Wednesday, 17 December 2014

Happy Christmas?

I have been thinking and reflecting a great deal these last few days; thinking a lot about what makes us happy.

You may have already noted from some of my previous postings that I am no great advocate of some of the more superficial or straightforward definitions of happiness, nor of the means by which people seek to pursue such ultimately elusive and transient emotional highs.

But if that all seems too high minded or esoteric then I will quote that great philosopher Sheryl Crowe ‘ If it makes you happy, it can’t be that bad; if it makes you happy, then why the hell are you so sad?’

... 'if it makes you happy why the hell are you so sad?’...


I have to honestly confess that Sheryl’s words (sung or spoken) are occasionally quoted to me by my family. Whatever are they trying to tell me? (Please do not attempt to answer!!)

But over these last few days the whole question of happiness has arisen again. In some part I suppose this is because of that oft-repeated greeting ‘ Happy Christmas’.  What do people mean when they say that to me? What do I mean when I say it to others? What do I/they mean by ‘happy’?

Today I had the undoubted privilege of being involved in the annual ‘Spifox’ Christmas Carol Service and Lunch. 

‘Spifox’ stands for the ‘Scottish Property Industry Festival of Christmas’ and the Carol Service is hosted at St Cuthbert’s (and has been for many years). Thereafter the lunch (for around 1400 people!) is held in the Edinburgh International Conference Centre.

In the 21 years since this event began Spifox have (of today) raised over £3 million for charities caring for children and young people in Scotland. Remarkable!

Today as we listened to the representatives of this year’s recipient charities describing their work I was aware of the emotion and the tears. Yet these did not seem to jar with the jollity and laughter. Both seemed to me to reflect a very positive kind of happiness; the happiness of having fun in good company and the happiness of being able to do something for those who need our support and assistance. The tears did not contradict the happiness; they were part of it. The challenge and poignancy of some of the stories we heard did not seem to jar with the fun and celebration but somehow (strangely?) all of it became woven together into one.

That seems not so far removed from another experience of the last few days as I have been reflecting on the death of a gentleman in my congregation, meeting with his family and preparing for the funeral in a couple of days time. Sadness, tears, happy memories and appreciation were all combined in one.


And yet there has been another strand these past few days.

I have struggled with the pain and anxiety of a spouse and family dealing with a loved one who has a progressive degenerative illness. They truly have cause to feel unhappy. As a Minister I can do little more than stand with them, feel with them, pray with them and share and acknowledge the unhappiness.

But alongside all of that I have also had to deal with the all too frequent politics and personality clashes that are part of everyday congregational life.

Actually, were I to be more accurate, then I would say not only congregational life but life in every human organisation or group. Although I have been involved more in congregations than with other groups and have seen some of the pettiness of personality conflicts, politics and posturing in churches, I must honestly say that the worst I have ever encountered were not in church groups but in political parties (I was an active member of one such for some years) Parent Teacher Associations (don’t get me started!) and Community Councils.  

I guess the problem is people.

And here I get back to happiness.

I can understand why the pettiness etc of others can make us unhappy. But why do we (in response) choose to react by way of criticism and cynicism, resentment and ridicule, sarcasm and slight, bitterness and bile?

It makes nothing better, only exacerbates and multiplies the problem and (and this is significant) ends up making us more unhappy than we were to begin with!

Gosh, talk about cutting off our nose to spite our face!

The more aggrieved we become, the less we choose grace and generosity of spirit, the more we convince ourselves that we are the injured party and we are right, the less we show forgiveness and understanding, the worse our own unhappiness becomes!

My observation of recent days is that those who choose to look at the bigger picture with a grace-filled attitude (however much they have been wronged), those who are forgiving and accommodating, those who are understanding and gracious, those who genuinely see the plight of others who really have struggles and difficulties, those who do not regard their own agendas as the only important matter are much more likely to be ‘happy’ people.

While those who continually complain and carp, who are concerned that their rights and privileges have been thwarted, who only have grumps about this or that or the other, who are primarily concerned with pursuing their own agenda, are much more likely to be miserable!

And why on earth would anyone choose misery?

And one final thought regarding this in the church... and bear in mind (as I said above) it is not only the church! 

If our engagement with the church is mainly (or increasingly) in terms of its organisational machinations and we are divorcing ourselves from its worship, fellowship and mission, then we will get an increasingly jaundiced view (which will, of course, make us increasingly unhappy!).

Thank God my engagement with the church is not only ‘organisational’ or ‘political’. It is the worship, fellowship and mission of the church that put these secondary matters into perspective. Distance ourselves from these more important aspects of church life and we will have a warped view indeed.

Choose to focus on pettiness (whether as perceived in others or found in ourselves) and we choose unhappiness.

And why on earth would we choose to that?

Saturday, 29 November 2014

An Alternative Advent

If you have read my blogs, are a Facebook friend or listen to me preach then you will know how much I value the season of Advent.

There are very many reasons for this. To be honest, I suspect that part of it is simply linked to my personality. I am the type of person who gets a great deal of pleasure out of anticipation (and remembrance for that matter); sometimes even more than from the actual thing that is being anticipated (or remembered)!

But as I have also often said, there are theological reasons for my appreciation of Advent. Amongst the many is the fact that the Lectionary readings and, indeed, the very theme of the season, make us face up to the fact (and the mystery... even perhaps the frustration!) that we live in the ‘in between’ time - in between the First Advent (the Birth of Jesus) and the Second Advent (his Coming again, and please note that I am neither pressing nor suggesting only one possible interpretation of this awaited event!)

I tend towards the view (it is called ‘inaugurated eschatology’ if you are interested!) that  there are both ‘already’ and ‘not yet’ aspects to the Kingdom of God. In other words, in the birth, life, death and resurrection of Jesus the coming and promised Kingdom of God was ‘inaugurated’ and, indeed, continues to break into the here and now through the presence and activity of the Holy Spirit (so I suppose you might call my view ‘Pentecostal eschatology’??) but yet there remains an ’age to come’ in which the Kingdom of God will be fully established.

Now, as I say, I am not willing to force any particular specific interpretation of the how, the what or the when of this (certainly not!).

But  for me it is a view (best articulated by the theologian Oscar Cullman) that makes sense of the fact that I see and know God’s action and presence in the 'here and now' in so many ways, and yet, there are other realities too. Prayers are answered, but not all; I have seen God work in marvellous ways, but only sometimes; etc etc.

I have not explained this very well, but it is only a short(ish) blog!!

My point is that this is one of the things that I love about Advent. I deeply appreciate the opportunity this season offers for reflection on all of this and the attempted explanation of it in preaching and discussion.

And so it is with a deep sense of bereavement that I find that I will be missing both the First and Second Sundays of Advent.... one because of illness and the other because I will be on holiday... yes, of course I can still join in worship, and being on holiday is not a bad thing (although I think I wish I was feeling healthier to enjoy it!) But I will not have the opportunity to lead worship, offer public prayer or preach until so far through Advent that the pressure will be on to talk about shepherds and angels and (even!) wise men!!

But on further reflection I have realised that the very reason I am missing these (mainly illness) is in itself an illustration of my thoughts about living in this between time, this ‘already’ but ‘not yet’ age.

As people have shown concern for me in my health challenges in these last few weeks, several have said something along the lines of, ‘I pray for you; I so wish God would answer my prayers’.

Well, as you may imagine, I know what they mean!

I have prayed frequently for folks to be healed... and I have seen remarkable answers to these prayers!..... sometimes.

On occasion, I have myself been healed in response to prayer and ministry for things such as a relatively minor twisted knee... but not for this ongoing, debilitating and more serious condition of Multiple Sclerosis.


And I suppose that this is where I come back to the thought about living in these in between times. It is also at this point that I re-affirm my underlying Calvinism in its affirmation of the sovereignty of God in all things. (What do you know? I seem to be a Calvinist, Pentecostal, non-fundamentalist, anti-literalist, inaugurated eschatologist! That’s me folks!)

And as for Advent reflection? Well, it will not happen (this year at least) so much in worship, but will be in the context of personal prayer and meditation as I reflect on the present health realities I face and speak to and listen to God with regard to these in the light of the promise of his coming Kingdom, and the fact that I believe that kingdom was inaugurated in the birth, life, death and resurrection of Jesus and breaks into this present age in the presence and activity of the Holy Spirit, but a Kingdom whose final and full establishment we await in hope.

And so, what does that all mean for me, now?

Saturday, 15 November 2014

Waiting and wondering

As I have shared before via my blog, I have friends and colleagues who have counselled me to share less about my health in public. They have suggested that this is all private stuff and I am making myself too vulnerable etc.

I think they are wrong.

I think this partly because I do not subscribe to the view that Ministers should keep some kind of ‘professional distance’ from the realities of life or guard ourselves from human encounter or the embrace of normal living reality or the admission of human frailty or weakness. I cannot square that view with the honesty of (for example) the Apostle Paul or the outpourings of the Psalmists.

But more than that, I have been touched by the number of people who, on reading my blog or hearing me speak regarding my health challenges, have got in touch with me (many of them strangers) to share their experience, seek a listening ear or express their appreciation of how helpful they have found my sharing.

So, if you do not like my openness and honesty, stop reading now!

When I was first diagnosed with MS, I had been unwell for almost two years and unable to sustain full-time ministry. My energy levels were very low, my cognitive functions were compromised, my muscles were stiff, my balance not great and the other ‘unseen’ symptoms were irritating, limiting and debilitating.

And then (quite suddenly and without warning or apparent reason) things began to improve. In due course, I was called to St Cuthbert’s as Minister and things continued to improve. My health was better than I expected it to become, I was able to function pretty much fully in Ministry, and – aside from the occasional dip or blip – I was able to work well and fulfil my Ministerial and pastoral responsibilities.

But almost two years ago there was a marked dip in my health levels; energy drained, symptoms were exacerbated, mental and physical abilities were compromised. None of this would be outwardly evident to most onlookers. But the difference has been very obvious to me and those closest to me.  

With the exception of the occasional week or two, I have not been able to sustain reasonable health or full ministerial functions since January 2013. More recently I have been put on restricted hours and duties by my doctor. And more recently still other medical issues have arisen which are being investigated and which may or may not be somehow related to MS.

And so I am waiting... waiting to find out what is going on medically, waiting for tests and investigations, waiting to engage in further consultations regarding my future ministry and also waiting in hope (at least a little!) that I may yet regain improved health.

But I am also wondering... wondering if I may have to accept that these health limitations are here to stay, wondering if some big decisions may lie ahead, wondering if there are other things going on in terms of my health and wondering what is best for me, for my family, for St Cuthbert’s....

And, if I am to be honest (and you would not expect anything less!) then I am also worrying a little. What next? What are the implications and consequences of this current situation? How will I know what are the right decisions to take?

Yet, in the midst of all that I do still hear God say ‘Do not be afraid’... and I can lay aside the worries and find something of his peace. ‘The peace that passes all understanding’? Hmmm... I always read that as ‘the peace that makes no sense of circumstances’!

And I guess that’s what it is. My circumstances might seem to rob me of peace, but somehow my faith in God sustains me in an ongoing peace.

If that sounds a bit shallow and trite – a pious platitude – then all I can say is that it is genuinely my experience – as real as is my experience of wondering and worrying.

And if that sounds contradictory, then so be it. It is my reality at the moment!

And somehow faith remains, hope is sustained and peace enfolds me while I wait... and wonder... and worry...

Sunday, 14 September 2014

Before and after the referendum

Exodus 14: 19-31
Romans 14: 1-12
St Matthew 18: 21-35

This weekend in our nation of Scotland there are many who are feeling anxious and uncertain. According to the opinion polls there are a surprisingly high percentage of voters who remain undecided on whether to vote Yes or No in Thursday’s referendum. For these folks there is great uncertainty and not a little anxiety as they attempt to weigh up competing claims, conflicting assertions and contradictory evidence.

For those of us who have already made up our minds there is also uncertainty and anxiety. Our uncertainty may not be with regard to how we might vote but rather on what the outcome might be.

Again the opinion polls suggest that the vote on Thursday could go either way. The implications of a vote one way or the other may make us anxious, depending on our own convictions and our own vote.

So whether we are undecided or firmly decided, there is uncertainty ahead and a natural anxiety.

As you may know, on the Scottish Parliamentary Mace are inscribed four words: WISDOM, JUSTICE, COMPASSION, INTEGRITY.

These values do not indicate how we should vote on Thursday, but they perhaps suggest something of the principles that may guide us in our deciding and lead us beyond Thursday into the future, whatever that future may be.

And as Christians there will be additional values and principles that will guide how we come to our decision, Yes or No.

As Christians, the decision we take will not simply be based on short-term economic benefits nor simply on what will be good for us as individuals...

We will be asking questions such as who are our neighbours, in Scotland and beyond Scotland and what is our responsibility to each?

What impact will our decision on Thursday have on the poorest and most vulnerable of our society?

What is the nature of and best expression of inter-dependence in our ever shrinking world?

Is a vote one way or the other going to take us further down the road towards world peace or towards more sustainable environmental policies?

How do we best secure a long-term good, stable, prosperous, peaceful, just and more equal society and for whom are we seeking these things... ourselves? Scotland, these islands, Europe, the world...?

And so on...

Speaking to people over these last few weeks and especially in these last few days, the one thing that is making people of different views feel anxious and uncertain is not the vote on Thursday, but how we face Friday and beyond; how we  - as a nation – move on beyond the vote. How we ensure unity and community however our nation decides.

Beyond Thursday and beyond the choice we each will make we still have bigger challenges ahead for which we must all pull together regardless of our views. And we will do so out of love for one another, love for our society, love for our nation and love for the Kingdom of God and its values and priorities.

The themes of forgiveness, reconciliation, mercy and patience are dominant in today’s Gospel reading, and in our epistle from Paul’s letter to the Romans the apostle is urging his readers not to divide over secondary issues and urges them not to quarrel over different opinions.                                       

It is on this path of unity and reconciliation that we must walk beyond this week and its momentous decision and it is towards such unity and reconciliation that we must work; and as the church, as Christians we have a key role in this.   

There will be some of us who wish  were not at this point, that we were not facing this decision, that we were not being presented with such a stark choice, who feel and fear that a simple Yes / No vote has unnecessarily divided the nation, has demanded of us a polarised decision and has destroyed the opportunity for consensus.

But this is where we are and we cannot change it now. There is no going back and whatever the result on Thursday, we must go forward.

We may perhaps feel like the Israelites fleeing Egypt! We cannot go back, but ahead of us is the Red Sea. How can we go forward from here?

The fearful Red Sea that many people see ahead and which causes them anxiety and uncertainty is not the vote itself but how we find a way forward thereafter. It is not Thursday, but Friday that concerns many. How do we find a way through the division, the possible recriminations, the fact that on Friday morning half the nation will feel relieved or exhilarated while the other half will feel deeply disappointed or despairing.

Will we find a Moses to calm the fears of the people, to call them forward and to carve a path through the turbulent waters?

Well perhaps, just perhaps, this is part of what the church is called to do in coming days. And indeed, the Moderator of the General Assembly, Rt Revd John Chalmers has set the road towards such a role for the church in his emphasis on respectful dialogue and the plans for a national service of reconciliation.

Not that we should overstate the extent or depth of the division in Scotland; aside from some examples of bad temper, inappropriate name-calling, some hotheads on social media and a few thrown eggs, in comparison with similar constitutional debates throughout the world... even in these islands in times past!... this has been a largely positive and civil referendum debate. 

And yet, there can be no denying that there are divisions... but did you see that picture that has been going the rounds this last week on the internet and social media. There are two houses adjoining one another, the one with Yes posters in its windows the other with ‘No Thanks’ in its; and strung between the homes is a banner stating ‘We love our neighbours’! Good!

In the main we are a people well able to overcome such divisions and put them behind us and walk and work towards a good future whatever the result. But this will require good leadership and a willingness of all to seek unity and be reconciled.

When it is all over, a decision will have been made. Half of us will be pleased with that decision and half of us will not be. But some things....MANY things will remain the same.

The church will still face the same challenges and opportunities and we will each still need to pray and work and commit to the future of Christ’s Church in our land and in this place. We will still need to struggle and act and pray for social justice, will still need to reach out in care to the poor and vulnerable, still need to listen to the broken and pray for the sick, still need to open our doors and our hearts to the troubled and the lost, still need to bear witness to Christ in this city and this nation, still need to seek less destructive ways of living with the created world and with one another.

There has been much passion evident in the referendum debate. That is natural and inevitable. But as Christian people let us get just as passionate... indeed even more passionate about the Kingdom of God, mission, prayer, justice and mercy.

 And if we have concerns and anxieties about what lies ahead of us beyond Thursday’s vote then let us, like the Israelites faced with the Red Sea, fall to our knees and cry out to the God who has, time and again, responded to the cries of terrified people, and parted the deep waters of chaos and provided a way through to a promised land of peace and new life. God is the one who hears our cries. God is the one who knows our fears. God is the one knows where the dry path to the Promised Land lies. And God is the one who longs to set our feet on that path and lead us into new life. 

As the church – as God’s people in Scotland let us point the way –and with God’s leading and in his power take our nation forward to and through the troubled waters to find the unity, reconciliation, justice and peace and hope for the future for our nation... a hope that ultimately does not lie in constitutional arrangements however important these may be, but a hope that lies in the Kingdom of God and the Gospel of Christ. And in bearing witness to these and working for these our job as a church on Friday coming will be exactly the same as it was on Friday past.

Friday, 5 September 2014

I don't know

I am afraid to write this, for I am sure that many of my friends (and certainly my family) will want to express amazement and even disbelief that it could be possible that I might even for a moment think or admit that ‘I don’t know’!

‘You are the one who “knows everything”’ they will mockingly say.


I suppose I have to admit that I do give that impression. Not terribly proud of that!

However, I think that in the main any claim to knowledge is about ‘general knowledge’; I know a lot of historical facts and about current affairs and certain types of music and so on. I often fantasise about applying to go on Mastermind or even ‘Who Wants to be a Millionaire’. But in the end I settle for winning at ‘Trivial Pursuit’.

Sad really.

But my ‘don’t knows’ are more about ‘why’ and ‘how’ rather than ‘what’.  Ask me what year was the Battle of Bannockburn or what is the name of the Minister of Defence(War) in Churchill’s WW2 Cabinet (and that is a trick question!) or who is President of the European Commission and I can give you an answer. Which may be mildly interesting but – in the final analysis – may not be all that useful.

It is more in group discussions or theological debates or Bible Studies – or still more in difficult and tragic pastoral contexts - when people ask... well what do you (the Minister, the theologically educated one, our ‘resident expert’) think, that I very often find myself saying ‘I don’t know’.

Now, I do say more than just that. But I do not have easy answers to every enquiry. As has been said by others, the more I go on in the Christian walk the more and more sure I am about less and less. (and no, don’t panic, I am not going through any kind of ‘faith crisis’!)

And here’s the thing.... I find that admitting that there are things I don’t know and regarding which I cannot venture an opinion has actually helped many seekers and searchers, doubters and questioners, and those facing difficult real life situations.

So maybe it is good to admit when we truly don’t know... and yet still believe.

Now, if only I could work out what I think about Scottish Independence... but really ‘I don’t know’!

Monday, 18 August 2014

The Rhythm of Life

Ever since I set out on the road of Christian discipleship I have been persuaded that we need to develop lives which follow certain disciplines and have a ‘shape’; we need to have a ‘Rhythm of Life’ (which also happens to be the title of one of David Adams excellent books of Celtic inspired Christian spirituality).

Christians from evangelical, liberal, catholic, charismatic, orthodox and Celtic streams would all broadly agree on this. Patterns of daily prayer and weekly worship and the shape of the Christian Year are all part of the ‘Rhythm of Life’. But there is more; the balance between work and leisure, play and prayer, family/friends and solitude and so on and on.

I am utterly convinced of the value of developing a ‘Rhythm of Life’, totally persuaded that it is essential to our personal and spiritual well being – and yet I am utterly hopeless at it!

Yes – that is a confession of abject failure!

I cannot get the Rhythm right.

Curiously, when it comes to music, I have a very good sense of rhythm. I should have been a drummer (but it was easier to carry a guitar around than a drum kit!). But beyond music, I am no good at it.

Prayer can get squeezed out, the family can suffer, friendships get neglected, domestic chores get put off, I ignore my own recreational needs and so on and on.

I imagine that I am not alone. But I really don’t know for sure.

Are you the same?

How can we fix it?

Do we need each other, perhaps??

(Or have I just embarrassed myself by admitting to an inability to do somethign that everyone else finds comes naturally?!?)

Let me know!

Wednesday, 9 July 2014

Measured and mature?

I do not think that any of us is ever in a position to judge what reasonable behaviour is or what acceptable or considered viewpoints are. It is all too subjective.

If we agree with someone then we might consider their views to be well thought through, balanced and ‘reasonable’. On the other hand, if we do not agree then...!!

And yet, the obvious fact of our inability to be truly objective does not excuse us from considering our own assertions and convictions (or those of others) in the light of what is mature and measured, ‘reasonable’ (in the common sense of that word) and – especially – in keeping with the kind of attitudes exemplified in Jesus, taught by him and urged upon us in the New Testament Epistles.

In our contemporary situation there are two responses to disagreement that I cannot quite understand. The one is the conviction that the view I hold is the correct one, without a shadow of a doubt and with no room for persuasion or discussion. The other is that if you do not accept my view, agree with me and decide/vote accordingly then I have every good reason to walk away from you/the Church/this congregation/Scotland...

Over recent months I have been most aware of this in three very different contexts:

·         the tradition of worship in the Church of Scotland (yes, I know, who would have imagined that this would have been a controversial issue with colleagues or within congregations... ? but especially with colleagues. I am tempted to quote the Professor in C S Lewis’s The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe,Bless me, what do they teach them at these schools?’!)
·         what passes for a debate on the independence issue (and I remain appalled at the poverty of the ‘debate’)
·         the ongoing (never-ending?) debate in the Church of Scotland (and other denominations) with regard to same sex relationships.

On this last point I recall being in a discussion amongst ministerial colleagues on same-sex relationships. One (who was obviously not yet decided on his view) ventured that he hoped that we might all learn to listen to what the Holy Spirit might be saying in this time of uncertainty and debate. The next person to speak said ‘Well, yes, I agree that we need to listen to the Holy Spirit. But we know that the Holy Spirit has already spoken and made God’s view clear...’ (I wonder if this also goes for slavery, polygamy, the role of women in the church, contraception etc etc...??)

But look at any of the three issues and you will find those who are all too ready to ‘throw their toys out of the pram’.

‘If they continue doing (this/that/other) in the services then I am going to go to another church’

‘I they vote “yes” in this referendum then I am going to go and live in England (or alternatively ‘if they vote to leave Europe I will emigrate to France...’)

‘If they affirm and accept the LGBT community and approve same-sex blessing/marriage I will leave the Church of Scotland.’

And I find myself wondering on what biblical, theological or spiritual ground such responses are made. One thing; such responses seem to me to be neither mature nor measured.

Wednesday, 25 June 2014

Hearing and Seeing

I was 10 years old when I first started wearing spectacles. I remember how amazed I was when I walked out of the opticians and saw how sharp and clear everything seemed. I could pick out individual leaves on trees (something that I had not been able to do before) and read the destination and numbers on buses! (My inability to do this was one of the things that suggested to my parents that a visit to the optician was in order). 
I could see what had always been there but which I had previously not spotted.

Last week I was fitted with a hearing aid; only one because the hearing loss is only in one ear. Pending further investigation the cause of this is not yet known. It could be MS (although MS only affects hearing in only a small proportion of cases).

They tell me that it can take up to two months to adjust to having a hearing aid, and I can believe that! However, already I am amazed at what I can hear. The every day I was fitted with the aid I spent a good half hour just sitting in St Cuthbert’s graveyard listening to the birds. I heard their song with a new and unexpected clarity.

All of which makes me wonder what we miss out on because we do not listen or look.

Do we really hear what people are saying? Do we hear what God is saying?

Do we see the beauty of the world, the suffering of many people, the Divine presence in creation or the love of God in Christ?

Do we?

These things are all there to be seen or heard.

Friday, 20 June 2014

My Shortest ever blog

I really like this.

Do you think we can manage it in church too?


Friday, 13 June 2014

The time is right to write

For very many years now I have been thinking about writing a book. In fact, several potential books have been in my mind. However, in this last couple of years a number of folks have suggested me to that I write something about how I have dealt with issues of MS, ministry and faith etc.

So, encouraged by them and by the example of my friends Dorothy Neilson ('Me, God and Prozac') and Scott Burton ('Holy Whitewater') I have begun to write a book...

...I say ‘begun’ because I am far from sure that I will finish it, not at all convinced that anyone will want to publish it and (assuming I do finish it and get it published) far from certain that anyone will want to read it!

But, so far, the writing has been really rather liberating and revealing. The discipline of reflecting on my experience, finding the words to express that and daily (mostly!) writing something has been very helpful.

So why has it taken me so long?

Perhaps it has taken me so long because I am not at all sure of my capabilities in this realm. I have never written a book before. Can I do it?

What is more, I am not sure I have much of a story to tell. There are many who face much more profound challenges with a medical condition and many who seem to me to have handled the challenges with much more faith and grace than I have.

Nonetheless, it now fells like the right time, and I have begun.

If I ever finish and it ever gets published, you – dear blog readers – will be the first to know!

Tuesday, 10 June 2014

Making Sense of Loss

Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression, Acceptance; the classic ‘Five Stages of Grief’.

Personally I remain unconvinced that this is necessarily a sequential set of ‘stages’ through which we pass in bereavement, but I do recognise that these experiences – in whatever order they may come - are very common in those facing loss.

In my own journey of these last 8 years in terms of my diagnosis of MS I have experienced denial, anger and depression, but not in that order and sometimes I find myself returning to one I thought I had passed through. Have I reached ‘acceptance’? I think I move towards a greater acceptance and then revisit denial or anger before moving on again to still deeper acceptance and so on back and forth.

So, for example, in the aftermath of my diagnosis I did experience ‘denial’. I moved on from that to a limited sense of acceptance, but in these last few months I found myself returning to denial before moving back to a still deeper (although neither a ‘happy’ nor ‘resigned’) acceptance.

I had no conscious feeling of anger until a few weeks ago, some 8 years after my diagnosis! And I do not recognise or recall any attempt at ‘bargaining’.

And yet, I wonder if I have in fact been experiencing these emotions, but simply not realising that they had anything to do with grieving or with my medical condition.

Why do small insignificant things so irritate me?

Why do I sometimes feel so strangely sad for no apparent reason?

Why do prayer about my family or my ministry or whatever sometimes seem so much like bargaining with God?

I reckon we all go through something of this when life changes and loss is experienced, whether that be in terms of bereavement, health challenges, ageing, loss of status, employment or workplace changes, or – indeed – changes in a congregation, its style, its worship its key people etc

In the face of loss (whether that loss is recognised or unrecognised) relatively minor things assume a disproportionate significance and can attract a great deal of emotional investment.

Perhaps, for ministers, that is worth us bearing in mind. When some seemingly small or insignificant change or innovation in the congregation occasions a great deal of emotion, what is really going on? Are people experiencing or feeling a deeper loss? Not that we can always tell (and even if we can, not that we can always do something about it!)

For me the irony is that one of the most painful losses I experience when I go through a dip in my health (as I am currently experiencing) is the loss of a certain degree of cognitive function, discernment, decision making ability and good planning – the very things that are required in ministry when others are experiencing their own unrecognised losses!

Most people think that MS mainly affects mobility and sensory functions etc. While not entirely free from these, I have to deal with them only occasionally and at a relatively mild level. But the commonest symptom of MS is chronic fatigue and emotional lability and cognitive dysfunction are also very common. These are the three which most affect me, and there it is that I feel the greatest and deepest loss. And still I keep swinging from denial to acceptance, from mild depression back to acceptance, and now also anger to (I hope) a still deeper acceptance... and the hope that – as has happened in the past – I will again emerge from this dip and normal service will be resumed.

In and through this journey, the Psalms have been my companions. In their honesty, confusion, comfort and hope I find a great deal of strength. There are few ‘answers’ in the Psalms, and I am thankful for that. Right at the moment I don’t need ‘answers’; I need hope.

‘Why are you cast down, O my soul, and why are you disquieted within me? Hope in God; for I shall again praise him, my help and my God.’


Saturday, 31 May 2014

Diverse Views and Different Opinions

Today was ‘Tram Day’. After all the time and disruption and disputes and escalating costs, Edinburgh has a tram service; well a few miles of a single line at any rate.

And, yes, I actually went for a ride on one and was duly impressed. But what really struck me, after all the criticism and grumbling, was that the trams were packed with hoards of enthusiastic and excited people, and onlookers were waving from the pavement! Quite different from the negativity and cynicism that had been so very evident before.

I have no engineering knowledge and no experience of managing major construction works, but it seems undeniable that the whole trams project was hopelessly mismanaged from the beginning resulting in disputes, unnecessary disruption, unhelpful controversy, difficulties for business and spiralling costs.

What a shame.

But to assert that the project was mismanaged does not necessarily mean that it was misconceived!

All the evidence from European cities and other UK cities is that the benefits will, in time, far outweigh the costs, that trams will bring a major economic boost to the city (and there are already signs of this) and that building an efficient transport infrastructure will be essential for the future of a city and region that will be growing rapidly in the coming years and where care use in the city centre is increasingly unsustainable. See, for example,

In short, all the evidence suggests that no matter how horrendous the cost in terms of finance or disruption, the gains will be still more. Oh, and the people of (eg) Sheffield and Dublin who also installed trams tell us that they hated the disruption but now love the trams! Check out

But I suspect that those who have already decided that the trams were a criminal waste of money, and unnecessary disruption will remain unswayed by rational argument or factual presentations. The feelings run deep and when our passions are involved, no facts will persuade us. At least not quickly.

This is not true only of trams.

We could say much the same about the independence debate, the European debate, concerns regarding ‘benefit scroungers’, immigration, and so on and on. It seems to me that many of us fix our views at an emotional level and neither facts nor logic will shift these. I suspect most of us are guilty of this at some level.

So what will change our minds if our gut reaction has already determined our attitudes?

Sadly, sometimes there is nothing that will change people’s minds. But often it is experience, encounter and time that will have the effect of changing our minds.

Many of the disputes within the church can be undertaken at the level of feeling and passion and not rational discourse. But when gut reactions have closed minds to argument there is still hope. If someone truly encounters another person coming from a different perspective, if there is experience of another who has a different lifestyle / theology / outlook and yet who is still evidently close to God, and if we can give ourselves and others time to readjust our views, then just maybe the change can begin.

However, the danger is that we so vehemently state our case and fix our position at an early stage that we make it more difficult for ourselves to change our minds, or we paint others into a corner from which it is not easy for them to move with any semblance of dignity.

We need to give ourselves – and others – time, and the opportunities to experience new situations, explore and live with the changes we resist and encounter and engage with others who have a different perspective.

It is usually a mistake to fix our views too quickly, to express them to vehemently or to hold them too firmly, at least at first. It makes it so much more difficult for us to change our minds.