Feb 242013
 

One year ago, last Thursday, I was ordained and inducted into my first charge.

One year ago today (Sunday), I had taken (actually, shared) my first service in that new charge.

I had also done a funeral visit, and was preparing to take it in just a few days time.

I’d sat in the car park on Kirriemuir Hill looking out over the stunning views of the glens and the southern reaches of the Cairngorms.

I’d been at a fundraising bash in one of the churches.

And we were about to head back down to Falkirk as we were still living in two places at that time.

It’s hard to believe that that was a year ago, and as I quickly survey my blog, you’d think little else had happened – well, very little has been written about anything. But there’s plenty that has happened during that time – it’s just not all been blog-able.

There have been small triumphs, huge-grin inducing moments, times of real challenge, the odd ‘dark’ moment when it all gets called into question. In that regard, it’s pretty much life as most people experience it – just in a very different context, and, quite possibly, with a variety not found in many occupations.

There is the strange position of being the one people look to for guidance, and yet thinking that those looking have probably more life and faith experience than I’ll ever have. There’s the challenge of finding the right words for people you know little or nothing about. (There’s also the challenge of getting to grips with names that are pronounced, and abbreviated, far beyond how they are written – no wonder I don’t know where anywhere is!)

But he truth is that that probably won’t change much in the next few, or many, years. There will always be a sense of inadequacy; of always wondering if that was the correct thing to say, or the correct way to say it.

There will still be the privileged moments when stories are shared and burdens eased. And there will still be the times when it all goes utterly wrong, and you realise it’s time to stop digging a deeper hole.

The blog has been somewhat neglected because much of my reflection on what’s happened is around situations which are much too identifiable. In some senses it’s now about others, and not about me. Up until this point it’s been about my journey to ministry, my steps into a charge, my grappling with new and challenging ideas.

This last year has been about others – getting to know them, understand their context, their dreams, their anxieties. It’s been about finding my place in their life, and in their community. Unless you’re born in Kirrie you’ll always be an outsider – you’ll be welcomed, but that’s your status nevertheless. As a minister, I’m very much aware of being even more of an outsider, and, in some sense, the ‘passing trade’. I could be here for 5 years (minimum sentence) or 25 years (theoretical maximum). That sense of impermanence both underpins and undermines what I do. I would like to effect change, but it needs to be sustainable beyond the potential of my moving on. There are long-term plans I’d also want to implement, but wonder if they’re just my passing interest.

Either way, being ‘trapped in the headlights’ is not an option and movement is necessary. Quite where that will be is not so much anybody’s guess – I still have plans and ideas – but it will, largely, depend on the enthusiasm and inclination of others.

Now that really is deserving of a blog entry, but it’s definitely getting a bit too identifiable.

Maybe next year.

Mar 122012
 

Well, that’s just over two weeks in ‘the job’. Three Sundays, albeit one where I was preached in, two funerals, initial contacts with one of the primary schools, time with local colleagues, and lots of unpacking and manse-readying. Oh, and a rapidly filling-up diary.

If I was being totally honest, I would have to say that it still feels very much like the honeymoon period is in its early days. I’m probably getting off very lightly at the moment, but that’s fine. It’s time being used to settle in. And attempt to tune my ear to the local accent. I suspect people are just being very polite and speaking ‘properly’ around me, because when I hear the locals speaking together I wonder if it’s a different language. Mind you, Kirriemuir itself seems to attract a lot of ‘incomers’. It is, without a doubt, a beautiful part of the country and is eminently commutable to Dundee, Perth, and even places like Aberdeen if you don’t mind a longer drive. It’s well-served with amenities and not too far from places like Forfar if you need a bigger supermarket. You can hit the huge retail park on the north edge of Dundee in under half an hour. A drive through Edinburgh or Glasgow to somewhere similar is probably shorter mileage, but possibly longer in time.

So living here in Kirrie is not a great hardship. Mind you, I’m writing this in Falkirk as I’ve popped back down to load up the car with more bits and pieces.

Settling in comfortably to a new living place certainly makes it easier to settle in to the main reason I’m here at all – ministry. Like I say, I haven’t been overly-burdened so far (maybe I shouldn’t admit that publicly) and that has given me an opportunity to reflect on what I have been doing.

Two ‘proper’ Sundays is not enough to evaluate how things are going generally, but they have still provided enough of a challenge to think about things.

Yet again, sussing out the hymn repertoire of two new congregations is fun. That said, they’re both very good at giving it a go. You know it’s a new one to them by the near silence on the first verse; but there’s certainly a lot more volume by the last. Prayers have been appreciated and commented upon. The children are great to work with, but present some interesting challenges too. we’re both ‘unknown’ to each other and it’ll take a little while to build up a rapport.

Perhaps the biggest challenge is the time constraint between the two services. It means sermons are shorter than I would usually do – well, if I want to fit in the same number of hymns, etc. That’s a good discipline to say things more succinctly and perhaps get to the point more quickly. I’m still very guilty of trying to squeeze too much in and will also need to ‘tone down’ the ‘level’. That’s not any criticism of the congregations, but of me. My ‘fallback’ position when I’m not so sure of what to say, is to make it too academic. It’s where I’m most comfortable and is perhaps a way of not wanting to make things sound too basic. Once I get to know folks better then I’m sure the right level will be found.

Actually, on a related note – I was asked if I might consider re-introducing the mid-week Bible study group. That’s certainly something I’d want to do, and might even, depending on who’s up for it, convene in more comfortable and convivial surroundings. That’s maybe one step too far at the moment, but you never know.

And the relatively quiet start has also allowed me to think ahead a little bit. Not that I’ve spent any time preparing anything, but just beginning to get my head round some of the medium-term issues which need addressing.

So, all-in-all, definitely settling in. And very much looking forward to what’s ahead.

Nov 112011
 

‘They shall grow not old,
as we that are left grow old;

Age shall not weary them,
nor the years condemn.

At the going down of the sun
and in the morning,
we will remember them.’

Oct 172011
 

The primary purpose of this blog was to act as a vehicle for my reflections as I went through the ministry training and formation process with the Church of Scotland. It has acted as a place to journal my thoughts on issues and situations and to be a place to raise questions over what I’ve studied and experienced.

In a sense that purpose is coming to an end – although reflecting and questioning will continue. It will be in a different context though and I’m beginning to wonder how to reshape the blog to better reflect that. As I see it, I could use the blog as a continuing reflection of my greater immersion into full-time ministry; or I could use it to reflect on wider issues of faith and culture. I’ve never really used the blog for the latter. Other people cover that more regularly, more effectively and more sensitively that I think I would.

I flatter myself to think that my often rambling thoughts have proven to be useful to those also going through ‘ministry formation’ in whatever shape or form that may take. I suspect that many of the issues I have reflected upon are shared by others. I don’t flatter myself that I have the answers to these issues, only that I have grappled with them in my own way and come to some sort of understanding which sits with some integrity of faith and life. Continuing to reflect on a journey further into ministry possibly smacks a little of pride; that what I have to say may be useful. And yet, I really only ever write for my own benefit/pleasure. The simple fact of making it public though does give a bit of a lie to that thought.

And then there is the problem of what to do with the current blog. Do I draw a line under it and move it to an archive, beginning afresh? Or is a continued reflection on ministry a natural continuation of what I have been doing anyway? If nothing else, I may mark the occasion with a theme change and a tidy up of the various links that lurk around (if yours disappears then it’s nothing personal, just part of the spring-cleaning and different focus). After all, it’s been a while since I’ve actually made any changes to the site itself.

All of this assumes, of course, that I will even have the time to blog, but I have learned the value of the activity over the last few years and I would be keen to continue. Anyway, change may be coming, but there are a few more reflections to go on actually getting a ministry to write about.

Aug 292011
 

I suspect that this post may end up somewhat incoherent because I’m still absolutely knackered from the weekend and my brain is somewhat mushy (moreso than usual, anyway). The reason I’m so tired is that I spent the weekend with 32 sixth-year pupils and around 10 staff from Grangemouth High School at their team-building weekend. We were across at the Scout centre at Fordell Firs in Fife. The weekend was a mixture of of team-building exercises, activities and challenges. Add very little time off and very little sleep to that mix and you have a very intense weekend.

The purpose of the weekend is quite clear – the school hopes to benefit from a sixth-year who can work as an effective team, encouraging each other, acting as role-models for the lower years, and maintaining and enhancing the school’s reputation in the community. The way this is done is through breaking down the natural, small teams of friends and demonstrating, through the challenges, how much can be achieved when the bigger team is working effectively. It helps highlight individual capabilities and promote the shared pleasure of success when a task is completed.

Whether that worked or not can only be assessed by the school over the coming year as the group take the skills they have developed and begin to apply them to the work they do with the rest of the year group and with the rest of the school.

I, personally, very much enjoyed the weekend, for all sorts of reasons. Much of the ministry formation training covers team-working, team-management skills, self-understanding and so on. It was fascinating being on the other side of that – ‘teaching’ it rather than being taught it. it was also fascination seeing how others seek to ‘build teams’. I don’t want to appear critical of any staff or of the methods used, but it seemed there was a little too much focus on the ‘correct’ method. We’ve had the benefit of having many different approaches, often accompanied by the grumble, “Oh, this again. Same stuff, different words.” It’s only when you see it being applied that you begin to appreciate the variations and the nuances of the various approaches. I’m very glad we didn’t get exposed to the ‘correct’ way of doing team-building.

As I say, only the school can judge the success of the weekend through the effectiveness of the current sixth-year, but there were a few personal highlights from the weekend that are less about the team and more about individuals.

Over the weekend I got to interact with most of the pupils, and with some more than others. Sometimes you just ‘get’ someone and realise there are underlying issues. When, over the course of the weekend, you see those underlying issues being dealt with and the affirmation of a positive change being stated, then that has to be celebrated as a major triumph. (Sorry if that’s a bit vague, but, for obvious reasons, I don’t want to give too much detail.) And when someone else overcomes a deep fear of doing something, bites the bullet, and succeeds, then that too is a major triumph.

Of course, these personal successes feed into the overall effectiveness of the team, but in focusing on the team, these personal triumphs can often be overlooked. But it is through building on strong, confident individuals who know their capabilities (and limitations) and their worth, that teams are indeed greater than the sum of their parts.

So, a ‘very well done’ to all the sixth-years who took part and ‘grew up’ so much over such a short time, and also a hearty ‘thank you’ to the staff who give of their time for the event because they believe in the value of it, not just for the school, but for the young people themselves.

Jul 022011
 

The Scots Hotel, TiberiasOur long roundabout route to get to Tiberias did have the bonus of a lovely dinner and a comfortable night in the Scots Hotel. The hotel is not without its own controversy within the Church of Scotland. It is, unashamedly, up-market and represents a very significant investment on the part of the CofS. There are many who question its value and place within the CofS. I don’t intend to (or wish to) rehearse all the arguments here, but I will say that, in one respect at least, it serves as a very challenging witness to the businesses around it. The hotel prides itself on its ‘equal opportunities’ employment policy and, in a country and political situation where discrimination is rife, that stands out. Is that enough to justify its continued support? Probably not, but it does intend to do much more to be a visible presence in the area. It already supports small community enterprises through its purchasing options, for example. In a country and climate where there is a very real risk (and reality) of ‘de-humanising’ the ‘other’, such visible witness is not to be under-estimated and is to be applauded and supported. But it does put the CofS in a very vulnerable position. At this year’s General Assembly, some concern was expressed at the Church’s refusal to support a boycott of Israeli goods due to the risk of being declared an ‘illegal organisation’ by Israel. It would be places like the Scots Hotel which would suffer under such a declaration. The politics of Israel and Palestine are nothing if not complex, challenging and far-reaching. Continue reading »

Jun 132011
 

[Note – I got out of sync. Hebron was actually day 2. What can I say? I was tired.]

Yad Vashem Holocaust MemorialThe visit to Hebron was a difficult one. Witnessing the effects of Israeli settlements on a Palestinian community was difficult. Seeing some of the ‘propaganda’ used to justify the existence of settlements was frustrating and caused a degree of anger.

But it never takes much in Israel to be reminded that the picture is enormously complex. Not every Jew agrees with what is happening in such places. ‘Settlers’ are not always representative of the wider community and culture. Indeed, they are often the more idealistic ones who have, often, been encouraged to return from other countries to reclaim their ‘birthright’. It is not a simple Jew v Moslem debate.

Added to this mix is the very recent history concerning the way Jews have been treated and how global events have manipulated and influenced the present state of affairs. There are many countries and governments complicit in present, unsatisfactory situation.

Perhaps one of the most emotive events in recent history is the Holocaust and it is a memorial to this event that Yad Vashem stands. The photograph shows the end of the main exhibition hall. Its triangular construction represents the coloured triangular patches of cloth which were sown to garments, in combinations, to represent the ‘crime’ of the wearer. The exhibition hall is just one part of the memorial though. The memorial park itself is huge and houses gardens of remembrance for various groups and ages. There is, for instance, a memorial garden to remember the children who suffered and died in the Holocaust.

There is no doubt that a wander round Yad Vashem is thought-provoking and not a little uncomfortable. The exhibition is exceptionally well done without ever coming across as grisly or voyeuristic. It is, nevertheless, extremely hard-hitting and it’s no wonder that it is a site visited regularly by Israeli conscripts. Near the beginning there is a potted history of anti-Semitism and not just in a Nazi context. It’s a stark reminder of how persecution and hatred of a group can become systemic and unquestioned. Then, only when blatant atrocities are committed are such things questioned. I would hesitate to suggest that such a style of presentation is intended to develop a ‘victim’ complex and to lay a guilt-trip on everyone else, but it certainly leaves a taint in the mind and a bad taste in the mouth.

What is unquestioningly powerful though is the collected testimonies of survivors and victims. Seeing the emotions on the faces of survivors speaking their story to camera and reading the words of diaries and letters and even journals and poems cannot leave anyone unmoved.

Strangely, though, it was not these that had the greatest impact on me, harrowing though they were. There is a room in the exhibition which holds records. The room is cylindrical, maybe 12 metres across and 6 metres high. You walk into a central, raised viewing platform. You are surrounded by box files. These are the records of those who died and were presented at the Nuremberg trials. Seeing millions of lives condensed to plain boxes of paperwork was deeply affecting. It was, in a sense, soul-less. These records are an inadequate witness to the millions of victims. In and of themselves they are just bits of paper – in that sense soul-less. And yet, what they represent is the destruction of human life on an unprecedented scale, made worse by the fact that this was not simply a by-product of war, but a deliberate targeting of and attempt to exterminate specific groups of people (and, of course, not simply Jews). The very soul-lessness of the room and the records was a stark reminder of how dehumanising the treatment of Jews and other targeted groups was. When all someone is is a label, a coloured classification, then a paper record is all they are.

I find this difficult to write about. Words are inadequate to express such outrage and to draw contemporary parallels would be to open a floodgate that would, it seems, be overwhelming. And yet, even in such bleakness, there was hope. Another exhibit room records many of the acts of those who did speak out, who did put themselves in danger to stand up to the oppressors. Many were people of faith; many were great humanitarians; many were simply supporting friends and neighbours.

There is, of course, a supremely contentious lesson to be drawn from such a visit. When you read of Jews being excluded from areas of towns and cities, when they are not allowed to walk in certain areas, when they are treated as something less than human, it is difficult not to draw contemporary parallels. I don’t feel brave enough to dive into them here. Nor do I claim to have any kind of deep understanding of the complexity of issues involved. Yet, in my naivety, or simplicity, I can’t help but wonder…

Maybe it’s best not to go too far down that road, but rather, consider its impact on what our response ought to be. It’s easy to condemn, or point fingers, or play the ‘blame game’. It’s easy to get sucked in taking sides, seeing everything as black and white. I find the work of EAPPI and others of that ilk to be an enormously powerful way forward. They stand in witness to the humanity of all and call for that humanity to be recognised and respected. Unravelling the historical, political, religious and cultural issues surrounding the situation in the middle east is beyond most of us. But acknowledging the humanity and worth of others is eminently within our capabilities. And it is something which doesn’t just have application in places like Israel and Palestine, but can find a place much closer to home too.

May 102011
 

I’m wondering what has happened to the month that has passed since I last posted anything. Once again, it’s not a case of nothing happening; more just a case of lots of little things which eat away at the time and are, in and of themselves, not really worth a blog post. But I suppose that’s a reminder of just how quickly time slips away when there’s constant activity. And that’s a reminder in itself that things come around all too soon and before you know it it’s a bit of a panic to get everything sorted that needs done.

I was speaking with someone recently who was asking what I was up to in the next wee while. By the time I’d rhymed off what was definitely in the diary I realised that a chunk of May had been accounted for, June was a complete goner and July signalled the time for my final report in anticipation of the review in mid-August.

Time, it seems, is not willing to stand still to allow me take stock for a bit. And when I do snatch a moment, I keep thinking in terms of, “But I’ve still to do…” or “I’ve never done…” And, of course, there are all the things that I’m blissfully unaware of that will hit me from out of the blue. But when I snatch a moment and look back at all that I have done, I realise that there has been a lot packed in to what seems a ridiculously short time. And it will soon be time to start dredging it all up and putting it together for a report.

It also came as a shock that I had passed that halfway point and the second half of probation looked an awful lot shorter than the first half. I’m really not convinced that time is constant at all. I think there is some bizarre warp effect that comes into effect the moment you take your eye off the clock to do something. Or maybe time is just downright sneaky.

Anyway – a couple of tangents.

I’ve been reading Eugene Peterson’s,  The Contemplative Pastor and have decided that it should be required reading for all ministers. More to the point, it should be mandatory reading for all vacancy committees.

I’ve also been getting agitated reading recent postings and comments on many of the US-based theology blogs I subscribe to. The issue, of course, is bin Laden. I can’t decide whether to be irritated or saddened by much of the rhetoric that passes for ‘Christian justice’. The, generally, triumphalist attitude is really quite sickening and when respected UK voices are pilloried for daring to question the tone and the actions then I do begin to realise just how vastly different US and European culture actually is. I don’t particularly want to unsubscribe from some of the blogs, because it’s mainly commenters I take issue with, but I see very little response from the bloggers to gainsay them. I’m generally quite happy to read stuff I disagree with, but this recent activity has just left a particularly sour taste.

Jan 072011
 

Santa was very nice this year (as he is every year, I must add) and brought me a Kindle 3 (hence the new sidebar item). I was always somewhat sceptical of electronic book readers, always claiming that you couldn’t beat ‘the real thing’ – and never mind the trees; plenty more where they came from. That said, the geek in me cannot resist a techie gadget and when the Kindle 3 finally hit what I think is approaching a sensible price point, I was persuaded to give it a go, especially in light of the many positive reviews it has been receiving.

Continue reading »

Dec 072010
 

… it would be sensible to ensure that the weight of snow on the roof does not cause damage to guttering. Clearing ice and snow may be a sensible precaution. This is not how to do it though: