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.