Sunday, 22 December 2013

Some Advent Reflections

Some Advent Reflections

At the beginning of Advent we almost always have a short break of a few days or a week. Over the years this break has allowed us the time to write Christmas cards, buy Christmas presents or even do a little bit of preparation for some of the forthcoming services. But above all it allows us some time to rest and gather our strength before the full force of the demands of the season breaks upon us.

For many years we spent the time at Crieff Hydro. One year Jane was not free to take time out and I spent a week in the USA! But these last two years we have had a timeshare week at the beginning of December which has suited us well now that we have a dog, and it also allows us to do a lot of walking and to entertain friends and family.

This year I found myself sharing some daily Advent reflections and lessons on facebook during these few days. People were kind enough to comment positively on them and so now – as Advent is about to break into Christmas celebration – I thought I would review them, edit out the ones that were only relevant at the time, and share them via my blog.

Happy Christmas to everyone!

Advent lessons learned...

1. Even if it is raining and the dog is clearly tired he STILL needs/wants a LONG walk
2. Winning at Scrabble does not ensure unadulterated joy or even congratulation
3. Some discussions are best avoided
4. Facebook is not the best forum for a complex and nuanced debate. Too often serious discussion on that forum seems to lead to grief.
5. No matter how carefully you give directions, satnav will always get your invited house guests completely lost
6. I am no longer so sure that it really is better to have tried and failed than not to have tried. Some discretion needs to be injected into that equation!
7. The night sky on a clear night far from city lights is utterly awesome!
8. God is still God, and the waiting and longing for the Coming Day still stirs in my heart a bitter-sweet yearning. Your kingdom come!
9. Our dog is no longer scared of the water, but remains a little nervous of other dogs.
10. Scotland is beautiful in every season and we are truly blessed to live in the midst of such beauty.
11. I SO enjoy having my family around and today was great with 
Iain Denniston and Ruth Jane Denniston, but REALLY missed Graeme Denniston, wish he had been here and look forward to us all being together again at Christmas.
12. You cannot win every Scrabble game.... but I will settle for most !
13. Every day really is a new day, and yesterday is gone... we confess our sins, ask for forgiveness, turn from our mistakes, and face the future in faith and with hope. That feels pretty good to me.
14. God's promises cannot be thwarted and though we may yet have to wait, still they will be fulfilled... of that I felt deeply reassured in the course of today.
15. I need to keep being reminded that neither 'growth' nor 'success' are necessary indicators of faithfulness... and that it is faithfulness to which God calls me, and I can be too readily tempted by the false gods of success and 'relevance'.
16. Most of all, an overwhelming sense of being truly blessed in so many ways. I am deeply, deeply grateful. Thank you God.
17. No matter how inspiring or insightful a thought or an idea may seem, until it is subject to critical scrutiny it cannot yield its full fruit (or be exposed as an imposter!). 
18. With time to reflect, I am discovering aspects of my personality and behaviour that need some attention...
19. Dogs can bring out the best in human beings and are often catalysts for human encounter.
20. When the wild winds blow, we have an instinctive urge to huddle in safety. But is it not then that Jesus calls us – as he called Peter – to step out of the boat and into the storm...?
21. No matter how well-intentioned an offer of help may be, it is best to check out if it is really what is wanted by the person one is seeking to help.
22. Lighting candles in the power cut was a reminder that such means of illumination were essential in the ancient world and not simply decorative as they are today. Jesus, Light of the World.
23. There is a real release in being snowed in / cut off / without power / denied mobile phone and internet access. Somewhere in it all there is a liberation, alongside a longing for restoration and – above all - a concern for those who utterly depend upon power provision.
24. Those great people who make a real difference and leave a huge mark on the world often have to travel long and suffer much. RIP Nelson Mandela. Respect.
25. Plan as you will, but your plans may well have to be adjusted or abandoned when bigger forces come along (so, thanks to the weather, Iain and Ruth do not return to Edinburgh until tomorrow and we have not been able to entertain friends here at Nethy as hoped for and planned)
26. The life and struggle and achievement of Nelson Mandela are an inspiration, example and challenge to us. Do we achieve so little because we risk so little, because we won’t pay the price, because we compromise so readily?
27. Even on holiday there is not enough time in a day to do all I would like. Perhaps I just need to learn to accept that!
28. ‘Truth and reconciliation’; what a wonderful, visionary and courageous (not to say effective!) way of healing divisions and uniting a nation.
29. I sense that these are important days for me... God re-shaping my attitudes and priorities? I must learn more from the priorities, ministry and approach of Jesus.
30. If you think something positive about someone, you should say it (if it is appropriate!) and not just think it.
31. If something is lost, don’t despair, it is worth looking for and may be found (lost the dog’s lead in a forest car park deep with snow... today we went back and some kind person had found the lead in the snow and hung it up on the fence)
32. Our wonderful dog is doing not too badly in terms of behaviour (having watched one of a similar age in a car park who behaved appallingly!)
33. On a long journey we need to stop from time to time to rest, to be refreshed and to be relieved (!). We are on a long journey as we follow Jesus on the path of discipleship and wait for the coming day. We need to stop form time to time to rest in his presence and be refreshed by his Spirit.

That said, we press on and do not give up on the journey. (See Philippians 3: 12-16 and Hebrews 12: 1-2)

Wednesday, 19 June 2013

What next?

Well, I am tempted to blog yet again on current issues within the church, the ongoing rumblings regarding same sex relationships and the ministry, the pathetic polarisation of the viewpoints, the provocative posts by many of my friends from both sides of the argument,  the presumptuous appropriation of ‘labels’ by so many... and so on.

But right at the moment I am caught between an unwillingness to engage with it all and an anger about some things I have read (revisionist/liberal/progressive – so-called – and traditionalist/evangelical/orthodox – so-called) and I feel nothing I could say would help.

So to my other big concern of the moment... health, or more specifically MY health.

7 years ago (after many years of mysterious symptoms) I was diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis. I have friends and relatives who also have MS, and in the light of what I know and have seen I am very aware that my symptoms are relatively mild and nothing like as disabling as the symptoms of many, many others.

Just today I was speaking with someone who has a close relative with MS. The symptoms of this loved one have severely restricted him throughout most of his adult life, but increasingly so with every year that passes.

But what struck me about the conversation was the level of understanding, sympathy and concern this person was able to show to me, whose symptoms are so much milder and would hardly register at all alongside her loved one.

That she was able to enquire so kindly after me, ask appropriate, insightful, but not intrusive questions, and display such evident care says a lot for her, I think.

Perhaps because she has a loved one who has MS (albeit at a more advanced level than mine) she understands and knows more than most what is going on... and understands that for many people with MS, so many of the symptoms are hidden.

Yesterday another very insightful and caring person (who has many personal challenges of her own) asked me how I was keeping and then went onto say ‘You look well, but I know that may not be the whole story’.

No, indeed.

Today I have become so aware that this is not the whole story, because I have had to cancel some plans and pull out of some meetings because I have felt (amongst other things) very fatigued. Like many folks with MS (and various other neurological conditions) I find that fatigue is almost constant at some level. Usually that is something I can cope with. But occasionally (possibly more frequently now than over the previous 5 years) it recurs with a quite disabling intensity. Those who have not experienced it find it difficult to understand. This is not just feeling ‘tired’, this is not just the inevitable slowing down that comes with the advancing years... this ‘fatigue’ is as if someone has just pulled out the plug connecting you to the energy supply. It is a ‘sick’ feeling, a bit like a cross between how people often feel when they have the flu (but without the respiratory symptoms) and how an unfit person feels after unexpected and intensive physical exertion. But even these descriptions do not do justice to this thing we call ‘fatigue’.

I used to go regularly to the gym when I was well. I know what it feels like to be tired. I know what it feels like to have pushed myself. I know what it feels like to be exhausted because I have expended a lot of energy and so on.

But what I feel today (and so many days) is nothing like that.

I feel ill.

But you would not know it to look at me.

Nor, by looking at me, would you be able to discern the several other hidden symptoms with which I cope on a daily basis (in some cases) or on a recurring basis (in the case of others).

My most recent consultation revealed that some of my symptoms are measurably worse than was previously the case. Nothing drastic, and this is against a background of 5 years or so of much better health and performance than I had expected.

But the news still took the wind from my sails. In part it made me realise that I have to be sensible and remember that I do indeed have MS.... and with all my heart I wish that was not the case.

But also I find myself wondering about the future and wondering ‘What next’?

As I have said (and as I am constantly aware) I am so much better than many – no, MOST - people I know who have MS.

But I still sometimes wonder (and worry) about the future.

How often in the Bible we read the words ‘Do not be afraid’ (or similar). Someone once said that there are 365 instances of these words in Scripture... one for every day of the year! Well, that may be true; I have never counted. And anyway, if I am to be really honest, I am not sure that right at the moment I find this entirely comforting!

Of course, I do believe that God cares, and is there and that he urges us not to worry...

... and I know that I am so much better off than so many...

... and most of the time I find considerable reassurance in knowing (and experiencing) the care of God...

...but there are moments when the reassurances of our faith (which, when offered by some well-meaning but insensitive folks, can sometimes come across as no more than pious platitudes) just don’t seem to really have an effect upon me. 

...and so I hope I may be forgiven for sometimes just wondering... and – yes – worrying...

...what next?

Tuesday, 21 May 2013

Faithfulness, frustration and fear

We are now in the middle of this General Assembly, I am already exhausted!

I do not usually feel this way at this stage of Assembly. Indeed, through the (all too many) years of my attendance at Assembly I have tended to enjoy it. The break from the normal routine, the cut and thrust of debate and the meeting of many friends have – in the past – been stimulating and enjoyable.

There have been aspects of this Assembly that I have enjoyed and especially the meeting with friends, the coffees and lunches and drinks with different folks and the post Assembly gatherings and so on.
But it has also been very intense. VERY intense!

One question in my mind throughout is that of faithfulness, and what that means. I am called to be faithful as a commissioner, and I have made every effort to be so. In fact I cannot recall a General Assembly when I have been so attentive and engaged.

But there are the deeper issues of faithfulness to the Gospel, faithfulness to one’s ‘conscience’ and faithfulness to one’s sisters and brothers. And in all this there has been a tension.

My frustration has been with attitudes, processes and labels. While my view is that the contentious debate on ministers and same-sex relationships was in the main carried out in a spirit of grace and love yet there have been other undercurrents around in conversations, blogs and facebook postings from both sides of the sexuality debate.

And that is a further frustration. Are there simply two ‘sides’ to this? I do not think so.

What about those who are not yet sure what they think?

Or those who take a ‘traditionalist’ view but do not see this as an issue that should divide us?

Or those who regard themselves as evangelicals in every respect but in terms of this issue of same sex relationships, but who are scared to put their heads above the parapet?

And that is where the fear comes in. I know this to be the case because of the many, many folks who have contacted me in response to previous blogs. But they have done so privately and anonymously. They are (understandably) afraid to publicly declare their views. Thank God for the privacy of the electronic voting system) These are people who are questioning the traditionalist line on this issue but who would not then wish to identify themselves as ‘liberal’ or ‘progressive’ or whatever. They believe that the scriptures are authoritative; they affirm the need for a personal response to Jesus and are committed to proclaiming the faith. These are folks who (like me) gladly affirm the historic faith of the church and who owe their own Christian commitment and engagement to the evangelical witness of faithful folks.

But if they go ‘public’ with their doubts or questions then what? They may lose their sense of belonging and fellowship and allegiance. They may even lose their friends. And as one whose previous comments and declarations have led to receiving some pretty bruising comments, I can sympathise.

And that brings me back to frustration.  

.. and fear...

For I think that the ‘two sides’ approach has done the church a disservice. I am angry that the Theological Commission ‘enshrined’ polarisation. And that brings me back to my fear; that we are unable to really dialogue about our differences in a spirit of openness and mutual respect.

I did not vote for my friend Albert Bogle’s motion, but I think given where he and others are coming from he has displayed great courage in it. Rather than seeing it as fudge, I regard it as a real act of grace, humility and courage.

As I said in a previous blog ‘there will be a time when true courage in revealed in compromise’.
And two final thoughts:

I think Lorna Hood is doing a wonderful job as Moderator in the midst of very difficult Assembly.

And, if the view that I have now moved towards is to be more widely accepted by the large group of the uncertain then I think that there is a very real need for revisionists to present their arguments with a much more rigorous, disciplined, biblical and theological rigor than has thus far been evident. See the comment of URC minister Nick Brindley whose blogs I follow and whose comments are always full of thoughtful reflection.

You may disagree with me. If you do I hope you will say so. But please be gracious in your comments. 

Monday, 13 May 2013

Courage and Conviction

It is generally considered a good thing to have courage and convictions. ‘She is a woman of great conviction’ or ‘He is a most courageous man’ or even ‘He has the courage of his convictions’ which rather neatly ties the two qualities together.

And, in general, I would tend to agree.

In particular, good leaders need both courage and conviction. A political leader lacking in either quality ends up being weak, which is how many of our present political leaders are regarded.

This applies to military leaders too. A good general is one who has courage, but will also need conviction. In the heat of battle there is no time for convening a meeting, discussing the options and delaying a decision until a consensus is reached.

And, of course, conviction and courage are also desirable qualities in church leaders. Ministers need to be women and men of conviction and they also need courage. Decisions are not always easy, nor are they always universally popular! That much is self-evident.

A good minister will sometimes need to express their convictions strongly and have the courage to stick by them, the courage to express them clearly and honestly, the courage to stand firm when opposition and resistance are experienced, and even the courage to put up with threats of leaving the congregation or the actuality of members lifting their lines and going elsewhere. This is never easy and rarely enjoyable, but that is where conviction and courage come into play.

But I wonder if sometimes what some of us ministers imagine is courage and conviction is in fact something rather more self-indulgent and a good deal less commendable. Stubbornness, arrogance, cockiness and rigid unbending certainty can occur too. And we can convince ourselves that we are being people of conviction and courage when in fact we are simply being brash, belligerent or even bullying.

We need courage. We need the courage of our convictions. But we also need the courage to care, the courage to listen, the courage to admit when we got it wrong, and the courage to change our minds. And while we will all value and respect firm convictions honestly held and will wish to stick by our convictions, there will be a time when true courage in revealed in compromise.

Courage brother, courage sister, do not stumble... in God and do the right.

Tuesday, 12 February 2013

Why are we so frightened?

These last few weeks I have been thinking a lot about the issues raised by Steve Chalke in his article and comments on faithful gay relationships.

I admire Steve Chalke and have done for years. He is an engaging speaker, a powerful advocate for the Christian faith, an effective ambassador for social justice, and (in spite of what people have claimed - more anon) a fervent and committed Evangelical. Having twice briefly met him, I also know that he is a very personable  pleasant and genuine guy.

But... he came close to being disowned a few years ago by daring to claim that some interpretations of one theory of the atonement held by some evangelicals may make God appear like a cosmic child abuser...

Well... some evangelicals got into a real lather about that! But this is not the focus of this blog beyond saying that when this controversy was boiling away I was bemused by the reaction of some as I thought what Chalke said was entirely reasonable and eminently sensible and I had thought that for years... and had not for one minute imagined that this meant I risked being 'drummed out of the Brownies'!

But of course now that he has endorsed faithful gay relationships for Christians things have gone nuclear!

Well... hang on a minute here.

Why is this the case?

Why are people so quick to seek to refute his views rather than engage with the argument?

Why are so many 'reasonable and learned' evangelical scholars so swiftly rushing to blog and write 'arguing against' more than 'engaging with' Chalke's views?

Perhaps I am wrong, but it does feel to me like fear, and if I am right I wonder what it is of which we/they are so frightened?

My reason for suspecting fear and for asking the question is not simply based on Chalke's article and the response it has occasioned  but also arises from previous actions such as that of IVP in so quickly withdrawing all publications by Roy Clements after he 'came out' irrespective of the fact that these publications were thoroughly orthodox... even a tad conservative for some evangelicals  But somehow they were regarded as 'tainted' because Clements had come out as gay.

Does that not betray quite a lot?

I say this with some sorrow... for at one level, despite the vilification, bruising and hurts I have endured at the hands of some, I still refuse to let go that particular descriptor; I think I am an evangelical.

Well, that raises more questions such as 'who is to say', 'to whom does this particular 'trademark' belong' and 'who has the right to define me'?

The sad thing is that as I read the various responses to Chalke's statement - even those coming from the most respected and learned of 'evangelicals' -  I do not discern a huge amount of rigour or depth in terms of theological analysis. More than anything else I sense fear. Fear perhaps that the 'tribe' is threatening to fall apart?

When I have posted on this subject in the past, several public comments on the blogs have been unpleasant .. and some private ones have been nasty... some very nasty. Why?

But even more telling have been the several who have privately got in touch saying that they agree with me that there needs to be a forum for those who still self-identify as 'evangelical' but who either want to also identify as 'accepting' or 'affirming' of faithful gay relationships, or who at least want to have an open and considered dialogue.... but (they go on) I cannot say this publicly, I do not what to lose my friends  I don't want to be ostracized by my fellowship etc etc...

So the question... why are we so frightened?