Category Archives: Thoughts
It started out as a fairly straightforward plan for a free afternoon – Lindsay and I would drive over to Morningside and meet our son and his girlfriend for tea and a catch-up. It was when we got there that things got complicated!
We had paused opposite a cafe on Morningside Road so that I could nip across and check if it was open. As I opened the driver’s door, it was caught by a gust of wind, and swung open with real force. We heard a loud crack, and try as we could, we couldn’t get the door to shut. There we were, parked on a very busy and narrow main road into town, with the driver’s side door jammed wide open and obstructing the passing traffic.
This was not the gentle, joyful and relaxed afternoon outing we had planned. We did all the sensible things. I put up our EU regulation warning triangle, so that drivers could see that something was wrong, and I wrapped a luminous visi-vest around the door so that it was easy to spot. Then all we could do was phone rescue and recovery and sit and wait.
Given the reactions of the passers by, that time spent waiting in the car was both mildly embarrassing and highly informative. A small number of drivers took it upon themselves to give us advice. This tended to be of the loud and offensive variety, accompanied by some enthusiastic hand gestures and shakes of the head. Clearly they were assuming that we had chosen to sit in our car on a windy day with the door wide open just to annoy them! Most people, however, after a curious glance, simply ignored us and walked on by.
I was reminded of the story of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10.25-37), where Jesus challenges us to be prepared to get involved in other people’s lives, even complete strangers, when they are in need. I know from our experience of living abroad, that if this had happened in the global south we would soon have been surrounded by a group of strangers, eager to put things right. Not so here! So, why is it that we live in a society where people are more and more reluctant to stop and help?
Perhaps it’s a combination of fear, frustration, and general indifference. Sometimes, (and I include myself in this), we are afraid to stop and help people on the road because of all the stories we hear of people being attacked and robbed, but more often it’s because of the inconvenience of getting involved. Sometimes we are too quick to judge someone’s situation and give advice from a distance, when there might be more complicated factors at work. Sometimes we are too wrapped up in our own plans and priorities to even consider putting them to one side for the sake of others. And so we walk or drive on, and try to put it out of our mind as quickly as we can.
The alternative, of course, is much more risky, but also much more rewarding – to put all our fears and frustrations to one side, and to get involved. In the long half hour before the rescue and recovery van arrived, one person did stop. He jumped out of his car and asked if he could help. In the event there was little he could do, but his small act of kindness changed our mood completely. It restored our faith in humankind, and reminded us of the power of compassion when it comes to making a difference, whatever the situation.
The trouble with praying in public is it can make us feel very vulnerable.Mark tells us how, on one occasion, the disciples felt very vulnerable indeed. A man had brought his troubled son to them while Jesus was away up a mountain, but when they had prayed for him to be healed, nothing had happened. Jesus returned to find them feeling rather foolish and surrounded by a scornful and angry crowd. Fortunately, he was able to step in and save the day.
Mark tells us that, later on, they asked Jesus why the boy hadn’t been healed. His reply is a bit confusing. “This can happen only by prayer”, he said (Mark 9.28-29). What did he mean? Had they not done just that and nothing had happened?
The clue to what Jesus meant is in the footnote at the bottom of the page, where we are told that some manuscripts had Jesus words as, “This can happen only by prayer and fasting.” In other words, it wasn’t their public praying that was the problem, it was the fact that it had not sprung from a lifestyle of prayer and fasting. They hadn’t been taking their own prayer life seriously enough. They hadn’t been getting the basics right.
Jesus took his own prayer life very seriously indeed. Throughout Lent we bear in mind the 40 days Jesus spent praying and fasting in the wilderness before he was even ready to begin his ministry. This was time spent tuning into his Father’s will, and opening up his life to his Holy Spirit’s power. Throughout his ministry we are told how he began every day alone in prayer. Before he died he spent the whole night in prayer, getting himself ready for the ordeal that lay ahead.
How seriously do we take our own prayer life? As you can see from the diary of events, during Lent there will be plenty of opportunities for us to meet together in public prayer. Every Tuesday the McDonald Room has been set aside as a place of prayer at various times throughout the day. The whole week before Palm Sunday has been set aside by all the BIG Idea churches as a time of 24/7 prayer, (tying in with the city wide prayer initiative organised by Trypraying). We will begin each weekday with an early morning prayer time at the Blythswood shop, and then each church building will be open in turn. Liberton Kirk will then be open for prayer from 8.30am on the Friday, and will be open for prayer until 8am the following morning.
But if this is the only time we plan to spend in prayer, all our efforts may well come to nothing. Public prayer is important, but only if we get the basics right. We also need to take our own private prayer life seriously. The more time we spend in private prayer, the more God will be able to use us. The more time we spend praying together, the more it demonstrates that we are ready for his Spirit to move among us. Does prayer always work? It depends how seriously you are willing to take it. My prayer is that you come to know more and more of the joy of God’s living presence in your life as you journey through Lent towards Easter.
Much love, John
There’s nothing quite like having your own bread maker. We were given one a few years ago, and I soon discovered I was not the only person who enjoyed waking up to the smell of lovely fresh bread, newly baked and ready for breakfast. I also discovered how vital the presence (or absence) of yeast was to the whole process.
My only experience with yeast up until that point had been limited to the trials and frustrations of brewing my own beer, and it was only through the baking of bread that I began to fully appreciate its extra-ordinary powers. It only takes just a little yeast (and a lot of kneading) to enable the bread to rise. But woe to you if it is forgotten! There is nothing more disappointing than wandering barefoot down to the kitchen first thing in the morning, and opening the lid of your bread maker, only to discover a loaf that has not risen.
Awareness of the extraordinary powers of yeast has been around for a long time. Two thousand years ago Jesus was aware that yeast was something everyone could relate to, and he used it as a powerful illustration to help him get some of his points across. On one occasion (in Matthew 13) it was to emphasise something else that was remarkable:
“The kingdom of heaven is like yeast that a woman took and mixed into about sixty pounds of flour until it worked all through the dough.”
The Kingdom he is talking about here is his Kingdom – it is what becomes possible when and wherever people are willing to put their faith in him. Faith is like yeast, it is possible for a small quantity if faith in Jesus to spread throughout a whole community, setting us free from our burdens and fears, and giving us the strength to face the future knowing we are loved by an ever-present God.
Another occasion when Jesus mentions yeast (in Matthew 16.6) is to illustrate the very opposite. He had just fed the 5000, AND walked on water, AND healed lots of people, AND then fed another 4,000, when the religious leaders of the day came up to him and conceded that they might be willing to believe in him if he would only do something miraculous for them. Shortly afterwards (in Matthew 16.6) he said to his disciples…
“Be on your guard against the yeast of the Pharisees and Sadducees.”
Faith is like yeast – a little bit of faith can quickly spread throughout a large number of people, but so, according to Jesus, can the lack of faith. We know this from our own experience. Just as it can take only one enthusiastic individual to fire up a whole bunch of people, so it takes only one gloom-monger to deflate everyone.
To have faith is to walk around with your eyes wide open to all the amazing and wonderful things that God is doing in our lives. To lack faith, is to walk around with your eyes firmly shut to all possibilities. God is looking for faith-spreaders, not faith-inhibiters. So, here’s something to ponder, the next time you bite into a good slice of bread: which one are you?
We live in the age of research, when we are constantly bombarded by cold callers and questionnaires, and when people’s reactions to statistical information tend to range from avid interest to suspicion and even hatred. But here is one statistic that has the potential to perplex us all. Did you know that in this last year the British public spent in the region of sixty six million pounds on candles?
Why is this so, when electricity provides all the light we need at the flick of a switch? Is it because we long for a simpler age, when the only source of light available was one that flickered in the darkness? To anyone who had to live through the blackouts of the 70’s, (when coal shortages caused by the miners’ strike led to power shortages on a nationwide scale), you will know just how boring this was. If all you have is candle light, then you can’t see very well, you can’t do all that much, and if you are not careful, you will strain your eyes into the bargain.
No, it’s not for sentimental reasons, or for practical ones that we love candles, it goes far deeper than that. John Drane, the main speaker at this month’s annual conference for churches in South East Edinburgh, came up with a much better reason. He thought it was more to do with the sense that the candle flame has a ‘life of its own’, not dependant on anything else. This, he suggests, is why its glow has the ability to quieten and comfort, inspire and encourage, and lift our spirits.
One of the main reasons I love a candle is because its flickering flame is so beautiful and yet so vulnerable – it can so easily be put out. It is for this reasons that candles and Christmas go so well together. Listen again to these words of Graham Kendrick.
Like a candle flame, flickering small in our darkness
Uncreated light shines through infant eyes
Stars and angels sing, yet the earth sleeps in shadows
Can this tiny spark set a world on fire?
God is with us, Alleluia
Come to save us, Alleluia, Alleluia
Jesus is the vulnerable face of God – ruler of all creation, yet small and helpless in a manger. From him the light of hope shines out in the darkness, offering us a choice – either acceptance or rejection. To reject him is to turn back to the darkness. To accept him is to accept the possibility of his light spreading through our lives and his hope burning ever brighter in the world around us.
Yet this light shall shine from our lives, Spirit blazing
As we touch the flame of his holy fire
God is with us, Alleluia
Come to save us, Alleluia, Alleluia
May the Light of the World shine ever brighter in your life throughout the season of Advent and beyond, into the year to come.
With much love, John
I love pasta, and one of my favourite sauces is vongoli sauce. No surprise, therefore, that when Lindsay and I went out for a meal on our first night in Venice, I ordered a plate of pasta piled high with clams. Delicious! The fun started a few hours later. I woke up at one o’clock in the morning with stinging eyes and short of breath. Lindsay took one look at my face, which was puffing up dramatically, and said “Oh no! It’s the shellfish!”
I was suffering from an allergic reaction known as ‘anaphylactic shock’. The only other time I had suffered from one of these was several years ago here in Liberton. On that occasion I had to spend a night in A&E where I was pumped full of adrenalin, steroids and anti-histamines. Our problem in Venice was we had no adrenalin, no steroids, and only some very low strength anti-histamine tablets. On top of this, all the hotel staff had gone home, none of the telephones seemed to be working, and the usually busy streets and canals were now deserted.
One of the worst things about anaphylactic shock is the rising sense of panic you feel, as the symptoms get worse and worse. I was soon sitting on the side of the bed, gasping for breath. Two things then happened which made all the difference. The first was that I became conscious of Lindsay sitting beside me with her hand on my back, reading these words from Psalm 40 …
I waited patiently for the Lord my God;
He turned to me and heard my cry.
He lifted me out of the slimy pit,
out of the mud and mire;
He set my feet on a rock
and gave me a firm place to stand.
He put a new song in my mouth,
a hymn of praise to our God…
She then prayed, asking God to heal me. I’ve always believed in the Holy Spirit’s power to heal, but never before have I experienced such an immediate and dramatic change. Within seconds I was breathing more easily, and soon was aware that the other symptoms were lessening too.
The second thing that happened was that Lindsay phoned my sister, Ella, on my mobile phone. While the time was 1 am in Venice, it was only 12 midnight in Birmingham, and Ella picked up straight away. Ella is a retired GP, and her calming voice drove away what remained of our fears. We spent the next couple of hours sitting up in bed watching a Clint Eastwood film dubbed into Italian. It didn’t improve my Italian much, but it took my mind off things, and by the following morning I was almost back to my normal self.
You may be wondering what lessons have I learned from this episode. I would suggest the following (although not necessary in this order):
1. Don’t eat clams in Venice
2. God can and does heal today
3. If, while in some foreign clime, you find yourself in need of a doctor’s advice, you can always phone my sister in Birmingham!!
I have often said that, looking back in 50 years time, one of the main things future generations will judge us on will be the way we have disregarded the environment. Yet, what has this got to do with the Christian Faith, and does God have anything to say on the matter? From the 16th September, we will be embarking on a Sunday morning series which hopes to answer these questions. The series is entitled “The environment – why should we care?” and will be based on a recent publication called ‘The Green Bible’*.
Rather than just another book about the environment, the Green Bible relates environmental issues and concerns directly to God’s word as revealed in scripture. It contains the full text of the Bible, with passages with particular reference to the environment lettered in green (and is, reassuringly, printed on recycled paper). It is not just a Bible, however. It also has a 150 page introduction with articles by well known Christian writers (including James Jones, N.T. Wright, Ellen Davis, Desmond Tutu, Barbara Brown Taylor, and Pope John Paul II). It also has a very useful index. Even without the Biblical text, it would be a useful resource to possess.
Our Sunday morning services will also be part of a ‘Whole Church Study Programme’, where you will have the opportunity to sign up to one of the discussion groups meeting at various times during the week to discuss the issues raised. Discussion will be based around the ‘Green Bible Trail Guide’ – six weeks of daily readings found at the back of the Green Bible, which takes us through the basics of our faith as seen from the wider perspective of the whole of God’s Creation. It includes passages to read and questions to discuss. It also includes ideas for practical application, and a section entitled ‘Where do you go from here?’
The themes, which we will be preaching on each Sunday, are as follows:
The environment – why should we care?
…because God made it and it is good
…because it is where God can be found
…because it cares for us
…because God wants us to
…because our sin is harming it
…because of God’s promise that all will be made new
So, look out for the sign-up sheets, and try to get involved. Remember, the better informed we are the more we can do, and the more we can do, the better the future will be for our children and for their children too.
*The Green Bible is published by Collins, and can be ordered through the Faith Mission Bookshop
Communion on the beach is not a new thing. In John chapter 21 we find the first written record of communion on the beach, when the risen Lord Jesus shared breakfast with his disciples. For them it was as reinstatement of old friendships and trust, as well as a re-committement to each other in the face of what lay ahead. For us on Sunday, it was an affirmation of our shared faith in Jesus, and of our unity as part of the family of God.
For the past few years we have finished our Congregational picnic with an act of worship, and last Sunday, in response to popular demand, we included family communion.
We had no books, so everything had to be well-known. We began with a simple children’s chorus – ‘I’ve got a very big God-O’, with one of the teenagers leading the actions. Andy Chittick, our youth leader, then led us in prayer, and Ruth Davies, our Reader, then presented a dramatised version of the parable of the ten virgins, (Matthew 25), drawing on various people of all ages who had been roped into the parts with little warning.
What lessons can we learn from the parable of the ten virgins?
- Firstly, that God’s Kingdom is like a big wedding celebration – something not to be missed, and well worth waiting for.
- Secondly, that our faith needs to be current – we can’t just rely on moments from our past.
- Thirdly, that our faith needs to be our own – it can’t be borrowed from anyone else.
We sang ‘Give me oil in my lamp’, (including the verse ‘give me wax for my board, keep me surfing’), after which we sat down in groups and talked about things we were thankful to God for in the last year, and things we were looking forward to in the year to come.
Finally, after three simple questions which affirmed our faith, we shared communion together. We all stood in a big circle around a small make-shift table. I made it clear what we were doing and why, and that by sharing the bread and the wine we were affirming our belief that Jesus died for us, and our commitment to follow him.
All ages were welcome, but no one was forced to be there, so, while a number of kids went off to play on the nearby sand-dunes, most stayed with their mums and dads. As the bread and then the wine were passed around the circle from hand to hand, there was a clear sense of our unity in the presence of God. As we shared the peace afterwords, there was a clear sense of celebration.
Our closing hymn was ‘Jesus loves me, this I know’, and for me it summed up all that had just taken place. I have many memories of sharing the Last Supper with many different people in many different places all over the world, but this is one of the best.
Here is part of the prayer that we used.
Loving Father, as we have shared in the Lord’s supper, we remember those who won’t be having any supper tonight. As we have come together as a family, we remember those who have no family, or who are sad about someone they love. As we have celebrated our faith, we remember those who are missing out on that faith.
Send your Holy Spirit upon us now, and upon this bread and this wine so that, as we share it together, we may be filled afresh with your love and be able to serve you better, bringing your love into the lives of those who need to feel it most .
As I sit and write this, the date is Saturday 19th May and the clock on the wall says 2.10pm, and I realise that, as a church minister, I am in a no-win situation. In less than an hour’s time, Hibs will be playing Hearts in the Scottish cup Final. All morning there has been a steady exodus of cars heading west, containing either green and white or maroon clad football zealots of all ages. Whoever wins the cup, by tomorrow morning half of my congregation will be feeling dejected, and the other half delirious. The only thing that keeps me smiling is the knowledge that, in time, everyone who made that pilgrimage to Hampden Park , whichever side they supported, will have been glad that they were not alone.
This is something I’ve come to realise from supporting the Scottish national rugby team. Over the years, and especially since the beginning of the ‘professional’ era, we haven’t won many games. We joke about it. We say it means we’re much better at coping with losing, or, when we occasionally do win, that our joy is much greater. All this is true, but the thing I’ve noticed time and time again is that it’s much better to watch the game at Murrayfield than to watch it on the tele at home. Why? Because, win or lose, you know that you’re not going to be alone!
This summer, here at Liberton, we’re going to be looking at what it means to be a follower of Jesus. For the six weeks, beginning on the first Sunday in July, we are going to be looking at this through the eyes of Paul in his letter to the Philippians. Being a follower of Jesus also involves highs and lows, but whether its times of joy or whether it’s times of struggle, the same thing holds true – you’re not his only follower, and you don’t have to face them on your own. So, whether by joining us here on a Sunday, or by joining a local church on holiday, make sure that you find some good company. The love of God made known in Jesus is too big to enjoy on your own.
In April I wrote that, if I were to go back and begin again at Liberton, the main thing I would have done differently would have been to focus much more of my time on training up leaders from within the church. Since September of last year I have been doing just this through the formation of our very first leadership huddle, and this huddle has now become one of the personal highlights of my ministry.
What is a leadership huddle? Firstly, it’s not a leadership team meeting, nor is it a house group fellowship. Rather, it’s a meeting of leaders in training. Roughly speaking, the leadership huddle follows the pattern used by Jesus himself.
When Jesus trained his disciples a number of things stand out:
o He chose them personally, according to character rather than their knowledge and experience
o He spent a set amount of time with them
o They journeyed with him, sharing in his experience
o They learned directly from his example
o They learned together, as a community
o He got them to put what they learned into practice
o He then commissioned them to go and train (disciple) others
This is the model we have been following here at Liberton. A group of us have been meeting together once every two weeks for an hour: exploring what our faith means in practice and what God might be calling us to be and do, and experiencing firsthand the benefits of being part of a supportive and trusting fellowship. This is our ‘Leadership Huddle’, and I am not alone in finding it a wholly worthwhile use of my time. Here are some of the comments its members made the last time we ‘huddled’:
“I feel more comfortable and confident in my ability to help others”
“I came along thinking I could maybe support another leader, but now I feel I may have something valuable to contribute myself”
“It’s a safe place to share dreams”
“It’s helping me to explore my own gifts”
“You know you are not alone in terms of your hopes and fears – something I don’t often experience”
“I have come to appreciate that everyone has different gifts, and there’s a place for each of us in the church”
“Our discussions are deeper and more intimate than I have experienced, and I go away to reflect more”
“I love the way, if you say something in the group, people will hold you to it”
As a direct result of our regular ‘huddles’ someone is now taking a turn at preaching, someone is starting up a house group, someone is taking the lead with our ‘late teens and 20s’, someone is taking a leading role with Libbi’s Cafe, and three people are going to help run our next Alpha course.
I am now hoping to start a new leadership huddle in the autumn. If you think you know someone who has the potential for being a leader at Liberton Kirk, please let me know.
What an Easter! Palm Sunday set the tone and with every passing gathering the sense of God’s presence grew.
* On the Monday of Holy Week over 70 people from all the churches in the area gathered at the Tron Kirk for a special Passover Supper.
* Wednesday evening saw the now customary ‘Stations of the Cross’ service take place at St John Vianney’s church.
* Friday morning’s ‘Walk for Witness’ went ahead, despite the light drizzle, and the service at Morrisons was even larger than last year (every year it seems to grow in size), with powerful passionate worship and a powerful message.
* Well over three hundred people came along to the Good Friday afternoon’s service at Gracemount High School, some coming from churches well outside South East Edinburgh to attend. As we approached the Cross, we were encouraged to focus on what gifts we were offering in God’s service.
* Easter’s early morning service, which included breakfast (agape) was wonderfully joyful and relaxed, and the 11am service was packed with worshippers – ranging from familiar faces to complete strangers. The challenge at both services was to take up Jesus call to follow him.
* Easter’s ‘Evening Celebration’ was small and intimate, with a thought provoking drama, and a number of people coming forward to share how much God has been working in their lives over this last year. The service finished with everybody blessing each other with an Easter Blessing, and some surprise Easter home-baking supplied by the catering team.
My theme on the Sunday morning was how much our Christian faith is defined by the events of Easter. Looking back, it gladdens my heart to realise that the way we celebrate is also a demonstration of the love of God made real in our midst.