Tuesday, 27 April 2021

Lectionary leanings for Easter 5B

 A wee reflection I wrote for a project that I'm a part of.

This, picking up the 'vine and branches' theme for Sunday's RCL 
reading of John 15:1-8...

‘I am’, you said,
‘the true vine.’
And I...
am connected:
a branch.

At times,
firm and strong,
flourishing and fruiting
with kindness and care;
peaceful, patient.
Rooted in love,
watered with grace,
tended with tenderness.

But Lord, at times,
I’m barely clinging on,
faltering and flailing,
wondering if you’re there;
rattled and restless.
Wretched, alone –
withered, joy gone,
heavy with helplessness.

In the green times
and the dry,
still, you remain
and so, connected,
help me abide.
  c.Nik Mac 11/2020

Wednesday, 31 March 2021

Maundy Thursday, in a time of pandemic...

Maundy Thursday, in a time of pandemic...  

This Maundy Thursday,
there’ll be no shared meal around a table
for there’d be more
than two households who’d gather;
no washing of feet,
nor a beloved disciple coorying in;
no touching, no hugging—
and where a kiss is a betrayal
on a variety of levels.

In a time of pandemic,
when simple touch
can lead to death,
how then to show God’s love,
to do as Jesus has done for us?

Loving one another is:
a facemask worn;
the skoosh of sanitiser,
falling cool upon hands
when making entries and exits;
making space—
at least two metres.

There are other ways to practice love—
to touch hearts without touching:
be deliverers of medicines,
of food,
of news,
or, stay home—
for that, too, is an act of loving service.

Support the local food bank.
Phone a friend,
ask them how they really are—
and give the gift of listening
when, timidly, they tiptoe past ‘fine’
and move into harder honesty.

This Maundy Thursday,
we follow the command to love
by touching other’s lives...
without touching.
                    c.Nik Mac 2021

Wednesday, 10 March 2021

Snakes on a [wilderness] plain: thoughts on Numbers 21:4-9

Having a conversation with some colleagues about this passage, there was talk of whingeing in the wilderness. Familiarity with a text can be both a good and a bad thing! But this time, as I began to try to walk in some wilderness shoes, I found a community of fear and grief, a community of people who were reacting in the way that some do, in circumstances where life has been so utterly changed, and the Promised Land is both an unknown quantity, and an unknown distance. A community who want to believe in the God who has liberated them from Egypt, and yet, who find it so hard in the hot searing sun of the wilderness, when each step forward saps your energy... and then, have to contend with snakes on a wilderness plain.
And so, a reflection of sorts:

A tough love, this.

A tough love, this.

Wilderness wandering,
weary wondering:
‘are we nearly there yet?’

But they do not know where ‘there’ is.

What they do know is:
blasting heat by day,
surprising cold by night;
sand and stone,
occasional bones
bleached clean;
scavengers hovering,
picking off
the ones who fall behind.

No signs of life here,
only dust and death.
Is this their promised freedom?

And some grow nostalgic,
rewrite the past
as a glorious feast
of life.

Slowly
a creeping mutiny begins
in the arid landscape
of their hearts,
and moves outwards;
insinuates itself throughout the camp,
undermines the voice,
the vision,
that led them from slavery.

Hope seeps away
like sweat in the sun
and they are undone
by toxic murmuring.
New life slithers among them,
with a sting.

Stunned
from their misremembered past,
they cry out to heaven,
call upon the One
who brought them to this place,
this strange new freedom.

They are not a petulant people,
but traumatised
and afraid:
there will be wobbles
on the way
to the promised land.

Until then...
a tough love, this,
that removes one poison
through another.
           c.Nik Mac 2021

Wednesday, 3 March 2021

'Ten words' - thoughts on Exodus 20:1-17

The Ten Commandments - panel at
the National Museum of Scotland
 At first, the Ten Commandments were not referred to as such, but rather as the ‘ten words’ which, later in the Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible called the Septuagint, was translated as the ‘decalogue’. These ‘ten words’ were not written in order to beat people with a stick, but rather, were meant to be life enhancing. They are words that are relational—words aimed at living at peace with God, yourself, your neighbours—words that have as their prime motivation, love.

Ten words—
the Decalogue;
Love,
as I have loved you.
Love yourself.
Love others.

Ten words—
summed up in one:
Love.
Not a trap to trip you,
beat you down
or smother.

Ten words—
that show God’s heart.
Love,
that guards and guides you;
seeks the best...
and where peace prospers.
     c.Nik Mac 2021

Tuesday, 9 February 2021

Transfigured

original painting by Dominic Martinelli - see:
https://www.dominicmartinelli.com/blog/the-transfiguration/
A wee reflection for this upcoming Transfiguration Sunday...

Transfigured                                              
Scrambling and scrabbling over scree, 
snaking their way along ridges 
on the barest of trails, 
they climb,
leaving earthly things behind. 
Clambering with effort around crags, 
avoiding cliff edges, 
looking up occasionally, and feeling dizzy, 
still they follow him. 
He ascends the heights 
like Moses did so long ago, 
he, who wrote the Law on stone. 

They pause awhile upon the mountaintop, 
almost, but not quite, the roof of the world, 
and suddenly, the light is blinding, 
bright, white; 
searing the scales from disciples’ eyes. 
And for a moment, here, closer to the heavens, 
they see him for who he truly is: 
magnificent and glorious, 
majestic. 
Shining amid rocky pinnacles 
the humble rabbi 
is transfigured – 
shot through with shafts of 
burning brilliant white, 
exalted, 
conversing in illustrious company. 
Moses, the Law maker, 
Elijah, the prophet, 
return to the mountaintop 
to meet with the Messiah – 
transcendent anointing. 

Senses ravished by unearthly beauty, 
desperate to stay, 
Peter babbles of pitching tents, 
unable to understand 
the mystery and glory of the moment. 
It passes. 
They slope back down from the summit, 
subdued, and told to keep the secret: 
a truth that they cannot comprehend 
when they descend 
and are more earthly-minded. 
And only after pain and grief, 
execution, 
and a resurrection 
will they truly see him for who he is once more. 
            c.Nik Mac

Wednesday, 6 January 2021

'Launching out' - a reflection on the baptism of Jesus

Launching out

They grow so fast. 

The new-born duly celebrated,
decorations are quickly packed away.
The hidden years flow by
until we see him,
a man of thirty,
standing by the River Jordan.
 
A new birth:
he will take the plunge,
immerse himself into his calling.
 
Having been the source
of good tidings so long ago,
the time has come
for spreading comfort and joy,
and speaking God’s freedom
in a time of oppression.
 
There will be upsets,
and noses put firmly out of joint.
 
The ending will be...
unexpected –
even though he’d tell his friends
to expect his imminent return.
 
But...
this first new day
must be marked.
 
He will slough off the sawdust
of a carpenter’s workshop,
follow his destiny.
 
As he stands dripping,
drenched in holy affirmation,
he trusts the One
he has followed
since before he can even remember.
 
Diving from high heaven,
a dove confirms
that all is well.
   c.Nik Mac

Thursday, 24 December 2020

'Wrapped warm in love' - a wee poem

I enjoy trying to rise to the challenge of a villanelle - the form and structure can be a little maddening, but it's fun.

Here's one I wrote for Christmas:

Wrapped warm in love
The new-born child in her embrace
Sleeps softly now this first Yuletide,
Wrapped warm in love: God’s act of grace.

Born to save the human race,
In wholly humble dwelling bides
The new-born child in her embrace.

And angel-song fills heavenly space,
And God, on earth, is glorified,
Wrapped warm in love: God’s act of grace.

Shocked shepherds leave their flocks, make haste,
To see the One long-prophesied:
The new-born child in her embrace.

The holy in the commonplace –
The Word with humans now resides
Wrapped warm in love: God’s act of grace.

All gathered, look upon the face;
Enfleshed, God’s love is signified -
The new-born child in her embrace,
Wrapped warm in love: God’s act of grace.
   [c.Nik Mac]

Thursday, 17 December 2020

'Have yourself an edgy little Christmas': a memory

Remembering a Christmas from long ago...  

She had wanted to be edgy, a wee bit trendy;
to deconstruct tired Christmas tree traditions.
Day by day, she walked the beach
eyes scanning shells and sand,
dismissing plastic bottles with peeling, faded labels,
ignoring soft pink jellyfish splayed out in hot summer sun.
Among the seaweed hummocks
she found what she was looking for,
felt the smoothness of sea-washed wood in her hand.
She nodded, pleased, gave a ‘this will do nicely’ smile.
Once dried and cleaned,
rustic natural charm was replaced –
overlaid by spray of glossy white paint.
Slung between two wall lamps by fishing line,
hung with assorted baubles, shining red,
driftwood that had once been part of something bigger
seemed to make the season strangely small.
There were presents, wrapped and stacked against the wall
but firm: ‘no room for a tree this year.’
It seemed oddly fitting:
in this deconstructed Christmas
there was little room for Jesus.

When the child grew up
and made her own way in the world,
she reconstructed what felt to her like Christmas.
No matter where she lived, 
how big or small her home,
there was always a tree to lay wrapped presents under –
room enough to remind her of that other gift:
of the babe wrapped in bands of cloth and laid within the manger.
   [c.Nik Mac]

Tuesday, 24 November 2020

'This year of cancelled things...' - Advent 1, yrB

Based on Isaiah 64:1-9; Mark 13:24-37
'This year of cancelled things...'

Watching and waiting,
wary,
and weary with it.
Even so:
'Keep awake!'
comes the prophet's cry,
ringing out 
this year of cancelled things:
concerts and carnivals,
chit-chat and dreams crushed;
losses, collected like unwanted trophies.
Time, suspended,
turns hours into eternities
of fretful forgetfulness;
blue regret
paints our days.
'Stay alert,'
the prophet whispers,
as if we were not already in a state of hyper-vigilance.
Yet, beneath the whispered warning,
something else:
a sliver of light,
a shiver of encouragement 
in one small, wondered 'why?'
To keep awake,
to stay alert 
means
that there is more.
These are watchwords of hopefulness.
Dawn follows dark.
All will fade, and all will be made new.
In starlight's glimmer we glimpse
a pathway to a stable
full of promise
and hear, in the near,
footsteps
pregnant with possibility.
     c.Nik Mac 11/2020

Tuesday, 18 August 2020

Labels

Noodling about with the idea of identity in this week's reading from the RCL:
Matt 16:13-20, I was reminded of an old sketch by Rikki Fulton, in his persona of the 
Rev. I. M. Jolly, commenting on a baptism and forgetting the child's name.
'Spindonna Jaiket' comes the reply from the father.
The Rev. is bemused by these strange new names that people feel the need to come up with...
he begins the baptism 'I baptise thee, Spindonna, in the name of...'
and is interrupted hastily by same parent, pointing to the label on the wee one's gown upon
which the child's name has been pinned -
'No you fool, there! There! Spindonna jaiket!'
[which in a good Weegie accent = It's pinned on her jacket]
From that ridiculously silly sketch, I began thinking about labels and identity and the questions 
Jesus poses to his disciples -
'Who do people say I am?'
and
'Who do you say I am?'

Anyway, from my noodling and silly dialect sketches came the following:

Labels/
Labels: 
John, the baptiser;
Elijah, ravens’ friend
(and occasional flame thrower);
weeping Jeremiah, perhaps,
in an echoing well?
A prophet –
just a random
one for any occasion?
The expectations of the people
are pinned on Jesus’ jacket
but cannot
pin him down.

Another label:
the One,
the Son
not just any old son...
this One
is of the Living God.
Not wood,
not stone
but flesh and blood
and bone.

Somehow,
in the mystery,
God has put skin on
trying on ‘human’
for size:
becoming
a waymarker
pointing us
to life
less wooden,
to hearts
less stony;
showing,
in who He is,
whose we are
and what it means
to fully live.
Our expectations of the Promised Messiah
are pinned on Jesus' jacket...
while we
are pinned as Jesus’ own.

c.Nik Mac 2020

Tuesday, 11 August 2020

The quality of mercy...

Crumbs...
A wee thing I wrote for a resource I'm involved with - which works for this week's RCL gospel passage.

The quality of mercy

Mercy:
doesn’t need to be pristine,
nor need to be huge.
It doesn’t need to be protected,
nor kept in a pot
with a lid
and a lock –
and oh-so-carefully
parcelled out
to those deemed ‘deserving’.
Just
a
crumb
will
do.

Mercy:
is not like pie,
nor is it mealy-mouthed or stingy.
It can’t be measured,
can not help itself
can’t be contained.
No matter how some try,
still, it overspills
the tables of power and privilege,
subversively escaping in
scraps
and crumbs
that are limitless,
boundary-breaking.
Just
a
crumb
will
do.

Mercy:
is subversive,
spilling out for all,
even those deemed (by some) as:
‘undeserving’,
‘different’,
‘not one of us’.
It re draws the circle
wider than the edges
of our imagination.
Just
a
crumb
contains
more grace and love
than we
will ever need...
so:
just
a
crumb
will
do.

c.Nik Macdonald, 2020

Sunday, 26 July 2020

Questions to a swift, returning

Just a wee bit of writing practice, emerging from a writing workshop the other day...
Asking a question of a swift, returning to nest - possibly undertones of COVID lockdown at play...

Questions to a swift, returning

Did Sahara's rising heat
thrill you
                        as you
                      soared and spilled above –
blazing a trail
                      tracing the yearly path?
                                     Such grace.
What did you spy
           upon your travels?
                      What smells
                       and sights
            and sounds
                       did you collect
                                  and revel in?
How was the journey,
             little one?
                    And are you happy here
                   nestling in such homely eaves,
           chill Upland winds ruffling such
                                    long-wending feathers?

I long to see and be where you have been.

c. Nik Mac 2020

Thursday, 23 July 2020

Imago Dei

Imago Dei 

We bear the marks
of grace upon our face,
carry within us God’s DNA:
God-made.
Sparks of divinity
course through our veins;
our warp and weft,
the stuff of stars.
God shaped...
and so,
we are.

Heaven-made creatures,
birthed from earth,
we dance between the world and universe:
God’s own.
Flesh and blood
and soul and bone
combined in
holy mystery.
God loved...
and we,
God’s mastery.
                    c. Nik Mac 2020

Tuesday, 21 July 2020

Emerging

Emerging from blog hibernation...
Emerging from lockdown...
and, trying to emerge from the bleakness...

I always set out with the best of intentions when it comes to journal or blog-keeping.
What I continually discover, is that what is consistent is my ad-hoc randomness.
Perhaps I work best to deadlines.
Perhaps I'm not one for finding a profound thought every day and proclaiming it;
sending it half-cocked, and not quite formed, out into the world.
Perhaps I lack ambition, perhaps I just get tired, and often, I just get distracted -
the joy and the curse of a butterfly mind...
As the great emergence from lockdown begins, its effects, for me, seem to be more tiredness, even more butterfly mind.
We all of us have our different reactions and coping mechanisms:
clearly, one of mine is napping and it's hard to focus when you've nodded off unexpectedly in the office chair.

Thinking of lockdown, of COVID-19, and of coping:
I've been curious to see how others have been affected, and their particular coping mechanisms and reactions. I listen to folk on the phone, or watch interactions in yet another 'zoom' meeting, or dig under the walls of dogma and political ideology that passes for news to try and find what the reality might be.
There is talk of collective trauma, lots of rage against 'the machine' of the Establishment.
There has been corresponding amounts of bluster and deflection by the Establishment.
There have been deaths, too many deaths.
When our PM talks of 'success', I think of the line from 'The Princess Bride': 'You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.'
Perhaps the toxic combination of the old British sense of exceptionalism and a Brexit-induced nostalgia for the glory of Empire is perverting something that has been so utterly devastating into something to cheer about.
Double-think and newspeak live, and Orwell was a prophet.

I yearn for government with conscience, that seeks the commonweal.
May your kingdom come, Lord...

Saturday, 7 December 2019

Thresholds: an Advent memory

The ward is all bustle and busyness as I enter. M is there at the desk and we smile a greeting. A little banter and small talk, some seasonal chat, and then:
'Anyone in particular...' I trail off, enquiring.
'Yes. I wonder if you'd be willing to sit with Mrs B in Rm 3? It's...' she pauses, looking for words. 'Well, she's close now, and, I've phoned the family, but they just said to call back after it's done.'
Almost in unison, our eyes meet and eyebrows raise. Perhaps the implied judgement is harsh: who really knows what goes on in families?

With a small nod, and an 'of course,' I head to the room, accompanied by M. Over the short time I've been here, I've come to have immense respect for the medical staff. Their determination to do everything in their power not to let anyone die alone, if at all possible, is admirable. In the midst of machines and beeps, of needles and tubes, they are the beating heart of the ward. 
'I've tried to make her comfortable, put the radio on, y'know, to give her some small dignity. She's unconscious, but restless. We've given her morphine for the pain but...' An apologetic shrug of the shoulders finishes the sentence. We stand, pausing at the threshold, looking in upon the tiny human gathered into herself with pain. Classic FM is playing 'The Coventry Carol'. Sombre, haunting notes weave themselves in and around the room: Bye, bye lully, lullay. 

I catch myself taking a deep breath as I move across one threshold and into another: a liminal space where past, present, and future mix. Here, life and death reach out, fingertips seeming to meet with just the barest of touch. Hearing is generally the last of the senses to shut down. As I approach the bed and the unconscious Mrs B, I greet her softly:
'Hello, Mrs B, my name is Nik, I'm one of the chaplains. M asked me to come and to sit with you awhile. I hope that's okay.' I settle on the blue plastic chair at the bedside, glance across at M and we nod. She disappears along the corridor. The room is graced with a generous window, and so I describe the day and the doings that are going on outside. It is a glorious winter's day. High up, a dissipating vapour trail interrupts the clear blue sky. Closer to earth, a gentle wind eddies about bare tree branches, while an empty Gregg's bag is pushed in fits and starts along the path. Flashes of blue and orange float towards goal - the entrance to the other side of the hospital across the square. The timely exit of a nurse creates an opening and it's in. Not long after mid-day, and the soft sunlight fills the room. The music has moved on, and a chattering Mozart tinkles playfully, all bright and breezy.

Time slows. We two are floating on a raft, adrift somewhere between this world and the next. There are moments of calm as well as restlessness. Who is this woman, reduced so much by illness? I wonder about her life, her loves, dreams and hopes - who and what formed the person she has become? In this moment, however, with only a stranger beside her for company, she is only truly known to God. I suspect that it's the case for all of us. Occasionally, I speak, or gently touch a cold hand when the pain causes Mrs B to groan and shift fitfully on the bed. Mostly, we have moved into silence, with a reassurance: 'I'm here. I'm just by your side.'  I hope that if she is  aware in some way, that my presence is not intrusive, but welcome. Ancient words form a pattern in my mind and I realise that I am praying the Aaronic Blessing, pausing at length at the end of each bidding. There is the overwhelming sense that another has joined us on the raft, even as the silent prayer follows its course. A momentary jarring, as the strains of a pomp  and circumstance march parrumphs along its way energetically. Such an oddly mixed play-list. I let the thought pass. The march retreats into the background and we land on holy ground.

For all the restlessness, when the moment comes, it is a relatively peaceful death. A long sigh, stillness. Seconds pass. An intake of breath, and out, and then she is gone. I place my hand on her now peaceful head, pray a blessing on her, then walk out to find M. As I leave, I realise that 'O come, O come, Emmanuel' is playing. I walk along the corridor with the verse sounding in my ear:
O come, Thou Dayspring, come and cheer
Our spirits by Thine advent here.
Disperse the gloomy clouds of night,
And death's dark shadows put to flight...
Rejoice, rejoice! Emmanuel 
Shall come to thee, O Israel.

Later, at home, as I light the Advent candles before dinner, I pause, think of Mrs B, her absent family, of M and the staff in the ward. I give thanks in this season of Advent for odd moments of grace in a strange world, liminal places, for the kindness and care of strangers, and for Mrs B - unknown to me, but in my own faith's understanding, known and named, and loved by God.
And, yes, for the curious privilege of this calling.

Tuesday, 19 November 2019

'She cannot throw his shoes away' - Martha and Lazarus

As a wee writing challenge to myself, I'm exploring different forms of poetry.
Earlier in the year, at writing group, we discussed the 'villanelle' -
think 'Do not go gentle into that good night', by Dylan Thomas, as an example.
One of our number had raised the subject, and then shared an attempt [brilliant]
that she'd written. It planted a seed. Now on holiday by the seaside, I've a little
time to write. In having a go at this form, I really enjoyed the winding thread of
rhyme and the pattern.

Below, my first attempt.
The subject matter is grief - with a nod to Joan Didion's 'shoes' in her superb
'The year of magical thinking.'  
Here, we have Martha, sister of Lazarus.
Perhaps this may come in handy over Holy Week, or at a bereavement service over Advent/Christmas.

Martha, on the death of Lazarus
She cannot throw his shoes away
and runs her thumb along the grooves -
perhaps he’ll need them back one day?

She feels the hollows toes have made,
and feels his presence in the room -
she cannot throw his shoes away.

She sits and holds her tears at bay
looks at his clothes, smells death’s perfume -
perhaps he’ll need them back one day?

She stumbles in her grief, feels rage,
feels numb, feels sad; how grief consumes -
she cannot throw his shoes away.

She rises, at the Rabbi’s gaze
and, shoes in hand, a small hope blooms -
perhaps he’ll need them back one day?

‘Come out!’ she hears the Rabbi say
and signs of life sound from the tomb:
she cannot throw his shoes away
perhaps he’ll need them back one day?
                                            ©Nik Macdonald, 19 Nov. 2019

Thursday, 14 November 2019

#WordKindnessDay


'What is the quality of life on our planet? It is nothing more than the sum of our interactions. 
Each kindness enhances the quality of life. Each cruelty diminishes it.' 
                                                                                                       - Desmond Tutu and Mpho Tutu

According to the 'trends' bar on Twitter, yesterday was #WorldKindnessDay.
On Sunday, the not quite so United Kingdom saw Acts of Remembrance conducted all around
the four nations, reflecting upon that most unkind of arenas, war. This year, as I made preparations
for the four services that I'd be conducting over the day, it was the power of words that struck home.
Of the many weapons of war, one of the most powerful tools to create conflict is a word honed
and sharpened and polished to deadly perfection.

In research for my thesis, I did a good bit of work on the subject of verbal dispute and reconciliation.
For Early Modern Scots, the Victorian saying:
'Sticks and stones may break my bones
but names will never hurt me,'
would be incomprehensible - in an honour culture, they understood how the power of words
could ruin a reputation. They felt keenly the wounds that words could cause. I've come to the
conclusion that, in a sense, they were much more on point in their understanding concerning
the power of name-calling than the Victorians who made up a saying that is essentially tosh.
Words chip away at self-esteem, words/ name-calling can dehumanise, and words
were one of the first things that were employed by propagandists when war broke out.
It is easier to destroy a fellow human being once you've effectively turned them into a
'mad brute', or 'filthy Hun.' In the process of 'othering', the cogs of conscience are made smooth
and so the justification to eradicate 'vermin' and 'monsters' becomes a little easier.

Paul, the main protagonist in that excellent novel 'All quiet on the Western Front' like his
comrades in the trenches, has not been immune to the effects of 'othering'. Occasionally,
however, he has unexpected glimpses of shared humanity. On one particularly terrifying
night, while out on patrol, he gets confused in the mess and maze of shell holes and trenches
and sits out a bombardment in a crater. During the night, as he hides from an enemy patrol,
a soldier falls on top of him. Instinctively, Paul stabs him, mortally wounding the man. It is
the first time he has been involved in hand to hand combat. The man takes a long time to die.
Compassion compels him to help his enemy; Paul tries to comfort the man, offers him water,
sits with him as he dies. As Paul looks at him, the 'monster' disappears and is replaced by a
fellow human being, a man who, if circumstances had been different, could have been a brother.
Bit by bit, as Paul imagines who the man is, what his life was like, and wonders about his
loved ones, the power of his imagination rehumanises this enemy. A pocket book and
photographs complete the integration and Paul is filled with remorse. Beyond the jingoism
and pithy insults, here in front of him was just another poor soul who'd been caught up
in the horror of war, caught up in the words designed to encourage him to join up, to fight,
and to kill.

The 'war to end all wars' didn't, and over the decades since, words have continued to be a
powerful and deadly weapon. They are not just employed in the arena of war. I watch and
am alarmed at the growing polemic used within political debate and journalism. Words
used by those in power are tools of division, conflict, and disunity. They are used to deflect
the truth. They are used to bully, cajole, condemn, and intimidate. They are picked up
and used by others to destroy 'surrenderers', 'cowards', 'traitors' - all used of those in
the courts tasked with using the rule of law; used of those on different sides of the political
fence who may exercise their democratic right to disagree with a particular point of view.
They are the kinds of words that saw Jo Cox murdered, and are the kinds of words that
will continue to hurt, maim, and kill. They are the kinds of words that are deeply unkind.

And so, we come full circle, back to #WorldKindnessDay.
Perhaps the act of kindness begins by taking one letter out of the hashtag;
perhaps it begins with #WordKindnessDay?
If words can be used to dehumanise, they can also be drafted in to rehumanise.
The Early Modern Scots had quite specific rituals, used to recall 'wild words' -
to take them back out of the social arena, to put them away, and to use words
of reconciliation: confession, apology, taking responsibility, promising to do no further harm;
words making a beginning that recognised and affirmed the inherent humanity of the one
that they'd 'othered'; words even hinting at a possible future in which the relationship was restored.
Perhaps they were on to something.

Instead of breaking someone down with words, #WordKindnessDay would be a day where
words would be used to build one another up. Echoing the words of Desmond and Mpho Tutu,
each word would be carefully considered, each word chosen to communicate kindness, and so,
each word ultimately becoming a tool to enhance the quality of life for all.
Each word used would help to create a culture of kindness in which all are seen not as 'other',
but as precious, fragile, beautiful human beings.
All it takes is a little imagination to see beyond the 'other' and find yourself looking into the
eyes of an almost-familiar face, who with a little kindness, might well become
a friend, a comrade, a kindred spirit.
A simple, difficult task.
A reconciling task.
A task, I think, that faith calls us to, so to break the cycle of destruction and dehumanising.
There's a saying that often crops up:
'practise random acts of kindness and senseless acts of beauty.'
In one way, I like the feel of it, and yet... I think I need to work more on being more intentional
in the way I practise kindness.
And perhaps it's by making a start by using one - carefully considered - word at a time.

Wednesday, 25 September 2019

Of coffee, countryside and kirk...

My last post was a somewhat tongue in cheek ode to the wonders of coffee - the great life-giver, heart-starter, finder of lost brain cells, and mover of our bones.
I am a fan of the bean, the wondrous coffee bean, and the oh-so-many ways of drinking it in all of its fabulous, caffeinated glory. So, there was a slight pang of sadness when I was preparing to move to the rural wilds of the parish, knowing that my [insert coffee chain of choice in here] days of drinking such a variety of caffeinated beverages would soon come to an end. That was before I found [chain that must not be named] at the services on the motorway that passes through the area, and realised that if I sold my first-born or my immortal soul, I could still have all that happy caffeinated joy in my soul - or, the place my soul formerly occupied.

Out here, in the rural wilds [which are not quite as remote as some I've been through], there's less scope for spontaneity of the 'oh, I really fancy an avocado, I'll just nip to the shop' kind. The nearest shop of any description is the neighbouring village store 3 miles along the road. Alas, they don't sell anything quite as exotic as avocados. They do have a decent range of stock for a small establishment, and they've recently begun selling lattes [not bad, to be honest] and making soup and rolls in the new extension. It has become a haven for hungry, and usually very wet, cyclists who pedal the route from Land's End to John 'o Groats. For such hipster needs as an avocado, I need to drive 17 miles up the road to the nearest country town of 2 000. There, the wee town with a 'big' name, rejoices in having a decent array of actual joined up shops, one of which is a killer ironmonger's that doubles as an Aladdin's cave to die for [magic, yes, but no avocados]. The supermarket, as such is a small, but well-stocked Coop, where avocado joy abounds. It's also a useful place to stock up on ever-reliable frozen goods, in case of weather, for this is a place where the weather can hit hard in winter [well, by Scottish standards]. In the tricky winter of 2018, I was stuck in the house for 4 days at one point, and at least I live by the main road in the village, not down a lane or country track. You need to be prepared. If not, there's not so much of the 'blossom and flourish' but more of the 'wither and perish'... or it could be that way if neighbours didn't look out for one another, and it's great when the local farmers take turns on their tractors to try and keep the roads clear.

Scattered over many miles, there are still some very good community networks and yet, there's isolation too. The parish covers approx. 180sq. miles. Nine  small villages spread themselves about the hills and river valleys, with farms scattered around, often up single track roads way out in the middle of what some would consider 'nowhere.' While it's easy to be noticed within a village, it's also easy to be invisible - some move out here to do precisely that, disappear. One of the highest rates of suicide in Scotland is found within the farming community. Alcoholism and substance abuse happens in the beauty of the hills and glens just as it does in the inner cities. Domestic violence exists here as it does elsewhere. Poverty too. I write referrals for the nearest food bank which, mercifully, delivers, given it's 30 miles away from the village I happen to stay in. I'm continually astonished and humbled by members of the congregation and folk from the wider community who know we support the work of the food bank, and who are so generous with their donations. Initially, when we as the local parish church started up our very micro project of accepting items for the food bank, folk gave, but often with the comment
'but no-one around here uses it.'
To which my response was
'You'd be surprised, yes, they do.'
We get the goods up to the food bank, piggy-backing onto another church over in the big' town. It's a nice wee piece of collaboration.

Austerity cutbacks have hit hard in rural areas. With fewer services anyway, those we have are constantly under threat. In the five years I've lived in this village, we've lost the small Post Office, the village shop, and the surgery. Other villages tell similar stories. It means travelling further to get basic needs met. I'm still surprised by the number of folk who live out here who don't drive. If you do have a car, you find that you're paying at least 10p per litre more than in the larger towns. If you don't have access to a car, how do you get the 21 miles up the road to the Job Centre if you have an appointment that doesn't fit with the 3 buses that run [and those 3 buses don't run through all the villages]? If you miss your appointment, that's you, punished and cut off from any help from the Social. Another knock-on effect: if you only have the local store to rely on, sure, you'll have access to food and other goods, but of course, it costs more. The small stocks of Social Housing that have been built here and there, are often filled with folk who are placed from much bigger towns and cities, and who get easily lost. Fewer services, fewer distractions or places to spend time, coupled with feeling like an 'incomer' means addictions that may have been under control, flare up.

Institutionally, with the church, programmes and ideas rolled out from head office are often met with bemusement in places such as this: what works well in towns and leafy suburbs with more 'gathered' human resources doesn't necessarily translate in places where folk are scattered. And that's fine. The church as an institution parallels those other community institutions: education and the NHS. Rural areas are the ones who often don't feel seen - like some in our communities, we feel institutionally invisible. But we're still here. We will be for a wee while longer living with the effects of, and in the shadow of the slow withdrawal from the edges and shrink to the centre that seems to be happening across the board with other institutions. Often I refer to what is happening within the church as 'ecclesiastical Darwinism'. It would be sad to see a business model church where only the wealthiest and best resourced survived. Out here, along with many other rural churches, proportionally, my folk are incredible givers. Yet, we'll never be anything other than seen as 'aid receiving' - just because of such a scattered population. It's easy for rural congregations to begin to look inward, to focus on what they don't have and what they can't do.

None of this is meant as a complaint. Rural ministry is a great calling. There are joys and there are challenges. So, what is the future for the church in rural areas? I'm not sure, but I think the 'traditional' model has to die as an institutional whole, and rise up in a new way - we are a resurrection people, and 'alleluia!' is still our song. In the meantime, I get on with leaning over farm fences and chatting to farmers, or going to the local agricultural shows, feed the occasional orphan lamb at lambing time, and try to find ways of encouraging my folk to look at what they do have, and what they can do. And, for all that they don't see it at times, it's a lot. In the kindness and support for the micro food bank project, they can and are making a difference: loving their neighbour in a most practical way. There are wee green shoots to be found in unexpected conversations in village halls. So, we all plod on, because, I think, that's the work, and the mission, and the joy. And in the isolation of the rural life, and of rural ministry, God's still walking here with us, in what locals occasionally refer to as 'God's treasure store.'
And in the midst, there's also coffee.

Sunday, 22 September 2019

Coffee table hymns and other tortures

It's been a wee bit quiet due to having been absorbed in writing another book chapter...

In the meantime, challenged by a friend yesterday who was off on a charity walk before breakfast, I wrote an 'encouraging' hymn, because why ever turn down the chance for quality doggerel?
Here below, a hymn for Eric, and indeed, anyone who needs coffee beans to get them up and at 'em and into the day.
This, to the tune 'Fill my cup, Lord.'

chorus/
Fill my cup, Lord, oh, brew it up, Lord
Come and quench this torpor in my soul
Beans of Heaven, wake me 'til I sleep no more
Fill my cup, let me sup, and make me whole☕️

v.1/
In a moment of madness, volunteering
seemed like a great thought at the time.
But in the morning hour, sleeping
Needed a jolt of caffeine or I'd die...

Fill my cup, Lord... etc☕️

v.2/
In the morning, with my brain all a'creaking
I stagger to my sacred hoard
Of beans whose magic gives such pleasure:
Oh! Sweet sound of coffee being poured

Fill my cup, Lord... etc☕️
.
Oh my brother, why not try a strong expresso
Or perhaps a café au lait?
The mar'v'lous bean that we adore so
Keeps you walking for charity all day...

Fill my cup, Lord... etc☕️

Friday, 13 September 2019

Songs with low expectations

Just some random silliness in between work and writing and wonderment...

You've heard them: the big hits expressing high hopes for love, fame, success, or maybe just a quiet time out looking across the bay as the tide rolls away. It's all very well, but sometimes, life just doesn't work out that way; sometimes the expectations and the reality are poles apart.
Do songwriters need to lower their expectations?
Seems so: there's been a twitter feed rejoicing in the hashtag #SongsWithLowerExpectations.
So I decided to play.
Here follows a few of my own, perhaps more attainable or realistic, song titles...

Let's begin with some reworked hits for hungry folk:
Just haven't et you yet
Chips don't lie
Careless Whispa
There’s A Guy Works Down The Chip Shop broke his pelvis
I want to hold your ham

or songs for specific professions:
The house that kill't me [a cautionary nod to Scottish builders]
Losing my hedge [a nod to gardeners]
The sounds of silage [a nod to farmers]
Hay, Jude [another nod to farmers]
I got ewe, babe [yet another nod to farmers]
Wouldn't it be gneiss [a nod to geologists]

or perhaps some songs for around the home:
House of the rising scum
Stairway to Devon
I gotta ceiling

and several general disappointments:
Papa's got an old used bag
Get outta my dreams and into my cart
All about that mace [a cautionary nod to stalkers?]

So, what other songs need to lower their expectations, I wonder...?