Sunday, 30 June 2013

A church for God

What is church for? For worship? For fellowship? For building up a community? For serving the parish? Personally, I think it should be all three.

If a church only comes together for worship, how does the congregation build up fellowship with each other? Through that fellowship, they can support and sustain one another. They can share their stories of faith and live - and how the two are intermingled.

If there is no fellowship, how can a community be built? A community knows the individuals within it - their relationships with others within the community. They can love each other love, as Christ loved his disciples. Their worship can inform their community and their community can inform their worship and service.

If a church does not serve the parish. If those in the parish need to ask 'which church is that?' and don't really know anything about the church, is a church doing its 'job' right? Jesus calls us to serve the least among us. I do not believe that is merely within the church community, but the wider parish community itself. How that occurs varies from church to church, town to town, region to region, based on the skills and theology of the congregation, the neighbouring churches (and the churches relationship to one another), the facilities the church building has, etc. But I do believe that, one way or another, the church should be known and respected and seen to serve and love its community.

For in our service, in our fellowship and our worship we should be praising God and showing God's love to the world.

Saturday, 29 June 2013

Getting the font right

Texts fonts are carefully designed for different functions. They can give a corporate feel to all printed material (Times New Roman is not just called that by accident) or they can make things easier to read for people with certain difficulties such as dyslexia and dispraxia. Whatever the function, what will work or be appropriate for a certain reader may not be appropriate for another.

Take Comic Sans Serif, for example.  Its rounded letters gives it an almost happy, jovial look. It's great for advertising children's parties, magicians and for early years literacy, due to the characters being easy to distinguish. But, for professional applications, it just looks wrong.

In a past life, I would regularly have to examine confirmations. These confirm (surprisingly) the right of the people who have inherited a deceased's property ownership and, consequently, right to sell. Yes, believe it or not, there were areas of Scotland where those would be issued in Comic Sans Serif. It didn't look professional for that context and just a wee bit too happy too.

Recently, just round the corner from the manse I spotted this:

A safety notice. I know it's perhaps been printed with Comic Sans for legibility, but it looks too happy, too welcoming. It just looks wrong.

Different fonts for different occasions and settings is good. It allows, perhaps even the same message, to get to a range of people. An academic audience may prefer Times New Roman, an enthusiastic amateur arial and young children Comic Sans. (Can you see where I am going with this?)

Surely church - or perhaps not the 'formal' act of worship but church going into the world - be like this. Adapting its style - its font - to best serve the needs of the varying people within its community. That includes resources, dress, music, language. But the core message remains the same. The good news of Jesus.

Thursday, 27 June 2013

Making a manse a home

I have now owned my own home for 10 years. By the time I have finished training and am called to a church, that figure may be pushing 13 years. During that time, Spot and I have taken a special* house and turned it into our home. Almost all the work which has needed done, from painting the rooms to changing the nicotine coated light switches to designing and fitting a new kitchen we have done. Actually, the only thing we've got a 'professional' to do was fitting our cooker and that was only because it was gas!

Not only do we enjoy DIY, having seen the way some 'professionals' can and do (I also worked on building sites at one point...) botch jobs or cut corners, we realise many things we do to a higher standard. It has also saved us a small fortune. There's also the benefit that often if something does go pear shaped we can deal with it pretty quickly ourselves, rather than having to wait for a tradesman to be able to come along to deal with it.

So, once we go into a manse, the change of it no longer being ours will be a shock. My first couple of supervisors told me how they have done work on their manses and their congregations were happy with that. It kept their minister happy and saved the congregation money, so everyone was happy. Yet I know of congregations where shelves cannot even be put up without permission (Where am I to put my books? Yes, I do have bookcases, but given the weight of the books they need to be bracketed onto the walls for safety. So, I can't unpack for 3 months until after the next board meeting...I hope not to have that conversation).

And decoration. Now, given the horror stories I know of about churches not maintaining their manses at all for years and their minister effectively living in a hovel, I can understand why the rules state 1 room per year should be decorated. That seems to be very different from the real world. Spot and I decorated over the first 3 or 4 years of living in our house. Occasionally the bathroom needs touched up, but the rest is still absolutely fine. Thinking of a reasonable range of my family and friends, the average rate of decoration is probably closer to 1 room every 2-3 years. Wouldn't that be a better target, as it would reflect society? And if it's just been decorated for my arrival that's, what, 10 years of not needing decorated by my rough calculation. Besides, knowing how long it can be to get quotes and co-ordinate a diary with the decorators I couldn't be bothered with the annual decorating hassle.

More importantly than that is being allowed to do a wee bit about the manse. Then, if a small thing went wrong I or Spot could just deal with it and inform the relevant person as necessary. We'd save the church money, we'd be happier knowing it could just be dealt with (a happy minister - whatever next - humour in church?). It would also feel more like our home. I know it's not our house, but it will be our home. I pray for a congregation who will respect and support that.

*How do I explain special? Well, I have a friend who was doing a major house re-fit, with a bit of help from his friends. As he lifted the cap for the sewer pipe, you can imagine the smell. His reaction - "Oh, that's a bit special."

Wednesday, 26 June 2013

Door in face

There are many privileges to ministry. One I have experienced is a willingness of people to welcome me into their homes. Last summer, while at Highland Cathedral, I visited many members of the congregation. Some knew me, through attending worship, but others did not, due to health problems. Even those who had not met me before invited me into their homes, where I was able to share time and fellowship with them.

At Railway Crossing I have been given a list of people to visit. Some, through home communions, I have met before, others I my not have. After my experience last summer, and believing in Highland hospitality, was not daunted by that.

Until yesterday, that is. After introducing myself, I was asked why I was there. "Just for a visit, so you know who I am and to see if you are okay." I thought that was reasonable.

The response was "I'm fine, thank you" and the closed the door in my face! I must admit I stood there slightly stunned for a few moments.

The next couple I visited were the complete opposite, which was reassuring for me. And it was a joy and pleasure to spend time with them.

When I recounted my first reaction to Spot, he told me I should go back today with a Y chromosome!

Thursday, 20 June 2013

Glass half full

I tend to have a glass half full attitude. I know that sometimes doesn't come across here, but I try to be optimistic. I also have a nothing ventured, nothing gained sort of mentality.

Yes, I am away from home for the summer (again), but I look at the positives of gaining valuable experience and having the chance to live in a truly beautiful area.

I have been involved with many things, both before and since I began training for ministry, where the church meets people where they are, serving their needs and commecting with their lives. That may not have led to more 'bums on seats' on a Sunday morning, but that, for me, isn't the point. It's about taking the good news of God's love to people. It's about sowing seeds. How they will be received and grow will differ, but who will sow them if not us?

So, I get a bit twitchy when I constantly hear moaning that one church or another (usually, it's a small number who do all the hard work and the moaners have little or nothing to do with the poject in my experience) is doing this or that in the schools or through holiday clubs, but there are no more coming to church. I usually refer them to the parable of the sower. But I also womder if those in the communities those churches serve pick up on the pervailing attitude of the congregation and that puts them off. It certainly would put me off.

I know it takes a lot of effort and time and, in many cases, money even to do things outwith the church's walls or over and above the Sunday service. But does God not bless a cheerful giver? Will not God, in his own way and in his own time, feed and water those seeds, so they may grow in his light and love? A light and love that only his body - the church - can take into the world.

So, wherever I am called, I pray it's to a glass half full and give it a go sort of place. After all, that's who I am and I believe that's where God is calling me.

Wednesday, 19 June 2013

Will I come back?

They seem to like me up here. Really like me. On Sunday there, I led the whole act of worship for the first time at both congregations. So, that was the third Sunday and second time I've preached.

But how did I feel about it. It went better than I expected. It's strange preaching to a congregation I barely know. The first time it was especially strange, as I was preaching into the abyss in some ways. That went down well, and I'm sure things will be better as I get to know the people here; their hopes, fears, prejudices etc they have.

I know I'm already breaking with convention. When the offering was brought forward I received it. That was something which I picked up from Highland Cathedral and both the person bringing the plate forward and the congregation liked it. I also moved the 'minister's throne' and sat on an ordinary chair. I've only wee legs and mine were dangling off the throne. Given that's behind the communion table, I doubt anyone really noticed. And I did ask the Session Clerk if it was okay first!

The children were a little quiet, but they've not really encountered me before. I did, again, move a chair so I could speak to them. There's not really room for them to come forward, but they all sit together. The next Sunday I do a children's address I'll have a chair waiting for me.

I even, unintentionally, got a laugh from the congregations. What I was saying was intended, but I didn't expect a laugh - it's not that it didn't warrant a laugh, just it wasn't a joke (if that makes sense?). I know there was one or two points where I stumbled a little, but suspect hardly anyone would have noticed.

After the service I waited at the door - during the previous 2 weeks I've had to leg it from Railway Crossing to First Stop, so didn't have time for that. It was a beautiful day. Comments were favourable, including 'will you come back when you're finished?', 'very good' and 'food for thought'. I must admit to preferring the last comment. Though I am not, usually, a fire and brimstone kinda gal, I do try to get people thinking.

As for the 'will you come back'. It's a great complement, but I really don't feel called here. The people are lovely, the scenery and wildlife outstanding, but something just isn't quite right. I also told them I'd hope they managed to call a minister before I was finished, as it would be nearly 2 and a half years until I am finished training. That time line, along with the time they have been vacant so far would mean they'd have been vacant over 5 years. And, on a selfish note, I'm not sure what spot would do here - both in terms of his calling and for work.

It is good to be here and get alongside the people here for a while. It's also taking the pressure off the axillary minister who, in everyone's opinion, does far too much. All good experience for both sides of the equation. After all, apparently some in the congregation are now beginning to say they prefer a woman in the pulpit!

Tuesday, 18 June 2013

Hidden waterfall

Out for a walk along the beach today. The seals were close to shore, but too far away for the wee compact camera. According to the locals, the seals are often where I spotted them, so I will head back on another day with the SLR.

Seeing wildlife and scenery here is easy. If fact, it's hard to miss. At the moment I am watching a song thrush gather beasties from the lawn. Goldfinches are regular visitors to the manse too, helping themselves to the dandelion seeds.

As I walked along the beach, I began to hear the sound of running water. I knew I'd maybe need to cross a burn on my journey, but didn't expect to see this:

It was just so surreal, this waterfall. Tucked away. It struck me as almost looking like a tropical waterfall. Given it's location, I suspect this is quite a hidden gem. Hidden, but beautiful and worth the effort to reach. Oh, that could take me to a sermon, but I'll just remember it's beauty and the almost perfectly horizontal stratification of the rocks.

Monday, 17 June 2013

Communioned out

Over the course of the last 2 weeks, I have been involved in communion, in one way or another, about a dozen times. Twice in a Sunday service of worship, once at a presbytery meeting and the rest by way of home communions. The different settings have been interesting to witness and reflect on. I suspect there's still a lot of processing still to do.

At the home communions, I expected to be more moved than I am in communions on a Sunday morning, due to the more intimate nature of them. But that's not how it felt. Perhaps it was knowing I was, to a certain extent, on show - I am the newbie, the student minister, here for the summer. I have been all too aware some of those how I have visited during the course of the communions have been sizing me up. Most, though have been very pleased to see me and welcomed me into their homes.

Perhaps it's me not knowing these people. The auxiliary minister obviously knows them well and, I suspect, that relationship is what makes it more profound for him. I hope, as I get to know the people I will serve, that I also get to experience that.

Looking at the home communion set, with the dish which could only take wafers or small squares of bread (really, don't get me started on that!) and knowing the wine was horrible (sweetened grape juice - really, is grape juice not sweet enough? That's why it ferments well!) got in the way for me. Rather than reverently take the elements, I was aware I would have to stop the expression of yuck over my face as I took the wine. But it's not about me, it's about those I serve. They, clearly got much from the communion and fellowship.

Included with the communion was a reflection on the reading which had been used during the Sunday communion service - a cut down sermon, I suppose. Personally, I think I would rather spend that time offering pastoral care to those I visited, but I can also see the merit of what's carried out here, as it keeps those who cannot attend in touch with the teaching in church.

With that in mind, and given home communion only seems to occur here in the week after communion season, I do wonder if a special effort could perhaps be made to get those who cannot attend to church. While some could not attend, most probably could if they were taken. Surely that would be more of a communion - a common sharing of worship, fellowship and the elements themselves? I think I have a bit of processing of that to come.

Sunday, 16 June 2013

Communion Season

It has been communion season at Railway Crossing and First Stop. This involves an actual season of services - preparation on the Friday, communion on the Sunday morning and thanksgiving in the evening. I was aware that this was something which happened in the early post-reformation church, but until now did not realise is was still being practised in some parts of the Kirk.

It's a living tradition, from the vibe I've got, though up here less people come to church when it's communion, which I was really surprised by, and a little shocked. Though many churches in the Kirk have adopted allowing all who are baptised to take communion, that's not the case at these churches. Both have a reasonable number of regular worshippers, who are (I use the technical term) adherents. Many of those do not attend when communion is on. I also suspect the numbers drop for communion Sunday due to the historic fencing of the table and perhaps not being able to attend all three services. That, I know, is not a problem from the Kirk Session's point of view, but the individuals concerned may see it as such. Very interesting.

Especially at Railway Crossing, the elders were very nervous. I know that can often be the case, but with a small church (both in architectural and people terms) it didn't seem onerous. Though I was just an observer for communion (naturally, it was led by the auxiliary minister attached to the congregations) I reassured the Session Clerk that it didn't matter how the bread and wine went out, as long as everyone got some. Chill.

I later found out one of the reasons they Session will get worked up about communion. They only celebrate it at Railway crossing twice a year! Firststop falls into the more 'normal' Kirk pattern of 4 times a year and they don't seem to get quite as worked up, though half the congregation are elders there, so that might be something to do with it.

It's been a great experience being a small part of these communion seasons. I have also been involved in home communions, but I will write about them later. This is the first time I've really seen just how nervous the Session can get. I also wonder, if I were called to a church which hadn't yet opened up communion to all, not just communicant members, how I would persuade them to change that. Definitely things to be going on with.

Friday, 14 June 2013

A reminder in concrete

WWII Bunker
 In this remote area, far to the north of Scotland, the landscape is littered with remains of World War II bunkers. Almost 70 years since the end of this conflict, it is all too easy, especially for those of us too young to remember anything of the world at that time, how much the reality of invasion was.

This one sits as the last line of defence to a bridge. During WWII, that bridge was the first crossing of this estuary. Though most people perceive the southeast of England as the most obvious place to invade, this area could have been ideal. Yes, it's a long was to the centres of power, but the remoteness, with an isolated, scattered population, may have made it a possibility. The enemy could may have landed with relative ease, taking over the local infrastructure - roads and rail - to get to the places of power.

As you travel along some of the roads here, heading further and further inland, other bunkers and pillboxes reveal themselves. These were second and third lines of defence. Yes, the threat of invasion by the enemy was very, very real. Fortunately, it never happened, either here or further south.

But the bunkers still exist. This one looks to be used by cattle on occasion, taking shelter from the weather. May the serve as a reminder of why people fought, the appalling nature of war and how vulnerable even the most remote areas can be.

Looking through the bunker

Wednesday, 12 June 2013

Tom Wright sings Genesis

It's okay, it's the book of the bible, not Phil Collins!

Another year over

Yes, that many sound like a strange title in mid-June, but I am referring to academic year. Though my exams finished a few weeks ago now, I don't see the academic year as fully finished until the exam results are out. Are they are.

Well, I've passed everything - so no concerns about re-sits now! And all the results which 'matter' for my degree classification are on the 2:1 category. Quite how that happened, especially with one course on particular I took, which I really didn't get my head round, I will never know.

Please, but know it's down to hard work. I'm also pleased my 'best' result was in the subject I enjoyed the most.

So, now to get round to choosing what I am doing last year...

Tuesday, 11 June 2013

Talk of the steamie

Well, I'm the talk of the steamie! And not for the reasons you might think.

I dare, yes, dare, to walk to church. Who'd have thought that half a mile was an unacceptable distance to walk? Apparently the last time a minister in Railway crossing walked to church, it was before ministers had cars.

It was seen as being so strange that 4 people offered me a lift home. Just wait till the discover I'll do my pastoral visiting either by bike or on foot. Really, it's not that far. And a minister (or at least this trainee one) is not above walking. Besides, I need to burn off all that cake you keep giving me. And its a good way to meet people - even if it is just a passing 'hello' - after all, they are all 'my' parishioners.

Sunday, 9 June 2013

Sights and womders

A walk yesterday afternoon took me out of town and, within minutes, I felt I was almost in the middle of nowhere. The sort of place where people say it's quiet. I say it's anything but quiet, they just aren't listening. It's also the sort of place where some say there's nothing to see. I say, they aren't looking.

There's so much about the walk I could have recorded, but it was more the experience. Watching sand martins skim the river for bugs. Or watching the bees (which there aren't many of) doing what bees do, and admiring the wildflowers along the dry stane dyke.

Then, there was the point where I got the the ford in the road. I knew about it - it's marked on the map. In some ways, I was looking forward to the experience of crossing it by foot. On a day like yesterday, the cooling water would have been bliss on my hot feet. But there was a footbridge above, not shown on the map due to limitations in the scale. I crossed that way instead.

There was the heron pair, in flight. A flight which is almost slow motion; almost too little effort to keep such a large bird in the air. I lost sight of them, but I assume they were heading for their nest. With the river low, I suspect they are travelling further to find fish (or, perhaps it makes catching them easier.

To top it all. Well, maybe top isn't quite the right word. Heading back round for the manse a roe deer burst out of a stand of trees, bounding across an open field. I watched and it stopped. It looked at me. In a moment, which was fleeting, but seemed to last, we met each others eyes, then it turned and we continued on our journeys.

Friday, 7 June 2013

Getting around

Yesterday, I took myself geocaching in the local area. It's ages since I've done this, but in a new area it's a great way to get off the beaten track. 3 hours out and never once did I leave the parish. I think it would probably take a week to walk the full boundary of the parish, yet this is an area which is loosing ministers - IMHO, that's just crazy. That may be a post for another time.

Anyway, while out and about, I came across a ruined church. Given the number of used churches in this area, and the time line of this one, I can only assume the current church was built to replace this one. The ruined one is at the end of a coffin road - so I know I am in the Highlands now. The community which would have used this was about 3 miles away, which is a long way to carry a coffin. It also had a separate bell tower across the road. It was very atmospheric, even in ruin.

Before beginning work, and in order to use cake calories (have I mentioned I have probably eaten my weight in cake so far?), I am trying to get into a habit of a couple of mile walk first. This morning I stopped and watched here for a little while. The river's quite low - given the weather there's no surprises there. But it is a lovely spot. I think I might include this as one of my regular sojourns while I'm here.

Thursday, 6 June 2013

View from (near) my manse

Railway Crossing Harbour
Yesterday morning and evening I took the chance to get a stretch of my legs and start to get a feel for my home for the next few weeks.

It's a funny place, that with the A9 passing through, so there's a regular stream of end-to-enders or long-way-rounders. There's also more younger people than I expected, though from what I've seen and am now learning, there isn't much for them to do round here.

There's plenty walking and birdwatching to be done, which will keep me happy. There's also quite a lot of community activities which happen in and around the area, so I might pop along to some of them. Well, it's good practise for when I go to a charge, though am very aware how hard it can be to do things beyond the church walls, for various reasons.

So far, this has been a pretty full week. There's a lot to digest and think about. Reports will be regular, after all, what else do I have to do with my time?!

Tuesday, 4 June 2013

First impressions

As I write this, I am looking across the north sea and can make out the Grampians in the distance. There is a golden beach, where Arctic tern nest, a river where otters hunt and house martins are flying around the front garden catching their fill of flies. I am also told dolphins, whales and sometimes basking sharks can be seen from here. I think this summer might be hard (said with tongue firmly in cheek).

It's been a busy few days, though I did have a day off yesterday. I very much hit the ground running, attending my first service within 3 hours of arriving here. I wasn't involved, but it did give me a chance to met some of the people I will be serving and working with this summer.

The local gala was on Saturday. It was a great day and the weather mostly held. A good community vibe here, though I felt the church (collective - there are 4 denominations represented here and that doesn't include the fishermen's mission too) could have been playing more of a role. But Railway crossing was there, raising money for their summer holiday club, which is a start.

I have found the pub which serves real ale, but will only be there when spot visits. Now is neither the time nor place to challenge social norms!

My impressions of the 2 congregations are of warm, generous, friendly, honest, sincere people. I very much feel supported be both congregations and the definitely seem to be here. So far I think I have eaten my body weight in cake - it is lovely, but there's only so much one gerbil can eat!!!

Sunday meant me being involved in 3 services. What with not pausing for breath since arriving and having to be 'on' for around 5 hours, I was knackered by the time we got home. It'll be interesting how I cope and adapt to having to regularly lead up to 3 complete services per week.

The acoustics at Railway crossing are terrible. This is where that voice which could always be heard comes in handy, among with the speech training I have received, otherwise it just couldn't be sustained.

It was also weird having to leave one service immediately after the benediction to leg it up to Firststop. I have taken services at linked charges before and always had time for a brew before I left. This practise of leaving immediately may change as I go on. I have to be careful I don't get blood in my caffeine system!

So, though my feet have hardly touched the ground so far, I think I am going to really enjoy my time here.

Saturday, 1 June 2013


Okay, okay, I know it's a Saturday, but what with landing in Railway Crossing yesterday afternoon and having to hit the ground running, this can't be a day off. Panic not, there were others earlier this week and there will be in the weeks to come.

Anyway, first impressions. The people from the respective congregations I've met so far are warm and hospitable. The work they have done to get the manse ready for my arrival is brilliant and really humbling. I know some of the work was being done to get it ready for when a new minister comes, but there has been a lot of effort getting the sort of stuff in place which make the place homely. It is HUGE, though. At the moment Spot and I feel like we're rattling around. We also keep loosing each other. In our house if we can't hear the other, we just need to speak to them and usually find them. Not here. And I have 3 - count them - 3 toilets! I have decreed the en suite will be the only cluggie in use, so I've only 1 to clean!!!

The drive up was a bit epic. All in, it was about 6 hours, with a stop. I can understand, unfortunately, why areas such as this sometimes struggle to call. It is a long way from anywhere (though there is a co-op and a hardware store - many central belt towns have lost them) and if a minister has a spouse who works, there are limited job opportunities for them.

It'll take me a wee bit to settle down and get a measure of the place. Today's the local gala, so it will be a good chance to get to know the parish (yip, this is my parish for the summer - PANIC - and breathe), see how the church is seen by the community and maybe pick up some homemade bargains. So far, at least, the weather is beautiful. Hopefully it lasts as a lot of effort has been put in to organising the gala.