in effect, just been re-enacted. I suppose there’s scope for further dramatisation, but I think that risks detracting from the ‘simplicity’ of the service, and possibly getting in the way of the ‘event’ if not done exceedingly well.

The only thing I struggled with in preparation was wondering how to finish the service. I suddenly remembered though, one of the candidates’ conferences. Much to everyone’s annoyance it was held during Holy Week, but it was the only time available to fit it in. On the Thursday of the conference we had our evening meal, followed by communion (sound familiar?) and then I suddenly remembered how we finished. We went out into the garden and completed the ‘story’ of the events after that first Last Supper. So that’s what we did the other week. We went out into the church grounds (nice night, dry, under the trees, very quiet {the joys of a rural churchyard}) and read the rest of the story up to the point when the disciples all fled. No blessing, no more words. Just the symbolism of the assembled company dispersing. Who says there’s nothing to be gained from conferences?

And another first.

This time for the congregation. On Good Friday we had a Tenebrae service – something the congregation were unfamiliar with, but, according to feedback, very much enjoyed. I was a little sneaky though. There’s still a little bit of suspicion concerning the West Angus Area Ministry setup, of which I am, officially, a team member – it was part of what I was inducted into. Anyway, the area team decided that this would be the Good Friday evening service in Kirrie, and the other congregations were invited to attend. Other members of the team participated in the readings and so it was very much a WAAM event. Drip! Drip! Drip!

There have probably been a few more ‘firsts’ in recent weeks, but they’ve probably been overwhelmed by some of those ‘biggies’.

I wonder what the next ‘first’ will be? It surely can’t top marrying my brother-in-law!

Jan 222012
 

I suppose that over the next wee while I will experience lots of ‘firsts’ as I take up the reins in my first charge.

But there can be few ‘firsts’ quite so special as being invited to officiate at the wedding of a family member. One of the slight added pressures of getting into a charge was the request to conduct the wedding of my brother-in-law and his fiancée. However, the charge has arrived in good time and so I will be able to do the honours in due course.

So, last night was an opportunity to sit down with them and go through the order of service. Of course, never having done one of my own before, it was an interesting experience working out what was to be included in the liturgy, and why (and where). I know the CofS doesn’t hold to a sacramental view of marriage, and I’m happy with that, but I’ve recently been wondering about how we lift a marriage service beyond the ‘legalities with frills’.

I was slightly surprised to discover that the couple wanted something solidly Christian and with ‘gravitas’ (not the word used, but fitting). I was also keen to create the liturgy in such a way that the ‘congregation’ were more involved, or ‘invested’ in what was happening.

I think what we’ve come up with works really well. I suppose it’s loosely based on the 2nd order in Common Order, but definitely only loosely and with other bits thrown in. Broadly speaking, after the first hymn, and a short preamble, we’re into a reading (1Co 13:1-8, nothing original, but by request). This is followed by a short reflection setting the context of Christian marriage in the bigger picture of God’s love and restored relationships (a bit of a hobby-horse theme of mine at the moment) – relationships we are all part of. This then leads to the unifying recital of the Apostles’ Creed. On this basis of God-reflecting, loving relationship, we move into the marriage ceremony itself, finishing that part with a sung Aaronic blessing. There’s then a specially written choral piece during which we may or may not go and sign the schedule, then it’s a prayer, Lord’s prayer, 2nd hymn and benediction.

I like the ‘shape’ – the way it establishes a Christian foundation that is inclusive. I like the way it encourages participation – this is not ‘just’ about two people, but of a much bigger set of relationships. I also like the way that it manages to combine a ‘high’ approach with inclusivity (well, I think it does).

Downside is that it is quite lengthy, but the view of the bride is that it is this part that is the focal point of the day and if that means shaving 10 minutes off the drinks reception immediately afterwards, then so be it.

I doubt that this will become my standard liturgy, but having had this first go at one, and ensuring that it is ‘special’ for people I particularly care about, it has been a very helpful ‘first’. I think it’s really only when you do your first liturgy for anything that you really question why something is there, and why you are using particular words, and why it flows the way it does.

Like I say, it’s the first of what, I’m sure, will be many firsts. Not all will be so pleasurable, but all will be a challenge to ensure God is properly ‘included’ and given His proper place.

Oh, I didn’t mention that the wedding is on the Saturday of the Easter Weekend. Hopefully that will be a first, and last.

Nov 262011
 

Apologies up front. This is a bit of a ‘brain-dump’ post as I try and sort out some thoughts that have been running around my head. It largely draws on a number of different strands of thought coming from books I’ve read recently, sermons, and just general thoughts that are always lurking around. It’s also an opportunity to engage critically with one of those ‘light-bulb’ moments when things, for an instant, seem to make a little more sense.

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Nov 132011
 

Today held an interesting ‘first’ for me – two ‘firsts’, if I was being pedantic. At last year’s Remembrance Service I was preaching, and that was fine. I’m on comfortable territory with that. And it was made easier by the fact that the usual gathering of British Legion and Armed forces representatives were at a different church in the town as part of their anniversary celebrations.

Having preached last year, it meant that it was my turn to take the Act of Remembrance this time – only this time with the full attendance of Legion, Forces and various local dignitaries. There are times when it has to be ‘right’ and I would suggest that this is just such a time. I know there are all the arguments about whether the church should be supporting such militaristic activities, but I would rather there be a Christian voice heard in these situations than a withdrawal and sniping from the sidelines. Hosting and participating in such activities does not imply that we condone war, but recognises that there is a distinct Christian voice which can be spoken into the occasion.

Not that that was the sum total of my involvement for the day. It fell upon me to lead the service at the war memorial too. Bigger crowd, very public and with all the burden of responsibility and solemnity of such an event. It generally went well, I think, with only a couple of minor hiccups as I tried to speak over the top of a parade-ground voice giving orders at times I didn’t expect them. (Oh, and a little argument with the local MP as he turned up early, complained about the service not starting early enough to give him time to get to the next one, laid his wreath before the service started, and legged it. Anyway, I was feeling bold enough to be in no mood for such drivel and told him to sort his diary more efficiently next time.)

Anyway, I thought I’d share the short reflection I gave at the war memorial. Spoken pretty much as written, with the odd, on-the-fly alteration (which I no longer remember exactly).

As the years pass and the memories of the two world wars become barely even a second-hand memory, it is often asked whether it is still appropriate to mark this day and time, at least in the way we do.

Quite apart from the fact that the legacy of those two wars still continues with us, the list of conflicts in which the British Armed Forces has been involved grows ever longer; and conflicts around the globe continue to exact a toll, both on those who are on active service and those who support them.

And so I would say that the Act of Remembrance has, if anything, become even more significant; even more crucial in our present day.

Remembering and honouring those who have died, those who have suffered, both military and civilian lives; remembering courage, and bravery, selfless sacrifice and duty are all part of this Act of Remembrance, and rightly so.

But such an Act is also an intensely political statement – and I use that term in its broadest sense: the exercise of power and governance in a country. And as a democracy, we all play our part in that process. We, all, help shape the country we would live in, and the ethics we would live under.

And so, when we join together in the Act of Remembrance, we are not simply paying tribute to those who have served in conflicts over the years. We are also saying that such events cannot be set aside; their significance cannot be diminished; they do not simply belong to the past, but are a challenge to our present reality.

When we forget, we trivialise.

When we forget, we diminish and devalue sacrifice.

When we forget, we dishonour those who served and who continue to serve.

In remembering, we do not condone war, but speak a word of challenge to governments, and to the people, that says, “We have seen, and we remember, what humanity is capable of.”

In remembering, we also say we demand a change, saying, “As it was, is not how it needs to be. Let that which has happened in the past guide us to a better future.”

“We will remember.”

Sep 222011
 

Stewart’s recent running training (and fundraising success) has led him to think about running with others from time to time. It got me thinking about how we might use the ‘Park Life’ concept within the mission of the church. We are often quick to create events where we expect people to turn up. Whether that is a ‘back to church Sunday’ day or a revival rally in the local park, there is the expectation that people will come because it’s an event and therefore ‘special’ or even ‘worth it’. And it seems to me that we then have trouble sustaining the ‘special’ quality of the event thereafter in the ordinariness of our faith life and in our mission work.

But what if rather than expecting people to ‘join up’ we simply made it possible for them to ‘join in’? Being a Christian is not about being a Christian on Sunday morning between 11 and 12 (or whenever). I know it’s about that faith ‘ethos’ infusing all that we do, but often that’s not too visible. If Christians were seen to be at work or play in their community, not doing Christian things, but simply doing things, is that a way of enabling people to join in?

It would, I think, need to be something that was done regularly to avoid becoming that one-off event. And it would need to be something that wasn’t already happening otherwise you end up competing and setting a tone of ‘joining up’ rather than joining in. And it would need to be something that facilitated relationships rather than just doing the ‘thing’, whatever that might be. And it would need to have, I think, some sort of Christian ‘context’, otherwise you’re just doing stuff that is no different from the stuff that everyone else does.

So what sort of thing might work in this context? Some sort of regular ‘clean-up’ walk around a community? A bunch of families meeting up in the park to play games? I don’t know, but there’s got to be something that enables joining in as a means to establishing relationships and relevance between a church and the community.

Aug 042011
 

View from the Mount of OlivesOne thing I hadn’t really anticipated about Jerusalem was just how ‘compact’ it is. I just hadn’t really thought about how close together many of the known sites actually are. Maybe it’s the result of living in a medium-sized town or having lived in a city for a number of years, but I’m used to things being a ‘fair distance’ apart. Within the walls of the old town of Jerusalem you’re really never more than 15 to 20 minutes walk from anywhere (crowds permitting). It is, after all, a rough rectangle with its longest side about 1 mile long. Many of the events recorded in the New Testament which took place within Jerusalem happened within a good stone’s throw of each other (ish).

Even moving beyond the city walls, things are never really far away (at least in terms of Biblical sites – modern Jerusalem is a sizeable city, similar in size to Edinburgh); a trek from one place to another only extended because of having to descend into and out of the Kidron Valley or the Valley of Hinom (Gehenna). After our morning visit to the Haram, we spent the afternoon wandering across to the Mount of Olives and viewing many of the sites there and enjoying the views from it.

BethesdaBefore we got there though, we stopped off at Bethesda – the place of the healing miracle in John 5. What is fascinating about this place is the excavation of the site. In essence, you can see the ‘layers’ of history. In many respects, when you walk around Jerusalem you’re not entirely walking in Jesus’ footsteps. Many of the buildings and the paths now sit atop the rubble and stone of centuries of building and rebuilding. The site at Bethesda reveals some of those layers, going back, indeed, beyond Jesus’ time. The pool and site is associated with a much older ‘healer’ – Asclepius, the ancient Greek god of medicine. It reminded me of my fascination with the archaeological dig under St. Peter’s Cathedral in Geneva (which I never did get around to blogging about). That site in Geneva had a ‘spiritual’ link going back far into pre-Christian history – it was a burial site for a venerated warrior which, over time played host to various pagan and Christian churches. What fascinated me was the sense that a physical location could become a deeply spiritual place and make that link to the spiritual search within us which pre-dates Christianity and points to our innate spirituality and need to express the ‘beyond’ in some way. Bethesda, in a sense, falls into the same category – a ‘touching place’ with the ‘other’, with God, where the water would ripple from time to time and healing was believed to take place. The miracle Jesus performed didn’t require the water, of course. And how much more powerful would the impact of that miracle have been having been done, in that way, in a place normally associated with healing? Of course, the subsequent events show just what that impact was.

But onwards to the Mount of Olives.

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Jul 112011
 

Dome on the RockWe were especially privileged on our trip to have with us some excellent guides and thanks to the scholarly contacts of one of them we had an invitation to visit the mosques which now sit atop the Temple mount in the old town in Jerusalem. The most famous is perhaps the Dome on the Rock with its stunning golden dome blazing in the sun. (Although, I suppose it might be more correctly named a shrine rather than a mosque.)

But this is just one of three significant mosques on this site. Another is the Aqsa Mosque, the main site for Friday prayers. This sits on the southern edge of the Temple area and above another mosque – Solomon’s Stables. The story is that when the Moslems gained control of the site they were so impressed by the Temple remains that they assumed Solomon must have had supernatural help to build. The ‘stables’ – a huge colonnaded (not sure if that’s the correct architectural description) area under the site – must have been where Solomon stabled the Djinns needed to move the massive blocks of stone. The irony being that the huge blocks were a legacy of Herod the Great, not Solomon.

The three mosques are not generally open to idle visitors. Nevertheless we were allowed access and were able to photograph what we wanted. In some respects Solomon’s Stables is the least impressive of the three – at least in the sense of ornamentation or fittings. But it is an absolutely enormous space (the photos – the ones of the space with the red and silver-striped carpet – simply don’t do it justice), stunning in its size. The Aqsa mosque is also an enormous space and has some beautiful features. It was fascinating to watch the birds wheel about inside, so large and airy it is. In the photo album, it’s the building with the red, chequered carpeting.

Sadly, the Dome on the Rock was undergoing extensive repairs and refurbishment so the area above ‘the Rock’ (believed to be, variously, the site of the Holy of Holies, or where Abraham was to sacrifice Isaac, or where Muhammad left the earth) was shrouded in scaffolding and panelling. There are some photos of the interior though showing some of the beautiful features.

But all of this can be looked up in a guide book or online and you’ll find a lot more information and better photos than I can ever provide here. The Haram is a beautiful place, with tree-shaded walks and beautiful architecture. It also houses a project which is restoring ancient manuscripts through very skilled and painstaking work. Groups sit around studying the Quran – and it was noted that there were many more study groups of women to be seen now.

But the place is at the heart of the disagreement between Jew and Arab. For each, the site is central to their faith (albeit not of the highest importance in Islam) and, as such, is crucial to their identity. Giving up the site would be like denying who you are. I think it’s this that Western culture doesn’t ‘get’. Listening to groups of US Jews being guided to the Western Wall, it was clear that so much of their personal identity is wrapped up in their national identity which, in turn, is wrapped up in their faith identity. And core to that is the holy site of the Temple. It is from there, that the sense of identity flows. One is left with the impression that without agreement on the Temple area there will never be agreement on any other aspect of the relationship. And it’s difficult to see how the issue of the Temple can ever be resolved.

For many Westerners, it’s just ‘a place’. Places have no true importance. Of course we have emotional attachments to places – just think of the hurt and anguish caused by a suggested union of two congregations here. But, ultimately, a place is just a place; a thing of bricks and mortar, of wood and tiles. Certainly for the (Western) Christian faith, a believer’s identity is not in a place, but in the person of Jesus.

But I wonder if we also miss a little something in our poor understanding of the Jewish or Muslim faith (and perhaps even the Christian faith). When we place our identity entirely in a person, we can overly personalise our faith. We forget that Jesus was not an individual, but a person of the Trinity, and so inherently part of a community. When our faith is too ‘personal’ we cease to be a part of a community and our ‘identity’ is diminished. Furthermore, that community has a place, both in the sense of its own place in wider society, but also a place where it can gather as a faith community. I think that when we know our ‘place’, within a faith community and within a wider community, then we can more fully serve and live our faith, for we understand its place in our life and in the life of those around us.