Thursday, 26 May 2016

Amazing Grace.

Anne Tyler is one of the foremost American writers of our day.  In many people’s eyes she manages to convey the lives of ordinary people in a way that makes them seem extraordinary.  Family life is a place where there is conflict, tension, suffering but also a place where people find the resources and the dignity to overcome.  In the simplest of language personalities are brought to life in all their variety and complexity.   Her latest book sees a family seeking to plan the funeral of their mother who was killed in a road accident.  They wonder if she has left any instructions and speculate what they might be: 

““My only fear is, she’s requested ‘Amazing Grace,’” said Amanda.

“I like ‘Amazing Grace,’” Stem said mildly.

“So did I, till it got to be a cliche”

‘It’s not a cliche to me.”

Amanda raised her eyes to the ceiling.”

I know what Amanda means.  Ever since Judy Collins made it a hit in 1970, followed by the Royal Scots Dragoon Guards in 1972, ‘Amazing Grace’ has been sung and played on various occasions with people of all faiths and none feeling able to join in.  It is, of course, essentially a Christian hymn, written by John Newton, praising God for the undeserved love that has flowed into his life despite his own shortcomings.  Newton’s progress towards faith was anything but straightforward and he stood amazed at how firmly God had held him in the face of ‘many dangers, toils and snares’.   Strangely, the name of Jesus is not mentioned which perhaps may account for its wide appeal, even to the extent that it was played on the bagpipes at the funeral of Mr Spock in one of the Star Trek movies!

Yes I know what Amanda means.  ‘Amazing Grace’ is one of those songs which can be sung without any meaningful connection to its heart and soul.  Which is why it meant a lot to me recently to lead a Bible Study with a group of people recovering from a range of addictions and to begin with the singing of ‘Amazing Grace’.  I am tempted to say it took on a whole new meaning but actually this was men and women connecting with the only meaning Newton intended.  From the brokenness of his own life along with a deep sense of shame and unworthiness, Newton marvels at the love of his God who thought him worthy of the death of His Son and brought him to that place where he could say:

‘The Lord has promised good to me,
His Word my hope secures;
He will my shield and portion be
As long as life endures.‘      


Not that this is a hymn merely for those with what might be described as a dark and difficult past.  Anyone with any insight into themselves can find reasons why they don’t deserve anything from God and so the assurance of His grace, covering this life and the next,  is something we can all celebrate.

Tuesday, 3 May 2016

Pierced Ears.

They say that with regard to your general health and well-being you should choose your parents carefully.   It seems that so much ill-health, particularly heart disease, has a genetic base.  So with that in mind I suppose I should be grateful with  my parents lived well into their eighties.  I can’t say that their quality of life was the best as they became more and more dependent on others and there was a particular problem with deafness.   That was very frustrating for them and for everyone around them.  I have to confess to a degree of impatience having to repeat things over and over again.  
Someone has suggested to me that part of that was not being able to accept what they had become, that I was reacting against this inevitable deterioration in people I loved.   That may well be.  The thing is, I am now getting a taste of what it must have been like for them.  Last week, at a function I couldn’t make out what people were saying at my table unless they were sitting next to me.  I found myself frequently nodding to someone as  she was speaking to me and I don’t know what I was agreeing with.   I put this down to a lot of background noise but then I was always good at denial.  When I go to the movies I am missing chunks of dialogue.  The subtitles go on when watching certain TV programs. Just yesterday, being served in Starbucks, I had to ask the girl to repeat herself three times.  (She was asking my name so that she could write it on my cup!)

I know that many people who have good hearing have a problem with modern acting.  Was it the BBC’s ‘Jamaica Inn‘ that received complaints about the cast’s mumbling?   And Christian Bale in the recent Batman trilogy.  Why did he have to whisper all the time?  So there is an  issue here but I can’t escape it.  I am definitely getting deaf.

Spiritual deafness is a huge problem in the Bible.  Paul Simon sang of ‘people hearing without listening’.  That sums up much of the experience of the people of Israel in the Hebrew Bible.  They hear God’s Word but they either ignore it or screen it out so that it is never put into practice.  The prophets continually roared out the command ‘Hear, O Israel’.  If the nation was to realize the vision of being God’s people on earth then first of all she had to focus on and embrace His Truth.  

Jesus faced the same challenge.  People had spiritually bunged up the channels through which God could speak to them and turn their lives around.  He said: ‘He who has ears to hear let him hear.’  

It has been good to have a moan about my diminishing hearing but of greater importance is my willingness to hear in a deeper sense.  The Psalmist once wrote: 

‘Sacrifice and offering you did not desire,
but my ears you have pierced;
burnt offerings and sin offerings
you did not require.’  (Psalm 40: 6)


This is a familiar theme.  God is not impressed by the externals of religion unless they flow from a heart devoted to Him.  They way to that is to have ‘pierced’ ears.  No not in a decorative sense but in the sense in having ears that have been penetrated by God’s Word, ears that have been a channel of His truth,  ears that have been the medium for that truth to be established in our hearts.  

Tuesday, 26 April 2016

Famous In Heaven.

There has been an unusually high number of famous people who have died since the beginning of the year.  In early January there was David Bowie and Alan Rickman and last week Victoria Wood and Prince.  And in  between quite a few other notable people.  

Someone has suggested that part of the reason for this is that there are more famous people than there used to be.  At one time the only people who were known world-wide were in the movies.  But then came television and  the internet and social media and men and women in all walks of life become household names.  In 1968 the artist Andy Warhol said: ‘In the future everybody will be famous for fifteen minutes.’  We might just be seeing that happening. 

It was possible to be famous thousands of year ago.  There is a king who is mentioned in the Bible, Solomon, who lived many years before Jesus.  Solomon was remarkable for his scholarship, his wisdom and state-craft and he was known beyond the bounds of his own country.  People would travel hundreds of miles to make contact with him and benefit from his gifts.  Jesus became famous in his own country.  His public life only lasted for about three years but wherever He travelled people would come to be healed of their diseases  and to hear His teaching.  

If they listened to His teaching they would understand that life wasn’t just about making a name for yourself.  The important thing was living a life that acknowledged God and that was obedient to values that flowed from God.  Jesus spoke about how God was seeking to overcome everything that was cruel and painful and unjust.  He was seeking to build a Kingdom on earth where love and justice and peace would be established.  And he was seeking to do this through people who would accept His values and work towards the vision of a renewed earth. 

The way Jesus saw this working was not in a spectacular way but in quiet ways that may never hit the headlines.  He told a story about the end of human history when He would return to the earth and God’s great Kingdom would finally be established.  That was the moment when He would gather to Himself all those who had shown in their lives the values of the Kingdom.  Who were they?  They were the ones who had fed the hungry, gave water to the thirsty, provided hospitality for strangers.  They were the ones who clothed the naked, cared for the sick, visited people in prison.  

These are things that go on every day in so many societies largely unnoticed.  They won’t bring you world-wide fame or win you an award or get you an invite to a chat-show  but Jesus saw in all this the evidence that God was working in the world to bring renewal and hope.  So we should never underestimate the power of kindness towards others who are struggling,  and never mind if it never gets noticed or acknowledged.  You are famous in the eyes of God.    


Tuesday, 19 April 2016

Living The Vision

Recently I was thinking about the Church and how it has held me from my earliest days.  I suppose it began with a sense of belonging.   Sunday was the day I went to Church and there were people there who were kind and thoughtful.  And they seemed interested in me.  Always asking what I wanted to be when I grew up.  At that time my horizons were limited to becoming a legend with a sporting institution not far from where I lived but other ideas popped into my head from time to time.

 There were the usual misdemeanours with my pals in Sunday School.   One teacher told me years later that myself and my pal Eddie nearly drove him to distraction every week.  Little did he know that Eddie was destined to be his future son-in-law and that his partner in mischief would be at his side on his wedding day as his Best Man. 

There came a day, however, when a teacher at school who led the Scripture Union brought Jesus to life for me and stressed how important it was for everyone to ask Him into their lives.   That impressed me and in time made me think of the Church in a different way.  It was the place where we learned about Him and His teaching.   It was from that place we would go to tell His story, share His love, and bring about change in the world through lives that were changed.   The Church wasn’t a building or a club or an organisation.  It was a dynamic movement of people whose foundation was God’s Word, whose energy was the Holy Spirit, whose purpose was God’s great plan to renew the earth. 

That is the vision that has kept me going through the years.  I am sure the same vision was before those who formed Milngavie Parish Church when it was established 175 years ago.   So many things have happened since then on a global scale that have challenged faith, not to mention the personal heartaches that individuals have had to endure.   So many things have happened that have threatened the unity and peace of the Church.    But we are still here, living the vision, telling the story, sharing the love. 

The diary of a Free Church minister, Rev Murdoch Campbell, was published recently.  As he was nearing the end of his life in 1965 he wrote this:

'There are times when the Church of God looks as if it had perished, but how glorious and astonishing is God's power in giving her an instant resurrection and clothing her with power! In the very hour her enemies rejoice over her decay, powerlessness and death she springs to life, "terrible as an army with banners." (Song of Songs 6: 10)'.


175 years behind us, an unknown future before us, we stand on this faith. 

Saturday, 2 April 2016

Easter Shadows.

Violence has cast a long shadow over Easter 2016.  The bombs in Brussels, the trial of Radovan Karadzic with images of his atrocities, and the murders in Clydebank and Shawlands have served to remind us of the dark side of human nature.  It is difficult enough to face all of this but perhaps more so when we are people of faith.  After the Dunblane tragedy a man said to me:  ‘This is a hard time for fellows like you.’  I suppose he meant that it is difficult to confront such horror and bring a message of hope.  And he is right.  We should all recognise the challenge of faith in the midst of tragedy and suffering.  Sometimes it is hard to believe that at the heart of the Universe there is a God of love and justice who is in control.  But this is one of the great assurances that arise out of the last days of Jesus life on earth.  Even in the depths of the darkness that engulfed our Lord God was working for the renewal of all humankind. 

I recently visited the grave of a friend who died last year.  He had been living with cancer for six years, enduring the most debilitating of treatments, before the disease eventually overwhelmed him.   On his headstone are the words: ‘Nothing will ever separate me from the love of God.’   This is from a passage of Scripture in which the Apostle Paul reflects on the worst things that could ever happen.  He speaks of ‘trouble or hardship or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword’ and against these things he places a question: ‘Is there anything there that will ever be able to separate me from the love of God?’   His answer?  ‘There is nothing in all creation that will ever be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.’  (Romans 8: 35-39)

I have no doubt that Paul had questions.   The extent of suffering he endured throughout his life was beyond anything that most people go through.   But still he was convinced of the love of God and His good purpose in his life. I believe that this can be explained by the centrality of the Cross in Paul’s faith.  He saw the love of God working in and through the death of Jesus.  On the surface it was a ghastly spectacle but Paul came to believe that this death opened up the opportunity for forgiveness and renewal for the whole of humankind.   The confirmation of this was in the Resurrection of Jesus when the light from the tomb scattered the darkness around the Cross and the followers of Jesus understood what had been achieved through His suffering. 


The questions will always remain but reflection on the Cross and the extent of Jesus’ sufferings can bring the hope that even in the worst of circumstances the love of God is present and His good purpose is unfolding.  

Wednesday, 30 December 2015

Seekers After Truth.



The New Year is traditionally a time when we remember the Magi who journeyed from the East to pay tribute to the newly born Jesus.  They were late arrivals in Bethlehem having travelled a great distance, probably from Babylonia.  It is something of a mystery as to what exactly set them on their way.  We are told that they saw a star when it rose in the East and they connected this with the birth of ‘the king of the Jews’.  Something about this star spoke to expectations they had that one day a significant figure would be born in the land of the Jews. 

It is doubtful if they would have made the journey to pay tribute to a foreign king unless they were convinced that this particular king would give them some insight into the great mysteries of life.  Magi were scholars who studied science, philosophy and religion.  Sometimes this led them into areas that today we would call the ‘occult’ but at their best these men were honest seekers after truth.  It is possible that copies or fragments of the Hebrew Scriptures had come to their hands and they were familiar with the expectation that one day a special person would emerge from the nation of Israel who would offer hope not just for this life but also the life to come.  Then they saw the star and it touched something profound within them.  Joseph Ratzinger wrote this:

‘All kinds of factors could have combined to generate the idea that the language of the star contained a message of hope.  But none of this would have prompted people to set off on a journey, unless they were people of unrest, people of hope, people on the lookout for the true star of salvation.’ 

A colleague recently said to me that he is convinced that there are many people in our country who are interested in Jesus but who just do not see the point of the Church.  This is not new.  There will always be ‘people of unrest, people of hope, people on the lookout for the true star of salvation.‘   That is the way we are made.  Our hearts are restless until they find their rest in God.  And the Church has a point for it is within the community of faith that the story of Jesus is told, that His significance is drawn out, that the hope He brings for this life and the next is emphasized, that His love is demonstrated for those who need Him most. 

Another year is just around the corner.  Let us never lose this vision of Whose we are and Whom we serve.  Not just for our own sake but for the honest seekers after truth who God is seeking to gather into His purpose.  

Tuesday, 22 December 2015

The Great Project.


Address at Douglas Academy Christmas Service: 22/12/15.


The new Star Wars movie is called ‘The Force Awakens’.  I haven’t seen it yet but there was an Imax screening last Wednesday at the Science Centre  and my son was there.  He bought his ticket sometime in October about five minutes after they went on sale.   And for all that time he lived with all the hype, the promise that this was going to be the greatest cinematic experience of his life. The verdict was it was pretty close.  Everything that was promised was delivered.

It’s great when things work out like that.  There are few things worse than living with a promise not delivered, especially when it touches the more serious side of life.  For instance there is a Christian minister who was recently in prison in Iran.  His name is Farshid Fathi.  He hasn’t done anything that we would regard as criminal.  It’s just that certain Christian activities are unlawful in Iran and regarded as a threat to the state.  He was arrested on Boxing Day 2010 and sentenced to 6 years.  There was good news, however, in July of this year when he was promised early release and was given a date, 10 December this year.  But that day came and went and he was still in prison.    It must be so hard living with a promise of freedom that has not been delivered.  Thankfully I just heard last night that he has been released, hopefully free to join his wife and family in Canada.  

Christmas is about the most important promise ever made and how that was delivered.  God promised the ancient people of Israel that a special person would be born in their midst who would be the most important person ever.  He would not only make an impact on Israel but on the whole world.  His coming would be like a light shining in the darkness.  

When he came, though, he wasn’t quite what was expected.  He was born in an ordinary family and worked as a village carpenter.  Things changed when he became a traveling preacher.  He spoke about God and how people could get close to Him.  He spoke about hope for this life if people could learn to put others first.  He spoke about the renewal that God was seeking to bring to the whole earth.  

It wasn’t the most spectacular life on the face of it but after he had been nailed to a cross and rose from the dead it was as if a force awakened that changed the whole face of human history.  He had promised that the Spirit of God would come and live in all his followers.  He had promised that a day would come when his love and justice and peace would triumph over the darkness in human experience.  

I call this God’s Great Project.  It is sometimes hard to believe that it is going forward when you see the cruelty and injustice that bites into people’s experience.  The world can be a dark place.  But one of Jesus’ followers once wrote: ‘The light shines in the darkness and the darkness has never overcome it.’  I believe we can go forward with that great hope in our hearts.