Twice blessed

Breezy reflections on Thought for the Day this morning on a gun amnesty, the quality of mercy and God’s choice to forget our transgressions.

As ever, you can listen again here at 01:23:09, or read the text below.

If you’ve got an old gun kicking about, then now is the time to do something about it. Police Scotland’s two week amnesty means that any unlicensed firearms and ammunition can be surrendered without prosecution. Although firearms offences are at a low level, the aim of the exercise is to remove the potential for guns to fall into the hands of those who might use them in the pursuit of criminal activity.  

The word ‘amnesty’ is an interesting one. Many of think about the work of Amnesty International, an organisation that has campaigned for justice for individuals for almost 60 years, but the root of the word has more to do with mercy and pardon than justice. An amnesty is an intentional choice to forget, a decision to release another from an obligation in order to win peace. It takes courage and a willingness to lay aside our desire for victory but, as Shakespeare wrote, mercy bestows blessing on those who receive it and those who give it. 

The quality of mercy is not strained.
It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven
Upon the place beneath. It is twice blessed:
It blesseth him that gives and him that takes.
(The Merchant of Venice IV, 1)

The act of forgiveness lies at the heart of the Christian message, and in the psalms we find verses that describe the mercy of God in his amnesty towards human selfishness. 

For as high as the heavens are above the earth,
so great is his love for those who fear him;
as far as the east is from the west,
so far has he removed our transgressions from us.
(Psalm 103:12)

Acts of amnesty, or mercy, bring freedom and fresh beginnings for nations and individuals. Scotland has a low gun crime rate at present, and bold initiatives such as the Violence Reduction Unit have seen a decrease in knife crime over the past decade, but we all carry anger and grudges in our hearts. Perhaps an amnesty on words, rivalry and hatred would also set us free and bring some peace to our lives.

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Something that will convince the world

Today’s thought for the day centred around the 150th anniversary of the birth of Charles Rennie Mackintosh, and encouraged us to think beyond the here and now. As ever, you can listen again here at 01:22:58 or read the script below. On a side note it was also good to meet Dr Deborah McNeill from the Glasgow Science Festival who was enthusiastic about all the events happening across the city in the next fortnight. You can check out these events by clicking the link above.

Good morning.

The artist and architect Charles Rennie Mackintosh was born 150 years ago today. There are numerous opportunities to rediscover his work in Glasgow over the summer, and the new V & A museum in Dundee will include a full restoration of his Oak Room tearoom when it opens later this year. Even if you have never visited one of Mackintosh’s buildings, you will undoubtedly be familiar with his designs from a tea-towel, mug or coaster.

Like many visionary artists, Mackintosh was not always acclaimed in his lifetime, and his work did not receive the same degree of interest at home as it did in Europe. Now, however, he is regarded as one of Scotland’s greatest creative influences. What he would make of the tea-towels is debatable.

In a lecture given in 1902, Mackintosh stated:

Art is the Flower. Life is the Green Leaf. Let every artist strive to make his flower a beautiful living thing, something that will convince the world that there may be, there are, things more precious, more beautiful – more lasting than life itself.

Legacy is something we recognise in hindsight. The green leaf of life is often misunderstood until the flower blossoms much later, and the task of the artist in convincing the world of what could be, can feel fruitless during his or her lifetime. 

Whether or not we are artistic, the idea of striving to leave something beautiful behind is an appealing one, but in the day to day reality of existence, we seldom live with such high-minded purpose. 

The apostle Paul encouraged the Christians in Philippi to choose not to grumble or argue, but to shine like stars in the sky. Whatever job we do, whatever struggles we face, however dark the world appears today, perhaps we need to encourage one another to keep going, shining like stars and convincing the world that there are things more precious, more beautiful and more lasting than life itself.

Who Am I/TransFormed

I was invited to contribute a spoken word piece at the Catalyst conference at Newton Mearns Baptist Church today.  We were discussing the theology of and pastoral response to issues of gender. As I drove to the conference, a heated discussion was taking place on the Today programme, and I was struck by how quickly our views on this issue become polarised. Binary, if you will. Surely it’s more interesting to turn the question around and answer it a different way…

Here’s the piece I wrote. It draws on Romans 12 and asks the question, Who Am I? I’m happy for it to be used or quoted, so long as it’s used as written, or that chunks are used in their entirety. As ever, all views are my own, and questions are provoked rather than answers given.

Who am I?

One or

Other

Loved or

Lover

Male or

Female 

Gay or

Straight

He or

She

Transitioning

Positioning myself against the crowd

To whisper aloud, ‘Who am I?’

Bi 

Binary

Non-binary

Trans 

Formed

Transformed

…wait

Who am I?

Loved or lover

Good or bad

Designed, refined, broken, mended

Knit together, formed, intended for…what?

To live forgiven 

Driven 

To seek and save

as you have done

A living sacrifice

Wriggling, refusing, stubborn, confusing

Sacrifice of a life laid down

To say that you alone are holy 

but I am wholly yours 

Offered to you in worship

To do as you would please

Conformed not to this world and all its talk of ‘me’s’

For who I am

in you, I AM, is 

An offering

Holy and pleasing to you

Transformed 

Made new

In mind and heart and soul and body

Bound to you

And to your will – good, pleasing and perfect will 

Tested and approved

Heart aligned and spirit moved

To seek and save the lost.

So, who am I

To scorn and hate

To miss the point

Fall out of joint

Through lack of love

And sense of place,

To win the race

But miss the face

Of God that weeps and keeps and waits?

Who am I but yours alone

And so I fall before that throne

And say I offer who I am 

To be transformed

Reformed

Re-assigned

Aligned with your purpose.

For who I am is found in you.

And one or

Other

Loved or

Lover

Male or

Female 

Gay or

Straight

He or

She

Transitioning

Positioning themselves against the crowd

To whisper aloud, ‘Who am I?’

Can be transformed within the One Who Is.

(c) Fiona Stewart/Foolproof Creative Arts 2018

On taxes, nose hair and love

Intergenerational strife is not new, and while social policy change is important, Jesus models a different way of being. Life as a follower of the One who is described as the Alpha and the Omega, beginning and end, is radically counter-cultural, as illustrated in John 13. Thought for the Day this morning followed the release of the New Generational Contract proposed this week by The Resolution Society.  As ever, you can listen again here by scrolling forward to 01:23:00 or simply read it below. Thanks are due to my good friend, Ali Laing, whose quote is used (and exaggerated somewhat!):

Good morning.

I was in a meeting yesterday with a friend who has just had a significant birthday.  “I’ve never been more interested about my hair cuts than I am now I’ve turned 40,” was his main complaint, “And don’t get me started on my nose hair.”

Each generation has its own troubles.

A report released this week by the Resolution Society proposes reforms to help young adults facing stagnant wage levels and the housing crisis. Meanwhile, older people in our society are dealing with care bills, NHS waiting lists and social isolation and the Gen X’ers in the middle are time-poor and emotionally and financially stretched by their responsibilities.

Each generation has its own troubles

Proposals for the ‘New Generational Contract’ include giving a one-off payment to help get under-25s on the housing ladder, introducing a new property tax to target more affluent homeowners and taxing earnings for those over state pension age. Of course, social policy should always be open to review, but there’s perhaps a deeper issue at work here.

Human beings exist as part of families and communities. And families and communities help one another out. Tax and tax reform is part of how society makes decisions, but there is also a deep societal need to reconnect old and young, to create community where there is none, to share our resources and learn to love our neighbour a bit better. Across the generations we need to work together.

During the meal known as The Last Supper Jesus reminded his disciples that following him meant living radically:

‘A new command I give you: love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another.  By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.’

Tax breaks are practical to redress any economic imbalance, but practical love for other people will also bring radical change to a world that can be a lonely and anxious place for people of any age.

Actors on the Global Stage

Culture matters. It matters because though cultural engagement we live out our beliefs and values, but it also matters because it’s a means by which people connect, get to know one another and become friends.  This morning’s Thought for the Day offers some reflection on the impact cultural projects have on how we view our enemies. As ever you can listen again here at 01:22:48 or you can just read the text below.

Good morning.

As the diplomatic row between Russia and the UK becomes increasingly tense, we’ve heard this weekend that, in addition to expelling British diplomats, the Russian government is to close down British Council operations there.

Many of us have a sketchy understanding of what the British Council does. An organisation to promote cultural relations sounds rather archaic, a throwback to the days of empire, until you stop and think about the power of the arts.

In its broadest sense, culture is how we understand and shape the world. At a time of huge global tension, it’s tempting to put all our hope in politics and diplomacy. And yet across the world cultural projects foster social and political change. We’ve seen ideological and geographical borders crossed in experiments like The West Eastern Divan Orchestra which brings young Israeli and Arab musicians together. One musician has called it a ‘human laboratory that can express to the whole world how to cope with each other.’

Closer to home, Divided City, a play about sectarianism in Glasgow, has made a huge impact – going from the stage to the classroom with workshops encouraging pupils to put themselves in someone else’s shoes.

Working on an artistic project with people who are different moves us beyond our initial prejudice, reminding us of our shared humanity. Whatever the content of the creative piece, the act of creating or experiencing something together reinforces our sense of identity as image-bearers of a creative God. It’s a lot harder to hate someone when you’ve shared a stage or rehearsal room with them.

Getting world leaders together to perform a play probably won’t bring about world peace, but withdrawing joint creativity limits our understanding of one another.

Jesus taught his disciples to love their enemies and pray for those who persecute them. That’s hard when there is opportunity to know people who are different, but in times of tension when those opportunities are no longer available, it is all the more necessary.

Pursuing peace by making friends with – or at least trying to understand – people who are different is not just for the playground – its ripples are felt much further and wider.

 

 

 

Stale-mates and ceasefires

Geri's Game (1997)Thought for the Day this morning was about the difference between ceasing fire and making peace. As usual, you can listen again here at 1:21:21 or you can read the words below.

There’s a short film called Geri’s Game which tells the story of an elderly man playing chess against himself in a park. The first version of Geri outsmarts the second by faking a heart attack, spinning the board round, and playing his opponent’s move, thereby winning a set of dentures from himself. It’s silly, but it’s clever in its portrayal of how conflict is associated with competition, and deviousness. And the metaphor of the stalemate is clear – Geri only wins because the other Geri loses.

On Saturday, the UN security council unanimously voted for a 30-day ceasefire in the besieged eastern Ghouta district of Damascus. But the planned safe passage of humanitarian aid and medical supplies did not occur, as within hours it was apparent that no ceasefire was going to happen. Meanwhile, news that North Korea has offered to begin peace talks with its southern neighbour has been greeted with cynicism by some who suggest that the North is simply trying to drive a wedge between South Korea and the USA. The Korean peninsula has been living in an uneasy state of ceasefire since 1953.

Ceasing fire is not making peace. Too often, ceasing fire is simply taking a break before resuming conflict, or worse still, provoking the opposing side to expose its weakness in order to exploit it.

Jesus said, “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God”.

To make peace requires enemies to set aside their desire to win, in order to be reconciled. Seeking peace means seeking justice, but also showing mercy. Developing the characteristics of God, loving those who will not obviously love us back.

Pope Francis has described a mediator as “one who retains nothing for himself but rather spends himself generously until he is consumed, knowing that the only gain is peace.”

And that very gain reflects the heart of the God of love reminding us that, in global conflict as in personal relationships, it takes courage and determination to spend yourself generously in order to gain peace.

Flatpacks, meatballs and seeking God’s kingdom

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I’ve blogged about Minimal February before, but was reminded of my bid to declutter when I heard that the founder of IKEA, Ingvar Kamprad, had died over the weekend. His store has contributed to a good chunk of the stuff I’ve accumulated, but I’ve also appreciated his eye for design and imaginative storage solutions! I’m planning to declutter again this February. If you want to join in, just get in touch. Meanwhile, you can listen again to my Thought for the Day here at 01:22:02 or you can read it below.

Good morning.

Three years ago, I took part in the Minimalism Game with some friends. Every day in February we decluttered. One item on the 1st, two on the second, and so on until by the end of the month we’d removed 406 things from our homes and our lives. It was sobering to realise how much unnecessary stuff we had all accumulated.  And I’m planning to do it again this year.

The founder of IKEA, Ingvar Kamprad, who has died aged 91, had a simple philosophy. According to the company’s website, he ‘wanted to create a better everyday life for the many people’. If you’ve spent hours constructing flat-pack furniture with only a stick man drawing and an allen key for company,  you may not agree, but there’s no doubt that Swedish design, affordable basics and self-assembly goods have revolutionised how we live.

Kamprad began his business aged 17 when his father gave him a small amount of money as a reward for doing well at school in spite of his dyslexia. Whatever you make of his bookcases and his meatballs, it’s highly likely that Scandinavian design principles have impacted the places you live and work over the years.

How we think about material objects has a huge bearing on our lives. Jesus makes a clear link between worrying about what we wear and what we eat, and having the freedom to enjoy the life that God gives us. He tells his followers not to run after the things they think they want, but to seek the kingdom of God, and trust in his provision.

Many of us live in an anxious tension between wanting more stuff, and feeling overwhelmed by all the possessions we no longer need, so the idea that each day has enough trouble of its own rings true. How can we be free of this trouble? Seek God’s kingdom, says Jesus.

That doesn’t meant that we shouldn’t care how we dress or what our homes look like, but it means living with consideration for others and the planet. Thriftiness, sharing what we have, freeing ourselves from clutter and reducing our consumption are all means of creating a better everyday life. Seeking something more than stuff frees us from the worry that ensnares our hearts and robs our peace.

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Who cares if the fish never swam?

I love the city where I live, but aspects of it make me angry. Last weekend someone was stabbed on my street, addiction to alcohol, drugs and gambling is rife and poor housing is a cause of misery for many. So, when it comes to Christmas-time, there’s a temptation to get carried away with all the trappings and put off thinking about the darker stuff until January. But to do so, denies the power of Christmas. This morning’s thought started with the work of documentary photographer, Kirsty Mackay. You can listen again here, at 01:23:00 or scroll down to read for yourself:

Good morning.

Documentary photographer Kirsty Mackay produces portraits that challenge and provoke thought. Her latest project, The Fish That Never Swam, which this week won a major award, examines the so-called Glasgow Effect, the term used to describe the poor health and low life expectancy that prevail in the city. Her portraits are starkly observed glimpses into the lives of her subjects, and for me, they communicate a dignity and beauty that speaks of how she views the people of her native city.

At this time of year every Christmas advert, song and movie places an unrealistic expectation of cosy perfection, family harmony and fun that few of us can ever hope to experience. For many, the Christmas Effect is one of increased debt, family fights and the gnawing feeling that other people are having a much better time that we are. And for some, Christmas brings the painful recollection of loved ones no longer present, and any sense of disconnection or isolation can feel heightened.

In denying the reality of how life really is, we deny the power of the first Christmas. The real beauty of Christmas was the miracle of incarnation and identification. God chose to put aside the glory of heaven and be born in poverty at a time of political upheaval to a family who would shortly become refugees. Not the best start in life, but a promise of hope placed in a manger in a back shed, and a tangible sign of God’s love for the world.

What artists like Kirsty Mackay do is draw our attention to the reality of life on our own doorsteps, whilst at the same time helping us see the beauty in our fellow human beings. What Jesus did at Christmas, was to demonstrate the love of God for anyone who recognises their need for hope and light in times of despair and darkness.

Rather than ignore the reality of poverty, injustice and pain this Christmas, we can choose to look for the beauty and dignity of our fellow human beings. Perhaps that’s simply smiling at someone in the supermarket queue, or it’s making space for an extra person at our table. Small actions that push back the darkness and make space for hope.

 

Saints and Sporting Heroes

Happy St Andrew’s Day! This morning’s Thought for the Day was on the topic of looking after those who come after us. Andrew did it, Andy does it, why don’t we all do it? Here’s the full text or,  as usual, you can listen again here at around 7.20am.

Good morning.

St Andrew’s Day offers us the chance to stop and take stock of who we are as a nation. We all know that as Scots we have both good and bad national characteristics. We’re loyal, brave and independently minded, but we can also be thrawn, dour and quick to put down anyone who’s getting too big for their boots. We don’t always cheer each other on, and we’re often surprised when a Scot does well. That’s why it’s great to hear that Sir Andy Murray, whose outwardly dour manner countered by emotional honesty has won over the nation, is investing in the talent of the next generation. Murray, a Grand Slam-winning Olympian, has spoken about how he wants to help younger sportsmen and women negotiate the pressures of the sporting life and achieve their potential. He is personally mentoring younger athletes, and plans to leverage his success to cheer on those who come after him.

Another famous Andrew, our patron saint, was also known for his encouragement of others. We first encounter him going about his business as a fisherman in Galilee. When he saw Jesus, and recognised that he was someone special, he decided to follow him. John’s gospel tells us that] the next thing he did was to go and find his brother, Simon, and tell him that he had found the Messiah, the saviour promised by God. St Andrew was the living embodiment of a man who, having discovered the answer to his spiritual searching, wanted to share what he had found. He didn’t want Simon to miss out on what was on offer.

It’s a selfless act, and leaves me feeling quite challenged about how I pass on what I’ve learned to other people. Too often our increasingly individualistic society encourages us to live for ourselves and forget about helping others. Perhaps our national saint and our national sporting hero have something in common other than a shared name. We all have gifts, talents, wisdom and knowledge that we can pass on. The challenging part is whether we’re prepared to put ourselves out in order to see others succeed, even if it means we get less glory ourselves. Selfless living. Wouldn’t that be a great national characteristic to be known for?

Remember, remember…

Glorious views on the Clyde this morning – all was peace and tranquillity as the skyline glowed into life. Switch on the news, however, and the world feels a lot less peaceful, so a bit of escapist TV is what we hanker for…isn’t it? Full thought below, or you can listen again here at  1:23:09.


Good morning.

In a world of violent news, religious strife and allegations of inappropriate conduct, it’s always a temptation to escape into a world of autumnal cosiness with some catch-up TV. That was the thought in my head last week when I tuned into Gunpowder, a big budget historical dramatisation of the events of 1605 when Guy Fawkes, Robert Catesby and others plotted to blow up the House of Lords. Within the first few minutes, I was drawn into the suspense of a time when religious strife and power struggles led to the brutal persecution of the minority Catholic faith. As events unfolded, the level of brutality shown in the production was both stomach-churning and shocking. So much for escapism.

 

If you’ve been watching this series, you may also have found yourself on the one hand enjoying the intrigue and exploration of a fascinating period of history, and on the other repulsed by the graphic nature of the violence shown. I chose to continue watching, although I thought carefully about it, and the images of torture from the first episode, together with the sounds of the baying crowd, stayed in my mind after the credits rolled.

 

I was still mulling this over the next day when I was reading the account of the crucifixion. The images and sounds of the escapist TV I had watched the night before added a fresh understanding, and I found myself meditating on the violence and the unfairness of the crucifixion. For Christians, the death of Jesus symbolises God’s love, the sacrifice of his son and the atonement for sin. It is pivotal to what I believe, but sometimes I forget what it was really like. It’s easy to turn off the TV when we encounter something unpleasant, but sometimes well-told fiction that makes us uncomfortable helps us make sense of reality.

 

The reality is that pain, violence and strife is something we all experience, either personally or as we engage with difficult news around us. Choosing to live with kindness and compassion, choosing to challenge injustice and champion truth, choosing love over violence is not an escape from brutal reality but rather a response that gives hope a space to flourish.