Friday, December 11, 2009

Swan Lake

You don't have to go all the way to Florida to see interesting wildlife. I can see some from my study window looking out over 'Braidwood Loch.' (Don't tell anyone in Braidwood but the 'loch' is really just a large duck-pond - beautiful, none the less.)
There used to be a family of swans resident on the loch but a few years ago one of the parents was killed and there have been no swans for some time. However, a few weeks ago this lone swan settled back in the loch and added a bit of extra glamour to the scene.
I couldn't resist taking the camera out and 'capturing' it.
If this is a mute swan -and maybe someone can tell me whether it is or not- then it is apparently the property of Her Majesty the Queen.
In case anyone asks, I am not planning to have this swan or any other for our Christmas dinner!

Thursday, October 22, 2009


The wildlife in Florida is great - especially in the Merritt Island National Wildlife Reserve. In particular the birdlife is prolific. And so was my photographing of it! I took 902 photographs in a week. (I love digital photography. I would have needed 25 rolls of film for that lot!)
Out of the hundreds of pics I took, the above was one of my favourites.
I think it is a Great Blue Heron.
I managed to 'capture' it in flight. What I like about the picture is that you can really feel the combination of strength and control required by this bird to get airborne.
But there is also something strange to me about this picture although it is probably true of most photographs. A fleeting moment is frozen in time and something that was so full of life and movement becomes like a statue.
In life itself some moments are worth holding on to.
It reminded me of a song I heard many years ago from an Irish band called Picture House.

Moments Like These

Recall, return
Relive and learn
All of our memories
In summer nights
We've put it right
Tumbled down into it
I know they're only moments

But moments like these
Are so hard to come by

Some bridges burn
Some things we learn
By tumbling into it
Recall, re-learn
Relive, return
And all of our memories
Are nothing only moments

Light and Shade

I suppose one of the most important elements in photography is the use of contrast.
Taking a photograph (or rather 'making' a photograph, since there is usually some element of creativity involved) has often been described as 'capturing the light.' But, of course, that is only half the story. If it is all light and nothing else, there isn't much of a photograph. It's the contrast between the light and its reflections and shadows which make any picture worth looking at.
Talking of contrasts- last week my wife and I had the good fortune to be in Central Florida for a week. There was a heatwave! Not like the ones we occasionally have in Scotland in the summer-time when we have two or maybe even three consecutive days of sunshine with temperatures getting up to 80 degrees!
In Florida last week (mid-October, remember) temperatures throughout the whole week were in the 90's. Quite a contrast when we arrived in Manchester on Saturday to a temperature of just 42 degrees.
But in spite of the photograph above (taken at 6:39am when the air temperature was already in the mid 80's) we hadn't gone there just to find sunshine: the real reason for our visit was to spend time with two people (Ernest and Mary-Louise) who have been our friends and mentors for the last 35 years.
Which brings me to another contrast- to celebrate his 85th birthday, Ernest decided to go skydiving. There is absolutely no chance of me doing likewise - though I may consider it for my 125th birthday!

Friday, October 02, 2009


Look closely at the picture and you'll see the main reason that I haven't done any blogging lately. We welcomed 10 visitors from Dongkwang Church, Seoul, including their Senior Pastor, Rev. Chang Bin, to spend just over a week with us in Kirkton and formally create a congregational partnership through signing a Partnership Agreement.
One of my tasks for the week (apart from organising most of the visits and events) was to drive the minibus. [And it has taken me another week to recover!]
Among many other things, we had a great time visiting Glasgow, Edinburgh, Loch Lomond, Stirling Castle, New Lanark, The David Livingstone Memorial in Blantyre. We were guided round the Scottish Parliament by our MSP, Karen Gillon, and welcomed by the Moderator of the General Assembly.
[I will gloss over the parking ticket I got in Edinburgh because our minibus was a bit too long for the parking space I had put it into... we'll wait and see how the appeal goes.]
But the highlights for me were the services of worship on the Sunday morning and evening and our "Scottish Evening" on the Tuesday night, which involved Scottish, food, music, dancing and lots of fun. In each of these instances many people in the congregation joined in which made the idea of a congregational partnership a reality.
I know from my own experience that Korean Presbyterian worship is quite a bit more formal than the style of worship we are accustomed to in Kirkton, so I knew that there would be a bit of culture-shock for our visitors- but the thing that really delighted me was walking into the church while people were still gathering and noticing two of the younger members of our church family (both about 6 years old) chatting away to some of our Korean visitors who I knew did not speak any English. It didn't seem to matter. The children got the message across... "Welcome to our family!"
The message was underlined during the service when we sang the song "Welcome Everbody it's good to see you here."
OK - it is hardly a liturgical (or even musical) classic but there was something very sincere and heart-warming in the way that the congregation sang it, and the visitors seemed to sense that too.
A few minutes before the service began I decided to make up another verse of the song (again - I know it is more doggerel than literature - but it worked.)
"Scotland and Korea are very far apart
but through the love of Jesus our partnership can start,
and as our friendship deepens we will be one in heart
gathering in this place."
Now if I could only learn a bit of Korean myself...

Tuesday, September 01, 2009

Keeping it real

Following up on Elizabeth Gilbert's wonderful quote, I share with you a picture which I hope shows that you that not all plants and flowers need to have bold, bright colours to be beautiful in their own way. Sometimes such understated beauty goes unnoticed when other 'show-off ' flowers are nearby, but that's a pity because to me there is something intrinsically fascinating about this particular plant (although I can't remember what it is called.) Can anybody help?
It reminds me a little bit about one of the house martin chicks in the previous post. The bold, brash, pushy chick with its beak wide open makes very sure that mother notices it, but look more carefully into the picture and see the other chick very much taking a back seat.
All too often people who are like this go unnoticed and ignored which is a real pity for they often have so much to offer.
It's one of the things I like about the gospel pictures of Jesus; he preferred to spend most of his time and energy on those who were on the margins rather than those who in all sorts of ways cried out 'look at me.'
[By the way, you can still keep sending in caption suggestions for the two pictures below.]

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Open wide

[house martins nesting in the eaves of my sister's house]

So far we have only had one response to the caption 'competition.' Thank you, Lynn.
Of course, it may be that we only have one reader!
Or maybe the rest of you are waiting to see what the prize might be?
C'mon... let's have some suggestions as to what, if anything, is in the mind of our photogenic sheep!
Or if that doesn't appeal... what about a caption for today's photograph?
You'll have to look carefully but there are three House Martins in the picture. What might each of them be saying? What does the picture make you think of?
Answers, please... but not on a postcard- a comment will do.
The competition is wide open.

Monday, August 24, 2009

Very Random Thoughts

No doubt, if I take the trouble to write anything at all for this blog, I ought to be reflecting on major issues of the day, such as the controversial release of al Megrahi, and the difficult (if not at times impossible) tension between compassion (mercy) and justice. However, I will leave such matters to those more qualified and better informed than I.
In passing, though, I would simply observe that as a general rule most of us prefer mercy for ourselves when we mess up but justice for those who do us wrong. All the same (for what it is worth) I reckon the release of al Megrahi, and the manner and timing of it, was probably a mistake. return to the far more mundane matters that usually fill this space I ask you to take a closer look at the subject of the portrait above. [click on the picture to see it full size]
The photograph was taken at the Black Isle Show a couple of weeks ago.
There were some pretty impressive animals on show, Clydesdale Horses and the like. But this particular sheep caught my eye (almost literally.) Most of the other sheep, of all breeds, were either shy or contemptuously indifferent to the camera lens but this particular one was virtually posing. I don't know what you think of sheep as a rule but what do you imagine this sheep was thinking about the photographer?
Let's have a caption competition for a little 'thought bubble' we can add to this picture. Send me your suggestions.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Oh for the wings (iii)

To complete the trio it's back to the natural world and back down in scale with the blue here reserved for the damselfly itself.
I originally tried to post the three photographs together but for some reason that I don't have time to explore something happened which meant that you could not click the photographs to see them in their full size.

I don't like some of the changes that seem to have been introduced to Blogger and the way it works (or more often doesn't.)
For one thing I no longer seem to be able to access some of the blogs I used to visit from time to time. It is also difficult to post using Firefox. [Anyone know why?]

However, there is one blog that I can still visit entitled "Cause I believe in you" and on it I came across this wonderful quote:

""To devote yourself to the creation and enjoyment of beauty can be a serious business - not always necessarily a means of escaping reality, but sometimes a means of holding on to the real when everything else is flaking away into . . . rhetoric and plot" ~~ Elizabeth Gilbert

It gives me all the justification I need to continue taking photographs when I can and posting them here. Apparently in doing so I am not escaping reality but actually holding on to what is real.
That is good to know.

Oh for the wings (ii)

With a not-quite-so-blue sky for background this very colourful kite was also being flown from Dunstable Downs.

Oh for the wings...

On the subject of flying things, here's a man-made flying machine soaring silently over the Dunstable Downs. [Incidentally, does anyone know why it is that in England hills that are clearly 'up' are nevertheless called 'downs'? Just wondering.]

Autumn in the air?

Apparently the 'experts' are telling us now that Autumn has come early this year - just as Spring did. For most of us in Scotland the biggest problem is that there doesn't seem to have been very much summer in between!
The photograph above was actually taken on 22nd July in the south of England and already it looks pretty autumnal to me, although, to be honest I have no idea when maple leaves normally begin to change colour.
I know there is a big difference between climate change and changeable weather but it does look as if some of the predictions are coming true (although not the one from the BBC weather folk who told us we would be having a 'barbecue summer' this year!) As I look out of the window this morning to see heavy rain falling and the trees being buffeted by strong winds it almost looks like January!
I received an email the other day from a friend in South Korea and he tells me that they have "been suffering the wettest summer ever."
Ah well... to cheer us up (and especially for one of my regular readers, Emma Louise) here's another photograph of that cheeky young robin, its youthful feathers decidely ruffled but its alert stare suggesting nothing but confidence.
Today- whatever winds may ruffle your feathers or buffet you about -may you look out on the world with hope and confidence.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

The birds of the air

[young robin photographed near Ardross, in Easter Ross, Scotland]*

Of course, it is not just butterflies and moths that fly.
I've always been fascinated by birds. In fact, I once was a member of the RSPB.
I let my membership lapse but, in any case, in more recent years (since we got our cat, Tess) I felt it was a little bit hypocritical to claim that I was helping to protect birds.
Like me, Tess liked to capture birds- unlike me she didn't use a camera, she used her claws!
While still quite a young kitten she managed to catch and kill a wood pigeon which was almost the same size as her. (Maybe I should never have shown her that film about lions in Africa?)
Anyway, she has settled down a bit now and, thankfully, got a bit lazier and slower. No more unwanted gifts left for us on the doorstep.
When I was visiting my sister in North-East Scotland a couple of weeks ago I managed to take a series of photographs of this young robin in her garden. Like most robins he/she (I can't tell you which it is from these photos) was pretty bold and it came up quite close, enabling me to capture some fairly clear images.
Butterflies are hard to photograph in flight - probably impossible without specialist equipment - but some birds have a more leisurely style of flying, including the red kite. This bird was almost extinct in the UK until fairly recently but a successful re-introduction programme has meant that there are several places in the country where you have a very good chance of spotting these unmistakable, majestic birds of prey.
While taking a very leisurely, and very indirect route from Buckinghamshire to Bristol, we came across a group of at least ten red kites, together with about half a dozen buzzards. It was quite a spectacular sight.

[red kite photographed near Didcot, Oxfordshire, England]*

*Remember to click on the photographs to see them full size.

Red Cannibal

[Cinnabar Moth - photographed near Buckland, Buckinghamshire]

This is not a butterfly but a moth. For those who may be interested it is in fact a Cinnabar Moth (Tyria jacobaeae) so called because of its bright cinnabar-red wings. Apparently the bright red colour is meant to deter predators and, in any case, they are allegedly very unpalatable. I wouldn't know: I've never tried to eat one.
It doesn't seem to stop them devouring each other, though, at least while they are in the larvae stage.
Strange world we live in!

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Painted Lady

Well, here she is - the Painted Lady! (At least I hope my butterfly identification is correct. No doubt someone will put me right if I am mistaken.) Apparently 2009 is the "best painted lady year we have had in the UK."
If you listen to the news clip above you'll realise it is not all good news as far as butterflies are concerned.
What I find so fascinating about butterflies is the incredible intricate beauty all wrapped up in such a fragile frame - a reminder that all of life on this planet really is pretty precarious. The brief lives of butterflies remind me also to 'seize the moment' - make the most of what is given to us. The faded and battered beauty of the Red Admiral below (photographed this time in Scotland) says it even more powerfully.


Give me sunshine

I was driving back from Manchester on Friday afternoon, having helped one of my daughters to move house from Manchester to York. The weather in England was fine, dry and sunny. However, when I arrived at the Scottish border at Gretna, it was as if someone had drawn a line along the border and said "OK, let's put all the rain on that side!" It was like driving into a monsoon.
Having just seen this morning's weather forecast, it looks like something similar is about to happen today - England dry, Scotland wet. Hmmm... :-(
Having said that, during our holiday in England, it seems to have been the other way round.
Maybe it's personal?
Anyway, on the days when the sun was shining I was delighted to see and photograph an amazing number of butterflies, including this lovely peacock. [remember to click on the photo to see it full size]
But the most prolific butterfly this summer, at least in Buckinghamshire, seems to have been the 'Painted Lady.' They were everywhere, and in great numbers.
I am trying to upload a picture of one to add to this post but for some reason it is not working. I will add one to a later post.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

R & R

I have to confess that blogging has not been a very important priority for me of late. I have been much more preoccupied with the business of moving house (temporarily,) going on holiday, helping my daughter and her husband get ready to move their house and visiting friends and family.
There was the added problem of having no internet connection for about four weeks. [Does anyone know why it takes so long to move a broadband connection from one house to another one less than two miles away?]
However, in my travels around England and Scotland over the last couple of weeks I have had the opportunity to get the camera out and start taking a few 'snaps' again- "a few"being just over 1200 in fact!!
So now there is no excuse. I have lots of pictures to reflect on.
But where do I start?
As you can see, I have started with a with a photograph taken in my sister-in-law's garden; a simple empty white chair and a 'heart' bathed in gentle sunlight.
It's a picture which to me says "space" and "rest."
More than anything else it is what I needed and thankfully found.
Isn't that what holidays are for?

Saturday, June 20, 2009

Just a moment

[The clock of Dunblane Cathedral]

There's never enough of it: but there are occasions when you have some to spare.
You can have it on your hands: but occasionally you have to kill it.
Often it drags along: but more often it flashes past - especially as you get older.
It's a strange thing.
At least how we perceive it is strange.
I particularly like these two quotations from the Bengali poet and seer, Rabindranath Tagore.

he butterfly counts not months but moments,

and has time enough."

"Time is a wealth of change,
but the clock in its parody makes it mere change and no wealth."

Some of our Kenyan friends would often say "you have the watches: we have the time."

In the Biblical way of thinking, of course, there are two different kinds of time, chronological time (the kind you can measure with a clock) and 'kairos' time (the "right time" - the opportune moment.)

"There is a time for everything, and a season for every activity under heaven" [Ecclesiastes 3]

... but I still think there's not enough of it around!!!

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Surprise encounters of the interesting kind

[His Excellency, Kenneth David Kaunda, first President of Zambia at Dunblane]

It has been a very, very busy few weeks - hence the absence of any blogging recently. But there have also been some interesting moments, and some interesting encounters.
Towards the end of May we were invited to lunch at the Palace of Holyroodhouse by the Lord High Commissioner, George Reid. We expected it was going to be one of those Holyroodhouse events where about 150 or more people would attend and we would be lost in a sea of people we didn't know or could only vaguely recognise.
As things turned out, we discovered there were only a couple of dozen people at the lunch. That in itself was something of a surprise and for once it wasn't difficult to get free parking in Edinburgh because we were able to park our car inside the palace gates in the forecourt.
But that was nothing compared to the surprise we got when we went inside to discover that also invited to lunch that day was Archbishop Desmond Tutu and his wife, Leah. [He had just come from addressing the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland - an inspiring address well worth watching and listening to.]
Unfortunately, after the introductions, I didn't get much opportunity to speak to Desmond Tutu himself but, during the very excellent meal, I was sitting between his wife and the wife of the Lord High Commissioner, and we had a great chat together.
I generally don't have much time for the cult of celebrity that fills the media these days, especially when so much nonsense is written and spoken about people who are famous mainly for being famous, but it was a privilege to share a table with someone who is a genuinely significant individual in the history of the world. And like most really great people he is really pretty humble.
But there was more...
I have just returned from Dunblane where, since Tuesday, I have been attending the meeting/conference of The Church of Scotland's World Mission Council to which I was recently appointed. Last night we had another surprise visitor, in the form of Kenneth Kaunda, the first ever President of Zambia. He joined us for our evening meal and then came to speak to us at our evening session. We even got to hear him play the piano, sing for us and do a bit of a dance!! Even without his surprise appearance it would have been a long day. But the additional item - which immediately moved us into Zambian time (and anyone who's been to Africa will know what I mean by that) - meant we didn't finish till after 10pm.
And we had started just after 8am!!
I had taken my camera with me hoping we might have had even half an hour of free time at some point over the two and a half days but it didn't quite work out that way. However, it did mean I could snap "KK" as he is commonly known.

Monday, May 25, 2009

This is my body...

[A worm's eye view of grass?]

The photograph above has absolutely nothing whatever to do with this piece but I share it with you anyway. I took it thinking it might come in useful some time as a powerpoint background.

The other thing I want to share is prompted by recent debates in the Church of Scotland General Assembly. I don't want to say anything about the debates themselves but it reminded me of a short poem I wrote many, many years ago when I was a teenager.

This is my body

This is my body
That you break in two
By ignoring the one
In the neighbouring pew

This is my blood
That you spill down the drain
When you fight with each other
For personal gain

And each point of doctrine
You score here and now
Was a nail in my palm
Or a thorn in my brow

Each argument won
Is a brother lost 
So the principle’s saved
No matter the cost

This is my body
My hands and my feet
If only you’d bend
Perhaps they would meet

© Iain D. Cunningham

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Light in the darkness

[Under African Skies - Masai Mara 2002]

I think I am going to have to start carrying my old compact digital camera in my car at all times. Several times in the last couple of weeks I have seen some spectacular photographs- well, they might have become spectacular photographs If I'd had a camera with me to capture what I could see. Now these scenes remain only in my memory, which is about the least secure place in the Universe!
A few evenings ago, for example, I was returning from the Induction service for the new minister of the Douglas Valley Church. Approaching Hyndford Bridge,* which crosses the River Clyde just outside Lanark, I looked over to my left at the rolling landscape which at this time of year is painted in shades of brilliant green.
The sun was getting quite low in the sky and casting interesting shadows, then it disappeared behind a fairly large bank of clouds. Not such an interesting picture. Then suddenly, through a large gap in the clouds, the rays of the lowering sun broke through producing a pool of warm light on just part of the landscape, like some sort of cosmic spotlight. Hills and trees suddenly became translucent with a fragile kind of beauty, like a delicate watercolour.
And I had no camera...!!
We could do with a little bit of light in these dark days of economic recession, the scandal over MPs expenses, and the upcoming General Assembly of the Church of Scotland, which opens today, faced with some very divisive issues.
There are always plenty of reasons, and excuses, for feeling depressed, but I like to remember that Landscape Photography is really about photographing the light and capturing those moments when the light transforms a place. In a similar way, we can never deny or escape the darkness all around us, but rather than focusing exclusively on it, it is often worth waiting for and looking for the transforming light.

*Hyndford Bridge was built in 1766.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

The Vine

I haven't had much time to blog of late and certainly no time to take any new photographs, but one thing I did last week was to write a new hymn.
Necessity, as ever, was the motivation. I simply couldn't find a suitable hymn to fit in with the sermon for this morning's worship- based on John 15: 1-17, so I ended up writing one of my own.
We sang it to the tune Garelochside but I suppose any suitable "Short Metre" tune would do.
Here are the words for anyone who might like to use them.
They are in the form of a prayer to Christ:

O Lord, you are the Vine.
In you we live and move.
Your Spirit nourishes our hearts
and fills us with your love.

As we remain in you
the life of grace takes root;
in caring service in your Name
our lives will bear much fruit.

In you our lives belong
as branches of the Vine;
through sharing faith and trust and hope,
Lord Jesus, make us one.

So others then may see
in this and every place
the glory of your Father shown
in reconciling grace.

© Iain D. Cunningham, 2009

Friday, May 01, 2009

Open Doors?

[North Korea - from a border post in South Korea]

Christians in this part of the world may think it is not always easy for them to live out their faith in a society that for the most part doesn't care about what we believe, but we should spare a thought and - a lot of prayer - for our sisters and brothers in North Korea, and other parts of the world, where just to be a Christian is considered as a crime against the state.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Finishing strong

A friend just sent me this video.
A truly encouraging and inspiring message to anybody who might be finding life tough and a great example of someone focusing more on what he can do than on what he can't.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

I am alive!

One of the reasons for my lack of blogging recently has been the number of funerals  I have had to prepare and conduct in the last couple of weeks. Since I try to make every funeral service as personal as possible, it often requires a fair amount of time to do all the preparation and (very importantly) to make sure that I don't mix up information about each of the deceased. So I had a lot of sympathy for an anonymous colleague of mine that one of my sister's told me about tonight.
A retired minister, he was filling in during a vacancy.  Conducting the funeral service of an old lady he was laying great stress on the fact that she was the very last of her generation; that she had outlived the rest of her family. "In fact" he intoned "it was some time ago that she last spoke to her younger brother, who sadly is no longer with us."
To the minister's utter shock and embarrassment, a voice cried out from the congregation "Ah'm no deid yet! Ah'm right here."

Friday, April 10, 2009

Two Basins

It's been a pretty busy week with three funerals and a wedding (reception at the above Houston House Hotel.) And on Sunday we have three baptisms too.
Which newspaper was it that used to say "All of life is here" ?
And of course this evening we had our annual joint Good Friday Service.
For those of you who couldn't or just wouldn't come, I shared this reflection which I called "Two Basins" as the main part of the service. It's not based on any genuine historical or theological research: just a bit of imagination- but I think it worked.
After reading Matthew 27:11-26

Two Basins:

There are many symbols associated with the Passion story; from the palm branches at the start of Passion Week to the purple robe and crown of thorns and, of course, the cross itself.
But tonight, I want you to focus your thoughts on a simple metal basin filled with water.
This basin is being held by a 1st Century Roman soldier, one of the personal bodyguards of the Roman Prefect of Judaea, Pontius Pilate.
Pilate himself is standing behind the basin, about to plunge his hands into the cold, clear water.
Take a good look at him.
In his early 30’s; a career soldier; a cavalry officer; but now having to exercise a more political role as the procurator of a Roman province.
That office makes him a powerful man, because it carries with it all the might of the Roman Empire. But Pilate is not always comfortable or secure in this position.
He has made mistakes before, mistakes which have led him to be posted on this tough ten-year assignment, to one of the more obscure and troublesome corners of the Empire.
It is not hard to see why he is uneasy.
He only has at his disposal 6000 troops with which to control a population of two and a half million Jews. He dare not risk any disturbance or disorder.
He knows this, and knows it well. For although all his past training and experience have been in soldiering, necessity has forced him to become the archetypal politician.
Some may think, as they reflect upon his actions in this scene, that he is an indecisive man, some kind of weak ditherer who cannot make up his mind; or they may tempted to suppose that he is a man of conscience who is reluctant to cause the death of someone he knows to be innocent.
Such generous assessments ignore what Pilate has done in other times and places, and what he is yet to do, elsewhere. No—this is a man who would think nothing of sending in his troops to quell a riot and who would encourage them in the action to take no prisoners. This is a cold, calculating man who under certain circumstances would have no hesitation whatsoever in ordering the execution without trial at all of anyone who might be regarded a threat to the authority of Rome.
For Pilate life is cheap—especially the lives of these Judeans, whose culture he despises as primitive and uncivilised and whose governing he endures as a troublesome chore until he may be permitted to move on to better things.
Make no mistake—this Governor cares nothing for the man who stands on trial before him now.
He regards him as little more than a nuisance.
But, unfortunately, and very inconveniently, to Pilate, this Galilean who stands before him now might prove to be a particularly dangerous nuisance.
Hence the caution!
For, Pilate, above everything else is a pragmatist.
He has little concern for what ought to be done, but every concern for what can be done, and what will best preserve the stability of Roman rule.
To that end he knows what must be done.
And so, in a few moments’ time, he will sacrifice the Galilean in order to preserve Roman rule and at the same time preserve his own career.
But it will be a difficult balancing act.
For Pilate is shrewd enough to notice that the man who stands trial before him has sharply divided the opinions of the people it is his duty to govern.
There are supporters: and there are detractors.
Pilate has no interest in being drawn into their debate.
Only one thing interests him—that which is politically expedient.
So he will not take the blame from either side.
This is why he has ordered that a basin of water be brought to him.
He likes gestures.
Crucifixion itself is a gesture.
There are cleaner and quicker methods for disposing of those who get in the way but nothing has quite the impact of crucifixion for hammering the message home about who is ultimately in charge… in this God-forsaken backwater.
And so—with a flourish—and a declaration of self-absolution—Pilate, the ultimate political pragmatist, plunges his hands into the clear, cold water, declaring: “I am not responsible for the death of this man! This is your doing!”
And, drying his hands with a towel, he turns to leave the Galilean to his decreed fate.

How little it takes for a man to evade responsibility!
A basin of cold, clear water…and a towel!

Just a few hours earlier there was another basin…and another towel…
They looked much the same, yet in so many ways they could not have been more different.
Take a good look at the man with the basin in his hands.
In his early 30’s… a tradesman—though for the last three years he has abandoned his trade to take to the streets. This has been the toughest three-year assignment imaginable.
There is a weary, almost exhausted, look in his eyes and the strain of the last few days, and the next few hours, is etched into his face.
There is, however, a determined look about him. He is set upon a course from which he will not be deflected, even though it will require him to summon up more courage than the bravest soldier on the eve of battle. Shortly, as he wrestles with the responsibility which he has taken upon himself, he will even sweat blood—a condition known as haematohydrosis—which is the consequence of extreme stress.
Yet he is confident of the rightness of what he does, especially now, as with a towel wrapped around his waist he moves towards the men who have assembled together in the borrowed upper room.
These twelve men, and a number of faithful women, are just about the only fellow human beings in this hostile city on which he can depend, though he knows that most of them will also (and suddenly) become completely unreliable.
That leaves only his unshakeable faith and trust in God, the One whom he believes has driven him along this path.
He knows the value of human life, each single human life.
Even those whom others might consider expendable, worthless, or beyond redemption, he values as beloved of God.
He has sought to treasure, help, heal and save the least and the lost among them… but there were so many and time is running out fast.
Will any of those supporters whom he leaves behind truly understand what it had all been about?
Will they take up the mantle? Carry on the work?
He has little time for gestures.
He regards them as cheap and unworthy.
But he does know the power of symbols. And he has always had a unique talent for explaining the deeply spiritual using the plain and ordinary things of life.
He can make the unremarkable unforgettable.
Shortly, he will use the age-old traditions of his people in order to give to his friends some sort of explanation for the events that will soon unfold and through which his life will be brought to its brutal, unjust end. But right now he is about to use a simple domestic act to provide his friends with an explanation of the very life he has lived among them in these past few years.
He will be to them the humblest of servants and wash their feet.
And so he takes the basin, and without any flourish or fuss plunges his hands into the clear, cold water, declaring:
“I, your Lord and Teacher, have just washed your feet. You, then, should wash one another’s feet. I have set an example for you. So that you will do just what I have done for you.”
And when the feet of every last one, even those of his betrayer, have been washed, he dries his hands with the towel, turns back to the table set before them and prepares to drink the cup to its bitter dregs.

How much it costs for a man to take responsibility!
A basin of cold, clear water…and a towel!

(c) Iain D. Cunningham 2009

Monday, April 06, 2009


I'm not sure about everyone else but I enjoyed our Palm Sunday services yesterday.
For several years now along with our neighbouring churches we've held a joint Palm Sunday Praise Service in the evening, with the Praise Band & Singing Group taking the lead. Last night was no exception and I enjoyed it a lot - even though I had to play the trumpet most of the time when I would rather have been playing the fiddle.
But my favourite moment from yesterday came in the morning.
I went into the church about 15 minutes before the service and some of the youngest members of our church family were gathering down at the front - making sure they got a front seat. (We haven't taught them to be Presbyterians yet! In fact they are a very sociable bunch.)
Some of the under-fives in particular are experts at going up to new children, introducing themselves and then introducing their new friend to others. I was introduced to Heather, who, I was told, was visiting us from Canada. (I knew this already, of course, but it was amazing how much information the under-fives had managed to glean in just few minutes, and just how quickly they established relationships. I wish some of our adults would learn from them how to do it!)
It was all very appropriate because in the "Family Talk" I was asking the children all about welcoming others.
We got all the expected answers about saying "hello" etc.
When I asked what they would do if the Queen should arrive in Carluke at the door of their house. One wee girl had the perfect answer: "I would tell her to come in and ask her if she'd like to stay for dinner."
It was all leading up to another Palm Sunday song:

Shout Hosanna

Shout 'Hosanna! Welcome to Jesus our King!
Welcome to Jerusalem.
God bless him who comes in the name of the Lord.'
Wave palm branches and be a disciple.
He is coming to save his people.
Shout 'Hosanna! Welcome to Jesus our King!

Line the roadside, welcome the Son of our God!
Welcome to Jerusalem.
Make a pathway, welcome him into your heart!
Wave palm branches and be a disciple.
He is coming to save his people.
Sing his praises, welcome the Son of our God.

(c) Iain D. Cunningham

Holy Week, which began yesterday, is a very significant time for Christians when we reflect on matters at the very heart of our faith culminating in the Easter Day celebrations. For us Easter has got nothing to do with eggs and bunnies and chocolate...
...but, all the same, I couldn't resist sharing these pictures with you.
You've probably seen them already.

Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Hymn for Palm Sunday

[A palm tree in Kenya, 2005]

Last week I did my quickest ever piece of song-writing.
I am chaplain to a school for children with severe and profound learning difficulties and every month I take an assembly there.
When I arrived on Friday morning to take this month's assembly the Head-Teacher informed me that one of the children who had been in the school for many years would be leaving that day to go to another school. There had been very little advance warning that this was going to take place.
The Head-Teacher asked me if I knew of any song we might sing to the girl as a sort of farewell, but I couldn't think of anything. Then, for some bizarre reason, I impulsively suggested that I might write something to use at the end of the assembly. This gave me about five minutes to come up with something. I borrowed a pen and quickly scribbled down some lyrics, refining them as best I could, but it left me no time to come up with a tune in advance of singing it. So the 'music' was 'composed' on the fly as I was singing it. To my amazement it worked.
But, of course, it was the ultimate in disposable music as I am not sure if I could remember now what the tune actually went like.
I spent a little bit more time on the following hymn for Palm Sunday.
It is based on the understanding that the word "Hosanna" is not so much a shout of praise as a cry for help - "Come, save us!"
I can only show the text here but if anyone wants a copy of the music I can supply it by email- if you leave an email address.

Blessed is He

Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord.
Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.

Comfort the people weighed down by their grief;
Comfort the sad and the tearful;
Come to bring joy and a welcome release
and new hope for the troubled and fearful.

Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord.
Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.

Challenge the people entranced by their power;
Challenge their easy indiff'rence;
Come to bring justice and truth to the world
and establish a new kind of kingdom.

Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord.
Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.

(c) Iain D. Cunningham, 2009

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Addressing the Issue

[waves of bubblewrap crashing on the shore!]

I’ve just emerged from a tsunami of bubble wrap!
I’d been wrapping up my daughter’s laptop so that it can be returned for repair. There’s so much bubble wrap… and boxes within boxes… that I’m beginning to wonder if I actually remembered to put the laptop itself in! Now I just have to wait for the courier to find my address, uplift the parcel and take it to the correct address.
Nowadays with GPS Sat Nav and all sorts of online mapping software there should be few excuses for anyone being unable to find an address in the UK.
Real life, of course, is rarely ever as simple.
My wrestling match with the bubble wrap was interrupted by the sound of my doorbell. It was the engineer from Satchwell come to check out the electronic control panels for our church’s heating system. Having eventually found the church keys under the pile of wrapping materials, I went over to the church with him to give him access to the boiler room. He asked me how the heating was working. I replied that, as far as I knew, everything was pretty much ok at the moment but I confessed that I try to take a back seat in such matters, preferring not to know very much about how it all works, in case I ever get left with the job of setting timers etc.
So I opened the boiler room for him, left him the keys, and went back to my parcel tape.
About 30 minutes later the doorbell rang again. It was the engineer, not just returning the keys but also asking me directions to a neighbouring church; the one he was supposed to have gone to and which, coincidentally, has the exact same Satchwell control system for its heating. Ooops!
But I’m not complaining. Our system has been thoroughly checked over and is working well. I have the engineer’s word on that score… and there won’t even be a bill to pay.

Monday, March 16, 2009

Sad farewells

[Tide creeps over silver sands on Islay]

I have just returned from the funeral of Robert Young who until very recently had been the Principal teacher of Drama at Carluke High School. Only a few months older than myself, Robert had recently taken early retirement but, sadly, never got the time to enjoy it, dying very suddenly and unexpectedly.
Robert was much loved by staff and pupils alike at Carluke High. He was an inspirational teacher; enthusiastic, passionate and conscientious. He brought the very best out of the young people in his care, developing the self-confidence of many young adults. But, then, he always saw the best in others and brought the best out of everyone he met.
He was a sincere and committed Christian whose faith was most evident in the way he treated other people with kindness, respect and genuine warmth, all summed up in his disarming and open smile. We shall miss him.
On returning home, I also learned for the first time of the equally unexpected death of one of my colleagues, and fellow hymn writer, Rev. Leith Fisher, who was also a respected author and broadcaster. I first met Leith in the late 1960's when he was still a Divinity Student and I was still at school, and I have always had the greatest admiration for him. More recently we worked together on the Church Hymnary Revision Committee and a number of Leith's own hymns are, thankfully, included in the latest Church of Scotland hymnary, known in this part of the world as CH4.

Sudden deaths like these certainly make you stop and think about the fragility and brevity of human life, but they also make you realise the importance and value of human friendships, and the eternal significance of love.
Leith's own words from one of his hymns, says it so much better than I could:

[HYMN 689 in CH4]

Just as the tide creeps over silver sand
flooding the bay with slow and steady gain,
like brightening dawn across the eastern land,
certain and sure is love that comes again.

When empty eyes stare at the vacant chair
and none can touch or fill the heart's deep pain,
into our void of desolate despair,
Jesus, pour out the love that comes again.

When every road ahead seems blocked and barred
and doubt corrodes our will like acid rain,
reveal your wounds to us whom life has scarred,
and help us see the love that lives again.

When threat and fear conspire friends to betray,
and bitter failure every hope has slain,
when broken trust makes dark the dismal day,
Jesus, speak of the love that comes again.

As sure as tide and dawn your love has come,
come to redeem our failures and our pain;
Jesus, come now, and find in us a home,
revive us with the love that comes again.

Leith Fisher (1941-2009)

Words: (c) Leith Fisher.

Monday, February 23, 2009


I first set up this blog as a medium for reflecting on some of my favourite photographs and also sharing in some random thoughts that might come into my head from time to time. With that in mind, I have to apologise for the photograph above- not for its content but for its quality!
The trouble was that I didn't have my camera with me on Friday evening and had to resort to using my phone (in very low light conditions) to capture the absolutely brilliant Michael Brawley Big Band.
(The boyfriend of one of my daughters plays trumpet in the band but last Friday night was my first opportunity to hear them for myself.)
Take ten saxophones, five trombones, five trumpets, drums, bass and piano... mix in some great arrangements of big band classics along with some more contemporary numbers, stir in a heap of slick playing, huge dollops of rhythm and a dash of musical energy and fun ... add a couple of solo vocalists on occasion... and you have a recipe for high quality entertainment. If you like that kind of thing!
... I loved it.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Reaching Up

There so much doom and gloom in the news these days - the global economy, natural disasters, crime, war and political oppression, climate change.... etc. etc. - that I decided to cheer myself up by posting another picture which shows that winter can be colourful.
I just loved the way the feathery clouds in the blue sky seemed to mimic the upward sweep of the bare tree branches, not to mention the strong contrast between that blue sky and the rich golden browns and reds of the foreground.
To get the full effect you have to click on the picture and see it full size. No - change that - to get the full effect you needed to have been there, to breathe in the crisp, clear air at the same time. Any photograph is a poor substitute for the real thing.

Friday, February 06, 2009

Where the air is clear...

*As with all the photos on this blog, click to see full size.

Quite by accident, while driving home from hospital visiting, I found myself this afternoon listening to Radio Four. The programme was "Gardeners' Question Time" (and entertaining it was too.)
One of the gardening "problems" discussed had to do with lichen growing on a gooseberry bush. A member of the experts panel observed that wherever the questioner lived there must at least be clean air because lichens only thrive where the air is unpolluted.
With that in mind the above photo is surely perfect proof of the pure air of the Scottish Highlands!

Radiance and glory in the darkness

This week the predominant "colour" around most of the country has been white, with heavy snowfalls in places that are not used to it any more. (I couldn't believe it when the main evening news at the beginning of the week made such a fuss about the snow. Out of a 30 minute bulletin of 'national and international' news, 18 minutes was spent talking about snow in London! So there was nothing more important happening in the world??)
Anyway, the picture above has no snow in it. It was taken a few weeks ago in the north of Scotland near to my sister's home when I had gone for a walk with one of my daughters. It wasn't the best photograph taken at the time but I like it for a very simple reason- the colours.
For many people winter in this country is a time when colour seems to disappear, both literally and metaphorically. Everything becomes drab and grey.
There are no flowers to brighten the landscape. Most trees have shed their leaves.
There is usually lots of rain (not so different from the summer then...)
It is also a time when many people feel pretty down and even depressed. The colour seems to drain out of life itself.
What this photograph says to me, however, is that there is colour: it has just become much more muted and subtle. It requires a closer look. It's impact is not so immediate or so strong, but the colours are there.

I'm reminded of a 'letter' allegedly written in 1513 by an Italian called Fra Giovanni (Brother John.)
I may have quoted it before.

I am your friend
and my love for you goes deep.
There is nothing I can give you which you do not have,
but there is much, very much, that,
while I cannot give it, you can take.

No heaven can come to us
unless our hearts find rest in today.
Take heaven!

No peace lies in the future
which is not hidden in this present little instant.
Take peace!

The gloom of the world is but a shadow.
Behind it, yet within our reach is joy.
There is radiance and glory in the darkness
could we but see —and to see
we have only to look.
I beseech you to look!

Life is so generous a giver,
but we, judging its gifts by the covering,
cast them away as ugly,
or heavy or hard.

Remove the covering and you
will find beneath it a living splendour,
woven of love, by wisdom, with power.

Welcome it, grasp it,
touch the angel's hand that brings it to you.
Everything we call a trial,
a sorrow, or a duty, believe me,
that angel's hand is there,
the gift is there,
and the wonder of
an overshadowing presence.

Our joys, too, be not
content with them as joys.
They, too, conceal diviner gifts.

Life is so full of meaning and purpose,
so full of beauty–beneath its covering–
that you will find earth but cloaks your heaven.

Courage, then, to claim it, that is all.
But courage you have,
and the knowledge that we are
all pilgrims together,
wending through unknown country, home.

And so, at this time, I greet you.
Not quite as the world sends greetings,
but with profound esteem and with the prayer
that for you now and forever,
the day breaks,
and the shadows flee away.

This photograph was taken on the same morning.
Amazing what a little bit of blue sky does to the landscape!

Thursday, February 05, 2009

Whistling in the dark

[A mockingbird on an orange tree in Cocoa, Florida]

While recovering from my bout of labyrinthitis, I haven't felt much like working on the computer at all. In fact, all I seemed to do during my two weeks off was read - nothing too taxing though - mainly novels from the Rebus series by Ian Rankin. TEN of them in fact!! (Just seven to go.)
For variety I did read one other book, "Being Emily" by Anne Donovan. It was good fun, although for those of you who are not native to the West of Scotland, but would still like to read the book, it might have been helpful if there had been a version with "English subtitles."
But...whatever... the reading is over. This week it has been a case of 'back to work.'
I still get tired so I'm trying not to do too much.
Extra sleep, of course, is usually beneficial when recovering from any illness.
I wonder how I can get that point across to some of the feathered residents of our garden? Four o'clock this morning they began their 'dawn chorus.' (In other words, long before the dawn.)
It seemed kind of strange to me, given that the temperature was about -5 degrees and there is still snow on the ground. But some of our local birds have already decided that spring is on its way.
They must have read Shelley: "If winter comes, can spring be far behind?"
Actually, for me this thought is a central theme of the Christian faith. Sometimes it seems as if Christians are simply "whistling in the dark" but, like the birds, we whistle and sing in the dark only because we know the dawn is on its way.

Friday, January 23, 2009

Consider the lichens

There is an immediate and obvious beauty to the more spectacular specimens of the plant world, such as large brightly-coloured orchids and tall cheerful sunflowers, but if you take the time to stop and take a closer look you may discover that there is an impressive, even breath-taking, beauty to be found in all sorts of places.
I know virtually nothing about lichens but I do know that looked at closely and carefully some may demonstrate a strange and wonderful beauty of their own.
(assuming my photograph above is of a lichen on a host plant)
When it comes to people, it is no doubt infinitely more important to recognise that there is more to most folk than meets the eye at first glance.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

A new dawn

[Sunrise in Ardross- my sister's garden]

Along with millions of other people in Washington and around the globe, I found the Inauguration of President Obama very moving. I even allowed myself the audacity to hope that things could definitely change for the better.
Could they get much worse than under the last presidency?
(By the way, do you think President Bush completely lacks self-awareness or is simply very good at hiding his embarrassment? Obama did not "miss him and hit the wall.")

As I said in a sermon a few days after the US election, once of the reasons that Obama won is that somehow he managed to convince a lot of people in America that he was less interested in the hope of power than he was in the power of hope.
To quote a little bit from that sermon, speaking of the story of Jesus:
"Someone who was totally innocent, and who preached only love, was made to suffer unspeakable torture, and his life was snatched from him in the cruellest of ways. At the time, it must have seemed to the followers of Jesus that all the dark forces of evil and injustice had won the day. They'd come out on top.
Might is right. Power prevails. Evil wins.
Darkness has swallowed up the light.
Or so it must have seemed at the time.
Until the resurrection of Jesus turned that assessment on its head and gave to the first Christians an unquenchable hope, a hope that nothing, not even death itself, could ultimately defeat the purposes of God. A hope, a confidence, that eventually the way of love, not the way of power, would win the day.
The light had overcome the darkness... and always would in the end.
As the title of one book puts it: "And the Lamb wins!" *
That HOPE, which the first followers of Jesus had, a hope solidly based on the resurrection of Jesus, turned out to be an unstoppable force. Not even the might of the Roman Empire could hold it back- no matter how many Christians were put to the sword. Because the power of hope is ultimately stronger than the hope of power."
No one should ever underestimate the power of hope.

On a more mundane level, I was amused, and vaguely reassured, when the new President seemed to fluff his lines on taking the oath of office. [It turns out that the original mistake was by the Judge administering the oath, Chief Justice Roberts, and just to be sure they did the whole thing again afterwards. ]
But, whoever was to blame, it showed that the people participating were only human after all and the occasion had got to them.
It happens sometimes in wedding ceremonies too. I've had brides (and bridegrooms) bursting into tears (disturbing) or into a fit of giggles (even more disturbing) and, on more than one occasion, had a bridegroom promising to be "beautiful" rather than "dutiful" (which sometimes I reckoned would have been an impossible vow to keep.)
Returning to the Presidential Inauguration, however, I allowed myself (naughtily) a wry smile and chuckle at the sight of Dick Cheney in a wheelchair. Apparently he had hurt his back moving books out of his White House Office. As someone who occasionally has back problems himself, I sympathise with him and have no wish to see him, or anyone else, in pain.
But all the same... how are the mighty fallen!!

* I haven't read the book, so I'm not recommending it or otherwise - I just liked the title.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Staying vertical

In spite of my bad start to the CWW Conference at Aviemore, I did manage to do my bit, helping with the worship, and taking part in a seminar (above) on Overseas Partnerships. Anyone interested in what it was all about can download the main talks etc. from the website.
Thanks to Peter Johnston for the photograph.

Something round again

In response to several requests from my younger readers... here is another "mystery object."
This time, I think it may not be too difficult.
What do you think it is?

Round and round we go...

[Foggy Morning on the Black Isle]

Apologies once again for my prolonged absence from the blogosphere.
This was partly due to my being away at a "Church Without Walls" conference in Aviemore, where I did not have internet access (or, to be more precise, where I grudged paying for it!) the real reason, however, is that while I was at the conference I took ill and have been off work since.
Turns out to be acute labyrinthitis. More frustrating than serious. (Frustrating even for my GP who wasn't sure how to spell it!)
It all began on a Friday morning when I became totally deaf in my right ear; a bizarre experience, since I am used to being partially deaf in my left ear. Now I had to rely entirely on my "bad" ear. A recipe for confusion! Whatever sounds I did manage to hear were impossible to locate. A good lesson all the same in the old truth that "you don't know what you've got till it's gone!"
I was just getting used to the idea of being responsible for all the music at the conference while being virtually deaf (ironic really) when on the Sunday evening I had my first (and pretty scary) attack of labyrinthitis- in front of 300+ people, of course!
It was a bewildering experience all round... come to think of it "all round" is not too bad a description. Everything seemed to start spinning uncontrollably in all directions. I couldn't stand up any more. I broke into a cold sweat and apparently turned the colour of semi-skimmed milk (i.e. only a hint of cream...)
I spent the next hour and a half, lying shivering on the floor, wrapped up in a foil blanket like a Christmas turkey waiting to be popped into the oven. Thankfully I was also being attended to by a very helpful and friendly "NHS 24" Doctor, called in by the hotel, as well as a very kind nurse and another doctor I already knew, both of whom were attending the conference.
At the time the symptoms were so severe that the doctor didn't want to confirm a diagnosis. But - hey - I'm still here! and for that I am glad.
I've since had one other bad attack but otherwise everything is just a little bit wobbly and foggy from time to time... and some of the hearing has returned to my right ear.
I got a nice long explanation from my own doctor about what was going on inside my inner ear; something to do with debris in the semi-circular canals. Personally, when an acute attack comes on, it feels to me like someone has dumped a couple of supermarket trolleys in my canals!

Thursday, January 08, 2009

Doubt your doubts

[the rolling landscape of South Lanarkshire near Wiston Lodge]

A colleague of mine sent me this link to a fascinating article in the Times by Matthew Parris.
There's a refreshing honesty about it, and it seems to me to be a perfect example of why it is always useful, from time to time, to question your certainties and to doubt your doubts.

Tuesday, January 06, 2009


Oh... I know... it's already the sixth day of 2009 and this is the first time I've blogged this year. Just as well, I didn't make any New Year resolution to post a blog every day.
Do people seriously make New Year resolutions these days?
I know myself too well even to kid myself on about it.
New Year means very little to me... except that is when I get to go away for a couple of nights to the Fiddle Force Winter School, held for the last 9 or 10 years at Wiston Lodge. [the photograph above shows the low afternoon sunlight casting shadows through some of Wiston's woodland]
It has been a busy end to 2008 and start to 2009 for me with lots of funerals to conduct, so the chance to go away and forget things for a day or two is virtually irresistible.

Highlights of Fiddle Force 2009?
  • some excellent tunes, great advice and good laughs from tutor Alasdair White
  • improvising to some great old-time stuff from some of the Wiston folk, a mixture of blues, skiffle, American folk and who-knows-what-else
  • playing tunes till 3.30am
  • catching up with friends, many of whom I only see once a year
  • some great conversations
  • good food and plenty of it
  • it was cold!!! And I mean, cold!! (Outside and inside the house, in spite of the log fires.)
  • leaving on the Sunday afternoon I managed to reverse my car into a big block of sandstone that was just too low to be visible in my wing mirrors... crunch!! So it turned out to be a pretty expensive weekend after all.
Anyway, I still think it is good to start the year with music.

If anybody still reads this stuff, may I wish you a VERY HAPPY NEW YEAR.