Wednesday, 25 November 2015

A Question of Identity

Last Sunday, my wife Jane preached as sole nominee for the vacant charge of Campsie Parish Church. Thanks to the generosity and kindness of my lovely colleagues in the Ministry Team of St Cuthbert’s (and at their insistence!) I was able to be there.

It was a heart-warming, lovely, affirming and entirely joyous occasion as Jane was voted for unanimously by what seem to be a welcoming, community based and thoroughly delightful congregation.

And there was I… the husband of the minister; the ‘had to be introduced to be known’; the ‘came along too’ person!

Not that I was for one moment complaining. I know that this is the role that Jane has fulfilled (and with considerable grace) since my ordination in 1981. And we had agreed that the time was now long past when roles should be reversed.

I was glad to be there, pleased to share in the joy and delighted to be photographed with Jane as her husband (and that despite the protest of some who may have implied that this may have been demeaning to Jane?!?!) I cannot see that, given that she was the main woman, I was the happy supporter; a loving partner is not a bad thing, is it?

But for me the interesting thing is the complete reversal of roles. For so long Jane has been the ‘Minister’s wife’ (I hated that tag, the implication of it and the expectation that went with it, and was delighted that Jane did not fulfil these expectations). Not surprisingly (but possibly, tellingly!) there are no such expectations of Ministerial husbands (and it will be interesting to learn how same sex partners are being treated in this respect).

But all this said, and all that considered, for me the interesting thing is observing how things have so completely turned around during the course of my (almost) 40 years of Minister.

When I was ordained, Jane had no thought of ordination and no sense of a call to Ministry.  I was the Minister, she was my wife.

On Sunday past, she was the Minister and I was her husband.

I loved it… and yet there was still a sense of slight dislocation. Who was I/am I really?

Well, I know in a fundamental and ontological sense…

…but – in Ministry terms – that is for another post!

Sunday, 8 November 2015

soul space

One day, about two years ago, a book was left for me at St Cuthbert’s when I was not present.  The book ‘The Blessing of Life’ was written by an American Presbyterian pastor named Gerrit Dawson. The message left with the book suggested that I check out pages 99 to 101.

I was somewhat puzzled. Not only had I not previously heard of the author, but I wondered why there would be anything of special interest to me in this book.

I turned to page 99 and read of how Gerrit and his daughter were in Edinburgh a couple of years earlier. ‘As we walked to the end of the Princes Street Gardens in the center of Edinburgh we came to St Cuthbert’s Church. Noticing that the church was hosting a time of reflection called “Sanctuary in the City”, we went in. Various stations were set up around the beautiful sanctuary. At each you could interact with the meaning of Christ’s passion and resurrection through prayer, visual art, writing or reading’.  Gerrit went on to describe the profound impact one ‘station’ in particular had on him.

In subsequent correspondence with Gerrit I discovered more of just how important and meaningful that visit to St Cuthbert’s, and the interaction with ‘Sanctuary in the City’, had been. He told me that he had used some of the prayers and texts he found that day in Lenten worship and sermons in his own setting, and he wrote ‘that we both had such an experience of the Lord’s grace together in St Cuthbert’s was a gift beyond hope’.

This was a great encouragement to me and to the team of folks involved in setting up this monthly time.  When Gerrit visited St Cuthbert’s, this time of peace, space and prayer was indeed called ‘Sanctuary in the City’. It is now called ‘soul space’. Its roots are in monthly Reflective Services which had been held in St Cuthbert’s for years before I was called as minister.

The aims of ‘soul space’ (formerly ‘Sanctuary in the City’) are to provide a place and time for engaging with God, prayer, Scripture, the Holy Spirit, peace etc at your own pace and in your own way, in silence (although there are occasional short spoken reflections and often quiet music playing).

We are pleased when regular congregational members come, but even more encouraged when folks from other churches attend and delighted when people passing by, those on a lunch break from local work places, harassed shoppers and so on, drop in and participate for a short time or a longer time.

Usually we do not know how many people may engage with what is offered, still less how and in what way they may benefit from it.

We offer what we offer, hold the space open, and leave the rest up to God.

What I can say is that I believe that in offering a place and space where folks can stop, pause, be quiet and reflect for even a few moments, we are giving people an immeasurable gift. And I know that I gain so very much myself from these moments praying, reflecting, engaging, reading, lighting a candle, silence…

Truth be told, I think I am really quite pleased that in this target driven, goal oriented world where numbers are counted, success measured in some supposedly quantifiable way, and outcomes assessed, we are offering something the effect and benefit of which cannot be readily assessed or measured.

If you want to find out more (or even better, start something in your setting) then see or

Wednesday, 14 October 2015

Autumn Days

As I sit at my desk in my study in the Manse, I look out of the window at a beautiful tree which has been slowly turning colour as autumn progresses. It lifts my spirits every day when I look out on it.

I love autumn and especially these bright, crisp sunny autumn days when the light has a magical quality and the air is clear. When the sun is low in the sky it highlights buildings and hills in stunning ways (and I reckon that Edinburgh is one of the very best places to appreciate this!)

I have very vivid memories from back in the mid 70s of starting the University session in October and these early wonderful days of each new session (just to be clear, I loved my time at University!)

On bright, crisp autumnal mornings I would walk through Kelvingrove Park admiring the colours of the trees, praising God and joyfully anticipating the forthcoming Systematic Theology lecture!

Of course, all that was forty years ago… say it quietly! Forty years…

The other day I rediscovered the Bible which had been presented to me at my licensing in Glasgow Cathedral in 1980, 36 years ago. Extraordinary. Indeed, the day that this bible was rediscovered was the same day on which I attended a conference organised for Ministers to tell us about retirement, pension, Housing and Loan fund etc.

I guess it is now autumn for me too!

I may have to work a little at loving the autumn of life as much as I love the season of the year.

And yet there is something attractively mellow about knowing that one’s most energetic and possibly productive work lies behind;  a quiet satisfaction that – for all the mistakes and failures – there has been a lot of good work done, and it is now time to slow down just a little and adopt different rhythms. Time to shift down a gear.

And that is fine… in theory!

I have not found it quite so easy to accept in practice.

But right now, as I look out at that tree I think I may not be too far away.

As ‘The Preacher / Philosopher’ said ‘For everything there is a season…’ (Ecclesiastes 3: 1).

Sunday, 26 July 2015

A Confusing Condition

I am just returning to work after two weeks on leave. Not that we were away (other than a day or two here and there) but it was good to have the break. In the middle of this fortnight there was a family wedding. What a great day it was. A real joy!

I enjoyed reconnecting with family and with friends (some of these friends I have known since childhood, but I see only rarely, and usually at such events).

For various reasons I have been feeling particularly well these last two or three weeks (since my last post here). Indeed, I have enjoyed a consistently better level of health than I have done in the previous two and a half years! There may be several reasons for this, but whatever they are, I believe that God lies behind all of that, so I am grateful indeed to God!

Yet, I made the conscious decision to take a walking stick with me to the wedding. Lately I have used my walking stick only occasionally and when I have it has been an indication that I have not been feeling so steady… in every sense!

Sometimes (not always) my balance is a little compromised; sometimes (not always) my legs feel heavy, tired and sore and to have an additional aid can help; sometimes (not always) stairs can be a challenge and (if a lift is not available or convenient) a stick can assist.

But, none of these things have been true over the last few weeks.

However, even when I am feeling well, I know that standing ‘unpropped’ for long periods of time can be a difficult, draining and debilitating experience. Don’t ask me why standing has such an effect when I can walk or cycle… but that is my reality (when I consult physios regarding this they try to explain it, but it still seems odd to me!).

So, knowing that the early part of wedding receptions can involve long periods of standing, and being aware that this reception was to be in a marquee (and so no walls to prop oneself against!) I took my walking stick. Just as well, as I had to spend a considerable time before the meal standing without the means of leaning on something and with no chairs in sight on which to sit!

And, I was fine. I had my walking stick!

And yet, the number of people who said to me the likes of ‘But, you are looking so well’, or ‘lose the stick!’ and who looked confused and a little askance when I managed (one only!) dance…

Yes, I know it looks confusing, and it appears that I am well and that it seems to make no sense.

It does not make a lot of sense to me either.

And I would do almost anything be well again, not to have this condition, or consider energy depletion, or where the loos are, or what I can manage today because of what tomorrow holds; not to have to think ahead about walking sticks, or if there will likely be walls or chairs or other furniture against which to lean. Or just simply to be able to manage what I once did.

Years ago, when I heard about reports in the newspapers (usually the Daily Mail or Daily Express!) regarding supposed ‘benefits frauds’ who were videoed dancing or whatever when they were claiming benefits for disability I used to agree with the critics and get very annoyed with the ‘cheats’! My annoyance was partly because they were (as I thought) turning public opinion and sympathy against those with genuine need. I am still irritated at those who exploit the system. And yet, now I wonder if it is as simple as it seems.

How could I – a man with a walking stick – also manage a dance? Yet I can… one at least.

And I know the reality that I dearly and deeply wish was not mine. But it is.

I also know what my immediate family witness when I return from conducting a wedding or funeral where unpropped standing is almost a necessity and I am utterly wrecked and unable to function for several hours.

But, then, nobody else sees that.

These last few weeks I have been attending the MS Therapy Centre in Leith where I have had the privilege of meeting with many folks who also have MS.

One of the things that strikes me is how different we all are. Some (like me I guess) appear unaffected to the casual observer while others (possibly most) of my new friends need sticks or wheelchairs.

On some days at the Centre, I have felt like a fake and a fraud. On other days, I have connected with several who – like me – seem outwardly / visibly ‘well’.

This was something on which I had already reflected, as I have two close relatives with MS whose experience is very different from mine (thus far). When they hear that I can cycle, walk the dog etc, they are amazed. And yet, in relation to another family wedding coming up next year in California, one of these relatives will be attending while I have decided I cannot. My symptoms (although less obviously disabling or visible) mean that the flight would be unbearable and the potential ramifications too great. Following our last trip to the States (and that only to the East Coast) and my utterly dreadful experience on the journey back, I doubt that I will be able to again make that trip, far less to the West Coast.

‘But, you look so well’.

Yes, I do. And thankfully I have been very well the last few weeks. I hope it continues and I remain deeply grateful to God.

But judging simply by outward appearances is rarely if ever the best way of approaching another person or situation.

Saturday, 27 June 2015

Invisible Disabilities

One day earlier this week, I was on the way into church on the bus. On the journey I found myself standing, as the seats downstairs were mostly taken. Standing can sometimes be a problem for me because of my MS. It is difficult to explain (or even understand… for me too!) but the experience of standing can be debilitating and result in energy depletion, heavy limbs and muscle aches.

Although most of the seats were occupied, there was one seat… one of the ones for those who are elderly or disabled… I kept standing.

Was it pride? Well, perhaps…

But I think it was also because I do not APPEAR ‘disabled’. I did not have a walking stick that day (although I do occasionally use one) nor any other outward indication that I am ’disabled’.

And yet I AM ‘disabled’. In fact, one recent (and rather surprising) discovery has been that the very fact that I have MS categorises me as ‘disabled’ in the provisions of the 2010 Equality Act.  But even forgetting all that, I know that standing for long periods is a problem, energy depletion is a BIG problem, cognitive function can sometimes be a problem and so on and on.

(I will spare you some of the further symptomatic details which restrict but which are not visible)

And, as if that were not enough, I also have a second chronic condition more recently diagnosed and rather more difficult to talk about. Three months ago I was diagnosed with Ulcerative Colitis.

Once again, I will not go into all the gruesome details except to say that there are very real restrictions caused by both my conditions, that they both are causes of fatigue and energy depletion and that neither of them  looks as though they are doing anything other than getting worse!

But, to the outward observer, I seem to be the picture of health!

Which is, of course, why I find it is difficult to choose to sit on these disabled seats on the bus!!

And so back to that morning a few days ago… After the bus journey for which I stood all the way, when I reached St Cuthbert’s we were about to begin our monthly lunchtime Bible Study based on the passages for the next Sunday’ services… and if you have looked ahead, then you will know that the Gospel passage on Sunday is about the daughter of Jairus and the woman who had been bleeding for 12 years. 

We cannot be sure, but I think we may assume, that the woman who touched Jesus’ robes would not have been obviously ‘disabled’. Her condition and its symptoms would likely have been ‘invisible’ to others.

I saw the connection.

But I was not just thinking of myself, but of the many (very many!) friends, family members, congregational members (past and present) and pastoral contacts who have conditions (physical, mental or emotional) that are not outwardly ‘visible’.

Let me be quick to say that those of us who have less visible disabilities often do not face the challenges of those who are more ‘obviously’ disabled. The very invisibility tends to mean (in most cases at least) that we do not face the same physical challenges. And we are not generally subject to such discrimination and prejudices as still exist in our society with regard to the ‘disabled’.

While for many people with MS, the effects of the condition are very evident and visible, for me and others they are not. And there are many others who have disabilities that may not be visible, but are nonetheless debilitating, challenging and awkward to cope with, and which put real (and often permanent) restrictions on life. I am thinking of the likes of dyslexia, inflammatory bowel disease, autism/Aspergers, depression, anxiety, and so very many more…

Both the Church and society have moved far in terms of support, inclusion and attitudes to those who have disabilities. But there is still a distance to travel.

Perhaps one thing we could still try to do is find an alternative description to ‘disability’ (and please not ‘differently abled’!) And another is to work harder at ensuring that being ‘disabled’ does not automatically imply that we are also considered as ‘disqualified’ from certain jobs, positions or roles.

After all, in the ‘West Wing’, President Bartlett seemed to do a pretty decent job in spite of his MS! Just a pity he had to start off hiding it!

Jesus' response to and compassion towards the woman with the bleeding tells us something about how God looks upon those of us who have any condition or disability, visible or invisible, and surely also tells us something about how we should regard them.

But none of all these musings resolve my problem with taking a disabled seat on the bus! Perhaps I should just carry a walking stick as a matter of course…

Thursday, 25 June 2015

Who stole my descriptors?

OK everyone.... there are loads of you who will profoundly disagree with me.

That's ok.

But I would ask you to show respect and be considered in you responses... please!

I respect you as brothers and sisters in Christ. I hope you can do the same with me...

At the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland held last month, and following the deliberations and decisions of the Presbyteries of the church, the Kirk took the significant but limited step of affirming the traditional teaching of the church on matters of sexual relationship and marriage, while simultaneously allowing congregations who so decided, to depart from this ‘traditional’ position and (should they so wish) appoint or call Ministers or Deacons in Civil Partnerships (and possibly also in time, Same Sex Marriage).

Leaving aside the substantive issue, and also setting aside any concerns about the consistency or long-term sustainability of this ‘permissive’ or ‘contradictory’ position (depending on your view) I have a deeper concern.

I may be wrong (I may even be slightly paranoid!) but I think over these last few years as both this issue has come to the fore in the church and also my own (accepting and affirming) views have become more widely known, I have been quietly excluded from certain mailing lists, gatherings and meetings.

For example, there is a Church of Scotland Evangelical Network with whose aims I broadly agree and – had it been set up 10 or 15 years ago – I imagine I would have been invited to be involved at an early stage. Membership of the network is open to minsters, elders, members and adherents of the Church of Scotland, so should I join?

Well, I doubt I would be welcome as, according to its website, it was set up due to concern about the issue of Ministers etc in same-sex relationships.

And so, it seems, the mark of being an evangelical is our view on this single issue.

I wish this Network well; it includes many friends and I am hugely encouraged by the commitment of those involved to stay in the Church of Scotland even if they disagree with decisions that have been taken.

But I would still like to know why I am no longer to be described as an evangelical? It seems that it would come down only to my views on this single issue (and if I there are other reasons, I would really like to know!)

It would seem that I am in good company, with the likes of Roy Clements, Rob Bell, Tony Campolo, Brian MacLaren and Steve Chalke.

But who decided that this was the mark of being ‘evangelical’? And why?

I am genuinely puzzled, and (as you will guess) feel a little bereaved.

Recently, one clergy colleague who is gay spoke of the process of ‘coming out’. He went on to say that now he was challenged about another ‘coming out’… as an evangelical!

It may (or may not) surprise some of my evangelical sisters and brothers to know that (in the wake of some of my previous posts and blogs) I have been approached by a number of others who – for the moment- are keeping their heads below the parapets, but who personally take the more inclusive and affirming view that I do, while being afraid of losing their sense of ‘tribal’ identity and (more importantly) their many friends within the evangelical fellowship of the church.

And I reckon that if I were to name them (which of course I never will!) then the shock would be great indeed.

But why is this so?

I wish people would discuss these things before they excluded some of us who share their views on most of the fundamental matters of faith.

And I would quite like to feel free to choose my own descriptors rather than have arbitrary criteria imposed by others as to what constituted fair and proper use of such descriptors.

Thursday, 19 February 2015

O for a closer walk with God

As we begin Lent, William Cowper’s hymn ‘O for a closer walk with God’ has been much on my mind. Now I know that Cowper suffered bouts of insanity and periods of depression and some of that depression and doubt are reflected in his hymns, including this one.

Yet I find myself in sympathy with much of what he writes in this hymn.

I do long for a closer walk with God… (but perhaps avoid facing up to those things that hinder it!).

‘Where is the blessedness I knew when first I saw the Lord?’ he asks. And I can echo that.

As time goes on it is to be expected that youthful fervency matures (fades?) whether that be applied to romantic love, political views or spiritual intensity.  I am not sure whether or not it is inevitable but it is certainly common.

But along with moving beyond the over simplistic certainties and callow fervour I wonder if we do not also (too often?) lose something of the core of our faith, ditch committed discipleship and settle for a bland milk-and-water type of Christian following (of the type I once ridiculed in the respectable church-going middle class environment in which I was raised).

Or perhaps what I am really saying is that this is part of my perception of myself and my story.

Part of the journey of this Lent may be to ask searching questions of myself as to why I feel that this has occurred and what I can do about it.

‘The dearest idol I have known,
whate’er that idol be,
 help me to tear it from thy throne,
and worship only thee.’

Hmmm… could I really say/sing that with sincerity?


Wednesday, 18 February 2015

Living with Limitations

Lent has begun.

Like many Christians I am ‘giving something up’ for Lent. Not because I feel I must, nor because I consider it some absolute devotional requirement, but because I find it helpful and useful as a spiritual discipline.

This ‘little fast’ reminds me of Jesus’ forty days fast in the desert, where he was tempted. That in itself is good reason to pursue this disciple.

But more than that, the idea of ‘giving up something for Lent’ is about forsaking for a season things that speak of this world, this existence, this reality and allowing ourselves therefore to focus on a different world, existence and reality; that of God’s Kingdom.

However, something else has struck me this year; that voluntarily giving something up for Lent sets limits and boundaries. There is nothing intrinsically wrong with (for example) eating chocolate or drinking wine or having a coffee or whatever. Giving something up as a spiritual disciple is simply saying ‘just because I can, does not mean I need to’. Just because I can have a cup of coffee, bar of chocolate, glass of malt whisky etc does not mean I must have one. I need not be driven by my every desire but can choose to refocus my attention and energies and – indeed – desires.

Of course, such limitations are in themselves limited! Most of us tend to only give up relatively small things (although they can feel big!). And it is only for six weeks. What’s more we have voluntarily and freely chosen these limits.

I still struggle to get used to the limitations posed by my health (and these limitations are gradually increasing). But while I can choose to accept or resist these limitations, resistance can only go so far, and I have not chosen the underlying limitations in the first place. Naturally, I would much rather they did not exist!

But this – for me – is the added dimension to choosing a voluntary limitation for Lent. As well as the spiritual value, it also gives me a feeling of being able to choose rather than have limitations imposed upon me by an unwelcome and unlooked for health condition.

There is a lot for me to think about in the Lenten season.