Christ the Master Carpenter of Nazareth

A Table from the GRoW workshop

A Table from the GRoW workshop

At the Grassmarket Centre we have a number of craft activities that provide training and skills that lead to greater self-esteem and work opportunities for our members. It is wonderful and inspiring to see people whose lives have been at rock-bottom finding a new sense of worth and accomplishment in our various workshops. I am convinced that craftsmanship is a wonderful thing and that whatever task people are engaged in it is really important to instil a sense of pride in the work we do. I have also come to see that most people really do want to contribute to society and do some useful work, they do not want simply to be warehoused and left watching daytime TV all day. I like to think that Jesus was apprenticed at his earthly father’s workbench in his early years and that good work is one of the keys to recovering our human identity. We were put in the garden to tend it and serve it, according to Genesis 2:15. Work is our natural state.

Prayer: Help us, good Lord, to cherish our work and to value whatever task we have been given. Help us also to overcome our tendency to imagine that those without work chose to live that way. Give us generous hearts and the imagination and courage to work towards a more inclusive and fair society that values good work and recognises that faith without it is barren. Amen.


The Call to Humility


In our desire to share the word of God and the message of the Gospel, it is easy to imagine that we have something that others need. My experience of working amongst some of our most vulnerable citizens over many years is that we do not take Christ anywhere, rather we find Him already amongst the lost and the alone. Far from being the one to share the message, I have often found myself being on the receiving end of a new insight and a deeper understanding of the compassion of Christ when I have been alongside a person in despair. The Christ I thought I knew is always one step ahead and always leading me on to new insights and a deeper grasp of his meaning and message and I realise how little I have understood Him.

Prayer: Lord Jesus Christ, if I have ever thought that others might be the beneficiary of my insight, my knowledge and my faith, give me the humility to see that I have so much still to learn, so much growing still to do and that, sometimes, we encounter you in the most unlikely people and circumstances. Amen

Healing Personhood


This is a stained glass window that remembers Jane Haining, a teacher from Glasgow who worked in a girls’ school in Budapest during World War II. She was arrested and executed by the Nazis for sheltering Jewish children.

It is very tempting when we encounter someone with a problem immediately to imagine that with our resources and expertise and even our faith, we can find a solution to their problem. But this is not the way that Jesus went about his ministry. When Jesus visits the town of Jericho (Mark 10: 46 – 52), everyone is slightly embarrassed by the fuss Bartimaeus makes. Here is a blind beggar causing a scene and lowering the tone of the neighbourhood. Sometimes we don’t want important visitors to see the dark underbelly of our community, we want people to see our place at its best. So everyone tells Bartimaeus to be quiet. However, Jesus hears him and calls him over. But Jesus does not immediately offer to find a solution to Bartimaeus’s problem, instead he asks him, “Bartimaeus, what do you want me to do for you?” Then, when the healing takes place, Jesus does not take any credit himself. Instead, he says, “Your faith has made you well”. In other words, Bartimaeus’s rediscovery of self after being heard and acknowledged as a human being, not just a problem, is what has healed him.

Prayer: Lord Jesus Christ, in our eagerness to help fix the problems of other people’s lives, help us to ensure that we see the person before we see the problem and that we do not take credit for things accomplished by your Holy Spirit. Amen.

Heart and Soul

The Church’s story has always been one of faith and action, worship and work, heart and soul. But, so often, the church can end up being the soul of a community and not its heart. Offering worship and the message of the Gospel, being the soul of the community is one part of what we do, but sometimes we struggle to find ways in which to be the heart except amongst those who are part of the inner circle of the church community. In the past, the church pioneered education, establishing a school in every parish in Scotland. The church also pioneered, poor relief, social care and in some places even foreshadowed the establishment of the National Health Service. For every generation there is a great work for the church to address the challenge of need and find prophetic, supportive and imaginative ways to support “the least of these” in the light of Christ’s call to care as well as to evangelise. As many have said, the church exists chiefly for those who are outside it.

Prayer: God grant us the imagination and the opportunity to be both the heart and the soul of our communities. Help us to trust in the power of the risen Christ that your presence speaks to every generation and if we trust in you we will find the great work you have called us to. Amen

The Grace of Hospitality


The Grassmarket Community Project has been developing for 11 years now. It began long before that when more than 30 years ago, two ladies from the Greyfriars congregation started to offer food and friendship from the Greyfriars Kirkhouse to people with experience of homelessness. Hospitality is a word that is much misunderstood in today’s society. When we talk of the hospitality industry we tend to think of hotels and holiday resorts, cafes and restaurants. But hospitality is an ancient theological term. Offering a welcome to a stranger is understood as a source of blessing. Read about Abraham offering a welcome to three strangers in Genesis 18. Here we learn that his wife, who had been barren, is blessed with a child, Isaac, as a result of their kindness to strangers. When we offer help to one in need, it turns out that the person in need is not the only beneficiary. That’s been the experience of the many hundreds of people who have volunteered at the Grassmarket Centre over the years. Offering a welcome to a stranger is about anticipating gifts. And sometimes it is the empty handed stranger who turns out to be the bearer of the most priceless gifts.

Prayer: As we offer hospitality, Living Christ, make us not only generous but also open hearted to see that, though we think we know you, there are always new things to learn about the height, and depth and breadth of your infinite love and that you bless us and teach us when we are hospitable and anticipate gifts from the strangers we meet. Amen

How I will Vote in the Referendum today and why!

It is all so turbulent. Many people are nervous and sleepless at the moment, but there are no guns and bullets, only two eggs so far, which by global standards is not half bad. I swing from yes to no as I weigh things up.

But I have woken today as a No voter. There is so much we need to change. Remove Trident/ build social justice/ make peace/ spread tolerance – but I don’t think we achieve that by independence and walking away from the thing we have responsibility for creating with all its achievements but manifest flaws. We are taking the lead in reshaping it and tomorrow is the day we need to find the grace and generosity to live by the “better angels of our nature”.

The risks are huge and there are so many unknowns. What concerns me is the fact that so many people in politics misjudged this so very badly.

In the 19th century William Gladstone had two attempts at a Home Rule Bill for Ireland knocked back by a complacent and, some might argue, arrogant political establishment. It has been persuasively argued that the whole island of Ireland might still be a part of the UK if we had been able to have a grown up and generous conversation about our constitutional arrangements at that time. Think of all the lives that were lost in the troubles and all the poverty that Ireland had to endure because they could not get the establishment to take their aspirations seriously?

We are now in a situation where we could end up with an independent country with all the attendant uncertainty all because “Devo-Max” was ruled out because people thought that this was a flash in the pan. I think there is an appetite for constitutional reform but not a sweeping mandate for complete separation. (Not even Alex Salmond wants that – he wants to keep the pound, keep the Queen and keep the social union – and a lot else besides!)

The demands for political reform, the extension of democracy and social justice for those marginalised by the concentration of power wealth and opportunity that is so focussed on the southeast runs right through the UK. The old order needs to change and I believe that at its best, the “yes” campaign has articulated the need for reform and a new approach to politics. The establishment of the Scottish Parliament was at best half-hearted and completely overlooked the issues of the “West Lothian question” and the aspirations and needs of the rest of the UK.

Perhaps the pledges made recently will be fulfilled if we have a “no” vote. But they are also likely to be savaged and ridiculed by the likes of John Redwood. There are people who’d want to put the genie back in the bottle. Equally, it may be that a “yes” vote will lead us to negotiating some kind of reform throughout the UK, though my fear is that it will mean separation which I have never wanted. It simply doesn’t feel right to walk away from a Union we Scots have been so instrumental in shaping. You don’t mend things by walking away and leaving it to others to sort out.

So, the challenge is to lead on the changes that we all need and stay together. We Scots (and by that I mean all the people who live here regardless of ethnicity or origin) need to be so mature and grown up to do that and we need to have the courage to overcome any sense of inferiority, bitterness and chip on the shoulder resentment. We need people to believe in a better country.

Whichever way it goes, don’t give up on this great country and on our brothers and sisters throughout the UK and the world and never for a moment doubt the bonds we share that run so very deep.

There, I have said it now! That is how I feel. Later today – God willing – our whole family will go together to cast our votes and return home for a now rare but special family meal. As Mavis Staples said “family is the strongest thing in the world” and whatever happens – love will prevail.

Awakening the “God – Spot” – A Sermon from Greyfriars, Edinburgh

Sunday 13th July 2014
Fifth Sunday after Pentecost
Awakening the “God – spot”
Genesis 25: 19 – 34; Matthew 13: 1 – 23

Jesus uses stories, or parables, to illustrate his message. In the Parable of the Sower (Matthew 13: 1 – 23), he likens people’s response to his message to the soil in which seeds are cast. Seeds that are sown in fertile ground flourish whilst the seed sown on stony ground or amongst thorns will not. He goes on to quote the prophecy of Isaiah, “You will indeed listen but never understand, and you will indeed look and never perceive. For this people’s heart has grown dull and their ears hard of hearing and they have shut their eyes” But the prophet concludes with these words, “And I would heal them”. Jesus is saying that some people are receptive and some are not – at least not immediately. But I am intrigued that he should quote the promise that unreceptiveness can be healed. In other words, he is suggesting that he can soften stony hearts and help people to clear away the thorns and scrub that makes it hard for his message to take root.
I wonder if you have ever had your IQ tested. IQ stands for Intelligence Quotient, it is an intelligence test, in other words. Well, I had mine tested once and I am not prepared to share the results with you! I wonder, however, if you have ever heard of EQ or SQ testing? Probably not, but they stand for emotional intelligence and spiritual intelligence.
Neuro–science, that is the study of the human brain, is discovering that there are certain parts of our brains that appear to light up and become active when we ask questions about meaning or values, about, that is, emotion and spirit. In other words, when people have a conversation about spiritual things, certain parts of the brain become active. Some people have called this the “god-spot” in the human brain. It is not evidence about the existence of God. And, it is also clear that some people have a more active “god-spot” than others. The brain activity can be quite marked in some people but negligible in others.
Maybe this is a modern way of expressing what Jesus had in mind when he told his Parable of the Sower. Some people seem to “get it”, whilst others don’t. Some people are more neurologically programmed to have a spiritual or a values based conversation than others. Some of us are stony ground and others are fertile soil. Some of us listen with our hearts and others just cannot feel in the same way.
But there is this tantalizing tag on the end of Isaiah’s words, “And I would heal them”. Isaiah, whom Jesus quotes, says that, “this people’s heart has grown dull and their ears are hard of hearing and they have shut their eyes so that they might not look and listen with their ears and understand with their heart and turn – and I would heal them”.
Is it possible to awaken that inner organ that part of the brain that some call the “God-spot”; is it possible to heal it, to stimulate it and make it grow and develop?
T S Eliot wrote in his famous poem, the Four Quartets, “The end of all our exploring will be to find ourselves where we began and know the place for the first time”. I believe that sometimes it can take almost a lifetime, a long journey through the “ache of life” finally to be able to see with the heart and know what we have always known, but at a much deeper level. Sometimes it can take a great deal of experience to discover, in the words of the great American writer, Annie Dillard that, “I had been my whole life a bell and never knew it until at that moment I was lifted and struck”. (Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, Picador – 1974). It can take a lot of patient healing, mending and nurturing to get those neurological connections finally sparking and flaring into life.
Some people, it has to be said, have no difficulty at all with religious language or ideas. They seem get it straight away. Some people take religious statements quite literally whilst others struggle to make sense of them. The world is made up of all sorts of people, every one of us is unique. For many of us, it is the experience of life, the expense of love, the coming to terms with loss and pain and all the agonies as well as joys of life’s experience that finally awakens that inner organ of the spirit in us. It was the great composer Edward Elgar who said of Joan Sutherland, the opera singer, that she would be a great singer one day, when someone broke her heart.
We may be dull, hard of hearing and seemingly immune to the “still small voice” of the Divine calling out to us across the vastness of time and space. But it is just possible that we discover the person of God to be in us and through us, nearer to us than breathing and closer than our very pulse, so that when suddenly that inner organ or “god spot” awakens, it can come as a shock, like electricity. The place we thought we had known we come to know in a wholly different and deeper light. Equally, the encounter or awakening to the Divine might be through another person, a stranger, even, who becomes the Christ to us by their kindness, their understanding or their compassion and something is awakened deep within us that we had scarcely known was there.
“And I would heal them”, says Isaiah. We may be dull, hard of hearing or stony ground, but as we go on asking and experiencing, searching and loving and opening ourselves even at the risk of losing, that spirit, that is let loose on the world in Jesus, gently woos us, seeking to stir things that can, in some of us, lie dormant for most of our lives.
If we allow ourselves to grow by being vulnerable – by questioning – by doubting – by trusting our intuition – by embracing life, rather than shying away from it – we might begin to hear the music of the Universe, the affirming flame and current that warms and drives the world in the great cause of “yes” to life against the darkness of “no” that would tell us that life is “a tale told by an idiot” and the Universe nothing more than an accidental collision of particles.
And, loving against the odds, hoping against despair, living life against the temptation to give up, we come in our lives to be haunted, nourished and affirmed by one who was so full of life, so full of love, so full of energy that death itself could not hold him. Jesus of Nazareth. And this is the one who would heal us of our blindness, awaken our unfeeling hearts, get our neurones firing and turn the stony ground of our being into fertile soil, capable of love and light for the world.
The other lesson we heard read today was the story of the birth of Jacob (Genesis 25: 19 – 34). If ever you thought that the Bible and the people that God speaks through were all good, pious and holy people, the story of Jacob should tell you otherwise. Jacob was a true scoundrel of a man, an unscrupulous swindler, cad and thief. A twin, he is born clinging to his older brother Esau’s heel. What on earth is the symbolism of that?
Before long, Jacob cheats his brother out of his birth right and goes on dodging and weaving through life like a true vagabond, never settling in one place lest one of his enemies turns up to slit his throat in the night. Then, one day, those neurones start to fire in his brain. The “still small voice” of conscience has been working on him. In a dream he sees a stairway to heaven and calls the place holy ground. He wrestles with an unknown stranger by the Jabbok River and spends the rest of his life walking with a limp – more symbolism there, surely? Don’t we all carry the marks of life upon us, just like Jacob with his limp? And, eventually he seeks to be reconciled to the brother he has cheated. And this man becomes the father of a great nation, blessed by God. If there is hope for Jacob, there’s hope for the rest of us. There is light to be shone into the darkest of corners, hope to be kindled in the coldest of hearts.
The American poet, Jane Kenyon was diagnosed with leukaemia. At around the same time, her husband was also diagnosed with cancer. You might just imagine how horrible that must have felt, how close to despair they might have come. But this is what she wrote not long before she died, “There are things in this life we must endure which are all but unendurable, and yet, I feel that there is great goodness……How, when there could have been nothing, does it happen that there is love, kindness, beauty?”
Across the darkness of the world, in the midst of all its pain and loss and despair and seeming meaninglessness, an irrepressible instinct struggles to be born as people send their neurological messages to one another with their hearts. Christ, the healer supreme, by his life, his love and his compassion kindles in stony, unfertile hearts an affirming flame that declares that for all the bruising pain and ache of life, the last word is not despair, but love.