Sunday, December 19, 2010

Ghosts of Christmas Past
The "Chibougabus"

In the 1987 I accepted the post as the Incumbent of Christ Church Chibougamau in the Diocese of Moosonee. It was my first parish.

My new bishop, Caleb Lawrence, gave me a couple of pieces of advice: First of all, he said, you'll need a decent vehicle. You've got a total of 266 kilometres a Sunday to drive in all sorts of weather in order to lead services in two communities (Chibougamau and Waswanipi River in northern Quebec). Secondly, you need to learn to play an instrument because, in addition, you'll be responsible for a number of small outlying native settlements in the region - collections of plywood shacks dotted about here and there - and there'll be no other music there.

So I quickly learned a dozen chords on the mandolin (Caleb's other suggestion had been the accordon!) since one of my chums in the congregation in Victoria, where I was curate, was willing, not only to teach me the mandolin, but to let me help him lead music at the beginning of the service at St Philip's during the few months that remained before I left for the north. I built up a tidy repertoire of simple hymns and choruses.

The Chibougabus was a 1984 Toyota Landcruiser with a long wheelbase. It had interior heaters back and front, four-wheel-drive (obviously) and could fire itself through a deep snow-drift on a lonely road like a tank.

The problem was starting it in intense cold - minus fifty (celsius) in Chibougamau on one morning in 1988 - because diesel, even the winterized diesel available in Canada, tends to thicken up in the cold. It was necessary to plug the Chibougabus into the mains overnight at three points: The vehicle had a standark block heater to warm the engine block. It had an oil-pan heater to keep the engine oil from turning into tar and it had a battery heater which warmed the two batteries. All being well and the electric load not being high enough to blow the fuse on the outdoor electric socket, you could start your vehicle in the morning without too much noise and banging about.

One of the tricks to start a cranky vehicle in the cold is to open the hood, shoot a little ether from a spray can into the air filter, run around to the drivers side and turn the key. This helped on many a morning.

Safety equipment - tons of the stuff: I carried a pair of snow shoes, a length of rope, a shovel, an axe and two arctic sleeping bags with extra blankets. I also carried about a dozen bricks and a box of 8 hour emergency candles.

One of the tricks of pilots who were ferrying bombers over Greenland during the Second World War was to carry bricks and candles with them in case they had to ditch in some frozen waste along the way. You can build a little oven made of bricks with a few air spaces between them and light a candle inside it. The candle warms the bricks. If you manage to isolate yourself in some tiny part of the plane (or in some part of the Chibougabus with your artic sleeping bag around you and blankets blocking off the rest of the vehicle), you can keep your section liveably warm almost indefinitely.

I was set.

Our regional Dean at the time, the Rector of Val d'Or was, shall we say, a character. He was from south Florida and was a bit crusty. At some point during my last winter in Chibougamau, Sam came over for a visit. He knocked on the door. I let him in and put the coffee on. We sat at the table.

Sam says to me in his raspy voice,

"Rob, I've just looked in the back of your truck and what do I see there? I see ropes. I see a can of ether. I see an axe.

It is no mystery to me that you never get a date."

Friday, December 17, 2010

Thought for the Day
Good Morning Scotland
BBC Radio Scotland
Friday, December 17th

I went to a Nativity Play this week at our local Primary School in Penicuik. The annual school or church Nativity wouldn’t be possible without tea towels and cut up curtains and square paste-on beards made of construction paper.

And don’t forget the angels. When extra children show up in church who haven’t been given a part, they can always be draped in a disused choir gown and have a crown of tinsel placed on their heads. Voila – an instant angel- sent up to the front holding on to an older cousin’s hand apprehensively.

Much of the story involves human beings listening to angels - ordinary human beings caught up in trying circumstances or just minding their own business out in the pastureland but then tumbled into some sort of shape and woven into a story by a voice which comes from up in the sky or wells up from within in a dream.

It’s wrapped up with idea of inspiration, revelation and vocation: three words which have their roots in a religious tradition but which now are used in a wider sense- inspiring political speeches, revelations in a gossip column, the vocation we might have for a particular job or livelihood.

But it is the original, ghostly, version of these words which draw us to the story and give it its power. These Nativities are not only intended to enrich the small participants but the grownup watchers as well - we who have seen too much, or compromised too much of our potential or forgotten to look beyond our duties and our obligations.

What the children are telling us, through this story, is that we can change our ways. And, in the midst of our ordinary human lives and communities, such dreams and revelations, such promises of novelty and rebirth, still have currency in the human heart.

An audio link is available for a limited time HERE. TFTD begins at 1:25.13 - about halfway along the audio bar.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Will this wind...?

Here we go.

We haven't had as specific a date for the Rapture and the end of the world for a rather a long time. This time we have both. According to Harold Camping and Family Radio, it's May 21st, 2011 for the Rapture (where the blessed are removed bodily into heaven) and the beginning of the Day of Judgement (presumably for the rest of us).

It's October 21st for the end of the world. I think. That's it. All cheques cashed before then.

The campaign has generated a certain number of billboards and a bit of mirth in the U.S. Though I suppose the riposte would be that they laughed at Noah as well.

My wife's biggest concern is that our boy's bedroom is tidy on the day. His room is generally in such a state that you'd be uncertain as to whether he'd been raptured or whether he was just lost in some untidy corner playing with his Gameboy.

If you'd like to do the math yourself it's all HERE and it's about as convoluted as you might expect.

Another take on John the Baptist

In the early 1960's, schoolteacher Peig Cunningham brought a tape recorder into a Dublin classroom and asked the wee kiddies to tell her stories from the Bible in their own words. These recordings were rediscovered much later and some clever clogs has added some animation along with some dramatic topping and tailing - none of which detracts from the effect of the individual child telling her story.

There are, as well, a few bits and pieces from this morning's Gospel reading done better than I could have possibly preached them.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

The BBC mini-series The Nativity will be shown on the following dates in the UK.

Monday the 20th
Tuesday the 21st
Wednesday the 22nd
Thursday the 23rd

all at 7 pm and on BBC 1. Each episode is half an hour.

Reviews and comments can be found HERE, HERE and HERE. An earlier post on the miniseries from this blog can be found HERE which contains an audio link to an interview with the writer, Tony Jordan.

It will be starring, among others, Montreal actress Tatiana Maslany (whose home town, I am now brusquely reminded, is Regina, Saskatchewan) in the role of the BVM along with a host of well-known TV personalities from the UK.

Peter Graystone, from the Church Army, who saw the complete series at a press preview in October, describes it as

"...funny (very), believable (totally),
sexy (yes!)".
Which give rise to the following unhelpful excursis:

I believe Peter Graystone may well have hit on something.

I'm thinking that some T-shirts with the Church Army crest and the words "Sexy (Yes!)" written underneath it would do the world of good for an organisation like the Church Army, which has much to its credit but which has a woefully inadequate level of marketing and visibility.

But I digress.....

Thursday, December 09, 2010

Penicuik Abroad

It could have been the history of our town and the legacy of paper-making. It could have been the town's Scottish Episcopal Church, with its Kempe windows, its capable choir, its forward-looking congregation and a Rector with compelling brown eyes.

It could have been the tight knot of well-run charity shops in the Precinct and the plans for renewing the Town Centre.

It could have been Jean's Place and the fact that they serve the best egg-on-a-roll to be found anywhere between Loanhead and Eddleston.

But no - Penicuik made the Melbourne edition of the Herald Sun because it was bloody cold here last week.

One of our organists here at St James has been in Australia on holiday, visiting his children. He opened the local newspaper to see the picture of a man picking his way through the ice and snow on the Peebles road back in Penicuik.

Mike now has to pack up, kiss the kookaburras goodbye and return.

He may need to shovel his walk when he gets back.

Tuesday, December 07, 2010

Perhaps not as
fanciful as first thought...

St. Nicholas' remains were removed from his burial place at Myra and reinterred at Bari, in Italy in 1087 AD. There are conflicting stories of how this came to be.

In one story, the mortal remains of the Saint were rescued by heroic "sailors" fearing the tomb at Myra would be desecrated by Alp Arslan and the Seljuk Turks following their victory over the Byzantine forces in the Battle of Manzikert.

In another, it was "pirates" from Bari who took advantage of the confused political situation, beat the monks and stole from them what amounted to highly portable goods designed for later resale in the west. In either case - rescue or theft - the bones came back to Bari and a basilica was built over them.

In the 1950's the crypt where they were interred required considerable repairs. The bones were removed for a short period of time during the work and Luigi Martino, a professor of anatomy at the University of Bari, was asked to catalogue the remains and to take a series of detailed photographs and measurements of the skull.

One of his successors at the University in more recent years handed the photographs and measurements to an anthropologist at Manchester University who, using the latest forensic technology, reconstructed the face in the same way that she would have done for the police searching out the identity of a person following the discovery of physical remains.

Such close scientific work is presumably necessary because, as we all know, the eye of faith is a fanciful thing.

And yet the results (above) bear a remarkable resemblence to one of the 11th Century depictions of St Nicholas.

One which they'd had on the wall all along.

Monday, December 06, 2010

Winter Part Deux

We've had a nice couple of days but today the snow kicked in again.

I'm in town today, at my desk at New College, trying to revise and it's by no means certain that I'll find a bus going back to Penicuik which is worse than this. Mrs Rabbit took a bus back from work in the very early afternoon and the driver was saying this would be the last.

I might be banging on the bishop's door tonight asking him where he keeps the whisky.

David Hume was looking a little put out at being barefoot and clad only in a toga. His friend Adam Smith down the way looked no happier and was hoping that the "Invisible Hand" might somehow sweep a little snow off his brow.

Happy St Nicholas of Myra Day!

This picture, hanging in the Russian State Museum in St Petersburg, represents but one of the many interventions St Nicholas of Myra made in the lives of people at a point of dire necessity.

He was, shall we say, more of an activist than a contemplative.

Good St Nicholas of Myra link HERE.

Saturday, December 04, 2010

Pause for Thought
BBC Radio 2
Saturday, December 4th, 2010

When a trench was dug through the ancient hill fort at Megiddo in Israel at the beginning of the twentieth century it revealed 26 individual layers of settlement separated by what were called “destruction layers”. New cities were built on old ruins. From the top you can look out over the Jezreel Valley and imagine the armies massing out there. You can imagine the fear which must have gripped the defenders - at least 26 times.

I could go through a family photo album with somebody of my father’s generation and he would point to pictures which represented moments in his family history when it appeared that the end was nigh. Hopes and plans had been dashed. Efforts had come to naught. He might have felt, at various moments, as if he lived in the shadow of impending doom. When you’re in the midst of it, it feels like the end of the world. You can’t visualize what life afterwards will look like.

If you walk down through the steep tunnel into the heart of the hill fort at Tel Megiddo you see a remarkable thing. You walk by a spring of water, captured and enclosed thousands of years ago by the hill fort – a free flowing spring - the original reason why Neolithic people first chose this little hill to live on.

More often than not you’ll see a small frog perched there by the edge of the water. In such dry and inhospitable surroundings baked by the sun and blown by the wind it’s the last thing you’d expect. But they’ve been there all along.

There’ll be a healthy dose of “end of the world language” in the Scripture readings in Church throughout the Advent season. It helps, though, to flip ahead a few pages and remind yourself that there are both books and history which follow. The germ of something good survives and resurfaces later. Life, with its testament to God’s abiding presence through history, hope and promise survives and endures.

Solomon and Ahab, have come and gone. So have Pharoah Thutmose III and the Canaanite Confederacy, the Ottoman Turks and General Allenby.

The frogs have seen them all off

An audio link is available for a limited time HERE. PFT begins at 0:21.41 - a little ways along the audio bar.

Friday, December 03, 2010

The Bishop will arrive!

Our Bishop is paying us a visit at St Mungo's and St James on Sunday morning. Two baptisms of children "of riper years" and a confirmation (our Stewart) will take place on Sunday at St Mungo's, West Linton at 10:00 a.m. There's an opportunity to meet Brian and Lissa over a bacon butty at 9:15. At St James', Penicuik there will be four confirmations (three teenagers and an adult) and one Reaffirmation of Faith by an adult. I'm anticipating that our 11:00 service will begin ten to fifteen minutes late. A stand-up buffet will follow in the Church Hall.

The preparation has been done, the service has been rehearsed with the young people. They know what they're to do and say.

I hear rumblings of food being prepared in copious quantities.

Problem is the snow.

The bishop's trip to a neighbouring congregation was cancelled last week due to the inclement weather.

This is not to be the case here.

We have two landrovers on call - one to transport the Bishop and his wife Lissa from Edinburgh and another to transport an organist and her husband from Peniicuik to West Linton.

Our numbers may be a little depleted - I hope not too depleted. 18 people trudged up the hill through the snow in boots and hats for choir practise last night looking like Newfoundland fishermen. It can be done. It will be done! We are a doughty lot here outside the Edinburgh Bypass.

Where others succumb we will thrive! We will get our bishop here by hook or by crook.

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Thought for the Day
Good Morning Scotland
BBC Radio Scotland
Tuesday, November 30th, 2010

Mixed in with undiplomatic comments - by diplomats - may be some top-level secrets amongst the 250,000 diplomatic cables shared by the online source Wikileaks.

The volume of the material means that it will take weeks for commentators, journalists - and even some experts - to know what of the material is just embarrassing or whether dangerous and destabilizing information is now in the public domain.

We’re told that 2.5 million people – employees of the U.S. government – already had access to the secure source where these documents originate. That circle of people, who could be trusted to keep shtum however, didn’t include you and me. It didn’t include the major newspapers.

In every company, or extended family, or voluntary organization there is the truth which is known but is never spoken about. You would be considered naïve or even destructive were you to pipe up at the dinner table or board table and say what was already in the back of everybody’s mind. Someone, though, might be glad that the truth had finally been articulated even if it caused a major ruckus.

Jesus spoke rather a lot of truth about the powerful – like Herod, the High Priest and Pontius Pilate. He also spoke about the weakness of his own followers. His comments made of Jesus the sort of person who spoke the truth outside the inner circle and one who could not reasonably be expected to keep silence about what a lot of people already knew.

We've all got secrets. And they’re not necessarily shameful ones that ought to be known. Some of them are quite useful secrets. We know things – people tell us things – which we keep to ourselves - because the damage done would be worse if the thing were told.

But the balance between discretion and openness is something which must be periodically tested.

To see what happens when the thing is known as, shortly, it may well be in this case.

An audio link is available for a limited time HERE. TFTD begins at 1:21.44 - about halfway along the audio bar.

Monday, November 29, 2010

It's a snow day in Penicuik!

We'd had some snow prior to Sunday's service which dampened our crowd somewhat for the First Sunday in Advent and the Annual General Meeting. But the roads were gritted and the sky relatively clear.

So when the young people at Sunday evening's Confirmation class announced that school was being closed the next day I looked out the window and saw at least two stars and figured they were "at it".

I texted the head teacher and got the reply that, in fact, this was the case. No school today.

And yes, we had a large dump of snow during the night. Now I hear that there's no school tomorrow either.

I've moved my car down to the more-usually-gritted road in the centre of town since I have to be in Edinburgh for 7:00 in the morning. If it's terrible I might catch a lift with the doctor down the road who has an early clinic in town and has a vehicle with four wheel drive and snow tires.

Mrs Rabbit has taken a "carer's day" today and tomorrow. Normally quite duty-bound she's the one who's usually at her post when other people have "carer's days" or days off for this and that. What with today's dump of snow there's really nothing for it but to put the music on, wrap presents and make Christmas cookies.

The dogs are fine with the snow.

The ducks, on the other hand, have very short legs, and really don't appreciate having to wade through the deep snow snow in order to get to the water bucket which has replaced the usual ample wading pool where they preen and make themselves ready for the day.

By the end of each year's snow season they are positively depressed

The Step-Rabblet has been over shovelling an elderly neighbour's drive today and has been up on the hill with his chums sliding.

All appears well.

St Eulalia is the patron saint of snow. A young convert to Christianity she was tortured and executed during one of the persecutions of Christians under the Emperor Diocletian in the early days of the Church.

Cast out into the street following her execution, snow fell upon her to hide her nakedness and to reveal the spotless nature of her sainthood.

It doesn't sound to me like she's the sort of saint who can be appealed to for her intercessions to restore children to their much needed education and spouses to gainful employment though.

It sounds like the snow was a good thing.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Pause for Thought
BBC Radio 2
Sunday, November 28th, 2010

Some people change their minds a lot. Some people never change their minds.

Some people who never change their minds have a rugged set of opinions that they’ve come by honestly and which have stood the test of time. Good on them for not changing their minds.

Others – well, we’re still searching for our road in life and a few false starts and redefinitions are bound to come our way. Good on us for not being so stuck in our ways that we can’t change our minds.

A couple of years ago I had the occasion to walk along what is probably the very beach on the Sea of Galilee where Jesus called his disciples. The story has it that they were in their fishing boat with their old dad and were about their business – repairing nets and sorting lead weights - when Jesus spoke with them. They left their work and went with him.

The art of putting things in convincing words is called rhetoric. Years ago people knew the rules. It was important who the speaker was. It was important that the speaker knew who his audience was. But what he said was important too – the germ of the message. Without the last of these three it’s possibly only manipulation.

In one of the first black-and-white silent movies to treat the Gospel stories, Jesus approaches fishermen who are casting their nets into the lake. He raises his hands in the air and you see his lips move. The fishermen immediately drop their nets and put their arms out – walking out of the lake toward Jesus more like zombies in Night of the Living Dead than people who have heard something convincing enough to make them change their course in life.

I don’t think it worked like that. I think that he said something to them there on the lake shore which made sense.

If there is no word out there capable of motivating us – no idea that could conceivably seize us then all we’ve got to hand is what we’ve always had.

That, it seems, would be a lonely state of affairs

in a world where we are not alone.

An audio link is available HERE for a limited time.
PFT begins at 1:15.42

Saturday, November 27, 2010

Pause for Thought
The Zoe Ball Show
BBC Radio 2
Saturday, November 27th, 2010

Where I come from in Quebec, you drive through the Laurentian Mountains just north of Montreal and you know you’re about to hit a town because you can see the spire or steeple of the church. You see it long before you see the white metal roofs of the village houses nestled in the hills.

Church steeples and spires don’t only represent competition between towns (or religious denominations) for pre-eminence with respect to height. They are visible symbols both of hope and defiance.

They’re the great “up yours” to the idea that this is all we are – labourers in the employ of the local landlord, humble creatures who live out their lives shackled to drudgery before they die.

Like an enormous dinner party, like a bottle of really good red wine, like a concert at the Usher Hall in Edinburgh, like some art hanging against the back wall of the Church behind the altar there are probably more economical ways of cooking food, or quicker ways of fermenting grapes or less arduous ways of making a statement with paint on canvas.

But they don’t do the same thing.

If you go to hear Handel’s Messiah this Christmas you’ll notice that when the choir starts belting out the Hallelujah Chorus the audience stands up –the semi-employed, the newly abandoned, the underappreciated, those condemned to being ordinary – they stand up. And a finger – the finger in this case of the composer or the artist – points up and beyond.

The human being is noble. The human being is the object of God’s love. People who are stuck in one place can look within themselves or beyond themselves and find a place for their foot to take another step.

A church spire or steeple may only be wood or iron or bricks or stone but it points in the right direction.

An audio link is available for a limited time HERE. PFT begins 0:21.23 - just a little way along the audio bar.

Friday, November 26, 2010

Pass the Popcorn!

Notwithstanding the fact that theists and atheists alike might be lining up to say...

"Hold on a minute, this individual doesn't speak for me because... (insert whichever ad hominem comment applies best)"

...the fact that two people well used to jousting from a podium - Tony Blair and Christopher Hitchens - are going to be squaring up on opposite sides of the following statement:

Be it resolved: Religion is a force for good in the world....

may make this something worth watching. Tickets at Roy Thomson Hall in Toronto are now, apparently, sold out. I see a link to a live and archived feed (at $4.99 CAD a pop) but nothing immediately evident which will allow me to watch it afterwards for free.

I guess it's Tony's speaking fees which are keeping this behind the wall.

I might have to be satisfied with the summary or the blow-by-blow. If anyone finds a good pirated post-facto link, let me know.

An article from the Globe and Mail includes pre-debate interviews with both men and a few other snippets.

This side of the pond sees an article in today's Independent outlining what the two arguments might be.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Communion on the Moon

Something I missed along the way and did not know.

Buzz Aldrin, the second astronaut to set foot on the moon:

"I unstowed the elements in their flight packets. I put them and the scripture reading on the little table in front of the abort guidance-system computer. Then I called Houston: 'Houston, this is Eagle ... I would like to request a few moments' silence. I would like to invite each person listening in to contemplate for a few moments the events of the past few hours, and to give thanks in his own individual way.'

For me, this meant taking communion. In the blackout I opened the little plastic packages which contained bread and wine. I poured wine into the chalice my parish had given me. In the one-sixth gravity of the moon, the wine curled slowly and gracefully up the cup. It was interesting to think that the very first liquid ever to be poured on the moon, and the first food eaten there, were consecrated elements."

Monday, November 22, 2010

Object Lessons from Men in Tall Hats

While Prince William was announcing his engagement to a young woman he's known for some nine years and then flying off to rescue people with chest pains from the mountainsides in his helicopter (part of his day job), the blogging Area Bishop of Willesden was venting his spleen on Facebook about the royal wedding, what it would cost, how the marriage wouldn't last, and what philanderers the Royals were at the best of times anyway.

People who are fond of Pete Broadbent, the offending bishop, have been tilting at windmills for the last day or so about how even Bishops have a right to their opinions, how the Daily Mail had misquoted him or pointing out (quite rightly) that the Daily Mail was no friend of the Royals at the best of times and were guilty therefore of significant hypocrisy in chiding the bishop for his comments on his personal Facebook page.

Well sir, today the Episcopal Gentleman apologised on the Bishop of London's website. People who are fond of Pete Broadbent were quick to point out the nobility of this apology but I suspect that his boss, the Bishop of London, had pulled his mitre down over his head and threatened to put a crozier where the sun don't shine unless such an apology was forthcoming.

Several notes to self about inside thoughts and outside thoughts have been generated. Nothing better than a good object lesson from one's betters.

Tuesday, November 02, 2010


There's really no sense to it.

Things come your way in bunches because reality tends to randomness.

Which means that, every once in a while, there'll be a six or eight month period where shit happens in technicolour, in spades, in stereo, in extremis, with a starter, a side order and on horseback.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Saved by the Clown

I spent one part of my misspent adolescence hitchhiking around the interior of British Columbia. I’d arrive in small towns which had, all of them, identical features: A gas station, a hotel with pub and restaurant and, on the very edge of town, a Rodeo grounds. I was never there on the right weekend and so the Rodeo grounds were always deserted - empty corrals made out of split rails, a weathered sign announcing the date when the Rodeo would be held or when it had taken place and a list of the events: the calf-roping, the bronco rides and the cattle wrestling. They key attraction of course, was the riding of bulls. These bulls were bred to be mean – the proper jargon is ‘ornery’ and, to look at them, they don’t even look much like ordinary cattle - nothing like the other placid ruminants munching grass in the fields. At rodeo time they’re kept in special reinforced barns - not to be trusted but all the boys climb up onto the rails to get a better look at them.

So just to go over the rules: There are a hundred points given for the perfect ride – the rider needs to stay on the bull for eight seconds and impress the judges. If the ride is uneventful and boring the judges will award fewer points. The most points are given when the bull gives a particularly violent performance but where the rider manages to stay on nonetheless.

When the rider is thrown to the ground it is up to the rodeo clown to wave his hands and coax the bull back into his pen - the rodeo clown – the little bugger in the corner with his cowboy hat and red rubber nose and short trousers on over his red combination long underwear. He waves a towel and attracts the bull’s attention away from the fallen rider. He has the most dangerous job in the rodeo. He manages to stave off disaster. He protects both the rider and the spectator and lures the bull back into the pen.

Since Caireen and I returned from our holidays in the summer there has been “no end of trouble in Dodge City”. In our congregations, and amongst family, friends, associates and “encountered strangers”, we have witnessed the struggle of a great many people trying to stay on the bull. Life’s events come in bunches and we’ve seen a bunch of them. It does wear a bit. You find yourself saying “what next?” Tragedy and upset is always a backdrop to the human condition.

The biblical record is filled, though, with a certain amount of comedy which – try as I might – I cannot define in any other way than it being the subtle hint of something which upsets the downward slide in a graceful and almost “cheeky” manner. The drowning man is swallowed by a fish and deposited on the shore; the Book of the Law is found in the ruins of the temple and, initially, mistaken for rubbish. A very old man and his very old wife have a child in spite of their great age. A baby is born in a small and unimportant town and his birth is heralded by angels. The tax collector becomes a disciple. The Saviour goes to eat at Zaccheus’ house. The oppressor of the church is knocked off his horse, converted and becomes the Apostle to the Gentiles.

It all comes in from the side, this grace and possibility, with its red nose and impossible garb waving its towel in the midst of kicking hooves and slashing horns. The believer will look for subtle things which herald the beginning of life when it looks like all is lost.

There’s something “comedic” about the Gospel. These visions, stories, promises and legends appear, at first glance, to bear little relation to the big bulls at the centre of the ring - whatever is happening in our marriages, our health problems or those of people we love, our businesses or our conflicts with family. The subtle beginnings come in from the side. Strange and off-beat thought they may be, they form the beginning of the only thing which will keep us safe. The believer can not only learn to notice these strange beginnings. He will even come to expect them.

The rough and tumble cowboy will, eventually, give in and let himself be saved by the clown.

Thought for the Day
Good Morning Scotland
BBC Radio Scotland
Wednesday, October 27th, 2010

Dementia is a huge challenge facing Britain today. A number of stories appeared in the press this last fortnight about organizations coming together to support those suffering from the disorder and about changes in the types of treatment being offered in clinical settings and in the community. The intention is to transform the lives people with this condition lead.

It’s not that far away from any of us.

The reality of such an illness is that those close to us may lose some of the character we’ve grown up with and learned to love. If we are afflicted, that we’ll slowly begin to lose our grasp of things going on around us. Somebody will have to shift heaven and earth, or at least their own set of priorities, to keep in meaningful contact. And - thinking always of cost as we do these days - somebody will need to pay for our care.


My religious tradition, as an example, understands the worth of human beings on the basis that they are loved, and that they are objects for God’s concern – all of them, well or unwell. It’s not a contest won by those who athletically retain their faculties until the end - the last ones on the block with their wits. What we end up knowing matters less than who we are known to be, by those who love us. And we are known by God even when we cease to know ourselves.

My tradition also understands that the moral fabric of societies and of individuals can be measured by the care they provide to the "least capable" of their brethren.

Fact is, we will need to be taken by the arm at various points of our life. And – it’s true - the world will go on without us.

It is challenge for individuals early in their diagnosis to accept change – a universal change - which in his or her case has come too soon. It’s a challenge, too, to the larger society to provide excellent and compassionate care - to do something more than honour the bottom line.

An audio link is available for a limited time HERE. TFTD begins at 1:23.59 - about halfway along the audio bar.

Friday, October 22, 2010

Thought for the Day
Good Morning Scotland
BBC Radio Scotland
Friday, October 22nd, 2010

My wife and I went to see a comedy at the African film festival here in Edinburgh last night. The film in question was not in our mother tongue.

The subtitles helped.

The creative work of communities unlike our own reveals something to us about the hearts of people in the world. They become bigger. So do we.

Ordinary, it’s the News which excerpts for us the lives of people far away. We’re made aware of wars, coups d’etat and conflicts without gleaning much detail about the people in question. Rich cultures are boiled down to a few relevant bits of alarming news.

Rather than growing, these people shrink away.

We find ourselves, like the Pharisee in one of Jesus’ parables in this Sunday’s Gospel reading, being thankful that we are not like other people – war torn and desperately poor.

Our religious traditions don’t always help us see what is outside the bounds of our own persuasion. Religious traditions have, in their worst moments, actively denied the humanity we share with people who are different from us.

We are now more adept at recognizing such active denial. The more passive denial of a common humanity is a little harder to ferret out. The news from abroad is translated into what is relevant for us: the wars, the face-to-face talks, the currency disputes, immigration: these are what someone out there believes we must know in order to be "up to scratch" on current affairs.

But the people remain anonymous.

It takes some work and seizing of opportunities. We can choose and encourage, encounters - based on genuine curiosity, on friendship and the appreciation of another’s culture, language and creativity: film, literature, travel and personal connections.

These require an act of translation – not through the little letters at the bottom of the screen – but in discovering that the tragic and the comic moments of our lives follow a common path.

An audio link is available HERE for a limited time. TFTD begins at 1:21.38 - about halfway along the audio bar.

Friday, October 08, 2010

Thought for the Day
Good Morning Scotland
BBC Radio Scotland
Friday, October 8th, 2010

My daughter Hannah announced her engagement yesterday. This immediately provoked a whole series of emails and comments from friends in Montreal who said – no, this can’t be – only last week she was “little”.

Hannah and I live in different parts of the world. I had met her previous two boyfriends but not this latest fellow.

It feels odd that somebody who you used to dress for school and make a packed lunch for - is now proposing to make a life with somebody you’ve never met. But it sometimes escapes your attention: the world goes on without you - you’re not indispensible. There are horizons you will never trudge over yourself. Power will continue to pass from one government to another. The value of property will continue to rise and fall. What we regard as essential today is re-evaluated by others. As Kurt Vonnegut used to say “…so it goes”.

So I promise not to moan about my age or the passage of time but I will remind myself that every time I’ve said the Lord’s Prayer and used the words “thy Kingdom come”, I’ve made reference to a power in the Universe which brings into being things that I cannot imagine – around me, without me - even in spite of me. I’d always thought of myself as a friend to that process.

When we were young we wanted to be in the centre of things and to pull everything towards us. There must come a time, though, when we learn to follow and become satisfied to see things take their own shape.

Some of us clutch on to things and people too tightly and for too long.

Every time my daughter toddled off to the school bus in Montreal there were risks. I needed to tell myself, at the time, that at the heart of the world she was walking into, with all its grandeur and its dangers – there was a God of Love who sustained and inspired the creatures He had made – with or without my help.

Audio is available for a limited time HERE. TFTD begins at 1:19.56 - about halfway along the audio bar.

Thursday, October 07, 2010

Off to Salzburg for a few days!

Owing to a few holiday points graciously handed over by the in-laws and a couple of relatively low-cost plane tickets found online, my lady wife and I are going to Salzburg (in fact, just outside Salzburg) for a few days. We fly to Munich on Saturday and pick up a hire-car to drive from there.

In case you didn't know, Salzburg is where the Sound of Music was filmed. We're going to try and go on the Sound of Music tour. I intend to eat a little schnitzel (we will see if veggie schnitzel exists for Caireen).

My wife says she draws the line at lederhosen. I am not allowed anything with seven fly zippers!

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Too Cheeky to Work in Zimbabwe!

The fusion band Freshlyground, formed in South Africa but made up of members from SA, Mozambique and Zimbabwe have had their Zimbabwean work permits cancelled following this Spitting Image style spoof on Robert Mugabe.

Given recent history, I'd have said that they got off lightly.

They cast a fairly wide net, mind. Better moments are the background cameos: Archbishop Tutu and Nelson Mandela (now retired) play dominos in the background while South African President Jacob Zuma seduces a group of women at a table elsewhere in the pub.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Thought for the Day
Good Morning Scotland
BBC Radio Scotland
Tuesday, August 24th

The Australians have had an election a bit like our last UK election. With results too close to call, a handful of independents now find themselves with an awful lot of power. Add to this the claim in the news yesterday that the SNP and Scottish Labour – also neck and neck in opinion polls - are having quiet talks about a coalition next time around.

Minority governments and coalitions are given a generally negative slant in the British media. Wouldn’t it be better to have had a clear opinion one way or another – to be able to say that the people had spoken?

Haven’t they? They have, of course. The populace is simply of more than one opinion. And while it may drive the purist in either party nuts, that divided opinion is the raw material of the next election.

Given all that faces any western democracy today in terms of finance, civil society, security and commerce it’s not surprising that there is more than one opinion floating around and that countries will be governed from time to time by a series of unlikely and initially unwilling partnerships.

The Christian tradition has had its share of lessons in the demise of certainty. Consensus was clearer, once, about our role in the larger society. We were even more certain about our own history and about the documents which accounted for Christianity’s emergence. We may try to recreate the circumstances wherein everything was clear but life is different now for many of us.

Working clergy will be ministering in their towns and villages cheek to jowl with people who are different from them – who have a different conception of God - even no conception of God.

We take it for granted, now, that faith works alongside doubt. Certainty is tempered by the experience of difference around us and forced by that experience to be more inclusive of the whole of reality.

What it produces as a result is more and not less.

Risked and hammered by what we thought it was not, it ends up being much more than we started with.

An audio link is available for a limited time HERE. TFTD begins at 1:22.11 - halfway along the audio bar.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Holiday Recap: Image One

I'm sitting alone by a creek in the Shuswap region of British Columbia. I'm fond of the people I’ve been walking with – great folks - but I haven't spent any time yet sitting alone beside a stream. I’ve been daydreaming about that and it’s one of the reasons I’m on holiday.

It hits me like a sudden thirst.

I beg off from the group with a promise to meet them later on the trail after I've stolen some time alone.

Somebody has nailed a coffee pot to a cedar tree with an enormous spike.

Who carries a ten-inch spike with them on a jaunt in the woods? Or a hammer, for that matter? It profits the human spirit very little to try and deduce or imagine what was in mind of the man or woman who hammered this great spike into the tree and tied on the coffee pot.

I'm not fond of puzzles.

It's just one of those things.

If it was meant to look ridiculous, then the author of this little grafitto has failed because the act produces much surplus meaning and I cannot help but be thankful.

I see it along the following lines:

The observer is gladdened by this small river of clear cold water rushing down the valley and takes from it a tremendous sense of Here and Now. The creek is the centre piece. Everything about it is movement. It tumbles over rocks and swirls in eddies. It animates the place.


Here and Now.

And therein is the problem. The water is rushing quickly downstream - towards the Adams River, Shuswap Lake and, ultimately, the sea.

The words Here and Now and the pointing word This are never completely appropriate when dealing with a river. In the life of a rushing stream here soon becomes there, now becomes then and this becomes that.

Maybe when I was younger I would have enjoyed an unalloyed experience of joy at the rush and flux of things constantly changing.

Bring on yet another new thing!

It’s different in my early fifties. I find that change brings with it the possibility of loss. I wish some things would slow down. I have a harder time keeping up. Children’s lives go on with or without you. Some cardinal events in their lives will take place beyond the bend in the river – on the other side of anywhere you are. You start to dwell on the past. Water under the bridge becomes the phrase one uses to describe events and experiences which are now irretrievably lost and past.

Hence the coffee pot:

Somebody clearly wanted to take a stand.

In order to say something about Here and Now we need a container – something we can dip it into the stream. Finally we can say “let me tell you a story about this, sing you a song about what it’s like right now, show you what I have here.

While we may be part of something moving and changing, we’re lost in it until we find a way of stopping and being contained and dwelling, not on the whole river and the land that it nourishes, but on the single instance – the Here and Now which This small bit of the whole affords us – this pot of water taken from the stream.

My prayers are a container. They gather together a small series of concerns even though there are many other things we could pray about.

Next Sunday’s sermon will be a container. There’s more I’ll want to say but will limit myself to these words of Jesus in light of this community’s life in time and space.

We are, after all, only creatures – limited to a time upon the earth and we must take advantage of the moments of quiet reflection which are offered to us beside the running water and in the midst of all the haste and change.

This may not be what some geezer had in mind when he nailed the coffee pot to the cedar tree beside the stream.

Maybe he thought he was being funny.

Maybe the full import of his actions was not yet clear to him.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Thought for the Day
Good Morning Scotland
BBC Radio Scotland
August 11th, 2010

In the news the other day, we were told that civilian deaths in Afghanistan have risen by 31% over the last year.

That’s 31% of what, exactly - of a big number or a little number?

Even with the numbers, how would we go about adding up the lost potential, the sorrow and the shock? How would we express the breaking of relationships, the weight of such tragedies on families? We can’t.

We’re really only talking here about numbers.

We all get added up. Our lives are periodically of interest to statisticians. We are merely data to somebody out there: How long we live, what we earn or how we spend - how fast we drive past a speed camera. A life converted to a number – a blip – a bit of data.

While it’s somebody’s grim task to measure the quantities, the results don’t tell me much about life and its quality.

You know who you’ve lost, over time. You are aware of the space they inhabited and the character they once added to the conversation and the place they occupied at the table. You remember their stories and can almost hear their voice telling them. You honour them with your memory.

If you’re listening to this, this morning, you’re alive. Your life deserves to be seen and observed with the same honour as life in community with all life on the earth. Life, bursting out of the pot and leaning into the light, mingling creatively with the lives of others. Valuable life, with time and opportunities which must not be frittered away and wasted.

Today, our lives are within the embrace of both Grace and human energy. The possibilities are endless. Lives can be willingly risked – even given for others.

I am nobody’s bit of data.

I am not here merely to be counted. I can do more than that. I can be counted upon.

An audio link is available HERE for a limited time. TFTD begins at 1:23.22 - or about halfway along the audio bar.

Monday, August 02, 2010


Somebody more modern than me purported not to know what a hundred yards was. I said that it was a hundred metres minus three hundred inches.

Nah! Three hundred inches? What's that?

Look, I said - most men in the UK stand a few inches shy of six feet or seventy-two inches. Take four men like that and lay them end to end. Add a midget.

Subtract that measure from your known measure of a hundred metres and you've got a hundred yards.

I hope it helped.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

A Sermon
The Eighth Sunday after Pentecost
Luke 10:38-42

When my daughter was about to be born we cast about for a name.

There were family names and names from literature. Seems to me we even bought a book of “baby names”.

You join up a potential Christian name with a last name to see what sounds right and one of the names which sounded right with the surname Warren was the name Martha.

At supper with my parents one evening I floated the name Martha Warren.

What did they think?

My father objected. It was a name, he thought, which brought with it the association that she would perpetually be doing the dishes, or hoovering or cleaning up while others read or wrote or studied. He hoped his grand-daughter wouldn’t be someone like that. And the negative associations with the name Martha come from this story – of two sisters named Mary and Martha – one who sat with the male disciples at the feet of Jesus and who listened and learned – the other who kept to her kitchen and cooked and cleaned – until finally one evening she took off her apron and threw it to the floor and came storming into the front room where she said:
“Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself? Tell her then to help me!”
I know someone who is proud of the fact that she is a Martha. She refers to herself as a Martha. She mentions occasions where she and the other Marthas at her church get together to do what needs to be done. There are jobs around her church which need doing and she is a person of practical bent who can look at a task and imagine a strategy for doing it. When projects are proposed somebody inevitably asks “so how are we going to get this done” and people turn to her to ask her opinion because she’s the sort of person who will know not only how to initiate a task but how to bring it to fruition. What she starts she finishes. She’s that sort of person.

Now, she believes herself to be a facilitator of any number of other ministries in her congregation, a sort of pivot in her church, if you like, around which the various other ministries and activities turn. If she wasn’t at her post then they would not be able to do what they feel called to do.

And of course – she’s not a Martha, then, is she?

Being a Martha in the context of this morning’s reading has nothing to do with being practical or even task-oriented. Martha is not presented here as a practical facilitator of other people’s ministries and activities. What earns her the mild reproach from Jesus is the fact of her jealousy towards her sister – her desire to tear her sister Mary away from what Mary feels called to do – her need to make other people in her own image, her insecurity, her anger and her need to control. Far from being the sort of person who will help someone else achieve and realize her vocation her chief desire seems to be to drag her sister back. And Jesus will have none of it.
“Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her.”
We may imagine, of course, a background to this story which the Gospel writers have no desire to tell us about in any detail but which we have seen acted-out in relationships between people we’ve known – relationships which develop and solidify over time: that of siblings or friends, men and women associated with each other over many years and decades, who grow so close that change or transformation becomes difficult or impossible.

What happens when, in an established marriage or relationship, one of the partners develops an interest? What happens to best friends when one of them falls in love? What happens when a hard drinking or addicted spouse decides the take the cure – gets stronger – no longer needs to be bailed out or gotten out of trouble or constantly supported? What happens when one member of any “deadly duo” decides all of a sudden to undertake some higher education or decides that he wants to go back to Church?

Brothers and sisters, husbands, wives and partners, best friends: we begin to depend, sometimes quite unhealthily, on things not changing and on people remaining for us the people they’ve always been. When they change we don’t understand. We feel abandoned – we invoke the times we were ‘there’ for them – with constancy and evenness. And this is how they repay us? Abandoning us? Moving on?

This story does not end in tragedy. Martha and Mary, along with their brother Lazarus, remain associated with Jesus throughout his ministry. Within the larger circle of the followers of Jesus they will remain key players and their home in Bethany will be a base for ministry. Martha, however, does not get her wish in this particular case and the relationship which develops from this point on will forever contain the fact of Mary’s liberty to be a disciple.

There is a word here for close friends and for those partnered and covenanted in love together – that love must contain liberty and that much of what is called love, if it is not jostled and renewed, can imprison the very people we claim to love. In such a situation we may misunderstand the other person’s claim of liberty as a challenge to us, as loss and lovelessness.

Some of God’s people are, at their very core, practical and earthy people – able to discern the physical need of the moment and make use of what is at hand to make that the possible real – earthy and “hands on” sorts of people. Our food nourishes others, our talent with physical resources provides for the needs of others – clothes them, provisions them and sets them about their tasks.

The name they give us when we’re born, however, doesn’t matter overmuch. We grow and develop as we do – because of what is in us and in response to the world we mingle with. There are always surprises, always a wrench or two thrown into our well-practised habits and solid relationships.

We have a point of faith beyond ourselves – beyond even our well practised and dependable alliances.

In the long term, love will endure change.

Saturday, July 10, 2010

A Sermon
The Seventh Sunday after Pentecost
Luke 10:25-37

You’ve heard it said that “familiarity breeds contempt”. Sometimes we know something – a story or a saying - that we’d actually prefer not to hear it again. The story we’re told by parents and grandparents that seems to be a truism – we roll our eyes when we hear it yet again, one more time. I suppose that the term “good Samaritan” provokes a bit of a yawn. So-and-so is a good Samaritan – meaning that he serves on all sorts of committees – a good Samaritan – a do-gooder – someone who might not be a lot of fun in a conversation at a houseparty. Someone like that would end up making everybody feel guilty.

And yes – it’s a story that suffers from overuse – but like many of the parables which Jesus told he is, in fact, answering a question in such a way as to change minds and to change people’s perceptions. To tell us something we didn’t already know and in a dramatic fashion. It’s a shame, then, that the story suffers so from over-use.

A lawyer – or a teacher of the law – depending on your translation asks him a question. There’s something in the tone of voice of the lawyer who addressed Jesus that gets the readers back up from the get-go. Luke tells us that the question was asked to “test Jesus” but we’d have known that from the question itself. The questioner is a lawyer, after all. It’s Jesus who appears to be in the witness booth. The lawyer asks what is necessary to inherit eternal life – a very general question. Jesus asks him what is written in the law and the lawyer comes back with the two great commandments – love of God and love of neighbour. A general answer to a general question but Jesus plays along and tells him that - yes - he has it. Do these two things and you will live. Ah, says the lawyer, thinking that Jesus is guilty of imprecision – “and who exactly is my neighbour”?

There we are – the world is filled with different people. Some are friends and some are not. Tall and short, familiar and unfamiliar, rich and poor. All of them have some sort of status based on their relgion and nationality, whether they pay taxes or don’t, whether they go to church or don’t. They’re thin or fat, black or white, pleasant or unpleasant. Neighbour is a huge category – who, amongst all these people in the world is “my neighbour”.

Because we all have enemies – we may have national enemies who live in the next country over and who have invaded us in living memory. We have people who are guilty of notable crimes and about whom the tabloid newspapers scream popular indignation in three inch high headlines. We have within our borders troublesome sub-communities who live in slums on the edge of town and who are accused of being a vector for crime and disease. And these are just the targets of community lovelessness. As individuals we can name off lists of people who have offended against us and who have never said sorry. There are, it seems, people who are not only difficult to love but who we would be forgiven for not loving.

This is the problem with sweeping laws and pronouncements. Love your neighbour. But who do we have permission “not to love”. To whom does the second part of the two Great Commandments “not” apply? How does this apply in the real world where we must practise discernment – we who have a finite pool of resources and who might end up squandering them on loving the wrong people. This seems to be the import of the question on the lawyer’s part. He is hoping that Jesus will prove himself hopelessly naïve or, even better, that he will name some popular and hated character as the proper object of a faithful Israelite’s love and will bring upon himself scorn and infamy.

Jesus answers this with a story:
“A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell into the hands of robbers, who stripped him, beat him, and went away, leaving him half dead".
Ah, a victim, the lawyer thinks It will be important to know who this victim is. The victim, however, is just referred to as a man. The setup is not what the lawyer would have hoped. This is the one who must be loved – the neighbour. But is this anonymous person a neighbour? He is someone of my clan, my religion? Is he the person covered by the definition of “neighbour” in the Great Two Commandments? Is he a Roman or a tax collector or a thief or a traitor – a criminal or a foreigner?

The road from Jerusalem to Jericho is a lonely downhill road which leads through sun-baked wilderness. I have driven it and cannot imagine walking through such a lonely place. The cliffs are peppered with caves. It is a place where men can hide and for centuries have done so. Being waylaid by bandits, beaten, robbed and left for dead is one of those things that can happen to any traveller. Neutral maloccurrence – something that could happen to anybody. It must have been frustrating that the victim of the story – the presumed object of neighbour love has not yet been named and is the victim of quite ordinary violence. We are still in the realm of the anonymous until Jesus goes on with the story.

As the anonymous man lies there helpless and bleeding - a man whose tribe and lineage doesn’t seem worthy of description – there is shuffle of footsteps down the trail and somebody enters the story. This time there is a name given or at least a title. This is a priest from Jerusalem walking down the long seventeen mile hill to Jericho. Without seeming to give it a second thought – the priest changes sides of the road and passes by. A Levite – one of those who assisted the priests with the sacrifices in the temple also shuffles down the path. He too switches sides and gives the injured man a wide berth. It is noteworthy that both the priest and the Levite cross to the other side. Within their communities they are the designated religious leaders. They are people who are held in awe and esteem and who presume to mediate between human beings and their creator. And it’s these men who choose not to see the suffering that is before them. They don’t want to see it. It’s not to be included in their snapshot of the Jericho road. They choose not to engage with the anonymous victim.

Finally a Samaritan – a national enemy – someone from the other side of the tracks – somebody that everyone could reasonably despise, even in polite company comes by and ministers to the man, binding his wounds, placing him on his donkey, provisioning him with a bed at an inn and paying for his keep.

The lawyer’s question is answered but not in the way the lawyer had hoped. He would have hoped that amongst all the needy people in the world some distinction could be made between those who “qualify” and those who do not so that the loving Israelite would be able to judge between those who are worthy of love and those who are not. If Jesus had told a parable about an injured Samaritan then he and the Lawyer could have disputed at great length about whether a Jew was obligated to help a Samaritan but Jesus has an entirely different instrument. It doesn’t measure the worthiness of the object of love. Jesus won’t even name and identify the victim in this story who remains anonymous throughout. The instrument Jesus uses in his story is one which measures the willingness of the subject to be loving and not the object who remains mute and unidentified. Jesus story makes a distinction between those who will love the victim and those who will not.

Because that, ultimately is the choice we need to make. In any time of disaster, in every struggle we have with another human being, in every case of family strife, in every case of blatant discrimination in our schools or workplaces, The meter on the wall is not measuring how loveable the object of love is – whether he or she fits the category of neighbour or, more properly, falls into the category of “neighbour” but how loving the person at the other end of the equation is – how loving the giver of love, care is – how willing he or she is to be and to become “neighbour”.

We can do nothing to choose or change the status of the person who needs help. We inherit situations that are beyond our control. We cannot control which side of a border a needy person falls, or how they speak or who their ancestors were.

What is in our control is not who they are but who we will become to them.