Wednesday, 1 March 2017


Lent begins today, with Ash Wednesday, services to remind us of our fragility, sinfulness and the grace of God.  Lent looks busy.  Synod.  Vestry meetings.  Courses.  Extra services.  Lots of stuff in the life of the church.

But Lent is wilderness.  Lent is Jesus going into the desert for forty days to be tempted.  Lent is space in the church's year to let us try and find God in emptiness.  Or for God to find us in our emptiness.

Some of my earliest church memories are, as a primary school child, going in a long crocodile for a mile or so down to our church for stations of the cross on Wednesdays in Lent.  The memory is of dry, slightly chilly days, with dusty roads and pavements.  The memory is of not quite understanding what was going on, but living it in a way that was just normal.  The memory is of rapid words, memorised responses, kneeling, standing, crossing oneself.  I am sure the memory has been conflated with adult understandings (such as we adults are actually able to understand such things), but the sense is of emptiness.

Clergy may find it hard to achieve that sense of emptiness. We are purveyors of the emptiness to others, and that can be a rather busy and frantic activity.  But we need to find that space.  Open our eyes to the wilderness around us.  Open our hearts to the wilderness inside ourselves.

Lent starts today.  May the wilderness open up a way before us all...

Thursday, 22 September 2016

In search of straw...

Towards the end of his life, Thomas Aquinas, one of the great medieval theologians and doctors of the church, is reputed to have said, "The end of my labours has come. All that I have written appears to be as so much straw after the things that have been revealed to me."  In the face of God, all his wonderful and insightful endeavours were, to him, nothing.

In our ministry, as humans, as Christians, is this a helpful thing on which to reflect?

Churches with mission plans and renewal appeals and directives and initiatives: they are all about (on a good day) the flourishing of a place where the gospel is proclaimed, and (on a bad day) the survival of an institution.

But is it all straw, compared to the God that is to be revealed in, and through, and sometimes despite the church that is 'the Body of Christ' here on earth?

Of course it is.  Nothing that we humans can achieve, or even aspire to achieve, can begin to give even a pale glimpse of the God that we worship, revealed in human form in Jesus.  It's even rather precocious and arrogant of me to make a statement like that, as if I, somehow, had a deeper knowledge than others on matters divine.  This is all straw too.

So, whatever we may achieve, whatever honours and admiration and human achievement we may manage as individuals or as a church, before God it is all straw, it is all nothing.

But we ARE the body of Christ in the world, tasked with living the life that we have been shown in the redacted and revered fragments that come to us in scripture.  We search out the straws that are the Christian life, the human life.  

Does it matter that they are just so much straw?  Of course not - salvation and light into all darkness is already assured, by the cross and the empty tomb.  Hope for all humanity is complete.  The straw of our lives, ministry and mission is infinitely valuable and wonderful.

But let's not forget that it is still just so much straw...

Monday, 15 August 2016

Roland Walls: In the world, but not of the world...

That distillation of the lines from the gospel of John, chapter 17, that disciples of Christ are in the world, but do not belong to the world, is a constant challenge to Christians today.

I have just (a few moments ago) finished reading "Mole Under the Fence", a series of conversations with Roland Walls.  Roland died a few years ago, after a remarkable life, especially centred on his time in the Community of the Transfiguration at Roslin.  He was a priest, a monk (effectively), a sharp and self-deprecating man who had Christ at the centre of his life.  I never met him, but a retired colleague of mine did, and lent me the book. 

Image from Northumbria Community

Roland lived a life of poverty, and always seemed to be at the edge of things.  He turned down an academic career in the Church of England, and lived life in that (ecclesiastically) strange country: Scotland.  He also "swam the Tiber", converting to Roman Catholicism, but in a rather Newman-like way, because that is how he and community were taken, rather than the angst-laden protest conversion that one hears and sees these days (usually about women in ministry).

Why am I blogging about him?  Because he has immensely challenged me.

He talks of Christians taking on the powerlessness and insignificance of Jesus on the Cross, rather than hanging onto the coat-tails of Christendom (I grossly, grossly paraphrase much of what he says).  He pretty much rejects institutional models of church (although has such immense and complete faith in church as a place where people ought to be able to encounter God).  He is rather non-plussed and embarrassed when people do NOT encounter God in churches.  The eucharistic encounter is central to him - to meet the Trinity (love defined and defining) in the simplicity and complexity of that uniting and dividing mystery.  And that's not even starting to scratch his views on justice, liberation theology, the social gospel, the Iona Community principles - the things that spill out when you do, really, meet God.

And I am immensely challenged.  I am married, and have a family to (now) get through University.  I am not free to drop everything and join the crucified human and divine saviour in a place of emptiness and poverty. I am part of an institutional machinery (in church, and even in a secular, state way) that rumbles on, in a more-or-less well oiled state. It measures success by growth and stability and influence and titles and even (God help us) the clothes we wear.  And I can be immensely fed by all that. Isn't it great to be part of something good and shiny and visibly successful (I hesitated over that word - what word is right?  The sense of being "in", of being "approved", of being "favoured"?)

But Roland challenges us all where we are, I hope and pray.  I am trapped, just as he was trapped by the poverty of his community and de-skilling of any form of institutional ministry by the community's rule.  I am trapped (very willingly) by family, by church, by duty - but in that state of being trapped, I can work (I hope and pray) to help others to encounter God in the communities which I serve.  I am human enough to feel my ego and pride being fed when things are grand: but I can try to be human enough to keep looking for the cross, and the broken garbage nailed there to remind us where and how we are actually invited to meet God.

We are in the world, and the world's "stuff": church, state, society, success, failure - it is all around us.. But I pray that we will not be of the world, defining ourselves by all that "stuff".  We are defined by the brokenness of the cross, meeting the delightfully and bewilderingly complex and simple Trinity of God in bread and wine. 

Tuesday, 26 July 2016

In the world...

Around a couple of corners from the island church is Mac's Bar, over the road from the castle.  It's a pretty regular small Scottish town bar, and you get a bit of a craich and a laugh if you wander in with a dog collar on. Which I do a few times a year.  It's not my local: if you peel away a few layers of things and church encounters (mainly not that good) and some real human experience, you get a bar that provides the altar wine for every eucharist in the small island church.  It's a point of encounter, not a great state secret (as far as I am aware anyway!) and a piece of connection between past and present, the world and the church.  It may look like a carrier bag with some altar wine, but it feels like an encounter between humanity and God...

Monday, 29 February 2016

Obstacles to the gospel...

I pulled together a Facebook page for the church I serve on the Isle of Bute: St Paul's.  All fair enough, the sort of thing that a modern church should be doing to communicate its life and interests. It's a shop window to the world about the life and mission of Christ's body in every context.

I grabbed a quick shot of the church to start as a profile picture (some more 'peoply' ones will replace it soon) - but there was quite a response to the image as it was published.

After some years at St Paul's, I don't see the "No Entry" sign placed at the bottom of "Deanhood" Place. But when you see that picture, it just screams at you. A church with a "No Entry" sign at the door! How ridiculous is that!

For the Facebook page, easily remedied:

God (or Photoshop) can work in mysterious ways to overcome such problems.

But in real life, the sign is there. Maybe not a big deal, as you genuinely don't really see it as you walk by (I assume...).  But what might it represent? What are the obstacles, the "No Entry" signs that we put up to stop people joining our church communities?

Well, we might stop judging them and rejecting them. Or even just implying that this might be the case.  ALL are welcome. We need to persuade all people, especially marginalised, afraid, broken people that they are welcome to come and make our churches untidy and ragged.

We must effectively advertise our services, events and overall life. Webpages, Facebook pages, a new, fresh up to date noticeboard would do the trick.

If someone is determined enough to beat external obstacles and they actually walk through the door (that can be intimidating - can the door be easier to open, or glass?), we could try making the worship accessible to them. That doesn't mean a change of genre or style or dumbing anything down - but do your worship well and make allowances for anyone new. A little explanation. Some friendly guidance through a liturgy. A "pal" to sit alongside and help out.  But not swamping. No rotas, or elements, or anything like that as you walk through door. Be friendly.  Be kind.  Give time. Give space.  So many little bits and pieces.

There's a much longer set of posts here - and nothing here is very new. There have been initiatives galore at making churches more welcoming and removing the obstacles to people coming to see.

But we can still be surprised when, after years, we once again see the "No Entry" sign that we have completely forgotten was there all along.

Sunday, 7 February 2016

Preparing for Lent...

We are on the cusp of the next Penitential season starting - Ash Wednesday this week is the start of Lent.

I find Lent a wonderfully bleak journey (deliberately so) - although one has to work to make a season like this as sparse as it should be, given everything is quite as busy and lively as it seems to be.

The wilderness (where Jesus goes to spend his 40 days and 40 nights) is supposed to be a desert, from the middle eastern setting of the tale.  Here in Scotland do we find wilderness in the sea, sky, islands? On the later winter sparseness of the scenery (like the beach earlier this week on Bute)?

Or do we find the wilderness in ourselves, in our hardness of heart, in the lack of time to focus on others with the grace and love that they really deserve, that God would wish them to have.

Lenten observance - prayer, reflection, space - that is creating a wilderness in the space and structure of our lives to focus on God, on our own shortcomings, on where grace is actually to be found.

Sparseness, silence, wilderness. Lent is a season of all these things.  A journey with and towards God. An uncomfortable journey, but a journey that can lead us into a deeper, richer relationship with God.


Saturday, 12 December 2015


Roughly half way through our season of Advent 2015, and I am pausing for a day away from the charge and other time.

Some time to have a glance down the feeds of many other people's social media.  Social media can be a useful but sometimes harsh lens through which to view the season.

I love the blogs and series and posts that many of my colleagues are posting through Advent. Pictures, poems, reflections, words-of-the-day.  All looks great. I can mostly fight down the twinge that I should be doing a bit better at that sort of thing...

I love the sharing of the carol services (a healthy mixture of Advent & Christmas carols), the school nativities (traditional, modernised, surreal), the parties and social events (not many clergy at those, yet) and all the rest of the build up that this time, from the end of November to the 25th of December brings.

In my own charges the preparations follow a pretty familiar pattern - extra worship, a different eucharistic prayer with a slightly hard rhythm, particular choice of hymns, a special discipleship group...  For the sixth time in these charges (still early days) there is now a familiarity about the Advent journey.  A few things have changed - participants, staff, details - but broadly the Advent experience is familiar.

Is that a good thing?

Should Advent feel familiar, year on year?  How do we re-capture the freshness and excitement of what it is all rooted in, the realisation of the coming of the saviour? What new thing can we do, what new innovation can we find to re-capture the newness of Advent?

Or does the very familiarity of waiting (again) for a saviour, actually capture the centuries of waiting that had passed before the birth of Jesus?  The cycles of the Jewish calendar and festivals, the celebration of a long-lost-reality of a Passover. The cycles of conquest and despair, followed by hope and (partial) restoration.

And does the the very familiarity of waiting (again) for a saviour, actually capture the centuries of Christians waiting for it to happen again, puzzling about the words that Jesus said to them: 'Some of those here present will not have died before the end times come...'?

Waiting is a very human occupation. We wait, from the moment we are born.  We wait for our life on earth to end.  And we need to fill that waiting with something - life, love, relationships, cures for cancer, an end to wars, universal acceptance of all humanity.  It stops one getting bored, to have something to do while we wait.

A pause in the Advent waiting.  A time to reflect.  To wait for the Advent waiting to start again, tomorrow...