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Theology

On pruning

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Sermon preached at St Michael and All Saints, Sunday 6 May 2018

May is Mary’s month; but it’s also exam month. Do you remember the annual tyranny of cramming, and past papers, and exam halls? It’s still one of the most common anxiety dreams, I gather, turning over an exam paper and having nothing to write.

In the Ignatian tradition they love exams: daily exams. The Daily Examen is a meditation that at its heart includes a review of the day just passed, to identify times when you grew closer to God, and times you drew further away. The examen concludes with a forward look, at how tomorrow you might collaborate more effectively with God’s plan for you.

As we heard in our Gospel today: ‘You did not choose me, but I chose you. And I appointed you to go and bear fruit, fruit that will last.’ I wonder how often you ponder God’s plan for you, and assess your current state of fruitfulness?

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Thought For The Day – The Royal Maundy – 29th Mar 2018

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Later today, the Queen will meet 92 men and 92 women at St George’s Chapel in Windsor and hand them each a leather purse of Maundy Money.

The Royal Maundy was introduced by King John in 1213. In those days, the ceremony involved foot-washing, because Jesus washed his disciples’ feet on that very first Maundy Thursday in Jerusalem. In the Royal Maundy, before the monarch got anywhere near a poor person’s feet, there were always several pre-washes by B-list dignitaries, and the flowers to mask the smell are still ceremonially carried today.

After the foot-washing, the poor were given food, clothes, and as many pence as there were years in the monarch’s reign. The monarch would then take off their gown, and give it to someone who looked particularly needy. Until Elizabeth I wasn’t happy to part with one of her fancy outfits, and gave the poor money instead. The gifts of clothing stopped too, because the poor used to take their clothes off during the service, and swap with each other until they found things to fit, which made the bishops a bit nervous. They’ve now stopped the food as well, because the poor were caught selling it outside the church immediately after the service for less than it was worth.

All that remains, is the cash. There are actually two purses. One purse contains £5.50 in ordinary money: £1 in lieu of the monarch’s gown, £3 for the gift of clothing, and £1.50 instead of the food. The other purse contains the Maundy Money, the specially minted silver coins up to the value equivalent to the monarch’s age.

It’s a bizarre piece of annual pageantry, but it mirrors a shift in society, too; money instead of action. Now that we have a welfare state and pay our taxes, maybe we feel we don’t really need to bother so much with the poor, because the government and the charity sector does that for us.

So I wonder whose feet you’d be happy to wash? In Jesus’ time, the custom of foot-washing was about showing hospitality to guests. We often take care of our children and the vulnerable in more personal ways than this, and we do it because we love them enough to overcome our aversion. So perhaps the point of the foot-washing is not really about the feet, but about the quality of our love and care for others.

Other Thoughts

I have been delivering “Thought For The Day” pieces on BBC Radio Scotland since November 2016. By kind permission these pieces are reproduced in blog posts here on my website. To find my other pieces click here go to my Thought For The Day index page.

Thought For The Day – International Women’s Day – 8th Mar 2018

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It’s International Women’s Day today, and this year we’re also marking 100 years since the first women finally got the vote. Companies now report on gender splits and gender pay gaps, and books like Lean In are helping us all to proactively scramble up the career ladder.  We have female heads of state north and south of the border, and the first female bishop in the Scottish Episcopal Church was consecrated only last week.

Have we finally won the battle for gender equality?

Maybe not.  Recent research reported in the Harvard Business Review is very sobering. To test the ‘Lean In’ hypothesis, that women are disadvantaged at work because they don’t do power the way that men do, researchers attached sensors to a sample of 100 individuals in a typical company. These socio-metric badges tracked workplace conversations; to measure movement, proximity to others, speech volume and tone of voice.

Over a four-month period, they linked the data from the badges with an analysis of emails and meeting schedules. And what did they find? That in fact women and men don’t behave so differently at work after all. Yet in this company – as in companies all round the world – the women were not advancing as their male colleagues were. The team concluded from their study that you can Lean In all you like, and it will make no difference.

And it’s both men and women discriminating against women. Unconscious bias studies show that women discriminate against women, too. Solicitors of both genders are more likely to instruct male counsel to fight cases in court, and studies show that even women think female doctors are less competent and less experienced than male doctors.

We’re used to blaming discrimination on everybody else, because of course we’re not biased. But in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus famously warned against hypocrisy, saying: “First, take the plank out of your own eye, then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your friend’s.” It seems that we all have work to do to address gender bias, and if you take an Unconscious Bias test online you might well be shocked to learn what you do take for granted. So today, I wonder if there are any planks in your own eye, that you might start fashioning into spectacles instead?

Other Thoughts

I have been delivering “Thought For The Day” pieces on BBC Radio Scotland since November 2016. By kind permission these pieces are reproduced in blog posts here on my website. To find my other pieces click here go to my Thought For The Day index page.

Thought For The Day – Loneliness – 19th Jan 2018

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Before her death last year, the MP Jo Cox set up a Commission to look at Loneliness, which affects nine million people in the UK.

It’s estimated that half of those aged over 75 live alone. 200,000 older people have not had a conversation with a friend or a relative in more than a month. Many of them go for days or even weeks with no social interaction at all.

But it’s not just the elderly. Carers are feeling lonely, young mothers are feeling lonely; even teenagers are feeling lonely, in spite of their smartphones. The Commission worked with 13 charities, including Age UK and Action for Children, and found that loneliness is as harmful to health as smoking 15 cigarettes a day. So this week, Downing Street announced a new Minister for Loneliness, and we’re all being asked to try making a difference through “simple acts of companionship.”

Jesus was sensitive to the lonely – noticing Levi sitting alone in his tax booth, and Zacchaeus stuck up a tree. He chatted to the woman at the well, and he singled out beggars as he walked along the road. But what might “simple acts of companionship” mean for us? Well, it basically means talking to strangers a bit more, which even we garrulous Scots find quite hard. So next time you’re at the bus-stop, or in the queue, or passing a neighbour’s gate, here’s some advice from Jane Austen – talk about the weather!

The anthropologist Kate Fox says that visitors to the UK remain puzzled by our amazing capacity to talk about the weather. She’s examined this phenomenon in detail, and finds that our weather-talk serves a very specific function: we use it as a standard greeting, as a way to break the ice with strangers. It’s the modern-day equivalent of a handshake to show that the sword arm is not engaged. We already use it as a “simple act of companionship,” because talking about the weather is a way of letting those around us know that we’ve noticed them; that we mean them no harm; and that we’re interested in passing the time of day with them.

Of course Scotland has a lot of weather, and for many of us the snow’s been a real problem this week; so it’s unlikely we’ll ever run out of things to say about it, particularly at this time of year.

Other Thoughts

I have been delivering “Thought For The Day” pieces on BBC Radio Scotland since November 2016. By kind permission these pieces are reproduced in blog posts here on my website. To find my other pieces click here go to my Thought For The Day index page.

For the sake of honour

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Honour is one of those words that gets bandied about rather a lot. Sometimes it’s used just as a label, as in the Honours of Scotland; ‘it wasn’t me, Your Honour’; and ‘she gave him a gong in the Honours’. We also talk about ‘honour’ killings, as well as Honorary degrees. But what does it mean when we say things like: ‘I’m honoured to meet you;’ ‘I promise on my honour;’ or even ‘wilt thou love her, comfort her, honour, and keep her?’ These usages seems to invoke a sense of respect and virtue, something that is more about an orientation or a behaviour.

Honour is one of those old-fashioned words, like manners. But when we use it of someone, we refer to that rather rare and durable characteristic of their being reliably moral. We think people are honourable if they do the right thing. We tend to notice it all the more if it proves costly: our mental picture is probably of a tweedy and stoic English gent standing on a lonely pier, waving goodbye to his true love because she deserves better. So is honour as outdated as curtsying to cakes, and should we have none of it? On the contrary, we need honour more than ever, and we need to start teaching it to our children again. Read More

Thought For The Day – The BBC – 14th Nov 2017

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Today is the 95th anniversary of the BBC’s first ever radio broadcast, from Savoy Hill in London. 4 months later, broadcasting starting in Glasgow, and within a year, Stations 2BD and 2EH were broadcasting from Aberdeen and Edinburgh.

It’s funny to think of how new radio actually is, because it feels like one of life’s permanent fixtures. I imagine that if you grew up with radio, like me – you woke up to it every morning.  When I was ill in bed or away from home staying with relatives, its reassuring rumble would rise up through the floorboards to soothe my soul. As a child I sang along with Stewpot on a Saturday morning; the Top 40 saw me safely through my teens; and whenever I pulled an all-nighter at university, I had the Shipping Forecast to keep me company.

I think radio can be a bit like travelling through the Highlands by train. As you speed past the landscape, you’re constantly frustrated by half-seeing…a rabbit…? A deer…? We now have i-player and captioning to help us pin down the things we hear on the radio, but I think Thought for the Day is a bit like that train journey. A fleeting impression, a notion; something slightly other, designed to set you thinking…  Because of course we don’t know where you are today, or what you’re doing.

But we do know that you love radio, perhaps because radio gives you its undivided attention, so that you can potter about giving it only half an ear while you get on with your day. It’s not as bossy as TV, which demands your full attention and is shameless about trying to get it. Radio’s modesty is deeply alluring, in a world that won’t otherwise let us look away. We’re free to have our own thoughts while we listen, because our eyes can look where they please.

Listening to the radio together, we start the day hearing the same stories. In an age where personalised social media feeds are sending us all off in different directions, there’s something reassuringly grounding about Good Morning Scotland. It’s a touchstone in an often bewildering world of fake news, bad news, and skewed news.

Listening, talking and keeping each other company is part of what helps us build community together. That’s why the BBC feels so much a part of the nation’s life, because it accompanies us through the big national moments, the ups and downs, the sensational and the ordinary.

Other Thoughts

I have been delivering “Thought For The Day” pieces on BBC Radio Scotland since November 2016. By kind permission these pieces are reproduced in blog posts here on my website. To find my other pieces click here go to my Thought For The Day index page.

Thought For The Day – Bridges – 30th Aug 2017

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When the new Queensferry Bridge was in its infancy, I took my twins on a 4th birthday treat to Inchcolm Island. We sailed right up to the new bridge, before the towers had been connected, and the middle tower looked exactly like the Angel of the North. It’s been a thrilling experience seeing the new bridge grow up with my girls. We’re part of history now, and it’s exciting to think that when my children’s children see it, they will know that the twins were there at its very birth.

We often talk about bridges as a metaphor, and joke that it takes a full three of them, to try to bring the people of Edinburgh and Fife a little closer together. And bridges are about connections and crossings, but this is also a beautiful bridge. On flying into Edinburgh airport, I see the sun catching its feathers as through a huge bird is sailing into land; when driving in the car, I glimpse it winking at me in the gaps; and on the train, instead of feeling cross that I can’t see the lovely red bridge I’m actually on, I hang out of the window so I don’t miss the new one for a second.

I think it’s spectacular. Even though we can watch the webcams, to see it going up day-by-day, it still seems an amazing achievement. Of course it had to meet exacting technical standards, but it has done so with great style. And I think all really good public building projects do this – they build our future around us, knowing that they need to stand the test of time. That’s why as a nation we love our historic buildings. And the world’s bridges are particularly awe-inspiring, because they’re such feats of engineering. They represent a particularly poignant combination of a triumph over nature, whilst yet being in partnership with it.

Will we take this bridge for granted in the future, when we get used to driving over it every day? I hope not. I hope that this bridge will always give us that sort of reflective joy we get, when we see man-made marvels amidst beautiful scenery.

It was William Morris who said: “have nothing in your houses that you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful.” In this bridge we have both. Wouldn’t it be great, if we could make more of the useful things in our lives, beautiful too.

Other Thoughts

I have been delivering “Thought For The Day” pieces on BBC Radio Scotland since November 2016. By kind permission these pieces are reproduced in blog posts here on my website. To find my other pieces click here go to my Thought For The Day index page.

Koomi of Smale

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The fiasco of St Sepulchre’s closing its doors to the musicians for whom the church is named has finally woken the public up to what is going on within the Church of England. If your measure of success is the sheer volume of worshippers you can attract, then of course you will prefer to prioritise the accommodation of the faithful rather than lend your buildings to those who are of more dubious and less manifest faith. Read More

Thought For The Day – Sad News – 18th August 2017

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What sad news from Barcelona. It shouldn’t feel familiar, a vehicle ploughing into pedestrians, but it’s starting to.  We’re all immediately wondering why, thinking about all those who’ve been affected and whether we’re somehow next.

I recall a vivid moment after the Sri Lankan tsunami of 2004. We were gathered in church, shocked; trying to understand. We were hoping the minister might tell us why. The preacher that day was Canon John Sweet, and I remember exactly what he said. He talked about the Book of Job. In it, one of God’s most faithful servants suffers such dreadful experiences that it seems as though God is punishing him, entirely unjustly. Obviously, Job’s not impressed. He takes quite a long time to tell God off about it. In summary, he says:

“Does he not see my ways, and count my every step? If I have walked with falsehood, or my foot has hurried after deceit, let God weigh me in honest scales, and he will know that I am blameless.”

I think this chimes with us, when we see crimes against the innocent. So I was surprised by what John Sweet said next. He focused instead on God’s response. Listening to Job’s – entirely justifiable – complaints, God thunders back: “Where were you when I laid the earth’s foundation? Tell me, if you understand….?

I had to think about this. But what I think was meant was, why are we trying to solve the intellectual puzzle about the why, why, why; rather than getting involved in making it better? Let’s leave the why to whoever might know. Let’s instead focus on what we can do.

And what we can do is possible. We can hold those who died, and those who mourn them, in our thoughts and prayers. We can refuse to give in to those who would seek to make us too scared to lead our normal lives. And maybe we can befriend the unfriended, so that what holds us together is always stronger than what pulls us apart.

Other Thoughts

I have been delivering “Thought For The Day” pieces on BBC Radio Scotland since November 2016. By kind permission these pieces are reproduced in blog posts here on my website. To find my other pieces click here go to my Thought For The Day index page.