Thresholds of Growth

Yesterday in Tain, we hosted the Easter Ross Inter Church Group’s annual Songs of Praise. The theme that we chose, a couple of days after the autumn equinox, was Harvest. There was a very good crowd who were in fine voice, St Andrew’s church was suitably decorated and there were lovely things to eat afterwards as we shared fellowship in the hall. It was a fitting celebration to mark the end of summer and all the good things that it has brought.

However, the end of one thing marks the beginning of something else. In the case of the seasons, what is beginning is obvious, the end of summer marks the beginning of autumn; but at other times, the end of something seems very much the end and doesn’t readily seem like a beginning. These points are what the spiritual writer Margaret Silf calls ‘Crossing-Places’ and she lists bridges and gateways, causeways and burial grounds – yes burial grounds. Whilst all these types of place can be found in a literal sense, they can also be found in metaphors of what we are facing in our lives; those places where we are crossing from one world to another.

When I was in training for ministry, we spent our summer schools at Kinnoull monastery near Perth and part of the week was a couple of days of silent retreat. I had been reading one of Margaret Silf’s books (Sacred Spaces: Stations on a Celtic Way) and I went for a walk down the hill from the monastery, through the park, part way across the railway bridge onto an island in the middle of the Tay. From the beach at the upstream end, I could seem the traffic on the road bridge, hear the trains on the railway bridge, and see the ford back to the mainland and the old cemetery. I suddenly realised that I was at the confluence of many crossing places and as I reflected I began to see that perhaps the lack of certainty about where I thought I might be heading in ministry might not simply be waiting on God, but a more active trying not to hear what God was saying and a failure to commit. Perhaps not quite in the same league as Jonah’s heading off in the opposite direction when God asked him to go to Nineveh (as we heard in the Hebrew Scriptures on Sunday), but a reluctance to accept God’s will all the same.

Crossing-places can be difficult, something to do with crossing into the unknown. Imagine how the disciples felt when the leader that they had followed and come to rely on was suddenly taken from them. They saw it as an ending, but never in their wildest dreams did they see it as a new beginning. Even when three days later Jesus started His post-resurrection appearances, it took them some time, and a certain persistence on Jesus’ part, to grasp the new beginning and run with it.

We arrive at crossing-places: when we come up against resistance along our chosen path or barriers which give us a choice – to fall back in despair or break through into something new. We arrive at crossing-places when we suddenly find ourselves in a new and perhaps frightening stage of our lives or face the challenge of new demands or loss of control over what we are doing or where we are going. We arrive at crossing-places when we are forced to face our own mortality, including the death of our dreams and wonder about what it all means and whether we have missed something in it all.

All the congregations in the north-east of our Diocese are at crossing-places, one way or another. New ministry is anticipated, just beginning or temporarily postponed. Any or all of the descriptions in the previous paragraph may apply and the challenge for all of us is to move beyond what has ended into what is starting to emerge as a new beginning. We stand at the threshold of the growth that those new beginnings offer. The nights may be “fair drawin’ in” as we move into autumn, but the autumn fruits in the hedgerows don’t just mark the end of the long days of summer, but the start of a new season full of anticipation and promise and an unshakeable hope in God’s goodness to us.

Blessings to you all



How good it is to dwell together in unity

I have been involved in two events in the past few weeks, which have been particularly uplifting and encouraging. The first was the Lairg Churches Together Summer Club, which attracted about 35 children to Lairg Community Centre from 7th-9th August. The second was the evensong to at which I was licensed as Priest-in Charge of the Episcopal congregations in Dornoch, Lairg and Tain on 20th August, which packed out St Andrew’s in Tain, somehow fitting in about 90 people. Both attracted large crowds, but I am much more interested in the fact that they were both very much ecumenical events.

The LCT Summer Club employed the talents of Church of Scotland, Free Church, Community Fellowship and Episcopal members to provide a wonderful mix of activity, games, singing, teaching and much more, in a profoundly spirit-filled atmosphere. The adult helpers had as much fun as the children, learned as much as the children and felt God’s love amongst them as much as the children.

He called a child, whom he put among them, and said, ‘Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Whoever becomes humble like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me.’” (Matt 18:2-5)

At my licensing there were clergy from the Church of Scotland and the Roman Catholic Church as well as from the Episcopal Church. There were lay people from pretty much every denomination and those who for all I know don’t count themselves as Christians. The 18 strong choir assembled by Jamie Campbell was drawn from many different backgrounds. … And a good time was had by all in (you guessed it) a profoundly spirit-filled atmosphere.

This last was in a week when we had heard so much in the media about division, hatred and prejudice, yet it was the lack of all three that struck me about these two wonderful and well attended events. Both remind us that we have so much more in common that we have dividing us, if only we allow ourselves to see it, to feel it and to live out our oneness in Christ.

At the service last Sunday evening, one of the intercessory prayers was a favourite of mine from the Scottish Prayer Book, that captures my feelings exactly:

O GOD the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, our only Saviour, the Prince of Peace: Give us grace seriously to lay to heart the great dangers we are in by our unhappy divisions. Take away all hatred and prejudice, and whatsoever else may hinder us from godly union and concord: that, as there is but one Body, and one Spirit, and one hope of our calling, one Lord, one Faith, one Baptism, one God and Father of us all, so we may henceforth be all of one heart, and of one soul, united in one holy bond of truth and peace, of faith and charity, and may with one mind and one mouth glorify thee; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

May God bless you all no matter who you are.


Remember Me?

Remember Me Garden
We spent one day this week at the Royal Horticultural Society show at Tatton Park in Cheshire. We were surrounded by the many splendid creations of some of the UK’s finest garden designers. By the time that you read this, the gardens that they worked so lovingly on may well be just a memory, all cleared away with the place where they once were, returned to parkland. For me, there was an artificiality in the gardens, that were put together very cleverly to look ‘mature’, but which if left would probably have looked rather different in a few weeks, when the blooms, timed to perfection, had passed their best.

As the writer of the book of Ecclesiastes says:

Vanity of vanities, says the Teacher, vanity of vanities! All is vanity.
What do people gain from all the toil at which they toil under the sun?
A generation goes, and a generation comes, but the earth remains forever.

And again:

What has been is what will be, and what has been done is what will be done;
    there is nothing new under the sun.
Is there a thing of which it is said, “See, this is new”?
It has already been, in the ages before us.
The people of long ago are not remembered,
    nor will there be any remembrance of people yet to come
    by those who come after them.

There was a garden that in a way acknowledged this reality. It was a garden called ‘Remember Me’ which was created to support the Mid-Cheshire Hospitals ‘Everybody knows Somebody’ dementia appeal. The garden focused on evoking memories and was designed to spark memories of the past and trigger communication between those with dementia and their family and carers.

The planting itself represented the deterioration of memory. At one side there was bold colourful drifts of planting reminiscent of the 1960s and 1970s, but as one moved around the garden, the planting became more muddled with the colours becoming more muted with only flashes of bold colour representing the occasional recollection, finally a jumble of wild flowers and ‘beds’ of woodruff and camomile. The whole planting symbolising the dementia journey, right through to full-time residential care.

My experience of the RHS show at Tatton has set me reflecting on the ephemeral nature of earthly things and then on what lies at the heart of our existence, on what is not ephemeral. As people of faith, we believe that only God is eternal and that those things that really matter are the things of God. And “God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.” as John says in his Gospel.

But for a rather fuller description of our lives and how they fit into God’s purpose, we could do a whole lot worse than go back to the writer of Ecclesiastes:

I have seen the business that God has given to everyone to be busy with. He has made everything suitable for its time; moreover he has put a sense of past and future into their minds, yet they cannot find out what God has done from the beginning to the end. I know that there is nothing better for them than to be happy and enjoy themselves as long as they live; moreover, it is God’s gift that all should eat and drink and take pleasure in all their toil. I know that whatever God does endures forever; nothing can be added to it, nor anything taken from it; God has done this, so that all should stand in awe before him. That which is, already has been; that which is to be, already is; and God seeks out what has gone by.

Ultimately people don’t remember, but God does and that is a cause for hope, for joy and for peace.


When Darkness Descends

Last week we were away deep into England near Kidderminster for my niece’s wedding. It took place over the weekend and the happy couple very much did their own thing, not following some notion of how things should be and how much should be spent. Much of the proceedings took place on a camp site with the guests camping and the reception and dancing in a marquee. Their families made all the decorations, table cloths and table centre-pieces and everything had a bicycle theme. They are really serious about their cycling and spent 11 months cycling through the Far East a couple of years ago. If their relationship can stand that it can probably stand anything. We also visited my parents in Shropshire and saw how the other half live by visiting Chatsworth, which we have wanted to visit for some time.

Then we got home to the smell of burning and a note on the kitchen table from our neighbour assuring us that any burning smell was as a result of a fire that had raged for three days in the woods at Spinningdale. Sure enough, the fire brigade turned up for the third day running. It seems likely that someone camping by the side or the road or a carelessly discarded cigarette end might have set the tinder-dry vegetation alight and fanned by a very strong wind, the fire soon took hold and swept through a large patch of the broad-leaved woodland between the main road and the shore of the Dornoch Firth. What a contrast with our joyous camping weekend.

We walked through the woods this morning and it looks a mess. It will be some time before the full extent of the damage becomes clear – just how many trees have been damaged along with the devastated understory. It doesn’t take much to turn a peaceful scene or a peaceful life into something which looks bleak and hopeless. Just one little act or omission and things change in a very short space of time. A cigarette end beside the road, a bomb at the Manchester Arena, and light and joy turns to blackness and despair. As the summer progresses, new life will emerge from the blackened ground, and the kindness of strangers, friends and family in Manchester will show the love of God to those whose lives have been torn apart by the senseless action of a single individual. Things will never be the same again, some trees in Spinningdale Wood will die, just as 22 people have died in Manchester. Both will leave a huge hole. Young folk and their parents will have to live with the psychological trauma and lasting physical injuries. but we pray that the miracle of God’s healing power will be there and slowly new life and growth will happen. Our Christian hope is that good things will emerge out of tragedy, though the road will not be easy for many many people Meantime our prayer are with those who weep and watch and wait.