Friday, 31 January 2014

Keeping oaths.

When I was preparing the order of service for Quarry Kirk earlier this week one verse of one of the readings really resonated with me. Actually, it was not even the whole verse, but the second half of Psalm 15:4:
who keeps an oath even when it hurts,
    and does not change their mind

I read that and it wasn't the lectionary readings I was looking over anymore, in preparation for a Sunday service. No, I was reading about myself.

I can think of so many times during this ministry training (and even enquiry period) where I could have walked away. But I kept at it, because it wasn't the institution which was calling me to ministry, but God. And he never said following him would be easy - an adventure, yes; easy, no.

So I kept to the oath, the promise I made to God - to follow. There have been tough times. Times when I've have to seriously reflect on who, what, where and when. But the lows have been significantly overshadowed by the highs.

Then, this academic year, without a placement I had made a commitment to prepare and lead Sunday worship at Quarry Kirk almost every Sunday. There have been some weeks where I could have walked away, done other things, had time. But I didn't. I'd made a commitment to them and I stick to them. After all, a commitment is only tested when the going gets tough, not when the road is easy.

Of course, my need to do pastoral care under supervision have made Quarry Kirk harder than I expected when I made the commitment. But I've stuck at it. I wonder sometimes if I even could have negotiated doing my required pre-probation work in May and June this year, after all academic work was out of the way. But there was a supervisor who was willing to work with me (and with whom I knew I could work) and I made another commitment.

Has it hurt? Yes. It's been hard and I sometimes wonder what the purpose of this is. I'm sure I'll look back at this time and see it as a blessing.

Stubborn. Yes, I know I am. Daft too, taking this all on. I hope it pays off in the end, though I no longer assume anymore. One things for sure, even when it hurts, this ministry path is the right route for me, even though I am a wee bit of a rebel, in my own little way.

Wednesday, 22 January 2014

In 20 years time

Occasionally, I wonder why I'm doing all this stuff. Pulpit supply at Quarry Kirk, pastoral care at the Big Kirk and an honours year at university. Will it pay off? Will it be useful in ministry? Will I have done enough to proceed to my next stage of training?

Perhaps I should have not asked my presbyter for something to 'keep my hand in' this year. Then I wouldn't have to prepare and lead worship almost every Sunday. But I have made a commitment to do it. A commitment I have made to the congregation at Quarry Kirk, who could do with someone showing a bit of commitment. Yet, in that commitment, I know there will be an end point, which I have already intimated. I need a bit of time between it and probation. Time for exams. Time for me. Maybe even time for a holiday.

Then there's my pastoral care stuff. It seems to be going well, though I know my supervisor has given me some tough visits. Not because of the people, but the situations. I came away the other day totally drained. Never felt that tired after a pastoral visit before. It was the only one I'd planned doing that day, but I'm glad it was. I couldn't have gaily skipped off to another one. Needed time to think, reflect and read a bit of Game of Thrones. A lesson, if one were to be had, is to not knowingly go from a hard/difficult pastoral situation to a joyous one. The swings emotionally could be emotionally draining.

There is a niggle (sometimes) that come June, my annual reviewers will not think I've met their criteria. Again. I know my current supervisor thinks I am doing enough. But she won't be in that meeting. No point doing anything but getting on with it till the time comes.

Time, what is that? All through uni I've wondering if I'm doing or reading enough. Got by so far. Actually, more than got by. But, I wonder, in the grand scheme of things, does it matter? Yes, I need a BD or equivalent to be a minister in the Kirk, but in 20 years time, will it really matter if I have a first (which is so not going to happen) a third or an ordinary degree? Yes, there will be congregations who may wish a certain level of academic achievement, but I can honestly say I doubt I'd feel called them.

And then I remember why I am doing this all. Because God has called me. God knows why he has, but when I'm leading worship or listening to someone's worries in their home, I know I am exactly where he needs me to be. Maybe in 20 years time this year I will look back and see how he was looking out for me and shaping me to he eternal glory - which ties in neatly with 2 Corinthians 4:16-18 (in my head, at least).

Friday, 17 January 2014

Being disciplined

I've just spent most of today reading up on early modern Scottish church discipline. More fascinating than you'd think (or, perhaps, that says something about my head). I'm trying to get ahead of the game with course work, where I can, to free myself up to concentrate on my dissertation.

Looking at how much I could do, in terms of reading and further research, for all my coursework, I could spend almost every waking hour studying. It's not that I don't enjoy it, but there's a whole world out there. Besides, in 20 years time, will the grades I receive now matter? No! But what I have learnt will.

Besides, in addition to study, I have to fit in pulpit supply most Sundays till Easter, some pastoral visits for the Big Kirk and (occasionally) seeing other people! Or, reappearing from my study to do things other than make pints of tea.

And the only way I can manage to do all this is by being very disciplined on myself (like how I did that). Setting 'office hours,' where I do uni work, with the other stuff happening at evenings, breaks and weekends. Well, maybe not all weekend, I still need a day off and I am also disciplined about that too.

Monday, 13 January 2014

Being prepared for probation

So far, this has been a busy academic year. Between full-time study, preparing and leading worship at Quarry Kirk most Sundays, doing pastoral work with the Big Kirk (as required from my annual review) and making sure I have some 'me' time. I always knew this would be a busy year, but as I am about to enter my last semester at uni, it's working.

It's funny how things work out. In hindsight I perhaps agreed to too much with Quarry Kirk, though always knew I would not have to do the third Sunday of the month there. If I was there every week, I would have (a) gone off my head, (b) not have had the space to attend worship at the Big Kirk, so I could get known there. Also, I now have a supervisor I get on really well with, who I seek advise from, but with whom I feel treated as an equal - someone who she wants to share the work with and sees me as helping her out. This relationship was especially useful for me when I had a very hard, personal pastoral matter to deal with, as I was able to ask for advice and discuss it after the event with her. Again, funny how things work out.

Though I am busy (and, I must admit, last week having a bit of a 'how will I get this all done?' wobble), the preaching and leading worship and pastoral stuff, in conjunction with academic study is good for me. It 'reminds' me why I am doing this, placing the academic study in a ministry context (at least in my head). Mainly, though, I'm now looking at it as all useful experience. Not only of juggling all these balls, but being used to pretty much working full-time hours (not just full-time student hours). I think this will make the transition between last year at uni to full-time probation easier, as I am already used to the juggling.

I actually worry a little about my fellow candidates who haven't got so much to do this year. I know of people on probation who found the first few months hard going as they adjusted to their new 'regime.' I'm not saying it'll be pain sailing for me, but a little easier. And there is evidence I can do pastoral work and get on with supervisors, which is a bonus too.

Friday, 10 January 2014

First Sunday after Epiphany year A 2014 - Baptism of Jesus

Sermon based on Isaiah 42:1-9 and Matthew 3:13-17

Today I want to tell you about the some of the dangers of Dihydrogen monoxide:
  • is called "hydroxyl acid", the substance is the major component of acid rain.
  • contributes to the "greenhouse effect".
  • may cause severe burns.
  • is fatal if inhaled.
  • contributes to the erosion of our natural landscape.
  • accelerates corrosion and rusting of many metals.
  • may cause electrical failures and decreased effectiveness of car brakes.
  • has been found in excised tumours of terminal cancer patients.

Despite the danger, dihydrogen monoxide is often used:
  • as an industrial solvent and coolant.
  • in nuclear power plants.
  • in the production of Styrofoam.
  • as a fire retardant.
  • in many forms of cruel animal research.
  • in the distribution of pesticides.
  • Even after washing, product remains contaminated by this chemical.
  • as an additive in certain "junk-foods" and other food products.
It doesn't sound like the sort of chemical you'd want to have near you, let alone in your house but I can guarantee that not only do each and every one of you have this dangerous chemical in your homes, you have all been in contact with it several times this morning.


Perhaps not, for dihydrogen monoxide is more commonly known as water.

Yes, ordinary, everyday water

but water isn't totally safe.

In 2012, the latest figures I could find, 371 people drowned in water

each year around 2000 children – that's just children – attend A&E with scalds from too hot baths, with around 400 of those admitted to hospital for further treatment, costing the NHS around £38.2 million per year in treatment

the huge amounts of rain there has been over the past few weeks has caused devastating flooding in many, many parts of the country, with people having to be evacuated from their homes, with no indication when they will be able to safely return home.

But without water to drink we would all die – in about 3 days

we may be able to survive without food for a for a few weeks, but not without water

water is essential for our lives and for all known life on earth

the bottom line is, without water on this planet, there would be no life

It was even in water that the first life on the planet came into existence and there was no life outwith the rivers and seas and oceans for around 2.5 billion – yes 2.5 billion years

so for almost all of earth's existence the only life which existed did so in water

but this ordinary substance, this basic molecule required for life, just does that

it sustains us

it carries nutrients around our cells

it washes our clothes and our bodies

but it is just a simple chemical made from 2 basic elements – hydrogen and oxygen

the same simple chemical which is used when a person is baptised

whether, as normally practised in the Church of Scotland, it is baptism by sprinkling or dabbing a wee bit of water on a person's forehead

or, as in other traditions, it is baptism by full immersion

it is still water which is used

even Jesus' baptism by his cousin, John the Baptist, was baptised in the water of the Jordan

so, for the church this simple chemical can take on a most significant of roles

as in and though baptism, we become members of the one holy catholic and apostolic church

which is actually quite a staggering thought, when you think about it.

All people who are baptised – irrespective of when, who by and whether or not they have anything at all to do with church

 as members of the church – the body of Christ - through baptism, they are shown to be a child of God

as baptism is a sign, through the use of water, of an inward grace – the grace of God which passes all understanding – the person receives

baptism also represents the washing away of sin from the individual being baptised

that was the baptism John the baptist preached – that those gathering to hear him should repent of their sins and be baptised

which does sort of beg the question as to why Jesus needed to be baptised

after all, Jesus was completely without sin, so didn't need the sort of baptism John was calling people to have

that's why John the baptist protests against baptising Jesus, as he knows Jesus doesn't need to repent of or have sins forgiven

but Jesus asked John to baptise him so they could do what God required

and when Jesus emerged from the water, God blessed him by coming down to Jesus as the dove of the holy spirit and speaking the words from God the father, “this is my own dear son, with whom I am well pleased.

In that moment, as Jesus came out of the water, baptised by John, the three persons of the trinity were present

Father, in the heavenly voice

Son, in Jesus

Spirit, in the dove

and so God showed himself to the world through his servant king, Jesus Christ

a king, a messiah, who showed the humility of a servant by following what God wished of him, through being baptised by John

in that baptism, God showed he had called Jesus and given him the power to see that justice was done on earth

through Jesus, the covenant God had with the chosen people of Israel was extended to all the nations – to the whole world

this began Jesus ministry

without a fanfare or shouting or speeches in the street

a ministry which would set the prisoners free and give sight to the blind

all starting by the simple act of Jesus being baptised in water by John

a baptism we are all invited to share in, which all people throughout the world are invited to share in

which poses a challenge for us as the church, I believe

because if we baptise infants, which is the custom of the Church of Scotland and say they are members of the church through their baptism

then the church is much, much bigger than attendance figures show

there are almost certainly more people sitting at home or working or shopping right now who are members of the church, through baptism, than ever attend any church

the reasons for this are complex, and just thinking about it could be a sermon series all of its own

but I wonder if it is because we as a church congregation failed to keep our the commitments we make as a congregation when a person – especially a child is baptised

and I quote from the baptism service for the church of Scotland (quote from Book of Common Order p92)

but then, the words commit us to live before all God's children in a good and kindly way and share with them the knowledge and love of Christ

these are things we can do in everyday of our lives, just by living our lives as followers of Christ we can and will reveal God's love to all the nations through the love of Christ shining through our actions

all because of that most dangerous, but essential elements – water

Just like God, it is good, but it is not always safe.

Tuesday, 7 January 2014

Still raining

Well, it's been wet. Very wet. Very, very wet. How can I tell? Because dams, like this one in Pitlochry are over topping. Big style!

More than making up for the summer's dry weather, me thinks...

Monday, 6 January 2014

Keeping the Advent Wreath burning

The other day, I was reflecting on how I see things differently. There have also been times, when leading worship, I have been told I do things differently, but quite how hasn't been clear.

This Advent and Christmas season I know what I did was different.

I invited members of the congregation to light the Advent ring. Not just children (though on the first Sunday it was a child, due to only one candle being lit), but adults too. Though there aren't many children at Quarry Kirk, this was not my rational for getting the breadth of the congregation to participate in lighting the Advent candles. The Advent season is a time of perperation for the whole church. The whole church is made up of not only the children. Surely, then, the whole church should be represented when we light the candles?

It seemed to work and I didn't struggle to get willing volunteers. Which makes me wonder why it's not the 'norm', but that's probably because the lighting of the candles forms part of the children's address slot, so perish the thought adults would get to do it!!!

The other thing I did differently was continue to have the Advent wreath (all 5 candles this time) lit both last Sunday and yesterday. The Christmas season doesn't end till Epiphany, when the wise men arrived, so surely the symbolism of the lights of the candle should continue to burn for the whole season (or about an hour a week during the service). I can't recall seeing the Advent wreath still lit beyond the Sunday after Christmas.  Often, by the first Sunday in January the decorations have been packed away for the coming year. I made a special request to have the wreath for yesterday's service and ensured it was lit. I also explained to the congregation why I was continuing to do it - because the season of Christmas was ongoing.

The candles and wreath will be away next Sunday. They may loose their significance and symbolism if they are ever present. But I think I will, when the time comes again, try to include the whole church in the lighting of the Advent wreath.

Sunday, 5 January 2014

Epiphany 2014 part 1

Sermon preached today at Quarry Kirk, based on Matthew 2:1-12.

When I was growing up there were 2 roles I would be pretty much guaranteed to get in the church nativity play – that of a shepherd or wise man

For some reason, in the plays that church had, at least one of those characters would have a reasonable amount of dialogue to remember and I was not only very good at remembering my lines, but also of being heard. Being heard in a church has never been an issue for me!

There was one year where the play had a lot of dialogue for the angel Gabriel. So, I was given that role. I must admit, I was gutted and hated having to do what I considered a 'girly' role. Back then no one told me Gabriel was a boy angel.

Anyway, when I look back, the thing I remember about playing the shepherds and the wise men is they were lead to follow Jesus – by angels or a star.

When they got to see Jesus, they worshipped him, and were filled with joy.

Filled with joy in seeing this special and precious baby.

And then we would give our gifts

okay, so shepherds, which appear in Luke's gospel, are not said to have given anything to Jesus, but what nativity play doesn't had the shepherds giving a sheep or blanket to the baby?

But the best gifts – and the gifts we are told about in Matthew's gospel – are reserved for the wise men

they bring their gifts of gold and frankincense and myrrh to Jesus

each gift not only expensive and precious in its own right, even 2000 years later these are expensive items

each gift not only the sort of gift which foreign dignitaries coming to visit a new born king would be expected to present

but each gift is a pointer to who Jesus is, his life and his death.

The gold speaks of him being a king, a king sent by God, a king for all the nations

the frankincense speaks of Jesus being God's high priest. Frankincense was – and still is – burnt in the temple and some churches by the priests to help the prayers of the people reach God's presence

but mostly, I remember the symbolism of the myrrh. As a child playing a king, one year we each had to learn our verse from 'we three kings' and sing this as we gave our gift to the baby

myrrh is mine its bitter perfume
breathes a life of gathering gloom
sorrowing, sighing, bleeding, dying
sealed in a stone cold tomb
myrrh was used to anoint bodies of the dead before burial

though an expensive perfume, the symbolism is that this gift points towards Jesus' death on a cross

after all, this baby, this precious king, this high priest of God was to grow up

He would grow into a man who would be baptised by John in the Jordan

who would call disciples

who would heal the sick, give sight to the blind and feed the 5000

a man who would talk to all who would listen

gaining enemies as he talked to the wrong sort of people – tax collectors, prostitutes, Samaritans

and would eventually land up nailed to a cross, giving his life in order that the whole world could know God's love and that all people, everywhere, no matter their background, gender, faith or nationality could come to worship God – could come to have a relationship with God

and it all began with those wise men. Foreigners themselves – the word magi, which they are sometimes known as – means a astrologer from Persia.

Not only were they foreigners, but they were not from a land which worshipped the same God as the Jews

yet, when they say Jesus they were filled with joy and worshipped Jesus

and, when they left Jesus and his family, they went home.

Though we never hear of them again, I like to think they were the first to take the good news of Jesus Christ to the gentiles, to the foreigners

and today, we hear on the news bad news stories about foreigners coming to Britain how should we as a church respond?

That I do not think has an easy answer, but I would suggest we should remember who Jesus reached out to all through his life – the sick, the excluded, the foreigner – and remember that in our Christian life we are called to follow Christ's example and his disciples.

Part 2, preached by Spot, can be found here.

Thursday, 2 January 2014

It's about the journey

At the moment, it's the season for 'reviews of the year' and such like things. It's not my style to do this. I like to think I at least try to review what's going on in my life - ministry and non-ministry related - fairly regularly and not just in relation to a change in calender.

There is no doubt, though, that the date change perhaps focuses the mind on what the following few months, at least may hold. Much of these ideas/thoughts/concerns have been stewing for a while. Seems like as good a time to write them out, as I often find the process of writing distills and condenses thought; clarifies them even.

I'm a couple of months into my pastoral placement. I'm not sure I'm doing as much as I should, and for a variety of (very good) reasons, my supervisor and I have not been able to formally meet to discuss since I began. I know there's this wee niggle in the back of my head which wonders if this will fulfil the requirements Ministries Council want of me. In a passing conversation my supervisor did suggest I may not need to be with her for too long, but I do not want to take things for granted. Not having formal paperwork, in this case, sort of makes things a bit more difficult, as there's no quantifiable means of measuring what I've done and how that matches (or otherwise) with the criteria laid down by 121. It's not that I'm paranoid, but don't want to get to this years annual review and have to put on hold probation as I, once again, failed to tick their boxes.

I've only 1 semester left at uni. I have, in the main, thoroughly enjoyed the study. I had talked before entering this ministry thing of going back to uni, doing it right and maybe doing some history - so far, 2 out of 3 isn't bad. My attitude throughout is to do as well as I can, but to focus on what I learn, but on the grades I obtain. There is so much I have learned from this period of study (e.g. managing priorities; thinking about the rules of diminishing returns; cost benefit analysis; targeted reading; etc, etc) which will never show up in the grades, but will stand me in good stead for the next stage in my journey. Before I get there, I have a dissertation and essays to write, exams to sit and presentations to make. All part and parcel of student life, but all leading to the end point of obtaining the qualification I need to follow my call.

Which is all getting to be quite 'real.' I've at least one, if not 2 friends who will be ordained in June. Though a different denominations, thus a different training program, it terrifies me that people I am currently studying will be entering the apostolic succession in less than 6 months! It also scares me that more and more people I know and love will be following them over the coming year or 2.

Occasionally, though, I wonder if I'll get there. The path I'm called to follow hasn't been smooth. I have struggled with aspects of it. I sometimes wonder if it's as much about me not quite being the 'right' sort of person to be a minister. Again and again that was why I took so long to do something about it. Since my first conference I have seen candidates who seem so sorted, so comfortable in their call, where their journey appears to be comparatively smooth. Then I remember that the best journeys I've ever been on were the ones where I went the alternative route, the narrower path, the less beaten track. As a consequence I saw and encountered things amazing and beautiful things I would not have if I have followed the more conventional route. My ministry training has been somewhat like that.

But life it's straightforward. It has it's ups and downs. It's highs and lows. Why shouldn't my path following God's call be like that too? But then, it's all about the journey not necessarily the destination.

Wednesday, 1 January 2014

The blind will 'see'

Yesterday a card arrived, addressed in such a way to suggest it may well have come from Railway Crossing or Last Stop. Though a little late, I expected it to be a Christmas card.

To my surprise and delight, it was a virtual gift, from one of the congregation members at Railway Crossing. A lady with a huge, deep, devoted faith, who I received much support. Knowing her, I suspect I and Spot are regularly included in her prayers.

The gift is to provide a Braille textbook, Braille paper or other visual aids as part of the work of Embrace the Middle East (no, I hadn't heard of them either). As someone who knows how important learning and education is to improving people's lives, and how restrictive poor or no sight can be, this was such a thoughtful gift.

At Caledonia Kirk the deaf heard. Now, due to someone taking the time to think of me when buying a gift, the blind 'see'. This is getting a bit scary!!!