July 31, 2009

Summer 09 112From Inverness, we drove to Ardnamurchan (“the point of the great ocean”), the end of the road, literally, for it is the most westerly point on the British mainland.  We were staying in a cottage owned by a friend of ours, Ali.  It is remote, peaceful and overwhelmingly beautiful.  Sheep litter the landscape and the roads, which are all single-track.  The weather is mixed.  When it is wet, it is very, very wet; but when the sun shines “the heavens declare the glory of God.” 

Immediately on arrival we headed down the road to the beach, looking out onto Muck and Rum, which rise from the sea like a mirage.  On a clear day, I’m told, Skye is visible.  When we get back to the cottage we unpacked and then set up the game of Risk.  The kids were desperate for a good, long, session.  The plan was to set it up on a table and play over the course of a few days.  We finished on Tuesday night—Jordan won. 

Sunday.  We head down to Kilchoan, to church.  I have a feeling that David Easton, a retired minister in our Presbytery, said he would be doing pulpit supply this week.  As we drive into the village I spot his wife, Edith, hobbling up the hill—she’s wearing the wrong shoes and they are giving her blisters so she’s heading home to change them.  She’s delighted to see us and tells us we will double the numbers.  But she’s wrong.  There are quite a number of visitors augmenting the small, indigenous congregation.  They include a couple we are acquainted with from Strathaven.  All in all there are about 30 at the service.

David’s prayers of intercession take us to Afghanistan and to our troops out there.  There seemed to be something quite profound about us sitting safely in a far corner of Scotland, with the Atlantic lapping the rocks just across the road, and the tops of the green hills peeking through the church windows, bringing to mind our service men and women in that arid, land-locked, dangerous country.  I wonder where else in Scotland, outside the churches, do non-military people give our forces more than just a passing thought.  And it turns out that there is a visitor in the church who is an aid worker in Afghanistan. 

After the service I walk with the kids down to the pier to check out the times for the ferry to Mull.  We want to visit our friend, Karen, in Tobermory (Amy calls it Toblemory) later in the week.  Kim has been invited back to the manse and we join her there. 

I brought a pile of books to read, but as is often the case, I notice one of Ali’s which I had heard about “Gilead” by Marilynne Robinson.  It’s about an elderly minister, John Ames, who knows his time is running out.  His first wife died in child-birth and most of his life he has lived on his own, eating whatever supper the ladies of the congregation bring him.  But late in life he has married again and has a seven year old son, and because he doesn’t expect to live long enough to tell the boy everything he wants to tell him, he starts writing.  We get the story of his father and grandfather, and the town, Gilead.  It’s a rather meditative, tranquil story.  What astonishes me is how the author has gotten into the head of a preacher.  How does she manage to see the world from a preacher’s point of view? 

At one point Ames has heard some music that makes him waltz around his study.  Because he has a weak heart he thinks about what would happen if he keeled over and died.  He thinks about what books he liked to be clutching when people find him.  That’s exactly the kind of thought I would have. 

Tuesday: Over the past few days we’ve been active when the weather permits.  We’ve been to Sanna Bay, tip-toeing through the jelly fish; and we’ve walked a couple of crooked miles to the light-house.  For all its remoteness, Ardnamuchan is busier than I thought it would be.  There are certain people who return year after year; we might become such people. 

Yesterday, after a torrential down-pour in the morning, the sky cleared and the sun came out.  So we headed down to the beach, with buckets and spades and nets in hand.  The kids found a pond full of tadpoles, some of which were already on the road to becoming frogs.  There was also some kind of “scorpion” which had the audacity to nip Amy when she picked it up. 

The sand is so clean, and the sea so blue, that you would believe you were on a Mediterranean shore.  Jordan and I built a sand castle on top of a mound (Edinburgh-by-the-sea?), surrounded by moat and wall, incorporating a tunnel.  If we get the weather again we’ll try something even more ambitious.  I was seriously tempted to go for a swim and waded in up to my waist, but I fear I just didn’t have the nerve to plunge right in.   The water was so clear you would think it fresh.

our holiday cottage

our holiday cottage


We were on holiday last week.  I got time to jot down some reflections which I’m going to post over the next few days. 

We began in Inverness to spend some time with Kim’s family.  Rather than spread ourselves out among them we booked two nights in a Travelodge, and that worked out just fine.  Every time I visit Inverness (every couple of years) it seems to have grown.  Inverness lay dormant for years, beautifully quaint, welcoming of loved ones, suspicious of strangers.  In short, Highland.  I was about to compare her to a teenager who has had a sudden growth spurt, but that wouldn’t be right.  This is an ancient place.  She’s more like a rare, exotic plant that only bursts into life every century, and this is her moment. 

It is surrounded by business parks and retail centres; the city centre is bustling with shoppers and tourists.  And it’s clean.  Of course, the modern world brings its problems—the traffic was horrendous.   But perhaps for the first time—and I’ve been coming up here regularly for twenty years—I felt I could live here.  One simple indicator that Inverness is no longer remote: the price of petrol was just the same as it is in the central belt!

It can also boast some of the most dynamic, thoughtful ministries in the country.  From an evangelical view in this one city there is Duncan MacPherson at Hilton doing very imaginative emerging church stuff; Andrew McGowan in the city centre also planning to use the position and strength of the East Church creatively; Alistair Malcolm at the Inches situated in a retail park; Peter Humphris in a new housing development at Kinmylies. 

At the other end of the theological spectrum there is Peter Nimmo in the Old Parish, who has organised some interesting speakers over the summer months according to the notice board; and smack-bang in the middle, Peter Donald at Crown, adjacent to the college.  And those are just the parish churches.  Talk about spoiled for choice. 

While Kim took the kids to see “Ice Age 3” I made my usual pilgrimage to Leeky’s second hand book shop.  I’ve been coming here regularly for the best part of two decades so I was under no illusion that I might find something to buy.  In the age of Amazon and charity shops Leakey’s defiantly refuses to part with a book for anything less than what the most desperate collector might be willing to pay.  I did mention this once, years ago, but to no avail.  So I went only to look.

For those of you who don’t know Leakey’s it is housed in an old Free Church, on Church Street, next to the still active Old Parish.  Atmospherically it is the antiquarian book-lover’s dream—dry and musty.  Books are divided into the usual sections, but within their sections there is no rhyme or reason why the books are placed the way they are (mind you, it is not as muddled as Voltaire and Roussau in Glasgow’s Otago Street).  I found myself reuniting two volumes of the same series which had been cruelly separated (Hoskyns on John’s Gospel–£17 for both volumes). 

There are very few modern paper-backs in the Theology section.  Maybe the locals get in quickly.  What I saw was mostly pre-war.  First to catch my eye was a seven volume set of Richard Sibbes’ complete works (Victorian edition) £125.  It was nice just to handle it.  It was also interesting to look at the Hoskyns volumes.  You must understand that Hoskyns wrote in the 1920s and is always cited by the best modern commentators on John.  I’d like to have them but, honestly, they’d only be for show.  It would be the same with other commentators like Taylor on Mark and Temple on John (several copies of both on the shelves). 

There were some theological works by old-style liberals, which even modern liberals don’t read any more.  Someone I’d never heard of before was a Scot, John Oman, who was hailed on the dust-jacket as one of the world’s leading theologians.  When theology is based on one’s own understanding of the world, and not scripture, it’s not surprising that one quickly becomes dated and irrelevant. 

Then there were the missionary adventure stories, the stuff of Sunday School Prize-givings in the days of the empire, stacks of them.  Who buys these?  I would if they were only 50p. 

Again, why clutter your shelves with books with titles such as “Facing the modern crisis”, “The challenge to the church today” from the 1960s and earlier?  (Just the titles of such books teach us that there is nothing new under the sun.)

It’s not that I want books for nothing (actually all donations gratefully received); but it does pain me to see certain books on the shelves, unread, neglected.  If I see a title that intrigues me I’m willing to risk a couple of quid on it; but no more than that.  I’m certainly not willing to fork out £17 for two well-thumbed, heavily marked commentaries, even if they are by Sir John Hoskyns. 

Leakey’s one saving grace is the coffee shop up stairs.  Delicious coffee served with a smile!

Krishna encounta

July 31, 2009

I was heading down Buchanan Street recently when I was stopped by a woman who was obviously a Krisha devotee.  Normally, I wouldn’t stop.  But I was on holiday so was in no rush.  She asked me for money; I refused, but asked her how she became involved with ISKCON. 

It turns out that she is Hungarian, grew up during the Communist years, but always had a spiritual hunger.  When Communism fell and religious freedom was allowed, she was taken to a Krishna meeting by some friends.  She fell in love with the whole idea, and subsequently became a nun. 

A couple of weeks previously I had been preaching from Isa.44, where the prophet lampoons those who make idols.  Isaiah is pointing out how ridiculous it is to place your trust in a lump of wood, half of which goes in the fire, the rest of which you carve into an idol to which you cry out “Save me.”  I was saying that whenever we put our trust in anything other than the True and Living God we are in effect worshipping our own man-made idols and depriving God of the honour and trust he alone is due.

So I was curious to find out what this modern idol-worshipper had to say.  I told her what the Bible says about idol worship, that since God is invisible, any image is a lie, and reduces God.  She was having none of it, and had been well taught in her theology.

She said that the idol is not the god; but it is something special, for the spirit of the god resides in the idol.  Hence they call the idol a “deity”.  The idol allows her to express her love for her god in tangible ways—giving food to it, decorating it.  This is how her god wants to be worshipped.  She gave instances of how when temples have burned down the deity, miraculously, was unharmed.  To Moslems and Christians her religion makes concessions, that if idol-worship proves a snare, preventing us from progressing from the deity to the god itself, then we are better without the image. 

Isaiah’s arguments didn’t work on this nun.  She had an answer for each point I made against idol-worship. 

In the end it boils down to this: the Bible is God’s Word.  Through the Bible God tells us not just that he is to be worshipped but how he is to be worshipped; hence the detailed instructions about building the tabernacle.  One very clear instruction is that the Living God absolutely forbids the making of images of him.  That is what is revealed to us. 

There are all sorts of good arguments why we should ignore this commandment.  We are visual creatures and a visible god would be so helpful.  It would give us something to focus on, something to look at when we are praying.  We are all different, and therefore we could express our different ideas about god with our different images—all of which would, in their own way, be true, though none, on its own, the complete truth.

The bottom line, however, is this: the God who reveals himself through the Bible does not want to be worshipped this way and we need to accommodate ourselves to that commandment.