Tag Archives: church

Behold! I make all things….the same old

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September 11, 2017 · 16:08

Dance then….wherever you may be

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Baptismal Font

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This is real – oops! the church where it is situated should have looked more closely at the design, before commissioning it.

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Promises, promises…..

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September 22, 2016 · 15:41

Wet, Wet, Wet

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August 9, 2016 · 13:22

Clothed in righteousness

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May 27, 2016 · 12:19

Sermon – Change & Decay?

The newly retired Moderator of a fellow Scottish Presbyterian Church has an Internet blog, written in his capacity as a Parish Minister in his particular denomination.

He seems to spend virtually every post, criticising, condemning, and commentating negatively on the Kirk.

According to this narrow minded bigoted view, the Church of Scotland has become apostate, heretical, unbiblical – because of recent decisions made by our General Assembly and by words spoken by individual ministerial colleagues. He has actually gone as far as to suggest that the Kirk deserves to die – an appalling and unsavoury remark from a fellow Christian minister.

In the immortal words of Dad’s Army’s Private Fraser (John Lawrie – from just down the road in Dumfries), “We’re doomed. Doomed, I tell ye!”

Certainly, there is a lot happening within the Kirk that is causing strain and stress.

Take for example, the Assembly’s discussion and debate on the Overture regarding Ministers in Same Sex Marriage. Although that comparatively brief discussion was, on the whole, conducted in a civilised manner, before this, there has been so much bile, unpleasantness, and a downright lack of Christian charity.

Several ministers and some congregations have left the Kirk as a result.

Last Saturday, at the Assembly, 215 commissioners voted against the Overture. 339 voted “for”.

Division, disagreement, disruption

Over the years, numerically, we are in decline….. for many different reasons – such as members becoming older and sadly being no longer with us; of younger people who have no interest; of some long term members who – for whatever the reason – have just given up.

The way we were – St Mary’s Church, 1901

 

I was ordained in 1974. Then Kirk membership was about a million. 42 years on – it’s standing at around 370,000.

I remember sometime around 1990, a member of staff from the Church Offices came to address my then Presbytery – Lothian.

He talked about church decline by way of membership numbers, and mentioned that if the trend continued, Edinburgh (our neighbouring Presbytery) would have no members by 2029 – and would effectively disappear.

Friendly rivalry caused many of us there at that evening’s meeting to guffaw – though it was no laughing matter.

He paused for a moment, then said: “I don’t know why you’re laughing; YOUR Presbytery will disappear the year after – in 2030!”

But – let’s say this…..

 

  • The Church still stands.

Despite knock backs, despite setbacks, despite the downward trajectory we seem to be on – we’re still here….. we always will be.

Do you remember the story of Christ arriving in Heaven, and being asked how many folk he’d left to carry on, and he answers “Twelve”

“Twelve!” comes the incredulous reply, “Is that all?”

And he answers, “It’s enough”.

Things may not get as few as that here, but think of how the Church is actually growing – in Africa, Russia, China…… that’s more than enough!

I read yesterday that in 1900, there were 8 million Christians in Africa. Now there are 335 million. And the growth rate continues to accelerate.

For Christianity the 20th century was numerically the most successful century since Christ was crucified. By 2010, there were 2.2 billion Christians in the world, 31% of its population.

 

  • And we stand for something.

Societal patterns are changing, as are attitudes, and as is need.

What is Church? It’s a group or congregation. Very often interpreted as people coming together on – usually a Sunday – to sing hymns, listen to the Minister say prayers (as to actually praying themselves) and listening to a sermon for ten/fifteen minutes…. then going home for lunch.

That may be “being” Church…. but “doing” Church involves more, so much more.

Helping, feeding, caring for those in need should be the ‘why’ of what we, if we truly want to “do”, not the how or the what. Following Christ’s teaching demands that we share the essentials of life unconditionally.

This is integral not peripheral, the beginning and not a side-line or optional extra. Jesus’ unequivocally states that we encounter ultimate meaning when we treat others as we would wish to be treated, love others as we love ourselves and meet the needs of the vulnerable, excluded and marginalised.

This is the imperative which drives and shapes the Church and its existence as a servant community, taking us back to Christ’s theology as found in his Parable of the Kingdom in Matthew 25

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  • And the Church doesn’t stand still

If you cast your mind back to the short address I gave near the beginning of today’s service – about the dog and the rabbit……

Let me – as it were – turn it around a bit…… and remind you of that wonderful poem written by Francis Thomson – The Hound of Heaven…..

“I fled Him, down the nights and down the days; I fled Him, down the arches of the years; I fled Him down the labyrinthine ways Of my own mind; and in the midst of tears I hid from Him…”

Thomson’s story is punctuated by sorrow, failure and addiction. The squalor and self-medication of his age come through in every chapter of his life, ultimately ending in his death at age 48. But Thompson’s real legacy is not the opium that consumed his body, but the paw prints of a Hound he says relentlessly pursued his soul.

Thompson knew that Hound as the God Who draws sinners to Himself even as they flee from His voice, a dauntless Hunter of hearts.

 


In the 1930’s Stalin ordered a purge of all Bibles and all believers. In Stavropol, Russia, this order was carried out with vengeance. Thousands of Bibles were confiscated, and multitudes of believers were sent to the gulags-prison camps-where most died, unjustly condemned as “enemies of the state.”

An American missionary team were many years later to discover that there was a warehouse outside of town where these confiscated Bibles had been stored since Stalin’s day.

They got permission to remove them, helped by several Russians .

One helper was a young man-a skeptical, hostile agnostic who had come only for the day’s wages. As they were loading Bibles, one team member noticed that the young man had disappeared. Eventually they found him in a corner of the warehouse, weeping.

He had slipped away hoping to take a Bible for himself. What he did not know was that he was being pursued by the “Hound of Heaven.” What he found shook him to the core.

The inside page of the Bible he picked up had the handwritten signature of his own grandmother. It had been her personal Bible. Out of the thousands of Bibles still left in that warehouse, he stole the very one belonging to his grandmother-a woman, who throughout her entire life, was persecuted for her faith.

the “Hound of Heaven” who had tracked him down to that very warehouse with devastating effect.

Jesus is truly the ever-present, all-seeing “Hound of Heaven.” He can still track us down wherever we’re hiding!

He called that young Russian man and how many more like him will he seek and find!

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Chasing the Rabbit

 

A thought for General Assembly Week…..

There once was an elderly Christian gentleman who had a reputation for godliness, devotion, and faithfulness.

Once a newly ordained Elder visited him with his Communion Card, and, during their conversation, got round to discuss the decline in membership of the Church.

“Why is it” asked the younger man, “that so many people when they join the Kirk are so full of enthusiasm, then, after a few years, they effectively give up. They don’t have that initial zeal anymore.

The old fellow smiled. He said, “One day, a wee while ago, I was sitting in my garden on a lovely summer evening – my faithful dog by my side.

“Suddenly a large rabbit ran across in front of us. Well, my dog jumped up, and took off after it. He chased the rabbit across the lawn, through the hedge, down the lane. – and with unbridled passion.

“Soon, other dogs joined him, attracted by his barking. What a sight it was, as the pack of dogs ran barking along the road, up stony embankments and through thickets and thorns!

“Gradually, however, one by one, the other dogs dropped out of the chase, discouraged by the course and frustrated by the pursuit. Only my dog continued to hotly chase after that rabbit.”

“In that story, young man, is the answer to your question.”

He sat in confused silence. Finally, he said, “I don’t understand. What is the connection between the rabbit chase and the quest for God?”

The old chap answered,

“you failed to ask the obvious question.

“Why didn’t the other dogs continue on the chase?

“And the answer to that question is that they had not Seen the rabbit.

“Unless you see the prey, the chase is just too difficult. You will lack the passion and determination necessary to keep up the chase.”

And perhaps that’s why so many – not all – are dropping out. They no longer keep their eye on the prize.

Not the prize of heaven, but the prize of the one who will get us there :Jesus Christ.

He is and always will be the only focus.

As St Paul wrote:

“I press on to possess that perfection for which Christ Jesus first possessed me……I focus on this one thing: Forgetting the past and looking forward to what lies ahead, I press on to reach the end of the race and receive the heavenly prize for which God, through Christ Jesus, is calling us.”

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A Sermon for Pentecost

Genesis 11 verses 1-9

Acts 2 verses 1-21

 

In days lost in the mists of time and myth, the people of the world got above themselves, overreached themselves, and attempted to scale the heights that, we’re told, were the domain of the Almighty.

Their God was angry with them; furious at their wicked ambitions, and raged against their Tower that attempted to pierce the very fabric of his heavenly dwelling.

So…. he brought them crashing to the ground and muddled and confused their language, so that they couldn’t communicate with each other.  Now, instead of unity, there was a Babel of confusing voices.

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Pieter Bruegel – The Tower of Babel

We move on….. in the early years of the third decade (CE), many people from all over the known world, speaking in different tongues, were together in Jerusalem for a type of Harvest Festival.

Suddenly, something remarkable happened.  And they turned to each other, saying “…these Galileans. How come we’re hearing them talk in our various mother tongues?……

…..They’re speaking our languages, describing God’s mighty works!”  (“The Message” paraphrase)

below: “Descent of the Holy Spirit” by El Greco

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Come now to the middle of last Century…… and to the former East Berlin:

The Communist authorities – to “get one over” the West during the Cold War – built a giant television transmission tower, which rose magnificently above the skyline of that sector of the City.  Built to impress and to provoke envy.

Just below the summit of this tower was a revolving restaurant.

What a spectacular structure it was – intended to be a showcase to annoy the West.

However, a design fault turned it into a bit of an embarrassment; whenever the sun hit the structure at a certain angle, the tower had the appearance of a huge shimmering cross!

Frantic attempts were made to repaint the tower – to blot out the cross – but with little success.

In Jerusalem in 32/33 or thereabouts, those in authority thought that they could blot out the Christian movement which was being built up, following Christ’s crucifixion.

They didn’t, of course, succeed.

Instead it grew spectacularly…….

…..beginning on that day of wonder and amazement: Pentecost.

The Holy Spirit, whom Jesus had promised, “zapped” the Apostles gathered in the Holy City……and transformed them.

This rag-bag of rather disorganised human beings were touched by Heaven itself.  Changed from a disparate bunch into a single body of witnesses which we now know as the Church.

Today we celebrate a birthing – that of a new community – with one thing in common: a mutual love of Jesus Christ.

What a hodgepodge collection of odds and ends of folk they were.

Look at the roll call from the 1st chapter of the Book of the Acts of the Apostles:  amongst them a “Rock” who crumbled under pressure, a so-called “Son of Thunder” such was his fiery temperament, a man who had doubted, a former tax collector, a freedom fighter….. members of Christ’s family who probably were still puzzled as to what this was all about, a clutch of women who were essentially viewed as second class citizens….. oh, and poor Matthaias, drafted in to replace Judas Iscariot, and who was probably wondering what he’d let himself into.

But they were a group, a fellowship, a new community of believers – and that transcended any barriers that might have separated each from the other.  Congregated through their love of Jesus, bound together by the Spirit.

Look around you today – look at the person in front of you, and behind, and across the aisle.  You’re all different.. with different backgrounds…of different ages…and so on.  But part of the same Body.

We, whoever we are or wherever we come from, are united, drawn together through our common love of Christ.

 

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Note this too (@ verse 4)  “They were ALL filled with the Holy Spirit”

ALL

There’s nothing exclusive or discrimatory about that precious gift.

{it annoys me when looking at some of the Pentecostal, fundamentalist, literalist and independent congregations whose “pastors” – usually a married couple – have been especially “anointed” –  claiming to have been especially “touched” by God. This anointing allows them to hold a God-ordained authority amidst a group of believers and to give a greater blessing to their opinions.  And many of them make a lot of $$$$$ out of their divinely appointed and approved status. “Touched by and infused with the Spirit” – you know the kind of thing?!!}

Those gathered that momentous day in Jerusalem, were, each and every one of them, brought together, understanding what God had in store for them.  Now, theirs was a common language, the language of faith, trust, and belief in the might of God who knows no boundaries, and who has no favourites – no, not even the specially “anointed” leaders of some contemporary gullible flocks.

So…it’s an old story, overlaid with symbolism and metaphor.

Today, with the General Assembly starting in six days time, where is the fire, the zeal, the enthusiasm that drove the Church for centuries?

You know, when I was ordained in 1974, the Kirk had about 1 million members.  Looking at the latest statistics (31 December 2015), I see that we’re down to something like 363,500+. That’s some drop in numbers.

I remember – sometime in the late 1980s, a guest speaker at my then Presbytery (Lothian) charting the probable decline in membership numbers.  He said – to great guffawing – that Edinburgh Presbytery (adjacent to that of Lothian) would have no members by 2029, and would effectively disappear; a pause…..”And you’re next in 2030!”

Why are we in retreat?  I wish and pray that I knew (and I’ve pored over many church-sociology books). Are we being sidetracked by matters that, though important, will eventually sort themselves out, such as SSM, Biblical interpretation (very much tied in with the first), too manyv buildings (the C of S has £millions in its property portfolio.) and so on.

Instead of “being Church”, should we not be “doing” Church?  Feeding the poor, sheltering the homeless, reaching out to the marginalised?

Only the Spirit will guide and draw us together in a common cause – whatever God decrees that to be.

We began this morning with a TV tower in the former East Germany.  It’s usually the tradition on this Pentecost Sunday to refer to another tower – that of the Tower of Babel

Genesis tells us that prior to the construction of this tower, all people could communicate, insofar as they spoke the same language.  God, we are told, “muddled” all this up, because of the people’s “pride”

Would it not have been better if all people who on earth do dwell understood each other, with a common tongue? Aye, but this is the interpretation of the Hebrew Scriptures, to make sense – in their limited way – to describe why we all speak in different tongues.

Whatever, this interpretation of what happened on the day of Pentecost reverses the situation – quaint and metaphorical it may appear.

OK – what of us today?

We are people of the Spirit.  Big deal!  What do we do with it?

How do we put it into practice?

Here’s something that may sum it up…

Abraham Lincoln’s Civil War diary:

“of all the forms of charity and benevolence seen in the crowded wards of the hospitals, those of some Catholic Sisters were the most efficient

“I never knew whence they came or what was the name of their Order

“More  lovely than anything I have ever seen in art…are the pictures of those modest Sisters, going on their errands of mercy among the suffering and the dying

“Gently…yet with the courage of soldiers..they went from cot to cot….They were veritable angels of mercy”

Our kind of revived witness?  Pentecost calls us from separation into community; from selfish individualism into fellowship with everyone.

It’s this kind of witness that the Holy Spirit has called us……are we – together – hearing its call?

 

 

 

 

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St. Stephen’s Cathedral, Vienna – visited Sunday, 8 May 2016

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May 10, 2016 · 11:36