Tuesday, December 26, 2006

Way to go...

and Best Wishes for a Happy New Year.

There's nothing like having clear directions. And, as you will see, today's photograph shows nothing like clear directions.

One of the things I like about Venice is how easy it is to get lost in it. It was 'designed' this way to confuse intruders and strangers.
The photograph is not from Venice, of course. It is from Carluke. Obviously during this festive period we don't want any intruders or strangers to venture in so we have designed a cunning system of diversions which take people in ever increasing circles around the town until they have no idea where they are, or whether they should turn right or left. If you look closely at the photograph, you will perhaps see some evidence that one driver at least couldn't make up his mind until it was too late!
Seriously, though, it was my privilege and pleasure to welcome a number of strangers to our Christmas Eve watchnight service this year at Kirkton Church. I hope that none of them felt like strangers but that, instead, they felt they were among friends.

Here is a rather long verse I wrote many years ago. It's not great, or even good, poetry, I know, more like a verse from some cheesy Christmas card, but it does make a point of sorts.
Finding directions for life is not always an easy thing, especially for those who are not content to take everything at face value. But if you don't give up, and you don't take too many diversions down too many dead ends, you might just get there in the end....


Shepherds on the hillside were the first to hear the news
Of the baby who was born to be 'King of the Jews".
“You'll find him in a stable,” the shepherds were told,
“Wrapped in bands of cloth against the winter's cold.”

The shepherds' search was an easy one
For Bethlehem was their own home town.
Though a 'King in a stable' sounded absurd,
They soon discovered it was just as they'd heard.

With wonder and joy they knelt to the ground
And silently worshipped the King they had found.
They knew that the child in the feeding stall
Was the Promised Messiah, the Saviour of all.

Yet long before the shepherds heard the baby's cry,
Scholars in the East had been studying the sky.
The journey facing them would be a difficult test
But they prepared themselves for their special quest.

They made out a list of all they would need:
Money and clothing, and water and food.
To the list they added gold, myrrh and frankincense–
Precious gifts for a new-born prince.

For many months, and in all kinds of weather
The Wise Men carried on their search together,
Following a star that had told them the news
That a baby would be born as "King of the Jews".

At last to the country of Judea they came
And made their way to Jerusalem.
To the Palace of Herod the Wise Men were bound:
For where else but in a palace should a king be found?

When Herod the King heard of their arrival
He was jealous and afraid; for he wanted no rival.
"I AM THE KINGI No-one else!" he said.
"I must search for that child." (Herod wanted him dead.)

To the throne came the Wise Men as Herod commanded:
“Now where is this ‘King’ to be born?” he demanded.
“In the village of Bethlehem” they replied,
“For so, we believe, it was prophesied.”

“We have seen his Star from our home in the East,
And so we set out on our difficult quest.”
“Carry on with your quest; search far and wide,
For I want to …. Worship him too.” Herod lied.

Suspicious of Herod, the Wise men went on,
Deciding together they would not return;
They wouldn’t help Herod to search for the child
For they knew Herod really wanted him killed.

But the light of the Star was shining again,
And hope burned in the hearts of these truly wise men.
They followed the light till it came to rest,
Then they knew they had reached the end of their quest.

Here was the new-born King they had sought.
They bowed and offered the gifts they had brought:
Precious gifts of frankincense, gold and myrrh–
Though the love in their hearts was more precious by far.

There are many roads to the Child who is King,
And many gifts that a person may bring.
To the shepherds the stable was close at hand;
To the Wise Men the child was in a foreign land.

But whether the QUEST be long or short,
Only he who has love and truth in his heart
Will have something of worth that he may bring
At his journey's end to the child who is King.

© lain D. Cunningham

Thursday, December 21, 2006

Christmas Sorrows

What for some may be a time of joy and family reunion, is often, for others, a time of desperate sadness and separation.
It is the privilege of ministry to meet people at every point between celebration and despair.

One of the saddest things I've ever had to do during a Christmas season was to conduct a service for the burial of a stillborn baby. There are no easy answers or quick comforting words that can be offered at times like these. Often silence is the only honest response. But even the silence sometimes has to be articulated later and I did this some months after the event in the following short poem. It is offered to everyone for whom Christmas is a hard and painful time.

Stillborn at Christmas

Cold was the day.
Bitter and cold were our hearts.
The sun shone, clear and bright
but, strangely, without warmth.
we felt forsaken by the Universe,
a gathered knot,
around the loose-ends of the little life
we never knew.

And we buried
the dreams and hopes
that had unravelled.

The flesh became a word
that would not dwell among us.
and I, the spinner of words,
had nothing left to say.

(c) Iain D. Cunningham

Shop till you drop

Where have I been these last couple of weeks? you might ask - if anyone ever reads this blog, that is.*

Well, you can be sure of one thing I have not been indulging in the nation's favourite pastime - shopping - even though it is now getting very near to Christmas. Nor have I recently been where this photograph was taken (Mong Kok in Hong Kong) which is a pity, because Hong Kong is a fantastic place. I say this even though shopping is undoubtedly the top pastime in Hong Kong and it is probably one of my pet hates. (With the possible exceptions of buying CD's and books.) Oh... and the imminent possibility of purchasing a new camera! That I will enjoy, although I know already exactly what camera I want to buy, so it won't take long.

To be honest I just don't know where shoppers get the stamina from. I've found it easier to walk the West Highland Way than to walk down Sauchiehall Street on a late December day. (In fact, to be even more honest, it's a long while since I did either!) NO - shopping is just not my thing. Any shopping I do now is usually done online. Your feet don't get so sore for one thing.
I am, however, really looking forward to Christmas because the family will all be together again.
Of course, I will be working on Christmas Eve (a Sunday) even doing a bit of the night shift with our midnight service and I'll be working on Christmas Day. But I wouldn't miss it for anything - not even flying off to the sun (or more likely sitting in a tent in a fog-bound Heathrow Airport. Ouch! poor folk.)

Anyway... back to Christmas. "This'll be your busy time!" is the comment I hear more than any other during the run up to Christmas. You can almost hear the implied observation that for the rest of the year you don't really do very much anyway. I'm not sure it is much busier for me than many other times of the year: it's just that people see me at all sorts of events. Tomorrow morning I will be at my fourth school Christmas service!
(Actually, it is only my third. I had a clash of dates for one of them and had the brilliant idea of making a short video to be played in the service through the multimedia system, an upbeat message, wishing everyone a really Happy Christmas. Unfortunately the school's laptop wasn't quite up to it and struggled to do both video and audio at the same time. Apparently my contribution was more like the Rev. I. M. Jolly, when the sound slowed down and went out of sync with the pictures.

A colleague who was present at the service because her daughter is a pupil in the school very kindly and thoughtfully wrote this to me the next day: "Just a quick note to thank you for giving me the best laugh I’ve had in ages – tears were rolling down my cheeks – you may already have heard. Not sure what was up with the sound on your message today – but I did make comment that you could audition for the next IM Jolly!
As you well know I am not highly PC literate so I am afraid we all just enjoyed the moment – or rather minutes. It certainly made the end of our service today highly memorable. Eilidh was there with another 2 from VP – and she has talked about your funny voice every since she came home – wondering if you were better now – if you still have funny voice – so I have tried to reassure her that it was your tape recorder not you that was a bit sick and next time she sees you in her school you will be fine!!!"

Well, isn't that what we are supposed to do? Cheer one another up?
What I'm not looking forward to, however, is my next visit to the school.
(I think I'd rather go shopping!!)

*Don't forget to add your comments if you do read this.

Friday, December 08, 2006

It's the timing

At the beginning of the week I was at the Macdonald Highland Hotel in Aviemore for an overnight conference as part of a series of events which are to do with "Church Without Walls"
It came at just the right time to bring encouragement to a number of people, about 160 of us... although as I drove 150 miles each way through gale force winds and driving rain, it didn't seem much like the right time of year to have a conference in the highlands.
I took my camera but never ventured outside to use it. There wasn't much time to do so anyway as I was heavily involved in the music. So, no pictures of Aviemore, but instead a picture from a much sunnier and much warmer, Hong Kong. The picture was taken in a park in HK in 2005.
I thought it was a very witty way of making a point, as well as a pretty clever piece of landscape gardening.

Being 'Green' is very fashionable these days, of course... and not before time, if we want to save the planet!
Anyway, I remembered the photograph in the middle of this week.
On Wednesday, as most people will know, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Gordon Brown, delivered his latest (most people think his last) Pre Budget Report. Then, as tradition dictates, his opposite number, George Osborne, gave his response. In doing so he made what could (and should) have been quite a funny joke about Gordon Brown trying to appear 'green.'
"People say that he has only become green recently. I think that's most unfair. He's been green ever since that meal at Granita's. The Prime Minister remembers it. Mind you, and I know the Prime Minister doesn't live in Islington anymore, it says something about the state of the Labour Party that Granita has just changed its name. It's now called: Desperados."
Full marks to the speechwriter. Very clever.
But, sadly, it didn't get much of a laugh... because of the way it was delivered.
"It's the way you tell 'em!"
But, it's true, isn't it?
So much of comedy is about timing and delivery not just the joke itself.
I think God has a great sense of humour. He must have to put up with us all the time.
But, then, he also has a perfect sense of timing.
"When the right time finally came, God sent his own son..." [Galatians 4:4]

But don't forget either what Mike Scott once wrote in a song:
"Well, if you want to give God a laugh- tell him your plans" [Long Way to the Light]

Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Spice is the variety of life

Just back from another excellent meal at the only Korean restaurant in Glasgow (maybe Scotland?) It is called Kokuryo

I was there with a group of Koreans to celebrate the graduation of one Korean friend (EunJin) from Glasgow University- as an MSc. Well done, EunJin!

If you've never tasted Korean food before... you should. But don't ask what is in any of the dishes. It is better not to know. Only joking about that. (But if you don't like seafood you may struggle.)

One of the Koreans asked me if the food wasn't too spicy for me. "No." I said, "not too spicy at all." He pressed me further. "Well, on a scale of 1 to 5 where would you put it for spiciness?" "About 3," I said. He was quite surprised by that until I explained to him that Glasgow is the curry capital of Europe- and we like our curries hot. Of course, Korean food is very different from Indian food but, as I pointed out, I've had many years to get use to chillies and garlic. It would have to be very hot to beat me!

In fact, I like to try any kind of food, from any part of the world - and there is not much that I can't eat. Some people, however, can be extremely fussy. Often, I suspect, it is because they just won't take the risk of trying something new. They prefer to play safe with what they already know.

It's not just in food that this applies, though. It's the same with ideas and experiences. Some people are afraid to entertain new ideas, or new ways of thinking, or new ways of doing things. Churches are full of these 'fussy eaters' who only want what they have always known and are not willing to try something new. But not all the 'fussy eaters' are in churches. You can find them anywhere.

I still love a good old-fashioned plateload of mince and tatties (minced beef and mashed potatoes for those not familiar with this traditional Scottish dish) but not every day.

A little bit of spice adds variety to life.

Monday, November 27, 2006

Eye in the Sky

Another snap from my short trip to London.
Maybe I should explain that the reason I only have pictures of the London Eye and not from it is that I am more than a little bit nervous about heights.
It's one of those irrational fears that sometimes creeps up on you from behind, just when you think you had it beat.
Given this particular phobia which I've had since early childhood, it may be surprising to some people that I once got a job in a roofing company. It's true though. (I was a student and needed the money and it was the only work I could get one summer.)
I have to confess that in a number of respects it was a thoroughly educational experience for someone training to become a minister. When I started the job I was more or less terrified of any height above my own head, but it's amazing what you learn to cope with when necessary, and after a few weeks I was clambering up roof flashings 50 feet off the ground and walking on slate roofs 100 feet up (...sorry I still think in the old measurements - you can do the conversions yourself...) without any form of safety harness, or rail to prevent us slipping off and turning to mince on the pavement.
I don't know if the Health & Safety Executive had not yet come into being but I do know that there was precious little concern for our safety and I wasn't convinced the job was good for my health.
Anyway it all came to a head (wall-head that is) one day when I was almost at the top of a ladder that was leaning against the wall of a factory, whose roof we were allegedly repairing. The main problem was that the length of the ladder was a little bit less than the height of the wall. (About 30 feet.) It meant that to get on to the roof you had to stand on the second top rung of the ladder, grab the wall head flashing, and pull yourself up. A fairly risky business at the best of times.
On this particular occasion, the foreman, a rather cocky Glaswegian with a slightly warped sense of humour, was holding the ladder for me. Just as I had arrived at the second top rung and was reaching out to grab hold of the wall-head, the foreman suddenly pulled the ladder away from the wall and began shaking it backwards and forwards while I clung on like a performing monkey. Clearly my performance was bringing some joy and entertainment to my supposed protector below as he was bellowing with laughter. Then he shouted up some words that I doubt I will ever forget: "All right then, Reverend, let's hear ye sayin' yer ******* prayers noo...!"
He didn't hear me saying them... but that doesn't mean that they weren't being said!

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Water under Westminster Bridge

Earlier this week I had the opportunity to go down to London and visit my daughter, Linsay, who is currently working at the Houses of Parliament. It was good to catch up with her news and also to meet in person some of the people she is working with.
I especially enjoyed being given my own personal tour of "the corridors of power" with Linsay as my very own tour guide.
Of course, I couldn't take any photographs inside. But I did take the obligatory tourist-eye cliche snap of Big Ben, with its gilded stonework gleaming in the sunshine.
I wonder how many times this has been photographed?

I also wonder how many of the people who live in London ever actually look at it - or any of the other "sights" for that matter?
It's the same wherever you go around the world. The majority of the 'locals' just take for granted all the things that other people have travelled many miles to see. They no longer seem to 'see' them at all.
What good photographers are able to do, though, is make everybody see the most familiar of things in a new, and sometimes surprising, way. It's what all creative artists do. I think it's also what preachers are supposed to do.
It's not easy.

Unfortunately I didn't have a lot of time to share with Linsay - and even less time to think about creative photography - but I did try to look at one the latest London sights (the London Eye) from a few different angles. All from ground level I hasten to add. I tried to make use of the low sun, as if it was shining through the lampost, but it didn't quite work.
Ah, well... I guess I'll just have to take another trip down to London some time....

What I find sad is the way so many people seem to go through the whole of their lives failing to notice what is around them.
You only have to really look for a moment to see that every moment is unique and that even the most familiar sight is not the same as it was a moment ago. But if you plod along waiting for life to happen to you, you're going to waken up one morning and discover it has already rushed past you like water under a bridge.

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Reflections on the Indian River

With the rain pouring down here and the days becoming very short, I decided to haul out this photograph of the Indian River at Cocoa, Florida, another one of my favourite places in the world.
It's such a tranquil spot in the early morning as the sun comes up.
We have also stood in that same place to watch a Space Shuttle launch, although (if I remember correctly) that particular launch was postponed.
It's some time now since I visited there, staying with some very special friends.
Somehow the approaching winter weather has given me a notion to go back. I wish I could.
I suppose there have been lots of times in my life when I wish I could have gone back- perhaps to do things differently, perhaps just to relive some special experience, but, of course, time doesn't work that way for us. And the only way is forward. I just hope that will include the possibility of visiting Cocoa again some time soon.
On a much less serious note- the script for our church pantomime has now been completed and rehearsals begin on Sunday. We have until the first weekend in February to get the show on stage. Not easy with Christmas in between (not to mention regular work!!) But I think it is going to be great fun for everyone who has volunteered to take part.
At this stage, I'm not going to give away any secrets about the plot or the characters, but I will reveal the title: Jack and the Beans Talk.
Now that's an original one isn't it?

Thursday, November 09, 2006

These feet were made for walking...

OK - technically it is not much of a photograph. It's just something I managed to snap quickly through a shop window in Venice. But what a cool pair of shoes, don't you think?

Shoes disguised as feet!! Now that's what I call originality!

I guess we all know what it means to walk in someone else's shoes - even if it is not something we do very well. As a Christian I am supposed to walk in the footsteps of Jesus Christ, but I don't find that at all easy: not when I start to think seriously about some of the things he said.

In particular I am thinking about his command to his followers to "Love your enemies!" I'll be preaching about this on Sunday- though I don't yet know what I'm going be saying.

I tried to find a hymn that might go along with the text but, to my surprise, couldn't find anything suitable. So I decided to write one myself today. It's a bit rough yet. One or two lines I'm not happy with. But I won't have time to refine it before Sunday.

Although my congregation will give the hymn its 'premiere' you saw it first here!

It is no easy task, O Lord,
to walk the way that you have shown,
to pray for those who wish us hurt,
or love the ones who cause us pain;
yet your commands are very clear
we cannot doubt what you desire.

For your example, Lord, is plain
and your commands are all too clear;
forgiving words at insults thrown,
demanding words for those who fear—
“Love more than friends, love enemies too:
not only those who will love you.”

Give us the strength, O loving Lord,
to take this costly path of peace,
and though it be no easy road,
teach us this day to live by grace;
as children of our God above
we’ll learn to walk the way of love.
© Iain D. Cunningham, 2006 [Tune: St. Petersburg]

Wednesday, November 01, 2006

Eyes Wide Open

I had a great time at the Korean Church on Sunday and, thankfully, everyone was infinitely friendlier than the character in the photograph, taken in 2002.

[The photo is of one of the four 'guardians' at the entrance to a temple in Seoraksan National Park in Korea. I think it is called Shinghungsa (Temple of Compassion) but I can't really remember now. What I do remember is that in the gatehouse there were four of these characters each about 4 metres high. ]

But, as I said, nothing like this greeted me at the Korean Church in Glasgow. Instead I was given a very warm welcome and, after the service, a very large and tasty meal! (Prepared by the young adult group.)
It is a good experience to go to a place where you are very definitely in the minority and where you do not understand the language. You learn to listen in all sorts of other ways.
It is also an interesting experience to preach with an interpreter - something which I have done not only in Korea but also in Kenya.
Having a naturally inquisitive mind I really enjoy meeting people from different cultures. I enjoy even more the chance to visit new places and see for myself the rich diversity of cultures that still exist in our world, in spite of 'globalisation.'
But I find it sad that many people seem to be afraid to step out of their own comfort zone and learn about those who are different from them- not only in language or customs, or colour, but in other less obvious ways.
Of course it is important for people to belong to a 'tribe' but some kinds of tribalism (as anyone who lives in the West of Scotland will know) can be depressing and dangerous and lead to a very narrow view of the world.
I feel privileged to live in an age where an ordinary person like myself has the opportunity to explore something of the rich diversity that exists in the world, and, thanks to new technologies, we can all do some of that exploring without even leaving the comfort of our own homes.
But if you want to taste real kimchi you do have to go to the people who know how to make it.

Monday, October 23, 2006

S(e)oul Searching

Like the outfits?

No - they are not dressed up for Hallowe'en.

These are guards at the Changgyeong Palace in Seoul, which I visited in 2002.

I am looking forward to developing links with Korean friends by speaking at the Korean Church in Glasgow this coming Sunday - but I don't expect anyone to be dressed like this.

Like Glasgow (but on a vastly greater scale) Seoul is built along the banks of a river, the Han. Together with the surrounding mountains, the river helps to establish the character of the city. It also was for me something of a metaphor for what was an all-too-short visit to South Korea.

The poem below comes from the time of that visit.

Sunset on the Han River

On the south bank of the Han
the late Spring sun
lowers herself gently
onto the lap of the pale white hills.

Gentle fingers of soft cloud
caress her forehead
and she stretches and settles for the night,
pillowed by the earth's embrace.

The Han slides slowly by
beneath its ever-busy bridges
while darkness descends
like a benediction.

I would find it easier
to gather the Han in my arms
or cradle the sun in my lap,
than, with a few poor words,
hold on to moments
that have meant so much.

© Iain D. Cunningham

Well, I didn't manage to see my football team playing this weekend... so they lost 2 - 1 to Celtic.

I really think Motherwell FC ought to pay me to be a spectator. When I go they win! (Well, it has happened twice.)

I couldn't go to the football because on Friday and Saturday I was at Harrogate for the Northern Christian Resources Exhibition organised by Christian Resources Exhibitions. I was part of a team giving a presentation on the forthcoming three day event in Glasgow which is to be called "Nexus 2007" Check out what it's about.

Saturday, October 14, 2006

Open Doors and Closed Minds

Another picture from Kenya.
This is inside the "Church of the Torch" at Thogoto (Thogoto-land is apparently a Kikuyu corruption of 'Scotland' and this was where Scottish missionaries settled over a century ago.)

I loved the sense of peace that is evoked by the shaft of light coming through the window and touching the stone.
Not long before I took this picture there was some considerable controversy in Kenya about church windows.

Here's a little piece of verse written many years ago


He wanted to say
I’m just like you
I’ve got fears and depressions
And hang-ups too
He wanted to know
The carpenter’s son
But the men at the door
Wouldn’t let him in.

They didn’t say no
They didn’t say go
They didn’t say anything
But they let him know
That his hair was too long
That his speech was too broad
That he shouldn’t be seen
In the House of God

They asked for his card
He didn’t have any
They asked him for money
He hadn’t a penny
He wanted to ask
For compassion and care
But the people inside
Had none to share

He’d heard someone say
There was really a way
Out of all the depression
That made up his day
A way out of emptiness
Hunger and fear
But the men at the door
Said it wouldn’t be here

And while he was waiting
Alone and outside
Along came a man
Who stood by his side
His hair was long
And his hands were tough
His face was worn
And his speech was rough

He didn’t say no
He didn’t say go
He didn’t say much
But he did let him know
That his love charged no price
And had no limitation
That he offered his life
Without hesitation

So the two men tried
To enter again
But the faces around
Said we don’t want you in
This isn’t the place
For people like you
Come back when you’re like us
And then you’ll get through

If only they’d offered
To understand
If only they’d stretched out
A welcoming hand
They’d have touched the wounds
And noticed the blood
But his hair was too long
And his speech was too broad
And he shouldn’t be seen
In the House of God

© Iain D. Cunningham

Friday, October 13, 2006


No, this is not the Tartan Army on the way back from the Ukraine! It's a group of Kikuyu people in Kenya, dressed in traditional costume, especially for the tourists. I took the photo four years ago on my first visit to Kenya while staying overnight at the Outspan Hotel.
I remembered the picture because over the last few days or so our church has had a Kenyan guest. (Julian runs an orphanage near Kikuyu in Kenya which our congregation helps to support.) Although I never actually got round to donning my kilt at any point during Julius' stay he still managed to get in a few light-hearted digs about the Scottish "skirt." And then I remembered that men wearing skirts were not confined to Scotland.

One of the places I took Julius to see was the David Livingstone Centre in Blantyre. The story of this most famous of all Scottish explorers and missionaries never fails to move me, so I am always glad of an excuse to take someone there.
It's a pity that a lot of Scottish people these days hardly know the story- no doubt because Christianity is unfashionable at the moment. But you don't have to be a believer to be amazed at the single-minded commitment and determination of this man, especially to challenge the slave trade. He is someone who really did make a difference. Because he treated other people as if their lives mattered, in the end his life mattered and was worth something.
If you've never been to see where he was born and to learn about his commitment to Africa, and you can get to Blantyre some time, you should make every effort to do so. (You'll see this impressive sculpture depicting the time he was attacked by a lion.... He lived to tell the tale.)

While I'm talking about heroes... one of my other heroes, of a very different kind, is the Irish fiddler, Martin Hayes. Strange, you might think, that I should place him alongside David Livingstone. Martin Hayes himself would certainly think so, I'm sure. But there are some similarities. Well at least one I can think of. When Martin Hayes picks up the fiddle and gets into the groove he has the power to move people really deep down. He touches something in the human spirit that can transport people to another place, another world almost.
I was fortunate to hear him play at a Fiddle Force Winter School at Wiston Lodge. There were about forty or fifty of us crammed into the large lounge and when Martin Hayes played he was like a puppeteer pulling all of our emotional strings. (No wonder the Church in Scotland used to be very suspicious of fiddlers!!)
I wrote a short poem about it:

Banishing the wolftones*

With narrowed gaze
and shuffling stare
he crouches low
into the chair
as if in search of something
deep inside himself.

He lifts the fiddle bow,
and slow,
to touch a string
that waits to be caressed
back into being.

By his gentle authority
and fierce care,
a tune vibrates
and spirals in the air,
released as some wild bird
into a desolate place.

He is wrapping
precious pearls of silence
with a bright silver foil
of sound,
and offering it to us
as a gift of grace.

I take the gift,
the bait that lures me
into a strange land,
for he has found,
and now ensnared,
my soul.

His awkward body now
unwinds and sways
and breathes
with every phrase,
rocking as a Jew who prays
beside the western wall.

How many centuries of longing
does it take
to form such sounds
that break,
and heal again,
by harmonising
joy and pain?
© 1998 Iain D. Cunningham

*wolftones — name given by fiddlers to the accidental
screeching sound of the bow on the violin strings

Written after hearing the Irish Fiddler, Martin Hayes,
playing at Fiddle Force Winter School 98, Wiston Lodge

Saturday, October 07, 2006

A Scoreline to Savour

Wow! talk about winning!
How's this for a scoreline:

Scotland 1 France 0.

Played three: won three!

The picture on the left shows the River Clyde in Glasgow at night. A picture of serenity and peace.

But I guess not tonight for many people - apart from the raging storm blowing strong winds and heavy rain across the west of Scotland tonight. I think among football fans anyway there will be a storm of celebration.

I know... winning isn't everything. But when it comes to competitive sports, losing isn't anything! So let me just savour the moment. No doubt several months from now Scotland will contrive to do its usual trick of "snatching defeat from the jaws of victory" and failing to qualify for Euro 2008, but for now our team sits proudly at the top of the group and the rest of us congratulate them.

And now back to sermon writing....

.... until the highlights come on the telly!

Saturday, September 30, 2006

Winners and Losers

I went to watch my football team today. (Motherwell FC)
We've been having a pretty hard time since the start of the season. I say 'we' but, unfortunately, for a variety of reasons I hadn't been able to get to a single match until day. But I chose the right day to go, because we won 5-0.!!!
I was going to say 'Poor Kilmarnock' but, to be honest I didn't feel much sympathy for the opposition at all. It's been such a struggle for us to get any points at all this season that today's performance and result were very sweet.

But, on reflection, I remember a Charlie Brown cartoon which had a caption that went something like: "Everybody loves a winner, but who is going to love the losers?"
One person who certainly did was Jesus. And I think if his followers are really following him they will do the same.

The photograph above was taken a number of years ago in Kenya. I have many more photographs like that one which underline the fact that much of the continent of Africa is pretty much the loser in the great economic competition that is going on in the world just now.
We are hoping soon to have a visit from a Kenyan friend who runs an orphanage (of which there are many in Kenya.) But his visit will depend very much on whether or not he is able to get a visa. That's another reminder to me that this world is a pretty uneven and unequal place. Being a British Passport holder I've never had any problem getting a visa to any country I've visited - and rich people from Kenya have few difficulties in obtaining a visa to come here, but if you are poor... it's a very different story.
I suppose we do need to limit economic migration into this country and, as far as possible, prevent illegal immigration, but all I can say is I am glad that God doesn't seem to operate the same sort of policies for entry into His kingdom- otherwise none of us is going to get past that particular border.

Wednesday, September 27, 2006

Pools of light

It's been a difficult day for me in a number of ways. I don't intend going into why but a couple of times during the day, just when I was feeling particularly stressed, I had these surprise moments of sudden peace and unexpected joy.
They reminded me of this little pool of sunlight I saw among some trees in Connecticut, New England. The pale yellow house just caught the sunshine and threw it straight back in all directions so that anyone (like me) who was passing by could catch a bit of it for themselves.
Since we have precious little light of our own, I think this is what we have to do with any light we receive from God- give it back out again, so other people can get a touch of it for themselves.
When you try to keep the light to yourself you just become a black hole!
On days like today, when it sometimes feel like the darkness has taken over too much of the picture, I am able to look back on that photograph which I took a few years ago and recover that sense of peace and know that I have an obligation to share it with others.

By the way, I should have said before, in case anyone hasn't tried it yet- you can click on any of the photos to get a larger version of them. Especially if you want to use any of them as a focus for your own reflections.

Saturday, September 23, 2006

A Reasonable Delusion?

Tonight I watched the BBC programme "Newsnight" as I often do, and I saw Jeremy Paxman 'interview' Richard Dawkins about his newly-published book "The God Delusion."
It's not the kind of thing I do often but on this occasion I couldn't resist posting my own comments to the BBC Newsnight website.
What I said was simply this:

"What a man of faith Richard Dawkins is! He has an unshakeable (and passionately evangelical) faith in the absolute power of human reason. (Or at least his own.) It's just a pity for him that the history of science is full of people who thought they had the last word on all sorts of things only for later generations of scientist to prove they were talking nonsense, or at best had only a quite limited understanding of that which they had been observing. Professor Dawkins claims to be interested in truth - well, perhaps the truth for Richard Dawkins might be twofold (1) there is a God and (2) you are not him. "
Professor Dawkins might think he is being original but 3000 years ago the Psalmist said "the fool says in his heart there is no God."
We'll see who's right, ultimately.

But I think we should be glad of one thing from the storm in a teacup that Richard Dawkins (as usual) has caused. He has firmly stated his belief in truth. It's a refreshingly 'un-post-modern' notion but one which I share with him. We just disagree with each other on what the truth actually is- although he is a bit more dogmatic than I am in asserting that he knows the truth. I am sure the truth is a lot bigger than any of us can know, no matter how clever we might be.

Monday, September 18, 2006

Clouds in the pond

The photo is of my sister's garden pond and has nothing whatsoever to do with the piece of writing quoted below, but, hey, who cares?

I like seeing the clouds in a pool of water because both originate from each other.

Where is the beginning? Where is the end?

My last post raised the questions of what is true and what is not, what is real and what is not. Below is a great summary of what I believe to be real. Just wish I'd written it myself.

What I Learned from Jesus

A gift does not need to be costly in order to be big.
A little child is worth God's time.
All who believe are brothers and sisters.
Be thankful.
Be the first to say, "I'm sorry," and the first to forgive.
Believing means clinging with your whole heart.
Clothe yourself in prayer.
Commune with God.
Don't judge.
A respected pillar of the community can be two steps from Hell,
and a prostitute can be two steps from Heaven.
Don't worry about tomorrow. Today has enough worries of its own.
Every blade of grass, every twinkling star, every ticklish friend,
is a blessing from God.
Cherish them.
Everything in the whole Creation tells us something about God.
Give someone a gift today.
God delights in you.
God has a sense of humor.
God is a friend who'll never, never leave you.
God is an artist.
God is everywhere, from the highest star to inside your heart.
There is nowhere you can go to escape his presence -- or his love.
God is found, not in earthquake nor fire nor mighty wind,
but in a soft and gentle whisper.
God is your Daddy.
God watches over even the little sparrows.
Heaven is very close.
He is risen!
He who sings, prays twice.
He who dances, sings twice.
He who laughs, dances twice.
He who prays, laughs twice.
Hug your friends.
If you have to have everything under your control,
trusting God may look as stable as a cow on ice skates.
Trust him anyway. It's worth it.
If you want God to smile, tell him your prayers.
If you want God to laugh, tell him your plans.
It's never too late to repent.
Joy comes from suffering.
Keep on forgiving.
Listen to other people's stories.
Listen to the silence.
Love God with your whole being.
Love one another.
Love your enemies.
Love your neighbor as yourself.
Make every action a prayer.
Make your prayers and your good deeds secret.
Play with children.
Prayers ascend like incense before God's throne.
Purity does not reside in the hands, but in the heart.
Respect the aged.
Take time to be alone with God.
Tell God you love him.
Tell your friends that you love them.
The Heavens tell the glory of God.
There are miracles all around.
You just have to be able to see.
Treasure God's smallest blessings.
We can bring little pieces of Heaven down to earth.
What you do for the least, you do for God.
Work is a blessing from God.
You are God's image. - Christos Jonathan Hayward From "Jonathan's Corner" at http://www.jonathanscorner.com/


I was sitting in a car in Edinburgh one day, waiting for one of my daughters. The car was parked outside an estate agent's office and in the window of the office was a large model house. At the same time I could see, in the car's wing mirror, reflections of the buildings behind me and reflections of reflections from the car windows, also in the mirror.
I couldn't resist photographing it because it seemed to me to be just like life itself - so many different layers of meaning, so many angles from which to look at things, so many problems of perception, that it is hard sometimes to know what is real, what is a copy and what is a mere reflection.

Life seems to get more complex every day and we have access to so much information that sometimes it seems impossible to sort it all out and make up our minds about what is real and true and what is not.
The great post-modern temptation is just to give up and conclude that there is no such thing as absolute truth. "If it works for you that's OK!" goes the mantra.
But that's not enough for me. I may not know the 'whole truth' and it is almost certain that what I believe could not be described as 'nothing but the truth' but I can't accept that there is 'no such thing as absolute truth.'

Photographs themselves are not reality: simply one view of something, from one particular angle, flattened into two dimensions. But usually they represent something that was really there at a particular moment in time.
Sorting out what is real from all the other layers is the great adventure of the spiritual life.

Here's an interesting little story I came across. Make of it what you will.

Thursday, September 14, 2006

Round the twist?

OK, I know I said I would be talking about reflections and posting pictures of the same, but in my last post I said 'you never know what is round the next bend' and it reminded me of this picture I took in Hong Kong.

I loved the twisting patterns of the walkway because life is just like that sometimes. You think you're going one way and almost before you know it you are going in a different direction altogether.

Few things in nature come in straight lines and, for that matter, few things in life are straightforward. But, then, that's what makes life interesting is it not?

Monday, September 11, 2006

Round the bend

Ravenstonedale, England.

Another peaceful image, taken in 2005.

This picture reminds me that finding peace in life is not about resting all the time: it is about the journey.

You never know what's round the bend- and you never will know till you move on and see for yourself.

Thursday, September 07, 2006

The way we learn?

Of all the many, many photographs I have ever taken, this has to be one of my favourites.
I use it as the wallpaper for my laptop, because it is so restful. It was taken on a summer evening at Cornhill House, near Biggar, Scotland.

Do you remember in the Winnie the Pooh stories that Pooh Bear had his special "thinking spot"?
Well, this is mine.
Not that I actually have time to go to the place itself, but the photograph is usually enough to give me 'space' to reflect.

I've heard it said that adults learn through experience. I wish that were true. And I wish it were as easy. In fact, adults only learn if they reflect on their experiences, and even then it is all too easy to forget the lessons learned.

For me, reflection usually involves a kind of internal dialogue. In other words, I talk to myself.
I know... it doesn't sound too good does it?
But, you know, if you don't talk to yourself, you're never going to learn much.

It's an interesting phenomenon, though. Think about it. In fact ask yourself about it!
If I am talking to myself does it mean there is more than one "me"? And if the dialogue in my head is between two parts of 'me' which part of me is it that makes the final decision between the debating parties? Maybe there's a third 'me' that adjudicates?
Confused? .... you will be...

It's because all of this 'reflecting' process goes on in my head from time to time that I actually don't find it all that difficult to hold on to the Christian doctrine that God is Three-in-One. Why should we expect the Creator of such a complex and beautiful world to be more simple than ourselves?

I think I'd better get back to my tree...

Wednesday, September 06, 2006

Earth, Air, Fire and Water

I took this picture in 2002 of part of the Naksan Temple complex near Sokcho in South Korea.
It was a beautiful place and a serenely spiritual place where the harmony between nature and human creativity was almost perfect.
I have to say 'was' because most of the temple complex and the surrounding forests were destroyed by fire on 4th April 2005.
Human beings are not always kind to the natural world but sometimes it seems that Nature gets its own back in the most terrifying of ways.
Apparently only 2 of the 20 or so temple buildings escaped destruction. It was a great pity- not to mention a stark reminder of the fragility of all things on this planet, including ourselves.
(picture below is from The Seoul Times)

I believe the Korean Government pledged a massive sum towards reconstruction work and, for all I know, the restoration may already have been carried out. I hope so.
I am glad, though, that I did have the privilege of seeing Naksan-sa as it was.

I am recording these reflections as the very first signs of autumn seem to be appearing around me. This is a time of year which always shouts at me to "seize the day."
Beauty is so fragile and so short-lived. It saddens me to know that so many people hardly seem to notice the beauty around them every day and won't notice it until it is gone.

"The sketching of a word on paper
or the ghost of an idea
are as fleeting as the glance of light
reflected from a rippling pool
or the wings of a butterfly
rubbed against the summer air."
from a poem entitled "Images" © Iain D. Cunningham

Tuesday, September 05, 2006

Glowing in the dark

Since the last photograph had no reflection in it at all I decided to post this one of the Ponte Vecchio in Florence, taken last year.

This time I don't really have anything to say about it. I think I prefer the picture to speak for itself. I like it, though, when human creativity works together with nature to produce a sense of harmony. All too often they seem to fight against each other.

I think there is something here that Christians can learn from Buddhists, but more of that at a later date.

Sermons in stones?

OK, so the latest photo doesn't show any reflections! It's just that earlier today I visited Rosslyn Chapel with some colleagues.

It's many years since I was last there and I have to say what a difference a little book can make! Now it costs you money to get in, and there are lots of other visitors. When I was last there hardly anyone had heard of the place - now they come from all over the world. I'm not sure exactly why. It would be interesting to find out, and also to find out if they find what they are looking for.

Does anybody really believe any of that stuff in the Da Vinci Code?

What is surely beyond dispute is that the chapel itself is a fascinating place and no matter how many times you visit it, you are likely to spot something you never noticed before.

How much of it was really created for the glory of God no one could ever know, but it certainly glorifies human craftsmanship and imagination and when you lift your eyes up to look at the wonderfully intricate and often witty carvings you are left marvelling at the strange beauty and liveliness of the whole place.

"If these stones could speak...." Let me tell you they do, although it's not always possible to know what they are saying or even what language they are saying it in.

All the same, if you've never been to the place, it is certainly worth a look. A long look.

Monday, August 28, 2006

Light on the water

You don't have to go to some far-off exotic place to find interesting reflections.
This little picture was taken recently in Bristol.

And the following children's song was written many, many years ago after watching light dancing on the water at Millport, on the Isle of Cumbrae.

Light on the Water

Light on the water, the wind in my hair
I wait in the silence to see if you're there.
The world all around me has something to say
Tells me where I can find you
'cause you're everywhere.

I love you, Lord Jesus 'cause you loved me first
You gave me the best when I expected the worst
I maybe don't see you but I know you are there
Just like the light on the water
and the wind in my hair.

The love you have planted is starting to grow
The joy that we want is beginning to flow;
A new kind of feeling is filling the air,
The Spirit is movin' like a light everywhere.

Some people may say there's no reason in me,
No possible reason why I should believe.
But what better reason could there ever be
Than to know you're alive
Because you're livin' in me!
(c) Iain D. Cunningham

Friday, August 25, 2006


What's this 'thing' I have about reflections?
Why do I find photographs of reflections so interesting? (like this one I took in Hong Kong last year)
I've been thinking about this and the only sensible explanation I can come up with is this: reflections remind me that in the real world there's usually more than one way of seeing things. They usually give us at least two ways of seeing something at the same time.
I reckon all the best art encourages us to see things from a different angle or in a different light. Reflections do this for me in a slightly more mundane way.

Recently I've been reading "The Owl and the Stereo" by David Osborne. It seems to make the same kind of point. The way our world is just now, becoming increasingly polarised and divided, we could do with a bit more 'stereo-vision' don't you think?

Thursday, August 24, 2006

Blurred Reflections

This little 'snap' was taken last year in Kenya at Lake Nakuru. The solitary pelican about to land among all the flamingos seems to be frozen in mid air, or even stuck onto the photograph at a later date as some afterthought, but believe me it is genuine enough. [I know because I was there and I took the photograph.]

The only sense of movement comes from the reflections which are pretty blurred.

All of this reminds me of a well-known verse in the Bible:
"Now we see but a poor reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known." [1 Corinthians 13:12 NIV]

I was reflecting on the photograph and the Bible verse because I received very sad news from a friend in Kenya. Her 100-year old grandmother has just died in a house fire, which may have been started deliberately. There are suggestions that the full story may be even more horrific. Of course, we don't have to search far to find horror stories anywhere in the world. I was going to say 'especially these days' but on reflection I suspect it has always been this way. The 21st century has no monopoly on brutality or injustice.
The obvious question is 'why?' Unfortunately, there is sometimes no obvious answer,and we just have to learn to live with the questions until the mist clears and we're no longer looking at the poor reflection but at reality itself.
I once wrote a poem after a particularly tragic occasion which summed up my helplnessness at the time.

Stillborn at Christmas

Cold was the day.
Bitter and cold were our hearts.
The sun shone, clear and bright
but, strangely, without warmth.
we felt forsaken by the Universe,
a gathered knot,
around the loose-ends of the little life
we never knew.

And we buried
the dreams and hopes
that had unravelled.

The flesh became a word
that would not dwell among us.
and I, the spinner of words,
had nothing left to say.

© Iain D. Cunningham

Tuesday, August 22, 2006

Reflections on reflections

Since I called this blog "Random Reflections" I thought one thing I might do occasionally would be to post a few random pictures of reflections I've photographed over the years.

My favourite place for taking such photographs has to be Venice. [This one was taken in 2004 on one of my visits to "La Serenissima" with my youngest daughter.]

Just looking at pictures like these makes me feel a sense of calm.

Why do you think we use that word "reflection" to refer to the act of thinking or contemplating quietly? Is it because that way of thinking/meditating involves you bouncing ideas from one part of your mind to another? I certainly seem to end up having conversations in my head when I do that, but then maybe that's just a tell-tale sign of the fact that I'm beginning to lose it!

All I know is that when you start to reflect on something, start to turn it over in your mind, the way you might turn over a pebble you picked up from the beach, you do begin to see it in a new way, whether it is an idea, a person, an event, a place.

I also like the idea that an object which reflects light is actually giving something back because contemplating (in spite of what some people might think) is not actually a selfish activity: it does lead you think a bit more carefully about what you're giving back to others.

I didn't mean to be quite so 'serious' here. I'm not a very serious person most of the time. But I guess that's what happens when you start to reflect on things.

Finally, on the subject of reflections, I had to laugh at this little clip. I know just how he felt!

Starting out

Being new to the whole blog scene I have no idea yet how frequently I will manage to share my random reflections here. Come to think of it, I'm not sure if I will have much to say. That may sound strange coming from someone who does quite a bit of talking for a living, but we'll see how it goes.