Thought For The Day – The Wrong Person – 14th June 2019

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I wonder if you might join me in a thought experiment. Imagine there’s a new rule, that everyone whose birthday it is, has to attend the same birthday party. Today, in one corner you’d have Steffi Graf and Boy George, eating cake and comparing notes on the paparazzi. In the other, you’d have Rowan Williams, the former Archbishop of Canterbury, chatting to Donald Trump, the 45th President of the United States of America. Can you imagine that conversation? Let’s make it a bit more weird. Say in heaven – if they all make it there – you continue this birthday tradition. These four would be joined by Che Guevara, the South American revolutionary; and Judith Kerr, author of When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit. Sam Wanamaker the director would be there too, to capture the whole thing on film. Read More

Robot Souls

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Sermon preached before the University of Oxford at the University Church of St Mary the Virgin on Sunday 5 May 2019

Over the centuries Oxford has been home to many influential thinkers. One whose college stands not far from here is South Park’s great Messiah, Richard Dawkins, the posterboy of the zeitgeist. He epitomises the prevailing intellectual narrative in this country, that of a secularism cured of all superstition and fancy, in the distinguished tradition of the Enlightenment philosopher David Hume. It’s so intellectually fashionable to be an atheist these days, that I congratulate you on your daring in coming here today. I mention Dawkins, because in taking up his cause I wonder whether his acolytes appreciate quite what’s at stake, in following his logic to its natural conclusion. Because those who argue that we’re nothing but an evolved species that happens currently to be in charge, have already effectively signed our species over to the robots. Read More

Thought For The Day – It’s My Birthday – 5th Feb 2019

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It’s my birthday today! The great thing about birthdays is that even if the sheer excitement of presents and parties tends to wane with the years, what doesn’t change is that feeling deep inside that somehow it’s your day. It feels as though the moment of your birth caused such an outburst of joy from everyone near and dear to you, that the echoes of it keep reverberating down the years, so you feel buoyed up by it again on every birthday. Read More

Thought For The Day – Blessings – 10th Jan 2019

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January’s a tricky month, emotionally speaking. It contains Blue Monday, statistically the saddest day of the year, a calculation based on weather conditions, levels of debt, and the length of time since Christmas. Crucially, enough time has now passed for us to have already failed to keep our new year’s resolutions: we know we need to take ourselves in hand, but we currently lack the motivation to do so. And for many people that means insomnia, as we while away the wee small hours fretting about our failings. Read More

Thought For The Day – Index

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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 and this post serves an index to these pieces.

5th November 2019 – Bonfire Night

24th September 2019 – Sharing The Harvest

20th August 2019 – Forgotten Places

15th August 2019 – Fair Play

14th June 2019 – The Wrong Person

5th February 2019 – It’s My Birthday

10th January 2019 – Blessings

2nd October 2018 – Choices

4th September 2018 – Weather-making

23rd August 2018 – Festival Season

25th July 2018 – St Anne

8th June 2018 – Sabbath

29th March 2018 – The Royal Maundy

8th March 2018 – International Women’s Day

19th January 2018 – Loneliness

14th November 2017 – The BBC

30th August 2017 – Bridges

18th August 2017 – Sad News

27th July 2017 – The Sleeper

11th May 2017 – Blessed Transactions

28th April 2017 – Passing Places

28th February 2017 – Pancake Day

2nd February 2017 – Groundhog Day

1st November 2016 – Red Letter Days

Paying it forward

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Sermon preached at St John’s at the West End, Sunday 28 October 2018

I think Markus asked me to preach today because nobody likes preaching on Job. Nobody likes trying to mount a defence for a God who seems to think it’s cricket to put such a righteous man to the test. So rather than wallowing in theodicy, I shall (respectfully) ignore God and concentrate on Job, and how he might help us address today’s theme, which is money.

We’re told that Job was the greatest of all the people of the east. He had 7 sons and 3 daughters. He had 7,000 sheep, 3,000 camels, 500 yoke of oxen, 500 female donkeys, and very many servants. Try fitting that lot into the nave. He was a Time Magazine Forbes Rich List Man of the Year figure, and a paragon to boot. These days he’d probably be a Harvard Business Review case study, and George Clooney would’ve won an Oscar for playing him in a mega bio-pic. He was, as they say, a big cheese.

We read Job, or hear it read, and are outraged. How is it fair that he loses everything he has? Well, Job knows. “The Lord giveth, and the Lord taketh away” he says, rather sadly. Because Job knows that he’s not a self-made man. It’s one of our modern tropes, the self-made man. The immigrant who checks in at Ellis Island with nothing, who pulls himself up by his bootstraps, and becomes a millionaire. It’s the American dream, and all over the world we lionise entrepreneurs who started with nothing and became great through sheer hard work. And I imagine many of you sitting here can feel justifiably proud of where you live, what you’re wearing, the possessions and treasures that you own, because you earned them. You worked hard. You gave things up to get on. And we imagine Job was like that too, so we feel his pain as theft: the taking away of things that were rightfully his. Read More

Thought For The Day – Choices – 2nd Oct 2018

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As rescuers struggle to reach the victims, the death toll from the tsunami in Indonesia keeps rising. Our screens are filled with pictures of devastation and grief, and we wonder how on earth anyone can bear it any more. We seem to be hearing about extreme weather events too frequently these days, and too many people are dying. Thanks to the aid agencies, we can offer practical assistance to the communities affected, but our over-riding reaction to this news is often a sense of powerlessness in the face of natural disaster. Tsunamis and hurricanes, earthquakes and wildfires, are all considered ‘Acts of God’, even by insurance companies, who often won’t pay out for them, because they’re not caused by human hands.

So we turn to our religious leaders, seeking soothing words about meaning and purpose, and we observe with relief the inspiring outpourings of humanity that tend to accompany life’s worst episodes. And sometimes religious words help. There’s even a specialism within theology that devotes itself to making sense of the evils that happen, in spite of a loving God. But I wonder how much longer we can continue to blame all of this weather on God.

Yesterday saw the publication of a report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, commissioned by the United Nations. 3 years in the making, it involved 86 lead authors from 39 countries. They’ve combed through all the scientific literature, on the feasibility, impacts and costs, of achieving a 1.5 degrees centigrade ceiling on global warming. The good news is they reckon it can be done, if the world takes some very tough steps, which will require massive global governmental consensus and action. But the report also asks us to look again at our lifestyles, to try to make more of a difference through our own everyday choices. In the olden days, God made the weather. Well, we’re making it now, and that’s a rather sobering thought.

Meanwhile, this dreadful news makes us all think about what it must be like to lose everything. In sending all love and strength to everyone suffering in Indonesia, let’s also hold our own loved ones close today.

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.

Destiny and Character

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Sermon preached at St Pancras on Sunday 16 September

Today’s readings from Isaiah and Mark are about destiny. The passage from Isaiah is one of the Servant Songs. These foretold the coming of a Messiah to lead the nations, who would suffer, but in the end be rewarded. You’ll recognise some of the other servant songs from Isaiah, because much of the first part of Handel’s Messiah sets them to music: how beautiful are the feet, he was despis’ed, surely he has borne our griefs, all we like sheep.

The striking bell in the St Pancras clock is broken at the moment. After the quarters chime, there is now an expectant pause… For years the Jews had been stuck in this pause, waiting for their Messiah. Then one day, Jesus stood up in the Synagogue and read this passage from Isaiah: ‘The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor.’ The reading from Mark develops this privately with the disciples: ‘who do people say that I am?’, and he warns them, that being the Messiah will mean rejection, suffering and death. He also mentions resurrection, but perhaps they don’t quite hear this bit, because Peter rebukes him about being so gloomy. Jesus then tells the crowd that discipleship means they have to deny themselves, take up their cross and follow him. I imagine at that point he lost quite a lot of the crowd. Read More

Thought For The Day – Weather-making – 4th Sep 2018

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In Mexico, the car-maker Volkswagen is being criticised for overuse of Hail Cannons. To avoid damage to the new cars they store outside, they’ve invested in vast machines that fire waves of pressure into the air to prevent hailstorms. But the farmers around them are claiming that this also prevents rain, so their crops are failing. Cloud-busting has been going on for quite a while. For their Olympics, the Beijing Weather Modification Office used 21 rockets around the city to fire silver iodide into the clouds, to make the rain fall before it reached the capital.

And manipulating the weather has been a motivation for religion since time began. We’ve had sun gods and rain gods, gods of thunder and gods of the winds, and we worshipped them to seek a measure of control over the weather. The Bible itself is full of weather phenomena – Noah’s flood and the famous rainbow; it raining quail and manna during the Exodus; Jesus calming the storm; and the sky turning black on Good Friday. In those days, God made the weather. But these days, we make it; not just through cannons and rockets, but through how we live. The choices we make, and our addiction to fossil fuels, are contributing to the slow baking of the earth. And while it can feel like we’re too small to take on such a big global issue, perhaps we could all join the dots more than we do.

We’re getting better at carrying shopping bags, to avoid the 5p charge for a plastic one, and hopefully reducing the amount of plastic ending up in the oceans and in landfill.  But there’s still a lot of plastic in our clothes. Nylon can take 30 to 40 years to break down in landfill, so perhaps the next thing we could work on is how to re-use and recycle our clothes, so we’re all doing our bit to make the right sort of weather in future.

We’re also getting better at working with the weather, and finding ways to harvest it too, through forests of wind turbines, and fields of solar panels. Of course Scotland has pioneered hydro-electricity for many years, given that we’re often blessed with wet weather. And as Autumn starts to be felt, perhaps one day, we’ll find a way to do something productive with all those Autumn leaves, 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.

Thought For The Day – Festival Season – 23rd Aug 2018

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In a bid to combat fake news, Facebook has just confirmed that it’s started scoring users on their trustworthiness. They hope this will allow their algorithms to de-prioritise those posts likely to be misinformed, so they appear lower down in people’s news feeds.

It’s a common criticism of social media, that all this sharing and retweeting merely creates an echo chamber where the same information is endlessly recycled until it becomes stagnant. And if it’s fake news in the first place, this process just reinforces the error: because if we see the same thing repeatedly, we start to believe it. So how can we help refresh public discourse, rather than being infected by over-shared viruses, rather like the air conditioning on a plane?

It’s Festival season in Edinburgh, in the Borders and in many other places in the UK. I’ll be at the arts, faith and justice festival Greenbelt this weekend, because I believe that arts and book festivals can help in our fight to combat fake news, because they improve the quality of our public conversations. Where else would you find the First Minister talking to Ali Smith about why novels are needed to heal political divisions; or hear Nelson Mandela’s daughter talking about her dad and how she answers her grandchildren’s questions about him; or see Rose McGowan talking about what it really feels like to take on Hollywood about the #MeToo campaign?

“Book festivals? A bit middle class?”- Perhaps they used to be, but the same internet which fuels fake news, also serves to democratise information too. Most authors make their material available online, much of it for free. And most festivals post videos online, or have media partners like local radio to make sure that everyone can join in.

I once saw Colin Dexter at a festival, talking about Inspector Morse. There’s a hush that always falls at the end when the author asks for questions. “I imagine you’ll need some time to formulate your questions,” he said, until someone bravely stepped in. And that’s the gift that these festivals can give us – whether we’re there in person or online. They’re a golden opportunity to hear a whole range of conversations and thinking out loud, to help us to formulate better questions, and to seek better answers.

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.