Wednesday 14th October 2020
Watching Out for Shortcuts
We have just finished praying our way through the Beatitudes at Tuesday evening prayer and are around half way through studying them together on the Pilgrim Course. They remain immensely challenging and inspiring after 20 centuries. One of the themes that run through them is that appearances can deceive and that we can sometimes find blessing in the unsought for and undervalued experiences of our lives. These can include mourning, hunger, poverty of spirit and so on.
As we were discussing this recently Catherine shared with us these insights from the Mahatma who said once that if more Christians were like their master the whole world would be Christian!
Gandhi’s 7 Dangers to Human Virtue:
1 – Wealth Without Work
2 – Pleasure Without Conscience
3 – Knowledge Without Character
4 – Business Without Ethics
5 – Science Without Humanity
6 – Religion Without Sacrifice
7 – Politics Without Principle
I share these with you today (Harriet is on holiday!) because what they all have in common is the valuing of the difficult side of life. Conscience, ethics, sacrifice, principles etc can be really bothersome at times when we just want to get on with things. The words on the right hand side of the list tend to slow things down, force us into making difficult choices, have to hold difficult conversations, work unseen at times with no guarantee of success, take the long way round when there seems to be a shortcut available and so on.
I met a young doctor recently for coffee who I knew as a pupil in Aberdeen. Being with him reminded me of an impromptu wee thought for the day I gave to my daughter’s group of school leavers at a BBQ in the Rectory Garden. I talked briefly of the career ladder that lay ahead for many of these talented and bright young people. I also though talked of the character ladder that lay alongside this and which at times may hinder or slow their climb of the career ladder and yet how important t is to keep going up both.
In this Covid period I do believe our character is being tested in a greater way than usual. Whether it is Gandhi’s recognition of the importance of doing things well and properly or Jesus’ call to us to look for his blessing in the sometimes hard places and times, we are reminded that this autumn and winter provide a great opportunity for spiritual and character formation. In Jeremiah 29 the old prophet’s letter to the exiles in Babylon states quite clearly it will be 70 years before they come home. In the meantime they must watch out for the false prophets who say they will be leaving soon. Instead they must plant gardens, pray and work for the prosperity of where they are and try to flourish where they have been planted.
I’m sure it will not be 70 years for us!!! But let’s not wish this time away and just focus on our well-being. Many folk will be going through a far harder time than we are as they lose their livelihood in the coming months, local services maybe cut and so on. Our character as a society will be greatly challenged. What does it mean for us to be salt and light in this context, how can we be Beatitude people, living more like our Master, as Gandhi so longer Christians to do.
This funny story illustrates Pete’s point that we can live our lives sometimes like the demented greyhound, driven and disoriented by irrational fears, pursued by packs of bloodthirsty bistro chairs, too scared to simply stop. With so much changing and happening in our lives and context at the moment it is easy to feel uncertain and apprehensive and even a little afraid at times. I certainly wouldn’t call it irrational to be careful of Covid and perhaps even more so to be afraid of the economic climate and changes to people’s livelihood.
But this is my point. These genuine concerns help us to stop and look at some of the more irrational fears and drivers that previously may have had not dissimilar a role to the chairs the dog thought was chasing him. Covid has removed some of these “chairs” by the simple fact that so many things stopped. Much of the frantic movement and inner turmoil that marked aspects of western society eased. Our newspapers are not so full of frivolous news and there does seem a sense of a more measured take on things. When there is a pandemic around and such economic uncertainty it does throw a certain sobering daylight on some of our previous ‘fears’ and ‘drivers’.
The bible also talks about such a recalibrating of our lives. God speaks firmly into the cacophony of human activity, in the words of Psalm 23 He makes me lie down. Into the ‘unexamined momentum’ (I wish I’d thought of Steve Aisworth’s wonderful phrase!) of our lives his voice is waiting for us to slow down and listen. Maybe we can take time to examine the momentum of our lives and what are the things that pull and push them along. Some of it is fine and healthy, other aspects not so much. What are the voices or memories from years ago, that have long outlived their authority or right to speak into your life? What are the dispositions and habits that have their roots in our learning to survive and navigate this wonderful but scary world but which are now preventing us from thriving and growing?
Most of all though God wants us to stop and face our “chairs” and know that we are loved and created by him to be in a relationship with him. This gives us a purpose and security and sense of direction which provides the freedom to be free of fears and drivers. Such stopping and listening can change our lives in the most profound ways over time and liberate us into that ‘perfect love which casts out all fear.” (Apostle John.)
Wednesday 7th October 2020
Running the race
When I got home from church on Sunday I sat down in front of the TV and watched the end of the London Marathon elite men’s race. The runners lapped the 1.3 mile route around St James’ Park repeatedly and the race concluded with an exciting close-run finish between the fastest Ethiopian and Kenyan competitors.
The “Power of Sport” was quoted as being the inspiration for thousands of amateur runners taking part in the virtual marathon in several locations around the world. Amongst them was a group of NHS staff who spoke of how running helped them cope physically and mentally with the demands of caring for patients, particularly since the onset of the pandemic.
Contrary to popular belief, the marathon is a relatively modern race. The 26.2 mile race was inspired by the legend of the Athenian messenger who ran from the battle of Marathon to Athens with the message of victory in 490 BC. However, there is no evidence of marathons taking place until the race was included in the first modern Olympics in Athens in 1896.
Having said this, long-distance races were known in Biblical times as the writer of Hebrews mentions in chapter 12:
Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the sake of the joy that was set before him endured the cross, disregarding its shame, and has taken his seat at the right hand of the throne of God.
The “Power of the Cross” is the inspiration of millions of Christians around the world. Jesus endured like a runner, taking on every sin; every resentful thought and evil act, so that everyone could be forgiven. He endured for the prize of our forgiveness and salvation. Thanks to Jesus’ selfless suffering we are free, death is defeated and we have the hope of eternal life. This is what it means when people declare that Jesus has won the victory.
This year’s London Marathon was slower than normal partly because it was so wet and partly because there was no crowd cheering the competitors on. It might not always feel like it, but just as there were millions of viewers witnessing Sunday’s marathon, we are surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses; faithful followers of Jesus that are cheering us on. We are not alone, we have each other and many beyond our sight supporting and praying for us to run our race and one day taste the victory we are promised.
Rev Harriet Johnston
Friday 2nd October 2020
Inflatable hot tubs with flashing lights
I was out walking the dog yesterday when I met one of the young mums from our messy church who I hadn’t seen for quite a while. She’s working from home and will be for quite some time to come and, being an outgoing kind of person, misses the office chat and relational side of things. Having a dog gets her out of the house, but otherwise she would be home 12/13 hours a day. Her husband has not been able to see his parents in the south of England as they have been shielding and with his sister in America he feels the distance. Their lovely wee lass has settled back into school again but didn’t find it easy at the start as she had been away for so long. Just a glimpse of a fairly normal family dealing with the fallout of Covid and trying to keep the show on the road.
As I was turning away she said, ‘oh by the way we have started our own business’. Now, being deaf, I thought I’d misheard her, but sure enough so they have. They hire out an inflatable hot tub and apparently are fully booked for the coming few weekends. In the telling of the story she was particularly excited about flashing lights that are part of the whole deal. I said I’d pop by some time and get more details as my head is buzzing with questions, how do you inflate it, how do you get the water in and how does it get hot and most of all about the flashing lights???.
Suddenly though the coming months didn’t seem quite so gloomy as I envisaged all these suburban families discovering inflatable hot tubs and flashing lights reaching into the night sky above Bishopbriggs. As she said to me, ‘with us all having to have staycations we need to make the most of it’. Don’t you just love that, people using their own ingenuity and verve to make the most of where we find ourselves and look for ways not just to survive but to thrive too. Bubbly hot water lit up from below and under the stars on a cold night…well, what’s not to like!
At the start of lockdown in late spring there was quite an outpouring of creativity and I wonder whether as we get into a different kind of autumn than we are used to whether we need to find some of that creative spirit again. Thankfully our movements are not so restricted and apparently Brits have been stocking up on patio heaters and fire pits. We can learn a lot from the folk in the north of Norway who are used to long winters, who enjoy the opportunities that winter brings, and love the seasonal changes and cosiness. Research shows that the more they saw winter as an exciting opportunity to enjoy a cooler climate the better they fared, with high levels of life satisfaction and overall mental health. They also found amazingly enough that these attitudes increase with latitude, in other words the more positive wintertime mind set is most common where it is most needed. (Observer 27th September).
As Christians we believe that the Holy Spirit is God’s creative presence on earth sustaining and energising us. My prayer is that this next few months we will open ourselves to such a wonderful presence and not only survive but thrive, having the way shown to us by a young family who love inflatable hot tubs with flashing lights and want to share the love!
Wednesday 30th September 2020
Tracing God’s faithfulness
Earlier this week I decided to sort through a long-neglected pile of paperwork. Amongst the bills, correspondence and old service sheets, I found a few notebooks including an old journal. Flicking through it I was reminded how often God has faithfully come through for me in the ups and downs of day to day life.
I admire those diarists who record what’s going on in the world and their lives on a daily basis. I must confess I journal in fits and starts, but when I do I find that writing helps me to process my thoughts and prayers. Reading back over what I’ve written later enables me to trace God’s faithfulness; recalling how he’s helped me to overcome each moment of anxiety, given me cause for joy, and brought me through each situation. This gives me hope that he will continue to help me with my present day concerns and his faithfulness is something I can rely on.
Journaling for prayer and reflection is different from keeping a daily diary. This type of journaling is the practice of writing down our thoughts and prayers. Rather than writing comprehensively about life events, the focus is on particular things we have read (a Bible passage perhaps), conversations we’ve had, or situations that have affected us. They may have left us feeling puzzled or unexpectedly joyful and wanting to mull over them and talk to God about them in prayer.
According to the helpful people at The Prayer Course, “Journaling, for those who need reassured, is a legitimate way of praying, as essentially it facilitates an ongoing correspondence of our heart with our Heavenly Father. It allows for our inner, often subconscious, thoughts to become part of our conscious awareness, bringing new perspective and allowing us to assess our inward convictions and heart-condition.”
There are several different ways to journal. One way of journaling is to jot down notes shaped around three levels of seeing:
What are you noticing? What thoughts and feelings are springing up for you as you reflect on your reading, conversation or situation?
What are you wondering about? What is triggering your curiosity?
What are you beginning to realise? Is there an insight that seems particularly important?
Some people like to write using flowing narrative, others prefer jotting down key points, others draw diagrams or other images. Many people use ordinary notebooks whilst others use notebooks created especially for journaling. Some take a digital approach, creating notes on their phone, voice memos, even short videos.
We only remember a fraction of what happens to us and our thoughts and feelings at the time. All of these approaches to journaling help us to treasure what God is doing for us and discern what he may be saying to us in each given situation. All this enables us to trace God’s faithfulness and give us hope for the future.
Rev Harriet Johnston
Friday 25th September 2020
Rabbi Akiva’s Lesson
Rabbi Akiva ben Yosef lived in Capernaum just after the time of Jesus. The story goes that Akiva was ambling along the edge of the water one day. The day was almost over. The light was fading and Akiva, caught up in his meditations, missed his turning and wandered on to the wrong path. Still contemplating a particular passage in Isaiah he found himself in front of the local Roman garrison where he was stopped in his tracks by the brusque bark a young sentry on the wall above: ‘Who are you and why are you here’?
Following the rabbinic tradition, the rabbi responded with a question of his own. ‘How much do they pay you to stand guard and ask that question of anyone that approaches’? No doubt the young sentry was a little taken aback by Akiva’s retort, but realising the intruder was a rabbi who posed no threat to the fortress, replied: ‘Five drachmas a week’. The rabbi then made the young man an offer: ‘I will pay you double that if you will come and stand in front of my home and ask me that at the beginning of each day’.
This wonderful story is quoted in Steve Aisthorpe’s great new book ‘Rewilding the Church’. As Steve goes onto comment, ‘Akiva knew the paramount importance of knowing one’s identity and purpose- and our tendency to forget these most fundamental details’. (p32) He is using this to illustrate the need for the church to be clearer about what it’s called to do, but that is not my primary purpose today.
As we move into another unknown few weeks and months it is easy to find ourselves looking at the news a lot, or building scenarios in our mind about how things might go with Covid 19and the numbers and spread etc, or trying to anticipate what impact this may have on us and our communities and so on. At least this is what I’ve found myself doing and noticing that something of the anxiety that was present at the start of all this 6 months ago has returned. This is where Rabbi Akiva can help us.
By focusing firstly on what we have some measure of control of, and can actually do something about, ourselves, we are encouraged to channel our energies and thoughts in a potentially productive direction bearing in mind that any change in the world needs to start with us. More importantly though in our context today is that these two questions help us to orientate ourselves in very changing times. A boat can face strong cross currents and uncertain seas if its’ engine is working and it faces into the waves. Once the engine (or sails ) of a boat are lost then it is at the mercy of the elements.
We stand a much better chance of weathering (and perhaps even thriving in) the months ahead if we tend to the direction and motivations of our lives and don’t overly focus on the externals which can intimidate and confuse and are ever changing anyway. As Christians we would say we are children of God and we are called to share God’s love with others. That is a key part of who we are and why we’re here. Of course there is more to our lives than that, but if we can keep hold of these two core truths they will offer us both strength and purpose in the months ahead.
Who are you and why are you here?
Rev Paul Watson
Wednesday 23rd September 2020
Discovering New Pathways
Last week the two of us were away for a few days holiday on the east coast. We had fun revisiting familiar places as well as taking new pathways to unknown places. We discovered history and scenery we hadn’t encountered before. As we drank it all in, we found ourselves relaxing and returned refreshed from our journeying.
Today we will begin another journey – on the Pilgrim Course. We are focusing on the Beatitudes – a short but deeply meaningful collection of sayings of Jesus in chapter 5 of Matthew’s Gospel. Each session we begin with prayer and a reflective reading of a bible passage using Lectio Divina.
Lectio Divina is a practice of contemplative reading that allows us to slow down and engage intuitively with a Bible passage. The Prayer Course describes Lectio Divina as a “form of meditation on the word of God that trains us to listen to His whisper speaking personally to our hearts.” Rather than being an intellectual exercise that aims to understand the passage, Lectio Divina enables its meaning to reveal itself through meditating on key words and phrases.
There are five steps to Lectio Divina:
Reading. Choose a passage from the Bible. You might wish to read one of today’s Daily Prayer readings, e.g. Acts 19:1-10 or Luke 4:1-13. Invite the Holy Spirit to come and guide you, then read the passage slowly noticing any words or phrases that stand out for you. Read the passage twice with a minute or two of silence in between.
Meditation. Ponder the word or phrase that you particularly noticed during your reading. Consider how it relates to your life and what God might be saying to you.
Prayer. Having a loving conversation with God. Tell Him how you feel about what he is saying to you. Ask for the grace you need or desire, so that your faith will be deepened.
Contemplation. Rest in God’s presence, taking time to let God remind you of his love and allow what he is giving you to deepen and sink in.
Action. Consider one way you might apply the word you have been given and resolve to live it out in your daily life
According to Dietrich Bonhoeffer, “The Word of Scripture should never stop sounding in your ears and working in you all day long, just like the words of someone you love… Do not ask,“How shall I pass this on?” but, “What does this say to me?” Then ponder this word long in your heart until it has gone right into you and taken possession of you.”
Lectio Divina enables us to deepen our devotion; our relationship with God, through contemplative prayer. Contemplation is described as “a gaze of faith” or “a silent love”. It invites us to discover new ways of encountering God, refreshing our faith and giving us hope as we journey with him into the future.
Rev Harriet Johnston
Friday 18th September 2020
Being Stable, not Stuck: turning a necessity into a virtue.
So it looks like our movements are getting more restricted again, and probably rightly so. There’s not much we can do about the rules but what do have some measure of control over is how we react to them. For example, if we feel stuck then we may get resentful and frustrated and that actually changes nothing. If however we are able to accept our restricted movements as a call to stability then we could find this autumn a rich time indeed.
Stability is a virtue which has been appreciated by Christians over the years. St Benedict developed his monasteries as places of stability at a time when Europe was going through immense social and economic and even violent change. Monks made a vow to stay the rest of their lives in the same monastery and build a community together. Here are some lines from Michael Cassidy’s book The Road to Eternal Life.
Stability is one of the fundamental values of Benedictine spirituality. Once we begin something we stay with it until the process is complete—whether it is a question of reading a book all the way through from beginning to end, remaining constant during the process of initial formation, or faithfully practicing all the virtues throughout one’s entire life.. Stability is a result of an enduring act of the will giving assent to God’s grace.
I love that last line. It combines the call for us to stick at our commitments through thick and thin with our need for God’s grace to help us to do that. Generations of church members have done this at St James and countless churches, serving their communities through wartime, economic depression, social turmoil, political unrest, sticking with the stability of their core Christian commitments even when they couldn’t articulate it all. It’s called being disciples.
Discipleship is more than wistful thinking. In Saint Benedict’s view, it is effort, it is struggle, and it is spiritual warfare. If you choose to make seeking God the foundation of your life, then there will be hard practical choices to be made every day.
This Sunday is the 40th anniversary of St James the less Church in Bishopbriggs . Before then it was in Springburn from 1881, serving many generations of workers and their families in that area. Groups of ordinary people attempting to be disciples of Jesus in their community in their time. Local churches continue to be amongst the longest established communities in their local areas as businesses come and go and institutions change and even housing varies over the years. Such stability is not particularly spectacular or flashy but it stands the test of time and we continue to remain a real asset to our communities. This is not only in the facilities we offer for community groups but also in the services that are offered to young families and older people particularly and of course in the amazing good news of Jesus Christ.
One of the many things I love about this church and community is that there are people who have been in the same houses for over 50 years… There is something about stability and commitment that we can learn from an older generation and that we will need in the uncertain times ahead. It is how we build a community that will last as it focuses on deep principles that hold true whatever the circumstances. This is what we call kingdom principles. Thanks to their vows of stability the medieval monasteries became shelters of security and order and beacons of learning and hope. On our 40th anniversary and in the uncertain autumn ahead these are good examples to have.
Rev Paul Watson
Wednesday 16th September 2020
I hope this finds you all in good spirits.
I got a bit of good news today. Part of Elliott’s routine in the morning is feeding birds. Out he goes usually in his dressing gown – rain, hail or shine. Over the last month we have got to know one of the birds particularly well – he had an injured wing. So when all the other birds have had their feed in the morning they fly off to get on with their lives while our friend stays with us, resting in the bushes and running up and down the garden. We watched him carefully in case he needed specialist care, but we were reassured when occasionally he would try out his ability to fly. We watched his improvement, slow, though it was with much joy. During his recovery he was mostly chirpy, ate well and kept himself fit. Amazingly today his recovery was complete – off he flew high into the sky. We’ll miss him, but obviously we are delighted his freedoms have been restored.
A bit of a long intro, I guess some of it resonates with life, but I’ll leave that to you to take it where you want.
My thoughts today major on 1) the pace of life 2) perspectives in life
Like most people I was moved to tears when watching the video created by the family and friends of Eilidh MacLeod who along with other 21 people died in 2017 while leaving the Ariana Grande concert in Manchester. Eilidh, 14 years old, from Barra, attended the concert with her friend Laura MacIntrye who survived. No doubt Laura and all the other survivors have long term physical and emotional wounds. Eilidh’s Mum described the impact of Eilidh’s death as being her whole world shattered into pieces. There is no imagining her loss. However, it was somewhat reassuring to hear sharing memories for some families was cathartic.
When I worked at Stirling Uni two major world events happened – one all too close to Bridge of Allen. The Dunblane Primary School massacre on 13th March 1996 and the September 11, 2001 attacks on The World Trade Centres and Pentagon. These attacks impacted all our lives.
What strikes me, apart from the profound sadness of those, both knowing their fate in the case of the Twin Towers and those left bereaved is 1) the pace of life and 2) perspectives on life.
The location of the picture, I am sure you will recognise, for me sums up the pace and to a lesser extent (some poetic license required here) perspectives on life.
The intensity of colours in autumn is always a delight, but it also reminds us that the pace of life varies, just like the colour of the leaves. The amazing colours represent the striking, dramatic events that feature in our lives. The situations that for a while, surpass everything – situations/events that overwhelm us. The focus of our lives can be changed in an instant, can be changed by a few words – an accident, hearing a diagnosis, a health incident, a terrorist attack.
When I watched the video filmed in Barra, it reminded me that Eilidh’s family and friends have been living with this profound sadness since 22nd May 2017 and of course it is the same for those in Dunblane in 1996 and in New York in 2001. Fleetingly the pain penetrates the sensibilities, of those of us on the periphery, but then we like the injured bird get on with our own lives. The pace of life is fast! The intensity of pain remains with those directly affected but mercifully through a higher power the pain retreats in time, hopefully.
Of course as we can all appreciate anniversaries of any death/ major catastrophe in our lives can re- ignite the agonising pain for a short period of time.
Qoheleth reminds us in Ecclesiastes 3:4-5 ‘for everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven ….a time to be born and a time to die…..a time to weep, and a time to laugh, a time to mourn and a time to dance.. a time to embrace and a time to refrain from embracing ‘
All of us lead life at our own pace; sometimes it will be frantic, other times sluggish, mostly somewhere in between. We may share similar experiences, but due to the pace of life we can never replicate someone else’s experience. We are on our own trajectory. While we all miss shaking hands, giving a hug it is well worth remembering Quheleth who was noted for his wisdom. When I think about the discomfort of wearing a mask inside buildings I think of the discomforts felt by so many while they embrace the glorious fresh air on Barra. Perspectives!
Take care and stay safe
Friday 11 September 2020
The Inn of the Prancing Pony
Here in East Dunbartonshire we had the news earlier this week that we could not visit each other’s homes or indeed the home of anyone else in the country. This has been followed today by other precautions for the nation as a whole. Back in April/May many of us hoped that by this time we would have Covid 19 more under control, but it seems not to be.
Some of you may have guessed from the title that I’m referring to Lord of the Rings in which Frodo is given instructions by Gandalf to take the ring and meet him at the Inn of the Prancing Pony. This was a challenge enough in itself and far beyond the comfort zone of even an adventurous young hobbit like Frodo. Yet he summoned his courage and with his friends made it there just escaping the clutches of the Black Riders.
Your heart goes out to him when, thinking he had completed his task, he discovers that Gandalf is not there and weary and afraid, despondent and helpless, he is not sure what to do next. And then as many of you know another chapter in the journey begins, a Ranger joins them and another set of dangers are overcome and he finally makes it to Rivendell where he hopes his task will be completed. And of course it is not and so the story continues. One of Tolkien’s themes is this growing awareness of Frodo of the nature of the task he has undertaken and that the end of it seems to ever recede and even until the last minute we are left unsure whether he will be able to carry it through.
I hope we are far beyond the Prancing Pony stage of our own Covid 19 journey. However, as we go into an uncertain autumn and beyond, Frodo’s story is a salutary lesson that it is best to focus on the task and road immediately before us. We should not make too many assumptions about what lies out of sight, nor to overly worry about things we just cannot know. ‘Sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof’ is the old King James Bible verse that has become a well-known saying in our English language. This is balanced though by the previous half of the verse (in a more modern translation) where Jesus says ‘Do not worry about tomorrow for tomorrow will worry about itself’.
Each day remains a gift to us that needs to be treasured and valued as it is, not neglected and taken for granted because we are focusing on what we are not able to do, or what we have lost, or may still lose. Those facing death are our great teachers in this.
Yesterday morning I read two moving and inspiring articles in the Guardian which can be found here:
Elliot Dallen who wrote the articles died of cancer on September 7that age 31. He too had had hopes that were dashed, plans he had to let go of, but he had made peace with this. I want to end with the five points he had learned about living well and focusing on what is immediately in front of us:
- The importance of gratitude
- A life if lived well is long enough
- It’s important to be vulnerable and let yourself connect to others
- Do something for others
- Protect the planet.
Towards the end he writes this: In a situation that is pretty new for most of my loved ones and friends (I am yet to meet anyone I grew up with who has had to deal with cancer or a similar chronic illness at my age), it has been amazing watching them all rise to the challenge. I’m not sure if it’s just that I know a high proportion of amazing people (possible) or if most human beings have this capacity for connecting and recognising what’s truly important (very likely).
May you connect with others, recognise what is truly important and surprise yourself with how far you travel on the road in the months ahead. Remember the African saying I have given before If you want to travel fast travel alone, if you want to travel far, travel together.
Rev. Paul Watson
Wednesday 9th September 2020
One of the two St James book-groups has just finished reading Phoebe by Paula Gooder. In the book the author imagines Phoebe and other people featured in the biblical letter to the Romans; their back-stories, their personalities and how they lived their lives. Paula Gooder used her expert knowledge of the Bible and Roman social history to inform the historical imagination that shapes the book. She says, “Reading requires imagination. As we read, we see in our mind’s eye the characters, the setting, the events as they unfold.”
I am a visual person so when someone shares some news or tells me a story I find myself picturing the scene as I listen. It helps me remember what happened and empathise with the people involved. Now you know this you’ll not be surprised at how delighted I was to discover Imaginative Contemplation.
Imaginative Contemplation is a practice of praying using stories told in the Bible, particularly the Gospels in the New Testament. It is an active way of praying that engages the mind and heart and stirs up thoughts and emotions. It comes from the Ignatian tradition and is a practice of prayer that is centuries old. It doesn’t require much knowledge of the Bible or social history, just a heart and mind open to God. David Birchall, director of the Ignatian Spiritual centre in Glasgow, helpfully describes the process of Imaginative contemplation on the website Pathways to God.
“Imaginative contemplation does not attempt to fill out the Gospel stories or try to understand what the people who met Jesus in Galilee or Jerusalem really thought and felt. Rather, I let myself, having taken on a character I feel comfortable with (whether that be disciple, Pharisee, or anonymous bystander), interact with Jesus and the others in the Gospel story. Letting the imagination flow freely, it is good not to worry if the story develops differently from the Gospel passage or if it takes place in modern day and apostles are friends or work colleagues. There is no need to worry if things are said or done that I would be embarrassed to talk about; the spirit is guiding my prayer; trust God!”
If you want to try imaginative contemplation I suggest finding a quiet time and place. Choose a story from one of the Gospels, then read it two or three times imagining the events with yourself taking part and envisaging the sights and sounds of what’s happening. After spending some time contemplating the Gospel passage look back at what you experienced. Notice what came up for you and how you reacted, especially the unusual or unexpected. Consider what it shows you about the way you see Jesus, yourself or others. Talk with God, as you would with a friend, about your time of imaginative contemplation and what it revealed. Pray about what you sensed and felt as well as your hopes and desires.
For those prepared to imaginatively contemplate Bible scenes, the most surprising discoveries are there to be made. You may find you remember the passage in more detail. You may find yourself better understanding the characters featured in the story; what their feelings, perceptions and motives were. You may even find yourself empathising with and better understanding those around you as you pray for them in light of what you’ve experienced.
Rev Harriet Johnston
Friday 4th September 2020
During the lockdown, for many people, life was a lot quieter and less busy. One of the upsides of this was that the Fear Of Missing Out was suddenly over! There was nothing happening to miss out on! FOMO had become quite a thing, particularly among younger people, and at times turned into a genuine fear that missing out on something would be just the worst possible thing. It’s easy to laugh at it now and wonder what all the fuss was about but many teenagers and young adults especially were glued to their phones just in case they missed something that might leave them feeling left out.
As life returns to some sort of a new normal it would seem that FOMO does not quite have the same power it used to as there is so much still not happening. Probably in the small dramas of high school life there is plenty however. I remember one of my daughters reflecting back on high school saying…’Dad, I’m so done with all the drama!’ However, whether it is different areas of the country having different rules, different churches opening up again or not, sports and hobbies opening up in varied ways, it is possible for us to feel as we move at different speeds coming out of lockdown that we may be Missing Out.
Ina’s elderly aunt in German said to her recently that she doesn’t want to miss out on things when she has a relatively short time to live anyway…she wants to make the most of her life while she can. I’d never thought of that before as being an issue for very elderly people, but it makes perfect sense. What then might the bible means when it says ‘Godliness with contentment is great gain’ and later ‘I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances’. Contentment may not be one of the more ‘rock star’ virtues such as faith hope and love but I wonder whether for our time it is the most relevant.
With the return of localised restrictions such as in the Glasgow area and people’s circumstances varying it can be easy to be frustrated or even envious of others who seem to have greater freedom or opportunity… FOMO may make a comeback if we are not careful. Contentment however is the great antidote to FOMO. It serves to stabilise and help us value what we do have, to keep our eye on the eternal promises of God which never change, on the deep rhythms of life and the small courtesies which help us live life well whatever our circumstances.
Most importantly contentment acknowledges that everyone is different, that comparing ourselves to others or harking after the greener grass on the other side, or even just wanting Covid to be over and to find ourselves in summer 2021 will only be a recipe for discontent. Whether you compare yourself to another person, another church, another part of the country or to a future point of being free of Covid, it takes you away from being fully present and valuing the here and now. The here and now is the only place where you can meet with God as it is the only place where you actually are!
Don’t succumb to FOMO, by worrying about what you may be missing out you miss what you actually have.
Rev. Paul Watson
Wednesday 2nd September 2020
In my more restless moments I really appreciate the concept of prayer walking. There are various ways of doing this and one that I find particularly helpful is walking a labyrinth and praying as I do so. Labyrinths are ancient winding paths formed into shapes that allow you to unwind as you walk, let go of stress and anxiety, and find rest and peace. Because there is only one path into its centre and one path out, you cannot get lost. This releases you from worrying where you’re going and allows you to slow down and focus on your thoughts and prayers.
Over the years I’ve discovered labyrinths of all shapes and sizes. They can be found in churches, retreat centres, hospitals and public parks. When I was at Edinburgh University I was delighted to find a labyrinth in the square at the centre of the main campus. Many thorny decisions and causes of anxiety were worked through by walking this labyrinth and praying to God as I did so.
“Do not be afraid,” are words said repeatedly in the Bible – 365 times in fact. I guess God knew how much we need to hear those reassuring words. These words are found on a mosaic fish at the entrance to the labyrinth at the Bield at Blackruthven near Perth. Liz Crichton, the Bield’s artist and art facilitator, describes the experience of walking the labyrinth at this retreat centre.
“It invites us to enter this liminal space one step at a time in prayer, following the path to the centre where we might choose to rest a while, before slowly returning and re-entering the world. We are perhaps all a little afraid of stepping out into the unknown, but as I contemplate what might lie ahead, I remind myself that when we step out in faith, we are simply called to take one step at a time and slowly make our way along the path ahead. This is a labyrinth, not a maze; there are no wrong turns or dead ends, just places where the path is not obvious, places where you need to dodge the obstacles, and the occasional hen darting across in front of you.”
When it’s not possible to go to labyrinths such as the ones in Edinburgh’s George Square or at the Bield, it is possible to use Finger Labyrinths like the one the pictures. The same principles apply; pray asking God to show you what he wants you to discover, then slowly trace your finger around the path of the labyrinth until you get to the centre. Pause to silently reflect, talk with God as you would with a friend or by saying a prayer that you find helpful. When you are ready trace the path of the labyrinth from the centre out to the exit. The slow, meditative action can itself help to lower your stress-levels but praying to God as you do so leads to a deeper sense of peace, insight and understanding.
Rev Harriet Johnston
Friday 28th August 2020
Laughter, the best medicine
When I was growing up the Readers Digest was still popular and I used to enjoy reading the humour section
called ‘Laughter, the best medicine’. Ina and I have just watched the 1998 film Patch Adams based on the true story of a doctor in the US who believes that humour and play are essential to physical and emotional health. He is described as a physician, comedian, social activist, clown and author, not words you would always see together. Robin Williams as you can imagine gives the film a lot of life and energy and inspires patients and staff alike.
There comes a point though after a tragic event when he decides to pack it all in, to give up on his vision for a form of holistic medicine that uses humour and play in appropriate ways. His trust in humanity is broken for a while and he loses his way. Thankfully he finds it again and realises that light can never be quenched, even if it feels that the darkness is winning at times. The most powerful line in the film for me is when is before a medical board and he says indifference is one of the most deadly diseases of all.
These last few months have been strange and we still live in tense times, not only with covid and an uncertain economic future, but also with increased polarisations in certain parts of the world. It is easy for us to become indifferent to others when there seem a never ending number of problems facing our world. The temptation is to retrench, keep our heads down and weather out the storm.
Lightness and humour still remain important parts of our lives however. They speak to the hope within us, the goodness in others, and stop us from being too serious in the wrong way. Being able to laugh and joke and play are not frivolous, but life giving and energising especially in such times as these. We should never be too old or grown up or respectable to celebrate the absurdity and quirkiness of human behaviour, especially our own. Being able to laugh at ourselves is a wonderful thing and makes us great company to be with. Humour, self-deprecating or otherwise, gives us permission to be ourselves, secure in who we are with all our foibles. The last thing we need are too many stuffed shirts!
The picture shared with this is called the Laughing Christ. You can really feel the belly laugh, the real joy erupting in a spontaneous guffaw. It’s magnetic. Jesus was known to enjoy a good party and less than respectable company. The humour and irony of some his parables and interchanges are lost in translation and cultural distance, but his original hearers would have picked it up. He was popular with ordinary people not because he was pious but with his compassion and desire to heal there came a lightness and a joy which were infectious.
When did you last have a good laugh? Did you hear the one about the….
Rev. Paul Watson
Wednesday 26th August 2020
God’s Everyday Grace
I wonder if you, like me, are missing the quietness of being in lock-down just a little. As we return to those aspects of life that take us out of our homes; school, work, and church, for some of us at least, it seems like there is less time for reflection. It seems that just as we most need God’s grace – God’s intervention and support in everyday moments of life – it seems harder to tune into it.
Thankfully, whether we’re aware of it or not, God sees us and knows what we need. Whenever I’ve prayed for grace, as I’ve rushed from one activity to the next, I’ve experienced being filled with renewed strength and ability for each task. My gratitude is often expressed in a hurried “thank you,” but there are also ways of praying that I’ve found helpful to deepen my appreciation of God’s grace at work in my everyday life.
One way of praying is called the Examen. The Examen can take five minutes or longer if you have the time. There are four steps to praying the Examen which are explained really well by the people who wrote The Prayer Course:
1. Replay – think over your day like a movie replaying in your head. Notice what you are noticing. What made you happy? What made you anxious? What made you angry?
2. Rejoice – thank God for those things which are obvious. But also thank Him for non-obvious things which we sometimes forget – random acts of kindness, being healthy, a positive song or meal. Relish and savour these moments in gratitude to God.
3. Repent – say sorry to God for moments that come to into your mind as you review the day e.g., getting involved in gossip, reacting with a tone that was aggressive, lacking compassion in a situation, ignoring a need, not responding to a nudge. Receive His forgiveness afresh.
4. Reboot – make a decision in your heart to live for Jesus tomorrow and ask for grace to see His presence more clearly.
If you pray this way occasionally it can be really useful. If you do it every day, it can be transformational as you see and understand yourself better and recognise more of what God is doing in your life. Pádraig Ó Tuama expresses his experience of this daily rhythm of prayer in his poem De Noche:
By nighttime and streetlights,
I examine the light of the day
joined by the city’s traffic sounds
coming through the window.
Asking where the heart
was buffeted and bolstered;
what little moment
held the unexpected moment;
the kindnesses received and the
the injustices perceived
and the focus on the self;
what small surprise
showed arrogance or assumption;
naming desolation and consolation
and all the little junctions of the day.
And then, at night, I make a promise
by the traffic and the streetlights,
that tomorrow, at the same time,
I’ll meet the night again.
Rev Harriet Johnston
Wednesday 5th August
Almost a year ago Paul and Ina gave me a beautiful orchid as a house-warming present. I was delighted at such a beautiful gift but at the same time I was a bit scared of it. If I’m honest my success with house-plants is so patchy I thought caring for an orchid was beyond me. However, thanks to some tips from Ina, my orchid is not merely still alive – it is thriving. I am amazed at its growth and the extraordinary number of blooms it has produced.
According to guides on plant care there are a number of factors for success, namely the correct amount of watering, humidity, sunlight, fertiliser and pruning. Given the right conditions growth occurs. At first growth happens in secret, deep inside the roots and shoots of the plant. Eventually buds appear on the stems which gradually open up to reveal the beautiful petals and inner structure of the flowers. Even though I see my orchid every day there have been times when I’ve suddenly become aware of how much it has grown as new buds come forth and blossoms emerge.
Psalm 139 speaks of the hidden nature of growth:
For you created my inmost being; you knit me together in my mother’s womb. I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made; your works are wonderful, I know that full well. My frame was not hidden from you when I was made in the secret place, when I was woven together in the depths of the earth. Your eyes saw my unformed body; all the days ordained for me were written in your book before one of them came to be.
Although the early stages of growth are hidden from view, God our creator sees them. He knows who we are and what we are made of. He saw our potential before anyone knew we existed. Year on year we grew in stature until we reached adulthood. We also grew mentally, emotionally and spiritually and we continue to do so throughout our lives.
On Tuesdays St James Church offers a creative prayer service via Zoom. Over the past couple of months we have been focusing on the fruit of the Spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. Each week we took an individual fruit, reflected on it and turned to God in prayer. Just like my orchid, we found ourselves in an environment that allowed growth to happen even though it was largely hidden.
Growth is imperceptible in the moment, but we can recognise it with the benefit of hindsight. Sometimes the context for growth has been painful but we were given the grace to get through. Sometimes growth happened in the routine of everyday life as we faithfully kept putting one step in front of the other. Sometimes we’ve gained a fresh insight that enabled a growth spurt that was joyous.
I believe God is doing a secret work in each of us, enabling us to become more hopeful, confident, resilient and whole. One day God’s work in us will be revealed for us all to see. Whatever way our growth is happening, we will be encouraged as we look back and see how we have coped, changed and flourished.
Rev Harriet Johnston
Wednesday 29th July 2020
Recently one of my guilty pleasures has been watching Scotland’s Home Of The Year. If you haven’t seen this TV programme let me briefly fill you in. Three expert judges visit three homes in a different region of Scotland each week. We viewers are treated to a tour of each house during which the trio comment on various features and remark on what they think works particularly well. It is positive, inspirational and a generally feel-good experience.
I have moved house more times than I can count but I love making each place I live in a cosy and comfortable home. However, when I watch programmes like Scotland’s Home Of The Year I’m aware that I don’t invest in them to the extent that the people who own these homes do. Given that my choice of vocation will mean living in tied housing for the foreseeable future, I doubt that will change. But I will still enjoy getting ideas and inspiration from TV programmes like Scotland’s Home Of The Year as I make each house a home.
For some people home is a dangerous place for them to be and I am thankful for charities such as Women’s Aid who support families who need to leave their homes, providing them with places of safety. We all need homes where we are able to rest, flourish and be ourselves. Homes should be places of blessing to those who live in them as well as those who are invited in and given hospitality.
Throughout the Bible there are many references to home. Home is the place where people find sanctuary, where they belong, are welcomed and entertained. For those who were held captive and sent into exile, it was their homes that they longed for because these were the places where they had flourished among their own people.
Jesus was welcomed and given hospitality in many homes. It was in these homes that he healed people who lived there. His ministry meant that Jesus travelled extensively and spent much time away from home. This was the same for Jesus’ disciples to whom he gave this promise; ‘no one who has left home or wife or brothers or sisters or parents or children for the sake of the kingdom of God will fail to receive many times as much in this age, and in the age to come eternal life.’ (Luke 18:29-30).
The Bible speaks of the kingdom of God as an eternal home where we experience love, peace, confidence and security which come from God. The earliest churches met in people’s homes where they learned about God’s kingdom and broke bread together. For those who joined those Christian assemblies such gatherings in homes were a foretaste of heaven.
As I reflect on all that’s happened over the past few months I am grateful for the warm, cosy home I live in. In it I have been safe and well, able to work, rest and play. During lock-down I invited people in via Zoom but as we gradually emerge I am beginning to welcome family and friends in person. It is good to spend time with them, sharing stories and enjoying one another’s company. I hope our homes will once again be places of hospitality, where we can break bread together and receive a renewed taste of God’s kingdom.
Rev Harriet Johnston