Thought For The Day – The Sleeper – 27th July 2017

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At this very minute, the Sleeper train is pulling into Edinburgh’s Waverley Station. The carriage doors open, and out comes an amazing array of bleary-eyed people: commuters, politicians, tourists – all life is there. The Sleeper’s been in the news this week, when an Opera was performed on-board for the first time. But there’s always been an otherworldliness about it that conjures up another age. You can board early for a whisky tasting; have a quick haggis before bed; and, of course, porridge and shortbread for breakfast. If you’re very nice to one of the Harris-tweed-clad crews, they might even let you join their secret card school in the wee small hours. And veteran Sleeper-regular Kirsty Wark has fond memories of on-board political intrigue, that used to accompany the droves of MPs heading home on a Thursday night for their constituency surgeries on Friday. A hot ticket for a political hack, indeed.

There’s something magical about drifting off in one location, lulled by the sway of the carriages, only to awake somewhere quite different. You can perch by the window in your cabin and watch a lone golfer disembark at Leuchars, just in time for the first tee on the Old Course; or see a Monro-bagger, striding out at Bridge of Orchy; or spy an Island-hopper, distillery-bound at Crianlarich.

It’s our local version of the TARDIS, I suppose, with all the recent controversy about the forthcoming regeneration of Dr Who. While gender is fascinating, the TARDIS has always been the star of the show, wheezing though time and space on yet another adventure.

I think we love the TARDIS, because we love the idea of having all the time in the world. The Book of Ecclesiastes says: ‘there is a time for everything, and a season for every activity under the heavens.’ But it’s hard to be that patient, when time seems so fleeting. The older we get, the more time seems to gather pace and sweep us along, faster than we want to go.

Bu if you were to be granted one trip on the TARDIS, I wonder where you’d go, and who you’d take with you for the journey.

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.

Whitsun, Adlestrop and Ozymandias: the Gaia challenge

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Sermon for Whitsun preached at St Michael and All Saints, Sunday 4 June 2017

Today I‘m in a poetic mood. I blame it on Whitsun. Did you do Larkin’s Whitsun Weddings at school?

That Whitsun, I was late getting away:
Not till about
One-twenty on the sunlit Saturday
Did my three-quarters-empty train pull out,
All windows down, all cushions hot, all sense
Of being in a hurry gone….

Which puts me in mind of train journeys:

Yes. I remember Adlestrop
The name, because one afternoon
Of heat the express-train drew up there
Unwontedly. It was late June…

And Adlestrop reminds me of another fabulous name to conjour with, Ozymandias. Picture the scene. A desert. A broken statue. A notice:

“My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!”
Nothing beside remains: round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare,
The lone and level sands stretch far away.

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Joy and Prosperity

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Paper given at the University of Aberdeen, 11 May 2017 

Luke 18:22-3 ‘Jesus said, “You still lack one thing: Sell everything you own and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow Me.” But when the rich young man heard this, he became very sad, because he was extremely wealthy.’

The hypothesis of this Joy and Prosperity event is that Christians have traditionally driven a wedge between them. A bit like the rich young man, there has been a feeling that you can’t have both joy and prosperity: blessed are the poor. Today we are testing that assumption, and my contribution is to look at the question through the lens of the axioms of classical economic thought. Read More

Thought For The Day – Blessed Transactions – 11th May 2017

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What would it be like if our economy were run by angels? Would we have trade injustice, sharp practice, shoddy goods? My suspicion is that, no matter how hard we try to blame all our ills on ‘the system’, probably we get the market we deserve. Because the market around us is no more than the sum total of all the messages about supply and demand that we put into it. So I wonder what signals you’re intending to send out into the market today. Are you creating around you the kind of market that the angels would be proud of?

Let’s imagine that there’s a new process at the Pearly Gates. Owing to problems with visas, St Peter has decided that in future to get in you need to bring him your Bank Statement, as your report card of your economic activity on earth. Would every transaction bless you?

You may have heard of a study by the New Economics Foundation, about what your pound is worth to the local economy. If you spend it in a chain-store, only 36p stays in the local community, because the money travels to headquarters, in London or offshore. If you spend that pound in a local shop or market stall, it becomes worth £1.76 to the local economy, because the money is then re-spent locally. They illustrate this with the idea of ‘blue hands.’ If everyone in your neighbourhood had blue paint on their hands, how blue could you make that one-pound coin before it came to rest in a bank vault somewhere?

In Cape Cod, they have an interesting way to support their local economy. They ask you to identify 3 local enterprises that you really like having around, and pledge to spend $50 a month in them. Maybe the butcher on the High Street is a great reminder to include sausages in your supermarket shop, but if you don’t support them, they will disappear.

And I wonder if your favourite brands are good citizens, treating their workers well and paying their fair share of tax.

It’s rather terrifying interrogating your bank statement in this way, because there’s probably quite a lot on there that you don’t really think about. But, today, why not have a go at turning more of your transactions into blessings.

That way, we’ll get the sort of economy we really want.

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 – Passing Places – 28th Apr 2017

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Do you, like me, find the news all a bit stressful at the moment? Whether it’s Trump or Brexit or snap General Elections, everyone seems to be irritated with each other. So it was interesting to hear a fresh voice this week.

It was Tuesday, in Vancouver, the second day of the annual week-long TED conference. TED is a global movement devoted to spreading ideas. It does this in the form of powerful 18-minute TED talks, which have been watched by millions of people, billions of times, online. The day started in a fairly predictable way – lots of speakers on robotics; some stuff on the human response to AI; and a session in Spanish. Then, all of a sudden, to give the next TED talk, the Pope appeared. Now that’s certainly one way to liven up a conference hall!

Admittedly envy is one of the 7 Deadly Sins, but I must confess to noticing that his talk has already got a lot more views than mine has, possibly because wearing a tiara in your talk isn’t quite as serious as wearing a white zucchetto. But his TED talk makes history. It’s the first time the Pope has addressed an international conference, and he’s already made headlines all over the world.

In it, the Pope talks about the importance of solidarity, hope, and tenderness. Let’s talk about tenderness, because maybe the Scottish road system could help.

I noticed recently that I was doing a lot more smiling and waving than I normally do. Why? Because of all those Passing Places! That’s probably why Highlanders are so famously friendly, because it’s such a habit to smile and wave as you drive around. And it made me think about the Pope, and about tenderness. “We all need each other” he says in his TED talk. Developing the conference theme of ‘The Future of You’, he says: “the future is made of yous, it’s made of encounters, because life flows through our relations with others.”

What passing places are there in your day? The school gate, the ticket office; the door of the lift; the lunch queue; the office corridor, the motorway? All opportunities for tenderness, perhaps. As the Pope says, “life is not time merely passing by, life is about interactions.”

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.

Diogenes Small, RIP

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I discovered how easy it is to get a book dedicated to you when I was about 13. All you have to do is ​gather your sisters, and gang up on ​his best mate at ​your grandfather’s funeral. And hey presto, The Secret of Annex 3, by Colin Dexter, for Elizabeth, Anna and Eve. Read More

Thought For The Day – Pancake Day – 28th Feb 2017

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Today’s Pancake Day. I hope you’re busy practising your flipping skills. My husband has a very cunning twist on the traditional pancake – he bathes a slice of white bread in pancake batter and fries that – it results in the most deliciously fat pancake!

The Christian custom of pancake making on Shrove Tuesday is to finish up rich foods like eggs, milk and sugar, before the traditional fast of Lent, which starts tomorrow. Like advent before Christmas, it’s a period of preparation for a feast day, and has traditionally been about giving up bad habits. At least for Lent, that is.

But rather than a test of your willpower where chocolate is concerned, Lent is supposed to be a workout for your soul. So how’s your soul doing, and would it pass its MOT? I’m not sure how much you think about your soul. It’s a funny sort of concept. We glibly talk about ‘soul-searching’ and ‘soul-mates’ and ‘soul-destroying’, but I’m not sure we think about what that means very much.

And maybe the soul is more important than we tend to think. For instance, there’s been a lot of talk recently about robots stealing our jobs. If you think about it, your soul is the one thing you have that no robot can take away from you, no matter how brilliantly programmed it is to copy your cognitive and emotional functioning.  So maybe we should nurture our souls a little more.

I have a teenage niece. It’s quite extraordinary how much time she spends gazing at herself in the mirror. She’s very beautiful, so fair enough. But if the eyes really are the windows to the soul, maybe it would be helpful for us all to rediscover our inner teenager this Lent. I think most of us have a fairly perfunctory relationship with the mirror – just a quick check to make sure there’s no toothpaste or shaving foam left. But rather than regarding staring at ourselves as an act of vanity, stopping to look into our own eyes may tell us something important. And it may be that observing Lent in some way, by giving something up or taking something on, could be the beginning of us seeing ourselves in a different light.

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 – Groundhog Day – 2nd Feb 2017

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Today is Groundhog Day in the United States. In a few hours’ time, the people of Pennsylvania will be clustered around the hole of their famous groundhog, Punxsutawney Phil. If Phil comes out and sees his shadow, that means six more weeks of winter. If Phil emerges and doesn’t see his shadow, that means an early spring.

Lots of cultures around the world have a tradition like this, to mark the transition from Winter to Spring.  It’s really a way of learning from nature: if a hibernating animal thinks it’s time to come out, they’re probably right.

But Groundhog Day has become famous because of the 1993 movie starring Bill Murray. In it, he gets stuck in a time loop. Every day is the 2nd of February, and he seems doomed to repeat it for ever. The story soon becomes a parable. He starts by behaving badly, knowing that his actions have no real consequence. Then he gets depressed, and drives himself and the groundhog off a cliff. But still he wakes up again on Groundhog Day, so eventually he decides to use the knowledge he’s gained about the day, to improve the lives of those around him. Choosing to act with love and kindness finally sets him free from his purgatory. Paradoxically, it’s only when he blesses his day that he can be released from it. The shadow has turned to light, so Spring can now come.

And light is the theme of another significant date in the calendar today, which is Candlemas. For centuries, people have been bringing their candles to church on this day, to be blessed for use throughout the rest of the year. A candle is such an extraordinary thing. Just one, turns a dark room full of noises and hidden dangers into a familiar and welcoming space.

Sometimes our world can feel very dark and scary, and it feels like we should hibernate, or prepare to defend ourselves. But our job is to keep being that light. It’s only Groundhog Day for ever if we let the shadow win. As it says in John’s Gospel: ‘the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.’

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.

Sermon on vocation

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Sermon preached at St Michael and All Saints, Edinburgh, 22 January 2017

I wonder if you know that I went to Finishing School? Lucie Clayton College, to be precise. Joanna Lumley went there in the 60s. When I attended in the 90s, they still had their model of a car, so one could practice getting in and out of it without showing one’s knickers. Just the passenger seat, mind: ladies don’t drive. I learned how to sit for a ‘girls in pearls’ photo, how to glide down a staircase, and how to say No to men: “I’d really rather not.” Read More