Judge Softly

On my way to and from Lairg early on Sunday morning, there were two items on the radio that particularly caught my attention and as the day went by I started to see connections between them.

The first was in the Sunday Service on Radio Scotland, when the preacher said “Jesus leaves His Father in Heaven to come to a world where He’s not welcome, where He’s not received. He experiences alienation and rejection. His earthly family misunderstand and reject Him. His enemies pursue Him. Jesus has no home, no pillow of His own to rest His head on. And in the end He’s dragged through a rigged trial, condemned to death even though He’s innocent and then crucified.

The second was in the review of the papers, when the news that Brendan Cox, husband of murdered MP Jo Cox, had stepped down from the two charities that were set up in her name as a result of a number of earlier allegations of inappropriate behaviour towards women. In his statement, Mr Cox said: “I do acknowledge and understand that during my time at Save the Children I made mistakes and behaved in a way that caused some women hurt and offence, this was never malicious, but it was certainly inappropriate. In the past I have focused on disputing what I felt was untrue in the allegations, but I realise now that it’s more important to take full responsibility for what I have done.” He also said he was committed to holding himself to “much higher standards of personal conduct” in the future.

On the face of it they don’t appear to have much in common, so where is the connection? For me it’s in the two sections in bold type. As I listened to the first piece, I became increasingly uneasy, because I felt that that what was being said was a gross simplification, it was casting the whole thing in terms of goodies and baddies in much the way that the old Westerns did (except in this case the goodies didn’t wear white hats and the baddies black!) From the perspective of Pilate, he had a responsibility to keep peace in his corner of the Roman Empire and woe-betide him if riots had broken out on his watch. Caiaphas, for all his faults, was committed to preserving the Jewish way of life, not rubbing the occupying force up the wrong way and having Jewish freedoms curtailed. Yes both played fast and loose with the facts to preserve what they believed in and, broadly speaking, they were dealing with a dissident who was bent on upsetting the status quo. They were however far less brazen about it than the leader of a country three and a half thousand miles to our west today. The point is that there are different points of view and the ‘Kingdom of Pilate’ and the ‘Kingdom of Caiaphas’ are radically different than the ‘Kingdom of God’. I don’t believe either man to be wholly bad without any redeeming features; but they did understood the situation very differently to the message of Good News that Jesus was preaching.

Now to Mr Cox. In any interaction between two people, there are (at least) two understandings of what has happened. In the past, he has concentrated on the aspects of the testimony of his accusers that he believed to be wrong, in order to maintain his innocence. So what has changed? Mr Cox in reflecting perhaps on the legacy of his late wife, has switch his focus from his feelings to those of his accusers. He may well not understand why they are so upset and hurt by his past behaviour towards them, but he now accepts the plain fact that they are hurt and upset by what he did. He has now realised that his understanding is different to theirs and is prepared to acknowledge that publically. What he has done might: help to bring some healing to those that he has hurt, allow the charities set up in his late wife’s name to move forward without a shadow hanging over them and help him to become the better person he would like to be. What Mr Cox has done is what the Prayer Book means when it says “Remission of all your sins, true repentance, amendment of life”.

It is just so easy to see things from one point of view and as black and white. This Lent as we reflect on how we live our lives we might do worse that consider this short extract from a poem written in 1895 by Mary T. Lathrap called Judge Softly (often mistakenly attributed to to various indian tribes):

Just walk a mile in his moccasins
Before you abuse, criticize and accuse.
If just for one hour, you could find a way
To see through his eyes, instead of your own muse.
I believe you’d be surprised to see
That you’ve been blind and narrow minded, even unkind.



Why Pray?

I was reading a book the other night and I came across this quote from the monk Thomas Merton:

Those who attempt to act and do things for others or for the world without deepening their own self-understanding, freedom, integrity and capacity for love, will not have anything to give others. They will communicate nothing but the contagion of their own obsessions.

That’s probably a good description of why Jesus withdrew into the wilderness after His baptism – to “deepen his own self-understanding, freedom, integrity and capacity for love”, and why at intervals in the Gospels we come across verses like Mark 1:35

In the morning, while it was still very dark, he got up and went out to a deserted place, and there he prayed.

Praying is about a relationship in which you allow someone other than yourself to enter into the very core of your being and to see there what you would rather remained hidden and to touch things that you would rather leave untouched. Why would you really want to do that?

Perhaps because, like Jesus we recognise that all that we do, requires the Grace of God and being attentive to God’s will.  So of course we need to keep tuning in to that so that in our attempts to love our neighbour we don’t simply “communicate nothing but the contagion of our own obsessions.

Walking Together

A number of things have happened recently which have caused me to reflect on community and what it means. Hitherto, I have tended to think of community as something relatively fixed, with a slow rate of change, but … Consider what happens when something unexpected or life-changing happens. Suppose someone is rushed to hospital or dies unexpectedly; in both cases a spontaneous community forms. A community that involves family and friends who although they already have relationships with each other, gather in support of those directly affected and each other. But there is more to it than that.

A member of my family was rushed to hospital on New Years day and as members of his family we gathered, both physically and virtually, to support him and each other in the changed circumstances of his life. As a result I spent last week visiting the Royal Shrewsbury Hospital each day for a few hours; and what struck me, was not just the community around each bed, but the community of friends and relatives of all those in the ward. People who hitherto didn’t know each other, but who took the time to care for each other, a community of the concerned relatives and friends who were brought together spontaneously by what had happened to their nearest and dearest. It doesn’t stop there. This gathered community extended to all those in the care teams at the hospital, who took the time to care for the relatives and friends as well as those in the beds. We all interacted in many and varied ways, pooling our knowledge and resources. It wasn’t organised, there was no-one leading it, a collection of one-to-one ministries — people being there for one another, walking together.

When anything unexpected happens it can be very difficult to deal with, but when someone who is close to you dies unexpectedly, it is particularly challenging. At times like that, having a community of family, friends and possibly even strangers, gather to provide mutual support is a particular blessing. No-one can fully understand what someone who is bereaved is going through. Bereavement is different for everybody involved each time it occurs, but a community of unconditional mutual support is hugely important, even if that support is more about providing space for grieving than anything else; providing a ministry of presence — people being there for one another, walking together .

Being there for one another, walking together – that for me sums up both community and ministry. The ministry to which we are all called by virtue of being followers of Christ. As Paul wrote in his letter to the Galatians: “Bear one another’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfil the law of Christ.” (Gal 6:2) However if you want a longer version, then you can do no better than to turn my favourite spiritual writer, Henri Nouwen, who wrote in 1983:

More and more, the desire grows in me simply to walk around, greet people, enter their homes, sit on their doorsteps, play ball, throw water, and be known as someone who wants to live with them. It is a privilege to have the time to practice this simple ministry of presence. Still, it is not as simple as it seems. My own desire might be to be useful, to do something significant, or to be part of some impressive project. But I wonder more and more if the first thing shouldn’t be to know people by name, to eat and drink with them, to listen to their stories and tell your own, and to let them know with words, handshakes, and hugs that you do not simply like them, but truly love them.” (from: Gracias! a Latin American Journal by Henri Nouwen)

Now you don’t need any special training to do that, being human is more than enough.



He’s got the Whole World in His Hand

I love the season of Advent crowned as it is by the Christmas Eve/Day services, but as Advent proceeds more and more busyness intrudes into the sense of preparation, anticipation and prayerful reflection. For me therefore, the really special time, is the time between Boxing Day and the third of January. It’s a time when many businesses are closed and the world slows down just a little. A time of preparation for the New Year and a time to pause before the routine normality of life reasserts itself in January.

It doesn’t always work out quite as described, but even when there are perturbations, I still find it a time when there is space for reflection and prayer. For us this year, having the car break down on 28th December helped immensely, because there was simply no temptation to go anywhere or do any of the things that require a car if you live in a rural area. For many years we have gone for a long walk as early as we can manage on New Year’s day and this year was no exception. Lack of a car meant that we could only do a walk that started and ended at home.

So it was off up a rather slippery Achue road, across the moors to the summit of Cnoc Dubh Beag (the small hillock), then wading through the snowy landscape up to the trig point at the top of Creag a’ Bhealaich (crag of the pass) – of which there are several in Scotland, ours being the smallest. The sun was shining, it was very frosty and the air was fresh and clear. On the tops the views were stunning, though there were clouds gathering in the west. A reminder if ever we need it, that we do live in a most beautiful part of the world.

In spite of the feeling of elation, which can be almost overwhelming at such times, the bright sun, the freshness and the beauty cannot hide the fact that in many parts of that landscape people are suffering. In communities and families, as well as the holiday joy and gladness, there is worry, there is sickness, there is grief and there is sadness. Everyday life contains all of these things, and believing that the “Word became flesh and dwelt among us” doesn’t remove them, but what it does is to provide the possibility of hope. God is there in those communities and in those families, He’s there to be found, but sometimes it’s difficult to see it, to sense it and to feel the benefit of it.

We all have our part to play in helping those in our families and communities who are having a tough time to sense the love of God. And to be able to trust in the Christian hope comes from knowing that God comes to us in our hour of need, leads us into his all-encompassing love, acts in our lives and arranges for our salvation. Perhaps this might just offer a ray of sunlight to those who found that 2017 didn’t end the way that they would have liked it to and hope that in 2018, whilst the old normal can never be restored, a new normal is possible in which love, trust and peace will conquer all.

There’s a Gaelic carol which includes these verses:

’Nuair dh’èirich grian na fìreantachd,
Le gathan dìleas blath;
Bu mhòr a bha de dh’fheum oirre,
Bu dèisneach cor gach àit.
When rose that sun of Righteousness,
With rays so warm and true;
Greatly had we need of them,
As woe in each place grew.
Fo dheàrrsadh grian na fìreantachd,
‘S a chridh bidh sith a’ fàs;
Gu’n toir i ’reothadh millteach às,
‘S gu’n lion i e le blàths.
Beneath that Sun of Righteousness,
God’s warmth and peace will grow;
It drives away the spoiling frost,
And makes the heart to glow.

John Maclean – the Tiree Bard

Blessings and Peace to you this New Year

Encourage one another and build up each other

As always, this month’s gathering at the Crask was relaxed, deeply spiritual and most enjoyable; not least because we marked the feast of St Margaret of Scotland who should be seen as such a splendid example to us all. During the course of our post-Gospel discussion, one of our number told a story that she first heard as a schoolgirl from Mother Theresa of Calcutta. This story can be found in many world cultures, Christian, Jewish, Islamic, Hindu, Buddhist, Oriental, Chinese and more.

One version of what is called the Parable of the long chopsticks or Allegory of the long spoons goes like this:

A curious man once asked to visit heaven and hell. Expecting hell to be a terrible, frightening place, he was amazed to find people seated around a lovely banquet table. The table was piled high with every delicious thing one could possibly want. The man thought, Perhaps hell isn’t so bad after all.

Looking closely, however, he noticed that everyone at the table was miserable and thin.

They were starving, because, although there was a mountain of food before them, they had been given six-foot-long chopsticks with which they had to eat. There was no way to carry the food to their mouths with such long chopsticks, and so no one could eat a bite.

The man was then taken to heaven. To his surprise, he found the situation was exactly the same as he had seen in hell. People were gathered around a banquet table piled with food. Everyone held a pair of six-foot-long chopsticks in their hands. But here in heaven, they were well fed with everyone happily eating the delicious food. He asked what was different. The difference: in heaven they were using their extra-long chopsticks to feed one another rather than trying to feed themselves.

As Christians, we are part of a community of faith. In fact Christianity is a faith of relationship, focussed on the community and not on the individual. This is very clearly expressed in the writing of the Apostle Paul and is a constant theme in Jesus’s teaching. It can also come as quite a shock to many people in our society, where spirituality is increasingly seen as purely about an individual’s relationship with God, and nothing to do with anyone else. Without the corrective of the community of faith, it’s however so easy to build God in one’s own image – the most common form of idolatry.

In our life as Christians, there are many pitfalls that we might fall into. There are the clearly recognisable sins: murder, adultery, stealing, bearing false witness, but these are fairly easy to deal with, in that you probably know when you’re committing them. The more insidious ones are the ones that come disguised as virtue, these might be described as sins of the spirit.

As Eugene Peterson wrote “It is in our virtuous behaviour that we are liable to the gravest of sins. It is while we are being good that we have the chance to be really bad. It is in the context of being responsible, being obedient, that we most easily substitute our wills for God’s will, because it is so easy to suppose that they are identical.” It is in the course of being faithful Christians that we’re most likely to fall victim to pride, arrogance or insensitivity to what Jesus called “the least of these my brethren”. Ironically, it is those of us in positions of leadership, trust or responsibility that are often most at risk. In all the things that make up Church life, it’s so easy to lose sight of what is at the core of being a Christian – the business of loving God and loving our neighbour, no matter who that neighbour many be.

Even within our congregations or the wider Christian community, individual Christians can’t manage on their own, nor should they try. We’re all responsible to one another for encouragement and support in faith, love, and hope. Others need our support in being Christian, and we need theirs. This Advent, as we prepare to welcome the incarnation of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ, coming into the world as a tiny, vulnerable baby, it would perhaps do each of us good to reflect on what it means to be a Christian in our congregations and in our wider community, wherever in this beautiful part of the world we might live. The hope that overcomes the uncertainty and anxiety about the future, that few if any of us are immune from, is fostered by encouraging each other in our faith and in the way we live our lives.

As a final thought, it’s no accident that the writers of our liturgies (both those in the Scottish Prayer Book and more recently) finish with a benediction: “And the blessing of God Almighty, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit (or Ghost), be amongst you (not upon you) and remain with you (plural) always.”

To you the community of faith in the North-Eastern Highlands:


No God or Know God?

No God, No Peace.
Know God, Know Peace.

That’s what the sign outside the Church in the outskirts of Harrogate said. You know how these things are, you turn it over and over in your mind trying to decide whether it is rather trite, sacrificing truth to fit a formula or rather clever with considerable truth about it. In this instance, I’ll leave final arbitration on that to each of you, as you ponder it. I want to move on to what was on the box later the same evening.

In the first programme that I caught a brief ‘slice’ of, Sue Perkins was in India, travelling to the source of the Ganges in search of spiritual enlightenment and yes, Peace. In the segment that I saw, s he talked with a number of people, but always there was a slightly flippant commentary, which was more Sue Perkins the comedienne, than Sue Perkins the seeker after the Spirit. She was bewailing the ‘fact’ that she had to travel 5000 miles to the source of the Ganges, to find peace in the orbit of the God – Mother Ganga. Apparently such peace is not available to those of us who live in the Western World, because of the noise, the bustle and the connectedness. I did pause to wonder if Sue had ever been to Caithness, Sutherland or Ross-shire, but then of course it also begs the question “What is Peace?.

In a rare glimpse of the Sue that lies behind the comedic front, it emerged that she had lost her father about six months previously and had kept herself very busy, quite explicitly to avoid having to deal with her grief at the loss and the empty space that his death had left. Sadly death has become very much a taboo subject for many in Western Society and there are consequently many people who feel uncomfortable talking about it and dealing positively with the loss of someone close and who do exactly what Sue did, hide from it in business. Her comment when communing with Mother Ganga “I’m not a religious person, but I do have a sort of spiritual sense here.” is probably representative of the thinking of many on this subject. I wonder how we as the Christian communities in this part of the world might help people to come to a better understanding of what religious and spiritual practice might do to help them. Recently, I read an obituary of Monsignor Augustine Hoey who, as an Anglican Priest in deprived parts of England, opened the doors of his dimly lit church to local people, where he had placed an open coffin with a mirror in the bottom of it. He invited them to look into the coffin to see who was inside. They were astonished to see themselves and he said: “One day this will be you.”, then after a dramatic pause: “Are you ready?” and after another pause: “Come to confession.” It apparently had a positive effect, though I am not sure that emulating the good Monsignor would work in all of our communities.

The second programme that I caught a snatch of was ‘Bad Habits, Holy Orders’ in which five 19-25 year old, hard living, hard drinking, hard spending, hard partying girls, had somehow agreed to spend a month in a convent in Norfolk, with just £25 for pocket money, no booze and chapel several time a day. The snatch that I saw was the first of four weekly instalments on Channel 5 on Thursdays at 10pm. The newspaper reviewer that I read on Friday was horrified: “How did a show about naughty nuns end up so dull? It’s almost inconceivable how a premise such as ‘Bad Habits, Holy Orders’ could result in TV duller than a four hour sermon, but somehow Channel 5 managed and achieved the seemingly impossible, which is itself a minor miracle.

For me that’s the point. The miracle is that the elderly members of the Daughters of Divine Mercy, even though they espouse pretty much the opposite values of a lingerie model, an exotic dancer, a nightclub hostess, a clubbing addict and a secretary, simply by the lives that they lead are serving as agents of God’s Grace to five very lost souls. By the time I switched off, one of the girls had said to her diarycam: “I’m not sure if I’ve got the wrong reaction, but I feel like I could make myself at home in this bedroom. Its very calming and very relaxing.” and two had used some of their ‘pocket money’ to buy small gifts for nuns, from a local charity shop. And in all of this none of them had to travel 5000 miles to the source of the Ganges as part of their spiritual journey of transformation, how cool is that?

Finally back to peace and knowledge: May the peace of God which passes all understanding keep you hearts and minds in the knowledge and love of God and of His Son Jesus Christ.

Blessings to you all

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